Monthly Archives: June 2018

IGNCC18, Bournemouth: David Roach

One of the other keynote talks that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog was the one by David Roach. If you have read his most recent book, “Masters of Spanish Comic Book Art“, then you would have found a lot of familiar material in his presentation, but we had the opportunity to hear him give the material in a lively talkative format and with the invaluable aid of some gorgeous pages of art and painting that David brought along. As with the Anne Digby talk, this has been recorded by Alex Fitch and hopefully will be broadcast on his internet radio show in due course. For now though, some notes, impressions, and key points I took away from it. (I am not, however, going to go into individual comics artists,: you need to look at the book or attend another of David’s talks in order to do that, I can’t do them justice here.)

David took us through the period from the 1950s to the  1970s, explaining how there came to be such a large number of Spanish artists working outside of their own country (in the UK but also in the US and in other European countries). He explained that after paper rationing came to an end in Britain, there was a tremendous demand for comics, magazines, and story papers. (We’d already heard in the Anne Digby talk the fact that School Friend in its heyday was selling 1 million copies a week, and David repeated this figure in his talk too.) There were just not enough British artists to keep up with the demand – the pre-war artists were getting older and literally dying out, the younger generation had gone off to the war and been injured or killed, and when the Amalgamated Press advertised for artists to join their stable, they only got two responses! So when European agencies started to knock at the doors of British publishers, they were very welcome. Not all of the agencies were Spanish – the Belgian agency A.L.I in 1954 started the flood, and Italian agencies Cosmopolitan  and D’Ami were likewise two of the early strong contenders.

However, the Spanish agencies  such as Selecciones Illustradas (S.I.) run by Josép Toutain, and Bardon (co-run by Barry Coker), and the Bruguera studio associated with the A.L.I. mentioned above, ended by dominating the scene to such an extent that it it is thought that at least 385 Spanish artists worked in the UK – more than there were British artists working in the same market during that time period!

David Roach at IGNCC18, talking about Spanish artists in British and worldwide publications

In addition to touching on more well-known grounds (showing how much fantastic work the Spanish artists did, by displaying beautiful work in a range of styles, and explaining how editors conceived of certain groups of artists as matching certain kinds of work (Argentinian artists = muscular war artists, Spanish artists = romantic dreamers suited to girls and romance comics)), David also highlighted some unexpected aspects of the Spanish comics boom that I hadn’t previously been aware of. One of these was that the Spanish artists experienced this work not only as financially rewarding (the pay rate was hugely much better than they were getting in Spain, and the exchange rate was in their favour too) but also politically and socially rewarding too. These were young men whose work meant they got the chance to travel outside of Francoist Spain, and who additionally got sent reference material from the UK, so that they heard about the Beatles and suchlike popular culture icons before anyone else in Spain did. Indeed, they were some number of years ahead of the curve! Lest you think it was all one-way though, David was at pains to point out that images like the Serenade cover above is pop art avant la lettre – it was drawn some years before the Swinging 60s that you would assume it was representing, and so you can only think of it as more in the nature of an inspiration for the look of that time then a representation of what was already happening. Spanish-drawn romance comics as an inspiration for pop art and the Carnaby Street look? Stranger things have happened…

The other surprising aspect that David mentioned was that there was much more awareness of, and renegotiating of, copyright than I’d supposed. The British comics normally didn’t print credits, and although in the Spanish market it was usual to sign the artwork this might be done using a pseudonym or a variant of the artist’s legal name, and this might vary over the years of an artist’s career. It was not unusual for a proper identification of the original creator to be far from easy to establish (especially if they did most of their work in the British market and hence were not credited). In the British market, also, it was vanishingly unusual for creators to own their own material – the standard procedure for Fleetway, and I believe for D C Thomson too, was to cast the payment cheque in the form of a contract which assigned all rights to the publisher in perpetuity, so that in order to get paid there was no other option than signing away your rights. But David brought out some examples of painted artwork that was painted ‘on spec’ by artists – both war scenes and pensive domestic scenes – which were sold on a ‘first print rights’ basis, so that the publisher was only granted the rights to to use that material once. They were then able to re-sell the material if they could find a market. David had one example, a painting of a woman in a bedroom, which was sold to several places: women’s magazines in different countries, a romance comic, and to be the cover of a mass market paperback. No wonder the Spanish artists had a tradition of tending to go into fine art after some 10 – 15 years as a comics artist – it feels like a natural move, given the above.

The talk attendees were, I think, blown away by the range of art shown, but they also had pertinent questions to follow up with. Some of them were a bit unanswerable – how did the Spanish artists manage to produce so much output, and how did they come to be so very good at such a young age? Others touched on the political situation and drew out further aspects of what David had said about the political freedom that working for a foreign publisher gave – many of the artists became or already were Marxists, radical leftists, and subversives of one sort or another (at least one of whom had to flee the country at short notice). Finally, I know that there was a real rush at the end of the talk to come and look at the artifacts that he had brought along – a number of original pages of art (above) painted images, and even one of the portfolio samples that the agencies carried from publisher to publisher to entice them to sign up a new artist.

