Spring 2019

An old-fashioned alien invasion

They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening

Foreword by John Carpenter. Edited and designed by Craig Oldham. Rough Trade Books, £24.99

They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening is an exploration of John Carpenter’s classic political science-fiction movie They Live (1988).

In collaboration with counter-culture publisher Rough Trade Books and under the banner Epiphany Editions, this is the first in a planned series of books by UK designer Craig Oldham. Each book will take the form of a fictitious book or magazine from a popular cult film.

Oldham’s personal project has been more than two years in the making, and They Live’s enduring impact on visual culture makes it a good place to start the series. Oldham revels in the film’s use of graphic design and its influence on visual culture. His enthusiasm will ring true among fellow designers and Carpenter fans alike.

The book is based on the magazine that Nada (played by Roddy Piper) picks up from a newsstand in Carpenter’s film, as he starts to realise that the world’s media contains subliminal messages from alien overlords. The book’s cover contains the single word OBEY, which is revealed as the magazine’s cover when Nada views it through special sunglasses created by a rebel group.

Carpenter provides the book’s foreword, writing about They Live as a response to a conservative neoliberal, dog-eat-dog 1980s America under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. ‘They Live is very much about life in the United States and the West,’ he writes. However, not one to over-intellectualise his films, he concludes: ‘It’s also just an old-fashioned alien invasion movie.’

Oldham’s book follows Carpenter’s lead, counterbalancing political arguments with unabashed fan service.

Cover of They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening.
Top: Still of a ghoulish politician from They Live by John Carpenter, 1988.

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A collection of essays by Oldham and guest contributors, including musician and cult movie aficionado John Grant, anti-advertising collective Brandalism, and influential street artist Shepard Fairey whose iconic OBEY work was inspired by They Live, discuss the film’s themes ­– specifically capitalism, consumerism and the growing divide between the working and ruling classes.

For a film that combines its political message with action that is, in Carpenter’s words, ‘all in the service of fun’, the analysis can sometimes feel a little dry. But there is also plenty here to entertain, including the short story by Ray Nelson on which the film is based, the comic adaptation of that story drawn by Bill Wray and an examination of the other books and magazines that can be seen on the film’s newsstand.

Oldham has designed the book using a cut of Berthold Wolpe’s Albertus, a visual nod to the film’s opening and closing titles. Pages alternate between full colour and black and white (echoing the way Carpenter switches back and forth between colour and black and white). Subliminal messages are printed as a spot varnish on text pages. The iconic alien slogans to ‘SUBMIT’, ‘CONSUME’ and ‘WATCH T. V.’ are also carefully replicated. In a particularly ingenious touch, the book is bubblegum scented, an homage to one of the film’s especially camp one-liners: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum.’

The alien glyphs seen in the film, originally created by Tim Sinclair, have been turned into a typeface by Timothy Donaldson. The typeface, called Formaldehyde-face after another of those one-liners, has been made available online, so that human readers can decode the essay that uses it.

The book’s release coincides with a 4K restoration of the film and a vinyl release of the John Carpenter / Alan Howarth soundtrack by Mondo and Death Waltz Recording Co. with artwork by Alan Hynes. Both record and book are sure to find a welcome home on the shelves of design and film fans everywhere.

Steven Gregor, founder, Gym Class Magazine and What Monster, London

First published in Eye no. 98 vol. 25, 2019

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues. You can see what Eye 98 looks like at Eye Before You Buy on Vimeo.