For decades upon centuries, revolution of various stripes has often had roots firmly wrapped around and within the print medium. From Martin Luther to Karl Marx, manifestos, underground papers, comics, fliers—the pen not the sword, in other words—have caused change. These are the occasions where the medium itself was indeed the message. When it comes to cultural revolution, this is all truth times nine and with the birth of the counterculture and especially its prodigal bastard child, punk, print media in the form of zines were an absolutely vital part of this.
But all of this pseudo-flowery historical talk is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Rob St. Mary’s incredible tome-tribute to Detroit’s alternative culture magazine, The Orbit Magazine Anthology: Re-Entry. Influenced by its forefathers White Noise (1978-1980) and Fun:The Magazine for Swinging Intellectuals (1986-1990), The Orbit managed to take the punk ethos of the former, the polished yet primed fuck-it-ness of the latter and out of both emerged a local publication whose shakes, quakes and reverberations could be felt not only outside of the Detroit area, but for years later after its demise in 1999.
White Noise featured interviews with punk stalwarts like DEVO, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers and Pauline Murray from the UK group Penetration. Fun had such biting political activity book whimsy like “Ronald’s Mind Maze,” where you get to navigate around such topics as world destruction and Jodie Foster in the former actor/president’s appropriately ghoulish head. Fun was put to bed permanently in the spring of 1990 and out of its ashes sprung Orbit.
Losing the politics and adding emphasis on local art, culture, humor and entertainment, this bi-monthly free alternative paper quickly established itself as the right mix of edge with just enough professionalism to make it truly subversive. At the center of this paper was its creator, Jerry Peterson, better known to some as “Jerry Vile,” the same man behind the two previous publications and self-described “sloppy perfectionist,” Peterson is revealed as an artist, musician, editor, writer and publisher as a controversially catalytic personality. If you want real creative impact, complete with cultural shrapnel, then you need guys like Peterson, whom might burn down the whole hen house to make the omelet but it will be an omelet you will never forget. The man pissed off everyone ranging from their only real competition, the Metro Times, assorted ex-advertisers and former staff members, including Film Threat editor Chris Gore (all of which is beautifully detailed in the Fun chapter), but his mark was and is undeniable, and the proof of that is all lined out in this anthology.
Created with the goal of being “friendly as possible for all readers while retaining a hip vibe” is a lofty one that can leave a veritable football-field sized room to fail, Orbit escaped this folly by enlisting a strong crew of artists and writers over its nine year lifespan. Influenced by magazines as seemingly divergent as Spy and Oui, Orbit stood out on a visual level alone, complete with its own mascot, “Orby,” a grinning, slightly smug looking globe-man loosely based on former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Designed by illustrator Terry Colon, who would go on to create work for Time and Entertainment Weekly, Orby would gain further fame when featured on a T-Shirt worn by Quentin Tarantino in his 1995 film, Pulp Fiction. (Orbit was one of the earliest mags to write about the then indie-darling now Hollywood titan, when his debut, Reservoir Dogs first hit the screen back in 1992. It was a kind act the young director did not forget.)
Along with its own personal Alfred E. Neumann-ish mascot, Orbit would feature the work of established artists, like the inimitable and Bathory-like-in-her-ability-to-not-age Niagara, whose artwork was used for the most recent Kid Rock album, First Kiss. Niagara was also a member of both the terminally underrated psychedelic-punk-rock band Destroy All Monsters and the super group Dark Carnival, which also featured both Asheton brothers. But Orbit became known for breaking more artists into the world, including Glenn Barr (DC Comics,The Betty Pages Digest, etc), Tom Thewes (Hi-Fructose), Mark Dancey (Motorbooty Magazine, assorted rock posters) and more. Humans are visual creatures, so if you’re going to have hip content then you’d better have an outside that not only draws the readers in, but also visually reflects the trip you are about to take them on.
Another facet of the arts was the weird array of local Detroit bands that got their first taste of fame via the pages of Orbit, ranging from Kid Rock (back in his flat top days) and Insane Clown Posse to The White Stripes and His Name is Alive. Detroit’s rich and diverse musical history continued well into the 1990’s and all of that is reflected here. One of the biggest surprises is that Rock himself, who not only contributed $20,000 of his own money to the Kickstarter for this book but who also comes across impressively self-effacing within the pages. “Talk about someone trying to get attention—-running around with a flattop hair cut with too much Aqua Net screaming, ‘I’m the pimp of the nation!’” It’s enough to almost overlook the fact that this is the same man that wrote a song called “Jesus and Bocephus.” Almost.
Orbit also delves into the assortment of ways the staff writers would keep themselves and their readers entertained. A personal favorite was their concert listings section, called “Critical Dates.” There can be a certain type of beauty when a writer is bored and the “fuck it! Let’s have some fun!” instinct kicks in. My personal favorite was the write-up for an upcoming Eagles gig. “You would think with all the senseless violence in the world that somebody would get sensible and inflict some bodily hurt on these money-grubbing-has-beens. Hell Freezes Over?” And this was BEFORE the classic butt-rockers released an album only through Wal-Mart.
That’s not even touching the borderline-Subgenius levels of prankdom, including throwing the world’s worst garage sale, where one could purchase such “treasures” as “two really ugly mens wigs,” “single rusty metal coaster,” “broken Sweet Valley High cassette” and “a latex sex device that was left in a garage for 20 years and is now covered in mold spores.” There were more serious moments, including Detroit historian and geographer Bill McGraw’s (using the pen name of Silas Farmer) column entitled “Detroit’s Shameful History” that delved into the city’s less covered and more unseemly past.
Orbit folded in 1999 but thanks to Rob St. Mary’s tireless research and academic-meets-pop-culture-sage approach with this Re-Entry, it will live on for both those who experienced it firsthand and those who never had a chance to hold an issue in their hands. The formatting on this book alone is a graphic designer’s sweet-laced dream but the content meets it riches for riches. To quote Orbit father, Jerry Peterson, “I really, really enjoy making people upset. I think that is my art.”