Tag Archives: Cuckoo In The Nest

Tammy turns 12: 5 February 1983

Tammy 5 February 1983

Cover artist: John Armstrong

  • Romy’s Return (artist Juliana Buch, writer Charles Herring)
  • ET Estate (artist Guy Peeters, writer Jake Adams)
  • Bella (artist John Armstrong, writer Primrose Cumming)
  • Bridge of Heart’s Desire (artist Trini Tinturé) – complete story
  • In the Fourth at Trebizon (artist Diane Gabbot, writer Anne Digby) – first episode
  • The Witch Wind (artist Hugo D’Adderio) – complete story
  • Pam of Pond Hill (artist Bob Harvey, writer Jay Over)
  • Nanny Young (artist Phil Gascoine, writer Maureen Spurgeon)
  • Cuckoo in the Nest (artist Tony Coleman, writer Ian Mennell)
  • Step Lively! (feature)

Tammy turns 12 this issue, and Bella is flying high on the cover to celebrate. Only the cover celebrates Tammy’s 12th birthday though; there isn’t so much as a competition inside to commemorate. This was Tammy’s last birthday issue. She did turn 13 (which was indeed an unlucky year for her, what with her untimely disappearance from a strike), but did not celebrate it.

What is perhaps given even more commemoration is the start of a new Trebizon adaptation. Anne Digby was one of Tammy’s best writers; her best-remembered story was “Olympia Jones”. So it is not surprising that Tammy ran several adaptations of Digby’s books.

Tammy reprints two Strange Stories as complete stories, replacing the Storyteller with less appealing text boxes. “Bridge of Heart’s Desire” appeared in June and was reprinted in Jinty as a Gypsy Rose story. A Jinty reader wrote in to say her school adapted the story for a play and the teacher was very impressed. Now it appears in Tammy, but not as a Strange Story per se. Liu is upset because the Mandarin won’t let her marry her betrothed. She is told to make a wish to marry her betrothed while crossing the Bridge of Heart’s Desire, but must not speak until she is across or there will be no wish. Does the wish get granted? In a very convoluted and surprising way it is, due to Liu indeed not speaking while on the bridge.

The other story, “The Witch Wind” has an infuriating mixed message about the persecution of suspected witches. It starts out with Widow Dorrity being accused of raising storms to wreck ships, using a magical device known as a witch rope. A lynch mob goes to Dorrity’s house while Sal, who has been raised to scorn such superstitions, tries to warn her. However, Dorrity says she’s too old to run and passes on her witch rope to Sal for safekeeping. So it seems Dorrity really does have the power the mob accused her of, yet Tammy still calls her an “unfortunate old woman” for being burned alive in her own house by the mob. As for the witch rope, it eventually destroys the Spanish Armada in 1588 – something Dorrity herself seemed to prophesise to Sal.

Bella’s in a Muslim country teaching gymnastics to royal princesses. Not surprisingly, this is offending conservative Muslims, the Queen among them. The Queen does not realise her brother Suliemen is taking advantage her opposition to Westernisation to overthrow her husband and make himself the Shah. As part of his plan he has framed Bella for stealing the sacred “Tears of the Prophet”, and this week Bella nearly walks into his trap to plant them directly on her.

The formula where a girl plays dirty tricks on a friend to keep her in the background and herself in the limelight has been used less often at IPC than DCT, but “Romy’s Return” is one of the cases where it has been. This is the penultimate episode of it all, where it looks like Linda’s tricks to sabotage Romy have pushed Romy to breaking point. She snaps and starts doing things she shouldn’t have and gets into terrible trouble at school. Then Linda hears a bombshell from Romy’s father that has her realise that her sabotage may have been far more damaging than she thought.

In “E.T. Estate”, the aliens try to silence Jenny when she tries to tell everyone that there are alien doubles taking over the estate. They needn’t have bothered; nobody’s listening and they just think Jenny’s crazy. As it is, the aliens’ attack puts Jenny in hospital.

Tess just won’t stop boasting about her synchro swimming. It’s not only getting on everyone’s nerves; it also costs her the allies who had helped her to get into the swim baths after the manager wrongly banned Pond Hill pupils for vandalism.

