Bunny Spaceships & Alien Balls: The Weird, Weird World of British Girls’ Comics

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[Lots of people nattering about Jacqueline Rayner's recent Guardian piece on girls' comics, so thought I'd reprint the below, which I wrote for SFX #192.]

To nerdy young lads of the 70s/80s – those of us who bagged comics (before it became common practice), worshipped at the altar of Star Wars (before it became hopelessly tarnished and rubbish), and who spent long, lonely hours dreaming of escaping (by means of mystical portal, enchanted wardrobe, or interstellar space-craft) this dull and dreary lump of rock we call Earth – nothing was as endlessly mysterious or impossibly enigmatic as the world of girls.

It was (unlike, say, Tatooine – the sort of rough and tumble place we could all understand) a truly alien world. Peopled with superior beings whose hopes, fears, and desires were forever shielded from us. What did they think? What did they want? What did they like? Questions not easily answered, particularly if crippling shyness precluded actually strolling up and asking them.

Happily, for those of us who had a sister or two, there existed handy guides to decipher and unlock the infinite mysteries of the young female mind. Handy guides that came entertainingly packaged in comic book form (conveniently found casually discarded on female siblings' bedroom floors). Guides with simple, two-syllable names like Bunty, Debbie, Mandy and Sandie. To junior male comic-aholics (on fixed budgets) they were guilty pleasures. Delicious and illicit digestifs to be savoured after the week's consignment of Battle, Action, 2000 AD (etc.) had been greedily devoured.

So what did they tell us about our sisters (and by dubious extension all of girl/womankind)? Well, on the surface it appeared that their main preoccupations were (in no particular order) – ballet, ice-skating, boarding schools, hockey, horses and orphans. But, just below this surface, simmered another world. A fantastic world of haunted suburban homes (“The Girl Who Came Back!”), alien dogs (“Wonderwoofa”), and…er…techno-fascist dystopias (“The Last Buttercup”). Girls, it shockingly transpired, were interested in cool stuff. Like SF and horror. Like robots, ghosts, extraterrestrials and heroic strugglers against injustice. In other words, and despite all evidence to the contrary, it seemed that they were, well, quite like “us”.

No discussion of the fantastical in 70s/80s girls' comics can ignore the significance of Fleetway/IPC's unholy trio of Tammy (1971-1984), Misty (1978-1984) and Jinty (1974-1981).  Born during a time of transition, when (as comics scholar Jenni Scott puts it) “the shrinking of what had been a guaranteed market sparked off innovation and experimentation”, each title was consciously designed with its own focus and flavour. The pioneering Tammy – brainchild of Gerry “Rogue Trooper” Finley-Day – led the way in the misery stakes: with an endless supply of cruel and tear-jerking tales of waif-ish misery and anguish (its crowning glory being, perhaps, the hilariously brutal and sadistic “Slaves of War Orphan Farm”).

The memorably eerie Misty (launched by British comics legend Pat Mills) shifted the attention from domestic terrors to explicitly supernatural ones. It wore its dark heart proudly on its sleeve, with  memorable covers (all swirling mists and jagged, creeping shadows) capturing a compelling Gothic freakiness very rarely indulged in or equalled by boys' publications (the brilliant, but short-lived, Scream! excepted). At a time when our weekly doses of “supernatural” drama centred chiefly on whether or not Billy Dane would find his haunted boots in time for Kenwood Technical's next big match, Misty's raw tales of doom and horror seared young men to their cores. Example: Pat Mills' own Moonchild – an unashamedly Carrie-esque narrative about the woes of telepathic misfit witch Rosemary Black and her ultimate triumph over the bullies that plagued her. Simultaneously uplifting and heart-stopping, it (and its ilk) left our copies of Roy of the Rovers, Victor, and Warlord looking rather limp, dumbly-cheery and simple-minded by comparison.

