Blogging & Zine-Making in a Post-NOCAZ World

When we first started this blog in January of 2015, I had no idea what I was doing. From a web design, self-promotion, and editorial standpoint, it’s arguable that’s still true in our fifth year of operation. Swampflix is still an exceedingly amateur blogging project – somewhat by choice. I do think we’ve come to properly contextualize what we’re doing as an amateur film criticism collective over time, but our initial months were purely run on impulse. It was a time when all my favorite professional critics were losing their staff jobs on dream projects like The Dissolve (R.I.P.) to enter into the nightmare world of writing freelance, so I had no ambitions to turn this into a lucrative profession. Mainly, I just wanted to write. A few years away from the college classroom (where I l earned a very useful degree in Poetry), I found that I was no longer writing anything creative without the impetus of deadlines or a community to share feedback with, so I created both stimuli as best as I could in Swampflix. After we were all simultaneously laid off from the same call-center job in late-2014, I banded together with James & Britnee to fill our sudden wealth of free time by putting into print what we were already doing on our work breaks: chatting about movies. I set arbitrary goals for myself: writing one new movie review a day for two consecutive years while pushing my collaborators to post as much as they could contribute and both editing & illustrating each post myself. While I can say for sure that my Sharpie-doodle illustrations have noticeably improved over time, I’m not sure the same is true for my writing. I feel like I’ve hit a personal plateau with the quality of my craft in the past couple years and have only continued to produce daily #content out of pure personal compulsion – both the compulsion to discuss & discover movies with a like-minded community and the compulsion to do something creative with my free time. Those early jobless months have gradually given way to a newfound bureaucratic routine that pays my bills, but at least I have a somewhat creative hobby on the side in Swampflix to keep myself sane & entertained.

Even if my personal increase in quality has stagnated in recent years, Swampflix has remained interesting & rewarding to me in how it’s evolved as a collaborative project. Over the years, we’ve expanded the one-movie-review-a-day template into a much more complex routine. A bi-monthly podcast, weekly film-screening bulletins, monthly conversations, recurring features on niche topics, film festival round-ups , and all sorts of collaborative projects have helped define the Swampflix ritual as our initial three-person team has included & cycled through eight contributing writers over five consecutive years of daily posts (with Boomer being our most consistent additional contributor since late in our first year). None of these sub-projects have been as revelatory & invigorating as making zines, which we were entirely inspired to undertake by attending NOCAZ. The first New Orleans Comics and Zines Festival was held in November of 2014, exactly at the time when the original Swampflix trio were about to be laid off & looking for a creative outlet. Without a doubt, I would have started a movie blog that following January even if I had not attended the first NOCAZ; I had already started writing movie reviews in unlikely venues like The Dissolve comment sections and – I kid you not – weekly newsletters Britnee organized & edited for our defunct call center job, so an official blog was somewhat inevitable. I might have even arrived at the zine-like, high-contrast Sharpie illustrations aesthetic without it, given my ancient past drawing up flyers to promote long-dead punk bands I was in a lifetime ago. One thing is for certain, though: there would be no Swampflix zines without NOCAZ. I attended the first NOCAZ fest as a customer, never having made a zine before in my life, and I dutifully distributed Swampflix zines at each subsequent year’s fest until 2019 – the fifth & final NOCAZ. Making movie fanzines for NOCAZ was an intensely rewarding, labor-intensive ritual both because there was a tangible product associated with the work that we obviously don’t get from blogging and because it helped contextualize everything we were doing as an amateur film criticism collective with no chance of ever going Legit. Basically, everything I know about blogging & online self-promotion I learned from physically tabling zines for NOCAZ in the real world.

