By Charles EP Murphy
Girls comics once dominated the UK market for almost three decades – and then died, for various reasons both unique to them and part of the general problems of the British industry.
So: in another timeline, can this be averted? And for how long?
A Format for Form 3B
A noted problem for comics is that young girls turned to magazines, the new status symbols of being ‘mature’. These titles were very different in format to comics, which left them ‘juvenile’. Before girls’ comics in general died, the magazines had already killed off the teen-aimed romance comics.
Can you head this off at the pass?
In examining the early girls’ magazines and comparing them to comics in Remembered Reading, Dr Gibson noted that 1958’s Roxy included “elements from the women’s magazines” in several pages, including a horoscope, beauty tips, “and interviews and competitions related to pop music”, so an attempt to borrow from magazines to seem ‘mature’ was something comics did from early on. This is something that could have continued under certain circumstances, which we’ll discuss in a second.
But the big problem is the magazines, made in a different department rather than the comics one, would first not have much strip content and from the 1970s ran photo-stories instead. Once those made comic strips childish and unsophisticated, they were out. (The worm turned when Just Seventeen started in 1984 and didn’t run photostrips, making those childish and unsophisticated and knocking them out over time.)
Can you avoid that? Yes: the patient zero is My Guy in 1978.
Why did My Guy run photostrips? In promotional article for 2006’s The Best of the Photostories collection, the Mail and Evening Standard quoted former editor Frank Hopkinson saying "My Guy was fun and funky and for girls on the pull. Jackie [their rival] at the time was regarded as 'slightly safe'” and former reader Rachel Cooke said in the Guardian “My Guy was supposed to be a bit more racy. It was mostly - OK, entirely - about boys.” What’s on the cover of #1? “Real Love Stories In Photos”
Can you be racy and boy-heavy with strips? Obviously yes, various comics have done it, and indeed the romance comics that girl’s magazines had knocked out had used some very skilled Spanish artists that put a lot of glam in. You would need My Guy management to think of it though. In the forward for The Best of the Photostories, Hopkinson referred to the photostrips in America and Italy, the latter of which were big business: it seems unlikely management would stumble across a European romance comic for this market. So, your best bet, and the easiest to pull off, is conservative management saying ‘no’ to change.
An extra advantage of stopping or delaying photo-strips: as 80s Eagle editor David Hunt, a pro-photo-strips man, told Hibernia’s Fleetway Files, “the photographic process was both time consuming and expensive.” Instead of just an artist, you had to pay a photographer, “the actors themselves” and their agency, the photo printers, and the staffer who pieced them together. “This was OK when the title’s circulation was high.” Without this extra pressure on profit margins, a comic like Girl may have lasted longer.
Before we move on, let’s note how big a deal it would have been if My Guy had indeed been inspired by foreign adult-aimed comic strips. If it becomes a hit with sexy romance comic strips, if other magazines decide they need to compete with these strips, then the romance comic market will be partially revived in Britain and af orm of comic will now be seen as mature. And we know from various scandals that a comic not seeming ‘suitable for children’ is a moral panic, which makes the audience want to read it more. The changes from that could’ve rippled out through the industry…
Ella at the Editorial
Going back to comics emulating magazines – Pat Mills has repeatedly cited as a thing female staff did, viewing it as snobbery to escape girls’ comics. As comic fans, we would agree that pure comic is better. However, in light of the market trends and Dr Gibson’s work, we have to consider that if there had been more attempts to emulate magazines, and if these cod-magazine features had been properly integrated, the comics may have better retained readers.
But the people driving this were women, and we come back to the fact that there weren’t so many opportunities for women in comics.
One way women got opportunity could be through other women: long time writer Alison Mary Fitt came to IPC in 1971, hired by Mavis Miller, and only writing for Jinty when Miller took over. Miller, however, would leave. And this goes back to another problem: after the disruptive changes at IPC, there were few people left who knew the ‘third wave’ model and some of them were booted.
Miller knew the model, was well-respected, and we know brought women in. We also have suggestion via Terence Magee that she left due to frustration with the changes at IPC. If that could be prevented – if she decides to stick it out a few more years, if there’s less straw on the proverbial back – then there could be more people trained in the model going into the 1980s, more of them women, and a longer run for Jinty.
Carrie Wright’s Creator’s Rights
Creator’s rights was the great crippler of British comics – low pay, no entitlement to reprint royalties, no ownership, and no credit for your work until the end of the 1970s. At DC Thomson, there is still rarely any credit in the comic itself. It was so bad that American comics were seen as a better place to go if you could manage it, and their issues with creator’s rights are infamous.
