Bovver Boys and Gothic Girls – Playground Society and Children’s Comics of the 70s, Part Two of Two

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Spellbound
Spellbound was published by D.C. Thomson & Co. between 1976 and 1978, lasting just 69 issues. Launched on the 25th of September 1976 (with its run ending on the 21st of January 1978),

and available in the newsagents every Thursday, the first issue came with a free mystic sun pendant, and was, as Graham Kibble-White, in The Ultimate Book of British Comics – 70 Years of Mischief, Mayhem and Cow Pies (2005), stated, “[a]n occult-tinged weekly that specialised in spine-tingling tales of terror and featured willowy heroines with a tendency to go heavy on the mascara” (p.215). Thus, amongst Spellbound’s many spooky strips were ‘Beware the Mystery Dolls’ (waxworks who came to life), ‘Hetty in the House of Secrets’ (governesses and ghosts), ‘The Strange Ones’ (three new arrivals at a ballet school unleash their evil psychic powers), and ‘Zodiac Girl’, which – in keeping with its time, the mid-to-late 1970s – managed to, according to Brian M. Clarke (in Issue 4 of Crikey! – The Great British Comics Magazine, 2008) merge “[f]ashion, boutiques and astrology” (p.39). Whilst some of Spellbound’s strips were rather unconvincing in their portrayal of the paranormal, others made girls absolutely wet their knickers. For, there was ‘The Haunting of Laura Lee’ – which told the tale of a girl possessed as a result of wearing a ring that once belonged to a (now long dead) concert pianist – and a whole host of other stories that, for Tony Ingram (in Issue 6 of Crikey! – The Great British Comics Magazine, 2008), offered a “relentless parade of ghosts, ghouls and ghastly old geezers” (p.7).


Misty
Likewise, Misty, set out to scare from Issue 1. First published on the 4th of February 1978 (with a print-run from 1978 until 1980, and out every Monday), Misty was chock-a-block with haunted houses that were full to their rafters with black cats, vampire bats, and gothic, virginal, teenage girls. Despite Misty being a publication in which a post-Punk Britain was reflected in its pages in a vacant-eyed, ‘children of the damned’ manner, Misty was, to Tom Sweetman (in Issue 1 of Crikey! – The Great British Comics Magazine, 2007), more akin to “an ethereal child in a flowing gown that owed more to the literary sensibilities of Wuthering Heights and Mandalay than it did to Thatcher’s Britain” (p.30). Published by I.P.C. London, the associate editor, Pat Mills, had gathered together an all-male (yes, not a single woman!) team of writers, artists, and so on, to produce this ground-breaking comic aimed at an all-girl readership. Brimming with timeless ghost stories that had an otherworldly air of the uncanny about them, Misty, insists Sweetman, “dared to offer a metaphorical world that explored nascent and emergent sexuality”, as the comic “bridged the leap into the world of womanhood, revealing it as fearful and thrilling, deadly and liberating” (p.31). Furthermore, with regards its pre-pubescent female readers coming to terms with their emergent sexuality, Misty offered ‘agony aunt’-style advice that was shrouded in a gossamer-thin veil of non-patronising (yet emotionally-confusing) gothic. As, for Sweetman, “[t]he sinister subtleties of the stories centred on troubled girls who were often becoming aware of strange feelings and did not quite know what to do about them” (p.31).

Lucky Charms and Black Moons
With the first issue coming with a free lucky charm bracelet, Misty introduced its readers to the comic’s eponymously named editorial character, Misty, who was, to Graham Kibble-White, “an escapee from a Roman Polanski nightmare with long black hair, lush eyelashes and an impassive expression” (p.170). Meanwhile, one of Misty’s most memorable strips was ‘Moonchild’, which offered the comic’s young female readership an abused and lonely girl who possessed ‘the power’. Thus, with this puberty-derived power being an extremely potent form of telekinesis, ‘Moonchild’ was Misty’s equivalent of the big-screen Carrie (1976) – with that film’s lead role of Carrie White replaced by Misty’s Rosemary Black. Indeed, Rosemary Black’s true power was to convince the comic’s readers that – instead of resorting to such feeble playground tactics as bullying – positive thinking was at the heart of true feminist empowerment. Jenni Scott, in Issue 4 of Crikey! – The Great British Comics Magazine (2008), examines the feminist-era impact of popular culture upon such girls’ comics as Misty. Pat Mills – in conversation with Scott – made it quite obvious that the adult horror market of the time inspired many of Misty’s strips. For, as Mills states:

“‘Moonchild’ was quite deliberately based on Carrie. When I talked about starting Misty, I said we should look at all the kinds of female adults’ fiction that were around at the time, and we should do girls’ comics versions of that. It was a deliberately calculated policy to do Carrie, to do ‘Audrey Rose’, which I did as ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Rachel’, we never quite got around to doing Flowers in the Attic, but it was definitely on the list” (pp.8-9).

Such a shame, then, that Misty did not achieve the necessary shelf life to bring to its cobwebbed pages a version of Virginia Andrew’s classic, Flowers in the Attic. Despite tantalisingly advertising itself as ‘a different world’, and that it was ‘not to be read at night’, Misty lasted a mere 100 issues, eventually passing over to another plane (that is, merging with the oh-so tame Tammy on the 12th of January 1980). So, with this passing, we return to boys’ comics, and contemplate whatever happened to, what Nicholas Tucker (in his 1977 article, ‘A New Look at the British Comic – II’) termed, “the junior school playground society” of the 1970s.

