Tag Archives: mystery

Walking the Line [2018]

Walking the Line cover

Published: Commando #5147

Art: Morhain & Rezzonico (story), Neil Roberts (cover)

Story: Andrew Knighton

Here is another recently published Commando in its new trend of featuring a female protagonist.

Plot

In July 1943 Flight Lieutenant Alan Freeman leads a bombing squadron against Germany. Unfortunately Freeman has an obsession about winning back his ex, Sarah, whose photograph he carries on every mission, by impressing her with a huge scorecard of daring, heroic war deeds. Freeman does not realise that his drive to make his missions as daring as possible to impress Sarah is clouding his judgement and causing him to take ever-increasing risks with his squadron.

One night the inevitable happens – Freeman takes one risk too many to impress Sarah. This has the Luftwaffe bearing down on the plane fast and Freeman and his comrades get shot down. Knowing the situation is partly his fault, Freeman tries to rectify it by flying his plane for as long as possible and be the last to bail out. He takes care to retain Sarah’s photograph as he jumps. As he watches his burning plane go down, he tells Sarah it’s all been for her.

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Right – so putting your squadron in a position to get shot down, losing planes and possibly lives that way, and bailing out over occupied territory, which could mean capture, have all been for impressing Sarah, Alan Freeman? You tell that to your superiors when you get home.

Well, back to the story now.

Freeman parachutes into occupied France, which is of course very dangerous for him. Moreover, the crash his plane made was heard for miles, so the Germans are bound to come running. At least Freeman paid attention in French class and also had training in evading capture. As per training, Freeman hides all trace of his parachute and military uniform. Well, nearly all – he forgets his boots, which are clearly military issue. Fortunately the Frenchman (Henri Chaput) who spots this oversight is friendly and hides him from the searching Germans.

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Henri’s daughter, Juliette, runs an underground escape line for Allied soldiers, which runs through the Pyrenees and Spain. However, Juliette warns Freeman there is a risk in taking it: she suspects the Gestapo have compromised it somehow because some of their people have gone missing recently. Freeman gladly accepts that risk, just because it will be another thing for him to impress Sarah. That night he takes a moment to think of Sarah and how going through an underground route will impress her.

Escapee reports are vital to the war effort. So next evening they radio London to inform them of what Freeman had seen during the bombing run. Unfortunately the Germans trace the signal of the illegal radio (the Achilles heel of the Resistance) and soon have the place surrounded. Freeman and Juliette are the only ones to escape when the Germans open fire – and kill Henri.

They make it to a town in search of a safe house. There they spot a Gestapo agent, and he is looking at them in a way that indicates he has realised Juliette is on their wanted list. They take advantage of this to lure him into a trap and capture him. At the safe house Juliette interrogates the agent to find out what happened to their missing numbers and why they have gone missing. The agent sneers that those missing people are all dead of course. And in reply to her other question, one of their number is a traitor but he does not know which one. Juliette now gags him and leaves him for the local Resistance to pick up.

Freeman comes up with an idea to flush the traitor out: use him as bait by taking him down the escape line and spread the word through it that he carries vital British intelligence. And for the first time, Freeman is not taking a risk to impress Sarah. He’s taking it to help Juliette and the war effort.

Two days later Juliette and Freeman are at a café waiting for their contact, Claude the forger. Juliette suspects Claude is the traitor because he is in the perfect position to be. But Claude is soon eliminated as a suspect when another contact, Celine arrives, and tells them the Germans have arrested Claude, along with several more members of the Narbonne cell. Freeman and Juliette head for Narbonne and the remaining cell members.

On the way Juliette tells Freeman that the Germans killed her sister, Lucile, who was not even a Resistance member, along with nine others, in revenge for a Resistance attack. Lucile is the reason why Juliette fights the Germans. Now that sure is a far more worthy reason to fight than trying to win back an ex who keeps trying to tell you she’s moved on.

In Narbonne they meet Louis, leader of the Narbonne cell, and Julio, the guide through the Pyrenees. A fight breaks out when Louis says that before they helped Juliette’s escape line they lost nobody and now the Germans are picking them off, and Juliette angrily accuses him of being the traitor. Freeman breaks up the fight and is not convinced Louis is the traitor.

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Whoever the traitor is, he soon strikes again; that night the Germans arrive and arrest Freeman and Juliette, who had no chance to flee or fight. They are taken to an Abwehr (Army) run prison, and are soon joined by other Resistance fighters. Louis joins Freeman and Juliette in their cell. This convinces Freeman that Louis is not the traitor, but not Juliette.

Freeman is first to be interrogated. His interrogator, Colonel Weber, makes a remark that will be of major plot significance later: “Some of your predecessors may have got away, but you would not like to end up like Lieutenant Davies, would you?”

A Gestapo agent interrupts the interrogation. An argument erupts between him and Weber, and this makes them careless in how they are guarding Freeman. Freeman takes advantage to seize Weber’s gun and shoots both Germans dead. He makes a dash for it, taking the cell keys that were attached to Weber’s belt. He frees the others and a mass prison breakout ensues, but the Germans are gathering forces with gunfire. Louis bravely covers for them while they make their escape until he is finally mown down. To Freeman, this is the ultimate proof that Louis is not the traitor and he convinces Juliette of it.

They head for Julio’s hideout and persuade him to take them over the Pyrenees. It’s a hard journey, made all the harder by having to avoid border guards on both sides, and no short cuts or easy routes. As they go on, Freeman realises he has no further taste for daring adventures to impress his ex and will just be glad when it is all over. And it’s only the first day of their escape through the Pyrenees.

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After the first day, Julio goes ahead to check the trail while Juliette and Freeman settle down by the fire. Recalling what Weber said about Lieutenant Davies, Freeman asks Juliette if she knew him. Juliette says Davies was the first pilot she helped, before she had even started her escape line. She took him to Julio and Julio got him to Spain – Julio said so himself! But that’s not what Weber said…unless…

All of a sudden, everything falls into place.

When Julio returns, Juliette and Freeman have an ambush prepared for him. He puts up a terrific fight, but once he is overpowered he does not deny being the traitor at all. His motive was self-preservation by making himself useful to the Germans, but no doubt the rewards must have been an additional motive.

The problem is, what to do with Julio? Where they are right now, they can’t leave him for the Resistance to pick up as they did the Gestapo agent. But Juliette can’t kill a man in cold blood and Julio takes advantage to plead for his life. Juliette agrees to hand him over for trial and execution but Julio is not having that. He lunges at Juliette, and in the ensuing struggle Juliette is forced to make her first kill. Juliette is deeply upset at this, and realises it has not given her the satisfaction of vengeance that she thought it would.

But Juliette can’t dwell on that – they still have to get across the Pyrenees. This is now even harder because they have lost their guide. Juliette has a fair knowledge of the Pyrenees, but it is not as extensive as Julio’s. The further they go, the less Juliette knows the terrain, until Freeman remembers he has a compass hidden in his boots. And there are still those pesky border patrols they have to dodge all the time.

Eventually they reach Juliette’s contacts in Spain. From there, the British embassy smuggles Freeman to Gibraltar and a waiting ship to Britain. Juliette will go back to continue her work. It would not be surprising if Juliette takes Julio’s place at the Pyrenees end of her escape line as there has been a strong buildup towards it. Besides, there is nobody else on her escape line with enough knowledge of the Pyrenees to navigate that route. In any case, Juliette can’t go back to her hometown with her family gone and the Gestapo looking for her.

