Tank Girl: The Odyssey
by Peter Milligan, Jamie Hewlett
(Manga, 1995; Titan, 2003)

At first glance, Tank Girl -- the hard-drinking, short-sighted, all-around hedonistic punk heroine from Down Under -- seems an unlikely replacement for Homer's sober, wise Ulysses. Writer Peter Milligan and artist Jamie Hewlett seem doomed to create a crass oversimplification of one of the great works of Western literature, enlivened more by swearing than new inspiration. Reversing the gender roles and pitting Tank Girl's partner Booga against swarming producers instead of eager suitors hardly raises the bar. A casual browser would be forgiven for expecting Tank Girl: The Odyssey to be a swarming mass of violence, hasty mythological riffs and gross jokes about bodily functions.

Especially since they'd be right. This odyssey is every bit as tawdry as the haughtiest critic would expect. That doesn't mean it's not good.

It's not always a successful satire. Tank Girl has a bit too much personality to fit well into Ulysses' mold, and the attempts of the story to jam her and her crew into appropriate situations sometimes feels a bit stiff. Milligan's obviously read his source material; references to both Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses come thick and fast, and vary from simple puns to rather clever updates. The references would seem even more clever if they weren't so often pointed out, over-explained and repeated with the desperate good cheer of a bombing comedian. Milligan may be protecting himself from the groans that will surely accompany some of the more blatant in jokes, but this constant showboating hammers some very nice jokes flat and, worse, slows the story.

When The Odyssey trusts its readers, it's a rattling fast ride. Tank Girl and crew skip across the high points of Homer's epic in 104 pages, without the interference of any gods and only the specter of Tank Girl's mum to drive them into new and distressing situations. The hedonistic, manic nature of Tank Girl and her crew serves to thoroughly subvert the solemn tone of the Odyssey, while keeping most of the bloodiest and most dire situations. Hewlett's style aids the contrast. His character designs are round and cartoonish, sometimes even childish, and the colors are bright and cheerful. But the same loving detail that follows Tank Girl's bouncy rocketship headband glories in the gristle and tendon of a disembodied arm or the effluvia of gluttony.

The theoretical heroes seem aware of the leeway granted to them by this soft-edged portrayal, wallowing in callous violence and brash insensitivity, then excusing it with a babyish grin or a blank Orphan Annie stare. The specter of death loses some of its effect after the introduction of TG's additional crew, who may as well have cannon fodder tattooed on their foreheads. The various monsters and gods of the original tale are here almost all replaced by standard horrors of the movie industry bloated producers, mindless groupies and horrible Goth bands portrayed by an artist who knows nothing about Goth culture.

More perceptive critics might note that this unabashed mutilation of Homer's work actually serves to highlight its most important and enduring features. The updated monsters make even clearer the spiritual threats of Circe's deceit, the sunny brightness of the blood reinforces the primal horror of cannibalistic taboos. Or you can join me in giggling over the demise of evil Calypso singers. It's a great read, either way.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 October 2004

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