Charley’s War
‘Charley’s War’, essentially an anti-war strip in a boys’ war comic, was published within the comic Battle-Action from the 6th of January 1979 until the 4th of October 1986. Graham Kibble-White makes explicit the way in which Battle-Action announced the arrival of Private Charley Bourne to their readership: “‘He was a boy soldier pitched into the horror of the World War One trenches!’ ran the billing on the cover” (2005, p.39). So, the strip’s first instalment tells the story of 16-year-old Charley, as an under-age volunteer, taking the King’s Shilling – that is, enlisting into the British Army. And so, with this introduction to a believable, rounded, humane character, began Battle-Action’s most fondly remembered storyline. As, then, the ‘Charley’s War’ strip gathered pace, it often took a seasonally topical turn. For, in the issue dated the 22nd of December 1979, Charley, just a few pages after his appearance in his strip that week, was to be found atop of his own, single-page question-and-answer puzzle. Despite the fact that this was indeed a Christmas issue of Battle-Action, the readers were confronted with a rather pensive Charley, in heroic pose, alongside a tank (its side-mounted gun blazing), with the words “Charley Bourne’s World War 1 Quiz” in snow-topped, period lettering below. Emphasising that, here, “Charley Bourne asks 7 tough questions from the battle-scarred trenches of the First World War”, all of the puzzlements were concerned with December/Christmas-related aspects of that conflict. Rather poignantly, of course, here were the young boys of a peaceful post-war Britain, just days before the unwrapping of their Yuletide presents, being educated in the (now historical) events experienced, around Christmas-time, by young soldiers such as (the fictional) Charley Bourne – who were, during the Great War, quite often boy soldiers, little older than the average age of Battle-Action’s readership.



Pals and the End of Playground Society?
Significantly, within the 25th of April 1981 issue of Battle-Action, Charley Bourne is, once again, taken out of context of his own strip and, within another single-page spread that is driven by a dream sequence, and utilised (exploited even) as a means of recruiting more readers to Battle-Action. Awoken from his dream – within which, at a court-marshal, he is “charged with failing to increase the circulation of the paper in which you appear” – Charley, in the final frame, back in the harsh reality of the trenches, fixes the young readers with a steely-eyed stare and speaks directly to the comic’s faithful, imploring them to ‘do their bit’ in fighting the war against falling sales figures. Reinforcing the bond between reader and comic, he pleads “so I’m asking you, pals … Place a regular order by filling in one of the coupons below and hand it to your newsagent! The other coupon is for a friend! Encourage all your friends to buy Battle-Action weekly”. Significantly, the use of the term “pals” here (not only as an obvious reference to the ‘pal battalions’ of Tommies that characterised the early stages of the war), suggests an intimacy: an intimacy, not only between Charley and his regular readers, but between those readers and their immediate circle of friends – again, what Nicholas Tucker had once termed “the junior school playground society”. Yet, eventually, it was only natural that the boys’ and girls’ comics of the 1970s would come to the end of their print runs, and that the playground society of their readership would, as a result, also come to an end.

In 2003, the monthly 2000 AD Judge Dredd Megazine ran a retrospective of Battle-Action. In No. 210, David Bishop makes it clear, with regards the post-ban, watered-down version of Action (as it was, eventually, to become the dual-titled Battle-Action), the “readers deserted the neutered version in droves” (p.77). Thus, the end of the comics-centered playground society of the 1970s, came about as a result of a steady decline of the comics’ sales that was exacerbated by wider social issues such as strike action (in particular, the National Union of Journalists’ strike at I.P.C. in early 1980), and, more often than not, mergers. As, according to Bishop, “[w]hen a British comic was cancelled during the 1970s, it was common practice for the dying weekly to be merged into another title published by the same company” (p.73). For example, Bullet, in 1978, was subsumed by Warlord – which itself was absorbed by Victor in 1986. Ultimately, though, many of these comics of the 1970s were to disappear forever from newsagents’ shelves due to the changing nature of childhood itself, as the 1970s ended, and the 1980s began. As, Barrie Tomlinson (Battle-Action’s managing editor, cited in No. 212 of 2000 AD Judge Dredd Megazine) admitted, by the early 1980s, “[t]he big circulations had gone” (p.73), and – due to the dominance of TV during that decade – comics were no longer the cultural focus that they once were. Tomlinson, rather sadly, confided (in No. 211 of 2000 AD Judge Dredd Megazine) that “[i]n the old days when your comic arrived it was a big moment in your week. But comics were not so important anymore, they had lost that number one spot they’d had with children” (p.30).



So, with the last ever copies of Warlord, Bullet, The Crunch, Spellbound, Misty, Battle-Action, and the rest, being taken down from newsagents’ shelves by tiny hands, a 1970s childhood ended. With such yellowing, tatty copies of these comics eventually being binned, a unique form of junior school playground society disappeared, never to return.

Part One Here 
Read 1939 times Last modified on Sunday, 14 June 2015 17:52

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