In Nanny’s latest job, her employer, the Honourable Lady Louise Fanshawe, could lose the estate she means to pass on to her great-niece, Matilda, because of mounting debts. She managed to stave off her creditors with a “poor old dying woman” act, but by the end of the episode it looks like they are still in danger of losing the estate.

“Cuckoo in the Nest” is one of the most bonkers stories ever to appear in girls’ comics. The protagonist is a boy! Moreover, Leslie (that’s his name) is a boy who has to disguise himself as a girl (how many times have you seen that in girls’ comics?). It’s for the sake of his uncle, who is trying to cover up that he used funds an aunt sent for boarding school fees to treat Leslie instead. To make things even more complicated, the aunt had the mistaken belief that her nephew was a niece and the school was for girls. Hence the (not very good) girl’s disguise, which the nosy Sarah Mullins discovered when the school broke up for holidays. Fortunately a measles quarantine has delayed Sarah’s return to school where she is just dying to tell everyone about their having a boy disguised as a girl. But of course the quarantine won’t last forever.

Advertisements

The Bechdel Test and Beyond: Part V and last

So, you may say, why might we care about representation, and therefore about this test at all?

One main reason I wanted to look at this was in order to have another analytical tool to address the question of how boys and girls comics differ. We have memories and statements from Pat Mills and from other creators of the time about how girls comics feature “more complex psychology” which you don’t find in boys comics, or that in boys’ comics you can’t have a mystery-based story as this doesn’t work for that readership. What does this really mean, when you come down to look at it? Is there something you can undeniably point to in the stories themselves, that isn’t purely down to people’s memories and subjective judgements? Well, this tool doesn’t answer all of that, but it does help to show some systematic differences between boys’ comics and girls’ comics, with boys’ war comics at the furthest end of the spectrum from girls’ comics.

(The discussion about differences between boys’ comics and girls’ comics is often stated in quite gender essentialist terms – ‘boys don’t like this, girls love that’ – which is something that I have a problem with. We know perfectly well that there were always boy who read and enjoyed girls comics and vice-versa, but because it was likely to be frowned on by peers and parents this behaviour was often hidden. To me it makes better sense to say that the boys comics market worked in a certain way, and the girls comics market in a different way – that when boys were given stories that were too far outside the established mould, those stories were typically not popular.)

It would be great to also try to apply this analysis to see whether there are systematic differences between what women wrote and what men wrote – because again this is often discussed in gender essentialist terms. In so far as we know what stories were written by women and what ones were written by men (the million dollar question, of course), are there any glaring differences, or is the constraint of the market (the fact that they were writing to a targetted market) a more important factor? The ideal would be to compare a story written by a women for a girls’ comic, and a story written by the same woman for a boys’ market; and likewise two stories written by a man, one for each market. Personally I think the target market will have a stronger impact than the gender of the writer, but I’d like to try it in the future, if I could find good examples to use.

It’s not just about good analytical tools, though. The Rounded Representation test is a relatively limited test (as is the Bechdel test itself, of course): apart from generally not telling us anything about whether a story is well or badly done, it says nothing directly about important characteristics like psychological depth. (I’d argue that if a story doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test it is rather less likely to be very psychologically realistic, but even so there are very well-written counter-examples: an obvious one to mention would be the excellent film “Das Boot”, set in a German U-boat in WWII, and hence a very male set-up.) No, the Rounded Representation test is interesting and hopefully useful because diversity of representation itself is so important, while at the same time being so easy to let slip past. It’s a mass action game: sure, an all-male film about a German U-Boat crew can be amazing and excellent, I’m not disputing that. But if out of all the films that are out there – or the books or the comics – only a minority deal with any characters other than white hearty action men then yes, we have a problem. And to spot that unequal representation we have to go round actually looking and counting, because humans are subject to systematic errors, biases, and stereotypes.

