Journey stories: how do they work?

I would not normally write at such length about a story theme, but there was an academic conference held the week before last, for which I submitted a paper. The subject was Travel and Comics, and I chose to look at Jinty‘s journey stories in some detail, meaning that I now have quite a lot to say on it… Last week’s earlier post about the Journey theme formed the first half of the paper, showing how the theme was prevalent and popular, particularly at certain points during Jinty‘s run. (I wonder exactly why this happened, but I suspect the answer is just ‘why not’!) Today’s post will look at some specific example stories in Jinty in more detail, asking the following questions:

  • How does the journey start – what is the triggering thing that means the main character heads off on a journey in the first place?
  • What keeps them going – why don’t they just stop and do something else? What is it that happens that means they can stop travelling at the end of the story?

(These points tell us quite a lot about what makes the story into a ‘journey’ story specifically: it is the distinction between a story that has some bits where some travelling happens, and a story that is more clearly about the journey.)

  • While they are travelling, do we see the characters shown on the page as actively travelling, or do we see them ‘having travelled’, perhaps at the end of the day?

I think that looking at this sort of question about how a story works, in more detail, will help uncover some things about the journey theme beyond the obvious fact that it involves a journey.

How does the journey start?

If you look at some example journey stories, one thing that leaps out fairly soon is that it’s not a free choice on the part of the protagonist to go on a journey. Fran sets out  into a flooded Britain once her town has been overwhelmed by the rising waters and she is separated from her parents. Thumper suffers an accident at the precise moment which means he is unable to travel with Julie at the point she is moving house. Solveig and Per are looking forward to going home to Norway in the official convoy, but they have to go on the run when they see that Grendelsen has come to collect them as part of that official convoy: they know he is their deadly enemy. And even happy-go-lucky Katie McNab only sets off from London to Yuckiemuckle in order to fulfil the terms of Great-Uncle Ebeneezer’s will: because her family is poor, the chance to win a fortune is a strong incentive.

This  constraint or forced situation underlying the journey might be because the reader is expected to be a youngish girl (perhaps somewhere between 8 and 12 years old), not herself at an independent stage in life. Would it feel unrealistic if the protagonist was able to set off on a journey of her own choice, in the way that that a reader would be unable to do? Maybe, but I think that perhaps looking at Bella Barlow’s wanderings might shed a different light on it. Bella travels to many countries – Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, and Russia among others. She doesn’t go on a journey, with a beginning and an end: she goes travelling, with no particular reason to come to a stop. (All right, if she made it to the Olympics she would be able to stop, but she’s Bella Barlow – part of the point of her story is exactly that she will never get a truly happy ending!)

In mainstream publishing likewise there are plenty of examples where the main character sets off of their own accord. Laurie Lee famously wrote “As I Set Off One Midsummer’s Morning” – he goes to seek his fortune wherever he might find himself. There is no clear driver right from the start that means he needs to go in a certain direction or to do a certain thing. The power of his story isn’t about the drama of leaving home and what made him go, nor about whether he will get to his destination safely. Reading his story we are interested in the landscapes he walks through, the people he meets, the food he eats, the foreign languages he shows us.

So I think that part of the point of a journey story, certainly in girls comics, is precisely that the protagonist is made to set out on her journey, by forces that are somewhat out of her control. (Lack of control or choice is quite common in girls comics in general, of course.)

What keeps the journey going? What happens that means that the protagonist can finally stop?

For it to be a real journey story, the travelling needs to be a significant part of it, and so it has to keep going for a while. If you look at the examples in Jinty, there are temptations along the way for the main character to stop: Fran Scott finds some occasional comfortable places to stay for a while on her tortuous journey up to Scotland, and Thumper could have made a new home with various of the friendly humans he met along his travels westward. These possibilities are properly tempting in their own right, because there are significant dangers on the way too: with a serial story comes a lot of cliff-hangers, and quite a few of those relate to physical dangers such as illnesses (fevers in “For Peter’s Sake!” and “Song of the Fir Tree”, plague in “Fran of the Floods”), or murderous humans (marauding bands in some particularly spectacular episodes of “Fran of the Floods”).

