• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Montage That Changed My World

In everyone's life there are "come to Jesus" moments. They are not the born-again religious transformations … hallelujah … but a more modest secular pragmatic/spiritual revelation derived from, say, a work of art, book, film, music or performance. A come to Jesus moment is best defined as a new learning experience that changes one's personal trajectory for at least a moment, or possibly forever. I expect that most of us have had more than one such moment. I have had dozens over the course of a lifetime.


My earliest revelation, especially as it relates to how I became an art director and designer, is the Nov. 15, 1966 cover of The East Village Other. It was my first encounter with a '60s underground newspaper, and it was eye-opening. I was 15 years old at the time and more than my hormones had awakened—my nascent political consciousness was aroused too. On the surface, if this does not sound momentous enough to be called personally life changing, I assure you it was.



Until a day ago, I had only a memory of this cover illo, which went missing from my possession long ago. Yet one of my most vivid memories was in 1966 was walking past a newsstand on 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, seeing the EVO cover among the stacks of magazines, impulsively paying 15 cents, taking it home, putting it on my bed and suddenly realizing I wanted to be part of this thing, whatever it was. The image of the snake jutting out of the uniform of four-star general William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam (who codified the "body count" as measurement of success), was a shockingly powerful indictment. The message left an indelible mark. It implied there was more to the surging war than was being reported in the mainstream press. It suggested metaphorically that our military leaders were venomous snakes. (Since my father worked for the U.S. Air Force, he was not pleased to see the image prominently hanging on my bedroom wall.)


For the past 50 years, I have not seen this issue. However, it inspired me to join the antiwar movement, and from late 1969 into 1970 or so I made layouts for The Other; a few years after that I was temporary custodian of some of its archive at the end of its run in 1972; and in recent years I have written some essays about EVO as a cornerstone in my early "career." And yet I never came across this seminal issue again. Then last week, while piecing together a talk on the history of activist magazines for MagCulture's 2020 online conference, I stumbled upon the search-engine keywords that unlocked a precious lockbox. I found the Luminist Archives, an invaluable repository that includes this very cover.


Founded in 1965 by Walter Bowart, Allan Katzman and John Wilcox, the East Village Other premiered as the Vietnam War was heating up and the Selective Service was beginning to suck up teenage boys and young men by the thousands as cannon fodder in an increasingly futile attempt to shore up the falling dominoes of Southeast Asia. I was 15 when EVO launched from an office on Avenue A. When this issue came out, I was a couple of years from being eligible for the draft. The war was escalating, the writing was on the wall and in the newspapers. Yet few mainstream journalists were criticizing the growing conflict and increasing call-up of draftees. No one of my age knew why we were fighting other than it was America's duty to stem Communism. I was scared. Seeing this manipulated (montage) photograph did not ease my fear, but it did provide solace that there were other people who were not duped by the false rhetoric and lying propaganda that softened so many patriotic American boys to go to war.


This cover also had an extra meaning for me. I had known one of the first American soldiers to be killed in Vietnam; he was my elementary school "girlfriend's" 22 year old brother. Only a year earlier he graduated West Point, was commissioned a second lieutenant and sent off to fight and die. Initially, the EVO image alone captured my emotion; later I read the article, and while I didn't understand everything, I knew that the story was speaking out to and for me and others like me. Reading subsequent biweekly issues, I was gradually becoming radicalized. I realized what my parents' generation failed to acknowledge: that this war was not as necessary or heroic as World War II. That the Vietnam war was a snake pit. They were falling for canned patriotic rhetoric that would soon tear the country apart—making it difficult, if impossible, to ever be whole again.


Sadly, that was my "Jesus" moment and finding this issue of EVO after all these years (only days before the 2020 presidential election) brought all the lies back into focus.

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