Text and Interview: Alec Coiro
Photo: Johnny Gembitsky
The first question that confronts me when I pick up a zine is what exactly is a zine in 2016? As I recall from the previous century, a zine was a fan-made publication dedicated to a subculture usually typified by music. It was produced and distributed in an independent way that reflected the independent nature of the subculture it was part of. 30 or so years later zines have certainly evolved into something else, as all things do, but it would be nice to have a thread linking the modern zine back to zine origins. Alissa Bennett’s “Dead is Better” strikes an exemplary balance between newness and, let’s call it original zine-ness. One might even go so far as to call it an instructive balance. It’s very much still a fan zine (as zines were originally called) in that Bennett clearly relates to the cultural luminaries she eulogizes as a fan. And yet she is also weaving together a personal history through these eulogies and in so doing modernizing what a eulogy is in a way that has no precedent. To put it more simply, the short version of what she is doing is creating a work of art.
This brings me to the next question that occurs to me when confronted with a contemporary zine, namely what is the place of a printed zine in the post-print era? This is something that’s still being worked through, but Bennett’s “Dead is Better” has some excellent answers. Firstly, “Dead is Better” is an art object materialized out of a melange of paper, prose, and on-line ether. It is a reification of online image and celebrity culture and the assertion of the personhood both of the artist and of the dead themselves. It also simply looks fantastic and is wonderfully written. And perhaps best of all, it is only issue number one in on-going series (rumor has it that issue two is just about complete). The best way to get to the bottom of ‘Dead is Better,” though, is through our interview with Alissa Bennett herself.
Why the dead?
I have always been kind of attached to ideas of loss and regret, and there is no more profound receptacle for these types of emotions than the dead. I have also always had an interest in the interior lives of strangers, and maybe the kind of information I am looking for is most accessible when a person’s life is over. I think in the case of Dead is Better, which is specifically about celebrity death, I am looking to compile facts and information so that I can craft a kind of semi-sociological handbook. Celebrities are borne of the public, and I think it’s a really important part of pop-culture to understand the channels that run between fame and fandom; grief or loss just happens to be the lens that has been most appealing to me.
Why these dead?
This is a question that has come up a lot and it is really hard for me to answer. I have had a lot of requests and suggestions, and most of the time, the subjects that are proposed just don’t interest me, though I can’t exactly tell you why. I think that there are certainly some common threads that run throughout most of the lives that I want to write about; there’s a lot of drug addiction and suicide, they are primarily people who have died early, and I think there are more women than men. Part of what I was saying earlier about my interest in fandom kind of comes into play here- I think that we like the celebrities that we like because we find some vague glimmer of ourselves in them, and that is probably true here too. A lot of the subjects in the first issue are not people who I was interested in while they were alive, but I have always been really interested in fan forums and message boards—there can be something overwhelmingly beautiful about the public emotion associated with certain losses. I guess I am also really interested when these losses feel unresolved; I love finding a forum where people are desperate to know “why.”
One of the things that drew me into the zine was your voice and your personal relationship with the dead. To what extent if any did you see this project as an exercise in autobiography?
Oh, I think this is a totally autobiographical project and I think every text included is, in one way or another, a self-portrait. I don’t think the format really works if I don’t have some kind of investment in the subject matter, and though I didn’t consciously start off thinking that I would write the entries like this, it is kind of how they all ended up. I have also thought a lot about things that I am embarrassed of when writing these; in a way, I write about my own shame as a means of equalization, like, I am going to tell everyone something about myself that I don’t want anyone to know so that there is no hierarchy, so that we are all in the same place. It’s hard to write about the tragedies of a stranger’s life without being clinical or gossipy or cruel, and adding myself to the equation is my way of trying to telegraph something personal rather than just list facts. I think that if people want facts, they can just consult the sources that I site; hopefully making it personal brings it somewhere else.
In most of these cases you related to these figures as an audience member relating to a celebrity. How do you think death changes the audience/celebrity relationship? You touch on this question nicely in the Layne Staley section, but I wonder if you could expand.
I think that we are all hungry to get inside of the people who we worship—it’s what tabloid culture is, it’s what fandom is, it’s what an autograph represents. We are constantly looking for more from the people we culturally exalt, and I think that death lets people become really carnivorous. Layne is a really interesting example for me; he is the only entry that I have ever expanded (the new text will be included in a future issue), but he is someone who I didn’t care about at all in life. The fan forums on his death are really amazing, they are heartfelt and longing and regretful and sad, and they really spoke to me. He is probably one of the people who I know most about, and my interest comes not through him, but through the people that loved him. I think there is something really significant about getting to know the details of a person in that particular way.
You refer throughout the zine to your “death obsession,” but you withhold a preface that would give us background on you or the obsession? Was this intentionally withheld? Is there something particular about your obsession, or do you think obsession with death is something we all have in common?
I never really considered writing a forward, mostly because I wanted it to really just function as a traditional fanzine. It has been really surprising to me that so many people have responded to it, and I guess I didn’t really foresee it landing in the hands of as many strangers as it has. I guess that I hope that it will end up with the right people and that those people will feel some sense of communion with me that doesn’t require an explanation. I have gotten a lot of letters (I include my email address in one of the entries) from strangers who tell me that they didn’t know that anyone else had the same habits or interest as they did. My favorite letter said something like “Thank you for this. I have never felt less alone.” I loved that because when I was younger, fanzines were like smoke signals, meaning that they helped remote people with all of the same interests and concerns communicate. I like to think that anyone who picks it up and gets into it already has some kind of vested interest.
While many of the figures in Dead is Better are iconic, there are also figures like Richey Edwards who many readers will be learning about for the first time. Did you approach the dead democratically, or did your approach shift in cases where you might be bringing awareness to a forgotten person rather than eulogizing a legend like Judy Garland.
Like I said earlier, there is no vetting process. I always say “You like what you like,” meaning that certain deaths have some quality that draw me in. Every person included in this zine is someone who I have spent a lot of time with, every person is someone who I have had a legitimate preoccupation with in one way or another. I like that there is room to do several different issues- I have thought about doing one on people who die on vacation and one of older deaths. It just means that I have to have interest in enough people to make a full issue.