"There was no money. I think we were actually paid in drugs."
-- Mark Michaelson, former art director The East Village Eye
Lower New York has been the scene for numerous "art movements," and the decade between the mid-70s and mid-80s sure was one of them, especially for the convergence of comics, "art," and punk rock. In 1976, the first issue of PUNK appeared, creating a forum for the transformation of music and popular culture that was happening each night at the Bowery's CBGB. Both PUNK and CBGB found their home--and their attitude--in the barren Hell that was then New York's East Village and were fueled by the community of young artists drawn to the area in search of artistic freedom and cheap rents. A few years later, the first issues of both World War Three Illustrated and RAW appeared in East Village shops and while neither was a "punk" publication per se, they carried punk's DIY approach of tearing up the established norms in an attempt to create something new and different. And then there were all the arty papers that sprung up as competitors of, or alternatives to, the long-running Village Voice. And, best yet, most of them carried great comics.
"The early to mid-80s were a great time for alternative publishing in NYC," said Bob Newman, former art director and editor of Seattle's The Rocket and art director of The Village Voice. "In addition to the NY Rocker there was the Soho Weekly News, East Village Eye, and Paper, which was just starting up, and was being published in all black and white as a giant fold-out. And also NYTalk, which must have started back then as well. I'm sure there were more, too, that folks will remember."
Today we will take a look at one of those papers, the East Village Eye, where a number of seemingly divergent worlds came together in one publication. From 1979 to 1987, the East Village Eye chronicled the rise and fall of the East Village art, music, fashion and cultural scene and remains a record of the period's mixture of punk, no wave, graffiti, Latin music, and hip-hop. Among many other things, the Eye also published the first, or very early, work by a number of notable cartoonists. It also ran the first-ever interview with filmmaker David Lynch. It even coined the term "hip-hop."
"The East Village Eye did a lot of the most significant early hip-hop and aerosol 'graffiti' art coverage," said James Romberger, whose strip and events at his art gallery--both called Ground Zero and both done with his partner and collaborator Marguerite Van Cook--appeared in the Eye. "It highlighted that the East Village of the early and mid-80s as a whole was very multicultural and inclusive. The art that people were doing was aggressive and accessible; and the art scene crossed-over at the time with the music, film and club scenes."
And that was the point of the Eye.
"My point of view with the Eye was to blur the lines--and try to obliterate the lines--between the kind of popular culture that people took seriously--that the artists took seriously and the media took seriously," said Eye founder and editor Leonard Abrams. "And I think that we succeeded. We definitely helped push that point of view."
Regular contributors to the Eye included local artists/performers/musicians like Richard Hell, Cookie Mueller, and David Wojnarowicz, and features ranged from those on RAW artists like Gary Panter, Charles Burns, and Sue Coe, to gallery artists like Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger and Kiki Smith, and to others on musicians, writers, filmmakers and performers like Afrikaa Bambaataa, Nick Zedd, Kurtis Blow, James White, JG Ballard, and Ann Magnuson. Issues contain ads for the clubs like Mud Club, Max's Kansas City, and Limelight, hair cut places, local dive bars, once-important and now-gone art galleries, and seminal places like the fanzine-only shop See Hear and SohoZat, a legendary SoHo music, clothing, comics, and zine store on West Broadway. It was all set in and around the crumbling, vibrant, crime ridden, spontaneous and dangerous landscape that was the East Village back then.
It's a bit hard to fully appreciate just how much New York City has changed, but the cost of living is one measure, as is safety; back then neighborhoods could go from safe to dangerous in the space of a block. Abrams had moved to the East Village in the mid-1970s, moving into a $135 a month apartment he shared with a fellow bike messenger. Rent was very cheap in the East Village at that time, but it was also a period when arson was rampant in the area. Landlords, unable to sell their properties, simply set them ablaze in order to collect the insurance payouts. In 2015, the average rent for a two bedroom apartment in the East Village was $3,170.
“The East Village was very quiet [back then],” Abrams told Hyperallergic in 2014. “It wasn’t at the nadir in terms of neighborhood ruin, but it was getting there fast. There was a fire every night. There wasn’t a night when a building wasn’t going up in flames, particularly east of Avenue A, which was the red line. A lot of people didn’t know that it wasn’t as dangerous as it looked.”
A perfect setting for the publication he envisioned.
