Rhoda Miller was a subeditor at DC Thomson and at IPC, working on girls comics and magazines between 1966 and 2008. In answer to my questions, she wrote the biographical piece below, which I am very happy to be able to publish. Many thanks, Rhoda!
I began work in August 1966 on Diana magazine in Dundee. Editor was George Moonie, Chief sub Ken Gordon. There were two other men subs and about four girls. From day one I was expected to write features and was sent out, (untrained!) to interview people such as The Walker Brothers, Amen Corner, Davy Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick and Titch (?). Story ideas were discussed at “story sessions” and ideas sent out to script writers. The subs’ job was to prepare them for publication. Sometime, this meant a complete re-write! In 1970, I was in a one-way love affair and decided to move to London. A bit drastic, but there you go!
When I applied to IPC they had just paid off a lot of people and the unions wouldn’t let them take anyone new on. But John Purdie was keen to have someone from Thomsons, he took me on as a free lancer, but I was to work in the office full time, and if anyone asked, I was to tell them I was a “visiting free lancer”.
I was put in Desmond Pride’s old office with Annie Deam, who had recently been removed from her post of School Friend editor, and like me, was working on projects. Eventually I went onto Sandie and worked as a sub. My days of working there are very hazy, and I wasn’t there very long before personal circumstances propelled me back to Dundee. I do remember the art editor, though. His name was John Jackson, and he had come from Eagle, and I remember the artists agent, Jack Wall, and his best mate, an artist whose surname was MacGillivray (can’t recall his first name) [Robert MacGillivray] but MacGillivray’s nephew was the legendary Ali McKay who also worked for IPC for quite a few years.
Back in Dundee, I rejoined DC Thomsons, and went to The Bunty, where Harold Moon was editor, Ian Munro chief sub. These were amongst the happiest days of my working life. I was there for several years, writing scripts for “The Four Marys” among others. At this time, the company still employed several long-standing script writers. One of the most prolific was a lady called Olive K Griffiths. Her scripts needed a lot of re-writing, as I recall. In the weekly comic we didn’t have features, but we did in the annuals, and these the staff were required to write.
After that, it was Spellbound with Ken Gordon editing, and David Donaldson chief sub. By this time, some of the subs were writing more and more of the scripts, and the company was employing fewer outside script writers. Spellbound, a spooky magazine, only ran a few years before it ran out of steam. I remember we had a lot of interference from Norman Fowler, who was one of our managing editors. He was keen to have horse racing stories in all the magazines!
After Spellbound, it was Mandy under Alan Halley, but when I objected to him wanting to run a horrible story about a wealthy couple planning to kidnap a poor girl and use her as a blood donor for their ill daughter, we fell out and I went to Nikki, where I wrote “The Comp”. As I say, my memory is not great for dates, or how long I was on each magazine, but in 1997, I was chief sub editor on Animals and You. Frances O’Brien was editor.
“Luv, Lisa” was my idea, and was quite an innovative idea, as it was a “dear diary” photo story rather than an illustrated one. Richard Palmer was the photographer (he also worked for IPC). After Animals and You, Frances and I moved to work on a new project, of which nothing came, but we did come up with the concept of The Goodie Bag Mag, and I worked on that with her, until I took early voluntary severance in 2008.
The artists who worked for us (that I remember ) were Claude Berridge, George Martin, David Matysiak, and Norman Lee. Spellbound had an amazing Spanish artist drawing one of our stories, but again the name escapes me! [I assume this may have been Romero who drew Supercats; if Rhoda is able to confirm then I will update.]
[Edited to add the following further additions from Rhoda, below. I had asked why she felt that the publishing industry moved from story-heavy titles to ones that were more focused on features or freebies, and about credits for artists and writers.]
I really cannot explain why the comics became less content and more free gifts, except to suggest that research showed children were less inclined to read great screeds of type and preferred more pictorial and less copy. The free gift phenomenon was very much a case of “the opposition are doing it, so should we.”
As to naming the script writers/artists, it was certainly a DC Thomson policy not to allow anyone to be credited. But some of the Spanish artists sneaked their names on and a blind eye was turned. Mainly because they were indispensable. Indeed, it was only in the past twenty years that Thomson allowed their newspapers reporters and columnists to get bylines!
This is the 250th post on this blog! After a slow season in the run up to Christmas, we have been blazing away. How better to celebrate than with another creator interview?
