Born in 1968, Jamie Hewlett was just 20 when he created Tank Girl, the iconic comic character that first made his name. Since then, he has gone onto even greater heights in his collaborations with Damon Albarn in Gorillaz and the opera Monkey: Journey to the West. As Taschen releases a monograph looking back at 25 years of his work, we talk to Hewlett about the most significant moments in his career to date.
On getting into drawing My dad used to be an artist, and my mum was an artist. But my mum was more of a textiles artist and she used to make sculptures and stuff. My dad was drawing caricatures and cartoons when he was younger, but he was told by his mother that he would never get a job as an artist and he was wasting his time, and that he should work in the family business. My family come from butchers – my great-granddad, my granddad and my dad had a chain of butcher’s shops in Liverpool called Hewlett Butchers. So my dad gave up drawing. I started drawing as soon as I could pick up a pen really and never really stopped…. When I was drawing I was quiet so they left me alone. I’d sit and draw for hours and hours and I wouldn’t bother anybody. I guess 70s parents liked it when kids were quiet.
Going to art school aged 11 We moved to Horsham when I was six, and there was an art school directly across the street from where we lived – Horsham Arts School – so I used to go there on Saturdays when I was still at school. Instead of playing in the park with my friends, I’d go over to the arts school and draw all day. I used to get most peculiar looks because I was 11 years’ old sitting there with my drawing pad with all these old, hairy farts who were wondering why I was there. Then when I left school I went to the art school for two years.
The early influence of Star Wars and Mad magazine I was reading English comics like 2000AD and I was also into European stuff, I was really crazy for Moebius when I was younger. But Mad magazine came along and it was just after Star Wars came out. I was part of that generation who had their lives changed by the first Star Wars movie, and Mad magazine were doing a parody of the Star Wars film, which is what they used to do, and I was outraged, because Star Wars was my favourite movie. Then I read it, and I think the parody was drawn by Mort Drucker, who was one of their regular artists and I was so impressed by his ability to draw that I became obsessed with Mad magazine and read it all the time.
It was called Mad magazine because it was set up on Madison Avenue and it was all the guys who worked in advertising, who didn’t want to work in advertising anymore…. For an American magazine, the humour was quite English I thought. They were just poking fun at society and cinema and literature and everything they possibly could. It was almost like all the artists on that magazine were like wild stallions who were finally let out of their stable and they were allowed to run free so they were really enjoying themselves, just drawing the craziest stuff.
Rude tutors, Commodore User magazine, and the birth of Tank Girl I did my two years at Horsham Art School, then I went to Worthing Art School, and then I applied to Kingston Polytechnic to do a further three years and they wouldn’t give me a place. The guy who interviewed me was very rude to me because I said I wanted to draw comics and he was very much against comics so I was quite rude to him and then I didn’t get the place. So I went and got a job – I was working for a computer magazine called Commodore User, doing one illustration a month for £50. I did that for a few months and then I got a call from Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon who were setting up Deadline magazine, who I had met years previously because they came to do a lecture at my art school and they’d stayed in touch. They really liked my drawings and they said, ‘do you want to work on this magazine Deadline?’. I said ‘of course’. And they said, ‘you’re really good at drawing girls, can you do a girl character?’ So I created Tank Girl.
The importance of strong women There’s always been women present in my life who were quite tough. When I was growing up in Horsham, there were a lot of skinheads around at that particular time I remember – a gang of skinhead girls, and I used to love the way the skinhead girls dressed and the way they used to do their hair, the long bits at the side and the shaven bits. There was one girl in particular, who was the scariest girl. She was really beautiful but she was tough, she was always getting into fights. Later, when I went to art college, there were a gang of girls I used to hang out with who were all really fun but they were kind of crazy. They were the last ones drinking at the bar, they were the ones starting fights, they were the ones setting fire to things. They were tough, and I was very impressed by them as a young man. So I guess that fed my imagination as well. This idea of strong women has always appealed to me.
On the English comic book renaissance It was a five-year period where it was cool to be doing adult comics, so all the style press were picking up on that. They all liked Tank Girl more than the other adult comics that were around, so it was in i-D and The Face and it sort of took off and exploded and I just went with it.
