Tag Archives: historical period

Secret of the Skulls (1976)

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Published: Tammy 1 May 1976 to 17 July 1976

Episodes: 12

Artist: Mario Capaldi

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: Girl Annual 1986; Translated as ‘Het geheim van de schedels’ (The Secret of the Skulls) in Groot Tina Winterboek 1983.

Ghosts, the hauntings, the graveyards, the witches, the possessions, the evil spells, the terror and the macabre, and this Tammy story from 1976 has got the lot. And they don’t come more macabre than this one with human skulls as the gruesome stars of the show. Normally stories like these would be reserved for Halloween time, but of late there has been discussion about the possession serial in girls’ comics at Comics UK, and its close relatives, the evil influence serial and the doppelgänger serial (the latter of which neither Tammy nor Jinty used, but it was seen frequently at DCT). So we are going to look at a few, beginning with this one.

Plot

In the year 1666 Parson Sylvester and his daughter Prue run a parish at St Leofric’s, London. A lightning bolt opens up a secret crypt under the church, and the one-eyed (watch this) gravedigger Israel Quist is shocked to find it is full of human skulls. Everyone is screaming that the skull crypt is full of evil, and their advice ranges from re-sealing the crypt to destroying the skulls, but Parson Sylvester hesitates because of his religious convictions and is not sure what to do about the skulls. Even when he discovers that the skulls inexplicably give off heat and blister the skin when touched, he doesn’t take action. While he hesitates, he leaves the crypt open, which is an open invitation for weird things. 

Sure enough, weird things start to happen. It starts with the parson’s housekeeper Mrs March bringing one of the skulls into the house. Prue soon notices that Mrs March is acting strangely. She denies taking the skull, but Prue can see the tell-tale blisters on her hands, and then Mrs March falls ill and then acts totally out of character, becoming domineering, bullying and abusive. In the middle of the night Prue hears the church organ playing by itself and the door slamming on its own. On another night she sees the organ playing by itself – and images of horrible glowing skulls as well! The coffins in the crypt belonging to Sir Clive Collyngwood, a man with an evil reputation and the son of a previous parson, move around. There are rumours Sir Clive haunts the graveyard. Some of the skulls are stolen from the crypt by the roguish Rufus Doggett, who runs a novelty shop – of the macabre kind by the looks of the live skull and crossbones set on his shop sign. Prue and her father are shocked to find Doggett painting up the skulls and selling them as ornaments and candle holders to the gentry. Doggett offers one to the parson, who of course won’t touch it.

The parson goes to the Bishop of Canterbury for advice, leaving Prue on her own with Mrs March. That night Prudence hears screaming and in the church she finds strange mystical signs drawn on the floor of the church. The Collyngwood crypt seems to go up in flames, and then looks unscathed. But inside, Prue and Quist find signs of charring and Sir Clive’s coffin reduced to ash, and there is a skull from the crypt on the floor. Quist, who had been urging the crypt be sealed up again from the moment it opened, does precisely that. Prue begins to wonder if there is some connection with the evil reputation of Sir Clive, and Quist informs her that there was a book written about it somewhere. 

Meanwhile, the parson’s carriage is nearing Canterbury when the horses rear, causing a bad accident. And what do you know – there’s a skull! Added to that, he is attacked and robbed as well. Later, Mrs March gloats to Prue that her father will be delayed indefinitely. Parson Sylvester arrives at the bishop’s residence in such a ragged state that he is taken for a vagrant and roughly sent off. 

Prue looks for the skull Mrs March took, but there is no sign of it. When she tackles Mrs March over it, Mrs March attacks her and locks her in. Prue hears hammering noises from the crypt and fears it is the skulls wanting to bust out. A strange girl, Lucy Wendover, wanders in, and Mrs March says they are to be friends. But Lucy soon acts like a sadist, enjoying hurting things and cruelly mocking Prue, and taking over the place.

Prue finds the crypt ripped open and more skulls gone. Suspecting Doggett, she goes off to see him. He tells her all the skulls are gone and paid for (except for the one he reserved for the parson), but he does have information about Sir Clive. Sir Clive and an accomplice were evil witch hunters who “terrorised London” and sent hundreds of women to the stake for witchcraft until plague struck them down. He raises a hint that witches could be responsible for the weird goings-on. Later, Prue suspects Dogged knows more than he’s letting on. But as we shall see, she does not get the chance to question him further.

Back home, Prue finds Quist has no knowledge of Lucy Wendover. He shows her a grave showing that Lucy Wendover died over 50 years before and the Wendover line died with her. But in her own room Prue finds Lucy, with yet more blistering skulls, which she uses to torture Prue. Prue notes the skulls burn her but not Lucy. When Prue demands Mrs March remove the skulls, Mrs March says they will all be going all right, “and then the fun will really begin, as Rufus Doggett’s finding out…” Prue heads back to Doggett’s shop and finds it ablaze, with the unfortunate Doggett unable to escape.

