Tag Archives: science fiction

Swimmer Slave of Mrs. Squall (1974)

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Published: Tammy & June 22 June 1974 to 31 August 1974

Episodes: 11

Artist: Douglas Perry

Writer: Gerry Finley-Day?

Translations/reprints: None known

Plot

Sue Briggs is a difficult, underachieving girl at school. Her parents and headmaster come down hard on her and their approach – constantly compare her unfavourably with her brother Barney (sporty) and sister Muriel (studious) – is counterproductive and only makes Sue angry. 

Sue’s anger drives her to snoop into Squall House. The Squalls were once big in the area; the housing estate (Squall Forest Housing Estate) was built on their land and Sue’s school is called Squall Forest School. Following bankruptcy and widowhood, there’s only Mrs Squall now, who lives as a recluse. 

When Sue sneaks in, she is surprised to discover a swimming pool on the Squall House property. When she attempts to rescue Mrs Squall’s dog Otto from drowning in the swimming pool, she realises she dived in while forgetting she can’t swim. Now both she and the dog need rescuing, which is what Mrs Squall does.  

Although Sue cannot swim, she did an impressive dive into the pool to save Otto. This leads to Mrs Squall and her domineering, forbidding companion, Miss Gort, giving Sue some basic swimming lessons. They become convinced Sue has the makings of a champion there, though Sue does not like swimming as much she does diving, and she is struggling with it. They offer her secret swimming and diving lessons to make her a swimming champion, give her a key for Squall House, and tell her she must not let anyone see her enter Squall House for her lessons. At first Sue is reluctant to proceed with this, but she changes her mind after another clash with her family. Now she’s going to show ‘em all by becoming a swimming champion. 

The lessons go pretty well, with Sue making more headway with diving than swimming, which is pretty much dog paddle. Still, Sue senses there is something odd about those ladies: Miss Gort is cold and relentless as a trainer, while Mrs Squall seems “so nice and kind” and totally under Miss Gort’s thumb. Mrs Squall also seems to be training in the pool, under the same relentless Miss Gort coaching. At home, Sue tries to secretly train but finds it too awkward to do so with the family around. And when she foolishly tries to train in the canal, she lands in serious trouble. As punishment, she is sent to work at her strict grandfather’s shop, and now she’s miles away from Squall House. 

However, Grandfather can tell Sue something interesting about Squall House. The Squalls went bankrupt when Mr Squall set his heart on his wife becoming a swimming champion and spent a fortune on the swimming pool and fittings, but then his business failed and he suicided. Grandfather does not know whether or not Mrs Squall became a swimming champion.

Back at Squall House, Sue is shown a film of the Commonwealth Diving Championships. Sue is surprised to see Mrs Squall competing there – and even more surprised when Mrs Squall grows upset and screams for it to stop, but Miss Gort shows her no mercy there. Sue takes fright, decides these ladies are loony and tries to make a run for it. But then she finds the ladies are even loonier than she thought. They now make her a prisoner of Squall House. The key’s gone, and the tree Sue used to climb it when she first entered has had its branches sawn off to prevent further climbing. And Otto, though ageing, is quite a guard dog. Miss Gort tells Sue she will remain at Squall House until “our purpose has been fulfilled”. They lock Sue up in a barred room with no food until she cooperates, which she eventually does until she can figure out an escape. 

The diving is still going better than the swimming, but the latter finally turns into proper swimming and Sue is enjoying it more. However, the swimming training grows more and more gruelling, with Sue being only allowed to dive as a reward for swimming well. Mrs Squall, a brilliant diver, is put through the same intense training as Sue. Soon after, Mrs Squall, who seems to be dominated by Miss Gort, offers to help Sue. She says that her nerve broke at that event, causing her to fail, but Sue has the something extra that could be their ticket to freedom.

The police come door-to-door knocking in search of Sue, and Sue is quickly locked away. She finds a secret chamber and a book full of swimming photos. She finds a photograph of what looks like a younger Miss Gort who won the 1936 freestyle championship. The name is Alice Bradshaw. Sue wonders if Alice Bradshaw is Miss Gort. (Hang on, it’s Miss Gort, not Mrs Gort – what’s going on here?) 

Miss Gort tears up the photo and tells Sue she will be entered in a competition on Saturday, which gives Sue hope of escape. However, at the competition Sue finds she has been entered under the name Alice Bradshaw to elude the police search. Sue agrees to the competition when Mrs Squall says not doing so will destroy hope of her being free. Sue wins second place, which boosts her confidence.  

Afterwards the ladies show Sue a faked newspaper report to trick Sue into thinking her parents think her disappearance is one of her tricks and they intend to send her away. This eliminates all thought of escape drives Sue further into their clutches in the mistaken belief they offer her a glorious future as a champion, whereas her family think she’s good for nothing.

Sue decides to sneak into the secret chamber for more clues but gets locked in. Then Miss Gort and Mrs Squall enter, with the latter appearing to be in a hypnotic state. Miss Gort opens up a cabinet full of swimming trophies, her past triumphs, but says Mrs Squall failed to continue the success, so they are carrying on with Sue Briggs. Sue manages to slip out, taking the album with her. It confirms Alice Bradshaw/Miss Gort was a former swimming champion. Sue realises something must have gone wrong afterwards, hence the reclusiveness. Miss Gort is trying to regain her triumphs through Mrs Squall, which failed. Now Miss Gort is doing it with Sue, through some hypnotic power she has. Sue now suspects Miss Gort has the same power over her when she trains her, and there is something inhuman about her, something Sue can’t put her finger on.

Sue is entered in another event, and with Miss Gort staring at her all the time with that weird power, she knows she can’t lose. Then a reporter distracts Miss Gort, and Sue suddenly loses form and begins to lose. Miss Gort realises this and puts full power on her gaze, and suddenly Sue feels the strength again, but does not recover enough to win. After a row between Miss Gort and Mrs Squall over the distraction, Sue is convinced Miss Gort has hypnotic powers. On the way back, Sue catches a glimpse of her house, and although still fooled by the fake newspaper report, realises she misses her family very badly.

Meanwhile, the reporter is still sniffing. He gathers details on the Squalls, which are pretty what Sue’s grandfather has already said, but now we learn Mr Squall was a wealthy inventor and suicided because his wife failed to become the champion he wanted her to be. And that reporter wants to know where Miss Gort fits in. At Sue’s next event, which she wins, the reporter follows to find where they keep her. 

The reporter manages to sneak into Squall House. Sue quickly tells him what’s going on and to alert her family, but then Otto drives him off. One night the reporter returns to help Sue escape, but Mrs Squall attempts to drown him in the swimming pool. Sue saves the reporter and goes after Mrs Squall. The trail leads Sue to the truth about Miss Gort and why she’s so inhuman. The fact is, she’s not human at all – she’s a robot! 

Mrs Squall then reveals herself to be the one behind the swimmer slave gig the whole time, through the robot. She was only acting the part of helpless hypnotised victim in Miss Gort’s power and being “fellow prisoner” to Sue. She explains that she failed as a swimming champion because she did not train hard enough, leading to ruin for the family and her husband’s suicide. Before he died, Mr Squall built the robot as a last hope, to help Mrs Squall find someone to train as a champion and succeed where she had failed. All that stuff Sue found in the secret room about Miss Gort/Alice Bradshaw was planted there to mislead her (but Mrs Squall never explains who Alice Bradshaw never was).  

The robot hypnotises Sue into becoming a brilliant swimmer for the final medley, with the starting gun acting as the trigger for the hypnotic suggestion. Sue knows it’s cheating but has no control over the phenomenal way she is swimming now. 

Then the reporter escapes, appears at the pool, and gets into a fight with Mrs Squall, who opens fire on him. This shot confuses Sue, causing the hypnotic power to break and Sue to lose the medley. The shot hits the robot, causing it to malfunction and turn on Mrs Squall; they both fall into the swimming pool and the robot short-circuits. Mrs Squall is taken into mental care. Sue is happily reunited with her family, but is still grateful for the start Mrs Squall gave her in becoming a swimming champion.

Thoughts

As with other problem girl serials (such as “Black Sheep of the Bartons” and “Jackie’s Two Lives” (Jinty) and “Queen Rider” (Tammy)), Sue is pretty much the orchestrator of her own problems with her family and school. After all, she does nothing to make her family proud of her. In such serials, the protagonist fails to realise her bad attitude and wrong way of thinking were at the root of her problems. Once she wakes up and changes her attitude, things become far happier for her and those around her. We can imagine the same happened with Sue and her family once she returned home with new confidence and hugging her new ambition to be a champion. 

But from the beginning, Sue is also a sympathetic character. We can see how hard her family is on her and they are taking the wrong approach in comparing her to her brother and sister all the time. They’re not trying to find out what the problem is, or maybe try a different approach. Sue thought she was good for nothing and could not be good at anything, and this was reflected in her conduct. The fact that they never trusted her with a key – Miss Gort and Mrs Squall were the first to do so – says a lot, and Sue really responds to someone showing trust in her for once. It’s also one reason why Miss Gort and Mrs Squall were so successful in trapping Sue – they were the reversal of her family in the way they treated her: trust, praise, and seeing the potential of a champion in her and offering to bring it out, while her family tells her she’s a “no-good”. 

Stories where creepy, reclusive ladies take advantage of girls dissatisfied with their home life to lure them away, make them captive through mind games and other means, and use them for their own purpose have been seen elsewhere in girls’ comics. Examples include “Jackie’s Two Lives” and “The Gypsy Gymnast” (Tammy). As these examples illustrate, the lure can be built up over time until it’s ready to snare the girl, but in this case Sue is caught and trapped by episode three. From there, for the rest of the story, rather than focusing on escape it’s more about unravelling the mystery about what’s going on while doing what she’s told. 

Although the training is gruelling and even frightening, there are advantages that Sue thrives on (increasing strength, confidence and faith in herself), which gives her reasons to continue with it – and also to stay in the power of her captors. She is going from non-swimmer to the makings of a champion and has finally found something she is good at. She feels confidence she has never felt before and she finally feels she’s good for something. From what we glean, this is the reason why Sue was such a problem girl. She had no vocation in life until Mrs Squall and Miss Gort help her find it, in contrast to her family’s constant criticism and comparing her to her more successful siblings. Even while the ladies hold her captive they still give her what she never got from her family: boost her confidence, make her feel appreciated, and also make her feel like a somebody. 

Miss Gort’s training methods are not as over the top as in some stories. In “The Chain Gang Champions” (Tammy), for example, the Duchess’s notoriously extreme methods of training girls as athletes include forcing them to complete runs in ever-decreasing time limits while holding a man hostage to be fed to a hungry bear! All the same, it’s not only intense to the point of being inhuman; there’s something really weird about it that makes it frightening and creepy. It’s made even creepier by the fact that the hypnosis is not revealed all at once. Instead, it’s gradually revealed in stages, starting with those frightening eyes Miss Gort has that Sue suddenly notices. Eventually Sue begins to draw the right conclusions. 

Except that they turn out not to be the right conclusions at all. The truth is totally awry from what Sue and the reader have been led to believe. We’re all built up to think that Miss Gort is using her dominant personality and additional asset of hypnotic ability to make Mrs Squall every much her prisoner and puppet as Sue is. It’s a setup we’ve seen elsewhere in serials such as “Secret Ballet of the Steppes” and “Vision of Vanity Fayre” in Tammy. But in fact it’s in fact Miss Gort who is the puppet (a robot) and Mrs Squall is the real instigator. She had only been acting the part of a hapless victim in the grip of a tyrant, fooling Sue the whole time, and the clues Sue found the house were red herrings planted to mislead her. Woah, now that is a twist to take us totally by surprise! 

