[14 July 2009]
There’s something about Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two re-printed and re-mastered collection of the original strips that feels uncannily like a time capsule. Perhaps it’s because this is the first comic I have ever had to review that I’ve actually read long before reviewing. Or perhaps it’s because of the heavy associations to riot grrrl culture that the comic has seemed to accumulate over the years, a music culture that was a certain rite of passage for many of us who are now twenty and thirty-something women. Either way, Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two are a welcome retrospective that collects Martin and Hewlett’s strips as well as some unpublished strips, interviews, and rare drawings from 1988 until about 1992 for both the old fans and newcomers alike.
In many ways, despite the fact that most of the strips take place in Australia, the two books function as a sort of encyclopedia for British and American culture in the late 80’s and early 90’s. As Martin and Hewlett point out in the introduction to Tank Girl One , they were always trying to incorporate bands and lyrics they liked into the strips. In fact, throughout the strip you may encounter Tank Girl walking by a wall with ‘Smiths’ lyrics plastered on it or sporting a button with ‘They Might Be Giants’ or ‘the Pastels’ written on it. Later, in Tank Girl Two , references are made to the dawn of Brit-Pop and Baggy scene in England, both music and fashion-wise. Interestingly enough, Jamie Hewlett, illustrator and creator of Tank Girl, has since worked with one of the icons of that music scene, Damon Albarn of Blur, to form cartoon band Gorillaz.
Beyond these references to musical culture, the collected strips in Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two do a remarkable job of capturing the ethos of the late 80’s and into the early 1990’s as well. Many of the strips embody the ideas or concepts most associated with post-modernism, which gained much of its popularity within the academy around the same time. Concepts like the lack of a coherent narrative, kitch, the refusal to distinguish high from low art, and self-reflexivity all figure in one way or another into the panels portrayed in the two books. In fact, much of the first book is populated with almost incoherent strips, both in story line and panel set-up. Both Hewlett and Martin have often admitted in interviews that they weren’t much interested in creating plots that made sense and often made up the strips as they went. Self-reflexivity also occurs surprisingly often in both of the books. In a strip (as well as one of the issues) called “Force Ten to Ringarooma Bay” from Tank Girl Two, Hewlett and Martin write themselves into the strip (not an uncommon occurrence) only to lead them to have various arguments with the characters they have been drawing as to how the story should play out. When Booga shows up unexpectedly, Jamie Hewlett questions how he appeared out of nowhere only to have Booga respond “This is comics! Anything can happen…” which is followed by a panel in which the characters address the reader by flipping them the bird. A general lack of concern for others as well as an excess of violence also characterize both the strip and Tank Girl as a character. While not directly related to themes of post-modernity, the surfeit of violence in the strip is of note since it seems to relate to the rise of violence seen in popular culture as a whole in the 1990’s, in particular the rise of gangster rap as well as 1994’s multi-award winning film Pulp Fiction.
Along with musical references and tone, Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two function as a sort of historical/political marker of the times. In the introduction to Tank Girl One, Alan Martin makes explicit that the desire to write and draw the Tank Girl strips was a response to what he, Jamie, and friends saw as a particularly bad slump in culture as a whole. They remember those years as a time “when Reagan and Thatcher were making life miserable for poor people”, as well as identifying the 1980’s as a period when there had been “much barrel-scraping for art and culture.” Many of the strips make veiled references to the two aforementioned administrations, and fire back at them with anti-establishment, anarchic attitudes (not unlike much of the alternative music that was being released concurrently with the strips).
While Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two do not necessarily prove to be a revolution in the medium of comics, the drawing style is fun and irreverent and the writing is amusing and, more often than not, quite snarky. It may also be true that Tank Girl seems somewhat dated in its abundance of references to history and popular culture of the 1990’s, but, as nostalgia for that decade grows, so does the importance of such an artifact. Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two function as an almost complete historical compendium of the 1990’s without the need for supplementary articles. It’s all there: art, music, politics, fashion, and culture. Possibly unintentionally, Hewlett and Martin prove to us that comics have a unique way to serve as historical documents. Perhaps, it is no longer possible to ignore the inherent power of the comics form’s ability to preserve and connect as a result of this discovery.