"I started an underground paper in my high school in 1972," said Abrams, who grew up in Spring Valley, NY. "And I wrote for my school paper, and then started up a newspaper when I lived in Denver...I moved back to New York in '78--I had lived in the East Village in '76, and then moved back--and the [time was right] to do something like that, to start up a paper for people who didn't belong in that structured world that was all around us. You could see there were all these people there who were feeling the same way as me, and I always wanted to [start a paper] and so this was the right place and time. It was almost a no-brainer at that point."
Abrams was attending the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus, as well as taking a graphics and paste up course in the East Village in the same building as PUNK magazine. He dropped out of college again, and put together a dummy copy of what would eventually become the Eye, and then rented a store front on Ludlow Street It was around this point that he met up with cartoonist John Holmstrom, PUNK's founder and editor, whose work later appeared in early issues of the Eye.
Holmstrom: "I first met Leonard when he was taking a course on magazine production or something across the hall at the PUNK Mag office at 225 Lafayette St. Same building where EC Comics had editorial offices in the 1950s and Paul Krassner's The Realist in the 1960s."
"At this time, Holmstrom had just been doing Stop magazine with Pete Bagge, Bruce Carlton, J.D. King, Dale Ashmun, Ken Wiener and a few others...previously the same crew had done the comics tabloid monthly Comical Funnies," said Romberger. "I'll never forget a Holmstrom crew party we all went to at house of 'The General,' whose family had sold their home to the 'Phil Rizzuto money store' and held a smash-the-house party. The wreckage---incredible!"
From the beginning, each issue of the Eye ran comic strips. It's original art director was Christof Kohlhofer, who in 1979 also founded the comics anthology World War Three Illustrated with Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman. Early issues ran comics by Tobocman and others, including the very first published strips by Kaz (below):
"As I remember, I dropped off a bunch of 'The Pests' to the Eye but they never told me if they were publishing me or not," said Kaz. "So I assumed they weren't. In the meantime I sold 'The Pests' to The New York Rocker [another local alt music paper]. As it turns out my comic publishes in both publications in the same month. The Rocker said that if they get me exclusive I can be in every month so I went with the Rocker."
Abrams said that comics were a key part of his strategy for the paper.
"I always wanted comics [in my publications], said Abrams. "When I was kind of in my 'hippies days,' you know in the 70s, I was kind of on my own in this apartment in New York and in those days all that 'love stuff' had kind of dissipated and everyone was kind of hanging out and wondering what to do. So I started reading all these Robert Crumb and ZAP Comix, and Gilbert Shelton and Jay Lynch, and it gave me an insight on what I had missed out on because I was too young...and when people started sending me in comics, I was like 'great!' The other thing was, you know, comics were a way to reach people who otherwise may not get down with 'serious news.' And it was also just a great vehicle for satire, of course. And if you did a page, or two page spread of comics, people could be kind of liberated, and, you know, free."
Before he took off for Seattle, the Eye's also ran very early comics by then-local artist Peter Bagge, including his first-ever published work.
Bagge: "I remember liking Leonard -- he was a pleasant, almost passive kind of guy, and in a way that didn't jibe at all with the rough neighborhood his messy run down office was in. I also much appreciate giving me my first chance to appear in print, even if it was for no money (if it was for money, it couldn't have been much)."
"Jeez! What a nihilistic creep I was back then!," said Bagge recently after looking at his Eye strips for the first time in many years. He added that, just out of art school, he was "still learning how to make a legible strip" and that "Goon on the Moon," in particular, show off the influence of his brother Doug Bagge, with whom he was collaborating with work that appeared in Comical Funnies: "I'm struck by what a huge influence my brother Doug still had on me when I made these...there's very much his humor and sensibility."
Bagge added that the original art for one of these strips, his very first piece of published art ever, was nearly destroyed by punk rock legend Richard Hell: "I had one weird experience that I wrote about in a comic that was illustrated in Pat Moriarity's Big Mouth (below), recounting the time I went to retrieve art of mine from the Eye, only to find it stomped on and mutilated by Richard Hell. Apparently Hell didn't like the way Leonard reduced some of his art (literally drawings of some female friends' vaginas), so to 'get even' with Leonard, he stomped on other contributors' art, including mine."
"I remember Holmstrom (another stompee) being amused by it, and friends of mine who were fans of Hell thought I should be 'honored,'" said Bagge. "But it was my first published work, and I hated Hell's music, so I was quite livid. But Hell was the Eye's star contributor at the time, so [Abrams] was both apologetic but also in a bind, asking me to please not raise too big a stink about it...Decades later Hell called me up to explain his side of the story after he saw the strip I had written about it. What was funny about that was that his take was exactly as I had written it!"
