Interview: Jamie Hewlett (Gorillaz) – Sex, Tanks & Kangaroos

One of my earliest interviews, with comic book artists Jamie Hewlett and Philip Bond, published during my year as Editor of Glasgow University Magazine.  Hewlett had scored major success around this time as co-creator of ‘Tank Girl’, however he would go on to far greater international acclaim as the visual mastermind and co-creator of the Gorillaz project with Damon Albarn. Bond continues to work in comics, working with the likes of Grant Morrison and Pete Milligan and on titles such as ‘Hellblazer’ and Harvey Pekar’s ‘American Splendour’.

It would seem that I was somewhat obsessed in this interview with proving the point that comics were ‘hip’ – a point that’s almost an impirical fact in 2008, but back in 1989 it was a hard case to argue for.  I tried to prove the point in two ways: (1) by using frequent references to Morrissey and The Smiths, and (2) by frequently discussing the sexual activity of Tank Girl.  The latter is probably the saddest of the two – I’m sure if I was ever to meet someone quite like Tank Girl, she’d chew me up and spit me out in a heartbeat.

SEX, TANKS & KANGAROOS

One thing that surprised a lot of sceptics over the summer was the final emergence of the Batman film.  Based largely on Frank Miller’s recent revitalisation of the character, the greatest shock came when they discovered that “it wasn’t for kids”.  Stuart Buchanan talks to Philip Bond and Jamie Hewlett from Deadline Magazine about the sudden rise in interest of ‘Adult Comics’.

The phrase ‘Adult Comics’ to some is nothing more than an intrinsic paradox.  Their mind immediately shifts to a father in his armchair by the fire, his kids playing with Lego on the floor, while he leafs through a copy of ‘The Incredible Hulk’.  Fortunately, this awkward preconception is as far removed from the truth as is possible.

The comics subculture is expanding every month with new artists and new titles coming to the fore.  Last month, for instance, witnessed the publication of ‘The Bogie Man’, a strip located entirely in Glasgow and the first venture of the Glasgow-based Fatman Press.

However, the most original comic (or do I say ‘magazine’?) available at the present time is without doubt the London-based Deadline.  One thing that separates Deadline from its unworthy cousins, such as 2000AD and Crisis, is its largely humourous content – not, perhaps, in the same lines as Viz, but more subtle than slapstick.  Underpinning the often black humour are numerous references to our contemporary culture – in the form of both blatant morals and subtextual nods to the cream of indie bands.

“Basically, Jamie and I have been really influenced by everything that is happening,” explains Philip Bond, author and artist of Deadline’s ‘Wired World’ and ‘Hot Triggers’, along with ‘Angels Amongst Us’ from Crisis.  “We just want to write about the sort of people that we are, except push it a bit further, and so the references have got to come across.  But we really didn’t think about who we were writing for.  We just wrote for ourselves, but from the way that the [public] signings have gone, it seems that people who come along are very much people like ourselves, which is exactly how it should be.  So I guess that it’s been very successful.”

One aspect that comics have eternally been criticised for is that they are predominantly created for men, and their content is distinctly chauvinistic. In Philip’s ‘Wired World’ strip however, the characters are female, highly disillusioned with the world around them.

“I suppose deep down I’m a feminist, maybe that’s why I write strips about women.  I think, from my own experiences, that women very often turn out to be much smarter than men.  Men are just dupes and they provide the slapstick behind the strips.”

Jamie Hewlett’s strip, ‘Tank Girl’, however has all too often been wrongly labelled as sexist. “If it is,” he claims, “it’s not meant to be.  I’m not sexist and I’m not racist, not at all.  So I try to stab at things that I don’t like – like McDonalds and shit music and lot of bollocks that you get on TV at the moment.  But you’ve really got to have all this shit around, because if everything was good, you’d be lost.  You’ve got nothing to be annoyed about.”

The appeal of ‘Tank Girl’, thankfully, stems far and wide, and Jamie is interested in teasing reads about her sexuality for some time to come.  “There are a lot of lesbians that are really into ‘Tank Girl’ apparently.  Everyone thinks that she is a lesbian at the moment, which she isn’t; her sexuality hasn’t been decided yet.”

“The initial idea for Tank Girl came from a girl I used to know in Worthing who looked like her.  When I first met her, she had this crewcut and she was headbutting this bouncer in the face.  She was really hard, but she was a really attractive girl.”

The comics culture it seems it filtering out into other contemporary mediums.  TV and Radio are dragging their feet, although cinema interest has been aroused in both Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ and 2000AD’s ‘Judge Dredd’.  However, the world of popular music is riddled with tributes and references to the fictional heroes of the 80s (Transvision Vamp, Pop Will Eat Itself and Anthrax have all been guilty in recent times). Both Jamie and Philip are quick to draw analogies between the two cultures.

Says Jamie, “Poeple like Brett Ewins [Deadline editor with Steve Dillon] are responsible for making comics quite ‘hip’ like they are now.  They are responsible for making comic artists into pop stars.”

Philip takes this a stage further: “If you buy a Kylie Minogue record, it’s her singing a Stock, Aitken and Waterman record and it’s just completely empty.  Whereas if you go out and buy a Morrissey record, it’s recognisable as a Morrissey record.  It’s got his character in it and everything.  I think comics are going that way.”

Jamie brings in the idea of using television as a good way to symbolise the intrinsic differences in the comics culture itself.  “If there was a Deadline TV show, we’d put on a really good one, because what we consider as the good bands and good comedians probably like what we do, as much as we like what they do.  Whereas if you had an Alan Moore TV show, it might be Alan sitting on a sofa, flicking his hair back and talking about really boring shit for three hours”.

Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ has long been thought of as the comic that finally broke the superhero mould and in that respect has been held in high regard.  Jamie, however, is more skeptical.  “Alan Moore bores me really.  I’m not into him.  ‘Watchmen’ was a really well written comic, but I don’t think he’s full of ideas.  It was alright, but it didn’t get me excited.  I didn’t get the same pleasure like I was listening to a Smiths album or something like that.  It’s like Brendan McCarthy’s ‘Strange Days’ – you do get a feeling like you’re listening to a Smiths album.  You’re really pleased with it and you want to keep it.  You want to have it around you all the time.”

The reaction that Deadline has received has been, at the very least, astounding.  It is due to this, that offers from other comics are numerous.  Both Jamie and Philip are contributing to ‘A1’ magazine, an independent forum for comic creators, and are also expanding their range to include work on both 2000AD and Crisis respectively.  However, both are far removed from their contemporary rivals.

Philip: “We are starting to be recognised as creators instead of just the illustrators.  That’s definitely part of the appeal of Deadline; because it’s got the artists who are also the creators – writing their own stuff and drawing it as well – it’s a more personal creation.  I think the readers recognise that and they can get into the personality behind the artist as well as just liking the drawing.”

Deadline is sure to be an eternal success, provided that it continues to provide an ever-hungry public with the meat that it so desperately craves.  There only seems to be one question remaining: will Tank Girl ever sleep with anybody?

“Well, I think if you fancy someone and you never see them being sexy or sleeping with anybody, that’s okay.  But if you see them being lewd all the time and shagging left, right and centre, then it takes it all away.  She probably will sleep with men when she gets round to it, but I don’t think she’s really interested in that.  If I was a woman, I wouldn’t sleep with a man, that’s for sure!”

First published in Glasgow University Magazine,  December 1989