There was of course much more in the talk that is beyond what I can go into in a blog post here. Do seek out David’s book (linked to above), listen to Alex Fitch’s broadcast of the talk as and when it comes out, or take the opportunity to see him talk on this subject if you ever get a chance.

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IGNCC18, Bournemouth: Anne Digby

As promised, a few notes so far on the comics conference I am attending here in Bournemouth. Julia Round is one of the key organisers and as such it was always likely to have interest for girls comics readers as her own research interest at the moment is on Misty and the gothic. Also attending, speaking, and helping to organise the event are Joan Ormrod (who is interested in British weekly publications such as Mirabelle and Roxy) and Dr Mel Gibson whose “Remembered Reading” was discussed on this blog.

The key event on the first day of the conference was an interview session at the end of the day between Mel Gibson and Anne Digby. This was recorded by Alex Fitch (of internet radio channel Resonance FM) with the aim of transmitting it at a future date. Anne Digby talked about her start in working life, getting her first job at 16 as an editorial trainee or apprentice at Amalgamated Press in London, working on School Friend. This matched her early desire, from the age of 8 or so, to be a writer. Learning on the job and being paid to do so was right up her street. She had been a reader of comics and of School Friend itself as a child, so she was particularly thrilled from that perspective.

There was one other trainee when she joined the team, another young woman; they worked with an older lady, Isobel Winchester (corrected following confirmation with AD) who was an old hand and trained them in sub-editing tasks. In the talk, Anne didn’t go into lots of detail of what those tasks consisted of, but she did say that it included editing texts sent in by freelancers and other writers by tidying them up. Afterwards in separate conversation she also explained that it included the commissioning of work too, including the matching of artists to writers. It was very much a journalistic job, pulling together the finished creation that the reader consumes.

In case the above misleads on the prevalence of women in the comics business, Mel did ask about whether there were many other women writers or artists that worked at the time that Anne Digby was associated with the Amalgamated Press / Fleetway / IPC as it became over the years. Evelyn “Polly” Flinders, artist on the long-running girls school story “The Silent Three”, was an obvious example for her to mention; Anne had memories of her as a lovely person who didn’t look stereotypically ‘artistic’ (she wore tweeds and had her hair in a schoolma’arm bun). One interesting snippet was that Flinders was unusual in not having an agent to represent her, as the other artists generally did. (Writers did not have agent representation, but artists did.) She would turn up to deliver her art in person, carrying it in a large portfolio, so she was a regular figure to Digby. However, the number of women creative contributors engaged in producing the comics seems otherwise to have been relatively minimal.

The expectation in that job was that people would take the opportunity to do extra writing jobs on a freelance basis, and eventually transition to going completely freelance. Anne did indeed do this. She wrote text stories and comics for A.P. / Fleetway for some years, and children’s novels from the mid- to late 70s onwards. Indeed, her own take on why the comics market declined is precisely because of the rise of children’s novels at ‘pocket money’ prices – the Armada Lions and the like of the times expanded the market beyond what Puffin had done when they stood alone as the big name in children’s books.

Digby is clearly pleased with and proud of her work even at this distance in time; she has favorites that she happily cites (such as semi-supernatural story “The Dance Dream” and horse story “Olympia Jones”. This is as it should be, of course – her work was read by masses of children and stayed with those readers for a long time, and it stands up to the test of time on re-read. I hope that her wish to see “Olympia Jones” and other work re-issued will come to pass.

Further posts will follow, covering the David Roach talk in particular. However one thing I can quickly share is a photo of the script that Anne Digby brought along to the event: for a Strange Story called “The Cat”. The script was around 5 pages long but I didn’t photograph the rest of it. How lovely to see physical artifacts still around from that time, and still legible too!

IGNCC (International Graphic Novel & Comics Conference) 2018: Bournemouth

Over the next three days I shall be attending IGNCC at Bournemouth: an academic comics conference on the theme of “Retro! Time, Memory, Nostalgia”. I have had a paper accepted with the title “Lost In Time: The Problem Of Crediting The Creator In Girls Comics” – drawing on lots of the discoveries and discussions from this blog, of course! Other people are talking about girls comics too – for instance in the same panel session Selina Lock will be talking on “Behind The Panels: The Hidden Histories Of Women In British Comics”.

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog, though, are probably the following two keynote sessions, which I will try to take notes on and write a post or two about.

  • Anne Digby (writer for School Friend, Girl, Tammy, Jinty and the Trebizon series of
    children’s books) in conversation with Mel Gibson (Remembered Reading) on British
    Girls’ Comics.
  • David Roach (2000AD, Masters of Spanish Comic Book Art) – The Spanish Masters

More to come as I get it, over the following days…

The Proto-Bella Barlow?