Before Freeman boards his ship he discards Sarah’s photograph, saying she’s not worth it. He now realises that he has long since stopped thinking about Sarah and fighting just to impress her. As he sails home he thinks about more important things and far better reasons to fight. Among them is the inspiration Juliette has given him.

Thoughts

This story is another in a growing trend in female protagonists in Commando. They have ranged from partners to the male protagonist to the star of the show. The cover of this issue indicates that the male and female protagonist will be pretty much equal in how they are developed.

The thrust of the story is still on the male protagonist, Alan Freeman, as he battles to escape from occupied France through an escape line. It’s not only a struggle for survival and escape through the underground and past the difficulties of Pyrenees and enemy patrols. There is also the added worry of an unknown traitor compromising the escape route, whose treachery could get them captured and killed if they don’t get to him first. So there is a mystery to this story as well that needs to be unravelled. But until they do, paranoia and suspicion run through the escape line and are setting the cell members against each other, as shown in the near-fight between Louis and Juliette.

It could have been a pure adventure/mystery story for Alan Freeman. Instead, it develops his character by taking him on an emotional journey where he has to stop dwelling on his ex and trying to win her back with heroics because it’s affecting his performance. It’s causing him to take thoughtless risks that are putting missions, his comrades’ lives and his own in jeopardy, and he does not even seem to care. And his reasons for it are not only selfish but also pathetic, and they may not even succeed in getting her back. After all, will Sarah even be there to impress when he returns – if he returns – with all his tales of heroics? For all he knows, she could now be married to a medal-laden war general or died aboard a ship sunk by some U-boat. He’s just got to move on, as Sarah has done.

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As Freeman’s journey through the Underground progresses, we see him changing from taking risks to win back his ex to taking risks for the war effort and the Underground. After his first night in Juliette’s house he stops thinking about Sarah pretty quickly, because once the Germans strike he has more pressing things to think about. He stops looking at Sarah’s photo all the time. The next risk he takes is for unselfish reasons that have nothing to do with impressing Sarah. Furthermore, as Freeman hears the horrors Juliette and the French people are going through under Nazism and sees some of them first hand, he begins to discover the real reasons why he should fight. By the time Freeman is finally reminded of Sarah, he has grown mature enough to let her go and realise there are more important things than getting back your ex when you’re in the middle of a war.

Freeman also goes from cavalierly going through adventures to impress Sarah to understanding it’s not a bravo adventure of risk and daring. He has to learn things like keeping cool when he’s in disguise when Germans are prowling close by, and persistence when he has to go through the Pyrenees the hard way to avoid capture. All the while he is fighting for his life and his freedom.

Although we never see Juliette’s thought bubbles, she’s clearly going through an intense emotional journey too. It shows through her words and her actions. As we learn more about Juliette’s escape line, we realise that while she is brave and competent, it sounds like she is still pretty new to this game and there are some hard lessons she still has to learn. One is learning to kill when she has to, because this is war. And when it’s war, sometimes you have to kill or be killed. This lesson Juliette is forced to learn when at first she tries to avoid killing Julio but eventually she has to make her first kill with him.

Another lesson Juliette has to learn is not get emotions cloud her judgement, as her handling of Louis proved. She had no real reason to suspect Louis is the traitor and there was no proof. All he did was make a very pointed observation that suggests the traitor is connected to her escape line, but she went too much on the defensive over it. For his part, Louis acted with too much emotion in handling his suspicions about Juliette’s line. In so doing, Louis and Juliette both missed a vital clue to the identity of the traitor – he was someone linked to both Juliette’s escape line and the Narbonne cell.

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Juliette’s reason to fight – to avenge the sister the Nazis killed – is better than Freeman’s selfish reason to fight. But it sounds like Juliette is dwelling on it too much as her reason to fight. Like Freeman, she has to get beyond it and realise that there are other reasons why she should fight. And Juliette does when she realises that when she finally gets her revenge for the death of her sister, she gets no satisfaction over it. But she has to go on and get Freeman to safety. In so doing, Juliette has to grow as she develops her own experience and knowledge of the Pyrenees.

At the end of it, Juliette has a whole new reason to continue with her work – keeping downed pilots like Alan Freeman out of Gestapo clutches. Moreover, she will do it even better, and it’s not just because she has removed the traitor who had been sabotaging her escape line before it had even started. Rooting him out has also helped to develop her experience, competence, and also shown her that you really can’t afford squeamishness in a job like this. After all, enemies like the Gestapo agent or the dirty rat Julio won’t have any compunction in killing you.

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Combing Her Golden Hair (1979)

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Colour reprint as “Comb of Mystery” in Katy

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Publication: 1/9/79-8/12/79
Reprint: Katy as “Comb of Mystery; Tina Topstrip as Dutch translation
Artist: Phil Townsend
Writer: Unknown

Plot: Tamsin Tregorren lives with gran (her dad is often away at sea). Gran is a fearsome, iron-willed woman who is very old fashioned and strict with Tamsin. She always seems to keep Tamsin looking a frump in plaits, glasses, and buys her second hand clothes (okay, so they do have a limited budget, but that’s not the real reason). She does not even like Tamsin having long hair and only allows it because Dad likes it that way. Tamsin’s strict upbringing attracts sympathy from her classmates, who think gran is a dragon and don’t come to Tamsin’s house for that reason.

There is a mystery about Tamsin’s mother; whenever Tamsin asks questions about her, gran’s temper flares up. Tamsin is not sure she believes what gran says about her mother being dead, and wants to meet her mother. Tamsin also yearns to swim, but gran says she cannot because chlorine brings on her asthma, so she cannot join swimming classes at school. She always feels the odd one out.

One night Tamsin’s comb is ruined. She searches gran’s drawer for a spare and finds a silver fish-like comb. When she starts combing her hair, the comb seems to have a strange effect on her. She combs her hair all evening, and she seems to hear a sweet voice calling to her. She also has a strange, calming feeling, as if she is floating on water. This starts a habit of combing her hair continuously with the comb while feeling those strange effects. But gran is not impressed to find Tamsin combing her hair all evening. She calls it vanity and threatens to cut Tamsin’s hair off. But the comb starts inciting Tamsin to go against her gran. She starts wearing some fashionable clothes with the help of her friends. They also help her to have a go at swimming but gran stops her, screaming about her asthma problem, and drags her out in front of her friends.

Still, the attempt has Tamsin wondering if she really has a problem with chlorine. Then a new teacher insists on pupils producing doctor’s certificates if they are to be excused swimming. But gran will not even take Tamsin to the doctor to get one. Rather, she would keep Tamsin at home on swimming days, even though it is illegal and gran could get in trouble. But the comb encourages Tamsin to swim, and she starts doing so in secret at school with the help of her friend Ellen. And when she does, she finds she is a natural swimmer and there is no reaction to the chlorine.

There is another scene when gran catches Tamsin combing her hair. This time she almost cuts Tamsin’s hair off for real. But Dad, who has returned from the sea, intervenes. He says, “Oh Mother, I realise why you tried to do it, but cutting off her lovely hair is going too far!” But he will not tell Tamsin what he meant by knowing the reason for gran’s actions. This deepens the mystery that Tamsin is now more determined to solve.

