By Charles EP Murphy
In the beginning, there were just “comics”. Then, from the 1950s onwards, British publishers decided girls might buy more of them if it was aimed specifically at them, as they had with numerous story papers in the olden days – and so “boys comics” and “girls comics” were produced (with “humour comics” and “nursery comics” counted as their own separate fiefdoms).
The girls’ comics outsold the boys’ comics for years. They were also often better than the boys comics, and we know this in part because the male creators on some of them have said so. In an old interview with the defunct 2000AD Review, Alan Grant said it was “easier to skimp on characterisation and actual story” with boys material by throwing in action scenes, while “girls' material is generally heavily character-based and involves more twists and turns in the plot.”
Both feminist and conservative critics found things to decry about the comics: they were too passive and wimpy, or too unfeminine, or generally bad role models. Writer Benita Brown, speaking to Dr Mel Gibson (no, not that one) for her academic tome Remembered Reading, argued instead the standard arc of many a girls’ comic heroine was one of struggle, developing self-reliance, and morals – “you might be a victim, but by God you were going to put that right”. And the target audience kept buying.
Yet by 2001, only Bunty was left standing. By the end of 2001, Bunty was gone too. The next year, Memorabilia Magazine asked Agnes Wilson, DC Thomson’s Deputy Managing Editor, why this was. Wilson said “Girls themselves have changed. The picture story is not as popular. There’s more competition for girls time now.”
Now, this was an answer that flew in the face of the contemporary manga boom across Europe and America. It flies in the face of the substantial number of British girls who also read comics aimed at boys, or primarily read comics aimed at boys, or who were reading mixed-gender humour comics. It flies in the face of The Beano’s success, as we’ve discussed previously, in increasing girl readership in the face of competition from the TV and internet.
So what actually happened and how could it be stopped?
Penny Sterling Sells It Again!
Amalgamated Press (later IPC, later Fleetway) kicked everything off revived the story paper magazine School Friend as a comic. It sold a million copies a week, and other publishers naturally wanted a cut of this. The strip genres would soon be codified as including soapy dramas, mystery stories with girl investigators, fantasies and the gothic, period dramas, ‘poor little rich girl’, and lashings of stories about ballerinas (a fancy aspirational trend in the 50s), horse-riding and boarding schools.
Hundreds of thousands of comics would be returned unsold to the publisher, but all evidence suggests the official sales may be lower than the actual number of readers. It was a habit of children to stretch pocket money by swapping comics with each other; a 1953 study found a whopping 94% of 14/15-year-old girls were reading comics, and a 1956 study estimated each comic may be read by an extra eight people.
In Remembered Reading, Dr Gibson wrote that while every company and title ran strips based on “perceptions of what is appropriate to girlhood… this does not meant the titles were ideological monoliths, rather that they offered tensions, contradictions, complexity, and change around girlhood.” You can see this immediately from how every title discussed will have an appropriately ‘feminine’ title, but they disagree on what that means. (Hulton Press called their girls’ comic Girl because we guess they wanted to knock off for lunch early.)
Many of these comics would be written, drawn, and edited by men. There were female creators but long-time writer and Mandy editor Maureen Hartley said it was an accepted truth that men could write for girls but women could never write for boys. As recorded in Julia Round’s Gothic for Girls, this was partially covered up and companies like Amalgamated would pretend for years that fictional women were in charge.
The first wave of girls’ comics were often ‘respectable’ middle-class aspiring fare, with Girl standing out as the more active of the bunch. Just like Eagle, it was driven by clergyman Marcus Morris’ desire for strong Christian values and aspirational narratives of hard work. Gibson noted various strips focused on women’s careers, like “Angela, Air Hostess” and the nurse “Susan of St Bride’s”; “a working life for women is proposed as natural… if the career is ‘appropriate’”. Notably, Girl had started out with, ala Dan Dare, an aviatrix cover story, “Kitty Hawke and her All-Girl Crew”, but the readers didn’t take to it. This, for Gibson, “suggest a form of self-policing”, that girls of the 1950s had internalised limitations.
Bunty in 1958 kicked off the second wave. This was DC Thomson’s first girls’ comic, and Ron Smith (since famous for Judge Dredd work) would recount to the BBC in 1958 that it caused a great deal of scrambling around for suitable people. His specific words, “someone… who would draw girls”, suggests a lack of enthusiasm from many of DC Thomson’s male artists.
