Tag Archives: affliction

Misery Loves Company, or, the sadomasochism of readers?

Attendees at talks like the Comix Creatrix event have a tendency to marvel at the prevalence of stories about misery, cruelty, and slavery in girls comics. It’s particularly the case that, if the attendee is someone who isn’t steeped in reading stories in this genre, they may well bring out loaded words or phrases referring to the ‘sadomasochism’ in the stories, or they may indicate that something is a bit ‘dodgy’ or ‘ooh-er’ (at the end of the talk this came in with discussions of “War Orphan Farm” and “Slave of Form 3B“). I’m not immune to this effect either – in earlier days I have certainly referred to slave stories with wink-wink innuendo, for instance. But it’s not true to the material being referred to, and what’s more I think that it plays into the wrong hands, as I will explain below.

Girls comics feature a lot of cruelty, misery, and slavery, it’s true. Mistyfan’s post on the Slave Story theme gives a relevant run-down of how a large subsection of girls’ stories worked, including a range of examples. We haven’t even given misery and cruelty any specific categories of their own in our list of themes, but they are clearly part of the more discrete story themes of Affliction, Bullying, Cinderella, Guilt Complex, and Troublemaker, to name only a few. Stories frequently feature mental domination, abuse, and physical brutality; may include handcuffs and ropes; and occasionally allow the death of the main character. And these are not incidental aspects of the stories – they are the main reason for them, the thing that makes them popular and memorable. A story may continue for half a year or more with the protagonist growing more and more hard-done-by, and the resolution typically only comes in the last episode or even the last few panels. It’s hardly surprising that this is so much a feature of discussions of girls comics when it comes up outside the confines of a blog like this.

But does this mean either that the stories are full of sadomasochism, or that the readers were secret sadists or masochists to enjoy them in such numbers? I’d say no, to both.

If you look at the stories themselves, and the experiences of the protagonists within then, they are just not stories of sadomasochism. For a start, they’re not overtly sexual (no publisher of the time in the UK would have countenanced that, of course, though as has been pointed out by Paul Gravett, the Shojo manga publishing phenomenon in Japan at around the same time was able to go down this route). They’re not covertly sexual either (not that I think girls of that age and in that era particularly went for hidden innuendo – we passed around Lace and The Thorn Birds, and of course we all devoured the Flowers In The Attic series). Fundamentally the stories of cruelty/slavery , even though they can spark associations of BDSM to the adult reader, weren’t about submission. The protagonists didn’t learn to enjoy being humiliated or dominated by their rivals: it was just that they were not strong enough to win against the villain or the society they were in. It’s a trope about powerlessness and fighting back even when it’s hopeless: eventually, even though it seems terribly unlikely, you may win. That’s a message of strength to young girls, collectively one of the least powerful groups in all society.

Slave stories end with the slave being freed and reinstated, and the villain reformed or defeated. (See the Tammy blog’s post about Slaves of “War Orphan Farm” where all eventually ends happily.) There are some stories where the slave accepts the brainwashing of the antagonist at points, and believes she deserves her punishment (Jinty‘s “Slave of the Swan” includes this plot element), but clearer eyes than the deluded protagonist see through this deception and it is not seriously proposed as something that the protagonist should believe. These are not stories with hidden subtexts of the delights of submission to loving authority in the way that Marston’s Wonder Woman stories were.

There are also a large number of tear-jerker stories which get mentioned as part of this idea of the sadomasochism of girls comics. I think here the feeling is that because such stories are so focused on misery, it is sadistic, or possibly masochistic, of the girl reader to enjoy them so much. Some of the obvious key contenders from the massively popular misery / tear-jerker trope are:

  • “No Time for Pat” in Jinty Annual 1980. Originally printed in June (1972)
  • Stefa’s Heart of StoneJinty (1976), reprinted in Princess / Tammy & Princess (1984)
  • DC Thomson’s “AngelMandy (1977) reprinted three times, with two subsequent sequels One of the few misery stories that takes the story through to the death of the protagonist, but as she was suffering from a terminal disease this feels like a naturalistic and almost uplifting ending – you could say she ‘wins’
  • Nothing Ever Goes RightJudy (1981) Reprinted (1989-90) Another exception of a misery story in which the protagonist dies in the end. (Edited to add: written by Maureen Hartley – see comments on Girls Comics of Yesterday)

These stories don’t really have a specific villain, though some other similar ones may do. The cause of the misery is often simply cruel fate. Possibly because cruel fate is much less personal, it is sometimes carried through to the logical conclusion whereby the protagonist dies in end: something that you can’t really do with a slave story because then the villain would win. (Unless anyone knows of a counter-example?)

Clearly girl readers loved a good cry! But why label the readers so strongly, bandying around terms like masochist? Didn’t the Victorians also love sentimental sob stories? What about classical tragedy, which far more often ends in unswerving death? Or indeed devotees of East Enders or the Archers? Consumers of these stories don’t get the same labels. I can only see it coming down to the policing of girls’ reading – it falls outside our expectations of what girls should read, and so we boggle at it more than at Victorian sob stories. If we fall in with this policing of ‘appropriate’ reading we play into the hands of authority’s disapproval of comics. Sometimes that manifests itself relatively mildly, as when Mary Cadogan complained about lurid death scenes in girls comics, citing “No Time For Pat” as an example (incorrectly, in fact) and using that as a lever to indicate that all girls comics were of low worth. At the other end of the spectrum, Frederick Wertham used his assertions of inappropriate themes and images to press for wide-ranging ‘reform’ of comic book publishing and the implementation of the US Comic Book Code.

