Monthly Archives: February 2017

Finleg the Fox (1975)

Sample Images

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Published: Lindy #14, 20 September 1975 to #20, 1 November 1975; continued in Jinty and Lindy merger 8 November 1975 to 20 December 1975

Episodes: 14

Artist: Barrie Mitchell

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: none known

Plot

Una Price has been left orphaned and lame from a car crash and is in delicate health. Authorities send her to Blindwall Farm in the hope the country air will improve her health, but they have not counted on the Drays who are running it. The daughter, Dora Dray, bullies Una and lumbers her with all the work, despite Una’s bad leg, while she indulges in riding. Una soon gets the impression that Dora is a sadist who enjoys hurting animals and people. Mr Dray is a sourpuss who doesn’t have a good attitude towards Una either. They both push Mrs Dray around and take her for granted, so she is the only one who is kind to Una.

Dray is not pleased when Una rescues a fox from one of his traps. He also warns her about his landlord, Sir Arthur Stollard, who is a master of fox hounds. Una secretly nurses the fox, named Finleg because of his leg injury, in the barn.

Dora finds out and starts blackmailing Una. Soon Una has had enough of this and stands up to Dora. So Dora brings in her father, all set with a shotgun to shoot Finleg. But Finleg has recovered enough to escape, so Dray finds nothing and Dora gets a clip around the ear from him. Finleg is now back in the wild, but he is not forgetting the girl who saved him.

Meanwhile, Sir Arthur is trying to buy out Blindwall Farm when the Drays’ lease expires. Dray does not want to sell the farm he has worked on all his life, but feels he may have no choice because Sir Arthur is a powerful man.

Soon after, suspicious things start happening. Una finds a blood trail after Dray takes a shot at something in the night. The trail leads to a shed and a strange man, whose left hand is wrapped in a bloodied bandage. He knocks her out and runs off. When she describes the man to Dray, he gets oddly worked up and goes off on a hunt for the man – with his shotgun. He does not seem to have much success, but after this he softens towards Una and even spares Finleg when he has a brush with him at a disused railway track, where he has set up a den in the embankment.

But Sir Arthur’s fox hunt isn’t sparing Finleg. Dora has been invited, not realising Sir Arthur plots to get at Dray through her because she would know his weaknesses. Dora is eager to use the hunt to kill Finleg. Una helps a bunch of fox hunt protesters foil the hunt. Dora finds out and threatens to beat Una, but Finleg steps in to save her. Dora is even more narked when Sir Arthur tells her she is not good enough to join the hunt, so she gets even more vicious towards Una and Finleg.

That night Dray goes hunting for the man again and Una follows. The man knocks Dray out and is searching the embankment at the railway tracks. He finds Finleg’s den. Finleg and Una manage to scare him off and he tries to escape in a passing car, but the driver doesn’t stop. For some reason Dray is against the idea of going to the police and Una wonders what he is hiding. Una also loses her crutch at the scene and starts using a stick, which helps to strengthen her leg.

Dora again joins Sir Arthur as they prepare for another hunt, and Una is following. They stumble across the strange man, who has been shot dead. Sir Arthur finds a list of names on him, which he finds interesting and hides from the police. The man turns out to be an escaped prisoner named Stephens, and his death is a murder inquiry. Afterwards, Sir Arthur uses the list and Dray’s suspicious-looking head injury to blackmail Dray into selling the farm, with insinuations that he will have the police suspect Dray Stephens’s murder. Later Dray tells his family that they are leaving the farm at the end of the month. Seeing no further use for Dora now, Sir Arthur tells her not to bother with their next hunting date. Dora blames Una and hates her even more now.

Surmising that the driver of the car Stephens tried to jump into is the real murderer, Una goes back to investigate. Finleg leads her to the embankment, where she finds a huge cache of hidden money. She shows the money to Dray, who clearly recognises it but won’t have a bean of it. Una hides it in the barn.

Una sees the strange car in town, which is driving dangerously and nearly knocks her and another woman over. When Una helps the woman, a Mrs Pargeter, Dora tells her everyone says Mrs Pargeter is a witch (because Mrs Pargeter is psychic and treats animals with herbal remedies). Una rubbishes such nonsense, especially from Dora.

Dora seizes another opportunity to spite Una when she finds the crutch with blood stains on it and takes it to the police, claiming it is evidence that Una is linked to Stephens’s murder. The police realise Dora is a spiteful minx but they still have to investigate the bloodstains. The blood group belongs to Dray, but he doesn’t tell the police the full story of what happened and Una wonders why as she is sure he is innocent of Stephens’s murder. The police also search the property, but Finleg takes the sack of money before the police find it and puts it back in his den. The police leave, but Dray is still under suspicion.

Una goes to consult Mrs Pargeter, who says the money must have come from a train robbery ten years back, when the tracks were in use. On the way back the strange car actually tries to run Una down, but Finleg saves her. Later the strange car intercepts Dora, who says she is laying down poison for foxes (Finleg of course). The man tells her that if she comes across anything else to leave a note for him at Cobbett’s Mill.

The police are also investigating Cobbett’s Mill because a lady reported seeing a light there in the night. They find nothing, but their dogs got excited so they know there must be something. Later we learn that Cobbett was on the list of names Sir Arthur found, and so was Dray’s, but he can’t figure out what the other names mean. Realising the police are not charging Dray with Stephens’s murder at this stage, Sir Arthur again ingratiates himself with Dora to get at Dray.

Dora’s attempt to poison Finleg succeeds. Una finds him, and realises Dora was responsible when she bumps into her. Una takes Finleg to Mrs Pargeter, who has skills in healing animals. Her herbal remedies do the trick and Finleg is soon on the mend.

Meanwhile Dora finds the money in the den and leaves a note about it in Cobbett’s Mill for the man. Una sees Dora leave the mill. After a fight with Dora she finds the note and realises Dora has put herself in danger because of it. Sure enough, Mrs Dray tells Una that she saw two men kidnap Dora, but Dray refuses to call the police. However, he finally tells them the whole story. Two men who robbed the train came to his farm and coerced him into hiding some of the money. The gang was rounded up and imprisoned. One of them, Stephens, escaped and came back to look for the money. The man who killed Stephens must have been “The Boss”, the only member of the gang not to be caught, and his true identity is unknown. Realising “The Boss” must be the one who kidnapped Dora, Una, with Finleg’s help, keeps watch over the den where the money is hidden, figuring the kidnappers will come for it.

But Una is in for a big surprise at who shows up for it – Sir Arthur! Una follows him (her leg is now fit enough for her to do this) while giving Finleg a note explaining things to take back to the farm. The police have finally been called and when they see the note they go in pursuit, with Finleg leading them.

At the hideout Una overhears Sir Arthur and his accomplice (his estate manager, Bert Randle) planning to kill the bound and gagged Dora because she knows too much. Una unwisely goes in to tackle them and gets captured too, but it’s Finleg to the rescue with a bite on Sir Arthur’s leg. Sir Arthur is arrested and confesses to being “The Boss”, and Randle was his right-hand man in the robbery.

So the threat of Sir Arthur is no longer hanging over the farm and the Drays want Una to stay. Dora reforms, apologises to Una, and starts treating Una like her very own sister. Una now walks properly thanks to Finleg. Finleg becomes part of the family, but eventually the call of the wild summons him away while Una looks on.

Thoughts

This was one of two Lindy serials to make the transition into the merger with Jinty, so it has some distinction for that. It was also the only fox serial in Jinty, even if it is one that came to Jinty half way through its run. Jinty had some stories featuring an animal from the wild, but this was the only one to feature a fox.

Finleg shares some similarities with the 1984 story “Rusty Remember Me”, which started in Princess series 2 and was also completed in a merger, the last one in Tammy. Its protagonist is also a crippled girl who gradually overcomes her disability and walks properly again thanks to the friendship she strikes up with a fox. Perhaps it was the same writer.

