Jamie Hewlett was born in 1968 and from an early age he enjoyed and revealed a real talent for drawing. Drawing was a way for Hewlett to relax and avoid the stress and anxiety of social interaction. He said in an interview in 2008 that . These are sentiments to which I readily relate from a personal perspective, having a diagnosed social anxiety disorder, and drawing has a similar therapeutic element for me.
Hewlett came up with the idea at art college for what was to become his first major commercial success, drawing a comic strip entitled Tank Girl for a new art and music publication, Deadline.
The character, Tank Girl, is a post-apocalyptic heroine who has a series of adventures with Booga, a mutant kangaroo who is also her boyfriend. Tank Girl is anarchic and psychedelic and very quickly it gave cult status to Hewlett in the comic book world.In the rest of this essay, I will summarise the creation, development, successes and failures of the Tank Girl concept and attempt to explore the extent, if any, to which Tank Girl may have had a meaningful influence on modern day popular, artistic and wider culture.
Tank Girl came to life in 1988. The concept was created jointly by Hewlett and Alan Martin, a friend of Hewletts whom he first met when Martin was in a band
called University Smalls. One of the bands songs was called Rocket Girl and Hewlett drew an image inspired by the song that he titled Tank Girl and which first appeared in a punk fanzine that he and Martin had set up. Not long afterwards Tank Girl appeared as a comic strip in the first edition of Deadline, which was a post-punk indie music magazine that included comic strips which were aimed at an adult audience.The character Tank Girl is a chain-smoking teenage girl who shaves her head, wears big boots and carries extremely large guns and other weapons. She
spends her time driving around a post-apocalyptic Australia in a tank, in which she also lives, with her mutant kangaroo boyfriend, undertaking a series of missions for a mysterious organisation until she makes an error and is branded an outlaw on account of her sexual inclinations, alcohol and substance abuse. Tank Girl is feisty, strongc and confident. Hewlett said that she was
The comic strip was an enormous cult success and helped to establish Hewletts style. It was a mixture of counter-culture subject matter with narrative action of superhero comic strips, an assortment of strange, freakish creatures and an overlay of funny, comedic elements. Although it was set in Australia, the comic strip contained British humour, popular cultural references and slang. It was once described as being a combination of these are references to a film, a comic and two television shows that were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s, each containing lots of humour and significant elements of anarchy and general chaos.
In 1995, when Hewlett was still only 23, Tank Girl was turned into a US$40 million Hollywood film starring Lori Petty. However, the film sadly lived up to its name and tanked, being a commercial flop which grossed less than US$10 million at the box office. It was critically savaged, including by one commentator who wrote that: . Hewlett also found the whole experience
unsatisfactory and he felt that everything that could have gone wrong did so. It seems that there were arguments amongst the cast and crew and the direction and organisation was chaotic, to such a degree that some scenes were simply overlooked and not filmed when they should have been. In addition, the films director was American and did not seem entirely to appreciate the characters personality. The British-based humour also did not sit particularly well with the American audience. Hewlett considered that he had lost artistic control of his creation and he disenfranchised himself from Tank Girl for a period of time.
Following the failure of the film, Tank Girl disappeared for a number of years as Hewlett moved on to other projects, notably the virtual band, Gorillaz. The comic strip has, however, been revived recently by Alan Martin and, very occasionally, Jamie Hewlett contributes to its drawing, although it is mostly now drawn by other artists.
I think that there are two principal ways in which Tank Girl can be seen to have influenced and to continue to influence artistic and popular culture. The first of these is primarily artistic in nature. In my opinion, Tank Girl was ahead of its time, one of the first female, edgy lead characters to appear in the popular media, she became a feminist icon. Without the creation of Tank Girl it could be argued that subsequent female heroic characters such as Lara Croft might never have appeared on our film screens and in our computer games.
Tank Girl was one of the first embodiments of girl power, a self-reliant and assertive individual, shades of which can be seen in many of the film and the musical creations that came about during the 1990s and still surround us today. Tank Girl has contributed to feminist characters no longer being novelties and females no longer just being portrayed as sidekicks or beautiful, tragic heroines in the popular media that we consume. It could, though, be contended that Tank Girl was still a male creation, fashioned for male gaze, and should not be regarded as a completely feminist icon. There are elements of truth to such an argument but, in my view, it cannot be doubted that Tank Girl pushed the boundaries of the time and has contributed to the gradual decline of gender stereotypes in the popular artistic world, a process that thankfully is continuing and gaining momentum today as the role of the media in accelerating women empowerment is increasingly recognised.The second main area of influence is a social and political one linked to the above. Tank Girl, with her feminist counter-culture elements and her sexual freedom,
became popular with the politicised side of punk and indie culture in the 1990s and was adopted as a symbol by the British lesbian and gay movement. In particular, images of Tank Girl appeared on posters and t-shirts carried and worn during the protest marches that took place against Margaret Thatchers Clause 28 (of the United Kingdoms Local Government Act) which provided that homosexuality should not be intentionally promoted, or material published with the intention of promoting homosexuality, by local authorities, a law that was eventually repealed in 2003.
In more recent times, I think that traces of the liberated, confident and powerful character of Tank Girl, and her unwillingness to submit to pressure or coercion by anyone, can be identified in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, a movement which has high profile support from American female icons of the film industry (including Angeline Jolie who played Lara Croft in a 2001 film) and many others. When I started my research for this essay, I knew that I liked the style of Hewletts drawings but I was uncertain whether or not he could really be regarded as an artist who might be viewed as having made a meaningful cultural contribution.. Now, having had the opportunity to study his works from the Tank Girl era in a little more detail (as well as reviewing the rest of his body of work to
date, from the Gorillaz project with Damon Albarn through to his more recent fine art exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London), I think that I have come to have a better appreciation of the artistic skills and the exciting and unusual imagination that Jamie Hewlett possesses.
Through his production of quality comic book strips and characters of the likes of Tank Girl, I think that it is entirely sustainable to contend that Hewletts contribution to artistic and popular culture has been significant, and that the legacy of the contribution to that culture will be a lasting one. Jamie Hewletts ideas have driven illustration and animation forward in the digital age. He was ahead of his time and, with the rapid technological developments in the realm of virtual reality, and, increasingly, the blurring of the lines between the digital and physical worlds, it will be interesting to see where his projects take characters and audiences in the future. Hewletts Tank Girl drawings were the springboard for his hugely successful career and they remain part of the cultural zeitgeist; I believe that their influence has extended beyond the artistic realm and, particularly, into matters of sexual politics and human social behaviour.