Archives: Broken Pencil

Broken Pencil is a Canadian zine review zine.

James Wallace:
I may be starting things off a little early here, but why is it that this review zine never recieves any attention? As far as I know it is like the Canadian equivalent of F5. Yet, as big as Broken Pencil seems to be HERE, I haven't heard a peep about it on alt.zines until now. I don't even recall seeing it mentioned in that periodic post, ZINE REVIEW ZINES or whatever, that lists all known review zines. Strange. Maybe this will stir up a little more interest. Canadians are zinesters too...

No, Karl Thompson does indeed mention Broken Pencil in his regular postings. (Most likely because he's also a Canadian.)

Stan Matters:
BP isn't bad, and I like that they run reprints. But by defining itself as the Canadian review zine that reviews only Canadian zines, limiting everything published in every other country of the world to about half a dozen short mini-reviews on one page in the back, BP makes itself the difinitive guide to Canadian zine culture, and irrelevent to anyone anywhere else.

Marcia Manson:
I agree with Stan, BP is a really good review zine that really limits itself by covering only Canadian titles. One of the things that makes zines cool is that they cross international lines. I love the zines I get from Canada (I'm American), Britian, South America. It's about cross-currents and cross-polinization, or something like that, right? I mean, people get all over Zine World for excluding a tiny minority of zines they deemed too slick to be real zines, but Broken Pencil excludes 99% of the world's population.

Well, we Canadians are pretty swamped with American culture, and often feel a little starved for attention from our occasionally self-absorbed neighbours to the south. I suppose I shouldn't speak for all Canadians, but I've certainly felt this way a few times. So in a way Broken Pencil is a welcome change.
        That said, however, I agree with you both. Broken Pencil is wrong to exclude publications simply because of geography. One of the greatest things about the zine/mail art/letter-writing (and now geeking) tradition is that it ignores geography, or at the very least doesn't treat geography as a hurdle, allowing people to get into what they're interested in rather than what's nearby.

Okay, I'm eager to re-launch the debate over the goodness or badness of Broken Pencil, but I'm just not feeling up to proper paragraphs this morning, so please bear with my ordered lists. BP is a 92-page newsprint zine with a glossy, colour cover (like Factsheet 5, but thinner), which is edited by Hal Niedzviecki and Hilary Clark. To offer full disclosure, Hal is kind of a pal of mine, though I'm sure you'll agree that hasn't biased me too much.

1. Terrible organization. Ignoring near universal protests, BP continues to organize its reviews by province, geographic area and city. This creates artificial groupings that just don't exist in reality. Zines are united by sharing a common style or interest, not a place of residence, and that's a wonderful thing. The attempt to disguise the fact that half the country's zines are from southern Ontario, by breaking that region up into "London," "Southern Ontario," "Windsor," "Toronto," and "Toronto Suburbs" sections is entirely unsuccessful.
2. Indie-by-the-numbers design. BP's design, while vastly improved from earlier issues, remains utterly uninspired. It really feels like it came from a book called "How to Design for the Alternative Youth Market." Titles, including the magazine title, are all lower case. At least 10 different fonts are used; most title fonts are only slight variations on the "damaged typewriter" theme. Article text is presented in one small, hard-to-read sans serif font; reviews are written in another. Far too much space is devoted to offering the address and ordering information for each publication. Two or three inconsistent styles of illustration are used throughout the zine. This isn't design, it's layout.
3. Careless reviewing. This is probably my biggest problem with BP. The reviewers, including the two editors, don't seem to take their work seriously. The reviews all feel carelessly whipped off just in time to meet the deadline to me. I'm familiar with a lot of the zines reviewed in BP, including a handful that I contributed to, and there are some serious factual errors about content. Many reviews are dismissive, simply saying "I didn't get this" or "not my thing" (Hilary Clark is especially guilty of this), but without explaining why. And any reviewer who would conclude a zine review with the word "whatever" should be shot.
4. Literary bias. Hal, Hilary and other reviewers are literary types, so BP is strongly biased in favour of literary zines. Literary zines are fine, but while they probably constitute less than 10 percent of "alternative culture in Canada," they occupy a solid third of each issue of Broken Pencil. The editors have little time for the fun, silly, flippant zines I enjoy so much. One editor concludes a negative review of a very funny zine by saying "I don't appreciate nonsense." No kidding!
5. Overly interpretive reviews. Hal is postmodern in the extreme, and his influence radiates throughout the pages of BP. In one column lacking either a title or a subject, Hal writes: "Ache into the silence of something tangible. Ear hair and the new breeze... You are your own amplification." This might make sense to Jeff Potter but it leaves me cold. It's far worse when Hal's flakiness creeps into the reviews. He imposes his interpretations where they aren't needed, as in a review of a perzine called "Mirrors and Light" which concludes: "There's hope out there, amidst all that darkness. It's not that [the zine's editor, Kevin] doesn't believe in his own miserable rhetoric. It's that Kevin realizes, as do we all, that the path to freedom isn't through the skirting of responsibilities, the eschewing of education, or any of that. In fact, there is no path to freedom. It's all just mirrors and light, blinding us whichever way we turn." This isn't reviewing, it's mental masturbation.
4. Very serious lack of editing and humility. Editor Hal condemns one zine by saying "Zoltan's grammer [sic] is terrible and his spelling is even worse." Co-editor Hilary concludes another review by saying, "get a proofreader, okay, it really matters." This, from the same editors who not only misspell and use atrocious grammar throughout their reviews, but misspell bolded captions ("the trailor we called home"), 18-point titles ("Perfect Wast of Time") and make a slew of errors in addresses, issue numbers and prices. Get a proofreader, okay, it really matters.
5. Self-indulgence. To an ever-increasing extent, this zine is about promoting editor Hal's books, writing and other side projects. This is apparent from Hal's several off-topic articles in the current issue (#5), as well as the large ads for Hal's recently published books.
6. Lack of focus. There are more than enough Canadian zines to fill every single page of a 92-page magazine, especially when excerpts are taken into account. For BP to branch out into e-zines (websites, really), indie music, book reviews (six pages of these, none of them zine related), and, in the latest issue, NOVEL EXCERPTS, is pure insanity. I can only picture a drunken Hal sitting at a bar offering to include all his drinking buddies' off-topic nonsense in his zine review zine. The current issue, which focusses on Canadian indie rock, is especially poor in this area. The worst offender is a six-page review of the phony band/book/movie Hard Core Logo by our man Hal, which has absolutely nothing to do with zines and everything to do with Hal's portfolio.
7. They print anything. They print every reader letter they get, whether it's interesting or not, including three long letters from the same guy. They print truly off-topic articles that I can only imagine were originally written for some other publication. There are at least a dozen comics in this issue that cannot be called anything other than filler. Some are just doodles or scribbles.
8. Price. $5 is too much for a newsprint zine with a fair number of ads.

