Artist and Writer James Hannaham Puts the Sign in Signification

Over the past four years, America has gotten a good look into its cracked mirror: The president of the United States characterized white supremacists as “fine people” who should “stand by,” in case (insert ethnic slur/ demeaning political characterization/ gender insult here) tried to steal the country.

Plus ça change. In his exhibition “Jim Crow Hell No,” James Hannaham looks back at an era when signs across the country blatantly enforced segregation at drinking fountains, bathrooms, lunch counters, schools, neighborhoods, and elsewhere in the American Dream. While Trump has used coded (if crude) language at times — the “Wuhan virus,” “shithole countries” — even he (though those “even he” goalposts are forever moving, where POTUS 45 is concerned) never put a “Whites Only” sign over any White House bathroom door.

As the press release for Hannaham’s show points out, back in the day Black activists conducted “funerals” for Jim Crow and hoisted placards decrying racism at protest rallies. But these weren’t the permanent signs in wood, metal, or neon that starkly divided the races. Hannaham knows his way around words, having written for many publications (including the Village Voice) and winning a PEN/Faulkner award for his novel Delicious Foods. But he also understands that words can coalesce into powerful images and that a sign can signify more than the sum of its text.

Reparations Parking Only! (2021)

A urinal turned upside down and titled “Colored Fountain” (2021) may at first seem more offensive than a “Whites Only” sign from last century. But anyone who has sat through Art History 101 knows that Hannaham is sending up a seminal piece of modernism, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain — a gamechanger as to what could be considered “fine art” in 1917.  Hannaham’s 2021 incarnation indicates a shift in cultural power, because, as the press release notes, back in the Jim Crow era such “snark would almost certainly have proven fatal.”

Hannaham’s art, like his writing, abounds with humor. I defy anyone not to laugh — okay, actually there are around 74-million-plus folks in the U.S. who maybe won’t chuckle — at his enamel on aluminum sign asking, “Have You Kissed Our Black Asses Yet? Try It Today!”

Like the German painter Anselm Kiefer, whose massive canvases of ruined Nazi architecture attempt to come to grips with his country’s vicious past, Hannaham uses all manner of materials — charcoal, wood, oil, milk paint, fire, paste wax, gold leaf, found objects, dirt — to evoke an ugly, abraded history.

Only this time, the righteous get the last laugh.  ❖

Kindly Act As Colored As You Please! (2021)

What: Jim Crow Hell No
When: February 18 – April 1, 2021
Opening Reception: Thursday, February 18, 7 – 9 PM
Where: Open Source Gallery
306 17th Street, Brooklyn

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James Ridgeway’s Reporting Warned Us That Trump Was Coming — Half a Century Ago

For all those thinking that Donald Trump somehow hijacked a respectable Republican party and turned it into an authoritarian, Big Lie machine, we give you Exhibit A: James Ridgeway’s decades of Village Voice reporting. Starting way back in the 1970s, Ridgeway (who passed away on Saturday) exposed a rogue’s gallery of racists, religious hypocrites, conspiracy mongers, and other stalwarts of the GOP.

Think Trump’s cozying up to despots like Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman is something new? Read Ridgeway and other Voice muckrakers on the charms of the Shah of Iran, a torturer with exquisite taste.

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Oh, and wack-job conspiracy theories? How about this Ridgeway snippet from 1995: “Gingrich continues to indulge the anarchists, just last week weighing in on the favorite wacko topic of who killed Vince Foster. Meanwhile, Helen Chenoweth in the House and Larry Craig in the Senate continue to run wild, attacking the effrontery of federal agents and invoking the specter of the dreaded black helicopters.”

As usual, Ridgeway was reading the tea (soon to be tea-party) leaves to warn us about insurrection back then — reporting that remains on-target today.

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Scandals involving independent counsels? The Mueller report implied Trump’s collusion with Russia but didn’t nail down the case. Here’s another trip to the GOP corruption rodeo.

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Perverting religion for electoral gain? Yep. Just another chestnut from the GOP playbook that Ridgeway explicated back in the day.

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Decades ago, Ridgeway surveyed the fault lines of American Democracy and sent in clear-eyed reports about the dangers ahead. It’s past time we paid heed to his warnings.

James Ridgeway, 1936 – 2021   ❖

ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Sun Sets on Pervert Pirates and Horror Vacui Bikers: Remembering S. Clay Wilson, 1942 – 2021

“Make it jump! Make it crackle! Blister their irises! Fuck their minds up!” —S. Clay Wilson

Heaven, Hell, or whatever cosmic recycling station we’re all ultimately destined for became a more raucous joint on February 7, when the seminal underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson crashed through its portal, having passed away at his home in San Francisco, at age 79.

In tribute, we have gathered a few Village Voice takes on this most uninhibited purveyor of what remains one of the most outré art movements America ever — just barely — countenanced.

Village Voice obituary for S. Clay Wilson
“Angels and Devils” from Zap #6, 1973

Pirates in the Heartland: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics, $34.99) surveys the early, graphically fecund years of the most outrageous of the original cadre of underground cartoonists. Wilson, born in 1941, turned his id inside out and vomited forth exquisitely crosshatched panels for such tales as “Captain Piss Gums and His Pervert Pirates.” His massively hung fellas and meaty chicks alternately battle and fuck, with orifices of all sexes and species fair game. The best drawings coalesce into orgies of entwined, bulging, wriggling lines — the grotesque tickling the sublime. (2014’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels Put the Real in Surreal)

