We have all noticed certain things in comics. Things about plot, character and setting that always seem to crop up and we comment on them a lot. Then again, there are other things about plot, character and setting that always crop up as well, but we hardly even notice them. At least, not until someone else points them out. We have already presented three volumes on this subject that focused exclusively on girls’ comics, but for this new edition we expand the repertoire to include material from non-girls’ comics.
Now, to give you the idea of what we mean, we present:
25 Things You May (or May Not) Have Noticed in Girls Comics – and Non-Girls Comics
1: Some parents expect you to just selflessly help them all the time, regardless of workload or inconvenience, because that’s what they do for others.
2: But you’re the one person they never help.
3: No matter how good a schemer you are, you always make the slip that trips you up.
4: Evil scientists have a really bad habit of falling at the hands of their own creation.
5: Even if you’re the villain who’s the world’s worst dictator, you can still meet your match in a kid.
6: Someone always seems to have just what you need – even if they seem to have conjured it out of thin air, without any explanation.
7: When a teacher makes a teacher’s pet out of a pupil, it’s not because they like them.
8: Parents who don’t want to listen never hear you properly.
9: When it suits them, all of a sudden they hear you perfectly.
10: But it’s not to listen to you – it’s to spout utter bulls**t at you.
11: Bombers use alarm clocks as jury-rigged bomb timers, which just look plain silly.
12: When they must know there are much better bomb timers available.
13: Villains always seem to pick the wrong person as the latest recruit into their gang.
14: But for some reason they don’t realise it until it’s too late.
15: Never underestimate good guys with glasses.
16: Never underestimate bad guys with glasses.
17: Never underestimate a nerd, whether good or bad.
18: Antagonists are not admired for good looks – except when the plot requires them to be.
19: Bad guys who feed on fear strike it into the hearts of everyone in every panel they appear in.
20: Until they come to the panel where they’re up against the wall.
21: Victims don’t seem to recognise the mysterious shadowy figure that’s about to strike at them – even if the reveal shows it should have struck them as familiar in some way.
22: No matter how many enemies are set against you, not keeping your end of the bargain is what will be your downfall by the end of the story.
23: Bullied girls get no support from classmates if the plot does not require it.
24: But they do if the plot does require it.
25: Some outfits (or names) have an amazing power to change completely between panels without explanation.
For World Holocaust Memorial Day we present this Commando, with comparison to Jinty’s Holocaust story, “Song of the Fir Tree”.
In the closing days of World War II, Nazi Germany is being fast invaded by the Allies from the West and the Russians from the East. However, in between are territories still under German control and lingering pockets of Nazi evil that intend to survive one way or other. Among them is the Secret Research Centre at Badfelden, run by the “hardened” S.S. Colonel Hartmann and “merciless” (but “abject coward”) nuclear physicist Bernhard (or Hans on the back cover) Gruber, and slave labour consisting of concentration camp prisoners and Airman Carlo Fabrizzi, an Italian who defected to the Allies and then got captured. As well as the usual Belsen-style treatment, the prisoners suffer an additional cruelty that adds to the high death toll: being forced to handle radioactive material without protection.
Gruber and Hartmann been trying to develop an A-bomb to score victory for the Reich, but Gruber hasn’t had much success, and now they’re out of time with enemy closing in so fast on Badfelden. So they activate “Plan Cuckoo”. As part of this plan, Gruber is to immediately head south and surrender to the approaching Allies. But they left an office window open, and it’s right next to where the prisoners are working, so Fabrizzi overhears them. Dummköpfe! Didn’t they ever read the posters? Vorsicht bei Gesprächen! Feind hört mit! [Careful when talking! Enemy is listening!].
Realising Gruber and Hartmann plan to dispose of the prisoners and the sinking ship before the Allies arrive, Fabrizzi organises the prisoners into a revolt against the guards, which takes Badfelden by storm. However, after the initial surprise, the guards are quick to recover, and they are soon on the verge of crushing the revolt. Fortunately, the Allies arrive in the nick of time, and Badfelden is liberated. However, Hartmann has already fled, and there is still the matter of Gruber and Plan Cuckoo.
Fabrizzi informs the Allied Commander, Ken Horton, about Gruber and his heading south to surrender to the Allies. Horton says Gruber is more likely to bump into the Russians, who are in between, and they are in a very nasty mood against Germans. They head off together to find Gruber and bring him to justice. Gruber is cornered by the Russians and, being the coward he is, starts snivelling, blubbering and grovelling for the Russians to spare his life. He is saved by Fabrizzi and Horton, who persuade the Russians to let them take him into custody. The mystery of Plan Cuckoo still puzzles Fabrizzi, but it looks like Plan Cuckoo is a dead duck now that Gruber is all set to stand trial.
Unfortunately, the Americans have other ideas. They are secretly recruiting scientists, engineers and technicians from the former Third Reich for employment, to gain advantage in the Space Race and Cold War (Operation Paperclip). They want Gruber for their own A-bomb development. Under pretext of wanting him for special interrogation, they smuggle him to the US. Under a new name (Smith), Gruber is soon working for the Manhattan Project. The Americans put up a false report in the press that Gruber killed himself in American custody. Horton is surprised to read it, as he thought Gruber was too gutless to commit suicide.
Meanwhile, the Americans don’t realise their actions have unwittingly put Plan Cuckoo back on course. Gruber is cribbing as much top secret information from the Manhattan Project as he can for Plan Cuckoo to succeed. As soon as he is ready, Gruber makes a call to Germany, and a car is sent for him. He nearly gets caught, as he is carrying an implosion trigger and suspicious guards want a search, but then his car arrives. His helpers whisk him away to Nazi haven Argentina and an old friend, shooting the guards as they do so.
Two years later, Fabrizzi summons Horton to Argentina, where he is running an air freight business. At Buenos Aires airport, Horton sadly reads about the growing Cold War in the paper, and now the Soviets have the A-bomb. Then he is surprised to spot Gruber, whom he thought was dead. Gruber boards a private plane. In exchange for a nice sum of money, a mechanic tells Horton the plane is bound for San Miguel, Patagonia, Southern Argentina.
When Horton meets Fabrizzi, he is shocked to see him in a wasted state. Fabrizzi says it’s radiation sickness from being forced to handle radioactive material unprotected in Badfelden. He won’t last much longer and has summoned Horton to carry on his work after he dies. No, not the air freight service – Nazi hunting. Gruber is at the top of the list. There’ve been other sightings of Gruber, and US contacts have told him what happened. But Horton’s lead is the first to link Gruber to San Miguel. Fabrizzi is still able to fly despite his illness, so they fly to San Miguel.
They arrive at San Miguel, but there is no sign of Gruber’s plane at the airport. They soon learn that many ranches have private planes and airstrips, and they file a flight plan for the airport for the sake of convenience. To find the plane, Fabrizzi and Horton have to do some aerial reconnaissance around the area. But at the airport, a Nazi spy spots them, recognises Fabrizzi, and reports them to the boss. He then plants a bomb on their plane. The explosion has the plane crash on a ranch belonging to Rhys Griffith and his son Manuel, who save the men from the crash.
The Griffiths tell Horton and Fabrizzi about a landowner named Alfonse Klein, a dangerous man of suspected German origin, who arrived straight after the war with a group of thugs. Klein forces his neighbours into selling their ranches to him by threatening to set them on fire. When Horton and Fabrizzi investigate Klein, they discover he is Colonel Hartmann from Badfelden.
Everything fits now, and the answer to Plan Cuckoo must be on Klein’s ranch. But when Horton, Fabrizzi and Manuel Griffith try to infiltrate the ranch, they discover it is fortified to the teeth and booby-trapped to set off any intruder alarms. When they try to cut through the wire fence, they discover it’s electrified and rigged to set off an alarm, which alerts Klein’s thugs. They manage to shake off the thugs, but they take revenge by setting fire to the Griffith ranch, killing Rhys.
The men take refuge at a ruin and decide they need reinforcements. No problem – Klein has made more than enough enemies for that. Manuel calls in his father’s friends and the local people who fell foul of Klein. Fabrizzi calls up his fellow ex-prisoners from Badfelden, and his airline flies them in. The black market supplies weapons and explosives.
Alerted to the booby traps, Horton and Manuel take a team of gauchos on a more planned infiltration of the ranch. This time they get past the fence and come in distance of the ranch, where they see barracks and Gruber’s plane. They decide to withdraw, but one of the gauchos trips an alarm, alerting Klein and his heavies. Only Horton and Manuel escape the slaughter. Manuel is dispatched to get help while Horton draws Klein off. He is captured, and Klein, instead of finishing him off quickly, decides to take him alive and show off his little Nazi operation to him.
Yes, Gruber and Klein have a cosy Nazi shrine/bunker set up in the cellar for building the A-bomb they had failed to construct at Badfelden. They had known from German intelligence how advanced the Americans were in developing the A-bomb and their being on the lookout for German scientists to help them. Hence Plan Cuckoo: plant Gruber “like a cuckoo’s egg” to learn their secrets and then fly him to their secret base to develop their own A-bombs. Now their first test bomb is ready. Their plan is to take advantage of the growing Cold War by using their A-bombs to trick the Soviets and the West into an atomic war so “the three wartime Allies will be laid waste”. Then they will move in with their new Nazi order. “It sounds crazy enough to work,” Horton thinks.
Klein then tells Horton that in the morning that he and his heavies will make sport of him in a great manhunt – they will give him 15 minutes and then chase after him. Yes, when he could have just finished Horton with a bullet there and then…and it’s given Horton one advantage – more time for his rescuers to organise themselves.
Manuel has made it to airstrip where Fabrizzi’s Badfelden buddies have arrived. They are all like Fabrizzi: living skeletons dying from radiation sickness, out for Gruber’s hide, and have nothing to lose by joining a deadly fight. They call themselves The Society of the Living Dead. Fabrizzi flies them into the ranch by planes fitted with machine guns to quickly clear the area. They and their guns soon have the manhunt on the run and rescue Horton.
They head for the cellar, where Gruber threatens to detonate the bomb if they come any closer. Knowing the cowardly Gruber doesn’t have the guts for that, Horton calls his bluff and seizes him.
There is now the question of what to do with the atomic arsenal, as they don’t trust the local authorities. Fabrizzi comes up with an idea, and as Horton wouldn’t agree, he has to apply strong arm tactics to get his way. He will give them 15 minutes to clear the area. Then he himself, who is already doomed anyway, will detonate the test bomb, taking himself and Gruber with it. Horton reluctantly respects Fabrizzi’s wishes.
Most of the men clear the area by plane, but Manuel and Horton are trying to leave by jeep, where they run into Klein, who blocks their escape route. Their two jeeps head on a collision course with each other, in a crazed game of chicken, guns at the ready. Klein’s driver is the one to crack and swerve, giving Horton the scope to shoot Klein dead. It’s then a mad drive to get clear before the coming of the mushroom cloud and the fallout.
The authorities never report the atomic explosion, so the world never learns what happened or how close things came to an atomic war. Fabrizzi dies an unsung hero.
It was a surprise to find a Commando that not only uses the Holocaust theme, an extremely rare thing in Commando, but also shares some parallels with Jinty’s “Song of the Fir Tree”.
Both stories open in a concentration camp setting where its days are numbered because of the approaching Allied-Soviet advance into Nazi Germany. Although the concentration camp itself is swiftly liberated early in the story, it establishes the setup for the rest of the story. Its legacy casts casts a long shadow, which refuses to be dispelled until the final panels, and in both cases it is told against the backdrop of post-WW2 and its fallout. In Fir Tree, it’s a war-shattered Europe and the emergent Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Nightmare, it’s the growing Cold War and its companion threat of nuclear war, and post-war obstacles in bringing down Nazi war criminals.