The twist would work better if we are told just who Alice Bradshaw really was and how she fits into the whole thing, but that’s never explained. The only conclusion is that Alice Bradshaw was the mother of either Mr or Mrs Squall and Mr Squall built the robot in her likeness. It would also explain why Mr Squall was so set on his wife becoming a swimming champion. 

Sadly, it was Mr Squall being determined his wife should become a swimming champion that led to the whole mess. Such obsession always spells trouble in girls’ comics, but in this case it’s even worse. It went tragically wrong, drove Mr Squall to suicide (now that’s a strong thing to have in a girls’ comic!), and turned Mrs Squall’s mind. She must have also felt guilty over her husband’s death, blaming herself for his suicide because she failed as a champion swimmer. As she’s led away by police, Sue feels sorry for her, and so do we. If Sue does become a swimming/diving champion, and we sincerely hope she does, it would go a long way towards peace for Mrs Squall. 

The Clock and Cluny Jones (1973)

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Published: Tammy 27 January 1973 to 14 April 1973

Episodes: 12

Artist: John Armstrong

Writer: Bill Harrington

Translations/reprints: Misty annual 1985 as “Grandfather’s Clock”

Plot

Cluny Jones is a bully. She is the terror of the school where she does not pull her weight and cheats and cribs at classwork and games. Her justification for her conduct is that life is tough and you have to be tough to get what you want, something her orphaning has made her believe in. Also part of the problem is that she is indulged too much by her kind Aunt Mabel, whom she takes advantage of.

An inheritance comes for Cluny from her late grandfather in Scotland. Cluny is chagrined to see it is not money but a grandfather clock he made himself, and she has a good mind to sell it. However, when Cluny opens the clock in search of any hidden money, she soon finds out it is no ordinary grandfather clock. When it strikes thirteen, she suddenly feels as if she’s falling into a void inside the clock. Then she finds everything is different somehow and everyone she knows behaves the opposite of how they were before – including herself. Aunt Mabel is now an abusive tyrant and more rough in appearance. Cluny is forced to go to school in tatty uniform, and her toughness is gone; instead, she is timid. She is also brilliant, the “swot” of the school. The pupils, whom she bullied before, get so jealous at her winning the Craigavon scholarship they start beating her up. Cluny finds herself terrified of this instead of duffing them up as she would back home, and she wonders why the heck she can’t stand up to them.

Thirteen strikes again, Cluny falls back into the void, and then finds everything has gone back to normal. But she’s at school, not in front of her grandfather’s clock where it all started, and realises something is weird about that clock. Cluny checks inside it and finds a message. It reads: “If money you require, step into the mire, if real riches you esteem, slip into my timely stream. The bridge of time is my thirteenth chime.” Cluny can’t figure it out.

After this bizarre experience, you would expect Cluny to steer well clear of that clock and try to get rid of it fast. But greed has taken over and is drawing Cluny back to the clock and the mystery about it. She still hopes there is a fortune inside the clock and thinks the note is promising it. She wonders if there is a connection with that other existence. Fuelled by greed, Cluny forces the clock to strike thirteen. She is back in the other reality, this time with everything flashing past at lightning speed. And the abuse is even worse: Aunt Mabel throws crockery at her and then says she’ll pay for those broken dishes, and at school the bullies attack her with such force they nearly drown her, but the thirteenth chime saves her in time. Inside the clock she finds another rhyming message, and this time she understands it: she rushed time by forcing the clock to strike thirteen and in future please wait for thirteen to strike. 

Greed over what “real riches” seems to promise draws Cluny back to the clock. She wants to figure out “timely stream” and decides to seek the “genius” she is in the other universe so she can figure it out at school. But the thirteenth chime has stopped. Cluny soon finds out why: Aunt Mabel sent it for an overhaul, thinking the thirteenth chime must mean it is time to get the clock fixed. Worse, she has sent it to a crooked firm, Manson’s, who swindle Cluny with another clock when she tries to get the clock back. She has to do a bit of breaking and entering to do it. She finds the clock just as it strikes thirteen, and she’s off again. In the other reality she finds Manson’s even worse: it’s a clock factory, and Mr Manson is even more cruel and coarse-looking. Cluny soon finds the abusive Aunt Mabel yanked her out of school to slave in the factory. She is sacked for cutting her finger and bleeding all over the goods. Aunt Mabel kicks her out to find another job, and she’s not to come back until she’s got one. 

Instead, Cluny heads to school in search of the science teacher, Miss Jarvis, to help her figure things out. With Miss Jarvis’ help, Cluny soon realises she is stepping in and out of a parallel timestream, one of many that run concurrent with her own. 

Cluny’s search for a job is fruitless, leaving her stuck on the streets because Aunt Mabel said not to come back until she had a job. Then, when Aunt Mabel catches up she’s all sweetness and light – and neat as a pin. Cluny soon finds out why: in this timestream grandfather is still alive and he’s paying a visit. Aunt is sucking up to him in the hopes of money from his will, as he’s filthy rich. It’s the cruel Aunt Mabel’s turn to be put out when grandfather’s present for Cluny is…the grandfather clock. 

Cluny now realises the notes she got in the grandfather clock were in grandfather’s writing, but Aunt Mabel takes them from her before she can figure them out further. Grandfather is very kind and takes Cluny out on treats, but he makes it clear he knows what she’s like in her own timestream, and if she’s ever like that again – remember him. Before he leaves, he tells Cluny that if things are getting too much she has no need to wait for the thirteenth chime – just touch the pendulum lightly and wish to go the time and place she wants. Cluny can now come and go as she pleases with the two timestreams. 

But the nasty Aunt Mabel sells the clock, leaving Cluny stranded in the harsh timestream. She fits Cluny up with a job at the Saracen Hotel, which means more drudgery with another cruel employer, Mr Frinton. On the plus side, it turns out to be where Aunt Mabel sold the clock. Unfortunately Cluny does not use the pendulum correctly and finds herself still stuck in the harsh timestream. 

Worse, she is arrested for attempted theft of the clock and assault on Mr Frinton. She soon finds that in this timestream there is no separate legal system for minors – “thank goodness” says the judge. Cluny is tried in an adult court and sentenced to an adult prison for eighteen months. The prison is as harsh as everything else in this world, where the guards and inmates alike bully Cluny. Now Cluny is doubly trapped by the timestream, with no hope of return unless she can escape from the prison and back to the clock, which looks hopeless. 

Then escape comes unexpectedly. Cluny’s two bully cellmates break out, and when Cluny discovers this, they drag her along at knifepoint, intending to kill her when they get the chance. But things go wrong with the getaway. When the police give chase, their getaway van goes over a cliff. It looks like the two convict women came a cropper below. Cluny is thrown clear, and it is not long before she realises the police are hunting for her. 

Fortunately Cluny ended up where grandfather lives and he helps her. He indeed knows what she is like in the other universe; this was all to teach her a lesson, and show her how horrible things can be if everyone was like her instead of being kinder to one another. Cluny promises to be different if she can return to her own timestream. 

Grandfather starts to build a second timestream clock to return Cluny to her timestream, but just as he finishes it, a policeman arrives in search of Cluny. Grandfather hypnotises the policeman into sleep, but the interruption he caused sends them off course, causing them to fail to change timestreams. Fortunately the clock sent them to Saracen Hotel, where the first timestream clock is. They are also facing down a very angry Mr Frinton. Grandfather keeps Mr Frinton hypnotised while Cluny uses the clock to return to her timestream. Grandfather stays behind, unable to go with Cluny, his fate uncertain, saying he can always make another clock. 

Back home, Cluny now realises the “riches” the note was on about meant the riches that come from being kind, and that is the course she will pursue from now on. The clock is back as well, and now Cluny wants to keep it. There is some hint from the clock suggesting that grandfather is all right in the other timestream.

Thoughts

“The Clock and Cluny Jones” holds the distinction of being Tammy’s first science fiction story, a genre she used less often than Jinty in her serials, but it became more frequent after Misty and Jinty merged with her. The science fiction elements have been very deftly combined with something the early Tammy was very well known for: dark stories laden with cruelty that is increasingly piled up against ill-used heroines, especially orphans, who remain unbroken by it all but are desperate to find some way to escape their abusive existence and find happiness. 

Tammy turns one of her own favourite premises right on its head by starting off this orphan as the opposite of how she is usually set up in the Tammy universe. Instead of being a cruelly abused orphan suffering at the hands of abusive guardians (as Bella Barlow was) and others at school and work, she is a tough, bullying orphan with a kind guardian, and she is the one who makes everyone else’s lives a misery. The irony is, when Cluny is flung into the other timestream, it is the other timestream that is more like the setup that Tammy used for her ill-used orphans: cruel guardians, school bullies, slave-driving employers, everything against the heroine, and any scrap of kindness they find (such as grandfather) is an oasis for them instead of taking it for granted (such as the kind Aunt Mabel) in Cluny’s own timestream. In the harsh timestream, Cluny herself is more like the ill-used victim heroine frequently seen in the early Tammy. This is not only in what she endures but also because her personality, rendered the opposite of what it was before, makes her unable to fight back as she would in her own timestream. 

Parallel worlds are commonly used in girls’ serials for “what if?” (The Sentinels from Misty) or dystopias based on out-of-hand extremes (Worlds Apart from Jinty). In this case we have a parallel world ruled by an extreme – extreme bullying. It is so extreme that it often turns ugly, coming close to murder more than once for Cluny in the story. It is a stroke of genius to use a parallel reality where virtually everyone is a bully, with rare exceptions such as grandfather and Miss Jarvis, to show Cluny the bully how terrible the consequences of bullying can be if everyone followed her philosophy and behaved tough to get what they want. The result is harsh, brutal, bullying people who shape a world that follows a very dark path. Nowhere is it more frightening than when Cluny falls foul of its legal system. Kids are treated the same as adults, no separate facilities for them, and everything, from the police to the prison, is brutal, bullying and violent. There are even “nasty penalties” for witchcraft, suggesting the brutality of this reality has made it backward in many ways. Grandfather is threatened with these penalties when a policeman sees the clock paraphernalia and stacks of books in his house, making us hope all the more he managed to get away. Perhaps he used another clock to jump into yet another timestream.

It is most unusual for a bully to be used for a redemption serial. More often girls’ comics went for spoiled brats, snobs, selfish girls and bigheads to put through the mill to transform them into better people, not protagonists who are downright nasty. But using a bully for a redemption story is the case here, which makes a very nice change. Cluny isn’t quite as evil as some bullies we’ve seen in girls’ comics (The Honourable S.J. and Nancy Norden from “Be Nice to Nancy!” from Judy for example), and much of her bullying stems from the wrong attitude, which she needs to learn is wrong. But her bullying needs to be sorted out and straight away we want her to get her comeuppance. It takes a while and a full stranding in the bully timestream for the message to sink in, though. Her initial trips to the timestream do not make her stop to think about her own bullying and she is still doing it at school.

Bullies were used more as antagonists to make life hell for the protagonist until their expected comeuppance at the very end. It’s good to see a bully get her comeuppance through a redemption story for once, and it’s a real twist to do so by turning her into the bully victim. And it begins with stripping Cluny of everything that made her a bully and taking everything for granted to make her appreciate you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone – by giving her the total opposite in another reality. 