Can things be changed? Creators who tried to change it failed: John Wagner and Pat Mills both hoped to get a good deal for starting 2000AD and failed to get it, and Mills had the same issue with Misty,and these were two men making IPC big sacks of cash. Dez Skinn’s Warrior would offer ownership but for all its influence on creators, it failed to influence companies and sales were low. Any better rights before the late 80s seems extremely unlikely in any timeline because management didn’t want it.
However, things did finally start to change in the late 1980s thanks to Deadline. It was effortlessly cool (in a way Warrior hadn’t been), and attracting buzz, all at a time when the newsagent market was shaky but there was a lot of talk about these strange, exciting ‘graphic novels’ from America. To quote David Bishops’ Thrill-Power Overload: “Fleetway responded with Crisis, offering creators contracts, the potential for royalties and greater controls of the copyright in their work” for the first time. This would become the standard in the brief boom of British ‘adult readers’ comics and there would be new contracts for 2000AD, after John Wagner had a meeting with incoming publishing director Jon Davidge and famously emptied “a sodding great big bag” (quoth Davidge) of Dredd merch than he wasn’t getting royalties for. “It had a very powerful effect on the move towards creators’ contracts.”
Now, by this point, as Steve MacManus told Bishop, “it was shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. The big people whom it was meant for had gone.” But if this deal would also cover any surviving girls’ comics – it may not – then the people still working there will have a better deal.
But by this point, some of the creators were getting old and you’re going to need new ones. The ‘third wave’ model will also be old by this point; you’ll need a new one for the girls of the late 1980s. Where will the next batch of creators come from?
For other comics, the source of new creators has increasingly been from fandom. This, however, was not a thing until girls’ comics were almost dead, with Anne Bulcraig doing it and writer Jacqueline Rayner trying. She told us: “I wanted to do [write for them] because of my love of girls' comics - but I wasn't a pro writer when M&J wound up and had barely begun when Bunty was cancelled, so that wasn't an avenue for me to pursue”.
So that’s another thing that needs to change – but the change was already happening.
A Fan Maid’s Tale
As we’ve said, comics fandom was predominantly male. It’s also well known that fandom could be off-putting to women, who’d find themselves the only person in a shop or room, opposed by men suspicious they weren’t ‘real’ fans (a situation that would surely never happen now), and sometimes appalled by the conditions of shops. “The SMELL”, as one woman told Gibson. However, Gibson also records that those into superhero comics enjoyed the idea of fandom as displayed in the letter pages, feeling “part of a mature and expansive international community”.
And at the end of the 1970s, Misty readers were starting to make one of their own.
Round analysed Misty’s letters page and found “an active, empowered, and diverse audience… readers comment critically on what they do and do not like, send in creative work, and share anecdotes about how Misty’s stories reflect them and their lives.” Wilf Prigmore and Brenda Ellis told Round “thousands of letters would come” and Ellis indicates they were getting more than they’d expected based on other comics. (In the most fandom thing of all, readers started to debate if Mist ywasn’t as good as it used to be from #40!)
Round also found “readers also respond to each other”, as well as talking about setting up comic clubs. We know at least one exists, as the book reprints a letter sent to Tammy & Misty from a male South African fan, Edmund Harmse, that refers to a fan club with its own newsletter! (With the comic cancelled, it hoped to expand to other IPC titles) Harmse’s letter refers to “tearful letters” from other fans upset about the merger.
So, we have clear evidence of an attempt to start a fandom. Some asked who made the stories, the sort of thing that implies if the readers knew, it may have led them to thinking ‘I can do this too’. Two sisters even made cassette tape adaptations of the comics, “complete with sound effects”, which smacks of the famous Doctor Who “Audio Visuals” of the 80s, fan-made audio dramas that eventually led to Big Finish. Some other young fans adapted a story for a school play.
If Misty had lasted longer, a formal fandom of fans looking to turn pro seems likely. If there are more comics like Misty, with the same care and quality and chance of sticking around, this will grow. This brings us back to the need for more people being needed who can carry out the ‘third wave’ model – and especially in time to keep Misty alive just slightly longer.
This won’t just be a source of future creators: it’ll be a source of revenue. Dr Gibson’s interviews refer to peer pressure to drop comics, to show you were ‘grown up’, and while this also is true of boys, it seems to have hit more girls. Collecting comics was seen as more childish for women than men. But if you have an organised fandom, there’s a peer group to reaffirm your reading habits and to encourage collecting. Fewer readers may drop out.