An eye test (something gran had always kept Tamsin away from) reveals that there is nothing wrong with her eyes and Tamsin discovers the glasses her gran buys her are just plain glass. She now realises the glasses, plaits and everything else frumpy were intended to de-emphasise her looks because gran considers beauty a sin. Furious, she smashes her glasses and starts wearing her hair loose. When she confronts her father over the matter, he is oddly defensive about gran’s actions. Still, Gran is forced to agree to allow Tamsin to wear her hair loose. However, she confiscates all mirrors in the house to discourage any vanity in Tamsin, but Tamsin defies her with a broken mirror in the shed. This time, when she combs her hair, the comb says a name: Redruthan. Later, Tamsin discovers Redruthan is a place in Cornwall. When she mentions Redruthan, and more questions about Mum to Dad and gran, they both clam up oddly, saying that she and her mother originated in London. Now Tamsin is even more determined to find out about her mother.

Gran discovers Tamsin’s secret swimming. She really flips out, cutting up the swimming costume and towel and locks Tamsin in the broom cupboard. She also says something odd about lying being in Tamsin’s blood. Tamsin realises this can only mean her mother, as her father is honest. The comb comforts Tamsin again, saying happiness can begin in Redruthan. Then Tamsin discovers her birth certificate, which says she was born at Gull Cottage, Redruthan. So much for London origins.

Then gran falls sick and has a bad attack. Tamsin is also having second thoughts about the comb, realising it has brought problems for her in encouraging her to defy her gran. She turns to looking after her gran, but eventually gran is taken to hospital. The comb takes Tamsin over again and and urges her to head to Redruthan. This time, Tamsin cannot resist the call, although gran could be on the danger list and needs her badly. She goes Ellen’s house, as she and her parents are heading to Redruthan on holiday. She takes a replacement swimming costume Ellen left for her and sneaks a lift there in the back of their caravan. When she arrives in Redruthan, she feels she belongs there. People are astonished to see a girl running about in a swim costume in cold weather, but Tamsin does not feel cold in it; she feels alive.

Tamsin finds Gull Cottage, and learns that she, gran, Dad and Mum lived there when she was a baby, and locals think there was something funny about them. Her mother did not get on with gran and then disappeared. The comb then leads Tamsin to a mirror that matches it.

Meanwhile, gran discovers what Tamsin has done. Although she is still sick, she leaves hospital and comes to Redruthan, saying she is trying to save Tamsin. Ellen is in tow. Ellen is appalled at how sick gran looks, but gran is determined to save Tamsin. She always did have a will of iron.

Tamsin comes face to face with her mother – and discovers she is a mermaid! Her name is Nerina, and Nerina explains that when she first saw Tamsin’s father, she knew she must have him. Mermaids can swap their tails for legs when they want to marry humans, and this is what Nerina did to marry Tamsin’s father. Gran had opposed the marriage as she did not trust a woman whose past was a mystery, and she was right. The marriage soon fell apart due to Nerina’s selfish, vain cold mermaid nature; this made her a “vain, lazy wife” who spent all day preening in her mirror while leaving baby Tamsin crying in her cot. The irony of the whole situation is revealed in that it was left to strict gran to look after the neglected baby and give her love (see below), which by mermaid standards was “spoiling”. Eventually gran worked out the truth, so Nerina left, and she was missing the sea anyway. She left the comb, knowing it would bring Tamsin to her. Now she wants Tamsin to join her in her mermaid realm and starts pulling Tamsin down there. She does not seem to understand or care that Tamsin would drown because she is human.

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Gran and Ellen arrive, and Tamsin manages to get away from Nerina in order to say goodbye to gran. Gran explains that all her tactics were to ensure that Tamsin did not grow up like the vain Nerina and to keep her away from water. Tamsin now understands gran did not mean to be cruel, but says vanity and swimming are in her blood; she is a mermaid’s daughter after all. Gran begins pointing out what a cold fish Nerina is; she shows no love, no affection, and only sees Tamsin as a possession she must have and does not care that Tamsin would drown if taken down below. Indeed, Nerina told Tamsin not to call her ‘mother’, calling the term “an ugly, ageing title”. Ellen adds that gran has shown Tamsin love, in risking her life by discharging herself prematurely, in order to find Tamsin.

They get through to Tamsin. She realises her mother does not love her because a mermaid cannot feel love as humans can. She agrees to come home and look after gran.

Nerina isn’t giving up that easily though; she is determined to have what is hers. She retrieves the comb and throws it after Tamsin, trying to tempt her with all the comb has done for her and can do for her. But Tamsin has gone with gran and Ellen, and the comb gets lost forever in the waves.

Thoughts

“Combing Her Golden Hair” is regarded as another of Jinty’s classics and was one of her most popular and enduring stories. It can also be regarded as one of her most unconventional ones. It takes established formulas in girls’ comics and then turns them completely inside-out. And it does this with a conclusion that takes readers completely by surprise because it is not what they expected.

We have seen the formulas in this story used in so many serials: a strict guardian who never lets their charge have any fun or be herself; a guardian who imposes bizarre and unfair sanctions because they seem to have such an enormous chip on their shoulder for some reason; a shy girl who gets more confident when she acquires an object with strange powers, but it may come with a price; and a good old fashioned mystery that is just begging to be unravelled. The mystery here is the mystery of Tamsin’s mother. It is not hard to guess that the mother has something to do with the strict gran being the way she is. When the comb appears, the plot thickens even further. If it has a connection with the mystery mother, it drops a hint that there is something supernatural about the mother. And whatever it is, it is clearly connected with swimming, the sea, and all the other things that gran seems to go all out to squelch in Tamsin.

At any rate we laud the comb because its actions seem to be aimed at freeing Tamsin from the iron apron strings of her severe gran and her harsh, bizarre measures that really shock us at times, such as when gran goes so mad she nearly cuts Tamsin’s hair off or locks her in the cupboard. We all reckon that gran should be reported to child welfare, but we will settle for the ultimate liberation, which surely must come when the mystery of Tamsin’s mother is revealed. Once it is, Tamsin is going to be free of her horrible gran forever and go off arm in arm with her mother and she lives happily ever after. That’s how it always ends up in girls’ serials, right?

Nope, not in this case. It breaks all the clichés to give us a happy but completely unconventional ending that is full of surprises and irony. It turns out that the mother is the villain; not actually evil, but a possessive, selfish cold fish who wants Tamsin the same way she wanted her father – as possessions, and had no love for them. The mother used the comb to lure Tamsin to her while winning Tamsin’s confidence and trust by encouraging her to rebel against her grandmother and doing the things that gran was trying to keep her from. Gran had been set up as the villain of the piece, but she was actually a heroine – or anti-heroine? Once we learn all the facts, we can understand what made the gran the way she is and the thinking behind her actions. But she was not going about them the right way and it could easily be construed as child abuse. Trying to deny Tamsin what she is was not right either. As Tamsin herself told her gran, she is a mermaid’s daughter after all. We can only hope that in the aftermath, Tamsin and her gran will get along much better and gran will be more tolerant of Tamsin’s mermaid half. She will have to be, because Tamsin has a mermaid/human heritage she will be getting to grips with.

