Printing Techniques: Offset

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Before the internet and web publishing, offset printing was the major innovation of 20th Century printing. I view offset printing as commercial printing, i.e. large volume printing. (See Wikipedia.) I think of glossy, large distribution magazines, like Life or Time, or novels with huge print runs from the major publishing houses. Offset equals mainstream publishing. For me, the little magazine should be printed on a personally owned letterpress or mimeograph. Alternative writing could only be published if writers took to the act of printing themselves. Of course, this is not the case. By the late 1950s, offset printing costs were low enough that writers and editors not willing or able to physically print themselves could scrape together enough money to pay a professional printer.

Yugen was a case in point. Leroi Jones and Hettie Cohen prepared the magazine for publication, but Troubadour Press did the actual printing. They used the offset method. Even for such a small print run, prices had lowered enough that printing with a professional printer in the United States was feasible. As I stated, this was a recent development. Due to the strong dollar, City Lights printed the Pocket Books series, including Howl, in England with Villiers. In 1956, Villiers made 1000 copies of the first edition of Howl. In the early to mid-1950s, Robert Creeley also found printing cheaper overseas. While living in Mallorca, Creeley paid a local printer to handset the Divers Press titles, including Olson’s The Mayan Letters and Creeley’s The Gold Diggers. Black Mountain Review (1954-1957) was printed in Mallorca as well.

The printing of a true little magazine with a professional printer in the United States seems a contradiction in terms. Kulchur also used a professional printer. For me, the look and feel of the magazine is too slick, too professional. In many cases, the covers of Kulchur feature striking layouts and designs by artists who would become major figures. Yet the covers are too shiny, too polished. The magazine is perfect bound, not hand sewn or stapled. The binding is too tight which makes believe that the writing inside is too. The mimeograph magazine threatens to fall apart; the contents seem to be bursting at the seams threatening to attack the reader.

This is even more noticeable in Evergreen Review. The print run for the Review was huge: 100,000. In comparison, Wallace Berman ran a couple hundred copies of Semina. In little magazine circles, a thousand copies was a large print run. For example, Big Table was a huge success selling out its print run of 10,000. Some editors of Big Table (Paul Carroll) thought 10,000 copies were excessive. Evergreen Review bordered on a mainstream magazine. Functioning as the publicity arm for Grove Press, Evergreen packaged the avant garde for Middle America. Kids in Kansas read of the Paris, San Francisco and New York literary scenes. For a few readers, it was the defining moment of their lives. There is no denying the importance of Evergreen Review‘s content, but as an object I find it very boring. The magazine is the Reader’s Digest of little magazines.

This is the direct result of how it was printed. Like Kulchur, the magazine has some cool covers, especially the photographs of Jackson Pollock or motorcyclists in the early issues. But the magazine is cold, distant. The type, the paper, the binding are all safe and boring. The magazine is small and tidy. I get the sense that the revolutionary content has been sanitized for public consumption. Everything that was dangerous about Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Naked Lunch seems art-brushed out. The treatment of Naked Lunch in Evergreen Review proves this point. It was in Evergreen Review that Burroughs published “Deposition Concerning a Sickness,” which was included in the Grove Press Naked Lunch. Here Burroughs made Naked Lunch understandable. He categorized it, distanced himself from it, and placed it within a tradition. The “Deposition” muted Burroughs’ cry in the wilderness and made it palatable for Middle America. Evergreen‘s staid, Reader’s Digest-like appearance promised readers something familiar while it fed them a healthy helping of alternative literature. That was how it had to be for this literature to reach a wider audience, but I do not have to treasure the magazine, just respect its importance.

During Evergreen‘s existence, readers ran away to San Francisco, but they did not catch the fever to start a magazine. Readers of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You started magazines. I understand that this is because Fuck You‘s audience was a small community of artists already plugged into the creative world, not thousands of teenagers across the country. But I definitely feel that the way Fuck You looked and felt (the way it was produced) energized its readers in ways Evergreen Review, or on a smaller scale, Kulchur never could. Mimeos look deceptively simple, slapdash. You get the sense that anybody could make a mimeo even if the actual production was complicated, messy, and arduous. Fuck You exudes the Do-It-Yourself spirit that led to the punk fanzines of the 70s and web publishing of today. In addition, Fuck You courses through your fingers to this day; it jumps off the bookshelf and demands to be opened. Evergreen just sits there.

Offset printing, like in Evergreen, Yugen, Big Table, means advertising. I have mixed feeling about ads in a little magazine. My gut feeling is that a true little magazine cannot have advertisements. Of course, Fuck You breaks this rule. Fuck You Magazine‘s want ads shade into extremely funny art pieces. Notices for literary magazines, readings, upcoming novels, printing presses strike me as useful and necessary for readers. Yugen and The Outsider have many ads of this type. Evergreen seems to cross the line. Like in Yugen, the advertisements are fun reading for their peek into what was going on at art galleries, museums, publishing houses and bookstores. The magazine featured a who’s who of readings or exhibitions. The names were more likely to be Robert Lowell or Paul Goodman than Charles Olson: more New York Intellectual than Black Mountain or New York School. It all seems pretty tame and commercial. Case in point is an ad for Beat humor featuring Café Espresso and a Beat Romeo and Juliet. Or the ad for John Begg scotch, which is “one of the things you need when Beatniking.” Beat crosses over into beatnik. Substance becomes style; a way of life becomes a lifestyle. Evergreen Review brought alternative literature to the mainstream but like all such projects, there was a tremendous dilution in the process.