Willem de Kooning once said it was Jackson Pollock who “broke the ice” for abstract artists. Similarly, while R. Crumb certainly pounded on the doors of propriety, it was S. Clay Wilson who ripped them off their hinges, set them afire, and pissed on the ashes. The two artists met at the printer’s loft as Crumb’s Zap Comix #1 was rolling off the presses. Wilson had just arrived from Kansas and was looking to peddle his horror vacui drawings of pirates, bikers, cops, and all manner of lurid ruffians engaged in mortal combat. Born in 1941, Wilson came by his fascination with violence honestly: While at the University of Nebraska he had been obligated to partake in mandatory ROTC training. After asking himself, “What am I doing with this fucking rifle? I don’t need ordnance to learn the humanities, do I?”, he switched to medic training, where movies documenting sucking chest wounds and shrapnel lacerations lent a grotesque verisimilitude to his later artwork. The final panels of “Wanda and Tillie” — a rollickingly compressed tale of “two AC/DC nympho tramps” on a violent rampage, from Zap #6 (1973) — confirm Wilson’s place as a front-rank spelunker of the id: A haloed Jesus delivers oral pleasure to Satan’s flaming penis, mirrored by a woman forced to finish fellating her just-murdered lover, a masterfully cross-hatched diptych pairing orgasm with balls-out blasphemy. (Zap Atcha: How Underground Comix Spelunked America’s Id)

In the 1954 book Seduction of The Innocent, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham referred to a pirate drawing copied from a comic book by a patient, describing its “phallic symbols — the sword … the big gun.… The actual genitals are extremely accentuated.” What would this anti-comic-book crusader have made, then, of S. Clay Wilson, the apex/nadir of an underground comix movement that, in the mid-’60s, rose up like a moldering corpse from an old Vault of Horror comic, as if in revenge for what Wertham had done to the medium that this new breed of cartoonists had loved as kids. Boldly rendered characters such as Captain Pissgums and strips such as “Head First: A Tale of Human Pathos on the High Seas Below Deck” (wherein one sailor admires, then chops off, then eats the massive penis of another) bristle with graphic extremity. Wilson’s richly detailed, big-foot cartoon style lends such scenes a morbid hilarity. In a published interview, Wilson pointed out, “Just because you depict evil, doesn’t mean you are evil.… People show up in leathers and shit, looking like my characters, I won’t let them in my house.” Influenced by Jackson Pollock, Wilson’s densely packed narratives of pirate slaughter and brawling bikers battle for coherence amid his chockablock compositions. He once told a doctoral student, “I think cartoons can be art!… Let history sort it out after it’s all done, when we’re all dead.” (Protruding Breasts! Acidic Pulp! #*@&!$% Senators! McCarthyism! Commies! Crime! And Punishment!)   

Village Voice obituary for S. Clay Wilson
“Captain Edwards St. Miguel Tilden Bradshaw and his crew come to grips with bloodthirsty foe pirates” from Zap #, 1968
ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Gordon Parks Photographed Hate While Creating Beauty

Looking through his camera lens, Gordon Parks surveyed mid-20th-century America and shot photographs as informative as newspaper headlines and as rigorously composed as oil paintings. In this exhibition, which spans two galleries and three decades (1942–1970), viewers can feel Parks (1912–2006) absorbing the art of his time and using his lens to frame timeless moments. 

The fifteenth child of Black sharecroppers in Kansas, Parks taught himself how to use a camera and won a prestigious fellowship that led to a job, in 1942, at the Farm Security Administration, a federal agency charged with combating rural poverty. One tactic was to photograph and publicize the struggles of small farmers still suffering from the Great Depression. When Parks first arrived in Washington, D.C., he told his new boss, Roy Stryker, he didn’t know much about the nation’s capital, other than that it was “the seat of democracy.” Stryker (whom Parks later characterized as “a very wise mentor”) told the 30-year-old Parks to leave his camera in the office and just go out and explore the city. “I came back rather disgruntled,” Parks told an interviewer many years later. “I was refused at the theaters because I was Black, I couldn’t go into a restaurant and eat, and I was pretty upset when I got back.” Stryker then asked him, “How do you photograph discrimination or prejudice? You just don’t turn a camera on a guy and say, this guy’s a bigot, because bigots have a way of looking like anybody else.” Parks ended up interviewing a cleaning woman, Ella Watson, who was working down the hall: “She had been discriminated against and exposed to all sorts of terrible things in her life” — her father had been murdered by a lynch mob, her husband shot to death. “That’s the photograph I made of her, in the government building, in front of the American flag, with a broom in her hand and a mop in the other, and as my contribution to the style of Grant Wood, of course — the American Gothic, I called it. And when Roy Stryker saw that picture he nearly died. He said, ‘Oh my God, we’re all gonna be fired.’”

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

Parks’s insatiable eye subsumed much art that had come before him. An untitled image of boys leaping with baseball gloves, their exuberance doubled in a foreground puddle, can be seen as expanding on French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of “the decisive moment,” an exact event captured by grains of silver being struck by light passing through a lens at an always unique way station in time. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1953 (installation view)

Over and over again, Parks caught America’s decisive moments, but his images often conveyed the contemplative gravitas of oil painting. While on assignment in Alabama for Life magazine, in 1956, Parks documented numerous scenes of segregation, such as a young Black woman and little girl, both wearing beautiful dresses, outside a Mobile department store. Parks had worked at times as a fashion photographer, and he zeroed in on the fine details of the filmy fabrics while allowing a red neon “Colored Entrance” sign over their heads to drift slightly out of focus. The pair stands very still, intent on something outside the frame, while a blurry car heads in the direction of their gaze. In the gauzy distance, a red phone booth echoes a red dress. Composing on the fly, Parks captured a portrait of poise and grace amid the dehumanizing grind of Jim Crow indignities. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

On that same trip to the deep south, Parks photographed two young girls wearing boldly patterned dresses playing in a shallow body of water near a clapboard house. Like one of Romare Beardon’s dynamic collages, Parks discovered an endless variety of textures within his frame — leaves blur the building’s geometries and long grass mingles with the brown water, further emphasizing the formal contrasts in the girls’ clothes and the singular intensity that children can bring to play. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
Untitled, Alabama, 1956 (installation view)

In another photographic essay for Life, “The Atmosphere of Crime” (1957), Parks documented a hand protruding from behind bars, a cigarette held between relaxed fingers. A blocky shadow offers the only indication of the rest of the prisoner’s body. The grain of the photographic film, along with the gridded diagonals of light and broad planes of color surrounding the hand, convey a slow, accreted understanding of the human figure. As a photographer, Parks didn’t have the time to spend at an easel the way Vermeer or Hopper would, but like those masters of light and form, he understood that by concisely framing the abstract elements of his compositions, he could cast the humanity of his subjects into that much higher relief.  