Perhaps the greatest irony and surprise of all is Nerina telling Tamsin that gran spoiled her rotten as a baby. Gran spoiling Tamsin? We have to laugh at that after seeing the way gran has brought Tamsin up. But the whole irony of it all is that it was the severe gran who gave Tamsin love while the cold-fish mother did not because it was not in her mermaid nature and gave baby Tamsin all the care she needed when the mother neglected her. And gran again showed Tamsin love by risking her own life to save Tamsin from what she sensed was going to happen once Tamsin met her mother. She was right, and she saved Tamsin’s life by showing she was the one who really loved Tasmin while the mother did not. So gran emerges as a proper heroine now and redeemed herself for her earlier harshness.

Readers are astonished when the reunion between mother and daughter is not liberation and happiness; instead, it is life threatening for Tamsin. But then, mermaids have been associated with sirens, who lured people to their doom with hypnotic singing. Mermaids have also been connected to things like shipwrecks, flooding, drownings and luring people to their doom. Other mermaid folklore portrays them as more benevolent and even tragic, depending on the region. But not in the case of Nerina, who was clearly inspired by the darker side of mermaid folklore.

Jackie’s Two Lives (1974-75)

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Jackie’s Two Lives, Jinty 1975
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Jackie’s Two Lives, Jinty 1975

 

 

 

 

Publication: 7/9/74-8/2/75

Artist: Ana Rodriguez

Writer: Alan Davidson

Note: writer Alan Davidson used a similar plot for his book The Bewitching of Alison Allbright

Synopsis

Jackie Lester is discontented and fed up at missing out because her family is poor. She can’t afford school trips and outings and does not invite anyone over because she is too ashamed to let them see her shabby house. As a result, her classmates get the impression she is standoffish and don’t invite her over. This does not do much for her popularity at school – or her self-confidence. And Jackie cannot afford a pony like most of the other girls although she is good with horses. This leads to constant rows with her family; the parents are distressed and say they do their best while Jackie’s sister Wendy tries to reason with her, to no avail.

One day, another row with her family has Jackie running off, and she nearly gets run over. It is the rich Mrs Mandell, who has just moved into the district. Mrs Mandell looks like she has seen a ghost when she sees Jackie and orders her chauffeur, Dowling, to track Jackie and then find out all he can about her. Dowling soon gives a full report on Jackie’s discontent.

Under pretext of making amends for the near-accident, Mrs Mandell offers to take Jackie on a school outing. Jackie is outraged when her parents decline the offer as they do not approve of gifts from strangers. She has no idea how right her parents are; Mrs Mandell hopes that the offer will be the lure to get to work on her.

And Mrs Mandell does get to work on Jackie. Being a rich lady, Mrs Mandell can offer Jackie the riches she wishes for. It starts with weekends at Mrs Mandell’s, with Jackie being groomed to be a lady. Her family comment on what a snob she is turning into because of this, which widens the rift between them. Then Mrs Mandell gives Jackie a secret name – Isabella, and during her special lessons, Jackie has to wear a wig to adopt the persona of Isabella. Jackie finds it strange, but soon likes it because it gives her confidence she never felt before. She is like an ugly duckling turning into a swan. And even better, there are riding lessons.

There seems to be a dark, insidious side to becoming Isabella. It starts when Jackie finds that Mrs Mandell starts entering her in gymkhanas under the name of Isabella Mandell – and starts telling everyone that she is her daughter! Now Jackie is living a lie as Mrs Mandell’s daughter, but she seems to be caught in a web of deceit she can’t get out of. Besides, it still gives her everything she could wish for, including trips to Paris.

Jackie is becoming confused about her own identity – is she Jackie or Isabella? Her confusion grows when Mrs Mandell starts insisting that Jackie call her Mummy. Mrs Mandell even blackmails Jackie with it – accept being her daughter without question or lose everything Mrs Mandell has given her. It looks more and more like Mrs Mandell is trying to lure Jackie away from her family and turn her into her own daughter.

Mrs Mandell’s hold over Jackie is causing more and more upsets in the Lester household. Jackie neglects Mum’s birthday and even goes off with Mrs Mandell instead of going on the birthday outing, which ruins the occasion. But the birthday is well and truly ruined when Mum sees through Jackie’s disguise at the restaurant, so Jackie has them all thrown out of the restaurant, just to silence her. The family are upset that Jackie is not appreciating the small treats they are contriving to give her to assuage her discontent. Jackie grows even more dissatisfied with her home and she calls her family “common”. Wendy tells Jackie that Mrs Mandell is breaking up the family. It reaches the point where Jackie actually slaps Wendy!

But there is a dark side to being Mrs Mandell’s daughter. Mrs Mandell has been training Jackie for gymkhanas, but when Jackie does not do well at her first event, Mrs Mandell goes completely fanatical and starts training Jackie to the point of exhaustion and beyond her limits. And it gets more frightening when Jackie discovers a portrait of Isabella. It seems there had been a real Isabella Mandell. But the riches still tempt Jackie to stay. And Jackie still wants to be Isabella, but Mrs Mandell says that in order to do so, she must turn her back on her family altogether and become Isabella on a full-time basis. Eventually Jackie does so, by faking her death.

The classmates’ mourning of Jackie has an upside – they finally see Jackie’s home, and once they do, they realise the real reason for Jackie’s seemingly standoffish conduct and regret their misjudgement.

Meanwhile, Mrs Mandell’s demands on Jackie get even worse. She becomes obsessed with Jackie winning the Princedale Trophy. This is an extremely tough event, and the training becomes even more demanding, gruelling, and merciless. Jackie grows even more terrified because she knows she does not have what it takes to win the trophy. It culminates in a nightmare that seems to be a premonition of what will happen at the Princedale event.

But Wendy suspects that Jackie is not dead and starts investigating Mrs Mandell’s past. She discovers that the daughter Isabella is dead – so the current Isabella cannot be her and therefore must be Jackie in disguise, just as she suspected. Wendy learns that Isabella was driven to her death by her mother’s obsession with her winning the Princedale Trophy. She was so terrified at the thought of failing her mother that she just rode off blindly and was killed in a road accident. Mrs Mandell was blamed and forced out of her old district. Wendy now sees how Mrs Mandell contrived to recreate Isabella in Jackie because Jackie resembled Isabella (the only difference being their hairstyles, hence the wig Jackie has to wear as Isabella) and have her make another bid at the trophy. She realises that Jackie is in terrible danger, from the same obsession that killed Isabella. She tries to talk sense into Jackie, but Jackie has her removed. Wendy finds help and they go after Jackie.

Mrs Mandell takes Jackie to the real Princedale course for a dry run. But Mrs Mandell’s demands finally get too much and Jackie “does an Isabella” – run off wildly on the horse. Wendy and help arrive in time to prevent Jackie from getting mangled by a car. But she does get knocked out, fulfilling the premonition in the dream. Mrs Mandell is horrified at the near-replay of Isabella’s death and belatedly opens her eyes to what she has done.

Mrs Mandell ends up in a nursing home. The doctors say she will recover one day. Jackie is happily reunited with her family. She now feels gratitude in her family life instead of discontent, has no shame in having friends over, and feels lucky compared to Isabella.

 

Thoughts

“Jackie’s Two Lives” was Ana Rodriguez’ second story for Jinty, starting straight after “Make-Believe Mandy”, the Rodriguez story in the very first Jinty lineup. After Jackie, Rodriguez would start straight on her third Jinty story, “Tricia’s Tragedy”. Another example of how Jinty liked to keep her artists in constant business.