Why is representation important? It’s easy to point to the powerful effect that it can have on people seeing themselves represented – there’s a great story about how Nichelle Nichols was asked to continue in the role of Lt Uhura by Martin Luther King. That link also tells us how Nichols rejigged the role of a character who would otherwise have been a stereotyped madam in a blaxploitation film – it’s not only about having strong positive characters but also about widening the range of what is shown in the first place. Black British youngsters had it bad too – this piece in the Guardian by David Harewood starts off with an anecdote of what it was like growing up Black in Britain in the 70s, and Harewood was far from unique in those memories.

On a more comics-focused example, I came across a blog post written by a man who had read “Cuckoo In The Nest” as a boy, and who identifies as a cross-dresser as an adult. To him this story was a very powerful one that lived with him for 30 years or more. The story wasn’t (I assume) written with him as a target reader, nor even primarily for boy readers (again, I assume) – but the wider the range of stories written and depicted, the more people that will be caught in the net of the stories out there. Are there Black British women of around my age who still remember “Life’s a Ball for Nadine” fondly not because it was necessarily a great serial in itself, but purely because it was so rare to see a non-white protagonist?

Having a wider range of characters and stories that get written, drawn, and published is also good for the reader. It rescues the stories from stale stereotyping and broadens the interest and understanding of the reader. Why not have a story set during Ramadan, say, that touches on what it is like to fast for the daylight hours and feast at night? For Muslim readers this could be a touch of real life, of how things work during the fasting month; for non-Muslims this could be an unusual angle that they’d not considered in any detail.

Of course this can be done badly, and this is often a fear for creators and readers alike. Will it be heavy-handed and more concerned with hammering the point home than with telling a good story? Will it just be a tokenistic effort that is the equivalent of failing the Bechdel test by including just one woman and never having her talk about something substantive? These are challenges; and everyone is going to screw up at some point. (The recent scandal about the children’s book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is relevant; there has been lots of discussion of this online but I am here linking to a piece by the writer of the book, herself not white, who points to a number of more systematic problems than simply insensitivity on the part of an individual creator.) But resources like the We Need Diverse Books campaign site underline the importance of keeping on trying.

The Bechdel Test and Beyond – Part III

So, in the last two posts on this blog I introduced a new Rounded Representation test that takes us beyond the starting point that is the Bechdel Test, and gave various examples of its use.

In the first post:

  • We saw that girls comics of the 1970s had very fully rounded representation of the female characters in their pages; even in a single issue of one girls comic (chosen primarily for easy accessibility) there was female representation of a wide range of emotions, abilities, challenges faced, ages, and roles.
  • In comparison, other groups of readers are not likely to be represented anything like as fully. The same test done for BME (Black / Minority Ethnic) characters results in a very much patchier picture of representation. Across the whole run of a single title, there are some significant gaps in representation, and in a single issue of a title, there is very little guarantee of representation of this group, despite the net being cast as widely as possible (by testing for any BME representation rather than specifically Asian or Black British representation, for instance).

In the second post:

  • We saw that recent stories targetted at girls (a My Little Pony feature film, a Barbie doll webcast, and the Tangled film from Disney) also generally showed a fairly fullly rounded representation of the female characters, though the representation of girls and women in the Barbie webclip was noticeably patchier than was the case for the other two.
  • Just because something is targetted at a female audience, it is not necessarily the case that the representation of female characters will be fully rounded.

In this post, we will look at the representation of male characters in comics aimed at girls, and in the next post we’ll look at the same in comics targetted at boys. Do girls’ comics only show us female characters – an almost absolute reversal of the way that mainstream media is dominated by male characters? Or do they give readers a rounded representation of both genders? Likewise in comics intended for a male market – how do they represent both the gender that they are targetting, and the other half of the world?

First of all, what happens when we do a ‘reverse Bechdel’ on girls’ comics – checking to see if there are at least two named male characters who interact with each other? There are a one or two stories in Tammy and in Jinty which have male protagonists, and if any stories pass this reverse Bechdel then they will. The Tammy story “Cuckoo In The Nest” is a particularly good example of such (see this Booksmonthly article for a synopsis halfway down the page). This story passes without many worries – although protagonist Leslie is forced to attend a girls’ boarding school in disguise as a girl and therefore mostly interacts with ‘other girls’, he also meets up with his friend from home, talks to his Uncle Fred, and even finds a local group of boys he can play football with when he escapes from his female disguise.

