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About the Cover: Trigger Warnings

Artist Michael Tunk takes us through the labor-intensive process behind the cover for our July issue.

Michael Tunk has only been illustrating professionally for five years, but he’s already a Topic veteran: the Alameda, California-based collage artist has been collaborating with us from the beginning. His beloved illustrated story “Baby Boy Trump’s First 100 Days: A Scrapbook” was featured in our very first issue, and he contributed to last November’s sobering “The Art of War” with a collection of original political collage and photomontage that commented on our troubling domestic and geopolitical climate. For the cover of our July 2018 issue, “Trigger Warnings,” which explores the presence of firearms and war in everyday life, Tunk and art director Brent Rollins settled on an image that depicted a 1967 Smith & Wesson Model 39 pistol falling apart, leaving just a remnant of itself, then coming back together—over and over again. “As an American, guns are just everywhere, and you grow up loving them in some form or another,” Tunk says. However, he admits, “I’ve never owned a real gun. They scare the shit out of me.”

What did you think when our art director, Brent Rollins, reached out about doing our July cover?

I remember getting excited, ’cause all I could think about were guns. A lot of guns. But that was the problem—nothing past that.

What were you interested in exploring? What messages were you looking to send, if any?


I wasn’t sure exactly what to go with at first. My first few tries were basically a lot of different, smaller guns with babies. Not sure what type of message I wanted to send!

Early versions of the cover art toyed with the idea that Americans are weaned on guns; they are inseparable from the nation’s psyche. But the image of a baby surrounded by weapons, intended to be shocking, just ended up looking fascist.
Tunk next tried turning down the patriotism and turning up the horror. The result was a little too disturbing, although it amused the more morbid members of the Topic staff.

What tools did you use to create the cover illustration? Was it done by hand? Hand and computer? Only computer?

It was all done by hand with X-acto blades. Everything I do is done analog.

What did you mean to communicate with the animation of the gun falling away into disparate pieces, and then coming back together again?

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Mostly that, no matter what, a gun is built for one thing only, and that is to destroy another human being. Even when the gun is invisible, you’re still able to make out what it is; even with the gun gone, it has left its mark. Guns in America will never go away—they are part of who we are as a country.

What landscape are you trying to depict, and how does it relate to the overall message of your piece?

I wanted an image that was something everyone in America has seen. It took a long time to find the right background. Finally, I came around to this one, and I feel like it’s a place you can see anywhere in the United States.

“Guns in America will never go away—they are part of who we are as a country.”

Where did the images used in the cover piece come from?

The background came from an old Walter T. Foster book about how to paint clouds from the ’70s, and the gun came from a large-format book on firearms.

How did you get your start?

I really owe it to the incredible staff of Lucky Peach magazine. [Editor] Peter Meehan and [art director] Walter Green both helped me get my start. Also, hard, nonstop work.

What are the general themes you like to explore in your work?

Really everything—I try not to hold myself back. I try to do it all.

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