Published: Tammy 21 May 1983 to 6 August 1983
Artist: Tony Coleman (credited as George Anthony)
Writer: Charles Herring
Translations/reprints: None known
Continuing our possession/evil influence serial theme, we take a look at what can happen when possession/evil influence strikes a girl who wants to improve her lot or strengthen her character. Conversely, the possession/evil influence actually helps the girl to do just that – well, at least at first. But its nature being what it is, it is inevitable that the girl eventually senses the dark side of how she is changing.
Doreen Gray is the butt of teasing at school because she is a very shy girl. The worst of the bullies is Jane Quarles. Jane secretly knows Doreen can be more than what she is in the school sports teams if her shyness didn’t get the way, but of course she doesn’t want Doreen to step out of the shadows.
One day, Jane and her gang tease Doreen about being too shy to have a birthday party, and the teasing culminates in their chasing Doreen across the school pool. It backfires when Doreen unwittingly swims so well to get away from them that swimming team captain, Ann offers her a trial for the swimming team, but it’s too much for Doreen’s shyness to take.
Doreen’s father is an antique dealer who could be richer than he is, except Mr Quarles (Jane’s father) is always picking his brains for free advice on the best antiques to buy, which is how he has grown so wealthy. Doreen can see how Mr Quarles is using Dad, shy though she is, but Dad is too good-natured to realise this or how Mr Quarles is cheating him out of antiques that could benefit him instead.
One day Mr Gray brings home a Victorian portrait that has been painted over. He bought it for the value of the frame. Then the black paint begins to flake, showing another portrait underneath, and Dad removes the paint altogether. They are surprised to find the portrait is of a girl who is a dead ringer for Doreen. She also looks a girl who always got her own way and anything she wanted. As Doreen gazes at it, she suddenly surprises her father when she demands the portrait for her birthday – which she has now dubbed “The Portrait of Doreen Gray” – and a party to celebrate.
Doreen notices odd things, such as a whisper in her ear saying “You can get what you want, too!”, and when Jane and Carole challenge Doreen at the swimming trial, she sees the portrait staring up at her from the water, which spurs her to win the trial and a place in the team. Oddest of all, the girl’s face in the portrait seems to be able to change expressions, which seems to have an effect on Doreen. She is growing more confident to the point of being demanding.
Dad notices unsettling changes in Doreen. One is pretending to the other girls that she sat for the portrait herself. He is disturbed, as he is suddenly reminded of a certain Oscar Wilde story and warns Doreen about it. Although he has misgivings about letting Doreen have the portrait, he eventually lets her have it.
At the party Doreen continues to pretend the portrait is of her. Jane’s nose is put out of joint at this and she quickly leaves. Doreen noticed Jane had her eye on the frame and realised its value. Afterwards, Mr Quarles is after the frame and Dad is willing to sell it because he needs the money (something he’d have more of if he wised up to Mr Quarles). Realising Jane’s hand in this, Doreen hides the portrait in the attic where she can secretly visit it and feel its influence strengthening her. She pretends to Dad that it was stolen. The ladder to the loft is too unsafe to bear Dad’s weight, so she is confident he won’t find it. Any pricks of conscience (such as cheating Dad), second thoughts or worry when she finds her behaviour becoming arrogant (which it does as the story progresses) somehow get overridden every time she’s near the portrait and it seems to make a look at her.
Doreen is still having problems with self-confidence at school. Although she is in the swimming team, she is struggling to find her feet at netball. Egged on more by Jane’s remarks than the portrait, Doreen not only makes her way into the team but pushes Jane out of it as well. Finding out Jane intends to make her the lame duck in a swimming match against a rival school, Doreen is spurred on to come first. But she is becoming arrogant and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Ann drops Doreen from the team, saying she’s become too big-headed. But the influence of the portrait (this time in the form of tears and sympathetic looks) has Doreen thinking Ann is just being jealous. She challenges Ann to a swimming match, where she pushes Ann out of her position as captain and takes her place. Yet she persuades Ann to stay in the team – leaving no place for Jane. Jane’s nose is out of joint again.
