Tank Girl in Worthing

Originally written for the Worthing Community website – this comprehensive Tank Girl biog was the site’s most popular page, so when that site was lost I moved it to my old blog, I Hate Dan Thompson, where it’s had 37,695 views. Woo.

“It’s just a matter of trawling our brains for good ideas” Jamie Hewlett

In 1988, artists Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin created Tank Girl for Issue One of Deadline Magazine. The pair, living in a Worthing bedsit, could have had little idea of where she would take them. While studying at Northbrook College of Art and Design, Hewlett, Martin and fellow student Philip Bond, had created a fanzine called Atomtan. Deadline, created by Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins, was a more accomplished forum for these new talents. Even amongst strips like Wired World, the great Love And Rockets and Hewlett and Martin’s own Fireball XL5, Tank Girl, with its post-feminist and post-apocalyptic vision of a not-too-distant future, stood out.

Seminal style magazine The Face referred to her as “Fab!” while the NME predicated “a rise to world domination”. The anarchic comic strips were full of cut-and-paste imagery, and used a visual equivalent of the sampling that was becoming so popular in a music scene where guitar bands like Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus Jones and Carter USM were discovering new technology.

It was easy, in the politicised late-’80s and early ’90s, to identify with Tank Girl’s aggressive attitude, upfront humour and sexuality. Hewlett and Martin said “She was Thelma and Louise before the fact; she was Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood; Action Man designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.” She was an obvious icon, and Tank Girl t-shirts began to spring up- including one for the Clause 28 March, against Thatcher’s homophobic legislation. In 1991, Deadline was approached by Wrangler, who, keen to build an advertising campaign for their jeans that was individual and anarchic, used Tank Girl in a series of press ads in 1991. Hewlett and Martin subverted the character at every turn. She flirted with a hippy revival and new age fashion before it was fashionable, dabbled in post-modernism, and hung out with riot girrrls and the beat generation. Tank Girl could be all things to all people and Hewlett and Martin revelled in their artistic freedom.

More surprisingly, readers loved this freedom too. Far from wanting Tank Girl to be tied down to shooting, shouting and spitting, they wanted to see what Hewlett and Martin could dream up next.

Tank Girl wasn’t just a British phenomena, though. Penguin, the largest publisher in Britain, had bought the rights to collect the Tank Girl strips as a book (they all appeared first in Deadline), and offers for foreign rights were plentiful. Before long, Tank Girl had been published in Spain, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan; several publishers were fighting for the US license. Eventually, Dark Horse Comics acquired the US rights to publish Tank Girl and a US version of Deadline. Two successful series of Tank Girl’s adventures and two collections created a stir in the US, and before long there was interest in a film version.

Established rock stars including Adam Ant, Billy Bragg, The Ramones and New Order loved her and were keen to be involved in the magazine. In the early ’90s, bands like Blur, The Senseless Things, Carter USM, Curve and Teenage Fanclub all appeared in Deadline. In true post-modern style, comic strip and reality blurred. Many of the bands appeared in the strips and Hewlett’s artwork appeared on their record sleeves. Sarah Stockbridge, a catwalk model and favourite of punk designer Vivienne Westwood’s, brought Tank Girl to life in a series of photos that went on to be used in Elle, Time Out, Select and The Face. Vogue, too, featured Tank Girl. They cited her as a crucial influence on “Bad Girl Fashion” which featured shaven heads, body piercing and tattoos.

Rachel Talalay, producer of Hairspray and Cry Baby for cult director John Waters, and herself director of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, called up Deadline’s Tom Astor. Talalay had been sent the Tank Girl book for Christmas and was immediately smitten. With an unswerving belief in the project, she steered the Tank Girl movie into pre-production with MGM in January 1994.

Hewlett, although still living in Worthing with girlfriend and one-time Elastica member Jane Olliver, was spending time with fellow Deadline artist Glynn Dillon, hanging out with bands in Camden’s Good Mixer pub and helping formulate a scene that would become Britpop. Hewlett and Dillon brought their new friends to Worthing, and to seafront venue The Wine Lodge. The pub was described by press as ” Camden on Sea.” Elastica, Menswear and Blur could be seen listening to DJs like Worthy Dan, who went on to work at legendary London club Blow Up, whose website http://www.blowup.co.uk charts their long-running success. After the Wine Lodge, the party carried on at The Factory, a nightclub whose design- by Hewlett, and friends including fellow artist Philip Bond- echoed the Tank Girl strip. Bold red and green stripes, a wall of blown-up panels from Tank Girl set against ’70s wallpaper, a Ford Escort hung from the ceiling and toilets pasted with pages from old annuals were a suitable backdrop for a mix of alternative sounds. [Hewlett’s nightclub designs were eventually lost when I redesigned the club. DT]

Meanwhile, the Tank Girl film was ready for the cinemas. Disappointingly, the final film was a result of much fighting, some agreement, and too much compromise. Although it preserves the anarchic and nonsensical charm of the Tank Girl strips, reeling from Busby Berkley to Mad Max and back through Tex Avery, it mystified critics and public alike. It sacrificed the danger and raw vitality of the original, and was a box office flop. Deadline, after reputedly taking huge gambles on their future with Tank Girl merchandising, folded.

