A month ago, I wrote a catalog introduction for Howl! Gallery’s (6 E. 1st St., New York City) exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first issue of Punk Magazine. The cover featured a portrait of Lou Reed illustrated by John Holmstrom, the magazine’s founding editor. This is a version of that text.
The 20th century was littered with small magazines created as soapboxes for misfits and mavericks who foisted radical and loony ideas on fellow travelers. Every generation has its own outlet used to vent or challenge. Some of these magazines reflect the times, some define them. Punk did both.
It is tempting to compare John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil’s leap into periodical publishing with the Futurist, Dadaist, and Surrealist art provocateurs who wrote dissonant poetry, composed asymmetric layouts and pasted together expressive collages, which they published in crudely produced publications. But the first issue of Punk was not the 1976 version of Dada, Punk was a fanzine turned comic book that initially mirrored the timely passions of its creators, and then leeched out into the youth culture as its clarion.
Holmstrom, a comics artist and former student of Mad magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman at The School of Visual Arts, was finding his way through the alternative culture just as the ’60s underground newspapers were sliding toward irrelevance and cliché. Instead, the music emanating from Hilly Kristal’s CBGB/OMFUG captured his interest and gave him a calling. What Rolling Stone in its early years was to hippy culture, Punk would be to this new rock and roll movement. But unlike the Stone, which covered the bands and scenes, Punk was an essential part of its ethos—from the coinage of the title “Punk,” which became a vernacular brand name like Kleenex, Xerox or Fridgedare, to its role as a platform and voice of Punk.
The first issue with Holmstrom’s splash panel logo, overly cross-hatched gothic Frankenstein illo of Lou Reed on the cover, and the entirely handlettered interior texts, established a unique visual character that eschewed the stereotypical anti-design, ransom-note typography of the British Punk zines. Although Holmstrom proudly referred to the first issue as “crummy-looking,” Punk did not sacrifice legibility for style, and used “a lot of straight lines in layouts” to make the lettering “look orderly,” he added. Punk’s greatest innovation was combining comic book aesthetics with journalistic language, which comes brilliantly together in the layout for McNeil’s satiric interview with the renowned comics heroine Nancy’s puggish boy-toy, Sluggo.
Punk took the post-hippy DIY conceit that ran from the totally artless Sniffin Glue (produced with Magic Marker–scrawled lettering, photocopied, and stapled together) to raw but professional-looking tabloids like Slash and The Rocker. The big lie about DIY and the zines that fall into the “Anybody can do it!” school of art and design was that they were created by artists and designers without vision. Holmstrom’s design may have been as stiff as the brittle white newsprint on which it was printed, yet it was filled with the visual energy of CBGB’s sticker-, flyer- and graffiti-laden bathroom walls and ceiling—and the history of comics too. Incidentally, that same heavy paper ensures that Issue 1 is preserved for all to see 40 years later.
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