Friday, 2 October 2009

“BEHIND THE MASCARA” – DE-MISTY-FYING MISTY

Brushing the cobwebs off another Seventies British girls’ comic...





“As they told George the grey nun’s story, he felt a chill creep like clammy fingers down his spine...”


Following my recent foray into the Seventies girls comic Tammy, courtesy of a Guardian giveaway, I decided to sample the sister publication Misty. (Tipped off about a Egmont reprint by the ever-informative Down The Tubes. They were even right to warn about Smiths’ eccentric racking system– it took me a good ten minutes to find it!)


Launched seven years after Tammy in 1978, it can be best compared via the mascot characters. (Check previous entry for Tammy.) They were as different as day from night! Tammy was a freckled, beaming blonde, while Misty was the classic brunette, all allure and mascara. The tagline, “filled with chills and thrills”, and the quote above should give you a flavour of goings-on around her place. Wintry settings lend themselves to spectral events, leading to a shivery ending.


The artwork is if anything higher quality than Tammy, at times it’s almost ravishing! However, and somewhat paradoxically, this rise in drawing quality magnifies many of the flaws of the big sister comic. With their shorter length, British comics of this era tend to compress events - which can reduce the role of the art to merely illustrational. Unable to keep up with the headlong pace of events, the pictures’ role fell to adding atmosphere and diluting down the text a little. But as Misty tends to have less panels on the page than Tammy, (Tammy rarely falling to less than nine panels per page, Misty averaging around seven) the result is more compression and with it less dramatisation. A strip like ‘So You Want To Be A Star’, while exquisitely drawn, is relatively static in execution.




There’s an associated emphasis on decoration above storytelling, on looks over content. In one way this makes girls comics of this era stand out, they can look captivating where boys comics could get away with just being functional. But the decorativeness often takes precedence over the storytelling. ‘Wolfsbane’ may well be the best-drawn strip in the collection, but take the panel below. The character is expressing horror, at least through her speech balloon, yet her pose is one of arranged nonchalance. Whether or not this particular panel came from snaps of a model, you can see the route down which girls’ comics degenerated into photostrips.




While Tammy featured Jim Baikie art, Misty has (on ‘Mrs. Grundy’s Guest House’ and ‘The Pig People’) some early Ian Gibson. Gibson of course went on to be one of the top 200AD artists, drawing Alan Moore’s celebrated ‘Halo Jones’. Unfortunately (unlike Baikie) his work here is early and unformed, characters lacking the solidity he would later give them. The askew layouts of the first strip are adventurous, and obviously aimed at adding some much-needed sense of off-kilter, but Gibson isn’t quite yet able to pull them off. Though his handiwork may be the one you recognise, other artwork here is superior. [STOP PRESS! PaulHD writes in to re-attribute these pages to John Richardson and, judging by the sample he links to, he may well be right! See the Comments section for more...]




Despite one time travel story, Tammy mostly set itself in this familiar world – a world Misty sought to corrode. Bringing the supernatural to the closeted world of girls’ comics... that might sound a bold step. But what really lay behind those mists? The problem isn’t that the stories are perfunctory and predictable (which we might expect) but that they’re tainted by moralism. A girl will exhibit some vice, for which she’ll then be made to suffer by some deus ex machina figure. For example in ‘So You Want To Be A Star’, Angie insists to her friends she’ll be a pop star rather than a secretary. One famous, she ditches those friends but finds her record deal was... well, we all know the Robert Johnson story.


However, this schema is probably at its most hilarious in ‘What Did You Say?’, where Sandra’s heinous transgression is... wait for it... to play loud pop music on her radio! “Wakened up to your selfishness at last?” “I – I won’t ever play my radio too loud again!” (Admittedly, the story does compensate for the pettiness of this vice – it’s the only one where the supernatural forces are merely imaginary.) Behind the mascara, Misty was actually telling you something suspiciously similar to your parents – turn the radio down, stop daydreaming and get on with your homework.