1. They print anything. Yeah, this is a positive thing too. BP is very accessible. They print every reader letter, and every alternative-culture related announcement sent their way. If someone wants in the pages of BP, they'll probably be able to get in.
2. Excerpts! This is the one area in which BP has all the other review zines beat. BP runs full (or near full) article and comic excerpts from some of the best zines reviewed within, often devoting ten or more pages to these excerpts in an issue. Besides providing the best writing in each issue, these excerpts give a really good idea of whether or not the reader will enjoy a particular zine. Other review zines should definitely swipe this idea.
3. Quantity of reviews. I've had everything I've ever sent to BP reviewed, and from what I've heard from other people, this is the norm. I think they review everything they are sent, though the non-Canadian stuff is reviewed rather briefly in the "International Zines" section at the back.
4. Negative reviews. BP runs quite a few negative reviews, and always has, so you aren't left with that annoyingly sycophantic feeling you can get from Factsheet 5. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, these negative reviews aren't always fair, and have a lot to do with the aforementioned carelessness and bias on the part of the reviewers.
5. They don't have a set length for reviews. Those zines that warrant four paragraphs get four paragraphs. Some get quick silly reviews, such as "dreaming elizabeth costs $4. There's eleven poems [sic]. That's about 36 cents a poem. I'd probably give mclennan 36 cents for one of his poems. But I don't think I'd go so far as to buy eleven of them." Others, such as Breathers' Digest, get "Smoking is bad. This zine tells you why," which is probably more than enough.
6. Nice website. BP has the best-designed website of all the review zines, and it's quite good content-wise, too, as it contains up-to-date news briefs and hundreds of zine reviews free for the picking. (That site is at
7. They pay writers. From what I've heard, contributors are paid both for their reviews and their articles. While it's certainly possible to get good writing without paying writers, it's nice to know the zine's profits are going to the people who help generate those profits.
8. Color, glossy cover and widespread newsstand distribution. Yes, that's right, I'm putting this in the pros section. I think BP introduces a lot of Canadian kids to zines. As long as it doesn't scare them away with its literary bias, that's a very good thing.
Standard disclaimer: This isn't just a review, but the first volley in what should turn into an intense, fierce, winner-takes-all battle-to-the-death in debate form. You know you have an opinion on *something* I've said here, so let's hear it... tough guy.

Len Bruster:
Broken Pencil? Best format, but the reviews are cavalier and apathetic, and the Canada-only angle is terribly limiting. Too bad; if they'd broaden their stance (especially now, as F5 teeters between life and death) they could take over as the new 900-pound gorilla. Instead, they'll continue to be of interest only to Canadians.

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