"Jumping back to the world of humans gives me distance to think about the other things I do." Pete Fowler talks about life on and off Monsterism Island.
As far as job titles go, 'monster creator' has to be one of the best. Designer Pete Fowler has given himself just that tag. He is the master of Monsterism Island, which he describes as: "A psychedelic parallel universe which is on planet earth but undiscovered because of a complex weather system."
It is the inhabitants of this island that draw interest: tribes of cute-yet-dark characters and animals who interact with each other and seem to live lives of their own. Now that the kids who hankered after a Millennium Falcon or an AT-AT are grown up and earning, they can buy cool toys - and for many that will mean one of the inhabitants of Monsterism Island.
We might not know exactly where it is, but real-world people are allowed a glimpse into Monsterism at www.monsterism.net. You can even own your own slice of island life by purchasing one of the vinyl toy characters. So how did Pete Fowler end up on the island?
Fowler moved to London from his native Wales in 1995 and spent years plugging away at corporate work and designing nightclub flyers while he developed the monsters in his own time. "For a while I really enjoyed it and there were lots of varied briefs and I did monthly illustrations for GQ," explains Fowler. "I always did the monsters on the side and when that was a bit more developed - and as I got tired of some of the briefs - I let my imagination grow in my spare time. When I felt more confident, I started to bring the monsters into my work and, not long after that, I met the Super Furry Animals."
Fowler was approached by the Welsh band's record label to do the artwork for the 1997 album Radiator and since then he's designed not only LP covers but merchandise, stage sets, animations, promo videos and giant inflatable bears. "I was working on mostly commercial projects when the Super Furry Animals asked me to create artwork for their covers. Both the band and myself are Welsh, but I didn't know them previously. They really responded to the monsters I was making and that gave me the opportunity to develop them further.
"That was definitely a turning point for me, seeing my work on posters, adverts, magazines and kind of creating an identity for the band. It was a perfect project for me as I was a fan of their music, and their attitudes seemed to gel with mine in terms of visual aesthetic and musical ideas. That gave me a taste of what could be done with the monsters and was one of my first paid monster projects."
The monsters were something Fowler had been developing for years - they grew from a boyhood interest in monsters, ghosts and UFOs into drawings on his sketch pad, where they were developed over the years. Now the monsters are more than just pixels on the screen - they have characters, stories, a past and even relationships.
Fowler produces the Monsterism toys, which are sold at www.playbeast.com, with his business partner Rob Manley. Manley comes from a record label background and is the A&R man who signed the Chemical Brothers. Now he spots talent of a different kind and works with Fowler marketing the website and toys and organising the manufacturing side of the business. Manley says: "I left the music business nine years ago to do something different and have ended up working with artists and developing products. When I first came across Pete I realised he is as much into music as I am. Music plays a big part in Monsterism as there is a lot of music on the island, but now collectors buy the monsters based on the art. They appeal to the modern-day pop art collectors."
Fowler is not sure if he is part of a specific movement, but, if he is, he says, "It's the modern equivalent of the ornament on the fireplace. I guess it's the generation that grew up on comics and Star Wars who have the disposable income now they're adults and spend it on toys. I think the toys attract people that are interested in design and illustration, as well as fan-boy collectors. It's no longer a male-only scene and has opened up to all types of people. I'm aware of what goes on in the scene and know a few of the creators and company owners. It's a small world, so I try to keep up with what's going on.
"My problem with the scene is that it can be a bit derivative. I don't think enough people are pushing the genre and some seem happy to create a toy that looks similar to something that's been made before. There are very varied talents, though, despite what I've just said. I think if there is a movement, it's about illustrators taking their work to the next level by telling stories and creating new worlds."
The monsters often come adorned with horns or antlers. They may live a virtual life on the internet, but their origins are very much in the real world. Fowler takes inspiration for his creations from nature's strangeness, and most of his creatures start their life on the sketch pad. "Ideas can come from anywhere really," he says. "I'm always inspired by the incredible natural world we live in. I think a lot of the animals on earth are very monstrous and one can understand where some of the myths and legendary beasts came from.
"The stories are often the difficult bit," Fowler continues. "Sometimes an idea for a character can come from a story or it develops in my head as I'm creating. But, usually, I'll look at the character in the final stages and piece it together from there. A story has often come about some time after the initial sketch was done, or having drawn the character over and over without giving it much thought. It varies from character to character."
Just because the monsters are a success does not mean Fowler has turned his back on his commercial work. His creations have recently been seen on TV in a series of adverts for Kia cars. He worked on the ads with Passion Pictures, an independent production company which has worked on animations for Gorillaz. "The company wanted something different from a 'normal' car advert and I was lucky enough to be involved. I guess I'm an illustrator chiefly, but I work in different media including painting, toy design, sculpture and illustration. Mostly my work involves character design, be it for Monsterism or commercial projects," says Fowler.
This year he has also been working on a project for an alternative energy supplier based in France, creating a human family which has been animated for TV commercials and print adverts for press. "I like to work on these kinds of project because I feel it helps to have a balance alongside what I do with Monsterism. I'm trying to link everything I do outside of my commercial work to Monsterism and the island, so jumping back to the world of humans gives me distance to think about the other things I do."
Getting things moving
The latest of these ventures is animation, which Fowler hopes will be aired on BBC3. Monsterism has teamed up with the animation wing of comedian Steve Coogan's production company Baby Cow, which recently brought I Am Not Am Animal to screens. A pilot episode has been made featuring the voice of Coogan and Julia Davis of Nighty Night, and hopes are that these stars' voices will also be heard in a six-part series, along with some well-known musical names.
"We've been working on it now for about five years with different writers," explains Fowler. "The idea is to tell the stories of the island. I know it is much-repeated, but we want to appeal to The Simpsons market so that children enjoy it but there are some references that go over their heads."
Putting the monsters onto screen could be seen as a bit like setting them free. "I've been at it for a while now," says Fowler, "trying to make Monsterism more than just the characters and toys by adding back stories and stitching connections between them. I think it's given the characters a breath of life. I'm more interested in the stories and possibilities rather than just the toys for toys' sake. I like to think people pick up on that and come up with their own impressions of the island and its inhabitants."