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Keywords
cartoonists, comic books, comic strips, John Holmstrom, illustration, Video Games (magazine), Heavy Metal (magazine), magazines, print culture

Pushing Buttons

The Video Game Cartoons of John Holmstrom

Michael John Hughes (Trinity University)

Abstract

John Holmstrom is a celebrated writer and cartoonist best known for cofounding Punk magazine in 1975. He later chronicled the counterculture for High Times, restoring the magazine’s reputation for subversive humor and advocacy journalism. But less remembered is Holmstrom’s career as a video game critic. Between 1981 and 1985, Holmstrom would document the emergence of video games as a cultural force to be reckoned with. An adolescence steeped in trash culture—comics, wrestling, and rock ʼn’ roll—sensitized Holmstrom to the value of games at a time when many commentators viewed them with condescension. In Heavy Metal and the short-lived Video Games, Holmstrom published pieces that challenged skepticism of the medium. His career in games journalism lasted fewer than four years, but his work can be read as an alternative history of the different directions that games culture could have gone had it not been extinguished by the video game crash of 1983.

Late Winter, 1983

In a certain East Village apartment, the phosphor glow of tube television bathes the walls in blue light, cold like the weather. On a couch, two men crouch over joysticks, deciphering the pixel glyphs of video games.

“I’m gettin’ points! Is that points or a clock?”1

Two men playing video games. Hardly the stuff of history, but for the players themselves. One, Jeffrey Ross Hyman, needs no introduction except to note his stage name, Joey Ramone. But Player 2? He’s the one who recorded for posterity this minor moment in the history of video games, the guy who would render the scene as crude comics in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine. A guy named John Holmstrom (see fig. 1).

Figure 1

Joey Ramone plays four Imagic games for Atari 2600: Atlantis , Firefighter , Riddle of the Sphinx , and Demon Attack. Published in Heavy Metal , April 1983. (Image courtesy of John Holmstrom)

Holmstrom isn’t a household name, but he’s well-known to chroniclers of the punk-rock subculture that grew in the beer-humid darkness of CBGB, the legendary East Village rock club. In 1975, Holmstrom cofounded Punk magazine, a house organ of the movement that would soon share its name. Punk distinguished itself from slick magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone by coupling the irreverence of Mad with the earthiness of comix. Its pop nihilism suited the members of a disillusioned decade, its attitude matching, even amplifying, the music’s standard-issue sneer. Four years later, Punk was finished, a victim of converging crises both tragic and quotidian.2 Holmstrom returned to freelancing, a side hustle he had never completely given up. Among the jobs offered him was a monthly column reviewing video games for Heavy Metal, an illustrated magazine where the Comics Code had no authority. The timing was ideal, and not only because Holmstrom was broke. Punk rock was dead (though not for the last time). The Sex Pistols had broken up. The Dead Boys, too. CBGB started charging a cover, driving its regulars to the New Wave–friendly Mudd Club. Holmstrom, alienated by the new sound, found an accordant one in an unexpected place. “There was a Space Invaders game at my local pizza place,” he explains. “That was like punk rock. That throbbing noise, and the way killing the space bugs felt. To me it was more rock ʼn’ roll than the music” (emphasis in original).3

Holmstrom wrote about games the way players found them, in all their messy contradiction. His reviews were probing, reflective, and just plain weird at a time when most reviews, if they were published at all, dispensed dry imperatives or consumer advice. He worked in the comics medium that gave Punk its visual identity, covering games with the same flippant, prankish, stoopid-smart attitude that made Punk a bible for the Blank Generation.4 Holmstrom’s career in games journalism lasted fewer than four years, but his work can be read as a counterfactual argument about the different direction that games culture could have gone, of an elevated if occasionally crass coverage that pitched a bigger tent for readers than the just-for-kids media that would come to define video games in the decades that followed.

The Next Big Thing

Holmstrom grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a “neat and Waspy” town where “the kids go to college and have fathers like Ward Cleaver.”5Cheshire’s good schools and manicured cul-de-sacs appealed to boomer parents, but such things were like prison walls to certain of their children. Legs McNeil, Punk cofounder and Holmstrom’s high school acquaintance, remembers Cheshire as “the town that was our parents’ dream but our nightmare. The bastion of everything we hated.”6

Comedy proved an ideal vehicle for venting that hatred, and Holmstrom, like many kids of his generation, found release by emulating his comedy heroes. The Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges inspired a brief career on stage, but it was the funny men of funny books that Holmstrom most admired. He filled the margins of his notebooks with doodles derived from Steve Ditko, cocreator of Spider-Man, and Don Martin, the Mad artist whose jug-eared, long-chinned everyman is almost as synonymous with the magazine as Alfred E. Neuman.7 Holmstrom was also enamored of comix artists like Bill Griffith, Gilbert Shelton, and R. Crumb, the last of whom would later write a long missive to Punk expressing a begrudging admiration for the magazine.8

Holmstrom yearned for the stir of New York City. After graduating from high school in 1972, he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. On arriving he was dismayed to discover that cartooning, long a part of SVA’s heritage, had been dropped from the curriculum. Holmstrom and two classmates buttonholed Silas Rhodes, the school’s president, and petitioned him to restore classes in cartooning.9 To their surprise he consented. And rather than hiring hacks, Rhodes aimed about as high as it was possible to do. He hired Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine, and Will Eisner, an artist of such distinction that to summarize his accomplishments is to inadvertently slight the man. Holmstrom studied under their tutelage for two years, during which time he absorbed lessons on the business of cartooning from guest speakers such as Jack Davis, Gil Kane, and Bill Griffith. In fact, it was Griffith who advised Holmstrom to publish his own comics rather than jockeying to join the bullpen at Marvel (life-changing advice, it would turn out).10 But money was tight. Holmstrom, unable to afford both rent and tuition, was forced to drop out. Eisner hired him as a part-time assistant, and Kurtzman introduced him to “Jovial” Bob Stine, later known to legions of impressionable children as R. L. Stine, impresario of the Goosebumps publishing empire. Stine was then editor of Bananas, a Scholastic magazine for teenagers. For him, Holmstrom created Joe, a comic strip that ran from 1975 to 1984. “It was a great gig,” Holmstrom says. “Three hundred dollars per strip, and back then you could get an apartment in New York for a hundred dollars a month.”11

Contract work kept him fed, but Griffith’s advice burned hot in Holmstrom’s mind. If he couldn’t finish his studies at SVA, he would strike out and make a name for himself. He reunited with two friends from Cheshire, Ged Dunn and Legs McNeil (see fig. 2). The trio searched for a project to suit their hodgepodge of ambitions, forming a film company, which quickly foundered, then a publishing company based on Holmstrom’s brush with comic-book cognoscenti. Holmstrom envisioned a magazine covering youth culture––music, comics, and fashion––but one with multimedia synergy. The magazine would have a slideshow component inspired by Vaughn Bode’s Cartoon Concert, an illustrated performance that could be booked at clubs. Slides could even be sold as advertising space.12 Magazine and slideshow would mutually reinforce each other, making artistic use of an emerging technology. But this idea for an Electronic Comic, which was to have been its name, was shot down by his collaborators. Too confusing, too corny. But a magazine covering punk rock? That they could go for. In January 1976, the first issue of Punk, a fanzine with professional aspirations, was unleashed on an unsuspecting city (see fig. 3).

