Fireball begins with a dream. It’s a dream from the odd little head of Richard Stiltglow – a stranded, whining driver sitting atop a car atop a stone spire after catapulting off the edge of a country road, that puts the themes of Fireball front and center. Stiltglow dreams he’s walking outside on the street dressed to the nines when Jodie Foster tosses a pie out the window. The tin can lands on him, because it’s a gigantic Jodie Foster, stains his white suit, and keeps him stuck underneath. Sitting on his modded rod, Stiltglow dreams of his freedom from beneath the tin can, freedom driving his sticker-smashed car to win the Fireball 500, and to get off that sorry rock.
Jamie Hewlett’s accomplishments are many. His work on Tank Girl, Fireball, Hewligan’s Haircut, covers for DC Comics, the animated supergroup Gorillaz, the Chinese opera Journey to the West, and solo show The Suggestionists show just how big of a Jodie-Foster-baked-pie he’s got his fingers in. His style is energetic, frenetic, phantasmagoric, bombastic, eclectic, septic, cathartic, and cathectic. It’s instantly recognizable across mediums. And it’s in his modded race cars, races, and open roads that brings the wanderlusting American mythos slam bang into a brick wall and hopes to wake little Richard Stiltglow from his dream, because it’s a delusion.
It’s this synthesis of vehicular violence and wanton wanderlust that takes Hewlett’s clear inspiration in Hannah Barbera’s Wacky Races to its NC-17-rated logical conclusion. Fireball follows Severin Slipper Sniffer, a man who used to be more Sean Connery but has since became Quasimodo, who hopes to win the race to cover the cost of removing his elongated tumors on his head and back. Slipper Sniffer travels with his partner Yogal Panda, an earthworm-skinned human with a lengthened head to fill the entirety of his three-foot long multi-colored cap that shifts with every twist of the kaleidoscope or tilt of the LSD-riddled head.
The description is par for the Fireball racecourse, a comic course with chucked chainsaws, flatulent firebrands, and dreamy derelicts involved in all sorts of death-defying and death-inducing stunts. It’s not only a comic that’s a blast to read, but one that was clearly fun writing and drawing, especially in the crazy pairings of cars and characters. It’s the dazzling display of their personas and driving style that also ties Hewlett to the earliest days of custom cars and hot rods.
Without Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (before daddy meant daddy) in Maywood, California, we wouldn’t have the natural association of kustom kars and wacky racers. Roth, one of America’s finest blue-collar pioneers, was the first to blend the aesthetics of the Hot Rod and the comic. Best known for the creation of Rat Fink, a character sporting bright red overalls with a big RF in yellow letters emblazoned on the front, Roth started a custom shop after being inspired by the pinstriper Von Dutch, the same name that’s now a clothing line, and remains as one of the kings of the American “low brow” underground.
While Roth rarely drew comic books, the avatars of his vehicles he created blended the speed and fear of the ¼ mile race and the psychedelia of the counter culture with the other speed so commonly used among truckers and racers. After the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, comics were essentially limited to wholesome, boring pap. But the characters Roth invented didn’t crawl their way into comic books. Rather, they were on art cards and kid’s t-shirts to the utter horror of every Mrs. Cleaver on the block with bloodshot eyes and an oncoming case of DTs.
The kooky characters didn’t only forge the now-obvious aesthetic connection between cars and their drivers, but were also really popular in doing so. With characters like Rat Fink, Wild Child, Drag Nut, and even the Beatnik Bandit, Roth melded and welded aesthetics into a cohesive congeal of Hot Rods, metallic flake, bubble windows, horror, and underground comix into a recognizable Rothian style, similar to Hewlett’s own amalgamations of aesthetics in Fireball, Tank Girl, and Gorillaz.
Hewlett, however, takes what Roth gave him and conjoins them with the Beatnik melancholy of Kerouac throughout his work. Hewlett’s familiarity to the Beat writer runs as deep as Deadline #39 where cartoonified versions of Hewlett and writer Alan Martin discuss the title page. In response to Hewlett’s question about the story within, Martin replies, “I haven’t written it yet! Let’s just start with a big title page. Something like . . .” followed by a character beneath holding the fictitious “Blue Helmet” written by Jack Kerouac and published by Penguin Books.
A parody to Kerouac’s On the Road follows full of Britishisms, farts, clerks shitting themselves, and bank robberies after the fill ins for Kerouac and Neal Cassady pick up an injured Tank Girl and Booga. Published in the issue after Fireball’s end, the short aside from the main Tank Girl story, although no more coherent, not only shows that Hewlett totally digs the Beats, man, but also flips a bit of Beatnik Buddhist philosophy into the frying pan of violence akin to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. In the opening pages of Fireball, Severin speaks to Yogal about none other than a lost love, one due to his deformity, before then discussing the transcendence of nipple-rubbing.