Snobbery is something normally ascribed to spoiled rich girls in serials, but here Jinty turns the snob theme on its head. She shows us that snobbery can arise in the lower classes too, with a poor girl who is too ashamed to let her home be seen by her classmates because she has snobby attitudes that become even more manifest as riches come into her life and her head gets turned by the manipulations of Mrs Mandell. Her sister Wendy takes a more sensible attitude. Presumably Wendy has no problem with inviting mates over, but Jackie has clearly not learned from her example. The double life Jackie leads inflames her snobbery even more, even to the point where she hurts her family deeply. But in the end, Jackie, although still in a poor family, has changed her whole attitude towards it altogether and is much happier. She sees what she does have – a house full of love – which the unfortunate Isabella did not, for all her wealth, and Jackie is grateful for it. And once she is not ashamed to invite friends over, she finds she was making a big fuss over nothing. They don’t mind at all.

We know that Jackie is set for a sharp lesson at the beginning of the story with her disgruntled attitude. The twist is that it came through the thing Jackie wanted – riches. But it comes as little surprise to the readers. There have been so many stories on people finding that riches are not everything or bring happiness they expected, and Jackie finds this the hard way as she discovers what it means to be a poor little rich girl. She has everything she wants and then some as she becomes the new Isabella Mandell. Yet she does not have real happiness or freedom because she is sinking deeper and deeper into a web of lies and deceit while growing all the more terrified of Mrs Mandell and her relentless demands that Jackie knows she cannot meet. We can imagine it must have been the same for the real Isabella – a rich girl with everything but is miserable because she has an over-demanding mother. And for Isabella there was no escape while Jackie has a family she could go back to anytime. Yet Jackie is not pulling herself away despite all the warning signals. The temptation of riches keeps pulling her back and her mind is becoming increasingly confused in a form of brainwashing. She does not know whether she is Jackie or Isabella and then really begins to think she is Isabella who must please her mother, even though she is driving her far too hard in a way that is increasingly ruthless and terrifying. And Mrs Mandell herself is a very crafty and skilful manipulator in the tactics she uses to ensnare Jackie and deliberately drive wedges between Jackie and her family. It is all part of her plan to lure Jackie away altogether and make Jackie her own. It takes the shock of the accident to clear Jackie’s mind and restore not only her sense of identity but her sense as well.

From the moment Mrs Mandell orders her chauffeur to monitor Jackie, we know it bodes ill for Jackie. We also see Mrs Mandell in the role of the wicked witch who tries to lure a child away with treats and take advantage of her poor family situation. The thing is, we don’t yet know if Mrs Mandell is truly wicked and out to kidnap a child for some sinister purpose or if she is need of a psychiatrist. But as we begin to see it is all tied up around the mystery of Isabella, we are all eager to follow the clues and see if we can solve the mystery.

The ending may be a bit slick, with Mrs Mandell suddenly waking up after her one-tracked obsession with Isabella winning the trophy. On the other hand, the shock of seeing it happening all over again may have done what the first round did not. And there is some pity for Mrs Mandell when she ends up in the nursing home at the end and Jackie still feels Isabella haunts the place somehow (though she never actually lived there). It is understandable that Mrs Mandell was a grieving mother who wanted her daughter to live again. And she does redeem herself somewhat at the end when she finally realises what she has done. But it took a near-second time for her to do it. She did not learn from her mistake the first time.

We can see plenty of situations lessons that are all too much like real life in here. Tragedies resulting from obsessed parents driving their children too hard and making demands that are way too high. Grieving parents who want their children back in one form or another. Poor people wanting riches, but if they get them, do they get them the right way and does it really serve their best interests? And if you are poor, one thing you can do about it is your attitude towards it. Jackie should be a case story for The Secret, which says to look for the things you do have, not the things you don’t have. Every day look at the things to be grateful for, not brood on what you don’t have. Your situation will be so much better and you will be much happier. And finally, the old adage: be careful what you wish for – you might just get it.

 

 

House of the Past (1976)

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Publication: 24 April 1976 – 5 June 1976
Artist: Ken Houghton
Writer: Unknown

Summary
Anna Bentley has just moved from an orphanage to a girls’ hostel. At the hostel she is very surprised to come across a scrap of newspaper clipping which shows a photograph of a girl who looks exactly like her. The girl drowned over 43 years ago, on 16 April 1933, at Thunderham, Norfolk.

At a job hunting-agency, a Mrs Morris looks unusually interested in Anna and hired her as a live-in secretary at a large house in the country…in Thunderham. Anna is further surprised and alarmed to find herself staying in the same room as the drowned girl, whose name she discovers was Helen Fairley. It gets more mysterious when a photograph of Helen and her mother turns up in Anna’s room without explanation.

Things get even scarier when the house seems to be reverting to the year 1933. When Anna goes to sleep, she has dreams where she sees strange lights and hears voices saying she is Helen Fairley and the year is 1933. Mr and Mrs Morris turn up dressed in 1930s clothes, the morning paper says 1933 (the headline says Hitler has just been elected Chancellor of Germany), the clothes in Anna’s wardrobe change into 1930s ones, and her pop records change into 1920s music. And a strange woman turns up in her room while Mrs Morris feeds Anna drugs and she has more of those same dreams.

When Anna tries to escape, she finds there is no way out – everything is locked. She has to wait to find a ladder or some other means of escaping. And by now she is losing her sense of identity and beginning to think she is Helen Fairley. Seeing this, the Morrises are confident they can go on to the next step, which entails convincing Anna of one more thing and then she “goes to her doom.”

Meanwhile, Anna regains her sense of identity and discovers the mysterious woman is Mrs Fairley, Helen’s mother. She is a confused, grieving mother who has never accepted her daughter’s death and still waits for her. And this is apparently the reason the house is stuck in 1933. So says Mrs Morris, and there is only one way to break the spell. Anna plays along at being Helen to please Mrs Fairley.

Anna finds a full version of the newspaper report and discovers the Morrises were the only witnesses to Helen’s death. And then she realises the only way to break the spell is to die the same way as Helen. She tries to escape, but is stopped by Mrs Fairley and still obliged to go along with the charade of pretending to be Helen to humour Mrs Fairley. Later, Mrs Morris makes doubly sure of no escape by drugging Anna.

Next day the Morrises take Anna out on the boat while Mrs Fairley watches on the shore. The Morrises then attempt to drown Anna in a bid to force Mrs Fairley to accept her death. Anna successfully fools them into thinking they succeeded.

The motive is revealed when the Morrises try to get Mrs Fairley to sign everything over to them. She had never done so because she refused to accept Helen’s death, but now they think they have finally got her to accept it. However, Mrs Fairley’s confused head clears and she figures everything out. Then Anna arrives with the police and the Morrises are arrested. It is never established as to whether they really did murder Helen to inherit Mrs Fairley’s fortune, although the story did strongly imply it.

Anna stays on at the house – now living in the present – as Mrs Fairley’s new daughter.

Thoughts
From the moment Anna finds the newspaper cutting we know the direction where this story is heading. So the reversion to the 1930s pattern at the house is frightening, confusing and mysterious, but it does not surprise us. The mystery is how and why it is all happening. Is there really some supernatural force or perhaps even time travel mechanism at work? Or is it some sort of charade? And why does Anna look exactly like Helen? Is it a coincidence or is there something more? Could Anna be a long-lost relative of Helen or could the resemblance be due to some supernatural element, such as reincarnation? Above all, just what are the circumstances surrounding Helen’s death – and how will this bear out on what happens to Anna at the climax of the story?

