Chris Barker’s rough and ready Photoshop covers for The New European are a rare example of anti-Brexit propaganda, a visual joy amongst the failure of our political class to adequately address the same thoughts. He also art directs several magazines and has written and self-published a series of children’s books. We spoke to him as he publishes a book collection of his New European covers.
Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
I normally start the day by telling the kids to put their shoes on til I’m blue in the face. After the school run I use the short bus journey in to Twickenham to catch up with what’s going on on Twitter and – technically – the wider world. The editor of The New European will often have a good idea by Monday what the lead story is, but sometimes it’s all still a little loose and he will be open to suggestions so I like to see what everyone is ranting about.
In the run up to the election I’ve been making the case that The New European should be telling the stories that nobody else is: the scale of Russian interference, the importance of tactical voting, the prevalence of lying. TNE may not have the circulation of the nationals but it does have a unique position. When you walk into Waitrose you are confronted by a sea of front pages, all spinning pretty much the same story. Even the Guardian gets swamped by it.
We occupy one small corner of that newsstand, and also one tweet on the #tomorrowspaperstoday hashtag. Even if they don’t read what’s inside the paper, the front cover has an impact. So if there’s a story that’s not being covered, I feel that’s where it should be. I’m not really a morning person so sometimes that early morning burst of Twitter rage inspires me to suggest something for the cover.
Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
The building has a clear desk policy so it’s not hugely inspiring to be honest. I have a long running battle with the air con too but most of the people I work with are great – there’s a lot of laughs and biscuits. We did have a clear wall policy as well but luckily we’ve seen sense and now I can see loads of other people’s lovely pages all over the wall again.
I love seeing other people’s mags on the wall but I rarely find the time to do it myself any more.
Which magazine do you first remember?
My route to magazines was Beano > Puffin Post > Mad > Doctor Who > 2000AD > Marvel Comics > Empire, same as anyone else my age – everyone got Puffin Post, right? I used to lay all the issues of whatever my current printed obsession was out on the floor and look at the covers, studying the differences between them. The colours of the mastheads, where the barcodes moved around, evolving themes, changing fonts.
I assumed every kid did this. I assumed every kid looked at the white background behind the cover star almost as closely as they did the cover star themselves and the relationship between the face and the empty space.
I would take two different issues of the same mag/comic and turn the pages of both at the same time, noticing the little differences between the alignment of the flannel panel or where they had used a different font for a regular bit of display copy. I thought that was normal. I thought everyone did that.
I think you just know what you’re going to be from a very early age and everything else that happens on the way to achieving that is just a coincidence. There’s no way I was ever going to be anything other than a graphic artist working in printed publications in some way.
Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
I love New York. I love the Atlantic. It’s a shame they probably wouldn’t let me into America at the moment really. Not that I really want to go there while that dangerous fool is in charge. You wouldn’t go on holiday to Nazi Germany would you? I also think a lot of the Newsweek cover treatments are very strong.
You work full time on several magazines. How did you become involved with The New European?
I work full time for Haymarket business media. I’ve been here for twenty years. Didn’t plan that but, you know, it’s literally round the corner from where I live and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really exciting people on some really creative projects over the years.
I currently art direct two business to business titles for CIPD. People Management magazine is a lively colourful monthly title full of wit and cultural references that’s aimed at the 70% female HR professional audience and Work, a quarterly, perfect bound mag on matt stock that’s aimed at the top end of the industry.
While I enjoy PM – the team are good fun and it’s great to work on a monthly that’s not a boring trade mag – I really love working on Work. We have a lot of freedom to do really different creative treatments. Nothing is too out there.
For a membership title with a closed readership it’s been great to get wider recognition for the effort I’ve put into it over its 23 issues – winning BSME best designer, having a feature devoted to it in Eye magazine, and 28k people retweeting a nob gag about Jeff Bezos I somehow managed to get on page (above).
The New European covers came about in a fortuitous series of events. Well, I say fortuitous, it started with one of the biggest tragedies of recent times, Grenfell. I’ve always, kind of as a hobby, Photoshopped things for fun. They’ve become more political over the years, let’s say. They never really had much impact til I did a silly little photomontage of all the celebrities who died in 2016 as the cover of Sgt Pepper (above). That went stratospheric. I honestly thought people were never going to stop talking about it, asking me about it, interviewing me about it. But eventually they did.
Months later, I was so angered by the Grenfell tragedy that I made an image for Twitter that went viral (above). I was glad to get people talking about it and to stop the narrative from being taken in a different direction. It was amazing to see the power of an image beating the power of the propaganda.
I was talking to my friend Rob Manuel about The New European shortly after the Grenfell image, and saying they should do more graphic stuff like I had just done. He said he knew someone on the TNE team and he would speak to them about me. Which was very kind of him and I’ll always be grateful for that. So Steve Anglesey on TNE spoke to his editor, Matt Kelly, and he contacted me. He loved the Grenfell image and wanted to run it on the cover. It all snowballed from there really. The following week he asked me to do something, and then the next, and now, nearly 100 covers later, here we are.
