7 Steps to the Sisterhood (1978)

7 Steps 17 Steps 27 Steps 3

Publication: 12 August 1978 – 30 September 1978

Artist: Ron Smith

Writer: Unknown

Plot

Kim Mason and Shelley Vernon are both on their way to Lansdale, a boarding school that specialises in foreign languages. Shelley is a bit nervous because she is a clumsy, accident-prone girl and is worried it will go against her at her new school.

Meanwhile, on the train, Kim overhears two staff members, Miss Tweed and Miss Frost, talking about them. Both of them are candidates for a special opportunity, the chance of a lifetime. But only one will be picked, so both will be watched carefully during the term. Kim is keeping this piece of information to herself…hmm, sounds like something for the reader to note as well.

When the girls arrive, Shelley is delighted that her room is next to Kim’s. She looks on Kim as a friend, even if Kim is acting a bit aloof. Meanwhile, Miss Tweed is unpacking priceless Thai costumes as background for an upcoming lecture.

Later, Shelley is surprised to see a note on her bed, from “The Sisterhood of Lansdale”. It claims to be a secret society that is considering her as a new member, but she must pass seven tests to qualify. She must not try to investigate the Sisterhood, ask help from anyone, or talk to anyone about the Sisterhood. If she agrees, she must tie a hanky to her bedroom door handle. Shelley jumps at it and ties the hanky to her door handle.

Someone takes the hanky, and next morning Shelley receives instructions for her first challenge: obtain a colour photograph of herself in one of the Thai costumes and leave it outside her door that night.

So Shelley borrows one of the costumes and sneaks out of school to use a photo kiosk to take the photograph. She does not know someone is watching her, and that person realises that Shelley is not solving the problem in the way she anticipated. When Shelley returns, someone throws water at her from a window, narrowly soaking her and the priceless costume. She has made it, but has to iron the costume to get rid of some damp spots. Miss Tweed catches her but thinks Shelley is just trying to help, and even allows Shelley to wear the costume at the display!

The second challenge is to bake a strawberry cake and leave it on the tack shelf in the stables on Friday night. Seems straightforward and harmless enough. Shelley even lets Major, a terror of a horse that only the headmistress can ride, have a few strawberries from the cake. But the third challenge is to ride Major bareback at dawn tomorrow!

Hoping that Major will return the strawberry favour, Shelley takes him out for the bareback ride. She sees a light flash back at the school and suspects the Sisterhood is watching her. Shelley gets caught by the headmistress and stable-hand. The head is astonished at what Shelley is trying to do – and bareback. But remembering daft things she did in her own youth, she decides to go along with it and help Shelley ride Major bareback. But Shelley does not get away with it altogether – she has to write a 500-word essay on horse riding in Spanish, which takes days! Meanwhile, someone in the shadows is watching. She thinks how lucky Shelley was that time, and if she’d had her way, things would have turned out differently. Now what can this mean?

The fourth challenge wants Shelley to take the new gold earrings belonging to an Indian student, Nirhani. She is to keep them until told what to do next. Shelley does not like the idea of stealing or risking trouble and is now having second thoughts about the Sisterhood itself. Shelley compromises by taking the jewel box, but not the earrings.

Then Nirhani comes up and says she found Shelley’s hanky (the one Shelley tied to her door handle) in her drawer. Shelley is now so thoroughly frightened by everything that she tells Nirhani (disregarding the conditions she agreed to). Nirhani, a long-standing student, says she has never heard of “The Sisterhood”. She also surmises that if Shelley really had taken the earrings, the theft reported, and then Shelley’s hanky found in the drawer – she would have been expelled. In other words, it was a set-up. Nirhani, who has second sight, gets psychic impressions that there is no “Sisterhood” at all – rather, Shelley has an enemy.

They start planning to catch the culprit. Shelley will pretend to steal the earrings, and Nirhani writes her a cover letter to say she lent them. They gamble that when Nirhani does not report the theft as the enemy expects, she will come into the open.

Another student, Fran, has a birthday and has been permitted to have a midnight BBQ. This brings in the fifth challenge – arrange a fireworks display as an extra surprise for the party. Fireworks are not available at that time of year, but then a book arrives with instructions on how to make your own. Shelley and Nirhani see the dangers at once, and realise the enemy must have as well. However, Shelley has to give the impression she is going along with it, so they use the instructions to make dummy fireworks filled with talcum powder. At the party they hide the fireworks in some bushes and take turns to keep an eye on it discreetly.

Before long, Nirhani sees someone try to light the fake fireworks – but then there are real ones as the BBQ suddenly goes up in flames. In the confusion and firefighting, Nirhani fails to get a look at the enemy. They are horrified when they realise what the enemy tried to do and get Shelley blamed for.

A note arrives from “The Sisterhood” telling Shelley to stay behind after the party – alone. She does, hoping to catch her enemy. A hooded figure appears, her voice disguised, and not allowing Shelley to get close. She tells Shelley she failed the fifth task (the fireworks did not go off as she planned) but Shelley manages to wriggle out of it with a cover story. Shelley tries to get closer as the girl begins to outline the sixth task: tomorrow she is to kidnap Nirhani and lock her in the hayloft in the stables. But just as Shelley is about to unmask the girl, Miss Tweed interrupts and the girl gets away.

Nirhani and Shelley realise what the enemy is up to: “find” Nirhani, be a big heroine, and get Shelley expelled. And Nirhani is getting premonitions of real danger if they go along with it in order to trap the enemy. This has them thinking of all the lucky escapes Shelley has had so far in avoiding serious accidents or being expelled because of all the traps the enemy has set for her.