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1957

And while all serious artists survey their antecedents, the best are also able to project their work into the future. In 1963, Parks traveled to rallies protesting police violence. In a photograph of one demonstration, a Black man carries a sign reading POLICE BRUTALITY MUST GO, an umbrella in his other hand complementing his stylish overcoat and hat. In another print, a dark hand grasps a LIBERTY OR DEATH placard while a white cop does his best to look blasé and away. In this same vein of disembodied hands thrusting truth at those unwilling to see it, fingers clutch a newspaper bearing the headline SEVEN UNARMED NEGROES SHOT IN COLD BLOOD BY LOS ANGELES POLICE, while an older white woman in her Sunday hat trudges past, ignoring the imploring EXTRA banner. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963 (installation view)

Sixty years ago, Parks knew that his visions had to break through that era’s complacency, disinformation, and willful ignorance. Yet he didn’t let others’ hatred blind him to the joy he often felt in the lives of his subjects. Another shot from that same time captures a crowd with hands happily clasping and clapping at a rally in Harlem, perhaps reacting to an exhortation from Malcolm X, who appears in the same series. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Gordon Parks photography
Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963

Parks, a natty dresser and engaging raconteur, would go on to many aesthetic triumphs, not least as the director of Shaft, in 1971, in which the sharply turned-out private dick outsmarts a full spectrum of haters and exits the last scene laughing uproariously. 

Like that fictional hero, Parks confronted the world on his own terms, unblinking in the face of undeniable ugliness but also reveling in what joy he could find, documenting the facts for posterity while simultaneously creating art for the ages. ❖

Gordon Parks: Half and Whole
Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street
524 West 24th Street
212 645 1701,
Through February 20, 2021


Under President Biden, Will the Yankees Return to Their Winning Ways?

The Biden administration bodes well for Bombers fans. Over the past several years, the Yankees have had an abundance of talent — Judge, Stanton, LeMahieu, Hicks, Andújar, Cole, Chapman, Torres, to name a few — but also a surfeit of injuries. Will Joe Biden heal both the rift in the body politic and those ailing hamstrings out on the field?

History says he just might, because the Yankees have shown a partisan slant to their pinstripes going back to their earliest years. Let’s roll the tape on the Roaring Twenties, when the GOP’s Calvin “The business of America is business” Coolidge was in the White House. In 1923, the Yanks won their first World Series, led by slugger Babe Ruth’s three homers in six games. Four years later, the Yanks had assembled their fearsome “Murderers’ Row” lineup, but had only two homers over that whole 1927 Series, both from Ruth — which was still two more than the Pittsburg Pirates managed while losing in four straight. In 1928, Lou Gehrig hit four homers for the Yanks during the Series, but Ruth still outshone his teammates by hitting three dingers in Game 4, doing his part to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Yanks didn’t make it to the Series for the next three years, and the country was having its troubles, too. In 1932 you could support Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign by buying a “Republican Depression Coin.” The token lambasted then president Herbert Hoover’s moribund leadership since the stock market crash three years earlier. That same year, Ruth was holding out for an $80,000 a year salary. When a reporter pointed out to the Bambino that even Hoover was only making $75,000 a year, the Sultan of Swat retorted, “What the hell has Hoover got to do with this? Anyway, I had a better year than he did.” Indeed, in 1931 Ruth had led the league with 46 home runs, accompanied by a gaudy .373 batting average.

But it was 1932 that would mark milestones for both Ruth and the Yanks. In that year’s Series, the Bambino supposedly “called his shot,” gesturing with an arm toward center field to taunt the Cubs players and inform fans that he was going to hit the next pitch out of the park. The legend endures, because Ruth homered to deep center and the Yanks won that Game 3, finishing their sweep of the Cubs the next day, October 2. A month later, Roosevelt defeated Hoover in a landslide — Ruth was still doing a hell of a lot better than the POTUS — and the ’32 World Series would be the Yanks last championship under a Republican president for two — count ’em! — two decades.

When FDR took office, on March 4, 1933, the country was still in the trough of the Depression — unemployment was near 25%. The Yanks entered a slump too, not even making it to the Fall Classic in ’33, ’34, or ’35. But by 1936, FDR’s New Deal agenda had driven unemployment down to 17% and the Yanks were back on top, racking up four straight World Series wins from 1936 through 1939 under manager Joe McCarthy (the former minor-league second baseman, not the future Red-baiting U.S. senator from Wisconsin).

The Yanks won again in 1941 — the same year Time magazine founder Henry Luce called on all Americans “to create the first great American Century.” The Bombers beat “Dem Bums” — as the Brooklyn Dodgers were affectionately razzed by their fans — in this first of seven meetings between the crosstown rivals. The Yanks next triumphed in 1943, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, but without help from future Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio or stalwart Tommy “The Clutch” Henrich, who were both in the military as World War II raged. More Yankee stars traded their pinstripes for service uniforms over the next few years, and FDR — after pulling the country out of the Depression and marshaling America and its allies in the struggle against fascism — died in 1945, just months before the war came to a close. The Yanks returned to their winning ways under his successor, Harry Truman, in 1947. The next year, while Truman was giving a speech excoriating the GOP, a supporter yelled out, “Give ’em Hell, Harry.” Truman shot back, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s Hell.” The Yanks, however, must have felt the Truman era was heaven, winning every year from 1949 through 1951.