And the big benefit for girls’ comics having a fandom is that it would undercut the cultural assumption that these comics are less meaningful. Jenni Scott wrote in The Fleetway Files that she never thought of talking about these comics in fandom spaces, and Dr Gibson says in Remembered Reading, “I dismissed comics for girls as less significant”. If there’s a peer group telling you this comic is meaningful as well, this is mitigated.
Further proof this could happen is that in the mid-90s, it did happen for anime. In the early days, anime was seen as predominantly a blokey thing; that’s how Manga Video marketed its dubs, that’s what material made it over. As Leah Holmes writes at the UK Fandom Archive: “there were softer, cuter, or more comedic titles with better female representation available in the UK in the '90s… but they just didn't command the same attention that Manga's output did. From my personal perspective, as a fan in a small town in Ireland, these titles may as well have been unicorns.” So in 1995-96, a group of teenaged and early-20s female fans created their own fanzine,Anime Babes, in an attempt to plant the flag, talk about what they wanted, create art, and “petition video companies” for different product.
And some of the creators of Anime Babe sare still around now. More on that later.
Out Now in All Good Newsagents!
Added together, the point of diversions needed to save girls comics for a bit longer is the late 1970s and early 1980s at IPC. You need:
Creators, especially women, ready to fill the gap when Mills, Wagner, and Finley-Day leave. Specifically, you need Mavis Miller to stick around and get more women in, who may alter the comics to better retain the audience that otherwise left to magazines.
Credits should come in sooner on any of IPC’s girls’ titles, to keep creators – and to make it clearer to young fans that comics are a thing they can do too
An organised fandom needs to continue to grow, giving young women a way to focus on becoming creators without being reliant on potentially alienating male spaces
My Guy’s photostrips need to be nipped in the bud
Some or all of this will keep IPC’s titles around, which means DC Thomson will start to change to keep up. Fandom may grow to incorporate DC’s titles too and any innovations they make will similarly be taken up by IPC. Potentially, Marvel UK may dip its toes in the water as it tried with Bea.
Unfortunately, the market is still shaky and career prospects bad so this will only keep a few titles around. But if they survive until Deadline, that changes the game. Deadline’s impact means new creator deals, which may trickle down to a hypothetical surviving Jinty; it means new comics to be made to exploit a market.
And with more retained teenage girl fans, some of the earliest fandom founders now reaching the age they will want to work on comics, that exploitation could include comics aimed at adults and female students. A recurring theme in Gibson’s interviews were fond memories of pre-teen comics and their heroines, but when it came to teen ones “tended to see the anonymous romances as repetitive” (and readers who were gay didn’t care and wanted the variety of the younger titles). This could indicate a potential audience would have existed for an older-teen version of the young titles or if it ‘aged up’, similar to how 2000AD retained many readers – boys had “increasingly a medium to grow up with”.
So, we could potentially see a female-aimed equivalent of Deadline or Crisis, or a larger female audience on the originals which shapes the stories they publish. This is also a time of more work in general, for a brief and shining period, and so some women will end up on ‘male’ comics and vice versa. And if there’s enough work and enough female creators and enough ties, you could get a British version of manga’s Year 24 Group: the wave of young women artists in the 1970s that reshaped the shōjo genre.
This is also the time when comics are making their first concerted push into bookstores. We know this was a place where Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, among other comics, would find a sizeable female audience. That means yet more comics to retain readers and inspire future creators. It may also bring back women to comics, just as comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen brought back men, and as Dr Gibson found comics like The Tale of One Bad Rat has done OTL.
(Going back to the hypothetical My Guy comics timeline: that would have an audience of teenaged and young women primed to read comics aimed at them, right at the time Deadline’s changing the rules. What if that means instead of Crisis and Marvel UK’s Strip, some of the early responses are comics aimed at this audience of women?)
How long, however, can all this last? What happens when there’s be yet a new generation of young girls? What did girls in the 1990s want?
To best know that, we asked some.
Demi & Mo, the Target Demo
Irish comic creator Leeann Hamilton (Kitteenies,Triassic Field) told us her only exposure to classic girls’ comics she can remember “were yearly annuals of the comics my mother got (probably for Christmas), sometime during the 70's.” However, “video games and the inevitable tie in comics appealed to me more, and with the conventional girls’ comics market having completely vanished by the mid 90's, nothing would really sate my appetite until I played Final Fantasy VII and got deep into collecting manga right before the massive 2000's wave.”
