I was planning to do Villains Part two this week, but my muse (see earlier Storytellers) kept insisting I simply MUST write about girls’ comics instead and I must do it now, so it was the only way I could get some peace! Sorry about that. Villains Part Two will appear next week.
Girls’ comics are tremendously important: they were hugely successful and are fondly remembered today so I really should write down what they were all about. Writing them was a craft and sometimes even an art – usually learnt by trial and error – and I guess I’m concerned (and certainly my muse is) that the somewhat specialised knowledge of how they were produced could be lost. That would be a pity, as I know they could easily be replicated today following the same story principles, which don’t really change over the years.
The four key comics were Bunty, Tammy (which started the comic revolution), Jinty, with its powerful adventure and science fiction stories, and my Misty, which I partly based on 2000AD.
There’s plenty of evidence that they still have a potential readership today. I’ve conducted straw polls with that age group – 8 to 14 – and got very positive results. And Misty and Jinty serials – including my Moonchild and Land of No Tears – have been reprinted recently by Rebellion.
We’re not talking Manga here, but very specific girls’ serials in comics that easily outsold boys’ comics. Tammy, for instance, once had a circulation of 250,000 per week, compared with 2000AD’s 200,000 copies per week.
Some girls’ stories could be rather silly and far-fetched. Once such story was Becky Never Saw the Ball in Tammy– about a blind tennis player. Not by me, alas, although I’m often credited on it, but by Joe Collins. So we used that comedy potential in Read Em and Weep book one Serial Killer where we refer to Una Never Saw the Umpire, about a blind javelin thrower and Paula Never Saw the Pool, about a blind high diver.
Jinty ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT © REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Similarly, we also featured in Read Em and Weep a serial about a girl brought up by wolves: Feral Meryl! But this actually rebounded on us, because our television agent said she’d had an enquiry from a film company who were interested in making Feral Meryl as a straight drama! We were dumbfounded as it was only meant to be a satire and a homage to stories of that era. Here’s an excerpt, so you see what I mean:
‘Okay,’ said Dave reluctantly picking them up. ‘Let’s just review this literary masterpiece.’
The opening caption read: ‘Feral Meryl was a wild girl, brought up by wolves in the wilds of Berkshire. She was rescued by her friend Mandy who was trying to stop her being sent to a Special School.’
The art depicted two realistically drawn girls in school uniform chatting in a bedroom. Or rather Mandy was chatting: Meryl was growling.
Mandy was a typical, wide-eyed heroine but Meryl was a female Mowgli. She looked normal, apart from dishevelled hair and sharp canine teeth. She was on all fours and Mandy was brushing the tangles out of her hair. ‘Soon be done. Just a little more.’
Mandy saw some chewed up possessions. ‘Oh, Meryl. Not my Marc Bolan records. And my best sling-backs.’
Meryl made a throaty, doggy sound.
‘I know. It’s not your fault. You don’t know any better.’
Meryl balanced back on her hind legs and Mandy was pleased. ‘It’s those wolves that made you do it. Now keep balancing on your hind legs, because today is your first day at school and no one must know your secret.’ She threw a biscuit in the air. ‘Here.’
Meryl jumped up and caught the biscuit in her mouth. ‘That’s a good girl.’
Mandy turned and looked appealingly towards the readers. ‘I was so lonely before I met Meryl. I needed a friend and Meryl is so kind and wants so little in return: just two tins of dog food a day. I hate telling lies, but I can’t tell Mum and Dad the truth about Meryl or she’ll be sent to a Special School and I’ll lose her forever.’
Meryl was still standing on two legs, although a little unsteady. Mandy checked her over, adjusting her uniform. ‘You ready, Meryl? Now, when we get to class, remember you mustn’t mark your territory and no more drinking out of the lavatory bowl.’
Meryl made a doggy sound by way of response.
Mandy observed some strands of wool on her uniform. ‘Meryl … what’s that wool doing there? Oh, you didn’t? Please say you didn’t?’
Meryl’s tongue hung out. She panted and leered at Mandy, exposing her wolfish teeth. ‘Oh, Meryl. This is very bad, Meryl. And in the lambing season, too.’
The front doorbell rang. Meryl suddenly became alert, growling, sensing an enemy. ‘Ssssh!’ Mandy went close to the door to overhear who it was.
Down below she could hear a man’s harsh voice. ‘Mrs Jones? I’m from Cider-Acre Farm just down the road. We’ve got a problem with wolves.’ Meryl growled. ‘I traced the spoor to here.’
Mandy heard her mother reply, ‘I’m sure you’re mistaken. There’s only my daughter and her friend upstairs.’
Meryl started scratching at the door and growling loudly.
