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Mark of the Witch! (1977)

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Publication: 8 January 1977-30 April 1977

Artist: Phil Townsend

Writer: Unknown

Summary

In the village of Kettleby Yorkshire, Emma Fielding is branded “Black Emma” – a witch, a bad sort, and an outcast because of the black streak in her hair. The black streak runs in the Fielding family and the stigma began with the first Fielding to have the streak, Simon Fielding. He was an evil 18th aristocrat who tyrannised and terrorised the countryside, and his black streak struck fear into anyone who saw it. Since then, the Fielding black streak has been associated with evil and the Fieldings have been persecuted as bad people. The persecution is made easier by the fact that the Fieldings no longer have the wealth and power that Simon Fielding had; they are the poorest people in the village and “the lowest of the low”. Their ancestral home, Fielding Castle, built by Simon Fielding, is now nothing but a ruin. But like the Fieldings themselves, Fielding Castle is avoided and feared by the villagers. Everywhere Emma goes, she is taunted by children and shunned by adults. She has become wild because she reacts aggressively against the abuse, which brands her even further as a bad lot. Emma herself has come to believe she has a bad streak, which shows when she lashes out or hates people, and thinks she must fight it.

There are only two bright spots in Emma’s life. The first is her loving mother, a gentle contrast to her frightening and sometimes violent father. Like Emma, Mr Fielding is aggressive and bitter because he has led a terrible life due to his own black streak. The second is riding, the only thing Emma does well. But there is another girl at Emma’s riding lessons who she hates more than any other – Alice Durrant. Emma is jealous of Alice because she has everything Emma does not, and her family is the most respected in the village. Emma thinks the hand of friendship Alice offers her is phony. But it is genuine; Alice alone sympathises with Emma, does not despise the black streak, and desperately wants to be her friend. But Emma keeps spurning her and does not believe Alice is trying to help her.

As the story progresses, Emma discovers another with a black streak – a horse with a black streak in its mane. The horse’s owner deems him a bad lot because he acts wildly. Eventually, of course, Emma and the horse will team up.

Things get worse for Emma when she discovers a fire at the Durrants’ farm. She tries to put it out, but the villagers, ever ready to make her a scapegoat, accuse her of starting it. Mr Durrant discovers the fire was accidental, but the damage is done – the rumour mill has culminated in an angry mob that attacks the Fielding house. Alice tries to stop them, but gets get hurt by one of their stones. Unfortunately Emma does not see this. If she had, it would have proved to her that Alice is genuine.

Emma’s embittered father blames her for the attack and throws her right out of the house – and to the stone-throwing wolves. Emma flees for her life and manages to throw off the mob. But now she has had enough and decides there will be no more fighting her black streak (as she believes). From now on, she will embrace it and become the bad person the villagers say she is. “If that’s what they expect from me, that’s what they’ll get!” She sets up camp at Fielding Castle to start her own campaign against the villagers. As part of her revenge, she decides to enter the equestrian cross country race, The Hudson Trophy. She means to take the trophy away from Alice Durrant. Doing so would really humiliate the villagers because Alice is the darling of the village.

But there is one problem – she has no horse. This problem is solved when she finally acquires the horse with the black streak from its owner, who had lost patience and was on the verge of shooting the animal. Naming the horse Midnight, she starts breaking him in herself before training him up for the trophy.

Emma’s campaign of revenge intensifies when some boys dig a trap for her to fall into. Her beloved mother falls into it instead and narrowly avoids a serious accident. Furious, Emma dresses herself up as a witch in her grandmother’s clothes and falls upon the villagers. “If you say I’m a witch, I’ll be a witch, in every way! And you’ll regret it!” She curses one John Pike for throwing a stone at her and then confronts Dave Young, the leader of the gang who set the trap. She tells him that she has his name in her Book of Vengeance, which she has just started for listing the names of people who have aggrieved her, and she is now off to settle the score with him. She does so by destroying Mr Young’s wheat field. Other things happen which seem to reinforce the witch persona: a storm blows up as Emma accosts the villagers; John Pike has a road accident soon after receiving the curse; and Emma is adopted by a black cat.

Later, Emma announces her intention to enter the Hudson trophy and take it away from Alice Durrant. This is greeted with intense scorn by the villagers, who say she is hopelessly outmatched by Alice. They all eagerly anticipate watching the event to see Black Emma make a fool of herself and see (as they believe) good triumph over evil in what will be a needle race. Alice is reluctant to go against Emma in the race because she wants to be her friend. But she is persuaded to do so.

In the meantime, Emma’s campaign of vandalism and thievery against Kettleby continues, and names get ticked off in the Book of Vengeance. The local council takes drastic action by sealing up Fielding Castle to drive Emma out. Eventually this fails, but not because Emma nearly gets herself killed trying to get into the castle. Midnight saves her, but the near-accident has Emma all the more determined to have revenge at the Hudson Trophy.

But when the race starts, Alice takes a strong lead against Emma. Eventually Emma realises that the villagers were right – Alice is better than her and she faces defeat. This drives her into taking reckless and dangerous chances to pull ahead, which are cruel to her horse and horrify the onlookers. However, this does enable Emma to take the lead.