The story also covers most of the bases on the Rounded Representation test: the male characters are shown with a range of emotions (I didn’t have the whole story to hand and didn’t see much anger depicted, but I may have missed this through not looking at all the episodes). It’s a fairly realistic story, or at least not a story of magic or science fiction, so the male characters don’t show any superhuman abilities, but we see Leslie playing football and solving various problems (such as how to fool his schoolgirl chums into continuing to think he is a girl). The story is really based around the fairly individualistic challenge for him not to get caught out, though there are also some positive goals he is trying to achieve (such as continuing to enjoy himself by playing football well). We don’t see that wide a range of ages in the male characters shown – no little boys or old men in the episodes I looked at, but they may be included in later episodes so I have put question marks here. And of course Leslie in this case is clearly the protagonist, but the villains or antagonists are all female (his Great-Aunt, and a nosey schoolgirl who has to be prevented from finding out his secret). The sidekick in the story is a schoolgirl chum who has her own reasons for being on his side. We might perhaps count his Uncle Fred as a sidekick but I am more inclined to categorize him as a background character – happy to hear arguments on this though.

It’s also helpful to check an individual issue of a girls’ comic that wasn’t specially chosen as likely to pass, so let’s go back to the 1978 issue of Misty that was referred to in the first of these posts and do the same tests. This does pass the reverse Bechdel test, though only once you get over half way through the issue: in the complete story “The Love and the Laughter” the devil has a short conversation with two named male characters about a book, and in “The Sentinels” there are a few conversations between policemen.

As for the Rounded Representation test on this issue of Misty, it passes most of the hurdles relatively easily:

  • The male characters are shown with a wide variety of emotions (for instance the fathers in “Seal Song” and in “Paint It Black” are both happy, though not in ways that are likely to bode well for their respective daughters).
  • They show a range of abilities both physical and mental, realistic and supernatural (I’m not totally convinced that the devil in the Carnival story can be said to be using more than human mental powers, hence the question mark in that cell).
  • There are a range of challenges faced by the male characters, whether individual or more widespread (in “The Sentinels”, the father is part of a resistance group fighting the Nazis, which definitely counts). It’s not so clear as to whether any of the male characters in this issue have a positive goal they are trying to achieve, so much as threats they are aiming to survive; and of course this is a horror comic so most of the challenges that all the characters face are more supernatural than mundane. (The protagonist of “Moonchild” faces the mundane challenges of an abusive mother and some horrible bullies, but she is a female character and hence does not come into this specific test.)
  • We see a reasonable range of ages in the male characters depicted – no babies or toddlers at all whether girls or boys, but plenty of grown men, a boy of a simlar age to the protagonist in the background of the end of the seal story, one young adult in the Dragon story, and old men in the carnival story.
  • None of the male characters are given the role of protagonist in this issue but we do see men and boys as villains, background characters, and as ‘sidekicks’ – important characters who are not the main protagonist.

For completeness I have also scored the Rounded Representation test for Jinty as a whole; there are few male protagonists (but at least one) and none of the male characters I can immediately think of show superhuman physical abilities, though some of them can certainly do magic. I would also say that none of the male characters face widespread societal challenges, though again I am open to examples being sent in. (Perhaps little brother Per in “The Song of the Fir Tree”, as him and his sister escape Nazi persecution across the breadth of Europe.)

So we can see that in comics aimed at girls, the roles available to male characters were very nearly as wide as the roles available to female characters – there were very few male protagonists and perhaps some other gaps in what they were shown doing, but overall boys and men very much formed part of the world depicted in girls’ comics. Is the same the case in boys’ comics – did they show an equally wide range of female roles? Did they show a full range of male roles? The next post will tell more.

Female writers in a girls’ genre

This is my 100th post! To celebrate, a thinky piece of the sort I particularly enjoy having the space to do here on this blog. Comments and further information very welcome indeed, as ever, but especially useful for this sort of wider coverage article.

For a genre based around a female readership, you could be forgiven for thinking there were hardly any women involved in producing British girls comics. In 1998 I first started writing about Jinty, and looking back at that article (published in feminist ‘by women for people’ zine GirlFrenzy), the few names mentioned were of men: Jim Baikie, Casanovas, Pat Mills. These were the only creators I recognized from having seen them, their work, or their commentary in the fairly male world of British mainstream comics.

