A feature written by John Freeman for Memorabilia Magazine in 2004 about girls comics.
Reproduced in full with kind permission.
Bessie Bunter. The Four Marys. Ella on Easy Street. Moonchild. If you don’t recognise these strips, then the chances are you’ve never picked up a British girls’ comic. Which, according to their creators, is a damm shame, because titles like Bunty, Tammy and Misty featured some of the best comics stories ever written.
While boys’ comics command huge collector interest, girls comics aren’t in as much demand. This may seem a little odd, especially when you discover many of the most memorable stories of the past 30 years, like The Concrete Surfer and School for Snobs – indeed, hundreds of strips – were written by 2000AD greats like Pat Mills and John Wagner. Girls comics also feature art from prestigious talents such as Enrique Romero (better known for Axa and Modesty Blaise) Barrie Marshall (Roy of the Rovers), Jim Baikie and Casanovas.
Stranger still is the sorry state of the girls’ comics market. Virtually every single title – Bunty, Mandy, Tammy and many others – are long gone. But girls’ comics sold in their hundreds of thousands every week for years – Jackie and SchoolFriend topping one million copies at their peak. What went wrong?
“Girls themselves have changed,” feels Agnes Wilson, Deputy Managing Editor at DC Thomson, who published Bunty, Mandy and many other popular girls titles for decades. Now there’s only Animals and You, aimed at girls of seven to ten. “The picture story is not as popular,” she says. “There’s more competition for girls time now.” Consequently, as girls now get involved in more sports and clubs, they have less time to read – and are spending money on other things. As comics sales fell, even Bunty, which ran for 43 years, was cancelled last year. “Survival is a matter of economics,” admits Agnes.
Comics creators like Pat Mills, who was heavily involved in the creation of many girls comics well before his better known work on Battle and 2000AD, has different views. He’s full of enthusiasm when asked about girls comics, and pins the blame for their demise on the ill-treatment of creators and a lack of understanding of the genre by management.
Pat wrote for DC Thomson, then moved over to the girls’ titles at IPC, creating strips for Tammy, Sandie, Jinty, Pink and Girl. He was also associate editor on Misty, a comic packed with supernatural stories.
“Me, John Wagner, Gerry Finley-Day, Malcolm Shaw and several sub-editors who went freelance wrote those comics,” says Pat, referring to the 1970s titles IPC published to emulate the huge success of DC Thomson’s Bunty and Judy. They worked without credit – along with many stunning artists unique to girls comics like John Armstrong, who drew Bella for Tammy. “He was a genius with facial expressions,” says Pat. “No artist could match him.”
Together, these creators revolutionised IPC’s girls’ comics in the 1970s – and sales rocketed, with titles like Tammy selling over 200,000 copies per week.
Pat places sales success on creating strips with character, emotion and realism – “hard, gutsy stories that don't have to have a happy ending… That, combined with a strong camp quality, very clever plotting, ingenious ideas and totally over the top but still realistic concepts.
“There were some notable exceptions, like Pat Davidson, a truly fantastic writer, but many female writers were from the pre-revolution period and simply didn't get it. The more modern ones did – but they often lacked the surgical ruthlessness that the male writers had, writing hard – okay, cruel – edge needed on stories.
“This may not sound very politically correct, but it’s true. Many of the female writers' stories were too woolly or too soft. Maybe we just never found the right female writers. As male writers, our ability to precisely press buttons in our readers came because we were trained by DC Thomson, and also because we were observing the female psyche from the outside.
“There's another important fact which is somewhat controversial. Many young female writers and journalists on the girls’ juveniles were embarrassed to be working on mere comics, especially if they were printed on crude paper. They wanted to be working on trendy, glossy pop magazines as a stepping stone 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.
“So that’s also why male writers worked on girls strip stories – because many female writers found them uncool. Pure snobbery!”
And why are these great comics no longer around? At IPC, many of the writers who’d saved the girls comics were pulled from the titles in the mid-1970s to rescue the boys comics – leading to the creation of comics like Battle and 2000AD. But this brain drain meant pre-revolution editors, who didn’t understand the genre, were put back on the girls’ titles. Sales plummeted and by the mid-1980s, most IPC girls’ comics were no more.
Mills cites his own experience, writing photo strip on Girl as an example of this ignorance. “I wrote a few series for it, notably 9 to 4, a Grange Hill-style soap opera which was highly successful, running to two series. The script editor could not understand why it was popular because it featured girls, to use his words ‘standing around, complaining and absolutely nothing happens’. That's exactly how it would seem if you don't understand the nature of girls comics where the emphasis is on emotions, not dynamic visuals. Think of Grange Hill or East Enders. That could be described in the same way.”
“There was another and even more serious reason which is at the heart of all the problems in British comics, then and now,” says Mills. “Creators are not treated with sufficient respect. Even today, there is no recognition that the stories we create are our "intellectual property".
“Sociologists, media studies and students doing their thesis on the genre will tell you girls comics died because of changes in fashion. That’s an outsider's opinion and is academic bullshit. The real truth is the f**kwits won.”
Although girls’ comics are a lost genre today, there is plenty of collector interest – but they can be hard to find. “Specialist comics shops don’t handle girls’ comics,” says collector Mike Kidson, co-editor of online comics mag Borderline. “They’re not of interest to most of their clientele.
“You wouldn't expect to pay more than a tenner for any other of the hundreds of girls' annuals published between 1923 and the present,” he adds, “and generally you'd pay much less than that. Supply outstrips demand by a long way.”
