Obituary

The Guardian 19 April 1997 
by Roger Hutchinson
Edward Barker: 
Lines from the underground

Edward Barker who has died aged 46 of heart failure was the wittiest and most idiosyncratic cartoonist to emerge from the British underground press in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His work was a satire of the dog-days of the era in which he found himself.

Barker created a world in which flea-bitten hippies exchanged hangover insults with dustmen in the early morning streets, where messed-up, half-dead rock bands lurched from gig to gig, where the flowery optimism of 1967's Summer of Love had degenerated into scattered dysfunctional bands of squatters using recreational drugs. Any recreational drugs.

The fortnightly International Times (IT), founded in London in 1966, was the first and - briefly - Britain's only "alternative" paper. But by 1969 its constituency had the choice of half-a-dozen other publications. It took Barker, together with Mick Farren, to stabilise its circulationand transform IT into a brash, funny and satirical tabloid, a Daily Mirror on hallucinogenics.

Ed Barker and Mick Farren
A native of Birmingham, he won a scholarship to Moseley School of Art at the age of 12 and left four years later. He eventually ambled into one of those emblematic institutions of the 1960s, the Birmingham Arts Lab, which offered a mix of the avant-garde of the time.

In 1969 one of the founders of IT, Graham Keen, drove to Birmingham to entice Barker to join the paper's staff.

The work of many of his fellow designers and artists who were first published in IT and its contemporaries like Oz magazine would, within a decade, have flowed into the mainstream media. That was not the case in the late 1960s. But the strength of Barker's line drawing and the accessibility of his humour led to him being summoned to The Observer. There, he recalled, editor David Astor beamed at him encouragingly and said: "I understand you're funny." For ten pounds a week, which was more than his full-time wage at IT, Barker proceeded to introduce the readers of The Observer to the Largactilites, a collection of cone-shaped creatures who did very little and said less.

The Largactilites, 1970
To his astonishment, readers responded with fury. The drug largactil was, they protested, used in the treatment of the mentally ill. Barker - who had been genuinely unfamiliar with largactil's medical function - adroitly changed them into the Galactilites, but his heart had gone out of the drawings. A few weeks later he handed in a four-frame strip which consisted solely of four horizon-lines. It was published - and became the first cartoon to appear in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner - but a few days later The Observer paid him off.

His best work was accomplished within the six years he spent collaborating with his friends in the underground press. As well as IT and Oz, he inhabited those forerunners of the Viz magazine of the 1990s, the comic books Cyclops and Nasty Tales. The latter publication, which Barker co-edited, delivered him trembling to the dock of the Old Bailey on an obscenity charge in 1973. This little-known re-run of the Oz trial resulted in a majority verdict of not guilty. An anthology called Edward's Heave Comics - prepared during the 1970-1974 Conservative premiership of Edward Heath, whose portrait adorned the cover - and published by Felix Dennis is now a collector's item.

In the early 1980s Barker moved to Cornwall. Six years ago a rumour that he died was widely circulated; he was obliged to repond in the manner of Mark Twain, and a large resurrection party was thrown for him at London's Groucho Club. There he met his future wife Maggie Kayley, with whom he settled in Kent.

His last collection, A Murder of Crows, published by his old colleague Richard Adams in 1991, featured those anthropomorphic birds - which he had first adopted as a motif 20 years earlier - in a number of unfortunate circumstances, most of which they confronted with shy dignity. "Ed Barker has talent oozing out of his pores," wrote Dennis in the booklet's introduction, "and the fact that he is not immensely rich and famous has always been a mystery to me."

Trippin' Crows
Humorists are not supposed to be amusing in private. Edward Barker was a riotously funny man. Refusing to take anything seriously, including his own work, his prospects, his misfortunes and illnesses, he was irresistibly good company. He failed to become rich and famous because he was entirely lacking in personal vanity or ambition. Those qualities, as much as his achievements of 25 years ago, sent old friends to his hospital bed over the past fortnight.
Barker considerately provided his own epitaph, which his many admirers should try to obey. At the end of Edward's Heave Comics is depicted a tombstone. "Here Lies Edward," is engraved upon it, "Stick No Bills."

Edward Barker, cartoonist, born May 31, 1950, died April 18, 1997