However, Finleg has much meaner and crueller opponents than Rusty (a surly caretaker who is nasty but not downright evil). Finleg is up against a cruel and vicious girl who tries to kill him on several occasions, and that’s only the start. He is also up against fox hunters, who combine forces with the threat from Dora. The man leading the hunt isn’t just threatening Finleg; he’s a greedy, unscrupulous aristocrat who will resort to fair means or foul in order to get his hands on the Drays’ farm and force them off into a council house. Such villains are very common in girls’ comics. What is unusual is that Sir Arthur is also a mastermind behind a train robbery. That does sound a bit odd; you’d think such things would be beneath a snobby aristocrat like him. On the other hand, it says a lot about what makes him so rich.

The menace of Sir Arthur over the Drays, Dora’s cruelty towards Finleg and Una, the fox hunt threat, the problems of Una’s disability, and her friendship with Finleg make a durable combination for a good plot. But what really heat it up and keep it going are the introduction of the mystery elements, the murder of Stephens, and Dray being suspected of it, which means Una now has the additional task of clearing his name.

There’s also a horrible but fitting comeuppance for Dora when she is kidnapped by the very man she thought was her friend – Sir Arthur. When she heard them plotting to drown her in the marshes her life must have flashed before her eyes. The shock of it lends some plausibility to her change at the end, even if it does come across as a bit quick and pat. It’s a real twist for her that she is rescued by the efforts of Finleg and Una, the ones she had tried to destroy out of spite. Gratitude must have also been a factor in her change for the better.

Hettie High and Mighty! (1975)

Sample Images

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Published: Lindy #14, 20 September 1975 to #20, 1 November 1975; continued in Jinty and Lindy merger 8 November 1975 to 13 December 1975

Episodes: 13

Artist: Unknown artist “Merry”

Writer: Terence Magee (concept, synopsis, first episode); remaining episodes unknown

Translations/reprints: none known

Plot

Dock End School is a bit run down, but it’s a happy and peaceful place – until Hettie King arrives, that is. Hettie’s previous school, Firdale Academy, was a posh academy that has turned her into a haughty high-and-mighty snob. Her dad is now sending her to Dock End, saying it will do her good and knock that snobbishness out of her.

Now that is a most unwise thing to say to Hettie’s face, because the obvious result is that she will react against it, which sets the stage for what follows. From the first, “Hettie High and Mighty” looks down on her new school and the girls who attend it, including the hockey team captain, Janie Downs. But Janie soon finds out that Hettie has far worse qualities than snobbishness. She is also a nasty troublemaker who is extremely cunning at getting her own way, worming out of trouble, and even ingratiating herself with the girls she had upset before.

On the other hand, Hettie is a brilliant hockey player and would be a valuable asset on the hockey team. However, the girls quite naturally don’t want her on the team because of her bad behaviour, and Janie isn’t going to grovel to her to get her to play either.

Then Janie overhears the headmistress saying that the council means to pull down the school and relocate the girls to a new school that is miles away. However, if the school wins the hockey championship, the prize money would enable them to spruce up the school to council standard. Realising the school must win, Janie decides she must grovel to Hettie after all. But she cannot reveal the reason why, because if Hettie finds out, there’d be nothing she’d like better than to see Dock End close down.

Hettie agrees to be in the team – in exchange for Janie doing her homework – but of course she isn’t showing any team spirit although she plays brilliantly. In fact she gets up to all sorts of tricks, the mildest of which is hogging the ball, the worst of which is playing deliberately foul play and giving Janie concussion in front of reporters – but she is so slick that poor Janie cops the trouble and the unpopularity. Eventually Hettie’s tricks make Janie so unpopular with her team mates that they are demanding her resignation and Hettie nearly steals the captainship from her. Later we learn that Hettie was just as bad with the Firdale hockey team and they were glad to see the back of her. Well, well, well! At least they can see her for what she is.

Then Hettie moves into Janie’s home where she starts ingratiating herself with Mrs Downs with lots of expensive presents (colour television, automatic tea maker, electric blanket). Unfortunately Mum gets so cosy with all the gifts that she’s late for work and gets the sack. Janie blames Hettie and although it’s hard to say if Hettie actually planned it that way, she doesn’t give a hoot about Mrs Downs losing her job. Yet her “nice” act has her father completely fooled when he returns suddenly and he thinks she’s changed her “high and mighty ways”. Ah, so that explains why she acted nice in the first place!

Back on the hockey pitch, Hettie is lording over the girls so much that they finally see through her. But all Hettie has to do is threaten not to play in the championship and Janie has to let her stay, no matter how badly she behaves. All the same, Janie is coming to the end of her rope with Hettie and is counting down to the days of the championship, when she’ll not have to put up with Hettie any longer.

But Janie finds she has miscalculated: Mr King and Mrs Downs fall in love and get married. So now Janie is stuck with high-and-mighty Hettie for a stepsister! Hettie is lording it all over Janie at home now, having her to do all the housework and wait on her hand and foot while she lounges around. Mum is making a big fuss over Hettie, so Hettie really appreciates having two people wait on her hand and foot. However, she has not accepted Mrs Downs as a stepmother (she still addresses Mrs Downs by her Christian name) or shows her any respect.

Then Hettie finds out why Janie wants her in the team and Dock End is facing closure if they lose the championship. As Janie feared, Hettie quits the team and leaves them in the lurch to lose the championship, just so the school she despises so much will close down. Not content with that, Hettie deliberately gets Janie on the wrong bus so Janie will miss the championship too, and is crowing all over her. Janie tells Hettie that what she needs is a jolly good hiding.

Which is precisely what Hettie soon gets. Mum had followed once she realised they were on the wrong bus, overheard everything, and gives Hettie a jolly good hiding! Moreover, Mum is thrashing her in a public café. This means her punishment has an audience, which would add humiliation to it. After Mum is through, she demands proper respect from Hettie and good behaviour. Hettie complies, and Janie is satisfied Hettie has finally gotten what she needed: discipline and humbling.

Mum then directs them to a short cut across the common she had known from childhood to reach the match. But Mum doesn’t realise a private property has been built there since her time, so Hettie and Janie unwittingly trespass into it and fall foul of guard dogs. For the first time Hettie shows unselfish behaviour when she offers to draw off the dogs, but in the process she gets bitten.

By the time they arrive at the match Hettie is limping badly and in a lot of pain. To add to their problems, the rival team are known as “The Amazons” because they play tough, brutal and dirty (a bit like Hettie once!). The Amazons pick up on Hettie’s injury and start to play upon it. The nurse says Hettie should withdraw for treatment, and Dock End is losing. Janie peps up the girls for a fight by telling them just what is stake, and Hettie courageously stays on to teach those Amazons a lesson for trying to cripple her. Dock End’s comeback, particularly from Hettie, takes the Amazons by surprise. They lose their grip and start making mistakes, which gives Dock End the edge to win. The school is saved, and Janie now considers Hettie as the best sister she could ever have.

Thoughts

This story is one of two Lindy stories to have the distinction of making the transition into the Jinty and Lindy merger. The other is “Finleg the Fox”, which coincidentally started in the same Lindy issue as Hettie. Hettie also brought a hockey story (well, part of one) into Jinty. Hockey stories were rare in Jinty, despite her emphasis on sports stories.

The story is not a memorable or distinguished one. Still, it holds its own because it is a combination of several proven formulas that have stood as serials in their own right. The first is the protagonist being forced to tolerate an odious girl because something is at stake. The second is a school bully who becomes a stepsister and makes the protagonist’s home life as unbearable as school. Third is a courageous battle to win a competition to save a school, but of course it’s filled with sabotage and obstacles along the way. Fourth is a nasty troublemaker who revels in causing misery for everyone. The last is turning an unsavoury girl into a reformed character.

