30 YEARS OF TANK GIRL: From Worthing to Hollywood and Back again

Alan Martin, the writer and co-creator of ‘Tank Girl’ with Jamie Hewlett, talks to Here & Now about the origins in the late 80s, and what has happened to her in the past 30 years.

So, Alan, when you and Jamie created ‘Tank Girl’ 30 years ago, was that just one of many projects and ideas you were coming up with, or did you think you’d hit on something special?

Tank Girl was created almost by accident. When Jamie, Phil Bond, and I were in our final year at Northbrook, we decided to make our own fanzine comic – a photocopied anthology that we named “Atom Tan” – to sell to our friends and at comic conventions. When it came to print day, we were a page short. Jamie had drawn a big, burly, punky girl, brandishing a huge gun, but the picture needed a background. I went into the next door studio, where our friend was designing a product based on World War Two hardware, and his desk was covered in photos of tanks. I took one of the photos and Jamie stuck it behind his drawing. He wrote “Tank Girl” next to her, and that was it. We didn’t think it was anything special, just a filler page to pad out the fanzine; Jamie had drawn a strip in the fanzine called “Max Nasty”, and that was what we thought would catch everyone’s eye.

Who did you show it to first, and what was their reaction?

Brett Ewins, an artist who worked on Brit weekly comic 2000ad, came to Northbrook to give a lecture on working in the comics’ industry. We mobbed him and gave him copies of Atom Tan. He loved it. One year later he contacted us, saying that he was starting a new monthly magazine, made up of comics and music articles, called Deadline. He said he wanted Jamie and I to turn the Tank Girl single-page into a full comic strip. We did, and the editors decided to put Tank Girl on the cover of the first issue.

Is ‘Tank Girl’ at 30 as different as you are, thirty years on?

She has changed as our lives have changed, she’s no longer twenty and down the pub all day, she’s now older and takes her responsibilities more seriously. She’s grumpier in the mornings.

Actors can be equivocal about their career defining roles. How do you feel about your association with ‘Tank Girl’?

As a co-creator and writer, the character is very much part of me, we are inextricably linked; my deepest, darkest, and stupidest thoughts usually end up being expressed by Tank Girl in one way or another. She is my mouthpiece, my vent, and my mirror.

I’ve heard that your cohort at Northbrook (Worthing Art College) Class of ’87, was a stellar one. Who are you still in contact with, and what are they doing now?

I’m still in touch with most of our friends from those days. Nearly all of them have had careers in design or related fields: Mat Williams and Gary Marsh run their own design studios in Sussex; Billy Strohacker has his graphics college over in Chichester (Strohacker Design School) of which both Jamie and I are patrons; Sharon Elphick is a successful artist, photographer, and teacher; Nick Williams was head of graphics for Levis Europe, and has just published a book on vintage denim (Denim Branded); Sean George is a graphic designer (and stunt man in the latest Mission Impossible movie!); Becky Whitney is a novelist; Phil Bond is a comic artist, now living in Hollywood; Mat Wakeham is a UK film writer and producer; and, of course (although he joined us after we left college) Glyn Dillon is now costume designer on the new Star Wars movies. There’s many more I could mention – the list is endless!

And as a follow on from that, what do you regard as the value you got from your college course, something that has informed your career ever since?

We had such great tutors when we started college – Dave Mills, Jan Wright, Gordon Coldwell, Pat Vincent, Mike Skinner – more than anything, they taught us to question, to rip everything to pieces, never take anything at face value; in the ruins of this, you’ll find your own voice, your own style.

Are there writers you admire, or tried to emulate?

I’m not a big comic reader, so there aren’t any comic writers that have influenced me in a major way, but I’ve borrowed a lot of ideas and inspirations from the Beat writers and poets (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs), George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, Brit poets like Roger McGough, the Molesworth books, and MAD Magazine.

Does the writing lead the graphic, or vice versa, or does it go along jointly?

In the Worthing era, when I was working exclusively with Jamie, the whole thing would happen at once, usually because we had left everything down to the last minute, and would have to produce a ten page comic strip in under three days; I would be writing the dialogue into the panels as Jamie was drawing them, and the story would evolve as we created it. These days I have to take the more traditional, professional approach, as Brett (Parson, current artist) lives in Michigan USA, which means a full script has to be delivered via email. My comic scripts are constructed much like movie screenplays, with action and dialogue split into numbered panels. Once the artwork has commenced, Brett shares roughs and pencilled pages with me so that we can discuss any changes we want to make.

What do you hope ‘Tank Girl’ does for a contemporary audience/readership?

We try and give a different perspective, a very obscure one, from the increasingly narrow field of popular culture. A lot of readers have found their way to Tank Girl comics through the Hollywood movie (Tank Girl, 1995, MGM/UA). The movie was a big disappointment to me and Jamie, but now we’re nearly a quarter of a century away from it, it has grown its own cult following, and is seen as a separate entity. So when someone watches the movie and decides to excavate where the ideas came from, they’ll hit upon a rich seam of Tank Girl comics and history, stretching back 30 years. This often results in them claiming it as their own. That’s fine with us; we put it all out there – the world, the characters, the stories – so that our readers can inhabit it and have fun with it.

‘The Legend of Tank Girl’  and ‘The Wonderful World of Tank Girl’ are available from all good book sellers and comic shops.

By Hazel Imbert, Arts Correspondent