Then, on October 7, 1952, in the 7th inning of Game 7, with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Yanks ahead 4–2, Dodger Jackie Robinson hit a short pop-up that second baseman Billy Martin, positioned almost on the outfield grass, snagged with a lunging catch, saving at least two runs. The Yanks held off Dem Bums to win their fourth World Series in a row. Exactly four weeks later, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, riding his reputation as the Supreme Allied Commander who defeated the fascists in Europe, crushed Democrat Adlai Stevenson by an 11-point margin.

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The nation liked Ike, and so did the Yankees, winning three times during his two terms, in 1953, ’56 (the last time they faced Brooklyn, for a 6–1 overall record), and ’58. Perhaps at some point the Bombers had heard this wry remembrance from the last Republican POTUS they ever won a Series under: “When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be president of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”

In 1960, ready for a generational changing of the guard, the nation elected John F. Kennedy. The Yanks, like much of the nation, seemed inspired by the young president’s vision and vigor, renewing their winning ways in 1961 and ’62. Although he was eight years younger than the 43-year-old Kennedy, Yankee catcher and outfielder Yogi Berra was getting old for his profession. Still, he hit for a .318 average in the ’61 Series and, despite having only four plate appearances in ’62, earned his tenth World Series ring, a record that, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, looks safe for the ages. Berra can perhaps be seen as having both blue and red pinstripes, with five rings under Truman, three while Ike reigned, and two to usher in JFK’s “New Frontier.”

The country entered a malaise when Kennedy was assassinated, in 1963, and it was doubly so for the Yanks. Neither Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, nor Gerald Ford got to throw out a pitch at a Yankees World Series game. During the city’s fiscal crisis, however, a hyperbolic headline in the October 29, 1975, Daily News became a bit of a fall classic itself — FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. The Yanks went on to lose to the Reds in the Bicentennial year, the last of Ford’s term, but things brightened in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Although Howard Cosell is often credited with the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” he never actually said it during the telecast from Yankee Stadium on October 12, 1977, when an ABC camera captured scenes of a blazing apartment building nearby. Instead, the always history-minded sportscaster noted, “That’s the very area where President Carter trod just a few days ago,” referencing a trip the former Georgian peanut farmer had recently made to the South Bronx to get a firsthand look at urban blight.

But if the borough was enduring hard times, the Bombers themselves were riding high that October, and the fans in the stadium for Game 6 — pent up after a decade-and-half drought and the Yankees up three games to two — were ready to explode. Then they did. After free-agent slugger Reggie Jackson hit three home runs off three successive first pitches, the Yankee faithful were in a howling frenzy. In the top of the ninth, the Yanks up by four, Reggie was in his usual spot in right field, basking in the cheers of “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” after tying Babe Ruth’s record for three homers in a single World Series game. But he also found himself dodging firecrackers thrown from the stands, a display of hooligan passion that sent Jackson in for a helmet as Cosell intoned to a national audience, “We’ve talked about this before. We don’t want to belabor the point. Behavior like this is intolerable, unthinkable, disgraceful — not worthy of this great city.” Then pitcher Mike Torrez snagged a bunted pop-up for the final out, and the fans stormed the field. Jackson, running full tilt with his shoulder lowered like a halfback, leveled more than one delirious celebrant in his dash for the clubhouse.

In 1978, with plenty of high-priced free-agent egos in the clubhouse, Yankee drama had reached a fever pitch. A quote from Jackson (now known as Mr. October) typified the era: “In the building I live in on Park Avenue there are ten people who could buy the Yankees, but none of them could hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium.” His teammate, third baseman Graig Nettles, summed up the team some wags were calling the “Bronx Zoo”: “When I was a kid I wanted to be either a ballplayer or work in a circus. Now I get to do both!” Fiery manager Billy Martin continued a long-simmering feud with Jackson and also jousted with owner George Steinbrenner, who the scrappy former second baseman felt wasn’t giving him enough support in disciplining his high-priced players. Martin, always known for his temper (and the occasional bar brawl), apparently decided he’d had enough of both Jackson and the Boss, telling a reporter, “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.” Jackson may or may not have lied about missing a bunt signal from Martin during a game, but there is no doubt the Boss was found guilty in 1974 of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign. So Martin was fired, but the Yanks went on to win that year — only to start their longest winless streak in franchise history.

In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter a one-term president — and the Great Communicator didn’t help the Yanks much either (unless issuing a pardon to cleanse Steinbrenner of his campaign-donation foibles in the Nixon years counts.)

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George H.W. Bush presided over no Yankee victory visits to the White House.

But the Clinton years saw a resurgent Yankee squad, which, with the help of what later became known as the “Core Four” — closer Mariano Rivera, shortstop Derek Jeter, pitcher Andy Pettitte, and catcher Jorge Posada — went on to snag rings in 1996, ’98, ’99, and 2000.

Then bupkis during George H. Bush’s two terms.

But with Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the Bombers didn’t wait long, taking on the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 Series. First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Second Lady Jill Biden and World War II vet Yogi Berra, watched from the infield as Tony Odierno, an Iraq War vet, tossed the ceremonial first pitch. The Yanks lost that game, but behind the MVP hitting of Hideki Matsui they took the Series in six.

For those who have been keeping score — that’s Dems 20, GOP 7 — what can we divine for 2021? Under manager Aaron Boone, the Yanks have made the playoffs the past three years, but never advanced to the Fall Classic. In 2019, Boone famously called his own players “fucking savages,” because their discipline in not swinging at balls out of the strike zone was brutal on opposing pitchers. In retrospect, we didn’t know just how much fucking savagery was yet in store for the nation, as Donald Trump lied about the deadliness of Covid-19 and later encouraged his followers to ever-escalating acts of violence. In the last year of the Republican president’s wannabe autocracy, watching or listening to a ballgame was a surreal endeavor. With the foam-core crowds and canned cheers and boos, fans at home might as well have been watching that episode of Star Trek where Roman gladiators fought inside a pasteboard arena and a disembodied hand turned the dials for “applause,” “hisses,” and “catcalls.”

