Tammy has now joined the slew of reprint volumes that Misty and Jinty are enjoying. And it makes sense for Tammy to begin with her most popular and enduring character, Bella Barlow. Bella never had the polarising among Tammy readership that Molly Mills had; many loved Molly while others hated her, frequently saying she was boring, and so stupid for not standing up to that bully butler, Pickering. Bella, by contrast, just seemed to grow and grow in popularity. She began as a regular Cinderella-themed story, a style that was so popular in Tammy’s early years. But instead of allowing Bella’s story to end on the Cinderella happy ending, readers brought her back by popular demand, where she endured a story that was even more cruel than the first time around. From there Bella came back again and again until she held a joint record with Molly as Tammy’s longest-running character.
The volume reprints Bella’s first two stories. The first one, already discussed here, tells us how Bella battled to overcome her window-cleaning drudgery, her memorably cruel Uncle Jed and Aunt Gert, snobbery, class distinction, depression and even injury to pursue her gymnastics dream. In true fairy tale fashion she is ultimately delivered from her guardians to pursue her gymnastics at a Russian gymnastics school. There it was expected to end, as so many Cinderella-themed Tammy stories had done. But not in the case of Bella Barlow. Popular demand brought her back, where she is flung into even more dregs of darkness. Bella’s time at the gymnastics school is tragically cut short before it’s hardly begun when a jealous rival, Natalia Orlov, gets her expelled on a false charge. It is not only back to the old window-cleaning drudgery with her horrible relatives – who treat her even worse than before – but also suffering unjust disgrace and ostracism in the public eye. Can Bella keep up her beloved gymnastics under these dual pressures? And how the heck can Bella clear her name?
At the time of the original print of the Bella sequel, there were a huge number of letters on it, many of which expressed confidence that Bella would triumph and be exonerated. Some even (correctly) guessed it had something to do with Bella running up against Natalia again. But the editor always said to those guesses: “Wait and see.” And when we do, we see the groundwork has been laid for a third Bella story in which she has to overcome yet another hurdle to get back into gymnastics. And Tammy says it will be starting soon.
Jenny McDade wrote the first two Bella stories. Future Bella volumes – which we eagerly anticipate – will tell if McDade wrote more Bella before the strip passed to other writers. When we read the stories in the volume we get a taste of how good writers helped to make titles like Tammy so great in their heyday. But contrary to the impression the volume might give, McDade did not start on Tammy with Bella Barlow. Her first Tammy story was “Star-Struck Sister” in 1972, which she took over after the first episode. It was also how McDade cut her teeth on writing for girls’ comics.
It has been decades since British girls enjoyed titles like Tammy and avidly followed exploits like those of Bella Barlow, Wee Sue, Molly Mills, The Four Marys and The Comp. Sadly, they have all vanished. To today’s generation of girls, the comics that girls used to know and love so well must be an unknown commodity, along with the characters who helped to make them so great. So the first reprint volume of Bella Barlow would not only bring back nostalgia for former Tammy readers but also give the new generation a taste of why girls’ comics used to be so popular, and what made Tammy such a hit in her earliest years: Cinderella theme, tortured heroine, adversity on all sides, a will that refuses to be beaten by it all, determination to triumph with a special talent and claim the happiness that is the heroine’s by right. And all brought to life by one of the most brilliant girls’ comics artists of all time – John Armstrong. To this day, John Armstrong’s fluid, brilliantly rendered anatomic artwork on gymnastics, sports and ballet is unmatched and simply mouth-watering. This was what always sold the Bella strip for me. It should do so for the new generation as well and leave them wondering why they don’t make British comics like that anymore.