Fil Barlow & Helen Maier
I need to write this review in two different voices. I need to write it with two different hands for two different audiences. That’d be a trick, a real coup. It might accomplish my goal, which is to get you to listen the whole way through. I need to tell you about what makes a creator-owned indie allegorical satire from industry veterans artistically unmissable as I also rally crowds of fans — monetised gimmick lovers — around the idea of a dystopic fantasy AU crossover between this 90s franchise spin-off and that 90s franchise spin-off. I need to create synergy between those seeking authenticity and those seeking nostalgic gratification. I need to explain how Yorris, a series within the series 8house, stands alone. I suppose that all I have to do is trust you’re like me. When I say “I’m a fan,” I mean I sense Art in this. And when I say “Art,” I mean art I am a fan of. What is fandom if not a sense that something big’s here?
I read Fil Barlow’s Zooniverse short in Prophet and I listened when Brandon Graham spoke about how Fil Barlow’s comics changed his life. I read Barlow’s section of Island and recognised the inset jokes, the ordered background chaos, the ribaldry and absurdist disdain for ritualised impracticalities. That’s a seam of comics history that Australia (Barlow’s place of birth and current home, the same as Helen Maier’s, his artistic and life partner) shares with Britain and it’s something I was delighted but mildly confused to recognise in Graham’s own work, back when we at WWAC reviewed Island #1. I backed Barlow’s Patreon and read his 1986 strip Aquarine; I came alive with gratitude (sick but true) for the life, mischief and imperfection — the gummy wideness of her smile, the infirm extent of her glee — the titular heroine was allowed under his pen. I followed his facial design advice and found art just flowing out of my fingers like water. I read Yorris, in Graham and Marian Churchland’s project 8house. And this is where the other half of me comes in.
I felt myself fall in thrall to Fil Barlow’s design principles and narrative attitude. But when a person realises they’re under a spell, the jokes always on them: they were enchanted far before they ever knew it. I fell in thrall to Fil Barlow, sure, but I fell when I was ten (just like Brandon Graham. Suspicious. Is this real magic?), in thrall not to an aesthetic manifesto but to a take-no-shit goth Ghostbuster and the dirtbag who exasperated her. I fought the spell as I sat in front of multiple episodes of Godzilla: The Series, a show I found interminably dull. Why did I watch it? Because the monsters were disgusting. I hated them. I hated them so much I wanted to look at them some more. And who designed these monsters and those Ghostbusters? Fil Barlow. Fil Barlow did those things. With Maier, and their team.
Young cartoonist Barlow went to America to seek his fortune in animation. The next year, Maier followed. They worked on successful Columbia TriStar projects such as the above, and on character designs for other shows that never saw the light of day. They worked a lot, and they got ground down. In 2010 they returned to Australia to devote themselves to art. For them, that means comics. It means owning the stories they tell and working at their own pace to their own standards. It means being self-motivating and true to their own visions. It means being artistically independent. But let’s not pretend that work for hire is a result of disengaged machines, pulled from nowhere and informed by nothing. Creative work is done in earnest and comes from the person or people who are crafting it. Character design is fueled by belief in character, and observation of life. If Kylie Griffin is real to you, how real do you think she’s was to whoever came up with (parts of) her?
What you put out (a design, a character protoform) doesn’t always completely detach from you; if you’re connected to something, you and it create a new narrative in natural, subconscious conversation over time. So– what if the people who created the essence of this great girl (and that memorable monster) got to tell a story that really made them tick? What if people who toiled for the system, pushing for both the employment of their independent artistic peers and fictitious inclusion (racial, gendered, for characters with disabilities), who received a salary for work in 1997 only to see it unexpectedly last and even resurface thirteen years later for someone else’s new profit (???? IDW), were able to step outside of that system and become the prime benefactors and sole drivers of their own work? What if you could read the creator-owned story the Extreme Ghostbusters and Godzilla:TS design team wished they could have given some of their creations? What if you could connect with an independent comic by cartoonists who feel the medium is sacred because it’s fueled by some form of the love and attachment you have for a set of symbols from your childhood?
We can, it’s called Yorris, and it’s sumptuous.
Lady Yorris Di Trentos accidentally disrupts the ritual her family is performing when she sees something no one else can. She dislikes her family and their callous disregard but she’s yet to grasp the wider facts of her upbringing; her family are the villains, grand-scale fantasy Villains, and she has been raised not to see that. She is able to think of scheduled wars and the regular cursing of cities as routine. It’s very recognisable actually — the white teenaged disdain for, and commingled granted acceptance of, politics. It hurts a little and I want to see Yorris wake up.