Some years later I met Pat Mills in person, and he subsequently attended the Oxford-based comics festival CAPTION2004, during which I interviewed him about his editorial and authorial role in Jinty, Misty, and Tammy. Some more creator names were added to the pot, but really only two female names stood out – those of Mavis Miller and of Pat Davidson, of which Pat Davidson was the only name of a writer. (I was by then aware of Trini Tinture’s work, too.) Additionally, I’d also managed to ask Phil Gascoine who wrote “Fran of the Floods”, but he could remember no names, just that it was a female writer.

As recently as early last year, therefore, there was so little information readily available that it was still possible for Adi Tantimedh’s post on Bleeding Cool to attribute the authorship of the vast majority of stories in girls comics to Pat Mills or to ‘the creators of Judge Dredd and 2000AD’. (He subsequently corrected the article text to read ‘his fair share of the series in Jinty were written by Pat Mills.’) This isn’t helped by the fact that when in that interview Pat M did give us Pat Davidson’s name, it was linked to a fairly sweeping assessment of women writers: “Generally, it was male writers in this field. I think Pat Davidson is the only woman I can think of who genuinely had a better touch in the way she did this, she wrote far more from the heart, the rest of us were 23-year-old guys killing ourselves laughing as we wrote this stuff, but she wrote from the heart, and it was quite genuine.”

We’re now in a position where we can bring together more information so that we can bring a more nuanced analysis to bear. Alison Christie is now known to have written not only a great swathe of Jinty stories, but also to have written many stories for other titles before, afterwards, and simultaneously (very literally!). We also have heard that Veronica Weir wrote at least one story for Jinty. (We also know that one of the writers was Len Wenn, then only a few years away from his retirement age and hence also quite far from the demographic highlighted by Mills.) Generally we now know what could have been guessed before, which is that creating comics was quite a good profession for women at the time: drawing or writing comics is something that a young mother can do from home! We also know that the same people worked for a range of comics; we could have guessed that from the artists, but a writer can be working on more than one script at the same time more easily than an artist can, so they are if anything more likely to be working for multiple titles.

To try to get a view on the historical context, we can note that there are a couple of titles that ran credits for at least some of their time. Girl was the first title to be dedicated to a readership of girls: it ran from 1951-64 and included creator credits (I don’t know whether the credits continued throughout the whole run though). Towards the other end of the main period of publication of girls’ comics, Tammy also ran creator credits for a little while from the middle of 1982. I haven’t got access to any very complete information about the stories and creators in Girl, but looking at the Wikipedia page for it I found a couple of names I’m unfamiliar with – Ruth Adam and Betty Roland, who wrote a number of stories between them. These included the nursing strip “Susan of St Bride’s” and the adventure strip “Angela Air Hostess” respectively, both of which were popular stories featuring resourceful, independent female characters. Looking at Catawiki’s entries on Girl would take more time to do properly than I currently have available, but I note that a sample issue from 1955 picked randomly includes these two female writers plus two others (Valerie Hastings and Mollie Black).

Of more immediate applicability to the subject of this blog, the women who wrote for Tammy may well have done so for Jinty too; luckily for me, there is more information available to me on who did what there, as co-writer Mistyfan has kindly sent me an index of Tammy stories. We can therefore look in some detail at the comics stories running in Tammy during the second half of 1982, where we find:

  • “Bella” written by both Malcolm Shaw and by Primrose Cumming
  • “The Button Box”: created by Alison Christie, specific individual episodes written by Ian Mennell or Linda Stephenson
  • “Nanny Young” written by Tom Newland and Maureen Spurgeon
  • “Rae Rules OK”written by Gerry Finley-Day
  • “Come Back Bindi” written by Jenny McDade
  • “Saving Grace” written by Ian Mennell
  • “A Gran for the Gregorys” written by Alison Christie
  • “Slave of the Clock” written by Jay Over
  • “Tomorrow Town” written by Benita Brown
  • “Cross on Court” written by Gerry Findley-Day
  • “Cuckoo In the Nest” written by Ian Mennell
  • “Romy’s Return” written by Charles Herring
  • Out of the 12 complete stories on the Tammy index I am referring to, two seem to be uncredited while three were written by Roy Preston, four by Maureen Spurgeon, one by Chris Harris, one by Ray Austin and one by Barry Clements