It was a music connection--his partner/collaborator Marguerite Van Cook--that helped get Romberger's comics into the Eye: "Marguerite wrote music criticism for the Eye very early on---she had written for Sounds in London previously, so Leonard Abrams got her to write for the Eye. When Marguerite and I got together, he heard I was a cartoonist and asked if we wanted to contribute a strip together."
Van Cook said that someone from the Eye had attended a performance of her band, The Innocents, in London after "we came off a tour with opening for The Clash. Right after that the band came to New York and I went to look them up. I had been writing for Sounds in the UK and so I met up with Leonard Abrams, the editor and wrote a few things for him about rock and roll. When James and I started the comic strip, it was a natural progression. Leonard also gave us some free ads for our gallery Ground Zero, one was a full page drawing by James of me holding a machine gun under one arm and our baby (Crosby) under the other. All of our creative activities came under the banner of Ground Zero. My real life self and the character in the comic were fairly porous. My character in the comic, The Unit, thought in ways very similar to real life me."
"We began it for the Eye; we formulated it for the purposes of a recurring continuity strip. It is a semi-autobiographical, science-fictionalized version of our lives," said Romberger. "At first Leonard gave us a full page, so the first strip is that format. Then they cut it back to a third of a page and brought in a bunch of other strips...but while it lasted, our strip was often in a different part of the paper than the other strips. Marguerite and I often designed them together and would try for different unusual effects. We would have parts of it set in type, or montaged from stats with various screens. For the third strip we were offered color, which I accomplished by cutting hand separations from rubylith. It's hard for us to know who noticed these efforts, but French comics editor Fershid Bharucha gave us some high praise when he was in town to do the Liberatore show at the club Danceteria, and when the Eye shut the strip section down, we were asked to do more installments for other NYC magazines."
In 1986, Romberger and Van Cook began collaborating with multi-media artist and Eye columnist David Wojnarowicz on 7 Miles a Second, which chronicles Wojnarowicz autobiographical tales as a street hustler and published by DC/Vertigo, and later Fantagraphics, after his death from AIDS in the early 90s. The project sprung out of a friendship formed when the Ground Zero gallery began showing Wojnarowicz work.
"He did two shows with us there," Romberger told Comic Book Resources. "He admired the comics we did together and we began to discuss translating his experience into that medium...Unfortunately I wasn't able to finish the drawings fast enough for David to see the whole thing. After his tragic early death from AIDS, the art was completed for the book in 1993 and book dummys were sent to nearly every publisher in America. We collected quite a large pile of rejection slips. In fact, the book sat on various editors' desks at Paradox and Vertigo for a while, but they told me there was no chance they could publish it–until DC publisher Jenette Kahn saw the exhibit of the original art in a Soho gallery. She then directed Vertigo to do it."
The East Village of the late 70s and early 80s could be a pretty glamorous place, depending on your definition of "glamour." It certainly was filled with many young, and aging, artists.
"It seems impossible now, but at one time, circa 1979, everyone I saw on Second Avenue, day or night, was either someone I knew or someone I recognized," former Eye writer and Village Voice art critic Gary Indiana wrote in a piece about the times called "One Brief, Scuzzy Moment" in New York Magazine. "Nico (as in Velvet Underground Nico); Penny Arcade, wacko genius of one-woman stage anarchy; Herbert Huncke, the indomitable drug pusher who inspired much of William Burroughs’s Junky; Larry Rivers; punk avatars Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine; filmmaker Nick Zedd...Jean-Michel Basquiat (who went by his graffiti tag SAMO, then); filmmaker Amos Poe...and sometimes Debbie Harry. Understand, these familiars didn’t graze in packs—there were seldom more than twenty ambulatory individuals scattered between 14th Street and Houston at the same hour."
It could be dangerous, too.
"When you were on Avenue B back then, you were kind of in this no-man’s land," said Ken Schles, a photographer whose 1988 book Invisible City chronicled the time, in an interview with bedordandbowery. "It was just before all the galleries started opening – I watched that all happening. When I was there, the landlord abandoned the building I moved into. We had a [heroin] shooting gallery in the building. The super said, don’t ever get on the fire escape because you’ll be shot. The windows were all boarded over because the junkies were trying to break in...When I got there the city was a fucking mess. It was bankrupt. I did some research on some statistics and learned there were 939,000 property crimes in the year that I published Invisible City. The murder rate was at its all-time peak – it was crazy. And I was living on Avenue B, which was ground zero."