The parson arrives back home in such a bad state he has to be confined to bed. Mrs March gloats over him that “it is our revenge”. She takes him to the church and shows him the organ playing by itself and skulls on the altar. She has the parish shut to worshippers. Prue finds a gravestone with her own name on it and next day’s date, but when she tries to point it out to Quist later on, the gravestone is gone and in its place is a freshly dug grave. The parson is now gravely ill, rambling about the skulls coming for him. The doctor says a witch’s curse has been put on him. 

Prue heads off to see Lord Farleigh about things. There she discovers Lord Farleigh has bought some of Doggetts’ skull ornaments and Lucy is his adopted daughter. In Lord Farleigh’s library Prue finds a book: “Stories of English Witchfinders”. It informs her that Sir Clive and his apprentice Jacob Stave were the most feared witchfinders in England who burned the innocent and the guilty alike in the name of bounty. They collected the skulls of their victims from the executions – hence the origin of the skulls. Then the plague killed Sir Clive and struck down Stave, who was also shot in the eye by a victim’s husband. After reading this, Prue realises their one-eyed gravedigger is really Jacob Stave under an assumed name. Then she is attacked by Lucy, who rips up the book and trashes Lord Farleigh’s library. When Lord Farleigh intervenes, he tells Prue the girl is indeed strange but his wife is besotted by her – as if she were under a spell. 

Prue still has a torn page from the book. It tells her that there were only one or two genuine witches among Sir Clive’s victims out of the hundreds he burned. One (Martha Rackshaw) swore vengeance on London, saying it would burn just as she had. 

Back home, Quist shows Prue that the crypt of skulls is now completely empty. All the skulls have gone. When Prue confronts him about being Jacob Stave he doesn’t deny it. He regrets his witch-hunting days and placed the skulls in the crypt as an act of remorse. He believes Mrs March has been possessed by Martha Rackshaw, who is out for revenge on London. Of course it’s to be the Great Fire of London, with the skulls themselves as the firestarters; they can grow so hot they can burst into flames when needed. 

It’s already started at Lord Farleigh’s mansion where Lucy has set the ornamental skulls ablaze to burn the mansion down. She hears her mistress calling (the possessed Mrs March) and comes to the parsonage. Quist and Prue overhear Mrs March telling Lucy the skulls have been planted at Pudding Lane and they will have their revenge. Prue finds her father under a spell and has been turned into a zombie who serves the witch. Under Mrs March’s power he planted the skulls at Pudding Lane. Mrs March tries to hypnotise Prue too, but Quist intervenes. The witch finds him familiar, but she does realise he is Jacob Stave. Quist and Prue break away. 

Quist urges Prue to head to Pudding Lane to warn them. But it’s too late – blazing skulls in the oven have started the Great Fire of London. More of them have been planted like bombs all over the city, and now they’re going off and spreading more flames. While panicking people evacuate, Parson Sylvester wanders through the flames, still in his zombie state. Lucy gloats at the sight of London burning, and Prue realises she is possessed too.

Back home, Quist informs her that Mrs March is burning down the church as well. Recalling that everything started when Mrs March took a skull from the crypt, they head back to the crypt in search of it. Sure enough, they find it there, and realise it is the true source of all the evil (Martha Rackshaw’s skull). They throw it into the flames that are burning up the church. There is a tremendous explosion, and the fire goes out. The parson, Mrs March and Lucy return to normal, and they are bewildered, as they don’t remember what happened to them. After the Great Fire of London burns out, Lord Farleigh promises Parson Sylvester that his church will be among the first to be rebuilt.

There is just one thing that worries Prue. It is not clear if there was one witch or two. What if there were two and they only destroyed one? Quist assures her there was just one and the evil is gone forever. But in the 20th century, on the old Pudding Lane site, workmen find a skull that is red-hot to the touch…

Thoughts

Phew … is your head whirling from reading all that? It ought to be. Once the weird things start happening, they come on thick and fast and just pile up, one after the after, at breath-taking speed, to send your head into a spin and confusion. So many things to confuse you as much as terrify you. The organ playing by itself, doors slamming, illusions, skulls that can burn your skin, screams in the night, the housekeeper acting crazy, a demented girl let loose in your house … the list goes on and on. Prue herself feels her head spinning about all the things that started happening when the skull crypt was opened, as there were so many of them happening.

