Most of the readers and contributors to this blog are likely to be people who originally read the comics under discussion, and maybe kept on reading them. It’s probably easy for us to remember what stuck in our minds from that time: we’ve perhaps kept those issues, or re-bought them, or been sent scanned copies by other fans and interested people. Of course we’re in the minority: most of the thousands or millions of the original readers stopped reading comics, gave them away or lost them in various ways, and probably don’t on a day-to-day basis think about them very much. That reading material will have made its mark nevertheless; if you search parenting site Mumsnet then you will find a persistent theme in threads where UK mothers, in particular, bemoan the lack of the sort of comics they used to read as girls, and/or remember the stories they loved from the time. This struck me as a great way to get an unmediated, unprompted sense of what really was memorable from people’s reading of the time.
The specific prompt for this came from me checking my referrer logs in recent days: a number of visits came from a discussion on Mumsnet about the comics the commenters used to read as girls. However, it also tied in to a recent comment by Marc about reader preferences about whether most girls preferred to read stories that could happen to them, rather than stories that were outright horror or fantasy. Of course reader preferences at the time needn’t correlate perfectly with the most memorable stories: one of the Mumsnet commenters asks whether all the stories ended unhappily, and further down someone else replies with an answer that I think hits the spot: “I think a fair few eventually ended happily, but only after much travail. … I think the disturbing ones stay in your mind much more though.”
This post therefore looks at the Mumsnet thread mentioned above in more detail (without going as far as providing proper numerical analysis as I find time has run away with me). In that thread, some comics titles, stories, or characters got a very strong shout-out, without necessarily having many details associated with those memories. Bella the gymnast was mentioned several times, as were the iconic Four Marys. Likewise Nancy the Nurse from Twinkle gets quite a few mentions, and so does a story I’ve never heard of at all, “Walter Hottle Bottle”. Individual titles are mentioned multiple times: Mandy and Bunty are the two that start the thread, but Twinkle seems to be a surprisingly hot favourite. Misty is mentioned several times and Tammy too; Jinty fewer times than I would hope 😦 but with great warmth when it is :-). June and Schoolfriend is accounted for, along with Girl (of course), Debbie, Nikki, Tracy, Judy.
If you click through to the Mumsnet thread you will see that I have just taken specific excerpts where people have discussed a particular story in more depth or with more fervour; in a thread with more than 200 comments not everything will be able to be looked at here, of course. (NB – the thread has a warning on it that it will be deleted after 90 days.) What sort of memories are still alive after all this time?
Some commenters’ memories were very vague and uncertain, although with enough detail for the knowledgeable reader to be able to identify them without too much difficulty:
- There was a big cuddly rabbit that was also a time machine or space ship or something, can’t remember what it was called though. [Presumably “The Flights of Flopear” in Bunty.]
- Am I dreaming this, or was there a story about humans being kept as pets and wearing collars on an alien planet? [Clearly Jinty‘s own “The Human Zoo”]
- There was one about magpies – some poor cousin living with horrible relatives and the magpies appeared as per the rhyme each week. And another one which ended when the girl said ‘there’s a squiggle’ and the rich family recognised her as their missing daughter because that’s how she’d always pronounced squirrel! [I don’t know these myself, but I’m sure someone else will recognize them.]
- Jinty here. Heartbreaking stories about a girl and her little brother having to hike hundreds of miles across barren wasteland to get somewhere (home?). [I assume this was “Song of the Fir Tree“]
- I remember one with loads of kids and the youngest was called little hanna??
- I have a vague memory of one from Mandy, which used to scare me witless. It was about a girl who had a ventriloquist’s doll which was haunted by an evil spirit. I think it was called Lord something? [“Little Lord Percival“, from Mandy]
In other cases, further details were remembered, even as far as the story title, which is pretty good going for a story that ran for a quarter or half a year, some decades ago!
- I had Bunty from 1978 (I was 7) til 1985 (when, embarrassingly, I was 14). I kept EVERY copy in boxes for years. … I remember the first story that really got me was called ‘Don’t cry for me’ about a girl in the war whose dad was a double agent.
- I remember a story called ‘The three Imps’ about 3 ballet dancers at the Imperial ballet school.
- I used to read Jinty and Misty. “Stefa’s Heart of Stone” and “Fran of the Floods” were my fave stories. I liked Mandy too, and Tracy. Highlight of my week was to get my comic on Friday or Saturday, and a packet of Tutti Fruttis, then crash out on my bed reading and chewing!
