When radical zine publishers go to court: The story of Pioneers Press and Microcosm Publishing

“The smart outlaw is the free outlaw. The free outlaw is the only outlaw.” My best friend read this line to me over the phone from a zine he just borrowed. It was called The DIY Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad by Adam Gnade. Everything I heard sat so right with me. “Keep reading,” I said.

And that’s how it always goes, isn’t it? Friends share a song, some random excerpt from a book, a powerful illustration– and somehow they all wind up connected. From the same label. They grew up together. All symptoms from an impossibly small network of grassroots artists creating together in a tiny world. That’s part of what makes DIY fun: the neverending this-band-is-friends-with-this-illustrator-who-designed-this-graphic-novel-for-this-small-publishing-house beautifully bizarre family tree.

Pioneers Press belongs there. They are a small, independently-run publishing house based in Kansas. That means they print books, zines (self-published books of text/images/anything you want them to be), patches, and other content they select, support and publish. They put out the zine I mentioned up top. And they’re currently in the thick of a lawsuit.

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A mega-pack of zines from Pioneers Press

The suit was filed by a large publishing collective, Microcosm Publishing. Microcosm began as a distribution house in Portland, Oregon founded by Joe Biel in 1996. They publish and distribute hundreds of zines, many that have become pivotal for anarchist and radical communities internationally. Before Microcosm collectivized, Biel was pretty much running the show (and allegedly still is). Biel’s history of emotional abuse trickled down into Microcosm’s work; the last decade has been punctuated by attempts from the radical community to hold him accountable. Biel’s ex-wife, Alex Wrekk, publicly came out against Biel’s history of emotional abuse in 2006. Cindy Crabb pulled entire runs of her well-known Doris zine after their failure to address this. Close to 100 zine-makers, collectives and artists signed an open letter to Microcosm asking the Collective to make their efforts more transparent around holding Biel accountable for his history of abuse.

Around then, Pioneers Press was born. They were actually first born as Microcosm Distribution. Jessie Duke, Thaddeus Christian and Adam Gnade had left the Microcosm Collective in 2012, signing an agreement with Biel to split Microcosm in two: publishing would continue in Portland, while the distribution side would carry over to their new home in Lansing, Kansas. Everything seemed…okay. Ish. And then out of the dang midwestern blue sky, Biel filed a lawsuit with Duke. He claimed that Pioneers owed him debt promised in their original 2012 agreement. Duke filed a countersuit: That was not what they signed on for. But the number has risen to $48,000, and Microcosm claims its theirs. In a feature story from The Pitch, their lawyer Dan Curry contends:

They signed the contract, then Biel sends her a letter two months later saying there’s $14,000 in debt she’s responsible for…Then another letter saying the number has gone up. Then another. And he has no documents to justify any of it. No traditional accounting documents were being kept. He’s just saying, ‘Pay me $48,000, and I’m not going to tell you why.’

There aren’t a ton of resources out there for small labels or organizations in a situation like this, but there is intense community support– and they need plenty of it. The Pioneers Press folks are in court in Portland this week. Back in August, I started off in an interview with Jessie about their incredible zine mobile (to be posted soon!), but the conversation rounded out in an honest and vulnerable account of just how much the legal process sucks when you occupy a community so cosmically far from it. Read on for Jessie’s story about issues of character within the zine community, emotional distress via the justice system, and finding powerful support from a very unlikely group of strangers.

(And in case you don’t feel like reading more today [you should really read more today], you can help support Pioneers by buying a lawsuit-special-zine-megapack here, sending words of love here, and grabbing anything from their incredible store here.)

EG: What are the implications for where this lawsuit could go right now?

JD: If things go badly in the lawsuit, we’ll lose Pioneers. On some level, I’m sure that we started getting really excited about other projects when we knew we might not be able to keep working on this. If we keep being able to be productive and not get fatalistic about things just because this project that means a lot to us might go away, we had to just be like ‘Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, but we need to know what we’re going to do next if it’s gone.’ So by shifting that focus, we’re finding things that are seeming like they’re going to be more fitted to our personalities. Pioneers might not come out of this.  People knowing that we are involved in this lawsuit, and the details we’ve been able to put out is helpful.

