John Wagner is known to have worked on girls’ comics and written girls stories in the 1970s. I didn’t know of any previous interviews which had focused on this part of his career in particular: many thanks to him for answering the questions below in this brief interview.
1 I’d love to know how you got started in writing for girls’ comics, and what you did during that part of your comics career. What stories did you write? How did you balance writing comics alongside being an editor – or was that all part of what the editor was expected to do?
The girls’ comic side of my career started with Romeo, the DC Thomson romantic comic/mag, the poor sister of Jackie. Girls’ romance was just a step up from normal girls’ fare with the addition of boys. We never touched on lesbian love back then! Then when I left to go freelance with Pat Mills, girls’ stories was one of our target markets. We were given “School of No Escape” (was that in Sandie or Tammy? [that was in Sandie]) by the managing editor, John Purdie. The story had already been started, was running, but either the writer had quit, or been sacked. In any case editorial didn’t know quite how to handle it. It was quite a challenging first assignment but we made a pretty good fist of it. I helped Pat devise “School for Snobs” and write the first couple of episodes before we split up and I went to work in the IPC office in London. My only girls’ comic story after that was “Jeannie and Her Uncle Meanie”.
2 We’re always on the lookout for information on other creators of girls comics from the time. I have already asked you for any suggestions on the name of the artist on “Slave of the Trapeze” and “School of No Escape”, which sadly for us you weren’t able to recall. Are there stories by other people that you particularly remember from that time, which you would be able to help us to credit the creators on? For instance, anything written by any of Gerry Finley-Day, Malcolm Shaw, Charles Herring, Jay Over, Ian Mennell, Benita Brown, Maureen Spurgeon?
Malcolm Shaw was my sub on Sandie for a while, quite a good, reliable one. I’m afraid I don’t remember any particular stories any of the people you mention wrote, though Gerry would have done two or three for me. Never heard of Jay Over or Benita Brown and assume Maureen then went by another surname that I can’t remember.
3 Pat Mills has fond memories and a lot of respect for specific girls’ comics titles and the hard-hitting gritty stories that ran in them. What kind of comparisons would you draw between the world of girls’ comics and that of the boys’ titles you worked on?
They were pretty different, up until Pat and I started work on Battle Picture Weekly. I refer to the IPC boys’ stories, as DC Thomson boys’ comics had some excellent stories and were almost the equal of their girls’ titles. But IPC boys’ titles had stagnated, with stories that were formulaic, repetitive, barely credible and carried very little emotional power. They paled in comparison to the stories in Judy, Mandy and especially Bunty – clever, meaty, affecting.
4 You started your comics career working for DC Thomson before moving south to IPC/Fleetway. Were there things about creating comics that you learned at DC Thomson which you were keen to bring with you to IPC, or perhaps keen to move away from? Or other memories of differences between the two publishers?
I was keen to move away from poverty! The key lesson I learned there was self-criticism. Nothing you write can’t be better. Always question yourself – am I getting the best out of that scene, those characters, is there a better way of doing things?
5 Finally, anything you can tell us about your time at Sandie would be good to know. It was a fairly short-lived title, only lasting for 89 issues. What do you think that was down to? Did you leave it as it finished, or earlier? Who else worked on it that you can recall?
My memory is that they closed it down – or merged it – on a circulation of about 180,000 (though that figure may be inflated in my mind). In any case the low cover price meant that they had to sell enormous numbers. I was told the comic was going under and that they wanted me to move on to Princess Tina (which was also dying) and revamp it in an attempt to save it. Norman Worker (I think) was brought in to see Sandie laid to rest. In turn I made an awful hash of Tina, whereupon I quit journalism to become caretaker of an estate in Scotland, never to return (I thought!).
I’ve already mentioned [in email] some of the names of Sandie staff – subs Kyra Clegg, Rhoda Miller, Malcolm Shaw. Ally McKay was assistant art man for a while, and John…John…ah, I forget, but he was art editor.
Many thanks again to John Wagner for this interview. I have a small number of issues of Sandie, which I looked at in this post. Catawiki has details on a few Sandie issues also, and the Great News for All Readers blog has posted in detail about two issues in 2016. Mistyfan also wrote a post about the advert for Sandie’s launch, and another on issue 7 of Sandie in 1972.
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
Any comic has to have a focus, a remit of what will be covered and therefore inevitably what will not be covered. The choices made, however, may be revealing in themselves, or may raise further questions as to why one thing was included and another skipped over.