Figure 2

From left to right: Ged Dunn, Legs McNeil, and John Holmstrom at CBGB in 1976. (Reproduction courtesy of Roberta Bayley)

Figure 3

Lou Reed depicted as Frankenstein’s creature. Illustrated by Holmstrom, published in Punk , January 1976. (Reproduction courtesy of John Holmstrom)

Punk was more than a journal of generational tastemakers such as Patti Smith, the Ramones, and the New York Dolls; it was also a talent incubator. Punk published Robert Bayley’s first photographs, including a shoot that supplied the cover of the Ramones’s first record. Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and American Psycho (2000), reported features for the magazine. Not all contributors achieved such notoriety, but Punk gave them an audience nonetheless, a foot in the door and a platform from which to be seen. Many enjoyed careers of status and influence, however small the public fanfare. Among them was the writer Lou Stathis.

Triumph of the Weird

Stathis was a science-fiction fan and music lover who wrote in a fizzy style of alliterative slang and lacerating wit. A Queens native, “he shot from the hip, in his best Lester Bangs sneer.”13 He is depicted, in a photograph by Jeff Schalles, exactly as we’d imagine such a creature: seated before a typewriter, surrounded by precarious stacks of paperback books (see fig. 4). At one time or another, Stathis’s name could be found on the mastheads of High Times, Reflex, and Heavy Metal. By 1993, he had joined the editorial team at Vertigo, a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics, working under the lauded Karen Berger on future classics like Hellblazer, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol. But in the 1970s he was a letterhack, a habitué of letter columns in mimeographed fanzines. He cut his teeth in their pages, including his own Rhinocratic Oaths. In 1978, he sent an unsolicited manuscript to John Holmstrom, a reappraisal of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which Holmstrom published in Punk, number 16. “I never met him at the time,” Holmstrom says. “I was surprised when we met up that, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m the guy who wrote “Triumph of the Will.”’”14 That meetup would come three years later when the two were reunited in the pages of Heavy Metal, only now their roles were reversed.

Figure 4

Lou Stathis in his New York City rooftop apartment, 1986. (Reproduction courtesy of Creative Commons license BY-SA 3.0)

Stathis had joined the magazine at the invitation of Ted White, a jazz critic and veteran editor of pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, Fantastic, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. White grew close to Stathis on learning of their shared interest in rock music and sci-fi. “We ran in the same circles,” White says, describing their meeting as “inevitable” given fandom’s incestuousness. But it was hardly inevitable that White would hire Stathis; that came down to the “uncommon vigor” of his writing and his wide-ranging, sophisticated tastes.15 White took a particular pleasure in nurturing talent and quickly recognized his young friend’s potential.16 In fact, White was instrumental in launching Stathis’s career. He hired him to write a music column for Fantastic, but only a single installment was published before White quit over a budgetary dispute, sinking Stathis’s column in the process. A year later, White was hired to invigorate Heavy Metal, to take the magazine in a different direction from Métal Hurlant, its French progenitor. Leonard Mogel, Heavy Metal’s publisher, gave White a mandate: publish more prose in the magazine, which to that point had consisted mainly of second-run comics in translation. To do so, White devised a series of columns on movies, comics, science fiction, and rock music, the last by Stathis. “I talked him into it, but I didn’t have to twist his arm or anything,” White says.17 The idea was to integrate fandom’s logophilia with Heavy Metal’s picture pages. As if to make it harder for comics fans to escape the articles, White insisted they be interleaved throughout the magazine. “I didn’t want the material to be segregated in a particular section, with comics in the other sections and no real connection between the two. That didn't strike me as a very organic magazine,” White says.18

Stathis shared this philosophy. Although White was unceremoniously fired after a single year at the helm, Stathis would continue his conception of the magazine, albeit in greatly reduced form.19 He was appointed associate editor and given responsibility for Dossier, Heavy Metal’s magazine within a magazine.

Dossier comprised several pages of curated news and opinion from expert spelunkers of the country’s subcultures. It situated the magazine’s soft-core space opera in a larger cultural economy, one catering to the escapism of Reagan-era geeks. Stathis, a mass-culture geomancer, sensed the latent energy linking synth-pop, horror movies, and pulp paperbacks. In Dossier, the boundaries separating Art from Not-art existed only as typesetting lines separating one column from another. In this respect, Heavy Metal became a little more like the fanzines from which Stathis had graduated, which rarely limited themselves to a single topic. Once asked if he saw “a correlation between alternative music and today’s comics,” Stathis answered expansively, setting out his editorial sensibility.

I see connections between all vital forms of popular art. At Heavy Metal and Reflex, we would feature side-by-side profiles of guys like Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, the Residents, Sun Ra, Voivod, Ice Cube, Francis Coppola, David Cronenberg, Susan Sontag (by Samuel R. Delany), James Ellroy (by Lewis Shiner), Kathy Acker, Neil Gaiman (who also interviewed Lou Reed for us), Alan Moore, Moebius, Brian Bolland, and Dave McKean––as if they all deserved commensurate attention (they do).

The idea was––and still is––that it’s all in the mix, and to erect barriers between, say, comics and music, to ignore the noise from any part of the system, is counterproductive and just plain stupid. Most of the artists and writers I know listen to and take inspiration from music while they work. Most of the musicians I know read comics and get off on the imagery. There’s an intense, cross-cultural/media conversation going on, and all you have to do to hear it is stop listening selectively.20

Video games are conspicuously absent from this list, but they were surely part of Stathis’s precept. After all, video games could be fairly described as a cross-cultural conversation in and of themselves. Take Donkey Kong for example, which freely cribbed from comic strips (Popeye), fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast), and Hollywood movies (King Kong). Even its famous music bears more than a passing resemblance to the theme from Dragnet.21 Other games from the period were no less inhibited in weaving brocade from various strands of popular culture. Small wonder that Dossier should admit games to its pages starting with Heavy Metal’s October 1981 issue. And who better to cover the beat than Stathis’s old boss, John Holmstrom?

From Punk to Heavy Metal

By the summer of 1981, Punk had been dead for two years. The same could be said of the scene that Punk covered, according to Holmstrom anyway. He felt then as many vanguardians have since: that he had lost sight of a scene he once stood astride. The music, the attitude, the aesthetics: all had been co-opted, adulterated, or mutated into something he no longer recognized, and of which he wanted no part. Holmstrom crystallized his disillusionment in a cover illustration for the East Village Eye, a spiritual successor to Punk. He and Legs McNeil are depicted sitting on a curb, presumably bounced to that position, outside a “Super-Hip New Wave Disco Club.” Yuppies queue behind them, eager to pay the fifty-dollar cover charge. Holmstrom, beer in hand, says, “Well, Legs, we blew it!” while a skinny hipster looks upon the bedraggled duo. “Who are you?” he asks them (see fig. 5).

Figure 5

Punk’s (not) dead. Illustrated by John Holmstrom, published in East Village Eye , June 1980. (Reproduction courtesy of John Holmstrom)

It wasn’t the first time Holmstrom had posed himself this question. He had always conceived of Punk as a marriage of comics and rock ʼn’ roll, seeing in the two a time-honored and iconoclastic affinity.22 But by the magazine’s final issue, music was losing ground to his first interest. “By this point, I was really thinking of making Punk a humor magazine instead of a rock magazine,” he once admitted.23 Soon after, Holmstrom made good on this ambition, cofounding a tabloid called Comical Funnies with Peter Bagge, later of Hate fame. But Funnies lasted just three issues, folding in 1981. In 1982 he would make a third try at self-publishing with Stop!, a lowbrow humor rag in the vein of National Lampoon. Meanwhile, he continued freelancing to make ends meet. When the invitation to write for Heavy Metal arrived, Holmstrom jumped at the opportunity.

