Tag Archives: book review

Scream! and Misty: Review

Hooray! Another fruit of the IPC copyright purchase has hit the shops – now alongside the reprinting of classic stories from the IPC years, we are also seeing new stories written and drawn by current creators, inspired by those glory days and revisiting old setups and characters. “Scream! and Misty” (also available in a variant cover entitled “Misty and Scream!”) is out now. What’s in it? And – the bigger question – is it any good?

  • Cover: Henry Flint
  • The Thirteenth Floor (artists John Stokes / Frazer Irving, writer Guy Adams)
  • The Dracula File (artist Tristan Jones, writer Grainne McEntee)
  • Death-Man: The Gathering (artist Henry Flint, writer Feek)
  • Return of Black Max: Blood Moon (artist Simon Coleby, writer Kek-W)
  • The Return of the Sentinels (artist Ben Willsher, writer Hannah Berry)
  • Fate of the Fairy Hunter (artist Dani, writer Alec Worley)

First of all, rightly or wrongly, this is more 2000AD than it is Misty (or Scream!, as far as I can tell, though I am not an expert on that title). The art and the story telling is generally much more focused on current styles than traditional ones – and when you flick through this 52-page special it’s noticeable what a variety of styles is included within, much more so than in the 32 pages of Misty. There are traditional elements: John Stokes starts off the issue in the story revisiting “The Thirteenth Floor”: Max the psychotic computer who runs the decrepit building gets us off to a great start, though the ending to the first story is a little clumsily handled. This story is split between the black and white traditional art that Stokes provides and a colourful interlude drawn by Fraser Irving, which is very definitely 2000AD. The combination works well it itself, but I’m left slightly unsure as to what Rebellion are trying to do here – attract an audience for the reprint titles (blurbed as a whole-page advert on the following page), pull their 2000AD audience over to a new title with a different sort of inspiration, or what?

“The Dracula Files”, likewise, is more 2000AD than anything else – and is the most scrappily-drawn of the offerings to boot, I think. It’s quite well-written but some of the visual story-telling is hard to follow, and below in the last panel you can see an example of a very awkwardly-drawn hand, which looks like the artist changed their mind about part-way through.

“Deathman: The Gathering” makes it clear that this is a remix and reworking of the traditional characters. Characters from all sorts of IPC titles, not just Scream!, make it into this one – even alien shape-shifter Paddy McGinty’s Goat does! It’s readable and fun – how often do you get to see the Leopard of Lime Street mixing it up with Blake Edmonds from Death Wish? This is very far from a complete story though, and again I am not quite sure where Rebellion are planning on taking this from here on in. Are Rebellion going to launch a separate line or something? This feels somewhat similar to some of the Vertigo comics from back in the day, when that is what DC did to free themselves from the constraints of their mainstream universe.

“Return of Black Max: Blood Moon” is one of the most successful combinations of tradition and modern styles, it feels to me. The art is bang up to date but the panel sizing, story telling, and even the story themes are just like what you would get in the old girls comics at least. It leads off with a disturbing dream that Maxine Newland is recounting to her schoolfriends the next day – and continues with detention, an absent parent, a spooky item from the past, and an inadvertent trip to another dimension. Maxine even ends the story asking herself, troubled: “He said I wasn’t a girl. That I was a…thing. W-what if he was right?” That self-doubt could have come straight out of a girls weekly comic!

There are only two Misty-inspired stories. The second one (“Fate of the Fairy Hunter”) is a short, complete story that has a lot of similarities to the horror shorts included in that title; less gore though. There’s a twist in the tale but I have to say that the Misty versions would have ended a lot less happily for the female lead – a bit of a shame to have missed out that disinhibited proper horror element.

“The Return of the Sentinels” is the big ticket item for many of the people reading this post, I suspect. It didn’t disappoint me – I loved it. It’s tightly written and the art is great. I can’t give away much about it because I know lots of people will want to read it unspoiled – suffice to say that it doesn’t explain anything about how the Sentinels work or what happened to the characters in the original story, but it compresses the spooky feeling of wandering into a parallel world that is very definitely not right into only a few pages. It’s not clear that there is a chance of writer Hannah Berry developing this modern-day story further, but if that was an option then I can tell you that I’d be there in a flash.