The story does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing. Those dreams and flashing lights that Anna experiences do hint at some sort of charade. But then we hear the house is under a spell, and we begin to wonder again. And we sympathise with Anna, who is beginning to doubt her sanity and sense of identity because everything is saying 1933 and it looks like something or someone is trying to brainwash her. Even worse, the fate of Helen suggests that Anna’s life is in danger, a fact borne out by what the Morrises are hinting at.

On the other hand, Anna happening to come across that same newspaper clipping at the hostel, and then Mrs Morris just happening to be at the job agency and seeing Anna’s resemblance to Helen do stretch credibility a bit too far. And it does seem incredulous that the Morrises would spend 43 years trying to get hold of Mrs Fairley’s fortune or, we presume, finding a girl who looks exactly like Helen. Surely they would have come up with other ways in that time, such as hiring an actress to fool Mrs Fairley or forging her will. Or maybe they did some scheme or other before Anna came along – we don’t know. At any rate, it might have been better for a genuine supernatural element to be at work rather than just a fraud, attempted murder, and, we suspect, the murder of Helen, though this is never established. If so, it backfired on the Morrises for the simple reason that Mrs Fairley would not accept Helen’s death. And in the end, after 43 years of waiting and scheming, they ended up with nothing because they underestimated their would-be victim who was luckier than Helen.

Then There Were 3… (1976)

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Publication: 17 April-3 July 1976
Artist: Phil Townsend
Writer: unknown

Summary
Ten school girls are to spend their holiday exploring a derelict canal on the old narrow boat. It starts with ten, but the opening blurb tells us the numbers will reduce on a trip that is to turn into a nightmare. It starts right away when Tina, who finds it ominous that the boat is called Water Witch, finds the gangplank break under her feet. She hurts her ankle and is off the trip. Gail replaces her, so the number stays at ten – for now. The other girls do not like Gail much as she is a bit pushy and does not like taking orders, but she soon blends in. And she is soon overtaking Sharon, the leader of the group, in terms of brains, courage and leadership qualities.

The supernatural element is further reinforced the moment they meet the boatman’s wife who is in charge of them. She is a creepy looking gypsy like woman and her name is Mrs Bogle. How subtle. She tells them they are heading off to Creeping Weed Pool. And once they reach it, they see a warning sign that says “Beware: Lucifer Canal”. Now this is getting spookier by the minute. And it gets worse when Pickles and Jill wake up in the night to find the creeping weed all over their boat. And then it grabs Jill. She is saved from being dragged under but is scared off the trip. Down to nine.

In order that their jobs are allotted fairly, Sharon has marked ten dolls with each girl’s name for the roster. But as you might have guessed, the dolls are soon marking something far more sinister. After Jill has her encounter with the weed, they find her doll smashed. The template of things to come. And others are getting rattled by the warning sign that sailing further on the canal is dangerous and getting ideas that it is haunted.

And so it goes on, with one spooky thing after another, with girls getting progressively scared off and their corresponding dolls getting mysteriously smashed. The stops they make give the impression of haunting – or do they? At one point they stop at a supposed derelict inn, but find a sumptuous banquet inside and everything cosy. But when they wake up next morning, the place is derelict and cobwebby and nobody could have lived there for years. And Gail finds a question mark etched on the table. But what really scares even her off are the bats. Afterwards, Gail finds tyre tracks and a can of soup that is the same brand as the one they consumed at the inn. Coincidence or clue? At another, they encounter a ghost in a mill, but Gail finds it is just a bunch of clothes tied to a rope.

From the outset, Gail has been level-headed about it all and says they are just accidents. But now she thinks someone is trying to scare them off. Gail suspects Mrs Bogle as she does seem to be trying to persuade them to leave, winding them up with stories that the canal is cursed. At one point she even tries to get the police to send them home. Gail’s suspicions are confirmed when she finds Mrs Bogle’s brooch beside yet another smashed doll.

By this time the ten is down to the titular three – Gail, Pickles and Sharon. Convinced that Mrs Bogle is trying to stop them reaching the end of the canal, the girls pull a ruse to make her think she has succeeded. They pretend to turn back and put on an act of being scared off for Mrs Bogle’s benefit. She buys it and believes it is safe to tell the others it is safe to carry out the final stages of their plan. Now what can that be? Well, we know now it can’t be hauntings.

The girls sneak to the end of the canal to investigate. They find an iron grille gate and – giant frogs the size of men?!? Sharon loses her nerve at this and goes back. Down to two. Pickles and Gail swim in and find a counterfeiting ring in operation. The giant frogs are men in frog suits (literally) which explains how they managed to rig things along the canal for the girls. Gail and Pickles are captured by the counterfeiters and are locked in. The counterfeiters are now ready to roll with their forgeries and proceed to make their getaway. But the  girls manage to escape. Gail knew it all along because she brought their dolls so they would not get mysteriously smashed like the others. Obviously, Mrs Bogle had been breaking them to throw a scare into each girl before arranging an accident for her.

They go on the trail of the counterfeiters, who find their getaway blocked by the Water Witch. In fact, they smash into it and are tipped into the water. Sharon had gone to the police, who had been hunting for the forgers for a while. The forgers fell into the trap set by the police and Sharon. They are soon rounded up, with Pickles and Gail personally catching Mrs Bogle.

Now the girls turn back along the canal, revisiting the various places where they got their various scares and discuss how the counterfeiters must have rigged them. This time, though, things are more peaceful. When they are back where they started the trip, the other girls who had been scared off return to cheer the three who had stuck it out until the end.

Thoughts
The title and opening blurb of the story make it clear what is going to happen. And when you meet Mrs Bogle (is that her real name?) you immediately share Gail’s suspicions about her. The question is, how does it all fit together? From the way the opening panel sets things up, you wonder if Mrs Bogle is going to spirit these girls away one by one or something. The girls are all winding themselves up for supernatural events. So do the people who have lived on the canal, judging by the names they have given these stops. Creeping Weed Pool? Lucifer Canal? Maybe that is why the canal is derelict. And with Mrs Bogle sharing the same theme of name, you may wonder if she is a real witch. And maybe the accidents are accidents, but why so many of them, and why does a doll smash around the same time an accident occurs? Could there really be supernatural forces closing in on them?

The scares the criminals set up for the girls are brilliant, and it would not be surprising if they had pulled similar tricks on other people. The scene where they pull the weed all over the barge is extremely creepy. And the haunted inn scene would have just about anyone believing they had been in some kind of time warp to the past and come back to the present. But afterwards the criminals start making mistakes. It had to happen. And the ghost of the mill that turns out to be a rigged up dummy is where Gail is really tipped off. The crooks must have been losing their touch there. It is not surprising that their game starts to unravel after this.

But until then, you can’t make out what is causing all these strange events at all. Are they unlucky coincidences, accidents and overactive imaginations? Or is there some supernatural force at work that is growing ever more dangerous the more the girls venture down the canal? It comes as a relief to discover that it is all sabotage and scares rigged by criminals. And they would have gotten away with it all if Gail had not joined the crew at the last minute. Her level-headedness, courage and quick wits, and determination to stay when others dropped out in fear is what carries the trip and the story through to the happy ending.