The setup for both stories are very similar. It’s Nazis vs their former victims, which takes the form of pursuit and conflict between them right up until the end of the story. The victims may have been liberated from their concentration camps, but there are lingering unresolved issues from the concentration camp because the Nazis responsible were not caught and punished. They escaped and are still on the loose, getting away with their crimes and committing even more. Justice has been denied for their former victims, but it’s not just the past that affects their lives – it’s also the present. In Fir Tree, the two liberated children from the camp have to run for their lives from the Nazi collaborator Grendelsen, who is out to silence them. In Nightmare, Fabrizzi and his friends have to live with radiation sickness from their Badfelden days.
Though the setup of both stories is very similar, the two types of pursuit between the Nazis and their former victims are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In Fir Tree, Grendelsen is the pursuer and his former victims are the quarry. He wants to silence those meddling kids because they are the only ones who can identify him as a war criminal. In Nightmare, the former victims are the pursuers and the Nazis are the quarry, in a Nazi hunt. In both cases, the authorities can’t be trusted to help. In Fir Tree, it’s because they think Grendelsen is respectable and wouldn’t listen to stories that he is a Nazi collaborator. In Nightmare, it’s because they are helping the Nazi fugitives, out of connivance, greed, sympathies, or even fear. In both cases, the victims can only depend on each other, whatever help they manage to find, and strokes of luck. When it comes to dealing with the Nazis, in both cases it’s a final confrontation and fight with them. Conventional legal proceedings are of no use, but in both cases the Nazis receive poetic justice that satisfies all round. Grendelsen is killed by a falling fir tree just as he is about to kill his victims. Klein dies in conflict and Gruber by his own bomb, and their victims, both old and new, finally get the chance to settle the scores.
Commando often drew on historical events for inspiration and realism, and this story is no exception. Even Klein and Gruber’s secret atomic bunker was based on something real – the Huemul Project in Patagonia. Unlike Klein and Gruber, it is questionable as to whether the Huemul Project was even serious atomic research, much less producing a bomb. The threat of nuclear war makes the story even more intense although the Nazis’ plan to carry it out sounds more like television than reality.
Having Fabrizzi die an unsung hero when he deserved so much more seems so unfair and sad. Still, one of the strengths of Commando was that not all its heroes ended up with military honours. As with Fabrizzi, the only recognition they received was in the grateful hearts of their companions, and some Commando heroes did not achieve even that. Some died with their feats unknown, for security reasons, the authorities not knowing what happened, or whatever. Such a thing must happen so often in warfare.
Published: Jinty 22 December 1979 to 19 April 1980
Artist: Phil Townsend
Writer: Benita Brown?
Translations/reprints: None known
The Christmas season is a good time to look at serials with winter themes and snow settings, so we bring you this ice skating story from Jinty. Jinty herself must have thought the same way, as she started publishing it over the Christmas period. It sure made for a beautiful Christmas season cover!
When Karen Carstairs’ father dies, her mother thinks it’s so kindly for their Graham relatives to take them in. But when they arrive, Karen soon discovers it’s not so kindly. Aunt Margaret, a mean woman in both senses of the word, only wants Mum as unpaid help around the house and gives them the less comfortable apartments upstairs. Cousin Cynthia, the best ice skater in the county, is a spiteful minx and clearly her mother’s daughter. Only the uncle is kind to them, but he is too good-natured to see how nasty his wife and daughter are to their relatives.
Uncle suggests Cynthia take Karen down to the lake and teach her how to ice skate. Cynthia doesn’t look too thrilled at this as she hands Karen a pair of skates. At the lake, she and her friends are laughing at how badly Karen is doing and don’t bother with her anymore. Then a mysterious woman comes skating up, tells Karen she did badly because the blades are in poor condition (surprise, surprise!) and offers to teach Karen herself. Under her guidance, Karen is soon doing much better. Cynthia sees this and immediately smells a rival. But she doesn’t seem to be able to see the lady.
Back home, Uncle spots how poor the skates are and gives Karen good ones from the dozens of pairs they have. Cynthia says she didn’t notice the state of the blades (yeah, right).
For Karen, the lady and skating are now the only bright moments in what is clearly going to be a miserable time with her aunt and cousin. But Mum doesn’t realise she’s being taken advantage of with all these dogsbody tasks Aunt keeps finding for her. Karen tries to tell her this and helps her out wherever possible; the work is very hard and it’s telling on Mum. Even though Mum eventually gets some inkling of it herself, she feels she has to do it out of gratitude for the home they’ve been offered.
The strange skating lessons continue, with Karen making strides and Cynthia thinking Karen’s making things up or something with this mysterious lady. Karen begins to realise the lady only appears when she’s alone, and only she can see her. And she’s miles better than Cynthia. She now takes to going to the lake early to make sure she’s alone with the lady, but this gets her into trouble at home and she’s banned from skating for a week. This makes things awkward; the lady has warned the ice will thaw soon and Karen must come as often as she can before that happens, and the lady can’t guarantee coaching her at the ice rink. However, when Karen saves a farmer’s child’s life, Uncle graciously lifts the ban.
Now it’s skating by moonlight, which Karen now deems the safest time to meet the lady. Karen is surprised to briefly see a man skating with the lady, but he disappears as mysteriously as the lady herself. And the lady insists Karen ask no questions about her. And there are a lot to ask – like who is she, and why and how does she seem to disappear into thin air?
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take Cynthia long to catch on to the moonlight skating. She sneaks out to spy on it, and soon detects something very odd is going on. When it looks like Karen is just flying through the air (the lady is holding her), Cynthia faints dead away and takes a bump on the head. She mumbles about what she saw to Karen before fainting again, and now Karen knows something really strange is going on. Karen gets the farmer to help Cynthia home. As well as getting trouble over this and skating at night, which Uncle says could be dangerous, there are damned awkward questions for Karen to answer about just what happened.
Cynthia says she can’t remember what happened after that knock on the head, which helps Karen to cover up about what happened. And Cynthia suddenly going nice to Karen, even urging that Karen go on skating when Aunt tries to ban her. But of course it’s just an act. Sneaky Cynthia remembers everything and is determined to find out just who is coaching Karen, which is the only way she could have made such strides so fast with skating. Then the lady appears and warns Karen that Cynthia is speed-skating into danger, as the other end of the lake is thawing fast. Karen saves Cynthia in the nick of time, but Cynthia is suspicious as to how Karen knew about that thawing ice in the first place. For her part, Karen is suspicious as to why Cynthia didn’t notice the sludging ice, a warning of dangerous ice ahead. She noticed it herself when she went after Cynthia, and Cynthia is a far more experienced skater than her. Good question, but it’s never answered in the story.
Anyway, the lake is finished for skating and now it’s the rink for both of them. Aunt agrees to allow Karen to skate at the rink, but she will only pay for her skating sessions, not extra coaching like Cynthia. Meanwhile, Karen is worried as to how she will cope at the rink without the lady coaching her, but in a dream, the lady reassures her that she will try to find a way to help her.
At the rink, Karen soon discovers Cynthia is not at all grateful to her for the rescue. She isn’t having her friends making a heroine out of Karen over it and tries to play down Karen’s heroism by lying about what happened. Nonetheless, Karen makes a friend out of one girl, Diane, who gives her the skating outfit and tights Karen didn’t know she should have (and Cynthia obviously didn’t tell her). The coach, Miss Baker, spots Karen’s talent and wants her in Cynthia’s class. Pretending to be the nice aunt in front of everyone, Karen’s aunt agrees to pay for the extra coaching after all.
Also, Miss Baker says something that could be the first clue to the lady’s identity: “I see you’ve inherited the family talent, Karen. You remind me of the Great Margot!” Later, Aunt tells Karen the great Margot must be her husband’s great aunt, Margot Graham, who was an Olympic skating star in the 1920s. She became a very rich and famous film star and died just after the war. At home, when Karen reflects on the day’s events, she realises the lady did find ways to be there at the rink for her.
After the first lesson, Karen stays on her own for extra practice, and the tune “The Haunted Lake” from a Margot Graham film, starts playing. Once Karen’s on her own, the mysterious lady appears and skates to the music, saying it’s her music. Now Karen realises the lady is Margot Graham – but she is dead, which means…oh, finally caught on, have you, Karen?
Under Margot’s tuition, Karen makes further strides that impress the girls, but this odd talking to herself (actually, the ghost that the others can’t see) is making Cynthia suspicious. And she is so jealous at how her cousin is upstaging her as best skater that she decides it’s time to bring out her big guns.
Cynthia makes her move when Karen is given a record of “The Haunted Lake” by another friend at the rink, David, who operates the control room. She smashes the record, but then the music starts playing from somewhere else.
No, it’s not ghost music. It’s the television set, which is screening “The Haunted Lake” – and talk about life (or death?) imitating art! In the film, Margot plays a ghost haunting a lake who teaches a girl to ice skate. This has Karen babbling about Margot is now doing the same thing with her. This provides Aunt Margaret with her excuse to stop Karen skating, saying she’s ill. Meanwhile, Uncle says that the lake was where Margot first learned to skate. She always wanted to return there but was too busy with her career. Eventually, she booked a flight home to do it, but the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.
Mum shows Karen a book she has found about famous skaters. Karen now learns the name of the male skater she once saw Margot dancing with. He was another Olympic champion, Rudi Linde, and after Margot’s death he opened a skating school in Switzerland before dying just after the war.
Cynthia snatches the book away and says she’s going for an audition to win a scholarship at that skating school, now run by Rudi Linde Jnr. Karen then overhears an argument between her aunt and uncle over whether she should audition as well. Miss Baker had suggested it, but Aunt told her Karen was ill. Moreover, allowing Karen to audition could spoil Cynthia’s chances. Rather weakly, Uncle gives in. Furious, Karen decides to go for the audition.
So Karen makes her way to the rink to put a programme together. But she has to walk to the bus stop, which means a long in the snow. Worse, Cynthia and Aunt have discovered what she’s up to and give chase. They lose her, but are confident she’ll end up lost or too tired for any auditioning. Sure enough, snow is now falling and Karen’s in danger of getting lost. However, they have reckoned without Margot, who guides Karen to the town and the rink, presumably through a short cut. But then comes another snag – the rink is closed because of the upcoming audition, which means no practice or chance to put a programme together.
David comes to the rescue. He helps Karen slip in to prepare for the audition, and as she is alone, Margot appears to help her. Cynthia, Mum and Aunt burst in, with Aunt trying to block Karen from the audition again. However, Miss Baker saw Karen skating brilliantly, and as Karen is clearly not ill, she insists she take the audition, which can now begin as Linde Jnr is here.
Cynthia goes first, and she’s definitely on form. Karen is off to a somewhat uncertain start, but when “The Haunted Lake” music comes on, it gives her the boost to narrowly beat the more experienced Cynthia and win the scholarship. Karen now learns Margot was Linde Jnr’s mother; Linde Snr and Margot married, but kept the marriage secret from their fans, a common thing for film stars at the time. So Linde Jnr and Karen are relatives, and the family talent is now explained – the skating genes of Margot Graham run through both Karen and Cynthia.
Mum is given a job at the Linde school, so she’s coming to Switzerland with Karen and is no longer Aunt Margaret’s drudge. Uncle apologises to them for how his wife and daughter made their stay unhappy. At the school, Karen makes brilliant progress, and she still feels the presence of Margot when she’s skating alone.
This is a good, solid read, and the letters page indicates it was a popular story. It certainly has plenty in it to make it so: a Cinderella theme, a nasty cousin who is utterly irredeemable, a wicked stepmother type, ghosts, ice skating, a fairy godmother figure, and a girl with a wonderful secret. There’s also the Phil Townsend art, which is always popular and can be turned to a variety of genres. It is perfect for the snow settings in the story and does a good job on bringing the skating to life.