It wasn’t only his cartoons that interested Heavy Metal editors. Holmstrom had an enthusiasm for video games that was unusual for the time. Whereas casual players dabbled between loads at the laundromat, Holmstrom cast the pastime in terms of addiction, describing arcade games as “video dope.”24 Space Invaders was his gateway drug, but he was first primed by pinball, which had been outlawed in New York City since 1942.25 When the ban was lifted, Bally’s Captain Fantastic––a table inspired by the Who’s Tommy and featuring the likeness of Elton John––was installed in CBGB. “Everybody got into pinball,” Holmstrom says.26 Supergroups of a sort formed around the table’s flippers as scenesters like Dee Dee Ramone and David Johansen played the silver ball. In 1979, the summer of Punk’s demise, Holmstrom wrote an article about pinball for High Times, his first for a magazine he would later lead as executive editor (see fig. 6). Did this article, “A Cheater’s Guide to Pinball,” linger in the memory of a Heavy Metal editor? Perhaps a fellow arcade-goer recommended Holmstrom as someone knowledgeable of the scene. The particulars of the meet-cute have grown fuzzy over time.27 Whatever the circumstances, word of Holmstrom’s ludophilia made its way to Heavy Metal’s copy chiefs during the fall of 1981.

Figure 6

From left to right: David Johansen, Jon Tiven, Dee Dee Ramone, and Andy Paley playing pinball at CBGB, 1977. (Reproduction arranged with Richelle DeLora)

By this time White had been sacked, the victim of a restive readership. Text had proved no match for titillation. “Heavy Metal is an illustrated magazine, and prose seemed to be getting away from that concept,” wrote Leonard Mogel in an editorial announcing White’s departure.28 He was replaced by Brad Balfour, who condensed the prose columns into a short section, whole unto itself, that would eventually become Dossier (it ran for two installments as “Ri-'vyü-əd,” a phonetic respelling too fussy to survive). Balfour retained some of White’s contributors, including Stathis who returned to the magazine in June 1981. In October, he published Holmstrom’s first piece for the magazine, a review of Space Panic, a little-remembered but influential coin-op that Chris Crawford described as “the granddaddy of all platform games.”29 At just two hundred words, “Space Panic!” was an inauspicious debut. It didn’t help that Panic never hooked players the way Frogger or Galaga did. Still, the review is notable for two reasons. First, Holmstrom assumes nothing. Video games were novel enough that he feels he must orient readers to the childhood fantasies that such games fulfill: “of being the commander of a Galaxian spaceship or a tank commander, a race-car driver, or even a berserk killer trapped by robots.”30 Second, Holmstrom variously attributes game actions to “the man” and “you, the player,” an early example of player-character identification, the phenomenon in which players unconsciously conflate themselves with the avatar they control.31

“Space Panic!” must have seemed a one-off to close observers because Holmstrom vanished from the magazine thereafter. Eight months elapsed, during which Balfour was moved to special projects, allegedly for making unwanted advances toward a company secretary (Balfour denies this).32 As Balfour slipped down the masthead, Stathis rose like a counterweight to take his place. Made a contributing editor in February 1982, he was by May editing Dossier with Daphne Davis, another Metal contributor. In July, Stathis returned Holmstrom to the magazine with a review of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, still hot more than a year after its debut. There followed a mostly unbroken line of Holmstrom columns that would last until March 1984, appearing sporadically thereafter. Holmstrom wrote about the business of video games and their influence on the culture. He published offbeat items at the intersection of games and rock music, like the aforementioned “Joey Ramone Reviews Imagic.” And he reviewed games. His reviews resemble diary entries, and not only because he hand-lettered his copy as in the Punk days. Sentences spill forth in a discursive stream. Ideas introduced in one sentence are abandoned in the next, as if jotted down between play sessions. The tone is jocular, irreverent. Sometimes the jokes are off-color, in keeping with Heavy Metal’s adult sensibility, but often these jokes yield surprising insights. In his review of Robotron: 2084, for example, Holmstrom notes a logical problem––and some unpleasant implications––in the game’s premise. As the Robotron Hero, players are tasked with saving the last human family from an army of murderous robots. “You score big by saving family members … but you never find out if they live or die. It really wouldn’t matter though. Even if the last human family made it past the Hulk, Tank, Grunt, and Brain Robotrons, the incest that would be necessary for the human race to survive would produce a race of morons, cretins, and imbeciles. On the other hand, the more things would change, the more they’d stay the same.”33 This echo of Punk’s nihilism is found in other tongue-in-cheek observations: that gays “aren’t worth saving because they don’t form family units,” that Robotron’s scenario is “good news for racists [because] the last human family is white.”34 Implications such as these, unconsciously encoded in otherwise harmless design choices, escaped the notice of most players. Holmstrom pointed them out with glee, employing offensiveness, per Camille Paglia, “as a tool of attack against received opinion and unexamined assumptions.”35 Not that profundity always trumped an instinct for puerility. Dig Dug wins praise because “blowing up the red monsters is nice, like popping zits.”36 And in a lukewarm review of Bally Midway’s Tron, Holmstrom imagines all the beer that could be had for “30 million bucks,” the estimated cost of the film’s production.37

But at his most sober, Holmstrom wrote about video games with uncommon admiration. In his review of Tempest, he dispenses with jokes, writing instead with high-minded seriousness, as if anticipating the game’s inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art. He likens Tempest, a shooter of rainbow-hued vectors, not to other games but to “participatory conceptual art from the seventies and psychedelic op art from the sixties.”38 Each instance of play, Holmstrom argues, constitutes a “performance” in which a player’s decisions produce different visual displays. Leaving aside the ontological questions raised by such a claim, it’s striking that Holmstrom would attempt such a challenge, and in Heavy Metal no less.39 There are just nineteen sentences in this review, but Holmstrom uses all of them to elevate his subject. Tempest isn’t just a video game, it’s “abstract video art at its finest.” The game isn’t merely played but performed, collapsing distinctions between artist and spectator, between high art and low. Whether such claims are defensible is almost beside the point. In them we see Holmstrom’s clairvoyance and the candor of naivete. Luxuriating in low art had sensitized Holmstrom to the virtues of the new and dubious, allying himself to a sentiment best expressed by Anton Ego, the imperious critic in Pixar’s Ratatouille, who delivers a stirring meditation on the responsibility of critics to discover and defend the new. “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations,” Ego says (in a voice-over by Peter O’Toole). “The new needs friends.”40 Holmstrom was such a friend. He had a penchant for championing art from the margins. He wasn’t just accustomed to consuming culture that elites held in low esteem, he was proud of the association. His own work kicked against the norms of acceptable inquiry and good taste, eschewing nuance to revel in the tawdry, taboo-busting pleasures of dime novels and dirty jokes, creature features and comic books, the underbelly stuff that chin strokers would hold up for reappraisal decades later.