That's where Glenn Head was living in 1983 when he had his first-ever published strip (below) appear in the Eye.
"I was on 11th and B that year," said Head, who also had work appear in Bad News and his self-published Avenue D Comics & Stories during that period. "First time I'd lived in NYC. Every apartment in my building got broken into but mine. Best thing about the neighborhood was the wholesale beer distributor who let me run a tab. Worst thing was the junkies, dealers, etc who made wading thru the corner intersections impossible. Cars getting torched after they were stripped clean--happened every day. Went to the East Village Eye to drop off a comic strip one time. Offices were in an abandoned school building on 10th between B and C, I think. That paper made SCREW look like an upscale production!"
"It was kind of wild at that time," said former Eye art director Mark Michaelson. "The office was in an abandoned schoolhouse in the East Village and it was like a squat. There was no electricity and they were laying out the pages on these rickety tables with no t-squares or anything...so for a lot of that the time, the East Village Eye was trying to make something out of nothing. But there were a lot of great people and it was very cheap to live. Rent was like $100 or $200 a month, something like that. But even then, it seemed too much! But it was a great time to be in New York. It wasn't so economically oppressive, as it is now. A young person could arrive in Manhattan and live in the city center and not have to have three jobs. So living was pretty cheap. And working at the Eye, they did so many trades for ads with restaurants and clubs, so we never had to pay for anything. We got free meals, free drinks. It was a lot of fun...And I think at that time everyone was working for free. I can't really remember if I ever paid anyone and if I did it was probably like $10 0r $20."
The Comics Section
In 1984, the Eye began running a regular two-page comics section when Michaelson, the former art director for Seattle's The Rocket, took over design duties. Michaelson, who was also doing design work for Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouley's RAW, began running strips by ex-girlfriend Lynda Barry and RAW artists like Mark Newgarden and Gary Panter, whose 'Dal Tokyo' was also running in the LA Reader at that time.
"Mark really worked the Eye into shape in terms of the graphics," said Abrams.
Michaelson: "I was living in Seattle in the late-70s, very early 80s...and that when I met the [alt weekly paper] Seattle Sun people. Bob Newman was the art director of the Seattle Sun and I used to read it before I met any of those people and that's where I saw Lynda Barry's comic strips and I was working as a waiter at a restaurant and this girl was sitting at a table and drawing on the placemat and I realized it was Lynda and we started chatting and flirting and pretty soon we were dating. And then I started hanging out at the Sun and met Bob and he kind of brought me on there....and the The Rocket started out as a music supplement of the Sun and sooner or later the staff of the Sun and the staff of the Rocket kind of split up and the Rocket went off on its own. And then Bob and I, along with [another former Rocket art director] Helene Silverman, started up a small design firm called Square Studio, and we rented a big old open space above the Rendezvous Tavern that kind of became the Rocket office. And after a couple of years there, I got a call from an old teacher of mine from the School of Visual Arts, this legendary art director named Bea Feitler, and she had just gotten the job to be the art director of Vanity Fair magazine when it was brought back to life in 1981. So she called me in Seattle and brought me back to New York and I worked in the re-launch of Vanity Fair and a couple of other Condé Nast magazines for a couple of years but I was really kind of a square peg in a round hole and wasn't very happy. I ended up leaving and I decided to try and find something closer to what I was doing before I started working at this big corporation. So I walked into the office of the East Village Eye and introduced myself. And I had a portfolio of Rocket stuff and Seattle Sun stuff and I think I was one of the first designers who every walked in there who had real magazine experience. So they were impressed and I sort of immediately started designing the Eye."
Other cartoonists contributing to the Eye at this point included Tom Hachtman, whose 'Gertrude Follies' had been running in the alt paper SoHo Weekly News, John Crawford, whose strips appeared in dozens, if not hundreds, of music zines in the 80s and 90s, Flick Ford (above), who now is a respected painter of fish, and Wayne White, a painter and puppeteer, whose comics also later appeared in Bad News and High Times.
White: "It was my first time in print in NYC and a big deal for me. The strip was 'Miss Car'. It began as a xerox mini comic I made and gave away. Mark Michaelson, art editor at The Eye, saw the one I gave to Ron Hauge right before I moved back from the East Village to Nashville for a few months. Mark called me in Nashville and wanted to put it in the new Eye comic page, along side Gary Panter!"
