It has been a long journey. It is hard to pinpoint the exact start of it: perhaps it was with an incident-filled trip by two friends, both famous Western artists, to China three years ago; or perhaps it was with a cartoon band that defied the critics and sold millions of albums worldwide seven years ago; or even with a badly dubbed Japanese television series that became a cult hit in Britain in the late 1970s.
Or perhaps one should reach further back in time to discover an ancient fable of hubris and redemption, which become one of the classic novels of Chinese literature after it was transcribed during the Ming Dynasty.
Wherever it started, the journey is reaching its climax. Monkey: Journey to the West – modestly billed as a Chinese opera, but in reality so much more than that – previews from tomorrow in its latest incarnation as a spectacular family entertainment put on in a specially designed venue.
But its creators – Damon Albarn, the pop star turned musical alchemist, and Jamie Hewlett, the strip cartoonist who reinvented animation for his generation – are itching to return to other projects, feeling that they have taken this dazzling show almost as far as they can. "This is the end," Hewlett says.
They have talked about a film trilogy, blending ancient and modern, sound and vision, East and West. "It could be better than The Lord of the Rings," Hewlett says. "There are hundreds of chapters, but we've only used a few of them. What we've done is more like 'short cut to the West'."
But for now, the pair want to turn to other ventures. For a start, the multi-tasking Albarn has begun creating the music for the third Gorillaz album, and Hewlett is looking forward to reviving the band members. "They'll be the same characters, but a little bit older and told in a different way."
The tale of Monkey is essentially the oldest story of all, the triumph of good over evil, centred on a cocky hooligan who wants to be a deity but refuses to behave himself. The traditional tale, woven into Chinese culture by literature, oral history and shadow puppetry, tells of a vain king's epic pilgrimage, made alongside his protectors. It is both a violent adventure story, filled with bloodthirsty demons and seductive sirens, and a work of philosophy and spiritual insight.
In the hands of Albarn, Hewlett and the acclaimed director Chen Shi-Zheng, the show becomes a sensory feast, a thrilling mixture of music, martial arts, acrobatics and animation, with staggering performances, many of them airborne, by a 40-strong Chinese cast. One of the many five-star reviews described the show as "Pixar meets the Chinese State Circus".
Monkey made its debut at the Manchester International Festival two years ago, followed by brief forays into the opera houses of London, Paris and Charleston. This month-long staging in a bespoke tent outside the O2 in Greenwich, south-east London, is by far its longest run, and something of a gamble for its backers.
As he prepared for tomorrow's opening of Monkey, Hewlett agreed to open up his notebooks and reveal the evolution of his Monkey from the very first sketches – which were disliked by Shi-Zheng and have never before been published – to the most recent versions, taking us through the darker, bawdier incarnations for their album and the more family-friendly characters used by the BBC to promote the Olympics in Beijing.
For an artist, Hewlett's workspace is surprisingly orderly. His office – the top floor of a converted paint office in Ladbroke Grove, with Albarn working in his studio below – is cluttered but tidy. One long shelf is filled with MTV awards, another with art books. Postcards are arranged on the wall above his desk, together with a zombie film poster from one of the B-movies he so loves, while there are box folders full of his work, marked "Gorillaz 1", "Gorillaz 2", "Monkey"...
Hewlett says he hates interviews, but he is animated and engaging as he smokes roll-ups and discusses his work. He talks about his early days drawing strip cartoons, when he would work from nine in the morning until midnight in his room, churning out 10 pages a week of Tank Girl.
Now that Hewlett is in such demand – even as we spoke, a prominent rock group made contact to ask if he would agree to direct their next video – he faces rather more such interruptions, but you sense that he is still happiest with pencil in hand. "The more you draw, the better you get," he says. "It's what I have always liked doing. And still do."
How Hewlett created his favourite Monkey
Hewlett's favourite drawing of the thousands he has made of Monkey is named Damon, after his collaborator working in the studio. Why? "I dunno," he says with a smile. "It's just a bit cheeky, a bit naughty. Seemed right, somehow..." The picture (see gallery) shows Monkey squatting in a typical Chinese pose, the rounded body a motif that Hewlett often uses.
Hewlett explains his drawing process. "I start with an idea in my head. I sketch it out quickly as a line drawing, using pencil. It never comes out quite right – usually a bit better than my mental picture." But not always: scores of these drawings – little more than elegant, slightly smudgy doodles – end up in the bin. "I have to get the character's personality across, but it is also about creating a nice shape on the page. That's very important to me. I like the way this one has a coiled shape, its feet on the floor. It's a shape I can't stop myself from drawing." He then sketches it more fully, still with pencil, adding detail such as hands, feet and face. "This one looks like a naughty monkey. The character comes across quite well. It also feels very Chinese. If you go to China, you see people everywhere in this squatting position, eating their food or waiting at a bus stop."
