The scale of the radical underground press in America in the 1960s and early 1970s is staggering to recall. One estimate claimed there were as many as 800 papers with 10 million readers; another found half that number of papers but double the readers. If those wildly divergent figures sound suspect, it’s worth knowing that the US Department of Defense reported that 245 underground papers were published by military personnel on active duty – Vietnam was a festering wound for American society. While absolutely reliable statistics for production and readership are impossible to come by, it’s safe to say that the underground press was a hugely significant publishing and social phenomenon.
These fearlessly libertarian broadsides emblazoned with titles like Oracle, Rat, Rising Up Angry, Other Scenes and Great Speckled Bird looked nothing like the hung-up, tightly designed official press they set out to challenge and usurp. There were feminist papers (Off Our Backs), black power papers (The Black Panther) and gay papers (Come Out!), as well as the anti-war papers (Vietnam GI). Some were crazy psychedelic explosions of interweaving text and imagery that attempted to portray on the page a new sense of reality shaped by hallucinogenic drugs – a visual analogue to rock music. Some were slap-it-down productions by highly motivated amateurs who hadn’t done a day’s training in graphic design. And some mimicked the sober formats of more reputable titles only to twist conventions around and subvert them.
Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, 1964-1974 – that’s a giant spliff of a title – is far from the first book on the underground press, but it’s the most comprehensively illustrated collection of American publications yet to appear. It’s also the first to spotlight the graphic design of these papers. Geoff Kaplan, its San Francisco-based editor, is a graphic designer and that creates expectations about the content that a visual study aimed at the non-specialist reader wouldn’t necessarily arouse.
Oddly, it was browsing the covers of Britain’s notorious Oz magazine online that led Kaplan to investigate the much bigger American underground. His book includes counter-culture classics such as Martin Sharp’s ‘Magic Theatre’ issue of Oz and the infamous ‘School Kids’ issue, as well as covers of International Times, another key publication from the British underground. Placed in all-American company, Oz jumps out for its image-led, magazine-orientated design; a few ink-spangled spreads could have been even more revealing. There is no discussion, though, to make sense of this transatlantic detour and Power to the People suffers throughout from a lack of information about particular publications and their makers.
The question for graphic design is how to place this work in relation to the history of the discipline as an organised practice. (The same issue arises with the related phenomena of punk graphics and zines.) Graphic design history has tended to be written about as a progression of styles driven by technological developments and the cultural mood of their time. From this perspective, ‘graphic design’ is produced by people educated to be graphic designers – the readers of CR – and this education comes with many understandings about what constitutes correct forms of practice in typography, typesetting, layout, use of pictures, relationship of text to image, and so on. Graphic designers often choose to challenge and extend this repertoire of practices, but they do so deliberately and knowingly rather than by accident. What relationship does the work of untrained non-professionals have to this history? Should it be included? And what lessons, if any, might it offer to qualified designers?
Power to the People is packed with tremendous examples – whether they rate as ‘good’ design or not – that call out for careful design analysis, but the book seems to lose sight of its stated subject almost immediately. The first of three essays, the only one to consider design in any detail, is written by Gwen Allen, an art historian, who is the author of a study of artists’ magazines. She cites Emil Ruder (misspelt as Emile) and Josef Müller-Brockmann as familiar models of orderly, grid-based typography before going on to question the “causal, deterministic” assumption that the sloppy look of underground magazines is simply the result of amateurishness, or trying to lay out pages when high.
Allen is right to propose the underground’s layouts as an expression of an alternative ideology, though this is by no means a novel insight – Roger Lewis had some good thoughts about graphics as non-verbal communication in Outlaws of America (Pelican), a study of the underground press published as long ago as 1972 (it’s easy to track down). But Allen oversells the purported link between underground publication design and conceptual art practice of the same era at the expense of more fully investigating the people, processes and ideas that lie behind these designs. Every image is presented as though it were anonymous, even when the credits are available, as if to excuse the astonishing lack of designers and design voices in the book.
The art bias approaches the ridiculous in a section where another art historian asks 11 Americans about their involvement in the underground press. One of these witnesses is the prolific design writer Steven Heller, who began his career as a teenager laying out pages for Free Press and the mighty East Village Other (strangely absent from these pages); he has often written about the underground press. Eight of the other respondents are artists or art writers and, as you might fear, when asked for their impressions of the “new graphic innovations” in these publications, they have nothing illuminating to say. “I don’t know what this question means,” answers one; “conceptual artists sought a resolutely nonvisual stylelessness,” replies another, wide of the mark. Even Heller says, “I’m not sure I’d call these ‘innovations’. It was a lot of seat-of-the-pants work, often pretty poorly done.” No doubt this was often true, but many times it’s not the case at all.
Was it really not possible to interview some editors, writers, designers, typesetters or illustrators who worked on these publications about their visual aspect? The flow of eye-popping images tells a much more exciting story than one might deduce from the lack of interest the interviewees show in design. Despite an unnecessarily crammed layout and some questionable editorial decisions, Power to the People still brings home a visual feast.
Power to the People, edited by Geoff Kaplan, is published by the University of Chicago Press; $45. See press.uchicago.edu