This wistfulness absurdified is Hewlett’s aesthetic to a T. It also shows a bit of the paradox of the “great rally race” and the “freedom of the American road.” The shorter the drive, the greater your chance to win, but the less enjoyable it becomes. It’s the same circular logic Warren Oates’ character dubbed “GTO” has in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. GTO is more interested in racing against the young James Taylor (yes, the “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” James Taylor) and Dennis Wilson (the drummer of the Beach Boys) than actually beating them as they stop, screw with each other, and even switch cars.
Fireball, however, is as much the stuff of races inspired by the unsanctioned Cannonball Run that stretches from New York to Los Angeles, the best ones being the David Carradine-driven race to the death versions in Death Race 2000 and Cannonball! than anything. The paradox of the great rally race in Fireball is the paradox of the American West seen through these infatuations with cars, individuality, and the open road. Starting in the fictional “Salt City,” a smooth allusion to the Bonneville Salt Flats of northern Utah where numerous land speed world records have been set, the racers of Fireball scream across the barren desert to dilapidated fill stations, a dappled hotel, and daring nightclub scenes. If the race is anywhere, really, it’s the dream of the open road and the American West more than any singular place or stretch of interstate. And “dream” is just what it is.
In Fireball, racing quickly becomes an afterthought. Within two pages of the race’s start (the third Fireball entry in Deadline magazine) Severin watched the accidental death of playboy billionaire Chuck Chuckle, and then the not-so-accidental murder of his worm-headed partner in Yogal Panda struck and killed by two punkrock racers who were then chainsawed to death by Panama Plugg who then accidentally chainsawed off her own foot. Or as Severin himself puts it to Plugg with a plucked plank planted in palm, “You killed the men who killed the man who disfigured me and whose murderers killed my friend, then you tried to kill me, so now I’m going to kill you!”
If this is surprising to fans of Hewlett, it should only be so because its only moments past the starting line. In classic race films, we generally see the chaotic dismantling of vehicles build towards a crescendo of the final stretch. However, Hewlett tosses the trope to the curb as he hacks his way into new territory: the intimate link of violence and the automobile.
It’s not a fun fact. Just think of all that romance and independence and freedom! It’s the same freedom and possibility Hewlett depicts in cars that are just as often suspended mid-air as they are on the ground, defying gravity at every turn. But it’s the ultraviolence Hewlett illustrates that brings this uncomfortable truth beneath the smooth blacktop of the American West mythos to the light of chainsaw-wielding maniacs.
For instance, you’re more likely to die in the United States from a fatal car accident than as a motorcyclist, pedestrian, bicyclist, or passenger on an airplane or railway. You’re also more likely to die from a car accident than a whole hell of a lot of other stuff. The only things you’re more likely to die from than car accidents in the United States is disease, cancer, preventable causes of death, accidental opioid overdose, suicide, and murder by clowns (nah, I’m just kidding on the last one). When the various gods of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods gather for a tense meeting under a thunderous sky, he writes, “There were car gods there: a powerful, serious-faced contingent, with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth: recipients of human sacrifice on a scale undreamed-of since the Aztecs.”
There’s that dream again.
Seeing the violence in the forefront also helps us recognize other ties to violence in the forms of drug running and drive-by shootings. It would be unsurprising then for the Fireball contestants and recently married couple of Baron (modeled after Wacky Races mustachioed villain Dick Dastardly, and nominally connected to The Baron with whom Ed Roth opened his first pinstriping shop) and Jemima Cock to be drug runners and former competitors. It would also track that Panama Plugg, the chainsaw-swinging lunatic, would be chasing down money and drugs held by millionaire playboy Chuck Chuckle, soon acquired by Severin Slipper Sniffer after Chuckle’s quick demise. It would also follow that the earliest moments of custom car culture were closely tied to guns and violence.
It’s in Ed Roth’s inspiration of Von Dutch that we see the customization of cars directly translate to the customization of guns. As seen in the hepcat Brucker collection, Von Dutch brought his same slick design eye to style over 30 guns. Additionally, employees of Ed Roth’s custom car shop were mandated to carry firearms at all times due to fears of attacks by local motorcycle gangs. While these may seem like detours, they’re the scenic routes to help us see the connections between Hewlett’s work and the lineage of custom car culture.
Thinking back to Hewlett’s Kerouac influence and Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit, we find the sweating bedpartners of violence and cars. Weirdly, it’s the violence of the automobile that offers the very languor of Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s the precarity in which speeding along at 70 miles an hour brings; both soothing, calming, and sensual while also being the most dangerous thing we do on a regular basis. The road we’d like to cruise forever always ends, and it’s in Hewlett’s punk absurdist style that we’re bashed over the head and reminded by the very violent end in which many drivers suffer.
In the last chapter of Fireball, Severin Slipper Sniffer awakes to the hauntings of ghosts who’ve written on the bathroom mirror, “You Will Die! Flounder Hed!” before calling the crazed and German-accented doctor with a Bart Simpson tattoo to confirm his surgery appointment. With a firmed resolve, Severin straps in to his new Akira-cum-Easy Rider motorcycle with a decidedly Rothian bubbletop sidecar and lays the rubber down.
