“The aesthetic sensibility of The Believer is pretty legendary,” Kristen Radtke, fresh from her honeymoon, tells me of the bimonthly, five-time National Magazine Award finalist, literature, arts, and culture mag. “It’s always had such a cool, crisp, throwback look, thanks largely to Dave Eggers, Charles Burns, and Tony Millionaire, the design and illustration gurus behind the original magazine.”
Nowadays, that “pretty legendary” aesthetic is carefully nurtured by the multitalented multihyphenate Radtke herself, a published author, editor, and illustrator. Since coming onboard as The Believer’s Art Director back in 2017, Radtke has managed to strike a thoughtful balance between honoring and doing justice to the legacy of the now-sixteen-year-old mag “while also opening up a space for new voices.” Which is where her carefully assembled ensemble of freelance creatives, such as Alexandra Beguez, Jarett Sitter, Samar ‘Space Vacation’ Haddad, and Gina Wynbrandt come in.
“Each cover features an illustration by a different artist now, and I’m really proud of and energized by the range of perspectives and styles we get to showcase on the exterior and within its pages … I want to be able to present a cover that’s done in watercolor followed by one that’s really sharp and digital followed by something soft, and I want it to be clear that these varied works are all still part of the same family.” However, one of the biggest things Radtke nixed was photography, noting that “the tactile, non-glossy quality of our magazine makes it a perfect avenue for illustration.”
One of the illustrators commissioned by Radtke is Disney- and indie comic-influenced Alexandra Beguez, whose illustrations for Sarah Marshall’s ‘The End of Evil’ essay won the Latin American Ilustración 7 Award. Beguez has since worked on comics for Radtke too, saying of the experience: “I truly wish more magazines were willing and able to take editorial and artistic risks as The Believer does … I was amazed when Kristen told me The Believer was looking to publish comics as well as prose; it’s such a rarity in print.”
However, while Radtke solicits about “95% of the comics … and 60% of the editorial illustrations,” some creatives also reach out to her. Jarett Sitter—the crab-cassette tape illustrator behind The Believer’s Music Issue—is one of them. “When Kristen got back to me about doing a cover, I was pretty surprised to be honest, especially with it being the music issue. It was definitely a huge honor for me!”
Samar Haddad, known for her striking, digital illustrative homages to film and TV, also put together a Believer cover since Radtke took the reins, and worked on the Nevada desert visuals for ‘The Believer Festival’. “I fell in love with Samar Haddad’s work on social media,” Radtke tells me. “Her style is really interesting—aggressively flat but yet so expressive.”
Meanwhile, Radtke had “been wanting to work with Gina Wynbrandt on a comic since [she] came on at The Believer,” adding that her work is “hilarious and excruciating.” The comic Wynbrandt ended up contributing—‘Everyone is in Love Except Me’—was ultimately a complex musing on loneliness, hopelessness, and Elliot Rodger.
So when a bundle of The Believer mags thudded through my front door a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself both eager to dig in and reluctant to sully their untouched beauty. Immediately visually appealing from the outside—the cover illustrations of the copies I received swung between using soothing pastel palettes to looking somewhat like an out-of-this-world arcade game on acid—the tactile matte innards weren’t half bad either; interviews—a staple of The Believer—are headed by illustrated portraits, while expansive, feature-helming double page illustrations left me lingering and luxuriating over each page.
Gently thumbing through a copy of The Believer then—or perhaps any print magazine—serves as the antithesis to endless social media scrolling and it’s no stretch to say that Radtke and team’s work has a lot to do with that. As Haddad acknowledges, “The Believer’s beautiful art direction is what enables it to build an emotional connection with its readers and enhances their experience.”
But while Radtke has “found a lot of emerging artists [through social media] that I wouldn’t have been introduced to otherwise”, she remains neither a print evangelical, nor a the-internet-is-killing-everything zealot. However, “the fact that so much work—written, visual art, video—is available for free online is just another reason why the physical objects we make and consume should be works of art in themselves.” There’s no doubt in my mind that The Believer is just that—a work of art. And Wynbrandt sums it up neatly: “I think people will always want to read beautiful things.”
Lauren is a freelance travel writer based in Mexico City, who writes about the things she eats, drinks, and reads along the way. Her bylines also include BBC Travel, Lonely Planet, CNN, and Gastro Obscura, among others.