But 2021 holds new hope for the nation — and for the Yanks. Two Bronx natives shone at Biden’s inauguration: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swore in Veep Kamala Harris and Jennifer Lopez serenaded the crowd. J.Lo was accompanied by her fiancé, former Bomber third basemen Alex Rodríguez.

The Yanks have been on the verge throughout the Trump years. Maybe all it took to make the Bombers great again was to vote the Queens native out of office.

Thank you, America. See you in October.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Editor's Note From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

65 Years and Counting

Do you remember in Citizen Kane when the young, idealistic Charles Foster Kane was working on the first edition of his new newspaper? He scribbled out his “Declaration of Principles” for the front page, pledging to “tell all the news honestly” and to provide the people of New York with “a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.”

That fictional script was set in the city’s gaslight era, but Kane’s principles could have appeared below the masthead of every Village Voice published since 1955. Still, we all know what’s happened to newspapers in the past decade — and especially over the last four years.

So when the Voice’s new owner, Brian Calle, recently told me that he was planning to print — on paper with ink! — actual copies of the Village Voice, on a quarterly basis, I burst out laughing. Then I thanked him for making this god-awful year (with the noted exception of November 3rd — no wait — November 7th) quite a bit brighter.

The last printed Village Voice. Until sometime in 2021.

The sidewalks of New York have not seen a printed copy of the Voice since September 2017. And while the website has been presenting highlights from the archives, there hasn’t been much new coverage since late 2018. So the news that the Voice lives — yet again — is lighting up cell phones and filling email boxes far and wide. I’ve been at the Voice for 33 years and I’ve had many jobs: ad proofreader, print overseer, writer, editor, and now “content coordinator.” Hmmm. I can’t say the Voice was ever that great at coordinating anything. We barely got it out the door most Monday close nights. But if the Voice wasn’t always coordinated, it was nonetheless a chorus, different voices coming together — sometimes not all that harmoniously — to sing truth to power.

Is that why so many readers cherish (and get furious with) this publication, as if it were a friend, a family member, or a lover?

Well, as immigrant and painter Willem de Kooning once said, “It’s not so much that I’m an American; I’m a New Yorker.”

A couple of abstract expressionists. Franz Kline, left, Willem de Kooning, center.

It’s the “so much” that New Yorkers understand so well. Of course we’re Americans. But as New Yorkers, we reflect so much that is best about this great democracy: our ability to tolerate each other even when swaying together on a jam-packed 4 train; our willingness to hear each other out — even if we can be a bit loud about it; our curiosity about whatever crazy visions we’re gonna confront in a Chelsea gallery or on an off-Broadway stage tomorrow (okay, more like next spring); our discretion when we overhear someone’s most intimate confessions in a crowded bistro (ditto on that spring thing); our flat-out caring for each other — whether rushing to help at Ground Zero in 2001 or wearing a face mask in 2020.

Maybe in 1961 you were a young playwright looking to voice your objections to the views of your elders. The Voice gave Lorraine Hansberry a platform to call bullshit on Norman Mailer, never mind that he was one of the paper’s founders and still retained a hefty financial stake.

It was the Voice that early on covered a mysterious plague killing gay men downtown — and then looked beyond the devastation of AIDS in our own city to report on the carnage the disease was spreading across Africa. Mark Schoofs’s reporting earned one of the three Pulitzer Prizes the Voice has won over the years.

It was the Voice that in January 1993 put not Bill but Hillary Clinton on the cover, realizing even then that she was the bigger target for right-wing disinformation campaigns — a demagogic assault on the facts that paid off beyond the wildest dreams of the Koch Brothers and Fox News 23 years later.

And now, four years further along, as we survey the wreckage to the city, the state, the nation, the world, and democracy wrought by Donald Trump, a revitalized Voice can once again be at the forefront of covering a local kid made bad.

I could go on and on: Michael Musto guiding us like Virgil through the downtown demimonde. Nat Hentoff educating us on the subtleties of jazz or the brute powers of the Supreme Court. Greg Tate opening ears and eyes, and probably some hearts, as he delved into Michael Jackson’s manias. Or Stanley Crouch arguing with Tate (and Guy Trebay) a half dozen issues later. Then there was Jill Johnston, writing about dance with the same rhythms and ecstatic verve she was seeing onstage. And did anyone ever write more movingly about the pain and shock of brutal crimes than Teresa Carpenter? Her Pulitzer winner on the murder of Dorothy Stratten makes sense out of what too many others saw only as senseless. And as recently as 2018, Aaron Gordon’s subway coverage scooped everyone in town — even the agency he was writing about.

If you need more names from the past, take a look here. It is a very incomplete list, and one that is destined to include some we haven’t heard of yet. And yes, we are long-time film buffs here at the Voice. So we know that Charlie Kane betrayed his principles, deciding that he wanted more comforts than ever and would be damned to let the pipsqueaks afflict him.

But his principles were fiction. The Voice has been a hard and fast fact going on seven decades now, and its track record of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable bows to no one. 2020’s almost done. Here’s to 2021. ❖

Historical Village Voice logo from 1973
The first Village Voice logo printed in color. From the February 22, 1973, issue.

LD Beghtol — One-Man-Band of Music and Design

It was 2004, and LD Beghtol (1964–2020) was on the Voice masthead as an art director. The visual/sonic/informational overload of the internet was well on its way to turning us all into lab rats for Big Tech, but LD took it in stride. By the late ’90s he’d already been half of the duo Flare Acoustic Arts League, and he would later sing lead on roughly a tenth of The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs. (LD would go on to write the 33 1/3 book series’ entry on the album: 69 Love Songs, A Field Guide.)

