7.01 The Chapbook: A historical perspective.

The codex was first taken up by the early Christians to distinguish their sacred texts from the parent religion.[1] The Torah is, we must remember, a scroll. In this form the codex, reproduced by monastic orders with a painstaking process of hand copying, became the repository of the Word of God - of sacred knowledge. This format of flat pages attached along one edge was to become an advantage when 1400 years later printing with moveable type was to revolutionise the production of multiple copies and with it a profound shift in Western knowledge from the sacred to the secular.[2] The book form is at the core of Western civilisation and carries its past as a profound cultural icon. Even an edition as slight as the Exploding Cinema programme will carry echoes of this cultural heritage. The authority that the tome conveys can have its parodic form, its reversal. The chapbook and pamphlet always sought to undermine this symbolic authority and provide a rickety bridge between the gentlemen of letters and the uncouth oral realm of popular culture.

One of the first mass publications was the 18th century chapbook. The dimensions, pagination, lack of separate cover, use of illustration and colloquial style all give the programmes a close affinity with the chapbook.[3] Chapbooks sold for a penny or less and contained songs, verses, histories, jokes, riddles, sermons, dream interpretations and fairytales often illustrated with woodcuts. This was the literature that many of the South London radicals of the 1790s would have been raised on. They are likely to have been sold and exchanged at Free 'n' Easies or meetings of debating societies such as the London Corresponding Society.[4] As I have noted these meetings would have happened in similar rooms at the back of public houses to those currently used by Exploding Cinema shows. Such traditions of independent media were known by members of the radical publishing network of the late Sixties and early Seventies - the Underground Press and the network of radical bookshops.

In the late Seventies the punk ethos of D.I.Y. subculture and the introduction of cheap photocopiers gave rise to the fanzine. This 'zine' format quickly proliferated into other areas. Typically these consisted of several sheets of A4 copied both sides, which were folded and stapled to give an A5 booklet. The layout of these productions was typified by a rough-cut 'n' paste style, which showed little respect for perpendicular layout or conventions of correct spelling. You didn't even need a typewriter to publish and be damned.[5]

The recent introduction of photocopier technology allowed a zine to be published in print runs of just two or three - so virtually no capital outlay was needed. They became the most accessible publishing form in the history of printed matter. Their rough-hewn aesthetic carried connotations of freedom and access to the media. In the Mid-Eighties zines proliferated amongst football fans and had a widespread influence.

The importance of fanzines cannot be overstressed, both from the purely enjoyment side of giving the fans a good laugh, their role in developing grass roots consciousness in football and tackling issue that effect all fans, such as I.D. cards, racism, sexism, property developers, the safety and comfort of fans and the impact of the Taylor Report. (Richard Turner 1990 p81)[6]

The Exploding Cinema programme belongs to this tradition of radical publishing. Before going on to analyse the programmes as a whole, and a few examples in detail, I will critically examine the conceptual tools available for such an analysis of visual communication.



[1] C.H. Roberts & T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (Oxford U.P. 1983)


[2] In 1500 churchmen had 24 major libraries whilst lawyers had only one. By 1600 lawyers had 71 whilst the churchmen had just 21. This shows the shift of power from the church to the secular. See Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: the impact of printing 1450-1800 (Verso 1990 orig. 1958 p263)


[3] On early chapbooks see Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640 (Cambridge U.P. 1991 pp257-315). Chapbooks have been in circulation since that time. Clifford Harper produced two for Working Press, The Unknown Deserter 28pp and An Alphabet 60pp (Both 1990).


[4] See, The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson, (Pelican, 1968, orig. 1963), for many references to Corresponding Societies throughout Britain.


[5] See Notes from Underground: zines and the politics of alternative culture, by Stephen Duncombe, (Verso 1997) and Counter Intelligence, Zines, Comics, Pamphlets, Flyers: catalogue of self published and autonomous print creations edited and published by Jason Skeet and Mark Pawson (London 1995). Based on an exhibition in the 121 Centre, Brixton, London in October 1994.


[6] Richard Turner was a fan and this was the first book on football culture. In Your Blood: football culture in the late 1980's and early 1990's, (Working Press 1990).