The final version is scanned in to his computer, where it is digitally coloured. "I use watercolours to put in washes over the picture, doing it on paper put over the original. Computers produce flat colours, so this gives variation. If I was doing 50 pictures a year, I would do it all with paint, but this allows me to produce the number I need."
Monkey, The TV Show
I remember when this came on. I was a 10-year-old at school in Horsham, West Sussex, and I just thought it was fantastic. I loved it. We all did. We would talk about it the next day at school because we'd never seen anything like it, and it became a huge cult. It was Japanese, although a Chinese story, and was just so different and weird. There were the accents, dubbed so badly. One character was half-man, half-monkey, another half-man, half-pig, and then there was a river demon. Pretty radical stuff for those days.
Chen Shi-Zheng had always wanted to do a modern opera version of Monkey. He and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris approached Alex Poots from the Manchester International Festival for funding. We'd worked with Alex before – Gorillaz did five nights at the Manchester Opera House in 2005 – so he suggested we get together with Shi-Zheng. We met up, and then Damon and I ended up going to China with Shi-Zheng and Alex. Shi-Zheng explained the story to us, what it was all about and why it was so important in all of Asia. And this led to the show we now have, which opened in Manchester.
The first drawings
My first drawings of Monkey were completely wrong and Chen Shi-Zheng really disliked them. Damon and I went to China in September 2005, and then did nothing on Monkey for six months while we finished the Gorillaz project. But when I started to draw the character, my head was still in Gorillaz world. I hadn't got fully around the Monkey character to do them right. And I was being asked to design a character for a real person who had to look like my designs but be able to move around on stage, to sing and dance and perform martial arts.
It took another two trips to China, and lots more drawings, before I began to get to a point where I was happy. And by then, I had met Fei Yang, who plays Monkey. After spending time with him, eating meals, joking around and getting drunk, I could take some of his character – the cheekiness and playfulness – and put it into Monkey. In fact, it all goes round in circles, because he also began to take some of his character from my drawings, and eventually it all clicked into place. But I am never completely satisfied with them, even now.
Pigsy, Sandy & Co
My ideal would be to spend six months with a cast, really getting to know them, in somewhere like Macau, before I put pen to paper and start to design the characters and costumes. Take Pigsy, who is played by Xu Kejia, a Mongolian martial arts expert who's a very powerfully built, muscular man. Although he looks so huge and strong, he's actually a real sweetheart who has become a good friend. To look at him you would not think he could sing so beautifully, but he has such a sweet voice. Damon persuaded him to sing in the studio, and it was so beautiful there were tears in our eyes. That influenced my drawing of his character. As with Sandy, who's played by He Zijun, an actor who's a very cool man; when you see him in China, with his gang, he's the one who gets all the attention from the girls. All these things influence the drawing – and the more informed the artist, the better the characterisation in the work.
For the BBC's coverage, the characters became much more cartoony – they were more colourful and likeable. This was a big deal for the BBC, and we were taking Monkey to a big audience of families in their living rooms. It is rather a vicious story: Sandy, for example, is a river demon who spends his days eating people and his evenings filled with angst over his cannibalism. We could not show him on the BBC with blood dripping from his mouth, eyeballs and entrails hanging off him. We also restrained Monkey's cockiness; he became more like the cheeky kid next door, not that horrible shit who wants to be a god but won't behave – which is really what the tale of Monkey is about.
Then there were changes forced on us by events. The ident began with Monkey exploding out of an egg, with rocks raining down everywhere, but this had to be changed after the Chengdu earthquake. But the BBC were cool, and in many ways it was this that crystalised the idea of Monkey as family entertainment, for children as well as adults.
We never intended to do a Monkey album, but everyone was humming the tunes and asking for them. We talked about recording it in Beijing, but eventually did a studio album here. And this is truest to my vision of Monkey, a character unrestricted by cast requirements or the demands of moving about and performing martial arts on stage. It is closest to Gorillaz – a Monkey as we really wanted him, produced by just Damon and me and our team. He became a lot darker, a lot bawdier. We focused far more on the sinister side and the sexier side – it is, ultimately, quite a dark tale full of sex and violence, although ending with enlightenment.
'Independent' readers can get two tickets for the price of one for previews of 'Monkey: Journey to the West' at the O2, 8 to 13 November. Book via Ticketmaster.co.uk – type "independent" in the promotions and special offers box.
You can also win a deluxe vinyl box set of 'Monkey: Journey to the West', usually priced at £65. Simply answer this question: who wrote the music for 'Monkey'? Send your answer, name and address, to www.independent.co.uk/ promo-competitions and input the code "monkey". Competition closes midnight on 13 November. See www.independent. co.uk/legal for terms and conditions.
'Monkey: Journey to the West' runs at Monkey's World at the O2, London SE10 from 8 November to 5 December. Tickets, from £25, are available at www.monkeyjourneytothewest.com.
A limited edition box-set of the 'Monkey' album, with a set of four art prints, an 80-page hardback book and double vinyl LP with bonus tracks, is available from www.vinylfactory.co.uk.