Reforming a nasty troublemaker is not something that always happens in “troublemaker” stories (it did not happen in Judy’s “Be Nice to Nancy!”, for example). However, once Hettie becomes Janie’s stepsister she just has to be reformed, not just for the sake of winning the championship and saving the school but also to stop the marriage between their parents from being torn apart from the bad blood between the girls. Hettie also has to be reformed for her own sake as well, because she will never realise her full potential as a top hockey player if she persists in her bad behaviour, because hockey is a team sport and demands team spirit.

Until then, Hettie is a brilliantly conceived snob and troublemaker that you just love to hate. Like Nancy Norden in “Be Nice to Nancy!” she is a dreadful snob who despises her new school because it’s not good enough for her, and she is also a nasty troublemaker who loves to cause trouble and misery for everyone. Even the posh school that turned her into a snob found her unbearable. She was probably on the verge of being expelled before her father yanked her out and transferred her to Dock End in the hope it would change her haughty ways. Sorry Mr King, but you need to take a much firmer hand with Hettie than that! Mrs Downs is living proof of this when she cured Hettie’s bad behaviour with just one good thrashing. Hettie is also a lot more slick and cunning than Nancy in getting her way and pulling the wool over people’s eyes with phoney “nice” routines.

It is debatable as to the way in which Hettie is turned around (a good hiding in public) is all that convincing because it seems a bit too instant and pat. Still, you just have to love Hettie getting that jolly good hiding, and you wish so many other unsavoury girls in girls’ comics could get one too – Nancy Norden, for example.

Afterwards the hockey championship becomes Hettie’s redemption and helps convince Janie and the other girls that she really has reformed and they can make a fresh start with her. She didn’t just play to help them win the championship; she also braved a great deal of pain and dirty tricks (not unlike the ones she herself played once) in order to pull it off. You could say Hettie even got a taste of her own medicine through the Amazons; they were playing dirty on her, just as she used to play dirty, even on her own team mates. It is a pity the Firdale girls didn’t see it too and realise how much the badly behaved girl they despised so much has changed.

Winner Loses All! (1979)

Sample Images

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Published: Misty 4 August 1979 to 24 November 1979

Episodes: 17

Artist: Mario Capaldi

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: none known

Plot

Sandy Morton’s father is the despair of her. Once he had been an equestrian champion, including an Olympic champion. But he has never been the same since his wife died in a crash five years back because he keeps irrationally blaming himself for her death. As a result he has sunk into chronic alcoholism. He is now on the verge of being fired from his stable hand’s job at Hornby Riding School for being constantly drunk. This would also get them turned out of the house (even if it isn’t much of one) that goes with his job.

Sandy is desperate to find a way to stop Dad drinking and restore him to his old self. She also has dreams of following in his footsteps and become an equestrian champion, but that looks hopeless now because of the downward spiral her father has fallen into. The snobby rich girl Jocasta Forsyth-Major at the riding school really loves to rub her nose in that, and that Sandy can’t be part of the Worthing Cup competition the school is training for.

When Sandy finds the old sign of the now-ruined Black Horse Inn with the black horse on it, she wishes aloud the horse was real and she could have one like him.

Bookie Mr Dayville from the betting shop has overheard her. Dayville says he can give her everything her heart desires: her father restored to what he was, a decent home, the Worthing Cup, a horse of her own, become an equestrian champion. There is just one small price to pay for it all – Sandy’s soul!

Oh no, it’s no joke, dear Sandy. Moments later, Dayville is proving his true identity as the Devil himself. Sandy will come to suspect Dayville uses his position at the betting shop to tempt more people into his pacts, and she will wonder just how normal the village really is with all these secret Devil pacts that must be going on. As the story progresses, she will find out more about just how right she is.

In due course Dayville says almost everyone ends up in Hell anyway, so why not get some benefits out of it? He also reveals that the population of Hell is divided into two categories. The first are people who were truly evil in life and so are blessed with demonic form in Hell and the Devil treats them like pampered pets. The second are good, noble souls like Sandy who just make up the numbers and the Devil probably treats them like second class citizens. Gee, what does it take to get to Heaven then? But the story never goes into religion, the Bible or Jesus Christ.

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Some facts about Hell, from the Devil himself. From “Winner Loses All!”, part 6, Misty 1979.

Right now Sandy won’t have any dealings with the Devil, but he isn’t taking “no” for an answer. He’s going to tempt her with a free trial. So when Sandy arrives home she finds her father transformed to his old self, Dayville offering to sell him a black stallion (named Satan, of course) for Sandy, and the black horse has vanished from the inn sign. But next morning it’s all back to normal, with Sandy’s drunken father lying on the floor. Sandy has to hide him behind the sofa before Mrs Hornby sees him drunk again and gives him the sack.

Temptation is not the only weapon in Dayville’s armoury. He turns the screw with emotional blackmail, telling Sandy how the booze is going to slowly kill Dad until he dies, and she could have saved him. Finally, when Jocasta threatens to tell on Mr Morton for drunkenness, Sandy panics so much that she caves in and accepts Dayville’s bargain. All signed with her own blood in the Devil’s book of contracts, of course.

So now Dad is transformed, no longer drinking and eager to turn their lives around, and Mrs Hornby is impressed. But with the Devil being behind it, there has to be a sting in the tail. Sure enough, we see it when we learn that the transformed Dad still blames himself for his wife’s death, which was the real root of his alcoholism.

The deal also includes an upcoming Olympic gold for Sandy and the black horse on the inn sign come to life (though as a living painting, not a real flesh-and-blood horse) for her to ride under the name of Satan. Dayville will claim her soul after she wins her Olympic gold – which will be in one year’s time at the 1980 Games! It also means Sandy and Satan have to be up to Olympic standard in a year, and they are still only novices.

There are some surprises. For example, Jocasta tries to spite Sandy by having her father buy Hornby Riding School, with the dismissal of Mr Morton as part of the deal. But Jocasta’s father also has a pact with Dayville (so that’s why Jocasta’s family is so rich!), so it’s an easy matter for him to persuade Forsyth-Major to withdraw his offer.

Though alive, Satan is not a real horse, and his fate is still bound to the old inn sign. So when the sign gets run over and snapped, Dad sees Satan’s legs break. Sandy finds the damaged sign and holding it together makes Satan whole again. The vet is bemused at this and rumours start that Dad imagined the broken legs out of drunkenness. When Dayville hears, he threatens to kill Satan to prevent discovery of Satan’s secret. To save Satan, Sandy is forced into another bargain with Dayville: if anyone finds out the truth about Satan, Dayville will claim Sandy’s soul instantly.

This almost happens when Dad and the vet take Satan to run secret tests because Dad wants vindication from the rumour that the booze made him imagine those broken legs. Sandy manages to stop them, but Dad gets the wrong impression that Sandy does not care about him (what a cruel irony!) and is deeply hurt. Dayville is ecstatic because he feeds on such negative emotions and misery.

By now Sandy realises that it’s going to be nothing but torment, torment, torment all the way from Dayville from now on, long before she reaches Hell. And she soon finds out she is not the only one he means to torment.

Cheating just has to be part of the Devil’s design to make her an equestrian champion: he’s got all his demons nobbling the competition by scaring and tormenting their horses, and she is the only one who can see them. Well, he never specified how he was going to make you a champion when he drew up the contract, did he, Sandy? As a result of this, Sandy wins the Worthing Cup by default and gets no joy out of winning it. Dayville also pulls the strings on another contracted person, Sir Geoffrey Ricketts, to get Sandy entered in an international event.

The vet takes the sign away for cleaning, which causes Satan’s legs to break again when the weak piece comes off. Sandy has to run the gauntlet with the demons, who don’t want her to get the sign back before the vet gets too close to Satan and find out his secret. Surprisingly, Dayville lends a hand by mending the sign, so Satan gallops away “from a very perplexed vet” and virtually apologises for his demons, saying they got a bit over-enthusiastic. However, the vet is still suspicious of Satan and the sign, and arranges for a test to be done on Satan when he performs at Ricketts’ show.