- Stefa’s Heart of Stone was one of my favourites.
- Misty is my all time favourite – there was a story called “The Bedtime Visitor” in one of the annuals which still scares the shit out of me! And Rosemary Black’s awful mother beating the wickedness out in “Moonchild”!
Some memories, however, were not only detailed, but clearly signaled something very persistent over the years: a living memory the creators could be proud of having engendered.
- I definitely remember reading a serial picture-story about a girl from centuries ago who got tortured and became a ghost. [Possibly “Hangman’s Alley” from Misty]. And another about a girl who became a kind of spider-woman, and she got bullied at school…then at the school halloween party the bully dressed as a fly – and the spider-girl ate her . [“Dressed to Kill!”, complete Misty story; scans above] They were scary.
- I remember The Secret Orphan, about a girl whose mother was really ill and sent her to stay temporarily with an old friend who ran an orphanage – except the friend was cruel and abusive to the orphans and, when the girl turned up, they mistook her for an orphan who had run away and she had to stay there so her mother wouldn’t find out. And also The Girl Who Gave Babies Away – a girl whose parents died and she couldn’t cope with looking after all her younger siblings – 9 or 10 of them! – so she had to try and find homes for them. Each week was how she gave away one of them. (Bunty)
- My favourites were Tammy (Bella the Gymnast), Jinty and Misty. I remember some really dramatic storylines – like the hurdler who went blind mid-race and the futuristic land where all the girls were rated as Alpha-Gamma depending on their physical abilities – one girl was rated Gamma because she burned all her hair off on a radiator as a baby! (someone else) I remember this one! The main character had been transported there from the present and had one leg shorter than the other. [This latter one is “Land of No Tears”, of course.]
- I used to love Jinty (sort of mid-late 70s). There was one really good story about a runner who made her friend train with her and then her friend died and her friend’s sister plotted to get her revenge. [“Go On, Hate Me!” by Len Wenn and Keith Robson] And another one about a cyclist who was the doppelgänger of a soviet cyclist who faked her death and swapped places with her. Brilliant. [“Curtain of Silence“, drawn by Terry Aspin]
- Also think it was in Mandy, “The Dark Secret of Blind Bettina” about a girl pretending to be blind and causing mayhem. She was blind for a while I think but a book fell on her head and she got her sight back but told no one. Loved it!! Another one about a poor tennis prodigy… She got into Wimbledon somehow but no one would let her in on the day so she had to hit balls at specific targets outside on a wall to convince the stewards!
- I remember a story about a girl who was a champion swimmer and she had a little brother who had asthma. Their Evil Elderly Relative made the girl promise never to swim again so they could go live in her country mansion where the air was better for the boy. The girl eventually had to dive into a pool to save a friend from drowning and it turned out the Evil Elderly Relative had been a champion swimmer in her youth and had had to give it up for some reason.
- I also remember a story from Bunty that was set in the future and featured two girls living in a biodome type community as the outside world was radioactive or something like that. I remember them eating pills for meals and their grandfather reminiscing about roast chicken. At the end, they discover a way out and make a break for it to find that the outside world Is safe once more! [“The Lost World”, from a Bunty annual]
- Misty used to freak me out. DM refused to buy it for me, I think because she knew how sensitive I was, but I would borrow my best friend’s copy and scare myself stupid. I still remember a lot of the last frames – like the one with the girl who was dodging body snatching aliens with laser beam eyes and in the last frame she’s in the car with her Dad and thinks she’s finally safe, then he turns to look at her…Plus one about identical twins who didn’t get along. One shuts her twin in an abandoned house or thinks she’s killed her, or maybe it’s some kind of curse which meant she couldn’t leave, and somehow life goes on without the house being searched. Years later she ends up back there (can’t recall how) and the last frame shows her twin – all disheveled and evil looking – telling her she hopes she enjoys the rest of her life stuck in the house.
- Misty was my favourite. I think it was Misty where there was a story where a group of friends found themselves in a world where it took turns to be everyone’s perfect world. The fat friend wanted everyone to be fat so she wouldn’t feel different. Her sporty friend hated it and exercised madly to lose weight to the point where her heart failed and she died. Everyone’s perfect world went horribly wrong. [Actually, “Worlds Apart” from Jinty]
- “Chained to her Racket” was in Judy and has stayed with me for a long time. … Living a childhood in which I’d never had to choose between tennis, ballet and horse riding, or combinations thereof, I remember this completely put me off tennis, no matter how theoretical.
