Tag Archives: mystery

Secret of the Skulls (1976)

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Published: Tammy 1 May 1976 to 17 July 1976

Episodes: 12

Artist: Mario Capaldi

Writer: Unknown

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

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

Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lara the Loner (1981)

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Published: Tammy 10 October 1981 to 5 December 1981

Episodes: 9

Artist: Juliana Buch

Writer: Alison Christie

Translations/reprints: none known

Plot

Ever since she can remember, orphan Lara Wolfe has had a fear of crowds (ochlophobia) and panics like nobody’s business whenever she gets caught in one. Lara has no idea why she has this phobia. Gran says she will explain why when she feels Lara is old enough to understand. But when Gran finally decides the time has come, she dies of a heart attack before she can explain. Well timed, Gran.

Living in the country, where things are less crowded, has made it easier for Lara to cope with ochlophobia. But after Gran’s death, social welfare moves her to the city. In the city, things are even more crowded, both at school and at the children’s home Lara now lives in. This makes Lara’s phobia even worse. Then, after a bully at the home publicly humiliates Lara over her phobia, she vows she won’t tell anyone else about it. And she has the added frustration of still not knowing the reason for it all. 

So now the stage is set for the setup that follows until the end of the story: Lara’s phobia, which drives her to either avoid crowds or flee from them in a blind panic, combined with her refusal to explain the problem, gets her into a whole heap of trouble. It leads to misunderstandings and spoiled opportunities and friendships that make her increasingly unpopular, both at the children’s home and at school. The girls all think Lara shuns them and doesn’t mix in anything (because of her fear) because she’s an antisocial, stuck-up loner. So they call her “Lara the Loner”. Lara can’t make or keep friends or do activities she would love to do because her fear keeps messing everything up. 

The misunderstandings reach the point where the girls, both at the home and at school, turn right against Lara. A wonderful opportunity to be adopted is also spoiled by her phobia – and nearly gets her wrongly charged with shoplifting as well. Lara’s phobia even puts her in hospital – twice. But not even these hospitalisations or running off because she’s so miserable do anything to improve her popularity. Neither does nearly dying of pneumonia, which Lara contracts because of her phobia (forced to take a long walk in pouring rain because the bus is crowded). Matron has to force the girls at the home to make the “welcome home” banner for Lara.

Lara has only one friend at the home, a little girl named Susie. But Susie gets adopted – by the same couple who rejected Lara after the false impression she was a shoplifter. Now Lara has nobody and crying at how her phobia is ruining her whole life.

Another couple, the Maxwells, take an interest in adopting Lara. This time, when Lara gets into a panic in front of them, she tells them about her phobia before rushing off. Lara is astonished to find them very understanding because Mrs Maxwell has ochlophobia too. Now Lara and Mrs Maxwell have found they are kindred spirits, they draw even closer together.

Then Lara stumbles across a newspaper cutting at the Maxwells’. It informs her that when she was a baby, she, her parents, and the Maxwells’ daughter Susie got caught in an accident where a bus mounted a crowded pavement. She was thrown clear, but her parents and Susie were killed. So Lara and Mrs Maxwell have ochlophobia for the same reason!

Moments after Lara discovers the reason for her phobia, the accident is re-enacted when a van mounts a crowded pavement. Fearful that Mrs Maxwell has been caught up in it, Lara dashes out and, forgetting her fear, pushes her way into the crowd in search of her. Seeing Lara push her way into the crowd, a concerned Mrs Maxwell does the same. After this, they are overjoyed to find they are not scared of crowds anymore. 

Now ochlophobia is no longer a barrier and there are no more panics from it, there is nothing to stop Lara mixing at school. She is now the biggest mixer of them all there, she has friends at last, and her popularity is on the rise. 

Naturally, the Maxwells adopt Lara and she becomes Lara Maxwell. 

Thoughts

Serials about a whole string of misunderstandings and unfair unpopularity caused by a phobia were more commonly found at DCT than at IPC. One example is “A Dog’s Life for Debbie” from Tracy. A fear of dogs keeps messing things up for Debbie Bruce and, like Lara, makes her increasingly unpopular because of all the misunderstandings her phobia causes.

A story with this format in an IPC title makes it more refreshing, as it appeared less often at IPC than DCT. Also of interest is that the story format deviates from DCT where a misunderstanding caused by Lara’s phobia always ends on a cliffhanger. It is not until the next episode that we see how it turns out. And until the final episode it is not in Lara’s favour! Had this story run at DCT, each misunderstanding would have been shown in a self-contained episode until the penultimate episode. 

Lara’s phobia sure is one that can make life really difficult, for unless you live in serious isolation crowds are virtually unavoidable. And it is a serious barrier to socialising or even doing everyday things in public areas. Lara panicking in a crowd is also dangerous, not only for her but for others as well. This is shown on several occasions in the story. For example, in one episode Lara accidentally hits a girl with her hockey stick while she panics to get out of a crowd. In another, she causes a pile-up at the school disco – with her at the bottom.

These misunderstandings could have been sorted out and Lara not so unpopular if she had simply explained. But she has sworn not to tell anyone about her phobia after the bullying incident. So people continue to jump to the wrong conclusions about Lara and she becomes even more unpopular and miserable. It is fortunate for Lara that for once she forgot that vow and told the Maxwells. If not, it would have been another miserable misunderstanding for her. The message is clear: if you have a problem with a phobia, tell someone about it and try to get help for it. 

Getting help with the phobia is something Lara never does. Gran does not help Lara overcome the problem either, although she is sympathetic and knows the reason for it. But help for phobias is available if you care to look.

