An animation cell showing a silhouette of Australia's parliament house in Canberra set against a background of a bright sun, red sky and black earth which is meant to represent the Aboriginal flag.

Jonathon Saunders on Zero-Point

Zero-Point: from graphic novel to web series

Indigenous Superhero origin story
 Heather Gill

Curator Heather Gill spoke to Jonathon Saunders about his animated web series Zero-Point, with an Indigenous superhero as the lead character.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.

An Indigenous Superhero 

Jonathon is a Darwin born and raised illustrator, 2D animator and writer, as well as a member of the Woppaburra people from the Kanomie clan of Keppel Island in Queensland. Inspired by the anime he watched in his early teens, Jonathon’s work recontextualises comic book and superhero iconography for an Australian urban setting. 

Zero-Point, for which he was creator, co-writer and director, is about a young Indigenous superhero working for a superhero law enforcement agency as part of the Australian Government. Kyle uncovers a conspiracy regarding the disturbing reality behind the agency employing superheroes and its connection with the mysterious death of his father.  

This is Episode 4 of the series and features the voices of Mark Coles Smith (as Kyle) and Steven Oliver (as Samson):

Zero-Point: Series 1 Episode 4, 2018. NFSA title: 1565118

Characters Not Tokens 

Jonathon explained his struggles with developing the main characters in Zero-Point. Initially, he was attempting to achieve the impossible: portraying the identity to embody all Indigenous Australians, rather than creating an identifiable character. This cut him off from potential storylines exploring the flawed nature of people and reduced how relatable the main character would be to an audience. The current iteration of hero Kyle Burton is Indigenous, but this is not his sole defining factor. Jonathon found that the hero he created was also the character he would have loved to have seen on screen as a teenager, and this approach avoided the character being tokenistic or emblematic. 

Giving Kyle time limits as his Zero-Point superhuman alter ego allowed him to keep living with a foot in each world, seeking to bridge the gap between human and super-human. In plot terms, this is infinitely more relatable than giving him unexplained superpowers derived from the Dreaming or a magical boomerang. It also allowed the series to tap into complexities from across the globe, with echoes of the Cold War through to the War on Terror. This weaving of the familiar helps to ground the series and make it more accessible to international audiences. 

Kyle has to determine whether it is best for him to work within a system, trying to reform it from the inside, or move away to try to affect change. He goes on to seek the truth beyond his existing understanding. Kyle also reflects what Jonathon has seen when working with many Indigenous leaders. Educating everyone about the past is important, but history should not dictate all current interactions.  

The character of Samson, the supervillain of the series, allows for the exploration of another path, one Kyle could have taken. Samson’s experiences have left him embittered and wanting revenge, making him more akin to those he sees as his enemy. His costume acts as a visual aid to the viewer, with its striking red coat and tricorne. The costume meant many international viewers were surprised that Samson was Indigenous too, based on comments posted online. 

A league of creatives 

Jonathon pays credit to his collaborators. His co-writer was Phil Tarl Denson, a friend of many years, who helped distil Jonathon’s ideas to their essentials. Their process led to changing the opening of Episode 1, so it now begins in the heart of the action. Timothy Parish helped him to produce the series, including scouting out studios to work with. Through Arts NT, Timothy and Jonathon met Meredith Garlick, who brought her years of film industry experience to the production. Part of the Screen Territory sponsored development included time working with Poke the Bear. Jonathon described his collaboration with Guy Jamieson from Poke the Bear as fun and rewarding. Guy was keen to make content for older audiences and joined Zero-Point as Animation Director and co-producer. 

Jonathon also praised the actors. Mark Coles Smith was cast as Kyle Burton early in the process. Casting Samson went through a few choices, while they teased out the tone of the character. Steven Oliver offered the dramatic, almost operatic version of Samson that Jonathon was looking for. Ebony Maguire had a great understanding of her character and brought so much to the role of Wing Commander. 

Jonathon regrets that the short duration of the animated series didn’t allow the other characters as much dialogue. But the performances of Anthony Ahern (as ACDC) and Maria Angelico (Hou Yi) brought their characters to life for audiences. When creating the series, Jonathon imagined Rand to have a gravelly voice, inspired by Rorschach from Watchmen. Instead, Aljin Abella provided a breathless, softer and more mysterious interpretation which Jonathon found more menacing. 

Jonathon has fond memories of the St Charles Recording Studio in Melbourne where all the dialogue was recorded in one day. It felt more like recording a radio play with the cast able to spend time together in the studio. Nathan Maynard worked with the cast as the voice director, drawing on his theatre work and acting as a conduit to achieve the results desired by the directors and actors. 

The future of Zero-Point 

The web series leaves the audience with many unanswered questions. Jonathon has continued to work on the story as a graphic novel – although transitioning back from the animated series has been more challenging than adapting his original webcomic Astounding Tales of Hero Fiction into Zero-Point. He is also seeing a greater appetite for animated, short-form content for adults and wouldn’t rule out another series or some shorts.  

The full series can be viewed at Watch more clips from recent web series in our Web Series curated collection.