To humiliate Doreen, Jane challenges her to a tennis match. Doreen is not experienced enough at tennis, but she is riding on such success she feels confident she can win without the portrait and tells it so. Doreen senses the portrait is laughing at this but presses on with her resolve. However, Jane slaughters her, and Doreen is left thinking she does need the portrait after all.
In revenge for her humiliation, Doreen pulls a long-overdue comeuppance on Mr Quarles, who is again taking advantage of Dad. Mr Gray identifies some candlesticks Mr Quarles has his eye on at an auction as fakes. Then Doreen sees the portrait winking at her from a mirror, and suddenly gets an idea. She tricks Mr Quarles into thinking they’re valuable and waste money on buying them. When Mr Quarles finds out, he and Dad exchange angry words, and it looks like Mr Quarles won’t be able to use him anymore.
Mr Quarles has to cancel the family holiday because of the money he lost through Doreen’s trick, so next day an angry Jane tackles Doreen. Doreen deals to her with a good shove. Realising the change in Doreen started with the portrait, Jane suspects it was not stolen and wangles her way into Doreen’s house to do some investigating. In the loft she discovers Doreen with the portrait, but is then scared by a rat sitting on top of it. Doreen won’t shoo the rat away until Jane agrees to stay silent, which she does. Realising the portrait helped her keep her cool when Jane discovered the truth, Doreen is now more drawn to it than ever before.
At netball, Doreen’s growing big-headedness gets her dropped from the team. The netball captain, Clare, adds that Doreen isn’t going to take her place as she did with Ann. (Oh, dear, is Doreen starting to get a reputation at school because of that portrait?) When Doreen visits the portrait, she suddenly knows how to not only worm her way back into the netball team but steal Clare’s position as captain as well – and succeeds at both.
Meanwhile, Mr Quarles is worming his way back into taking advantage of Mr Gray, this time by paying him fees (sops, more like) for his advice on antiques. This leads to an angry exchange between Doreen and Dad, and she takes refuge in the loft with the portrait.
Then Doreen hears her father climbing up the ladder to apologise and on the verge of discovering the truth. But he has forgotten the ladder is dangerous for him to climb, and Doreen is shocked to find herself tempted to not warn him. Eventually she does, but too late – the ladder collapses and he is hanging on for dear life. Doreen is again shocked to find herself tempted to loosen her grip and let him fall. Fortunately she overcomes it and tries to save him, but only succeeds with the help of a man who has arrived in the shop.
The man is the previous owner of the portrait, and Doreen now confesses to hiding it. The man explains the portrait is evil. It is of a Victorian girl who was always able to influence people although she was so young. She died in debtors’ prison when her family was ruined. The man’s grandfather bought it for his daughter, who also bore a resemblance to the portrait. Then grandfather discovered it was exerting an evil influence over her. He tried to destroy the portrait but couldn’t, so he ordered it painted over and hidden. It was kept that way until money troubles forced the man to sell the portrait. Then he grew concerned and tracked the portrait down. He says he will now take the portrait, but Doreen screams, “No! It’s mine!” and runs off with it. Dad and the man are relieved to find Doreen meant it was hers to destroy, which she does by pulling it out of the frame and throwing it in a vat of boiling tar in the road. Then she finally allows Dad to have the frame (but let’s hope Mr Quarles doesn’t get his hands on it!).
You don’t need to look far to see what inspired the story. However, it is more the title that draws on the Oscar Wilde story than the premise itself, which is firmly rooted in the evil object formula seen so many times in girls’ comics. Most often the evil object makes the girl do terrible things against her will or without her even realising, but this is not really the case here. Rather, the portrait acts more like the magic object that can help a shy girl become more confident, stand up to bullies who make her life miserable, and advise her on what to do when she wants to her own way or get out of sticky situations. But as it is an evil object, not a beneficial one, it is not helping her for the sake of it.