So, yes. Much of this is 2000AD-has-fun: almost a fanfiction reworking of those original characters and stories (and nothing wrong with that, let me clarify). “Black Max” and “Sentinels” feel like they could be the start of something new and great on their own terms, which I’d love to see. Some other bits miss the target to a greater or lesser extent: in addition to the scrappy drawing in the Dracula Files, Henry Flint’s front cover is great on the creepy ghouls (I love Ghastly McNasty holding a selfie stick!) but much less great when depicting Misty herself (who looks like a plastic doll with a blank expression rather than a mysterious one). Overall: a definite ‘yes’, especially as tastes inevitably vary and that is the particular strength of the anthology title.

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It’s Ghastly! – review

its-ghastly-cover

I have just received a copy of “It’s Ghastly” – Hibernia Comics’ latest addition to their Comic Archive. This 64-page publication spells out the reasons for the demise of IPC’s short-lived horror title Scream! and exhumes lost material intended for the abandoned weekly issues.

It’s a handsome glossy publication, mostly in black and white but with a handful of colour pages in the middle. My particular interest wasn’t so much in the information about Scream! itself (as I never read that title) as about what it might reveal about comics publishing of the time, or any as-yet-unknown information about who did what.

It features a lot of interviews and information from people involved in creating the title: Barrie Tomlinson (Group Editor at the time), Gil Page (Managing Editor of the title), Ian Rimmer (editor), Simon Furman (sub-editor). Some of them are reprints of interviews originally published some years previously, but bringing them together in one magazine is a definite service to fans of the title and those interested in this slice of history.

I was interested to note how the various memories of what happened at that time were all slightly different: David McDonald was clearly trying to get an answer to the key question of why Scream! folded so quickly. Barrie Tomlinson had a number of possible answers – the strike, the content, the sales figures… while Gil Page put the blame fairly squarely on the overall sales figures. Ian Rimmer puts it down to a staffing problem and to management interference and second-guessing, which put a real crimp in the process of just getting on with creating as good a title as possible. He ultimately blames management timidity. So even from people who were there at the time, it’s possible to get as many answers as there are people answering – at least for the tricky questions. Something for any of us interviewers or comics historians to be aware of in terms of the dangers of drawing firm conclusions!

As with MacManus’ “The Mighty One”, I was struck once again by the sheer amount of writing that was done in house. There is also a lot of interesting discussion about artwork: not so much the process of creating it or how much was done by the art editor, but about how it was reused in subsequent publications, even if that meant cutting up a page of art or reusing some cover artwork by José Casanovas in a Holiday Special – but removing the central human character which was part of the whole point of the original story.

There’s lots of solid material in here – interviews, re-creations of three unused covers that could have been printed in issues 16, 17, and 18 (the title stopped at 15), scripts, and a whole unpublished story of “The Nightcomers”! The artwork is the original from the time, but as it was unlettered and only half the script could be found, the other half was rescripted by Simon Furman, who was the original writer. Those of us who are fans of other titles can only feel a mixture of jealousy that David was able to come across this treasure trove, and hopefulness that maybe such a miracle could happen to our own favourite title some day.

“It’s Ghastly”; Hibernia, 2016: available on Comicsy for £7.50 plus postage

‘The Mighty One’ by Steve MacManus (2016)

The Mighty One - cover

This is a review (of sorts) of Steve MacManus’s autobiography “The Mighty One”, in which he covers his time working at Fleetway / IPC between 1973 and 1991. It’s not your usual review though, as it is also intended as a way to highlight some material mentioned in the book that either gives us new information on how the comics publishing of the time actually worked, or re-confirms information we already knew (but which it’s always good to have from more than one source.) (Some write-ups that are more ‘review’-y can be found here: GNFAR, Colin Noble at Down The Tubes, Lew Stringer.)

MacManus started work at Fleetway Publications in 1973, as a sub-editor on Valiant, which was part of the Juvenile Group of comics and magazines aimed at young people. He was part of a team of four people: an editor and a sub-editor, an art editor and an art assistant (often referred to as a bodger). He subsequently worked on Battle Picture Weekly, and although he wasn’t part of the core team working on Action he got involved in some elements of that title too. Starlord was his next step and when that merged with 2000AD he went to that title, eventually becoming Editor in 1979. In 1986 he moved sideways and relinquished the editorship to stay involved with the Judge Dredd universe, with the creation of titles for a more mature audience – Crisis (in 1988), the short-lived but beautiful Revolver, and the much longer-lasting Judge Dredd the Megazine. The book ends in 1991 with the collapse of the Maxwell Communication Corporation (which had bought IPC’s remaining comics line in 1987) and the subsequent sale of the titles to Gutenbergus (later Egmont), though the last chapter of the book, effectively an epilogue, races through the aftermath of the subsequent years through to 2011.