Because politics moves so fast now, I’ve had to turn off a bit in between covers otherwise I’d go completely mad. If I start thinking about the next week’s cover too early it’s a waste of time. The news cycle moves on every couple of days, sometimes every couple of hours. So, unless something major has happened, I tend to start properly paying attention to the news again on a Sunday evening and then just monitor what’s going on during Monday and Tuesday.
Together, we try to work out what the news is going to be come Wednesday night/Thursday morning. I’ll have a catch up with Jasper, the new editor, say at Monday lunchtime and discuss some ideas. I might scamp something up for him. Then we chat about coverlines (some of mine get through!) and I’ll pick it up again when I get home. I work up something more finished that evening and then send it over to him – normally around midnight.
The most tense moment of my week is checking my email first thing Tuesday morning to see if the editor likes it. If he does, I leave it with them for the day, listen to any concerns and suggestions, and then do the final hi-res on Tuesday night. So it’s a couple of late nights a week. And that’s when it’s running smoothly.
There’s been a couple of times where politics has thrown a complete spanner in the works and we’ve ended up having to think of something totally new at really short notice, sometimes even on the Wednesday morning press deadline before doing the school run. It’s been highly pressured but incredibly rewarding.
Which is your favourite TNE cover?
I tend to like the ones with one strong central image. I love being able to sum up the story of the week in as simple an image as possible – a pair of smoking leopard skin kitten heels, a bomb with a burning fuse wearing a blond wig, Nigel Farage in a pile of excrement of his own making – but I think my favourite would either be the House of Chaos or the drowning Theresa May one.
In fact, yes, the drowning Theresa May one because it was the first time we thought the image told the story so well that it didn’t even need a coverline. A paper sitting on the newsstand without a coverline but people still knew what we meant. That’s fun. I think they work really well in the book. I’ve run some with and some without the coverlines. Matt Kelly wrote me a foreword and I’ve captioned all of them with the date and a little bit of info about what was going on at the time to show context.
Does it get depressing dealing so directly with the shit as it hits the fan?
I think a lot of it is exorcising demons. When I put an arse in place of Donald Trump’s face, yeah, that was cathartic. I really wanted him to see that cover while he was over here but he left the day before it came out.
But no, I genuinely do think that, even though some people on Twitter mock TNE and make really original jokes about toilet paper being cheaper, we’ve certainly got things onto the agenda. The week after I put Corbyn in bed with Theresa May, Chuka Umunna shared the image online and then defected (ultimately) to the Lib Dems.
If I’m honest, I’m actually slightly worried I might have won the election for the Conservatives by putting Nigel Farage in shouty Steve Bray’s Stop Brexit top hat the other week. It really did spark a lot of debate between the chairman of the ERG and the founder of Leave.EU and even Farage answered questions on it himself on the Today Programme. Then, almost immediately after that he stood the Brexit party down in seats where they would’ve been standing against the Tories.
I mean, I know he did it because he was a coward and because he was offered a peerage and because he’s a charlatan and doesn’t even want Brexit anyway, but I can’t help but feel slightly responsible for that, you know?
Who should buy the book?
Since people started sharing my images online, people have been going on at me to do prints, t shirts, fridge magnets, that sort of thing. But the trouble is, who wants to walk around with a picture of Theresa May or Nigel Farage on their chest? Even if it’s mocking them, it’s still a picture of them. Even prints, big art prints are so heroic that it kind of sends out the wrong impression to anyone popping round for a cup of tea.
But a coffee table book just made a lot of sense to me. I’m a massive fan of George Lois and used to flick through books of his covers as a kid. So I could see the logic in doing it with my TNE work. I was waiting for an end point of Brexit for quite some time. A natural pause to go, here, that’s this chapter of Brexit done, here’s a book. But it’s never going to end is it?
So, when Matt Kelly stepped down as editor of TNE I thought that was my best opportunity. The Barker/Kelly era seemed like a logical place to draw a line. It’s just been the craziest time in politics, in the world, I think people will like to have a record of it and how it unfolded week by week.
My fellow designer friend Nigel said to me yesterday that he bought a copy of my book because it’s so easy to forget things. He said you see these images online, all around you, on the newsstand, so you kind of think they’ll always be there and you don’t need a record of it. But online images fade away eventually. It’s good to have a book so you can remind yourself, tell your kids, how relentless the political chaos was that we all experienced day in, day out.
What’s going to be the highlight of the week for you?
Busy week this week. A mag going to press and my daughter’s school nativity. I think she’s a shepherd. Also, I’m hoping loads of people are going to order my book from coveringbrexit.com as there’s still plenty of time to get it delivered in time for Christmas. To give to your leave-voting auntie or whatever.
‘Covering Brexit’ by Chris Barker is available print-to-order from Blurb.