In various cases, multiple people clearly shared the memory, too, showing how powerful it was.
- ‘There was a story about a girl and an oak tree that were linked.. When it broke a branch she hurt her arm, when it got covered in ivy she got diphtheria. The tree was destroyed to make way for a development and she died not that it’s stuck with me or anything!‘ (someone else then commented) ‘pretty sure I’ve got the Bunty annual with the story about the girl linked to the tree! It is one that stuck in my memory too; especially the bit where a school master and his students discover the tree suffocating in ivy and they rip it all off. Also, the bit where she dies and the tree is being cut down to clear the way for building.’ (someone else again) ‘I’ve definitely read that story with the tree too! I loved Bunty.’
- I think the stories were mostly dark, about girls in peril.I remember a mermaid one with a special comb [presumably “Combing Her Golden Hair” from Jinty] and one where a girl circled stuff in something like an Argos catalogue and everything she circled was delivered to her house but then she misused the power and got paid back some how. (someone else) Oh yes, the catalogue one! Everything she bought turned her evil! Though the story started out with her being bullied for her poverty, and then the magic catalogue somehow started letting her have material goods and the Awful Moral was: know your place povvos (because she didn’t stop being evil until the catalogue and all her new treats got burned or something). [“Glenda’s Glossy Pages” from Tammy; writer Pat Mills, artist Mario Capaldi]
- There were lots of odd stories, weren’t there. Lots of suffering children and weird abusive situations, but I lapped them up. … I might have imagined this as it sounds too weird even for them…girls training for athletics on a ship, very cruel treatment, no food for the girls who came last in races, and…did they practice long jump by jumping over the swimming pool. And I MUST have imagined there was a shark in the pool? (someone else) Oo! I remember, vaguely, the story about the young swimmers being kept on a boat and mistreated! They were supposed to be swimming round the world in stages or something, all part of a crazy scheme of some ancient retired swimmer lady. A fire on board eventually led to their rescue I think. That was a particularly mad and involved story. (someone else again) Yes, I remember the young swimmers on the boat, loved that one. (and another person) I have the story about the mad lady and the four girl swimmers. She kidnapped them to make them swim the Atlantic which she had attempted solo when she was young and failed. It was from the 1980 Tammy Christmas annual. Years later my teenage boyfriend came across it and was shocked at how sinister it was! (someone else) It really was sinister, and it went on and on too. I remember that they spread it out over the annual, so that you had to keep flipping ahead to read the next horrifying bit of the saga (original person) I dug it out a while ago and tried to read it but the writing was so small. It was still sinister and quite nuts! The girls had to swim the Atlantic in stints while they were filmed, as you do! Does one of them not rub grease on herself, in order to fit through a porthole? But shoots through too fast and ends up falling into the stormy seas? Good times. And I’m sure there’s a twist to the ending.
(Click thru )
- I remember a terrifying short story about a girl playing in some piano recital and it all went brilliantly and then she went back to her dressing room and a fairy appeared and granted her one wish. She wished to repeat the last hour again and was all excited as she was back doing the recital, getting all the applause etc but then she realised she’d made a terrible mistake as the fairy appeared again and she heard her own voice asking to repeat the last hour and, shock, horror, she was doomed to repeat that one hour of her life for eternity!! (someone else) Yes, yes! I remember the piano recital one! And, I must confess, have actual waking nightmares about the same thing happening to me. (someone else) All the stories were quite spooky but that one has haunted me for about 35 years! (someone else again) I remember the piano one as well! Very disturbing. Definitely a case of be careful what you wish for.
It isn’t surprising that long-running characters Valda and Bella – quite different from each other, but each the star in multiple story arcs over the years – rang a number of bells with the readers decades later. So did The Four Marys, though part of the discussion there was just trying to remember their surnames. Later ongoing stories such as “The Comp” and “Luv, Lisa” also make an appearance. Wee Slavey gets one or two mentions; not as many as I might have expected.
- I remember a story about a girl who was really old but drank from a spring of youth and then looked young again. The effects of the spring of youth always ran out at some crucial point in her adventures. She was called something like Veena or Velda I think? (swiftly corrected by others) [Valda, from Mandy]
- I lapped up Mandy stories, I loved Angel and Valda.