During this book he talks about working with key staff contacts such as art editor Doug Church, editor Dave Hunt, art editor Jan Shepheard; and with well-known freelancers like Pat Mills, Alan Grant, John Wagner, Tom Tully. The names we are familiar with from girls comics publishing – Mavis Miller, Wilf Prigmore, Terence Magee – mostly don’t get a look-in but there are certainly some folks mentioned who crossed over that significant divide as we will see – Gerry Finley-Day, Jim Baikie, and of course Pat Mills again (who seems to get everywhere). If you want to read anecdotes of those days, or find out how a boys’ comic of the time was conceived, written, drawn, put together, printed, and marketed then you couldn’t ask for a better book than this, and a fun read to boot. I’m sure it will get people digging out their old issues of the comics mentioned, or looking out for reprints of stories they missed (it’s certainly had that effect on me!).

My interest in getting the book in the first place, however, was to see what light it might shed on the creation and publishing of Fleetway / IPC’s girls comics. It did not disappoint. As mentioned above, some of the information in the book is material that we already know or had a good idea was the case, but it’s good to have it corroborated in a printed source that can be referenced in the future. Some of the information, however, is stuff I’d never dreamed of, and which has got me thinking of new things to look at and analyse in Jinty and other comics.

What did we already know that is corroborated here?

  • There are some basic facts that are repeated here about things like the target age of the readership (8-12 years), and the sales figures of the time (around 80,000 copies per week normally, with 2000AD achieving noticeably strong sales of 100,000 copies per week, but still being out-sold by Tammy which was selling 200,000 copies a week).
  • The expectation was that any given child would be reading the comic for a maximum of four years before going on to other things (it states in the book that a boy might give up his weekly comic in order to save up for something bigger and more grown up). So the rule of thumb, as we’ve heard before from Mistyfan, was that stories from a specific title could be reprinted in that title after some 5 years had passed.
  • The normal format of a comic was 32 pages, which included 3 pages of editorial material or features (intro page, letters page, back cover) and the front cover – so 28 pages of comics, normally divided up into 8 stories of three or four pages each. The book doesn’t say specifically, but presumably as with Jinty there would normally be a couple of single-page strips to make up the 28 pages of comics.
  • It was pretty clear beforehand that comics at the time were fairly blokey. Of course MacManus was talking about working on boys comics, but almost all the names he mentions were of men, apart from Jan Shepheard. The office staff, the colleagues he socialised with, the management – just about everyone he mentions was male. The magazine publishing side was more mixed, with columnists such as Julie Burchill coming in for a mention alongside female editorial staff on titles.

There were some points mentioned that weren’t totally new to me, or to other readers of this blog, but which have had new light shed on them:

  • The Juvenile Group had separate departments for boys’ comics, girls’ comics, nursery comics, and humour comics. It’s clear from this book that these departments were a lot more separate from each other in terms of culture and networking than we might have imagined. The girls comics and the boys comics were very much separated from each other – they were located on separate floors, for instance – and there is little evidence in MacManus’ book of much fraternization between the two. (Gerry Finley-Day was one of the exceptions – he was the deputy managing editor of the girls’ comics line at the same time as he was writing stories for the initial line up of Battle.) So much so that when talking about Jim Baikie coming aboard to 2000AD wagon (for “Skizz” in 1982), MacManus was seemingly totally unaware of Baikie’s background in drawing girls comics, knowing him only as a Look-In artist! I asked MacManus via Facebook whether he really had been entirely unaware of the crossing-over from girls comics to boys comics that Baikie, Ron Smith, and Phil Gascoine had done, and he confirmed that he didn’t think he knew it then and was surprised to hear it now. At the same time, there must have been some awareness of what was happening in the other area, as MacManus appreciated the notable successes that were happening with Tammy and Jinty.
  • The running order of the stories in each 32 page issue was closely tied to the popularity of the stories in question. In Valiant, the most popular story appeared at the front of the comic, and the second most popular one at the back, which makes sense. But MacManus also says that the least-liked heroes would be marked for the chop in ‘an end-of-term edition in which all the current serials concluded’, which surprised me! I don’t remember noticing that lots of stories normally came to an end at the same time, in Jinty at least – but I will certainly look at the story list by date to see if there are patterns for when stories tend to end or start.
  • Not really known beforehand but not surprising as such: MacManus gives us a little bit of detail about the taglines at the top of each cover – ‘the pithy phrases known as toplines’. These were apparently produced ahead of time – ‘several of these to last us the next few issues’.
  • I knew that there was quite a lot of active creative work required of those working as in-house staff at IPC (no doubt the same was true of DC Thomson too): we hear of Gerry Finley-Day writing umpteen stories at the same time as being a staffer, and we know about the script conferences held in the editorial offices of the comics. I was surprised, though, to understand quite how hands-on those creative processes were at all levels of the publishing process. MacManus was required to do quite a lot of writing as a normal part of his job, and he talks about the specific encouragement to write scripts and features. Art duties likewise were an important part of the in-house staff work: the bodger or art assistant would redraw elements that had been perhaps misunderstood by the main artist, or which needed amending for other reasons (such as to tone down a shocking scene, or to touch up old artwork that was to be reprinted in a different format). The art editor was responsible for the overall look and feel of the comic; we’ve heard elsewhere about how much of an effect Jan Shepheard had on early 2000AD for instance. A high level of creative endeavour was expected and required: MacManus’ interview with IPC turned at least partly on his ability to spell, and everyone on staff knew that there were a lot of parental and media eyes focused on the comics, ready to spot any errors or grammatical flaws. But at a basic level of comics publishing, too, the editorial role included the creative element of subbing the dialogue written by the author so that it fitted into the space left by the artist, while continuing to respect ‘the dramatic “beat” of the pictures so that the story flowed seamlessly for the reader’.
  • We’ve heard before from Pat Mills that women were generally uninterested in working on the comics because they wanted to work on the women’s titles, as proper journalists. I’m sure that was a real thing, but what Pat’s narrative doesn’t include is the fact that other people working on the comics also wanted to be ‘proper journalists’ too – MacManus recounts the attraction of the idea of working on a magazine and holding your head up in the queue for the staff lunch! It was also an area of the business with a lot more budget to play around with. Between this relatively greater respect accorded to journalists working on consumer magazines, and the blokey background of many parts of the publishing company, it’s perhaps not that surprising that many women may have been a bit uninterested in working on the comics.
  • It’s clear from MacManus that Scottish rival DC Thomson were immensely important not only in providing a competitor to race against, but also in the transfer of knowledge and methods to the better-paying London publisher. MacManus attended an in-house training course on scripting picture strips for girls, run by John Purdie, the managing editor of the girls’ department and an import from DCT. Writers Pat Mills and John Wagner, were similarly trained in the DCT writing style – but with particular expertise in writing girls comics, which was described by Pat Mills as being particularly plot-driven, with four sizeable things happening in the space of a single 22-panel episode. This brought in a professionalism and strength into IPC’s boys’ comics writing by explicitly teaching staffers how to write and edit tightly. MacManus contrasts this with the common technique of starting an episode with last week’s cliffhanger, resolving it, doling out a smidgen of plot development, before ending on another, often spurious, cliffhanger.
  • MacManus talks about the dummy issue of Battle being produced six weeks ahead of the first issue going on sale, and this six-week lead time crops up at other points in this book. (Amongst other things it means that ‘For a new weekly title the soonest you could end a strip was around issue twelve’.) Of course there would have to be some sort of publication lead time but it’s nice to have it nailed down fairly specifically. I’d like to have heard exactly how far in advance the advance copies were printed – we’ve heard elsewhere that there are around 30 ultra-rare copies of the issue of Action printed just before the order came to stop the presses and re-jig the level of violence in the title. Does that mean that an advance copy of Tammy‘s last issue, with the final episode of “Cora Can’t Lose”, might have been produced or even printed? You’d think someone would have mentioned it by now, but who knows… Or if not a printed copy of the issue, could there be any remaining scrap of the ‘make-up book,which listed the status of scripts and artwork for each issue going forward’?

And then there were some points that surprised me quite a lot:

  • MacManus says right at the beginning that when he joined Valiant in 1973 he was surprised to see the same characters he’d followed a decade earlier, when he read it as a boy. Captain Hurricane, The Wild Wonders, The House of Dolmann, Raven on the Wing, Kelly’s Eye, Jason Hyde, The Steel Claw: that’s a lot of ongoing characters! I don’t know Valiant enough to have a feel for how many of those were really long-running but clearly a number of them were – many more than was the case in Jinty or even Tammy. Jinty only had one or at maximum two ongoing characters at a time, while Tammy had the long-running Bella and Molly Mills of course. But neither girls’ title was chock-full of long-running stories in the way that MacManus sees as the norm in boys’ comics.
  • MacManus talks a few times about stories being measured in terms of the number of panels in the story. At one point he refers to a ‘twenty-two picture episode’ and at other points to a ‘thirty-picture script’. There are two things that surprise me about this. One is the terminology, using ‘pictures’ or ‘frames’ instead of panels (likewise he uses ‘speech bubbles’ instead of ‘word balloons’). it’s subtly different from the terminology I’m used to – I suppose my vocabulary for this has been influenced by US comics, and I’d never noticed the small differences. It makes sense of the many references to ‘picture-stories’ instead of ‘comics’ though, I guess.
  • But the thing that surprises me most about this is the idea of measuring stories in pictures or frames, rather than in what I would never have questioned as the key unit of a story – the page. Of course, the page has to still be considered a very important unit – you have to fill up 32 pages in each issue, and the physical page is what the reader turns over to see something surprising that has been hidden from them until that page turn. The real lightbulb moment associated with this, for me, was when MacManus explained the thinking behind running only five stories in the early 2000AD – he credits Pat Mills with the notion of leaving out the most-unpopular two or three stories out of eight, and going straight to only printing five stories in each issue, with more pages allocated. MacManus specifically says ‘Each story still had the usual number of pictures, but the extra pages allowed the pictures to be drawn larger’. Wow! Yes, this is clearly what is happening, not only in 2000AD but also to a certain extent in Misty.

Available from Rebellion £9.99 for the print edition (ISBN 978-1-78108-475-5).

Misty: Moonchild & The Four Faces of Eve (2016)

This is a review of the Rebellion reprint of two stories from Misty: “Moonchild” and “The Four Faces of Eve”. Many thanks to Rebellion for supplying this review copy.

The announcement last year that Rebellion were to reprint two classic stories from Misty was met with great excitement. How does the reality match to our heightened expectations? What might we like to see Rebellion do more of in any future reprints of IPC material, and what might we want them to avoid if possible?

Rebellion Publishing 2016

The two stories themselves are likely to be familiar to many readers of this blog and I won’t cover the content of the stories at all in this review. (Other reviews, such as this one on FA Comiczine, cover this territory.) “Moonchild” is a definite classic and would spring to most people’s minds when thinking of key stories from Misty. It also has the name recognition factor of Pat Mills; John Armstrong is probably less well known to those who are not already fans of UK girls comics, but is also familiar from Tammy‘s “Bella at the Bar”. “The Four Faces of Eve” isn’t one of the stories I would necessarily immediately think of when coming up with classics from Misty, but Malcolm Shaw can certainly make a tale speed along and the Brian Delaney art is stylish and beautiful. I don’t think any knowledgeable reader of UK girls comics would have a problem with these two stories having been chosen to represent Misty in the first modern reprint edition, though depending on individual preferences we might have made slightly different choices.

The book itself felt a bit thin when I took it from the (large) packaging, but that was slightly illusory: it’s a good size book, and the fact it combines two stories of a decent length means that you feel that it gives you enough to get your teeth into. However at 114 pages it still feels like a relatively quick read; fellow Rebellion title “Monster”, reprinted from Scream & the Eagle, clocks in at 192 pages so I think there is room to push the boat out and include more pages next time. The print and production qualities are high (much higher than the original newsprint of course), though there are some aesthetic choices that will succeed with some readers and maybe not with all. Specifically, the cover features beautiful Shirley Bellwood art, but the pink (on Misty’s skin and dress) has come out with the half-tone screen dots very visible: surely done on purpose as this is not anything constrained by current production processes. The title logo has also been re-designed, using a rather wiggly and wavy font: I don’t know why anyone would use anything other than the classic logo, unless the rights to that logo had not been acquired at the time? It’s not a bad choice in itself – I like the little crescent moon that tops the letter ‘i’ in the title – but it feels like a bit of an unnecessary change.

There’s a good amount of extra material inside. Pat Mills has written a foreword about the historical context of girls comics publishing of the time, and how the title Misty was originally created; generous credit given to fellow creator Malcolm Shaw in particular and many readers of this blog will be glad to see Mavis Miller get a namecheck too. At the back of the book, Dr Julia Round has written a lovely tribute to Shirley Bellwood, and there are brief biographies of all four creators (Brian Delaney’s is particularly brief but I suspect there may be limited biographical information available about him). Finally, there are one or two craft items included – how to make a witch’s hat, and how to make a tree-devil mask. I think these are a great touch: I suspect they were added for kitsch value but they bring something extra of their own to the reprint. More of this sort of thing in any reprint please!