Added to Lara’s misery is her not knowing why she is scared of crowds. In most other phobia serials the girl at least knows why she has the phobia, but not in this case. It also gives the element of mystery to the story to unravel, and girls just love mystery. So the mystery would have made them eager to follow the story even more. And when the reveal comes, we suspect it will hold the key to solving Lara’s problem. It’s no surprise to find it’s linked with how Lara got orphaned. The cure is also associated with the original incident: a re-enactment of it, which has both Lara and Mrs Maxwell face their ochlophobia. And they did it without even thinking about it because other thoughts overrode their fear.  

Thursday’s Child (1979)

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Published: Tammy 20 January 1979 – 31 March 1979

Episodes: 11

Artist: Juan Solé

Writer: Pat Mills

Translations/Reprints: Girl (second series) Picture Library #29 (abridged); Tina 1986 as “Merel, het meisje van morgen” [Merel, the girl from tomorrow]. 

We continue our Halloween season with one of Tammy’s very best spooky stories, “Thursday’s Child”.

Plot

Life has always been good to Thursday Brown, at home and at school. Hmm, do we sense an “until” coming? Oh yes, and it starts when Mum tells Thursday to put the family Union Jack flag away in the loft until it is needed for the millennium celebrations in 2000. While doing so, Thursday ponders where she will be in 2000, and the thought crosses her mind that she might have a daughter.

Then Thursday decides to use the flag for a bedspread instead. Her mother reluctantly agrees, hinting there is something about that flag when she says there was a story grandfather told her about it. Thursday gets her first taste of this when she washes the flag: red liquid comes out in the wash, and Thursday is creeped out to find it feels more like blood to the touch than dye.

That night, the weirdness really begins. Thursday can’t sleep because she feels awful for some reason. She leaves the bed momentarily and recovers, but when she comes back there is a strange girl in her bed. The girl is crying and makes strange ramblings about her mother and how she’s suffering, and if only things had been different. Thursday also notices that the girl bears a resemblance to her. The girl introduces herself as Julie Kemp and really insists on staying, claiming it is her home after all. She wheedles Thursday into helping her stay on with a cover story to her parents. 

At school, Julie plays nasty tricks on Thursday. Moreover, Thursday used to be popular, but now her friends just seem to go off her and make a big fuss over Julie instead. Thursday is out in the cold and nobody seems to care about her anymore. Most telling of all, Julie draws a picture of Thursday in a wheelchair in art class. This upsets Thursday, but nobody sympathises with her. 

Thursday gets the feeling Julie is getting her own back on her for something, but for what? She has never done anything to Julie. But Julie is definitely giving Thursday evil, vindictive looks full of utter hate. When Julie is finally given thought bubbles, we see she is thinking Thursday deserves everything that’s coming to her. 

Julie then claims to be Thursday’s own daughter from the future, and she has travelled back in time to the present. All the hints Julie has dropped now have Thursday thinking something horrible awaits her in the future and she will become wheelchair-bound. Thursday is also getting terrifying manifestations of blood on her face and hands (and it’s not stigmata), and experiences an inexplicable bout of paralysis in her legs. Julie just gloats over this. 

During a fight with Julie, Thursday is consumed by a hatred she never felt before, and it shocks her when she realises. Then she sees the flag glowing. She shows this to Julie, who is disturbed by it too. Thursday tells Julie the flag is making them hate each other. Julie doesn’t argue. Is she having second thoughts about whatever it is she has against Thursday? She does become nicer to Thursday after this and even prompts Thursday’s friends to be nice to her again. But is Julie’s friendliness for real? She has put on false shows of niceness to Thursday before.

Remembering what Mum said about the flag, Thursday asks her for the story about it. But Mum can’t remember what it was. Thanks a lot, Mum.

Thursday decides to follow her mother’s advice and put the flag in the loft. But while doing so she has a fall, which both the flag and Julie (influenced by the flag) cause. The accident leaves Thursday’s legs paralysed for real, with no apparent explanation except shock (or the power of the flag?). Julie really is rubbing it in and Thursday is learning the hard way what it means to be disabled.

Despite her paralysis, Thursday manages to get the flag into the loft, hoping this will stop the trouble. But as soon as she turns the tap on, more blood-like water comes out. The parents put this down to dye running out because the flag was put near the water tank – but Thursday put it in the trunk! The flag is making it clear that being in the loft won’t stop it. 

Julie has persistently refused to explain why she hates Thursday or just what happened in the future, but now she gives way. She is indeed Thursdays’ daughter from the future. In fact, the house Thursday living in now is where she will raise Julie once she’s married and the room that is currently Thursday’s will become Julie’s. In Julie’s time, Thursday’s careless driving (nagging at Julie over her untidy appearance instead of watching the road) caused an accident that left Julie’s legs paralysed. This embittered Julie and turned her against her mother. Then Thursday brought the flag out as a bedspread for Julie (oh, dear, where have we seen that before?) and gave her a library book about the Westshires, a British regiment that one of their ancestors served in. When Julie read it, it told her something about the flag. She then used the flag’s power to go back in time to regain the use of her legs, get her revenge on Thursday, and have Thursday know what it’s like to be paralysed. And she is determined to stay in Thursday’s time although she’s not supposed to be there and her presence is messing up continuity.

Thursday tracks down the library book. She learns a South Sea island chief, Battanga, ran a cult of the Undead, which ran amok. The Westshires were dispatched to crush the cult and Thursday’s great-grandfather killed Battanga. As Battanga lay dying, he cursed great-grandfather’s family, saying his blood is upon them and their descendants, and he will return for revenge someday. His bloodied hands grasped the flag as he made his curse (which would explain the blood manifestations). Since then, Thursday’s family have regarded the flag as “a token of ill-fortune” (but they just have to keep the ruddy thing, don’t they?).