During the controlled chaos of closing a 160-page paper on a Monday night, you might have found LD making last-minute tweaks to a page layout, discussing the length of a headline with an editor, or questioning the copy chief on whether or not “abstract expressionism” should be capitalized. In fact, he was most likely doing all three of those tasks — and more — on “Tear Sheet,” the full-page graphics bomb he edited and designed (and often wrote for), packing together whatever was hot that week in music, art, literature, pop culture, and hearsay. Right-click on the page below and peruse it just like you used to in the days of getting ink on your fingers — and remember the Renaissance guy who left his mark with a mic, a mouse, and an X-Acto blade.


Abstract Baseball

Earl Weaver was the perfect baseball manager. A bantam without the athleticism to make it in the Show, he had a numbers runner’s smarts that made his Orioles perennial contenders. His pre-computer-age secret was a collection of 3×5 cards on which he plotted the stats of all his batters against opposing pitchers, and vice versa. Weaver had excellent instincts, and knew that in baseball (which, after all, employs managers not coaches) numbers and bodies both count.

Bodies also count a lot in fine art, but sport has rarely been depicted in that particular field. For every Greco-Roman discus thrower or Bel­lows boxing canvas, there are thousands of ren­derings of Christ. Contemporary art gives us Kiki Smith’s defecating figures and Sensation’s “Dead Dad”; sports, meanwhile, have been left largely to flaccid hacks like LeRoy Neiman.

Since the early ’90s, however, artist Janet Cohen has been getting at baseball’s bottom line in a series of evocative conceptual drawings. In her most recent show, at the Clementine Gallery (through May 13, 526 West 26th Street), her works appear to be little more than patches of stray marks. But take a closer look, and even a casual fan soon realizes that the blur of black scratches are actually handwritten baseball no­tations: S’s, B’s, and K’s. These are mixed with similar notations in red. The blacks and reds are densely layered and sometimes obscure each other as they clot into four hazy groups that roughly define the corners of a rectangle. The artist has printed at the bottom “Minnesota at New York 5.17.98 New York Wins 4-0.”

Huh? So? The second drawing is similar, though more spare, entitled “Montreal at New York 7.18.99 Yankees Win 6-0.” More drawings follow, providing an increasingly complete pic­ture of the two games. The red and black nota­tions become more explicit, revealing additional information: players’ names, numbers of hits, errors. By the seventh variation, what die-hard Yankee fans have known all along is explicated in a caption: These are abstractions of David Wells’s and David Cone’s perfect games.

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But Cohen goes beyond mere scorekeep­ing, charting where each pitch crosses the plane of the strike zone. Black for the home pitcher, red for the visitor, each pitch is consecutively numbered and annotated. The result­ing drawings become anti-targets, a record of pitchers striving to avoid the bull’s-eye that any major leaguer could park in the bleachers. One could spend an “unmanageable amount of time” (as broadcaster Michael Kay might gripe after a typical three-and-a-half-hour Yankee game) finding nuances and subtleties that, like the game itself, leave both a solid record and an evanescent aura.

For instance, the drawings inform us that both games were perfect. Yet we can tell which pitcher is the slob — individual black B’s drift haphazardly from the mass in Wells’s triumph. Meanwhile, dapper Cone keeps his pitches tight and economical, with even the farthest off the plate enticing a batter to K.

In separate, inning-by-inning drawings of Cone’s game, a sense of the ever more exacting groove he is working emerges: His black marks are terse and spare, even as the red plottings of the Montreal pitcher Javier Vasquez hemorrhage on the page of the second inning, when the Yanks hammered him for five runs. By the sixth inning Cone needs only five pitches, while a valiant Vasquez struggles to contain the earlier damage, needing only nine of his own to shut out the side. A minor red flurry in the eighth chases Vasquez, and the ninth drawing is monochromatic, black graphite inexorably counting off Cone’s final 11 pitches.

These drawings are absent a climactic roar, but they are rich with reflection, with the ob­scuring drizzle of April, the muggy haze of Au­gust, and the crisp clarity of October. So perhaps in Janet Cohen, baseball, which is ultimately unquantifiable (no matter how hard Bill James tries), has found its perfect artist.

2000 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Janet Cohen's conceptual drawings about David Cone and David Wells perfect games for the Yankees


Denny O’Neil: Writing Seminal Comics in the East Village

Much has gone missing in 2020: facts, civility, partying, and, here in the Apple, the annual New York Comic Con. The convention was supposed to take place within the glass and cement confines of the Javits Center from today until Sunday, but has moved, thanks to Covid-19, to a pixilated screen near you.

Another blow: the larger comics realm lost one of its heroes in June, writer Dennis O’Neil. In a short autobiography that appeared in DC Comics’ Showcase #83 (June 1969, featuring his new sword and sorcery character, Nightmaster), O’Neil wrote, “Born May 3, 1939, St. Louis, MO. Parents weren’t aware that my first name is derived from that of a Greek god, Dionysius — god of revels, fantasy, and making-a-fool-of-oneself. Parents weren’t aware, but oh me, oh my, they were prophetic.” He also notes that he had a “usual midwestern childhood, which included large doses of make-believe, fueled by movies and — yep! — comic magazines.” In college, O’Neil studied English Lit, creative writing, and philosophy, then spent time in the Navy, making “the world safe for democracy by deluging the enemy in mounds of press releases.” After discharge he spent time hitchhiking around the country, and ultimately returned to the “Show Me” State to work as a reporter.