‘Meryl! No!’ implored Mandy.
Now the farmer was shouting below, ‘Stand back, Mrs Jones! I’ve got strict orders – it’s got to be shot. It could have rabies.’
Mandy heard his heavy footsteps thundering up the stairs.
She looked fearfully at a snarling Meryl. ‘Oh, no! How … how am I going to save Meryl? She’s done a bad thing and deserves to be punished. But there’s lots of lambs and only one Meryl. My special friend.’
She stared towards the window. ‘One chance! The window!’
One of the reasons for Feral Meryl’s appeal in our fictional world was because it’s a classic ‘friend’ story and such stories never age. Particularly when they involve wolves. But alongside such clearly over the top stories, the majority of girls’ serials were powerful, convincing and emotional. Many still have an appeal and a relevance for modern writers and readers. I’ll explore that further in Girls’ Comics Part Two.
First though, here’s a brief overview of the different categories of girls’ stories. Editors would try and use as many of them as possible in every issue, always ensuring they had at least one ‘Cinderella story.’ A comic’s success was invariably built upon it.
Little Miss Nothing by Alan Davidson in Tammy (1971) was hugely popular – equivalent in success at the time to Judge Dredd in 2000AD. It was the first of its kind and it was such a massive hit that it was meticulously studied and analysed by the editorial staff. They identified its vote winning ‘formula’ and then endlessly duplicated it with subsequent remarkably similar serials. I recall there were at least ten ‘begats’ of this ground-breaking story.
The story principle is the same on all of them: the heroine is badly put upon by her cruel stepfamily and obnoxious cousin and forced to do all manner of humiliating tasks because they tell her she’s worthless, she’s ‘Little Miss Nothing’. But she has a talent that keeps her spirits up and is finally recognised by outsiders. To achieve her dream, she usually finds a supportive adult, like a teacher to help her and she is also supported by a close friend. The early Harry Potter books have much in common with these timeless principles.
Bella – the adventures of a working class gymnast – also followed this principle and consequently was the lead story in Tammy for many years with spin-off annuals. I’m delighted to hear Bella has recently been reprinted by Rebellion.
Our fictional editor in Serial Killer, Joy Glass, delivers her opinion on girls’ comics
A similar important principle was the heroine’s desire for a friend. Thus in my Jinty serial, Girl in a Bubble, the protagonist is all alone in a plastic bubble because she has been told she has no immunity to disease. Then one day a girl from the local council estate breaks into the laboratory and eventually frees her from the sinister scientist who has been keeping her in the bubble so she can experiment on her. She’s finally found a friend. I think The Secret Garden was in the back of my mind when I wrote it.
For many readers, finding a friend story was more popular than Cinderella stories, where the heroine’s dream is fulfilled. So I picked up on this in Goodnight John Boy (Read Em and Weep book two). In my fictional world girls’ comic editor Joy Glass commissions The Defiant Chums. This featured a Jewish girl and an Arab girl who are chained together and flee the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The story takes place in an era in Spain where non-Christians – Jews and Arabs – were both subject to torture and summary execution. They have to bury their differences, become friends, and work together to survive. Clearly inspired by the film The Defiant Ones, I only wish I could have written it in reality. It’s an example of how girls’ comic serial can have something important to say – in this case reconciliation – which will remain with the reader long after the story is over.
BOARDING SCHOOL STORY
These were endlessly popular and still are, of course, as the Harry Potter novels prove. I think Angela Brazil’s novels started the genre, I’ve read one or two and they still hold up fairly well today. Then came Bunty’s The Four Marys, which ran for years.
The first girls’ serial John Wagner and I wrote was School of No Escape, which went down well with our audience in Sandie. We quickly discovered that the mystery was everything to our readers. Why was Miss Voor, the sinister new headmistress, lying? What was the secret in her study? What did she keep in the locked drawer of her desk? Who was the strange girl who suddenly appeared in the next bed in the dormitory? And where had the original girl gone? Needless to say the heroine uses the ubiquitous and timeless air vent to sneak into Miss Voor’s study. It was over-used back then as a story device, and that was years before Alien!
Readers loved it, though, so we tried doing male-equivalent mysteries in Battle, like The Terror Beyond the Bamboo Curtain and soon found that boys do not give a damn about mysteries! There are important gender differences in storytelling and this was one of them.
Often we took the standard Cinderella story and turned it on its head. That worked as well as the original. Thus there was Cinderella Spiteful, where the title speaks for itself. Angela Angel Face where, once again, the title speaks for itself. And Ella on Easy Street, who doesn’t want her family to succeed and tries to sabotage their efforts to get on. That sounds a bit negative, but it was actually brilliantly written by radio writer Charles Herring, drawn by Casanovas, and it was a hit with the readers, who enjoyed its subversive nature.
