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215: AK Press

March 29, 2015

Today I veer off from my regularly scheduled posting. 2015 is the 25 year anniversary of AK Press, one of the longest (maybe the longest?) running anarchist presses in the US (although founded in Scotland). This is an important and rare feat for an anarchist, collective, and worker-owned and operated project. We need to celebrate our counter-institutions, nurture them, critique them, help them evolve and grow. Unfortunately on March 21st, rather than get to have a birthday party, the AK Press crew found themselves grappling with a fire that destroyed the building behind their warehouse (killing two of their neighbors), and also seriously damaged their space (as well as 1984 Printing and other important projects).

AnarchismCulture & MediaHistorySocial Movements
The Free

AK Press, 1990

So let’s jump in with one of AK Press’ earliest titles, M. Gilliland’s The Free. A work of fiction, sci-fi even, this book floated around so many group houses and anarchist social spaces in the early 90s. I probably read it over 20 years ago, and remember really enjoying it. It was a smart, unexpected book for a young anarchist publisher to put out, a novel instead of a reprint of Kropotkin, speculative fiction instead of analysis of the Spanish Civil War. This speaks to the strength of founder Ramsey Kanaan’s vision for the press, and also to some of the reasons why it is still around 25 years later. I don’t know much about The Free other than that is was originally published in 1986 by the London anarchist publisher Hooligan Press, with a much, much different cover—a comic book-esque urban scene clearly set in the future, like an amateur drawing from a Judge Dread book. The AK Press edition was co-published by Attack International, and has a much more traditional cover, but one that is quite visually strong. A photo of a young woman—which seems it could be from many places: Hungary in 1956, Northern Ireland in the 1980s—runs down the right side of the cover. At first glance she is unassuming, but her posture and direct stare into the camera are actually really confrontational, and draw you into the design. The title and author’s name’s sit above and below the photo, with a thin red line under it all for punctuation. Elegant yet challenging. I no longer have a physical copy of the book, so unfortunately I’m unsure who the designer was.

Terrorizing the Neighborhood

AK Press, 1991

Chomsky’s Terrorizing the Neighborhood is another great example of early AK design. Like The Free, I no longer have a physical copy of this book, but if I recall it was co-published by Pressure Drop Press, and I suspect co-designed by the team of Martin Sprouse (Pressure Drop’s publisher, once editor of Maximum RocknRoll, and producer of Rancid’s first record), Chuck Sperry (now of Firehouse Posters, one of the longest-running and most popular Bay Area gig poster outfits), and John Yates (then a young English designer recently moved to San Francisco—who would go on to publish three books of political design/collage with AK Press, create the political art zine Punchline, found the Allied Productions record label, design hundreds of book covers for over a dozen different publishers, and generate a handful of political graphics that still grace the T-shirt of thousands of young punks and politicos). Like much design of the time, esp. much design influenced by the 1980s UK Left, it has a heavy constructivist influence, with solid black bars, thick sans serif type, and large half-tone dots. Placing all the titles in bars and boxes make them double as both textual and visual information, design blocks to be moved around the cover field. The blown-out photo of Bush, Sr. is immediately recognizable as him, but also (a) makes him look scary, and (b) makes visible the production process, or at least is a nod to that. The cover is also so crammed with information that it feels claustrophobic, graphically evoking the terror of the title.

Ecstatic Incisions

AK Press, 1992

Freddie Baer is a long-time Bay Area anarchist artist and collagist. She’s illustrated dozens of books and magazines, designed tons of publications, and been a major graphic force in anarchist publishing, particularly in the 1980s and 90s. AK Press is one of the few Left presses that really tried to pay attention to culture, not only publishing fiction and poetry, but also attempts at art books (this book, as well as monographs by John Yates and Crass artist Gee Vaucher, and two of my books—Realizing the Impossible, a collection on art and anarchism that I edited with Erik Reuland, and <em>Signs of Change</em>, a visual introduction to social movements I assembled with Dara Greenwald). Anyway, Ecstatic Incisions is a great collection of her work. The book’s cover is a smart solution to a big problem: How to both feature Baer’s infinitely intricate and complex collage work and clearly announce the title and author without the two needs conflicting with each other. Trust the artist to do what they do best, and the designer to do the same. Feature the art on the cover, but frame it with a bold red and yellow construct that grabs attention, but is so simple that it doesn’t function as “art” that could compete with the detailed image by Baer.

