Friday, July 29, 2011

A special thanks to Colin Paraskevas

Zooniverse would never have existed without Colin Paraskevas and I'd like to take a moment to explain his involvement in the comic's development. When I met Colin I was a kid armed with bundles of folders each as thick as a phone-book, packed with character designs and concepts, at any opportunity I'd enthusiastically explain each world and it's inhabitants. Colin suggested that I pick one concept and focus on it, something that could house all of the other ideas. At the time Zooniverse was just one of a multitude of concepts that was buried in my sketch pile. It was about a man turning himself into a living universe, and that was it. Colin thought it was perfect! So I began a very vague series of story-lines about how the Zooniverse came into being. Influenced by Kenneth Smith's Phantasmagoria, I broke it into chapters for each wave of evolutionary lifeforms. From Mulouscoids, to Insectoids, then Lizardoids, eventually to Humanoids, describing how each reached sentience. What I showed Colin was more observational and distant than the rollicking adventure he was expecting.
(Please click to enlarge any image).

An early concept page for Crastalla an Insectoid created at the age of 18 in 1981

[Just a quick segue.....
You may recognize the name Crastalla in the image above as the planet that the Kren Patrol escaped to at the end of the comic series. Well, a Shadanese agent called Althra searches for their whereabouts in a follow up unpublished story called "Age Old Enemies." As you can see many of the original ideas from the sketch above bore fruit ten years later in the panels below. The Hollowlands are where Larote Quoke, now the leader of a village of Insectoids who ride tame Blimpsnails, rescues Althra from a pack of Arachnoid troglodytes. Obviously this story would have been more to Colin's liking, but I did this version after his influence on me.]


Two panels from "Age Old Enemies"

Colin took matters into his own hands, wanting to focus my attention, he randomly picked two characters out of the stack of thousands and said, "Okay make a story out of these two!" It was Lokki and Tulky.  Two characters that I'd never thought to put together, but I was up for the challenge and began working on their comic. The comic never saw the light of day, but I've kept the story. Chronologically it happens after the Kren Patrol leave Crastalla and are kidnapped by pirates, ooh but you don't know about that yet! Ssshh. I would often redesign my characters, redrawing them out of a curiosity to see how they would look with my evolving abilities. Here's Tulky as he changed over the years with Lokki, who was originally called Entox.


This first Zooniverse comic never saw print, but by a wonderfully weird co-incidence, Colin's seemingly random choice of picking Lokki, inadvertently tapped into a deep root, for he was a very old character who had been with me since I was thirteen years old. Lokki had been a member of the Nerk Patrol, with a tall skinny character and a big heavy bruiser. I had pages of brush inked comics I'd done of the Nerk Patrol. So the obvious thing was to revisit my old team and redesign them to see if they could fit in this new Zooniverse.It turns out that they did!! I didn't feel right about using the word Nerk as I'd lifted it from years of listening to the The Goon Show on the radio, it was invented by Spike Milligan as a silly, but derogatory term for an idiot. I didn't want that for my new team so I swapped the letters around and renamed them the Kren Patrol!

As the years passed Colin saw my Kren Patrol designs and noticed that the big bruiser was called Lokki and the little green guy was called Entox, he suggested I swap their names because Entox sounded like a big guy's name. It was a wrench at the time, but he was absolutely correct.

So fast forward to late 1984. The Zooniverse series is in development, fellow artist, Helen Maier is permanently a part of my life, and Colin is paying my rent at $70 a week. I was living in the top quarter of a very cold subdivided mansion, spending whole days immersed in Zooniverse, designing and planning the series, pulling all of those ideas into a cohesive story. So many wonderful things were fitting into place, and I was grateful for them all, it was an incredibly creative time! 

The apartment where Zooniverse series was created, with Helen Maier and myself in our beloved bay window. In Melbourne Australia.