At the Ricketts show Dayville has the demons get up to their usual tricks to spook the competition out of Sandy’s running. Sandy tries to plead with Dayville to stop this, but it’s no use; after all, he is the Devil. And there is a bonus that has Dayville laughing even more – Dad has overheard them!

Soon Dad is informed about Sandy’s pact with the Devil (but not the reason for it) and shown the demons that are tormenting the horses. Thinking Sandy did it for her own Olympic ambitions, he is outraged and says she’s no daughter of his. Sandy nobly chooses the estrangement with Dad over having him know the real reason for the pact and blame himself. However, Dad works it out for himself when he goes for a drink but finds something is stopping him getting a single drop of alcohol past his lips.

Once Dad realises the full truth, he does something that takes even Dayville by surprise: he offers to let Dayville take his soul instead of Sandy’s. As Dad is willing to give up his soul immediately, Dayville considers it a better deal and happily accepts. As part of the deal, Dayville makes Satan a real horse – which puts paid to the test the vet arranged for him, and in the nick of time – and Sandy his legal owner. Moments later, Dad suddenly dies of a heart attack.

Sandy braves her grief in order to go into a spectacular and clear round (while bowling Dayville clean over!). Jocasta is so impressed with Sandy’s courage that she repents her unsavoury attitude towards her. The demons have stopped interfering with the other horses, so Sandy wins fair and square. She changes Satan’s name to “Phoenix” as she quite understandably can’t stand his old name. At Dad’s grave, Sandy vows that she and Phoenix will win the gold at the 1980 Olympics in his memory.

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That’s the Devil she’s bowling over! Yes, THE Devil! From “Winner Loses All!”, final episode, Misty 1979.

Thoughts

This story is regarded as Misty’s jewel in the crown and one of the best-ever serials in the history of girls’ comics. It deserves such recognition, for it is bold enough to use the Devil himself as the heavy and pushes the boundaries like no other serial ever has in terms of scares, torture, misery and courage, not to mention Satanism and demons that would scare the living daylights out of kids. It doesn’t even end happily although Sandy was saved from Hell. Even by Misty standards it’s extremely strong stuff. It’s a wonder this story didn’t have parents up in arms in Parliament, especially ones who were Christian fundamentalists.

Sandy Morton must be the most tortured heroine in the history of girls’ comics. Even before Dayville gets to work on her, she’s in the pits of misery with her alcoholic father dragging her down into a despairing downward spiral along with him. She sees no future at all, much less any hope of becoming an equestrian champion like the Dad she used to know.

The story then takes the “wish fulfilment with strings attached” route, with the Devil himself offering to grant Sandy’s wishes in exchange for his usual fee. But you can’t expect the wishes to bring happiness when the Devil is granting them. And that is precisely the Devil’s design, as Sandy soon discovers. While granting her wishes, he uses them as a means to torture her emotionally and psychologically every step of the way to The Pit. He uses loopholes in the contract to torment her even further. For example, his idea of making Sandy an equestrian champion is to cheat her through to victory by using his demons to nobble the competition by scaring and torturing their horses. He makes her watch in horror as his demons torment the horses. He knows she does not want to win this way and will not enjoy it when she does win. That’s the whole idea, and he’s loving every minute of it!

The difficulties in keeping her secrets from her father adds to the torment and the Devil’s delight when it causes misunderstandings with her father and they become estranged. Even Satan, Sandy’s only comfort and friend against all her misery, is being used to add to the torment when Dayville forces her into the clause that he can claim her soul instantly if anyone finds out the truth about him.

Even when Sandy’s soul is saved from Dayville he still torments her. As she looks down at her father’s grave, she knows he is now down in Hell in her place, swelling the ranks of noble souls who are just there to make up the numbers. And on top of everything else, she’s now an orphan, and only has Phoenix to accompany her in the world. All she has left to live for is win the Olympic gold in her father’s memory.

The depiction of the Devil in human form as Dayville is brilliant. It makes a change from the usual horn-headed, goat-footed figure with the red cape and trident (except when he gives Sandy glimpses of his real form). His position as bookie is a most crafty and insidious way to tempt people. Maybe Misty is making a statement about the evils of gambling? It is also quite funny to think of the Devil having a day job in the human world.

There are also dashes of humour about Dayville that make him oddly endearing at times. For example, when Sandy turns him down initially he says he’ll give her a free trial, for he has to move with the times. (Nice to know the Devil isn’t a stick in the mud!) When Sandy signs Dayville’s book of contracts he says he is so pleased she is able to sign her own name instead of making thumbprints as people used to do in more illiterate times, and he appreciates the value of education. And while Dayville is always finding ways to use his contract to torment Sandy, he never actually lies to her or goes back on his word. He always remains within the boundaries of honesty. Yes, the Devil isn’t called cunning for nothing, is he?

Dayville’s comment about the two divisions of souls in Hell is disturbing. If the idea of Hell is to punish wrongdoing, what are noble souls doing there? He never says why or how they ended up there. Did they foolishly enter contracts with the Devil too, or was it for something they failed to do – like not believing in Christ, maybe? Yikes, that’s beginning to sound like something out of a Jack Chick tract. But as stated above, the story never even mentions Christianity, much less reveal what role it could play against the Devil’s contract with Sandy. There isn’t a priest, Bible or prayer in sight.

Alan Davidson

Alan Davidson, author of various Jinty stories such as "Jackie's Two Lives"
Alan Davidson, author of various Jinty stories such as “Jackie’s Two Lives”

We have run a few posts about Alan Davidson before now on the blog, but not a complete summary post that serves as an appreciation of his work. Of course no summary post can be properly complete at this stage as we do not know all the stories he wrote for girls’ comics – his wife Pat Davidson has mentioned that he kept careful copies of his invoices and his scripts, but to go through those files is itself a lot of work. We can hope that we will hear more titles of stories in due course, and if so, I will certainly add them into this post. In any case, we now have story posts about all five of the Jinty stories that it is is known that Alan wrote, so the time seems right for an appreciation of him as a comics writer.

Known Jinty stories written by Alan Davidson:

Known stories in other titles:

  • Little Miss Nothing (Tammy, 1971)
  • Paint It Black (Misty, 1978)

Pat Davidson has also stated in a separate email that “[f]or older readers he contributed some excellent stories for Pink and often met up with Ridwan Aitken, the then editor. I don’t have any records of these to hand, although I remember a very original story about a hero who could predict earthquakes, which Alan much enjoyed writing. I can’t remember its title.”

Having set down these initial bibliographic details, what can we pull together in terms of an appreciation of his work, in girls comics and elsewhere?

Davidson’s work is not as strongly themed as Alison Christie‘s concentration on heart-tugging stories which forms the bulk of her comics writing. There is a clear focus on wish fulfillment in his Jinty stories: Gwen stumbles into a position where her schoolmates respect and appreciate her as she has always wanted, Jackie is swept up by a rich mother-figure who is prepared to take her away from her life of poverty, Debbie finds a mysterious valley and within it a sort of fairy godmother who will save her from her cruel family, and Kerry is likewise swept up by a rich mentor who looks like she is a route to the fame that Kerry has always wanted. The wish in question is almost always double-edged or positively treacherous: Debbie is the only one who ends up happy with getting what she has always wanted (and of course her fairy godmother figure is stern-but-kind rather than seemingly kind but morally dubious). However, Davidson plays the theme of wish fulfillment while ringing the changes: none of his stories are close repeats, even though they have this similar focus.

For Jinty‘s pages he also wrote the important science fiction story “Fran of the Floods” (1976) – perhaps not quite the first SF story that ran in this title (that is arguably 1975’s “The Green People”) but a hugely popular one that ran for some 9 months. Jinty‘s reputation as a title that ran lots of SF surely must owe plenty to the success of this key story. It is a strong story through to its end, though showing a few signs of padding in some parts of the long journey taken by the protagonist. (I note that Sandie ran a story called “Noelle’s Ark” a few years earlier which has a number of similarities without being as strong on characterization or drama: it would be interesting to know if this was something that Davidson was aware of, or perhaps even the author of.)