Keith Robson contacted us via a comment on this site: “I drew ‘The Birds’ so can tell you that the writer was ‘Buster’ editor Len (Lennox) Wenn. Before going freelance in 1975 I was a staffer so Len and I were old friends. Len also wrote ‘Go On, Hate Me’ and many other Jinty serials.” He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this blog, illuminating various aspects of the life of a freelancer and staffer at the time and subsequently.
Keith Robson stories in Jinty (see also the Catawiki list of his stories and the Lambiek Comiclopedia entry):
Can You Beat Sharp-eyed Sharon? – spot-the-clue feature in a Summer Special and the Jinty Annual 1979
1 Can you please outline your career in British comics? For instance, how did you start, which titles did you write for, how long did you draw comics for? I have read Dez Skinn’s article about IPC Fleetway when you both worked there, and of course in your original comment on this site you said that you started as a freelancer in 1975, but it would be great to know what led you to go freelance (it seems to have been a step taken by a lot of in house staff?).
I got my start in October 1968 in D.C.Thomson’s Meadowside art department in Dundee. This was a wonderful training ground where I learned far more than I ever did in Art College! There were over 50 artists, letterers and layout people at the disposal of all the Thomson publications so almost anything could land on your desk to be drawn, quickly and accurately. In those early days I drew lots of text story illustrations for the boys’ comics – Rover, Victor, Hotspur etc. Pat Mills and John Wagner were there at the time though I never got to know them, and they left before I did.
The Spanish and Italian artists used by the girls’ comics did beautiful work, but they could never get British things like policemen, buses, taxis, pillar boxes etc. right, so a typical job would be Anglicising pages for Jackie or Romeo. (I also appeared in Romeo, as did many young Thomson staffers, photographed to illustrate readers’ letters and problems!) More often though, 39 pages of an old girls’ serial would land on my desk to be updated- all the hairstyles updated, skirts shortened, blazer badges changed and so on. Thus acres of magnificent artwork passed through my hands, and once in a while there would be the opportunity to actually draw some pages. My first girls’ stories were for Diana starting with a serial on the back page (in full colour!) called ‘Little Donkey’. Assorted other Diana features and annual pages followed but the bread and butter work of the art department was repairs and alterations. In all, I spent two and a half happy years in Meadowside learning from some wonderful mentors, but really wanting to draw my own weekly pages and not seeing too much future for that in the Thomson Art Dept.
In the summer of 1971 I was down in London (hoping to find an agent) and found myself passing the offices of IPC Magazines with a folder of artwork under my arm and the number of an ex-Thomson staffer now in Look and Learn… An hour later after a hilarious interview with legendary managing editor Jack Le Grand I emerged back on Farringdon Street with a staff job (and some freelance work on Look and Learn)!
I returned to Dundee, packed my bags, bade a cordial farewell to D.C.Thomson, and a fortnight later joined Buster working with editor Lenn Wenn and sub editor Dez Skinn. (A week later we were all on strike!)
A daily visitor to the Buster office was Mavis Miller, and old friend of Lenn’s (they started at Fleetway together) and we often all went to lunch. I acquired an agent (Dan Kelleher of Temple/Rogers) and started doing freelance for assorted publishers, all kinds of work with a view to saving enough for a deposit on my own flat. Through the good offices of Dan and Pat Kelleher, (and since I had parted amicably from D.C.Thomson), I began drawing for the Sparky – a series called ‘Mr. Bubbles’.
Friends in Dundee alerted me to a suitable flat for sale in Newport-on-Tay (across the river from Dundee) I was able to get a mortgage, and a few months later took the plunge, moved back north and went freelance, working for both Thomsons and IPC.
2 Which stories did you draw, in Jinty and on other titles? On my list of Jinty stories that you drew, I have “Jassy’s Wand of Power”, “Go On, Hate Me!”, “The Goose Girl”, “The Birds”, and various Gypsy Rose stories. Of the stories you drew, do you have favourites or perhaps ones you now recall with a bit of a shudder? Did you know ever know who wrote “Jassy” for instance, or the Gypsy Rose stories you drew? We know from Veronica Weir that there was at least one case of an artist who wrote their own story; did you ever do that, or did you know of other cases where that happened at all?
It was through Pat Kelleher and knowing Mavis Miller that I got my first Jinty serial – “Jassy’s Wand of Power’’ – which I really enjoyed. They never told me know who wrote anything, I only knew the stories written by Lenn Wenn, so I can’t tell you who did those Gypsy Rose stories – except for the one I wrote myself. This was one of the first scripts I ever had accepted. A girl encounters a photographer with a Victorian camera at a ruined castle. She later realises he must be a ghost and that she has taped his voice on her new cassette recorder! However when she plays it back there’s nothing. The twist comes when she does some research in the library and discovers a 100 year old photo – of herself! [This story is reprinted below]
I didn’t find out that Alison Fitt had written “The Goose Girl” until 2006 when we met at the launch of ‘Time Tram Dundee’, a ‘Horrible History’-type book I illustrated that was written by Alison’s son Matthew.