Yorris is caught between two wholes: the extreme privilege of her lifestyle and her absolute disconnect from it. Bring to mind Ally Sheedy saying “they ignore me” about her parents in The Breakfast Club; picture a tiny figure floating between a full positive and a full negative. She’s suspended there, unable to embrace privilege but untruthfully desolate. A good girl in a bad family, cast as “the bad one” because she doesn’t match, but doing nothing, really, to disrupt what “must be.” She is the only one who can see the magic that the family invokes, and so the only one aware of the loss of their power (or the cause of that). This isolation and thematic split continues as Yorris is sent to an institution to be taught how to appreciate her family. Magically subdued, she discovers herself in a magical outside space — do you remember what it felt like to read Neil Gaiman books, before Neil Gaiman’s public face started holding it’s chin cunningly and nodding all the time? It felt good, didn’t it. It feels good again here. A lost soul with a purpose who has to steel themselves for what is right, because what is right will be unpleasant in the getting-to it. Everything disorienting, and dialogue like “No, it’s important, but I don’t know why.” And then Yorris is also someone else — not who she used to be in our world, but who she used to be in a world before her world. There’s similarity here to Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward’s Ancestor story, first seen in Island, in fact: greater cosmic beings who observe and experiment with planet-based lifeforms. Something like that has been happening in the background of Yorris’ story, and something like that is in the background of Yorris’ own personhood. I’m not the only one juggling multiple identities, here.
Yorris is gorgeous in bottle-glass pebble hues, purple to green, back to blue again. It really sings in digital, unusually, because each page is literally being held up to the light. Barlow smudges on his palette and shading and knows exactly where to make an outline lighter than the colour it’s surrounding. He draws “straight” lines freehand. So in warm scenes everything is soft, and in cold ones (as when Yorris is hosed by an orderly) the world looks made of gel and mushroom foam: infirm, eerie. It’s a tactile world. It ripples.
Perhaps the best example of Barlow’s on-page narrative craft (Maier is co-writer, co-conceptualiser, intimately involved but not a part of the placement of image on page for Yorris, as she is busy working on her own sole creation) is in the introduction of the camaraderie between Yorris and Lucy in part two (8house #5). Extreme Ghostbusters fans will recognise the name Lucy from stories of the early stages of Garrett’s development — seeing proto-Garrett and an if-only Kylie make immediate firm friends might give you a fond, sweet smile. But readers need not have that investment to appreciate the moment, as it’s done in confident, archetypical style. Lucy (like Garrett) is a swashbuckler, “gung-ho” in Barlow’s words, full of swagger and panache. She’s the Han Solo, the Green Ranger, she’s John Wayne if Dean Martin were the protagonist of Rio Bravo. She’s the cool, experienced leader who spits in the devil’s eye and lets the hero of the story feel a little less alone because someone’s there to teach them what they think they need to know. Boom, she sweeps into the scene, bang she takes control of the room immediately, smash the heroine’s under her wing but in a challenging way that will force growth, crash she’s shaking hards with Yorris and (unspoken) they’ve pledged each other peers’ fealty.
Everything about this series of events is classic, and it turns your mind into a marble, running along well-worn grooves in a soul-deep familiar sequence. It uses that familiarity — that cultural assumption — to override or challenge or embarrass another cultural assumption, which is that disabled women aren’t the cool guys of adventure stories, and that difference in bodies should be reacted to. Yorris and the narrative both take Lucy as Lucy offers herself — as a badass who knows how things work around here — and shakes hands with her foot. No pause, no wink, no apology, only a straightforward, regularly-paced sequence of human symbolism so strong that to reject it a reader would have to work at their bigotry: yes they’re women, but they can shake hands during a hero’s journey just like men. Yes they are shaped differently, but they can regard each other as natural equals and physical allies. Using one thread of culture to decry another is clever. If the reader is inclined to reject the pro-social message, they aren’t allowed an easy siding with hate because they want to co-exist with both facets of their learned reality. The craft of this sequence is so strong that it took me a long time to figure out what had tickled the back of my mind as I read the formation of this friendship. Dissecting this scene ruins the clarity of it. Sorry, darlin’. That’s my job.
Yorris’ story is barely begun, but the scope of it is huge. There are factions within factions, alliances within and without environments, and dualistic identity at the heart of every question. There’s sharp satire, welcoming allegory, and attempts to speak to multiple fractals of the human condition. And there’s art upon art upon art. A character designer is a craftsperson who often goes unappreciated; character design is a craft that is often misunderstood. Communicating the gist of a person through image — making a life shine out through a page or screen — is more than picking an outfit and a hairstyle. It’s picking the right outfit, and hairstyle, and body and gestures, and making sure they all work together to create something fluent: someone that people with different contexts and cultural assumptions will all, in meaningful ways, understand or recognise. Character design is one element of what makes Yorris so fine. Environmental design is another.
“I like to design everything, I like to give it flow and life. I’m an organic designer and our current civilisation doesn’t match my personal aesthetic,” says Barlow, when asked in DMs about the difference between creator-owned cartooning and the option of licensed comics work. That’s partly why the publishing schedule is not fast — while 8house is ending, Yorris‘ stand-alone publication isn’t expected to begin before the end of this year. Barlow is struggling with arthritis which makes colouring the book hard; Maier, as mentioned, is toiling over her own fire. And they both have their own high standards to meet. But a long wait isn’t a reason to hold off. It’s a promise of time spent imagining, reliving, and sure in the knowledge that the work is being done in earnest. In the meanwhile you can read what’s been published already, and follow word of progress on Barlow’s Patreon blog.