Gorillaz Co-Creator Jamie Hewlett Just Wanted to Draw Comics
But life had other plans.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Not many people enjoy careers like Jamie Hewlett's—long, storied, and intense. Careers where you hit it big early in life, and then again in your thirties.
In fact, the last 25 years of Hewlett's career read like a This Is Your Life big red book special. Co-founder of a fanzine as an art school student, co-creator of a hugely influential comic series, and the visual architect of an internationally renowned band—and a play and film writer to boot.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing, which may not come as much of a surprise: A quarter of a century is a long time for everything to work out as planned.
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It was at college in West Sussex, south England that Jamie's career really began. In the 1980s, while studying in the seaside town of Worthing, he met friend and future collaborator Alan Martin, and with another friend—Phil Bond—they created the fanzine Atomtan.
"At art school we drew it, we photocopied it on the college photocopy machine, and we sold it for less than a dollar to people," recalls Hewlett. "I love that format. It’s very punk rock; it’s very garage. I love that you can do what the hell you want and it’s yours."
The creation of Atomtan and an encounter with the late and legendary comic book artist Brett Ewins in college set Hewlett on a rapid career trajectory: "We took [Ewins] for drinks after the guest lecture he gave [at our college], and we kept in touch after that," explains Hewlett. "He contacted us later to say he was doing a magazine with [comic artist] Steve Dillon, and asked if we would be interested in working on it?"
Unsurprisingly, they were. "That was always my dream as a kid, to draw comic books," says Hewlett. "I'd done a drawing of this female character, and I just called it 'Tank Girl.' We showed it to them and they loved it. They asked us to turn the drawing into a monthly comic strip."
The magazine, Deadline, launched in 1988, and the Tank Girl strip was a hit straight off the bat. At the time, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was coming to the end of her time in office, and youth disillusionment was widespread. So the timing was just right for the character of Rebecca Buck, whose punk-tinged, countercultural Tank Girl alter-ego immediately resonated with young women around the world.
"We were always quite disappointed by the fact that most females in comic books were usually drawn by men who'd never even spoken to a woman," says Hewlett, of his and Martin's view at the time. "So they were [drawing] big-breasted, curvaceous characters, wearing tight costumes. And they had a stupid superpower like becoming invisible—what the fuck good is that?"
It was Hewlett’s friendships with strong women—relationships that still exist today—that helped form the direction and traits of Tank Girl. "She is sort of based on girls that I went to school with, and who I shared an apartment with," he says. "I was always very inspired by them. I liked their attitude; they were quite ferocious."
As comic's star was rising, so was Hewlett's, and it wasn’t long before MGM approached the comic creators about a feature film. "Twenty-two years old and suddenly getting MGM calling you and saying, 'We love Tank Girl and we want to make a huge Hollywood blockbuster movie'—we got excited about that."
However, the film veered wildly from the kind of artist direction Hewlett and Martin wanted, and ended up bombing commercially.
"They played that game of looking for things that are cool, buying those things, and then turning them into something else," Hewlett explains. "Which is what Hollywood does. If they were to stick to the actual storyline of the original idea of Tank Girl, then you’d probably have an x-rated movie on your hands, and what they want is a family movie they can open and have a big box office weekend with. They take out all the essence—all the good ingredients—and then turn it into something else."
Following the 1995 movie and the closure of Deadline the same year, Hewlett was left largely disenchanted. "I just can't draw comics anymore—I did that for ten years," he remembers thinking. "Plus, I didn't want to work for DC Comics or Marvel Comics because I’m not interested in superheroes."
Instead, he went on to work in set design for the kids show SMTV: Live—"they didn't use it because it was a bit weird"—followed by a foray into advertising, which he "hated," and some illustration work for magazines like Just Seventeen and Smash Hits. As he remembers it: "Just fucking stupid shit just to earn some money."
Hewlett's animations in the SM:TV opening credits
Hewlett remembers this time as his wilderness period. "From the end of Tank Girl, I was just sort of flapping around like a fish out of water. Trying to find…" His sentence hangs in midair.
And then, in 1998, came Gorillaz. "Damon [Albarn] started talking about Gorillaz, and that was like a completely fresh idea," Hewlett recalls. "For me to step out of comic books and to create a fake band, I got very excited by that. And that's been going for 18 years."
The story of Gorillaz is well told, but let's go over it again quickly here: After meeting when Hewlett interviewed Blur for Deadline, he and Albarn moved into a flat together in west London. Watching MTV, the two decided that the best way to lampoon the complete lack of substance in what they saw was to create a fictional band, with Hewlett designing the members and Albarn writing the music. Nearly 20 years later, they're still going strong and have just been nominated for a Grammy.
During that time, there were plenty of other projects—including the late-2000s stage show Monkey: A Journey to the West, another Albarn collaboration, and Hewlett's tarot card-influenced fine art exhibition The Suggestionists, in 2015. Speaking to him, though, it seems to be his 2009 trip to Bangladesh with Oxfam to investigate climate change left the biggest mark. "It was an amazing trip, but it was quite sad as well," he says. "To see these villages that get swept away once a year—they lose their children and they lose their homes, and everything."
Upon his return to the UK, Jamie created a series of paintings. "They sold the prints," he explains, "and I asked for all the money that was made to be sent to the villages that I visited so they could rebuild their homes."
The last few years have seen a continuation of Hewlett's established style of graphic drawings, tweaked here and there through various means. "I can draw and paint in many different styles, and use different mediums to create work," he says. "I was also doing a lot of oil paintings. To me, it's just drawing. I love to draw and paint—that's what makes me happy. When a picture is done, I’m not concerned with it any more; I’m onto the next thing."
Pines, for example—a simple set of black-and-white pictures of the pine trees found over every inch of France's Cap Ferret peninsula—was one particular passion project. "The pines just became an obsession," he says. "I was on vacation in France and I just started drawing pine trees at five in the evening, when the sun was low and was casting all these shadows on itself. I was just doing it because it was really satisfying."
Hewlett’s relationship with his art is just one of the many pivotal relationships he's had in his life. The partnerships along the way—including those with Alan Martin, Brett Ewins, Steve Dillon, Richard Benson, Damon Albarn and many more—have been crucial in shaping his work and career. It's with sadness that he reflects on the recent passing of both Martin and Ewins, two men who helped him get his career off the ground.
The women in his life have meant equally as much: His wife, Emma de Caunes, a French actress, who was front and center in the 70s-style exploitation cinema posters from his Suggestionists series, along with the female university friends who inspired Tank Girl.
"I used to come home from the bar and there’d be food dripping from the ceiling, and the fridge would be on its side, and the floor would be sticky," remembers Hewlett. "Everything would’ve been emptied out of the fridge and emptied on the wall, and I’d say, 'What the fuck happened?' And they’d say, 'Oh, we’ve had a food fight.' I have many women in my life who are smart, tough, wonderful, and inspiring. In fact, all of my management are women. There are no men running this show, bar me and Damon. The people who really run the show and make everything fucking happen are all women in my management. They’re great at their job."
So what's next? Well: More of Hewlett's unique takes on the world, he's guessing. "I’m obsessed with how things look," he says. "I’m a visual person, you see."
A retrospective book ofJamie Hewlett's work is out now on TASCHEN. There will be a book signing on December 7, from 4:30 PM to 6:30 PM, at the TASCHEN store in Chelsea, London.
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