Martin And Mahfood’s ‘Everybody Loves Tank Girl': Beautiful Art, Narrative Dissonance
Everybody Loves Tank Girl is the new Tank Girl book collecting the recent issues drawn by Jim Mahfood and written by Tank Girl co-creator Alan C. Martin. Before getting into things too thoroughly, let's briefly unpack the term "the new Tank Girl," because that's quickly becoming not just a distinction referring to the passage of time, but a term that now encompasses some wholesale shifts in what the character means and how she's been used by Martin the last 10 to 20 years. When first we met Tank Girl back in the 80s--she was a lunatic proto riot grrl Bugs Bunny whose Jamie Hewlett-driven grotesqueness allowed her to challenge many the stereotype of what women could be in comics. Those first Hewlett-Martin books are madcap unhinged sneering vital gutter poetry that felt at any moment like they could spring out in any direction--so powerful was this creation that Hollywood seized on the character for a weird campy version only vaguely related to its source material.
After, that Hewlett moved on to all pastures pop star, and Martin was left to handle the stewardship of the character through the 90s to now. Martin replaced Hewlett with Ashley Wood, who begat Rufus Dayglo, who -- with a brief foray into Mick McMahon -- begat Jim Mahfood. In some ways, the way we see the "new Tank Girl" is in large part defined by that Ashley Wood/Rufus Dayglo Tank Girl book The Gifting -- where a lot of the paths currently being tread by Martin first begin to be created. With The Gifting we see a shift of Tank Girl from snarling ugly gutter punk to fashionable suicide girl--as at home in prada as she was with her head under a trash can. She began to shift from somewhat scary and weird to beautiful and a little loony. And in some ways we see this begin to neuter some of the directions Martin can believably take as a writer of the character.
Some of her dangerousness as a character is culturally abrogated by her depiction as a pinup. Alongside this we also begin to see a creeping conservatism to Tank Girl's ethos. She's still violent. She still drinks a lot. But her adventures start to become less and less transgressive. They are following set formulas at this point. Those old Hewlett-Martin comics sprayed off in all directions simultaneously -- and weren't afraid to do something foolishly poetic and then immediately take the piss out of it. There's something much more sedentary about this version of Tank Girl, and some of that is down to the artists that Martin is choosing to work with on the book. Hewlett's line was jittery and dangerous. The insane amount of weird sh*t he could throw on the page was an assault on your senses -- and it was punk as all hell. Ashley Wood and Jim Mahfood are two of my favorite artists -- but their lines are more erotic and sensual even if they do have a particular kind of assault. But the dissonance they create between their chunky fat marker line and that thinner line that sort of creates the tension which drives the appeal of their work comes at the sacrifice of the kind of background complexity that someone like Hewlett brought to the table. Over the years the world around Tank Girl has kind of fallen away -- and these comics have become more and more about looking at Tank Girl -- and because of the strengths of Wood and Mahfood at drawing beautiful women, what you're seeing as a reader isn't even that conducive to the kind of wild insanity of Martin's strengths.
What is worse, is that these changes in artistic direction have been coupled with a more conservative and toothless approach by Martin himself. Where before you could always find some beautiful moments of psychedelic poetry that shot up into the world, now it's kind of this sanitized hatred of Justin Bieber shooting down into the world. At some point, this comic went from fighting the man, to yelling at kids to get get off its lawn.
This disconnect drives the critical flaw in Everybody Loves Tank Girl, which is that the book seems meant on Mahfood's end to function around his and Martin's shared love of music -- and there's a sense that, as with Mahfood's excellent Kick Drum Comix, that this is meant to be kind of a mixtape of bobs and bits. But where Mahfood is making a mixtape, Martin is more editing a magazine. In a mixtape, the flow from track to track needs to be seamless and there needs to be a coherent atmosphere binding it all together, so everything flows. You sort of consider this track here or that track there, and go from there. It works great for Mahfood's style, and would have been the best way to sew all of these disparate shorts together. However, Martin has instead approached it like a magazine, and so like a magazine it becomes a book of disconnected articles that don't so much flow together as appear next to each other. And what's worse, as in a magazine, you get sort of the longer feature articles that are broken up across an issue, so the longest comic in here is this multi-part story about Tank Girl babysitting that even when you are reading the whole book in one sitting you have to go back and remind yourself what the hell is going on. They might as well have put a "continued on page yada yada yada" in the bottom corner of the comic -- it would have cleaned things up a bit. This lack of narrative cohesiveness completely cuts Mahfood's legs out from underneath him -- and underscores a visual dissonance and variance that could have just as easily been this book's strength. Again, if you want to see how this kind of thing works at it's best, find some copies of Mahfood's Kick Drum Comix books, because they are organized in a way that allows for the kind of wild styles that Martin and Mahfood are clearly wanting to utilize, but fail at doing. This is a comic that wants to get funky and play sweet music to you. But because of how it's structured, it's about as musical as Teen Vogue.
