Peter Milligan
Tank Girl: The Odyssey
Medium: comic
Year: 1995
Keywords: Tank Girl, boobs
Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Jamie Hewlett
Format: 102 pages
Website category: Comics
Review date: 13 November 2014
I love Tank Girl, but this bored me. Very disappointed.
You all know Tank Girl, obviously. Just in case any of you are freaks, though, I might as well run through the background. Tank Girl was originally a vulgar, violent, anarchic comic strip character in Deadline magazine, written by Alan Martin and drawn by Jamie Hewlett. She shags a mutant kangaroo, kills people for laughs and is mostly interested in alcohol and extremely bad behaviour. She also gets naked a lot and her original character design was meant as a "fuck you" to how women are portrayed in comics, although she's got prettier over the years since then. Her stories generally ignore continuity, taste and the laws of physics.
Anyway, Tank Girl became a movie with Lori Petty in 1995, which isn't actually that bad by dumb action movie standards but is still pretty horrible if you're expecting anything resembling Hewlett and Martin's Tank Girl. They hated it. The movie flopped, Martin quit in disgust and the fallout killed Deadline magazine.
However Vertigo Comics had a deal to publish three Tank Girl tie-in mini-series, although they never got around to the third one. The first was Tank Girl: The Odyssey (Milligan/Hewlitt) and the second was Tank Girl: Apocalypse (Grant/Bond/Pritchett). Twenty years later, I've finally got around to reading one of them.
The disappointing thing is that I like Peter Milligan. If you ever get a chance to read his 2000AD work, check out Bad Company or (a particular favourite of mine) a self-contained little piece called Freaks. Here, though, he's decided to do a Tank Girl version of Homer's Odyssey, with a side order of James Joyce's version (Ulysses).
This is admirably bonkers, but it doesn't work. It took me a good while to decide why, though.
It's steeped in Tank Girl-ness, you see. There's obscenity, violence, mutilation, cannibalism and lots more good stuff. In the Deadline strips, this was hilarious. Here, alas, it's not funny, yet it's not immediately clear what the difference is. My suspicion is that it's the fault of the (borrowed) storyline, which is too serious to be a total anarchic pisstake but also too much of a pisstake to drive the plot and the comedy. Take Tank Girl's mission to rescue her kangaroo boyfriend Booga, for instance. Why's she doing that? Answer: because of Homer. Booga is Penelope, Tele Make Us is Telemachus and Tony the Blazer in Antonius. However in practice it's a bit of a limp noodle. It's not taken seriously enough to mean anything dramatically, but it's not flippant enough to be funny or subversive. It's just there. It gets mentioned from time to time. That's it, really.
This mini-series is 100 pages of stuff that just happens. Disgusting or outrageous things regularly take place, but Tank Girl doesn't really care and we don't either. The plot has a quest structure (d'oh), which means it's just a string of episodes. Mind you, I did quite like the ever-dwindling number of Tank Girl's allies, as one by one main characters get killed.
Sometimes it's funny. The end of episode one is a laugh, for instance, as are the Hollywood producers' war cries. Milligan's eccentric tone can also be diverting, dropping nuggets of refinement and sensitivity into what's otherwise a raging torrent of Neanderthal filth. It's sort of existential. He also enjoys lapses from naturalism, e.g. the strangely gazelle-like creature known to men as Young Jose. The bit I admire the most, though, is at the end, where the narrator actually tells us about the Odyssey metaphor and goes far enough to start saying which Milligan characters here are based on which originals in Joyce/Homer. It's such an unexpected, anti-naturalistic thing to do that it becomes cool.
The work has a significant theme that's nothing to do with Homer, though, i.e. Hollywood. It's very aware of the Lori Petty movie, although it doesn't quite reach the point of slagging it off. (The nearest it gets is "everyone hates her lousy movie anyhow", but that's from a film producer.) Nonetheless Hollywood and show business in general are being portrayed as leeches, philistines and monsters (e.g. the Sirens), with the terrible fate in store for Booga being a producer with a movie deal. This is among the liveliest elements of the mini-series, actually.
Plus, of course, there's the fact that Peter Milligan was hired to write a tie-in comic for a Hollywood action movie and has turned in an adaptation of Homer and James Joyce.
What I admire unreservedly, though, is Hewlett's artwork. It's grotesque cartoonishness, pushing caricature into realms of horror-comedy. I'm in awe. Look at those Sirens! Look at Cyclops! It would have looked better in black-and-white, though. Hmmm. Wildly better, actually, now I come to think of it. There's nothing imaginative or creative in that flat, unsympathetic colouring.
I wouldn't call this mini-series a write-off. A few of its jokes work. I also admire its crazed ambition and it's undeniably inventive. I like its afterlife and its take on Tank Girl's family relationships. "Just then the room starts dancing and I have all those familiar long-lost feelings of abandonment, bruising, hunger and mental cruelty. Hello, mum." At the end of the day, though, I think Peter Milligan failed to work out how to use Tank Girl, ironically as did the 1995 film. It's just that Milligan fails in a different way, more sympathetic to the original comics. This is a dense, rich mini-series, full of things to uncover, admire and enjoy on rereading, but unfortunately I found my first time through a bit of a slog.