EG: It’s weird. Microcosm is so established in the zine community as this mega-entity, and I bet there are all of these weird, nostalgic associations with it in people’s heads. How does that status, and your relative status, play into the story?

JD: I think it’s helpful and it’s not. The lawsuit isn’t part of our story, it isn’t the Pioneers story. So that’s one of the reasons we didn’t have a lawyer in the beginning. I was just posting statements because that is how I felt about these issues at the time, and I couldn’t believe thi swas happening. And I think it’s kindof bullshit. But then I got a lawyer and he was like: “This is all going to be used against you.” Learning about the whole legal process and having people in the system be like “It’s all going to come down to this popularity contest” has been so weird. In situatiions like this where it’s not a criminal trial or something, it’s going to come down to who the jury likes better. And it’s just such bullshit, you know? Again, this is a weird thing that’s happening in the zine community. And it’s important that people know the story. And I have no idea what is going to happen. There’s a trial happening in October. And I just have no ideas of what the repercussions of any of the possible outcomes are. It’s so weird.

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Photo by Brooke Vandever for The Pitch

EG: At this point does this feel like a David and Goliath sort of thing?

JD: One hundred percent it feels like that. I know without a doubt that if we hadn’t been dealing with this lawsuit and the bullshit prior to that point, Pioneers would be doing way better than it’s doing now. I’ve had to completely stop ordering zines. We’ve been able to print some books, but mainly because we were Kickstartering them or the author paid part of the print bill. That’s not at all how we expected being able to publish. When we first started we were doing incredibly well. We have this pretty good-sized pool of supporters even though we have the same 15 titles on the website. You keep seeing people come back who are trying to buy their friend a copy of Adam’s Big Sad zine, for example

EG: I just literally did that!

JD: *Laughs* People want to help us and just send us money. This zine community is small enough, and all of these radical organizations or publishers or distributors all know each other. And all of them have relationships with each other. Microcosm has been in the business a lot longer. We were once collective members at Microcosm with Joe. A lot of the work people know them for is work that we’ve done. However, because Joe is the first point of contact there’s this positive association with him. So he’s able to go through the rolodex and contact people, and state on his website all of these terrible things Pioneers has been saying and claiming to be in such bad shape because of it. He can say whatever he wants and I can’t comment on it. There are people in the community who take what Joe is saying and my lack of response to it and make a judgement, and that really hurts us. We can’t defend ourselves to the public and we can’t defend ourselves on the same level as Joe can in court because he has so much more money than we do.

EG: So what kind of channels have you guys been using to communicate what’s going on?

JD: We can’t anymore. We can’t talk about it. How I’m vaguely talking about it now is how I’m allowed to talk about it. I’m not supposed to comment; anything that I say can be used against us in court. I don’t want to take the community’s money for a legal fund. This is such a farce that this doesn’t seem productive to me. I would rather Pioneers go under than have people put money into this. I basically borrowed some money from my parents, and our lawyer is being incredibly patient with us about not paying him *laughs* If we win the lottery we’ll be able to get out to Portand. I can barely afford groceries right now, how we’re going to get to Portland to testify is just…yeah. It’s frustrating, because it’s just a lot easier for Joe to ride his bike over to the courthouse that day.

The Hard 50 Farm. Photo by Brooke Vandever for The PItch

The Hard 50 Farm. Photo by Brooke Vandever for The PItch

EG: Yeah, why is it in their home turf?

JD: That was debated in the court. There were hearings on it. And at this point it’s possible that points could also be heard in Kansas, but the Kansas judge is waiting to see what happens in Oregon. None of the courts want to waste a bunch of energy if we’re going to have the same conversation. It doesn’t make sense. So, since Joe filed his lawsuit in Oregon that’s where it’s going to happen.

EG: Are there any ways that people can support? Even sending a nice letter?