Some of the story elements we have seen many times before, but it’s nice to get some new takes on them. For example, it’s the mother who’s the Cinderella of the story rather than the heroine, who takes the more novel role of Buttons. We have no doubt if Karen had arrived alone to her relatives’ house, she would have been the Cinderella, with the Aunt using far more blackmail tactics to keep her in line as Karen isn’t falling for her tricks the way her mother does. It’s nice to see one relative who’s nice instead of both being horrible and exploitative, which is the usual case in Cinderella serials. The only problem with the uncle is that he’s a bit naive in not being able to see how horrible his wife is being, and he may also be lacking a little backbone. For example, in the quarrel with his wife over whether Karen should go to the audition, he gives in a little too readily despite his reluctance and what should have been a red flag: his wife saying Karen shouldn’t go to the audition because it would spoil Cynthia’s chances. We have to wonder why he married her at all, as he is far nicer than she is.
Unlike regular Cinderella protagonists, the mother in the Cinderella role is not even trying to fight or break free of her exploitation because she can’t see it for what it is, despite Karen trying to tell her. She thinks it’s fair exchange for the home they’ve been given and doing it is an expression of gratitude. Even when the uncle apologises for it in the end, her response is more gratitude for the home they were given.
Oh, what kind of home? It’s clearly a dismal one with Cynthia and her mother. Karen’s pursuit of skating and the mystery lady are the only bright spots and relief in what is otherwise a miserable situation. And when Cynthia’s response to Karen saving her life is more jealousy and spite, it’s established once and for all that this is a home they must break away from. Those two are beyond redemption and will never change, so there is no living with them.
It’s also good to see the ghost/fairygodmother figure is not a deus ex machina. There are limits to her powers because she can only appear when Karen is on her own, so she can’t always be there to bail Karen out. She can still find ways to help where possible, but it’s done in subtle ways, without Karen even realising she’s doing it, which actually helps Karen even more that way. It gives Karen scope to stretch her own development in skating and not be too dependent on her mystery lady. In the audition scene we sense Karen really is winning it all on her own, without Margot’s help, except for a last-minute boost of needed confidence.
The story makes a fine job of explaining how Margot came to be haunting the lake, but it’s a real surprise twist to have the haunting inspired by a movie she did in life. The family connection was clearly another reason why she appeared to Karen, but that’s not to say she can’t appear to anyone who needs it. For all we know, Margot is still haunting the lake, waiting to help another prospective skater to stardom as she did with Karen.
As the winter season is approaching, we take a break from girls’ comics and bring you a Commando with a winter theme.
In Verdalsora, occupied Norway in World War II, Major Walther Brandt has been ordered to crack down on any Resistance activity. As Brandt is an utter psycho, his methods are insane as well as brutal. He forces locals to clean off the anti-Nazi graffiti that keeps appearing – then has them all shot. When a suspect (who looks like the correct one) refuses to talk, Brandt goes berserk, kills the man with his bare hands, and then orders more suspects to be rounded up.
Hauptmann Georg Fischer, recently transferred to Brandt, can’t bear to watch his atrocities, and Brandt has noticed “he has a bad habit of disappearing at times like this”. Though Fischer still wants to serve his country, he does not want to go on serving that “madman”, or the Reich if it’s producing people like him. So, one winter’s night, Fischer puts on his skis and deserts.
When Fischer’s desertion is discovered, it puts Brandt’s promotion on the line, as it came just when the Oberst (Brandt’s commanding officer) was making an inspection. So Brandt is demanding a swift recapture, but his goons lose the trail in the falling snow, which forces them to abandon the search. They are confident the winter conditions will soon deal with Fischer, but this cannot save Brandt’s promotion, and he is left seething over it.
Meanwhile, Fischer is having problems finding proper shelter against the winter conditions, which are indeed threatening to finish him off. When he tries to get help from some Norwegians in a remote area, he gets shot at because of his German uniform. Eventually, he finds a mountain hut. As he can’t travel any further in the winter season, he winters at the hut and passes the time surviving, growing a beard, and learning what Norwegian he can from a phrase book he brought along.
As winter turns to spring, Fischer’s thoughts turn to how to get out of Norway. He notices an increase in Allied/Resistance activity in the area, in the form of Allied reconnaissance aircraft and a seaplane using a fjord as a landing strip to make deliveries to the Resistance, at the place where he was shot at before. He considers approaching the Allied aircraft to surrender and make safe haven in Britain, albeit in a British POW camp.
Then Fischer observes one Allied plane being shot down. He rescues the only survivor, the wireless operator Peter Blance, who has sustained a foot injury. When a German patrol approaches, Fischer downs them, but does so while wearing German uniform himself. One of the soldiers survives to report this. When Brandt receives the report, he realises the truth. Hellbent on revenge for the lost promotion, he takes a party into the region in search of Fischer.
Meanwhile, Fischer brings Blance to the hut. Blance is rather surprised at a German helping him, but guesses Fischer is a deserter. Neither can speak the other’s language, but they both have some knowledge of Norwegian and establish rough communication and an odd Allied-German friendship that way. Fischer does what he can for Blance’s injury, but he does not have the proper resources to treat it, and then infection sets in. The only way to get treatment is to ask the Resistance at the fjord for help. Fischer takes Blance to them on a makeshift sled and this time engages in a more prudent approach to avoid being shot at: the white flag of surrender and calling for help in his limited Norwegian.
Blance’s injury is soon being treated, and he helps to convince Resistance leader Ivan Petersen that Fischer, who has been locked up by the Resistance as a precaution, is friendly and wants help out of Norway. Petersen trusts Fischer enough to explain his Resistance movement is growing but still incipient, and they need the Allied supplies to make more impact. The remoteness of the fjord makes it an ideal place to set up shop, as theirs are the only houses for miles. They arrange to help Fischer and Blance get to Britain via the seaplane. But when the seaplane arrives, Brandt spots it too. Realising the seaplane is how the Resistance gets its supplies, he sees his chance to impress the Oberst.
Brandt utterly blows that chance once he sees Fischer on the boat to board the seaplane. As with the graffiti suspect, rage overtakes him and he goes utterly berserk. He orders his men – only a small party – to open fire. Fischer and the seaplane return fire, decimating Brandt’s goons. The revenge-crazed Brandt orders his remaining goon to cover for him while he takes an outboard motor and goes wildly after Fischer himself, firing his gun all the way. Fischer fires back, rupturing Brandt’s fuel tank. Brandt’s boat erupts into a mass of flames and he perishes in the icy waters. Nobody in Brandt’s party is left to make a report, so operations are still safe.
After his final confrontation with Brandt, Fischer changes his mind about seeking refuge in Britain. Deciding he should now fight instead of run, he wants to join Ivar’s Resistance and fight men like Brandt in the Reich. And so he does, under the codename Snowbound. To protect his identity, British Intelligence only ever refers to him by his codename.
Commando always made a strong point of showing there were good Germans in World War II, German soldiers who served out of loyalty to their country rather than Hitler and were repulsed by the atrocities committed by the SS and such. The Wehrmacht was one, and for this reason they and the SS were so often at odds with other. Commando often used this to have stories featuring sympathetic German soldiers, and always made the distinction between them and the likes of the SS or Major Brandt very clear indeed.
World War II Resistance stories in Commando usually focus on the POV of the Resistance and/or the agents dispatched to help them, and their reactions and responses to the brutalities of the Nazi regimes. The Holocaust isn’t mentioned, but even without it, Commando can depict the horrors of the Nazi regime clearly enough; it does not spare the scenes of the brutal arrests, torture, executions, and mass slaughter of innocent civilians in retaliation for anti-Nazi activity. One example of this is “Night and Fog” (Commando #4464).
However, “Snowbound” takes a different approach with WW2 Resistance by focusing more on the Germans than the Resistance fighters and has us thinking: What might the reactions of the Germans themselves be to these brutalities? Were there any German soldiers of conscience out there who said, “No, I can’t do this, I don’t want to be part of such barbarities”? Historically, the answer must be yes. Even in Auschwitz, there were examples of good Germans, such as Hans Wilhelm Münch, known as “The Good Man of Auschwitz”.
The case of Georg Fischer illustrates what must have been a common dilemma for German soldiers with a conscience: What can you do if you find yourself serving under a commander like Brandt? Or in a place like Auschwitz? Fischer initially chose to run from it, but eventually he decides to fight it. His initial decision to desert was a wise one. It was not just to stop being part of evil he despised – it was also because Brandt sensed Hauptmann did not agree with his “methods”, which in time could have put Fischer in serious danger if he had stayed much longer. When he meets the Resistance, he now has the option to fight, but still chooses to run and seek sanctuary. It takes the confrontation with Brandt for him to look at the fighting option, and make him realise he would achieve far more productive things in joining the Resistance than spending the rest of the war in a POW camp. Besides, he deserves far better than a POW camp.
Peter Blance is a very engaging person, and the Khato artwork of his somewhat dumpy appearance really brings him to life. He is a guy you instantly like and want to know more about, maybe even see again in a future Commando. His Norwegian exchanges with Fischer as they begin to communicate gives us some insight into their backgrounds and fleshes their characters out more. It’s an odd friendship, between a German and an Ally, but one that would have Blance realising there are good Germans, ones who are not like the psycho Brandt. When Blance and Fischer are forced to say goodbye, they hope they will meet again. Blance’s parting comment is that he thinks Fischer is the bravest man he has ever met.
Brandt’s lunacy is also brought to life by the Khato artwork, particularly the close-ups of his killer eyes and the rendering of his big square jaw when he’s in a crazy mood. The Khato artwork is also perfect for the harshness of the winter and living rough settings. The only artwork that lets things down a bit is the cover. The scene, which is not a snow scene at all, is a jarring match against the title “Snowbound”. Fischer in a winter scene of some sort (fighting in the snow as Snowbound or fleeing on his skis, for example) would have worked far better. Also, it is not very inspiring, showing someone’s back against a seaplane. Surely Commando could have produced a more exciting cover.
Ultimately, Brandt’s madness leads to his own destruction (what other kind of destruction is there?). His insanity, when a cool head would serve him far more, is also why he is not all that good at seriously crushing the heart of the Resistance. We see this twice, first with the suspect and then discovering the Resistance in the fjord. In both cases he throws a golden opportunity away by turning into a raving loony instead of keeping his head and using his brains more. He lost the suspect as a source of valuable information by just killing him in a rage instead of looking for other means to make him talk. When he spots the Resistance activity in the fjord, at first he does things right by observing it discreetly. But once he sees Fischer, he goes crazy again and starts blasting, alerting everyone to his presence and opening up their own fire. Even when he’s being fired upon and losing men, he recklessly chases after Fischer, not thinking or caring he’s only one man who’s outgunned and outnumbered. That sort of conduct would most likely get him killed, and it did. If the Oberst had been watching, it is hardly likely he would have been impressed.
The ultimate irony is, by compelling Fischer to desert and then to fight, it was the psycho Brandt who turned him from loyal German soldier to the Resistance fighter Snowbound. If Fischer had been transferred to, say, a front instead of Brandt, things could well have taken a far different turn for him. No turning away from the Reich once he’d seen what monsters it was producing, no desertion, no joining the Resistance, and still fighting for Germany, but for Germany rather than the Reich.
Cathy Sampson lives for running – which she does barefoot. It’s her only joy in the miserable life she leads with her parents (or foster parents, as they referred to at one point). They treat her worse than Speed, their racing greyhound, who gets expensive steak to keep fit for racing, whereas Cathy gets a cheap diet. Living off Speed’s winnings is the only way they live, as neither Mum nor Dad can be bothered to work. But even Speed is prone to being ill-treated.
