Updated: Jul 17, 2019
This International Zine Month, we put together a few of our favorite zines in a group chat, and started working away and setting into stone what we’ve started calling The Zine Network. This week, which we’re now formally calling International Zine Week, is all about reflection, truth, and humble beginnings.
It’s also almost Aspirants’ second birthday, so we thought we’d take some time to reflect.
We—Danielle, Ndemazea, and Ry—founded Aspirants in the summer of 2017, with the mission to feature and spotlight creatives who had never made the front page before. But the story starts before that. It starts in a grocery store aisle. It starts with a 14-year-old Dani standing in line, staring back at the magazine covers, seeing the same celebrities over and over on their Instagram feeds and on the latest Snapchat headlines.
We saw a problem with our culture. A problem where, despite the growing accessibility of the internet, with a new widespread platform popping up seemingly every day, the actual daily intake of creators and changemakers remains static and repetitive. We decided it’s time for a change. It was time to open up a space where everyday people, who just haven’t been struck with the right combination of luck and privilege, also get to have their names and faces on media like magazine covers and social platforms.
Though Aspirants was made to uplift people in spite of their lack of luck and privilege, the truth is that this brand stands today because of our luck and privilege. We admit that. And we’re grateful.
The three of us met working together on a different teen publication. One that eventually, over the span of a year, saw leadership and creative changes that we knew would never work for us.
It sounds almost like the plot of that Nora Ephron movie they love referencing in The Bold Type—a TV show from Freeform—so much. We left an established teen publication on the promise of a new one, rising from the ashes. It was risky, terrifying, exciting, and challenging. We were feeling every combination of every single emotion, but we knew, deep down, that it was right.
Back then, we called ourselves Aspirants Magazine. Funnily enough, at the time we all pronounced the word Aspirants differently. We still do. A-spear-ents, like “a Spearmint;” Aspire-ants, As-pir-ints, like “Aspirin”... in any case, the pronunciation of Aspirants has been a running joke on our team for quite a while.
We soft-launched in mid-August of 2017, a hyphenated word that here means “we posted an Instagram banner with our former logo” but didn’t formally launch until September 1. We posted our staff bios for the three of us, wrote about our goals and aspirations, and set off to find creators for our very first issue, NOSTALGIA.
NOSTALGIA was our very first issue—the very first spread was a comic illustrating how we had began, which you can see (partially) here. It was also the first and last publication we printed and distributed through MagCloud, and the only issue that came in a dimension other than 6’ by 9’. It was the very first creation that we put out there—and we couldn’t be more grateful for the 16 creators who chose to take a chance on us.
While we were working on NOSTALGIA, we were also rolling out things we thought would engage our community. We had weekly, though we admit we often skipped, political and social updates, installments in a project we called “Current State of the World.” It didn’t last too long either (here's one, in case you need a refresher).
We also did a series of social-only features, that also didn’t last long. There was also our Sonic Color Series, a series of playlists based on colors, that we never got around to finishing. The truth is during these first few months we were putting in way more than we should have been and were starting to feel the effects of burnout.
But as we got closer and closer to releasing NOSTALGIA, something had clicked. That initial passion and energy and spark was rekindled. At the stroke of midnight, when everyone else in America was celebrating the new year, we were expending what was left of our energy until sunrise that day.
And, on Jan. 1, 2018, we kicked off our very first volume with our very first issue, diving deep into roots, childhood, and the idea of growth.
Then came POWER, a deep dive into contexts of power and privilege. Then INTERSECTIONS, which was a look at intersectional identities, road maps, and new directions.
After that, CONTRAST wrapped up our first volume—our longest issue to date at 164 pages front-to-back—with a bold color scheme and vision.
At this point, we realized that maybe Aspirants demands more than three high school students can give. Prior to the issue’s release, we brought on additional writers, editors, and designers for the very first time. They helped a lot, and though CONTRAST was a lot to take on, we did it with them. Many of the CONTRAST team members are actually still working on the team as we speak, with a few new contributors.
In that issue’s release, Ry was applying to college, Instagram had drastically shifted its algorithm (yet again), and everything felt like it was being thrown at the sun.
The sales for CONTRAST were low. We couldn’t blame anyone. The expansive page number meant the issue was 27 dollars without shipping, which is more than anyone in our audience expected to pay for a small up-and-coming zine.
Later that November, we rebranded and went from Aspirants Magazine to Aspirants Co.
Then came 2019.
On Jan. 1, 2019, we launched our Patreon page here, with hopes that it would radically shift and strengthen the Aspirants community. To this day, we’ve earned a grand total of zero from it. But at least we tried! (To be completely fair, the bulk of our audience consists of broke high school and college students like ourselves.)
A month later, our second volume began with TRIUMPH. It was, even if we won’t admit it, a reflection of where we had been and where we wanted to go. TRIUMPH was as much a projection for us as it was for our creators, a reminder of what has yet to come. The word TRIUMPH signifies an achievement, sure, but to us it was more a symbol of achievements-in-the-making.
On May 1, we released INFLUENCE, our most recent issue. INFLUENCE is our first cover with an illustration of it; it is an exploration and dissection of the very media it presents and originated on. The issue acted as a sort of revitalization for all three of us. We’ve progressed our pattern of practice to near perfection. Just like we had thought all those months ago, it’s time for a change.
Now, here we are, present day. T-minus two-and-a-half weeks until our next issue release, HOME, and we’re ready for big changes, both gradual and abrupt. We’ll get into that next time, but right now, we’re focusing on today, and what brought us here.
We are pouring our hearts into this issue, and since they say home is where the heart is, so be it. It feels fitting.
As the summer of 2019 slowly draws to a close, we look back on the grocery store epiphany and the short-lived social media initiatives and the New Years’ all-nighters as necessary stepping stones of our past. All of which have led us to this point in time, where we feel more equipped than ever to make the next steps forward.
Cheers to International Zine Month. When the Instagram posts of these zines pop up in your feeds, take a moment to appreciate how much time, energy, and self-funding it takes to run one of these things. We appreciate it.
It’s a lot we have to give up. But for every like, every comment, every email, every sale, we feel the love we send out coming right back to us.
Thank you for everything.