Self-publishing in the digital hellscape of the 2010s often feels like shouting into the online void. We occasionally receive positive feedback from a reader (or, more often, an amateur filmmaker whose work we caught at a festival), but those exchanges maybe occur twice or thrice a year. Mostly, we publish movie reviews for their own sake – finding enjoyment in the act of writing and the impetus to analyze films on a deeper level than we would if we were watching them purely as passive entertainment. I’ve found the most joy in this project when collaborating with similarly-minded bloggers – We Love to Watch, Luddite Robot, Jean-Pod Van Damme, etc. – but even those exchanges are sparse, as we’re all doing this in our free time outside the jobs that actually pay our bills. What I get from attending NOCAZ every year is a concentrated, amplified macro-dose of my favorite parts of film blogging in a potent two-day span. The New Orleans Comics and Zines festival was an annual opportunity to spend an entire weekend in the nerd-sanctuary of the public library with an overwhelming influx of amateur & outsider artists. Comic, zines, art prints, and everything in-between lined labyrinths of tables in the exhibition room, fostering a powerful environment of pure creativity uninhibited by official publication gatekeepers or access to the means of production. Every year, NOCAZ had the ideal D.I.Y. punk effect on me, the exact spirit you hope to be infected with at any punk community event: it made me want to make art. A lot of work goes into making new zines & buttons for the festival every year on top of our daily blogging, making for the most needlessly labor-intensive form of self-promotion imaginable. Still, it’s a way for us to make sure a few more locals are aware that we exist every year and a way for us to enjoy our own work as a tangible product instead of a shout into the digital void. Most importantly, though, NOCAZ was invigorating & inspiring as a temporary community of artists encouraging each other to keep doing their thing and trading around samples of their wares in conversational creativity.

The fifth & final NOCAZ, held in April of 2019, was a major success for us. We distributed around 40 Swampflix zines, reconnected with zinesters we met at previous festivals like last year’s ALA Conference, and met a real-life fan of the podcast (who is somehow a real human being & not a bot). There was even a sense of accomplishment in finally selling out of some of the zines we made in 2015 for our first year tabling at the festival – bringing our time with NOCAZ full circle in a satisfactory way. I was honestly embarrassed to sell some of those older zines, as I felt like the quality of our work has greatly improved since that first year, but there was still something encouraging about people being intrigued about something we made so long ago. That validation made me want to make more & better art. Talking to strangers about movies all weekend made me want to make more & better art. Being around so many creative, actively engaged artists in such an intimate, real-world space made me want to make more & better art. The final NOCAZ left me feeling the same impulse as every year’s festival before it: the need to do more and to do better. According to their own mission statement, “NOCAZ [was] an attempt to make a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out in the public sphere and be able to reach each other without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry. Zines are a participatory format and we hope bringing multiple perspectives under one roof [created] dialogue and [inspired] more people to express themselves through print.” I can report that, at least for us, the short-lived festival was a resounding success on those terms. I also suspect we were far from the only attendees who started making zines for the first time after attending the fest. The festival ending has obviously sent me into a tailspin of self-reflection and reassessment of what we’ve been doing over the last five years, since so much of our own work has been directly inspired & guided by our NOCAZ experience. There were more than enough people in the library for this last fest to prove that there’s an interest in a new annual zine event to fill that void now that NOCAZ is gone. And believe me, it’s a massive void.

-Brandon Ledet

Spreading Motern Awareness at the Final NOCAZ

Once or twice a year I make zines versions of movie reviews we’ve written for Swampflix to distribute at local festivals & events (with immense help from CC in printing & tabling them). So far, we’ve never sold zines outside the festival environment, so they’re a kind of special-occasion treat for the site – a natural extension of our low-fi, high-effort movie blogging aesthetic. I was inspired to start this ritual when I attended the very first New Orleans Comics and Zines festival at the New Orleans Public Library in our own early stirrings as a blogging collective. Surveying dozens of tables of amateur & semi-professional art in the library was an inspiring, communal experience that really helped put into perspective what Swampflix was even doing as a lowly, localized movie blog. We will never be a legitimate, lucrative film criticism website (or even a self-sustaining one, to be frank; this is a money-losing hobby of an operation), so I sensed an instant kinship with the amateur art-for-art’s-sake vibe of the event. Our high-contrast black Sharpie illustrations that accompany our movie reviews even already looked like classic Xeroxed zines, something that came naturally to me from self-promoting ancient punk shows in hand-drawn flyers for long-dead bands I was in over a decade ago. That first NOCAZ had the ideal D.I.Y. punk effect on me, the exact spirit you hope to be infected with at any punk community event: it made me want to make art. We’ve been tabling handmade Swampflix zines at every NOCAZ festival since (and even branched out to distribute zines at other book fairs & library events); it’s one of the more energizing highlights of our calendar. That’s why it’s so sad that this year’s NOCAZ will be the last.

