John Wagner is known to have worked on girls’ comics and written girls stories in the 1970s. I didn’t know of any previous interviews which had focused on this part of his career in particular: many thanks to him for answering the questions below in this brief interview.
1 I’d love to know how you got started in writing for girls’ comics, and what you did during that part of your comics career. What stories did you write? How did you balance writing comics alongside being an editor – or was that all part of what the editor was expected to do?
The girls’ comic side of my career started with Romeo, the DC Thomson romantic comic/mag, the poor sister of Jackie. Girls’ romance was just a step up from normal girls’ fare with the addition of boys. We never touched on lesbian love back then! Then when I left to go freelance with Pat Mills, girls’ stories was one of our target markets. We were given “School of No Escape” (was that in Sandie or Tammy? [that was in Sandie]) by the managing editor, John Purdie. The story had already been started, was running, but either the writer had quit, or been sacked. In any case editorial didn’t know quite how to handle it. It was quite a challenging first assignment but we made a pretty good fist of it. I helped Pat devise “School for Snobs” and write the first couple of episodes before we split up and I went to work in the IPC office in London. My only girls’ comic story after that was “Jeannie and Her Uncle Meanie”.
2 We’re always on the lookout for information on other creators of girls comics from the time. I have already asked you for any suggestions on the name of the artist on “Slave of the Trapeze” and “School of No Escape”, which sadly for us you weren’t able to recall. Are there stories by other people that you particularly remember from that time, which you would be able to help us to credit the creators on? For instance, anything written by any of Gerry Finley-Day, Malcolm Shaw, Charles Herring, Jay Over, Ian Mennell, Benita Brown, Maureen Spurgeon?
Malcolm Shaw was my sub on Sandie for a while, quite a good, reliable one. I’m afraid I don’t remember any particular stories any of the people you mention wrote, though Gerry would have done two or three for me. Never heard of Jay Over or Benita Brown and assume Maureen then went by another surname that I can’t remember.
3 Pat Mills has fond memories and a lot of respect for specific girls’ comics titles and the hard-hitting gritty stories that ran in them. What kind of comparisons would you draw between the world of girls’ comics and that of the boys’ titles you worked on?
They were pretty different, up until Pat and I started work on Battle Picture Weekly. I refer to the IPC boys’ stories, as DC Thomson boys’ comics had some excellent stories and were almost the equal of their girls’ titles. But IPC boys’ titles had stagnated, with stories that were formulaic, repetitive, barely credible and carried very little emotional power. They paled in comparison to the stories in Judy, Mandy and especially Bunty – clever, meaty, affecting.
4 You started your comics career working for DC Thomson before moving south to IPC/Fleetway. Were there things about creating comics that you learned at DC Thomson which you were keen to bring with you to IPC, or perhaps keen to move away from? Or other memories of differences between the two publishers?
I was keen to move away from poverty! The key lesson I learned there was self-criticism. Nothing you write can’t be better. Always question yourself – am I getting the best out of that scene, those characters, is there a better way of doing things?
5 Finally, anything you can tell us about your time at Sandie would be good to know. It was a fairly short-lived title, only lasting for 89 issues. What do you think that was down to? Did you leave it as it finished, or earlier? Who else worked on it that you can recall?
My memory is that they closed it down – or merged it – on a circulation of about 180,000 (though that figure may be inflated in my mind). In any case the low cover price meant that they had to sell enormous numbers. I was told the comic was going under and that they wanted me to move on to Princess Tina (which was also dying) and revamp it in an attempt to save it. Norman Worker (I think) was brought in to see Sandie laid to rest. In turn I made an awful hash of Tina, whereupon I quit journalism to become caretaker of an estate in Scotland, never to return (I thought!).
I’ve already mentioned [in email] some of the names of Sandie staff – subs Kyra Clegg, Rhoda Miller, Malcolm Shaw. Ally McKay was assistant art man for a while, and John…John…ah, I forget, but he was art editor.
Many thanks again to John Wagner for this interview. I have a small number of issues of Sandie, which I looked at in this post. Catawiki has details on a few Sandie issues also, and the Great News for All Readers blog has posted in detail about two issues in 2016. Mistyfan also wrote a post about the advert for Sandie’s launch, and another on issue 7 of Sandie in 1972.