If Tammy took the once-hermetic girls-school world of these comics and added father figures, Misty even discovers boys! But their presence only adds to the conservatism, in ‘Wolfsbane’ Sara’s “punishment” comes about because she wanted to spend a night down the disco instead of at home on the farm. (The text feature ‘Find A Future Boyfriend’ puts the emphasis firmly on that future tense – “Do you sometimes wonder if you will have a boyfriend next week or next year?”)


Admittedly there’s not necessarily anything wrong with telling teenagers to respect others, especially when they’re at the age where they’re least likely to do so of their own accord. But the conservatism comes with the idea of ‘natural justice’, as if there’s some divine order outside of human society which will always compensate such wrongs. Rather than feature girl protagonists whose actions affect the world, for good or ill, Misty’s world is one where human agency is almost absent. On two occasions (‘The Treatment’ and ‘Crowning Glory’) nature itself rises up to restore order.


This conservatism is also compounded by a rather restrained notion of “chills and thrills”. Okay, this comic aims to run its clammy fingers down your spine rather than bludgeon you with an axe! But it’s refined without being sophisticated. There’s neither enough intrinsic interest in the stories to carry them, nor any of the lurid abandon or recklessly black humour that transform the EC horrors into morbid delights.




However, these problems may stem from this collection reprinting only one-off strips. Like most comics of its day, Misty seems to have chiefly run continuing stories. Such stories didn’t normally progress so much as perpetuate themselves, like a ball being kept up in the air, yet the perpetual deferment became the very thing which held the reader’s interest. As mentioned over the Bunty story ‘Lydia and the Little People’, they essentially suspend time to become like a dream-state, stretching moods out to an impossible degree.


Girls comics fan Jenni Scott has also suggested that the single strips were a later arrival: “at... around issue 60, it’s much noticeably more bitty, more short stories, more ‘Future-Shock’ type twist endings.” (This would also match the general publishing dates Egmont give the collection, 1979 to 82, bypassing the comic’s first year.) We may be looking at a situation where administrative convenience won out over product quality - the chop-to-fit single strips were chosen simply as something more anthology-friendly, despite their content being more lacklustre.


If so, such an argument ultimately lacks even its own logic. To take up the ‘Future Shock’ analogy, you might get little from a 2000AD collection that reprinted one random episode of ‘Halo Jones’. But, as mentioned above, the point of these continued stories wasn’t that they ever went anywhere but that they came back week after week. As writer Pat Mills commented in reply to Jenni Scott: “girls, female readers, love mystery stories, say a school where there’s a mysterious headmistress, and girls are disappearing... this gets them going! And the explanation can be complete crap, and it usually was, and it doesn’t matter!” These were classic cases of journey not destination. Sample episodes of the continuing stories, however randomly chosen, would have lost little in translation.


On the strength of this collection, Misty is the brunette who might look mysterious and alluring, seen in the half-light, but buy her a drink and you soon discover all she actually wants to talk about is Home and Contents Insurance. Tammy, conversely, is the girl-next-door who got up one day and decided to hitch-hike across Asia. However, this low impression may well come from the collection not drawing from the longer strips, which may contain less in the way of small talk.


Postscripts: A dedicated website has more information on Misty, plus many of the old strips. (Though not, it must be said, in a particularly reader-friendly format.)


Jenni Scott has written about the final comic in this Seventies triumvirate, Jinty, here, and made a quite compelling case it was the craziest of the bunch!

9 comments:

  1. Interesting article. Just thought I'd point out, that the page and artist you are talking about is in fact John Richardson. He drew a few strips for Scream and the early episodes of The Mean Arena for 2000ad, amongst other things. Perhaps Ian Gibson did work on Misty, but that's not his work you've shown.

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  2. Thanks for the comments. Without wanting to sound like a doubting Thomas, do you have a source on that? It certainly looks like Gibson to me! (Tho' I have to admit not being very familiar with Richardson.)

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  3. Incidentally, would we have met? Do you do Web'n'Mini, Caption, Alternative Press Fair, London Zine Symposium or similar? Just followed your links through and was impressed by some of your artwork!