- I loved Bella the gymnast. (Someone else) My favourite was Tammy comic – I loved Bella the Gymnast.
- I used to be disturbed by Bella the gymnast’s tiny, tiny ponytails. And the scary cheek-curls of Mabel and Veronica, the villains in The Four Marys.
- Love Lisa, the photo diary story was good, and The Comp of course (as well as The Four Mary’s obviously!)
- Wee Slavey – was that Bunty? (someone else) My favourite character was “wee slavey” [Wee Slavey was Judy]
But some other individual characters are fondly remembered by name, too:
- ‘I loved miss Angel too. Caring for the waifs and strays!!’ (Someone else) ‘Oh I loved Angel. Then they went and fucking killed her off!! I was distraught I tell you, DISTRAUGHT!!’ (Same person posting shortly afterwards, having read the post on the Girls Comics Of Yesterday about Miss Angel) And now I’ve just cried again! (Someone else again) Miss Angel! I knew she would be mentioned. Brilliant stuff. Similar story to the earlier Hester Langley, but she didn’t go to such lengths of martyrdom and self sacrifice as Miss Angel. (someone else again) Reminds me of Annie the orphan who begged Miss Angel to play at her violin recital or she wouldn’t be able to do it in front of an audience. She worries initially as Miss Angel still hasn’t appeared, but then spots her sitting at the front and is able to play. She discovers afterwards that Miss Angel had died some hours before the violin recital… Also remember Miss Angel going without her pain relieving medication (for her terminal illness) in order to buy food for the orphan children.
- I also remember Pinkie, the girl who would shrink to the size of a finger. [and] Lots of ballerinas dancing in difficult circumstances and succeeding against the odds – e.g. Lorna Drake.
- My brother has fond memories of a summer special with the promising title, ‘Sheena, Slave of the Tennis Racket’, which culminates in a Wimbledon Final which she has to win in 30 minutes, as her Chinese doctor has performed some procedure which will only keep her on her feet for half an hour. Readers, you will be unsurprised to find out that Sheena played the final point as the half hour expires.
Some of the memories give other useful context: what did the stories provide to readers? Were copies were kept and re-read, or not? How did the stories get used socially?
- Girls comics had mainly girls in. It was like a special club. I bought a Bunty yonks ago and it was all about boyfriends IFWKWIM. Meh. I wanted stories that made you want to keep reading every issue because of drama, or a crisis, not if a girl would get the boy or not.
- I followed a few links last night and re-discovered The Slave Of Form 3b, which I was obsessed with at the age of about 10. I used to draw my own versions of it, exaggerating the plot even more (it was wildly OTT anyway – bully at boarding school has hypnotic powers and uses them to destroy the personality of the new girl…)
- I was only allowed 2 or 3 copies [of Twinkle] as a kid. If I asked for the new one DM would ask if I still had the old one, and tell me to read it again…
- I kept EVERY copy in boxes for years. …
- I loved them, Only ever got one when visiting ill relatives in hospital as it was only the hospital shop that sold them in my area.
- My big sis got the Mandy and I got the Judy and the read the bunty every week at the library. When big sis moved on to my guy mum bought me both. I think she was secretly reading them.
- My Mum wouldn’t buy comics but my childminder was lovely and used to get Bunty each week and always let me read it first because she knew I loved it.
- I loved, loved comics so much. I used to swap mine with cousins when I went to stay with them in school holidays. I got Whizzer and Chips and Topper. I swapped those with boys up the road for Dandy and I got my comics back – usually in marbles games. My Uncle took me in his truck to my cousins and he had a big pile of Twinkles and Buntys that his daughter had read. I had all my read comics. At my cousins (there were 6 of them) They had all their comics saved.
- the BEST girls comic by far imo was Girl. I loved the photo stories especially the ballet and school ones. And Patty’s World was the long running drawn story. (someone else) Girl was considered very sophisticated. We played Patty’s World in the playground.
I love the fact that once their memories are prompted, these readers from the past have such vivid details elicited. I never drew my own versions of any stories, but I remember dreaming about Jinty stories – my bed encircled with the villains, and an inner circle composed of the magical heroes, protecting me – Corn Dolly and Epona fighting off Miss Marvell’s evil mask and! Without this sort of anecdote told after the passage of many years, it would be hard for publishers, creators, and grown up readers to realize quite how strong a hold these so-called disposable publications really had on their loyal fans.