what color is your Alternative?

You can complain all you want about sellouts, but some of the best alternative culture our country has to offer is bought and paid for by The Man.

Published April 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

A couple years back, any self-respecting member of American alternative culture would tell you that zines were where it was at -- far more reliable sources than the "alternative" city weeklies for writing with an edge slightly rougher than a potato chip. That all changed when the masses discovered the zine Murder Can Be Fun and the merry travelers of Monk magazine scored themselves a CD-ROM deal.

Of course, the corporatization of the alternative isn't anything new, nor is it exactly the end of the world. But the latest trend in alternative publishing takes the whole process one step beyond anything you might have imagined a few short years ago. Now, big corporations aren't just trading off of alterna-chic -- they're growing their own alternative culture, with help from friendly natives.

Now appearing as a two-page insert in two Bay Area weeklies, with unconfirmed plans to expand to others across the country, Lucky Strike cigarette's Circuit Breaker may be the most expensive zine in the country -- paid for one pack at a time. But for its readers, surprisingly enough, it's worth every one of those Lucky dimes. Irreverent, daring, goofy and sublime, CB is frequently a better read than the papers that house it. While a good chunk of CB is picks and plugs for Lucky-sponsored concerts and events, you'll also find profiles of underground artists and filmmakers, along with quirky ruminations on everyday things like thermoses and paprika (the spice, not the band, if there is one).

How did Lucky get so edgy? This advertisa-zine is written by local alternative writers who have found better pay (albeit not much better) than they would have earned by writing for the weekly itself and a hands-off approach that's much to their liking. "I've had more autonomy than I've ever had working for weekly newspapers," offers one frequent contributor to CB. "I've never had a better relationship with a publication."

The folks at Slant, a sort of mega-zine put out by the hip clothing chain Urban Outfitters, have a similarly blasi reaction to the idea of working for The Man. In any case, managing editor Caroline Karlen says the corporate folks keep a respectful distance. "No one sees (Slant) before it goes to press," she reports, matter of factly. "The company says 'Just do it' -- no one really asks us what's in it." Like the best zines, Slant is a byproduct of hard work and serendipity -- though it certainly doesn't hurt that the editors don't have to sneak into the office late at night to Xerox off the press run. When art director Howard Brown arrived at Urban Outfitters in 1994, fresh from the Seattle music scene, where he'd been making posters for bands to wheat-paste all over town, he wanted to find a way to employ that arty, oversized format into its ad plan.

The result was a wild-looking something that could easily be mistaken for an underground paper from the '60s if it weren't for a pastiche of contributors like zine stars John Marr (Murder Can Be Fun) and Al Hoff (Thrift Score), as well as bigger name writers like Luc Santi and Kenneth Anger. And the proceedings are enhanced considerably by bold two- and three-color graphics spiced with the work of a host of alternative cartoonists. ("Like many of life's simple splendors," the editors explain, Slant's comics are "best enjoyed when spread wide on the floor.") Slant organizes its issues by theme (Punk Rock, the Paranormal, Sin City); a recent issue on Las Vegas saw Dishwasher Pete's reflections on scrubbing dirties in a Vegas dive running alongside author Nick Tosches' appreciation of Dino. Everyone gets paid the same $250 for their efforts. This isn't a publication that's likely to run an exposi of third-world sweatshops any time soon, but at least that poor sap waiting for his girlfriend has something to read when he's done thumbing through Details.

Oddly enough, the ads for Urban Outfitters don't exactly overwhelm the zine. "We figured that everyone already knows that there's an Urban Outfitters on Walnut Street," explains Karlen, referring to the store in Philadelphia. "This way our customers get to take something home and we get to do something we're more interested in."

The grandfather of the corporate alternative magazine is, of course, Benetton's much-maligned Colors, which remains (despite the critics) one of the most consistently good reads on the market. A bilingual bimonthly that offers a fishbowl-like peek at various global matters (food, race, AIDS, animals) each issue, Colors neither spends much time confirming nor denying its relationship to its publisher, a company that earns its keep selling sweaters to 18-year-old girls. And so what? Just like all but a handful of nonprofit-on-purpose publications, Benetton is in the business of making a buck. That they dump some of their loose change into a slightly subversive rag is a good thing. And where else but in Colors can you read a comprehensive guide to animal droppings, printed in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German?

In this shameless world of corporate alternative, no one is really kidding anyone. Colors may not flaunt its connection to the massive clothes company in its pages, but most readers know exactly who The Man Behind The Man is -- or they simply don't care. Lucky's "by the way, in case you hadn't noticed, this little section of the paper is actually an advertisement" disclaimer may be in minuscule type, but the cigarette company's logo and ads are all over the place. And Slant's tag line seems designed to stop potential critics in their tracks: "We are not an alternative publication," the paper proudly proclaims. Thank God -- because otherwise it might be tempted to sell out.

By Larry Smith

Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications.

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