Colin only visited a couple of times, but his story advice was invaluable. Originally the first issue began on what is now page 2, the Control Lords were something I added after he suggested that the story was too linear and needed a second plot. So I created a new first page that, at Colin's suggestion, summarized the entire series. Page 6 was split in half to bookend a new page and a half of Control Lord business. The rest of the issue is as I wrote it, with a little editorial support from Michael Logan. When Colin's rent payments ended somewhere in 1985 Michael Logan, Allister Hardiman and I began an illustration company to service the Advertising Industry (they did the five page Gatcheralis back up story in issue #1).

My method to completing finished pages from rough to ink took five stages, and Colin was always frustrated that it was too slow a technique. I tried to cut steps out but unfortunately I lacked the seasoned skill to confidently remove my safety nets, I simply wasn't that good a draftsman. I did marker inked roughs the same size as the printed comic, which I enlarged to half size up, traced and inked again with markers, traced that on to my inking paper and cleaned it up with blue pencil. Now that the work was done I could have fun, I didn't like to think at the inking stage, just gesture and let the spontaneity have it's way. I believe that the structural work created muscle memory that allowed my brush and nib work to be fluid and enjoyable. I was unable to explain it to Colin, he would just roll his eyes, but I have to say that I never missed a deadline.

Colin had big and admirable plans to set up a publishing empire, he talked to other artists about their titles. If Zooniverse had been a huge success, things would have been very different and very exciting in sleepy 'old Melbourne. Colin and I only expected the 6 issue series to be a test run, to iron out the relationship with the American market after which we intended to make Zooniverse a regular series. Alas, fate was not our friend.

So the series went to print, Colin bankrolled the entire publication, but decided to go through Eclipse, which was news to me. I can only guess that he wanted to work with a company with publication experience. There were a number of hurdles. We had a month to paint the first issue. For three weeks the Australian custom officials held a strike, which left us with a week to hand paint thirty pages of bromides, plus the cover. You may have noticed the 2 panels on page 23 where the Kren Patrol are unpainted, was it for dramatic effect? No. I had simply run out of time and after three all-nighters in a row I just couldn't cope. Micheal Logan wrenched the artwork out of my hands and took it to FedEx before they closed. Thanks Australian Customs.

The unpainted panels on Page 23 from Issue #1, the gouache was mixed with my tears.

We wanted Zooniverse to have subtle European colors, but the printers cranked up the color on nearly every issue, ruining our hard work with over saturation and shoddy workmanship. Colin tried so hard to remedy the problem but it never worked out. Either Eclipse didn't care or they were simply negligent, I have no idea.But relations became strained between Minotaur Books and Eclipse.

Understandably Colin was disappointed, things weren't turning out quite as he expected. We  briefly clashed over censorship of my editorial for issue #4. With Colin's approval, somebody, and I never found out who, made me say things I simply didn't agree with. Thankfully Colin let me do the issue #5 editorial without interference and I tried to clarify my position. However he was on the censorship war path, I guess I'd just put too many sexual innuendos into my work, tame by comparison to Heavy Metal and Underground Comix which I had weaned on in my youth. So when Cat Yronwode from Eclipse asked to completely remove my tastefully masturbating she-fairy from the last page of the last issue, Colin agreed without ever consulting me. And that how Chinnut, the masturbating fairy was snuffed out of existence, changing the tone of the way my series ended. If a reprint ever comes to fruition, she will live again, as I intended.

Issue #1 sold well, it looked like steady sales might have this project be a paying venture. The American Comic Industry had other ideas. We were riding the crest of the anamorphic funny fighting animal comic boom. There was a feeding frenzy. Only first issues of independent funny animal books were sought after, and never read because they would get soiled, and they would be worth something one day! Comic shops bought up big expecting the subsequent issues to sell as well as the first. Alas, no one wanted them, leaving the stores choking to the gills in product that wouldn't move. We ended on that bust. By the time Issue #6 was about to be released, I was working in Los Angeles on the animated series of Alf. I was too shy to be present when the last issue was being purchased by my work mates, so I stayed at the studio through lunch. They returned with the report that they had emptied out the store of Issue #6. They asked the shop owner if he would restock he said, "Nah I'm glad to be rid of that crap!" I think he was referring to independent comics, because all of the store owners ran sobbing back to the milky teat of the mainstream superhero publishers.