Of course the key component to any such reprint is the treatment of the comic pages themselves. The printing is nice and crisp and you wouldn’t particularly guess it had been scanned from a published edition. Will Morgan makes the observation (in his review on FA) that John Armstrong’s art suffers because it includes so many thin lines, which are lost in the production: that’s true, but I think most readers wouldn’t notice, as they will be dragged along by the story. The faces and the other details in the story remain compelling – there are large standout images throughout, that arrest the reader’s attention regardless of individual fine detail elements that are lost.

I am also sure that hardly anyone would notice the fact that the Moonchild pages have been edited to fit a larger page size*: an extra two centimetres of art was drawn on the bottom of each page, to make it longer! It sounds absurd and obvious but in fact I have read exactly this edition (which was the version printed in the 1983 Misty Annual) more than once and have only noticed it now, when looking quite carefully. (This is just like what happened in the 1979 Jinty Annual, in the story “Trudy On Trial”.) Having said that, in some places this editing is pretty clumsily done: another time it would be far preferable to follow the model used in “The Four Faces of Eve”, where you can see the original logo from each weekly episode, and the original art dimensions are respected. (In the case of “Eve”, in particular, the story title logo and accompanying art is really beautifully done and is different in almost every episode, so it would be a real loss to miss this out.)

[*Edited to add: I should clarify here that Rebellion themselves haven’t edited the art to fit a larger page size, but they have chosen a source to scan from where this had been done, that is, when the story was reprinted in the 1983 Misty Annual.]

I know this review is a little odd in focusing so strongly on the editorial and publishing choices made when creating this reprint, rather than on the stories themselves. As you will understand, I am keen to understand what any future reprints from other girls comics could look like! Of course, the quality of the stories themselves is not anything I have any concerns about, but lacklustre publishing decisions can damn the best content. This first reprint from Rebellion isn’t perfect but it hits the right high notes. New readers will find plenty to love, while those who already know the content will be very happy to see a professional, competently-executed edition produced by people who perhaps are still figuring out some of the details of what will work best, but who are very much moving in a welcome direction. Here’s hoping it is the success it deserves to be!

Misty: Featuring Moonchild & The Four Faces of Eve. Rebellion Publishing, 2016. ISBN 9781781084526

‘Remembered Reading’ by Mel Gibson; book review

Remembered Reading: Memory, Comics and Post-War Constructions of British Girlhood“, by Dr Mel Gibson; ISBN 9789462700307, published by Leuven University Press, June 2015. Reviewed by Jenni Scott.

Remembered_reading

British girls’ comics are not much written-about, either within academia or within comics fandom. Even the people who read these comics as children tend to move away from then in their teenage years and forget about them as adults, until a deep well of memory is probed and an undercurrent of (often very strong) emotion is released. In looking at how people talked and thought about girls comics in the past, and how people talk and think about them still, this book is a great review both of the memories of the former girl readers, and of the criticism – often ill-informed or inadequate – made of these comics.

To be clear up front, this is an academic work based on Dr Gibson’s research for her doctoral thesis, and published by an academic press within a series of ‘Studies in European Comics and Graphic Novels’. Some of the writing includes some specialized vocabulary or concepts (in fact this is generally not too bad but it could put some people off). Perhaps more importantly for a work on comics, only a very few illustrations are used: this sort of book typically has definite budget constraints and it is hard to obtain permission to use this sort of old material (especially for free). It is not a lavish reference book for a general audience! Having said that, Dr Gibson has chosen wisely in including a four-page “Belle of the Ballet” story and an absolutely corking two page photo story from “Shocking Pink”. It also includes a very solid chapter on ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Girls’ Comic’, which provides an outline of publication history and of the development of this market. Its real strength, though, lies in the number of questions, thoughts, and avenues for investigation that it has provoked in me during my reading. (And what better thing can you say of an academic book than that it is fruitful?)

So, what is the book all about, in more detail?

Coverage

In the Introduction, Dr Gibson sets out her stall. This book aims to look at how the genre of comics aimed at British girls developed and why they disappeared, while also looking at other comics that were read by girls (such as American superhero comics) and to a lesser extent also at the phenomenon of boys reading girls’ comics too. This is in order to challenge the received idea in our Anglo-Saxon culture of comics as being by and for boys and for men: a prejudice that forgets and belittles the history of girls comics. Because it proved hard and expensive to get hold of issues of girls comics themselves, or at least in the range and quantity you’d need to do a good overview, Gibson ended up not looking at the titles directly, or the stories in them, but rather at people’s memories and what was important enough in those memories to stick with them until she interviewed them years and decades later. (These were interviews done at a range of events typically held in libraries, schools, and other organizations, thus not targeting a body of already-identified comics fans.) At the same time, Gibson is clear about needing to look at the history of British writing on comics too: a history that comprises a strand that considers comics functionally as an educational tool, a strand that reflects enthusiasm and positive interest in the medium, and a larger third, critical, strand that starts from the premise that comics are bad for readers. (Even in the Introduction, it’s obvious that Gibson is writing from the point of view of a keen and positive reader of comics herself, so that while she outlines and discusses the critical strand there’s no fear she is likely to endorse it.)

