Friday, 25 September 2009

“THEY DON’T MAKE THEM LIKE THIS ANY MORE...”


... and indeed they don’t. Last week witnessed one of the strangest moments yet in British comics history. Children’s comics briefly returned to the newsagents’ shelves, albeit stuffed within the pages of the Guardian as part of a giveaway of “classic comics”! Of course there’s a rub to the tag-line I’ve turned into my title, for needless to say they’re actually aimed at nostalgic adults (with cover dates between 1971 and 1984) rather than relaunched for today’s children. In fact I had visions of kids asking their parents what these strange-looking new supplements were all about, much like the youngster I once heard in a charity shop asking his mum what a pile of LPs were. (He didn’t believe the answer.) However, at least one letter-writer reported her daughter asking where she could buy more copies of Tammy!


Despite my being in the target age group, none of this intended nostalgic glow penetrated my cantankerous hide. At the time I only ever read one of these titles with anything approaching regularity, Whizzer and Chips. I glanced over The Dandy from time to time, but it had far too many text blocks under the panels and looked too olde-worldey even for me. I never so much as considered Roy of the Rovers, seeing the appeal of football comics even less than the game itself. (Dan Dare had been to both Venus and Mars, and yet you want me to read about some guys kicking a bit of dead cow around a field?) And of course I never read any of the girls comics. Indeed, a schoolboy reading girls comics might have stuck out somewhat in the early Seventies Midlands.





So the whole exercise might have passed me by had it not been for Tammy. Glancing through it I was reminded of the oft-repeated argument that girls’ comics were actually better than boys, that the more mature readership forced their creators into providing better stories and artwork. (A somewhat ironic assertion as girls’ comics vanished off the shelves before boys’ did.) Much of the artwork in this comic is great, perhaps due to the fact that each artist is allowed their own style. (I remember boys’ comics of this era as looking much more homogenous.) Of course that freedom didn’t extend to artists signing their work so I can’t tell you who any of them are (though ‘Glen’, below, looks to be by Jim Baikie).



Of course that image may be enhanced by putting this comic alongside the wearisome Roy of the Rovers. (I still prefer Dan Dare, quite frankly.) Tammy perhaps came out during a heyday for comics. The boys’ Countdown, for exampled, debuted later that same month – February 1971. Nevertheless, I contend that this comic does more than shine in dull company...


I previously knew Tammy by reputation, as one of a triumverate (with Jinty and Misty) that had revitalised girl’s comics in the early Seventies. However, I don’t think I could have told you that it actually launched that triumverate, under the editorship of Gerry Finley-Day. The successive titles may have gained more renown due to the greater involvement of fan favourite Pat Mills. (And some comments I came across on-line on-line suggest that the successor comics did take things further.) Yet it was Mills himself who said: "I've always felt Tammy was in some ways ahead of my Battle and Action... I hope one day the male readers will see just how relevant Tammy is in beginning the process.” (From this feature via Down The Tubes. See also Jenni Scott’s interview with Pat Mills on similar themes from an old Caption convention, complete with audience question from me!)
In fact even the Guardian feature implicitly acknowledges the comic’s importance. While all the other titles had been represented rather randomly (albeit with an ‘event issue’ for Roy of the Rovers) only Tammy takes things back to the first issue. (Though sadly lacking the free gift ring and bracelet, unless of course the newsagent nicked mine!) It also offers a contrast with a more ‘regular’ girls comic, a Bunty from the following year. (For some reason a longer ‘Summer Special’ rather than a regular issue.) The comparison’s not perfect, as Bunty was aimed at a younger readership. (Notably it includes several one-page humour strips.) But it’s to hand, and besides I don’t exactly have a huge reservoir of girl’s comics to call up on.