Davidson of course had also previously written a standout story that gave girls’ comics a key new theme: 1971’s “Little Miss Nothing” started the run of Cinderella stories which gave Tammy its reputation for cruelty and darkness. Pat Mills has lauded this as being written with a real lightness of touch and being written very much from the heart (note that he thought at the time that this was written by Alan’s wife Pat, which has since been corrected by Pat Davidson herself). We know less about what we wrote for titles other than Jinty: it seems he wrote little else for Tammy (unless Pat Davidson can correct that impression?), and only one story for Misty. “Paint It Black” was part of the opening line-up of that comic. While it was a compelling read it doesn’t seem to have struck the same chord with readers as some others from that title, and Davidson doesn’t seem to have written more for Misty (perhaps also due to the fact that he was finding success in children’s prose fiction from around that time).

It’s clear that Davidson’s writing is strong all round, and at its height was really mould-breaking (not just once, at least twice). There are ways in which it follows the conventions of girls comics writing reasonably closely: the titles of his stories tend to follow the standard set up of focusing on the girl protagonists (Gwen, Jackie, Fran, Kerry) though veering away from that in some cases (“Valley of Shining Mist” and most particularly “Paint It Black”). I’m not sure whether this all-round strength is part of the reason for another aspect of his comics career which I was struck by when looking back – he has not been associated with one particular artist, but rather been illustrated by a wide range of artists with no repeats that I know of. This contrasts with the partnership between Alison Christie and Phil Townsend, who created some seven very popular stories together for Jinty.

From the mid to late 70s, Davidson started to concentrate on prose fiction for children. It’s a little hard to search for details of his work online as he doesn’t seem to have had his own web presence and there are a few other well-known figures with the same name (such as a food writer and a cricketer). This Goodreads author page is the clearest list I have found of his prose works, while it’s also worth looking at his Wikipedia page, which tells us that he started off as a subeditor on “Roy of the Rovers” for Tiger. Writing children’s prose fiction has clear advantages over continuing in the world of juvenile comics: better recognition by your public rather than having no printed credits in the pages of the comics titles, better rewards for success in the form of royalties and translation money. At the same time, his most successful prose work, “The Bewitching of Alison Allbright”, is an effective re-working of his popular comics story “Jackie’s Two Lives”. The influence of the earlier writing clearly informs the later work too: what comics loses, children’s fiction gains.

If Davidson had been writing a decade or so later, might he have been swept up in the popularity of 2000AD and the migration that various British creators made to the US market? That only seems to have drawn in the creators working on boys’ comics, so I assume not. It is pleasant to imagine the talented writers of juvenile comics being fêted and recognized by name in a way that British publishers spent many years fighting to prevent. Ultimately however it is a sad thought: Alan Davidson, who is amongst those who most deserve that name recognition, is only now getting a small fraction of that recognition after his death.

WTFometer VII: Cinderella Story

Comixminx has devised the WFTometer, the idea of which “was to give a framework for looking at how bonkers (or not) a story’s plot was, by comparing the story to an assumed ‘average reader’s situation’. This gives a structured way of comparing stories, including the possibility of finding patterns of oddity in seemingly different stories which are perhaps odd in similar ways”.

This seventh volume of the WTFometer will look at three Cinderella stories that already have entries on this blog. They are Cinderella Smith and Make-Believe Mandy from Jinty, and Bella at the Bar (original Bella story) from Tammy.

As the name suggests, the Cinderella story means a serial where the protagonist is treated like Cinderella by cruel parents, foster parents or other type of guardian. There is often a wicked stepsister type (though not always) who is spoiled and joins in the abuse of the protagonist. Most often the protagonist’s one hope of escape comes from a talent she has discovered or special secret, but the abusers throw all sorts of obstacles in the way.

When comparing the results on the WTFometer, the scores remain the same for agency in small/large things and emotional/physical/mental security. They remain “small difference”. One reason is that the emotional/physical/mental security issues are not serious enough to go into “big difference”. For example, the abuse the protagonist endures is not severe enough to put her at risk of death, so it remains “small difference”. The variations in scores are seen in the sections on household structures and standard real-life talents. This ties in with the Cinderella format, where family structure is the basis for establishing the abuse, and where a special talent/secret is often the key to freeing the protagonist from the abuse. None of the stories hit “extreme” in any category.

First: Cinderella Smith

Score: 10

wtfometer-cinderella-smith

Cindy Smith is sent to live with her two elder cousins while her father is away. They exploit and abuse her to the point of putting her in chains and making her eat out of the dog’s dish. Although they live a luxurious lifestyle they make Cindy live in mean conditions and put her in tattered clothes. Their abuse is prompted by stinginess and hatred towards Cindy’s mother, who is now dead. Cindy takes a secret modelling job. The cousins’ dog Woozums, initially hostile to Cindy, becomes her companion and co-modelling star. Cindy also gets help from her friends at school in working against her cousins’ abuse.

This story scores a 10 on the WTFometer. This is because it is the most consistent with the patterns observed above. There is “small difference” in “standard pets” because of Woozums, which takes up the scoring slightly more. It would score higher if Cindy was an orphan, but she is not. Her father is still alive. The “standard friends” structure remains “standard”, but this is in fact unusual for a Cinderella serial, in which the protagonist tends to be more isolated from any friends to help her.

Second: Make-Believe Mandy

Score: 14

wtfometer-make-believe-mandy

Mandy Miller’s family hate her for some reason. The parents make her do all the housework and slave in their second hand clothes shop while they devote all their attention and money on their spoiled daughter Dinah. The parents always compare Mandy unfavourably with Dinah, calling her ugly, useless and not fit to be seen with her. Whenever Mandy threatens to go one better than Dinah, the parents get even more cruel with her.

Gradually Mandy realises their hatred stems from her not being related to them by blood. She is in fact a foreign princess who was left in their care when calamity struck the country. When payments for Mandy’s upkeep fell through the Millers were left stuck with her. But now officials from Mandy’s home country have located her whereabouts, and after a series of tests to determine her identity, they want her to reclaim her throne. The Millers try to stop this by locking Mandy in the coal cellar, and Mandy is making a seemingly impossible bid to escape through the coal chute.

The scoring is similar to “Cinderella Smith”. One difference that would make the scoring lower than Cindy is that the ticket out Mandy’s misery is her royal birthright, not a special talent, so standard real-life talents are ranked as “standard. However, Mandy scores “big difference” on the two-parent household category because the Millers are not Mandy’s real parents and it can be safely assumed her birth parents are dead, which would make her an “orphan”. So Mandy scores four points higher than Cindy.

Third: Bella at the Bar

Score: 24

wtfometer-bella-at-the-bar

Orphan Bella Barlow is exploited by her Uncle Jed and Aunt Gert, who wring as much money and work out of her as possible. They make her do all the housework, slave at Uncle Jed’s window cleaning business (without payment), don’t feed her properly and keep her off school.

Bella has a genius for gymnastics, but the Barlows either do not allow it because it will make no money for them or they take advantage of it if they do see a way to make money from it. This includes sending Bella to a seaside show where they will get money from her gymnastics acts. The seaside show manager exploits and abuses Bella as much as the Barlows do, and the acts she is being forced to do threaten her health.

Bella follows the same patterns as Cinderella Smith in the real-life talents and emotional/physical/mental security sections, but in other sections it scores higher. Unlike Cindy, Bella is an orphan, which means “big difference” in the two-parent category. The Barlows don’t let her go to school, which means “big difference” in the school category. There is “small difference” in the locality section because of the shift to the seaside show.

WTFometer VI – Group Slave Story

Comixminx has devised the WFTometer, the idea of which “was to give a framework for looking at how bonkers (or not) a story’s plot was, by comparing the story to an assumed ‘average reader’s situation’. This gives a structured way of comparing stories, including the possibility of finding patterns of oddity in seemingly different stories which are perhaps odd in similar ways”.