Generally, offset printing created standardization in magazine format and encouraged the commoditization of its contents. Yet the results of offset printing are not all so mainstream. Cheap offset in the late 1950s paved the way for the rise of the underground press from 1966-1975. Here offset printing allowed an alternative voice to see print. Sex, drugs, Vietnam, feminism, race, rock and roll, the generation gap, and class could all be discussed openly and from a different point of view. In many cases, the visual aspects of the alternative press are as striking as their articles. The International Times (London), San Francisco Oracle, East Village Other, Chicago Seed and countless other papers (every major city seemed to have an underground paper) sometimes printed in multicolor formats. These newspapers challenged the traditional newspaper format by incorporating psychedelic, surrealist, and visual poetry techniques. A whole generation of graphic artists arose around the underground newspaper and rock-and-roll scenes, particularly in London and San Francisco. Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Martin Sharp, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, Hapshash and the Colored Coat (Michael English and Nigel Weymouth) are some of the most famous practitioners of psychedelic art seen on album covers and rock posters. Many of these artists produced incredible pieces for the underground press. This is particularly true of the San Francisco Oracle and the International Times. These papers included multicolor front pages, posters, broadsides, and a host of inserts.

Not surprisingly, Burroughs played a role in this new medium. Burroughs contributed a number of articles on a variety of counterculture topics. The “Invisible Generation” essay that was eventually included in the 1967 version of The Ticket That Exploded was first printed in International Times. Burroughs’ most interesting association with the underground newspaper was in collaboration with Michael English. English created a poster/word machine using Burroughs’ “Invisible Generation” text that made cut-ups as an insert to International Times 5. The poster formed the Michael English issue 5.5 in 1966 and it is a highly desirable collectable in its pristine, unused state. In his memoirs, Barry Miles described Burroughs’ reaction to the poster. He wrote, “William thought that the silver on white silkscreen printing made the text unreadable, which it did, and we promised we would do a reprint in gold, which would show up better. After studying it for a while William said, ‘Well, go on then. Cut it up.’ We quickly found him a pair of scissors and he cut up one of the posters and assembled one of the word machines. You turned several wheels with words on them, which lined up in random order. It didn’t really work very well, but William didn’t seem too bothered.” (See also the International Times Archive.)

Newly affordable printing technologies also made possible the emergence of underground comix. Underground comix were self-published and distributed through alternative bookstores and head shops. These new comics challenged the traditional strip and comic book formats while dealing with more mature and controversial themes. Sex, drugs and rock and roll became fodder for the rising stars of comics like R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Spain Rodriquez. Zap, Arcade and Raw were new outlets for this artwork. Not surprisingly, Burroughs appeared in this new medium. In Cyclops 1-4, “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart” appeared accompanied by drawings by Malcolm McNeil. Published in 1970, Cyclops, edited by Graham Keen, was Great Britain’s first adult comic newspaper. Again Burroughs material was used to challenge the comic format. This time the challenge was not so much visual as textual and thematic. Burroughs’ piece was an early collaboration between the novelist and comix artist that presaged the work of graphic novels like Sandman or Maus. Burroughs helped blur the line between “real” writers and comix writers. Burroughs’ work gave comix artists new themes to explore and gave textual weight to their illustrations. Late in his career, Burroughs continued to explore this gray area in collaborations with R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. In 1980, S. Clay Wilson created the cover art, endpapers and illustrations for Die Wilden Boys (Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 1980), the first German edition of Burroughs’ The Wild Boys. Ken Lopez is currently offering an archive of material chronicling the relationship of Wilson and Burroughs from 1979-1991. The archive includes correspondence, artwork and books all for “only” $17,500.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 9 May 2006.

One thought on “Printing Techniques: Offset

  1. I just finished reading Johanna Drucker’s essay “Offset: The Work of Mechanical Art in the Age of Electronic (Re)producion).” To say the least, it offers a corrective view to much expressed in this column. Many of my opinions on offset are common to a technology that is much underestimated as an artform. I think the section on underground comix and newspapers hints at the possibilities of offset but I neglect the possibilities in book publishing and the artist book made available by offset.

    In any case, read Drucker’s collection Figuring the Word it is fantastic. I still prefer my mimeos but I must say that the essay forced me to look at my book collection in a different light, particularly Jan Herman’s Nova Broadcasts as well as a host of other Fluxus publications which push the boundaries of offset publishing.

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