Bunty excelled in what were most commonly called ‘Cinderella stories’, in which trials and travails are piled upon the juvenile heroine to a torturous degree. A heroine would be called upon to roll a large rock up a hill, particularly if she had a wooden leg and a glass arm. The story would work even better if a malevolent Aunt would try to prevent her by chucking other rocks downhill at her. Work in a boarding school setting and a dead pet or two and you were away...


This title, though, is in one way a misnomer as these stories involved exceedingly few visits to balls, let alone any getting together with handsome princes, and a whole lot of chores and ugly sisters. As Pat Mills comments in the interview linked above, this emphasis on endurance frequently appeared in the boy’s comics as well. But there the hero would always at some point triumph above adversity, even if only temporarily. (For example the Victor’s ‘Tough of the Track’ would get repeatedly knocked down by life but still go on to win his race.) Heroines would be called upon to endure adversity, on an excruciating weekly basis. Passivity was a positive value for girls, just as activity was for boys.



Despite the fairy-tale origins of the phrase, if we exclude the gag strips only one story here has a fantastical setting – ‘Lydia and the Little People’ – but it is significant. Lydia doesn’t travel to a wonderland but becomes trapped in a world of endless Sisyphan chores, such as scrubbing the street (yes, the street!) so the (apparently all male) little people can hold their outdoor parties. While other strips do not duplicate this otherworldly setting, they do reproduce this travailing sense of existence. Indeed, precisely what they lack is the ‘real world’ to escape back into and throw your scrubbing brushes away.


‘The Four Marys’, apparently Bunty’s longest-lasting strip, was (not altogether surprisingly) a boarding-school tale – though all the title characters seem to be learning from school is how to cook and sew. However their efforts are being thwarted by two bullies, Veronica and Mabel. They defeat the bullies by bringing along some children, which horrify them so much they even agree to the “polishing, scrubbing” to escape their “sticky” mitts. As if it wasn’t clear enough that girls should be learning how to become mothers and housewives the bullies are given identical short ‘flapper’ haircuts while the Mary all have longer, more ‘womanly’ hair.


One interesting feature, however, is that the bullies mostly pick on one Mary, ‘Simpy’, because “she is of the lower classes”. Simpy responds “I’m not ashamed of being working class. I’m proud of it, in fact, and I like doing housework.” Wikipedia comments:


“At the time of Bunty’s creation, this was a rather political topic - admission to upper-class public schools still mainly ran on wealth, and the class divide was a hotly debated issue. Simpy, although accepted without question by the other Marys, nevertheless had a good deal of prejudice from her classmates, and many of her plotlines were centered around the difficulty of dealing with her separation of class.”


Indeed this aspect of the storyline shouldn’t be underestimated. Though a departure from the Cinderella theme (for Cinderalla’s poverty had familial not social causes, stemming from her step-sisters) it is quite typical of comics of this era. (The already-mentioned ‘Tough of the Track’ played a similar role in boy’s comics, coming from the wrong side of those tracks.) However, let’s also remember “the time of Bunty’s creation” was 1958, some way before 1972. Furthermore, class identity took a different form in the Seventies to today, before those repeated pronouncements such as John Major’s “we are all middle class now.” It was then seen as an inheritance, a sense of belonging, whereas now it is perceived more as an individual decision, a question of aspiration. (Those who see society as some steady progression towards egalitarianism may wish to reflect upon this point.) Finally, Simpy’s response that she likes doing housework should remind us that simply to assert class identity is in itself merely conservative.


There could be said to be another point of departure from Cinderella in these two strips. While Cinderella is rescued from her servitude by the interventions of the Prince, the girls here free themselves. Lydia escapes the Little People by solving a puzzle, while the Four Marys trick and outwit their bullies. However this may be down to the standalone, single-story nature of the Summer Special. (Indeed, Lydia’s strip seems strangely to start in the middle.) In the regular comic, the masochism could have been perpetually stretched out, only being brought to a halt when the strip finally dipped in popularity and had to be closed. (Which in the Four Marys’ case was 2001!)