In the sixth volume of the WTFometer I am putting three group slave stories through the WFTometer. The stories are Merry at Misery House and Prisoners of Paradise Island from Jinty, and Slaves of the Nightmare Factory from Girl series 2. All of them have entries on this blog.

The group slave story is where a group of girls are being held captive, used as slaves and mistreated. Settings for the slavery have included state prisons, cruel schools, orphanages, factories, workhouses, mines, farms and secret workshops. More unusual settings have included ships, circuses, restaurants, holiday camps, totalitarian regimes and dystopian worlds. Sometimes the enslavement is based on an activity, such as hockey, ballet or swimming.

Sometimes the slavers have ulterior motives for exploiting girls, such as the establishment being used as a front for an underground crime ring or forced labour racket. And there are times when the slavery takes a form that is more insidious. On the surface it looks harmless, even enjoyable, but underneath it all, its victims are being ensnared for sinister purposes.

These three group slave stories are being put through the WFTometer to see how high the settings of the their forms of slavery, the cruelties the villains inflict, and how far they went would score on the WTFometer. As part of this purpose there are two lines for physical security: one for the protagonist and one for supporting characters. This is in case the physical security of the protagonist is any different from her fellow prisoners. For example, do any fellow prisoners actually die from all the cruelty?

First: Prisoners of Paradise Island

wtfometer-prisoners-of-paradise-island

Score: 19

This is one of the more insidious group slave stories. A hockey team is kidnapped and taken to a tropical island. But instead of being subjected to all sorts of cruelties and being abused and exploited, the girls are treated to every kind of luxury and pampering their kidnapper, Miss Lush can offer. Only the hockey team captain, Sally Tuff, realises it’s a gilded cage. Miss Lush is deliberately spoiling the girls with too much luxury and pampering so as to make them too fat and unfit to win a hockey championship, and she is going to take punts against them. After many failed bids at escape or make the girls see reason, Sally calls in their sports teacher Miss Granley for help. But when Miss Lush finds out, she tries to kill them both.

On the WTFometer there is a difference between Sally’s physical security and those of the other hockey players. They are subjected to deceptively luxurious treatment that threatens to damage their health, but it does not put them in any physical danger. However, Sally is put in physical danger when Miss Lush tries to kill her. So her physical security scores higher. Taking the hockey players away from their locality and onto a tropical island also scores points. This story would score more if its cruelties were more severe, but as it is it scores 19.

Second: Merry at Misery House

wtfometer-merry-at-misery-house

Score: 26

This was the longest-running group slave story in Jinty (and in girls’ comics). In the 1920s Merry Summers is wrongly sent to a reformatory called Sombre Manor. It is better known as Misery House, and for good reason. The reformatory staff are sadistic, hypocritical and corrupt, and inflict tortures that include beatings, starvation, drip dungeons and stocks. They are capable of leaving sick girls to die of neglect, and only Merry’s efforts to get medical attention for them one way or other saves their lives. Eventually it is revealed the Misery House staff are engaged in illegal dealings, and when Merry discovers this they try to kill her.

Physical security for both the protagonist and supporting characters is the same: big difference because of high risk of death or injury, but nobody actually dies. The setting of a juvenile prison and historical time period also help bring the scoring of the story to 26.

Third: Slaves of the Nightmare Factory

wtfometer-slaves-of-the-nightmare-factory

Score: 33

Natalie Jones and Amanda Harvey are kidnapped for slave labour in a secret dress factory located deep underground in London’s wasteland. Girls are sent to the dreaded Punishment Box if they fail to meet strenuous dress quotas. Food is terrible and monotonous. Basic necessities and medical facilities are totally absent because the kidnappers care nothing for the girls’ welfare.

Girls are showing more psychological effects of their ordeal, which means a “big difference” score on the mental security. The prison settings also raise scores in the free will/agency sections. The physical security for the protagonist scores “big difference”, and indeed co-protagonist Natalie almost dies from the ordeal. But what makes this story score the highest, with 33 points, is the “extreme” rating in the physical security for supporting characters. This is because one slave girl, Ellen Crawley, actually dies while trying to escape, in circumstances that suggest murder or at least culpable homicide.

Bella at the Bar (1974) – first Bella Barlow story

Sample Images

bella-1bella-2bella-3

Published: Tammy 22 June 1974 – 7 September 1974

Episodes: 12

Artist: John Armstrong

Writer: Jenny McDade

Translations/reprints: Bella’s Book of Gymnastics 1981 as Bella – the Beginning

Plot

Orphan Bella Barlow lives with her Uncle Jed and Aunt Gert, who abuse and exploit her. Their exploitation is motivated by laziness, tight-fistedness, greed, and squandering their money on gambling (bingo, dog racing), and in Jed’s case, drinking. Their background must come into it as well as they are low working class people who don’t look very far above the poverty line and they live in a very seedy house. They make Bella do all the housework, the cooking (while making her eat separate, substandard food and often starve her altogether), and make her a slave at Uncle Jed’s window cleaning business. They never pay her anything, making the excuse that her board and keep are the payment. They keep her away from school and are not above beating her. And if they see any way to make money out of Bella they will seize upon it.

Bella lives for gymnastics and has rigged up makeshift apparatus in the back yard (probably cobbled together from the scrap Jed collects). She uses every spare moment she can to work on it. Oddly, Jed and Gert do not interfere with her makeshift apparatus although they disapprove of her “wasting time” on it instead of working.

While working at the window cleaning, Bella comes across a gymnastics class at a school and immediately wants to be part of it. The teacher, Miss Mortimer, is happy to have Bella, especially after she helps a pupil in trouble.

However, there are two problems. First, grasping Uncle Jed won’t give permission because there is no money in it. Second, the school is an exclusive one and the snobby headmistress would not allow a “guttersnipe” like Bella into the classes. So although it would put her job at risk, Miss Mortimer decides to coach Bella in secret out of school hours because Bella is so talented. Meanwhile, Bella gets around Jed by tricking him into thinking she is getting money from the gymnastics by taking a secret car washing job (and the employer later exploits her too, with blackmail). When Jed and Gert hear that Bella could be good enough to compete internationally, they (mistakenly) think there could be big money in it for them. So they allow the classes and Bella to practise at home, and they start treating her kindly, with proper feeding and not lumbering her with so much work.

Soon Bella is making such progress that Miss Mortimer enters her in a competition for experience. Unfortunately at this moment the snobby headmistress finds out about Miss Mortimer secretly coaching Bella. Bella has to go or Miss Mortimer gets the sack, so it’s the end of Bella’s coaching with Miss Mortimer.

Bella keeps this secret from Jed and Gert, otherwise it will be back to the old drudgery with renewed vengeance. She lets them go on thinking things are just carrying on. She finds ways to keep up her exercises but has to go into the competition without proper coaching for it or even really knowing what she is supposed to be doing. Despite the difficulties and no win, Bella makes a respectable impression on officials, who say she could go far with more experience. Bella also makes some contacts among the other competitors, who go to the gym class run by Mr Benson, head of the sports centre. Mr Benson has also noticed Bella and offers her a place in his own gymnastics class. Jed declines as he still thinks Miss Mortimer is coaching Bella, and is not willing to pay the fee either. Bella has to put up money from her secret work (now a babysitting job) to pay the fee and join Mr Benson’s gym club.

Jed gets impatient about Bella’s gymnastics not bringing him money and means to see Miss Mortimer about getting Bella into winning competitions and being a money spinner. Bella tries to stop him seeing Miss Mortimer and find out everything, but fails. The Barlows are furious to discover their mistaken assumption that Bella’s gymnastics would make them money. It’s back to the old mistreatment. Worse, Bella’s confidence in her gymnastics has taken a knock because she is now under the impression she does not have what it takes to become a top gymnast.