A new Tank Girl comic was short-lived. Meanwhile, Hewlett and Olliver opened a vintage clothes shop in Worthing. Called 49, it, too, folded after a short life. It looked like Hewlett and Martin’s fifteen minutes of fame was over. Hewlett moved to London. After splitting with girlfriend Olliver, he moved into a flat with Blur’s Damon Albarn. He had also just split from his long-term girlfriend, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann.

Hewlett worked on a number of advertising campaigns. His designs also appeared on the set of children’s TV programme SM:TV, presented by ex-pop stars and Byker Grove actors Ant and Dec.

Rumours about how Albarn and Hewlett spent their time were rife, but no-one predicted the end result of their relationship – Gorillaz. The band are four comic characters who could easily have appeared in a Tank Girl strip. Using digital technology, Hewlett has animated his characters, giving a new twist to his distinctive visual style. Interestingly the band’s live line-up includes The Senseless Thing’s drummer Cass. The website, http://www.gorillaz.com is a testament to Hewlett’s creativity. And with Gorillaz winning MTV Music Awards including Best Dance Track and Best Song, Hewlett has taken the earlier crossover of comics and real life to new extremes.

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Getting down in the hole

I spend a lot of time thinking about regeneration. It’s a creative process, turning failing towns into interesting places, and I like creative processes. So like every other one, whether it’s drawing or performing poetry or presenting to a film camera, I want to understand how the thing works. What are the right tools, where do you make the first mark, how do you finish the thing?

My hometown has been my nursery slope. Worthing’s been suffering for years, a gradual loss of any sense of place or purpose, and as I’m always plugged in to grassroots community activity, I’ve been watching from the front line. I’ve got my hands dirty, time and again. Literally, cleaning drains backstage at the local theatre, stripping the shabby wreck of a cinema, carving a new cinema out of an old scenery workshop, clearing shops of debris and rubble to make community spaces.

About fifteen years, the council stopped seeing Worthing as a tourist destination and said the town was a business centre. There was no action to back this up, no new business parks or office buildings. Just words on the boards at the town’s gateway.

So since then, it’s been neither one nor the other. The folly of that lack of focus is demonstrated by the fact that while the recession has wiped out a few large employers locally, like Norwich Union and Lloyds TSB, there’s been no investment in tourism and the town can’t capitalise on the rising number of stay-in-Britain tourists.

But Worthing hasn’t reached rock bottom yet. We have a masterplan, and an active regeneration team who are taking exactly the right approach, doing what they can and supporting people as they start small, sustainable initiatives; pushing for better quality and long-term thinking.

That team has helped the planning department to drive up the quality of new developments developments, with decently designed social housing replacing old pubs. There’s a new village of retirement flats in the town centre where there was once a dated art college. On the seafront, the site of the burnt-out Warnes hotel has become a swish and stylish Art Deco block of flats. The ever failing Guildbourne Centre had a minor revamp a few years ago, and cosmetically looks much better – although it still has a completely empty first floor. The historic Dome Cinema is safely restored, even if the Trust managing it aren’t thinking comprehensively about the spaces they have and consequently the building’s massively underused. Along the seafront there’s a cool beachside cafe next to half a dozen art studios carved out of old beach chalets. Next door, there’s a new and truly landmark swimming pool planned, to replace the crumbling concrete Aquarena.

The bigger projects, like the massive, empty Teville Gate quarter, and building new colleges to replace antique huts and 60s architecture, haven’t even made it to the starting line.

But all of this all fits the narrative I’ve understood for regeneration. When I was involved in a huge masterplanning effort in the town, one of the planners said Worthing just needed ‘urban acupuncture’ – small pressure at key points to revive the town. I thought that made sense, and that the projects I’d been involved in – that historic cinema, the beachside cafe and studios, a crumbling old theatre – would be the pin pricks the town needed.

After working on projects in empty shops and seeing towns across the country this year, I’m rethinking that idea though. I’d always thought that the caterpillar, wrapped up in its cocoon, transforms into a beautiful butterfly. It doesn’t. It dies in there, rots away, and something new and beautiful is made from the rotted flesh. There are distinct stages, not a constant process.