The pace of the story is really cracking and hard-hitting. For example, Cluny’s time in the prison does not last any more than it needs to. In just one episode Cluny is sent there and left shivering with cold because her cellmates have stolen her blankets; in the very next episode she escapes with those same cellmates. It’s also very frightening and eerie, and it’s disturbing to see Cluny drawn to the harsh timestream as much as she is scared of it because of her greed and mistaken belief that riches await her somewhere if she pursues that timestream. But we can tell straight away what that note about “real riches” means and Cluny’s letting herself in for big trouble by pursuing it instead of keeping away from that clock and its thirteenth chime. Once she learns her lesson we will not be at all surprised if the clock no longer strikes thirteen.

Tammy’s first science fiction story is definitely one of her very best serials, and it’s beautifully rendered by the ever-popular John Armstrong artwork. There is so much in it to make it a firm favourite with readers. It is not only fast-paced, exciting, intriguing and frightening; in many ways it is also atypical of girls’ serials, especially in having a bully being the one to go through the redemption process. 

What’s Wrong with Rhona? (1977)

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Published: Tammy 7 May 1977 to 23 July 1977

Episodes: 12

Artist: Eduardo Feito

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: Girl annual 1983 (some material cut); Tina Sterstrip 5 in 1983 as ‘Zomaar een pop…?’ (Just any doll…?).

We continue our exploration of “possession” serials with one of Tammys’ forays into science fiction. Incidentally, the SF serial was something Tammy did not delve into frequently, probably because she placed more emphasis on dark serials laden with emotion, cruelty and exploitation. It was seen more often in Jinty.

Plot

Rhona French is the star athlete of her school. While on a training run on Salisbury Plain, Rhona and her friends are surprised by a strange scorching smell. Then Rhona finds a doll. Its eyes are closed. She takes it for safe-keeping, hoping to find its owner. But before long, everyone who sees the doll is creeped out by it, including Rhona’s brother Tim and best friend Helen. They say it’s weird and feels like it’s made of flesh. 

Just before the second half of a crucial hockey match, Rhona is surprised to find the doll’s eyes open. During the match she gets a splitting headache and then starts playing badly because her body doesn’t seem to have its usual agility. She is benched, her team loses, and Rhona finds herself in Coventry. She is surprised by it all because she has absolutely no memory of what happened. The doll’s eyes are closed again.

And so the pattern is set for the story: When Rhona is near the doll, the doll’s eyes open. Rhona gets a splitting headache and everything goes blank. Then she acts totally out of character, moving clumsily and awkwardly while her behaviour is cold, aloof and chilling and her eyes give off an alarming stare that makes everyone shiver. She walks in a manner that mows down everyone in her path. She also thinks and talks in a manner that is not herself, suggesting something or someone else is in control. Then there’s another splitting headache, Rhona returns to normal with no memory of what happened, and the doll’s eyes are closed again. And of course how she behaves in between those headaches gets her into a whole heap of trouble that she can’t explain. Mum thinks Rhona is ill or something, but Dad keeps reacting angrily and thinks a good thrashing is in order. Rhona also begins to experience visions of strange technology. 

A weakness is suggested early on: when Mum sprays air freshener in the kitchen, the strange possession reacts badly to it: it coughs badly, feels like it’s choking, and flings the air freshener out the window. This suggests it has a reaction to aerosols.

Another weakness is revealed when Rhona’s poor coordination while under the possession causes her to have a road accident. Still under the possession, she walks out of the hospital, yelling to the doctors that if she does not get home within the hour, both of them will die. This suggests a time limit. She is forced back to the hospital and nearly dies before the doll is brought in (in the nick of time, maybe?).

The possession takes over in class. Under it, Rhona treats the teacher arrogantly, saying what she is teaching is far too elementary and childish and should be capable of a higher standard of teaching. When the teacher lays a hand on her, the reaction is very angry: she shoves the teacher aside: “How dare you touch me, you horrid woman!” The headmistress sends Rhona home with a note about her conduct.

On the way home, the possessed Rhona also reacts angrily to a market stall man and upsets his apple cart when he slights her. But that’s not the worst of it. It also has her steal a calculator from a store because it wants to work on vital calculations. The police are called in. By this time Rhona has returned to normal, she not only can’t explain her conduct in class but the theft either, because she has no memory of them. Dad manages to get her off the hook with the police but is furious with her and has no time for Mum’s pleas that Rhona has been ill.

Mum is among those who have noticed how oddly Rhona has been behaving since she picked up the strange doll and decides to send it to a cousin in Scotland. Overhearing this while under the possession, Rhona hides the doll in a box of Christmas decorations. When she returns to normal, the doll seems to have disappeared and Rhona thinks her problems are over. For a brief time they seem that way.

Then something pulls Rhona to the box of decorations, and there’s the doll with its eyes open again. Under the possession she goes out. Helen sees this, and realising the trouble has resurfaced, follows her. The trail leads to Stonehenge. Using the stolen calculator, it calculates the approach angle for a rescue shuttle craft, which is set to come at sunrise next day. Through its speech and thought bubbles, it becomes apparent that an alien is taking over Rhona’s body, and when it does, its conduct is cold and arrogant. It considers its own race as superior to Earthlings in terms of intellect. But manoeuvring Rhona’s body is difficult because it’s too large for the alien (not surprising, considering Rhona’s body is a giant compared to the doll-sized body of the alien!). Its own body cannot cope with Earth’s atmosphere and it was placed into a state of suspension until its spaceship returned. It is using Rhona to “regain [its] freedom” i.e. “leave this disgusting planet!”, but it can only stay in Rhona’s body for 12 hours, after which both it and “that stupid Rhona” die if it does not return to its own body in time. 

Meanwhile, Mum and Tim find the doll/alien and, seeing how creepy it is, dispatch it to the cousin in Scotland. Discovering this, the possessed Rhona sets off after it. She ends up jumping a train to retrieve it, pulling the emergency cord, and then jumping off, taking a fall down a slope. It is very surprised to experience pain, something unknown to its race, and retreats, letting Rhona return to normal. Not remembering what happened, Rhona stumbles home with the parcel. Only once she arrives home does she check the parcel, discover she brought that weird doll home again, and realise her mother was trying to get rid of it.

Helen comes over to discuss things with Rhona about the doll. After writing everything down they see the pattern of the doll’s eyes opening and closing, Rhona being near it at the time, and then the blank spells. Recalling the incident with the air freshener, Rhona tries it out on the doll. Sure enough, the air freshener forces the doll’s eyes closed again when they open. However, Rhona loses the air freshener next time the doll’s eyes open, and it takes her over again. It sets off for the rendezvous at Stonehenge, with Tim and Helen in pursuit once they find Rhona and the doll gone again.

At dawn, Rhona is very surprised to find herself at Stonehenge. A ray of light hits the alien/doll and it comes out of suspended animation. It introduces itself as Srewana of the starship Opsilon. Srewana explains she was left behind when her starship took off for emergency repairs, but now it is returning. She has using Rhona’s body for survival reasons, as she can’t use her own in Earth’s atmosphere. Her people, who look like doll-sized humans, built Stonehenge for a spaceport, with the altar stone as the landing platform. In some parts of the world they became worshipped as gods because their superior technology looked like magic. Then a comet collided with Earth and changed the atmosphere, which proved detrimental to the aliens (and explains the weakness to aerosols).

The spaceship arrives and lands on the altar stone. Srewana forces Rhona into the spaceship as a specimen for her race. However, when the captain hears what Srewana has been doing to Rhona, he is furious because Srewana broke their laws about non-interference with inhabitants on the planets they visit (sounds like times have changed since Srewana’s race interfered with human development) and tells Srewana she will be punished. He apologises to Rhona for the trouble Srewana caused her, lets her go, and asks her to stay silent about her alien encounter. So when Tim and Helen catch up, Rhona merely says “the weird doll” is gone forever and the trouble’s all over. Helen notices a strange burning smell, the same as the one when they first found the doll.

Thoughts

Here we have the possession serial story done with a stranded E.T. that is not friendly or endearing like the Spielberg version. Srewana justifies what she does, including breaking the laws of her own people, in the name of survival. We should be thankful that the alien was only doing it for self-preservation purposes when she could easily have had more sinister reasons for taking over a human body. Still, we don’t have much sympathy with Srewana, even though she is doing it for survival, because of the way she behaves when she is in Rhona’s body. We might feel more sorry for Srewana if she had proved much nicer or feeling like a fish out of water during the periods when she was in Rhona’s body. Instead, her conduct shows she is a “little horror” as Rhona calls her when she finally confronts her.

After we see the more likeable and less arrogant starship captain, we realise Srewana’s arrogance, coldness, and aggressiveness when she is crossed in any way have more to do with her personality than any superiority complex that her race might have because they are far more advanced than Earth. After comparing the captain with the “horror” Srewana, Rhona muses, “I suppose there are good and bad among all people.” It was just her rotten luck to encounter a bad example of that race.

The story is unusual in being very quick to establish the red flags that there is an evil object afoot. The moment Helen and Rhona’s mother and brother see the doll they find it creepy and chilling; they are quick to realise Rhona’s strange behaviour started when she found it; and they are not surprised by any theories that there is a link. Usually it takes a while before anyone catches on, and in the meantime the protagonist gets into a ton of trouble she can’t explain because she was doing it under the power of the evil object. Not everyone is convinced of course. Rhona’s father certainly isn’t, nor does he believe it’s because Rhona’s ill. However, he is unusual in being more the exception than the rule in an “evil object” story in not believing something weird is responsible for the goings-on.

There is an amusing side to the aliens being doll-sized. We also giggle when the flying saucer arrives because Rhona thinks “it’s like a toy”, and it’s so small it can fit on the altar platform of Stonehenge. We wouldn’t be surprised if these aliens gave rise to fairy and leprechaun legends as well as being worshipped as gods. And when Rhona confronts Srewana, angrily calling her a little horror for what she’s done, Srewana actually cowers in fear and begs Rhona not to hurt her. Rhona replies, “Oh, stop whining! I can’t thrash a tiny thing like you, much though you deserve it!”. Really, after demonstrating her power to take over Rhona’s body and considering herself the superior intellect, we expect Srewana to have far more defiance and arrogance than that! Perhaps it’s the difference in size between them rather than the difference in advancement. Still, small size should not be underestimated. As Srewana has demonstrated, being small does not mean you’re harmless. 

Danger Dog [1982]

Sample Images 

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Published: Tammy & Jinty 9 January 1982 to 17 April 1982

Episodes: 15

Artist: Julio Bosch

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: None known

Plot

It is slightly ahead in the future (from the time of writing). Beth Harris’ town has a cruel practice in regard to stray animals: rounding them up and taking them to High Fell Research Station for experimentation. Her dog Sammy falls foul of this practice when he got lost. His collar got lost as well, so he was taken for a stray and ended up at High Fell. Beth breaks into High Fell to rescue Sammy, and is confident she got him out before the scientists did anything to him.

However, Beth’s father insists Sammy be returned to High Fell in case he is carrying some sort of contamination from that place and is dangerous. Beth does not believe that, and she is not having Sammy returned to High Fell either. She ends up going on the run with Sammy on the moor, intending to come back once she’s proved Sammy’s not dangerous.

Unfortunately for Beth a huge manhunt is soon after her, with men in contamination suits and tracker dogs searching the moors, and the High Fell owner insisting on Sammy’s return. He refuses to disclose details about the experiments performed on Sammy or exactly what sort of contamination he could be carrying. Considering what a horrible-looking man he is, his reticence is very suspicious.

The manhunt is all over the press and big news in town. As the news gathers momentum, there are hints that people who disapproved of High Fell and its animal experiments are beginning to voice their outrage and express sympathy for Beth. On the moor, Beth finds some of these sympathisers helping her whenever she meets them, such as an old lady living on the moor named Old Meg.