Chapter One starts off talking in more detail about why it was so hard for Gibson to find copies of the girls’ comics she would have liked to work on: you might not have thought this was a particularly interesting aspect to lead off with, but it actually reveals some interesting attitudes on the part of the comics dealers she was in contact with. The dealers themselves had prejudices and misconceptions about girl comics readers: they argued that girls only got given comics out of duty and “did not really like them”, while at the same paradoxically still keeping them – meaning that dealers ended up with stashes of girls comics that they didn’t value either, and typically destroyed rather than sell! So a perceived lack of interest in girls comics becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mass media writing about girls comics, too, ‘flattens’ and reduces the diversity of comics actually produced and read, and paints the comics that girls read as being all about boarding schools and middle-class respectability.

Between her own experience, the interviews with readers, and even some interviews with women involved in the creation of comics, Gibson promises us a much more nuanced view not only of the value and interpretations that girls do place on comics, but of the range of publications actually on offer at different times, and the relevant differences between them, particularly including perceived differences of class. This nuanced view is used not only to challenge the views of the dealers but also those of the few academics or educationalists who have written about this area. The analysis is even turned inwards too: Gibson confesses that “[a]s a younger reader I dismissed comics for girls as less significant, showing my own entanglement with value judgements and ideology” – a point she develops further in the rest of book that had a lot of resonance for me, too. Nevertheless, when discussing their memories with readers who came forward, she found that “these publications had been an important part of childhood reading”, used to construct the reader’s sense of what it was to be a girl in Britain at the time. (Not that everyone wanted to become a girl if that was what it meant to be one – some readers rebelled in various ways – but it clearly helped to shape them, either way.)

Chapter Two covers the publishing history of girls’ comics in Britain: this is a really good solid chapter which covers the gamut of work and of publishers. It starts with 19th and early 20th century text-based periodicals for girls, which were aimed at and read by a wide range of classes and ages. Girls’ comics themselves appeared rather later, in the 1950s; the key story is “The Silent Three” but the key title that comes under most discussion here is Girl. One particular point of interest in this chronological approach is that Gibson is able to highlight the treatment in Girl of ballet as “acceptable”, “although it had not been long since ballet had been seen as a problematic profession” – that is, although later generations of readers treated ballet themes as boring and conservative, we should remember there was a time when this was far from being the case! Gibson also highlights that titles with a mixture of content – features, fashion, pin-ups as well as comic strips – “came to be predominantly associated with British girls’ comics” (despite also being seen in boys’ titles such as Eagle and Look & Learn). Later titles such as Jackie in particular took this further, of course, and indeed led to the magazine format dominating the teenage and adult markets. At this point there’s a visible split in the market, with the titles for pre-teens (starting with Bunty, Judy, and Princess) being produced primarily in comics form rather than using more of the mixed format. “The comic medium, in not continuing through to periodicals for adults, was reinforced as an indicator of childhood.”

The section on Bunty and the subsequent section on Tammy and the new wave of comics will probably be of particular interest to readers of this blog, and won’t disappoint. There are some quotes from Benita Brown, who talks about writing the stories “Blind Bettina” (publication not traced),  “Hateful Heather”, and “Cathy’s Friend From Yesterday” (both in Mandy). Brown also wrote the sports tips that appeared in Jinty, “Winning Ways”, and it is implied though not stated clearly that she wrote “Spirit of the Lake” too. The final section is also interesting, covering the advent of photo-stories (illustrated by a parody one from feminist title Shocking Pink) and horror themes, before the death of the girls’ comic as a separate medium. Unfortunately for my personal interests, this chapter doesn’t go down to the level of detail I would ideally want to see about ‘production’ points such as sales data, who wrote what, who drew what, or editorial decisions and aims. Nevertheless it is a really good chapter that will give solid reference for anyone reading or researching in this area in the future.