3 In your time doing these comics are there any kinds of stories that you would have liked to draw that you didn’t get the chance to?
I enjoyed all the stories I did for Jinty, and I always tried to put in as much background detail as I could. I would love the opportunity to redraw any of them again now (I cringe when I see some of the stuff I did in those days!). I especially liked stories with a distinctive setting and lots of atmosphere. I can remember “Save Old Smokey” the train story that Alison mentioned. I would have loved to have been asked to draw that one as I love steam trains! Deadlines were often a bit of a struggle, and in order to stay on schedule with “The Goose Girl” I had to take my pages with me on holiday, and it was while drawing an episode in a caravan in Anstruther that the news came that Elvis had died (16 August 1977).
4 We are always keen to know who worked on the various stories, as explicit creator credit was very rare. You have already helped muchly with your crediting of Len Wenn as writer on “Hate Me!” and “The Birds”, and via Alison Christie we now know that she was the writer on “The Goose Girl”. Do you know names of other people who worked on Jinty and related girls’ comics?
After Jinty, I also did a serial for Penny called ‘The Blue Island Mystery’; again I was never told who the writer was, also a ‘spot the clue’ type detective feature called “Sharp-eyed Sharon” for the Summer Special [there were also two examples of it in the 1979 Annual]. My final girls’ serial was for D.C.Thomson in Mandy, which had been taken over by former Sparky editor, Iain Chisholm (shortly before he died). This was “Diana’s Dark Secret” – Blind Diana unexpectedly regains her sight in episode one, but because she fears they’ll take away Goldie, her beloved guide dog she continues (riddled by guilt) to fake blindness. Only the dog knows…
After Mandy, Thomsons moved me onto Topper (drawing “The Whizzers from Oz”) and Starblazer doing science fantasy covers, then on to their final two boys’ papers, Spike and Champ. When they folded I worked on school textbooks for Oliver and Boyd in Edinburgh, then over ten years on the Dandy writing and drawing “Black Bob”, and “Jonah” and “General Jumbo” for Beano. There was a brief return to girls’ type stories in the Dandy with a short-lived parody written tongue-in-cheek by Thomson staffer Duncan Leith called “Wendy’s Wicked Stepladder”.
5 In his article, Dez attributes the decline of comics to a contempt for the reader (and maybe also the creator?) that was down to a purely commercial vision – printing using old-fashioned presses, resizing artwork in a destructive fashion, and so on. Pat Mills also thinks similarly, talking of the hatch-match-dispatch process angrily. Of course the rise of competing claims on kids’ time and pocket money (computer games, tv) could also be held to blame. Where do you stand on this? Do you think the decline of the British comics industry was an avoidable misfortune, or inevitable in a changing world?
I feel it was very short-sighted that the comics were allowed to slide into decline. For sure, the rise of other media certainly played its part, but the publishers were always reluctant to invest when sales dropped, especially IPC with its hatch, match, and despatch policy. They never had much respect for the amazing pool of talent that they had at their disposal, and certainly never gave anyone credit. Payments hardly increased in the latter years, and our work was never returned. There was a constant anxiety that the comic might fold (they never told you that the end was coming) and there might be no more work…
Letterpress printing never did justice to the artwork and maybe, just maybe if they had gone upmarket into full colour and printed on decent paper, giving creators a name check they might have got a bit more attention and survived. Of course there was always a snobbery towards comics in this country, devalued and disparaged at the time by teachers, librarians etc. who thought they were just throwaway rubbish that would rot children’s brains.
Nowadays teachers are delighted to see children reading comics (reading anything!) and appreciate the creativity that goes into them. Thanks largely to ‘Time Tram Dundee’, I decided to qualify as a teacher and now have a whole new career (which I love!) going into schools and working with children to create and draw their own comics.
It surprises me that no-one has considered publishing some of those serials as graphic novels (suitably updated and with colour). I’ve worked with Alison Fitt on several projects and we’ve recently collaborated on a 72 page graphic novel ‘Nora Thumberland, Heroine of Hadrian’s Wall’ (yet to find a publisher) which 30 years ago could well have have been a Jinty serial…
Many thanks again to Keith for this great interview!
“Gypsy Rose: A Picture From The Past” published Jinty 3 December 1977