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Tank Girl vs My Enemies

2011 August 3

Team BadRep were put on the spot again this month: in the wake of SDCC Batgirl igniting the gender-and-comics conversation loud ‘n’ proud the team were asked to take a look at their favourite comic book titles and characters. First up, Sarah J with (for how could we not mention her) Tank Girl.

Tank Girl wearing baseball cap with devil hornsReams have been written about whether Tank Girl is a legitimate feminist icon or not. My position is something along the lines of OMIGODILOVEHER which comes partly from a feminist place and partly from a place of profound 12 year old outsiderdom and rage.

Just to be clear I’m talking about what I think of as Tank Girl – the comics not the film (oh God not the film) and basically the first two volumes of the collected comic by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. After that the stories go to an even weirder place, and I think the artwork goes downhill too (I’m fussy about artwork – reading Alan Moore’s superb Swamp Thing series despite the garish colour was a labour of love). But anyway: there’s a little chunk of my soul which belongs to early Tank Girl.

Where to start? She looks awesome. Yes, she’s often in a bra, and yes, she has a slightly implausible figure, but she’s a million miles away from traditional balloon breasted comic book heroines. She is rather androgynous, masculine without being butch, has actual facial expressions and a great philosophy about clothes. She is sexy, and sexual, but in a way which entirely rejects the idea of a performed sex appeal.

Then there’s her attitude. Irreverent and subversive to the very core of her being, she is linked in some of the stories with a demonic force, a sort of soul of chaos. There’s a great story where an aboriginal community summons a kind of mystical proto-Tank Girl (called Tanicha) to wreak bloody vengeance on the white men who are trying to steal their land and assault the women.1 Tanicha slaughters them gleefully, and in interestingly gendery ways. Tank Girl laughs at danger, power, pomp and duty in a thrilling and vicariously liberating way.

Tank Girl, Sub Girl and Jet Girl share a bath

Tank Girl, Sub Girl and Jet Girl

But then there are a few moments in which she is breathtakingly, shockingly human, even vulnerable. In one story, she dreams that her friends and her lover have had their minds destroyed in a psychiatric institution, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest -stylee. She wakes up shaken and goes to sit outside her beloved tank to think. As the sun comes up, her lover brings her a mug of tea. He’s a mutant kangaroo called Booga, for anyone who doesn’t know, but that doesn’t make the moment any less touching.

Although many of the characters that accompany her on her adventures are men, her female relationships are surprisingly significant. Her two childhood friends Jet Girl and Sub Girl are introduced in a story about her birthday party (spoiled through a lack of decent beer) and one issue consists of a letter from Tank Girl to her mum. She also goes to England at one point to visit her sick grandmother.

And some of the best stories are where she gets one over on a series of macho tough guys, from a kangaroo gang leader to a bounty hunter who underestimates her special gift for total destruction. In one of my Tank Girl about to fire a slingshot, saying 'if there's one thing I hate in this world, it's men who boast about the size of their marrows'favourites her former sergeant becomes obsessed with her lack of respect and her lack of discipline, and sets out to annihilate her. In his dream he prepares to blow her apart with a rocket but she just laughs at him.

Sergeant: “Look at me when I’m going to kill you!”

Tank: “The male ego rides again… Should I faint or scream? Ha ha ha ha!”

Then her breasts transform into missiles. Which makes the point quite nicely, I feel.

Tank Girl is not a positive role model. She’s not a ‘strong female character’. Unlike, say, the similarly badass Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, she’s not particularly troubled, and she doesn’t experience remorse.

But when I was a geeky 12-year-old at school, powerless and furious, she was a lifeline. I’m sure my TG-inspired dreams of destruction saved me from turning my rage on someone in real life, when I finally gave up the fight to be quiet and pretty and clever and kind. When my peers were throwing sandwiches at me on the bus I’d just think, “What would Tank Girl do?” And I’d lean my head against the window and enjoy the carnage.

  1. This is a bit dodgy I guess as Hewlett and Martin patch in a bit of faux aboriginal culture as it suits them, but one of the main characters (Stevie) is an indigenous Australian and there’s nothing particularly mystical about him at least. []
One Response leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011

    I’m another Tank Girl fan, and agree, mostly. I think that the her tendency to be sporting at least one or two sticking plasters where she’s cut herself shaving takes her firmly away from the “perfect sexy comic-book woman” place.

    Incidentally, if you can find them, the Alan Moore American Gothic comics are available in a black-and-white version, published a long time back by Titan, when colour printing was expensive. I prefer them that way. The current Titan collections are colour, sadly.

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