The pervading thread through it all is those creepy death heads that just keep popping up as much as they mysteriously disappear. Wherever they go, we know something terrible will happen. Human skulls have a long association with hauntings. There are plenty of stories and legends to bear witness to that, such as Owd Nance, the Screaming Skulls of Calgarth, and the skull of William Corder the Red Barn murderer. These particular skulls have the added terror of always associated with heat and fire, from burning when touched to being used as candle holders, so it’s no real surprise to see they can burst into flames and act as firestarters. We aren’t surprised to see the story build up to the Great Fire of London either; we knew it from the period the story was set in.

Witches and victims of witch hunts wanting revenge for their burning/persecution and laying curses that are activated years later are not an uncommon thing in girls’ comics. We have seen it in stories like “The Painting” and “Sharon’s Stone” from Bunty and “Bad Luck Barbara” from Mandy. But seldom has it been done on this scale – laying waste to an entire city. Centuries before the IRA, we had Martha Rackshaw and her skulls launching a terrorist attack on London with skulls that can explode, burn and destroy. We can see the cunning behind it all, having Mrs March take Martha Rackshaw’s skull and thus possessing her. Allowing (or even influencing) Rufus Doggett to take the skulls and start selling them all around as painted up ornaments was a crafty way to distribute time bombs all set to go off when the time was right. Hypnotising Parson Sylvester into planting the rest all over London and using an oven to light the fuse were also inspired. The combined heat from the skulls and the oven was the perfect combustion. 

The motives for possessing Lucy are not so clear, and it’s never established how she became possessed. It’s a bit hard to understand what Rackshaw was trying to gain by it other than tormenting Prue and setting fire to Lord Farleigh’s house. We presume she was somehow possessed by the second witch as she was not hypnotised into being a servant like Parson Sylvester. Perhaps the possession was so Rackshaw could have a willing accomplice and one with handy access to the gentry. Whatever it is, the possessed Lucy is a riot in all the scenes she appears and she ramps up the excitement and horror even more.

Although Martha Rackshaw is evil, we might have some sneaking degree of sympathy for her, and more so for the other victims. After all, they were innocent people executed in the name of profit and superstition. The real blame lies in the evil, profiteering Sir Clive and his witch hunting. Or we might not be so sympathetic to Rackshaw, as she is inflicting revenge on innocent people, not the ones responsible for her burning. Anyway, she is evil and has to be destroyed. 

Sir Clive is also to blame for the catastrophe by collecting those skulls in the first place as much as for his witch-hunting. In so doing he unwittingly created the weapons the witches used for their revenge. What the hell was he thinking there, collecting the skulls? Was he some sort of ghoul or trophy hunter? The purpose of burning witches is to destroy their evil, so no trace of them must remain. Anyway, how was he able to collect those skulls from the burnings when they should have been burned in the fires? Did he (ulp) behead his victims before burning them? And the irony is, Jacob Stave/Israel Quist unwittingly facilitated the witches’ revenge through his act of remorse as much as his acts of witch-hunting by secretly placing the skulls in the crypt. In so doing he created a ticking time bomb waiting to be discovered. 

The story has a strong but curious message about the evils of witch hunting. Although the people believe in witches, the condemnation of Sir Clive for his witch hunting is strong and he is regarded as evil for this reason. Rufus Doggett says “may his name be forever cursed”, “stands to reason [Sir Clive’s victims] couldn’t all be witches but those two creatures made ‘em confess nevertheless” and their downfall was “the good God at work”. The book on witch hunters does not praise Sir Clive and Stave either; it says they burned the innocent and guilty alike because of the profit they made from it. We even get sceptics who don’t believe in witches. For example, Parson Sylvester always regarded such things as “foolish” and Prue believed the same until the skulls persuaded her otherwise. However, considering that this is also a witch’s revenge story with genuine witches, the message feels rather mixed.

When I first came across the story in the Girl annual reprint I thought it must be reprinted from Misty, what with all these creepy skulls being allowed to feature in gay abandon and freak out any girl to read the story. It was a surprise to learn it originally appeared in Tammy and two years before IPC’s famous queen of the screams title was launched. A story laden with skulls was certainly a bold, audacious move, and ahead of its time in being two years before Misty. It just goes to show the older IPC girls titles could rival Misty for scares when they needed to. The story is worthy of Misty herself, and the artwork of Mario Capaldi really brings off both the macabre elements, the historical setting, and the grim, dark atmosphere of the story. This story is guaranteed to both frighten and thrill any girl to read it and have any parent up in arms (the latter of which would delight the Misty team, as it was a sign they had done things right). It is a story Misty would be proud of. 

