Help save OBSOLETE! Magazine, sage of the Iowa underground

OBSOLETE! cover by Stephen Sweny
OBSOLETE! cover by Stephen Sweny

Rich Dana is the kind of anti-authoritarian Renaissance Man that gives Iowa its essential, underground identity. Dana and his wife Ericka, aka Wildgirl, came to Iowa from Brooklyn, New York in the late ’90s to settle down and do the “back to the land thing.” And, they brought their subversive rock and roll mentality with them. Among many projects they’ve undertaken since moving to Iowa, part of that “thing” was starting OBSOLETE! Magazine in 2010. An old-school newsprint tabloid magazine, OBSOLETE! is in serious danger of becoming extinct as of Sunday, August 11 at 2:31 p.m. to be exact.

In order to save the magazine, Dana created a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising enough money to publish four more issues. If $12,000 seems like a lot to accomplish this, take note that a majority of their budget goes to paying their contributors, which is fairly unusual for a ‘zine, even of OBSOLETE!’s merit.

The magazine itself is filled with outsider art, nihilistic poetry, paranoid-science-fiction short stories, bizarro comics and essays; all with a subversive political theme, anti-authoritarian viewpoint and weirdo-humorist slant. It recalls the old Re-Search publications out of San Francisco, an influence that Dana emphatically cites.

Dana embraces “the challenges of publishing a print publication,” placing great value on the medium itself. It is a cause worth saving, and a fascinating read. Visit their Kickstarter page to find out how to donate.

Little Village recently had a chance to trade words with Dana about OBSOLETE! and the state of modern print publications.

LV: Where is OBSOLETE! Magazine located? How many issues do you print a year? Why did you choose to specifically start a print publication?

RD: I publish OBSOLETE! from our farm near Guernsey, Iowa. That’s about 40 miles west of Iowa City. But, our contributing editors are in San Francisco, California; Kennebunkport, Maine and Austin, Texas. Blair Gauntt, the art director and co-founder is in Cedar Rapids. We have OBSOLETE! printed on the web presses at the Newton Daily News.

We have put out eight issues over three years. We intended to do a quarterly and did for the first year, but then decided to go tri-annual, just to take a little of the financial and deadline pressure off all of us.

As far as why–well, I’m a total bibliophile. My father was a writer and I grew up around books and magazines. Print media is just a big part of my life and a lot of our lives. I’ve been publishing ‘zines on and off since 1976. The idea for OBSOLETE! came one Fourth of July weekend when I was watching the “Twilight Zone” marathon on TV. The episode “The Obsolete Man” came on, in which Burgess Meredith plays a librarian in a future totalitarian society where books have been outlawed. He chooses to be executed rather than to accept the hive-mind of the state. I had been thinking about a new ‘zine, and there it was. “You are OBSOLETE!”.

LV: Why is it important to keep print media alive?

RD: There is a physical experience to reading print that you just don’t get from digital media, and the underground newsprint tabloid has always been an iconic symbol of the counter-culture. Because both the underground paper and the counter-culture appear to be obsolete, it seemed to be a natural. I’m a sucker for lost causes. Also, I think it is important that there be real-world artifacts of our ideas as well as the convenience of the digital.

LV: What is the modus operandi, the vision of OBSOLETE!?

RD: Generally, each issue has a theme. Then, we seek out contributors. Some by invitation, and others through an open call for submissions. We try to scrape together some dough through donations and ads, then it goes to press. We do distro through a network of guerrilla distributors across the country. Pretty simple. Unfortunately, our big idea was that we want to pay our contributors, and give the paper away. That really only works with a lot of advertising, which we don’t want to do. So we really rely on donations from readers.

LV: Who are some of your subversive heroes or inspirations.

RD: Well, at the top of my list is always Robert Anton Wilson. His writing really shaped my worldview. Val Vale from ReSearch publications – he is probably the quintessential zinester. And, probably Mick Farren. Mick was a great and prolific writer, a total anarchist and a good friend of OBSOLETE! Those would be three big inspirations for the paper, anyway.

LV: Could you tell me about your working relationship with Mick Farren, and explain the book project you were working on. It was a really sad coincidence that he passed away last week, but it felt like a good coincidence to discover OBSOLETE! at the same time and see his great sci-fi short in Issue #8.