The final member of the Fleetway/IPC triple act was Jinty – a publication that became, as girls' comic enthusiast Briony Coote confirms, “the flagship for SF in girls' comics”. Launched in 1974 it was originally, Coote says, “closer to June and Tammy” in tone – i.e. full of “dark and emotional stories to make girls cry”. A tipping and turning point, she argues, was “Fran of the Floods” (1976). A prescient environmentalist tale of global warming and rising water levels, it proved hugely popular, pointing to a genuine (previously unacknowledged?) appetite for SF/futuristic fare among young female readers.

Compiling a comprehensive list of Jinty's many SF offerings would fill several pages (and induce catatonia in all but the hardest of hard-core readers), but a couple of stand-out stories deserve special mention. First up, “The Human Zoo”. A fresh, Planet of the Apes-esque, schoolgirl spin on that hoary old SF favourite, the…um…human zoo. While its lurid tag-line – “On the planet of two suns, they treat girls like animals!” – had more than a (questionable) whiff of 70s grind-house/exploitation cinema about it, the reality was, of course, slightly more innocent. Teenage twin girls are abducted by bulbous-headed, telepathic aliens and abused like dumb beasts before eventually proving themselves worthy by saving the aliens' city. So all ends happily (though not without mildly critiquing humankind's treatment of animals).

Then there was Pat Mills' dystopian “Land of No Tears”. It told the tale of “lame Cassy Shaw” who'd been “transported through time to a cruel future world where she and other girls who had things wrong with them were treated like criminals”. Detailing the struggle between the flawless Alpha girls and the despised Gamma girls, “Land of no Tears” potently married Gattaca-esque fears of an artificially perfected society with schoolgirl anxiety about social exclusion (while chucking a bit of “crippled ballerina” melodrama into the mix too). Brief shout-outs should also go to “Almost Human” (super-powered alien girl from a doomed planet whose touch is deadly to all earth life-forms. Bummer!), “The Robot who Cried” (a Pinocchio-like tale about learning to love…and weep), and “Children of Edenford” (a cautionary, mini Stepford Wives, narrative about a lunatic attempt to produce super-students. Using drugs).

While Jinty may have been the dominant voice in comic SF for girls, its competitors also routinely served up fantastical goodies – sandwiching them between more established and maudlin ballerina/ice-skater/orphan staples. The incongruity of this mix accounted for a large part of the charm. You'd find yourself flicking through (D. C. Thomson's) Bunty or Debbie, for example, speed-reading your way past standard fare like “The Four Marys”, or “Mary Brown's Schooldays”, and up a SF tale would unexpectedly (and delightfully) pop.

A perennial favourite was the “Girl plus Magical Companion” story. The ingredients were simple. Take one ordinary schoolgirl. Add a comical/magical outsider companion (alien, android, monkey from Jupiter etc).  Mix thoroughly. Then sit back and watch the “fish out of water”/buddy-movie hilarity unfold. The majority of these tales were cosy, inoffensive, knockabout affairs – modestly designed to raise mild chuckles. The companions' chief function (like many aliens before and after them) was to hold a mirror up to human vanities and foibles. They'd study us, comment on our primitiveness and expose us for the grasping, greedy fools that we were.

Unlike, however, more infamous (zero-tolerance) alien judges – i.e. Gort (Day the Earth Stood Still), or Doomlord (Eagle) – the alien observers in girls' comics tended to opt for slapstick (rather than brutal and apocalyptic) punishments. They wouldn't dream of sucking your brain dry, or reducing the Earth to a lifeless and smoking ruin, but they might (if you were really naughty) make your trousers fall down. Or cause you to topple amusingly into a lake.