Moreover, Holmstrom came of age during a period of mass-culture multiplicity, rich in products and evolving at an accelerating pace. He was conditioned by that rate of change, made tolerant by it, and more open. Holmstrom didn’t need a working knowledge of Marshall McLuhan to understand the implications of “electric speed,” the “easy recognition of the patterns and the formal contours of change and development” instilled by churn in the popular culture. And he knew from experience that McLuhan was correct about the “pseudo” classification applied to new media “by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.”41 So in 1975, when the protopunk Dictators barked, “I’m the next big thing,” Holmstrom knew it was true. And so it was with Tempest. Where others saw a pastime, Holmstrom saw the future. He peered into the cabinet’s scrying glass and returned, overawed, to share what he’d seen. His Tempest review is written with the fervor of the newly converted. “Like it or not,” he writes, “video games are truly a new art form and deserve to be recognized as such.”42 (See fig. 7.)

Figure 7

Pyramid Head precursor. Published in Heavy Metal , September 1982. (Reproduction courtesy of John Holmstrom)

Holmstrom had found religion, but others had more secular reasons for getting into games. Pragmatic publishers sensed the emergence of an underserved market of hobbyists. These gamers, as they would soon be known, were hungry for information about the video games then appearing in pizza parlors and convenience stores, and on home consoles like Mattel’s Intellivision and Atari’s Video Computer System. In 1981, Heavy Metal was one of several consumer magazines to begin covering video games. The United Kingdom’s Computer and Video Games was the first magazine dedicated to the subject. Its US equivalent, Electronic Games, followed just two weeks later, debuting the same month as Holmstrom’s first column for Heavy Metal. A craze was on. By 1984, there were eighteen magazines covering computer and video games in North America alone. One of them would make Holmstrom a full-fledged games reporter.

The Life and Times of Video Games

Steve Bloom had decided to take a risk. On learning that Pumpkin Press was seeking an editor for a new magazine about video games, Bloom, a music journalist, rode an elevator to the company’s offices in the Empire State Building and swaggered into an interview. “I kind of walked in with a lot of attitude,” Bloom remembers. “Like, ‘I’m your guy. If you don’t hire me you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.’ And honestly, I didn’t have any professional experience as an editor at that time; I only had my college experience. But I got the job.”43

Bloom may have blustered his way into the position, but he knew the bailiwick. He was a self-described arcade rat who came by his knowledge honestly. In January 1980, he penned a cover story for SoHo Weekly News, “The Video Invaders,” in which he explained the Space Invaders craze then sweeping the nation. Arcades engendered a culture of honor where status was made visible in high-score rankings. Losing to a computer was an intolerable affront to one’s dignity, even to one’s manhood. “Moments ago you coughed up a piece of change to pass the time. Now you have been transformed. Pride, ego, and all your macho reserve ... have taken over. For one goddam quarter I’m not going to let that stinking hunk of junk whup my butt. No way, man. Plunk plunk. Fizzle, fizzle. Suddenly you’re running to that guy with all the quarters around his belt. Hooked.”44 His SoHo story caught the eye of Bob Mecoy, an editor at Arco Publishing. Mecoy wanted a strategy guide, how to beat Space Invaders. Bloom countered with a proposal that became 1982’s Video Invaders, a book ostensibly for juveniles but one containing the first serious history of the medium. He’d been filling the coin trays of arcade games since their electromechanical days; now he wrote about them for a living.

The book brought Bloom to the attention of Cheh Nam Low, publisher of Pumpkin Press. Low was no gamer; he was keen on barbells, not buttons. He published Wrestling’s Main Event and later founded the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation.45 In 1985, he capitalized on a fitness fad with Exercise for Men Only, a magazine that doubled as samizdat for a devoted gay readership. But Low’s interest in games, or lack thereof, was irrelevant to the opportunity they presented. The boom years of 1979 to 1982 had spawned a cottage industry that fed, and fed upon, the country’s electronic daydreams. Strategy guides like How to Master the Video Games and Secrets of the Video Game Superstars pledged to induct players into the mysteries of maze games. Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever,” a novelty song of insidious stickiness, spent sixteen weeks on the Billboard Top 200, peaking at number twenty-four in May 1982.46 Holmstrom even reviewed the gewgaws of these “fast-buck artists” in an October 1982 column for Heavy Metal.47

Low wasn’t above making a fast buck. If video games were a fad, they were too lucrative to ignore. In 1982, the market for home video games was worth an estimated $3.8 billion. Arcade games raked in more than twice that amount, $8 billion, a figure made more impressive for being measured in twenty-five-cent increments.48 Video Games would be the means by which Low would claim his share of the bounty, namely by tapping the industry’s ad spend. Bloom, now editor of the country’s second-ever consumer gaming magazine, would deliver the readers that advertisers hoped to reach. It helped that he was no cynic. Whatever his boss thought of the industry or its long-term prospects, Bloom was a believer. His first editorial begins, “Video games aren’t a fad. What do you think about that?” (emphasis in original).49

Joining Bloom to make a case for these “delightfully hedonistic playthings” was a pair of Pumpkin Press writers, Michael Greenberg and Perry Greenberg, who’d been writing for Wrestling’s Main Event.50 Copy editor David Smith and managing editor Sue Adamo soon followed. Bloom needed more content than this skeleton crew could provide, but specialists were elusive. Few people knew or cared enough about games to “actually do the job at that time.”51 In search of freelancers, Bloom called Bob Mecoy, who wound up writing several articles for Video Games. But he brought more than his own prose to the magazine. It was Mecoy who “tipped me off to John,” Bloom says.52

For Bloom, the hire was unremarkable. Holmstrom had cachet in the city’s subculture, but above ground his name met with shrugs. “I wasn’t a punk fan. I wasn’t even aware of Punk magazine,” Bloom says. “Although I knew the music scene, punk was just not on my radar. So I wasn’t familiar with John. I didn’t know who he was.”53 Not that notoriety figured into Bloom’s decision. He had deadlines to meet. He needed the pages the ex-punk could give him. Thus, Holmstrom made his Video Games debut in the magazine’s first issue. His piece, “Hey, Buddy! Can You Spare a Quarter?,” is a two-page curio that reads like a compilation of his Heavy Metal columns. In six vignettes he blasts “parents and civic leaders” as joyless luddites, greeting games with the same know-nothing disapproval they rained on “comic books, rock ʼn’ roll, and T.V.” He bemoans the computer-controlled opponents of games like Centipede and Asteroids as faceless and nonthreatening. “We need more tastelessness in game design,” he writes. “Why not vid versions of Kill the Commies or Nuke the Nazis?”54 He plays a smart-ass psychoanalyst, arguing that women are drawn to Pac-Man because the character “engulfs its opponents” in contrast to the “phallic symbols shooting bullets or rockets at foreign bodies.”55 Such jokes, grown-up yet lowbrow, and pitched somewhere between Mad and Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny, are typical of Holmstrom but jarring from a contemporary vantage. It’s not that they’re offensive, exactly. Even in bad taste Holmstrom’s cartoons are too good-natured to provoke much in the way of outrage. Rather, they seem today as incongruous as the ads for Cutty Sark whisky and Finlandia vodka that also ran in Video Games’ first issue. They remind us that video games were not yet the exclusive province of children, or of adults who ought to know better. Instead, “Hey, Buddy!” evokes arcades as Holmstrom and other players knew them, as the latest in a long line of adult-skewing leisure centers stretching back to the penny arcades of the early twentieth century (see fig. 8).