I don’t think we can start regeneration while the town’s heading down, and turn it around that way. I don’t think the caterpillar transforms into the butterfly. I thought it did, we could, but I think maybe we need to reach the absolute bottom, and stop, and contemplate where we are.

There’s a story Leo tells in The West Wing. A man falls in a hole. A doctor and a priest can’t help him – they won’t get in the hole. But the man’s friend come along and jumps in the hole too.

“Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

I’m thinking back to the Brighton I knew as a child; a run-down, shabby seaside town with no place or purpose. It had to sink really low; that pushed property prices down, allowed people to think creatively about the spaces available and how to use them, and allowed a meteoric rise from failing city to special place.

And looking at Margate, where an absolute decimation of the town centre has led to new, fresh thinking and focused action. Margate, with its magnificent old town, will thrive in the next few years.

A bushfire clears the ground for new growth. Plants have adapted, with extra shoots that push up quickly after a fire and seeds that need the heat to germinate. The Eucalyptus even encourages fire, with oil-filled leaves, so that it can start new growth and spread.

I suspect that the people that usually start a town’s renaissance, the artists and writers, the entrepreneurs and visionaries, are the same. They need the clear ground and the heat. They need to get down in the hole.

In the past few years, Worthing has started to fill with refugees from the property wars in Brighton and London. I suspect that this is a false dawn; it looks like a new, comfortable, middle class rebirth but really these people, on the whole, want to dress Worthing up as Brighton’s younger brother or make a London-lite, with Starbucks and Gap. I don’t think that will ever work. I don’t think people living in the town are feeling a shift, a change of culture. Trying to imitate Brighton just makes it clearer we’re thirty years behind them, in terms of regeneration.

I want to see Worthing become a better Worthing, not an imitation of somewhere else. Give me a burnt space, clear ground, a fresh place to start from. Jump down in this hole with me, will you?

Carlisle, city of two halves

The third stop on the Empty Shops Network tour (the second, Shoreham, was so manic it goes unblogged) is Carlisle.

It’s a bewildering, beautiful and bewitching city. I’m staying in a moderately grotty guesthouse a few minutes outside the city centre. The straight route here is down Botchergate (‘bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him’).

Botchergate is the main road into the town, but it’s shabby and semi-derelict at the bottom end, and at the top end is a string of pubs and rough alehouses. The drunkenness on a Friday and Saturday night is so bad that they actually close the road to traffic, to stop people falling under passing cars. Locals are obsessed with how bad the street is, and it’s certainly in need of some love and attention, especially as it’s the gateway to the city.

The other side of the city is where I spent today, starting in the gentle, intimate cathedral. It’s a magnificently shambolic building; some of the arches are wonky, and in one place a pillar sunk during building and the line of detail above is interrupted. The local stone changes colour from a white to a deep red, sometimes in one block, giving the building an even more haphazard feel, like patchwork made from favourite scraps. The ceiling holds the whole together; a dramatic blue with gold stars, best viewed by laying on your back on the stone floor and relaxing for five minutes. Which amuses local schoolchildren no end.

Tullie House Museum is equally eccentric, with Stanley Spencer paintings hung in stairwells and corridors where it’s almost impossible to see them and appreciate their incredible beauty. There’s a Peter Blake tucked away in a stairwell amongst some far less impressive portraits, as if they didn’t quite know where to hang it. And the Roman galleries, with a mock up of Hadrian’s Wall, butt up against a gallery about railway history which includes replica First and Third Class carriages with a view across to the castle.

The Cathedral and Tullie House are in a beautiful quarter, all rambling cobbled streets and corners with arches and turrets like a Harry Potter film set. It’s also home to the perfect Foxes cafe lounge, a quirky and eccentric eaterie with great staff, art on the walls, and comfy seats. The ideal way to end a day exploring.

It’s been difficult to get to grips with Carlisle this week, with the clash between rough drinking and ancient history and contemporary art making it hard to understand. But it’s a great city once you explore and just accept the accidental collisions, chance encounters and culture clashes.

Boris The Spider

Look he’s crawling up the wall; big, mechanical and very tall. Liverpool has unveiled the centrepiece of the Capital of Culture celebrations – a new performance from the team behind The Sultan’s Elephant.

Demolition work on an office block has disturbed a giant spider, living in a coccoon inside the building. A crack team of (rather Edwardian-looking) scientists have captured the giant and are moving it to a secure location; in three days they plan to wake the beast, before it is able to lay eggs.

Watch this space as the story unfolds.

And let’s not worry about the fact that a major city like Liverpool can cope with a spider the size of a house, while West Sussex County Council can’t cope with some much smaller spiders in Arundel.