A Leap Up for Lindy 1A Leap Up for Lindy 2A Leap Up for Lindy 3A Leap Up for Lindy 4A Leap up for Lindy ad

Once you have read through the images, you will see that this story bears a striking resemblance to Bella Barlow, right down to our ill-used heroine practising gymnastics on makeshift apparatus in the backyard. Mr Barr is even a dead ringer for Jed Barlow. At least the Barrs are nowhere near as abusive towards Lindy as the Barlows are towards Bella. All the same, we are so pleased to see how they are, um, persuaded to support Lindy’s gymnastics in the end.

A Leap Up for Lindy appeared in Girls’ Crystal 1976, yet a panel from it was used two years before in the merger issue of Tammy and June to advertise next week’s episode of Bella at the Bar (above). So A Leap Up for Lindy could actually be part of the history of Bella Barlow and could even be described as a proto-Bella.

But just what is Lindy’s place in Bella’s history? Is it a complete story or is it the first episode of a serial that never was? If it was meant to be a serial, did it get nixed for some reason and what was produced got recycled in the Girls’ Crystal? Was it a serial that was discarded in favour of Bella Barlow? Or was it an unused story from much earlier and elements of it were recycled into Bella Barlow?

Whatever the story was, Lindy looks like a most intriguing part of Bella history that has been sadly overlooked. It is a great pleasure to rescue this proto-Bella from obscurity and hopefully give her more speculation and discussion in Bella history.

 

The Fairground of Fear [1976]

Sample Images

Fairground of Fear 1Fairground of Fear 2Fairground of Fear 3

Publication: Tammy 14 February 1976 to 24 April 1976

Episodes: 11
Reprints/translations: Tammy annual 1983; Tina #24 as De wraak van een clown [The Wrath of the Clown]
Artist: Diane Gabbot
Writer: Unknown

Plot

Julie Whitland was adopted as a baby by Sir Edgar Whitland, landowner of Baychurch. But her home life is miserable because Sir Edgar is a dreadful snob who keeps himself aloof from the villagers (who call him the snob on the hill) and expects Julie to do the same. She feels a virtual prisoner in her own home where she is never allowed any freedom or mix with people that Sir Edgar considers too lowly for Whitlands. Whenever she tries, Sir Edgar always drags her off, so she does a lot of going behind his back. He is always telling her that she is a Whitland and must live up to her name by keeping aloof from common people. Also, Julie has always wondered who her natural parents were. But whenever she asks questions, she is always told to leave well alone.

Fraser’s Fairground arrives in Baychurch. It looks a golden opportunity for Julie to have some fun. The clown puts on a special display for her. A brief encounter with the fairgound owner’s daughter Carla looks like another chance for friendship. But as usual, Sir Edgar pulls Julie away. In addition to the usual admonishings about being expected to be a Whitland, Sir Edgar shows her a picture of his late daughter. He tells Julie that he adopted her when his own daughter, and a baby she had, both died. When Julie asks what happened to her husband, Sir Edgar snaps that he is dead and forgotten. Hmm, did Julie hit a nerve there?

That night Julie sneaks off to the fair. But this time it looks sinister. She goes into the House of Memories (“The past will come alive before your very eyes”) and the woman from the photo appears to her in a huge crystal ball. The woman warns Julie to leave well alone, and that the fairground is evil. Then the clown comes up from behind. But this time he looks evil and frightening – and he seems to hypnotise Julie. Julie blacks out, and when she recovers she has no memory of what happened.

The fairground is soon in full swing and the whole village seems to have gone crazy about it – even the adults. Julie sneaks off to enjoy it as well. But the fairground is soon showing a sinister side; for example some people on the ghost train seem to go crazy and start attacking each other and the clown seems to be enjoying it. Carla explains that the ride does not use props but technical gadgets that produce holographic ghosts. A malfunction must have caused the people to see each other as ghosts and monsters. Then the machine malfunctions again, causing Julie to have an accident. Sir Edgar is furious and is determined to shut the fairground down. He sends a magistrate to do the job. But the clown imprisons the magistrate in a weird holographic trap in the Hall of Mirrors. Sir Edgar is annoyed when the magistrate is reported missing, because this means he cannot close down the fairground.

Julie recovers enough from the accident to sneak off to the House of Memories for more clues about her past. There she remembers what happened before. The House of Memories tells her that the only people who know the truth are Sir Edgar, Dr Pearson the village doctor, and Miss Edna Grey, his former nurse. Then it gives her a message: “You must find the fairground’s secret to find yourself.” On the way back, Julie overhears Mr Fraser and the clown talking and it sounds like the clown has a hold over Mr Fraser. The clown says they have a busy day, “a grey day” tomorrow. She races back home, against the tigers the clown has ordered to be set loose as watchdogs.