Figure 8

Holmstrom channels Yip Harburg. Excerpt from “Hey, Buddy! Can You Spare a Quarter?.” Published in Video Games , August 1982. (Reproduction courtesy of John Holmstrom)

In 1982, adults were a coveted demographic, and not only as a conduit to kid consumers. Home consoles were often marketed as toys, but they had adult players. Video Games offered an unusual mix of features designed to reach them. In addition to news, play strategies, and product reviews, the magazine featured sophisticated journalism of the kind found in trade magazines, an implicit insistence that games merited serious consideration. Take an issue from March 1983 for example. It features a profile of women game designers such as Centipede’s Dona Bailey and Joust’s Janice Hendricks, and a roundtable discussion on video games and mental health with academics such as Joyce Brothers and Philip Zimbardo. The magazine also interviewed industry workers—not just star designers like Tim Skelly but executives and other professionals, too. Holmstrom’s “lighter side of” cartoons fit well in this mix. His work added levity and color, literally and figuratively in the last case. He also doubled as a de facto art director, using his connections with cartoonists to make the magazine as playful as the products it covered. Video Games included comics by Punk alumni Ken Weiner and Peter Bagge. It also featured Zydroid Legion, a serialized comic strip not unlike The Last Starfighter, written by none other than Stathis. Even Bill Griffith, Holmstrom’s one-time mentor, appears in these pages, contributing a Zippy the Pinhead strip to the magazine’s February 1983 issue. Holmstrom himself supplied two installments of Bernie, a strip starring a mild-mannered derivative of his signature character, Bosko, first seen in Comical Funnies (see figs. 9 and 10).

Figure 9

You win some, you lose some. Excerpt from “Bernie,” published in Video Games , October 1982. (Reproduction courtesy of John Holmstrom)

Figure 10

Bosko and bongos meet the Ramones. ( Comical Funnies , published 1980)

Bloom soon learned enough of Holmstrom’s background to revel in it. He sings Holmstrom’s praises in a January 1983 editorial, and he published Holmstrom’s work in every issue he edited—all seven of them. By May 1983, Bloom had left the magazine, less than a year after his appointment. Things had gone south with Cheh Low. Bloom is cagey on specifics, saying only that “it wasn’t a terrible falling out.”56 But there was also his marriage to consider. Bloom, then a newlywed, was pulling long hours at the office, including occasional sleepovers. His wife resented his absence, and she was nonplussed by his ludophilia. Bloom had started as a music journalist; why had he traded soul music for sound effects? “She didn’t quite understand me sitting around at home playing games all the time. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be going to concerts or something like that, or doing something else that’s not frivolous or childish?’ There didn’t seem to be a lot of respect for the new direction in my career,” Bloom says.57 That direction, the merger of vocation with avocation, was never just about passion but simple economics, too. Bloom got his start in music journalism, but those assignments weren’t paying the bills. In search of other beats, Bloom pitched articles on sports, on cannabis culture––and on video games. Publishing “The Video Invaders” set Bloom on an unexpected trajectory. He caromed from SoHo to Arco to the top job at Video Games––but at last games fell outside of Bloom’s orbit. He started freelancing again. He published Watch Out for the Little Guys, a book about diminutive basketball players, and later joined High Times as news editor, the beginning of a career in cannabis that continues to this day. About video games, Bloom was half right. They weren’t a fad except where he himself was concerned. “It was a lark to do that for a year,” he says. “It was kind of a blip in my career, to be honest.”58

To replace Bloom, Low turned to Roger C. Sharpe. Today, Sharpe is remembered for helping to legalize pinball in New York City, but in 1983 he was better known as a veteran of magazine publishing.59 In 1974, he joined Gentleman’s Quarterly as associate editor. Under his influence, the fashion magazine began expanding its lifestyle coverage, including articles on pinball. Those articles arous ed interest from E. P. Dutton, which in 1977 published Pinball!, a lavishly illustrated mash note to Sharpe’s favorite machines. Writing the book acquainted Sharpe with industry people and led to freelance work for the trade magazines Cash Box and Play Meter. His growing knowledge of the industry, coupled with editorial savvy, made him an in-demand marketing consultant for publishers like Coleco and Mattel. It was in this capacity that Sharpe first met Cheh Nam Low, not in search of work but to see if Video Games would sponsor a promotion for Konami’s Track and Field. Low considered Sharpe’s proposal, then made a surprising counteroffer: did he have any ideas for a magazine? Low wanted something to rival GQ and tried to entice Sharpe into creating a competitor. The two compromised instead on the magazine that became Easy Home Computer. “I felt there was a need and a void for a beginner magazine,” Sharpe says. “Cheh was interested in that.”60 Easy Home Computer launched as a special section in the February 1983 issue of Video Games. It was more than a magazine within a magazine; it was an entrée. Three months later Sharpe returned to Video Games, this time as its editor.

Sharpe wasted no time imposing his editorial sensibility on the house that Bloom built, a consequence not of hubris but of hurry. His first issue, featuring a cover story on the New York Toy Fair, was assembled in less than a week, a feat his deputies told him was impossible.61 And it would have been had it not been for two things. Sharpe kept current on industry news by moonlighting for the competition. He reviewed coin-ops for Electronic Games under a pseudonym, Jay Carter. And he had a staff of contributors already in place, including Holmstrom. Like Bloom, Sharpe was only passingly familiar with Punk magazine. His haunt was the Village Vanguard, not CBGB. Nevertheless, he kept Holmstrom on staff. “John seemed suitable,” Sharpe recalls. Holmstrom had contributed only a few prose pieces to the magazine, but Sharpe spied promise in them, like silver in a seam of ore. It was a particular pleasure of Sharpe’s to develop raw talent. Rick Mitz started under him at GQ and later developed sitcoms with the legendary Norman Lear.62 Jonathan Sacks, eventual president and publisher of InfoWorld, cowrote with Sharpe The Commodore 64 User’s Guide. “It was nice to give all of these people a chance to realize whatever their ultimate opportunities could be,” Sharpe says. “Whether they believed it was possible or not, I at least had the door open ajar for them.” Not that every tyro stepped through of his own volition. “In some cases, I dragged them through or kicked them through,” Sharpe says.63

Holmstrom didn’t need tough love, but the new arrangement still proved nettlesome. Where Bloom had been a friend, Sharpe was a boss. And the boss had ideas about making Video Games “more adult versus teenage.”64 Sharpe, then thirty-four, was old enough to have weathered the vicissitudes of the publishing industry. His editorial philosophy was shaped by experience on both sides of the process. As a writer, he had worked with editors ranging from microtyrants to laissez-faire types. A.C.T., Attention Control Training (1979), a book he wrote with the sports psychologist Robert Nideffer, was given such cursory treatment by its editor that Sharpe never again took proofreading for granted. When he began wielding the red pen himself, Sharpe discovered that working with amateur writers, whatever the eventual pleasures in seeing them blossom, required “a lot of hand-holding and a lot of hard line-editing.”65 This was especially true at Video Games. As Bloom had learned, inventing games journalism meant negotiating in a seller’s market. “You didn’t have publishing people,” Sharpe explains, “you had game people. Their skills were not in editorial; their skills were in providing succinct, readable information. So it was a question of trying to take it from freshman high school English to something that might have been sophomore-year college.”66 Elevating the tone required a greater degree of intervention, of rounding off rough edges in a writer’s prose. But just as overzealous film restoration mistakes grain for noise, stripping out good and bad alike, so went the Holmstrom in Holmstrom’s writing. His freewheeling interpretations and provocations were fitted for the starchy uniform of house style. His hand-lettered illustrations were replaced with printouts and photostats. The magazine became “more corporate” in Holmstrom’s telling, its editor “more stodgy.” “He just wanted me to describe the controls and the gameplay,” Holmstrom says. “It was like, ‘Check off the formula for the review instead of doing something creative that nobody’s seen before.’”67 Sharpe chuckles at this now-distant charge. He disputes the particulars but not the broad outlines of Holmstrom’s characterization. “I wouldn't necessarily have described myself as stodgy so much as being somewhat controlling, in the way of wanting to uplift the level of editorial content. But stodgy would probably have been correct back then, [in terms of] inhibiting people's creativity to go off on tangents.”68