The strongest parts in Everybody Loves Tank Girl are the single page poem comics. In these -- which have always been a feature in Tank Girl comics, to varying degrees of awesome -- there's no longer the wrestling for a narrative coherence that Martin clearly doesn't have a ton of interest in maintaining or organizing, and we just get Martin writing pretty over stunning Mahfood images. And though even here the writing isn't nearly as powerful and gut punching as past Martin efforts, it is at least something to work with as a reader. If anything Martin should have gone further in this direction. His stories aren't really insane winding adventures with multiple punchlines anyway. They are all kind of these one page comics wearing the face of trying to tell a story. I wonder -- if Martin zoned in on these kind of comics, and then just allowed himself to organically riff off of them, if that wouldn't solve some problems.
All of this is a shame, because Jim Mahfood draws the ever loving crap out of this book. This is the best looking comic work of Mahfood's career and it's not even really close. There are some truly stunning pages here. The highlight is the comic where Tank Girl and Booga (her Kangaroo boyfriend) are skydiving with swords while tripping on LSD. Mahfood's coloring in this section really makes his art explode off the page in a way that feels like a new progression for his work. While Kick Drum Comix was also well colored-- it trafficked in bright blues and yellows and pinks -- here Mahfood has married that to the sludge that weighed down his art in MarijuanaMan, so he has earthy colors working as a bass line for his more extreme colors to have some extra pop. It's also a strength that has been evident in his fine art the last 5 to 10 years on colored paper. So it's wonderful to see those principles here. We even get crazy gradients in the background of these beautiful flats. The effect is stunning. I would love to see more of his principles from his sketchbooks and fine art pieces brought into his comics. Particularly his use of colored inks in his work. It would be interesting to see his line take even more of a presence in these colored pages than they presently do. Because the absolute show in any Mahfood work is that chunky funky markerish line playing all over the place--in some places his line morphs from shape to texture so effortlessly that he's at once doing graffiti Schiele as he is doing vaguely Klimt wild style flourishes with his backgrounds around his characters. And I mean that's kind of the sweet spot that makes Mahfood work. That marriage of comics + fine art + graffitti + music + sex. A Mahfood line is a party you want to be at.
For the longest time I definitely lumped Ashley Wood, Dave Crosland, and Jim Mahfood all together in terms of how they approach comics and art in general, and I think in the 90s that may have been true. But in the last 10 years all three have kind of gone off in separate weird directions. Wood has moved more into mixed media oil paintings whose tension rests on how much of that old style they can carry through to such a "serious" medium. Crosland has kind of moved almost into this more Sam Kieth direction. His work has become more and more about the world it takes place in-- and there's a primacy of his background elements that neither Wood or Mahfood really have found. Mahfood meanwhile has really zoned in on the figure work, and you've seen his work start to jitter into this exciting new space the last few years--which you can see best in the sketchbook included in the back of Everybody Loves Tank Girl. He's scaling back the anatomy contortions slightly while still keeping his chunky line effect, but in a more considered and measured effect. There's a realization here of the primacy of the line itself -- his figures don't so much shed their clothes as they shed his lines creating space and angularity that is intrinsically erotic in function. He could draw an Apple like this and you'd still get a little turned on.
Which of course brings us back to that this IS supposed to be a Tank Girl comic. But you've got an artist whose strength right now is eroticism mixed with a more conservative martin who has written several stories here which are just rehashes of previous Tank Girl stories, but done with less evident passion or interest (see the swearing contest featured here and compare it to the one that Hewlett and Martin did years ago). And I mean, the swearing itself has gotten really dated. This is a pre-Deadwood mindset here -- and it's depressing, especially if you've ever been a fan of Martin's work to this point on the character. You just get the sense that he no longer has much of a connection to Tank Girl anymore. Where once she seemed to exist outside of him as a wild insane muse goddess, now she's become this poorly stapled on mask for Martin himself. In Everybody Loves Tank Girl, Tank Girl is violently and uninhibitedly... safe, which is completely the wrong space for this character to maintain her footing. There are so many crazy controversies going on in the world, and many directly pertaining to women's rights. This is a golden age for satirical comedy, and the best we get from Martin is that that Justin Beiber kid really bugs him.
But that's not really fair to Martin. He can do what he wants with Tank Girl, and holding what he does up against what the character used to be is not only exceptionally nerdy and petty, but doesn't really judge this work on it's own merits. So let's divorce Tank Girl from her history and look at who she is in this book. She is a boring sexualized has-been who gives advice ten years out of style on how to dress, and whose most cogent adventure involves her job as a babysitter for her neighbors (which hooray for this inspirational female comic book character whose main adventures here revolve around babysitting, going on dates with her boyfriend, and slutshaming her best friend -- how progressive! Sex in the City with less agency.) This is directionless and mildly offensive by how by-the-numbers it is. And that Martin is able to slide it by is wholly based upon who the character was, and that's not a comparison that is at all flattering to what this comic has become.
And with that, I'd still recommend the book, and am myself really happy to own it. It is absolutely a must own for Mahfood's art and sketchbook. I'd buy the book twice just for that. The funny thing is that Martin picks a lot of artist's who I absolutely love for these books -- even if they are completely handcuffing what he can do with the character -- so I'll probably always be reading them no matter how poor the writing and structure of the books get. But damn. It would be nice if Alan Martin sort of found what he liked about the character again and ran with it. Each book seems to drive further and further away from having anything to say. And this was the first Tank Girl book I've read that didn't have one single great bit of Martin poetry that I could take with me from the book. It's disappointing. Get your game up, sir. You're in Nas, pre-Stillmatic, territory. Do better.