Meanwhile, Beth increasingly begins to realise that weird things have been happening to her, and have been ever since she got Sammy back. She is having bizarre bouts of going deaf, going blind, voice going wrong, seeing in the dark, super-strength, super-healing, and the muscles in her body going completely kaput. These wear off, but they are increasing in frequency and intensity. They happen to other people she comes into contact with as well. These include the kindly Old Meg and scheming gypsies who hold Beth and Sammy prisoner, hoping to claim a reward for bringing them in.

At first Beth thinks these things are due to her getting contaminated with chemicals during her rescue mission and she is the one who is dangerous, not Sammy. But eventually she realises these weird things only happen when she is in close contact with Sammy. He is dangerous after all. Whatever was done to him causes peculiar things to happen to any human he comes into contact with. She believes the High Fell scientists must have known this and it is the real reason they want him back.

Beth, the human who stays close to Sammy the most, is feeling the worst of these effects. She soon finds they are getting both worse and weirder. So bad now in fact, that Beth discovers that distance from Sammy is no longer safe. There is no telling where they will lead, and her very life could be in danger. But she can’t bear the thought of Sammy being destroyed or returned to High Fell. She tries to drive Sammy off, but realises that is not the answer either, as he could still come into contact with humans.

After long thought Beth makes the decision to leave Sammy tied up in an old cottage and go back to town to get help from her parents. But by the time she arrives home the chemicals are having such a bad effect on her – despite her distance from Sammy – that she is confined to bed. By the time she recovers, Sammy has been in that cottage without food or water for whole three days.

They get to Sammy in time, and also discover the three-day nourishment deprivation has cured him of the chemical effects. He is safe to go home. It is never established just what High Fell did to Sammy and why. Beth thinks they were developing a weapon of some sort. High Fell is closed down and their experiments stopped because of the bad publicity Beth caused them. Beth hopes that if the research station reopens, it will be to more savoury experiments.

Thoughts

“Danger Dog” was one of the best stories to appear during the Tammy & Jinty merger. It’s strong, dark, subversive, freaky, and chilling stuff. It is possible the story was originally written for Misty as there is evidence (Monster Tales) that Misty was still an influence on Tammy during the merger despite her logo’s disappearance on the cover. The story looks like it was strongly influenced by “The Plague Dogs” by Richard Adams. “The Secret of NIMH” could be in the mix as well.

Danger Dog not only decries the cruelties of animal experimentation but also the dangers of science when it is used for unethical ends. Unlike most evil scientists in girls’ comics it is never established just what those scientists did to Sammy or why. Never knowing exactly what that experiment was about makes the story even more sinister and creepy. As we see those weird effects on Beth, watch them grow increasingly bizarre, and eventually learn it is because of Sammy, it’s even more frightening, because we don’t know just what is behind it. For one thing, is the experiment backfiring or going wrong for some reason? Or is it unfolding as the scientists intended, with perhaps even more results than they anticipated? Are they really developing a secret weapon? Or is it some other chemical experiment?

The effects themselves add to the horror of it all. It’s not just because they are frightening but also because they are just plain weird. Seeing in the dark, and then going blind? All the muscles in your body going flat? Now that is just weeiirrd! And what makes it even weirder is that some of these effects can be described as temporary super powers, such as the super-strength or seeing in the dark. But the final effect turns Beth’s face into an utter horror story, which shocks her parents when they see it. It must have shocked the doctors and authorities as well, and if it didn’t have them tearing White Fells apart to find out just what that research station was doing we would be very surprised. And we can just see the angry demonstrators outside the research station once word of Beth’s condition spread. It would have been no surprise if Beth’s final state had been the final straw that shut down White Fells.

It’s the irony of the story that if Sammy had turned out to be safe like Beth hoped, High Fell might not have been shut down. Having him turn out to be dangerous after all would have been the clincher in stopping the High Fell experiments.

We strongly sympathise with Beth and Sammy, and we cheer Beth for wanting to save her dog from those experiments. We desperately want Beth to emerge triumphant at proving Sammy is not dangerous and not have to return to that research station. And we expect that to happen. After all, this is a girls’ serial. So it is gutting for us all when the story establishes that Beth was wrong all along and her dog really is dangerous like Dad said. It’s definitely not the way we expected the story to go.

After this, Beth is faced with a choice that no girl and her dog should ever face: the love of her dog or risk him being destroyed. And let’s face it: public safety and Beth’s own well-being are at stake, and they have to come first. But it’s an agonising, heart-wrenching decision for Beth, and here the story delivers its most powerful emotional impact.

Setting the story a little distance in an unspecified future year adds a dystopian element to the story. This makes the concept of a town sending strays to a research station for experimentation instead of animal shelters for rehoming a bit more credible. The unspeficied time setting also means the story will work anywhere, anytime, which will be handy if it comes up for reprint.

The Black Widow [1978]

Sample Images

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Publication: Misty 17 June 1978 – 16 September 1978

Episodes: 14

Artist: Jaume Rumeu

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: Anita 1980 as De Zwarte weduwe [The Black Widow]

Sequel: Spider-Woman, Tammy & Misty, 19 January 1980 – 22 March 1980

Plot 

In “her silken lair, hidden from the eyes of the world” is Mrs Webb, who is to become known to the world as The Black Widow. She calls out to her spiders, “Tonight is the time…the time of the spiders!”

Not far away is Corey End School, where we meet our two protagonists. The first is Sadie Lincoln, who wants to be a scientist. But Sadie has phobia about creepy crawlies, especially (you guessed it) spiders. The science teacher, Miss Dexter, tells Sadie she must overcome this if she is to handle biological specimens and make her way as a scientist. The second is Freda Lawrence, a rather unlikeable girl who thinks Sadie is always sucking up to teachers.

Sadie prefers astronomy as a science, and is spending the night with her telescope. She is surprised to see a type of meteor, which bursts into fragments. She goes out to investigate and finds a capsule containing a spider. She takes it to Miss Dexter, who cannot identify the species, but puts it in an aquarium for study. They are astonished to find it has doubled in size 24 hours later. And it continues to grow. They don’t realise they have captured the spider that should be at the centre of Webb’s new web. Webb goes in search of the spider and says there will be “no mercy for anyone keeping him!”

Webb turns up at the school, suspecting it is the place to start looking for the spider. Telling everyone she is on a mission to save spiders from the cruelty of man, she promises a £5 reward for anyone who brings a spider to her. Figuring she will get more than that if she brings Webb the super-growing spider, Freda steals it from the science lab. Sadie catches Freda and suspects what she is doing. She tags along with Freda to Webb’s house in the hope of grabbing it back.

They are both surprised to find the house is derelict. Inside, they are caught in a mechanical web manned by a giant mechanical spider. But this is actually the mechanism that brings them to Webb’s lair. Webb scares them into handing over the spider.

Webb explains that she and her husband were biological chemists. Her husband was forced to participate in a military biological experiment that killed him when it went wrong. Now she is out for revenge on Britain with the aid of her specially engineered spiders – and with Sadie and Freda, who are going to be her instruments. Freda says if there’s a few bob in it, she will be happy to do it. This disgusts Sadie, who also expresses her fear of spiders. At this, Webb hypnotises Sadie into liking spiders. She then gives Freda a hypnotic prompt “you creep!” This will have Sadie doing whatever Freda commands when she says it. She also imprisons the girls in slave pendants that give them electric shocks whenever they try to remove them. The pendants label Freda as Tara and Sadie as Tula. Finally, Webb gives Freda a bag of spiders for their first test. She then sends them out, with Sadie having no recollection of what happened.

What Webb does not realise is that Freda is not loyal to her because she was too shocked at the sight of the hypnotism done to Sadie. Freda is only playing along with Webb because she does not want to be hypnotised as well.

Using the “you creep!” prompt, Freda has Sadie unleash the spiders at school, which causes a panic. Afterwards, Webb says the spiders have been installed with transmitters, so she can track them on her electronic map.

Sadie has no memory of what happens when the hypnotic power wears off, so she cannot explain her action to her headmistress – or her absenteeism the next day. This is, of course, because they have been directed to their of next target – one Major-General Oliver Bullivant. Webb blames Bullivant for her husband’s death. The girls plant Webb’s spider on Bullivant’s dog. When the spider bites Bullivant, he falls into a paralysis that leaves him incapable of speaking and doctors baffled. However, the investigation, led by Inspector Bird, is soon drawing the right conclusions. Bird is now searching for the spider and the two girls.

Freda wants to call it quits, but when she tries to tell Webb, Webb demands to know the fate of the Bullivant spider. Webb realises the spider is still with Sadie and uses the pendant to summon her – only to find that Sadie has let the spider go. Later, the spider turns up in the papers that a despatch rider is taking to Bullivant’s. The spider bites and paralyses the dispatch rider, causing him to have a crash. Bird realises what happened and is now searching the scene of the accident for the spider. Then Carfax of SI9 turns up and tells Bird that someone stole a batch of spiders that the Ministry had been testing in the stratosphere. The purpose had been to create super-spiders, but the results are unknown because of the theft. Carfax has a pretty good idea who the thief is (guess who?), but is having trouble locating her. The stratosphere theft also explains the “meteor” that Sadie observed earlier.

Meanwhile, the next target is Professor Lawton, who devised the experiment that killed the husband. This time the girls are to plant the spider on Lawton’s baby. But as they leave, they are attacked by rough girls. Freda tells the leader, “Go an’ jump in the lake, you creep!”

Oops – Freda unwittingly used the hypnotic prompt, which has Sadie jumping in the lake and losing the spider. When Webb finds out the spider’s fate, she is hysterical and furious as she regards her spiders as her children. She decides to go out and do the job herself. However, Mrs Lawton intercepts the spider and crushes it, which means another upset for Webb. Also, Lawton compares notes with Bird and they see the connection.

When Webb returns to her base, she gets another shock – Freda has used the hypnotic prompt to get Sadie to smash her tank of beloved spiders. Webb uses her spider powers to turn the spiders on them. Freda pretends that they have learned their lesson and Webb calls the spiders off.

Sadie now understands what is going on and she quietly teams up with Freda. But Webb hypnotises her into delivering a spider to the Prime Minister. Webb plans to use this attack to blackmail Britain into capitulating to her. However, Freda uses the “you creep!” command to bring Sadie back to Webb’s lair to do a more thorough job of smashing the place.

The police arrive. The girls try to explain – and the police are forced to take them seriously when they find millions of spiders crawling all over their car! Soon, the girls are explaining everything to Bird himself.

Meanwhile, there has been a series of blocked drains in London. Investigation reveals an enormous web and equally enormous spider in the drains. It is the spider Sadie captured earlier. It was engineered to be a super-growing spider. It has now grown to giant proportions, feeding on sewer rats – and is still growing! What’s more, it is moving on from rats to people as prey and causing panic in the underground railway station. The giant spider, complete with its web, emerges in Trafalgar Square, which causes even more panic and makes the news. Webb sees the broadcast and gloats, “The day of the spiders is here at last!”

Back at her lair, Webb has less to gloat about when she discovers what the girls have done. But when the authorities arrive, there is no sign of Webb. Then they hear her over a loudspeaker, where she finally delivers her ultimatum: if they want to stop the spider – which is now moving on from Trafalgar Square and travelling across the country via the power lines – they must do what she says. The first of her demands is to bring the girls to a rendezvous point, where the spider is waiting to devour them.