Next day, Miss Grey is arrested for pickpocketing at the fair. After speaking with Miss Grey’s sister, Julie realises what the clown meant by a “grey day” – he used a hypnotist performance to hypnotise Miss Grey into stealing. When she tries to tell Carla what her father is helping the clown to do, Carla gets angry and throws Julie out. The clown takes advantage by luring Julie back into the fairground with a holographic image of Carla, and hypnotises her once more. While in a trance, she leads Sir Edgar to the unconscious magistrate and there is a note: “Don’t try to get rid of me again, Sir Edgar. We’ve a score to settle. There’s just you and the doctor left.” The signature is a clown’s head.

This note prompts a lengthy discussion between Sir Edgar and the doctor, but Julie cannot hear what they are saying. Afterwards the doctor tells Julie that Sir Edgar is a hard man who means to destroy the fairground. He gives her a key to his house and says that if anything happens to him she must retrieve a file from his desk and give it to the newspapers.

Sir Edgar tries a petition against the fairground; the clown responds by hypnotising the villagers into attacking his home, and Sir Edgar has extra security installed. The doctor is summoned to the fairground because Carla has fallen sick. When the doctor tries to leave, the clown strikes with more holograms and then terrors in the Crazy House. He causes the doctor to have an accident. Following the doctor’s instructions, Julie heads to his house to retrieve the file.

The file reveals that fourteen years earlier the doctor had sent the clown (whose name is now revealed as Alan Barker) to prison on a false charge. Sir Edgar arrives and tells Julie that the doctor was acting on his instructions. Barker was the man who married Sir Edgar’s daughter. The trouble was, the snobby Sir Edgar considered Barker too low for a fit son-in-law: “I couldn’t stand to have that nobody part of the great Whitland family.” So he set out to destroy the marriage by framing Barker, and now Barker has returned for revenge. Sir Edgar then burns the file to prevent Barker’s name being cleared – for if it is, the great name of Whitland will be destroyed and Sir Edgar is not having that. But an image of the clown appears in the flames. Julie realises that Barker knows what Sir Edgar just did and now things are going to get a whole lot worse.

Knowing the clown is planning something against the village, Julie bravely confronts him. For the first time, she catches him without his makeup, and is surprised to find that without it he does not frighten her. She tries to plead with him but fails. The clown says that Sir Edgar can stop it by clearing his name, but Julie knows Sir Edgar will never do that. On the way out she speaks with Carla and learns that the clown is the virtual owner of the fairground; Mr Fraser got into debt and the clown bought out his bills. The clown can take over the fairground at any time and Mr Fraser is powerless against him.

Next day, Miss Grey appears in court for pickpocketing, and Sir Edgar and Julie attend the trial. Julie now realises that Miss Grey knew about the clown’s frameup and this was his revenge on her. The charge is unexpectedly thrown out when the clown strikes again with one of his machines that causes the working age men to act like children. The judge and barristers start playing leap frog, bus drivers play football, the local police play cops and robbers, engineers play cowboys and Indians, and Sir Edgar’s cook reads comics. Of course, the men all end up on the rides at the fairground. The romping men have cut the outside phone wires, and when Sir Edgar drives out to seek help he is blocked by a force field. The clown has cut Baychurch off from the outside world.

The village is in chaos and cut off. Nonetheless, Sir Edgar is unmoved. “That clown can’t beat a Whitland!” And he still refuses to clear the clown’s name, because it would mean destroying the name of Whitland. He heads out the fairground to tell the clown that “nothing he can do to this village will make me give in!” Julie now realises that Sir Edgar is an utterly selfish, ruthless man, and there is nothing or nobody that he will not destroy in the name of Whitland.

Then the doctor arrives and tells Julie that she is the only one who can stop the clown. He explains that she is the baby from the ill-fated marriage and the clown is her true father. It had only been the mother who died. She was leaving home with her baby after a quarrel with Sir Edgar over Barker, only to be killed by a falling tree. Sir Edgar faked the baby’s death to prevent Barker from claiming her. Julie heads out to the fairground to tell the clown.

There she finds Sir Edgar confronting Barker, and telling him that nothing he will do will make him confess. Barker makes one last desperate attempt to make Whitland confess. He starts the merry-go-round at high speed while Julie is standing on it. He shouts to Whitland that the merry-go-round will go faster and faster, putting Julie in ever more danger, until Sir Edgar confesses. But Sir Edgar just says, “I can’t destroy the name of Whitland. I’ve nothing to say!” He stalks off, without lifting a finger to save Julie or waiting to see what happens to her. Barker, finding the machine has jammed, risks his life to save Julie.