Anyone expecting Tammy to dispense this Cinderella theme (and perhaps serialise The Female Eunuch in strip form instead) might be disappointed. Indeed, given this first episode, a strip like ‘No Tears For Molly’ might even have appeared in Bunty. A servant girl arrives for duty at a country house in the Twenties, to find herself perpetually bullied by the “more superior servants”. Uncomplaining throughout, in one panel she even describes her “posh” room in a letter to her mother as she sits in her windowless box. In ‘Our Janie - Little Mum’, the pinafore-clad Janie devotes herself full-time to caring for her family after her own mother has died. (However, unlike Molly, Janie has a much more modern setting – a block of council flats.)


However, other strips push against the passivity of the Cinderella theme. ‘Girls of Liberty Lodge’ starts at yet another tyrannous public school, but before the first page is over Miss Valentine has quit her teaching job there to open her own “freedom school. The girls will be free to come and go as they please.”


But even less passive is Julie Jeffries in the splendidly titled ‘My Father My Enemy’. The daughter of a dictatorial mine owner at the turn of the century, she turns against him - declaiming “those ‘common people’ are the ones that you keep in luxury. They work like slaves and their children starve while you give yourself airs.” In a panel I’ll have to reproduce for you to believe me, she runs to the miners and explains to them the value of collective action – “He can’t sack you all, or the mine would have to close down! You’ve got to stick together to defy him!” They truly don’t make ‘em like that any more!





At the same time, there is almost a sense of ‘too good to be true’ about this episode. It reads almost like the result of a dare rather than the start of a regular series, unlike other strips here it’s not at all clear where it can go next. (It is set too late, after all, for Julie to lead her miners to the First International Congress.) It would be interesting to read future installments...


This strip does foreground something notable about Tammy. With Bunty only in the fantastical ‘Lydia and the Little People’ had the bullies been male. In Tammy they’re male in a majority of the strips, even if only explicitly the father in this particular example.


Another significant difference is in the treatment of time. Bunty takes place in quite a time-transcendent world of boarding schools, riding lessons and Victorian cobblers shops. (Though a minority of strips aimed at something more contemporary, such as ‘Rose Budd Model Girl.’) ‘Lydia’ is even explicitly set in a nightmare place where time never progresses. Just as a woman’s work is never done, the past never ends but merely keeps up a continuum with the present. Though several Tammy strips are also set in the past they are always specified as such, while the contemporary strips are similarly coded (through hair and clothing styles etc).



Perhaps most interesting of all is the opening strip, ‘The Secret of Trebaran’, where Trudy Smith falls back in time into the Puritan era. (To have her radio described as “an instrument of the devil!”) Here domination is not so much an intrinsic feature of life, something to be endured, but is associated with the past, with previous generations. (The country and city may also be tagged in a similar way.) It’s also notable in ‘The Girls of Liberty Lodge’ that it’s “young teachers” who want to join the freedom school – “they seem just the types we want.” By opening up the generation gap, Tammy shut the lid on a timeless continuum which must merely be endured. You can debate whether it was a symptom of a new era or an enabler if chicken-and-egg questions are something you enjoy.


Now that the week’s supplements are over, is there anywhere next for British children’s comics? Reading the Guardian letter about the girl who wanted more Tammy made me wonder what a girls’ comic of today might look like. Then I started imagining a strip about the reality TV contestant who endured the bullying to win the show, scoop the prize and get a Zoo magazine centrespread out of it.


...after which, Bunty didn’t sound so unappealing after all...

13 comments:

  1. Cor! A long piece; I cannot do all the comments I might want because of time constraints.
    * Re boys not reading girls comics - yes, indeed; but boys with sisters will certainly have done (not just my own experience I'm drawing on here).
    * Yes, Jim Baikie did a lot of work in girls' comics; there are some excellent stories he illustrated in Jinty, for instance.
    * triumvirate not triumerate by the way
    * Re the passivity of the girl protagonists - the Cinderella story does focus on passive endurance by its nature, I suppose, but generally I reckon that by having all the protagonists and most of the characters be female, you pretty much end up having to have active female role models in girls comics, which I'd view as positive in principle. Of course, how it works out in practice may be a different matter! Jinty / Tammy / Misty generally aim for a more modern, down-to-earth active view of girls as compared to Bunty.