The authorities bring the girls, and Webb orders them to climb up to the spider. But the authorities have prepared a trap. The national grid is down, but the power station is waiting for their signal to turn on the power. Ironically, it is accidentally turned on when an employee is scared by a spider. As planned, the giant spider gets fried. Webb falls to the ground, though not to her death. At the same time, the slave pendants fall off Freda and Sadie. Webb is taken to hospital, but they are surprised when she seems to disappear into thin air from the ambulance. A spider scuttles away from the ambulance unnoticed, and there is a question mark after “The End”.

Thoughts

Misty was huge on scary spider stories and playing on the common fear of arachnophobia. In her very first issue she had “Red Knee – White Terror!” where a girl has many close calls with a poisonous spider without realising it but in the final panel it looks like her luck may have finally run out. Other spider-themed stories included “Web of Lies”, “Dressed to Kill!” and “Spider Woman” (no connection to Mrs Webb) in the 1984 Misty annual. But the Black Widow tops them all. What is not to love – or scare the living daylights out of you – with how she uses spiders as deadly weapons? Poisonous spiders, flesh-eating spiders, and spiders growing to monstrous proportions and emerging from the sewers of London to strike terror into everyone who sees it.

Mrs Webb comes from a long line of mad, evil scientists. However, she is more rounded than most of them as there is a sympathetic element to her. Her insanity stems from the grief of losing her husband, and she believes the military was responsible for it. There may even be some truth to Webb’s suspicions because Bullivant is such a pompous, overbearing, unlikeable git. He forces his unfortunate batman to do jobs that are not supposed to be part of a batman’s job. At any rate, readers must have felt a sneaking sympathy for Webb when she shuts Bullivant up with her spider and felt that she had given Bullivant what was coming to him.

But sympathies for Webb don’t last. After all, she is not just doing it for revenge – she’s doing it for power as well and is out for conquest. In the sequel she will take this a stage further and be out for world conquest. But it’s not just for herself – it’s for the spiders, and she seems to see herself as a champion of them. There are no limits to what she won’t do or the types of spiders she will devise as weapons.

This story gives the military a chance to shine, something it seldom does in girls’ comics. Usually when the military does feature it is in a humorous sense (Annie’s Army in June) or female soldiers (Kitty Hawke in Girl I). But here the military is portrayed more realistically, given plenty of screen time in the story, and more time is devoted to developing the Army characters. This is all for a very credible reason – Webb’s attack is directly against the Army, and it’s personal. Whoever wrote this story must have been one of the Battle writers.

However, although the military is given more spotlight than girls’ serials usually give it, the centre stage is still given to girl protagonists and the true resolution of the story depends on them. Pairing a principled girl with an unsavoury one is not an unusual one in girls’ comics; Fairy Tale in Princess II was one to use it. What is unusual is that it is the unsavoury girl who is proactive against Webb and is key to resolving the story. By contrast, the more moralistic girl is far less proactive and more prone to succumbing to Webb’s brainwashing. The key is in their strength of character. Freda may be the more unpleasant girl, but she is the much stronger and more resourceful of the two girls. She may be greedy, willing to do it for money, but she has her limits. These stop her from turning into Webb’s willing flunky. These also help to redeem Freda as a character. Sadie, by contrast, may be more principled, but she has a weaker personality and is more prone to succumbing to Webb’s power. However, the brainwashing of Sadie enables Freda to turn Webb’s power against her on several occasions.

Mrs Webb was the only Misty villain who was brought back for a sequel. She was not killed off as many of Misty’s villains were, such as Dr Bracken from “The Body Snatchers”. Misty had several of her villains plunging to their deaths, as in “House of Horror”, but Mrs Webb not only survives her fall but escapes as well, with a hint she might be back. Perhaps Misty decided she was too good a villain to kill off. Or maybe it was all those spider menaces that she loved to use time and time again.

 

E.T. Estate (1983)

Sample Images

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Published: Tammy 15 January 1983 – 16 April 1983

Episodes: 14

Artist: Guy Peeters

Writer: Jake Adams

Translations/reprints: De kristalmonsters [The Crystal Monsters] Tina 1984, #45

Plot

Keats Estate used to be a great estate, but it has been plagued by hooliganism ever since Tony Jenkins and his gang arrived. However, one night far worse arrives when a meteorite shower hits the estate, and the damage is so extensive the estate looks like it got bombed out. Following this, the estate is nicknamed “E.T. Estate”.

But nobody realises this is no ordinary meteorite shower. The “meteorites” carry crystals, each of which contains a gaseous alien life form. Being gaseous, the crystal alien can only leave its crystal by creating a synthetic body that replicates the body of the first life form it comes into contact with – in this case, humans. The real life form is trapped within the crystal while the alien double takes its place. The alien feeds by progressively siphoning off the life force of the host trapped inside the crystal until it dies. Then the alien moves onto another life form…

As the story progresses, the aliens demonstrate other abilities. They have telekinetic powers and can also plant hallucinations into people’s minds. The energy for these powers is also drawn from the hosts’ life forces. The aliens are not telepathic, though; in fact they have to use Earth equipment such as radios.

Their main weakness is that they have to carry their crystals at all times to maintain their synthetic bodies. If the crystal is removed from them or fails to transfer the host’s life energy, their synthetic bodies disintegrate and they return to gaseous form. They are particularly vulnerable to this if the life force of the host is nearing exhaustion. Their powers also weaken if the host is nearly spent. And sometimes the transfer between the host and the duplicate fails, as will be seen later.

Jenny Holmes stumbles onto the aliens when she sees her sister Sarah being replaced by one of these crystal aliens. But of course nobody believes her when she tries to tell them what happened. Jenny soon finds it’s not just her sister – these crystal alien doubles are replacing other people on the estate. Like Sarah, Tony Jenkins was among the first. The duplicate Sarah and Tony Jenkins try to dispose of Jenny by attacking her with telekinetic powers. This causes Jenny to have an accident, but fortunately the police intervene and put her in hospital before the duplicates can finish the job.

In hospital, the Sarah duplicate slips Jenny a crystal so as to replace her too. But sometimes the transfers fail because the energy from the host fails to come through. And fortunately for Jenny, this is precisely what happens. The energy transfer failure causes the alien’s synthetic body to disintegrate, making it return to gas. The crystal dies and Jenny manages to escape from it.

Jenny is confident that someone will believe her now that she has the dead crystal for evidence. However, when she shows it to her parents when they visit, they make remarks that indicate that they, too, are crystal aliens (the duplicate Sarah must have passed crystals to the Holmes parents too). But the hospital staff don’t believe Jenny when she starts screaming about this and put it down to some sort of mental disorder from the accident. So Jenny runs away from the hospital and heads back to the estate to get some evidence.

However, the crystal aliens anticipate this and are on the lookout for her. They spot her and Jenny overhears the duplicate Sarah giving orders to “neutralise” her (the duplicate Sarah is clearly emerging as the leader figure). Jenny finds a hiding place where she also finds a human who has not been replaced – a bag woman whom everyone calls “Old Mad Dora”. Dora tells Jenny that the aliens do not sleep and work non-stop. They do not eat either (Jenny and Dora do not yet realise how the aliens do eat). Dora also witnessed Mr Holmes being replaced by his duplicate. Unfortunately people think Dora is mad and therefore she would not be taken seriously as a backup witness. On the other hand, the crystal aliens are leaving Dora alone because they also assume she is mad and therefore of no use to them. They do not realise Jenny is hidden in Dora’s pram.

Jenny soon finds the crystal aliens have hollowed out an entire building. She can’t understand the point of this. But it is now that the aliens corner Jenny.  They try to kill her by sending her upwards telekinetically and then letting her fall to her death. Dora saves Jenny by using a pile of mattresses for Jenny to land on safely and whisks her away before the aliens find her. While searching for Jenny’s body, the duplicate Sarah recognises Dora’s bags, which she carelessly left behind. She realises what happened, so now the aliens are after Dora too.

Yobs from a neighbouring estate then attack the Sarah double and take her crystal, mistaking it for a diamond. This causes the alien’s link with Sarah to break and she collapses on the ground. The other aliens just go after the yobs and leave the alien’s synthetic body to disintegrate. Jenny and Dora are watching. They now understand the aliens’ power to siphon off the life force of the hosts they capture and duplicate – and what it means for those hosts.

Jenny is able to find the yobs before the aliens do because she knew where to find the yobs whereas the aliens did not. The yobs are stunned at how the crystal begins to grow, and it grows until it is large enough for Sarah to emerge. Sarah collapses, looking completely emaciated. The yobs are too terrified of the police to call for help, so Jenny takes it upon herself to call for them and an ambulance. By the time she returns she finds the crystal has disappeared. She does not realise that one of Dora’s cats has become the new host, and the cat she is about to pick up is the duplicate. Moreover, the duplicate can still speak although it is now in cat form, and it’s still the leader of the alien swarm although its form has been reduced from human to animal.

Sarah’s condition is so severe that she has gone into a coma. She is taken to hospital but the police still don’t believe Jenny and think she is crazy. They take her off in their patrol car, but the duplicate cat uses its telekinetic powers to make the car crash. Everyone escapes relatively unscathed. Jenny goes back on the run from the police with the cat, but still does not know it is a duplicate. She finds out, though, when the aliens finally capture her.

The aliens have also captured Dora and tie both of them up. While doing so, they explain about their crystal pod, which is what they hollowed out the building for. They intend to make the pod grow large enough until it is ready to shoot millions of these crystals all over Earth. When that happens, what happened to E.T. Estate will happen everywhere, and it will go on happening until Earth is stripped of all life. Then the crystals will go into outer space and search for another host planet. Their justification for all this is the right to survive; they cannot live on if they cannot consume the way that they do. To feed the pod, the aliens surrender their own crystals, although it will mean sacrificing their own synthetic bodies. Of course all the people trapped in the crystals will die in order to feed the pod. A few aliens remain behind to guard the pod and the prisoners.

Meanwhile, in hospital, Sarah awakens and convinces one policeman enough to send a patrol force out to E.T. Estate. However, the aliens trick the police into leaving by hypnotising them into seeing everything is normal on the estate. On the other hand, performing this trick weakens the aliens. In fact, two of them somehow disappear (and their hosts later emerge from the pod for some reason) and all that is left is the duplicate cat, also weakened. The real cats now start attacking it, which gives Dora and Jenny their chance to escape their bonds. Jenny goes into the pod to get the crystals out and the duplicate cat realises it is now too weak to stop her. Then Dora takes its crystal, which causes its synthetic body to disintegrate.

Jenny comes out with the crystals, which promptly expand to full size and release the prisoners within, including Jenny’s parents. Without the crystals to feed from, the pod disintegrates. The flood of gook it makes is so massive it just about drowns all the humans. The crystals disintegrate too, which means the aliens are no longer able to duplicate anyone else.

At the hospital, the doctor says the people will recover, but it was close. Jenny wants to put E.T. Estate behind her, so she hopes the council will demolish what’s left of it and put them elsewhere.

Thoughts

E.T. Estate was Guy Peeters’ one and only serial for Tammy (not counting The Human Zoo reprint during the merger, which came from Jinty). It was one of my biggest favourites, and it must have been very popular as one reader wrote in to say she liked it so much she cut the pages out and pasted them on cardboard.

This was the only story in Tammy to use the alien invasion theme. Jinty never used it, despite her strong emphasis on science fiction. The setup for this particular invasion is very well thought out. In many alien invasion stories in girls’ comics, the aliens just invade for no apparent reason or are driven by power. But here the aliens’ motive is straightforward, credible and realistic: They are doing it to survive. They need the life energy of other life forms in order to keep themselves alive and fed because that is how they have evolved. For this reason they invade ‘suitable’ planets and strip them of their life forms in order to feed. In other words, they are a form of intergalactic parasite.