Laura Watton (Biomecha, Shout! Magazine) similarly read collections of old girls’ comics that belonged to relatives but as a girl born in the 80s “who did not go to private school and who had never rode a horse, I did not feel I was the reader-demographic”, and by the 90s none of her friends were reading were reading comics at all - because they had no access to them for their age group in the 90s.” What she did enjoy were cartoons like She-Ra and Jem, finding it “a relief to see these sword wielding, ass-kicking comic book women that were nearer to my age”. She laments that “Deadline would have been the more appealing title [to read], but that too stopped before I was deemed old enough to read it.”
And just like Hamilton, she was drawn in instead by manga. Watton says they “fulfilled many things I had been looking for since leaving primary school”, and specifically recounts finding a translation of Keiko Nishi's Promise around 1996, “a very dreamy, long-limbed, comic for grownups that was far beyond my years but appealed immensely, as it was like nothing I had read before.”
“The manga category had a greater variety of stories than American/British comics were delivering,” says Hamilton, “including, most importantly, titles made by women for younger girls to read.”
Manga fandom would bring them in to creating, with Hamilton collecting Manga Max magazine and “ having internet access at home to print off anime pictures kept me happy in my small pond” before “a lot more media and anime was exposed to me thanks to classmates with the same interests” at university. Watton was one of the frustrated fans who founded Anime Babes, and would go on to co-found the UK manga-inspired collective Sweatdrop Studios in 2001.
Watton also notes a potential barrier in traditional comic art. “There is also a lot of pride in ugly characters in British comics. They are to be charismatic in appeal, anarchistic in nature, so we side with the characters when reading, but if there is also visual revulsion for some readers who find it childish and uncool, there is certainly no appeal in picking up the comic to read in the first place.” In her view, “the baby-faced appeal of Hello Kitty/Sanrio would be a good lesson in learning how to design characters beyond classic British comic character archetypes, the science of this cuteness has vast global appeal.”
What we’re basically looking at is that to keep the readers of the 90s and early 00s, to compete with the growing manga invasion, you need a good range of comics and creative freedom. This, the great variety of material, and material often deliberately aimed at women instead of treating them as an afterthought, is the big appeal of manga, and creative freedom is how you get it.
This is where things will get tricky. Girls’ comics could easily follow the noble tradition of ripping of what’s popular, but would DC Thomson and Egmont Fleetway be prepared to keep allowing creators free reign? If enough of them did well in our hypothetical 1990s, this might happen at least due to neglect – ‘do what you want as long as you sell’. In our hypothetical timeline, there are a number of women who’ve come up in fandom and got jobs in the brief window of well-paid creative freedom. The spirit could continue, as long as the companies will allow and pay for it. If the companies do not, the product will slowly begin to stagnate just as manga comes to park tanks on its lawn.
Bookstores would soon be an issue and so would the internet – they’ve been a place women have gone and as Watton puts it, “the internet, online delivery, webcomics, streaming and Kickstarter have all circumvented older methods of obtaining comics”. But would British companies be able or willing to crack these markets? Rebellion has been focused for years on e-sales and trades, DC Thomson has recently focused a lot on using the internet to help The Beano, but would this come in time or correctly, like it didn’t for The Dandy?
Focus on the new markets would be needed early before free webcomics and manga take most of a generation, as happened American comics of the 2000s. The early 21st century will see more competition for readers. It will also see new outlets for British & Irish creators. To keep British girls’ comics going, they have to keep retaining the audience…
It would not be easy, nor a one-time fix, for girls’ comics to survive – but it seems clear they could survive, given the chance. It would just take care, time, money, and a fair deal for the creators, which the British industry had to be dragged kicking & screaming to, far too late. And it would keep on needing this.
Still, despite the sad and pointless death of girls’ comics, women & girls in the UK and Ireland read comics anyway, and go on to make them. It’s predominantly Japanese and American comics that have seized the market, but homegrown slants can be placed on them. Most of the new work is independent or online or graphic novels, but Rebellion is trying to revive the newsstand titles as at least regular specials. If it works, another publisher may try. If not, there’s still the indies and online.
And indeed, indies and online is where Rebellion has looked for young creators – the editor of Tammy & Jinty 2019, Lizzie Boyle, got the job because of her anthologies of new creative work for Disconnected Press. She would make the comic full of creators from all over, doing various art styles and multiple genres, and entirely new strips as well as revivals. Doyle said on the 2000AD website: “One of the joys of editing an anthology is that you can mix genres and styles so that the reader can try a little bit of everything. We aimed for a real mix of artistic styles… to demonstrate the diversity of what comics can offer.”
“This is a great time to be a girl reading, writing and drawing comics … We should be encouraging all readers to engage with different types of comics – different genres, styles, traditions – to explore the stories that mean something to them.”
Girls’ comics are dead – long live girls’ comics.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.