While the previous titles had been quite middle-class, Bunty aimed more for a working-class audience to win over more of those readers. Though as Gibson records, there was still a tendency by publishers to “offer middle-class models” of appropriate feminine behaviour. While its single longest running strip, “The Four Mary’s”, was set at a boarding school, the titular Mary’s were a cross-class groups of friends from working class to aristocracy, all working together in various adventures to right wrongs. In particular, they clash with two sneering snobs who hate Mary Simpson for her working-class background. When Gibson interviewed women on their memories of girls’ comics, “The Four Mary’s” came up again and again, whatever the background of the woman.
Round talked these stories up as tales of outsiders, “the dramatic tension frequently [coming] from a sense of exclusion or inability to fit in”, and “unlucky or victimised protagonists”. The ‘Cinderella’ strip of a put-upon heroine began here, facing suffering and opponents while remaining ‘good’. For example, “Moira Kent” is yet another ballet strip but Moira’s an orphan fighting through the odds to become a ballerina at all.
A wave of follow-ups followed, and various comics would be given girls’ first names as a direct result. A mode of storytelling featured a plucky young girl separated from help, trying to keep doing the correct and moral thing in the face of hardship.
The second wave also contained romance comics like Valentine and Romeo. This new type of comic was driven in part by the development of the teenager as a consumer group, and it was assumed the main concern of older teenagers would be romance. Publishers were surprised to learn that instead of older teens, their primary reader was actually aged 13-16. Once this was realised, as Gibson writes, the comics “could be seen by adults as encouraging girls to ‘experiment’ with romance (and, implicitly, sex)”, and that made them a moral hazard. These titles, chaste by our standards to start with, had to walk a tightrope in keeping young readers entertained and not causing a parental bollocking.
Various critics would have at the perceived conservative morals of the old comics. Maureen Hartley told Girls Comics of Yesterday that she was never made to push a political or moral message, even though she admitted an implicit message of good always triumphing. “The editors’ primary interest was to sell as many comics as possible and that was done by giving the readers the kind of stories they wanted.”
By 1968, the battle was between DC Thomson in Dundee and London’s newly unified IPC, and girls comics were a key weapon. DC Thomson, able to be cheaper by refusing to recognise unions, was winning.
But problems were growing. The romance comics were dying out. Sales were dropping on all other comics, with the most popular new ones being tied to TV or films rather than original (one new girls comic being Lady Penelope, a spinoff of Gerry Anderson’s TV Century 21 comic). Girls comics were particularly being ravaged. In the late 60s and early 70s, several titles would be launched and die a quick death.
Change was needed or the market was dead.
Traditionally, the history of 1970s UK comics is focused on the revolution in boys comics driven by John Wagner and Pat Mills: the familiar holy trinity of Battle, Action!, and 2000AD. In fact, the revolution began with the “third wave” of girls comics.
IPC’s new publisher John Sanders had grown frustrated with the girls department and brought John Purdie in to kick it up the arse, which led to the creation ofT ammy– a younger, rougher comic to be edited and run by a younger team under Gerry Finley-Day. To make sure they knew what the readers actually wanted, IPC carried out market research and found, to their surprise, girls wanted stories that would make them cry. Finley-Day’s teams set about this with gusto! Stories were harder than they’d been before, with infamous levels of cruelty and hardship, and even more working-class heroines than had previously been the case. The big success – within three years, IPC had taken half the comic market from DC Thomson – led to a followup, Jinty, by Mills and Malcolm Shaw, both politically-minded young men.
(Often, comic histories have treated this as a whole new development without precedent. As we’ve seen, it’s a continuation of what Bunty started – but as Dr Gibson’s interviews of readers shows, young girls of the 70s thought Bunty was the posh middle-class one, just as the original Bunty generation thought Girl was the posh out-of-touch one!)
Art editor Christine Ellingham (later artist on Jinty’s Concrete Surfer) recounts a push to hire a swathe of new top artists that could challenge DC’s domination. A lot of new people were headhunted from DC Thomson, won over by the promise of more freedom and better pay – and, for men, the booze-driven social side! Finley-Day and Purdie also oversaw a minor cull of the existing creators, with former editor Terence Magee (who would later edit Battle) telling A Resource on Jinty it was “pretty ruthless. Most of them were discarded”.
Examples of the new style include “Bella at the Bar”, with a working-class orphan trying to make it as a gymnast despite her nasty guardians trying to force her to stop; “Slave of Form 3B”, where the bully is able to hypnotise the heroine into carrying out damage for her or put herself in physical danger; “Go On, Hate Me!” where runner Hetty is blamed for her friend’s death, including by her friend’s sister who she’s agreed to look after, and faces an escalating hate campaign that leaves her destitute. The most infamous is “Slaves of War Orphan Farm” by Gerry Finley-Day. Evacuees in World War Two find the evil Ma Thatcher (named after who you think) is using them as rented-out slave labour to the local, happily complicit farmers, and ends with attempted mass murder to keep them quiet!