“Then There Were 3…” may not be one of Jinty’s classics, but it is an effective, well crafted story of fear and mystery that would give readers lots of creeps and scares before the girls start to turn the tables. And we have plenty of action, adventure, and and exciting ending when Sharon, the leader who supposedly chickens out turns up trumps with the police. But it would not have ended that way if not for Gail’s determination and, more importantly, her skepticism.

Tricia’s Tragedy (1975)

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Publication: 1/3/75-31/5/75

Reprints/translations: Girl Annual 1982; Tineke – Strijd om de Lankman-trofee [Tineke – Fighting for the Lankman Trophy] (in: Tina 1975/76, Tina Topstrip 18 (1980)).

Artist: Ana Rodriguez

Writer: Unknown

Summary

Tricia Hunt is a promising swimmer, but her family is so poor (Dad has a bad leg and cannot work) that she can only train in the quarry pool as she cannot afford the local one. But Dad keeps training her hard to win the Lloyd trophy, which was founded by her grandfather. Then the quarry pool gets whipped from under them because it has been bought over by their rich and highly respected relatives, the Lloyds. This is a double blow because there is bad blood between the Lloyds and the Hunts, and Tricia cannot understand why.

Things take a surprising turn when the Lloyds invite Tricia to come and train in their private pool to make up for the loss of the quarry pool. Dad gets a horrible sense of foreboding that something terrible will happen if they accept the offer, but Tricia decides to do so. Not surprisingly, this is a decision she will regret. You should always listen to gut feelings!

Perhaps Tricia should have been suspicious when she finds the Lloyd parents and spoiled cousin Diana a hard lot, and she does not like them much. So why should they make this invitation out of the kindness of their hearts, especially after all those years they’ve spent shunning the Hunts and then acting as if they never did? But Tricia is all eager to try out the pool and get training. She is also surprised to find Diana is training for the Lloyd trophy too, although Diana is more a diver than a swimmer.

But of course Dad’s premonition had been right on. In the pool, disaster strikes – Tricia does not hear warnings in time to get out of the way while Diana is diving, and the resulting accident has Diana go blind. The guilt-stricken Tricia agrees to become Diana’s helper, living with the Lloyds and helping Diana train for the Lloyd Trophy. But she still keeps her promise to her parents to go in for the trophy herself.

Dad tells Tricia that she is blaming herself too much. Diana should take at least some of the blame as well for not checking the pool and Tricia properly before making her dive. And he does not like the way Diana is having Tricia at her beck and call all the time and treating her like a slave. Tricia does not like it either and is now hating Diana – but is bound to Diana by guilt and a terrible debt. Dad tries to talk to his brother-in-law and pull Tricia away, but Mr Lloyd just throws him out.

Before he goes, Dad tells Tricia the reason for the feud. Years ago, he had won the Lloyd trophy, but Mr Lloyd accused him of cheating. Grandfather Lloyd believed the accusation and disinherited Dad, and so began their descent into poverty when they should have been wealthy like the Lloyds. Dad wants Tricia to win the trophy so the Hunts will regain what they should have.

It becomes increasingly apparent to Dad that the Lloyds are trying to stop Tricia winning the Lloyd trophy, especially when he finds the Lloyds are trying to deprive Tricia of sleep. With Tricia’s help he sneaks into Mr Lloyd’s study to investigate. They are surprised by Diana, but are not worried as she is blind and cannot see them. Dad finds a document signed by Grandfather Lloyd which mentions the Lloyd trophy. But before he can examine it properly, the police arrest him. In order have Mr Lloyd get her father released from custody, Tricia agrees to throw the Lloyd swimming match in Diana’s favour.

Dad sneaks back in and overhears what Tricia is planning to do. He also sees something else – Diana putting her hand over her face, as if to keep sun out of her eyes. This confirms what he has been suspecting about Diana ever since his arrest. Can you guess what it is? I beat Mr Hunt to it!

He has to do a mad dash to the pool – covering two miles with a bad leg – in order to alert Tricia that Diana has been faking and not blind at all. He manages it just as Tricia is about to go into her final lap. The lap turns into one angry lap of revenge against Diana, with Tricia reflecting on past events in the light of what she now realises about her scheming cousin. Tricia wins, although it looks an extremely narrow margin, and wins the trophy.

Furious, Diana drops her blind pretence as she leaves the pool. Seeing this, the crowd boos her – a much deserved dent in the high respectability of the Lloyds. You have to wonder who was really cheating at the Lloyd trophy all those years ago.

Of course money has been the motive for it all. The document was a revised will from Grandfather Lloyd. He had reconsidered his earlier decision about Mr Hunt and made the new will, which left most of his fortune to whichever granddaughter who would win the trophy. So now the Hunts finally have the money they were cheated out of years earlier, while the Lloyds quickly sell up and clear out. The Hunts are now so rich they can afford to buy the Lloyds’ old home, but Tricia does not want to buy the bad memories she has of that place, thank you very much.

Thoughts

This is not one of Jinty’s best remembered stories or one of her real classics. It is more of a pretty standard but still good story about scheming relatives, cheating rivals, determination to win through against all odds, making huge sacrifices for love, going from rags to riches, and finally getting justice. It also has an extremely thrilling climax of plotters thinking they’ve got everything sewn up – only to have their trick discovered at the very last minute, but they could still win if Tricia does not make up for lost ground fast and beat Diana. There is enough in the story to keep the reader interested.

However, it does get too obvious what is going on. After all, there were reasons to be suspicious of the Lloyds to begin with, and once they pull blatant tricks to deprive Tricia of sleep, it is a dead giveaway that they are up to something. Still, their first scheme to snare Tricia by playing on her guilt is extremely clever. They even have a doctor at the hospital to give a phony diagnosis that Diana is blind. They probably had backup plans – threatening to sue the Hunts or pressing charges, perhaps – if Tricia had not played right into their hands by becoming Diana’s slave. Fortunately Tricia was still determined to win the trophy despite her guilt, which forced them into the mistake of the more obvious tricks that fired Dad’s suspicions.

Merry at Misery House (1974-1975)

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Publication: 11 May 1975 to 30 August 1975

Episodes: 62
Artist: Unknown artist ‘Merry’
Writer: Terence (Terry) Magee

Tammy may have been the first in a new breed of girls’ comics that revelled in dark stories that tortured their heroines. But from the first, Jinty proved she could torture hers just as cruelly. And not even Tammy tortured a heroine as long as Merry Summers here. Merry at Misery House was Jinty’s longest running serial – starting in the very first issue and running for over 60 episodes! Despite this, Merry never appeared in the Jinty annuals, which seems strange.

Merry was borne from one of the most popular formulas in girls’ comics – the slave story. The slave story was so popular that if readership was taking a dip, they would bring out the slave story. The slave story was frequent in the IPC titles in the 1960s and 1970s but had faded by the 1980s. However, it carried on in the DCT titles.