Upon learning that Julie is the daughter he thought was dead, Barker becomes a changed man. He stops his revenge, uses his machines to make the villagers forget what happened (though how that is going to explain away all the damage he caused is not discussed), and returns the fairground to Mr Fraser. Julie decides to leave Sir Edgar forever – his conduct at the merry go round showed her just how much he really cares for her. She is going with her father and the fairground and start a new life with them, and refuses the chance to go back to Sir Edgar as they pass by his house when they depart. Barker promises Julie that he will now use his scientific expertise to help people.

Thoughts

Like Jinty, Tammy did not use the circus theme much in her serials. “The Fairground of Fear” is one of the exceptions, though it is more fairground than circus. It can also be regarded as one of Tammy’s best stories and worthy of reprint in a Tammy volume.

“The Fairground of Fear” has the distinction of being the first serial Diane Gabbot drew for Tammy. From then on Gabbot became a regular Tammy artist, ending her run with “Rosie at the Royalty” in 1981. Her other Tammy stories included “Circus of the Damned”, “Selena Sitting Pretty”, “The Black and White World of Shirley Grey” and “Donna Ducks Out”.

“Creepy” was what one Doctor Who companion once said about clowns, and eventually he agrees with her that clowns can be creepy. So do we after the first episode of this story. After initially conveying the impression he is harmless and amusing, the clown is quick to demonstrate that clowns can be creepy and scares the living daylights out of the girl who was so thrilled with him the first time they met. It’s not so much his incredible powers but that makeup of his that makes him so frightening.

Fairground and circus stories also have a long history of demonstrating that they can be as sinister and frightening as much as they are entertaining, and this one is no exception. Even before the fairground demonstrates its strange powers, seeing it in the dead of night makes it so scary. From then on the story is filled with thrills, chills and drama that are delivered at a cracking pace. Everything that is supposed to entertain people in the fairground is instead used to scare, hypnotise, imprison or manipulate them, even from a distance. Sometimes it is in perversely amusing ways, such as when the courtroom staff play leap-frog. Other times it is frightening, such as inciting a mob to attack Sir Edgar’s home. The only beneficial element in the fairground is The House of Memories.

There are also plenty of mystery elements to keep readers engaged. Girls just love mystery, and in this case there are not one but three mysteries here: the mystery of the fairground, the mystery of Julie’s parents, and the mystery of how and why they are linked. Although everyone tells Julie to leave the mystery of her parents well alone, we know the fairground won’t allow that once the House of Memories tells Julie she must unlock its secret to find out who she really is. Julie’s true identity is going to come out, and readers are riveted to find out where it will lead and how it will help with the mystery of the fairground.

The story also has plot twists that take us by surprise as much as shock us. One is where the relationship between Julie and Sir Edgar ends up at the story’s conclusion. When we first see it, Sir Edgar appears to be just an overly strict, over-protective parent who does have his daughter’s interests at heart – in his snobbish way – but is totally misguided, blinded by snobbery, and does not understand how he is stifling his daughter’s freedom and growth. However, we expect the fairground will somehow help him to come around by the end of the story, he will be less snobby, and Julie will be on far happier terms with him. It’s been seen so many times in overprotective problem parent serials such as “The Four-Footed Friends”. However, in this case that does not happen at all. Sir Edgar is not the well meaning but misguided parent he seems to be. Little by little he reveals his true colours (snob, unpopular, arrogant, hard-hearted) until he is finally exposed as the monster he really is. He, not the clown, is the true villain of the story. He would rather his own granddaughter die than dishonour the name of Whitland, and does not lift a finger to save Julie. He is totally beyond redemption and will never change, no matter what. Julie has no hope of getting anywhere with him. In fact, she must get away from him altogether or he could destroy her the same way he destroyed her parents.

The story takes the unconventional step of ending on a bittersweet note. Barker does get his daughter back and can start a new life with her. He also changes into a much nicer man who is not so consumed with hate and revenge that he is capable of terrorism, blackmail, and even physically hurting people. But unlike other wrongly convicted people in girls’ stories, he does not get his name cleared because Sir Edgar just won’t budge on that, no matter what. At least Julie and the fairground people know the truth and the skeleton is out of the closet. But if there is any exoneration for Barker, it will have to wait until after Sir Edgar dies, and the doctor and Miss Grey will be free to tell the truth.

For all the powers the clown has unleashed through the fairground, none of them really bring about comeuppance for Sir Edgar. Sir Edgar returns home to uphold the name of Whitland, the only thing he really cares about. And it’s all he has now. He has no heirs and unless that changes fast, the name of Whitland will die with him, and good riddance to it. Clearly, nobody will miss “the snob on the hill” when he dies.

Perhaps comeuppance will come in another form. After all, being the man he is, Sir Edgar must have made a lot of enemies and likely to have destroyed others. It would not be surprising if his life ends with him being murdered in his bed or something similar.

