The Revision: Tank Girl

The character of Tank Girl was created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin and first appeared in the British magazine Deadline in 1988. True to her name, she drives (and mostly lives in) a tank and mostly causes mayhem while getting drunk and/or high and having sex. Her boyfriend is a mutant kangaroo.

The early Tank Girl stories don’t really have coherent plots or, to be honest, plots at all. It’s just Hewlett and Martin being weird and fun and seeing what they can get away with. There are some meta parts, like Hewlett and Martin appearing on the page, and a lot of it is “what cool things do we want to draw?” Basically, the comic shares the same chaotic energy as Tank Girl herself.

Cover of Tank Girl Color Classics Vol. 1

I know as time progressed and the character became more popular, the stories became more coherent, but to me that goes against the spirit. Tank Girl isn’t supposed to make sense.

Is the comic good? It is at times. I had fun reading it, which is the entire point. Some parts did start to feel a little repetitive, and odd riffs on ’70s TV shows and movies didn’t always work for me. I don’t mind work that seems to be created under the influence of drugs — which I’m probably correct in assuming was the case here — but it can of course be uneven. Still, these comics are entertaining and feel very new to me now.

While Tank Girl is sexual, I never found her to be shown overly sexy manner. There is something very matter-of-fact about the way Hewlett and Martin present her. She’s vulgar and violent, sure, but that’s just who she is. I don’t know if I’d call her an “empowering” character, but her unapologetic nature is refreshing.

Capturing Tank Girl’s anarchic qualities on film was never going to be easy, and Tank Girl (1995, directed by Rachel Talalay) tries really hard. I still have a lot of mixed feelings about this movie. I like it — I do own it, and I also own the soundtrack on vinyl (because of course I do) but I go back and forth about how much it actually works.

I know this was a passion project for Talalay and she worked hard to get it made. With production designer Catherine Hardwicke, she does manage to nail the look and feel of the comic well, which tells me they understood what they were making. I just don’t know how much anyone else did.

Lori Petty wasn’t the first choice for Tank Girl (nor was she the first person cast in the role) but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else in this role. Petty is having so much fun as Tank Girl and it’s a joy just seeing what she does next.

I however always forget about the overall plot and I think that’s because I find it tiresome. After Water & Power thugs kill Tank Girl’s commune and kidnap her, she’s imprisoned by W&P’s leader, KessleeĀ (Malcolm McDowell, because sure, why not?). She befriends Jet Girl (Naomi Watts), they escape and are taken in by the Rippers, a group of supersoldier human/kangaroo hybrids. Then some other things happen.

I understand most movies need something of a plot but the conflict with the evil Kesslee is uninspired. Jet Girl’s blossoming from meek to badass works pretty well, because Watts brings a lot of sweetness there, but she’s not much of a character. No one else is, really, because few people can match Petty’s wild energy.

The movie works the best when it leans into the “anything can happen” spirit of the comic. Ann Magnuson as the madam of a brothel? Sure. A random appearance by Iggy Pop? That’s good. Tank Girl leading everyone in a singalong of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It”? Yes. Ice-T as a mutant kangaroo? I like it. This movie wants nothing more than to be a punk movie — and it should’ve been — but no Hollywood studio would really allow that.

While I feel like some of the animated sequences were a budget concession (fewer effects!), they do recall the dynamism of the comic in a real way. Stan Winston’s designs for the Rippers are not the best. I appreciate fully what he was trying to do but the suits don’t quite work out. I wish the suits looked worse and everyone just leaned into the ridiculousness.

I do think time has been kinder to Tank Girl than I expected. It does capture that strange moment in time that was 1995 and Petty embodies Tank Girl in a way no one else could. I enjoy moments of it more than I enjoy its entirety, though.

I know Margot Robbie has been trying to get another Tank Girl movie made but that seems to be on hold indefinitely right now. I would like to see someone try again, although it’s hard to say if it would work in the end. I just don’t think film can really contains the multitudes of Tank Girl.