The fifth & final NOCAZ fest will be staged at the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library on Saturday April 6th and Sunday April 7th, 2019. I’ve already been preparing for the festival for months, making zines & buttons in my free time between writing movie reviews, producing The Swampflix Podcast, and just trying to live a normal life besides. It takes a lot of work to finish the zines on-time every year, not least of all because I make it hard on myself for no reason at all. Instead of merely printing the text & images we’ve already posted on the site, I transcribe that work by hand in careful, but microscopic Sharpie lettering. I also make sure to include bonus illustrations beyond the ones we’ve already published. It’s a needlessly labor-intensive task. Not only does it require weeks of manual labor to produce every new zine, but my handwriting is so small, uneven, and littered with delirious typos that the end result is a bit of an eyesore. I could be wrong, but I highly doubt anyone’s ever successfully read a Swampflix zine from cover to cover, no matter their level of interest in what we’re writing about. That doesn’t mean that there’s no point in making them, though, as delusional as that may sound. I get so much out of tabling at NOCAZ every year. One of the main reasons we review movies for the site is because we love to discuss & recommend films to people, which NOCAZ allows us to do tangibly, in person. It’s also the world’s most ineffective, labor-intensive form of self-promotion, but I like to think that it does make at last a new handful of locals aware that we exist every year, which is a plus. Mostly, though, the zines are worthwhile just because it feels good to make anything. The act of amateur art creation is its own reward.

According to their About page, “NOCAZ is an attempt to make a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out in the public sphere and be able to reach each other without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry. Zines are a participatory format and [they] hope bringing multiple perspectives together under one roof can create dialogue and inspire more people to express themselves though print.” I can report that, for us at least, the short-lived festival was a resounding success on these terms. I also suspect we were far from the only attendees who started making zines for the first time after attending the fest.

I don’t think there’s a more appropriate note to end our time with NOCAZ on than the new zine we’ve printed for this year’s fest: a collection of movie reviews I wrote about backyard filmmaker Matt Farley last summer. For the last two decades, Farley has been making microbudget horror comedies and recording tens of thousands of novelty songs with his family & friends around his New England neighborhoods to little outside fanfare. There’s nothing especially “punk” about his work or his demeanor, but Farley’s Motern Media brand is still a microcosmic D.I.Y. operation that feels entirely in-spirit with the NOCAZ tabling experience. I was thinking a lot about Matt Farley last summer when exhibiting Swampflix zines at the American Library Association’s national conference. I spent four consecutive days in a massive convention hall peddling zines to librarians from all over the country. Out of every dozen or so people who actually stopped to talk to us about our zines (or to learn about zine culture in general), there were only one or two who enthusiastically got what we were doing and found great joy in talking about movies with a stranger. It was the exact high-effort, low-payoff amateur art lifestyle Farley details in our current Movie of the Month, 2013’s Local Legends. Tripling as a narrative comedy, a documentary, and an infomercial selling Farley’s various CDs & DVDs, Local Legends is a stunningly bullshit-free, self-aware summation of the minor joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the self-publishing digital hellscape of the 2010s. It’s Farley’s masterpiece, and I see so much of my own experiences blogging, podcasting, and making zines in its cruel self-satire. Just as much as NOCAZ opened my eyes to Swampflix already being a kind of online zine before we were ever in print, Local Legends helped clarify exactly what I was feeling putting all this effort into go-nowhere art projects with no clear goal beyond the act of their own production.

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I initially wrote a Motern Media fanzine to help spread the word that Matt Farley exists out there, making amateur art for his own amusement (and minor, self-sustaining profit). Since printing the first few copies, NOCAZ has announced that this year’s festival will be the last, which already makes me feel like I’m living out the opening scenes of a Local Legends sequel. I can’t think of a more appropriate note to close our NOCAZ experience on than trying to convince strangers to purchase a zine about a microbudget filmmaker they’ve never heard of before, so that more people might experience the amateur joys of Motern classics like Local Legends, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. In true Local Legends sprit, we’ll also be selling older zines we printed far too many copies of years ago and could never fully get rid of at past festivals. Still, distributing the Matt Farley fanzine will be our top priority. NOCAZ & Motern are easily the two most revelatory influences I’ve had in understanding exactly what I’ve been doing with Swampflix over the last five years, so I’m glad I could find an opportunity to experience them in tandem before that window closes forever.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, Matt Farley’s satirical self-portrait Local Legends (2013), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Shirkers (2018)