Girls who were smug, talented and pretty were often the focus of such stories, with the somewhat plain or ordinary heroine constantly being overshadowed by them and trying to succeed despite their brilliant, beautiful and talented cousin, friend or sister. These stories were not about rivalry as such, but more about jealousy and, invariably, they had a bitter tone to them. They were so successful I tried a male equivalent in Action: Green’s Grudge War, written by Gerry Finley-Day and drawn by Bellardinelli. It followed the same story principles and was well written and drawn. Alas, it bombed. Male readers, I discovered, weren’t interested in reading about jealousy, anymore than they were interested in mysteries. I should have stuck to Top Gun-style stories
This is a difficult sub-genre to get right. Thus Tammy ran a powerful, well-written Victorian serial entitled My Father, My Enemy. It didn’t work because the readers were uncomfortable with the father being the enemy. Generally speaking, we found mum and dad were off-limits as villains and I suspect the same would be true today. Now if it had been My Stepfather, My Enemy…
Gerry Finley-Day came up with a brilliant idea for a rather different villain: ‘Aunt Aggie’. She is a salt of the earth, heart of gold, TV personality like Jimmy Savile, who does endless good work for charity. Loved by millions, but in reality she is a cruel, cold, heartless, conniving bitch. Gerry gave it to me to write and I’m afraid I ballsed it up. I was too young and inexperienced to get it right. I’ve always regretted it because Aunt Aggie had so much potential. And of course, it’s a remarkably subversive story.
Exploitation serials or ‘slave serials’, as we called them in those politically incorrect times, were mandatory because of their popularity. Judy even had a serial called Wee Slave
Some of them were incredibly savage and would make us wince today. The most savage and powerful of all was Slaves of War Orphan Farm in Tammy – featuring the brutal Ma Thatcher (actually named after Mrs Thatcher), which is highly regarded by readers today. By comparison, my own Captives of Madam Karma in Sandie was nowhere near as cool. Then there was Camp on Candy Island, written by Tammy editor Gerry Finley-Day, about a strange and nightmare holiday camp, inspired by The Prisoner. It ran for months and months so I’m pretty certain it was a hit. The Hunger Games shows that this genre still has legs today.
SCIENCE FICTION STORY
My Land of No Tears and Malcolm Shaw’s The Human Zoo, now published by Rebellion, are good examples of female-orientated science fiction. Once again, The Hunger Games shows they could work today. There’s also Malcolm’s fantastic The Sentinels in Misty about an alternative Nazi-occupied Britain (drawn by Mario Capaldi).
Mystery stories with a hard modern edge always went down well. So if I was writing such a story today it would probably focus on something spooky happening to a mobile phone, a tablet, or on the web. Back in the day I wrote Glenda’s Glossy Pages, drawn by Mario Capaldi, about a strange mail order catalogue which Glenda happens across. Everything desperately poor Glenda desires from it – clothes, a bike, games, arrives on her doorstep even though she has no money. They’re all free! But, ultimately, there is a price to be paid… My young, very politically correct and cool nieces liked the story but not the heroine because, they told me, she wasn’t pretty enough. And they didn’t like what she was wearing.
That brings me onto the subject of the art and a brief but important digression. Sensitive as that subject might be for modern pc adult audiences, the art and the way the heroine looks and what she wears was – and still is – an important factor which editors ignore at their peril!
Thus artist Fay Dalton draws incredibly beautiful young women and I’m convinced the reason she never got into 2000AD was because they were too sexy/beautiful for someone’s politically correct taste there. They’ll deny it, of course, but I can think of no other reason why, because her work is superb and very popular. A French magazine is currently planning to run some of the stories I wrote with her. She’s now doing fantastic prestigious illustration work on James Bond. It’s a huge loss to comics.
Misty was the high water mark of mystery stories and there has been at least one revival inspired by it. Below is the cover of the recently published Bite Me comic, doing a Misty Special. I hope others will follow Bite Me’s example. More on that subject in part two.
Blind Ballerinas were so successful, they ultimately led to absurd stories like the blind tennis player: Becky Never Saw the Ball. Others could be even more tasteless. Limp Along Lindy in Bunty, for instance. Despite its title it was actually well written and drawn, although rather over the top. Also in Bunty was Flipper Feet, about a girl with big feet who is a great swimmer. The principle of overcoming adversity is sound, it’s the rendering of it in these examples which makes us feel uncomfortable.
Victorian and Edwardian era stories were favourites. No Tears for Molly – a dark version of Upstairs, Downstairs (and which may have come out first) ran for years and years. Given the success of Downton Abbey, I’m sure its equivalent would go down a storm today.
