Fil Barlow and Helen Maier are pioneering Australian creators based in Melbourne who chose comics as their “medium of expression”, and have just published the 30th anniversary reprint of their landmark title Zooniverse, which begins its serialization in Island magazine, published by Image Comics.
To be honest, they’re an incredible pair better left to explain what they do themselves.
“Words with pictures, pictures with words. We work in comics and animation so the term ‘cartoonist’ neatly covers everything. For the past 32 years, our mission has been to bring something unique to the world, something personal and do it in an entertaining way.”
Zooniverse has been here before. It was first published from 1986-1987 in the U.S.A. by Eclipse.
“Fil created Zooniverse, his own personal universe, in 1980, and in 1984 began work on a six-issue saga that was released in 1986 in America. The comic caught the eye of Kevin Altieri — who became a director on the Batman animation — and Richard Raynis — who become the producer of The Simpsons — who were looking for a character designer for the ALF animation at DiC Entertainment. This began our career in the American animation industry.
“Fil was head of the Character Design Departments for the animated ALF show, C.O.P.S, Captain N, Extreme Ghostbusters, Godzilla the series, Max Steel, Heavy Gear, Starship Troopers: Roughnecks Chronicles, Igor, Dark Fury, and Tutenstein (for which Fil won an Emmy). Helen began as a colour keyist on ALF and joined the Character Department from Extreme Ghostbusters onwards.
“In 1996, Fil and Helen moved to Los Angeles and set up the company Artopia to supply designs to the animation industry. Together they created and sold the game Spectrobes to Disney in 2006.
“In 2010, Fil and Helen decided to return to Australia. They set up a new studio Zoonitoons and began producing their own animation and self-publishing their comics. Around 2012, Brandon Graham — who read Zooniverse in Seattle when he was 10 years old, which inspired him to become a cartoonist — contacted the team and invited them to submit work for Image Comics.
Another Image release has been the 8House project Yorris, with art by Barlow, and written by Maier.
“It’s the tale of a young baroness from the House of Curses, who gets banished to an asylum for her shamanistic visions.“
Why did you start making comic books?
Fil: “I’ve made them since childhood: I printed and distributed my own comic at the age of eight on a Roneo machine, and sold them around school for 5 cents; I was in print by age 11 and professional by 16.”
Helen: “I began my comic career as a colourist on Fil’s Zooniverse at the age of 17.”
Who were your local comic book influences?
“As artistic kids, we were sponges absorbing influence from everything! In the ’60s and ’70s we had puppets on TV, cross-dressing comedians, bizarre Sid & Marty Krofft shows, plastic toys in our cereal, Big Daddy Roth style bubblegum cards, children’s illustrated books, newspaper comic strips, weekly comics from England.
“At the time, Australian comic publications were largely reprints of American Marvel & DC titles that were sold alongside the American releases. Helen being of Czech origin had children’s books by Ondřej Sekora, and puppet masters Jiří Trnka and Josef Skupa. There was also MAD Magazine, Moomintrolls, Shiver & Shake, Trigan Empire, Asterix, Tintin.
“For Australian influences we had to look back to Norman Lindsay, May Gibbs, and illustrators like Desmond Digby (Bottersnikes & Gumbles) and the painter Ainslie Roberts. There were also contemporary cartoonists like Michael Leunig and Alex Stitt. There was so much stuff, if you had the curiosity to find it.”
How did you get selected by Image for ‘Island’?
“Image Comics would never have published us under normal circumstances. Brandon Graham, who was inspired by Zooniverse to become a cartoonist as we mentioned, was instrumental in getting us published there. He created projects and kept inviting us to participate. We began by painting covers for a comic he was writing called Prophet. He then created a universal concept he dubbed ‘8House’, with four creative teams writing separate titles. He invited us to do anything within the shared universe. We created Yorris and have produced two issues so far. Behind all of this, Brandon’s anthology magazine he called Island was being planned by him and Emma Ríos. Zooniverse was always intended to be included at some point.”
How do you feel?
“We are broke, but happy. Comics don’t pay well and we’re changing our careers late in life, which is difficult. Thanks to Brandon’s support, we feel enthusiastic about our work having a home. It just takes time to build up an audience that will support us, with enough sales to survive this mundanely utilitarian country.”
Do you believe there really is an Australian comics renaissance right now?
“Australians have always had a local comics scene, back in the 1970s to ’90s it was limited by the cost of printing, which was in the thousands of dollars. Since the ’80s, cartoonists have been trying to emulate the American ‘superhero’ market and success — it’s disappointing at seeing that trend continue. Helen and I have invented new comic themes, stuff you won’t see anywhere else in the world. We will always offer stories and ideas that can only be found through us, wherever we might be. We’re offering it to Australia because our comic work was made here – but it’s up to the [Australian] public to embrace it.
“One more thing to mention is the fact that there are so many more people on the Earth now than in the days when we started out. So much more technology making work and ideas instantly available to the world. Webcomics are opening up what comics are, and can be delivered to their audience for free or for a fee. It’s a worldwide growth due to comics, animation, manga, and anime becoming mainstream, but it’s much bigger than comics. People are following their interests, celebrating the things they love, becoming what they want either surgically or by making costumes. ‘Human’ is becoming a broader concept and a person’s country of origin doesn’t matter when it comes to ideas. All we seek to do is inspire.”