There are indeed positive sides to how Doreen changes (becoming more confident), but there is a dark shadow all the way. Doreen never turns totally to the dark side, but she does get disturbed by horrifying changes in herself: becoming arrogant and big-headed, going behind Dad’s back, finding insidious ways to get her own way in everything, even being tempted to let Dad fall to his death rather than him discovering where she hid the portrait. But until the end of the story it does not take much for one look at the portrait to smooth over any twitches of conscience or second thoughts.
Portraits with an evil influence have been seen elsewhere in girls’ comics. Stories with this theme include “The Painting” (Bunty), “The Portrait of Paula” (Suzy) and “Penny and the Portrait” (Mandy). Another, on a more comical note, is “The Happiest Days” (Tammy), where the frightful portrait of the school founder casts such a pall over the school it has to be gotten rid of, which our protagonist tries to do in all sorts of hilarious ways. After finally succeeding, she is surprised to find a more savoury version of the portrait.
But this portrait is far more insidious for several reasons. First, unlike other spooky portrait stories we don’t even know who the girl in the portrait is, and right up to the end of the story her name remains unrevealed. This adds an extra note of mystery to the story and the portrait. Is she a witch (a common reason why a portrait is evil in girls’ comics), someone who died tragically, someone out for revenge, or someone just plain bad?
The portrait does not speak as some evil portraits do, such as “The Painting” from Bunty. Instead, it exhibits its influence through facial expressions and, at times, through distance. Yet its influence is so subtle Doreen doesn’t even realise what it’s doing, which makes it all the more creepy.
Second, setting itself up as the magic friend/object who can help Doreen makes it all the harder to fight against because it seems a friend to her, one she can’t do without in becoming a success and beating the bullies. It always seems to offer a friendly listening ear when Doreen has a problem in getting her way or trouble with Jane.
Third, the portrait is very cunning in the way it influences Doreen through its expressions. It seems to smile in delight when Doreen tells her how she dealt to Mr Quarles. It turns on the waterworks when Doreen thinks it is making her big-headed and then sympathetic looks to convince Doreen that Ann is just being jealous. In other words, it really sets itself up to appear a genuine friend. But we can sense the portrait is only manipulating Doreen to strengthen its hold over her. One example is the episode where Doreen loses against Jane after telling the portrait she doesn’t need it to win against her, then she reverts back to dependency on the portrait after losing. We’re left thinking the portrait planned the whole thing. Another example is the rat in the loft that frightens Jane. We have a strong feeling the rat was not sitting on top of the portrait by accident!
Fourth is the way these bad ideas just seem to pop into Doreen’s head and she surprises herself with them. There’s never an evil voice in her head telling her to do these things, though she does get one whisper in her ear: “You can get what you want, too!” Yet we know it’s the portrait all the same.
Fifth, for an evil object story, it’s unusual in that the evil object does not force the protagonist to do terrible things as other “evil object” stories often do. It is more like the serials where the protagonist gets into bad company with a false friend who is a bad influence on her and taking advantage of her. The protagonist can’t see her for what she is (or ignores it) because the sneaky girl is so slick and manipulative in the way she keeps the protagonist close to her. “The Kat and Mouse Game” (Jinty) is one example of this, and “Lessons from Lindy” (Bunty) is another. This must have been what the girl in the portrait was like when she was alive, except that unlike Kat or Lindy, not even death stops her. There can be no doubt she was a girl who always got her own way in everything (except debtors’ prison), and not even death stops her there either. Through her portrait she gets her own way through others by leading them to think she is helping them get their own way in everything.
Finally, it must be said there is good coming out of the portrait influencing Doreen. It helps Doreen to overcome her shyness, give Mr Quarles a long-overdue comeuppance, stand up to Jane, and step out of the shadows at school to take prominence in school teams. Setting itself up as a good thing makes it all the harder to realise it is evil and fight against it. For this reason, for all the new confidence Doreen shows, it is not until she finds the power within her to destroy the portrait that she shows her whole new strength of character.