 

Tammy & Sandie 26 January 1974

Tammy 26 January 1974

Cover artist: John Richardson

  • Two-Faced Teesha (artist José Casanovas) – final episode
  • School for Snobs (artist J Badesa, artist John Wagner)
  • Ballerina in Blue Jeans (artist Escandell)
  • Wee Sue (artist Mario Capaldi)
  • Jeannie and Her Uncle Meanie (artist Robert MacGillivray)
  • Little Lady Jane
  • The Chain Gang Champions (writer Gerry Finley-Day?)
  • No Tears for Molly (artist Tony Thewenetti, writer Maureen Spurgeon)
  • Granny’s Town (artist Douglas Perry, writer Pat Mills)

 

Here we go with an entry on the latest addition to my collection. I wonder if the grey paint or whatever it is that got spattered on the cover actually adds some character to it.

Tammy is quite a few weeks into her merger with Sandie. Although the Cover Girls were touted as Tammy and June (from the June merger) by the 1980s, their origins can be traced to the Sandie merger in 1973.

Two-Faced Teesha, one of the stories that started with the merger, ends this week. Two-Faced Teesha finds her dad does not believe her when she says she is trying to turn over a new leaf, so she has one final round of spite before the girl she targeted in particular helps her to convince him.

Miss Bigger gets an ally in her bullying of Wee Sue – new girl Sophie Scandel-monger. The name says it all, as do Sophie’s repulsive, weasel-like looks. But Sophie’s scheme against Wee Sue backfires so much that she gets a huge ticking off from Miss Bigger. That’s the end of that evil alliance, thank goodness.

Uncle Angus stoops to whole new heights (or should that be lows?) in scrounging to save money. This time it’s at the cinema, much to the embarrassment of Jeannie and her aunt. And when Uncle Angus sets up his own cinema where he passes off his home movies as a blockbuster movie, Aunt Martha is so embarrassed she takes to her bed. However, once the audience catches on to what a cheap cheat Uncle Angus’ cinema is, they pelt him with his own vegetables from his garden.

School for Snobs is a special school designed to cure girls of snobbery. The headmistress is Hermione Snoot, who wears a nightie and slippers with a mortar board, is seldom seen without a cigarette, and talks Cockney. This week Hermione’s in charge of curing a practical joker. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with snobbery, but turning the tables on the girl with practical jokes until she’s cured is right up Hermione’s street. After all, she pretty much does that with every snob every week.

“The Chain Gang Champions” are kidnapped athletes. The Duchess subjects them to training methods that are as bizarre as they are sadistic. This week it’s finish gruelling cross-country training runs in record time – with ever-shortening time periods with each run – or the Duchess will feed her old enemy, the Minister for Sport, to a hungry bear!

As if Pickering weren’t bad enough, Molly has a new enemy plotting her downfall. It is guest Cynthia Swingleton, who is after her fiancée’s money. Molly’s rumbled Cynthia’s game, so now she’s is trying to frame Molly for stealing!

“Ballerina in Blue Jeans” impresses her ballet school with her dancing. Unfortunately her streetwise ways, like turning up at ballet school in a leather jacket and impersonating a motorbike rider as a demonstration of mime, have the teachers just about fainting. It’s not endearing her to the pupils either, and she has one spiteful enemy already. Well, whoever heard of a pupil in a ballet school serial who didn’t have one?

“Granny’s Town” appears to be a take on ageism, but a very sinister one. “Her Ladyship” has become Mayoress of a retirement spot, Crone-on-Sea. She is introducing new measures that look suspiciously like they are striking at the young people of the town and putting old people on top. This week she has the police throwing young people in the nick for no crime other than they are not carrying one of Her Ladyship’s flags, unlike the elderly people. “It’s the orders of the new mayoress!” Gee, whatever happened to human rights in this town?

The Black Widow [1978]

Sample Images

Black Widow 1Black Widow 2Black Widow 3Black Widow 4

Publication: Misty 17 June 1978 – 16 September 1978

Episodes: 14

Artist: Jaume Rumeu

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: Anita 1980 as De Zwarte weduwe [The Black Widow]

Sequel: Spider-Woman, Tammy & Misty, 19 January 1980 – 22 March 1980

Plot 

In “her silken lair, hidden from the eyes of the world” is Mrs Webb, who is to become known to the world as The Black Widow. She calls out to her spiders, “Tonight is the time…the time of the spiders!”

Not far away is Corey End School, where we meet our two protagonists. The first is Sadie Lincoln, who wants to be a scientist. But Sadie has phobia about creepy crawlies, especially (you guessed it) spiders. The science teacher, Miss Dexter, tells Sadie she must overcome this if she is to handle biological specimens and make her way as a scientist. The second is Freda Lawrence, a rather unlikeable girl who thinks Sadie is always sucking up to teachers.

