‘Draw Misty for Me’ – British Library, Sunday 17 August 2014

Event held as part of COMICA. Guest post by Pet Jeffery (http://chomupress.com/our-books/jane/) to whom, many thanks.

I’d intended to take my camera. Probably, I thought, there would be the opportunity to take Shirley Bellwood’s picture. It might – dared I hope? – be possible to persuade someone to take my picture with Shirley Bellwood. About three minutes from my front door, I realised that I’d left my camera on the parlour table. I paused for a moment. Should I return to retrieve my camera? After a few seconds, I thought bother it, and carried on toward the station. Subsequently I wondered what odd intuition had prompted me not to turn back.

‘Draw Misty for Me’ took place at the British Library on 17th August. Three people were scheduled to speak – Pat Mills, Dr Julia Round and, above all, Shirley Bellwood. Shirley illustrated a number of British girls’ comics but, the work being anonymous, perhaps only Shirley herself could provide an account of what she drew for which comics. That’s with one notable exception – she drew Misty for, well… Misty.

This was to be her first public appearance, which seemed to me a very big deal.

In spite of not going back for my camera, I arrived absurdly early. So, I settled myself on one of the British Library’s reasonably comfortable seats and took my Kindle from my bag to while away the time reading a strange age regression story. Only later did this strike as curiously apt for an adult waiting for a talk on a children’s comic.

The first disappointment was that most of the seats in the auditorium were empty. There were maybe a couple of dozen people present. Either the event hadn’t been publicised as well as it should or I was unusual in regarding it as a big deal. Or maybe very few Misty fans live within striking distance of London. Or all three, perhaps.

A second disappointment came when only two of the speakers mounted the rostrum, neither of whom could be Shirley Bellwood. One was far too young, and the other the wrong sex. When Dr Julia Round spoke, she added sadness and concern to my disappointment. Shirley Bellwood, she explained, would not be able to join us as she was suffering from pneumonia. A card was handed round the auditorium for us to add our get well messages. The card was fairly small for the messages of a couple of dozen people, so I kept mine brief and squashed it in a corner.

I am told that Shirley is now making a good recovery. Dr Round seemed to think that she might be available for an event in the autumn – someone mentioned Halloween. It would be pleasant to think that it will be so. Several factors, including the disappointing turn out, leave me with considerable doubt. We shall see. Maybe I’m unduly pessimistic.

Shirley retained some presence, with an image of her only surviving original Misty artwork projected on to the wall. Or, at least, the image remained in place for most of the time. It was projected from a laptop computer. Paul Gravett, the comics historian, scurried to rectify matters every time the device went to screen saver.

Mr Gravett said only a few words. Instead of Shirley Bellwood, Pat Mills did most of the talking, with Dr Julia Round providing him with questions and prompts. I imagine that Mr Mills talked for significantly longer than he expected. What is more, he was talking of matters from the 1970s, presumably drawing on his recollections rather than documentary sources. I would be hard put to speak of the things in which I was involved from 1978 to 1980, and so – I imagine – would most people who were around at that time. There is no wonder if his precise contribution to Misty, apart from writing “Moonchild”, struck me as somewhat vague. Listening to him, I formed the idea that he’d been the first editor of Misty, then he seemed to imply that he hadn’t actually edited the comic. Possibly, others may have come away from the session with more precise information than I did. [More information on this point is available in this interview: Pat Mills was Associate Editor of Misty, so while he was responsible for initially creating it, he was not the day to day editor of the title.]

At least some of what he had to say repeated things I’ve read in published interviews. Amongst these points was his analysis of the reasons UK girls’ comics passed from existence. Essentially, and I trust that I do him no injustice, this amounts to the publishers failing to treat their readership with sufficient respect. He cited the merger of comics into others quite different. While I’m sure that this played its part, I don’t think that it can be the entire explanation. The comics survived by many years the emergence of unmistakable signs of such disrespect. School Friend, for example, was merged with June as early as January 1965 – thirteen years before Misty was launched. Misty’s target readership wouldn’t have been born when these lamentable mergers started.