At the Caption convention in 2004, Mills noted “slave stories were always very popular, and I think a psychologist might have a field day, not just with the people who wrote them, but with the readers!” This was followed by interviewer Jenni Scott noting that “one of my favourites” was indeed Slave of Form 3B! This, she attributed to the target demographics experience of bullying.
The success of Tammy and Jinty would lead to Wagner and Mills, and later Finley-Day and several other creators, moving on to the boys department to properly shake that up as well. Malcolm Shaw would write some strips but remained primarily with the girls comics, preferring the work there. Wagner told A Resource on Jinty in 2016 that IPC’s boys comics had “stagnated” and “paled in comparison to the stories in [DC Thomson’s] Judy, Mandy and especially Bunty– clever, meaty, affecting.” At Caption, Mills said that “really, we took the thinking that applied to Tammy, and applied it to just about everything down the line”.
DC Thomson began to copy some of this in the 1970s as well, with a greater number of stories of poor lasses dealing with bullies and general cruelty. Benita Brown ran two stories in the new style, “Hateful Heather” about a kindly actress being treated by the public like the horrible character she plays, and “Blind Belinda”, a blind singer controlled by her aunt & uncle with only her guide dog as a friend. (Brown told Gibson she got fed up writing the dog and decided to drown it, which the editors decided was a bit too miserable!)
Gothic comic Misty was one of the last comics of this “third wave” and was designed to not just compete with DC Thomson’s Spellbound (which actually ended before Misty got going), it was seen by Pat Mills as a way to create a girl equivalent of2000AD: bigger visuals, more pages per strip, and long, sophisticated stories. In terms of visuals and page layout,Misty looked nothing like any other girls comic.
Mills refused to become editor when he was denied a cut of any profits, so Wilf Prigmore got the job. That was followed by frequent writer Malcolm Shaw, then Norman Worker, and Bill Harrington on the annuals, and Round attributes a shift from horror to “mystery” to Prigmore and Shaw. (Exactly when the changes were done is unclear; Round posits that based on the writing of Misty’s missives, Worker took over around #76) Shaw’s politics are likely responsible for many of the pro-green and political one-off stories, and one of his serials, “The Sentinels”, depicts a fascist alternate reality.
One example of Misty that’s sadly yet to be reprinted is horse-riding “Winner Loses All!”, which combines the formula of a nobly suffering working class protagonist – Sandy’s father is an alcoholic and, if he loses his job at the stables, they lose their home, to the sneering joy of the rich girl Jocasta – and lashings of cruelty. But in Misty, that cruelty comes from the Devil, who manipulates Sandy into selling her soul to him in exchange for her father’s sobriety, and each week there’s a new twist of the knife. There’s also an example of kitchen-sink politics as the Devil is not an interloper but has been in the town for years under the guise of Mr Dayville, the local bookie…
Misty, while fondly remembered, lasted just under two years and the cancellation coming with little warning for the editorial team. Artist John Armstrong once claimed it was cancelled “after a strike”, and indeed John Sanders once boasted to Thrill-Power Overload that he shut a girls comic in 1980 whose editor was a NUJ ‘ringleader’, “to make a point”. This would make a nice story but Round was unable to confirm it, while former NUJ Pete Wrobel said the title closed during the dispute was a failing teens mag which “would have been closed anyway”.
So unfortunately, the culprit is almost certainly sales. Possibly it wasn’t even unprofitable yet: one fan received a letter from Harrington, which she passed to Round, saying the title was merging with Tammy to “shore up the falling sales”. The recurring problem of the model hit: the low-cover-price, cheaply printed, newsagents-can-return model of the olden days meant you had to an obscene amount of copies to make a profit. All it would take is a small drop in readers.
And Misty would not be alone.
The Orphan Work of Cancellation Street
It wasn’t just girls comics that were dying in the 1980s, but they took a far worse beating. By spring 1985, IPC was only publishing one girls comics (the revived Girl, aptly) out of seven titles. Tammy was not so lucky: Alison Mary Fitt nee Christie said in an interview that the creators had no idea cancellation was coming. This leads into speculation by Round and Scott that the comic was the victim of the NUJ strike aftermath in 1984, similar toS cream!.