Chapter Three is about how librarians, academics, teachers, and others have thought and talked about comics reading in Britain. It looks at moral panics and the fears that adults who are gatekeepers for children have had about comics: that comics are dangerous unless vetted for appropriate content, poorly-made, and will incite their readers to violent, criminal, or otherwise undesirable outcomes. These fears applied to boys and girls but particularly vehemently to girls; there was also a class element to the fears, with working-class readers felt to be more at risk than others. These worries came from various sides of the political spectrum as there were also plenty of feminist critiques made: that girls’ comics were unnecessarily twee and limiting, that they had too many stereotypes, that they were created almost exclusively by men, that they encouraged a victim mentality (especially the Cinderella and Slave story themes, as you can imagine).

On the positive side, Gibson counters these fears much more thoroughly than I’ve seen elsewhere. She cites Benita Brown as seeing her work in comics deliberately stretching the boundaries of the girls’ comics traditions; Brown also apparently “said that during her period of writing the majority of writers that she found out about, in both IPC and DC Thomson, were women”. (No further details were given on this statement – I’d love to hear more! – I also note that Mavis Miller, who also shaped girls comics publications at the time, wasn’t mentioned.) Gibson also points out the contradictions in the ‘moral panic’ reactions to comics – that commentators are scared comics will make readers ‘lazy’ and unwilling to move on to ‘proper’ books while at the same time noting that high volumes of comics being read tends to go hand in hand with high volumes of other materials being read by the same people. Gibson also points out changes over time in what is shocking and deplorable – at one point ballet is risqué, then Jackie becomes worrying because of its content about boyfriends and fashion, and subsequently titles like Just Seventeen and Mizz seem just as problematic. Each generation sees “a shift in defining what girlhood is and what the concerns of girlhood are.” Furthermore, once you start talking to the readers of the stories about them in more detail, you get a lot more about how they are interpreted or understood by those readers: girls discussed and argued about what they were reading, they interpreted them in different ways, it wasn’t just a mechanical equation or imposition of stereotypes onto vulnerable readers. It is precisely that area of reader response that is so valuable in the subsequent couple of chapters.

Chapters Four and Five are based on her interviews with readers of comics. It covers (of course) girls reading girls’ comics, looking at interview data to see how women talk about their girlhood reading and comparing this to academic writing that often makes incorrect assumptions about how that worked. Pleasingly, Gibson also covers boys reading girls’ comics, and girls reading comics that aren’t intended for girls (or not straightforwardly – she argues that even humour comics intended for a mixed audience are more firmly marked as being for boys than you might think).

Gibson showed through these interviews what readers of this blog will know from personal experience: girls don’t only read girls’ comics as might be assumed, they also read humour comics intended for a mixed-gender audience (The Beano) and titles intended for a male audience (Eagle, superhero comics). They read across class lines (there is often awareness of the idea of comics as a ‘lower class’ thing unless you read the ‘posh’ titles such as Girl). Most of all, readers read widely – borrowing other people’s comics, swapping, buying multiple titles per week – often communally, and with strong feelings about those comics even when remembering them as adults. Comics were fun to read and remembered fondly, but were also an important part of growing up: the transition from reading comics to reading magazines was often a marker of teenagerhood or early womanhood, and not infrequently this transition was forced on the reader to some extent by parents or by peer pressure. So on the one hand comics showed you ways of being a girl in British society (which you might reject by reading boys comics instead, or by interpreting the story differently from the way adults did), and on the other hand they were something you were expected or made to grow out of and put behind you – they belonged to childhood.

And girls comics stayed in one’s childhood, unlike the boys comics which have generated a collector base and fandom around them. Grown women are not, in our society, supposed to be still interested in those childish things for their own sake (though they are allowed to read comics if they have children who they are buying them for), and grown women do not as a rule, indulge themselves in re-buying their old comics and participating in ‘collecting’ activities. This is especially the case considering that comics are quite strongly marked culturally as being ‘for boys’ and ‘for men’, apart from the girls comics which are marked as being ‘of the past’. Some women will buck this trend, of course, but as exceptions to the rule.

The book ends with a good selection of end material, with an index and bibliography that has given me leads for further investigation in the future. One very welcome feature is a list of stories under discussion, which shows convincingly the wide range that Gibson covers. An index is also always useful, though a couple of quibbles – why not include Benita Brown in the index? (Pat Mills is also quoted but not included, so presumably no creators are listed in the index, but this still doesn’t make good sense to me.) Also, why is there no list of figures? There are only about 6 of them so it wouldn’t be a long list but it would be handy to refer back to and seems a striking omission for a book about comics.

I have a host of follow-up thoughts on this in terms of questions this book sparks, and further things to be looked at. This post is already very long though so those will continue separately.