Barker, 39, has the luxury of following his extraterrestrial marketing muse now, and the chief result is The Schwa World Operations Manual, $14.95 from Chronicle Books, published last November. His signature stick-figure cum Alien Face style is whipped into a deadpan how-to satire billed as "the definitive guide to running a small planet," which "contains everything you need to become a world operator." The trade paperback, a high-contrasty cross between Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy and The X-Files, is more fun than reading Whitley Strieber on acid. It's also one of Chronicle's biggest sellers, Barker claims, moving at the rate of about 1,000 books a week. There's even a German edition coming out, with a first run of 20,000. "Schwa is being called Kult in Germany," says Barker, who admits he doesn't know quite how that translates yet. But whatever Schwa is, it's not a cult, he insists: it's an "art project that's gone very far." Very far indeed. He's got a game about to debut on AOL, which will be, appropriately enough, "a battle of stick people fighting to get to the top of a pyramid," he says. There's talk of an animated television series, and, just like South Park, Barker is licensed up the wazoo.
"For a few years I had four employees and a little factory and we were shipping shirts and stickers, but things went well enough -- not that I'm rich -- that I didn't need that anymore," chuckles Barker. According to a Corporation press release, Schwa merchandise has infiltrated mass culture to the tune of 25,000 t-shirts, over 1,000,000 stickers, 100,000 key chains, 2,000 corporate caps and 3,000 screen savers. Schwa products were sold on the last Lollapalooza tour, and they're distributed by Tower Records worldwide. "The Schwa brand is well known and is becoming synonymous with the mysterious and the unknown," is the complacent corporate conclusion.
So what is it with this Alien Face meme scheme? Has Barker taken a whirl with that intergalactic proctologist? Not at all. "I was looking for a style that would work as mail order art because I got fed up with gallery art, particularly in Reno," says Barker, who is nevertheless still based in that most unJanetlike Gomorrah. The former adman, who almost makes a boast of the fact that his academic training is limited to an A.A. degree, used to show fine art that he describes as "parodies of packaged products; fake blister packs filled with archival materials." Well, the Alien Face idea just evolved, and "I ended up using the alien to express all my ideas about culture."
He's not an abductee or even much of a believer. "I became interested in the alien mainly because it's such a powerful symbol; there are few such symbols in our culture. Some Schwa fans are believers, some are ironists."
And some are just plain crazy, but Barker's low profile is not a paranoid form of seclusion -- his face is obscured in all his publicity photos and his name appears nowhere in or on any Schwa Corp. materials, not even his book. "I'm really not trying to avoid the nutcases. I think the artist is irrelevant, it's the work that matters." The work, we're afraid, seems to want to vaporize Madison Avenue, or at least radically regulate it. "Advertising creates a world of all messages that destroys all culture," Barker laments. "I'm not saying there's a solution; it's just an unfortunate side effect of market forces that makes advertising overwhelm everything. It's the mass of it, it's the wall of advertising. I think it's fundamentally changing everything. It drowns the world out."
Barker is acutely aware of the irony of merchandising anti-ad art, but "it's a contradiction based on anger and despair," he says. "I guess I could have quit advertising and opened a garden and nursery that didn't advertise, but given my skills, it's work in advertising or come up with anti-art. I don't have a good strong answer" to this moral dilemma, he confesses. "We're all in it, we're all implicated." But he does feel good about making a stand. "The book is a jumble, but I think there are some pretty strong messages in there." And he draws the line at banner ads on his Web site, which is all art, no advertising. However, if you're not a Heaven's Gater, you've got to think long-term. "I'm happy to say the Corporation has given me health insurance and a minor pension plan," Barker notes. "It's doing a lot better for me than my freelancing and agency work ever did." Still, "the fact is, it's almost impossible to do something on any significant scale and not sell out."
So if the USA Network wants to run a Schwa Man cartoon with the voice of Jason Alexander, he'd go for it? "Absolutely. There's even been some talk about doing a live-action film with Schwa product placements. Something like Men in Black."