While the Barlows are out the girls from Mr Benson’s class drop by and persuade Bella to come to class, which restores her confidence. She does so well that Mr Benson chooses her to take part in a gymnastics display for charity. Much to Bella’s surprise, Gert agrees to it. Bella realises there must be an underhand reason for it, but decides to concentrate on the show.

After the display Bella receives encouragement from Mr Benson that she could become good enough to compete for England. However, the Barlows do not allow her to continue with Mr Benson. They only allowed her to perform in the show in the hope that their friend, Murton Stone, the owner of “The Strolling Stones” seaside theatrical show, would take her on for gymnastics acts in his show. Stone agrees to it, and Bella reluctantly decides to go along with it because she thinks it would enable her to keep up gymnastics.

In terms of proper treatment, Bella soon finds she isn’t much better off at The Strolling Stones. The Stones are as stonyhearted as their names suggest. In fact, the Stones tell their spoiled daughter Amelia to make as much use of Bella as she likes. Amelia seizes upon with this with alacrity because she hates Bella. On top of the exploitation and bullying from Amelia, Bella finds that Stone himself exceeds even Uncle Jed for slave-driving her.

When it comes to the gymnastics acts Stone strips away all the dance elements in Bella’s floor routines when Amelia protests that she is the dancer of the show (which she doesn’t have much talent for). He tells Bella to stick exclusively to the acrobatic elements in her gymnastics performances, which are to be spiced up to the max and look as spectacular as possible. Before long Bella notices her body is acting up after the performances, but fails to realise it is a danger signal. She puts up with the Stones’ mistreatment because she thinks the show is the only way to keep up gymnastics and it is better than nothing at all.

But Bella soon finds out otherwise when Mr Benson catches up with her at the seaside show. When he sees the souped-up acrobatics in Bella’s act he tells her to stop immediately, because they are both improper gymnastics and damaging to her body. When Bella tries to tell him why she can’t stop, he misunderstands and does not give her a chance to fully explain. He thinks she is putting money over her wellbeing and leaves in disgust.

By now Bella’s body is well and truly telling her how right Mr Benson is. She realises she must get out fast. But if she simply leaves, Jed and Gert will just send her back. So she tries to get the sack by putting on bad performances. Unfortunately it backfires, and as a result Bella finds herself forced into humiliating burlesque gymnastics acts and being an abused clown sidekick in Amelia’s dancing routine.

In the end Bella simply runs away from the Stones and heads home. When she arrives she finds Jed and Gert have gone away on a two-week holiday (no doubt by using the money they made from the Stones’ exploitation of her). This proves fortunate because it gives Bella freedom to pursue gymnastics and make her own money without hindrance.

Unfortunately her misunderstandings with Mr Benson are making him think she is unreliable and irresponsible. He allows her to return, but Bella gets the impression he will expel her if she does not overcome her difficulties in getting to classes. Moreover, her gymnastics have deteriorated because of the seaside show abuse and she has to make extra efforts to get back into shape.

Then child welfare discover Bella is living on her own and insist on putting her in a children’s home. Bella does not like the prison-like home, especially when she gets on the wrong side of the unpleasant staff. Moreover, she is desperately worried that their interference will make her miss her next gym class.

So Bella just runs off to get there. But on the way she helps out at a road accident, which leaves her badly injured and she is hospitalised. She missed her gym class and now fears she is out of Mr Benson’s class for good. However, it turns out the men she helped at the accident were big Russian officials. They reward her with a place at a top Russian gymnastics school.

Thoughts

This is one of the most pivotal girls’ serials ever because it changed the course of girls’ comics history. Bella, who started out as just another serial in her first story here, proved so popular that she went on to become a regular in Tammy who held a joint record with Molly Mills for Tammy’s longest-running character (10 years each). Bella Barlow remains one of the most beloved and best-remembered characters ever in girls’ comics. She also changed the course of the career of her artist, John Armstrong, and he himself modelled her on his own niece.

However, the subsequent history of Bella and her sequels will be excluded from this discussion. It will concentrate on the first story itself.

One thing that would have made the first Bella story so popular is that it is firmly rooted in the Cinderella formula that had been in Tammy from issue one. It would remain frequent in Tammy until the late 1970s. It is atypical in that there is no wicked stepsister figure, but then it is difficult to imagine the wicked stepsister figure fitting into the Barlow household. After all, the Barlows squander so much money on what they do raise that they could hardly afford to spoil a wicked stepsister. The nearest we get to the wicked stepsister is Amelia Stone, but she is not part of the Barlow household.

Bella is set in the Tammy tradition of abused heroines who endure countless trials, torments and setbacks of all sorts before the happy ending. From the start she encounters obstacles and people that not only hinder her ambition to be a gymnast but also mistreat her at every turn. Bella has problems even with the people who do help her (Miss Mortimer, Mr Benson) until she meets the Russian officials. And readers would have lapped it up. They just loved the stories of ill-used heroines being forced through tribulations and tortures of all descriptions.

The abuse and hindrance Bella suffers at the hands of the Barlows stems from both their personalities and their working class background. They don’t live well and Jed is unlikely to make much money from his window cleaning business. All the same, they would be living better than they do if they used their money more sensibly and did not squander it on gambling and booze. They would also do a whole lot better if they worked more, but they are too lazy and selfish to do so. The only thing they work hard at is finding ways to make money any way they can, especially by wringing it out of Bella.

Bella’s move to the seaside show is no escape from exploitation and abuse either. The hindrance it gives to Bella’s gymnastics is even more of a threat than the Barlows because Bella is incapable of recognising it as such. She thinks that it at least is enabling her to do gymnastics. She does not realise the stunts Stone is forcing her to do are actually detrimental to both her gymnastics and her body until Mr Benson informs her.

When we first meet Bella we are impressed at what a perky figure she is despite all the abuse she suffers at home. We have to wonder how she does it. And from the first, her determination to pursue gymnastics despite all her difficulties really shines through. She has an unusual companion in the form of her bucket, which is a rather cute element. However, the bucket does not last long as a helper and not referred to as such again.

As is the case with so many of Tammy’s Cinderella stories, Bella has only one thing that makes her miserable life worthwhile and could be her ticket out of her misery if she keeps it up despite everything. In this case it is gymnastics.

The gymnastics themselves would have helped to popularise the story. The serial came out at a time when Olga Korbut was creating huge publicity for the sport. Tammy had run one other gymnastics story, “Amanda Must Not Be Expelled” in 1972, but it was Bella who caused gymnastics to really take off in Tammy and made gymnastics one of the most central features in Tammy right to the end of her life. Moreover, the gymnastics are all brought to life through the brilliant rendering of John Armstrong. Nobody in girls’ comics has ever matched Armstrong for drawing gymnastics. He drew the gymnastics in a realistic, fluid, anatomical style that would have had readers crying out for more. There can be no doubt that the choice of artist was one of the biggest factors in making the first Bella story so popular.

The plotting is well structured and the pace strong and tight, with no meandering or padding just to spin it out. One puzzling thing comes right at the end, when the Russian officials say they have found out about Bella’s miserable home life. How did they manage to find that out, especially as the Barlows must still be away? It sounds a bit pat and contrived there.

It is not hard to see why the first Bella story was so popular. It was a strong, well-written story that was based on established formulas that had long guaranteed popularity in Tammy, and it was filled with lots of emotion and drama and strong, convincing characters. Rather than the more hackneyed ballet or horse riding the story used a sport that had only recently been spotlighted and popularised, which would have been quite refreshing. And the choice of artist to bring the gymnastics to life could not have been bettered and would have left readers hankering to see more of it.

But just what was it that made the first Bella story so popular that readers were writing in demanding a sequel as soon as her first story finished? What made Bella so different to the other Cinderella stories that had gone before and after her that enabled her to spawn a sequel and then more sequels? Finding the answers would probably spin a thread of speculation a mile long. Certainly the final panel helped. It had a slightly open ending, which left scope and even a hint for a possible sequel. Perhaps Tammy planned it that way. The editor would have seen the popularity of Bella and did not want to close the door on her altogether, just in case. Well, if that was the editor’s intention, the rest is history.