Thursday now realises the flag has to be destroyed utterly. Julie won’t agree, as this would mean sending her back to the future where she will be paralysed. Thursday points out the future will be altered, as the flag, if destroyed in this time, won’t exist in Julie’s time as it did before, which may change the future and prevent the accident. Julie still won’t budge.

Then the flag has a workman take a hacksaw to his own hand (urrghh!) when he is told to remove everything in the loft. This has Julie realise things have gone too far and how horrible she’s been. She agrees to help Thursday take the flag to the dump to be burned, and take her chances on what happens when she returns to her own time.

But of course the flag puts up a fight – and how silly of them to drape it over Thursday’s wheelchair! The flag seizes its chance to race Thursday’s wheelchair over to the canal, wrap itself around her, and try to drown her while Battanga himself appears and gloats over Thursday’s impending doom. Fortunately Julie manages to save Thursday in time. After the rescue, Thursday suddenly finds she can walk again. 

The flag washes up just where they want it to be – the dump – and it is thrown into a fire. Once the flag is destroyed, Julie vanishes. Thursday feels the timeline has been altered sufficiently to prevent Julie’s accident but “won’t know for sure until today catches up with tomorrow…”. Yeah, assuming it is the same tomorrow. What else will be altered because of Julie and the flag’s meddling with the timeline? 

Thoughts

“Thursday’s Child” is a Tammy classic and it was hugely popular, attracting comment in the letters section and even Tammy’s 10th birthday issue. It sure was one of my favourites and I was dying to read the next episode each week. 

The artwork of Juan Solé must have been a delightful novelty for Tammy readers. Solé’s artwork appeared more frequently in June, but this is his only Tammy serial. It is a shame he did not draw more for Tammy (apart from a couple of Strange Stories). I really enjoyed the artwork as much as the story, and the artwork must have added to its popularity.

The story was written by Pat Mills. This was at the height of the Misty era, so it’s not surprising it goes into a lot of themes that are strong, scary and dark: a cursed flag that can move on its own, exert influence evil influence over people and even glow in the dark when it’s aroused; a hate-crazed daughter out for revenge on her own mother; terrifying visions; inexplicable bouts of paralysis; threats of a terrible future ahead; a voodoo chief; the Undead (briefly); a man nearly sawing his hand off; and lots of blood. And ye Editor allowed it. The story would not be out of place in Misty. Could there be any other dark stuff Mills wrote into the story that ye Editor censored or diluted, which he did with a couple of completes Mills wrote for Misty?

The story certainly has a moral to be careful what you put on your bed, especially if you are warned there might be a history attached. The same thing happens in the Gypsy Rose story “Zebras of Zendobo“, where weird, terrifying things start to happen in a girl’s bedroom when she uses zebra skins as bedspreads despite warnings they come from sacred zebras her grandfather shot.

The way in which the flag carries out its curse certainly breaks the pattern we usually see in serials about cursed objects. Usually they force the protagonist to act nasty or commit acts she gets the blame for. Though both things happen in the story, the curse takes the unusual course of using time travel to bring in a hate-crazed girl from the future with an axe to grind against her own mother.

Julie’s hatred is arguably the most disturbing aspect of this story. Hate campaigns we have seen before in girls’ comics – but against your own mother? Or rather, the girl who will become your mother but for the moment is totally innocent of causing the accident. After all, it hasn’t happened yet in this time period. And just look at the things Julie does to Thursday and the hate-filled, gloating looks on her face. Even allowing for the flag having a hand in it…well, we know Thursday’s child has far to go, but in this case Thursday’s child goes too far!

The hate campaign goes against the usual pattern of the protagonist not realising the antagonist is campaigning against her. No, Julie makes no secret of the fact that she hates Thursday and is out to make her life a nightmare. It’s the reason why she’s doing that is part of the mystery that has to be solved, and girls just love mystery.

It’s also unusual in that Julie does turn out to have a reason to hate Thursday instead of being mistaken and getting things wrong, which is more usually the case. However, she has failed to consider that the accident caused by her mother’s carelessness has nothing to do with the 1979 Thursday. Therefore, like so many hate campaigners in girls’ serials, Julie is persecuting the wrong person, but in a different sense.

Moreover, Julie is so blinded by hate that she can’t see the flag is just using her for its own agenda. Sure, it’s helping her get revenge on Thursday, but what happens when it’s done with that? After all, Battanga said his curse would be on all descendants of the great-grandfather, and that includes Julie. We would not be surprised if the flag moved on to the rest of the family and Julie herself, and Julie finally realising what a Pandora’s Box she’s unleashed.

Despite herself, Julie adds odd bits of humour to the story, most of which stem from her landing in a time period years before her own. For example, when she sees Thursday’s Star Wars poster, she snorts at how out of date it is. She is also a bit put out to find she can only find BBC1 and BBC2 on television and asks whether they’ve invented BBC3 yet. But she’s not developed as a fish out of water.

The story also touches on the ramifications of the Butterfly Effect: change one thing and you change everything. It doesn’t delve into the Butterfly Effect except try to prevent Julie’s accident in the future and Thursday try to tell Julie that her presence is interfering with continuity. But what else has been altered by destroying the flag in 1979 instead of letting it hang around until it is used for Julie’s bedspread? Not to mention letting Thursday know the events of the future: a daughter named Julie; her married name is going to be Kemp; she will carry on living in the same house as now and raise her own family there; and the accident she will try to prevent. We are left wondering and worrying what’s going to happen because Thursday knows all this when she shouldn’t have and could easily do other things to change the timeline (like not name a daughter Julie), but the story doesn’t go into it. Anyway, knowing girls’ comics, Thursday will go home to find everything as if Julie had never existed and nobody knowing who the hell Julie is. She will begin to think she probably dreamed it all or something…until she discovers something that suggests it did happen (like the flag missing) and now she doesn’t know what to think.

