Ray Gun: Out of Control

Booth-Clibborn Editions; Simon and Schuster Editions, 1997

Editor and lead essayist

Since the publication of its first issue in 1992, Ray Gun has set the perimeters of the cutting edge in publishing. Abandoning such conventions as headlines, columns, and even page numbers, the alternative rock-and-roll magazine created a chaotic, abstract style that broke all the rules, clearing the way for a slew of fringe magazines devoted as much to style as to substance. This self-consciously hip, unconventional approach soon emerged on album covers, concert posters, and MTV, signaling the birth of a bona fide movement. The same irreverent approach to production is applied to Ray Gun: Out of Control, forcing you to wade through a maze of random graphics and typefaces to unearth the articles and essays. The search is half the fun, though, as the pieces are enough to capture your interest, even against the backdrop of so much graphic noise. — Amazon.com

In 1992, Ray Gun, an alternative rock-and-roll magazine, earned a reputation for radical graphic presentation that so challenged the conventions of legibility that its texts were reduced to textures. Its raucous graphic design set the standard for a kind of hip style of typographic tomfoolery that soon became the rave with countless other alternative-culture publications and on posters, packages and music videos. The traditional type hierarchies — headlines, subheads, body text and page numbers — were rejected in favor of unrelenting randomness. Text was allowed to bleed off the page in the middle of a paragraph, and in one issue an entire article was printed backward in an illegible typeface. Ray Gun’s first art director, David Carson, and his small army of designers made pages that were more like Abstract Expressionist canvases than magazine layouts. Rather than communicate ideas, they created auras that gave an impression of expression. The magazine was the harbinger of visual codes for the post-baby-boom generation, and it remains the granddaddy of edgy graphic magazines as well as a document of its time.

But RAY GUN: Out of Control (Simon & Schuster, $45), a celebratory compendium of covers and pages from the magazine and its sister publications, Bikini, Blah Blah Blah, huH and Stick, is not the best way to document this trend. This book, edited by Dean Kuipers and Chris Ashworth, looks more like a collection of printers’ errors than a book. And although the graphics are punctuated by interesting essays on the magazine’s brief history, they are lost amid the confusing morass of type and image. Now that the Ray Gun style has been adapted for mainstream television and print advertisements, this assemblage is more confusing than outrageous.– Steven Heller, The New York Times Book Review