I wasn’t really very professional back then – I used to smoke a lot of dope and just draw all day and not really think about what was going on. People wanted a strong female character in comic books. I guess there weren’t really enough of them at the time and that was something I’d always noticed. Especially in super hero comics – they’re usually drawn by men who’ve never even spoken to a woman, and are in very tight costumes, large breasts and they don’t really have very good super powers. I’ve always found that quite disappointing. Tank Girl came along, and she didn’t have any super powers, she was just tough.
How Hollywood killed Tank Girl This MGM movie came along and that sort of killed Tank Girl. We got sort of screwed by Hollywood. They wanted us to be involved but they didn’t really listen to any of our ideas. And we were very young, and they were spinning the Hollywood game to us. There was a moment when we thought it could be a good movie and then of course we realised that it was a terrible movie. After that, I gave up Tank Girl and was a bit disillusioned and then the comics renaissance in England died and there were no more comics to work for. My only choice was to go to America and work for DC Comics. I did maybe six months’ working for them and I hated it. So I was in the wilderness for a few years trying to find work, and doing the odd scrap here and the odd scrap there. Then I went to Face magazine and said ‘listen, can I do a comic strip for you?’, because I loved the Face magazine. So I did ‘Get the Freebies’ for them for a year.
On hanging out with musicians and forming Gorillaz I knew all these musicians because they knew Tank Girl. So I was friends with Graham Coxon from Blur and I was friends with Cass Browne from the Senseless Things, and I knew Steve Mackey from Pulp. They were my friends. Then of course I met Damon and that was the start of that. We met and we wanted to work together and obviously – for an artist and a musician – it was an obvious choice to do a manufactured band. It was an opportunity to experiment with music and for me, it was an opportunity to experiment with my drawing and make videos and stuff.
People not getting Gorillaz Nobody wanted to get on board with animated characters. We had trouble with most of the music press – they wouldn’t interview the characters and wouldn’t play the game. Even the record company was a little bit difficult to start with. But the first album was such a huge success that they couldn’t really deny it. We hadn’t planned to do a second one but because it was so successful we thought ‘well, we should do another one and we should take it to the next step really, we should evolve it further’.
We all enjoy watching cartoons, and we all have our favourite cartoon characters, so why can’t that work in the music industry? I mean most pop stars are cartoon characters anyway, they’re not being themselves, they’re pretending to be something they’re not so it just seemed the logical step to us. Even today, it allows us to experiment. No one tells us what to do. So it’s a labour of love as opposed to having to work for somebody else. I’ve never really worked for somebody else, which is great because I tend not to do very good work when I have a brief that I don’t agree with. So we’ve been lucky in that sense.
Making Monkey: Journey to the West It was completely different. It was completely different, but I think that was the reason we did it, because it was an opera. It was Alex Poots, who used to be the Manchester International Festival director, who approached us and said did we want to do it. We knew the story because obviously we grew up on Monkey the TV series, which was a Japanese version of the Chinese story. In England that was our first introduction to Asian culture.
We said, ‘well, maybe we’ll do it but we need to go to China’. So they sent us to China for three weeks and we travelled around northern China and had some crazy adventures. Then we came back and said, ‘yeah we’ll think about it’. Then six months’ later we said ‘yeah we really want to do it but we need to go to China again’. In the end, I think I made eight trips to China over four years just recording and travelling and experiencing and really immersing ourselves in that culture, and having a fantastic time. [The opera] wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I think we pulled it off.
Gorillaz fans and the joy of social media There’s a huge fan base for Gorillaz, we have an audience and they’re great. And since social media’s become such a huge part of our lives it’s wonderful because you really can engage with the fans, and find out what they like and what they don’t like. Having an Instagram account and posting stuff, you read all the comments and it’s almost like a critique. I can remember when we did the second album and the first time we started reading comments coming in, it was amazing – ‘oh my god, these people are saying these things about our work’. Before that, you’d wait to hear what a journalist would say, and then to suddenly have that connection with the fans who actually really like what you do was a bit of a revelation. So there’s a huge fan base there, and we want to keep giving them stuff.
Gorillaz the TV show? That’s still in discussion. I wrote a ten-part TV series to go with the last album but what we’ve decided is if Gorillaz is to be an ongoing thing then the TV show doesn’t have to be alongside an album, it can be a separate thing. So it was rewritten and we’re talking to people, and I’d very much like to do that, yeah. There’s a lot of adult animated cartoons at the moment – Netflix seems to have an awful lot of them. We have a good idea for an ongoing series that we’d like to do – something that’s floating around at the moment.
Jamie Hewlett is published by Taschen, priced £40; taschen.com