Daisy Drudge and Milady Maud (1976-1977)

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Daisy Drudge 1

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Daisy Drudge 2

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Daisy Drudge 3

Publication: 4 September 1976-1 January 1977
Artist: Ken Houghton
Writer: Unknown

Summary
In Victorian times, spoilt and selfish Lady Daisy De Vere is heading out to London to meet a school party for a finishing school in Switzerland. Daisy dismisses her nanny and then (unwisely, as it turns out) sets off to enjoy the sights of London on her own while waiting for her party. But you can only expect to get into trouble if you wander about in a strange city on your own, and this is precisely what happens – big style. Daisy asks Maud, a skivvy from Park Square Mansion, to deliver her letter of explanation to the school party. She has no money (all foreign for her journey abroad), so she gives Maud her cloak as payment. This leads to a case of mistaken identity that gets Maud sent to the finishing school in Daisy’s place. Nobody listens to Maud’s protests and her Cockney accent and ignorance of manners are all taken for typical upper class eccentricity. Eventually Maud decides to just go along with it and enjoy it. The trouble is, Maud finds the high life not what it is cracked up to be, with the strictures, mannerisms and high standards expected, and Maud’s common ways cause problems with the upper class pupils. Eventually she befriends Mary, a girl who is snubbed because her family has fallen on hard times. Mary cannot understand why the supposedly selfish Daisy is taking pity on her, but is grateful.

Meanwhile, Daisy has gotten lost, messed up, and tries unsuccessfully to get help from a flower girl who does not believe her. Eventually, she ends up being mistaken for the skivvy at Park Square Mansion. So instead of the finishing school, Daisy finds herself learning about life downstairs the hard way. Her fellow servants do not believe her story and her posh mannerisms do not endear her to them either. They end up turning against her. So it is loneliness and isolation on top of hard work (which she does not know how to do and is thrown in at the deep end) without proper rest or decent food, beatings from the tyrannical cook, and uncomfortable travelling conditions for the servants when the household goes away. Other cruelties include  being chained to a stove while cleaning it, forced to do ironing with a broken bone in her hand, and bullying such being drenched in water from the pump. Daisy is desperate to escape, but doors and windows are locked each night, and Daisy is locked into her attic room as well. Daisy’s attempts to prove her identity to people who know her as Lady Daisy de Vere also fail.

Then, a climbing boy tells Daisy that she can escape by climbing the chimney. He gives her a map of the chimneys to guide her and advises her of the risks. This is a dangerous, life-threatening escape, but it succeeds. However, Daisy has a brush with a criminal who tries to get the map. He fails and she gets away to find help, tearing up the map as she does so. This time she is more successful in getting help from the flower girl, whose name is Betsey. But Betsey falls ill and is taken to the poor hospital – and few come out of it alive.

At the finishing school, Maud’s high life comes to an end when she falls foul of a blackmailer. The blackmailer points out that Daisy could be in trouble and if so, Maud would certainly get the blame for it. Maud realises that he could be right about Daisy. She pretends to give in to the blackmail but in fact calls his bluff by writing to Daisy’s family to explain the situation. Eventually Maud comes back to London to find Daisy, but her queries get her arrested for being a nuisance. In prison she overhears the aforementioned criminal talk about his failed bid to get the map from Daisy. She is quickly released and follows up the lead, which eventually leads her to Daisy. Maud has learned that Mr De Vere is also searching for Daisy, and Daisy knows where to find him. Everything is sorted out happily, right down to Mr De Vere giving Daisy, Maud, Betsey (now recovered) and Mary a house where they set up a partnership for helping poor people.

Thoughts
Maidservant serials were always popular in girls’ comics. Wee Slavey (Judy) and Molly Mills (Tammy) are two long-standing examples of how popular servant stories could be. Serials where rich girls (or middle class girls) become servants were also very common in girls’ comics. They may switch places with a servant (willingly, accidentally or be tricked), or get a job as a servant as a cover for a secret mission such as finding a lost will eg “The Secret Servant” (Bunty), or become servants after falling on hard times. Sometimes switching with servants, as in this case, comes as a punishment that humbles and reforms a spoilt girl. Other times the rich girl is a kind person who entered it not knowing what she has let herself in for e.g. “Sarah Below Stairs” (Judy) or was tricked into it e.g. “The Imposter!” (Bunty). Whatever the circumstances, the rich girl learns the hard way about how the other half lives below stairs, the abuse they suffer because they are considered lowly, and the abuses the servants can inflict on each other because of the servant system itself. They emerge as crusaders for the downtrodden.

Daisy seems to have a harder time than most rich girls who get a taste of the servant life. Usually, no matter how hard they are oppressed, they at least had some friends. But not Daisy – she suffered isolation and loneliness in addition to the abuse because her fellow servants ostracised her and she did not have a single friend among them. In addition, Daisy risked her very life with a terrifying, dangerous escape through the chimney. Girls’ serials set in Victorian times seldom missed the opportunity to comment on the horrors of the climbing boys. But here a hitherto high-born Victorian girl, who would never have lowered herself in such a manner before, gets a taste of the horror first hand.