But in the mid-1960s, O’Neil’s interest in comics was rekindled when a friend, comics editor Roy Thomas, suggested he take the Marvel Comics writer’s test, which consisted of filling in blank dialogue balloons from a few Fantastic Four pages. O’Neil was soon writing scripts for Millie the Model. But, as the pseudonym he began using — Sergius O’Shaughnessy, cribbed from the name of the fighter-pilot protagonist in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park — portended, O’Neil was seeking higher planes of storytelling. Around this time he moved to NYC’s East Village, where he began writing the stories that would place him in the pop-cult pantheon.

Anyone who has seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the big screen has witnessed the villainous exploits of two O’Neil creations: Ra’s and Talia al Ghul. Both came out of O’Neil’s and artist Neal Adams’s reboot of the Batman franchise in the early 1970s, which replaced the campy glow of the 1960s TV show with noir grit.

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O’Neil’s East 2nd Street digs influenced his characters’ looks and attitudes, most prominently in his run on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow title. Beginning in April 1970 (#76), O’Neil brought the cosmos-roaming Green Lantern down to earth, where the Robin Hood–esque Green Arrow schooled him in the ways of crooked landlords. The masterful Adams enhanced O’Neil’s street-level script with dead-on depictions of dilapidated tenement buildings and boarded-up businesses. In one of the most famous panel sequences in comic book history, a black Everyman confronts the lofty Green Lantern, matter-of-factly noting, “I been readin’ about you. How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. And you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with — the black skins! I want to know how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” Living in the East Village, O’Neil had seen plenty to convince him that intergalactic crime fighters were not the answer to America’s ever-pressing social problems. And so his superhero answered, “I . . . can’t.”

But ever the optimist, the writer soon sent the superhero duo to battle greedy mine owners, crooked judges, racist cult leaders, and other villains of the Nixon era. O’Neil always hung his heart on the sleeves of his characters, one reason his earnest scripts have transcended their time. (The GL / GA run is perennially reprinted.) And certainly, the evil the heroes confronted back then has never gone out of fashion. O’Neil’s own struggles with alcoholism probably colored his ground-breaking plotlines dealing with drug addiction, which won many industry accolades and a proclamation from the office of then mayor John Lindsay. In a later tale, Green Lantern is almost blown to bits when a Weather Underground–style group destroys a townhouse; Adams’s imagery is very similar to newspaper reports (including those here in the Voice) of an actual event that took place on West 11th Street.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

In addition to photos of the blasted dwelling, that March 12, 1970, issue of the Voice also included the headline “Armies of the Night: Drilling for 1972,” for an article about protests against the Vietnam War and concerns over a possible second term for Nixon. In a 2018 interview, O’Neil noted that early in his career, the Village Voice was “sort of my community paper,” and one could wonder if the writer was recalling that Voice front page when he quoted Mailer’s Armies of the Night in GL / GA #79: “Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep.”

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No doubt the Village itself and the Voice (of which Mailer was a founder) influenced O’Neil’s worldview. While Marvel unabashedly set tales of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and other super beings in New York City (even the outer boroughs), DC was more reticent, with Superman flying around “Metropolis” and Batman prowling “Gotham.” There was precedent for this: Perhaps the most noir of New York settings are found in Will Eisner’s Spirit masterpieces, which the Brooklyn-born writer and artist set in “Central City.” Still, when Eisner introduced his raw-fisted, wise-cracking crime fighter’s arch-nemesis, The Octopus, in 1946, the tale closed with the evil mastermind lighting a cigarette on the corner of 43rd and Times Square. O’Neil similarly elided settings, evoking the ramshackle neighborhood he called home in a scene where a wounded Green Arrow cannot find a working payphone. In his own creations, free of any DC backstories, O’Neil favored reality, landing a character such as Nightmaster on the bandstand of “The Electric Band Aid in the East Village.”

Knowing what a fan the comics virtuoso was of his home turf and its “community paper,” we thought we’d see if the Voice card catalog scored any “O’Neil, Dennis,” hits.

Alas, only one, and it’s a pan. As everyone knows, always more fun to read. —R.C. Baker

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Indigo?!?

By Dennis O’Neil

March 21, 1977

SUPER-FOLKS. By Robert Mayer. Dial. $8.95, $3.95 paper.

Someday soon somebody will produce the Great American Comic Book. Surely, there is an ambitious, post-McLuhan kid somewhere who recognizes the essence of the superhero form, the instant mythologizing of contemporary events through the telling of extravagant lies, and is ready to perfect it as cartoon narrative or music or film or even as prose. According to the promotional material accompanying Robert Mayer’s novel SuperFolks, the people at Dial believe Mayer is that kid. They’re wrong.

Not that Mayer is hopelessly inept. With seasoning, he could be pretty good; there’s no reason why he couldn’t write a decent Batman or Spider-Man script, for instance — and, in fact, while a reporter for Newsday, he did write 1/25th of the 1969 spoof, Naked Came the Stranger. But in Super-Folks he has virtually ignored that potential and has opted to be simultaneously cute and relevant. What he’s attempted to do is use superhero conventions in a double-thrusted satire of society and of the comics themselves. Unfortunately, his insight into his first subject is banal, and he has only a dilettante’s knowledge of his second. The result is the kind of smarmy hipness that characterized the godawful Batman television show of the mid-1960s.

Like the writers of the television show, he begins with a fairly standard plot, a variation on the “lost powers” theme. Superman — called, for some forlorn reason, “Indigo” — has hung up his cape and is living the life of a bedroom-community patriarch under the alias David Brinkley. (Everyone in Super-Folks is famously named, not the happiest of comedic inspirations. Brinkley works for a metropolitan daily headed by Punch Rosenthal; he has encounters with a beggar, Nelson Rockefeller, and a  detective, Kojak; his nemesis is the deadly chemical Cronkite, from the planet where he was born to Edith and Archie, before being adopted on Earth by Franklin and Eleanor. And so on.) Gradually Brinkley realizes that he has not lost his superhumanity, as he had thought, and finds himself drawn into a confrontation with the arch enemy every superhero must have.

