Tag Archives: Cora Can’t Lose

‘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).

Exciting news about the IPC copyrights, pt II

Around this time last week, I met up with Ben Smith from Rebellion, to discuss the acquisition of the IPC copyrights and to pitch some possible ideas. This is not an interview (I didn’t take detailed notes), but it is a way of recording some particularly exciting elements of what’s looking plausible or likely.

First of all, Ben and the company as a whole are as keen to make great use of this new material as you could wish them to be. This is a significant investment for them, so it needs to be approached in a way that means it makes good long-term sense. There’s a lot of obvious value to be got from this treasure trove. A line of well-chosen reprints is a no brainer when you consider that the company has already proved the worth of that model (their reprint of Monster from Scream & The Eagle is one of their very best sellers).

Monster has name recognition factor (Alan Moore and John Wagner), but how do you sell the stories that don’t have quite such attention-grabbing names? And will it only be the ‘usual suspects’ that sit fairly comfortably alongside 2000AD – stories from horror comics or hard-hitting war tales? One of the things I was particularly happy to hear was that they really are looking in detail across the range of boys, girls, and humour comic stories. Ben was enthusiastic about all sorts of girls comics, from sports stories (yes, “Bella at the Bar” is a strong contender) to stories of everyday life (he name checked Pam of Pond Hill), and of course the science fiction / fantasy / creepy stories that were such a big part of Jinty, Misty, and Tammy. (We talked less about humour comics as it’s not my main focus, but they won’t be ignored in the line-up.) At the same time he was realistic in acknowledging that there will also need to be energy spent in making new markets; the nostalgia market is a great start but it needs to be grown to incorporate a new readership. Parents whose kids are outgrowing the Phoenix, or teens who are excited by the Olympics? Rebellion will be casting the net more widely than just the nostalgia market, wherever it ends up landing.

It’s not just reprints, though. We didn’t talk about relaunching titles or creating new material using the old characters – if these possibilities come into view I suspect it will be some way along the line, once the new playing field has been staked out and surveyed better. But merchandising, oh yeah. Again it needs to be done right, to make it work long-term, but can you imagine the bull leap from “A Leap Through Time” on a t shirt, or the cover of “Concrete Surfer” on a bag? Maybe you won’t have to just imagine it, soon.

bull-leap

Of course as a fan historian and interested blogger, I also wanted to ask other questions about the acquisition. Ben was quick to reassure that fan sites such as this one were very much fine by him (so long as people don’t ‘take the piss’ by which I assume he means reprinting whole issues or stories, or of course selling material commercially). They help to keep the buzz going, and are an important information resource. (Certainly any artist and writer credits that the reprints publish is more likely to come from bloggers and historians than from any official records, I fear.) So there is no problem with this site continuing to feature scanned art, sample episodes, posts about stories, and analysis (even if this includes spoiler details of story endings). You needn’t worry about changes to the content of this site, therefore (though I will now be amending the copyright information to credit Rebellion correctly).

I also asked about what sort of archives were included in the deal. Ben’s focus as the head of publishing is different from mine as a comics historian – he is thinking about the fact he will need to build around 80 metres of shelving to hold the bound file copies of the comics, and is looking forward to seeing if any of the new haul includes anything that could speed up the reproduction process (for instance, any usable film from the original printing – though he doesn’t hold out much hope). I am wondering if there might be any further material included in those archives – I don’t realistically expect there to be letters and editorial files, but you never know. Might there be a file copy of the issue of Tammy which never got distributed – the one which includes the last episode of “Cora Can’t Lose”? We know that there were 30 copies printed of the last pre-censorship Action, and maybe a similar situation could be the case here. I will be very keen to make a trip to the new archive location, once the dust has settled!

Last Tammy Ever Published: 23 June 1984

Tammy cover 23 June 1984

  • Bella (artist John Armstrong, writer Primrose Cumming)
  • No Use to Anyone! (Eduardo Feito)
  • Sadie in Waiting (artist Joe Collins)
  • The Forbidden Garden (artist Jim Baikie)
  • Secret Sisters – first episode (artist Maria Dembilio)
  • A Walk in the Country – feature
  • Pam of Pond Hill (artist Bob Harvey, writer Jay Over)
  • Jemima and the Arabian – a Pony Tale (artist Veronica Weir)
  • Top Girls! – Feature (Mari L’Anson)
  • I’m Her – She’s Me! (artist Phil Gascoine)
  • Cora Can’t Lose (artist Juliana Buch)

This is the last issue of Tammy ever published – for the wrong reason in that Tammy simply disappeared after this, leaving all the stories inside unfinished. In particular, former readers are still frustrated to be left dangling on the penultimate episode of “Cora Can’t Lose”. The final episode was set for the next issue, but there never was a next issue. Only a few months later did Tammy reappear, but in logo only, which appeared on a few issues of Girl.

What happened? From what another Tammy enthusiast, Marionette, has pieced together from former IPC, Tammy was due for cancellation anyway, but not until August. Presumably, Tammy was then to merge with Girl. Then, after this issue was published, there was a strike that took many weeks to settle. By the time it was, the Tammy editors decided not to pick up where they left off, because it would have taken even longer to finish the stories. So everything here was dropped and left unfinished.