Although the crystal aliens do what they do in order to survive, they are not at all sympathetic. Indeed, they come across as totally irredeemable creatures with constant evil and cruel expressions on their faces. They may have the right to survive as they say, but so do the other life forms they try to feed off. They are a death warrant to any world they land upon if they are not stopped and eradicated in time. One hopes that at the end of the story, the whole species has been wiped out and not just a swarm of them. But we can never know for sure.

The aliens are very insidious and frightening invaders. A large part of this is due to their ability to replicate the body of whatever host they come across. Fortunately they are not good actors or bother with the culture of whatever planet they encounter. Part of this would be not having telepathic abilities, but perhaps they have little need of it. Their MO is not to infiltrate but to take over their victim planet as quickly as possible with their pod once they have established a launch site for it. What makes them even more dangerous is their telekinetic and hypnotic powers. Their ability to duplicate also transcends the human boundaries of human society, which can make for some odd scenes. Jenny, for example, finds it weird to see ordinary people working alongside workmen. She realises they must all be duplicates, but it is still a strange sight. Boundaries between good and not-so-good people are also transcended, such as the hooligan Tony Jenkins apparently working alongside Sarah Holmes because they are both duplicates. We can also feel pity for hithterto unsympathetic people like Tony once they fall victim to the crystal aliens.

Jenny falls into the long-established category of the protagonist who’s the only one who realises what’s going on but can’t convince anyone else. Nobody is listening and people think she is crazy. So she has to act on her own. Fortunately Jenny finds an ally in Dora. Dora would also fall into the same category as Jenny, not least because everyone calls her mad. Jenny used to do the same, but once she gets to know Dora better, Dora becomes established as a perfectly sane woman and a clever and courageous woman. We hope others will respect Dora and stop calling her mad after E.T. Estate.

The environment of E.T. Estate itself also adds to the creepy, grim atmosphere of the story. Even before the invasion begins, there is foreshadowing that the estate is going to go on a downward spiral because a gang of hooligans have moved in and threatening to destroy once was a great estate. This is reflected the story logo itself, which also lends itself to the yob theme that runs in the story. The opening blurb says the sun is setting on the Holmes sisters’ way of life, which implies their lives are never going to be the same again after the events in the story.

Then actual destruction on the estate begins with the meteorite shower, which causes intense damage to every building and leaves craters everywhere. The estate now looks like a bombed-out World War II city. However, eventually the people inside the estate are no longer survivors but the conquering duplicates, which makes the estate even more frightening. When Jenny finds Dora, the only human left on the estate, she finds her under the rubble of a car park, which is reminiscent of a WW2 bomb shelter. Dora’s hungry, scavenging cats, which can’t even find scraps to live on because the aliens don’t leave any, are reminiscent of scrounging, desperate survivors in a war zone. And when you think about it, E.T. Estate has become a war zone. Taking all these together, Jenny’s hope that E.T. Estate will be demolished altogether sounds prophetic.

There are a couple of weaknesses in the ending – like how did three aliens suddenly get reduced to one – and it’s the one the cats could conveniently beat up? How did the two hosts those duplicates used come to be rescued from the pod when their crystals were not even put in there? It also feels a bit convenient that the crystals dissolved too and were not able to move onto other hosts as Sarah’s crystal did. But then, perhaps the aliens only get one shot at whatever planet they land on. At one point, they did hint they had limits on their resources after all. So maybe if the pod fails, that’s it for the swarm and they die. If so, it can be explained away, plus it is very fortunate for Earth or any other planet these crystal aliens land on. It’s not the more common and more trite ending where the aliens just give up and go home.

Rita, My Robot Friend [1980-1981]

Sample Images

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Published: Tammy 6 December 1980 to 28 February 1981

Episodes: 13

Artist: Tony Coleman

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: None known

Plot

Orphan Jenny James has grown up in orphanages. Her grandfather, a scientist named Professor James, is finally traced and agrees to take her in. Jenny now hopes she will never be lonely again. As it turns out, her hopes are to take a very odd turn.

The Professor is kind enough, and he is your typical absent-minded professor. But he has a big problem that shapes the course of the entire story: He does not get on with his neighbours. In the neighbours’ view, his property is an eyesore. His laboratory house looks as eccentric as he is, and it must be said that it is untidy. This is because he does not make the time to maintain it because he gets so absorbed in his work. Moreover, sometimes his experiments go wrong, which aggravates the neighbours even more. They also regard him as a mad scientist, and they scorn him and call him names like “the old fool” and “the old goat”, despite his renown in scientific circles as a genius. (Did Thomas Edison have problems like this with his neighbours, we wonder?) Snobbery may come into it too, if the family next door have anything to go by. They are so rich that when their daughter Angelina rips a seam in her blazer they buy her a new one although it is a simple matter to repair the current one.

When Angelina finds out Jenny is Professor James’ granddaughter, she turns all the girls against Jenny at her new school, for no other reason than who Jenny’s grandfather is. Unfortunately for Jenny, she is in the same class as Angelina, which makes it even easier for Angelina to keep Jenny an outcast. It looks like Jenny will be lonely again after all.

But then Jenny accidentally brings a robot her grandfather had just created to school, and it is in the form of a human girl. Jenny dubs the robot “Rita” and uses her as an ‘instant friend’. The robot can be taken apart and reassembled, so it is portable. This is very handy for Jenny. She can take Rita anywhere in a bag, assemble Rita in order to play with her, then quickly dismantle her and hide her in the bag (or somewhere that’s handy) again. Angelina (and some teachers) can’t understand how this girl seems to be able to appear and disappear so quickly. Jenny also contrives a school uniform for Rita (acquiring and mending that discarded blazer of Angelina’s) so Rita can blend in at school.

However, Angelina is determined to find out who this mystery friend is that is defying her campaign against Jenny and is constantly trying to get a close look at her. This leads to the story rollicking in misadventures and close shaves when Jenny assembles Rita to be her companion, and then she has to find quick, resourceful ways to keep ahead of Angelina and dismantle/hide Rita quickly whenever Angelina gets too close. Jenny also has to improve her own science (which is less impressive than her grandfather’s) for Rita’s maintenance and odd repair from their brushes with Angelina. Sometimes Angelina’s attempts to find out the truth about Rita backfire on her too, such as getting into trouble with teachers. But sometimes things get a bit dangerous. On one occasion Angelina is skulking behind a cabinet to look at Rita, only to send it toppling and almost causes a nasty accident. Fortunately Rita has super-strength and stops the cabinet from falling altogether.

Jenny and Rita also begin to have the odd close call with the new science teacher, Miss Watt. Jenny is worried that Miss Watt, being scientific, will realise Rita is a robot. Eventually she decides not to take Rita to school anymore because she thinks Miss Watt is getting suspicious. She does not realise Miss Watt is an old student and admirer of her grandfather and therefore a potential ally.

Jenny decides to use Rita outside school and takes her out on a weekend trip to the beach. But even there she bumps into Angelina and there are more close calls. At one point Jenny even puts Rita in a Star Wars-style film display so Rita is concealed in plain sight among other robots. Sometimes pulling the wool over Angelina’s eyes has its lighter moments.

However, Jenny does not get away with it altogether. When Angelina sees Jenny return alone but the mystery friend appears with her at the house the next day, she realises the secret of the mystery friend is in the house. And when she remembers the Professor does not bother locking his door, she realises how easy it will be to get in there.

One evening Angelina’s family hold a barbeque and invite the entire neighbourhood. Another of the Professor’s disasters has upset the neighbours again, so they are all too happy to sign a petition Angelina’s mother is now circulating to get rid of him for good. Jenny overhears everything from her bedroom window and seethes at the names that they are calling him while not understanding what a genius he is.

Later, Angelina seizes her chance to sneak into the Professor’s house to find out the truth about Jenny’s mystery friend. And this time, she succeeds. She laughs at Jenny for using a robot like a doll (and when you think about it, Angelina is right). She is all set to have everyone at school teasing Jenny rotten over it.

But outside, Angelina’s friends have discovered that the barbeque has started a fire, which sets the Professor’s house ablaze. The Professor, Jenny and Angelina are trapped in a raging inferno and their only chance is the rocket capsule he has just invented. Using Rita as a heat shield, they make their way to the Professor’s laboratory, where he has the rocket capsule. Angelina collapses from the smoke and Jenny has Rita pick her up. Unfortunately there is no room in the capsule for Rita herself. So there is a heart-wrenching scene as Jenny watches Rita’s outward human shell being burned away to expose the metal automaton underneath, before debris begins to fall on her.

The Professor’s house burns to the ground, much to the horror of the neighbours who had tried to get rid of the Professor before – and Angelina’s parents, who think she died in the fire too. Everyone is thrilled to see Professor and the girls have survived thanks to the rocket capsule. Their rescue even makes TV news, and Miss Watt is delighted to reunited with the professor she had so admired as a student.

There is a deeply moving, tearful scene when Jenny goes back to the disaster site to look for Rita. But there’s no response on the controls and Jenny realises Rita must have been destroyed. She is heartbroken and thinks she is going to be alone again. But Angelina comes up, full of remorse and apologies, and offers to be Jenny’s friend. Jenny joyfully accepts Angelina’s offer.

When Angelina’s parents hear they were responsible for the fire, they offer to pay for a new house and laboratory. But the Professor spares them of that because he can rebuild himself with the money he makes from the sale of his rocket capsule to the United States (at Miss Watt’s suggestion). The Professor can also afford to employ staff to help delegate his work and keep his property maintained, so he gets along with his neighbours better now. Jenny is not lonely anymore because she has a real friend now, in the changed Angelina.

Thoughts

“Rita, My Robot Friend” was one of my favourites when it came out. It must have been with others too; I saw a comment on the Internet somewhere that somebody hoped it would appear in a reprint.

The story uses the “secret companion” formula i.e. a secret companion who helps assuage loneliness and bullying the protagonist suffers, and sometimes helps in other ways, such as clearing a relative’s name. But unlike other secret companion stories – or robot stories for that matter – that I have encountered in girls’ comics, Rita is not interactive. She has no consciousness, artificial intelligence or speech, while many other robots in girls’ serials are capable of it e.g. “The Robot Who Cried” (Jinty). Nor does she speak a word of dialogue in the entire story although the Professor says she can talk. Perhaps the writer/editor thought the story would get too complicated if Rita was interactive, and it was complicated enough what with all things Jenny had to do to keep Rita’s secret safe from Angelina. Or perhaps they thought an interactive Rita would detract too much from Jenny and they wanted to keep the focus of the story on Jenny vs. Angelina.

The story has a definite “love thy neighbour” message. We can understand the neighbours being annoyed at the Professor’s untidy property. But ridiculing him as a kook despite his renown as a scientist shows just how little they have actually tried to be friends with him. And being related to the Professor is no excuse for how Angelina treats Jenny and turning everyone at school against her. We get a definite hint that a mean streak is involved as well when Angelina says, “It must be horrid not to have a friend! Haw, haw!” She knows Jenny is in earshot and Jenny realises it is meant to hurt her. Angelina is clearly a spoiled child too, and her parents are also intolerant of the Professor. Neither of these would help matters.

In deception stories, the ruse always unravels in the end, even if there is some justification for it. This one is no exception. There was no way Jenny could have kept up the deception indefinitely and she herself found it increasingly complicated to keep it up. Fortunately, as with so many deception stories, it unravels at the point of the story where everything can be set up for the resolution – in this case, the fire. Although it destroys the house it also resolves all the antagonism between the Professor and his neighbours that started the trouble. And there are very compelling scenes in the final episode to make it a strong one. For example, although Rita’s lack of interaction meant she could never be developed as a character, the panels showing her being destroyed in the fire because she has to be sacrificed are heart-breaking ones. As a matter of fact, these panels are so poignant that I am showing them below. The panels showing Angelina’s reconciliation with Jenny are also deeply moving and tearful ones, and are not in the least bit trite.