    Jenni

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  2. Hi Jenni,

    The perception I had was that the passivity of the girl protagonist was set against the activity of the bully/authority figure, they became almost defining features. However I noticed in your interview with Pat Mills (the one I linked to) that he spoke of the Cinderella story as one story type among many, not the universal model. So I will concede this point if you turn out to have read more girls' comics than me. The number you need to beat there is three. (There were no sisters in the House of Burrows...)

    Certainly agree that Tammy and Misty modernised things. Though as I said the Bunty strip 'Lydia and the Little People' could be said to first expose the model and then break it, all because it wasn't "down-to-earth" but fantastical.

    After reading the Tammy strip about the "freedom school" I noticed a Guardiannews item on free schools. Intrigued to see the phrase reappear, I read it. It seems the definition of a 'free school' nowadays is 'freedom for a private corporation to run one for a profit.' One of those times where you don't know whether to laugh or to cry...

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  3. The Cinderella story and the Slave story are two very pervasive story types that appear again and again, and in both of them the protagonist is, by the nature of the story, fairly passive. Even then, though, there are more and less passive examples. Cinderella Smith in Jinty has the protagonist climbing out of windows and down drainpipes to pursue her aims; she is caught in a Cinderella trap by her wicked aunts who hold the purse-strings and who persuade authority that they are not evil. She has to endure the situation for now, but at the same time she is actively trying to change it. In contrast, The Slave of Form 3B, also in Jinty, has a tediously passive victim / protagonist who whines and wails and mostly submits to her fate.

    But there are indeed other types of story. Briony Coote has an interesting piece here about the Shock Treatment story, where she is talking about snobbery in various stories. Again, short of time to write more, but if you follow that link you will find someone else who has beaten your 3 stories!

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  4. Hi Jenni,

    Your link didn't seem to want to work for me. But a quick consultation with Mr. Google brought up...

    http://www.gatewaymonthly.co.uk/common.html

    ...would that be the piece?

    PS While we're 'talking', were you thinking of going to Comics Friends Reunited this Saturday?

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  5. The Bunty holiday special said Lydia had found The Land of the Little People "again" - so it sounds like she escaped from them before but stumbled back under pressure from readers who wanted to see more. Her escape in the holiday special may not last for long either.

    But I suspect something changed in the writing of "Lydia" because in one Bunty annual she is on friendly terms with them and helping her former nemesis who is in a spot of bother.

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  6. Hi Briony,

    Thought I knew your name and discovered I have some copies of 'The Girly Comic' that you're in! Googling also reveals that, like Jenni, you're a bit of a girls' comics expert. (Which I'm certainly not!)

    Had spotted the "again" but didn't have any context to put it in. They would alternately retell and reprint the same story endlessly, so I suppose it's not surprising. Perhaps they even reprinted it with the "again" added to make it seem like a sequel!

    The stuff about Lydia befriending the little people is interesting. Does it reflect the transition of boys from others to friends?

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  7. Dear Gavin,

    I think the stuff about Lydia becoming friends with the Little People relates to the forgiveness that was so prevalent in girls' comics.

    Sometimes the forgiveness went a bit far, with people being forgiven for things that are very difficult to forgive - including attempted murder!

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  8. Tammy spearheaded the revolution in girls' comics that ushered in a new streak of cruelty, tortured heroines and dark stories.

    However this had all faded by the eighties and only Bella remained from Tammy's pioneering days of tortured heroines.

    Pat Mills himself informs me that there was a counter-revolution in Tammy and change in editorship.