Sadie prefers astronomy as a science, and is spending the night with her telescope. She is surprised to see a type of meteor, which bursts into fragments. She goes out to investigate and finds a capsule containing a spider. She takes it to Miss Dexter, who cannot identify the species, but puts it in an aquarium for study. They are astonished to find it has doubled in size 24 hours later. And it continues to grow. They don’t realise they have captured the spider that should be at the centre of Webb’s new web. Webb goes in search of the spider and says there will be “no mercy for anyone keeping him!”

Webb turns up at the school, suspecting it is the place to start looking for the spider. Telling everyone she is on a mission to save spiders from the cruelty of man, she promises a £5 reward for anyone who brings a spider to her. Figuring she will get more than that if she brings Webb the super-growing spider, Freda steals it from the science lab. Sadie catches Freda and suspects what she is doing. She tags along with Freda to Webb’s house in the hope of grabbing it back.

They are both surprised to find the house is derelict. Inside, they are caught in a mechanical web manned by a giant mechanical spider. But this is actually the mechanism that brings them to Webb’s lair. Webb scares them into handing over the spider.

Webb explains that she and her husband were biological chemists. Her husband was forced to participate in a military biological experiment that killed him when it went wrong. Now she is out for revenge on Britain with the aid of her specially engineered spiders – and with Sadie and Freda, who are going to be her instruments. Freda says if there’s a few bob in it, she will be happy to do it. This disgusts Sadie, who also expresses her fear of spiders. At this, Webb hypnotises Sadie into liking spiders. She then gives Freda a hypnotic prompt “you creep!” This will have Sadie doing whatever Freda commands when she says it. She also imprisons the girls in slave pendants that give them electric shocks whenever they try to remove them. The pendants label Freda as Tara and Sadie as Tula. Finally, Webb gives Freda a bag of spiders for their first test. She then sends them out, with Sadie having no recollection of what happened.

What Webb does not realise is that Freda is not loyal to her because she was too shocked at the sight of the hypnotism done to Sadie. Freda is only playing along with Webb because she does not want to be hypnotised as well.

Using the “you creep!” prompt, Freda has Sadie unleash the spiders at school, which causes a panic. Afterwards, Webb says the spiders have been installed with transmitters, so she can track them on her electronic map.

Sadie has no memory of what happens when the hypnotic power wears off, so she cannot explain her action to her headmistress – or her absenteeism the next day. This is, of course, because they have been directed to their of next target – one Major-General Oliver Bullivant. Webb blames Bullivant for her husband’s death. The girls plant Webb’s spider on Bullivant’s dog. When the spider bites Bullivant, he falls into a paralysis that leaves him incapable of speaking and doctors baffled. However, the investigation, led by Inspector Bird, is soon drawing the right conclusions. Bird is now searching for the spider and the two girls.

Freda wants to call it quits, but when she tries to tell Webb, Webb demands to know the fate of the Bullivant spider. Webb realises the spider is still with Sadie and uses the pendant to summon her – only to find that Sadie has let the spider go. Later, the spider turns up in the papers that a despatch rider is taking to Bullivant’s. The spider bites and paralyses the dispatch rider, causing him to have a crash. Bird realises what happened and is now searching the scene of the accident for the spider. Then Carfax of SI9 turns up and tells Bird that someone stole a batch of spiders that the Ministry had been testing in the stratosphere. The purpose had been to create super-spiders, but the results are unknown because of the theft. Carfax has a pretty good idea who the thief is (guess who?), but is having trouble locating her. The stratosphere theft also explains the “meteor” that Sadie observed earlier.

Meanwhile, the next target is Professor Lawton, who devised the experiment that killed the husband. This time the girls are to plant the spider on Lawton’s baby. But as they leave, they are attacked by rough girls. Freda tells the leader, “Go an’ jump in the lake, you creep!”

Oops – Freda unwittingly used the hypnotic prompt, which has Sadie jumping in the lake and losing the spider. When Webb finds out the spider’s fate, she is hysterical and furious as she regards her spiders as her children. She decides to go out and do the job herself. However, Mrs Lawton intercepts the spider and crushes it, which means another upset for Webb. Also, Lawton compares notes with Bird and they see the connection.

When Webb returns to her base, she gets another shock – Freda has used the hypnotic prompt to get Sadie to smash her tank of beloved spiders. Webb uses her spider powers to turn the spiders on them. Freda pretends that they have learned their lesson and Webb calls the spiders off.

Sadie now understands what is going on and she quietly teams up with Freda. But Webb hypnotises her into delivering a spider to the Prime Minister. Webb plans to use this attack to blackmail Britain into capitulating to her. However, Freda uses the “you creep!” command to bring Sadie back to Webb’s lair to do a more thorough job of smashing the place.

The police arrive. The girls try to explain – and the police are forced to take them seriously when they find millions of spiders crawling all over their car! Soon, the girls are explaining everything to Bird himself.