The change in editorial style came quickly into focus. Consider April 1983’s “Was There Life Before Space Invaders?,” an article written for Bloom. In it, Holmstrom waxes nostalgic for gallows humor in games. He repeats a rumor that players of Exidy’s Death Race were running over “little old ladies,” not gremlins as stated in the game’s manual. And about Bazooka, Holmstrom notes that targeting ambulances “didn’t do much for your score, but nevertheless left you with the satisfaction of a job well done.”69 A month later such impertinence had been purged from his writing. Holmstrom’s May column, edited by Sharpe, is staid by comparison. His genial puns are preserved, as are the first-person pronouns by which he renders verdicts on Popeye, Pole Position, and Super Pac-Man. But the descriptions are straightforward and the shape of a template is discernible. There’s a sense of interchangeability, that anyone on the masthead could have written these reviews. At Video Games, at least, Holmstrom’s expressive era had come to an end.

A Clean Break (Let’s Work)

If Holmstrom was frustrated by the check on his creativity he was also earning $300 per page.70 Sharpe’s tutelage had improved his prose, loath though he may have been to admit it. He was writing at greater length, in greater detail, in the anodyne voice of objectivity. All of this made him attractive to future editors, including one of his Video Games colleagues. Anne Krueger, a regular contributor to the magazine, wrote several of its most memorable articles, including the aforementioned profile of women in the games industry, and a sardonic report from 1983’s summer Consumer Electronics Show (“five days surrounded by hoopla and hype and ‘major announcements,’ many of which never come to pass”).71 On the strength of such work, Krueger was hired by Scholastic to edit K-Power, a magazine pitched at pubescent computer geeks. On leaving Video Games, she took Holmstrom with her. He was something of an overgrown kid, after all. His playful sensibility suited K-Power’s purpose, and he had a proven track record at Scholastic, having contributed for years to Bananas magazine.

Holmstrom was given the title of associate editor and made responsible for Compuzine, the magazine’s news section. He also solicited stories for Scrolling in Dough, a recurring feature about readers making money from computing. Despite these expanded duties, Holmstrom remained “very low on the totem pole.”72 Still, he left his mark on the magazine in ways he hadn’t done since his earliest work for Video Games. In March 1984, he worked with John Jainschigg, the magazine’s resident programmer, to produce “Program Along with Joey Ramone.” The article includes several versions of a type-in program that would blurt chiptune renditions of “Slug,” a rejected cut from the Ramones’ Road to Ruin. Readers who compiled the program were among the first to hear a Ramones song not officially released until 2018, when Rhino remastered Ruin for its fortieth anniversary (see fig. 11).73

Figure 11

Joey Ramone, tongue firmly in cheek, described “Slug” as “a melodramatic, bittersweet love song. I think the whole family can enjoy it. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billy Jean.’” K-Power , March 1984. (Reproduction courtesy of Deborah Feingold)

But if Holmstrom thought writing for Sharpe was stultifying, working for Scholastic would teach him the meaning of corporate publishing. Style was now the least of his concerns. His news stories were cut to ribbons by an irascible art editor who “hated kids and hated computers.”74 And K-Power writers were loathed by the company’s other staffers, who saw little promise in computing and chafed at the magazine’s flagrant spending. “It was a fairly miserable job,” Holmstrom says.75 Promotion notwithstanding, his salary was so low that he was forced to continue freelancing. Worst of all was the disquieting sense that K-Power was a ship without a rudder. According to Holmstrom, the top editors couldn’t settle on an editorial theme. “At first they wanted glitz,” he says. “Put Matthew Broderick on the cover, put Talking Heads on the cover. Put celebrities the kids know. Then it became, we have to involve the reader. We’ve got to show kids how to do things with their computer. A lot of confusion up there.”76 But the new enterprise faced a graver threat than personality crisis. Computer magazines proliferated in the wake of a home-computing boom. Now those magazines were undergoing a shakeout as supply outstripped advertiser demand.77 In May 1984, K-Power absorbed a rival publication, Microkids, and was soon itself absorbed by Scholastic’s Family Computing. This time Holmstrom didn’t bridge the transition. Eight issues of K-Power were published before Scholastic pulled the plug. “[It was] nice to have a steady paycheck, but it didn’t last long,” he says. “Other people did not think we were going to fold, but I could see the writing on the wall from early on.”78

Too Much Too Soon

On December 8, 1982, Warner Communications, Atari’s corporate parent, issued a gloomy earnings forecast, the first decline in thirty-one quarters. The news sent its stock price reeling, marking the earliest date of an industry-wide recession: the Video Game Crash of 1983.79

Crash implies a sudden transfer of energy, but the full meaning of Warner’s downturn was slow in spreading, a problem compounded by the long lead time in publishing. In his April 1984 editorial, written perhaps two months prior, Sharpe defended his magazine against nervous analysts. Would Video Games change its name, or drop to a bimonthly, or perhaps go out of business altogether? No, Sharpe assured readers, “Video Games [is] here to stay.”80 Two issues later, Sharpe was less confident, conceding that “the home video game system may have run its course.” Meanwhile, the magazine’s indicia had subtly changed: “VIDEO GAMES is published quarterly by PUMPKIN PRESS, Inc.” (emphasis added).81 The present tense proved optimistic. There never would be another issue.

All the time he was at Video Games, Holmstrom had continued writing for Heavy Metal. When he decamped for K-Power, Stathis promised readers that Holmstrom’s column would continue on a bimonthly basis. But only two installments were ever published, in September and November 1984. The column vanished for five months thereafter, returning at last in May 1985, and skidding, in its last sentence, to an abrupt and final conclusion. “There isn’t a whole lot of interesting stuff happening on the computer scene lately,” Holmstrom writes, “and the video arcade boom died a long time ago. This is the last Hi-Tech Lowdown, folks.”82 With that sign-off, the curtain came down on Holmstrom’s career in games journalism. He would occasionally mingle with computerati thereafter––he was in the crowd when Commodore debuted the Amiga 1000 at Lincoln Center. But in 1987, Holmstrom traded high tech for High Times, joining the magazine as managing editor and rising to the position of publisher over the course of a thirteen-year career.

Holmstrom remains an avid gamer, though he longs for the days when he could manage his budget by running out of quarters. “I got into Evony for a while,” he says, referring to a medieval-themed strategy game. “That was bad. I was doing those in-game purchases.” And he worries about the time kids spend on devices, “too much of a good thing” in his estimation. But his enthusiasm for the medium is undiminished. “I love video games. I think I liked them better than movies and TV, really.”83

Histories of the crash tend to focus on capital and product. To what size was the industry reduced by its historic implosion? Which companies lost money, and how much did they lose? Just how many copies of E.T. were buried in the desert of Alamogordo?84 But more significant, and more lasting, was the cost to the culture.85 During the boom years, prevailing commentators looked upon video games with the same bemused irony they reserved for all toy fads. But when the industry swooned into decline, games weren’t yet child’s play. Arcades weren’t electronic kindergartens but supposed hotbeds of juvenile delinquency, a menace to be extirpated by a moral majority. Holmstrom could publish a paean to “a nice, sleazy bar” as the ideal place to break one’s high score.86 Video Games could run lengthy profiles––with color pinups, no less––of executives like Frank O’Connell, president of Fox Video Games, confident that readers wanted to understand the business of games, not just the business of beating them. And editors like Bloom and Sharpe would chart the medium’s past to divine a future they were certain lay in store. Video Games and, to a lesser extent, Heavy Metal were synecdoches of an emerging culture, one fertile with possibility. But one flattened by the gale force of gaming’s recession.