The Butterfly Effect stems from one event at the beginning of the story: Thursday deciding to use the flag as a bedspread instead of putting it away until 2000 as her mother directed. Now, what if Thursday had obeyed her mother and put the flag away until 2000? Apart from us not having a story that is. Was it the first step on the timeline that led to Julie’s accident because the flag still existed in her time? Yet in this timeline Thursday puts the flag on her bed, which sets in motion the events in the story and the destruction of the flag in 1979, and therefore it will no longer exist in the time period Julie came from. This has us wondering if the flag sent Julie on the wrong timeline and she ended up in (to her) a parallel universe, with a parallel world Thursday instead of the Thursday that will become her mother. If so, the irony is it led to the flag’s own destruction in 1979 and Julie persecuted the wrong Thursday altogether. Perhaps the flag confused things because in both timelines it was used for a bedspread, and in the same bedroom.

We also wonder how Julie will fare once she returns to the future. Knowing comic books, the timeline that led to her accident has been erased and she can still use her legs – but what timeline has taken its place? Julie is bound to return to an altered timeline, one where she could be a castaway in an alternate timeline she can’t change and is left reaping the consequences of her blind hatred. It might even be a timeline where she was never born. We have only Thursday’s feeling that everything will work out for them both to reassure us that the time meddling won’t mess things too much (like in Back to the Future). But if it’s been said once, it’s been said at least a thousand times: don’t meddle with the past.

As with another Pat Mills story, “Land of No Tears“, “Thursday’s Child” makes a point about disability and treatment of the disabled. But instead of decrying harsh attitudes towards disability as in “Land of No Tears” the story takes a few moments to comment on how patronising attitudes and treating disabled people as objects of sympathy do not help disabled people that much. This is one reason why Julie wants to show Thursday what being disabled is like. Curiously, both stories use time travel elements to make their respective statements about disability, yet they have disabled girls going in opposite directions: one travels from the 1970s travels to the future, the other travels from the future to the 1970s.

The Gypsy Gymnast (1974–75)

Sample Images

Gypsy Gymnast 1Gypsy Gymnast 2Gypsy Gymnast 3

Published: Tammy 14 December 1974 to 15 March 1975

Episodes: 14

Artist: John Armstrong

Writer: Unknown

Translations/Reprints: None known

Plot

Kim and Ann Rudge are fraternal twin sisters who are a complete contrast: Ann is studious and academically brilliant, while Kim is sporty and a brilliant gymnast. Ann gets jealous of Kim because she thinks Kim’s sportiness is making her the favourite daughter with their parents. She doesn’t listen to her parents assurances that they are just as proud of her. As the story develops, Ann’s increasingly sour attitude because of her jealousy and imagining her parents playing favourites leads to increasing tension in the household and even physical fights with Kim.

Kim is dissatisfied with her gymnastics training because the school coach does not really have the drive to bring out the best in them. Later, Kim and her friends are surprised to see a formidable old woman at Plotter Street Mansion giving a gypsy girl gymnastics training. (The spelling of the woman’s name is not consistent and she is by turn referred to as Mrs Speers, Mrs Spears, Miss Speers and Miss Spears, but we’ll stick to Mrs Speers.) Mrs Speers is a dragon and a hard case coach all right, but she brings out the best more than the school coach. When Mrs Speers sees them spying, she orders her goon Tug to set the dogs on them. Kim finds the whole thing pretty weird, especially as nobody was known to live at that place.

Kim does not realise the gypsy girl was really Ann in disguise. She is taking secret gymnastics lessons to prove herself to her parents and win as much respect as Kim.

As training progresses, Ann learns what a ruthless taskmaster Mrs Speers is. For example, when Ann sprains her ankle while training, Mrs Speers has it treated but shows no sympathy whatsoever and even says she never wants to see her again. But it turns out to be a test of determination and Ann passes it by going back to her to see if she can get lessons again. Mrs Speers also makes a huge deal out of keeping things absolutely secret and takes privacy to extremes of the fierce guard dogs. Ann suspects Mrs Speers has something to hide but does not pursue it.

A competition is coming up and Ann wants to enter so she can beat Kim, but Mrs Speers forbids it, saying Ann’s not ready. This has Ann going home in a huff, which leads to rows with her family and fights with Kim. Back at the mansion, Mrs Speers reveals she planned it that way all along: she is fanning the flames of resentment in Kim as part of her own ambitions.

Next day, Mrs Speers allows Ann to enter the competition after all, but she must win or she’s through with her. Kim’s friends don’t like the way Ann is bundled into Mrs Speers’ car and call the police. A general description alert goes out and Mum is notified, but the police don’t treat it all that seriously.

Ann beats Kim in the competition but is disqualified on a technicality because she has no birth certificate to prove her age, so Kim wins. Ann is puzzled as to why Mrs Speers didn’t think of that herself (more of her tactics, we suspect), but Mrs Speers is true to her word and says she’s through with Ann.

Of course Ann is crushed and disappointed, and this leads to a row in the car when Dad collects them. This gets Dad angry, which nearly results in an accident. Dad blows his top and shouts at Ann over it,  and she runs away in tears to Mrs Speers. Mrs Speers agrees to let her stay over.