    Interestingly, the same editor allowed credits to be printed in Tammy from 1982 to 1984. So there is more information available about Tammy's artists and writers than originally thought. David Roach is working on finding more credits and we're compiling an index for Tammy (and Jinty).

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  9. Not all heroines try to find a way out of their situation. In fact, some of them put up with it, no matter how bad it gets, rather than worry their family.

    Such is the case with Ellie Ross from Bunty's "Witch!" Ellie and her parents have just moved into the village of Littledene. The parents are thoroughly enjoying their new life, but Ellie is persecuted by the superstitious villagers who think she is descended from the village witch.

    However, Ellie just won't tell her parents what is going on because they are so happy in Littledene and she doesn't want to spoil things for them. She doesn't even tell them when they smash her mother's pottery workshop! She probably wouldn't even have told them a lynch mob nearly kills her if her mother had not seen it and called the police.

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  10. "I think the stuff about Lydia becoming friends with the Little People relates to the forgiveness that was so prevalent in girls' comics."

    it could easily be a little of both! Boys have normally done quite a lot to have to forgive by that age!

    "Not all heroines try to find a way out of their situation."

    I was more surprised that not all of them didn't!

    Interesting comments. Glad to hear about the index. I do vaguely know David Roach of old. Days of the 'Hellfire' fanzine, back in the Eighties!

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  11. What is even more surprising is that some heroines try to escape their situation by talking to their parents. This is very unusual in girls' comics (and for that matter, real-life).

    Unfortunately in most cases, the parents just won't help for one reason or other - until the climax of the story, anyway. In Mandy's "Bad-Luck Barbara" (a parallel story to Bunty's "Witch!") Barbara tries and tries to tell her parents about the villagers' hostility, but they just don't get it. I have no information about how this particular story ended, so I don't know how Barbara's situation was resolved.

    In Judy's "Be Nice to Nancy" (reprinted in M&J as "Be Nice to Nikki"), Yvonne Baxter is under strict instructions from her father to be nice to his boss's daughter, Nancy, who has just transferred to Yvonne's school. Unfortunately Nancy is a vicious bully and being 'nice' to her is causing serious problems. However, Mr Baxter just won't listen when Yvonne tries to talk to him. Mrs Baxter does seem to listen, but doesn't do anything to help Yvonne. However, it is Mr Norden himself, and not Yvonne's parents, who provides the rescue.

    But in some stories, parents do surprise the reader. In Bunty's "Mum Knows Best!" Jacqueline's parents are too overprotective. I was extremely surprised to see this story resolved with Jacqueline deciding to speak to her parents and they listen. More often the heroine gets fed up, runs off, and has an accident.

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  12. Having an accident (usually getting hit by a car) is a very common way for a heroine to resolve her problem.

    Such is the case in Judy's "Hard Times for Helen" and Tammy's "No Haven for Hayley". I put these stories together because they use similar themes (perhaps they had the same writer). In both stories the heroines suffer misery, problems, neglect, and misunderstandings because their mothers are over-doing charity work.

    Both heroines get hit by cars (too preoccupied with their problems to watch the road), and while they are in a semi-conscious state, ramble out their troubles to medical staff, who then speak to their mothers.

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  13. Some heroines have the ability to change their bad situation in an instant but don't use it that way.

    In "Girl with the Power" (can't remember the comic) the heroine's father is wrongly imprisoned and she is taken in by a horrible couple who treat her as a slave. An laboratory accident gives her the power to move objects by thought. She could use this power to strike back at her oppressors (as Rosemary Black does in Misty's "Moonchild") but instead uses it to secretly get her chores done in record time.

    It turns out that the slave-driving couple are the ones who committed the crime her father was jailed for. So when they try to get rid of her, only then does she use the power to strike at them. Afterwards she blacks out.

    When she comes to, the crooks are in jail, her father is free, and her power has disappeared - which is often the case in these "acquiring strange powers" stories.

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