Zooniverse didn't get a fair chance, but without Colin you probably wouldn't have seen it. He guided me, bankrolled the thing and wore the losses, but the series got done and was released around the world. Zooniverse opened the door to my career in Hollywood, and as much as I would have rather stayed in Melbourne continuing to work on my little comic, fate had other plans for me, but Colin will always have my gratitude.

Now if only he'd return my calls, so I can thank him in person!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

From the ashes of Inkspots

In the post titled "The Meeting" I showed you my cover for Issue #2 of the Australian comic magazine called Inkspots. Two further issues of Inkspots were produced and I contributed a story to each, along with Steph Campbell, Chris Johnston, Phillip Kanlidis and Darrel Merritt. I was eighteen years old and had been working on a Zooniverse comic under the encouragement of Publisher Colin Paraskevas (this Zooniverse prototype was done in the style that I had to shed when another artist "borrowed" it later on).

To my disappointment, Colin didn't want to use this work in the next Issue of Inkspots. Instead he and fellow publishers Philip Bentley and Greg Gates wanted me to do a more serious, "realistic" piece. They insisted that I do something in a "Moebius style". I was reluctant. Why would I want to imitate Moebius when I had so many styles of my own that I wanted to explore. To my way of thinking, if it's been done (and done well in Moebius' case), why repeat it? Which is why I've never been interested in doing any work based on reality. Just go for a walk and you'll see plenty of realism. I've always preferred to exaggerate my characters and invent entirely new concepts, I want to show things that have never been seen before. A journalist of the non-existent.

Eventually I figured that I could use this opportunity to prove a point and move on. I would be able to demonstrate that I could draw a competent looking humans from memory at the age of eighteen and never need to do a "realistic" comic again. So I worked diligently and completed the task, but before I could hand in my comic, the publishers had one more obstacle for me....  go back and Letratone the entire eleven pages!!!  For those unfamiliar with this sticky evil of the pre-computer age, Letratone was a page of dots in various shades of gray, printed onto adhesive plastic film that we had to stick onto our artwork, we then cut away the excess tone with a scalpel. It was exceedingly time consuming! No bucket filling back then! I had finished the inked version in 1981 while still eighteen, but it took me twice as long to wrangle the Letratone, struggling with it until publication in 1983. I had always hoped to color Skarpion so I knew to my dismay that I was ruining my originals forever.

Inkspots issue 3 Cover by Frantz Kantor. Published 1983

The story I did centers around a pacifistic race, called the Skarpion, who were hunted to near extinction for their glands capable of aiding organ regeneration in humans, there is one survivor. This solitary Skarpion has been kept safe in a hidden dimension blanketed by a sea of living, conscious, growths. A lone silicon girl races to protect the Skarpion  from a hostile half-robotic intruder, who is intent on harvesting the Skarpion to restore his own damaged body. It is a tale full of irony and personal symbolism. Shown here is a detail of page 4, in color for the first time. Please click to enlarge.

Page 4 of Skarpion by Fil Barlow © Copyright 1981

Issue #4 of Inkspots saw the artists take over the production. A meeting was held and publisher Colin Paraskevas called for us to abandon our large black and white format for the smaller, thinner, full colored American comic format. He also suggested releasing the magazine through the US distribution channels. At the time we were aiming for the French Bande Dessinée (comic) market, even though we had no solid connections established, so we unanimously voted against Colin's offer and he, unfortunately, took his leave from Inkspots, accurately predicting that our direction was folly. Artist Steph Campbell took over as Editor for this issue. I did the cover based on the ten page comic I created called Asphyxiation.