Tammy’s 5th Birthday Issue 7 February 1976

tammy-cover-7-february-1976

Cover artist: John Richardson

  • Sarah in the Shadows – first episode (artist Mario Capaldi)
  • Return of the Silver Mare – Strange Story (artist Veronica Weir)
  • Lights Out for Lucinda – last episode (artist Ken Houghton)
  • Bessie Bunter
  • Molly Mills and the Aviator – first episode (artist Tony Thewenetti, writer Maureen Spurgeon)
  • A Monumental Detective – Strange Story (artist Tony Higham)
  • Wee Sue (artist John Richardson)
  • A Lead Through Twilight – first episode (artist Douglas Perry)

It is now 46 years since Tammy was first launched, on 6 February 1971. The first Tammy and Tammy’s 10th birthday issue have already been covered on this blog, so we will commemorate the anniversary with Tammy’s 5th birthday issue.

The Cover Girls are the first to honour the occasion, in their usual humorous style. Let’s hope they managed to sort out that little glitch with the birthday cake. Or maybe the Tammy team saw the funny side, just as the readers did.

As soon as we open the cover we see the first of Tammy’s “birthday gifts” to us, which is the first episode of “Sarah in the Shadows”. Tammy is celebrating her 5th with five new stories, two of which start this week, two next week, and the fifth the week after that. In Victorian times Sarah is thrown out into the street after her unfortunate uncle is thrown into debtor’s prison. All she has to survive on is her gift for paper cutouts and shadow play. The other birthday gift story, “A Lead Through Twilight”, is the last story in the issue (talk about bookends!). Carol Trent is losing her sight but won’t speak up about it or seek treatment because she is terrified her sourpuss uncle will send her away. But can she seriously expect to get away with hiding the fact that she’s going blind? And if the uncle finds out, will he do what Carol fears? Carol befriends a dog, Twilight, who could be her guide dog, but there is a definite mystery about him.

The birthday gift stories starting in the next issue are “The Fairground of Fear” (Diane Gabbot’s first serial for Tammy) and “Sit It Out, Sheri” (which will give John Armstrong a change from Bella). To make way for them, “Lights Out for Lucinda” is being finished off with a double episode. Lucinda has discovered the reason for the bizarre town of Blackmarket where everyone is being drugged into thinking it is still World War II and being forced to live that way. This peculiar ruse is all so the commander can provide a cheap workforce that are being paid 1940s rates instead of modern ones – to none other than Lucinda’s father! Fortunately for Lucinda it turns out he was a dupe and then a victim of blackmail before he finally manages to help put things right.

The last “birthday gift” story, starting 21 February, is a Hugh Thornton-Jones story, “Claire’s Airs and Graces”. Claire pretends to come from a posh background because of the snobby girls at her new school. This was the only Thornton-Jones serial in Tammy; his artwork was otherwise confined to Wee Sue episodes and Strange Stories.

It looks like the Storyteller is celebrating too because he is presenting two Strange Stories this week. Molly apparently is celebrating with a new story, but the title really should say “aviatrix”, not “aviator”. Although Bessie’s caption says “Bessie celebrates our birthday in her own special way”, her story has no bearing whatsoever on the celebrations or even on birthdays. She’s trying to help catch bank robbers but has forgotten the licence plate number of their vehicle. The police are trying to jog her memory but of course she is more interested in eating. Wee Sue’s story also has nothing to do with the celebrations. It’s all hijinks when Miss Bigger gets herself locked in a ball-and-chain because she disregarded a “do not touch” sign: “I’m a teacher. It doesn’t apply to teachers.” Silly woman!

Of course there is a competition to mark the occasion too, but this won’t be until next week.

Rhoda Miller – Interview

Rhoda Miller was a subeditor at DC Thomson and at IPC, working on girls comics and magazines between 1966 and 2008. In answer to my questions, she wrote the biographical piece below, which I am very happy to be able to publish. Many thanks, Rhoda!

I began work in August 1966 on Diana magazine in Dundee. Editor was George Moonie, Chief sub Ken Gordon. There were two other men subs and about four girls. From day one I was expected to write features and was sent out, (untrained!) to interview people such as The Walker Brothers, Amen Corner, Davy Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick and Titch (?). Story ideas were discussed at “story sessions” and ideas sent out to script writers. The subs’ job was to prepare them for publication. Sometime, this meant a complete re-write! In 1970, I was in a one-way love affair and decided to move to London. A bit drastic, but there you go!

When I applied to IPC they had just paid off a lot of people and the unions wouldn’t let them take anyone new on. But John Purdie was keen to have someone from Thomsons, he took me on as a free lancer, but I was to work in the office full time, and if anyone asked, I was to tell them I was a “visiting free lancer”.

I was put in Desmond Pride’s old office with Annie Deam, who had recently been removed from her post of School Friend editor, and like me, was working on projects. Eventually I went onto Sandie and worked as a sub. My days of working there are very hazy, and I wasn’t there very long before personal circumstances propelled me back to Dundee. I do remember the art editor, though. His name was John Jackson, and he had come from Eagle, and I remember the artists agent, Jack Wall, and his best mate, an artist whose surname was MacGillivray (can’t recall his first name) [Robert MacGillivray] but MacGillivray’s nephew was the legendary Ali McKay who also worked for IPC for quite a few years.

Back in Dundee, I rejoined DC Thomsons, and went to The Bunty, where Harold Moon was editor, Ian Munro chief sub. These were amongst the happiest days of my working life. I was there for several years, writing scripts for “The Four Marys” among others. At this time, the company still employed several long-standing script writers. One of the most prolific was a lady called Olive K Griffiths. Her scripts needed a lot of re-writing, as I recall. In the weekly comic we didn’t have features, but we did in the annuals, and these the staff were required to write.

After that, it was Spellbound with Ken Gordon editing, and David Donaldson chief sub. By this time, some of the subs were writing more and more of the scripts, and the company was employing fewer outside script writers. Spellbound, a spooky magazine, only ran a few years before it ran out of steam. I remember we had a lot of interference from Norman Fowler, who was one of our managing editors.  He was keen to have horse racing stories in all the magazines!

After Spellbound, it was Mandy under Alan Halley, but when I objected to him wanting to run a horrible story about a wealthy couple planning to kidnap a poor girl and use her as a blood donor for their ill daughter, we fell out and I went to Nikki, where I wrote “The Comp”. As I say, my memory is not great for dates, or how long I was on each magazine, but in 1997, I was chief sub editor on Animals and You. Frances O’Brien was editor.

“Luv, Lisa” was my idea, and was quite an innovative idea, as it was a “dear diary” photo story rather than an illustrated one. Richard Palmer was the photographer (he also worked for IPC). After Animals and You, Frances and I moved to work on a new project, of which nothing came, but we did come up with the concept of The Goodie Bag Mag, and I worked on that with her, until I took early voluntary severance in 2008.

The artists who worked for us (that I remember ) were Claude Berridge, George Martin, David Matysiak, and Norman Lee. Spellbound had an amazing Spanish artist drawing one of our stories, but again the name escapes me! [I assume this may have been Romero who drew Supercats; if Rhoda is able to confirm then I will update.]

[Edited to add the following further additions from Rhoda, below. I had asked why she felt that the publishing industry moved from story-heavy titles to ones that were more focused on features or freebies, and about credits for artists and writers.]

I really cannot explain why the comics became less content and more free gifts, except to suggest that research showed children were less inclined to read great screeds of type and preferred more pictorial and less copy. The free gift phenomenon was very much a case of “the opposition are doing it, so should we.”

As to naming the script writers/artists, it was certainly a DC Thomson policy not to allow anyone to be credited. But some of the Spanish artists sneaked their names on and a blind eye was turned. Mainly because they were indispensable. Indeed, it was only in the past twenty years that Thomson allowed their newspapers reporters and columnists to get bylines!