Science Geek

Science Geek was a zine my friend Doug and I put out in the 90's. Doug and I were also both in the band cuppa joe during this time, but I guess we didn't feel like we spent enough time together so we joined on this project, too.

If you're not familiar with zines, here's the skinny: as you may have guessed, the word "zine" comes from "magazine", and that's what they often are: stripped-down, self-published magazines. The 90's were probably the golden era of zines - desktop publishing software and the widespread availability of copy shops like Kinko's really kicked zine publication into high gear, though by the end of the decade the Internet had diminished zine activity significantly. Why spend all that time and money printing these things, not to mention stocking inventory, shipping costs, promotion, and all the other hassles a physical object entails? Still, zines have their charms and they're still being produced - there's a certain satisfaction to holding something in your hand that was created with such care and craft.

Zines cover all kinds of subjects, though most are personal in nature. Doug started Science Geek while he was just beginning to work as a teacher, and used it as a forum for his writings on teaching, as well as a means to interview bands, review music and other zines as well (a common practice). For the first couple issues, Doug wrote his pieces, printed them out and cut-and-pasted the layout. He asked me to do a few illustrations and comics , which were reduced on a photocopier and worked in. Primitive times, kids.

Those issues were printed on 20 lb. copy paper, black and white only, and were stapled on the side. They didn't look super pretty, but what they lacked in polish they made up for (we hoped) in warmth and readability. Those early issues generated a lot of nice feedback. We had a post office in Trenton (the same post office involved in the 2001 Anthrax attacks, unfortunately) and fielded orders (usually with $3, postpaid, in cash) from there. We also sold issues at cuppa joe shows, and even at other bands' shows. We had no shame.

Then in 1995, Doug joined the Peace Corps and went off to Kenya. He asked me to handle Science Geek duties in the states while he was away, and I agreed. He wound up writing out the third issue on an old typewriter in his hut in Africa, mailing me the pages, which my mother or I would transcribe (we also recorded an album in this lo-fi manner!). I'd then do the illustrations and lay out the issue. It was a wild way to work, and certainly not the most efficient, but it was satisfying to see the printed issue and know what went into it. Doug's adventures in the Peace Corps, and just being in Africa, gave him a unique perspective as a teacher and writer, and we started to see some positive reviews at this point. We also managed to obtain international distribution through Tower Records and a number of other distributors by the time the third issue was available, which was both awesome and nightmarish as anyone who's dealt with distribution of any kind can attest.

That third issue had, for the first time, a color cover. By the fourth, we were using 11x17" paper and saddle stitching (stapling in the middle) so the zine looked and felt more like a "real "magazine. The fifth issue (cover shown above) was the best quality we'd produced, being laid out in (whoo-hoo!) PageMaker - and it was the last. All good things, you know. It was a satisfying thing to put together, but it was a ton of work each time - it took almost a full year to put out each issue, not to mention promoting the publication, working with advertisers (we sold ads to record labels, bands, and other zines) and mailing out issues. I think we just needed a break. I miss it, though - but I have enough copies of all five issues in my closet to keep Science Geek from feeling too far away.

Here are a few sample images from Science Geek - band illustrations, comics, spot illustrations, and them some reviews and a sample story that Doug wrote when he was in Kenya. Enjoy. I'm sorry you can't hold them in your hands, like the real zine. Maybe print them out and fold the paper, to simulate their original format.

A couple illustrations of bands we interviewed - this one
is Small Factory...

...and here we have The Wedding Present in a more conceptual style.

A short comic about my mall bathroom experiences.

This is the kind of illustration we used to fill in
the empty space that often wound up in the backs
of each issue.

Illustration from an article about being the new guy
in the workplace.

Spot illustration from an article about an African witch doctor. Yes,
they are real.

Just another little spot illustration.

Click for larger image. This was Doug's prediction about
how he'd feel after returning from Kenya after two years.

Portrait of Doug as the uncoordinated American.

Click for larger image to learn some horrible things
about my childhood.

These were all real t-shirts Doug saw while in Africa. So now you
know where your cool, kitchy clothing goes after you donate it.

A few decade-old reviews...

“[Doug Larkin’s] writing is plainspokenly evocative, examining human behavior (much of it his own) with both a scientist’s reason and less objective qualities like insight and affection. If you’ve ever been on the fence about the value of zines, try Science Geek; fun and sweetly poignant, it’s enough to knock you on the right side.”
CMJ Monthly

“...totally great...Doug’s reviews and writing are without pretension and his enthusiasm for science is invigorating.”
Wind-Up Toy

“...what makes this zine so charming is Doug’s ability to make such a dreaded subject like science fun and interesting."
Carbon 14

“It’s a damn good thing that there’s a zine like Science Geek...huge and funny and even educational...the hands-down coolest thing since computational biology.”

“What a fantastic zine...sometimes you find a zine and it seems like the publisher created it just for you.”
Factsheet Five

Photo Wall
from Science Geek Issue 4
© 1999 Doug Larkin

The wall above my desk is covered with photos. About half of them are from home and the rest are pictures that have been taken here. Every time someone comes into my house, they are immediately drawn to them. In a way, it's really good because it always starts an interesting cultural exchange about family and friends. The two biggest draws are the family portrait and the picture of my family's snow-covered house. I always think that the Kenyans would be more surprised by the snow but instead they always make a remark about the size of the house. It's just a middle-class suburban home, but here they have nothing like it.

One day Miss Simiyu and Joanne the lab assistant stopped by and were looking at the pictures. Joanne paused in front of the family portrait and had me identify each family member. After I did, she kept staring.

Finally, she disengaged herself. "Ah," she said, "all you wazungu look alike".

Miss Simiyu tapped her playfully. "Shut up." she said, "They probably say the same thing about us!"

Another time Mr. Makokha was over looking at the wall. I had also hung up a card from my friend Diz on the far end. On the front of the card was a picture of Chewbacca, taken from a scene in the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. Mr. Makokha came to the card and asked, "What is this animal here?"

"It's called a 'Wookie'. You don't have them here?"

"No, I've never seen them in Africa. Do you find them in your place?"

"They're not here? They must just be indigenous to America then."

"It looks like a mammal. Some sort of primate perhaps..."

"Yes, I think so." By the time he left, I'm pretty sure he knew I was joking.

For continuity's sake, when I got the Captain Kirk postcard from the classic Star Trek episode I hung it up underneath Chewie. My friend Joseph from the village fell prey to that one.

After he asked me all about Wookies, he pointed to the picture beneath. "What are those things called?" he asked.

"Those," I said shamefully, "are called 'Tribbles'."


  1. I never bought a zine (nor did I ever steal one, if you're wondering), but I can understand the appeal. I'm sure some of them might be more creative and personalized- something a lot of big magazines aren't.

    Speaking of official publications, I was told at the journalism camp that newspapers might no longer be in production after the next four years. I know what you mean when you mention that "satisfaction" you get from holding something... It's a shame that may not pervade as time goes on.

  2. As much as I did like the coolness that came from zines' handmade quality, I'd pick a website, blog, podcast, or any other modern equipment over print publication without hesitation. The time and cost involved in putting those things together, mailing them out, storing them, going to a P.O. Box and dealing with cash - we could have had so much more output if we were publishing electronically. And, we'd have had a much wider reach - and a much longer lasting one, too. You never know who's going to come across your website on any given day, but I know no one's going to stumble in my upstairs closet randomly to read an old Science Geek.

    So I agree with those at your journalism camp - four years may even be too long. I won't miss them. Here's a great short piece on the subject: