By Charles EP Murphy
The Rise and Fall (And Possible Rise?) Of Girls Comics, Part Two
Girls comics, as discussed in the previous article, had been massively successful for almost thirty years – and then collapsed fast in ten years, before dying a sad, tiny death.
Now, British comics in general died on the newsagents and have only recently seen a relative resurgence, but boys’ comics and humour comics clung on for slightly longer and 2000AD, Commando,and The Beano still exist now. There are respectable runs for comics based on Sonic the Hedgehog and the Transformers movies, but no similar for a ‘girl’ property. What caused this, when women and girls are objectively a large audience for so many comics?
There are multiple reasons and they all link.
Uncool in School
A recurring thing that came up in Dr Gibson’s Remembered Reading is that each generation remembered their comics as the cool edgy ones, and the previous generation’s comics as the weedier, more genteel, more ‘posh’ comics. Many girls were forbidden to read comics except for the suitable, respectable ones, and so the ‘forbidden’ comics became ever more tempting. And various women remembered rebelling by reading comics at school, and in part we mean showing they were rebelling by visibly reading comics in school.
Not all girls would require their comics to feel like they were reading something the authorities didn’t want them to read, but, as with boys, that is going to be a very appealing thing for quite a few. Indeed, various readers of boys’ comics and superhero comics said part of the appeal was it wasn’t ‘meant’ for them; and the same is true of magazines aimed at teens but read by tweens.
So, part of the problem may be that after the 1970s trifecta of Tammy, Jinty, and Misty, there’s no such new comic for the ‘now’ generation until Nikki– and with apologies to Girl, Nikki is it, and it’s coming out when the market’s already on the way down.
Supporting this is how for Bunty’s 40th anniversary, an Independent article talked about the comic as embodying Fifties values “about being part of the team, knowing your place, and not blowing your own trumpet, [which] are about as far from in-your- face, me-me-me Nineties Girl Power as it is possible to go.” It considered this to still have some potential appeal for the youth of today. The fact the comic was cancelled three years later after suggests it did not hold that appeal anymore, and one child who was reading said about The Four Mary’s, “I think their school is probably more like the one my mum went to” – which it likely wasn’t, but it says this was considered ‘old’. And in 2009, a Guardian feature gave the parents’ old comics to their young kids . Tammy went down better than Bunty, which a reader wrote off as “quite anti-feminist” and not likely to appeal to her “sophisticated” generation. (The magazine-focused Jackie was merely seen as a quaint throwback)
Rebellion cannot come from the fondly remembered tales of your mother or older sister.
Then there’s the strips themselves. Just as with comics aimed at boys, they focused primarily on characters of one gender and these characters were predominantly white and English. Girls Comics of Yesterday noted a lack of ethnic diversity in “The Comp”, the intentionally more grounded school strip, with rare non-white characters and only non-white background characters getting prominent in the late 1990s. By the late 1990s, books and TV were increasingly ethnically diverse and gender mixed – comics would have been behind the curve for years.
The lack of ethnic diversity will obviously undermine appeal for BAME readers, but the gender segregation was an issue too: when speaking to Dr Gibson, women who read American superheroes as children would talk about the superheroine figures as independent, adult figures who were implicitly equal to the men on the team (whether the stories treated them as such or not). Harder to get that thrill with no boys around. (And unfortunately, the lack of women didn’t bother boys)
Another problem with the lack of cool came from what was now cool: magazines. In Gothic for Girls, Julia Round notes the 1970s had seen “the rise of women’s magazines”, and Dr Gibson notes the women’s magazines were “in effect, competing” with their romance comic sisters for the same young audience. Comics proved unable to win that competition. Gibson also argued that magazines became seen as more ‘mature’ than comics – and that’s a problem, because magazines had few, and soon no, comic strips in them. They had photostrips instead, which meant a comic strip was a “indicator of girlhood”.
Children often don’t want to be seen as children, and teenagers definitely do not. Similar attitudes have been recounted by male comic creators, that they dropped comics as they grew older for beer, girls, and music (except maybe 2000AD) before new trendy comics like The Dark Knight Returns drew them back in.
Girl magazines also began to target younger and younger readers, which may have undermined comics further – now there were younger and younger ages who’d transition to show they were ‘mature’. Worse, comics became more associated with boys; in Gibson’s words, reading comics became “too extreme a way of expressing individuality”, while magazines became “the acceptable form”.
In a failed attempt to compete, girls’ comics began to run photostrips like their magazine brethren. As discussed last time, this knocked out the more fantastical genres and was seen as more limited; but Gibson, citing parody photo strips in punk zines like Shocking Pink, says the format did have possibilities. In an example of this, Jenni Scott gave a rave review of Girl’s “Slaves of the Nightmare Factory!”, a tale of girls being abducted to work in a sweatshop: “Seeing the cruelties inflicted on pictures of actual flesh-and-blood girls as opposed to artistically drawn girls may add to the horror even more. And the black-and white photographs perfectly complement the grimness of the situation.”
However, pulling this off regularly would clearly require time, resources, care, money… things not in good supply in a weekly British comic. In a review of another photo strip, “The Ghostly Ballerina”, Scott noted these strips could never pull off ghosts at all, with no SFX work to create the illusion you weren’t looking at a human model.
And there never would be, thus leaving photostrips as an inferior take on the medium.
No Jobs For Jennie!
Speaking of magazines, there’s one anecdote that Pat Mills has often brought up, first recorded in Memorabilia. “Many young female writers and journalists on the girls’ juveniles were embarrassed to be working on mere comics… They wanted to be working on trendy, glossy pop magazines as a steppingstone to older magazines like 19 and Honey. So they stressed the feature content of publications like Pink and paid little attention to the comic side, which they saw as a necessary evil, rather than a vital selling aspect of the publication. As male journalists – with little interest in the feature side of girls’ magazine (after all, what would we know about make-up?!) – we had no such problem.”
He also expressed that the younger generation of female writers ‘got’ the new style but lacked the “cruel” edge the men brought to the popular strips. “Maybe we just never found the right female writers.”
Now, a number of men also would rather have worked outside of comics, but they would be replaced with men who, as time went on, specifically wanted to work there. So why is this so much worse with women? Was it embarrassment alone causing a brain drain to the mags?
Over the years, more of the uncredited creators on girls’ comics have been identified, and there were a bunch of women (and men from before Mills’ generation), some of whom worked in comics for quite a while. Jenni Scott questioned the established view in 2015: “could we say that the stories made by young men killing themselves laughing were better or more effective than those by women or indeed by older men … we just don’t know enough about who wrote what, in Jinty at least, to be able to say whether the the most popular, longest-running, most memorable, or otherwise most effective stories tended overall to be written by one group of writers versus another.”
Over years it’s also been made clear in interviews – and you’ll be shocked to hear this – that women faced barriers men did not. As Maureen Hartley said, men were assumed capable of writing for girls but never vice versa – so there would be less opportunities for work. And when reviewing Steve MacManus’s memoirs, Jenni Scott identified another issue for women: the comic side was extremely “blokey” while the magazines were more mixed, and “it’s perhaps not that surprising that many women may have been a bit uninterested”. Why go through that when the women’s magazine department are predominantly women, there’s more scope for work, and one is the trendier department that by the 1970’s is selling more?
It’s also illuminative to look at how Jenny McCade got into comics. She told Down The Tubes that she’d pestered IPC’s managing editor, John Purdie, into giving her a shot – a chance she only got due to both being at a dinner party. “Probably simply just to shut me up”, he gave her a trial on Tammy. She found herself with male bosses and that comics were a lot harder to write than she’d expected; she recalls a subeditor having “a smirk which clearly signalled ‘we’ve got a right ditsy blonde no-hoper here’”, and believes Purdie did not really care if she succeeded in her trial or not.
Men also had rough starts in comics but being thrown in to basically drown to “shut me up” is not one. And she got in purely by the luck of being at a dinner party. Maureen Hartley also recounted that while DC Thompson would accept freelance writers, for a long time IPC only used staff – another barrier unless you have connections.
There’s a happy ending in McCade’s case: “Gerry [Finley-Day] could just have left me to flounder and given me no help or encouragement at all,” but instead coached her over the weeks “with such kindness and patience”. She was given the story “Star Struck Sister”, which tied with Bunty in a teen story competition for The Scotsman. But this all relies on a male editor being willing to do this – without that, you won’t find the right young writers or be able to craft them – and a male publisher willing to hire women over men.
Wage Slaves of Content Farm!
As with boys’ comics and humour comics, a big reason for girls’ comics dying is going to be that the British industry was a backwards, increasingly shoddy mess. You didn’t get credited, you didn’t get paid much, you couldn’t be unionised at DC Thomson, and business practices were increasingly in the past. Julia Round, quoting John Sanders, notes that the megalithic IPC got most of its profit from a few magazines and the comics, which didn’t fit the business model, were merely “tolerated” as long as they could bring in profits and didn’t rock the boat (as Action! had, and the company feared Scream! might). Management was top heavy and lumbering. And of course, the newsagent model was vulnerable.
If there had been changes done at the right time, the market could have survived. There was an exception in the 70s for girls comics, but those male editors went on to create Battle, Action!, and2 000AD, causing a ‘brain drain’ that could not be filled – IPC had not tried very hard to develop new talents that could fill in for Finley-Day, Mills, and Wagner, due to the ‘old guard’ hating Finley-Day, Mills, and Wagner for showing them up. While 2000AD benefitted from retaining a few rare minds, the girls’ comics would be left to scramble. Former editor and writer Terence Magee told Scott in 2014 that “maybe they [the comics] were shaken up a bit too much”, presenting the time as a brutal cull where people couldn’t keep up – a severe problem if this isn’t followed by enough new people to pick up the slack.
For example, final Misty editor Norman Worker has been cited by Mills as someone too out of touch to have taken over the comic, for example, and the comic did seem to die out shortly after he’s believed to have taken over. Wilf Prigmore, co-founder of Misty and later on Tammy, and Mavis Miller, who would work on Jinty (and was one of the older figures who adapted to the new trends) would both depart the company. Prigmore claimed he was pushed out of IPC after the 1984 NUJ strike, quoted as saying in Round’s Gothic for Girls “they used it to get rid of troublemakers like me”. (This is in line with claims that the strike was the excuse to kill off Scream!) Miller, who seemed to have been universally respected and liked, left the company after getting married – though Magee suggested she “had enough of it in the end [the post-Purdie shakeups] and left” – and Jinty appears to have declined after.
DC Thomson also tried to adapt, but this shows the limitations and probably some of the issues Miller had. Veterans Rhoda Miller (started in 1966 and would write all of “The Comp”) and Maureen Hartley both changed, but recounted distaste when they were asked to go as far as their IPC rivals. Miller told Scott “I objected to him [the Mandy editor] wanting to run a horrible story about a wealthy couple planning to kidnap a poor girl and use her as a blood donor for their ill daughter” while Hartley told Girls Comics of Yesterday she felt “guilty” for what she was told to write on “Nothing Ever Goes Right”. (This may also link to the issue of “blokey” workplaces, as these are instances of female writers clashing with male editors)
What about the creators in general? Well, they’re going uncredited and low paid. Authors Anne Digby, Maureen Spurgeon, and Benita Brown all used to write comics but why do that when you can make so much more writing books, and be credited for it and make royalties when you’re reprinted? Brown’s comics are a mere ‘before she became a proper writer’ note on her obituary. Jenny McCade moved on to TV, the dream of many other comic writers since. Maureen Hartley stayed in comics but for the Dutch, finding Tina paid her three times as much as DC Thomson had.
How bad did this get? In the 1990s,Mandy & Judy’s Anne Bulcraig was only earning £40 per script. And this is retrograde – Round had discovered records showing writers on Battle over fifteen years earlier were getting £30-38 per script, and someone on Misty got £51!
And of course, lack of credits. One of the best women writers in Mills’ opinion, Pat Davison, left because she wasn’t getting any credit on UK comics but would get them abroad. Tammy would add credits before the end – Prigmore started it in 1982 after citing 2000AD as precedent to his bosses, and it helped that crediting Anne Digby would attract fans of her books – but, of course, by then it’s too late, the comics are dying.
There are other long-running backward company policies that decimated comics in general. Short-term economic decisions, refusal to give creators a good deal (hence the departure of so many Brits to DC Comics in the 80s), and fear of failure blighted the industry. It wasn’t just girls’ comics that saw no new titles after 1989 – as we’ve discussed, DC Thomson gave up on Renga! in 1995 and a planned ‘junior 2000AD’, Earthside 8, was planned but abandoned in 1991. And like the boys’ comics, reprinted strips and ‘hatch, match, and dispatch’ would be forced on the lines in the name of short-term profit.
The justification for reprints is that the reader was presumed to ‘age out’ of the comic after seven years at the most, so if you edited a few details who will notice? Well, readers did notice that some strips seemed more old-fashioned than others. This is damaging enough on its own, but Gibson noted with girls comics this also means running strips tied to older fashions – ballet was once-trendy but replaced by gymnastics as a girl activity of choice, so a ballet strip will now stick out like a sore thumb.
Reprints are also damaging for the creators – you might end up losing work to your own earlier work! And if you lost too much work, you wouldn’t stay in comics.
‘Hatch, match and dispatch’ – the merger of a dying comic with another one to give the latter a sales boost – is infamous for British comics. This worked out and was fine enough if the comics were similar: 2000AD’s Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters/ABC Warriors originated in Starlord, Cuddles & Dimples were separate evil babies before they became brothers in The Dandy. But numerous comics had to mash square pegs into round holes, like Roman centurion Blackhawk going into space because he’s in 2000AD now, and girls’ comics were little exception.