Amongst the other issues raised included the differences between boys’ and girls’ comics. While this gave rise to, I thought, rather too many mentions of 2000AD, some significant issues were aired. Amongst them, was the victim-hero – of which Pat Mills cited the early Tammy serial, “Slaves of War Orphan Farm”, as an example. A great deal more, it seemed to me, might have been profitably said on this. To be sure, the victim-hero would not have been acceptable for a 1970s or 1980s boys’ comic, but such a hero had not always been an exclusively female figure. Surely, Oliver Twist is an excellent example of the male victim-hero.

The questions of when this change emerged, and why, were beyond the scope of ‘Draw Misty for Me’, but are well worth addressing. Towards the end, Pat Mills took a few questions from the audience. One question concerned the scarcity of women engaged in creative work for the UK girls’ comics. Shirley Bellwood seems to have been the only female contributor to Misty. We were considering a comic aimed at girls founded more than five years after the launch of Spare Rib. I suppose that the publishers, rather than Pat Mills, have questions to answer on this. All the same…

I wonder whether I was the only person to feel perturbed by the dynamics of the occasion. They were, in some wise, a model of patriarchal society. We had come to hear a woman speak about a comic aimed at girls. Instead, we listened to a man speaking on that subject. The only woman on the platform, Dr Round, was cast in a supportive role for Mr Mills. I was somewhat reminded of the role assigned to a magician’s glamourous assistant. Dr Round is a scholar who has devoted herself to the study of comics. According the blurb for ‘Draw Misty for Me’, she is a lifelong Misty enthusiast. Surely, she deserved to take a more active part in the proceedings. I, for one, would have liked to hear her take on the issues raised. In several regards, it was a disappointing and saddening afternoon.

8 thoughts on “‘Draw Misty for Me’ – British Library, Sunday 17 August 2014

  1. The victim-hero had less appeal in the boys comics. They tried it with The Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain in Battle and The Running Man in Action. Both attempts at the victim-hero proved unpopular and short lived.

    1. Of course all this is a bit of an inexact science. We don’t know, for instance, whether the male readers didn’t like it because it was too different from what they were used to, or whether the execution might have been better. All we really know at this point is that those stories were relatively unpopular, and even then I don’t know if we have much information about how much more unpopular they were than other stories. (Might they have got more popular if the story had continued?) Generally speaking I am a bit sceptical about this sort of broad-based explanation resting on supposed gender differences (though to be fair it is not always stated as being a fundamental and essential difference between boys & girls, which is what particularly gets my goat).

      A possible counter-example in 2000AD might be “Rogue Trooper” (written by Gerry Finley-Day of course). It is not a story I know well enough to refer to in lots of detail, but surely it is very similar to a fugitive story? RT has a quest (to find a specific enemy) and he is betrayed by lots of people on the way. Admittedly he also has lots of weaponry to back him up! But he is one lone character in a hostile world.

      1. Pat Mills reckons the poor reception to Bamboo Curtain was due to boys not liking mystery. Funny that – boys like Sherlock Holmes, don’t they?

        Maybe it was the attempt to use the slave story that was so popular in girls’ comics, but boys were not used to it. They were used to action.

        I like Bamboo Curtain. I
        have the reprint in Tornado annual 1980. But an entry on it here would be way off topic. Unless I did an entry on the slave story theme for the blog…hmm….

        1. Great minds think alike! I am just thinking about doing an entry about one of the themes, too (‘evil object’, tho I will need to re-think the phrasing of it because I think that “Combing Her Golden Hair” belongs in that category, despite the comb not being evil).

    1. No, I think it’s more than that; it has an agenda (through the mother). I have been editing the Story Themes page to put in more links and revise a few categories, including what I have now called”Evil influence / supernatural influence”. Things in this category are, I think, mostly evil (but not always absolutely so), and generally have an element of taking away the protagonist’s free will, or at least getting her to do things she really shouldn’t. And of course the power behind them is not just something mundane like another jealous schoolgirl.

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