Cathy’s ambition is to join the local athletics club and beat the local champion, Helen Douglas. Helen and her fellow athletes have heard of Cathy, but they, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, look down on her because she lives in a slum house and her parents, known as “the smelly Sampsons”, have a bad reputation. As a result, Cathy has no friends, except for Speed. Cathy also has a reputation among the athletes as a wild girl, and she is tagged with the moniker “common”, which comes as much as from her spending so much time on the common as the way she lives.
Cathy uses her time on the common to train secretly while helping Speed to do the same; training Speed is something her parents constantly lumber her with. She has also learned how to forage for nutritious food growing there to compensate for her home diet, which is hardly suitable for training on. In the garden, she has a secret stash of money, which are her savings to join the club.
One day, Helen and the other athletes drop by Cathy on the common and tease her. Cathy gets her own back by setting Speed on Helen. She then chases after Helen herself, and discovers she is a match for Helen and could even best her. Unfortunately, Helen has realised it too, which sets the stage for what follows: not allowing Cathy to prove it to the club or overtake her as local champion.
After her race against Helen, Cathy heads to the club to get the enrolment form for joining up. But Dad finds her secret stash for the joining fee, which all goes on steak for Speed, of course. However, after reading the enrolment form, Cathy discovers that if she can demonstrate exceptional talent, she can join without a fee. The club secretary, Mr Bennett, is a bit reluctant, as this rule is seldom applied, but eventually agrees to Cathy’s deal: if she beats Helen, she can join. What can be more exceptional than beating the club champion? The race is set for the following day.
Helen isn’t having this, and knowing Cathy could beat her, tries to make trouble for her by reporting Speed’s attack to the police. The police warn Cathy’s parents that Speed will be destroyed if there is another complaint. This really gets their backs up as they depend on Speed for their livelihood. They go around to Helen’s place to read out the riot act to her and her family, and the scene they make gets really ugly. Mr Bennett, after seeing their conduct, is put off allowing Cathy to join, and she realises it. It looks like Cathy’s parents have ruined things for her again.
Cathy decides to go back to apologise for her parents’ conduct. There she meets Mrs Mirren, who agrees to pull a few strings. However, Dad is so angry at Cathy going back to apologise that he forces her and Speed through extra-hard training, which leaves her too exhausted to perform well against Helen, and she fails the test.
However, Mrs Mirren can’t forget Cathy and has Helen take her around to Cathy’s place. She is appalled to see the house Cathy lives in and senses Cathy is in desperate need of money to join. Cathy sees them approach. She doesn’t know if it’s jeers or second thoughts, but eventually assumes it’s the former. Meanwhile, Dad sees them both off with Speed. Mrs Mirren still won’t forget Cathy, so Helen is desperate to find a way to put her off Cathy altogether.
Deciding money is the problem, Mrs Mirren decides to loan Cathy the money for the joining fee, encloses a note to join in time for the inter-club competition on Saturday, and has Helen deliver it. But, as Helen plans, Cathy’s parents pocket the money, which they intend to put on Speed’s race the following day. When Cathy asks questions, the parents spin a lie that Mrs Mirren doesn’t think she’d make a runner and sent 25p to feed her up as she looks skinny. Cathy’s left heartbroken and raging at Mrs Mirren for such an insult. Meanwhile, Helen tricks Mrs Mirren into thinking Cathy conned her out of the money. Now both mistakenly thinks badly of the other.
Then, a newspaper informs Cathy that Mrs Mirren is one of Britain’s top coaches and Helen is one of her discoveries. This renews Cathy’s hopes of beating Helen and getting her chance. Meanwhile, back at the stadium, which is also used for the greyhound racing, Mrs Mirren discovers how horrible Cathy’s parents are to Speed. He’s lost the race and the money they put on him, and they’re beating him. She then overhears them rage on how they lost all that money they took from Cathy and now suspects the truth.
Sensing Mrs Mirren has overheard them, the parents make fast tracks for home and silence Cathy, fearing Mrs Mirren will come asking questions. But Cathy overhears Mrs Mirren asking what happened to the money she sent for the joining fee. The parents try to fob Mrs Mirren off with more lies, which she doesn’t believe, but she can’t do much without seeing Cathy. Cathy, of course, now realises her parents have tricked her and is desperate to explain to Mrs Mirren, but doesn’t know where to find her. After making enquiries, Cathy realises her only hope of finding Mrs Mirren is the championship on Saturday. But when Cathy sees the crowds at the event, she realises finding Mrs Mirren will be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Then, when Cathy sees Helen running in the 800 metres, she gets a crazy idea on how to get Mrs Mirren’s attention. There’s nothing to lose, anyway. She jumps straight in and races after the competitors. The spectators are initially angry at Cathy gatecrashing the race, but they soon start cheering at her amazing speed, how she’s narrowing the gap and “going through them like a hot knife through butter” – and doing it barefoot! And this time, Cathy beats Helen.
Of course, Cathy’s win isn’t official, so the medal goes to Helen. But it’s a hollow victory for her because she’s been beaten at last, and Cathy is the hero of the event. She’s made her point, gotten Mrs Mirren’s attention, and soon explains what her parents did. Mrs Mirren replies that she guessed as much. Mrs Mirren not only takes over Helen’s training but her welfare too, so Cathy leaves her horrible parents forever. Sadly, Speed’s still in their clutches, and Cathy can only hope he wins enough to keep safe from ill-treatment.
This story was published in the weeks leading up to the June merge with Tammy on 22 June 1974 and ended, along with all the other running Tammy serials, the week before the merger. Yet it does not give the impression it is intended as a filler story, even if it was. The length of eight episodes feels right, and the pacing is good. Nothing feels rushed or underdeveloped. It would have worked well as a reprint in an annual somewhere.
Common Cathy was one of many serials to follow the Cinderella format, but it does have some differences from the formula, which makes it refreshing. The main one is that there is no wicked stepsister/cousin who gets the lion’s share in everything at the expense of our ill-used Cinderella protagonist. Instead, there’s a dog who gets the lion’s share of the food expense, but he’s far from spoiled. In fact, he’s as liable to be as ill-treated as Cathy herself. He’s only there for profit and income, and the parents don’t care any more for him than they do for Cathy. His racing is the only means of income for the parents, who are too lazy to work, but his winnings are subject to hit and miss, and he suffers if it’s a miss. And he serves not only as Cathy’s friend but also in helping her to become the speedster that she hopes will be her salvation from her miserable life.
Cathy does not seem to be as much of a drudge as other Cinderella protagonists, such as Bella Barlow. For example, we don’t see her being forced to do all the work her parents are too lazy to do. The drudgery seems to be more focused on training Speed, as her father is too lazy to do it, and getting the leavings of the food expense. She is also very innovative in how she makes up for the poor diet she gets at home, so she is not underfed as some Cinderella protagonists are. But there is no question she is not well treated, and the RSPCA ought to have serious concerns about Speed too.
The parents’ nickname, “the smelly Sampsons”, sure makes us laugh. It’s not quite clear if it’s their B.O., their slum house or what, but there is no denying they are stinkers in everything they say and do. They would live better than they do if they made their own income instead of depending on Speed’s racing, but they are too lazy for that. It’s surprising they are not involved in any criminal activities, given the type of people they are.
Again, we have abusive parents that are not punished in any way for how they treated Cathy. But what’s even more concerning is that they still have Speed. Mrs Mirren has seen for herself that they mistreat the dog, but nothing is done in that regard. Being left on the hope Speed will win enough to stay safe is not very reassuring, especially as Cathy is no longer there to train him. The story would have ended on a much happier note if Speed had been removed from his abusive owners and maybe come along with Cathy.
A race to win is always an exciting resolution to any serial, and making it unofficial, with Cathy crashing the race out of desperation rather than being officially entered, makes it even more so. Seeing Helen seething over a hollow victory and a medal that means nothing while Cathy is cheered as the real winner gives us a whole lot more satisfaction than seeing Cathy claim an official victory and the medal. Moreover, Cathy not being officially entered in the race gives Helen no time for dirty tricks, as she’s been taken by surprise. Readers would be reading Cathy’s race to win over and over.
It is Halloween season, the time of year to profile spooky serials and Halloween issues. There is nothing like a nice witchy serial for the occasion, so for Halloween we bring you the very first Tammy witch serial. “The Witch of Widcombe Wold” was touched on earlier this year with a Tammy issue entry, and it was the inspiration for an entry on the serial itself.
Lynn Halifax and her family move to a country cottage in Widcombe Wold, which has been in the family since Norman times. For Lynn, the cottage is love at first sight although it has no modern conveniences. Inside, Lynn finds an injured rabbit, but is surprised when the injury just vanishes when she goes near it, and it hops off.
When Lynn goes to fetch water from the well, she is startled to see the reflection of a witch in the water. The witch says she is an ancestress, Moll Halifax, known as the Witch of Widcombe Wold. Moll was banished in 1313 for practising witchcraft. She has returned for revenge on the village, and says Lynn has powers too (which is how the rabbit got healed), which would help her with her revenge. Lynn refuses to help Moll harm the villagers.
But Lynn soon discovers the witch’s offer could be tempting. The villagers are a clannish lot who don’t welcome strangers, and they are hostile to Lynn. Some tough bully kids even throw dirt at her, which is the start of an argument that gets so ugly the villagers turn against the Halifaxes, and even more so when a surprise lightning bolt sets a cottage on fire. The superstitious villagers say it’s a sign the Halifaxes are not welcome. After this, Lynn wonders if the witch is right and she does have some sort of power, a power to make things happen by wishing them to.
Then Moll appears to Lynn in her bedroom mirror, saying she, not Lynn, caused the lightning strike and urges her to join forces now they both have reason to hate the villagers. Lynn still refuses to do so and wishes the mirror to break so she won’t see Moll – and it does.
But the witch isn’t giving up that easily. At every turn she puts the pressure on Lynn to join forces with her. At first, the witch does this by “helping” with a spell to strike back whenever the unfriendly children strike, such as when they plant a teacher’s purse on Lynn on her first day at the village school. Lynn tries to counter with her own magic. But it ends up with them blaming Lynn and becoming even more hostile towards her.
However, Lynn has now discovered her own powers, which can work against the witch, and she also begins to make some headway in making friends in the village. So now the witch changes tactics. Every time Lynn tries to make a friend or help someone, the witch pulls nasty tricks to mess it up in the hopes that the locals’ hostility will induce Lynn to team up with her. But as Lynn is discovering how to use her own powers to counteract the witch, by the final panel things have blown up in the witch’s face one way or other, usually as a comic comeuppance. And this is the formula each episode now follows every week.
Still, although the final panel always ends with the witch looking stupid, Lynn still isn’t making much progress in making friends. And she has no real chance of acceptance in the village with that witch around waiting to mess up every chance she gets.
Things come to a head at the annual ceremony that commemorates the banishing of Moll Halifax. As part of the celebration, a queen is elected to lead a dance around the ducking stool while wearing a golden crown. The witch hides the crown and Lynn is blamed. The villagers turn nasty, saying Lynn’s caused nothing but trouble since she arrived. Even Rosie, the only friend Lynn has made, turns on her. Lynn’s parents, who have had enough of the villagers’ unfriendly attitude, decide it’s time to pack up and leave.
But Lynn isn’t beaten. Using her own powers and a hockey stick as a dowsing rod, she finds the crown. Seeing this, the villagers are thrilled and elect her as the queen of the ceremonial dance. Furious that her own descendant is going to lead the dance in honour of her banishment, Moll strikes back with a spell: “I command thee to a distant age.” Using the crown as a reflector, Lynn causes the spell to bounce back at the witch, and she is destroyed.
Lynn being chosen to lead the ceremony changes her parents’ minds about moving. They are dancing right behind her, happy to belong to Widecombe Wold at last.
We have seen several cases on this forum where a story was written for one title but appeared in another, and this is another one. Terence Magee has informed us the serial was intended for June but appeared in Tammy. Not being originally intended for Tammy may be why it is a bit different to the misery-laden, ill-used heroine fare abundant in Tammy at the time.