School's Out

AK Press, 1997

What I love about the cover to Benjamin Zephaniah’s School’s Out is the perfect balance of comic aesthetic and humor and design simplicity. The kid waving the flag doesn’t even have to be shown, just the arm says he or she is already running out the doors of the school and on his/her way to getting into something more exciting. It captures and transports you back to that great sense of trouble-making you had as a kid. And all the negative space around the arm allows it to breath, to seize that sense of freedom. Nowadays this book would more than likely have a full-bleed stock photo of a condemned school with sterile sans-serif titling over it. I’m very happy someone was allowed to take some risks back in the late 90s.

Sabate: Guerilla Extraordinary

AK Press/Elephant Editions, 2000

Antonio Tellez’ Sabate: Guerilla Extraordinary, was originally published in the late 1980s as part of Elephant Editions “Anarchist Pocketbooks” series. The cover here, illustrated and designed by Clifford Harper, is a slight reworking of the original. Harper is probably the most well-known and successful anarchist graphic artist of the past 40 years, at least in the English-speaking world. The mid to late 80s was one of Harper’s most aesthetically wide-ranging periods, he had broken out of his early pointillist-realist style, but had yet to entirely solidify into his hard-edged Frans Masereel-influenced graphic forms. Sabate features one of Harper’s most dynamic “post-Masereel” graphics. The lines are relatively soft and lay out a complex system of clouds, mountains, and small Spanish towns that the guerilla Sabate is determinedly walking across. He is alone, but also the surveyor of all that is below him. The black and white illustration is set off nicely by a rust colored bar that runs vertically along the right side, a small but nice modernist touch which makes the cover feel both contemporary and classic, balancing the heaviness of the figure on the left.

You Can't Win

AK Press, 2001

I’m a sucker for the push-and-pull, uniformity vs. variations in series design. Jack Black’s You Can’t Win was an early entry into AK’s Nabat imprint, and captures some of the best of that particular series design. The lines, pattern, and circle do a great job of framing the photo, but also create a strong design in their own right. The orange-ish red and pea green are powerful opposing colors, creating visual tension, and thankfully avoiding the Christmas Syndrome that unfortunately plagues many red and green combinations. The photo itself is perfect, the sole figure shrinking amongst the oversized power lines, smoke stacks, and factories. Who can win in this environment? It’s all pretty ageless except the type, unfortunately the rounded sans serif “Base” font feels deeply 1990s and never real broke out of the era of its creation. Which is the only misstep in an otherwise flawless cover. The entire Nabat series was designed by fran senbuehler/mouton-noir.

Orgasms of History

AK Press, 2002

The cover of Yves Fremion’s Orgasms of History is one of my favorite covers designed by John Yates. In attempting to illustrate the contents of the book, Yates also articulates the role of his work as a designer. He peels back the skin of an average street scene by collaging in a magnifying glass, which in turn exposes the revolt laying just below the surface. This visual play captures the spirit of Yates’ entire oeuvre as a militant montagist, attempting to re-purpose popular imagery to not transmit the status quo by challenge and overturn it. The type treatment in a translucent white captures the same spirit, the ability to see through it further speaks to the ubiquity of revolt and its connection to daily life.

Russian Anarchists

AK Press, 2005

Paul Avrich’s Russian Anarchists is paradigmatic of another series design, a set of Avrich books designed by John Yates for AK in 2005. Each is a solid white cover with a stylized black image set within a frame of arrows, shooting out in every direction. A black bar runs down the left side, and the titles are in a distressed type-writer style font, both elements lending a sense that these books are dossiers, which isn’t too far off a description of Avrich’s compilations of anarchist history. I actually don’t have much more to say about this one, I’m really just a sucker for arrows.

Dreams of Freedom

AK Press, 2005

I’m also a big fan of Ricardo Flores Magon, and what better to illustrate this collection of his writings—Dreams of Freedom—than a strong illustration by Jesus Barraza. This book is a nice departure for AK Press, a willingness to experiment with visual styles outside the traditional anarchist pantheon on Yates, Baer, Harper, et. al. It works, too—Barraza’s heavily Chicano printmaking-influenced style acts as a bridge between Magon’s anarchism and his importance to both the Mexican Revolution and early Chicano labor movements.


