Really delighted have spoken at Russell Davies‘s Interesting this year. It’s easily one of my favorite conferences – entertaining, educational, creative, unpredictable and inspiring.
My topic was psychological violence in late 1970s/early 1980s girls comics, & here are the notes. Enjoy!
During the 1950s – 1970s children’s comics were an important part of the UK cultural landscape, with individual titles typically selling 200,000 – 300,000 copies per
week. Following a dip in sales figures in the mid 1970s, a group of predominantly male writers, including UK comic legend Pat Mills, were brought in by IPC to rework content away from catatonic tales of foreign princesses and posh schools, and into the twilight zone, via some evident concerns with environmentalism and interests in paganism.
Girls comics up to 1970s can be pretty much placed on the spectrum of the history of conduct literature, a genre that appeared in print in the UK as early as 1475. Conduct literature promotes and aims to reproduce acceptable moral, domestic and social behaviour, and particularly concerns itself with the souls and reputations of young women and wives. Piety and virtue are typically valued above all other attributes. Modern day equivelants are still popular, and every so often someone will knock out another best seller that instructs insecure women how best to conform in order to get some loser to date them.
We can find lots of examples of prescriptive behaviour tracts thinly disguised as quizzes and not so
thinly disguised as articles on what being a proper girl involves in the three titles I’m focusing on: Tammy, Misty, and Jinty.
Make friends with your MIRROR! Is the title of one piece from the 1981 Jinty annual – less of an article and more of a manifesto for self regulation: “Let the mirror be your best friend! It will never lie to you! Don’t forget, if you haven’t got a double or triple mirror, you can get good views of your back by holding a small mirror and using this to look into the reflection in your long mirror.”
Obviously written by someone irretrievably harmed by reading Discipline and Punish while on acid, the annual also contains specific advice on the correct way to sit in a chair, as determined by body shape. The illustration above shows three women who’s incorrect chair occupation means that they will never get married. Advice to Di, who enjoys sitting backwards astride a chair despite being otherwise normal, includes “She should really remember that, although she’s got a nice shape, leaning forward in close fitting jeans is stretching the point! She’d feel just as dashing, and look less hippy, sitting around the other way, an maybe resting the heel of one shoe on the chair seat while circling her knee with one arm. Try it!”
Mills et al’s involvement in late 1970s and early 80s produced some of
the most interesting childrens’ comic book writing, ever. During
this period, the repetitive moral lessons that constituted girls comic
book content – the inevitable punishment and comeuppance of vanity,
selfishness, and slattern like behaviours, the Cinderella-miraculous
ending and reward of sacrifice, hard work, and humility – didn’t
disappear. The boarding schools, ballet classes and horse fetishism were still there too, although new scenarios involving science fiction and horror settings emerged. Under Mills’s stewardship, IPC girls titles
wholy perverted the existing tropes by taking them to their hysterical,
nightmarish conclusion. The horror, punishment, and suffering of the innocent was totally
amplified by the new story lines, for example in the notorious Tammy story Slaves of Orphan Farm, where every week the writers attempted to outdo Gods testing of Job. In The Slave of Form 3b, a domineering student discovers she can hypnotize a weaker classmate into doing her evil bidding. The unsuspecting dupe eventually wins the respect of her school and even a medal for bravery, but not before falling off the roof while hypnotized and becoming crippled. A Life for A Life, a short strip from Jinty’s 1978 annual told the story of two London hospital employees – nurse Celia and Doctor Josef, marrying. They had previously met years before when SS Officer Josef had been taking Celia out to shoot her, and Celia sacrificed a chance to escape in order to save Josef (presumably not his real name) after he bungled the job and accidentally shot himself.
Alan Moore, commenting on that period:
“…Pat Mills and John Wagner had previously spent eleven years
working on the British girls comics. They had grown cynical and
possibly actually evil during this time. I think it
was John who used to write a script called “The Blind Ballerina” and as
the title suggested it was about a ballerina who was blind. John would
just try to put her in to increasingly worse situations. At the end of
each episode you’d have her evil Uncle saying, “Yes, come with me.
You’re going out on to the stage of the Albert Hall where you’re going
to give your premier performance” and it’s the fast lane of the M1.
And she’s sort of pirouetting and there’s trucks
bearing down on her.”
The huge success of Tammy, which ran from 1971 to 1984, was partially based on some actual research by IPC magazine into what girls enjoyed reading about. Apparently they liked to be made to cry. Vulnerable amnesiacs who avoided multiple, mysterious attempts on their lives to discover their parents had been killed in some kind of transport ‘accident’ sent sales figures of up to a quarter of a million a week, along with stories which included:
Alison all Alone – Alison has been kept prisoner by her foster parents for reasons unknown.
Roberta’s Rebels – Roberta Russell decides she will do something
about her hierarchical school system where the “Serfs” slave to the
The Ice Girl– A girl must keep her ice skating secret from her father, who was crippled in an ice-skating accident.
Sadie in the Sticks – an exploited girl whose only refuge is her talent for making objects with matchsticks
Lights-Out for Lucinda – Lucinda becomes trapped in a district
where people still think it is World War II, due to her father drugging
them so he may use them as slave labour.
Cora Can’t Lose– Cora Street goes on an obsessive binge to win
as many sports trophies as she can, in order to win her parents’
respect. Danger looms when Cora suffers a head injury which will kill
her unless she has an operation, but she is so obsessed with winning
trophies that she ignores the warning signs.
Becky Never Saw the Ball – aspiring tennis star Becky Bates is making a comeback after going blind.