If Magee’s recall of this story is correct, the first episode was written by him but the writing passed to other hands (something that also happened with another Magee story, “Hettie High and Mighty!” (Lindy/Jinty). This may be why the story takes a different turn from how it was initially set up. The early episodes have a strong buildup to a creepy and worrying situation that might lead to witch persecution for Lynn à la “Wenna the Witch” (Jinty) or “Witch!” (Bunty) as well as fighting the witch. Things sure look ugly for Lynn after her first day at the village school ends with the angry kids turning up on her doorstep. She could definitely go the way of her persecuted counterparts in serials like “Wenna the Witch”. The initial setup is strong for it, and it could really put the pressure on Lynn to join the witch. This would have made it a very dark, intense serial if it had indeed gone in that direction, especially if Lynn had succumbed to the pressure and become Moll’s ally.
Then the story goes in a different direction. It becomes more of a black comedy, with Lynn always getting the last laugh on the witch each week whenever she makes trouble while battling for acceptance in the village. But it is never a full comedy with those unfriendly villagers just not accepting her. We’ve no doubt the witch will be finished in the end, but will Lynn ever be accepted in the village?
It is odd that the villagers don’t make the connection that Lynn is descended from Moll Halifax and harass her as a witch for it. Perhaps it’s just as well, but other protagonists in girls’ serials have been less fortunate, such as the aforementioned “Witch!” and “Wenna the Witch”. In such serials, the superstitious village idiots turn on the protagonist with witch-hunting hysteria and persecution the moment they suspect she is descended from the village witch. And the villagers’ reaction to the lightning strike in the first episode shows they are superstitious fools also, who could turn on Lynn in the same way.
In serials like “Wenna the Witch”, there is some hint the protagonist may have powers of her own and is a genuine descendant of the witch the superstitious village idiots believe she’s descended from. As the persecution goes on, the protagonist gets worn down and begins to believe it herself. This is usually kept on an ambiguous level, with neither the reader nor the persecuted protagonist not really knowing what to think. But here, there is no question that Lynn is descended from the witch, she does have powers, and the nature of her powers is plain to see. Lynn is using her powers for good despite the villagers’ hostility or pressure from Moll. We know Lynn won’t ever give in to those pressures and use her powers to help Moll, though we can’t help wondering what it would be like if she does.
The witch, initially set up as frightening, ominous and sinister, becomes more of a nuisance with a goofiness attached. Rather than the revenge she was after, things become more of a battle of wills and powers between her and Lynn, and Lynn always getting the last laugh – literally. This keeps the story more lightweight than what it might otherwise have been, but the villagers’ unfriendliness always gives the a grim undercurrent until the very end, when Lynn and her parents are at last accepted.
Published: Tammy 6 February 1971 (first issue) to 17 July 1971
Artist: Desmond Walduck
Writer: Gerry Finley-Day
Translations/reprints: None known
In World War II, Kate Dennison’s parents are killed in the Blitz and she is evacuated to a farm in the Lake District run by Ma Thatcher. Ma Thatcher is ostensibly a benefactor offering a good home to war orphans, but Kate soon discovers she is a monster. Together with Ned and Benskin, she operates a racket using war orphans and evacuees as slave labour. She also makes a profit out of the money the government sends for the children’s upkeep. The children are forced to sleep in a barn, all their belongings are taken for her use, and they are used as slave labour in Benskin’s quarry. Ma gets a nice sum for the slave labour she supplies him. Other farmers seem complicit in the racket, and even help to bring back escaped children. Their reasons are not clear. Perhaps it’s because they benefit from it too, as Ma hires the children out to work on their farms as well as slave in the quarry.
Ma has terrible punishments for rebellious children, but her specialty is the animal cage. Children are locked in it overnight, regardless of weather or state of health, to be exposed to all the elements. There are beatings too, and as the story goes on, other unbelievable tortures and punishments are added that has you wondering why none of these children are maimed or dead.
Kate is the only one willing to stand up to Ma and never waver from trying to escape and seek help, no matter how many times she fails – which is often. She prompts the other slaves to fight back and do something, something they weren’t doing before she arrived because they think nothing can be done. She also tries to get help for weak or sick children, and acts of rebellion and sabotage against the work. One ruse is rigging up a water flask as an unexploded bomb in a pool in the frequently flooded quarry. Of course the slavers discover the trick eventually, but it’s given the children a break from the quarry labour.
Kate’s rebellion against Ma singles her out for extra-cruel treatment intended to break her will, such as being forced to stand still for hours with vicious guard dogs all around her, threatening to tear her apart if she moves.
When Kate arrived, the number of slaves was small, but as time goes on it grows with more arrivals. Things get worse when one, Bonnie Sykes, becomes the flunky, collaborator and under-guard. In exchange for better treatment, which includes sleeping in the farm house instead of the barn, she helps Ma with the slavery, acts as watchdog over the other children, and joins in the cruelties.
Sadly for them, the children are still prone to gullibility and have to learn the hard way about that. When, all of a sudden, Ma starts treating the kids nicely, they refuse to have anything to do with Emma, suggesting that she’s trying to spoil their now happy family. Of course it’s all a ruse. Evacuation inspectors are coming to the farm, so Ma needs to give the impression that all is well. Even Kate is largely fooled, though still suspicious. She tries to escape in the inspectors’ car, but finds Ma there, waiting for her in case of tricks like that. She’s kept tied up while the inspectors visit and see the happy, unsuspecting children. By the time the children discover they’ve been fooled, it’s too late and their rescue is gone. At least Kate, once untied, gives them the satisfaction of seeing her rip up the money their slavers have just received from the inspectors.
In time, another character appears. She is Mad Emma, a woman who always conceals her face, and she’s the only person who scares Ma. Emma secretly helps the children, such as smuggling things in to help, throwing scares into the slave drivers and messing things up for them, and then moves up to helping some of the sicker children escape.
Kate and Emma progressively spirit three of these children away, and they are hidden in a nearby evacuated village. But after the third escape, Ma decides it’s time to get rid of Kate. So she forces Kate to work alone in the quarry, with Benskin to arrange a few ‘accidents’. Despite Kate watching him closely, he comes close to killing her until Emma sends him plunging, and he is knocked out. She then takes Kate to the evacuated village.
There is still the matter of how to free the remaining children, and now the mystery of Emma is revealed. It turns out she is the owner of the farm. When she wouldn’t sell to Ma, Ma stole the farm and started a fire to drive Emma off. Emma escaped, badly burned, and wandered in a state of shock until she stumbled across the abandoned village. She had lived there ever since, hiding her badly scarred face. She had taken a long time to start helping the children because she was living in seclusion, suspicious of strangers. Then one day she decided to take a look at her farm and discovered what was going on.
Back at the farm, Ma learns Kate has escaped, but she has something more pressing to worry about. She has received a letter informing them that the bombing is easing up, so the children will now be sent home. Realising the children will tell people about their treatment, Ma decides to silence them by locking them in the barn and burning it down.
Bonnie draws the line at murder and has a change of heart. She runs away and bumps into Kate and Emma, and explains things. She covers for them while they dig the tunnel into the barn and help all the children escape through it. Ma almost shoots Kate as she makes her escape, but Bonnie causes her to miss and follows Kate into the woods. Now Ma knows Bonnie has turned against her.
With all the children safe, Emma decides it is (long overdue!) time to get the police. But after several hours there’s still no sign of activity. Kate goes in search of her and again gets captured by Ma Thatcher, who has also captured Emma and Bonnie. She uses them as hostages to force Kate to flag the police away.
Ma then locks Bonnie and Kate in the barn and sets fire to it, keeping Emma back to make her tell where the other children are. Emma breaks free and rushes into the barn to save Kate and Bonnie. Ma is forced to go after Emma, as she’s the only one who can tell her where the other children are. Ned panics at all this and makes a run for it. When Kate hears Ma crying for help, she goes back to rescue her. Her reward? Ma tries to kill her again, with the shotgun Ned dropped.
However, the other children, who got worried at the delay, have brought in the police themselves. The police arrive in time to catch Ma in the act of trying to shoot Kate. Ned is soon rounded up, and joins Ma in custody. The farm is restored to Emma, and the children are very happy when the authorities allow them to stay with her.
Well, here we go with Tammy’s most famous (or infamous) tale of all, and one of the most pivotal stories in girls’ comics. This is the one that really made Tammy’s mark from the first issue, and its impact lingers on today. If one serial were the jewel in Tammy’s crown, it would have to be this one. But what a dark jewel it is. It has been deemed the cruellest of Tammy’s tales, perhaps the cruellest of all in the history of girls’ comics. Of all the dark, misery-laden tales Tammy was known for, this one is the reigning queen.
And the readers lapped it up. Its length alone – a staggering 29 episodes – shows how popular it was with readers. Its formula proved a guaranteed hit, copied countless times at IPC, and spawned what became known as the slave story. Or perhaps, more accurately, the slave group story (as distinct from the single slave story). The slave story was one of the lynchpins in the new trend of grittiness Tammy set. Said Pat Mills of the slave story: “slave stories were always very popular, and I think a psychologist might have a field day, not just with the people who wrote them, but with the readers! … We actually would sit down and say, when we were constructing a girls’ comic or revising an existing one, ‘Right, let’s have the slave story’, and the reason was because they were so popular with the readers!” (Interview with Jenni Scott, 26 September 2011, https://comiczine-fa.com/interviews/pat-mills).
“Slaves of ‘War Orphan Farm’” was the one that set the template for it all in Tammy and her sister comics. The template ran as follows:
1: The protagonist falls foul of a racket, evil person or cruel institution where others are held captive for a sinister purpose or used as slaves. Settings have included workhouses, harsh boarding schools, factories, remote environments and prison camps.
2: The protagonist is the only one to rebel against it (and in some cases, even realise what is going on, as the evil purpose is sometimes disguised) and try to break them all free from it.
3: Her rebellion singles her out for extra-harsh treatment or puts her in more danger than the others.
4: There is a flunky type (not always used) working with the antagonist against the protagonist.
5: A helper often, though not always, emerges to help. The helper can either work in secret and disguise, or come in to investigate and sense something’s wrong. Sometimes the protagonist herself is the secret helper, either donning a disguise or pretending to be the flunky to help the slaves. Examples of this are “Lady Sarah’s Secret” (Judy) and “Hateful Hattie” (Mandy).
It could not have been the formula alone that made the serial its mark. It would also have been the lengths it took with its cruelties, which have made it regarded as the cruellest of them all (with “Merry at Misery House” running a very strong second). The scale of violence and torture must have been unprecedented and shocking, and the levels it went to have been seldom seen since: Kate being constantly bludgeoned, dangerous labour in a flooded quarry, the animal cage, fox traps, even attempted shootings, and so much else. The story stops at showing blood, broken bones and other injuries (except for one child getting her leg caught in a fox trap) or outright death, but it’s always dancing on the edge of it, and the only reason it doesn’t happen is, well, this is girls’ comics.
Also adding to its impact was Tammy clearly naming the villainess after an unpopular figure: Margaret Thatcher, then known as “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher” for her cuts on free milk given to children when she was Secretary of Education. And Ma Thatcher is a villainess with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and one of the evil baddies ever created in girls’ comics. Nowhere is this shown more where Kate saves Ma’s life – twice – in the story. But there’s no gratitude from Ma, only more of the same from her, even trying to kill Kate in return for having her life saved. She ought to be running a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, what with the tortures she inflicts (vicious dogs, fox traps, the animal cage, beatings, atrocious working conditions, etc.). She’d feel right at home with those brutal SS guards.