As for Holmstrom, his body of game-related work is small. It is significant nonetheless, not chiefly for its point of view, or for any prediction he made, but because his work is funny. Nothing deflates pretentiousness like a joke, and Holmstrom at his best was a kind of comic conscience. He slipped morsels of truth in risible wrapping, like Bazooka bubble gum, tweaking the industry’s self-importance and joshing without fear or favor. Journalists are said to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and humorists too, the very good ones anyway, share something of this duty. As the games press roused from its lethargy in the late eighties, it embarked on an era of shameless hobbyism, elevating enthusiasm over expertise and pledging “not to bore you with a lot of long, dry, opinionated stories about stuff the game player isn’t really interested in.”87 Never mind the condescension, adopting such a stance weakened the adversarial relationship between journalists and the industry they covered. By adopting entertainment as their cardinal virtue, magazines like GamePro hired fans who did some writing rather than writers who happened to be fans. These dilettantes acted too often as stenographers, feeding the hype machine instead of defending the interests of workers and consumers. Such an environment was ripe for impolitesse, for a happy hand grenade, for the kind of scorching satire that gives way to introspection once indignation has dulled. Such an environment was ripe for Holmstrom. In his work one hears the echo of a question posed by counterfactual history: what might have been?

Footnotes

1. ^ John Holmstrom, “Joey Ramone Reviews Imagic,” Heavy Metal, April 1983, 12.

2. ^ John Holmstrom, Punk: The Best of Punk Magazine, ed. John Holmstrom and Bridget Hurd (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 340.

3. ^ John Holmstrom, in conversation with the author, July 8, 2019.

4. ^ “Blank Generation” is the title track of a 1977 album by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Its insouciant refrain––“I belong to the Blank Generation / and I can take it or leave it each time”––inspired the Sex Pistols’s “Pretty Vacant.” Both songs became anthems of a generation disenchanted with the counterculture of the 1960s and the failure of its utopian project.

5. ^ Mark Jacobson, Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk to the Land of Bush—Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism (New York: Grove Press, 2005), 14.

6. ^ Legs McNeil, “Escape to New York,” New York, March 28, 2003, https://nymag.com/nymetro/news/anniversary/35th/n_8579.

7. ^ Jeffrey Morgan, “John Holmstrom: Floating in a Bottle of Formaldehyde,” Detroit Metro Times, February 4, 2004, https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/john-holmstrom-floating-in-a-bottle-of-formaldehyde/Content?oid=2177937.

8. ^ John Holmstrom, Punk: The Best of Punk Magazine, ed. John Holmstrom and Bridget Hurd (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 149.

9. ^ Paul Stephen Edwards, “SDCC: The Lasting Comic Book Legacy of Will Eisner,” Comic Book Resources, August 16, 2014, https://www.cbr.com/sdcc-the-lasting-comic-book-legacy-of-will-eisner.

10. ^ Holmstrom credits Griffith for planting the seed of an idea that would grow to become Punk magazine. He would later pay homage to his mentor by including Griffith’s character, Zippy the Pinhead, on the sleeve of the Ramones’ third album, Rocket to Russia.

11. ^ Aaron Cometbus, “A Visit with the Editor of Punk or, How a Fanzine Changed the World,” Maximum Rocknroll, April 2009, http://maximumrocknroll.com/john-holmstrom.

12. ^ Holmstrom, Punk, 8.

13. ^ R. M. Rhodes, “The Year of Ted White,” Hooded Utilitarian, February 19, 2013, https://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/02/the-year-of-ted-white.

14. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

15. ^ Ted White, in conversation with the author, May 30, 2020.

16. ^ Ted White, “In the Midst of Life, Dr. Fandom,” Apparatchik, May 8, 1997, https://efanzines.com/Apparatchik/78-white.html.

17. ^ White, in conversation with the author.

18. ^ White, in conversation with the author.

19. ^ White recounts his firing in “Hustled,” an essay he penned for the fanzine ei26. See https://efanzines.com/EK/eI26/index.htm#hustled.

20. ^ Pepé Valdez, “Lou Stathis: Mixing and Maxing—Interview,” Shop Talk, September 1993, 11–12. Stathis first articulated this ethos in a Heavy Metal letter column from November 1982. In reply to a reader’s gripe about the “new-wave stuff [boring him] to tears,” Stathis writes, “Pop music right now is probably the most vital and creative means of cross-cultural communication we’ve got. That you’re unable to hear this is unfortunate. I operate here under the assumption that if you dig what HM’s comics are about, you’ll probably also dig some of the other interesting stuff eating away at the cultural underbelly.”

21. ^ These influences weren’t lost on Holmstrom. In his review of Donkey Kong, he notes the connections to Beauty and the Beast and King Kong, and likens Jumpman’s journey to the quixotic questing of, well, Don Quixote. “His fight is gallant but meaningless,” Holmstrom writes. The review is most striking not for its analysis of influence, however, but for a wondering passage about the game’s interactivity: “That video games involve the player more directly and intimately than film, books, or TV has not yet been appreciated by any major media critic.” See John Holmstrom, “Donkey Kong,” Heavy Metal, July 1982, 11.

22. ^ “In the fifties, juvenile delinquents read comic books and listened to rock-and-roll, so I figured I could bring that back.” John Holmstrom, quoted in Tricia Henry Young, Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 60.

23. ^ Devorah Ostrov, “Punk Magazine: The Birth of a ʼZine and a Genre,” Tales from a Former Fanzine Journalist (blog), March 23, 2017, https://devorahostrov.blogspot.com/2017/03/punk-magazine-birth-of-zine-and-genre.html.

24. ^ John Holmstrom, “Dig Dug,” Heavy Metal, November 1982, 10.

25. ^ Edward Ranzal, “Council Approves Pinball Measure,” New York Times, May 14, 1976, 33, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/05/14/archives/council-approves-pinball-measure-vote-would-end-ban-ordered-by-la.html.

26. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

27. ^ “I can’t remember how Lou had found me for the video games review.” John Holmstrom, email message to author, December 26, 2020.

28. ^ Leonard Mogel, editorial, Heavy Metal, December 1980, 3.

29. ^ Chris Crawford, Chris Crawford on Game Design (Indianapolis: New Riders, 2003), 19.

30. ^ John Holmstrom, “Space Panic!,” Heavy Metal, October 1981, 43.

31. ^ It’s not unusual to see other writers struggling with the attribution of agency. One reporter, Susan Pattie, describes Pac-Man this way: “When the large yellow dot eats the medium dots, it renders the phantoms helpless for about five seconds, so ‘you,’ or the large dot, can get out of tight scrapes and eat them for more points.” See Susan Pattie, “Space-Age Games Invade Danville,” Danville (KY) Advocate-Messenger, December 4, 1981, 20, https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/142904637.