But Daisy ends up expressing that she is glad that it happened, because it opened her eyes to how selfish and arrogant she had been before, and has become more caring about people less fortunate and vowing to deal with some of the awful things she saw as a servant. Daisy’s new-found altruism emerges during her time as a servant; for example, she gives the climbing boy her uneaten breakfast once she hears that his life is even worse than hers. She also learns to be grateful for small mercies, such as appreciating a black cat brooch gift when she had been used to valuable jewels back home, or appreciating the shelter Betsey gives her when she would have turned up her nose at such lowly dwellings before.

When a serial deals with a low class Victorian girl who is suddenly elevated to the high life, she often finds that it is not all grand and fun because of the strict decorum and lady-like expectations that come with it. This is what Maud finds and she tells the blackmailer that she is glad to give it up because it has been so strenuous for that reason. But what is so impressive about Maud’s experience at the finishing school is that it brings out strength in character for Maud as well, in a reverse manner from Daisy. While adversity brings out the good in Daisy, luxury tests the goodness in Maud, and she comes through with flying colours. She never let the luxury, which could have gone to her head, corrupt her. For example, she refuses to use Daisy’s money because she considers it stealing. She too stands up for the oppressed, such as standing up for Mary by throwing water over girls who are bullying her. And she also tries to help less fortunate people, such as caring for an injured ragged boy while the other girls comment on common people carrying dreadful diseases. And in the end, the experience elevates Maud, a low-class girl, into position in society where she can continue to work to improve the lot of poor people.

So what is really intriguing about this story is the use of opposites. The opposites in the characters and backgrounds of Daisy and Maud; the opposites in the two girls going to each other’s end of the spectrum; the opposites in the experiences they endured; and the opposites in how the experiences brought out the strengths in the girls’ characters. And the opposite experiences ended with them working together to campaign for people less fortunate in Victorian society.

Note: Ken Houghton was a sporadic artist in Jinty until Tansy of Jubilee Street came over from Penny. Afterwards, Houghton was a regular artist until Peter Wilkes replaced him on Tansy. Interestingly, all three of Houghton’s Jinty serials addressed historical periods: “Bridey Below the Breadline” (Stuart period), “Daisy Drudge and Milady Maud” (Victorian period, and it also replaced Bridey), and “House of the Past” (time travel to the 1930s).

Song of the Fir Tree (1975-6)

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Fir Tree 1

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Fir Tree 2

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Fir Tree 3

Publication: 6 September 1975-31 January 1976
Artist: Phil Townsend
Writer: Unknown
Summary
Solveig Amundsen and her brother Per are two Norwegian children who are prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. They and their mother (now dead) were sent there by Grendelsen, a rich and powerful man whom Mrs Amundsen accidentally found out was a traitor who had betrayed their Resistance group. Solveig draws strength from the resolution that they will return to their home with the big fir tree and the song their mother used to sing, “The Song of the Fir Tree”, hence the title of the story. She is also determined to return to Norway and expose Grendelsen, as she and her brother are the only ones who know what he has done. (As the story develops, one gathers that Grendelsen is regarded as a respectable man and there are no suspicions that he is a Nazi collaborator.)

From the outset, Solveig proves the stronger one, with spirit, strength and determination to survive and make it back home, while Per has a weaker constitution. He is more prone to illness and demoralisation, and almost succumbs to the camp conditions. He needs constant buoying up physically and mentally, and he would never survive without his sister.

The end of the war comes and the Allies liberate the camp. But Solveig recognises Grendelsen among the Norwegian officials who have come to collect them. Realising he has come to silence them, Solveig and Per go on the run, with Grendelsen in relentless pursuit. And Grendelsen soon proves he knows what he is doing in tracking people (and Solveig and Per never think to cover their tracks), and is very clever at tricking the authorities into helping him. And so the stage is set for a fugitive story going all the way from Germany to Norway, and all the assorted adventures, betrayals, misfortunes, lucky breaks, helpers and enemies the two children encounter along the way as they run for their lives. And all the while Solveig sings the song of the fir tree to keep her brother’s spirits up.

As the story progresses, another man joins the hunt for Solveig and Per – their father, Captain Amundsen. Captain Amundsen has returned from the war, discovered his children are alive, and is trying to catch up with them. He finds out about Grendelsen’s manhunt, and Grendelsen discovers the father is also searching. So it is a three-way journey and hunt, with Grendelsen and Captain Amundsen coming close to each other as they both search for the children, with the father constantly coming tantalisingly close to his children. However, the children’s constant attempts to evade Grendelsen also mean that their father constantly misses them. Each time Captain Amundsen comes close, he finds they have just taken off because of Grendelsen or whatever, which is heartbreaking and frustrating for the poor father and the reader. His biggest heartbreak comes when it looks like Grendelsen has finally killed the children by setting them adrift in a derelict boat and left it to sink. He does not know the children were rescued in the nick of time. He heads home for Norway, vowing to make Grendelsen pay.