AK Press, 2008

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve included AK’s reprint of Louis Adamic’s Dynamite  in this list. There’s something really compelling to me about the cover, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think I like how the title is backed by a halftone screen, which interacts intensely with the halftone pattern of the photo behind, making a visual far more complex than the more standard design format of placing the text in a colored or semi-transparent box. The overlapping dot patterns strongly give the sensation of looking at old newspapers, which works since this book was originally published in the 1930s, and is about the turn of the century.

A Poetics of Resistance

AK Press, 2010

I’ve always loved the cover of Jeff Conant’s A Poetics of Resistance, I believe designed by Brian Awehali. The use of the tiny handmade Zapatista doll is a brilliant device to communicate the operative words in the title, Poetics and Resistance. The futura-istic font also has its merits, although I think the cover might have been even stronger if the titling had been a little smaller, giving more space for the doll to resonate with the viewer.

Zapatista Spring

AK Press, 2011

The cover of Ramor Ryan’s Zapatista Spring swings completely in the opposite direction of Conant’s above, although both are about the Zapatistas. Here the cover is chock full of visual elements, a bright cornucopia of colors, fonts, imagery, icons, and patterns. Designed by Bay Area activist and designer Tim Simons, this cover is literally saturated, with layers and layers of color and imagery piled on so deep that the title glows white on top of it all. Not normally my style (if it wasn’t clear already, I tend towards the “less is more” maxim), it really works here, grabbing the eyeballs and not letting go.

Sewing Freedom

AK Press, 2013

I couldn’t make this list without including Jared Davidson’s Sewing Freedom with its cover illustrations by one of my favorite artists (and long-time collaborator), Alec Dunn. The fish swimming against the grain is a almost cliche visual trope at this point, but it Davidson makes it work here (he’s both the author and the designer), as the eye eventually finds the one tailor facing the opposite direction and sewing red cloth instead of black. The blocky-ness of the figure also echos the art of Gerd Arntz, the German artist whose block prints were published in the 20s and 30s in insurrectionary European newspapers, and would eventually become the basis for the influential early infographics project Isotype. I would never of thought of it in the abstract, but I’m now realizing that this is the fifth book of chosen here that has a largely white cover. I must be attracted to the illusion of neutrality, or the blank field as a tool to focus the eye on the design content. Hummm…

Ready for Revolution

AK Press, 2014

Agustín Guillamón’s Ready for Revolution has one of the most clean and efficient covers in AK’s entire catalog. Jared Davidson is once again the designer, and he really hits it with this one. There’s really nothing to this cover but an old school rifle pointing straight up, test, and a field of red, yet he makes it say so much. The rifle illustrates the title, Ready for Revolution, but rather than being simply heroic, the arrangement of the image is more complicated, the rifle on the field of red reminds us of how bloody the conflict actually was, and the title in white turns the rifle into a pole, holding up a white flag of surrender. There is a lot going on in this deceptively simple design.

Octavia's Brood

AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015

And finally, we’ve got AK’s most recent release, the gorgeous Octavia’s Brood, edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. The cover was designed by comic artist John Jennings, and is a riot of imagery both flat and iconographic as well as luscious and temptious. Co-published by the Institute of Anarchist Studies, this volume is an exciting collection of social justice-oriented science fiction stories, and the illustration captures some of that excitement, alluding to an array of international and indigenous imagery but pushing it into the future, a speculative constellation of influences and confluences. I’ve only seen this cover online, so I’m really excited to get a copy and see it up close and in print. Plus it only seems fitting to both begin and end with Sci-Fi books!

So that’s my 15 favorites from AK Press. I really want to be able to choose 15 more in the coming years, but that very much might depend on how much we can all pull together to help AK in its time of need now.

I recently designed a pair of covers for an exciting set of newly translated books by Argentine anarchist historian, novelist, and filmmaker Osvaldo Bayer. The first of the set is The Anarchist Expropriators, and it was due to come out later this year. I think it’s some of my best cover work to date, but to see these books in print we need to get AK Press back on it’s feet! So please chip in and help, check out <a href=””>THEIR FUNDRAISING PAGE</a>, and spread the word!

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