In the end, Nirhani goes into the hayloft, with Shelley leaving a ladder outside for her to get out with. She then joins the others on a nature ramble. But the teacher drops a bombshell – the headmistress is getting the stable block fumigated! Shelley dashes off for the stables – and so is Kim. Seeing this, Shelley now realises that Kim is the enemy, not her friend. She also sees that the fumigators have moved the ladder, cutting off Nirhani’s escape, so she has to get the fumigators to rescue Nirhani.

Nirhani and Shelley confront Kim over her being the enemy. At first Kim almost gets out of it with a slick move – but then she makes the mistake of claiming that Shelley stole Nirhani’s earrings (she still thinks Shelley has retained them from the earlier challenge). Nirvana and Shelley then spring their long-waiting ace – Nirhani lent Shelley the earrings, and they have the note to prove it. Cornered, Kim confesses that she was trying to put Shelley out of the running for the opportunity of a lifetime that she learned about on the train.

Kim is expelled, of course. And it was all for nothing, because it turns out that Kim was not an ideal student for it after all. Moreover, there is now a chance for two students to win the opportunity, which is a world tour to publicise Lansdale’s methods. The head chooses Shelley and Nirhani because she has been so impressed over how they handled “The Secret Sisterhood”.

Thoughts

This is the first of only two stories that Ron Smith drew for Jinty. Smith was more frequent in Judge Dredd, so it is a delight to see him here.

A girl who causes trouble for another (motivated by revenge, personal gain, jealousy or just plain spite) is one of the oldest and most frequent formulas in girls’ comics. The DCT titles ran them so constantly that they must have run into the zillions. In Mandy alone, not many weeks went by without one such story, and Mandy’s cruellest example was probably The Dark Secret of Blind Bettina aka The Lying Eyes of Linda Lee. In Tammy and Jinty the formula appeared less frequently, which helped to keep it fresh.

In this version of the formula, we get a whole new take on the formula that is extremely rare, if not unique in its genre. Instead of pulling downright nasty tricks to sabotage the girl and get her into trouble, the troublemaker takes a far more insidious and convoluted approach – trying to get her into trouble with challenges from a non-existent secret society. This approach is extremely clever, not only on the part of the troublemaker but also the plotting. It is not so apparent straight away as to what is going on because the sabotage is being disguised as challenges, and it is more difficult for the reader to put the pieces together. Downright nasty tricks would have been a dead giveaway for the reader, and they would have known who it was and why immediately because it was all established in the first episode. Of course it all depends on Shelley rising to the bait in the first place – if she had decided against joining the society and not left her hanky on the door handle, the scheme would have been over for Kim immediately and she would have had to think of something else.

Girls’ comics have long made a strong comment on the dangers of secret societies, whether it is ones who issue challenges that are increasingly foolish and reckless, or are dark and bullying. This one is no exception – even if the society does turn out to be non-existent and it is all the work of one spiteful individual. Kim must be one of the most evil girls ever to appear in girls’ comics. Forget about trying to get Shelley expelled – Kim almost got Shelley (and others) hurt or even killed several times. She had no compunction about it whatsoever, though she must have been aware of what could happen with, say, letting off the boxful of fireworks near a crowd of people. Only at the end does she show any horror at her actions, when she realises that Nirhani could get killed because of her sixth challenge. And if that was the sixth challenge, what would the seventh have been like? The seventh step was never revealed, which must have had readers curious as to what it would have been.

This is one of the few stories in girls’ comics to have some ethnic characters. Though girls’ comics are not intentionally racist, there is a long-standing absenteeism of non-white girls in girls’ comics. Appearances of coloured or Asian girls are more the exception than the rule. But given that this is a language school, it is expected that there are girls of mixed races speaking diverse languages, and Jinty does deliver. Nirhani is Indian while Kim is part Chinese. It is interesting that both a heroine and the villain are of ethnic origin, and both are strong characters. Kim, the part Chinese, is a cold fish who is capable of just about anything to get rid of Shelley and seize the opportunity for herself. She is extremely clever and calculating, as shown in the way she is going about it – luring Shelley into trouble with a phoney secret society. Even the dress she always wears lends to her clinical nature, for it gives her an “evil scientist” look. By contrast, Nirhani the Indian girl is a warm and colourful character. Her second sight (which she handles with more success than 1977’s “Destiny Brown”) lends weight to the brains that figure out what is really going on. Nirhani is brilliant at working that part out, but we wonder if she really could have done it without her second sight.

“7 Steps to the Sisterhood” does seem to come across as a bit short-lived – only eight episodes. It could have been taken an episode or two more, if only to reveal the seventh challenge. Could it have been cut a bit short to make way for a new line-up of stories, and perhaps the seventh challenge cut off with it? Still, while it lasted, it was a whole new take on one of the most formulaic themes in girls’ comics.

 

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4 thoughts on “7 Steps to the Sisterhood (1978)

  1. Perhaps the story was not populair, and was the ending rushed? Perhaps it was too much for readers: a girl who tries to sabotage things, plus the mystery that you don’t know who it is. Or perhaps the seventh challenge was never to happen anyway, to give it a bit of a surprise. You expect all seven challanges to take place, but instead Kim is exposed sooner. A bit like it could happen in real life.
    Over here, the story was published in 1980 in 13 two-page instalments.

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