One common claim for why girls’ comics were worse hit was that girls lost interest in comics and were into ‘photo stories’ like in magazines. Publishers clearly thought so: photostrips became an increasing sight in 1980s girls’ comics, as well as in the revived Eagle. However, both Benita Brown and Maureen Hartley noted this led to duller stories – for one thing, the entire fantasy genre was out because it couldn’t be portrayed in photos. (IPC’s revived Eagle tried with photo-strips like “Doomlord”, depicting a murderous alien vigilante, but eventually gave in and agreed comic art worked better) An assistant editor at the magazine Jackies aid in 1991 that the limited scope of photostrips resulted in “the problem page set to pictures”.
DC Thomson continued to publish four girls comics even though IPC threw in the towel –Bunty, Mandy, Judy and Tracy– but Tracy died in 1985 and was replaced by Nikki. This new comic was clearly trying to use the Finley-Day template for the late 80s, with a more ‘modern’ name for a title and strips like “The Comp”, moving the school strip to a working class comprehensive. In a rather ballsy move, “The Comp” used ‘real time’ and the girls actually left the school, being replaced with new characters; a page was devoted in a later issue to readers’ dismay. Paul Grist (Jack Staff, Kane) drew the gag strip “Girl Talk”.
Nikki, however, only made it to 1989 before merging withB unty. “The Comp” made it across and it ceased to move in real time (though this did mean the second cast would be cemented as just ‘the cast’). In a clever touch,Bunty began a strip a few weeks pre-merger called “Nikki at the Comp” to introduce existing readers to the setting and characters, through the eyes of a new girl arriving at the school.
The last new girls’ comic to come out was Marvel UK’s Bea, in September 1989. This was intended as a monthly, mostly focused on photo-based features and designed to look like a girls’ magazine instead of a comic. However, instead of photostrips, it used reprinted Dutch comics of various lengths and tones. The art was variable too –in reviewing the comic’s longest strip, Michael Carroll said “I kept being distracted by Rachel’s “Pretty sure no one knows I’ve been drinking all morning” expressions”.
As far as we can tell, Bea lasted a single issue and is only known because Carroll had found a copy. “Next Issue” promised a Halloween tale and “an extra-length ballet story” called “The Perfect Pair”.
When the 1990s dawned, Fleetway had been shattered and bought up by Egmont, who had little interest in new juvenile comics – thus, no girls comics at all. After Bea, Marvel UK didn’t bother. Only DC Thomson remained standing, with three titles. The big focus from new creators and editors was on the adult comics of the time like Deadline, which were read by a number of adult women; but to quote Gibson, “little thought seems to have been given by publishers to where the new female readers of the future would come from (given the increasing lack of familiarity girls had with the medium)”.
DC Thomson’s Mandy and Judy made it to the 1990s before merging in 1991 – their title characters got their own team-up strip, followed by ‘diary’ entries written by them. The title was revamped as M&J with a new modern logo and renumbered from #1. This kept it going for six years, running both new strips and reprints, before being devoured by Bunty. The cancellation was so sudden that it had already started a new serial, “Four in the Saddle”, shortly before the axe fell. Anne Bulcraig confirmed for Girls Comic of Yesterday that the creators “didn’t have a clue”, and she herself had “many stories in the pipeline.” When the merger happened, only one strip (soap opera “Penny’s Place”) carried on.
When talking about the 1990s, Hartley took the view “the stories became far less interesting to write. Gone were the feisty heroines fighting to right a wrong … Now it was all about boys and shopping and sleepovers with mates, with the moral message so important in the older stories that you should be good and kind submerged in the need to be popular and to have friends.” (That said, M&J still ran strips like “Hard Mercy”, a full-colour strip about a fascistic dystopia)
In 1996, a report by the Children’s Literature Research Centre, Roehampton Institute, found only 20% of girls surveyed were reading comics by age fourteen compared to 50% of boys.
In 2001, Bunty became an all-reprint, 64-page monthly – allowing it to reprint entire serials in one go – and by #3, it was desperately rebranded as The Best of Bunty with appeals on its cover to nostalgic adult women. The fifth issue was the last one. The annuals would continue until 2009, with reprints of older strips and some original text stories.
Pat Mills and writer Jacqueline Rayner have both mentioned in the past asking publishers about making new girls comics, but to no avail. Nobody in power thought the market was there to justify the cost. (Meanwhile, the target demographic turned to manga and graphic novels in bookstores)
In recent years, Rebellion has been publishing specials of new material based on Misty (partnered with Scream!) and Tammy & Jinty, as it tries to revive the characters and concepts for a new, younger audience, and hopefully sell them trade paperbacks of the older strips. How well these catch on, only time can tell.
But did it have to happen this way at all? Is this market inherently doomed? Are there factors that can be changed, and are they different from the factors for boys comics? Next time, we’ll look at that – and what could be changed and what should be, but wouldn’t…
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.