By Charles EP Murphy
Spanning 101 issues in the late 1970s, Misty is one of the most fondly remembered girls’ comics of its time, blending the contemporary model of social consciousness and gleeful brutality with gothic dread. And one of its early strips, The Sentinels by Malcolm Shaw and Mario Capaldi, was an alternate history story set in that old standby, The Nazis Won.
The eponymous Sentinels are two vast tower blocks that loom over the decaying town of Birdwood: one lived in, the other abandoned and the subject of local legend after entire families disappeared from it. Young Jan Richards and her family, left homeless and facing a lengthy wait from the council, are forced to squat in the flat until things improve. To Jan’s horror, the flat contains a portal to another world where Britain is “a German colony”, her school is an interrogation centre, and her family are involved in the partisans – and while she’s able to escape back to her world, her father has ended up in the Nazi’s timeline and is in the hands of the Gestapo!
The Sentinels is one of Misty’s more famous strips, getting a 2017 trade paperback (packaged with End of the Line), and a sequel strip by Hannah Berry and Ben Willsher in the 2017 Scream & Misty Halloween special. This strip, The Return of the Sentinels, jointly served as an ad for the trade paperback and pilot for a sequel, as the teenager Jen goes through her own trip into the other world that explains the premise and updates the regime for the present day as an entirely homegrown horrorshow. (By her time, both of the flats have been abandoned) Yours truly even wrote a crossover between this strip and Judge Dredd Megazine’s Storm Warning for the fanzine Zarjaz.
So, does it live up to the fame or has the memory cheated?
The plot as described likely sounds basic to you – this is because it is, being a serialised strip for children told in four-page chunks every week for twelve weeks. Much of the focus is instead on the mood of the story and the emotions of poor Jan and her friends & family, and especially on their emotional suffering. Ever since Jinty was started in 1971, the IPC model for girls’ comics went in for lashings of misery and Jan, her parents, and her friend Sally (in two worlds!) goes through the ringer, not just from the Nazis but from the bluntly grim depiction of being left homeless and getting no help. The council has nowhere for them to go that won’t split the family up, her teachers can’t do anything, and the family can’t stay with her uncle because his landlord won’t allow it. When Jan heads back into the other world, she knows that her mother thinks she’s callously abandoning her in desperate times.
When being read, you have to take into account that The Sentinels was never intended for collection: big chunks of some pages are taken up with recaps and heavy exposition panels, characters will repeat stuff to make sure you remember. (This leads to an error nobody would have noticed at the time, in Part 2 the alternate Jan doesn’t have a pet dog and says her mother has a scar, but weeks later, there’s a pet dog and no scar!) The dialogue and captions, written in a different time and for a young audience, is extremely blunt and will often speed through things, so Jan just happens to see in one panel a newspaper saying Britain was conquered in 1940. All of this has to be taken into account for reading any old UK strip, and when you get used to the rhythm it works perfectly fine.
Capaldi’s artwork, however, needs no such adjustment. It’s full of expressive faces, dramatic angles, moody lighting, and heavy emotions. Suffering and terror are soaked into the pages.
From the perspective of an AH fan, the first thing that’s evident from the strip is that it fits the “alternate history as setting” model rather than “alternate history as genre” (a dichotomy Colin Salt makes much of): this is primarily a children’s horror story. The opening splash page depicts two great council flats looming over a decaying town and in page two we see the local youths being terrified of the flats as a place that swallows you up. The locals know something is wrong, calling the building “evil” as if it’s a haunted house. The first encounter with the other world is shown in shadows, with a cliffhanger panel focusing on Jan’s terrified eyes.
Until the end of Part 3, in fact, there’s no hint there’s any alternate history at all! What we have is Jan seeing harsher doppelgangers of her father and pet dog, her mother seeing a panicked double of Jan, the school seen on fire out of the window but fine in daylight. Only at the end of Part 3, when Jan wanders out through the wrong door, do we see this is another world and it is only at the end of Part 4 that we see it’s a Nazi-ruled Britain. (Jan’s understandable response: “No! No! No!”)
Does this work as a serious AH? Well, it’s primarily a gothic horror tale for children so you’re in the wrong place for a rivet-counting adult tale of how a Nazi occupation would work. The Germans are even still in Britain in 1978, doing an unspecified bulk of the occupation – we know this because an officer handily says “Ja, Herr Doctor” at one point. But as something to scare children, it hits the right beats. The other Britain is a place of oppression, of armed men who can attack at any moment. The Gestapo and “State Security” have all the power and the people standing up to them can be cut down at any moment – the comic doesn’t show us Jan’s dad being tortured by Gestapo but it shows us, in a nasty splash page, him after being tortured while a bored officer notes he’s passed out “again”. Deprivation is rife, with talk of “permits” and quotas and an “accursed flu” overwhelming the army doctors, and in one scene, Jan’s otherworld friend Sally is left upset by the (to her) unimaginable luxuries of a 1978 supermarket where you can just go in and buy things. As most of the soldiers and jackboots are speaking in regular English, it’s implicit that many of these are British collaborators.
In one of the grimmer moments, and the one that most sells the nature of Nazi Britain, we see a photo of this world’s Jan in “the national youth organisation we’re forced to join”. The schoolgirls are all in uniforms with swastika armbands. Most of them look utterly miserable. One, near the front, is smiling. On the next page, in an even nastier moment, Jan recognises one of the more nervous girls as one of the people who disappeared from her world, realises everyone who disappeared ended up in the Nazi timeline… and we never, ever learn what’s happened to that girl.
In another ‘light’ AH moment, The Sentinels takes the philosophical view that people don’t just look the same and happen to have the same family background despite thirty-eight years of diversion: the people in both worlds are fundamentally the same. Jan’s father is a good man in both timelines, Jan and Sally are the same person whichever version you get. On the one hand, this is a weakness and doesn’t exploit the AH as much as it could. On the other hand, this leads to the subtly nasty part where the alternate Sally’s parents collaborate with the Nazis, and later in Jan’s own world, Sally’s parents mutter darkly about “the shame of it” when their daughter is in trouble and caught with “bad company”. There are, the strip tells us, collaborators in the making among us.
One weakness from the time that may stick out is that Jan tends to do a lot of running away and asking other people for help. She isn’t a very active character, going through vast amounts of suffering and not doing much to change it, not really able to do much at all. This is something that a modern audience, grown up with more active female leads, may struggle with (though let’s be fair, an eleven-year-old girl in these circumstances couldn’t do bog all!). A modern reader might also, however, enjoy how earnest and serious this is. Jan doesn’t make quips, there’s no humourous asides, this is a horror story that means it. Jan isn’t overthrowing the Nazis – the strip ends with them still in full control – but merely trying to survive this “nightmare world”.
Another big weakness, and this is a weakness of a lot of comics at the time, is the world of The Sentinels is almost entirely white (a few black residents are in the background) and it doesn’t touch on the Nazis’ eugenic horrors. While we shouldn’t expect a children’s story to go into great detail here, the lack of even any hint of it – in a comic that nods to concentration camps – is a bit wimpy. 2017’s The Return of the Sentinels does touch on this, as the lead Jen has a black stepfather. Part of the horror of the other world for her is that he’s not her stepfather in the other world and her little brother doesn’t exist at all because “mingling” is banned. Another part is that her friend Omar doesn’t exist either – “there are no Muslims,” says a jackboot as an aside.
Despite some dated bits, The Sentinels is recommended as a superior piece of 70s kids comics and one of the top examples of the ‘third wave’ of girls’ comics, and also as a sometimes shockingly nasty take on AH done as horror. Don’t get too attached to Jan’s pet dog….
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.