Terence Magee, formerly on the editorial team of various comics, and writer of Merry at Misery House amongst other stories, has kindly given the following interview. In addition, we hope that more information will follow from him in the future.
On initial contact with Terence Magee, he gave the following as general background on his work in British comics:
Editor Mavis Miller formulated the idea for ‘Merry At Misery House‘ and I wrote the episodes.
I had worked as sub-editor on Mavis’s first comic June & School Friend 1966-1971 at Fleetway House, so I knew a lot of people working there on staff and as freelances.
In fact, I had a long and varied career in comics, on staff and as a freelance author, boys’ as well as girls’ comics from 1960-1991. I was there in 1971 when the big changes happened – when John Purdy brought in Pat Mills and John Wagner to shake things up. The safe and gentle middle-class stories gave way to gritty, working-class yarns.
I remember feeling sorry for the old-school people who couldn’t keep up. It got pretty ruthless. Most of them were discarded, Mavis adapted fast and survived well until the early 1980s. But even she had enough of it in the end and left. The girls’ comics disappeared soon after. Maybe they were shaken up a bit too much.
The following were the questions sent to TM, and his answers:
1. Can you give a brief background of the professional and publishing context – how you came to work in comics in the first place and what it was like at the time (for instance, was most work done in house at that time, or with freelancers? what was the size of the market? etc).
(TM) I’d always been able to cook up a story since my schooldays and then I won a prize in a Daily Mirror Children’s Literary competition. Going into journalism seemed natural. I started as office boy on Lion comic at Fleetway Publications. There was a huge amount of artistic talent there, you could smell it (and that Cow gum!). Subbing for editors like Ted Bensberg (War Picture Library) and Mavis Miller (June & School Friend) I learnt a lot.
As for market size, it was enormous in the 1960s and 1970s. Some representative of the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) once told me that comics made bigger profits than women’s magazines.
2. What stories and titles did you work on, apart from ‘Merry’ at Jinty? Any particular standouts for you, at this distance in time?
(TM) I wrote many stories for many titles over the years, too many to mention. I think some of my best stuff was for girls’ comics – “Slave of the Trapeze” (Tammy), “Prisoners of Paradise Island” (Sandie), “Merry at Misery House” (Jinty).
I went from editorial to freelance writing and back to editorial again, ending up as editor of Battle Picture Weekly when that epic story “Charley’s War” was running. Superlative work by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun.
3. What’s your view on the great shake-up that you mention? Was John Purdy’s intervention a sensible one in the face of the changing market, and did it go too far or not far enough?
(TM) Fleetway went kitchen-sink. Stories got rough and tough, dark and edgy and very working-class. It was bound to happen just like other culture shifts at that time. Just a bit sad to see older Fleetway types knocked aside, people who had helped me in previous years.
4. I would love to credit more artists and writers from Jinty in particular but in other comics too. As a starting point, do you remember who the artist on “Merry” was? Are there other artists you worked with that you can detail for us, or other writers (again, particularly in Jinty but also in other comics if you can remember them)?
(TM) I never did know the artist for “Merry at Misery House”. The style looks dead right. It was great to find out through your Jinty website that “Merry at Misery House” is number ten in the Jinty Top Ten of favourite stories (though it says the writer is unknown). I think the Merry character had an impact on me, too, because I’ve recently written a book The Snow Witch about a chirpy girl called Merry. Completely different story set back in the Ice Age, the book’s on Amazon Kindle.
There’s a heck of a lot of writers and artists (and letterers) I knew. So I’ll stick to Battle Picture Weekly at the moment. Artists like Geoff Campion (Cooley’s Gun) and Eric Bradbury (Death Squad) who would never let you down. And top ones like John Cooper (Johnny Red) and Phil Gascoine (The Sarge). Amazingly prolific writers like Scott Goodall (The Wilde Bunch), Tom Tully (Johnny Red), Alan Hebden (War Dog).
But there were others on other comics such as author Fred Baker and artists John Gillat and Julio Schiaffino, geniuses at football stories (Hot-Shot Hamish and Billy’s Boots) for Tiger & Scorcher. Guys like that and Mavis Miller and Ted Bensberg – they don’t get the credit they definitely deserve. (Edited to add: Norman Worker was the Editor of Lindy and Wilf Prigmore was the Group Editor for the girls comics Tammy, Jinty, Misty.)
5. I feel strongly that the stories and art in girls’ comics overall were generally of an extremely high quality and of a storytelling value that can be shown by the strong and fond memories that have since surfaced from readers of the time. At the same time, of course they were subject to the normal commercial realities of the time, the editorial sifting to weed out less popular stories and extend more popular ones; and the comic titles themselves were subject to the ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ process. Can you talk a bit about these competing pressures, both as a creator and as someone with an editorial background? What surprising gems came out because of this competing issues (perhaps some daft and odd stories created under deadline pressure) and what might have been sacrificed?
5) Lindy was a tax dodge of some kind, I heard. I wrote “Hard Days for Hilda”, but it ended along with the comic after 20 issues. I don’t know the name of the artist. It was a shame that contributors weren’t named in credits in girls’ comics. It happened in later boys’ comics like Battle and 2000AD. [JS comment: and in Tammy later on, too.]
As an editor, I always started up a serial with serious intent of it being liked by the readers. Battle ran 3-page completes, using different artists and sometimes trying out new ones. But all had to be of high standard.
Editors were possessive with contributors and fought to hold on to them. I can credit myself with having recognised Cam Kennedy’s natural gift for drawing for comics. I started him on his first serial “War Dog” and then “Fighting Mann”. Most important of all, the readers were very impressed by Cam’s unique art.
Many thanks indeed to Terry for this useful and interesting interview!
Edited to add: Terry sent in some further comments subsequently, below.
“Looking at the 3 pages of the final episode [of Merry at Misery House], I’m pleased I wrote it so tightly. The influence of George Orwell probably as I was always a big fan. I like his clarity and conciseness. I got the idea for placards and slogans at Sombre Manor from ‘1984’. Coincidentally, I was living in the Basque Country, my wife’s homeland, under Franco’s fascist rule when I wrote ‘Misery House’. I saw many nasty things typical of a police state which affected me and maybe gave strength to the story.”
“I can see that you admire Mavis Miller. And you’re right to. Besides being an excellent and solid journalist through and through, she was very creative. Also confident, quick-thinking and good to work with. It’d be great if you could interview Mavis. As I suggested before, you could try Steve Holland, a real expert on British comics. He might have details for Len Wenn, you never know, who could be a link. Len and Mavis collaborated on scripts for June & School Friend and Sally. Len was editor of Sally. … Horace Boyten also used to join their script conferences before he retired in 1966. Horace was a very nice chap, quiet and modest, the writer behind “The Silent Three”. Len and Horace were very Amalgamated Press… easygoing kind of fellows. Probably too gentle for the challenging changes ahead.”