In a slave story, a group of girls are being used as slaves or held prisoner in an establishment with harsh and cruel conditions. It may be a factory, a workhouse, a school, an underground racket, a quarry, an island, or other settings. The protagonist is the one who rebels against the conditions and out for escape, and so is in for the harshest treatment from the gaolers. Often there is a “toady” character, a prisoner who curries favour with the gaolers and helps to administer the cruelty on her fellow inmates. Sometimes the toady has a change of heart, which is crucial for the resolution of the story, and sometimes not. Frequently, though not always, there is a mystery tied in as well, such as what are the gaolers up to in the secret room or who is the mystery person that keeps popping up to help the girls? Yes, sometimes there is a mystery helper, such as Emma in Tammy’s most infamous slave story, “Slaves of ‘War Orphan Farm’”. Whenever there is a mystery of any sort in the slave story, unravelling it is the key to freedom for the prisoners.

Jinty seemed to have fewer slave stories than Tammy. But then she hardly needed to when she had a resident slave story in the form of Merry.

In the year 1920, Merry Summers is wrongly convicted of theft (circumstances of which are never explained – we are not even told what Merry was accused of stealing) and sentenced to two years in a reformatory. The reformatory is called Sombre Manor, but it is better known as Misery House for its harshness and sadistic staff. Everything about Misery House is designed to break and torture the spirits of its inmates, right down to intimidating signs everywhere with messages such as “Behave Or Be Sorry”, “No Smiling” and “Nothing Is So Bad It Can’t Get Worse”. The Warden, Miss Ball the guard, and Adolfa, the resident toady of the story, reserve their worst treatment for Merry because she refuses to let the cruelties of Misery House break her spirit, change her chirpy ways, or stop her smiling – not to mention her plans to escape and expose the cruelties of Misery House. The cruelties include being shackled in drip dungeons, pillories, enforced ostracising from other inmates, working a sick girl to the point of death, being farmed out as slave labour, beatings, lousy food, bedding removed in freezing conditions, and a zoo-like enclosure where prisoners are abandoned in wretched conditions to run savage and ragged.

One of the greatest strengths of the story is that the Warden and Miss Ball must rate as two of the most brilliantly-conceived villains ever in girls’ comics. Sure, they are cruel, heartless, hypocritical, corrupt and brutal – yet at the same time they are subtle caricatures, a parody of prison brutality, which stops their cruelty from going to utter excess. They are not set out as implicitly evil sadists who are just there to torture and exploit their victims, though of course that is what they do all the time.

Of course, there are friends to help Merry along. The most notable of them is Carla Flax, Merry’s best friend. Carla is on her second sentence at Misery House. We have to wonder why she has ever been in a reformatory at all because she does not come across as the delinquent type. Others include girls who have been inspired by Merry’s courageous cheerfulness. Some of them, such as Violet, have been won over from causing Merry trouble to becoming friends with her. The reader of course, is inspired too, and must take great heart from the girl who refuses to stop being merry despite everything that is thrown at her.

About half way through the story, we get an exciting change of pace when Merry finally escapes from Misery House. Her motive for escaping is to expose the cruelty of Misery House – nothing about proving her innocence, which is the usual case with serials about with wrongly convicted persons. But fate turns against Merry; she has an accident and gets amnesia, and then gets blackmailed by a criminal. During her time on the run she is almost adopted by a rich couple, but in the end she is returned to Misery House.

Back to square one then? Not quite – it is here that the mystery element creeps in, with signs that the Warden and Miss Ball are up to something. For example, the Warden and Miss Ball send the girls out to work for a cruel farmer and make a profit. This is illegal, but there’s worse. They try to blackmail the farmer’s stepson into signing over the farm to him by threatening to have him arrested on trumped up charges. They are foiled in the end but take off smartly with the girls before any authorities are onto them.

Eventually the girls discover that the Warden and Miss Ball have been illegally selling off the good food supplies that they should have been receiving and foisting substandard food onto them. This incites them into rebellion and they barricade themselves in. The Warden responds with a plot to kill Merry. When Adolfa finds out, she becomes one toady with a change of heart. She saves Merry – and takes a horrible crack on the head from Miss Ball for doing so – and joins the rebels. The Warden tries to smoke them out, but the fire rages out of control and the girls cannot escape because the gates are locked.

But wouldn’t you know it – here come the police in the nick of time. They’ve had their eye on Misery House for a while and arrest the Warden and Miss Ball. They also tell Merry that her name has been cleared (no details on how she has been cleared, just as there were no details on just how she came to be wrongly convicted), and her parents are here to collect her. As for Misery House, it is finished in more ways than one – the fire has destroyed it.

Merry is still worried about what will happen to her friends. The parents think their sentences will be remitted. Merry’s friends tell her they will never forget the example she showed them in how to handle oppression.

Addendum: included 23 May 2014

The Terry Magee story “The Four Friends at Spartan School” (Tammy 23/10/71-8/1/72) clearly foreshadows Merry. It even has the same unknown artist, though of course it is a much earlier example of his/her artwork.

Spartan School is a special school in Switzerland run by Miss Bramble. The school is designed to instil discipline and compliance into problem pupils. Unfortunately, Miss Bramble’s ideas of discipline go too far and turn into torture and abuse. They include beatings, feeding the pupils poor food, and locking them in dungeons, the pillory, and even iron masks. It is no wonder that the pupils either end up as scared, broken down zombies or joining in the cruelty. Like the Warden, Miss Bramble and her crony, Siddons the prefect, go as far as attempted murder when the girls they especially want to break are making a bid for freedom. But unlike Adolfa, Siddons does not have a change of heart. On the contrary, she is far more evil than Adolfa – in fact, she is the one who suggests the murder while Adolfa draws the line at Merry’s.

Judy Jenkins, the heroine of this story, could well be the predecessor of Merry. She likes to play jokes to liven things up a bit. Unfortunately she keeps doing it in class, which gets her into the trouble that sends her to Spartan School. But like Merry, Judy refuses to be broken and her courageous defiance singles her out for the worst treatment.

And as with Misery House, Spartan School is physically destroyed (by an avalanche) as well as being shut down by the authorities.

Spartan School was Magee’s first serial, and Merry certainly shows the advances he had made in his storytelling and characterisation since then. For example, while the villains in Spartan School are just plain cruel and nasty in the name of discipline, the villains in Merry show subtle nuances; Miss Ball, for example, displays a sardonic, cruel sense of humour.  There are Orwellian touches too, as shown in the omniscent signs plastered all over Misery House. There is also a fascist look about the Warden, who is is always clad in a dark uniform and glasses. The Warden never takes off those dark glasses, so we never see her full face. This has a dehumanising effect on her that makes her all the more frightening – except to Merry, it seems.

Sample images

Spartan School 6a

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Spartan School 6b

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Spartan School 6c

Addendum 2: 26 March 2018

Ten years after finishing Merry, Terry Magee was writing “The Nightmare” for Battle. The influence of “Merry at Misery House” can be seen in this long-running saga (January 19th 1985 to October 11th 1986). Ian Wilson is kidnapped by SS Hauptmann Grappner and imprisoned in a Hitler Youth camp (at least it’s not a concentration camp). Like Merry, Ian refuses to give in and resolves to escape. He does, and it turns into a far more fugitive story than Merry. But instead of fighting back with smiles and jokes as Merry does, Ian uses the survival and combat skills he has learned. Along the way Hitler himself joins the campaign against Ian after the indignity Ian inflicts on him (below). Congratulations, Ian! Not many protagonists in British comics can say they have Adolf Hitler for a personal enemy. Art by Jesus Redondo (the original artist of the strip was Mario Capaldi).

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