Inkspots issue 4 Cover by Fil Barlow. Published 1984

Asphyxiation was a bleak story set on a colonized planet where, thanks to a chemically waged civil war, oxygen had become a scarce commodity. Without some kind of filter mask and air pump, the people couldn't breathe. A lone character called Athsman had been newly fitted with an experimental device on his arm that used oxytablets to release oxygen directly into his bloodstream. Athsman had no need for a mask. While visiting a friend in hospital, desert raiders begin ransacking for respirators. Here are five panels that I've colored for the first time. Please click to enlarge.
Page 7 of Asphyxiation by Fil Barlow © Copyright 1983

There was an ill-fated Issue #5 of Inkpots prepared. One publisher remained, Greg Gates. This was to be the issue that would finally launch Zooniverse and I prepared the wrap-around cover and 10 pages for that issue, none of this work has ever been published. Now an odd thing happened, somehow it had been decided that this issue would be titled "Inkspots featuring Zooniverse" and the next issue would be titled "Zooniverse featuring Inkspots," eventually phasing out Inkspots all together. I just went along with all of these decisions a bit dazed by the strangeness of everyone being willing to drop the established Inkspots title, but excited by the chance to finally get started on my signature project.

The time had come to print the fifth issue, the artists had finished their work, the deadline had been met. Steph had lovingly prepared the layouts and photographically transferred them onto bromides. The issue was handed over to Greg to take to the printer and pay the expenses. However, Greg had since gotten cold feet, but waited until all of the work was done, for free mind you, to tell us that he wanted to back out. Over the phone he told me his reason, "I'm having trouble sleeping because it's a lot of money." Then to my surprise he asked me, "So what are you going to do about Zooniverse?" Did he expect me to give up? To fall in a heap because he'd resigned? I'm sorry, but that's not me. So I replied, in no uncertain terms, "I'm going to keep doing it, I can't stop now." He quickly ended the call and must have bitched to Colin about my decision, because within minutes I got another call, it was a beaming Colin! The conversation went like this...

"I heard that you are going to keep doing Zooniverse."
I replied confidently, "Yep!"
Colin continued,"Do you want to do it my way? We'll publish it in the USA, in color, you'll have to reformat your art to fit. Are you still interested?"
Without hesitation I responded, "Let's do it!"

And that's how Zooniverse was born, out of the ashes of Inkspots, I offered back up stories to the Inkspots artists to showcase their talents to the world. Chris Johston, Steph Campbell, Frantz Kantor and Darrel Merritt answered the call. I decided to start fresh and never used artwork I did for Inkspots which was intended to be a ten page installment. The story for the first ten pages in Issue #1 of Zooniverse is roughly the same but with some added pages and panels, but my style had improved because of the practice run I'd had with the doomed last issue of Inkspots so I dropped that art and started fresh, tracing and improving panels as I worked in the new format.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Prologue

In 1984 while I was writing and preparing the Zooniverse series, the publishers at Reverie asked for my contribution to issue 7 of their magazine. They had already published my "Runner" piece, an experimental one pager. The timing was perfect, I had wanted to take my emerging Zooniverse style out for a spin. Also I figured it was the opportunity for some shameless self promotion. So I wrote and inked a brand new strip called.... take a deep breath.... "Sproat Fanbunder & Spleen Sphincter - The infamous repairmen!".

It was the prologue to the Zooniverse series and was only published in Australia.
I even got to do the cover and here it is, in color corrected for the first time...


The story involved two rival repairmen, their stores facing each across an empty frontier street in a desert isolated from civilization, who are visited by a Clone-a-gram. They cannot understand what the creature is saying so a botched attempt is made to find the truth. A vitamizer is used on the Clone-a-gram's head instead of a translator, leaving the message to be transfered via it's extracted spine.

The message?

"The Zooniverse is coming!". The comic ends with two rivals responses to the pronouncement. Dire warning or Joyous Proclamation?

The other announcement of the Zooniverse's imminent arrival was this one pager that appeared in Fox comics in 1984, originally published in black and white. I've colored it for your appreciation.