From Gorillaz to Tank Girl

Rufus-Dayglo-1Comic book artist Rufus Dayglo’s work is a pop culture geek’s dream. I interviewed him ahead of his participation at Malta Comic-Con. Interview was first published on the Sunday Times of Malta’s Culture section.

His body is a testament to his passion for comics. Strips from the Silver Surfer are tattooed on his right arm. On the left are strips from Devil Dinosaur, both characters created by the legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby. On his forearms is Judge Dredd by artist Mick McMahon.

These artists were Rufus Dayglo’s childhood heroes, maybe responsible for sowing the seeds of his future career. So you might say it is only fitting that they found a permanent place close to him.

Today, Dayglo is a comic book artist known best for his work on Tank Girl, Judge Dredd and indie ‘virtual’ band Gorillaz’ videos.

Fans of Tank Girl, however, are particularly indebted to Dayglo for his substantial role in resurrecting the 1980s anti-heroine from the dead in the noughties. It was Dayglo’s work with Gorillaz, the brainchild of Blur singer Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlitt, that paved the way for this return. Hewlitt also happened to be co-creator of Tank Girl together with writer Alan Martin.

“I met Alan when he was selling an unpublished Tank Girl script on Ebay. So I bought one for £5 and proceeded to ask him why he wasn’t writing new strips. He said that he didn’t have an artist; and it was here that it all started going downhill, I suppose,” he says with a smile.

Dayglo had followed Tank Girl’s adventures, which were set in a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland where the main character lived a sex, drugs and punk rock life in an army tank pretty much since the character’s inception.

Of course, since those days Tank Girl has changed considerably. In Dayglo’s words “she changes from issue to issue, she’s mercurial… and this has helped the character adapt and survive as no one group can lay claim to her”.

This has also helped give the series a diverse fanbase, unlike a lot of comics that seem to attract “only the traditional fanboy crowd” and this is something that Dayglo is particularly proud of.

Tank Girl has been drawn by various artists. It can’t be easy for each individual artist to maintain the titular character’s essential identity while still injecting his own style into the work.

Dayglo believes that the priority for each artist is “foremost, to tell the story, for it to be fun for the reader and to have a sense of love to it”. He explains that he approaches Tank Girl as an established character.

“When I first took it over, I wanted it to feel like a continuation. I hate reboots where the character feels nothing like the character that was previously so well-loved. Change is good, but sometimes in comics change is an excuse for not having faith in the original character or story,” he says.

Tank Girl, of course, was born to a disillusioned, Thatcher-disappointed audience back in the late 1980s. Does today’s character reflect the issues of current living and, equally importantly, what is she angry about nowadays?

“I think Tankie has found a new audience. A young audience that is similar to the kids in 1980s, growing up in a world where they have little say in what was going on around them. She is still a tough talking gal who gets things done.”

Tank Girl is the Ramones, all bubblegum and rest and recuperation stupidity. Judge Dredd is The Clash, all earnest politics, and posing

With a smile Dayglo adds that nowadays the character tends to get very angry at “the price of Kitkats, people wearing crocs, white guys with dreadlocks and that the packet of sea monkeys she ordered off the back of a comic book can’t actually sing or wear little crowns”.

Sounds quite like your average geeky teenager on a bad day, in fact. Besides Tank Girl, Dayglo is also known for drawing a number of the Judge Dredd comics, which are set in a brutal police state where judges are also juries and executioners – in the literal sense of the words.

Both Tank Girl and Judge Dredd contain dark elements, the former set within a post-apocalyptic scenario and the latter featuring an absurdist dystopian society.

How does this all relate to current real life issues? Incidents like the recent riots in Ferguson, a small town in Missouri, the US, where government imposed curfews and deployed military police following protests against a police shooting – spring to mind. Does Dayglo view the characters as a possible indictment of a post-9/11 society?

“I don’t really find Tankie very dystopian. Well, maybe at an initial glance it does all happen in a Mad Max-like environment, but then again the storyline is fun, silly and warm, revolving around a group of mates. However, I think we purposefully steered clear of serious world events, so that the comic would not be dated.”

This is different from Judge Dredd, which tackles political issues head-on.

“John Wagner, who is the creator and writer of Judge Dredd, has weaved sci fi, real-life politics and moral dilemmas into a wonderful world of suppression, oppression and paranoia. The themes are dark and yet it still can be very funny. This helps add light to all the darkness. John writes great satire and political commentary. He has the ability to make you laugh and cry at the tragedies in this world,” Dayglo says.

So how does Dayglo place the two characters in terms of political positioning?

“I think the best parallel I can find is in punk rock. Tank Girl is the Ramones, all bubblegum and rest and recuperation stupidity. Judge Dredd is The Clash, all earnest politics, and posing,” he says, with no hint of an apologiy to The Clash fans.

Does this mean he is a firm believer in the power of comics to make a political statement and shape public opinion?

“I think any medium that gets people thinking and engaged can make a difference. Look at all the people who have adopted the ‘V’ mask from V for Vendetta, for public protesting. David Lloyd’s design has become the face of public unrest and political change, internationally. Not bad for a little black and white comic, right?

In fact, a lot of Dayglo’s work, including his input on the Gorillaz video , happens to revolve around storylines that can almost be viewed as anti-establishment.

“My view of the world is decidedly punk. I believe that it is important to question authority, celebrity and institutions. We owe nothing to these. People should have more control over their lives. I try and do this myself by making art and telling stories,” he says.

Right now, Dayglo is also working on a new project, Solid Death Mask, which will be distributed as a free online comic. He explains that the comig has been in gestation for a while, but that it should be up and running by next year.

The story revolves around sisters (who are at war with each other) and their mother, who just happens to be the goddess of death and who has gone missing. The sisters attempt to put the world to rights.

“I decided to launch it free online, mainly because I thought it would mean I can do what I like and release it in little bursts. Then, I can collect it as a book later. I’m approaching it as a punk project; there’s no funding and it’s just myself and my friend Sofir, who has pitched in with some story ideas.”

The artist is also working on a new series for DC’s Vertigo, which is expected to debut next year, besides another series for 2000AD that will bring back some well-loved characters.

In the meantime, he looks forward to his first time at Malta Comic-Con, specifically because as a history nerd he already has plans for exploring the island and working on some drawings based on his discoveries.

Does this open the door a crack to a future Tank Girl absconding from Australia in favour of some adventures based around the temples of Malta? Who knows?