Then Ann finds old newspaper clippings and discovers Mrs Speers’ secret: in her youth Mrs Speers was a top gymnast and won medals, but then she started using her gymnastics skills for crime and she has a criminal record. Tug was all part of it too and proud of it. They intend Ann to do the same, and that was what Mrs Speers was training her up for all along. They now hold Ann prisoner in the mansion. Meanwhile, Ann’s family report her missing and soon discover she has been kidnapped somehow.

To get Ann to comply, Mrs Speers and Tug threaten her family, and keep her locked up without food unless she trains. She has to sleep in the day and train by night. Then Ann sees a television broadcast where Ann disowns her in a television interview. She doesn’t realise Mrs Speers forced Kim to do it. As Mrs Speers planned, this embitters Ann, and she is willing to vent her hatred against the world as a willing accomplice for Mrs Speers.

Mrs Speers’ blackmail of Kim continues at a competition where she competes against Ann, who is in the gypsy disguise once more. Kim is forced to duck out and let Ann win. This time Kim does see through the gypsy disguise, but again she is forced to pretend to disown Ann, which further embitters her. Ann begins to tread down a genuine crime mindset of crime and even thinks Mrs Speers genuinely has her interests at heart. She now commits one robbery.

Satisfied Ann is now a willing accomplice, Mrs Speers eases her restrictions and gives her a reward: a beautiful room. But when Ann finds the windows sealed, she realises she is still a prisoner. She begins to have second thoughts about everything, see through Mrs Speers’ tactics, and suspect Kim’s conduct is forced. Sensing this, Mrs Speers blackmails Kim into pulling the same trick again. This time it’s in a face-to-face meeting between Ann and Kim, where Kim is forced to lead Ann to believe she blinded her in that road accident. Ann falls for it although she saw nothing wrong with Kim’s sight on TV or at the gymnastics competition.

It doesn’t quite work out as Mrs Speers planned though – Ann runs back to her in tears all right – but she refuses to have anything to do with her crimes. So Mrs Speers has Tug spirit Kim away to a hidey-hole in the countryside. But the police have been watching them since the robbery and they are soon arrested. Ann is happily reunited with her family and she sets out to become a top gymnast alongside her sister, but this time as herself.

Thoughts

In between the first Bella Barlow story (1974) and the second (1975) was this little-known John Armstrong gymnastics story to show that gymnastics in Tammy wasn’t all about Bella. The letters page was indicating popular demand for the return of Bella, and it could be “The Gypsy Gymnast” was riding on the wave of it. And take a close look at the poster on the left in Kim’s room, in panel 1, page 3, episode 1 (above). Is that Bella Barlow we see in that poster? The resemblance sure is striking. Did John Armstrong sneak her in there? Moreover, when the story finished, it was replaced by Bella herself. Coincidence or what? At any rate, “The Gypsy Gymnast” must have whetted readers’ appetites for more Bella.

The story does have its weaknesses, and among them: First, how exactly Ann met Mrs Speers or started the gypsy disguise is not explained or shown; Ann only says she met Mrs Speers by “sheer chance”. Second, Kim doesn’t even recognise her own sister in that gypsy disguise (until near the end of the story); it seems all Ann has to do is put on the gypsy headscarf while wearing a leotard and not even Kim realises who she’s competing against. Shades of Clark Kent! Third, what name is Ann using as a gypsy if she doesn’t want to be recognised as one of the Rudge sisters? Fourth, in the early episodes Ann wears that gypsy costume while training with Mrs Speers (later she wears a leotard but retains the headscarf). We have to wonder how on earth she can do gymnastics in that skirt. We’re just waiting to see it trip her up on that beam.

On the strengths, we have a very cunning woman who is trying to lure a girl away for her own gain. We have seen this in other stories such as “Jackie’s Two Lives” (Jinty) and “Swimmer Slave of Mrs Squall” (Tammy). In those cases the women were mentally disturbed, while Mrs Speers is a criminal who intends to snare Ann, little by little, until Ann is ready to carry on Mrs Speers’ legacy of crime. But Mrs Speers works in the same way as these mentally ill ladies: taking advantage of problem girls, gradually luring them away and holding them in their homes, using promises that only they can give them what’s lacking in their life, whether it’s riches or respect from their families.

Mrs Speers’ tactics are all the more clever by the fact that just what she is doing with Ann is not all that obvious at first. Only tiny things are allowed to filter through and make us suspicious. For example, it’s pretty weird, the way Mrs Speers keeps herself isolated in the mansion, is so insistent on privacy, keeps those guard dogs, and that Tug looks a real thug. Anyone with sense would keep well away from all that. Little by little, it is revealed Mrs Speers is playing games and tactics with Ann for her own ambitions, but for what purpose? Is it to strengthen Ann as a gymnast or is Mrs Speers up to something?

We certainly don’t like Mrs Speers’ hard training tactics although they are more effective than the school coach. Her methods aren’t as extreme, bizarre or cruel as some coaches in girls’ serials e.g. Tammy’s “The Chain Gang Champions”. But they are still relentless and show little sign of mercy. If Mrs Speers had a heart somewhere under all that hard exterior it could ultimately turn out well in the end. However, the story keeps giving us clear hints that she does not. This can only mean her training methods will ultimately lead to serious consequences for Ann.