As well as no redeeming qualities, Ma Thatcher has no nuances to her character. There’s no dashes of humour, backstory, redeeming qualities, or even sprinkles of the human touch to her. The only thing that gives her a little roundness is how brilliant she is at pretending to be the kind grandmotherly benefactor when the authorities come calling. But essentially, Ma Thatcher is just cruel, evil and unredeemable.
The hatching and crosshatching in the Desmond Walduck artwork give it ruggedness against a softer edge of linework, which makes it not only a perfect fit for the harshness of the story but for the country setting and the time period as well. Not surprisingly, Walduck has been a popular choice for other period stories with a hard edge to them, such as “The Shadow in Shona’s Life” from Tammy and “The Worst School in the World” from Judy.
“Slaves of ‘War Orphan’ Farm” was not strictly the first in the line of (group) slave stories. The aforementioned Worst School in the World from Judy was one also, and predated it by two years. There were probably others at DCT that also predated “Slaves of ‘War Orphan’ Farm”. But at IPC, “Slaves of ‘War Orphan’ Farm” was more than enough to be the first to matter.
Artist: Updated: Miguel Rosello, Miguel Quesada and Luis Bermejo credited by David Roach
Writer: Alan Davidson
Translations/reprints: None known
Annabel Hayes is the drudge of her family. Her parents say she’s nothing and have eyes only for her younger sister Dora. Everything goes on Dora, including Annabel being forced to slave on her father’s market stall, and he doesn’t care that it makes Annabel late for school. At school, Annabel is brilliant at sewing. Her sewing teacher, Miss Turner, says she could make a real career out of fashion and design, and gifts her a book on dressmaking.
Then the family moves to be closer to Dora’s modelling school. Dad yanks Annabel illegally out of school to work full time to help pay Dora’s fees and tells her to lie about her age if anyone asks questions. Dad even rips up Annabel’s dressmaking book when she tries to rebel against his latest ill-treatment, but she manages to salvage the pieces.
At her new home, Annabel is forced to sleep in an attic, but this works in her favour when she finds an old sewing machine there. Later, she discovers an evening dress and design class she could go for. After finding some materials and thread, she is in business.
As Annabel works at her sewing, she bemoans how she must everything for herself, from the nothing her parents say she is, while the spoiled Dora gets everything handed to her on a plate for her modelling and doesn’t lift a finger for herself. Well, at least Annabel has the talent. Does Dora have the talent too? We haven’t been shown that part yet.
Annabel’s first day on the market stall goes badly, as she is forced to work on it alone with no experience in sales pitch, and she’s up against Tom, who really knows how to sell stuff on his own stall. Dad’s furious at Annabel not making any money and clouts her. And now Dora’s been recommended to the De Vere fashion house, so the pressure on Annabel to make money at the stall is worse than ever.
Next day, Tom, who saw the way Dad treated Annabel for making no money, gives her a hand, and she makes more money on the stall. She has used some material left behind on the stall to make some items, which she hopes to sell on the stall and raise her own money for the evening sewing classes. None of them sell until towards closing time, when a Mrs Crawford, seeing the flair and design that went into making them, scoops up the lot and places an order for six bags in dark red.
Unfortunately, Dad grabs the money Annabel had just raised, leaving her with nothing to buy the red material for the bags. All the money has gone for expensive material to make Dora’s new dress – which happens to be dark red. When Dora takes the material in to be made up, Annabel makes a grab for the scraps (getting herself into a few scrapes along the way) and makes up the bags, but just as she brings them to the stall, Dad finds them. He throws the bags away – but happens to pick the moment when Mrs Crawford arrives and sees everything. She puts Dad very firmly in his place, “you dreadful man”, and forces him to apologise to Annabel.
Mrs Crawford says she wants to have tea with Annabel to discuss things. Sensing what a rich friend Annabel’s suddenly got, Dad realises he could take advantage, especially for Dora.
All of a sudden, Dad goes all nice to Annabel at home, and tags along with her to the tea. Mrs Crawford says she wants Annabel to work for her in the fashion business and needs a guardian’s consent. Dad gives it, and then he puts on a great “poor man act” to cadge some junk for the stall. While doing so, he helps himself to some more valuable items Mrs Crawford bought at auction. Annabel discovers this and runs off to return them, with Dad giving chase. She manages to get them to Mrs Crawford, but Dad tries to put the blame on her. It looks like the end of Annabel’s job with Mrs Crawford, and Dad’s furious at how Annabel has wrecked his chance of a fortune. Unknown to them both, Mrs Crawford is not convinced Annabel took the paintings.
Annabel is now so heartbroken and fed up that she just runs away, leaving the market stall unattended. Dad’s livid when he discovers this. When Mrs Crawford returns to the market stall to make further enquiries about the paintings, Dad tells her about Annabel’s disappearance and yells at her for interfering.
Meanwhile, it’s time for Dora’s modelling audition at the De Vere school. We’re finally shown just how good Dora is at modelling, and no, she definitely does not have what it takes. Dora overhears Miss De Vere say she was the only one she was not impressed with.
But Dora gets an even bigger shock when she sees the row between Mrs Crawford and Dad at the market stall – Miss De Vere and Mrs Crawford happen to be the same person! (Later, they find out De Vere is Mrs Crawford’s professional name.) So Dad and Dora really need Annabel now, to pull strings with her “rich friend”, if Dora is to get the modelling job.
The hunt for Annabel begins, with the family all anxious, and all nice and making a big fuss when they find Annabel injured and save her from drowning at the embankment. Saying things are sorted out with Mrs Crawford, they have Annabel bring her over to tea, and Dora tearfully asks Annabel to say the reason she didn’t do so well at the audition was because she was worried about her disappearance. Annabel falls for it despite the show of phony niceness they had shown before. The end result is Mrs Crawford taking on Annabel as a trainee designer and Dora as a model, and both are to report to her fashion house. Unknown to them, Mrs Crawford is not entirely fooled, but is not sure just who to believe.
But of course Dora doesn’t want Annabel coming with her to their appointment at the fashion house. So, as they set off to report, Dora “loses” Annabel, and makes sure she is the one with the address. Annabel had no idea what the address was to begin with and can’t find it herself (no doubt, something else they made sure of). At the fashion house, Dora tells Mrs Crawford Annabel has changed her mind and not coming. The family make sure Mrs Crawford and Annabel don’t meet up when Mrs Crawford comes around asking questions and spin them both lies about the other. Annabel is left thinking Mrs Crawford now thinks she’s unreliable and wants nothing more to do with her; Mrs Crawford still has her suspicions but not sure what to think. As Dad planned, Annabel’s back on the market stall, thinking she’s Little Miss Nothing again.
Meanwhile, Dad’s received a crooked offer from a friend of his, Harry Marks, and there’s an ominous hint it has something to do with Mrs Crawford. Dora doesn’t want it, saying she now has everything she needs to advance in modelling without “any crookery”. But then there’s a further development that could change her mind…
By now, Mrs Crawford has seen enough of Dora to confirm her earlier impressions that she is not modelling material. Her suspicions have also deepened as to why Dora is at her school and Annabel is not. Mrs Crawford confronts Dora over it all, shows her the bags Annabel had a natural talent for making, and says it’s Annabel she wants at the school, not her. At this, Dora’s jealousy overboils. She says she made the bags, not Annabel. Her proof? Her dress, which is made from the same material, and she claims she made the bags from the scraps. Sceptical, Mrs Crawford decides to test her by telling her to bring in something else she designed.
Of course, Dora cons Annabel into doing the design for her, saying it’s home-based design work Mrs Crawford is offering as preliminary for a second chance at the fashion house. This time, Mrs Crawford really does fall for Dora’s trick and now thinks Annabel is a liar and a cheat. She is also so impressed with the design that it’s going into her autumn collection, Dora will model it, and the design is soon made up.
Meanwhile, Annabel finally finds the address for Mrs Crawford’s fashion house and nips along to see how things are going with her design. The results are the whole truth blowing up right there and then right in front of everyone. Mrs Crawford sacks Dora, throws her out, and Dora angrily rips up the dress to spite her.
Annabel finally gets her job at the fashion house, but then loses the roof over her head. Her family throw her out because of what happened. Not knowing where else to go, she heads for Mrs Crawford’s fashion house, now locked up, and slips in for the night. Unfortunately for her, she has left a window open, which unwittingly sets the stage for the Hayes’ next move.
Burning with rage and thirsty for revenge, Dora is now all too eager to listen to that earlier proposition from Harry Marks. This entails stealing Mrs Crawford’s fashion designs for his buyer, a rival fashion designer. They find it easy to break in through that open window, and then Dora discovers Annabel fast asleep there. Dora seizes her chance for revenge on Annabel by planting one of her shoes at the scene of the crime and then tipping off the police about the break-in. The frame-up works, and now Mrs Crawford is back to believing Annabel is the cheat. Dora’s crowing over this, convinced she can now worm her way back into Mrs Crawford’s favour. Annabel tearfully makes a run for it.
Annabel soon guesses who was behind it all. But she can’t prove anything. Her only chance is to confront her family. First stop is back home, and after she confronts her mother, she realises she must check out the market. She arrives in time to see Dad and Dora hand over the designs to Marks. Dora is promptly interested in working for Marks’ buyer as a model, and all three head for his fashion house. They don’t realise Annabel is desperately hanging on at the end of their car. The designs are handed over to the fashion designer, a man looking as shady as Marks, and he agrees to take Dora on as a model. He’s doing so on the spot, by looks alone and no audition, which shows how professional he is in comparison to Mrs Crawford.
Unwilling to report even her horrible family to the police, Annabel decides to just burst in and grab the designs to return to Mrs Crawford. When they try to block her, she escapes by window, but takes a fall and damages her knee. Despite it, she manages to run to Mrs Crawford’s before her knee gives way. She desperately rings the doorbell for help, only to find nobody in; Mrs Crawford, still thinking Annabel took the designs, had decided to go away for a bit. Dad and Dora catch up, but rather than hand the designs over, Annabel rips them up. At this, Dad starts thrashing Annabel, as the buyer said the deal is off without the designs. He is caught red-handed by Mrs Crawford, who had suddenly decided to return. She has seen enough to realise who really had stolen the designs and who to believe now.
Dad is jailed for his role in the theft. Dora is let off because of her age, but it’s the end of her modelling hopes. Now she is the one miserably and bitterly slogging on the market stall (how this fits in with her being even more underage to work on it than Annabel is not explained), and she is humbled.
A month later, Annabel’s design receives the loudest applause at Mrs Crawford’s fashion show, and she’s on her way to a brilliant career in fashion and design. Mrs Crawford finds out Annabel is not the Hayes’ natural child. They adopted her in infancy but went off her when Dora arrived. Mrs Crawford, who had always wanted children, now adopts Annabel as her own. Annabel takes pity on Dora after seeing her plight at the market stall. She arranges for Mrs Crawford to take her in at the fashion house, and they are reconciled.
“Little Miss Nothing” is one of Tammy’s most pivotal stories and definitely in her Top 10 of the best. In fact, Pat Mills is one to regard it as one of the most ground-breaking serials ever in girls’ comics: “it was the first of its kind” in establishing the template of the Cinderella stories for other Cinderella stories to follow. And they followed big style! Among them in Tammy were “Jumble Sale Jilly”, “Nell Nobody”, “Sally in a Shell”, and “Sadie in the Sticks”. Cinderella-based Jinty stories, such as “Make-Believe Mandy” and “Cinderella Smith”, also owe their roots to “Little Miss Nothing”, as does the 1983 “Cinders on Ice” in Princess II. Most significant of all, the Cinderella template set by “Little Miss Nothing” led to the creation of Bella Barlow.
Mind you, “Little Miss Nothing” was not quite the first of its kind. The text story version of “The Sad Star”, an even grimmer Cinderella story from Mandy, predated it by a few months, and went on to become Mandy’s most popular text story ever and enjoy several reprints, in both text and picture story form. There may be other Cinderella stories at DCT to predate Tammy’s ground breaker here, but there is currently no confirmation. Was it a case of “Little Miss Nothing” being the first of its kind to matter? Or it being the first of its kind at IPC? Or was it the template it set for others to follow?