A few years after White and Panter began appearing together on the Eye's comics pages, they started collaborating--along with Ric Heitzman--on the Emmy Award-winning show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Today, White is a multi-faceted artist whose life is the focus of the acclaimed documentary Beauty is Embarrassing (below).
"That call [from Michaelson] changed everything," said White. "I was ready to leave NYC after three years of fruitless struggle and was sulking in Tennessee, getting ready to give up. I went right back and did 'Miss Car' and illustrations for The Eye for months. I started getting other jobs and one thing followed another and here I am. I'm glad he called."
At its height, the Eye's circulation topped 10,000 copies and was on sale in other art cities like LA, San Francisco, and even the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. But despite it's reach, and its historical significance, the Eye struggled. It could barely pay its staff and turnover was rampant.
"We were always running on a shoe-string," said Abrams.
“One of my main memories of the Eye were the dark swirling rumors that certain cartoonists were actually getting paid for their work (!) while others (like me) were definitely not,” said Newgarden. “It was probably a just a matter of a few bucks, but at the time it felt scandalous...Mark Michaelson eventually left the Eye and brought a bunch of us cartoonists with him to High Times, where they did pay everybody (and fairly decently as I recall)...I did my first color strips there, and a bunch of illustration. I also started contributing an occasional strip to the Village Voice ‘V’ page (edited by Mim Udovitch) around this time. Being part of these circuits, as well as RAW and Bad News, led me to the New York Press in ’88,” where he contributed an ever-changing strip for several years.
Some of the Newgarden Eye work later ended up running in Bad News, the mid-80s New York-based comics anthology he edited with Paul Karasik, including this 'Don't Copy My Style' strip (above), which was a commentary on the then current trend of many artists adapting Panter's "ratty line" drawing style for their work.
But it wouldn't last forever. As far back as 1985, the Eye ran a feature titled "East Village, R.I.P." A few month later, it ran one the "Rise of the East Village Yuppie."
“The SoHo galleries started poaching artists, so the ‘serious’ East Village galleries decided that they had to move," Abrams told Hyperallergic in 2014. "They moved to what they called ‘LowBro’ (Lower Broadway) on the edge of SoHo. Once they left, all the other galleries were left looking at each other. ‘What are we doing?’ — and pfft — They started closing in droves. In two seasons it went from a hundred galleries to ten.”
By 1987, Abrams ceased publication. Many of the artists drawn to the location's cheap rents simply moved away.
"It shifted from $100-200 apartments to $800-1200 apartments," said Holmstrom. "It was still a great place to live, but was being overrun by drunken, crazy young people... Like me...All of a sudden Alphabet City was a destination instead of a slum to avoid, clubs and bars opened up all the time. But there was still crime, drugs, hookers, etc. Cocaine use made things more dangerous as the years dragged on, I know in my building I had a crack apartment dealing from the building AND a shooting gallery (heroin) down the hall. People romanticize about it but it actually sucked to live here. Most of my good friends moved away.
"It was becoming too expensive to live in a slum."
Romberger will end this look back with a memory of the power of the Eye: "Around 1984, [Eye columnist] Tony Heiberg was between apartments and was crashing on our couch. At that time, I had a job at Broadway Animation, who were subcontractors for a video for Bob Dylan, 'Jokerman.' I did the bulk of the work for that, a sort of Terry Gilliam-ish cut-and-paste job to move Goya etchings. I mentioned what I was doing to Tony over dinner and the next thing I knew, he'd printed in his column that I had done the Dylan video.
"The morning after it came out, I was fired."
On January 14th the East Village gallery Howl! Happening held a 40th anniversary of party for PUNK Magazine, featuring appearances of and old and new work by the artists who contributed to the publication. An exhibition ran through January 30th.
Work by artists whose comics appeared in places like the Eye is also on display at Alt-Weekly Comics at The ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's cartoon museum. Curated by Warren Bernard and Bill Kartalopoulos, an expanded version of Alt-Weekly Comics was on display at the Society of Illustrators last year. The ToonSeum is also running the alt-weekly show Fear of A Black Marker: Cartoons by Keith Knight, Gentleman Cartoonist, which features dozen of pieces by Knight from publications like The Washington Post, Daily KOS, San Francisco Chronicle, Ebony, L.A. Weekly, MAD Magazine, and the Funny Times. The shows runs through April 10th. The ToonSeum's alt-weekly events also include a talk by Bill Griffith on April 2nd as part of its support for PIX, the Pittsburgh Indy Comix Expo. Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead is the only alt-weekly strip to ever reach daily syndication and has been running for 40 years.