That’s fairly evenly spread; there are more male writers than female overall but not by that much. A count by number of pages printed might show a different picture, but then I also haven’t included the writers of text stories (in particular Anne Digby). We can also have a quick look at the Catawiki entry for an individual issue from the time (I chose issue 600) which lists stories by Benita Brown, Anne Digby, and Maureen Spurgeon – I assume that the Anne Digby is an illustrated text story rather than a comic. Another issue, 609, has more stories by female writers: two stories by Maureen Spurgeon, one by Alison Christie, and one by Primrose Cumming. In the absence of a concerted effort to count the number of pages written by women over a few representative issues (any volunteers?) I’d estimate that some 15% – 40% of the comic at a time might have been written by women: under half of the content for sure, but a substantial section.

Clearly we only have two very solid data points here – Girl in the 50s and 60s, and Tammy in the early 80s – but the fact they corroborate each other is strongly suggestive that yes, over the decades of comics published for a readership of girls, female writers have always been present, and in reasonable numbers rather than as the odd exceptional talent. They have written popular stories both in their own right and as jobbing writers taking on someone else’s initial creation. Can we say anything else about that, for instance about what sort of stories they wrote? Now that is rather more difficult, because we have to factor in individual preferences of writers. Alison Christie is clearly a writer of heart-tugging stories, so we can attribute a female writer to a number of stories in that style. That doesn’t mean that other female writers have the same preferences: Benita Brown is credited as the writer of a science fiction story, and Veronica Weir’s one known outing as writer was on a story with spooky overtones but mostly concerned with loneliness and survival. I don’t know the Tammy stories list above well enough to say what themes they represent, but in the list of Jinty stories we just don’t know enough about who wrote what to say anything much more concrete.

Likewise, can we say anything much to compare how well the stories worked with the gender of the author – could we say that the stories made by young men killing themselves laughing were better or more effective than those by women or indeed by older men such as Len Wenn? One difficulty is that in judging effectiveness or memorability, individual reader preferences will come strongly into play – my own list of top stories is skewed to the spooky, mystical, and science fictional and away from the heart-tuggers. Mostly though I think we just don’t know enough about who wrote what, in Jinty at least, to be able to say whether the the most popular, longest-running, most memorable, or otherwise most effective stories tended overall to be written by one group of writers versus another. We have examples written by women (“Stefa’s Heart of Stone”) and by young men (“Land of No Tears”, “The Robot Who Cried”), but the vast majority still lie in the camp of ‘unknown writer’.

Writing this post has sparked off other thoughts that felt a bit tangential to the main point of this piece; I will follow up with more on ‘What makes a story work’ (and indeed how can we tell that it does work).

Edited in Aug 2015 to add: subsequent discussion on the Comics UK Forum leads me to add another known female writer to the list of names acquired to date: Jenny Butterworth, writer of the long-running series “The Happy Days” in Princess Tina (amongst other stories).

Edited in December 2015 to add: we now know that “Fran of the Floods” was not written by a female writer; it can be attributed to Alan Davidson per his wife’s recent comments. At the time of writing, Davidson was a family man who also did not fall in the category of “23 year old guy killing himself laughing” at what he was writing.

Edited in January 2016 to add: Anne Digby has sent in an interview with information about writing comic stories for titles such as Tammy. It is noteworthy that she did not only produce text stories for this title, but also comics adaptations of her previously-published novels.

Edited in March 2016 to add: Phoenix on the Comics UK forum scanned and uploaded a snippet from the Guardian of a letter from one Mary Hooper, writer for Jackie in particular, but perhaps also for other titles?

Edited in January 2017 to add: clarification that Alison Christie (Fitt) created “The Button Box” and was the main writer on the story, though some individual stories were farmed out by editor Wilf Prigmore to Ian Mennell and to Linda Stephenson.