JD: That seriously has been so fucking huge for me in the last year; especially over the winter at the point when I was not functioning at all. I started going to therapy– and it was really helpful– and then I found out because of the lawsuit, it was possible that my record could be pulled into the proceedings. It’s like: I’m in therapy because of this situation, and then we’ve taken away the only safe space I have to talk about this stuff. It’s super intrusive. So I’m not going to keep going. And then I just got in really bad shape. Whatever you think might help me I’m willing to try it out. People are like “here! this is wild lettuce! and put a couple of drops into your water at night and it will help you sleep” and I was like “Well, I guess I’ll try wild lettuce.” You recommended a book to me. Years ago I might have been like, “Whatever,” but I wrote it down and I’m going to get it and I will read it because you’ve thought about something that might work for me. Just having people around or letting us know that you get it. Whether we’re all going to give high fives in October or send e-mail hugs or whatever, it feels less scary going up against this situation knowing that there are people who care about what happens. And that regardless of what happens will be able to think critically about what that means. You know? Again, as I was told, how it’s going to play out is like high school. Who’s the most appealing in the court room? Every time I think about it I just get so scared about being in this situation and physically being in a room with certain people. That’s going to be so hard for me. If I end up not being able to present myself well and win the popularity contest because I’m in this incredibly stressful and triggering environment, are people going to be able to just look at the outcome and make a critical decision about that regardless of what the court says happened? It’s weird.

EG: Court becomes theatre in these cases. It’s so hugely biased.

JD: That’s why it’s so gross. We all know it’s a fucked up system. But then actually participating in it? First of all, it’s no skin off the asses of the judges and the lawyers. They’re going to get paid. And my lawyer’s great, and is someone I would want to be friends with after. We’re so lucky to have this guy. So I feel bad saying anything bad about lawyers. But hearing the lawyers and the judges talk about this situation and then have it be bullshit. People are just lying. This is so stupid. There was a hearing here in Kansas and Joe’s lawyer kept saying his name wrong, and then saying my name wrong, and kept saying it over and over again so it was this weird thing where it was “Joe Bill” and “Jessica Chastain” who have this lawsuit, and even I start getting detached because they weren’t talking about me or anyone that I know. And then my lawyer gets up, and hears the judges and this lawyer saying our names wrong, and then he starts saying our names wrong. It’s like they’re all talking about people that don’t exist. It’s just this weird thing for them– yeah, it’s like theatre. When for me, this situation is going to decide what I do for a living. This is ruining my life, and it’s making it so that I can’t do the work that I want to do.

On the one hand, I hear myself saying this and feel like I’m giving this situation more power than it has. But that’s how it feels sometimes: we can’t do anything without thinking about how it’s going to affect the lawsuit or our ability to defend ourselves.

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EG: This is the first time I’ve heard of a situation like this happening. Like 90% of the time it’s folks who want to get together, create art, and make something happen. And then they get to do it. They don’t have to worry about lawsuits. So one: I’m so sorry you have to deal with this shit. Two: it makes everything we talked about in the first half of this conversation 300% more incredible. I know you’re not moving forward with other work because of this, but it is so seriously impressive and noble that you’re continuing work that is so sustainable, and has a vision, and adapts with your hopes and mission personally. It doesn’t seem like you’re doing this because you have no other choice. It’s work you are genuinely passionate about doing, and has grown as an outcrop of Pioneers.

JD: I hope that comes across. At the same time, I don’t want people to get the impression that this thing is totally horrible and we’ve dealt with it really well and with so much grace every step of the way. We haven’t. It’s been a mess. I sort of felt like my life was over. I’ve never experienced the level of depression I did this winter. There’s so many things I didn’t want to know about the world that I’ve learned from this experience. For a while, it knocked me flat. And I couldn’t deal with it. On so many levels, especially the “You were my friend” level. And what does that mean? There was a point when I couldn’t fucking trust anybody. You get super melodramatic about it and feel like this changes how I interact with people for the rest of my life. Instead of that, I said this thing: well, no, I’m having these people I don’t know– people like you — who understand the work that we’re trying to do and give us feedback about it and support us in the ways that you can. You ask about our projects or send me wild lettuce or things like that. I didn’t expect to have the people who got me through this experience be strangers. And with the self-care and with Adam’s books, we’ve learned so much from that that sometimes your friends let you down. Sometimes your family lets you down. And sometimes people who follow you on Tumblr are going to be the ones who say the right thing. Before, I thought that was kinda silly and I was dismissive of that. Now I see that that’s where the care is coming from– so who cares that I don’t actually know this person? Some of the people who say things to me who have been the most powerful, I don’t know their real names. I know some silly avatar with ridiculous name they thought of when they were stoned in the middle of the night and didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. And it’s like, ‘pussinboots,’ you saved my life!!! The people who are close to me are so in it and upset and processing with themselves that it was really hard for us all to take care of each other. My partner is so angry with himself that he was around while things escalated, and wasn’t able to protect me from that. Everybody’s got these little parts of it that they own. I can’t understand what he’s going through because that’s not my experience, but we’re all going through the same situation. We’re all so devastated that nobody can help each other. People were asking if they could send us money. And we kept saying no. And people figured out that there is a giftwrap option on our website and would be like “I just bought giftwrap but you’re not giftwrapping my stuff.” It’s not a lot– it’s $5. But that’s close to buying a bag of corn that will feed the animals for weeks. Every dollar is significant to us. And, it’s like, you figured out a way to hack not-giving-me-money?? That’s incredible. That’s so rad. That will get us through a day around here. It’s so little and you may not think anything of it, but on our end it’s huge to have people do things for us.

