Tank Girl burst onto the scene 20 years ago, in a blaze of anarchy and cultural revolution. British indie music was still independent but riding a wave of cool popularity; Thatcher’s government was teetering on the brink of self-destruction; and I was taking my first real steps out of boyhood and into a strange and liberating world. I was looking for a cultural identity of my own, something my parents wouldn’t like, something of my own choosing and discovery that would bridge the gap between being the nerdy teenager that I was and the dream of the adult I wanted to become. In my mind at least, Tank Girl filled that void.
Created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin as they emerged from art college in Worthing, Tank Girl was like the promise of an exciting future ahead for someone on the cusp of leaving home. Exagerated, obviously, but with an undertow of sex, lager, freedom from responsibilty and absence of parental control that seemed to sum up everything I dreamed of at the time. Littered with cultural references to help ease me into what was cool, kitsch and contraversial, it was part entertainment, part lifestyle map. That it appeared in Deadline magazine, with a bunch of other ultra-cool comics, only rammed it further home.
At the time it was the newest, freshest, most exciting cultural development I’d ever encountered, and it seemed targetted at me with the accuracy of a laser sight. While the new wave of mature-rated comics was all very well, Tank Girl wasn’t over-extending into cultural gravitas and wasn’t written by a bearded thirty-year-old – it felt as fresh and new as my developing independence.
Setting the comic in the Australian outback was inspired. In his introduction, Martin suggests it was a decision made by Hewlett to minimise the amount of background he’d have to draw. But it was also far away, exotic and unknowable – it might as well have been set on the Moon for all the liklihood there was that I’d ever experience it. It also inspired Hewlett to draw on aboriginal art and mythology, adding a little magic to the mix of tanks, guns, lager and gentle tittilation.
The comic has stood the test of time. Some of its cultural references have fallen by the wayside but these were incidental, not integral to the concept. Hewlett’s art style appeared fully formed and what you see here is basically what we’ve been seeing from him ever since, through Gorillaz and his work on Monkey: Journey to the West. It may get emulated and may itself be an amalgamation of art and comic styles, but his characterisation and mastery of grungy punk chic is phenomenal – while there are students in the world, this stuff will never fall out of fashion.
The stories, if anything, no longer feel like the work of exciting crazed geniuses. This is perhaps more down to my own changed expectations rather than a fault of the comics. Twenty years on and my situation has changed, leaving me with less empathy for these characters from my past. Those of you with a little more youth left coursing through your veins may still find Tank Girl as exciting as ever.
I can see two reasons why you might sample this book. Either you’re old enough to remember Tank Girl the first time round – and I’m talking this comic version, not the infinitely inferior movie version. Maybe you even missed out on it and feel it’s time to catch up. Or you’re young enough to be a new generation of fan, perhaps having seen Hewlett’s work elsewhere. Either way you’ll enjoy this, but it probably won’t have the same impact it had on me.
Tank Girl hit a sweetspot in my life that I appreciate I can never return to. This may be a nostalgia trip and a marker in the shifting sands of time, but revisiting old friends, while comfortable and familiar, is never as exciting as making them in the first place. Twenty years. That’s a lot of water under the bridge.
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