He leads the pack for a few brief seconds before Panama Plugg harpoons “Mopey Dick,” and yanks him from his motorcycle, trailing Severin behind her racecar like a tin can strung to a newly-wed bumper. Plugg slumps over to hit the “Turbo Overload,” a button that’s surely never existed on a car, which malfunctions into an explosion, catching the next three cars in its still-rolling flames. Cars pile up and add momentum to the “Fireball 500 Fireball,” burning a hole in the Southcott Bridge, crushing the three remaining racers, and then launching into the mayor’s house.
But we couldn’t just end with the deaths of every racer in the city of Zebra Hill “famous for its pornography and Stinky the Zebra.” Instead, the last page is devoted to a racer who never made it to the starting line, our friend Richard Stiltglow still stuck on top of his stone spire. Sun poisoned and deranged, Stiltglow imagines the famed Zebra Hill and celebrates a victory with a pumped fist and a “Fucking nice!” before falling out of his car and spiraling to his death. Ouch. Thus, the end of Fireball leaves us with a death caused by the absurd delusion of the race and victory, the irrational dream of conquering the open road.
It would be easy to chalk these examples up to a nihilistic bummer that the road always ends, and often in violent fashion, but I want to look at it as a marker for something else. Through the merged Kerouacian fantasy and vehicular violence with Hewlett’s unique absurdity, he yells loudly so even those with fingers plugging their ears can hear: that the wistful myths of the open road are delusions and what actually exists is vehicular violence. To go further, however, I’d like to downshift and see what this actually means for car enthusiasts, like myself.
Growing up in Southern California meant I saw classic cars cruising on freeways and main streets year-round. It does, after all, have good enough weather to never need salted roads, preventing that cancerous rust that has taken so many of our dearly departed to that great junkyard in the sky. Southern California also has just awful public transportation. (The plans for a more expansive subway system beneath L.A. in the 90s were largely hampered by oil and car lobbies.) But it also meant it was the epicenter for classic and custom car culture. Car shows infested with grey hairs and rockabillys are held through most of the year and specialty shops for exhaust, driveshafts, engine block machining, etc. can be found with ease. Then, it might seem like the refusal to acknowledge the danger and violence of cars would be inevitable in a culture where people love them (like me).
However, what Hewlett’s Fireball really warns us against is the mirage of the road as seen in the last page. Not only does the comic end in total absurdity, but it ends on the danger of the idea of the road. Even Jack Kerouac, the poet laureate of the asphalt, died a husk of himself due to alcoholism at the age of 47. It’s the letdown ending we see again and again in car films.
Vanishing Point’s Kowalski runs across state lines for days just to run his beautiful 1970 440 Sixpack Dodge Challenger bumper first into a police barricade. Just when Peter Fonda’s “Crazy Larry” of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry finally thinks he’s made it, thinks he’s successfully escaped his hovering helicoptered henchmen, does the 1969 Dodge Charger meet the front of a train. Vin Diesel’s “Dom Toretto” of the first Fast & Furious film expounds on the “ten seconds at a time” where the drag race is the only moment in which Toretto feels free. While his ’69 Charger manages to avoid the same train Fonda hit, it’s quickly flipped by a semi-truck pulling out of a driveway.
The list could go on forever, but we’ve seen again and again that these ideas of freedom and independence just aren’t true. How often are we really driving the open road vs. commuting to a job? How often are we running errands across the suburban sprawl vs. hunting for the next ten seconds of freedom?
If I can read Hewlett’s work as a call to recognize this delusion of the open road and see the violence behind the façade, it’s not to do so in absolutes. Cars, in whatever forms they may take over the next 100 years, will be necessary if only for the reason that the United States public infrastructure is just plain terrible. Hot rods, maybe in the forms of triple- or quadruple-engined Teslas and high-compression hybrids, will persist. But the story surrounding the automobile and the American West isn’t one of happy endings and drives off into the sunset. It’s a warning against a dangerous present, and a call for a better future.
I could end there, not outlining the cool future I’ve got crammed in my head, because imagining a world without cars seems frankly impossible. I do wonder, though, if we could live in a world where driving cars was actually . . . fun. Where trains, trams, buses, bike lanes, and sidewalks could suffice in completing errands easily and efficiently. Where entering the Fireball 500 that is the hellscape of the 405 freeway wasn’t required. Where those who don’t want to drive don’t have to.
Instead, imagine a future where cars were what we imagine them to be. Where freeways are meant for the few travelers meaning to travel. Where the open roads are as car-less and quiet as the Bonneville Salt Flats. Where a drive out in your Ed Roth-inspired custom rat rod, dental mirrors positioned on the door, a milk crate for a seat, meant you could punch it, hoping you won’t break something, and just enjoy the wacky ride.