UK girls comics did not generally include non-fictional comics stories such as biographies. They did include some text items that were non-fictional in nature – snippets of information about sports, history, the origin of names, current pop stars – but not done as ongoing comics stories. Other classic British titles had done this – The Eagle included some biographical strips, for instance; and other children’s magazines had covered non-fiction rather more thoroughly (for instance Look and Learn’s whole raison d’etre was to be educational). Why not cover non-fiction? I imagine that the editors at the time wanted to very firmly steer away from the diactic, ‘good-for-you’ image of The Eagle and Look and Learn, both of which were the sorts of titles that tended to be bought for you by well-meaning parents. [Edited to add: Girl did print some non-fiction stories, such as one in 1959 about Marie Curie, subsequently reprinted in Princess Tina. See this comment on the UK Comics Forum for further details.]
In more recent years, The Phoenix’s “Corpse Talk” has gone back and mined this vein very effectively, showing that biographies can be done in comics form amusingly, interestingly, and well. (Creator Adam Murphy also does some strips about science using a similar format.) Even at the time, it would have been quite possible to do at least some non-fiction without it being boringly didactic, had the will or interest been there. I have just been reading some biographical material about Caroline Herschel, and her story would fit amazingly well in a ‘slave’ story: she was cabined, cribb’d, confined by her mother and her eldest brother, made to work long and hard hours on tasks as the equivalent of a maid, not allowed to stay in bed when ill, and so forth – to be subsequently rescued by her kindly older brother William Herschel, and eventually to triumph as William’s scientific assistant and indeed as a discoverer of comets in her own right! Similar tales could no doubt have been spun about the obvious eminent women such as Florence Nightingale and Boadicea, but also about the less obvious ones such as Aphra Behn and Mary Seacole (though as a black woman it would have been particularly unlikely for the latter to have been written about, sadly).
So, Jinty and similar comics weren’t ones that you read in order to learn; and nor were they ones where factual content was sneaked in under the radar, either. Sneaking it in could have happened: in boys’ war comics of the time, accuracy on details like uniforms, badges, battles, and weapons was prized by the readers and striven for by the creators. (More recently, my two young kids are getting a kick out of “Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures” on the telly: plenty of learning-through-fun there.) History, geography, science, maths, languages were prized in Jinty mainly as set-dressing when a story called for it, if at all; and the level of research and accuracy was not high, as has been noted previously.
There were some small, local exceptions to this – some areas that Jinty covered that it did care about getting right, and which you could have a reasonable expectation of learning from as a reader.
Sports: at one point there was a dedicated sport section, teaching you finer points of passing the ball in netball, using the parallel bars in gymnastics, and covering aspects of more exotic sports like water polo. Even aside from that dedicated sports section, there were a lot of stories featuring sporty protagonists who were given or gave tips on table tennis (“Ping-Pong Paula”), competitive cycling (“Curtain of Silence”), or netball (“Life’s A Ball For Nadine”).
Crafts and cookery: each issue had a page or two on how to make a little present from odds and ends, how to revitalise an old skirt, or how to prepare some easy recipe.
Trivia: origins of names, the story of mince pies, snippets of amusing anecdotes about, yes, Boadicea or Queen Anne.
Overt political and social issues
As a publication intended for an age range of around 8 – 12 years, you wouldn’t expect much in the way of political discussion unless there was a specific radical intention (as with the creation of Shocking Pink magazine slightly later). There is however in Jinty an utter absence not only of political comment or explanation, but even of reference: no cheeky images of the current prime minister or mention of recent or current events such as the Three Day Week or the IRA bombs. The monarchy does get a look-in with a patriotic celebration of the Jubilee and the Royal Wedding (but then, to do otherwise would be to make a republican statement in itself).
There is also very little overt coverage of wider social issues, such as feminism, racism, colonialism. Without wishing to say that we are now in some paradise, the Britain of that time was clearly a more discriminatory society; Jinty was not in the business of providing substantive challenges to this. Very overt acts of racism would no doubt have been opposed, if they had ever come up – but for instance the paki-bashing that some readers’ families might well have condoned was invisible in these pages and hence never in fact challenged. Related issues do get the occasional airing, though: for instance “Bound For Botany Bay” has some statements about the evils of slavery in a setting that is comfortably far-off in time.