However, there are signs that demand is hotting up. “Girls' annuals, and the comics themselves, are no longer quite as easily found in charity shops or newspaper ads as they were, and eBay competition for them is slowly increasing.”
“When girls comics do come in, they’re quite keenly bid,” reveals Malcolm Phillips at Comic Book Postal Auctions. Most collections of girls comics tend to be of higher grade than boys, and today’s baby boomer will happily pay up to £25 for a comic they recall from their younger days. DC Thomson’s 1960s annuals for titles like Mandy and Judy are popular and titles such as 1970s comics like Spellbound and Misty attract premium prices.
Would a girls’ comic succeed today? Marcia Allass, Editor in Chief at the influential Sequential Tart web site, is unsure. “The present western system of distribution, via the direct market to specialist stores only, and the lack of availability on news stands, is a drawback to success. That said, I still see more girls reading on trains and buses than boys. If things were widely available to them that addressed their tastes and attitudes, they’d buy them.”
Mel Gibson, who wrote a Phd on girls’ comics and runs training and promotional events about comics and graphic novels, feels girls are missing out through the disappearance of once hugely popular comics like Bunty and Jackie. Her research revealed just five per cent of comics readers are women and the massive growth in girls "consumer culture" has meant they are not benefiting from the experiences enjoyed by their mothers in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Although growing interest in Japanese manga is reviving girls’ interest in comics, there’s still a long way to go to secure the success of Bunty, Mandy and Tammy at their height.
“I like the idea of opening them up to the possibilities that comics offer,” says Mel. “They’re often very different from the other fictions they read. It’s also an issue of visual literacy, of learning another way of reading.
“Comics need to widen their audience to survive. In many ways this is a great time for comics, in that there is so much wonderful work out there to enjoy,. However, in terms of profit, it’s not.”
Agnes Wilson reveals that DC Thomson continue to watch the market very carefully and have researched the possibility of creating a new title. “We’re always exploring new angles,” she says. “If we thought there was an opportunity, we’d take it.”
“Over the years I have said to publishers many times, ‘Why don't you reprint the Best of Misty ... or the Best of Tammy ... and offered to point out the hit stories,” reveals Pat Mills. “After all, the cost of reprint would be negligible. And I've argued that if they were successful – even only in a nostalgia market – it could pave the way for a cautious revival. No one has ever shown the remotest interest.
“The reason is frighteningly simple. They don't understand the genre. It's a total mystery to them – a secret world which they wouldn't begin to, or want to understand.
“But for a decade between 1972 and 1982 many of us spent a very happy and creative time writing for that secret world.”
Girls Comics we remember:
Bunty: 1958 – 2001
“Bunty was at the head of the pack right from its debut until the late 1990s, by which time it was the only girls’ comic left,” says collector Mike Kidson. “It achieved that status of being the identifying label by which the whole field is referred to.” The title included boarding school tale The Four Marys which ran for six decades!
Girl: 1951 – 1964
Not to be confused with the later IPC title, Girl was the stable mate of Eagle. While a copy of Eagle #1 can fetch anything between £50 - £10 in reasonable condition, its female counterpart rarely fetches more than £20. “That’s despite the fact they’re the same in terms of [editorial] quality,” says Malcolm Phillips.
Jinty: 1974 –1981
Jinty featured characters far from the stereotypes of boarding schools, secret agents and pony riding – although they contained some of the aspects of them. Stories included Children of Edenford – a chilling Stepford Wives-type tale – and Pat Mills’ skateboarding tale, The Concrete Surfer.
“Women buy a lot as back issues,” says Howard Stangrom from the 30th Century Comics store (www.thirtiethcentury.free-online.co.uk), one of the few comic stores to promote its stock of girls titles. “It had a more street-level, adventurous slant, and is fondly remembered by thirtysomething women.”
Judy: 1960 – 1991
Judy featured everything that was good about girls comics back in the 1960s – the sort of comics success IPC sought to emulate with its “revolution” titles in the 1970s. Its formula of romance, orphans, school and girl-next-door stories survived even the 1980s, when consumer-led magazines for girls were on the rise.
Misty: 1978 – 1980
Introduced by IPC to mimic the success of DC Thomson’s Spellbound, this is, says Mike Kidson, “the only girls' comic to have attracted the attention of American comics fandom in the UK.” A Misty annual recently sold for £60 apiece on eBay – though beware, because the content of most in no way matches the quality of the original comic.
“The idea was to apply the rules of 2000AD to girls comics, including larger visuals,” reveals Pat Mills. “Specifically to use role models such as Carrie, Audrey Rose, Flowers in the Attic. If this had been done properly, it would have been a runaway best seller. I still regret not devising Misty and I feel if I had, it would still be around today. As it is, I wrote Moonchild (a serial based closely on Carrie) for the launch and this went down well.
Misty had a firm following, “but it had too many stupid adventure stories in with colourful visuals,” says Pat, “Female readers generally care more about story than art. In male comics, it's often the other way ‘round. I think I'd better resist commenting further!”
Tammy: 1971 - 1984
Always a title keen on a good weepy, Tammy rivalled DC Thomson's Bunty in sales terms. Tammy incorporated six other titles during its lifetime, including June and Jinty. It introduced us to Girls of Liberty Lodge, Slaves of War Orphan Farm and good old Bessie Bunter, created decades earlier by Frank Richards.