Round is not alone in arguing this undermined the distinct identities of each title and the sales boost was often artificial as, for example, a Misty reader found Tammy & Misty was a very different beast. After all, part of Misty’s appeal was the full package and tone as embodied by Misty herself, and how do you continue that in a comic with its own distinct nature? What is even the point for Tammy readers continuing to Girl & Tammy, when there aren’t any Tammy strips continuing at all and there’s just a logo on a cover? Even the Royal Commission of the Press in 1977 warned that the mergers were signalling “a lack of commitment”, and possibly a “self-fulfilling prophecy” as comics ended sooner and sooner after launch.
The nadir of this trend was the fate of Tammy and the revived Girl. The evidence suggests Tammy ended early, IPC not bothering to run the last few issues after the disruption of the 1984 strike –so every strip suddenly just ended, even the new ones, with absolutely no resolution because Girl didn’t run them! Then when Girl ended, there were no girls’ comics to merge it with – but IPC tried anyway! The magazine My Guy became My Guy and Girl, editors likely unaware of the accidental polyamory.
But Round further said mergers can be seen in a “sinister light, as destructive acts attacking readers’ identities, as well as dismissing the emotional investment they had put into a comic.” This brings us to the fourth problem: fans. Or rather, lack of fans in fandom.
Fran of the Fans
Comic readers have always included women, but comic fandom has primarily been male in the past, and the fans-turned-pro were predominantly male, and thus the old British comics it traditionally talked about were old boys comics. In The Fleetway Files, Jenni Scott said that as a fan it “never occurred to me” to bring up the girls comics she’d read.
This lack of fan interest meant stories abounded of girls’ comics being destroyed by dealers or, in one shocking case, being used to mop the floor. This leads to a feedback loop as it means there’s a lack of resources to learn about them, so people don’t know. Dr Gibson’s work was initially stymied by lack of fanzines discussing them and lack of copies of comics. In Fleetway Files, Scott noted that the “networks of fannish attention” that allowed creators to become known in the pre-credit days was not extended to girls’ comics, to the extent that in a 2015 blog she could complain “that it was still possible” for an article the previous year “to attribute the authorship of the vast majority of stories in girls comics to Pat Mills. Writing for the old BBC Cult website in the early 2000s, Jacqueline Rayner (such a fan her twitter handle is a reference to the 1995 Bunty strip Boyfriend from Blupo) had to open with a defence that girls comics weren’t all “ponies and ballet and school” and then defend the strips that were. You wouldn’t expect a defence of other comics on a website for cult genre fans in 2003!
What impact does this have at the time though? First is the aforementioned credits –2000AD had them because fans-turned-pro Kevin O’Neill and Nick Landau were worked on there, and decided to put them in. There’s no such fan-turned-pro working in girls comics. As Scott notes, there were no fans searching for the names until relatively recently.
A big impact from fandom is that it leads to readers growing obsessed with making comics; this is where later generations of creators can be found. One example of a woman fan-turned-pro is Anne Bulcraig, who submitted to Mandy shortly before it merged due to loving the title as a child. She accepted low pay in part because “it was a lovely feeling to write for my childhood mag”. She is, however, one of the rare exceptions compared to the vast hordes of 2000AD writers who grew up on it. One woman quoted for the BBC Radio lookback at Bunty’s anniversary said “I didn’t think for a minute I can just write in and join [the team]” – the anonymous creators and editors were distant figures.
One factor in talent drain for comics like 2000AD was that American publishers like DC Comics, which came headhunting, would pay more – which was also a factor in drawing new creators to 2000AD. For years, it was seen as the steppingstone to America. But the Americans weren’t looking at girls’ comics, because there’s no fandom to draw them over; there’s no discussions between fans across the Atlantic, no fanzines talking about Rhoda Miller. This leaves girls comics as a dead end – so, of course, you’ll want to work in magazines instead.
The lack of organised fandom also means there’s no formal way to retain girl readers. Gibson wrote in Remembered that “collecting, in general, was a habit established in childhood that was seen as acceptable if carried through to adulthood for boys, but often not so for girls”. If you were a girl reading boys comics, this is less of a problem – there’s a fandom waiting there and you’ve already been ‘weird’ reading those anyway, so why not take the jump? Thus Deadline, home of “Tank Girl”, had 25% female readership in one survey.
Now, interviews conducted by Dr Gibson found a number of women had found pleasure in increasing their knowledge of comics – one of the common drives for fandoms – and “all-girl reader communities” had formed up to read, swap, and discuss the comics. This, however, didn’t lead to them joining any larger, organised fandom.
To Be Continued
To save girls comics, you have to address as many of these problems as you can.
Some of this is arguably possible, which we’ll discuss next time. Unfortunately, some parts may not be possible to change at all…
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.