When Mrs Speers’ true motives are revealed, it’s not all that easy for Ann to get away from her, and it’s not just the locked rooms. Mrs Speers is keeping Ann close to her psychologically with cunning head games to turn Ann into a criminal. It’s made all the easier by Ann being terrified, confused and mentally vulnerable, and being mistreated makes her even more so. Ann gets several opportunity to escape but she does not take them, which shows how much she is succumbing to Mrs Speers and unable to think straight. We get hints of possible Stockholm Syndrome kicking in as Ann is tricked into turning against her family and the world and genuinely begins to think Mrs Speers is the only one who cares about her. She begins to give way to the dark side, as we see when she enjoys committing the robbery, but then she begins to wise up to Mrs Speers.

The mess Ann gets herself into all begins with her feeling Kim is the favourite with the parents because Kim is sporty but she isn’t. “Favourites” leading to family problems and driving the protagonist to prove herself have appeared in many serials. In this case, though, it looks like Ann is only imagining it. She does not realise that it’s not favouritism that’s making her home life unhappy – it’s her sour, jealous attitude. It is this attitude that leaves her wide open to get into the clutches Mrs Speers. Yet despite herself, Mrs Speers does help to sort out Ann’s problems and start her on the road to top gymnastics.

The story wastes no opportunity to comment on the prejudice and stereotyping against gypsies, which Tammy has done in other serials, such as “Eva’s Evil Eye”. Ann finds the gypsy disguise is making her a target of prejudice. For example, at the competition she was disqualified from, people automatically assume she was disqualified because she was cheating, just because she’s a gypsy. All the more reason to shed that gypsy gear in the end, but Ann must have had a whole new appreciation for how real gypsies must suffer from discrimination after this.

Their Darling Daughter (1983)

Sample Images

Their Darling Daughter 1Their Darling Daughter 2Their Darling Daughter 3

Published: Princess (second series), #1, 24 September 1983 to #6, 29 October 1983

Episodes: 6

Artist: Bert Hill

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: ‘Dat kind hoort hier niet!’ [That child does not belong here!] Tina 42, 1984. https://www.catawiki.nl/catalogus/strips/series-helden/dat-kind-hoort-hier-niet/77184-1984-nummer-42

Plot

Lord and Lady Towne lost their daughter Rachel a year ago and still mourn her intensely. While they are still in mourning, they foster Sylvie from a children’s home. There is something puzzling as to how they came across Sylvie in the first place or why they are so interested in her. It’s not shown or explained at the beginning.

Sylvie feels out of sorts at her new home as it’s such a big jump from a children’s home to an aristocratic mansion and all the rules of deportment that go with it. She thinks she can’t live up to the pedigree or to Rachel who, from the sound of it, was brilliant at everything, and everyone still grieves for her. Nowhere is this reflected more than in Rachel’s room: everything is laid out as if she had just popped out for five minutes, and is obviously intended to be a shrine. Clearly, it is not going to be easy to fit into her new home. At least Rachel’s dog Ben takes an instant liking to Sylvie and becomes her friend, so there’s solace in that.

But Sylvie soon finds her real problem in her new home is Mrs Crooks, the housekeeper. Mrs Crooks took the loss of Rachel very hard as she worshipped the girl. On Sylvie’s first night in the mansion, Mrs Crooks scares Sylvie by saying she’s not going to take Rachel’s place and makes it plain she wants Sylvie out.

However, next day, Mrs Crooks is all sweetness and light and apologises to Sylvie. She didn’t mean it; it was just the grief, and she is willing to be friends. Sylvie accepts this explanation and offer of friendship, and even buys a present for Mrs Crooks.

But it soon becomes obvious that Mrs Crooks is just pretending to be nice to Sylvie in order to play tricks to get rid of her. She tricks Sylvie into selling porcelain dogs at a bric-a-brac shop to raise money for Lady Towne’s birthday present; when Lady Towne notices they are missing she is upset because they were a birthday present from Rachel. At the birthday party, Mrs Crooks tricks Sylvie into wearing the dress Rachel wore when she died. When Lady Towne sees this, she faints in shock. The party is ruined and Sylvie is sent packing from the party.

Of course this has Sylvie realise Mrs Crooks’ game. But she can’t convince her foster parents because Mrs Crooks is now poisoning them against her and leading them to think she is a dishonest, disturbed problem child. They become even more convinced of this when they find the porcelain dogs in the shop and think Sylvie stole them for the birthday present.

Meanwhile, we’ve been getting hints that Mrs Crooks’ husband (the chauffeur) knows what his wife is up to and does not approve. However, every time he protests or wants to speak out she shuts him up. In one exchange, she says they will go to prison if the Townes find out the truth. Prison? Come on, the punishment for this wouldn’t be worse than the sack, would it? What’s the old bat on about? As it is, Sylvie’s only friend and helper right now is the dog Ben.

Sylvie tries to escape the situation by packing her bags and going back to the home, but the Townes have none of it. So Mrs Crooks tries again by making it look like Sylvie wrecked Rachel’s room. However, Sylvie and Ben manage to foil that that one by tidying it up in time, which has Mrs Crooks looking a fool in front of her employers.

However, Mrs Crooks is so angry at this that she brings out her big guns and makes threats that have Sylvie really scared. What’s more, the Townes are going to leave Sylvie alone with Mrs Crooks for the weekend. This has Sylvie well and truly terrified, especially when Mrs Crooks whispers that this weekend will be her last. Sylvie suspects Mrs Crooks is crazy and capable of doing anything to her. But the Townes won’t listen to her pleas not to leave her alone with Mrs Crooks.

Then Ben leads Sylvie to Rachel’s grave, where she overhears Mrs Crooks reveal something extraordinary: Rachel was actually Mrs Crooks’ daughter and the Townes’ “real daughter [Sylvie] is here”, and Mrs Crooks vows she won’t let Sylvie take Rachel’s place.