Tammy was not the only title to disappear because of the strike. The same went for “Scream!”, which was only on its 15th issue when the disaster struck. (Despite this, “Scream!” has become a cult favourite and its issues can command high prices.) But unlike Tammy, “Scream!” was allowed to continue in Eagle and finish things off. Presumably Girl did not have the room to complete Tammy’s stories, because she was nearly all a photo-story comic. But IPC still had a duty to the Tammy fans to let them know how the stories ended, which they did not meet. Unlike “Scream!”, there is no evidence of the unpublished material appearing in Tammy’s holiday specials. Tammy’s remaining annuals did not take the opportunity to publish any of the material either, except perhaps the Button Box stories; instead, they went for reprints. Another possibility could have been a special final issue that included the last episode of Cora and potted summaries for the other stories, but that wasn’t done either.

It is also telling that Tammy has dropped the Princess logo all of a sudden. Princess had only merged with Tammy in April, so dropping the logo of a merging comic in such a short space of time is disturbing. It hints at the direction Tammy was going with her sales and what was in store for her had the strike not intervened.

So just what inside was left dangling? First, Bella finds a coach who offers to get her back into proper gymnastics – on condition that she quit the acrobatics she has done with Benjie. But this will mean letting Benjie down. Bella is left with a tough choice to make, but we never find out what she decides. Ironically, it is virtually 10 years to the day here that Bella started: she first appeared on 22 June 1974.

In “No Use to Anyone!”, Kirsty gets some tips on how to train her puppy, Clumsy. But now the blind Clumsy has been trapped by a herd of cows, and Kirsty is terrified of them too. We never find out how she rescues Clumsy.

“Sadie in Waiting” had come over from Princess, and it brings Grovel, the first villainous butler since Pickering of “Molly Mills”, to Tammy. Grovel is out to win the “Servant of the Year” award in his usual fashion, which does not include working hard or honestly.

Sadie

In Tammy’s reprint of “The Forbidden Garden”, Gladvis has started blackmailing Laika over her water theft. This is about to include forcing Laika to do a dreadful job in the dreaded industrial zone, with water instead of money for wages. Perhaps the reprint of “The Forbidden Garden” had something to do with Princess, which had reprinted several old serials from Tammy and Jinty in her final issues, including “Stefa’s Heart of Stone“, “Horse from the Sea” and “The Dream House”. However, it is a bit surprising that Tammy chose to start reprinting a long serial when she was set for an August cancellation, and it is unlikely that Girl would have had the room to finish the story. So one wonders how the reprint would have been finished off. In the previous issue, the story had a double-up spread, but that is not the case here. Perhaps once Cora was finished, there would have been more double-ups until the merger.

“Secret Sisters” starts in this issue, but sadly never got beyond episode one. Jill Paget is an adopted child who wishes she had siblings. Then she finds out she has three sisters who were adopted separately and wants to find them. Next week is supposed to include a “surprise move”, but we never find out what it is.

In “Pam of Pond Hill”, Pam is set to move on to Tess Bradshaw, the third classmate she is going to stay with while Pam’s family are away. But all of a sudden Tess says she can’t have Pam and even slams the door in her face. The blurb for next week tells us that we are going to find out what is wrong with Tess, but we never do.

(Click thru)

Incidentally, Pam’s various sleepovers with her classmates have developed their characters and home lives in surprising ways. During her stay with Goofy, Pam was surprised to find that Goofy could be extremely determined when he fixed his mind on beating something. The trouble is, that determination could take him to obsessive levels. Pam’s stay with Di (Diana) has changed the life of Diana’s mother for the better. She is going to be less house-proud, just to satisfy the demands of her husband, while he is going to be less demanding of her.

There is no Button Box story in this issue. Instead, we have the last Pony Tale ever published, “Jemima and the Arabian”. The Arabian is proving a bit too spirited for the stablehands until the horse strikes a surprise friendship with a cat called Jemima. Next week we are promised a complete tennis story, but we never get it.

“I’m Her – She’s Me!” is Phil Gascoine’s last, and incomplete, story for Tammy. Nice Paula Holmes and nasty Natalie Peters have somehow switched bodies after a strange lightning strike. Natalie is all set to explore new avenues of nastiness under her new identity while Paula is desperate to get help. She finally does so in this episode, where she manages to convince her ballet teacher of what happened. But then they strike new problems – Natalie has now gone and broken one of the legs in Paula’s body, and then Natalie’s unfit father shows up and is trying to drag Paula, in Natalie’s body, back home, where he has something unpleasant in mind for her. We never find out if the ballet teacher manages to rescue her, how the girls get their bodies back, or, for that matter, just how that bolt of lightning caused them to switch bodies in the first place.

(Click thru)

And now we come to the most frustrating part of Tammy’s sudden disappearance – the penultimate episode of “Cora Can’t Lose” with no final episode ever coming after. When this story came out, it really had me hooked and I was anxious to find out what was going to happen in the final episode. From the sound of comments on the Internet, so were a lot of other readers.

Cora Street has gone on an obsessive sports cup-winning frenzy to win the respect of her parents, who kept sneering at her for not winning sports trophies as they did when they were at school. But this is putting Cora’s life in danger, because she cares more about winning the trophy her mother failed to win than seeking treatment for a head injury that is currently affecting her vision and hearing and will ultimately kill her if left untreated. Not even the identikit issued by the hospital in this episode brings her to her senses. And now the injury is causing another problem: it may have caused Cora to unwittingly spike her main rival during an event. If she’s right, she could face disqualification and be out of the running for the cup.

Final note: The ending of “The Forbidden Garden” is known because it is a Jinty reprint, and a summary of the story can be found on this site. If anyone has any information on how the other unfinished stories would have ended, they are welcome to drop a line here.