In his Millsverse blog, Pat Mills said on “Little Miss Nothing”:
“Little Miss Nothing by Alan Davidson in Tammy (1971) was hugely popular – equivalent in success at the time to Judge Dredd in 2000AD. It was the first of its kind and it was such a massive hit that it was meticulously studied and analysed by the editorial staff. They identified its vote winning ‘formula’ and then endlessly duplicated it with subsequent remarkably similar serials. I recall there were at least ten ‘begats’ of this ground-breaking story.”
Wow, a pioneering girls’ serial with success the equivalent of Judge Dredd is serious stuff!
The template of the Cinderella serial “Little Miss Nothing” can be seen as follows:
The protagonist is treated as a drudge by cruel guardians.
The protagonist is also exploited to feed the indulgences of a wicked stepsister type. This element is not always used in a Cinderella serial, as in the case of Bella Barlow.
The protagonist has a talent/secret to keep her spirits up. It is her only joy in life, and she fights to keep it up against all odds.
Her talent is spotted, enabling her to find a fairy godmother figure and friends to help her, achieve her dream, and ultimately help her to break free of the ill-treatment. But in between there are still obstacles and ill-treatment from the cruel guardians, which often include their causing a fallout between the protagonist and her fairy godmother.
Cinderella has always been a popular fairy tale, told in many versions and cultures throughout the eons. So Tammy was guaranteed a hit if she used the Cinderella theme as a ground-breaker. Modelling, fashion and design have always been popular in girls’ comics, so throwing those into the mix were guaranteed to make it even more popular. Plus there is the growing undercurrent of criminal conduct in addition to the abuse to make it even more exciting. Readers would be on the edge of the seats to see how that unfolds.
The writing is mature, well-paced, and well-constructed, particularly in how it keeps the ill-treatment of Annabel within the bounds of realism. We can easily imagine a real-life child being treated that way. It does not go over the top or taken to excess, which has happened in some Cinderella serials. For example, Annabel is not kept frequently underfed, as in the case of Bella Barlow, or put in chains, as in the case of Cinderella Smith. The reasons behind the Hayes’ increasing exploitation of Annabel are also well-grounded in realism: she was not their own flesh and blood as Dora was; they were unfit guardians and unprincipled people by nature; and they would never be able to afford Dora’s modelling on their own income, so they need Annabel to generate the income required.
Also realistic is how so many key people, from Miss Turner to Tom, do sense the Hayes are unfit guardians, but although they are helpful and sympathetic, none of them take any action against the abuse itself. This has been an all-too-common phenomenon for many years.
It is also credible in how the contrasting upbringings Dora and Annabel have had have shaped the ways in which one will get to where she wants and the other not. Dora, even if she did have the talent for modelling, has been too spoiled to learn the lesson that to achieve your dream, you must work hard and have guts, determination and persistence against obstacles and challenges, and be grateful for all the help and encouragement you can get. In fact, Dora never learned to work at all, as everything was just handed to her on a plate by her parents. The only thing she works hard at is being nasty. When she ends up on the market stall, she is working for the first time. But she is not making any effort to work her way out of it as Annabel did. Instead, she’s wallowing in bitterness, jealousy and misery as she works on the stall. It takes yet another thing handed to her on a plate – Annabel’s kind offer – to help her out of it.
Annabel, by contrast, won’t give up her dream, but she has to do everything for herself against all obstacles set down by her family. This includes the constant knocks to her self-esteem as her parents call her a nobody while they hit her. The saving grace is the good people who raise Annabel’s confidence by telling her she has talent and could go far and offer various means of help. But everything, whether good or bad, all helps to give Annabel far more tools to get where she wants than Dora.
The reconciliation between Dora and Annabel at the end of the story is typically fairy tale, very sweet, and in line with Cinderella. But it is a bit hard to understand how Dora could ever go back to the fashion house all. Surely Mrs Crawford would not want her anywhere near it after what happened. And what could Dora do at the fashion house anyway, as she has no talent for modelling or fashion?
Would just leaving Dora on the market stall have made more sense as well as give us more satisfaction? Dora’s counterpart in “Nell Nobody” meets a similar comeuppance, and it gives readers great satisfaction to see her just left there to slog and hate every minute of it. On the other hand, the final panel between Dora and Annabel is very moving, as Dora sheds tears for the first time in the story. It leaves us wanting to think things will work out between Dora and Annabel somehow.
Translations/reprints: Published as ‘Vrienden door dik en dun’ (Friends through thick and thin) in Tina in the Netherlands in 1988.
Sally Harris and her mother live in the New Forest. Sally has made a special bond with a deer named Star and taught Star tricks. Unfortunately, the grasping Walkers have spotted this and inform Josh Green, a circus boss who badly needs a new attraction for his ailing circus. When Green tries to buy Star off Sally, she tells him to shove off and runs away into the forest with Star. But Green isn’t giving up so easily, and now he and the Walkers are working together to capture Star.
Sally returns, hoping Green has cleared off, but finds her mother has had a bad accident. Mum is now in hospital with a damaged spine, and she will be there for a while. To avoid being taken into care and separated from Star, Sally accepts the Walkers’ offer to take her in while Mum is in hospital. She is a bit surprised at this, as the Walkers have always been so rough and unfriendly. But she soon finds out that they are not only in league with Green to get hold of Star but also working her to the bone as an unpaid slave. Miss Knight, Sally’s teacher, soon suspects something’s wrong. Sally realises this, but doesn’t confide in Miss Knight because she doesn’t want to go into a home and be cut off from Star.
The Walkers capture Star, but there’s surprise help from a strange girl, who helps Star escape. Her name’s Maya Lee, and she is a gypsy girl who is hiding from the forest to avoid a children’s home, which is prison to her. Sally soon discovers Maya has her own cosy little homemade setup in the forest. She also has the gypsy gift of communicating with animals, which gives her a rapport with the New Forest animals. They are able to warn Maya when danger’s coming. In this case, it’s two men, Ramsden and Blakeley, presumably from social welfare. They grab Sally in mistake for Maya, and they say living wild in the forest is not good for her. Maya uses her special talents to get the New Forest ponies to scare them off, and it throws a scare into the Walkers as well.
The Walkers hatch another plan to get hold of Star: lock Sally in her room, to lure Star in search of her. To make sure she has no opportunities to slip away at school, they escort her to and from school (which makes Miss Knight even more suspicious). Then Leaper, Maya’s pet squirrel, appears at the classroom window. Sally uses the squirrel to smuggle a note to Maya about what’s going on and warn her and Star to stay away. Sally also sees Blakeley and Ramsden making queries at the Walker farm about Maya. They blow the stunt Maya pulled on them out of proportion, calling her a savage who attacked them.
Then Mrs Viney from social welfare calls, and through her Sally finds out Ramsden and Blakeley are not from social welfare as she assumed. So, who are they, and what do they want with Maya? Sally listens in on them and finds out some old man is paying them to find Maya. Mrs Viney hears about these imposters and is now making serious queries with the Walkers about it. This distraction enables Sally to slip away to warn Maya.
But when Sally reaches Maya’s treehouse, she discovers Green is there too. Maya manages to scare him off with her animal friends. Maya knows about Ramsden and Blakeley, who have been trying to find her since she was young, and her parents instructed her to run like hell from them, fearing they were trying to take her away from them.
At the Walker farm, Green discovers the Walkers have failed in their latest plan with Sally, and angrily tells them he’ll get Star without their help. The Walkers talk him around, telling him about Ramsden and Blakeley being after something in the forest, which has given them a new plan. This involves their suddenly being nice to Sally, saying they are through with Green, and Sally is free to see Star. Sally isn’t fooled by their phony niceness and suspects a trap.
Meanwhile, Ramsden and Blakely have gotten Sergeant Parker and Mrs Viney involved in getting hold of Maya and putting her in care. They organise a posse, beater-style through the woods, to search for her. Mrs Viney’s son Billy tells Sally he’s a long-standing friend of Maya who has been smuggling food to her, and he warns her about the posse. Sally realises the Walkers will be part of it to catch Star. They hit on a plan to hide Maya and Star in Mrs Viney’s attic (the last place she’ll look!). Another gypsy, Old Bella, helps them. Sally also drops a hint to Miss Knight, the only other person she trusts, about Maya.
But Blakeley and Ramsden are watching outside the Viney house and suspect what’s happening. The Walkers, recalling Billy’s fondness of the New Forest, also suspect he is helping Maya and advise Mrs Viney to watch him.
When the posse is assembled next morning, Bella tells Sally the crystal ball has sent a warning for Maya. She says she saw a house like a prison and an angry old man, then Ramsden and Blakeley, who will capture Maya because of Star.
Sally bumps into Miss Knight, and this time tells her the whole story (minus where Maya and Star are hiding). But Sally and Billy find Maya and Star have vanished from the attic and realise the Walkers have taken them to their farm. Sally finds them locked in the barn and manages to free Maya. Freeing Star takes a bit more doing, but Sally succeeds with Leaper’s help. Sally then heads over to Miss Knight’s for help, but overhears a conversation that sounds like Miss Knight is going to help Green get his hands on Star.
Meanwhile, Sally discovers the posse have discovered Maya’s hideout in the forest, so no more safety for her there. She meets up with Old Bella, who advises that Maya rejoin her tribe and not go near Star, for that is how they will be captured.
Later, Miss Knight finds Star in her garden, which makes her realise Sally must have overheard. Instead of turning Star over to Green, she conceals her from him, but Green realises his quarry is around when he sees the footprints. Sally comes upon the scene and, using the strange telepathic link between her and Star, tells her to make a run for it (knocking Green over in the process). Sally now comes to a decision: she and Star are going to leave the area and live like gypsies as best they can.
Meanwhile, the Walkers and Green have discovered Star and Maya’s escape from the farm, and the raving Green says to find them in 24 hours or the deal’s off. Elsewhere, Miss Knight is demanding explanations from Blakeley and Ramsden. Surprisingly, they tell Miss Knight they just want to tell Maya she’s a heiress.
Bella informs Maya that her mother was a non-Romany who married a Romany, and gets a clearer vision of the house that Maya feared was a prison. Maya now sees it does not look like a prison. It looks more like a grand mansion. Then there’s another vision – of Star getting hurt. Soon afterwards, Star gets shot by a hunter.
Sally and Maya have to take her to a vet, Mr Wilson. Of course Mr Wilson asks questions about how it happened. Sally decides to just tell him everything. Miss Knight, Ramsden and Blakeley catch up. Miss Knight says she was trying to trap Green into an admission of guilt of illegally taking a deer from the New Forest in earshot of witnesses (Sergeant Parker secretly listening).
What happens to Green exactly is not recorded, but it is fair to assume that he and his circus are soon dealt with. The Walkers hastily leave the district once word of their treatment of Sally spreads.
The mansion in the vision is White Towers, owned by Colonel Weatherby. Colonel Weatherby explains Maya is his granddaughter, the product of a forbidden marriage and elopement between his daughter and a gypsy. He disinherited his daughter (so that was the angry old man!), but had a change of heart once he heard about the birth of his only heir, Maya. He had been searching for her discreetly and hired Ramsden and Blakeley for the job. White Towers is Maya’s inheritance. She agrees to stay there, is very happy no hunting is allowed there, and Sally and Star can come too. Sally stays at White Towers until her mother recovers. Once Mum is back, Colonel buys the Walkers’ old farm and puts Sally and her mother in charge of it, all help supplied.