Mrs Crooks detects Sylvie’s presence, realises she overheard, and catches her. She drags Sylvie to the house and ties her up while explaining that she switched Sylvie and Rachel in the hospital when they were born so her daughter would grow up privileged. She put Sylvie in the orphanage and became housekeeper to the Townes so she could watch Rachel grow up while being near her. Now she’s going to kill Sylvie to be rid of her and make it look like an accident. Sylvie’s worst fears about Mrs Crooks are confirmed.

Meanwhile, Ben runs for help. Fortunately the Townes’ car has not got far because Mr Crooks was stalling while trying to work up the courage to tell the truth. When Ben arrives, they realise something is wrong and head back. Mr Crooks tells them what’s going on, adding that he was behind their meeting Sylvie (with an anonymous letter about her while not revealing her true identity). He had never endorsed what his wife did and was trying to put it right discreetly. Lord Towne comments that this was why he felt an immediate bond with Sylvie when he met her.

When Mrs Crooks sees them return she realises her husband has spilled the beans. There have been hints throughout the story that her sanity was questionable, and being discovered pushes her over the edge. She heads to Rachel’s room, intending to burn down the house with herself and Sylvie in it.

The Townes and Mr Crooks rescue Sylvie. They drag Mrs Crooks – whom they find cradling Rachel’s doll in the burning room and singing “rock-a-bye baby” – kicking and screaming from the house. The fire is brought under control and the authorities take charge of the Crookses. Mrs Crooks is placed in psychiatric care and Mr Crooks will probably get a short jail sentence (suspended, we hope).

Sylvie takes her rightful place with the Townes and calls them Mum and Dad for the first time. But Rachel’s memory will always be cherished.

Thoughts

Stories about spiteful antagonists playing tricks to get rid of a cousin/foster child were very commonplace at DCT; seldom did a few weeks go by without a DCT title starting one. However, for some reason the theme was far less common at IPC, which makes this story unusual for having it.

The story also breaks with the formula in several ways, which makes it even more unusual. First, the schemer is a creepy housekeeper; more often it’s a stepsister, foster sister or cousin. Second, the victim is warned right from the beginning that she’s got an enemy because the enemy tells her so herself. More often, the schemer works secretly so the protagonist doesn’t realise what’s going on and can’t understand why things keep going wrong for her and she gets in so much trouble. Third, the protagonist has a helper and even someone who knows what is going on but is having difficulty speaking out. More usually the protagonist is pretty much on her own, and if she does gets help it’s someone who has somehow become suspicious.

From the beginning we’ve been led to believe it’s misguided loyalty and grief for Rachel that’s driving Mrs Crooks to scheme against Sylvie. This could give us a measure of sympathy and understanding for her. If so, that fast evaporates once the baby switch and the real reason for Mrs Crooks’ hatred are revealed.

Having it turn out everything’s because Sylvie threatens Mrs Crooks’ deception in switching her and Rachel at birth is a flabbergasting surprise and twist to the story. However, the baby switch sounds a bit too Dickensian. The story would have gotten away with this more if it had a period setting. And so would have Mrs Crooks. We are finding it hard to believe Mrs Crooks managed to pull off the switch in modern times, especially when she herself says she and Lady Towne were in different parts of the hospital and Lady Towne was in a private suite. And what about the name tags on the babies? It is highly unlikely Mrs Crooks could have made the switch before the tags were put on.

The twist also has us question the wisdom of Mr Crooks in sending the Townes the letter. Sure, we can understand his desire to put things right somehow. But he must have known what his wife’s reaction would be, which would have exposed Sylvie to serious trouble. What was he planning to do about that? He doesn’t do anything more than make token protests at his wife, clearly because she dominates him. We don’t see him trying to stop her or help Sylvie until the end of the story.

The story only lasts six episodes, which was common for Princess II stories. But frankly, it could have done with more episodes, which would have been the case if it had appeared in, say, Mandy. For example, the first episode could have been used to fully develop the anonymous letter and how it leads to the Townes meeting Sylvie. Moreover, the anonymous letter would have added a mystery element to the story that would have piqued readers’ interest. Instead, it’s all mentioned in the final episode and readers are left thinking, “what anonymous letter?” The letter was never mentioned or shown in the story before, so the belated mention of it comes across as annoying.

The choice of villain for the schemer gives the story an edge of creepiness and terror that you don’t normally get in schemer stories, and this makes the story even more exciting. Usually the schemer is despicable and nasty but not frightening. And the warning signs that Mrs Crooks is going insane add an extra element of dread for Sylvie because what comes next could be anything – even murder.

We get some nice Bert Hill artwork in this story. Hill was a regular artist at DCT, working for many years on all three of its biggest girls’ titles. However, it is unusual to see his artwork at IPC. The only other known sample of Bert Hill IPC artwork is “Porridge Pulls His Weight” (Tammy, 3 September 1983), which, incidentally, was his only known credited piece of work.

 

Hangman’s Alley [1979]

Sample Images

Hangmans Alley 1Hangmans Alley 2Hangmans Alley 3Hangmans Alley 4

Published: Misty #86, 29 September 1979 – #90, 27 October 1979

Episodes: 5

Artist: Jesus Redondo

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: Best of Misty #5

Plot

Mel and Jacey Coombs and their mother move into an apartment above an old alley. It used to be called Hangman’s Alley because condemned criminals were taken through this alleyway from the gaol on the marsh to execution on Gallows Hill. Mum tries to hide this grim past from her daughters, but it’s no use. Their arrival has stirred up the ghosts – literally. The ghost of a servant girl who was wrongly executed returns from beyond the grave when the family move in, and she is full of bitterness and hatred. She is taking out her hatred on Mel, for no other reason than Mel is a dead ringer for her. She almost attacks Mel in the bedroom, and later she lures Mel onto a bridge in a trance and tries to throw her off.