Along the way, the children also become entwined in the fates of the sadistic Sergeant Strang and their fellow inmate Rachel Brodsky, the two concentration camp characters introduced in the first episode (above). The first occurs when the children go on a path that a local warns leads to a bad place rumoured to be haunted – haunted by Holocaust victims apparently, because the bad place turns out to be an abandoned concentration camp. The children take shelter in it anyway, not realising that Strang is doing the same thing.

We see that Strang has fallen a long way down from the hulky bullying Nazi with the whip and vicious dog. Forced into hiding from the Allies, he is now living rough, ragged and scared. Also, his mental state has deteriorated, exposing the coward he really is – or maybe a guilty conscience, as Grendelsen suspects? Strang even believes the voices he hears (Solveig and Per) are the ghosts of the people who died in the camp. It gets even worse for Strang when Grendelsen shows up (he would) and gets Strang to help him. Strang ends up breaking his leg and Grendelsen abandons him: “Then that’s your hard luck!” Fortunately for Strang, a more decent man is about – Captain Amundsen, who gets help for him. So Strang is not left to die a slow, painful death, but his final fate afterwards is not revealed. The story turns back to Captain Amundsen, whose quest to catch up with his children and Grendelsen has failed yet again.

The second occurs towards the end of the story. The children bump into Rachel, who is trying to get to Palestine. But she is doing it illegally with the help of an underground group because Palestine will not take any more immigrants (the strongest inference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in this story).  Grendelsen stumbles across them and holds all three at gunpoint – something he has been doing several times already, but the children always escape with the help of a rescuer. And this is no exception; the smugglers arrive and rescue the children. Rachel is soon on her way to Palestine, but Grendelsen has the authorities arrest Per and Solveig for helping illegal immigrants. However, the children escape once more with connivance from a sympathetic soldier (the only one who shows any good sense in this story – for the most part, authority figures think Grendelsen is the one to believe).

Of course it all comes to a head when the paths of all three parties finally meet. It happens at a port, where Solveig and Per try to catch a boat to Norway. Grendelsen arrives with the idea of stealing a boat, corners the children and holds them at gunpoint – again. He does the same with Captain Amundsen, who has (by fluke) arrived at the same spot. But then a bolt of lightning sends a tree toppling over Grendelsen, which kills him. And the tree is…a fir tree. Yep. After that it’s a happy reunion and return to their home with the big fir tree.

Thoughts
For some reason World War II stories were very rare in Jinty. The only other Jinty serials with this theme were “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (1978) and “Daddy’s Darling” (1975), which were also drawn by Phil Townsend. Perhaps Jinty’s emphasis on science fiction, fantasy and sport became so strong that other themes fell by the wayside? It is noteworthy that “Daddy’s Darling” also appeared in 1975, at the time when Jinty was still following Tammy’s lead in producing serials that focused on darkness, cruelty, hardship and raw emotion to tug at your heartstrings.

And this is what the story clearly sets out to do. The cover says: “They must escape – or die! A story to tug at your heart.” And it must have done, because this serial ran for five months!

“Song of the Fir Tree” had a mix of the usual three-page spreads and two page spreads throughout its run. This is very unusual. Occasionally an episode was reduced to two pages if space demanded it, or increased to four or even six if there was pressure to finish it quickly. Sometimes a story was reduced from three pages to two, as was the case in “The Secret of Trebaran” from Tammy. But what could be the reason for the mix of two and three page spreads for this story? Was the writer under pressure from the editor to condense some episodes into two pages for space reasons? Or did the writer sometimes come up with ideas that only required two pages?

But on to the story itself. “Song of the Fir Tree” certainly catches your attention for featuring the Holocaust – a subject usually delicately avoided or addressed fleetingly when girls’ comics ran World War II stories. Any use of Nazi prison camps tended to focus more on captured civilians or soldiers being used as slave labour, such as in “Wendy at War” from Debbie. But here you get an immediate taste of the Holocaust the moment you see the first episode. Of course you don’t get too much of a taste; once the children are liberated, the rest of the story is focused the fugitive issue once Grendelsen shows up. But as mentioned above, the concentration camp not only comes back to bite twice, but a second camp is introduced, with ironic consequences for the Nazi villains.