It’s a nice surprise twist that the house Maya feared was a prison turned out to be her inheritance and the two men who wanted her were not the monsters they seemed to be. Nor was being captured because of Star the disaster that Old Bella thought it was. Having Old Bella misconstrue her own crystal ball gazing and get things wrong (something we will see elsewhere, such as in Jinty’s “Destiny Brown”) puts even more of a twist on the tale. Ramsden and Blakeley and the grand house turned out to be all right and helped to give Maya a happy ending. Mind you, Blakeley and Ramsden sure were giving the wrong impression. After all, they were being a bit heavy-handed in their approach, such as when they made the grab on Sally when they mistook her for Maya, or when they arranged the posse to find Maya. The buildup was they were out to put Maya into care, and their conduct has you more than convinced that they really were going to do that. If they’d taken a different approach, things could have been sorted much more quickly.
By contrast, you don’t get things wrong with the Walkers or Josh Green. One look at them ought to tell you the sort they are and to steer well clear of them. It’s a bit surprising the Walkers don’t seem have the reputation around the district they ought to have, even though we learn they are careful to stay onside with the police. What a contrast to Miss Knight, who is perceptive about things right from the start, so we know it’s her who’s going to be key in resolving the story. Put Miss Knight on the force any time!
This is a solid, rollicking story, and a plot so full of twists and turns, plenty of chasing, dodging, getting captured and escaping, and increasing layers of complexity and mystery that it leaves you a bit out of breath at times. There are also touches of both humour and intrigue with these strange connections with the forest animals who often get these pursuers in the story their just desserts and leave you laughing. We’ve also got the Cinderella elements (Sally’s abuse at the Walker farm), the shifty circus owner, and the mystery of why Blakely and Ramsden want Maya. If there’s one thing girls love in girls comics, it’s mystery. And of course, there are the animals, and animal stories are always popular. The affinity Maya and Sally have with the animals heightens the animal elements even more; readers are on the edge of their seats to see what the power does next to help save the day. What’s not for a girl to love in this story?
It is a bit of a let-down not to hear the final fate of Josh Green, and the Walkers aren’t punished as much as they should have been. They leave the district when word of their treatment of Sally gets out, but they don’t get much more than that. We’re left a bit worried about what they might get up to in their new locality. It’s also a bit surprising to hear Sally is willing to stay on at the Walkers’ old farm – even with her mother – after the way she was treated there. Surely it would have too many bad memories for her, and Sally would be happier at White Towers. Still, the final panels are filled with such happiness for the girls and their beloved animal friends at White Towers that we are more than satisfied it’s a happy ending.
Billie Stephenson and her grandfather live and work at the local railway line of Whistledown, and for years grandpa has run Old Smokey, the commuter steam train between Whistledown and the big city. But then Councillor Gresby sets up a garage, offering rival commuting by car, and is trying to push out Grandpa. He even puts up an ad outside the railway station (cheek!) saying, “It’s cheaper by far, to travel by car!”. His selling point is cheap petrol, and, as the Stephensons soon discover, his scheme is making the villagers so dependent on car travel they lose interest in the trainline, thinking they don’t need it anymore.
Before long, Gresby is pinching not only Grandpa’s customers but his staff as well. Grandpa has to cover their jobs as well as his own, and it’s wearing him out. A flu epidemic closes the school, enabling Billie to help with Grandpa’s workload. But Gresby sends in a railway official to inspect things, and after seeing how poor custom has become, he closes down the railway line altogether. And Gresby still isn’t through; he tries to buy out Grandpa by offering him a job at his garage, and then he buys all the railway cottages for his garage employees. This pulls out the Stephensons’ home right from under them, and now they’re homeless. Gresby’s game is clear to Grandpa: “Take a job from him or get out!”
Still, it’s not all going Gresby’s way. The housewives have wised up to how Gresby pulled strings to close the railway line. As they need the train because they don’t have cars, they rally around for Old Smokey and launch the fight to reopen the line. This gives Grandpa the resolution to fight as well. He soon finds a way to stay on living at the railway line – buy an old railway coach and convert it into a home. Billie organises a petition to Save Old Smokey.
But Gresby is finding his own way around the difficulties, and he seems to be cutting off the Stephensons at every turn. People are treating the Stephensons’ railway home as a joke, and Gresby takes advantage. He pays off the girls at school to really bully Billie over it. He then deals with the housewives by offering them a luxury bus to take them to the shops. Now they now say they don’t need Smokey and won’t bother with the petition. Billie only gets a handful of signatures. She also finds the closure of the railway line has driven more people to buy cars because there’s no other way of commuting, so now they don’t think they even need Smokey anymore. Gresby has the Stephensons’ water supply cut off, and the neighbours seem too scared to give them water (probably under threat of losing their jobs). Gresby sends in a scrap merchant to have Smokey scrapped. However, Billie manages to get a letter from British Rail telling Gresby he does not have the authority for this because Smokey is their property, not his. When the railway home springs a leak, giving Grandpa bronchitis, Gresby has the sanitary department around to inspect the home. They tell them to make the place damp proof or find another place to live.
On the bright side, Billie finds a surprise ally – Gresby’s son Simon. Simon says he loves trains and stands up for Billie against the bullies who were paid off to pick on her. At first, Grandpa doesn’t trust Simon, but Billie thinks she can. Another friend is Farmer Miles of Whistledown Farm, who helps with water and other supplies.
Simon soon proves he can be trusted. He repairs the leak in the railway carriage as the Stephensons can’t, and seeing how poorly the petition is going, comes up with an interesting way to help it along – take the petition and get signatures himself. He gets into a fight with his own father over it, right in front of everyone in public. The rough way the enraged Gresby treats Billie and Simon shocks everyone so much they rally around with support and signatures. Hmm, did Simon plan it this way, or did it just happen?
The fight is not the only reason why the villagers have turned against Gresby; they are finding his service and maintenance charges are too high, so they’re looking at Smokey again. His petrol is the only thing that is cheap, but Billie knows that will increase too, once Gresby has gotten rid of them.
Gresby tries to destroy the petition by having one of his mechanics setting fire to the railway carriage. The arson does a pretty good job of making a mess of the place, but Grandpa was one step ahead of Gresby on the petition – he hid it inside Smokey in case Gresby tried to destroy it. Gresby is seething to see the petition being posted to the railway company.
Billie soon gets warning Gresby is up to something else, and she also sees his garage is doing extremely well despite people turning on him after the public fight. He takes over the village dump site for his new car show room, so what’s going to be the new dump site for the old rubbish? Yep, you guessed it – the railway station. Billie and Grandpa are horrified to wake up to find themselves woken up surrounded by rubbish, and Gresby renames the old railway station “Whistledown Scrap Yard” (more of that cheek!). He is confident that as the railway line is closed, the railway company will not make a fuss about all the rubbish dumped on its property.
But Gresby soon finds he has miscalculated. When Mr Martin, a representative from the railway company, comes in response to the petition, he has Gresby remove the rubbish or face legal action. What’s more, as the council won’t remove the rubbish, Gresby has to pay a private firm to remove it, and there’s nowhere to put it but his own front garden! The Stephensons really have the last laugh on him this time.
Mr Martin says they will reopen the line, but only if they can find a guard and a station master. So the Stephensons advertise, but Gresby is onto it with his own advertising, to tempt the jobseekers away with better jobs at his garage. However, the railway company find the men to do the jobs. Gresby bribes the coal merchant not to sell them any coal for Old Smokey, but the villagers overhear and rally around with their own coal.
Grandpa insists on fixing up Old Smokey for the big day despite stormy weather, which makes him ill again. Gresby takes advantage by telling everyone they can’t have a sick old man like that as a driver, makes the train service unreliable, and they’re far better off with cars. Grandpa overhears, and this time he wonders if Gresby is right; he’s old, getting sick, and Smokey needs a young driver although it seems unthinkable that anyone but Grandpa can drive her. Though he recovers, he grows depressed and loses interest in everything, even in Smokey.
Then, on another stormy night, matters come to a head when Gresby comes to the Stephensons begging for help. Simon’s got appendicitis and the storm has blocked the road, so no cars or ambulances can get to the hospital. Grandpa and Smokey are his only chance of saving Simon, as the railway line is the only other way to the hospital. So, Gresby is now forced to use the very steam engine he’s forced into retirement for months. And now he has discovered the hidden folly of making everyone in Whistledown – including himself – too dependent on just one means of commuting to the city and putting all their eggs in one basket.
Of course, the mission of mercy to the hospital on Smokey is how it’s all resolved. Simon is saved, and a grateful Gresby apologises, makes peace with the Stephensons and leaves them in peace, and concedes there’s room for both the railway and the garage in Whistledown. Smokey and Grandpa become heroes in the press and are back in business. Smokey is now tooting merrily along the railway track again.
According to Comixminx, at the time of publication, the story illustrated the increasing move to car usage. Nowadays, nearly fifty years later, we live in an age where increased car usage is causing multiple problems: too many vehicles, traffic congestion, traffic jams, parking problems and costs, increasing pollution, environmental damage, carbon footprints, fuel shortages and increasing petrol prices. These are driving us more and more to alternative forms of transport, preferably ones that are cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
None of this was really in vogue at the time of publication, and none of it comes up in the story. All the same, the themes that come up in the story – too much car usage, not enough alternate means of transport, discarding existing means of transport that are still serviceable and could be upgraded, profitability at the expense of welfare and common sense – now seem more relevant today than in 1976.
The only major concern at the time of publication was rising cost of petrol. This is probably why Gresby’s cheap petrol is such a selling point. His other selling points include reliability, convenience, and cars being cheaper to run. Against this are his exorbitant charges for car maintenance and services. The petrol is the only thing that is cheap, but that will rise too, once the Stephensons are out of the way. If it happens, Gresby could well price himself out of the market.
However, from the outset we can see Gresby is so greedy at making his the only means of commuting to keep his garage profitable that he fails to see the folly that has been there from the start – having only one means of commuting puts too many eggs in one basket, which makes people over-reliant on it. But there will be times when it fails for one reason or other, and can’t always be available. He finds this out the hard way at the story’s climax. Besides, not everyone is willing or able to use that particular means of transport and may prefer others. Trains and cars have their pros and cons; rail has advantages that cars don’t have, and vice-versa. Therefore, both have ended up complementing each other, and this is what happens at the end of the story.
The Stephensons, in their own way, are as short-sighted as Gresby. The reason they want people to continue to use Smokey is that she is their life and blood, and they can’t live any other way. Moreover, to them, Smokey is not just a train but a person and their dearest friend, and they will move heaven and earth to save her. However, they are not looking all that much beyond this, to look at other reasons why Smokey should carry on, or if not, what else she could be used for. There are so many arguments they could use for public appeal. Over-dependency on one means of commuting has already been discussed. Heritage value and tourism could be another. This was used in a Button Box story (also written by Alison Christie) where a railway company closes down a railway station for economic reasons, to the devastation of the dedicated station master. As with Grandpa, the station was his life. However, the station’s heritage value comes to the rescue. A railway enthusiast converts it into a railway museum, beginning a whole new life for the station and its station master. There are also people like Simon who just love trains, and an old steam engine would build up on nostalgia appeal. And of course, there are people who prefer to be taken along the scenic route and avoid the traffic.
The villagers get so annoying in the way they constantly change back and forth between supporting Smokey and not doing so because of Gresby’s crafty manoeuvres to keep their custom. One minute they begin to see the pitfalls of the garage and the switch to cars, and even see Gresby for what he is. Then they change their minds in a flash once they receive yet another lucrative offer from Gresby or, in some cases, an off-panel threat from him. However, in the times when they do support Smokey, they always leave something behind to help. Ultimately, this takes the form of the filled petition. The petition in itself does not save Smokey, but it opens up the avenue to what ultimately does – prove to everyone, including greedy Gresby, that there is still a use for rail in Whistledown and they should not rely on just one means of commuting.