Tricia’s Tragedy (1975)

Sample images

Tricia 1

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Tricia 2 001

(Click thru)

Tricia 3

Publication: 1/2/75-31/5/75

Reprints/translations: Girl Annual 1982; Tineke – Strijd om de Lankman-trofee [Tineke – Fighting for the Lankman Trophy] (in: Tina 1975/76, Tina Topstrip 18 (1980)).

Artist: Ana Rodriguez

Writer: Unknown

Summary

Tricia Hunt is a promising swimmer, but her family is so poor (Dad has a bad leg and cannot work) that she can only train in the quarry pool as she cannot afford the local one. But Dad keeps training her hard to win the Lloyd trophy, which was founded by her grandfather. Then the quarry pool gets whipped from under them because it has been bought over by their rich and highly respected relatives, the Lloyds. This is a double blow because there is bad blood between the Lloyds and the Hunts, and Tricia cannot understand why.

Things take a surprising turn when the Lloyds invite Tricia to come and train in their private pool to make up for the loss of the quarry pool. Dad gets a horrible sense of foreboding that something terrible will happen if they accept the offer, but Tricia decides to do so. Not surprisingly, this is a decision she will regret. You should always listen to gut feelings!

Perhaps Tricia should have been suspicious when she finds the Lloyd parents and spoiled cousin Diana a hard lot, and she does not like them much. So why should they make this invitation out of the kindness of their hearts, especially after all those years they’ve spent shunning the Hunts and then acting as if they never did? But Tricia is all eager to try out the pool and get training. She is also surprised to find Diana is training for the Lloyd trophy too, although Diana is more a diver than a swimmer.

But of course Dad’s premonition had been right on. In the pool, disaster strikes – Tricia does not hear warnings in time to get out of the way while Diana is diving, and the resulting accident has Diana go blind. The guilt-stricken Tricia agrees to become Diana’s helper, living with the Lloyds and helping Diana train for the Lloyd Trophy. But she still keeps her promise to her parents to go in for the trophy herself.

Dad tells Tricia that she is blaming herself too much. Diana should take at least some of the blame as well for not checking the pool and Tricia properly before making her dive. And he does not like the way Diana is having Tricia at her beck and call all the time and treating her like a slave. Tricia does not like it either and is now hating Diana – but is bound to Diana by guilt and a terrible debt. Dad tries to talk to his brother-in-law and pull Tricia away, but Mr Lloyd just throws him out.

Before he goes, Dad tells Tricia the reason for the feud. Years ago, he had won the Lloyd trophy, but Mr Lloyd accused him of cheating. Grandfather Lloyd believed the accusation and disinherited Dad, and so began their descent into poverty when they should have been wealthy like the Lloyds. Dad wants Tricia to win the trophy so the Hunts will regain what they should have.

It becomes increasingly apparent to Dad that the Lloyds are trying to stop Tricia winning the Lloyd trophy, especially when he finds the Lloyds are trying to deprive Tricia of sleep. With Tricia’s help he sneaks into Mr Lloyd’s study to investigate. They are surprised by Diana, but are not worried as she is blind and cannot see them. Dad finds a document signed by Grandfather Lloyd which mentions the Lloyd trophy. But before he can examine it properly, the police arrest him. In order have Mr Lloyd get her father released from custody, Tricia agrees to throw the Lloyd swimming match in Diana’s favour.

Dad sneaks back in and overhears what Tricia is planning to do. He also sees something else – Diana putting her hand over her face, as if to keep sun out of her eyes. This confirms what he has been suspecting about Diana ever since his arrest. Can you guess what it is? I beat Mr Hunt to it!

He has to do a mad dash to the pool – covering two miles with a bad leg – in order to alert Tricia that Diana has been faking and not blind at all. He manages it just as Tricia is about to go into her final lap. The lap turns into one angry lap of revenge against Diana, with Tricia reflecting on past events in the light of what she now realises about her scheming cousin. Tricia wins, although it looks an extremely narrow margin, and wins the trophy.

Furious, Diana drops her blind pretence as she leaves the pool. Seeing this, the crowd boos her – a much deserved dent in the high respectability of the Lloyds. You have to wonder who was really cheating at the Lloyd trophy all those years ago.

Of course money has been the motive for it all. The document was a revised will from Grandfather Lloyd. He had reconsidered his earlier decision about Mr Hunt and made the new will, which left most of his fortune to whichever granddaughter who would win the trophy. So now the Hunts finally have the money they were cheated out of years earlier, while the Lloyds quickly sell up and clear out. The Hunts are now so rich they can afford to buy the Lloyds’ old home, but Tricia does not want to buy the bad memories she has of that place, thank you very much.

Thoughts

This is not one of Jinty’s best remembered stories or one of her real classics. It is more of a pretty standard but still good story about scheming relatives, cheating rivals, determination to win through against all odds, making huge sacrifices for love, going from rags to riches, and finally getting justice. It also has an extremely thrilling climax of plotters thinking they’ve got everything sewn up – only to have their trick discovered at the very last minute, but they could still win if Tricia does not make up for lost ground fast and beat Diana. There is enough in the story to keep the reader interested.

However, it does get too obvious what is going on. After all, there were reasons to be suspicious of the Lloyds to begin with, and once they pull blatant tricks to deprive Tricia of sleep, it is a dead giveaway that they are up to something. Still, their first scheme to snare Tricia by playing on her guilt is extremely clever. They even have a doctor at the hospital to give a phony diagnosis that Diana is blind. They probably had backup plans – threatening to sue the Hunts or pressing charges, perhaps – if Tricia had not played right into their hands by becoming Diana’s slave. Fortunately Tricia was still determined to win the trophy despite her guilt, which forced them into the mistake of the more obvious tricks that fired Dad’s suspicions.