Swampflix is a money-losing labor of love. Everyone who contributes to this blog is a non-professional, untrained cinephile who just happens to have enough passionate opinions about movies to need the creative outlet. If our collective had formed a couple decades earlier, Swampflix almost certainly would have been a zine instead of a blog – an assumed truth I try my best to reflect in the site’s general DIY aesthetic & our participation in zine culture events like NOCAZ & The American Library Association Zine Pavilion. The 2018 documentary Shirkers is as accurate of a summation of that same zine culture aesthetic as any I’ve seen, both in its subject and in its editing methods. Novelist Sandi Tan begins the film recalling her teenage days as a pop culture gatekeeping zinester in early-90s Singapore. She translates the photocopier collages of her early zine collaborations with friends into a vibrant, volatile cinematic expression that affords the doc a distinct, yet familiar visual language. It’s a visual ethos that perfectly matches the subject it serves, as Shirkers is about the ultimate DIY art project time-suck, the most tragic of youthful collaborations lost to dissociation with the means of production. It’s the cinematic equivalent of working on a zine with your friends all summer only for the pages to blow away in a single gust of wind on your way to the photocopier, never to be recovered. It’s a pain in artistic loss that hit home for me in ways I did not expect, as I identified with its teen-girls-in-Singapore subject far more closely than I could have assumed I would, since we’re all DIY zine-makers at heart.

In the summer of 1992, Tan and her fellow brat-punk friends set out to make Singapore’s first entry in the era’s indie cinema boom – an aesthetic typified by then up-and-comers like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Jarmusch. A DIY art project that translated their zinester tastemaker sensibilities to highly stylized, low-budget cinema, the original form of Shirkers was meant to defy Singapore’s cultural conservatism with some good ole 1990s who-cares slackerism. It was a 16mm “road trip movie in a country you can drive across in 40 minutes,” a film more concerned about documenting counterculture personality & local atmosphere than telling a coherent story. With the help of a shady older man “of unplaceable age & origin,” the young women miraculously completed principle photography on the shoot, having all the raw materials necessary to complete a feature film. Then the creep who “helped” them disappeared with the footage, with no one else who had worked on the film having seen a single frame. Tan eventually recovered the footage form Shirkers nearly 20 years later from the creep’s widow, finding its intensely vibrant colors & richly textured filmstock pristinely preserved by the conman who ruined her teenage dreams. Instead of attempting to reconstruct her original vision for the film (which would prove impossible, given its still-missing soundtrack), she instead uses the opportunity to explore who she was and why she was ripped off at such a pivotal rime in her life. The documentary version of Shirkers finds Tan both reopening old wounds in interviews with her closest zinester-days collaborators and investigating the mysterious identity & motivations of the man who derailed their dream project.

Shirkers figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of DIY art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans, as Tan investigates the mysterious backstory of her arch-enemy, Georges Cardona. She discovers that Cardona had a history of sabotaging microbudget art projects wherever he went, including an obscure 80s New Orleans slasher titled The Last Slumber Party. He was far more concerned with making legend than making art, claiming bizarre self-mythology (like being the source of inspiration for James Spaeder’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape) that’s just as unflattering as it is untrue. Outside considering the inappropriate nature of her youthful friendship with the much older Cardona, Tan’s investigation of his deceitful legacy mostly leads to fruitless dead ends. The true revelations she discovers in the doc are much more personal and, thus, more painful. When reflecting on her history as a culture-gatekeeping zinester and her over-ambitious willingness to risk her collaborators’ time & energy on a shady creep’s honor, Tan has a hard-look-in-the-mirror epiphany: she’s an asshole. Regardless of Cardona’s baffling behavior, the way she socially bullies her friends in her attempts to establish an artistic Personal Brand, both as a teen and as an adult, makes her out to be the true villain of this doomed DIY collaboration. The gorgeous footage that survived from Shirkers suggests that this assholery can lead to wonderful artistic results, but her headstrong stubbornness also leads directly to Cardona’s sabotage of the project – leaving her collective essentially empty-handed for their efforts. There’s a fascinating tension in that self-defeating dynamic that drives Shirkers’s thematic core.

You don’t have to be a DIY zinester with moviemaking dreams to appreciate Shirkers as an artistic, historical object; you don’t have to be a Singapore or New Orleans local either. It helps, but you don’t have to. Between the what-the-fuckery of Cardona’s mysterious backstory, the vibrant imagery of the recorded footage, and the preposterous circumstances of its inciting incidents, Shirkers has plenty to offer audiences as almost a true crime-level twisted story. I was just pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging DIY artist. Tan got to me through the merits of her brutal self-honesty. More superficially, she also got to me through the aesthetics of her DIY zine culture ethos & her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep.

-Brandon Ledet