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Graphic Novel Review

Book Cover

Tank Girl
Colour Classics
Book 1: 1988–1990 (Hardback)


Writers: Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin
Artist: Jamie Hewlett
Colourist: Tracy Bailey
Publisher: Titan Comics
RRP: UK £21.99, US $24.99
Age: 17+
ISBN: 978 1 78586 675 3
144 pages
Publication Date: 11 December 2018

By a feat of sheer stubbornness, Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl has managed to survive for over three decades. As a celebration, we’ve given her a fresh lick of paint to cover up the rust, and raided the deepest reaches of her panty drawer for embarrassing photos, libellous documents and discarded chocolate wrappers. This first book in the series covers the genesis and early years of Tank Girl, before everything went a bit weird…

We’re going back to the beginning in more ways than one, as this volume revisits Tank Girl’s first year and a bit of adventures in Deadline magazine, from late 1988 to early 1990. The book also takes me back to the first Tank Girl graphic novel I ever reviewed for this website, 2002’s simply titled Tank Girl, which presented much of the same material. That volume was also in colour, but suffered from some poor reproduction. A remastered edition, Tank Girl One, followed in 2009, boasting superior scans of the artwork in its original black and white. Now, following a recent relaunch across a couple of 64-page comic books, this time with Tracy Bailey doing the colouring-in, the material has been collected again. We’ve come full circle.

It is apparent in these initial escapades that artist Jamie Hewlett was influenced by the work of Brendan McCarthy, Brett Ewins (one villainous character on page 36 looks like he was actually drawn by the Deadline co-creator) and Kevin O’Neill (lots of wacky little creatures dotted around the panels), but his art quickly establishes an unmistakably zany style of its own.

Many a male reader fell in love with the adventuress’s sexy yet grungy outfits – or the increasing lack thereof. There’s no denying the appeal of seeing our heroine ‘in the pink’ during her numerous nude scenes in this colour edition – ideal for the “bathroom bashing” that Tank Girl accuses her creators and readers of indulging in! Meanwhile, women appreciated the character’s in-yer-face attitude, as she takes no crap from anyone, not even Satan, and ruthlessly dominates her marsupial boyfriend, Booga. Interestingly, Booga does not appear until the fifth episode, though the opening adventure clearly establishes Tank Girl’s attraction towards kangaroos.

The plots range from just plain odd to laugh-out-loud funny. They are loaded with comical sexuality, violence (several characters burst as Tank Girl’s vehicle trundles over them) and post-modern winks to the audience. “How come I can hear everything he’s saying?” wonders Tank Girl as she pursues a wanted criminal, “Must be something to do with comics and all that crap!” A joke involving Jimmy Savile has not aged so well (or has it? After all, he is linked with the Devil here), but for the most part the anarchic humour is timeless.

Many of these early stories lack individual titles, but one of the exceptions is the pivotal two-parter The Australian Job, in which Tank Girl’s party plans are scuppered by a lack of decent booze. Thanks to the local mafia, the only available beer is a brand called Spunk Beer, “the weakest lager in the known universe”. Cue lots of snigger-inducing references to the product name, such as “The fridge is full of Spunk!” What follows is a Tank Girl spin on The Italian Job, but with beer as the object of the heist… and the intervention of a giant hamburger… and this time we find out what the lead character’s “great idea” actually is. More obscure allusions are made to contemporary reviewers, who I guess had said some unfavourable things about Tank Girl. The staff of Speaking Easily magazine (a reference to Speakeasy, a publication that combined comics-related interviews and criticism) and Fantasy Y-Fronts Advertiser (referring to the similarly themed Fantasy Advertiser and possibly also another title) are shown to be complete tossers before being struck by speeding tanks. This memorable strip is also notable for the debut of Tank Girl’s buddies Jet Girl and Sub Girl – though the uncommunicative relationship between the two is very different to the close comradeship that would subsequently emerge.

The preceding strip and three of the next four stories hint at a higher purpose behind the heroine’s existence – well, it couldn’t get any lower, could it? Two of these tales aren’t comic strips as such. One of them is more like illustrated textual musings, while another, The Preposterous Bollox of the Situation, takes the form of a letter addressed to the heroine’s mum – and includes an endearing image of a ten-year-old Tank Girl picking her nose. An untitled strip flashes forward forty years to show oppressed Aborigines summoning up an avenging spirit, Tanicha, which resembles Tank Girl and defeats their enemies in a typically sexy and violent manner.

However, the high-water mark of this book, perhaps even the pinnacle of Hewlett and Martin’s entire body of work together, is Sweaty Moments Show. Tank Girl has rarely looked sexier than she does here, and the strip contains imagery and dialogue that have deservedly lodged in my memory since I first saw them almost thirty years ago – such as Tank Girl donning a “dump hat” when she’s on the dunny, and her ex-boyfriend Stevie rattling off a ridiculously long list of what he would like Booga to serve for breakfast… before adding “pa-leez” at the end, as though the politeness makes his demands reasonable. This story also sees a long-lasting change to the supporting cast, which prompts a trip to a toy shop.

One thing I’d forgotten about is that Alan Martin did not write all of the stories to begin with. Many of these episodes are written or co-written by Hewlett, with various other people credited for supplying plot ideas. By way of balance, there’s a bonus one-page non-Tank Girl strip (which has not been coloured), entitled I am Beatnik, written by Martin but with art by Wired World’s Philip Bond.

It has to be said that neither Hewlett nor Martin is terribly good at spelling or punctuation, with textual howlers including words such as “wreckless” (in fact, Tank Girl’s antics result in plenty of wrecks!) and “Sidney” (meaning the Australian city), and countless unnecessary possessive esses. Still, flawless English is not why we are here, is it?

Colourist Tracy Bailey is generally bonzer at bringing Tank Girl’s adventures to life, in a style that’s appropriate to their vintage – the colours have hard edges, with no fancy vignettes. However, she is occasionally misled by the eccentricities of Hewlett’s art. For example, when a character leaps from a great height on page 13, the artist makes him stand out against the rocks in the background by surrounding him with a ‘halo’ of white space. Bailey colours this in the same blue as the sky, when it would have been preferable to extend the colour of the rocks or keep the bright halo. On page 18 (the opener of the third episode), the colourist seems oblivious to a subtle lightning effect that Hewlett has radiating out from the figure of Tank Girl. Later, she overlooks the fact that the mini tanks in The Australian Job should be red, white and blue, as described in the dialogue. She is not helped by the fact that a baseball bat in Sweaty Moments Show appears transparent because the black ink has faded – as a result, the bat has not been coloured in. It’s a tough gig, as Hewlett’s work often deliberately defies complete visual sense (for instance, eschewing background detail to emphasise foreground action), but for the most part Bailey does a good job of navigating his anarchic landscape.

The book also contains colour photographs of the creators and their friends from the late 1980s, original covers from Deadline magazine and Dark Horse Comics, and a lovely promotional image of Tank Girl by Deadline’s other founder, Steve Dillon.

As mentioned at the top of this review, the stories have previously appeared in a number of anthologies, and you might not want to buy the same content all over again if you already own it, colours or no colours. However, if you’ve never before had the chance to enjoy these classic adventures, or you’ve misplaced your previous collection, then load this book into your tank and trundle it home.


Richard McGinlay

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