Through his comics, posters, record covers, music videos, and 2D cel animations, Joe Wylie helped define the cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. He developed his craft at a time in this country when commercial comic-book and cartoon-animation techniques were novel, and he approached both with innovation and invention.
Wylie’s art burst out of conservative 1950s New Zealand. Growing up in small-town Levin, comics were an escape. ‘They stood out in an otherwise culturally bleak era’, he told me in 1993. ‘The influence of comics was tremendously significant. One that had a large impression on me and inspired the sort of fantasies I used to have as a kid was the adventure strip “Brick Bradford” in the Sports Post.’
Due to government restrictions on the syndication of American comics, the popularity of lesser-known US comics like ‘Brick Bradford’ and Lee Falk’s ‘The Phantom’ outstripped that of caped superheroes in Aotearoa New Zealand. They were typically printed in black and white, a tradition that continued to characterise local comic art such as Wylie’s, where high contrast and clarity of line predominated by necessity, as they did in Japanese manga.
Wylie was the eldest of five children—three brothers and a sister—with ten years between them. All five would drive to school in a Model A Tourer that Wylie and his brother Allan bought with money they earned picking strawberries. They spray painted the car metallic blue with a vacuum cleaner and Wylie painted Ed Roth’s early-1960s distorted hot-rod car creatures Mother’s Worry and Wild Child on the doors with bright enamels.
Wylie drew aeroplanes and motorcars with beauty and technical precision. By the late 1960s, he had left home to study design, but formal art education failed to hold his interest. It was a culturally explosive time, and he discovered psychedelia, protested military conscription, and registered as a conscientious objector.
In 1970, he left Aotearoa New Zealand for Sydney, where he found work in the animation industry as the US-based Hanna-Barbera opened an Australian office and ‘effectively tripled animators’ wages overnight’, then travelled through Asia ‘on the fag-end of the hippie trail’. He spent three months in Nepal in 1975, learning traditional Thangka scroll painting from a Tibetan Buddhist lama who spoke no English. He was taught this classical form, where everything was drawn in a grid to proportional measurements, with elements like clouds, mountains, and fire depicted in strictly conventionalised motifs.
Returning to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1976, Wylie incorporated these Buddhist stylistic elements into a new comic strip he drew in his spare time while working as a TV cameraman. The Adventures of Maureen Cringe was a kinetic black-and-white sci-fi social parody that abounded in imagination, blending elements of contemporary European and Japanese comic styles with his recent Tibetan art training.
At once radical and appealing, Wylie’s comics embraced the sexual liberation and absurdist politics of the American underground scene. He adopted the pseudonym Flexible Shaft (which described his comic style, where everything looked hard and shiny but was mobile and elastic) and the enigmatic Flaming Banana logo (which drew on the fire motif he had learnt from his time of Buddhist instruction).
In Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, he produced cartoon posters for Red Mole theatre performances at Carmen’s Balcony, hosted by the subversive, white-suited MC Neville Purvis (a.k.a. Arthur Baysting). Terence Hogan, contributing editor to the pioneer underground Kiwi comic zine Strips, recalls: ‘I was talking to Arthur Baysting about how my flatmate Colin Wilson was getting a little mag together to publish original New Zealand comics. He mentioned that he knew this guy in Wellington who’d worked for Hanna-Barbera, so I made contact. When Joe’s parcel turned up in time for the second issue, I remember being flabbergasted as I unpacked the Maureen Cringe artwork. I hadn’t expected anything so beautiful.’
Wylie’s comics featured strong female protagonists and sociopolitical subtexts that challenged the comic-book stereotypes of the day. Strips editor and comic artist Colin Wilson observes: ‘I loved his work. We were so lucky to feature it in just about every issue of Strips. I felt it really should see publication in something like Métal Hurlant [the leading French adult comic magazine] … He’d already been overseas, worked professionally in animation, yet seemed happy enough to have his beautifully realised comic work published in Strips—for free!’ One of Wylie’s cartoon strips, the practically wordless Kta2, did make it into the popular Spanish alternative comics magazine El Víbora, where it appeared in full colour in the early 1980s. He also hand coloured Wilson’s legendary ecological superhero comic Captain Sunshine.
In 1980, Wylie teamed up with Toy Love for their animated Bride of Frankenstein music video. Frontman Chris Knox describes Wylie as ‘an unsung genius’ for his mix of photomontage and traditional cel animation, and his innovative use of early colour photocopying in true DIY punk tradition. Terence Hogan writes: ‘Joe got down to it, taking photos of the band for the sequences he was conjuring up, before they set off on tour. He spread sheets of paper around the floor to work out a frame-accurate read of the soundtrack and synchronise the images and the lyrics. The result of his commitment speaks for itself.’
In the following years, Wylie set up Magic Films with artist and producer Sue Wilson, where he directed the experimental Te Rerenga Wairua (1984), visualising the Māori end-of-life myth in a series of powerful images working with animators with a range of distinct styles. ‘This disparity of styles spoke to his open-mindedness and egalitarian willingness to embrace the individual talents involved’, says Tim Cornelius, who worked on the project as a school leaver, supported by a government work scheme. Its Pākehā interpretation of Indigenous concepts was radical for its time and resulted in a unique cultural amalgam.
Cornelius observes, ‘Joe was a gentle personality, and generous with his time, which was exemplified by the way Magic Films trained young animators and filmmakers … He also created most of the beautiful airbrushed backgrounds which were a foretaste of the stunning work he was to do for Dalvanius Prime and Maui Records soon after.’
The fantasy imagery Wylie created for Prime’s 1987 Pātea Māori Club hit album Poi E reinvented Māori mythology for the space age in a style that perfectly complemented the music’s electronic reinvention of traditional waiata for the disco era. Prime drew on Wylie’s ability to combine Indigenous themes with commercial art in a manner that offered more than just cultural appropriation. His Maui Records label depicts the Māori demi-god as a modern superhero, trawling a futuristic wharenui from the sea.
But the life of a New Zealander working in comics and animated cartoons is typically difficult. Wylie continued to travel between Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand for work, returning to Ōtautahi Christchurch following ‘the decline of Oz animation’ in the early 2000s.
He based himself in Avonside, which was badly hit by the 2010–1 earthquakes. They inspired him to start the blog Porcupine Farm, where he addressed post-earthquake politics with vitriolic cartoon social-commentaries. He also produced some wonderful painted skateboards of his favourite animals breathing the Thangka-style flames. But his output declined along with his health.
In recent years, Wylie’s landmark Strips stories have begun to be republished by filmmaker and fellow cartoonist Matt Campbell Downes’s Spanko Comics. They are now available to be discovered by a whole new generation of artists—at a comic store near you!
Header image: Joe Wylie Kahui Rere—Ngarauru 1984, acrylic on paper, 30.9 × 62.1 cm, collection Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Original artwork for the cover of Pātea Māori Club’s album Poi E, 1987