Having been born in the early 1950s was qualification enough to become a charter member of the Youth Culture. Membership was not only free but forced upon a generation that marketeers and advertising experts had targeted as a consumer wellspring. Yet despite the demographic nomenclature, Youth Culture was actually comprised of real people caught up in the flow of real life during a real epoch of social, cultural, and political flux.
Between 1967 and 1972, when the counterculture was at its height, many lives were dramatically altered and futures were shaped. Mine was one of them. During 1968, my last year in high school, I had been drawing cartoons that explored adolescent fixations with sex and death. People who saw them presumed I had a disturbed childhood and urged me to seek therapy. Instead I took my makeshift portfolio around to four Manhattan-based influential underground papers: the New York Free Press, the East Village Other, the Rat, and the Avatar.
I went to the last first, assuming that my cartoons, featuring naked Christ-like figures in various states of crucifixion, would be welcomed with open arms. The art editor at the Avatar was indeed interested because the magazine was edited by Mel Lyman, a self-proclaimed Christ-like, megalomaniac leader of a Boston-based commune with a chapter in New York. Virtually the entire contents of the Avatar were devoted to how world events affected Lyman's life.
Had I known that this was a serious cult, I doubt it would have made much difference since the Avatar wanted to publish my work--not just one, but five of my favorite drawings in one issue. Shortly afterward, however, I realized that the Avatar was a little too weird, even for me, when following the publication of a subsequent batch of drawings I was summoned to an audience with Lyman, who demanded that I shave my entire body and swear a loyalty oath to him. My bar mitzvah was ritual enough for one lifetime, so I humbly declined.
Next I took my work over to the Rat. Edited by Jeff Shero and art directed by Bob Eisner (currently design director of Newsday), the Rat had just published several issues covering the May, 1968 student uprising at Columbia University, where police were called in to restore order after the S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society) occupied the president's offices. The Rat storefront near Cooper Square was a hotbed of radical activity. Just my thing. Eisner, exhausted after days without sleep, politely paged through my work until coming to a cartoon that showed black and white men arm-in-arm, giving one another the bird. "Yep, that's racial equality all right," he declared, "Can we use it?" Of course, and I assigned him worldwide rights to boot. I was so excited when it was published that I hawked copies on the street. But my Rat affiliation was quickly terminated. "I like your stuff," admitted Eisner, "but Shero thinks it's too spiritual. Have you tried the Avatar?"
Dejected, my next stop was the East Village Other. This anarchic clarion of youth culture and the crème de la crème of undergrounds was the launch pad for many of the early alternative comix artists, including R. Crumb. It was also the home of the "Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side," one of the East Village's most desirable ladies. Ever since I saw my first copy on the news stand in 1966, I wanted to be published in the EVO. Unfortunately, the editors, Walter Bowart and Alan Katzman, didn't think as highly of my work as I did of theirs. Our meeting was short and curt. "Leave your stuff; we'll call you," said Bowart. So after a month without any word, I collected said stuff and trekked uptown to the New York Free Press.
Geography was one reason for not going sooner. How could a real underground paper be located on 72nd Street and Broadway? The other reason was looks: the New York Free Press didn't look like an underground paper. It was too tabloidy--a cross between the New York Post and the National Star. It didn't even carry comix. And based on the two issues that I bought, it was primarily concerned with proving the veracity of the Kennedy assassination plot theory. The Freep, as it was known, was originally a com-munity newspaper owned by Upper West Side liberals. The Freep's publisher was an old Lefty, Jack Banning; its editor was a 30-something karate expert and a nighttime bartender, Sam Edwards, who once edited a very prestigious arts magazine; its managing editor was Jim Buckley, who would later become the co-publisher of Screw; and its art director was J.C. Suares, a gruff talking, beer drinking Egyptian, who went on to be art director of the New York Times OpEd page, New York magazine, and scores of other publications. It was Suares who reviewed my portfolio of drawings and said between gulping down swigs from a quart bottle of malt liquor, "Good shit but I can't use it. Do you want a mechanical job?"
Clueless, I accepted the offer that marked the beginning of my education. For during the following two weeks prior to Suares' abrupt departure for another magazine, he taught me about type and paste-up-sort of. His idea of type was to set headlines in 11-point Times Roman on an IBM cold type machine, which he sent off to a stat house to be blown up to 600 percent for use as display type. This became my only concept of typography until I met Brad Holland, just off the bus from Kansas City, who introduced me to the work of Herb Lubalin and the wonderful world of smashed letterforms. The next eight months were intense vocational training.
At 17, I was appointed the art director of the Free Press as long as I stayed within the budget and editorial constraints. Since the budget was nil, I became a master of collage. Since the editor wanted a text-driven newspaper, there really wasn't much room for visual experimentation anyway. His aim was to develop the Freep into a muckraking paper devoted to city politics. Some of our best stories focused on corruption in the sanitation and police departments and picture features showing "Red Squad" cops imper- sonating hippies or reporters to spy on antiwar demonstrators. On the cultural side, our critics included Eric Bentley, Bertolt Brecht's translator in the U.S., Roger Greenspun, who later became a New York Times theater critic, Gregory Battcock, a leading author and art critic, and R. Meltzer, a young music critic. Edwards, the editor, did, however, encourage me to run my cartoons in every issue. Compared to R. Crumb in the EVO and Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice, I was pretty lame.
The Freep did not really have a loyal readership, which became disturbingly apparent when we ran our first nude on the cover. It was a fortuitous accident really. The lead story had fallen through, and the editor had put a piece about an erotic "happening" artist named Kusama on the cover. Kusama was the consummate publicity hound and provided all papers-over and underground with photographs of her living artworks featuring naked men and women debauching under her watchful eye. The sales of the issue with one of her art/orgy photographs on the cover sky-rocketed. The following week sales plummeted when we ran a cover with a staid illustration. Nudes followed on the covers of virtually every subsequent issue. Nevertheless, the Freep couldn't compete with EVO's comparatively large circulation (50,000 to our 15,000), the result of its popular sex-oriented classified personals. So Banning and Edwards decided to fold the Freep and launch a sex paper in its place, satirically titled the New York Review of Sex. I was asked to be co-publisher and art director, which I agreed to immediately and thus quit college (which I was attending only sporadically as an English major). Art directing a sex paper is not exactly what parents want their kids to do when they grow up, but for me, caught in the vortex of the social, cultural, and political flux that defined the Youth Culture, this was the right thing. After all, I was a product of my times I got my diploma at the Freep and took post-graduate courses at the New York Review of Sex, and was well on my way to a Ph.D. in street-smart design. Although it was not the most conventional way to study design, from these two experiences I learned how to be an art director. And after a year or so, I knew I would remain an art director long after my membership in Youth Culture was involuntarily terminated.
Steven Heller is co-author with Michael Barson of Teenage Confidential: A History of the American Teen (Chronicle Books) and author of Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design (Allworth Press).