The journey also incorporates statements about Nazi Germany and the aftermath of World War II, such as in the devastation from the war bombing seen everywhere in the story. But the focus is more on the effects of the war on the people Solveig and Per encounter during their journey. For example, Solveig and Per take refuge at a farm where young Luise is sympathetic but warns that her Aunt Johanna will not be, so they have to stay hidden from the aunt. When Aunt Johanna discovers the fugitives, Per and Solveig find themselves caught between two Germans who were on either side of Hitler. Luise’s father was anti-Nazi and paid the price for it (taken away, never to be seen again), but Luise upholds his ideals. However, Luise’s Aunt Johanna still has her Nazi Party membership card, which Luise uses to blackmail her into putting up with the runaways until they are ready to leave. This encounter makes a strong statement that not all Germans liked Hitler. There were decent Germans in World War II, and being German did not necessarily mean being Nazi. Winston Churchill understood this – he always said “Nazis” in his speeches, not “Germans”.

Other good Germans are introduced too, such as the Schulmans, a kind farming couple who nurse Per back to health when he falls ill. Per wants to stay and is tired of running. But Grendelsen shows up again – yes, dear Per, as long as Grendelsen is around, you will have no peace wherever you go. Mr Schulman shows more kindness when he picks a fight with Grendelsen, who has cornered the children again. It looks like the fight ends in Grendelsen dying in a river, but the children take the hint and take off again. Just as well, because they soon discover that Grendelsen is not dead and is back to chasing them again.

People who are less kind (apart from Grendelsen and Strang) seem to be fewer, but they crop up occasionally. One example is a gang of street urchins that Per and Solveig fall in with. They leave Per carrying the can over a stolen watch, but Solveig pleads with the authorities that it is because the urchins are homeless and starving after the war, and the authorities take pity on the urchins.

Do we also get a sly message about environmentalism with the constant imagery of the fir tree, and its use as a symbol of hope, steadfastness and, ultimately, retribution and salvation? There is even a hint of prophecy, as the fir tree song speaks of “wild skies” and “storm” – and in the final episode, a storm does break out and sends the fir tree toppling over Grendelsen.

Indeed, “Song of the Fir Tree” ran about at the same time as Jinty’s best-remembered story about ecology, “Fran of the Floods”, where warmer temperatures cause world-wide flooding. So it is possible that they slipped an environmental message in here too. Or maybe somebody on the Jinty team had a fondness for fir trees and wanted to a story that incorporated them? Whatever the inspiration for the fir tree, you will emerge with a whole new respect for trees – especially fir trees – after reading this story.

The Haunting of Form 2B (1974)

Sample images

Form 2B

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Form 2B 2 001

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Form 2B 3

Publication: 11/5/74-20/7/74
Reprint: Misty annual 1980
Artist: Rodrigo Comos
Writer: Unknown

Summary
Judy Mayhew and her friends Marilyn and Jen are starting their first term at the newly-built Newley Comprehensive. Judy is blown away at how modern and impressive the school is. Marilyn and Jen scoff at Judy for thinking that way, and say a school is a school and lessons the same old drag. However, Newley Comprehensive is built on the site of an old Victorian school, and Judy soon discovers that the Victorian past still haunts – in more ways than one.

The first hint is their form teacher, Miss Thistlewick; she is a dragon and more suited to a Victorian school than a modern school like Newley. But the trouble really starts for 2B when they run short of desks and bring up Victorian desks from the basement that Newley inherited from its predecessor. The moment Marilyn sits in it she starts acting like a Victorian girl. Later, Judy sees Marilyn and Jen in class at night. Both are sitting at Victorian desks, writing 1874 instead of 1974 on the blackboard. When Judy confronts them, she has a vision of being in a Victorian classroom and she gets caned by a Victorian teacher. Next morning, Judy finds her friends have no memory of what happened.

Judy soon finds 2B reverting more and more to a Victorian pattern as more equipment comes up from the basement, such as hurricane lamps when the lights don’t work for no apparent reason. Marilyn and Jen are now talking and behaving like Victorian girls, and two more girls follow suit. They wear Victorian dress in class, which has the rest of the class thinking they are weirdos. They also refuse to participate in sports or domestic science, saying such things are unbecoming for Victorian ladies. They are permitted to do this with the blessing of the headmistress, who is now under the Victorian influence as well after receiving a parasol from the basement. Judy notes that Miss Thistlewick gave the headmistress the parasol.

Judy finds an old Victorian photograph of their ancestors and finds Miss Thistlewick in it as well. She comes to the conclusion that Miss Thistlewick is a ghost – a ghost who has some strange power over her friends. She becomes more convinced Miss Thistlewick is a ghost when she sees her disappear through an archway in the basement and her image does not appear in a photograph.

Then Judy discovers that she is a descendant of the last girl in the photograph – which means she is the next target for the Victorian influence! Sure enough, she finds herself being shadowed by her Victorian-dressed friends who are now trying to force her into a Victorian dress as well.

Eventually Judy does end up in Victorian dress, but is surprised to find herself not under the influence. Later, Miss Thistlewick has Judy put on her forebear’s Victorian dress, which does try to influence her. But Judy fights it off with some self-inflicted pain. Judy realises that Miss Thistlewick is administering the influence through some sort of telepathy. Judy also finds the power has a weakness – it fades over distance, and tries to think of ways to get her friends away from Miss Thistlewick.

