Joe Biel’s autobiography serves two functions: Biel’s personal history as seen through the twin lenses of an evolving punk ideology and an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis, and a history of Microcosm publications. The book follows Biel’s life from his troubled childhood in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor, Ohio, where he was born in the late 1970s, up to the present. Biel grounds his early personal life by examining the historical and familial environmental factors which exerted influence over his upbringing and led to his eventual discovery of punk culture.
There are many difficulties in Joe’s early life, such as his father’s incapacitating stroke and navigating several broken educational systems. As a constant source of discord and intimate violence, Joe’s domineering mother is portrayed as especially pushing Joe deeper into punk as a self-created family structure in which he could take solace and find support in zines and music in ways that his biological family life often failed him. In finding punk rock, Joe takes to heart the DIY mentality and founds Microcosm in his teens to put out the zines (and occasional records early on) that he feels deserve to be out in the world to hopefully inspire others.
Later in life, Joe is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Joe’s extremely rocky relationship with his ex-wife and business associate, Jennifer, is often held up as a barometer of how difficult his experiences with autistic spectrum disorders often made his life. A large part of the book becomes an interesting exercise by Joe in re-contextualizing his past through the filter of autistic spectrum tendencies and behaviors. He judges the impacts they have had on him.
Tracing the evolution of Microcosm as a business is the most fascinating part of the book. Joe chronicles the many ups and downs the company goes through. He starts with how Microcosm was a one-man operation that largely consisted of some zines distro-ed out of some cardboard boxes. He then shifts to the failed utopian project of operating as a cooperative with several full-time workers across two states with equal ownership stakes. Eventually he consolidates the company back into a more traditionally structured business back under his leadership. The book offers an informative look into the workings of a DIY company attempting to function, grow, and thrive under a punk rubric. It is to the book’s strength that much of the business insights are offered as descriptive chronicles of how Microcosm was doing, whether good or bad, at each point in Joe’s life, rather than being a book of prescriptive “business advice & secrets” that often sounds like fodder for the clearance rack. (Microcosm Publishing, 2752 N Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227, microcosmpublishing.com)