Horses, of course, have number one appeal in girls’ comics. D.C. Thomson even had a girls’ horse comic. One story that always stood out for me was in Tammy: Make Your Mind Up, Maggie about a girl torn between a top gymnast or a top showjumper. She can’t be both so she must choose. It was beautifully drawn, so it was popular enough, but it was too middle-class for my taste. The readers should have Maggie’s problems!
But any animal story, if it was well drawn, was likely to be successful. Thus Inky in Bunty, drawn by the brilliant Casanovas, about a cute puppy was a runaway success. It was delightful to read, too. John Wagner tried a similar cute cat story for Sandie, also drawn by Casanovas, but it didn’t go down so well. Probably because the cat’s head was anatomically correct but small in proportion to its body, so it wasn’t as cute as Inky.
EARLY TEENAGE STORY
These stories ran in Pink and were rather different to full-on romance comics such as Jackie and Romeo. They were still classic girls’ comic stories, but they had a cooler feeling than Bunty and Tammy.
My story Sugar Jones ran in Pink for ages. Sugar is an ageing glamorous TV personality (a trendy version of Aunt Aggie – see above) who is super-cool, always jumping on the next pop bandwagon, but is actually a ruthless, cold-hearted, nasty bitch. It was very much in the style of Absolutely Fabulous and was invariably drawn by Ramon Sola (Hook Jaw and Flesh). Rebellion tell me Sugar’s gone down well with their female staff so it may be reprinted in the future.
Although romance comics are often lumped in with girls’ comics, they were actually very different and appealed to a separate and rather older age group.
Romeo (which I worked on) and the million-selling Jackie were two of the leading examples of this genre. They could be rather drippy and I think they would be tough to revive for today’s streetwise audience, unless they had a new spin on them like Twilight and the numerous variations on that theme.
Sadly, ‘North London’/Waterstone’s thinking has triumphed today and the ongoing commercial success of Mills & Boon and its various new imprints tend to be sneered at.
I guess I’m not much better as we mercilessly satirised such love stories in Serial Killer.
In our story, to the horror of the right-on Joy Glass, she’s made editor of such a publication: Everlasting Love (which lasts six weeks). She particularly loathes Wedding Belle, ‘the supermarket checkout girl who yearned to go from shopping aisle to wedding aisle’.
Here’s an excerpt from the Serial Killer scene to end on, so you can understand just why Joy hated it! I’m afraid the real romance comics were often equally bad. They invariable ended with the lines ‘But one day I will find true love and it will be kinda like a beautiful dream.’
Romantic comics were drawn by Latin artists and, consequently, they depicted British teenagers as enchanting, exotic, passionate girls with film star looks. British boys were drawn as handsome, long-haired ‘dreamboat’ Latin lovers.
So Belle was portrayed as an impossibly glamorous, wide-eyed, busty version of Gina Lollobrigida with ‘big hair’ who ‘talked’ with her shoulders and gesticulated with her hands.
These exotic characters were combined with the artists’ rather limited visual knowledge of Britain. So Belle’s working class, Cockney father was depicted as a swarthy, Chianti-quaffing Spaniard. Big Ben and other London landmarks frequently featured in the background as the only British items the artists seemed to be aware of, apart from the set of flying ducks hanging on the wall.
Fluttering her long, Latin eyelashes, Belle told the readers her story in ‘true confessions’ style. She wrapped the net curtains on the window around her, imagining she was a bride gliding down the aisle. But she was torn between a safe, respectable boyfriend, and a saxophone player. Which boy should she choose, she wondered, gesticulating with her hands like Sophia Loren. The saxophonist ‘Hot Lips’ or Steve the steady bank clerk?
The Latin-looking ‘Hot Lips’ had a shirt open to the navel, a medallion, and a furry chest that might have caused Dave some gender confusion. Belle watched him playing sax in a night club, with Nelson’s Column impossibly visible through a window.
The heroine’s father looked like Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He warned her about ‘Hot Lips’. ‘No good can come of it, my girl. No decent boy, who can put a roof over your head, will marry you after you’ve been out with a saxophone player.’ He looked at her clothes. ‘And you’ve changed since you met him. You look like one of those … West End girls.’
‘Oh, dad,’ said Belle. ‘You’re just not gear.’
Later, waving her hands, Belle tearfully admitted to her father that he was right: ‘I should have known one kiss would not be enough for him. He …he got fresh with me, dad. And I …I felt so cheap … But one day I’ll find love and it will be … kinda like a beautiful dream.’
‘Until then, keep your legs crossed,’ said Eli, rolling his eyes.
In tomorrow’s Storyteller:
WRITING GIRLS’ COMICS TODAY. SOME POSSIBILITIES.