Jacey, the only one who can sense or see the ghost, discovers what the ghost is trying to do, and confronts the ghost in a bid to save Mel. The ghost informs Jacey, through a series of visions, that she was wrongly executed for stealing a pearl necklace from her mistress. The evidence against her was extremely flimsy. She was cleaning her mistress’s jewellery and another servant saw her admiring the pearl necklace while doing so. On this alone, everyone just assumed she stole the necklace when the mistress found it missing later on. She was dragged to the gallows protesting her innocence, but in vain; angry people were yelling for her execution on all sides. Jacey strikes a deal with the ghost: she will clear the ghost’s name if the ghost will leave Mel alone.

Having read up the history of Hangman’s Alley, Jacey knows where to find the old gaol. At the gaol the ghost directs her to her name, which she gouged into the wall: Melinda Walpole. At least Jacey now knows the ghost’s name. However, Jacey is caught for trespass and gets into big trouble with Mum, especially as she skipped school to go there in the first place.

Unfortunately Jacey’s investigation is making slow progress. The ghost is getting impatient and her impatience is making her increasingly dangerous. The investigation is being further impeded by distractions the family unwittingly put up. The family host a housewarming party, but Jacey sees Melinda the ghost while doing preparations and realises Mel has gone. She finds Mel collapsed in the alley and a warning from Melinda written in cherryade on the wall, which Jacey realises is a warning it could be blood next time. The message reads, “Remember the promise or next time…”

Thinking Jacey is off colour, Mum sends her to the doctor, and the wait in reception is interminable. It’s another holdup on the investigation and more strain on Melinda’s patience. But at least Jacey gets another clue while waiting, in a magazine. It is an article on an old house, and one of the photos shows Melinda’s signature etched on the wall. So now Jacey has located the house Melinda worked in. It is now facing development while others want to preserve it.

Jacey goes to the house and heads for the old servants’ quarters to find the etching. Mel follows, and Jacey tells her she’s playing grand lady to cover up what she is really doing. Hearing this, Melinda thinks she has been mucked around long enough. Her patience snaps, and she locks them in the old servants’ quarters and sets the house on fire. While fighting their way out, a wall partition gives way and Jacey finds an old box hidden in there. They make their way out safely and a huge crowd gathers. Among them is a reporter hoping for a story that will help save the house.

He gets it when Jacey opens the box. It contains the stolen necklace and a written confession from the thief (whose identity is not revealed). She had contracted smallpox from the crowd while watching Melinda being executed. She was left to die in the attic, but before she did she wrote the confession. She then put the necklace and confession in the box and hid it in the wall.

The publicity the confession creates in the press saves the house and it is converted into a museum. Jacey is given the necklace as a reward. Melinda, speaking for the very first time to Jacey, puts the necklace on Jacey herself, and says she can rest in peace now her name has been cleared.

Thoughts

Serials about servants being wrongly accused are commonplace in girls’ comics, and serials about wrongly accused servants coming back as ghosts are not unusual either. “Shivery Shirley” from Bunty and “The Sad Ghost” from June are examples of such ghosts. But this one is particularly morbid for several reasons.

First, the wrongly accused servant is actually executed instead of simply dying in miserable circumstances as her counterparts mentioned above do. And she was not merely dismissed, imprisoned or transported – she was executed.

Second, the ghost, while having a sympathetic backstory and situation, is not very sympathetic as a character. Instead of crying out for help she is extremely malevolent and the atmosphere her presence creates is described as “evil”. Her maliciousness may be the product of the bitterness over the injustice, but there is no apparent reason for why she is attacking Mel or why she is taking it all out on Mel. And she simply has no excuse for attacking Mel either, as Mel had nothing to do with the injustice. So why the hell is she doing it? At least with “The Shadow of Sherry Brown”, another malevolent ghost in Tammy, there was a psychology to her behaviour that we could understand and it made her haunting more realistic. In the case of Melinda Walpole there is none and we just don’t get it – why is she acting in that way to Mel?

Finally, the depiction of Hangman’s Alley and the executions are gruesome and atmospheric. The hatching, linework and inking of Jesus Redondo renders it all brilliantly. We hear references to criminals being taken to the “gibbet” and there “die horribly”. And the flashback of Melinda being dragged to execution gives the impression her execution was little more than a lynching.

The story is not long at five episodes. Considering Melinda’s conduct and the slowness of Jacey’s investigation, this probably is just as well, and it does make the plotting very tight. The danger of the ghost gives a sense of urgency to get things done fast but things are just moving too slowly, which makes it even more worrying for Jacey and more dramatic for us readers. However, the ending feels like it came a bit too soon, and the menace of Melinda was too short-lived.

At the end of the story it is not revealed who the thief really was when her confession is found. Was it the servant who saw Melinda admire the necklace or was it someone else? Not being told whodunit is infuriating. The ending would have been better if the identity of the thief had been revealed.

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.

Walking the Line 1

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.

Walking the Line 2

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.

Walking the Line 4

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.

Walking the Line 5

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.

Walking the Line 6

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.

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. Tamsin hopes this will settle the matter once and for all, but gran refuses to take her to the doctor to a certificate. Instead, she’s going to keep Tamsin at home on swimming days although 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 why gran’s strictness is so extreme. 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 has 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. 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

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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 senses 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.