A classic of the type was Bunty's “Belle of the Ball”, in which Belle Brown's ball became imbued with “remarkable powers after being treated by some space travellers from the planet Orbis”. The Orbisians (being an interfering and bossy species) routinely used the ball to send Belle orders, forcing her to help them observe the oddities of human behaviour. This, almost inevitably, meant weekly run-ins with some of the Earth's many boors and bullies, all of whom would suffer the gentlest of comeuppances at the “hands” of the ball. Such low-key conflict resolution was, needless to say, deeply unsatisfying if you were a blood-thirsty young male brute who'd been raised on a meaty comic diet of terminal machine-gun justice.

Happily, for lovers of conflict-fuelled drama, not all companions were this amiable and easy-going.  One of the most manipulative, pugnacious and downright weird girls' comic sidekicks was one that came packaged in the cuddliest and cutest of forms. “The Flights of Flopear” (Bunty, again) was an unforgettably demented space operetta that paired earth-girl Tessa Worth with a bunny-shaped alien spaceship called Flopear. No, really.

At first glance, it appeared merely a charming interplanetary adventure where Tessa and Flopear filled their days by “planet-hopping from one strange world to the next". So far, so delightful. But, as was often the case in the shadowy nether-world of Bunty et al., appearances were deceptive. Our friends were, in fact, "stranded in outer-space…trying to track down a piece of the elusive fire-crystal which would provide them with the power to make the long journey back to Earth". Suddenly it didn't sound like such a laugh…

To make matters worse, Flopear himself was dangerously unstable. His behaviour – wildly erratic. His mood swings – violent and abrupt. A one-bunny good-cop/mad-cop routine. One minute he'd be trying to console young Tessa (alone as she was, in the cold, vast depths of space) with a spot of in-flight entertainment (Space Invaders, anyone?!). The next he'd be savagely berating her for being a brattish ingrate (who failed to appreciate all he was doing on her behalf). The whole thing felt unsettlingly reminiscent of an abductor/abductee relationship. Like the cartoon adventures of  Wolfgang Priklopil and Natascha Kampusch…in space (if Prikopil had, you know, been a giant alien bunny).

If, by now, you're leaping about and wildly exclaiming “Where can I read these strange and marvellous tales?!”, then the news is, alas, mostly bad. While the burgeoning nostalgia reprint market has seen fit to reacquaint audiences with older (more traditional) girls' publications like June, Schoolfriend and Girl, most of the titles mentioned above remain unfortunately and unfairly neglected. More disappointingly still, a planned Best of Misty volume (from Titan books) has, it would appear, been indefinitely postponed (another victim of a bleak economic landscape).

All of which leaves (thriving) online networks and communities of enthusiasts/collectors as the chief guardians of these fragile pop-cultural memories. Fragile memories of mystical balls, brutal nightmarish futures, and disturbed space-rabbits. Memories that might otherwise fade. Memories of the strange forces that shaped (or warped) the imaginations of a whole generation of girls (and, of course, their brothers).

—–

Little extra bits…on some freaky tales of terror that scarred us for life.

“Slave of the Mirror” (Jinty): Young Mia Blake finds a possessed mirror in her sister's guest-house attic. The horrid, leering face it reflects back at her crushes her will and commands her to do evil. Canny young readers note a handy excuse for juvenile delinquency.

“Picture, Picture on the Wall” (Debbie): Young Mandy Thomas lives in Grimeford – a town blighted by urban decay. Tries to brighten up town by painting a cheery mural on an old warehouse wall. Mural wrecked by graffiti-loving bully. Mysterious stranger arrives and repaints wall with demonic figures who drag bully into mural where she's trapped (frozen and tormented) forever!

“Doom Warning” (Diana): Ambitious young journalist Claire Rossiter discovers aged gypsy woman who can predict future disasters (using a mystical billboard). Armed with this knowledge the young journo scoops her rivals, becoming a sensation. But fame corrupts. She turns wicked and cruel. Threatening the gypsy and abusing her colleagues. Old woman gets bloody revenge by fooling her into boarding a tube train that crashes, killing hundreds. Rossiter's death becomes the final grim headline.

August 25, 2012

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