RD: Well, Mick and I were acquainted back in the ’80s, in New York. I was working at Forbidden Planet, the comic book/sci-fi store, and my roommate was the bass player in Mick’s band, Tijuana Bible. I had been a fan of his sci-fi novels before I met him, and for a time, we drank together at the Mars Bar [quintessential East Village dive bar, closed in 2011. -Ed.] pretty regularly. He was a real, genuine, prankster genius and anarchist renaissance man, and I really admired him.

Anyway, I lost track of Mick when he moved to Los Angeles, and we reconnected via email about five years ago. He was a big fan of the whole idea of OBSOLETE!, as he had been the editor of the International Times in London, one of the biggest ’60s underground papers. He contributed to three of our eight issues, and was slated to do a regular column starting with the one you read in #8. We also discussed publishing his next novella, entitled “Atlas Turned OFF the TV”- sort of a riff on Ayn Rand. Well, as you know, Mick died onstage last week while playing with his band the Deviants. The man knew how to live, and died like the star that he was. What else can you say?

LV: Where do you find your contributors? What qualities are you looking for when it comes to their message?

RD: More and more come through open submissions, but I still invite a few featured contributors. They may be people whose work I have admired, or who I have worked with in the past. As far as what I look for – it’s people who “get it,” who share an attitude about writing and art. They aren’t “content creators,” they are about the work and the vision. Not about acquiring twitter followers.

LV: I think we can agree that technology is a double-edged sword. I find it interesting that you can circumvent certain rules of the law (such as the FCC) in terms of radio when you switch from the radio waves to internet radio. Print is very different however. Part of your purpose is to “re-examine the medium and the message.” Would it feel the same to continue OBSOLETE! online?

RD: No. We have struck an uneasy balance by posting .pdfs and having an online presence. If we are forced to stop publishing the tabloid for financial reasons, that will be the end of it. That doesn’t mean that Obsolete Press won’t continue to do print projects and even ebooks in some cases, but OBSOLETE! Magazine will probably be laid to rest. Or maybe I’ll go back to printing it on a ditto machine.

What you are alluding to about circumventing regulation I find interesting, though. It’s actually true now, that you have a better chance of putting out a really anonymous publication, free of surveillance, both governmental and corporate, in print than on the web. But that’s a whole separate discussion!

LV: Part of the benefit of print is that it can force the reader to commit to a story, could you tell me your thoughts on short-term memory and the internet?

RD: There are studies out there that show that reading print is superior for committing information to memory. Nicholas Carr wrote an interesting book called The Shallows a few years ago about that. I think the biggest issue is the constant temptation – no, encouragement – to distract yourself when reading on a device. You can’t tab over to your Facebook page when you are reading a paper book. And, I think that’s a good thing.

LV: What are some of your favorite stand-out pieces or contributors from the past eight issues of the magazine?

RD: Oh wow, so many! Steve Taylor’s cover for Issue #6. Steve is an old friend and a great, great artist from New Orleans who did the early album covers for Pere Ubu and Richard Hell. Kelly Pflug-Back’s piece in Issue #6, about a woman’s fight to keep her disabled son out of the hands of the government. Kelly is amazing, she was just released from a Canadian prison where she served time for disrupting the G20 meeting in Toronto. The great interviews with Cory Doctorow, Karl Schroeder and Mick [Farren]. Poetry by Austin writer Joe Hoppe. Honestly, I love every piece in every issue, and am in awe of all of the talent.

LV: Could you tell me just a bit about you and your wife’s background?

RD: Sure. Ericka and I moved to our little farm in Iowa in 1997. Before that, I was making art and running a little gallery in Brooklyn called “Cold Fish” and that’s where we met. She is known in NYC as “Wildgirl.” And, in addition to being an artist, was a popular DJ on WFMU. She was best known at that time for putting on “Wildgirl’s Go-Go-Rama” at the Coney Island Sideshow, which was a giant rock’n’roll show that helped spark the whole Go-Go thing and later the burlesque revival. We came out here with dreams of doing a sort of back-to-the-land thing, like a punk rock “Green Acres.” We were into the local, sustainable agriculture scene early. Some Iowa City folks might remember us as “Catnip Farm” at the farmers market, or for our shop “Feral” in the Hall Mall. Now, Ericka is focused on her online business, and I write when I can and work as a carpenter to make ends meet. It’s been a wild ride, but we are still holding on!

Issue #8 of OBSOLETE! Magazine is available (hopefully into the future) at The White Rabbit, The Record Collector, Prairie Lights Bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop, Murphy Brookfield, The Deadwood, Daydreams Comics, New Pioneer Co-op, The Tobacco Bowl, The Hall Mall and other fine establishments around southeast Iowa.