32. ^ White, in conversation with the author. Balfour claims White is mistaken, that he and the secretary, Robin Schwartz, “had a thing and a falling out.” He further claims that White’s allegation stems from a longtime rivalry dating back to their time in science-fiction fandom. Balfour maintains that White is “not a good source for anything” and “often distorts things in his favor,” but adds that he “[has] no ill will towards Ted” and [hasn’t] seen or spoken to him in many years.” Brad Balfour, email message to author, April 20, 2021.

33. ^ John Holmstrom, “Robotron: 2084,” Heavy Metal, December 1982, 10.

34. ^ Holmstrom, “Robotron.”

35. ^ Camille Paglia, Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), xvi.

36. ^ Holmstrom, “Dig Dug.”

37. ^ John Holmstrom, “Tron,” Heavy Metal, January 1983, 10. In fact, Tron’s budget was closer to $17 million. See James B. Stewart, Disney War: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 45.

38. ^ John Holmstrom, “Tempest,” Heavy Metal, September 1982, 10.

39. ^ At least one philosopher would challenge Holmstrom’s argument. In “Why Gamers Are Not Performers,” Andrew Kania denies first “that merely in virtue of their interactivity, video games are works for performance and gamers performers and, second, that typical video games meet whatever further conditions are necessary for something’s being a work for performance” (emphasis in original). See “Why Gamers Are Not Performers,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (2018): 187–99, https://doi.org/10.1111/jaac.12451.

40. ^ Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird (Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2007), DVD. I’m grateful to Freddie deBoer for reminding me of Anton Ego’s monologue. He describes it, correctly, as “the GOAT,” the greatest of all time, in a blog post, “Some Friendly Advice on Reviewing Books (or Anything Else Really),” https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/some-friendly-advice-on-reviewing.

41. ^ Marshall McLuhan, quoted in Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 15, 175–76.

42. ^ Holmstrom, “Tempest.”

43. ^ Steve Bloom, in conversation with the author, October 30, 2019.

44. ^ Steve Bloom, “The Video Invaders,” SoHo Weekly News, January 24, 1980.

45. ^ Bob Bell, “Anniversary,” World Natural Bodybuilding Federation, accessed April 13, 2021, https://www.worldnaturalbb.com/wnbf-blog/30-years.

46. ^ “Chart History: Buckner and Garcia,” Billboard, accessed April 8, 2021, https://www.billboard.com/music/buckner-and-garcia/chart-history/TLP/song/312819.

47. ^ John Holmstrom, “Video Media Mania,” Heavy Metal, October 1982, 10.

48. ^ Everett M. Rogers and Judith K. Larsen, Silicon Valley Fever: Growth of High-Technology Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 263, https://archive.org/details/siliconvalleyfev0000roge.

49. ^ Steve Bloom, “Hyperspace,” Video Games, August 1982, 8.

50. ^ Bloom, “Hyperspace.”

51. ^ Bloom, in conversation with the author.

52. ^ Steve Bloom, email message to author, January 22, 2021.

53. ^ Bloom, in conversation with the author.

54. ^ If only Holmstrom had known about Starpath’s Communist Mutants from Space (1982), a Galaxian clone in which players battle aliens from the planet Rooskee.

55. ^ John Holmstrom, “Hey, Buddy! Can You Spare a Quarter?,” Video Games, August 1982, 62–63.

56. ^ Holmstrom speculates that budget cuts brought Bloom to a breaking point. “The publisher just wanted to keep cutting the editorial budget, and it just became unsustainable to produce good content on that kind of budget. After [Bloom] left, the video game reviews I was doing were folded into the middle of the magazine on cheaper paper, two-color instead of four-color. All cost-cutting moves like that.” Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

57. ^ Bloom, in conversation with the author.

58. ^ Bloom, in conversation with the author.

59. ^ Daniel McKay, “The Man Who Saved Pinball,” On Wisconsin, Spring 2016, accessed December 18, 2020, https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-man-who-saved-pinball.

60. ^ Roger C. Sharpe, in conversation with the author, January 13, 2021.

61. ^ Sharpe, in conversation with the author.

62. ^ Rick Mitz remembers his interview this way: “I showed up at the editor’s office and said, ‘I’m here about the writing job.’ He looked me over and said, ‘Well, you certainly aren’t here about the modeling job!’ He saw my confused look and felt so bad he hired me on the spot.” Quoted in Aja Zoecklein, “Student Spotlight: Rick Mitz on Norman Lear, Character before Jokes, and Why to Get an MFA in Film,” VCFA MFA in Film Blog, July 2, 2018, https://storyboard.vcfa.edu/student-spotlight-rick-mitz-on-norman-lear-character-before-jokes-and-why-to-get-an-mfa-in-film.

63. ^ Sharpe, in conversation with the author.

64. ^ Sharpe, in conversation with the author.

65. ^ Sharpe, in conversation with the author.

66. ^ Sharpe, in conversation with the author.

67. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

68. ^ Sharpe, in conversation with the author.

69. ^ John Holmstrom, “Was There Life Before Space Invaders?,” Video Games, April 1983, 67.

70. ^ John Holmstrom, email message to the author, December 16, 2020. Video Games paid $200 to $400 for nonfiction pieces of 1,500–2,500 words. See Bernadine Clark, ed., 1984 Writer’s Market: Where to Sell What You Write (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1983), 639.

71. ^ Anne Krueger, “For Your Eyes Only,” Video Games, October 1983, 29.

72. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

73. ^ “When I did the artwork for Road to Ruin, I remember being in a meeting, and Johnny [Ramone] was going over the songs they were going to put on there. And he said, ‘Well, there’s “Slug” but who wants to hear a song about a worm?’ And I could see Joey was not happy with that attitude because he loved that song. So it was kind of in the back of my mind that it had not been released anywhere yet. Joey was very happy that it would be on a computer program at least.” Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

74. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

75. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

76. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

77. ^ Eric N. Berg, “The Computer Magazine Glut,” New York Times, September 8, 1984, 31, https://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/08/business/the-computer-magazine-glut.html.

78. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

79. ^ Alexander Smith, They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, vol. 1, 1971–1982 (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2020), 535.

80. ^ Roger C. Sharpe, “Hyperspace,” Video Games, April 1984, 6.

81. ^ Roger C. Sharpe, “Hyperspace,” Video Games, Summer/Fall 1984, 4.

82. ^ John Holmstrom, “Hi-Tech Lowdown,” Heavy Metal, May 1985, 55.

83. ^ Holmstrom, in conversation with the author.

84. ^ In September 1983, Atari sent fourteen truckloads of waste to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, from its warehouse in El Paso, Texas. Among the caravan’s contents were a rumored 3.5 million unsold copies of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a game inspired by the movie but lacking its quality. Critically panned and scorned by consumers, E.T. was also produced in such quantities that Atari had little choice but to dump its inventory. In fact, only 728,000 cartridges were buried, among them games such as Pac-Man, Yar’s Revenge, Centipede––and E.T. The debacle of E.T’s development and the game’s subsequent burial have become emblematic of the hubris that prevailed during the video game industry’s golden age.

85. ^ According to Russell Sipe, there were eighteen magazines covering computer and video games before the crash. By the fall of 1984, Computer Gaming World was the last one standing. See Computer Gaming World, December 1987, 4.

86. ^ Holmstrom, “Hey, Buddy!,” 63.

87. ^ Don Ferrell, “Welcome to GamePro,” GamePro, May 1989, 4.