So, keeping going on the journey is typically dangerous (though in humour story “Race for a Fortune” any sense of physical danger is only minimally present). The reason to keep going in the face of this needs to be pretty strong in itself, otherwise why wouldn’t the protagonist just stop, and bring the story to an end (or turn it into a different sort of story). The reason to keep going is indeed a strong one – it is typically related to love, family, or some sort of stronger loyalty than self-preservation.

  • Fran keeps going in order to find her sister – the urge to find someone from her family, so that she doesn’t feel all alone in the world, is what drives her on, even though she doesn’t know for sure if her sister is alive in Scotland. When she is faced with a substitute possible family, it is not sufficient and she moves on regardless.
  • Thumper keeps going, despite increasingly sore feet and failing eyesight, in order to be reunited with his beloved owner, Julie. Other substitute possible owners, even though it is clear to him that they are loving and kind, are not enough for him to stay and he finds a way to move on regardless.
  • Corrie keeps pushing her pram southwards to London “For Peter’s Sake” as the story title has it – she is convinced that the pram is the only way that her ailing baby brother will be cured.
  • Although Katie McNab’s motive to keep going is less of a life-and-death situation than in the other stories, it is still an important one: a sense of family, in that she constantly muses on how the money she might inherit from great-uncle Ebeneezer would transform their impoverished lives.

The story does come to an end eventually, of course; generally with the protagonist reaching the end of their journey. The main character doesn’t just decide to stop travelling, though, as we saw above. The story end is tied up with the beginning of the story and the reason why she set off in the first place. Thumper finds Julie; Fran finds her sister; Corrie reaches London and her pram helps to cure Peter; Solveig and Per reach their home village in Norway and Grendelsen is defeated once and for all so he is no longer a threat. Some stories in Jinty have surprising endings that defy their beginnings; not so the journey story, which ends in a way consistent with the constant motivation.

How does this help us to understand what a journey story is or might be?

It seems to me that the above give us some important characteristics about what a journey story is and how it works, at least in British girls comics. The main character is forced by some sort of external circumstance to embark on the journey; she does not choose freely to set out. She keeps going on the journey for a serious reason, not lightly undertaken (and this is true even for humorous takes on the theme). She doesn’t just stop travelling because she feels like it, she has to complete the journey in a way consistent with the circumstance that forced her to set out in the first place.

You can easily enough imagine different versions of the stories, where one or more of these elements have been disregarded. Would they still count as journey stories, just ones that didn’t happen to have been written?

  • What sort of story might there be, if the protagonist had set out on a long journey of her own free choice?
    • You can certainly imagine a travel diary or a tourism story, perhaps like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. It would probably focus on something different rather than being a quest: perhaps it would be a didactic story, teaching the reader how to set up camp and survive under tough conditions, or perhaps it would be about the people and landscapes she found on her travels.
    • I can imagine a girls comic covering this as a historical story, say retelling the life of a great explorer such as Lady Hester Stanhope, or perhaps framing it as a moral tale of a missionary.
  • What if the main character could stop any time she felt like it?
    • Perhaps this might work if she had set out of her own choice in the first place as above. It does however feels to me as if this would take away from the journey aspect of the story: I am not sure if such a story would count as a journey story.
    • Can anyone think of a journey story where this happens?
  • What if the main character never stopped, or never found what she was looking for?
    • There are stories that work in something like this way, as far as I understand: Valda travels the world competing with athletes and always beating them (would she stop if she found someone who could beat her, is that stated in the story?). Boys’ comics character Wilson similarly travels around, though as I understand it, he trains other athletes rather than focusing on beating them.
    • To readers of these stories – do they feel like journey stories to you?

And Finally

For the conference, I also briefly looked at a question which I think would repay more attention than I was able to spend on it at the time. This was about the depiction of the process of journeying itself. While the characters in the story are travelling, do we see the characters shown on the page as actively travelling, or do we see them ‘having travelled’, perhaps at the end of the day? How much of the process of travelling is shown on the page?

It seemed to me that the stories I looked at often didn’t show that much travelling on the page itself, though it did vary as some stories did more than others.