Then, when the girls cross a river, Alice falls off her horse and is in danger of drowning. Emma now faces a choice – the trophy or Alice’s life? Eventually, Emma decides to sacrifice the trophy and go in after Alice. This puts Emma in danger too, but she is surprised to find herself feeling happy at fighting with Alice against the current instead of against her.

Meanwhile, the villagers are surprised to see it is not Alice at the finishing line and go to investigate. By the time they arrive, Alice is in danger of going under and only Emma is keeping her afloat. This time, the villagers realise Emma is trying to do good instead of assuming she was being bad, and save them both.

Following this, the black streak stops being a mark of stigma for the Fieldings and everything is different for them. Now Emma is a heroine, and the villagers treat her with love, friendship, remorse, and gifts of flowers (presented by John Pike). Emma returns home and is reconciled with her father. Mr Durrant offers Mr Fielding a good job, which enables the Fieldings to climb out of poverty. Emma and Alice are now friends and share their rides together.

Thoughts

In some parts of the English countryside people still believe in witches. This has been the inspiration for several serials where girls fall victim to lingering witch-beliefs. “Mark of the Witch!” was the second – and last – Jinty serial to explore this theme; the first was the 1974 story “Wenna the Witch”. The endings of the two stories are similar; the girls prove their goodness with an act of heroism that has the witch-believing villagers changing their attitudes towards them and presenting them with love, apologies and flowers. It could be that the serials had the same writer, or that Wenna had an influence on this story.

Other stories with the theme included “The Cat with 7 Toes” and “Bad-Luck Barbara” (Mandy), and “Witch!” (Bunty). In some variants on the theme, the girl is branded a witch because she has a genuine power or is in the grip of a malevolent one, such as in “The Revenge of Roxanne” (Suzy).

In general, the theme did not appear much and serials to feature it were infrequent. Where it did appear, it often featured strange things happening, such as bad things happening to people who taunt the girl, the girl having strange visions, or other weird things that seem to happen whenever she is around. Readers are challenged to make up their own minds about what is going on. Is she really a witch? Is there some genuine supernatural force at work? Or are these things just coincidences and the products of ordinary explanations such as hysteria? Whatever it is, it proves to a brainwashing effect that is so powerful that the girl herself can succumb to it. She may start to doubt herself and wonder if there is something to what her accusers are saying. It even has Alice’s parents going although they are not like the backward, superstitious villagers. When John Pike has the accident, Mrs Durrant wonders if it really was due to the curse Emma put on him. Alice rebukes her mother outright: “It’s all just silly superstition!”

In the case of Emma Fielding, one thing is certain. She is sad proof of the words of Socrates: if people keep telling a man he is five cubits high, he will end up believing he is five cubits high, even if he is only three cubits high. People have been calling her a bad lot for so long that she has come to believe it. She thinks there is a bad streak in her, personified in the black streak in her hair, which she must fight. But eventually she comes to believe it does no good to fight it. Instead, she becomes what the villagers say she always was, saying that if that is what they expect, that is what they will get, and it is their own fault for the way they treated her. Indeed it is, but the villagers do not see it that way. Instead, it reinforces the views about Emma that they have always had. It is a vicious cycle. A vicious cycle that Alice is so desperate to break, but she cannot convince Emma of this. Her frustrated efforts to get through to Emma are reminiscent of the persistent efforts of Ruth Graham to get through to stony Stefa in Phil Townsend’s previous story, “Stefa’s Heart of Stone”. But like Ruth, Alice’s efforts go nowhere until the very end, when a surprise turn of events turns things around. And they turn around because Emma found that she was not a bad person at heart. Faced with the choice, she realised that she could not leave Alice to drown, even though trying to save Alice meant sacrificing the lead she had gained and winning the trophy.

After the villagers see Emma try to rescue Alice, they automatically stop their hatred and treat her with respect and acceptance. This seems a little too pat, the villagers giving up hatred that has lasted for generations in only one day. And it does not ring true with people who believe in witches either. Witch believers simply do not act in the way the villagers do in suddenly accepting Emma as good and presenting her with flowers and apologies. The ending of “Wenna the Witch” followed the same pattern, which is very neat and happy, but it is not convincing. In real life, once people with this type of thinking brand someone a witch, the label sticks, even generations later. And the past has proven that even if the person branded a witch is cleared, the label casts a long shadow that can come back to bite. This is why the endings of “Witch!” and “Bad-Luck Barbara” are more realistic. The girls end up being taken away from the village, with the villagers still hurling hatred and abuse at them as they go. Yes, Emma (and Wenna) did perform a good deed that saved lives, but it is unlikely that even that would shift the label of “witch”. An ending where the villagers are compelled to keep their hatred to themselves and leave Emma alone once she has won the respect and protection of the Durrants might have worked better.

But on the whole, this is a powerful, disturbing and compelling story that is a stark warning against labelling and mistreating people and using them as scapegoats. Life would be so much better if these people were treated as human beings – the message that Alice represents in her persistent efforts to befriend Emma. Gays, Jews, coloured people, minorities, victims of caste systems and class distinction, exploited workers and other types of oppressed people – we see them all in Emma. What Emma becomes is exactly what her persecutors made her out to be – a warning to persecutors everywhere and the stuff of revolution that oppressed masses would love. The revolt of Emma Fielding against her oppressors ultimately leads to the end of her oppression. In real life that would not come so readily, but girls’ comics prefer a happy ending.

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