Meanwhile, there has been a series of blocked drains in London. Investigation reveals an enormous web and equally enormous spider in the drains. It is the spider Sadie captured earlier. It was engineered to be a super-growing spider. It has now grown to giant proportions, feeding on sewer rats – and is still growing! What’s more, it is moving on from rats to people as prey and causing panic in the underground railway station. The giant spider, complete with its web, emerges in Trafalgar Square, which causes even more panic and makes the news. Webb sees the broadcast and gloats, “The day of the spiders is here at last!”

Back at her lair, Webb has less to gloat about when she discovers what the girls have done. But when the authorities arrive, there is no sign of Webb. Then they hear her over a loudspeaker, where she finally delivers her ultimatum: if they want to stop the spider – which is now moving on from Trafalgar Square and travelling across the country via the power lines – they must do what she says. The first of her demands is to bring the girls to a rendezvous point, where the spider is waiting to devour them.

The authorities bring the girls, and Webb orders them to climb up to the spider. But the authorities have prepared a trap. The national grid is down, but the power station is waiting for their signal to turn on the power. Ironically, it is accidentally turned on when an employee is scared by a spider. As planned, the giant spider gets fried. Webb falls to the ground, though not to her death. At the same time, the slave pendants fall off Freda and Sadie. Webb is taken to hospital, but they are surprised when she seems to disappear into thin air from the ambulance. A spider scuttles away from the ambulance unnoticed, and there is a question mark after “The End”.

Thoughts

Misty was huge on scary spider stories and playing on the common fear of arachnophobia. In her very first issue she had “Red Knee – White Terror!” where a girl has many close calls with a poisonous spider without realising it but in the final panel it looks like her luck may have finally run out. Other spider-themed stories included “Web of Lies”, “Dressed to Kill!” and “Spider Woman” (no connection to Mrs Webb) in the 1984 Misty annual. But the Black Widow tops them all. What is not to love – or scare the living daylights out of you – with how she uses spiders as deadly weapons? Poisonous spiders, flesh-eating spiders, and spiders growing to monstrous proportions and emerging from the sewers of London to strike terror into everyone who sees it.

Mrs Webb comes from a long line of mad, evil scientists. However, she is more rounded than most of them as there is a sympathetic element to her. Her insanity stems from the grief of losing her husband, and she believes the military was responsible for it. There may even be some truth to Webb’s suspicions because Bullivant is such a pompous, overbearing, unlikeable git. He forces his unfortunate batman to do jobs that are not supposed to be part of a batman’s job. At any rate, readers must have felt a sneaking sympathy for Webb when she shuts Bullivant up with her spider and felt that she had given Bullivant what was coming to him.

But sympathies for Webb don’t last. After all, she is not just doing it for revenge – she’s doing it for power as well and is out for conquest. In the sequel she will take this a stage further and be out for world conquest. But it’s not just for herself – it’s for the spiders, and she seems to see herself as a champion of them. There are no limits to what she won’t do or the types of spiders she will devise as weapons.

This story gives the military a chance to shine, something it seldom does in girls’ comics. Usually when the military does feature it is in a humorous sense (Annie’s Army in June) or female soldiers (Kitty Hawke in Girl I). But here the military is portrayed more realistically, given plenty of screen time in the story, and more time is devoted to developing the Army characters. This is all for a very credible reason – Webb’s attack is directly against the Army, and it’s personal. Whoever wrote this story must have been one of the Battle writers.

However, although the military is given more spotlight than girls’ serials usually give it, the centre stage is still given to girl protagonists and the true resolution of the story depends on them. Pairing a principled girl with an unsavoury one is not an unusual one in girls’ comics; Fairy Tale in Princess II was one to use it. What is unusual is that it is the unsavoury girl who is proactive against Webb and is key to resolving the story. By contrast, the more moralistic girl is far less proactive and more prone to succumbing to Webb’s brainwashing. The key is in their strength of character. Freda may be the more unpleasant girl, but she is the much stronger and more resourceful of the two girls. She may be greedy, willing to do it for money, but she has her limits. These stop her from turning into Webb’s willing flunky. These also help to redeem Freda as a character. Sadie, by contrast, may be more principled, but she has a weaker personality and is more prone to succumbing to Webb’s power. However, the brainwashing of Sadie enables Freda to turn Webb’s power against her on several occasions.

Mrs Webb was the only Misty villain who was brought back for a sequel. She was not killed off as many of Misty’s villains were, such as Dr Bracken from “The Body Snatchers”. Misty had several of her villains plunging to their deaths, as in “House of Horror”, but Mrs Webb not only survives her fall but escapes as well, with a hint she might be back. Perhaps Misty decided she was too good a villain to kill off. Or maybe it was all those spider menaces that she loved to use time and time again.