Judy has another vision, in which she sees that Miss Thistlwick is responsible for a boating tragedy a hundred years ago. She took the other girls out on a boating trip, but ignored their warnings that they were too heavy for the boat and would sink it. As a result, they and Miss Thistlewick drowned. She discovers that Miss Thistlewick is now sending her friends out for another boating trip. Convinced Miss Thistlewick is trying to kill them, she heads down to the boating trip. But in her drive to get them away, she ends up making the same mistake as Miss Thistlewick. Moreover, their Victorian dress is too heavy for swimming, so now it looks like they are going to drown like their forebears.

But no – they are all rescued by a lock-keeper who says he was alerted by a woman in black who was dressed like them. Dressed like them? Yes, it was Miss Thistlewick, who now appears before them. She had not intended to kill them; she had recreated the boat trip in the hope of a happier ending so her guilty soul could find peace. And she did get a happy ending – by saving the girls. Okay, not quite what she planned, but now she can rest in peace and stop haunting the school.

Next day, Judy and her friends turn up in class in their regular uniforms, and say the Victorian dress had been an experiment to see how people react to the unusual. They also discover that the headmistress is going to make a bonfire out of all the Victorian equipment in the basement. (Hmm, bonfire when the Guy Fawkes issue is four months away? Maybe the headmistress sensed something strange about that equipment too.) Their last link to the ghost of Miss Thistlewick is now going up in smoke, but they can now look forward to a normal school.

Thoughts
Ghost stories are always popular in girls’ comics. So the moment readers saw “Haunting” in the title, they expected to be in for a treat, and this story is hard to disappoint. Even before we meet Miss Thistlewick, we know that the old Victorian school is going to haunt its modern counterpart somehow. In fact, we sense that the Victorian school is not only going to haunt the modern one, but that harsh Victorian schooling is going to be contrasted sharply with modern easy-going education. So we would be even more appreciative than Judy that Newley Comprehensive is a modern school and not a strict old-fashioned school of a bygone era. We can imagine that at the end of the story, Marilyn and Jen would come to think the same way after scorning at Judy for being so impressed with the new school.

School stories are sometimes set up to make a statement about anti-authoritarianism, and this story certainly works it in with the supernaturally-enforced Victorian code upon the modern classroom. This is at its most frightening in the visions Judy has of the original Victorian classroom. The terrors of the cane turn into downright abuse, with one pupil getting a cut on her forehead and Judy getting one on her hand.

But the Victorian pattern also provides humour as well – something you do not often see in a serious ghost story. As the five girls become more and more possessed by the Victorian influence, they become confused and shocked by what they see in modern life. It starts in small ways, such as Marilyn writing old-fashioned script with a quill and censoring Judy that they must pay attention to the class. When the five girls are dressed Victorian, they think like Victorians as well. They do not know what cars are and think they must be steam driven. They refuse to change into PE gear because “a lady does not expose her legs to the public gaze. It-it’s not decent!” They cannot understand why they are being told off for disastrous cooking. “It’s just that young ladies don’t cook – they have servants for that!” At a Victorian exhibition they are astonished at a classmate calling a Victorian washing machine “an old piece of junk!” They reply, “It’s not junk! It’s the latest thing!”

It must be said that the portrayal of Miss Thistlewick is a bit puzzling. Guilt drives her to do what she does, but she does not give Judy or the reader the impression she is acting out of guilt. “You’re too nosey by far, Judy Mayhew! The time has come to teach you a lesson and to stop your meddlesome ways!” Later, when Miss Thistlewick thinks she finally has Judy under the influence, she says, “Excellent, excellent! Now nothing can stop me!” All right, so maybe it could be put down to psychological causes of some sort. But it is small wonder that Judy thinks Miss Thistlewick has evil intentions. And it is a bit hard to believe Miss Thistlewick is a ghost because at first glance she seems corporeal enough. It might have been more plausible to have a living teacher possessed by the ghost of Miss Thistlewick.

But overall, this story can be regarded as a strong start in Jinty’s spooky storytelling and seems to be one of her better remembered first stories. It is hard to go wrong with ghosts, and many readers must have enjoyed the historical aspect of it as well. Even readers who did not find history appealing would have enjoyed the clashes between Victorian lifestyle and modern lifestyle, portrayed in ways that are both scary and funny. And there is the drama and tension as Judy fights being taken over by the influence, and resorting to more resourceful yet desperate ways to save her friends – only for it to climax in irony. The irony when Judy almost causes the tragedy she was trying to prevent, and the double irony that it helps Miss Thistlewick to meet her objective and redeem herself.