EG: Sometimes I wonder how I even found out about Pioneers, and then I remember it is from a friend reading me a line of Adam’s zine. I have now read this zine 50-60 times in a way that it’s become scripture. And when a line pops into my head but I don’t remember the whole thing, I’ll google it– even if I don’t have the words completely right, there is somebody who’s written down the exact line I was thinking about that day. And what is really amazing to me is how those words and Pioneers became this shared language, resource and database for people who had these sentiments resound with them. And it creates a community of people. It’s more than just self-help. This is translating clearly into a community that you are now being supported by, which is phenomenal. It made me think about the links between giving people the tools for that– that reciprocity. And how this comes back to you. Clearly it’s happening.

JD: It definitely wasn’t the intention. In the beginning, we just left Microcosm. There were things that were obvious we didn’t want to do with our new distro, but a lot of it was that we were all taught all of the stuff we were doing basically from one person. And so, a lot of what we started off with was a carbon copy of what we’d been doing. We’ll just keep doing the same work. There wasn’t even a day where we weren’t running a distro. We worked at Microcosm, we switched over, and the next day the orders were coming in. It was the same office, the same stuff. We were just continuing our work. But then the way we interacted with people– more naturally took time to do certain things, and the positive feedback we got from them, we realized that this was working better. This feels better to us. Having a bigger emphasis on self-care and watching how people responded to it. Let’s go scout more things that are like this zine that is bringing in so many great responses. It’s funny; there’s so much bad stuff that came out of our split with Microcosm. But I feel like we really figured out who we are because of going through this stupid thing.

I’ve read Adam’s sad zine a bunch of times. And I’ve said it from the beginning: Adam and I have this writing and editing partnership. We are writing partners. Everything I write, he sees first. I’m the first person who reads his stuff. And to me, reading it, there were so many things in that zine that were things he needed to say to me but couldn’t say to my face because of the stuff we were going through as a family. So that was a really emotional experience for me to go through. And now seeing other people read it and how they react to it– writing lines from it on their binder, seeing it on tumblr– it feels different to me now, but in a way that’s better. In the beginning, parts of the zine were just conversation between us. Maybe it’ll resonate with someone else. This isn’t like the writing Adam usually does. They were either pep talks to himself, or pep talks to someone else. And then this resonated with people. Yeah, it was a fluke thing where he did this thing that he needed to do and he was really helpful for our family and wanted to share this with our community.

When people order that zine, we try to be conscious of what we write in the letter we send to people. What patches do we have? What stickers do we have? Be extra careful what we put in this package because this person might be really hurting, and we don’t want to do anything that seems dismissive. You just bought a lot of shit, we’re gonna put in this weird zine someone sent us 50 of for free. No, this person bought this. This needs to be a care package. And so we start sending these things that to us feel like care packages to other people. The incredible thing is that when things got really really bad for us, people started sending us care packages back. People we didn’t know. You don’t say that, you don’t say “We feel like this is a care package we’re sending out to people.” That’s not explicit. For somebody to be like, “This felt like I got a care package from you and I wanted to send you something back” and they send us tea or a zine that they made, it makes us feel like this is working. We don’t want to just be zine sellers. That’s not how we see ourselves at all. We are passionate about what zines are and what they can do. It’s a political and emotional thing for us. Having people pick up on that, that that’s how we feel, and react in the same way– having some of it bounce back to us– has been really amazing.

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