On reading and reviewing Mel Gibson’s new book “Remembered Reading”, I found it triggered lots of thoughts and fruitful avenues for future exploration. The pages of my copy are considerably marked with green highlighter now, so there are too many discussion jumping-off points for me to sensibly cover in the scope of this blog, but I did want to pick up on one or two specific key ones. Apologies for the delay in completing this post – I had wanted to do it much closer to the time of the original review.
The main point I wanted to cover was about the divided emotions that grown-up readers of girls’ comics might typically feel, along with the impact I see that as having on the longer-term validation and appreciation of those comics. Gibson’s interviews show readers of girls comics as having enjoyed comics at the time but then feeling that they need to put them away as they grow up; or, having grown up, realising how some aspects of those comics are more uncomfortable than they’d noticed at the time. (For instance a grown-up feminist might be uncomfortable about the female roles in the girls comics that they loved at the original time of reading.) Even if one-time readers of girls comics continue to read comics as adults, they typically read different comics, or in a different way – maybe they rejected girls comics in favour of 2000AD, or continued to read children’s comics because they were ‘allowed’ to as parents of children who were getting comics in their turn. What they didn’t do is continue to read girls’ comics as part of a fandom – a group of interested peers discussing artists, writers, stories, and themes – sharing knowledge and critical thought. There is no significant fandom for girls comics, or historically at least there hasn’t been. And why is this important? Because fandom and its activities validates the material under discussion as being worth discussion – within the group of fans, at any rate, regardless of whether the outside world agrees.
Take my case as an example. I loved Jinty. Once I stopped reading it I moved wholeheartedly onto Marvel comics, first as British reprints and then as the imported issues. I kept an eye out at school for other girls’ comics and read the odd issue as I came across them but have little memory of that reading. Marvel had a lot of fan activity associated with it – letters pages discussing the story lines and the creators, printed credits that name the artists and writers so that you can follow a particular favourite creator as well as favourite characters or stories – and of course they were available in comics shops too, so once I found one of those that I could visit I could absorb more discussion going on around me even though there was no specific group of fans I was associating with. When I was 17, I saw an advert for the UKCAC convention in London and went to it, mind boggled. None of that activity touched on girls comics at all; in essence, they might as well not have existed. Likewise, when I went to university and found a group of comics-reading friends, there was no discussion within that group about girls’ comics: not many of those friends were women in any case, but also we were all very focused on Marvel, DC, and the new wave of British comics influence in the form of V for Vendetta and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. If even your comics-loving peers don’t think girls comics are worth knowing stuff about and discussing in a fannish way, then they really must be beneath contempt! Or at the least, it means that we, as fans of comics, thought about girls comics as forming a very separate stream of comics material.
All in all this means that despite being a comics fan from an early age, I never saw girls’ comics in a fannish way until very recently (until starting this blog, and discovering similar blogs, and joining the UK Comics Forum). I think that had a number of direct impacts. The key one in my mind is that I have been associating with comics professionals since the early 90s, including people who did work on girls’ comics or who could have had contacts from those times. I could have been asking Phil Gascoine about his background in girls’ comics, on those evenings when I went to the SSI (Society for Strip Illustration). As it was, I asked him about it precisely once, in a crowded convention bar, shortly before he died. What a waste of historical knowledge! This will have been repeated time and again, of course.
I also had a lot invested mentally (it turns out) in seeing Jinty, ‘my’ comic, as exceptional. An easy way to counter the slight sense of shame that grown up readers might feel about their attachment to a piece of ‘trash from the past’ is to rubbish the rest and elevate your own particular love object. Like others had done before and after me, I ‘flattened out’ my memories of girls’ comics and reduced them in my mind to being all about ballet, pony-riding, and school stories – or at least I did this to the ones that weren’t Jinty! I had no good way to put Jinty into the correct historical context of other publications or to relate the artists and writers on this one title to other titles published before, during, and after it. In a fannish environment there would have been much more encouragement to branch out and learn more about related comics created by the same people or in the same genre. Again, what a waste – this time of the reading enjoyment I could potentially have had.
On a less heart-felt note, I identified a few titles referred to in Remembered Reading that I want to get hold of myself – though I suspect that some of the sources that Gibson used may perhaps be infuriating or dry reading (there was a Royal Commission on the Press published in 1977 that might be interesting, and a later report on children’s reading published by the Roehampton Institute in 1996). One must-buy is going to be the Mum’s Own Annual published by Fleetway – Gibson is not entirely sure whether this is intended as a parody or not, but it sounds like it might have some insider views that are worth a look at. For instance, the following quote comes from the Mum’s Own Annual: “The girls involved in the market research for Tammy generally confirmed the editors’ assumptions about preferred content, but the readers’ enjoyment of stories that made them cry came as a surprise”.
Finally, I did also have an area of fruitful possible further investigation that Remembering Reading brought up for me – namely, on some of the differences and similarities between girls comics and boys comics. Of course this is something covered by Gibson. She explains how traditional girls’ comics had rules on how to write girl protagonists – Marcus Morris, the editor of Eagle and Girl, felt that while you could have action stories with female leads, the “motivation should be personal” to keep her marked as properly feminine (pg 81), “unlike male protagonists in the Eagle who would be depicted as responding to more abstract motivations, like national pride, for instance.” (pg 45) There is further good analysis of the differences between Eagle and Girl content-wise – girls had active roles but were either schoolgirl investigators or at the beginning of their working life, not grown policeman or pilots. As with boys’ comics, the publishers of girls comics still needed to produce interesting, involving stories – and while the outside world might reject them as racist, sexist, and poorly written (pg 79), creators and editors saw their work differently, knowing that you couldn’t get away with a ‘wet’ lead character, girl or boy (pg 80). But how does a publisher of stories for boys, and a publisher of stories for girls, approach the overall aim of making interesting and readable stories – are there real, notable differences between the resulting stories, or prejudices and assumptions about them that vanish under further analysis?
For instance, if girls’ comics are a way for girls to choose to either conform (by accepting the version of girlhood presented) or to rebel (by rejecting it), then that presumably means that writers and editors have to juggle the aims of attracting readers versus not pushing away parents and other gatekeepers. Do they have to do this more so than the people who are making boy’s comics, or to a similar degree? Boy readers play with conformity in a different way from girl readers – reading a comic already is a ‘boy thing’, unless it’s a strongly gender-marked girls comics – but then if it is made into too ‘girly’ a thing even the staunch girl readers may desert it. What does this mean for the content of the titles? Gibson says that “the publications present adult, and especially the editors’, perceptions of what is appropriate to girlhood in terms of both entertainment and education. However, this does not mean that the titles were ideological monoliths” (pg 38) and points to the emotional turmoil, wit and resilience of central characters. Often in girls’ comics these are lone, misunderstood heroines – perhaps with a lot of cruelty and victimhood, but a secret heroine who puts things right, one who is active not passive. I think there is a lot that can be looked at to compare how stories work in boys’ comics and girls’ comics – similarity and differences of themes, or of what kinds of stories work or not, or about what kind of shape they have as stories (happy endings or sad, character development or no character development, story ending back where it started or not, long narrative arcs or not). Why, I don’t actually even know for sure that the Cinderella or Slave theme might not have featured in boys’ comics, perhaps a little less obviously than in the girls’ ones! Certainly the trope focusing on a group of friends (“The Four Marys” and so on) is easily transferable to boys’ comics.
There is considerably more that I could pull out and highlight as further thoughts for future developments. Please do read the book yourself if you are able, and comment with your own further thoughts!