It is not exactly surprising that Jinty was not proactively anti-racist or anti-colonialist; it would have taken a radical mindset to challenge these social issues, and this was a mainstream publication. What about feminism – as a comic published with girls in mind, did any women’s rights issues sneak in under the radar? Not very overtly, I’d say; there were some stories that touched on girls not being treated fairly or being laughed at by boys as incapable of X or Y, but these were mostly treated as individual problems rather than systemic ones. In “Two Mothers For Maggie”, the protagonist complains of being expected to do housework and baby-sitting when she has her homework to do and the stepfather has finished his work for the day; but the issue there is framed as one of poverty not primarily of sexism. In “Black Sheep of the Bartons”, protagonist Bev wants to do boyish sports like judo, but this again is painted as a personality quirk, especially in contrast with her gentle and delicate younger sister who is far more ‘girly’. It might also be played for laughs: there was an early “Jinx of St Jonah’s” story where Katie Jinks and her friends had a bet on with the nearby boys’ school where they each had three gender-swapped stereotypical tasks to do (making shelves for the girls, making dresses for the boys); they all failed fairly equally and we are supposed to laugh at them for stepping out of the gender roles.
The aspect of Jinty which leads most clearly to a real feminist point is, paradoxically, the fact it was part of such a separate publication stream from boys’ comics. So many of the characters are girls you could almost imagine it is set in one of the parallel worlds devoid of men, favoured by a certain strand of feminist science fiction. The outcome is that there is a great multiplicity of female roles available as models for readers: villains who are misguided, evil, powerful, petty, misunderstood, or plain off their head; protagonists who are vain, strong, smart, brave, clumsy, deft, sporty, bullied, powerless, and sometimes even clever (the latter not so often, sad to say); friends who are loyal, fickle, blind, shallow, and sometimes smarter than they seem. This is in stark contrast to today’s media world in which girls are assumed to read stories with male protagonists but not vice-versa, women are expected to watch films with male characters but not vice-versa, and the story-telling that we’re supposed to accept as progressive is one where the female character is ‘strong’ or ‘kick-ass’ but still far from actually being rounded and fully-developed.
There are some other social issues that sneak in slightly surprisingly. Environmentalism gets a look-in in various stories: there are a couple of anti-motorway or anti-car stories (“The Green People” and “Guardian of White Horse Hill” feature local protests against the building of motorways through sensitive areas, “Save Old Smokey” is anti-car). More drastically, “The Forbidden Garden” is set in a dystopia where the earth is poisoned and nothing can grow naturally. Animal Rights, too, get a look-in: “The Human Zoo” and “Worlds Apart” both feature sections where animal rights protestors are seen as rightly protesting terrible treatment of animals (even if the protesters are also shown as causing as much harm to the animals as they cause good).
However, the big social issue covered that might be surprising to modern readers is inequality. Lots and lots of stories had fat-cat villains, wealthy uncaring capitalists, rich family members who were greedy or miserly, cruel and heartless. Stories like “Bound for Botany Bay” made much greater play of the evils of class distinctions than they did of the evils of racism and slavery; and stories like “Ping-Pong Paula” and Tammy’s “Ella on Easy Street” were pretty clear that it was better to be poor with a loving family than rich with a distant one. Maybe this is part of a ‘poor little rich girl’ trope prevalent in children’s stories? Maybe it resulted from the core market of readers who were less well-off than was the case for some of the earlier, more middle-class comics? But also, the Britain of that time was actually a less unequal society than it is nowadays. WWII didn’t feel that long ago, which had also driven some reduction in inequalities. Did this mean that it was more possible to have villains who were fat-cats, capitalists, because inequality itself was less acceptable?
Growing up, sex, and romance
Again not surprising as an omission given the age range, but boyfriends are pretty much completely missing in Jinty. Older girls or young women may have boyfriends or even fiancés – sisters, young teachers – but the protagonist herself does not. In one near-exception, “Pam of Pond Hill”, Pam’s friend Goofy is someone she is teased about, and the word boyfriend is used in that teasing, but there is no kissing or cuddling involved in that relationship. So although the protagonists are depicted looking as if they are some years older than most of the readers, the concerns addressed are much more focused on intense friendships and rivalries than on romantic or sexual relationships.
The characters are often drawn with enough of a developing body to require a bikini top or bra and pants rather than the more demure vest and slip of more traditional times, but this is not addressed explicitly in the story. No Judy Blumes to be found in these pages! The letters pages sporadically included an agony aunt element, but even then this focused more on interpersonal relationships with other girls than it did puberty, periods, bodily hair, and boyfriends. Girls moved onto older magazines such as Jackie and Just Seventeen (these may or may not have had a comics element) and it was in those pages that they learned some of the subjects now taught in British schools under acronyms such as PSHE.