Particularly hilariously, and never really explained, was the way Becky had her entire head bandaged.
Jinty, which ran from 1974 to 1981 before being incorporated by Tammy, introduced science fiction, adventure, and horror to the girls comic market.
Battle of the Wills –
a girl discovers a scientist with a duplicating machine that enables
her to continue with her gymnastics while her double is forced to do
The Human Zoo – twin girls and their classmates are kidnapped by telepathic aliens to
whom humans are mere animals. The treatment the humans receive
parallels the treatment meted out to animals on Earth (zoos, circuses,
slaughterhouses, bloodsports, vivisection and beasts of burden).
Worlds Apart, written by Pat Mills and drawn by Guy Peeters, was my personal favourite and still a classic of science fiction:
six schoolgirls find themselves in a series of strange worlds governed
by their main characteristics: greed, love of sport, vanity,
delinquency, intellectualism, and fear. Jac Rayner loved it too:
“Worlds Apart, where six girls find themselves trapped
in a series of worlds which are distorted versions of their own
desires, and can only escape through the death of the girl whose mind
they’re in… Any story which starts ‘The day began like any other. A
road tanker carrying highly dangerous chemical waste left a government
research establishment’ has got to be good, but as we journeyed through
the fatty, sporty, vain, criminal, brainy and scared lands, we not only
got the girls’ staples of peril and adversity (with some handy moral
lessons), we got a superb adventure story”
Misty only ran for two years before being cannibalised by Tammy. Focusing on horror and
mystery, Misty is probably the title that had the most impact on it’s readers, and retains a huge fan base. Mistycomic.co.uk, a fan site archive and community hub that’s now been officially recognised by current Misty copyright holders Egmont. Classic strips included:
The Four Faces of Eve – Eve Marshall is trying to unravel her true identity, but she seems to be the bits and pieces of four dead women.
Winner Loses All – The lead character has a horse called Satan. She has sold her soul to the devil in order to help her father, who subsequently died anyway.
extra link love:
Pat Mills interviewed by Jenni Scott at Oxfords CAPTION convention
Some of the story descriptions in this post were taken from Wikipedia – you can see the originals by clicking through the linked title names.
7 thoughts on “Interesting 09”
Having read most of a ‘Jackie’ from 1975 re-printed by the Guardian this weekend I was fascinated by how narrow the ‘correct’ identity model or acceptable behaviour boundaries for young girls was. It’s disappointing to hear that similar levels of social manipulation still exist today within this type of media. I think this is why learning how to critically evaluate the messages from mainstream media is essential in schools (much of this involves evaluating visual not textual information which I suspect we don’t teach very well). Without this our children will simply be pushed around by the corporates.
I was wondering whether any research had ever been done on the preponderance of Cold War-inspired stories in these comics, particularly when I was reading them in the mid-70s. I particularly remember a story about a gymnast who had been kidnapped by the USSR and was now returning to England to compete and passes her old home in the coach en route where her Mum is in the front garden crying over a rose bush. So the comics seem to have been a conduit for broader political forces as well.
Josie, your talk was fantastic on Saturday and thank you so much for this extensive post.
I would love to survey the readership of Jinty to find out what kind of long term effects reading this insane comic had on its readership.
Fascinating reading! I’d not realised till you mentioned this that you were into comics – I’ve equally probably not mentioned to you that I’ve got a fair collection (or perhaps you noticed them!) of old girls school stories – from a slightly earlier era.
Meantime, several of the folks I know via that are also into comics – indeed, I went to a session at the ICA called “I love Girls comics” a couple of years ago with one of them. (She’s done a lot of work in the area – so I’ve pointed her to this post).
Now, really ought to get on with my own post re. ALT-C!
Great post, Josie! I never realised how truly weird the comics I didn’t read – because I had the wrong biological bits – were.
Only one criticism. Discipline & Punish on acid? Nah: surely Lacan, and probably on barbies rather than acid.
Loved your talk @interesting09. I was reading “tommy the tomboy” from yday´s guardian and couldn´t stop laughing.
Hello! Thanks for putting up your notes – I had seen from @mondoagogo that it had happened but no more, so it’s good to see some details.
Ha ha, I remember this story in Tammy! “Lights-Out for Lucinda – Lucinda becomes trapped in a district where people still think it is World War II, due to her father drugging them so he may use them as slave labour.” I didn’t read Tammy regularly so I only saw a few episodes out of it.
You say that Jinty introduced elements of horror as well as sf and adventure; I wouldn’t say it dealt in horror per se (Misty clearly did), though it had some stories that were pretty scary and exciting. The important thing with Jinty was that the protagonist ended up winning out, whereas with Misty the protagonist could be trapped in a nasty circumstance that she was clearly never going to escape from (probably because she deserved it because she was a bully or whatever).
One further point on the notion of conduct literature – I think that there could be more to be said in comparing girls comics with other kinds of guides to conduct presented in literature and media. For instance, the Jinty story “The Children of Edenford” is a very direct parallel to “The Stepford Wives”, as I’ve said before. But I’ve only now actually read the original Stepford Wives, which is a lot grimmer in many ways! The central macguffin in SW is turning them into robots, which is noticeably more irreversible than drugging the schoolgirls in CoE. The message in SW is pretty stark – conform or be killed / replaced – while in CoE it’s actually pretty upbeat, ending in a message that individuality and anti-perfection are good. So in a world where messages like those in SW are being output, the conduct instructions seen in that specific Jinty story at least are pretty radical. I’m sure you could say that CoE is not really a conduct piece, which is true, but it is part of the whole set of messages going towards the socialisation of the readership.