For most cartoonists, creating a mainstream cultural phenomenon is the dream, and a nearly impossible one, at that — not everyone has the luck to be a Joe Shuster, a Bob Kane, or a Robert Crumb, after all. For British cartoonist, illustrator, and increasingly all-round iconoclast Jamie Hewlett, however, it’s something that has happened not once, but twice.
To fans of a certain age, Hewlett will forever be linked with Tank Girl, the comic strip he co-created with friend Alan Martin for late ‘80s comics and music anthology Deadline. (Technically, the character had been teased for Atomtan, a fanzine Hewlett and Martin were contributing to, alongside artist Philip Bond, but she actually debuted in Deadline’s first issue. But let’s not miss the point…!)
A manic mix of punk rock attitude (and fashion) and a particularly British sense of humor and the absurd, Tank Girl — real name Rebecca Buck, although it was rarely mentioned — was unlike anything else in comics at the time, and entirely the product of her creator’s personal tastes and obsessions… but that didn’t stop her from being quickly embraced by a number of alternative subcultures in early ‘90s Britain, from feminists to greebos to cosplayers and back again.
Hewlett’s art was undeniably the reason for this; Tank Girl and everyone in her world — Booga, Camp Koala, Stevie, Barney, and the rest — practically vibrated off the page under his pen, with a cartoonish quality reminiscent of influences from Yellow Submarine to 2000 AD artists like Mick McMahon, as well as 1970s television shows like The Sweeney and The Professionals, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and heaps more. But despite the kaleidoscopic mixture of nostalgia at play, Hewlett’s work never seemed anything less than contemporary, if not ahead of its time. Let’s face it: to read Tank Girl was to get a glimpse of something effortlessly “cool,” which might explain why mainstream brands, including Penguin, DC, and even Levis, were eager to jump on the bandwagon as quickly as possible.
This is saying nothing about the ill-fated 1995 Tank Girl movie, which Hewlett and Martin both famously regret — even if the sight of Lori Petty in the title role did a lot for many viewers at the time. That the movie flopped around the same time that Deadline folded is simply coincidence, and though Tank Girl limped on for another year or so afterwards in her own comic book before disappearing, the mid-90s felt as if an era was coming to a close, in terms of Hewlett’s omnipresence as a creator. Reality, of course, had other ideas.
Tank Girl was far from Hewlett’s only project during this period, it should be noted; in addition to the Fireball strip that was also running in Deadline alongside Tank Girl — occasionally replacing it in the title’s line-up, as if Hewlett himself was getting tired of his iconic character — he was also freelancing for other outlets, including 2000 AD, where he co-created both Swifty’s Return and Hewligan’s Haircut with writer Peter Milligan, as well as working for DC in the U.S., painting covers for Doom Patrol in addition to newly commissioned Tank Girl work for the publisher.
In the late ‘90s, Hewlett looked beyond comics for work. His art appeared in illustrated versions of the band Pulp’s “Common People” single, and on the Saturday morning television show SMTV Live; he illustrated record covers for M. Organ (a pseudonym for Morgan Nichols, whose previous band, Senseless Things, also featured Hewlett artwork on covers), and in British fashion magazine The Face, where his strip Get The Freebies satirized the fashion industry in a method that felt like a more mannered Tank Girl — and, most importantly of all, he moved in with Blur lead singer Damon Albarn after both he and Albarn split from their respective longterm partners.
It was while sharing an apartment with Albarn that the so-called “virtual band” Gorillaz was born, reportedly from a conversation about the cynical creation of pop music at the time; Hewlett has said in interviews that he wondered aloud why, if bands had to be manufactured by record labels and managers, then why couldn’t they at least be manufactured in an interesting way…?
Although the musical element to the larger Gorillaz project is unmistakably the work of Albarn — the first, self-titled, album is clearly an expansion of ideas that he had been exploring in the previous few years of Blur releases; he went so far as to call the 1997 Blur track “On Your Own” as “one of the first ever Gorillaz tunes” in a 2015 interview — the very existence of Gorillaz feels entirely Hewlett in nature. As early as Tank Girl, he’d referenced the 1968 Hanna-Barbera series The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, which featured a band made up of four cartoonish characters inspired by the Monkees; echoes of both the Splits and the Monkees are present in Gorillaz, from the four-part structure to the “Monkees”/“Gorillaz” name parallel.
Visually, Gorillaz is at once the culmination of, and an evolution of, Hewlett’s obsessions throughout the years — brand names and incidental background details, characters that are almost caricature in terms of proportion and expression, and the juxtaposition of cartooning and photography, or at least photorealistic backgrounds. All of this is given new life through the structure and demands of Gorillaz as a musical act: suddenly, Hewlett got to experiment with animation, CGI modeling, and even — for the Demon Days tour in the early 2000s, holograms. It was, in many respects, as Hewlett as could be managed… and it was, like, Tank Girl a decade earlier, a massive mainstream success.
That success opened more doors for Hewlett, which in turn allowed him to continue to grow as an artist. Without Gorillaz, there would have been no design work for the 2007 opera Monkey: Journey to the West, nor exhibitions in the Saatchi Gallery (his 2015 solo show, “The Suggestionists”); it’s also unlikely he would have been invited by charity Oxfam to Bangladesh to create work on the subject of climate change.
Each of these side projects show different sides of Hewlett outside of his more mainstream pop culture looks, but each feeds into that mass audience material in different ways. Perhaps the key to Hewlett’s continued success, and to his second act as a popular phenomenon, is that very growth and willingness to experiment. Maybe there’s something to be said for continuing to follow your curiosity no matter where it leads you.