Rita destruction

 

Alan Davidson

Alan Davidson, author of various Jinty stories such as "Jackie's Two Lives"
Alan Davidson, author of various Jinty stories such as “Jackie’s Two Lives”

We have run a few posts about Alan Davidson before now on the blog, but not a complete summary post that serves as an appreciation of his work. Of course no summary post can be properly complete at this stage as we do not know all the stories he wrote for girls’ comics – his wife Pat Davidson has mentioned that he kept careful copies of his invoices and his scripts, but to go through those files is itself a lot of work. We can hope that we will hear more titles of stories in due course, and if so, I will certainly add them into this post. In any case, we now have story posts about all five of the Jinty stories that it is is known that Alan wrote, so the time seems right for an appreciation of him as a comics writer.

Known Jinty stories written by Alan Davidson:

Known stories in other titles:

  • Little Miss Nothing (Tammy, 1971)
  • Paint It Black (Misty, 1978)

Pat Davidson has also stated in a separate email that “[f]or older readers he contributed some excellent stories for Pink and often met up with Ridwan Aitken, the then editor. I don’t have any records of these to hand, although I remember a very original story about a hero who could predict earthquakes, which Alan much enjoyed writing. I can’t remember its title.”

Having set down these initial bibliographic details, what can we pull together in terms of an appreciation of his work, in girls comics and elsewhere?

Davidson’s work is not as strongly themed as Alison Christie‘s concentration on heart-tugging stories which forms the bulk of her comics writing. There is a clear focus on wish fulfillment in his Jinty stories: Gwen stumbles into a position where her schoolmates respect and appreciate her as she has always wanted, Jackie is swept up by a rich mother-figure who is prepared to take her away from her life of poverty, Debbie finds a mysterious valley and within it a sort of fairy godmother who will save her from her cruel family, and Kerry is likewise swept up by a rich mentor who looks like she is a route to the fame that Kerry has always wanted. The wish in question is almost always double-edged or positively treacherous: Debbie is the only one who ends up happy with getting what she has always wanted (and of course her fairy godmother figure is stern-but-kind rather than seemingly kind but morally dubious). However, Davidson plays the theme of wish fulfillment while ringing the changes: none of his stories are close repeats, even though they have this similar focus.

For Jinty‘s pages he also wrote the important science fiction story “Fran of the Floods” (1976) – perhaps not quite the first SF story that ran in this title (that is arguably 1975’s “The Green People”) but a hugely popular one that ran for some 9 months. Jinty‘s reputation as a title that ran lots of SF surely must owe plenty to the success of this key story. It is a strong story through to its end, though showing a few signs of padding in some parts of the long journey taken by the protagonist. (I note that Sandie ran a story called “Noelle’s Ark” a few years earlier which has a number of similarities without being as strong on characterization or drama: it would be interesting to know if this was something that Davidson was aware of, or perhaps even the author of.)

Davidson of course had also previously written a standout story that gave girls’ comics a key new theme: 1971’s “Little Miss Nothing” started the run of Cinderella stories which gave Tammy its reputation for cruelty and darkness. Pat Mills has lauded this as being written with a real lightness of touch and being written very much from the heart (note that he thought at the time that this was written by Alan’s wife Pat, which has since been corrected by Pat Davidson herself). We know less about what we wrote for titles other than Jinty: it seems he wrote little else for Tammy (unless Pat Davidson can correct that impression?), and only one story for Misty. “Paint It Black” was part of the opening line-up of that comic. While it was a compelling read it doesn’t seem to have struck the same chord with readers as some others from that title, and Davidson doesn’t seem to have written more for Misty (perhaps also due to the fact that he was finding success in children’s prose fiction from around that time).

It’s clear that Davidson’s writing is strong all round, and at its height was really mould-breaking (not just once, at least twice). There are ways in which it follows the conventions of girls comics writing reasonably closely: the titles of his stories tend to follow the standard set up of focusing on the girl protagonists (Gwen, Jackie, Fran, Kerry) though veering away from that in some cases (“Valley of Shining Mist” and most particularly “Paint It Black”). I’m not sure whether this all-round strength is part of the reason for another aspect of his comics career which I was struck by when looking back – he has not been associated with one particular artist, but rather been illustrated by a wide range of artists with no repeats that I know of. This contrasts with the partnership between Alison Christie and Phil Townsend, who created some seven very popular stories together for Jinty.

From the mid to late 70s, Davidson started to concentrate on prose fiction for children. It’s a little hard to search for details of his work online as he doesn’t seem to have had his own web presence and there are a few other well-known figures with the same name (such as a food writer and a cricketer). This Goodreads author page is the clearest list I have found of his prose works, while it’s also worth looking at his Wikipedia page, which tells us that he started off as a subeditor on “Roy of the Rovers” for Tiger. Writing children’s prose fiction has clear advantages over continuing in the world of juvenile comics: better recognition by your public rather than having no printed credits in the pages of the comics titles, better rewards for success in the form of royalties and translation money. At the same time, his most successful prose work, “The Bewitching of Alison Allbright”, is an effective re-working of his popular comics story “Jackie’s Two Lives”. The influence of the earlier writing clearly informs the later work too: what comics loses, children’s fiction gains.

If Davidson had been writing a decade or so later, might he have been swept up in the popularity of 2000AD and the migration that various British creators made to the US market? That only seems to have drawn in the creators working on boys’ comics, so I assume not. It is pleasant to imagine the talented writers of juvenile comics being fêted and recognized by name in a way that British publishers spent many years fighting to prevent. Ultimately however it is a sad thought: Alan Davidson, who is amongst those who most deserve that name recognition, is only now getting a small fraction of that recognition after his death.

The Human Zoo (1978-9)

Sample Images

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Published: 12 August 1978 – 13 January 1979 (20 episodes)

Artist: Guy Peeters

Writer: Malcolm Shaw

Reprint/translation: Tammy and Jinty 20 March 1982 to 10 July 1982; Tina as Als beesten en een kooi (like animals in a cage); Jinty Vol. 1, 2018

Plot

Alien bounty hunters from a distant galaxy come to Earth to collect specimens to take to their home planet. They make no exception for humans, which they think are just animals like any other. Among the people who are kidnapped by the aliens are twins Shona and Jenny Lewis. (It is implied that suchlike kidnappings are responsible for the Mary Celeste mystery.)

The aliens soon make it obvious that they do not care for animal welfare. They lock animals (and humans) into obedience collars that give intense pain when activated. Once the spaceship arrives on the aliens’ home planet, all the Earth specimens are sold at a cattle market. Shona and Jenny are sold to different owners, which means they are forcibly separated. The story then follows the fate of Shona, who becomes an exhibit in a zoo along with other people, and her quest to find Jenny.

Shona also realises the only way to freedom is to make the aliens realise that humans are sentient beings like themselves and not mere animals. However, there is a huge communication barrier between humans and the aliens: the aliens communicate by telepathy and do not speak; humans are not telepathic and communicate verbally. A bridge between the different forms of communication needs to be found.

Fortunately the zoo owner’s daughter Tamsha cares more for animal welfare than most of her people, including her father. She notices Shona and develops a soft spot for her.  Although she also thinks Shona is just an animal she makes Shona her pet. Shona tries to convince Tamsha of human sentience by doing some writing. Tamsha understands it is writing but fails to grasp it is proof that humans are sentient. During this time Shona also befriends Tamsha’s other pet, a two-headed goat, which will prove a key plot development.

Then Shona goes to the rescue of her fellow prisoners at the zoo, who are being forced into a cruel “chimps tea party” sideshow. This incident gives Tamsha’s father the impression she is a rogue animal and has to be destroyed. So he sells Shona to a slaughterhouse to be turned into food. Fortunately another alien spots Shona and buys her off the slaughterhouse in the nick of time.

However, saving Shona from the slaughterhouse is the only good thing he does for her. He wants to incorporate Shona in a circus act that involves a huge tub of water. This is a thrilling thing for the aliens, who are terrified of water. When he tries to work the act out Shona almost drowns because she can’t swim. Tamsha’s two-headed goat saves Shona in time. The circus boss is so impressed with it all that he buys the goat in order to recreate it all as his big circus act. When the cruel act of near-drowning is performed, the aliens go crazy over it and give a huge ovation afterwards. Tamsha is the only one who is appalled. With the help of some fellow aliens who are animal rights activists, Tamsha rescues Shona and the goat from the circus and releases them into the wilderness (she thinks she is putting Shona back into the wild).

The two-headed goat reunites with his own kind, and they take Shona to the Outlanders, a primitive Stone Age people who suffer dreadfully at the hands of the aliens, whom they call “The Silent Death”. She becomes very close to an Outlander girl named Likuda. The aliens remove the males, which they use as beasts of burden for farming and mining. They hunt the females for blood sport. The Outlanders are resigned to this and are also weakened by insufficient food to fight back.

All of a sudden, Shona gets strange pains in her head. Then she starts having visions of Jenny, who shows her a secret valley, which is full of luscious fruit trees. Then Shona discovers the valley is real and leads the Outlanders there. Now the Outlanders worship Shona as a saviour.

The pain returns and this time the visions of Jenny are horrifying. They show her being taken to a laboratory where the aliens perform experiments on her. There is also a male Outlander being used as a lab rat; he is identified as Likuda’s father, Lik. Shona and Likuda set off to rescue them.

To get back to the city, they hide in one of the vehicles used by the bloodsporting aliens. En route to the city they pass a farm where they see how male Outlanders are being used as beasts of burden. It is not only cruel but also surprisingly crude and primitive for such a technologically advanced race. The Outlanders use hand ploughs and tools, while the robots that force them to work until they collapse from exhaustion use whips. Shona marvels at why the aliens don’t use machines instead; Likuda says it simpler than machines, which can break down.

In the city Likuda and Shona meet up with Tamsha again. Tamsha has grown more vociferous in her animal rights activism and is part of an animal rights demonstration at the scientific establishment that is performing experiments on Jenny and Lik. The activists show they have been collecting evidence of animal cruelty, including a recording of Shona and the others arriving on the planet. The activists also remove Shona’s obedience collar. Note: this scene is deleted from the Tammy and Jinty reprint. In the reprint, when Shona and Likuda arrive in the city they just go straight into the laboratory. This deletion creates two plot holes in the reprint. First, what happened to Shona’s obedience collar? It has suddenly disappeared without explanation. Second, how come the alien scientists had Tamsha to throw into the cage with the humans?

Shona and Likuda find Jenny in a bad state. Lik explains that the aliens deprived her of sleep for their experiment, which is designed to make humans telepathic so they can communicate with them. Shona realises Jenny used her new telepathic powers to tell her where she was. They are about to escape when the aliens capture them. Jenny realises too late that she had unwittingly lured them all into a trap set by the aliens. The aliens are triumphant at finally making contact with a member of the animal kingdom (yes, they still have not realised humans are sentient beings despite their experiment). They throw them all back into their cages and throw Tamsha in after them. Looks like the demonstration collapsed.

Then the aliens’ weather control goes on the blink, which causes a violent thunderstorm. This is a shock for the aliens, not just because they are terrified of water but also because they have never known such weather. A lightning bolt hits the building and frees the prisoners. They make their way through the city, which is now flooding badly (looks like the aliens have no rainwater drainage systems), and sending off all the aliens into a panic. Shona spares a moment to rescue a drowning alien child. They make a boat out of a floating cupboard and sail their way out of the city.