Not bad, taken simply as the sort of tall tale all superhero stories basically are, and Mayer should have concentrated on realizing it. But he isn’t content to be a storyteller; he has larger, or at least different, ambitions. His opening sentences announce his intentions: “There were no more heroes. Kennedy was dead, shot by an assassin in Dallas. Batman and Robin were dead, killed when the Batcar [sic] slammed into a bus carrying black children to school in the suburbs.” This is the ploy he uses throughout the book, juxtaposing the real and imaginary, and letting the consequent absurdities make his satirical points.

The idea might seem original to those who believe culture is the stuff taught in college literature courses. But those whose taste is more eclectic, who can cherish William Gaddis and Garry Trudeau equally, will find it awfully familiar —after the comic strips of Trudeau and Jules Feiffer, the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany and Phillip Jose Farmer, Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and, of course, Lenny Bruce’s nightclub routines. In short, it’s been done — originally and arguably best by Bruce — and Mayer has nothing new to contribute.

Mayer’s choice of satirical targets js as unoriginal as his literary device: suburbia, the mob, Abzug liberals, Buckley conservatives, conspiracy theorists, adolescent sex — it is as though Mayer were assembling Johnny Carson one-liners for a Modern Language Association stag party.

Despite Mayer’s failure as a social commentator, he still might have produced a funny book if he’d been able to be amusing on comics. But he seems unfamiliar with the subject, as if he hadn’t read a comic in the last 10 years. For the costumed world-saver set is no longer defined merely by extrahuman abilities and Boy Scout ethics. Mayer’s version of Superman hang-ups and hassles would lampoon the Superman concept only if the original hadn’t long since done the same. Benton and Newman could get laughs by portraying the Man of Steel as a nebbish because when their musical Superman was on Broadway comics were relatively unsophisticated. Now, however, superhero scenarists routinely give their characters a full catalogue of interpersonal and existential anxieties; their readers have come to expect them. Again, Mayer’s gimmicks are too familiar to be entertaining. If Super-Folks fails as satire and as humor, what’s left is for it to succeed as a thriller. Here, Mayer is almost a winner. He does write a hell of a climactic fight — grand, cosmic violence with a splendid twist ending. But this doesn’t begin until the last fifth of the novel and that’s way too late. Preliminary skirmishes, to delight us with the hero’s feats and to establish the possibility of the villain’s eventual triumph, are lacking, and since much of the art of the grandiose lie is in the building of anticipation through tantalizing hints at the punch line, this is fatal. Mayer shows us a lot of David Brinkley (Clark Kent) and not enough Indigo (Superman): he emphasizes the cocoon at the expense of the butterfly. Consequently, his climax is too isolated to be satisfying. So, in the end, it is as flat and disappointing as, well, a comic book without cartoons.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice


Milton Glaser at the Voice – Short Time, Big Impact

First appearing on the masthead as Vice-Chairman in the October 10, 1974, issue of the Voice, graphic designer Milton Glaser was determined to bring to newsprint some of the same graphic verve he and the Voice’s new chairman, Clay Felker, had brought to the glossy New York magazine the previous decade. While the Voice already had the street-wise photographer Fred W. McDarrah and multi-media cartoonist Jules Feiffer enlivening its pages, the editorial look of the paper was hamstrung by the limited color capacity of that era’s newspaper presses, which left the columns of dense type too often outshone by the ads — especially the full-page extravaganzas for music that was already on its way to becoming “classic rock.”

Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1976
October 10, 1974 masthead

In fact, a 1967 psychedelic poster of Bob Dylan is one of Glaser’s most famous works.

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In late 1974, when Glaser cast his eye over the Voice, one of the first things he probably noticed was its highly informative, if staid, front and back pages, such as this “what’s on” back-page bulletin board from October 3, 1974, and the front page that appeared the following week. (All of the images in this article are raw scans taken from the Voice’s ongoing digital archive project.)

Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1976
Back page of the October 3, 1974 issue, front page of the October 10, 1974 issue

Within a few months, Glaser had jettisoned his formal title in favor of the more descriptive “Design Director,” and the covers and back pages were the proof in the pudding.

Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the March 3, 1975 issue, front page of the March 10, 1975 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
First masthead with Glaser as Design Director

In one notable case, Glaser not only did the design but also the cover illustration, depicting a famously devilish “man of wealth and taste.”

Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the June 16, 1975 issue, front page of the June 23, 1975 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the July 21, 1975, issue; front page of the July 28, 1975, issue

Whether politicians, film stars, rock gods, or literary luminaries, Glaser made sure the Voice did “show” every bit as much as “tell.”

Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the August 25, 1975 issue, front page of the September 1, 1975 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the November 3, 1975 issue, front page of the November 10, 1975 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the November 24, 1975 issue, front page of the December 1, 1975 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the March 22, 1976 issue, front page of the March 29, 1976 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the May 24, 1976 issue, front page of the May 31, 1976 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the July 12, 1976 issue, front page of the July 19, 1976 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the October 25 1976 issue, front page of the November 1, 1976 issue
Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the November 22, 1976 issue, front page of the November 29, 1976 issue

But all good things come to an end — as with so many sad tales, this one had something to do with Rupert Murdoch, a story we’ll get to another time — and Glaser’s last appearance on the Voice masthead was in January 1977. He exited with a bang, turning readers into viewers with some Hollywood squares on his penultimate back-page layout and a Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of a Village goddess on the cover of the January 17, 1977, issue. Not bad for a trip that lasted less than three years.

Article on Milton Glaser, design director of the Village Voice 1974-1977
Back page of the January 10, 1977 issue, front page of the January 17, 1977 issue

Milton Glaser: June 26, 1929 – June 26, 2020.