Losing My Voice

I read in today’s New York Times that The Village Voice is busily divesting itself of yet more of the writers and designers who once made me feel linked to it, as a reader and a sometime contributor.

Robert Christgau, whose influential commentary on pop music began appearing in the Voice‘s pages back in 1969, has been given the boot, along with four other senior editors who have helped keep the paper’s arts coverage sharp and localized. Three members of the art department have also been kicked overboard, including Art Director Minh Uong, who helped give Stuck Rubber Baby beautiful play — almost four full pages’ worth, plus an art clip on the cover — when my graphic novel was published in 1995.

That takes me back down memory lane, since it was Minh who helped me get over a prejudice I once had against letting my artwork be digitally scanned for reproduction.

Young designers these days must find it quaint that drawings were once photostatted, pasted physically into layouts, and then photographed onto fine-grained film for transfer onto printing plates. Film could lovingly preserve a drawing’s details in a way that scanners, in their early days, could not match — particularly when digital newbies who were just learning the ropes were pushing the buttons.

I now realize that I was unfairly generalizing from a single unfortunate experience. A well-intentioned but technically unsavvy gay publication hired me to do drawings that ended up being scanned at far to crude a resolution. To my embarrassment this made hash of my stippling and crosshatching. I was so horrified that I vowed never to submit artwork for publication unless only the old, film-based technology was used to reproduce it.

Talk about swimming against the tides of history!

With that bitter experience still on my mind, I winced when Minh Wong proposed reordering and manipulating some of my Stuck Rubber Baby panels digitally in the interest of a more effective showcase in the Voice. Would I stick to my vow? Four pages of free publicity in the famed Village Voice was nothing to be sneezed at when a new book was about to reach bookstores, but that doesn’t mean that my alarm at Minh’s suggestion wasn’t obvious.

Minh was patient and promised that I would be pleased with what he did. And I was. Knowing nothing of how fast things were changing in the digital revolution, I was unaware that resolutions of a far finer level had become available since that first bad experience.

So now Minh, my digital enlightener, is among the seven others newly-expelled Voice mainstays cited in today’s Times article. He’s talented and will do well, and he joins a distinguished list of past Voice contributors.

Long gone is George Delmerico, one of Minh’s art directing predecessors, who gave me my first break in the Voice and who subsequently published my drawings and comics repeatedly while his tenure at the paper lasted.

Gone also is longtime senior editor Richard Goldstein, who like Christgau seemed for years to be one of the Voice‘s irreplaceable ingredients. Richard was shown the door a couple of years ago. There was a public dust-up as Richard filed a lawsuit for age discrimination, a lawsuit that recently ended with a settlement whose terms cannot be shared with even those who have supped with the plaintiff on Thanksgiving.

In 1981 Richard co-wrote (with Larry Bush) a prophetic essay called "The Antigay Backlash." I was invited by George Delmerico to draw a full-page comic strip to accompany the article. Though a Voice novice, I was given complete editorial freedom. They did things like that in those days.

"Sometimes I Get So Mad" served as my coming-out statement in a mainstream (as opposed to an "underground") publication. Angry and heartfelt, it was reprinted thereafter in a number of places, including The Advocate, where it laid the groundwork for Wendel, and in my book Dancin’ Nekkid With The Angels. It was an important professional landmark for me.

Richard and his partner Tony Ward became and remain close friends of Eddie’s and mine, which gives me an insider’s vantage point from which to report that my pal’s painful departure from the Voice, a professional divorce that once seemed unimaginable, has in no way laid my pal creatively low. Indeed, he is well along in writing a novel that will knock you dead when it is completed. Eddie and I have been given a peek. (And no, it is not a roman a clef about a mistreated journalist!)

Meanwhile, the Voice logo is still blue and rectangular, so not everything has changed. I see that the always amusing and occasionally trenchant Michael Musto is still on staff, as is theatre critic Michael Feingold. I remain personally grateful to both of these guys for lending a hand when I was desperately beating the bushes for money so that the half-finished Stuck Rubber Baby could be completed.

So the paper isn’t yet stripped bare of its veterans, even if it has been a long, long time since anyone could refer to it in the same sentence as the word "underground" without smirking. Believe it or not, there was a time when the Voice seemed rooted in, or at least aligned with, the ‘Sixties counterculture. Not that it was ever the East Village Other. But it was "hip."

Cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer (of whom I first became aware when Mad magazine reprinted some Voice cartoons from a collection called Sick, Sick, Sick) staked his claim to fame in its pages. Arthur Bell showed that outrageous journalism could be published from a defiantly gay point of view without anybody getting lynched. This heartened me at a time when I was trying to figure out how out of the closet I dared be when the viability of my cartooning career was at stake.

Reassuringly, Arthur Bell showed that a homo could even be accepted into the heterosensibility-drenched pages of Playboy. Homo Howard Cruse eventually followed suit. (Briefly. But that’s another story for another time.)

I’m sure that talented writers will continue to find a place in the Voice, but there’s little to indicate that there’s much of the paper’s old soul left in those offices where I once felt welcome. And maybe the regret I feel is just a sign of my advancing old-fogeyness.

I miss the feeling that something funky and journalistically radical was afoot down in Greenwich Village. But I guess that gentrification will always have its way, no matter what time-honored neighborhood ghosts get displaced by its advance.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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