They soon find that the flooding also destroyed the robots guards at the farm and freed the Outlanders who were slaving there. When the Outlanders see Tamsha and the alien child they are all set to tear them to pieces until Shona intervenes. She tells them that the flooding has only brought momentary freedom. Once it passes the aliens will go back to their old treatment of the Outlanders. Hiding in the secret valley is no good because the aliens will find it sooner or later. She persuades them all to go and help the flood-stricken aliens, because it is the only way to be free of them permanently and live in peace.

The Outlanders decide they have nothing to lose, so they put their hatred aside to begin a mission of mercy. The aliens, who have no skills in swimming, water navigation or flood control because they are so terrified of water, have been more badly stricken by the flood than Earth people would. Humans, on the other hand, have learned to swim, developed boating skills, and are more accustomed to water.

The humans have a lot of success in helping the aliens, and the water is receding too. Then they find a panic-stricken engineer. Using her telepathic powers, Jenny learns that the dam at the reservoir is about to burst. If it does, the whole city will be submerged and kill everyone. The aliens are trying to redirect the water, but the crucial valve is twenty feet below water. Of course the aliens have no skills in underwater swimming. However, Likuda and Jenny do, and they succeed in turning the valve. Sadly, Likuda gets her foot caught underwater. By the time she is rescued, it is too late. Likuda has sacrificed her life for the aliens.

Now, will the aliens appreciate everything the humans have done and realise humans are sentient beings, not animals? Or was it all for nothing and things will go back to what they were before?

It looks like the latter when security guards round up all the humans and throw them back in a cage. Then the city’s ruler frees all the humans and brings them all to a celebratory feast. The aliens got the message after all (perhaps it took a little while to sink in). Furthermore, it turns out the alien girl Shona rescued was the ruler’s daughter, so he is grateful for that as well as their saving the city. The aliens will now leave the Outlanders in peace and send the Earth humans back to Earth. The aliens will use a time machine to put them back on Earth the day before they disappeared so they will not have to face awkward questions about their disappearances. It also means they will lose all memory of what happened. All the same, when they arrive on the day in question, Shona finds she seems to know how a caged gorilla at the zoo feels…

Thoughts

This story is one of Jinty’s classics. It is one of her most popular and enduring stories, and is right up there with “Worlds Apart” and “Land of No Tears” as one of her best science fiction stories. Due to popular demand “The Human Zoo” was reprinted during the Tammy & Jinty merger. No doubt a lot of the votes would have come from “Pam’s Poll” in 1980. Indeed, a panel from “The Human Zoo” featured in the poll itself.

What makes the story so powerful is the allegories of animal abuse that humans themselves commit. By turn we see alien equivalents of bounty hunting, pain-induced discipline, cattle markets, zoos, slaughterhouses, circuses, bloodsports, beasts of burden, vivisection and even a hint of animal sacrifice. For this reason we cannot totally condemn the aliens for their treatment of humans, for humans themselves are guilty of the same things. The callous attitudes many of the aliens have towards animals are echoed in humans too. Just look at the attitude of Tamsha’s father, for example: “Don’t forget, they’re just animals, for us to use as we like.”

You would think such an advanced race would have more enlightened attitudes. However, it would be a mistake to assume any race that is technically advanced would be advanced in other ways as well. Moreover, it is easier to understand their coldness when we see this is a race that does not approve of soft emotions or tenderness. Sentimentality is considered as a primitive emotion and shedding tears a primitive action. After the Outlanders are freed, Tamsha is no longer ashamed to cry and tells the humans that her people have a lot to learn from them about showing emotions.

Fortunately there are kinder aliens among this cold-hearted race who stand up for animal rights. The aliens clearly are light-years behind Earth in regard to animal welfare, although they are far more technologically advanced than Earth. There are evidently no laws against animal abuse and exploitation. Hopefully this will change after the humans proved themselves to the aliens and the ruler himself proposed a toast to better understanding among all species. But then, animal rights are only a comparatively recent innovation on Earth itself, and in many places on Earth they have yet to take a serious hold. Still, at least it does exist on this alien world, and without it Shona and her fellow humans would never have escaped the animal abuse they suffered at the hands of the aliens. It is ironic that an experiment meant to make contact with animals becomes the bridge of the huge communication gap between humans and aliens and helps convince the aliens that humans are sentient beings and not animals. The alien scientists did not mean it that way; they were just out to score another scientific triumph with animals.

The emotional aspects of the story make it even more compelling. Shona goes through the pain of being torn away from Earth and her parents, and then from her own sister, whom she resolves to find. She is subjected to the horrors of being treated just like an animal, including a cruel circus act that takes advantage of her not having learned to swim. Even when Shona is finally freed from the abuse and joins the Outlanders she is still not safe from the aliens. Plus there is still the matter of finding her sister and maybe even returning to Earth. The story delivers quite a wallop when Likuda dies, and her death leaves an ominous question dangling over it: was Likuda’s sacrifice in vain or not?

The story is a bit vague about the aliens themselves. The name of their planet is never revealed; it’s just “the planet with two suns” (binary star system). The Earth humans just call them “the aliens” and the Outlanders “The Silent Death”. What the aliens call themselves is not known.

The aliens come across as rather arrogant and obtuse in assuming humans are animals and not realising they are sentient. Clearly they have not bothered with much study of the planet they have been taking specimens from. And it is implied that they have been doing so for centuries, as there is a hint they are responsible for the Mary Celeste mystery. Still, the concept is not entirely new. For example, in Star Trek: The Animated Series, there is an episode called “The Eye of the Beholder”, where Spock and Kirk are captured by the Lactrans, who think they are animals because they are primitive by their standards. (Perhaps this is the reason why the aliens think humans are animals?) The Lactrans put them in a zoo. Spock convinces the Lactrans of their sentience by mind melding with one of them and they are set free. That episode always reminds me of this story.

There are some aspects of this story that don’t look like they have been all that well thought out. For example, if the aliens segregate the sexes of the Outlanders by removing the men for forced labour, then how is it the Outlander women have children? How are they able to reproduce with the men removed?

Another more head-splitting example is the aliens using the time machine to restore the Earth humans to Earth the day before they disappeared. What happens when they approach the original time when the alien bounty hunters abducted them in the first place? Do they go through the whole ordeal again, come back once more with the time machine and their memories wiped, and then the whole thing starts all over again?

It also seems inexplicable that the aliens even need the Outlanders to be beasts of burden in the first place. With their advanced technology they could surely come up with something more efficient for farming and mining. And this advanced race still puts out hand ploughs and hand tools for their beasts of burden to use? Oh, really! Even Earth technology, which is not as advanced as the aliens’, has advanced way beyond that in farming.

Overall though, this is a very solid, powerful story that strikes a lot of chords and would leave a lasting impression on readers long after they have read it. A lot of readers would emerge from it thinking more carefully about how animals are treated. One reader wrote in to thank everyone involved for such commentary on animal cruelty and said she wouldn’t laugh at chimps’ tea parties anymore after reading the story. Some may even have considered vegetarianism after reading “The Human Zoo”.

José Casanovas

Catalan artist José Casanovas (1934 – 2009) was well-known and well-loved by lots of readers, appearing as he did in many British comics over a number of decades. His detailed, stylish, and above all fun art was distinctive and he was credited in various publications, so it is easy to pull together quite a long list of his work (though no doubt still incomplete). Many British readers think of him as a 2000AD artist – that is how I first came across his name myself – and therefore perhaps as an SF artist primarily. If you count up the stories he drew and the titles he appeared in, though, by far the majority of his work seems to be for the girls’ comics market.

The list below has been pulled together with much reference to the Catawiki database in order to fill out the non-Jinty stories, so many thanks to the contributors to that site. (I have included the numbers of episodes listed for each story as per Catawiki, to emphasize how prolific he was. I am fairly sure the records on that site are not complete but it gives a good impression of his work. Of course, please do send in further information if you have it!)

  • Tammy
    • Cinderella Spiteful (1971-72) – 20 episodes
    • Two-Faced Teesha (1973-74) – 10 episodes
    • Ella on Easy Street (1974) – 8 episodes
    • The Town Without Telly (1974) – 12 episodes
    • Wars of the Roses (1975-76) – 11 episodes
    • Babe at St Woods (1976-77) – 39 episodes (you can see some sample pages here)
    • Down To Earth Blairs (1977-78) – 25 episodes
    • Running Rosie Lee (1980) – 10 episodes
    • Tomorrow Town (1982) – 10 episodes from 11 Sept 1982 – 13 Nov 1982.
  • Sandie
    • The Nine Lives of Nat the Cat (1972-73) – 38 episodes
  • Princess Tina & Penelope
    • Have-A-Go Jo (1970) – 25 episodes
  • Jinty
  • Lindy
    • Sophie’s Secret Squeezy (1975) – 7 episodes
  • Penny
    • Pickle, Where Are You? (1979) – 10 episodes

Mistyfan has recently done a post about “Sue’s Daily Dozen” in which she made the point that Casanovas is known for science fiction. There is one science fiction story done by him in a girls’ comic, namely Tammy‘s “Tomorrow Town”, which I take the opportunity to reprint here as being a piece of art that would otherwise not be likely to get a showing on this Jinty-specific blog.

Tomorrow Town pg 1

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Following Casanovas’ death in 2009, Steve Holland wrote an obituary Bear Alley post here, drawing also on the Spanish-language blog Tebeosfera’s post here. (Do follow this last link to see some lovely artwork from an adaptation of Pollyanna done for the local market.) There was also an interesting comment on 2000AD fan blog the Prog Slog about Casanovas’ work in the boys’ science fiction comics market. He drew well-liked characters Max Normal (some Max Normal art by Casanovas can be seen here) and Sam Slade Robo-Hunter (after Ian Gibson had stopped drawing this latter character). He also drew a number of one-off stories in 2000AD, and a story in Starlord, and people characterise him as a 2000AD artist therefore. The Prog Slog comment here clarifies that: “Casanovas early work for 2000AD, Starlord etc. was sporadic. First appearance was a ‘Future Shock’ in Prog 70 (24 June 1978) a 1.5 pager called ‘Many Hands’. “Good morning Sheldon, I love you” was his next, a six page future shock style one-off written by John Wagner in Starlord 11 (22 July 1978). He drew another one-off Wagner [story] in Starlord 16. There’s a gap then until Progs 148 & 149 (January 1980) where he does a 2-part Ro-Jaws Robo-Tale. He then draws the 11 page Mugger’s Mile by Alan Grant, the first ever Max Normal strip (“The Pinstripe Freak (He’s Dredd’s informer)”) in the first Judge Dredd annual (1981). He goes on to draw more Future Shocks in Prog 220, 241 and 245, another Max Normal in the 1982 JD annual, and again in JD 1983 annual. In the 1982 Sci-Fi Special he draws his first Dredd proper, a 10 pager by Wagner – The Tower of Babel. His first Dredd in the weekly is the excellent “Game Show Show” 2 parter in 278/279, August 1982, Wagner again. He did the second ever ‘Time Twister’ in Prog 295, a 4 pager called Ultimate Video. And that’s as far as my data goes for now, by Prog 300 he’d done 77.5 pages: 32.5 in the weeklies, 10 in specials, 23 in annuals and 12 in Starlord. According to ‘Barney’ online (http://www.2000ad.org) his last work was in Prog 822 (Feb 1993), Robo-Hunter”. The tally of his pages for 2000AD and the like must therefore surely be far outnumbered by the 90+ episodes of his run on Dora Dogsbody in Jinty alone!