    (Perhaps inevitably, I particularly liked the Judge Dredd picture you thought "too rough to post really"!)

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  4. Doubt away! It's a sod finding Richardson art online, but here's a link to a strip from Scream http://www.backfromthedepths.co.uk/issues/15/15.27.htm I think if you compare you can tell it's Richardson. He has a similar loose body language to Gibson, but seems to be more influenced by people like Frank Bellamy. Also, if you've seen early Gibson art in Action (he did a couple of pages of Death Game1999) or the Kronos strip he did for Hammer you can see his style was pretty much already fully formed - although a little rougher round the edges! Anyway, take a look at the link,see what you think.
    Cheers for the kind words about my artwork, much appreciated - I like when my work's a little rougher too:) I've not been to any of the Cons, although I did a pin up for Caption last year, and even had the odd pic in Caption back when it was a zine. I've dabbled in comics and small press for years, even got some of your own stuff - you did work with Simon Gane, had strips in Scenes From The Inside? The small world of comics!

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  5. Blimey! I reckon you're right! Not just the linework but the slanty layouts. Gibson did irregular layouts but never slanty, like that as I recall. Gibson seems to be a bit more polished too. (How did he manage to look so polished yet simultaneously so loose? Surely the magic formula for comic art!) I'll have to add a disclaimer to the article...

    This year's Caption Convention is actually this coming weekend, so if you feel like busting your con cherry... Being a sad obsessive I have all the old 'Caption' zines, so I must have seen your stuff before. Have to dig them out. Are you working on anything now?

    I was never in 'Scenes From The Inside' (they kept rejecting me!) but did 'All Flee!' with Simon Gane, which was published by Top Shelf. My own comic was 'The Plot Thicken,' co-published by Slab when they were still going, then one issue just by me. I need a website for my comics, really... tho' perhaps I need to do a new issue more! Too many distractions... this blog being a chief culprit!

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  6. Yeah, Richardson was part of that 70s style of jagged panel layouts.
    Been wanting to go to Caption for years, but I can't drive, and have no money. I managed to get to Thought Bubble last year and liked that. Not sure what I had appear in Caption, probably a letter and a pin up at best.... nothing worth digging out! I did a few pin ups for an issue of Pete Ashton's Vicious zine too. Probably signed as 'Mo!', and not worth digging out if you had them either!
    Yup, got 'All Flee!', very lovely stuff. Not got Plot Thickens, but I've got Simon's Punk Strips, which I think has some of your work?
    Not really doing a hell of lot now, finished up a pitch recently, and working on another one, after that I plan to do a webcomic.... cos the net needs more of them:)
    Hope Caption was a good un!

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  7. Richardson would seem to me to use the askew layouts in a different way to Bellamy. Bellamy used them for dynamism, to emphasise the panels he thought were key. From that example at least Richardson is using them to create a subliminal state of 'unsettlement', to underline the supernatural elements. I think I ended up posting one of his least effective layouts, it's actually kind of clumsy. But the idea's a good one!

    Caption's only a tenner to get in, so if you can make it there it's actually one of the cheaper conventions. Some of the organisers are dropping out though, so hopefully there'll be more volunteers and it can carry on. (For a twentieth year!) Never been to Thought Bubbles, Leeds being a bit of a way from Brighton, but have heard good things about it. If by some miracle I do get a new issue out by then, and by another miracle they have stall space left, I'll seriously consider it.

    Shameless plugs time... You can get 'Plot Thickens' 2 & 3 from Smallzone, if you were minded to do such a thing. The first one is sold out, but one of the Simon strips was in 'Punk Strips' and the other in 'All Flee!' There was other stuff in Plot Thickens 1 as well, but I guess that's kind of lost to the ether...

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  8. John Richardson is definitely the artist you feature - he was a Misty regular and indeed drew many Tammy covers from 1973 to 1980. His signature can be found on some of his Misty artwork.

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  9. Thanks for the comments. I'm now convinced it's Richardson! I just wasn't familiar with his art previously.

    Interesting you say some of his art was signed. I guess editorial edicts had shifted by the time of 'Misty'...

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