  • Thumper and Beaky are typically shown arriving somewhere new at the very beginning of the episode, and leaving again in the last panel or two. The bulk of the episode is spent with them overcoming the challenge posed that week: chasing off robbers, avoiding deadly rats and packs of dogs, avoiding being penned in by would-be owners. This only really changes in the second to last episode (see sample images on the story post) where we see a lot more active travelling depicted on the page itself. Other than that, it is the narration that does a lot of the work: we are told that they have travelled for days, that he is footsore, that he has little strength left.
  • Although as with “The Darkening Journey”, many episodes are focused on the challenge of the week, in “Fran of the Floods” Fran is shown on the page travelling by row-boat, on foot, by raft, and even by cruise ship. Not every panel shows her travelling onwards, but it is quite a feature of the story.
  • Corrie Lomax pushes her gran’s pram over a considerable distance and it is again quite a feature of the comics art itself: in the sample images on the story post she is shown doing so in many of the week’s story panels.
  • “Race for a Fortune” works similarly to “The Darkening Journey”, with Katie shown arriving and leaving again on her trusty roller skates, but otherwise mostly dealing with the week’s challenges as the key focus of each episode.

You would think there might be more use made visually of the fact of travelling, but as I mentioned above, it seems that the narration plays more of a role in telling the reader about the journey than the art does. We don’t see lots of use of maps, for instance – showing how far the protagonist has travelled or still has to travel. We don’t typically see a lot of ‘local colour’ either, which is also a bit surprising – when Katie is in the Scottish Highlands she sees some people wearing tam o shanters and pretending there is a local lake monster as in Loch Ness, but this sort of ‘tourism touch’ is not done as often as I might have expected. (Would a Welsh reader feel a surge of local pride, say, if something was set in Snowdonia, or would that mostly tend to put off the larger group of readers who wouldn’t immediately identify with the local touch in question?)

As I said above, I think this could repay more attention across a wider range of comics. Do most other journey stories stick to the episodic ‘challenge of the week’ format with minimal travelling shown? Do artists who I haven’t looked at use more, or less, in the way of visual shortcuts to indicate the character’s travelling, or is it generally down to the writer to tell us readers about the journey? I hope you may have comments and thoughts on this, and the rest of my long post: so please share!

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6 thoughts on “Journey stories: how do they work?

  1. Pity we don’t have an entry on Somewhere over the Rainbow, that one could be useful. The children’s goal is to reach somewhere called Rainbow’s End. They don’t even know what it is or what to expect when they get there. They just believe that when they get there they will be happy again, and that’s what keeps them going. Their goal is even vaguer than the ones discussed here, but they keep going regardless because they have faith in Rainbow’s End, whatever it is.

  2. In a lot of cartoons and TV shows in the 1970s, the protagonists are on quests/journeys but never find what they are looking for. In Logan’s Run for example, Logan & Co never find Sanctuary. In Jana of the Jungle, Jana never finds her father. From what we see in the intro, it’s a sad case of not being able to accept he is dead. Some of these shows probably get cancelled before the protagonist completes the quest.

    By contrast, in Pokémon, Ash is always on a journey (win 8 badges to qualify for a tournament). He always achieves his goal but is soon off on another journey.

  3. Bella is one traveller who does not stop. She is a wanderer by nature and eventually her feet itch to get up and go. She will stay in one place for a while (if she has a job for example) but in the end she moves on again. She never settles down permanently. Sometimes it’s her itchy feet, sometimes circumstances at her current location change and she can’t stay there anymore. Jed and Gert eventually become her base. She goes back to them if she has no choice, but will find a way to get away again, sometimes by simply running off. In the end they get sick of this and just throw her out.

  4. Can a wrongful conviction spark a journey story? This was the case with the Smiler trilogy by Victor Canning, but is there an example in girls comics?

  5. Certainly is an interesting way to keep drama, with many obstacles along the way. Must have been a bit more work for artists too having to change protagonist’s location, though how much that could change may depend on the story’s scope.

    Stories set during the war often had a journy aspect to them, whether it be protagonist trying to find a living relative or escaping the conflict all the find a safe place. Sometimes they may also be carrying a secret that may help the allies, though in those cases the story may fall more into Resistance/Spy category rather than the Journey category.

    1. Wasn’t there one such story featuring a pogo stick? The heroine hides a secret from the Nazis in her pogo stick and hops away to take it to safety?

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