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

Written by Peter Jachimiak
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Went to college, studied art / To be an artist, make a start
Studied hard, gained my degree / But no one seemed to notice me …
Tried cartoons and comic books / Dirty postcards, woman’s looks
Here was where the money lay / Classic art has had its day
The Creation, ‘Painter Man’, 1966.

Pocket Money and Playground Society
A range of studies, conducted across the mid-to-late 1970s, examining the buying habits of comic-reading children, discovered that not only did older children purchase their own comics with pocket-money, but that many of them both borrowed and swapped copies endlessly (until, that is, they were in tatters, and ended up in the bin). Comics, more or less available to all children of the time, cost about the same as an ice-cream, soft drink, or a bag of sweets, and were marketed directly to their young readership. Indeed, often bought out of sight of parents, children not only felt ownership of comics and comic-buying, but – because titles came out each and every day, on a weekly basis – they provided their readers with a comforting familiarity and regularity. Quite simply, according to Nicholas Tucker, in his article ‘A New Look at the British Comic – II’ (1977), the reading of comics was – come the latter half of the 1970s – the means by which children entered into a world of shared knowledge and experience with his or her contemporaries, whereby a common bond of comic-reading brought about “a type of initiation into the junior school playground society” (p.67).

Dundee’s D.C. Thomson & Co.’s Warlord was published from 1974 until 1986. Initially costing 5 pence, it came out every Thursday, and – according to Graham Kibble-White’s The Ultimate Book of British Comics – 70 Years of Mischief, Mayhem and Cow Pies (2005), Warlord’s Lord Peter Flint strip proved so popular that its all-too-World-War-Two-sounding letters’ page, “Fire Away!”, was hurriedly ditched for the far more inclusive – and Cold War-echoing – “Calling All Warlord Agents!”. Responsible for bringing about a form of pre-pubescent, quasi-underground, spy network amid Britain’s privet-hedged suburbs during the 1970s, Flint’s on-page floating head, with its “Lord Peter Flint speaking” speech bubble, sent readers out on “top secret missions” via encrypted messages that only these fledgling Warlord Agents could decipher. Eventually, as Kibble-White insists, “the whole page was awash with mysterious numbers as mentor and pupils traded recon info in covert form” (p.273). For, following the sending off of the “cut along dotted line” application voucher (that was enclosed along with a 15 pence postal order), Flint’s newly-recruited Agents would receive a wallet, an identity card, a secret codebook, special instructions and – that mainstay of membership – a circular, metal pin-badge. This quasi-military badge worn proudly by each and every Warlord Agent, with its winged “W” announcing that you were one of the comic’s fully paid-up suburban spies, managed to collectively instill notions of boyish camaraderie amid this national network of Warlord Agents.

Also published by D.C. Thomson & Co., Bullet, 1976 – 1978, cost 7 pence, and came out on a Tuesday. Launched on the 14th of February 1976 (the same day as London’s I.P.C.’s far more violent and far more controversial Action), Bullet starred, across its flagship strip, the rather dashing – yet very, very camp – karate-kicking Fireball. The fictitious nephew of his debonair (and equally fictitious) uncle, Lord Peter Flint of Warlord, Bullet’s Fireball was the flare-wearing fusion of post-‘Swinging Sixties’ hedonism and ‘three-day-week’, 1970s hang-over. A jet-setting, international playboy, the flamboyant Fireball was the next generation of boys’ comics hero. Being what Martin Barker, in Comics – Ideology, Power and the Critics (1989), termed a ‘superdetective-cum-agent’, Fireball was the epitome of 1970s masculinity: Stud-like, with his Zapata moustache, mullet hair, and weighty medallion, Fireball was where Professionals-style ‘hard action’ TV met comic-strip ‘camp in-action’. Nevertheless, Fireball clicked with the young boys of the mid-1970s, due to his bodily blending of martial arts with King’s Road fashions of the era. In fact, as Graham Kibble-White attests, whilst Flint was D.C. Thomson & Co.’s increasingly-outdated ‘John Steed’ of boys’ comics, Fireball was the far more with-it ‘Jason King’. For, “[r]esplendent in his luxury-issue moustache, wavy hair and medallion, he wore his shirt open to the navel and travelled the world on the back of his steely business card” (pp.55-56). Out, then, went the stiff-upper-lipped, post-war spy that was Flint, and enter – amid the decade that spawned the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Red Brigades, and so on – the urban guerrilla Fireball.

Mirroring all of this (especially when compared to the all-too-straight Warlord Agents) were the members of the far more trendy “Fireball Club”. Following the cutting out of their application voucher (that was to be enclosed with a postal order for 25 pence), were the smooth owners of a wallet, an identity card, two calling cards, a mini-narrative (as to “learn the secret of how he [Fireball] came to be so great”), and a pendant of stallion-esque proportions. The pendant is significant here, as it was – with its flaming ‘F’ emblazoned upon gold-embossed, jagged-edged, weighty black plastic – not a mere kids badge, but a full-blown 1970s fashion statement. Thus, resplendent in their replica Fireball medallions, that swung upon their hairless chests, such club members – in their droves as gangs – hung nonchalantly around on the street corners and playgrounds of Britain’s towns and inner cities in search of exploits befitting such diminutive 1970s playboys.

Readers’ Letters
The readers’ letters of comics were also a site where gang membership could be found. In his consideration of Action, Martin Barker (1989) compared that comic’s letters’ page with those of Warlord and Bullet, commenting that, in Warlord, not only was the strip all to do with World War Two, “but the letters are boys recalling their fathers’ and uncles’ lives in the war - their courage, their problems, their funny happenings”, whilst, in Bullet, “letters were about attempting brave things – like learning karate, getting injured and rescued while rock-climbing” (p.47). Either way, Barker concluded, on the letters’ pages of both comics, there was “an aura of a special community, which you have to go out of your way to join”, where, in signing-up, “you sought admission to a privileged club” (p.48). However, on the “Fireball Calling” pages of Bullet No. 9 (April the 10th 1976), Fireball stared sternly out at the readers, and voiced his concerns with regards a worrying trend: “I’ve been getting a lot of letters from Fireball Club Members telling me about punch-ups and battles with Warlord Secret agents”. Attempting to dampen-down inter-club animosity and aggression, Fireball (perhaps bearing in mind the need to ensure the widest cross-over of readerships at a time of the ever-decreasing circulations of comics) implored that “Warlord Secret Agents are not your enemies”. Nevertheless, it was now obvious – with regards to the perception that here was an ‘Aggro Britain’ of an ever-growing sprawl of comic-reading hooligans – that club membership of boys’ comics, was (at best) not part of the solution, and (worse still) was very much part of the problem. For, previously (in Bullet No. 4, March the 6th, 1976), Fireball’s center-spread exploits in Germany are introduced as “‘bovver’ in Bavaria”. So, even when jet-setting across the world, Fireball was tarnished with the characteristic terminology of 1970s British hooliganism. No surprise, then, that both Warlord Secret Agents and Fireball Club Members found themselves at violent odds with one another: As Britain’s youth, by the mid-1970s, were understood to be a violent, gang-fixated, out-of-control mass. Indeed, Britain – again, by the mid-1970s – was, according to Dave Haslam’s Not Abba – The Real Story of the 1970s (2005), characterised by its “unprecedented tribalism” (p.36). Amid this context, then, of a tribalistic ‘Aggro Britain’, the wearing of such paraphernalia of club membership – such as pin badges and pendants – to the powers that be (parents, police, etc.), was, quite often, an inflammatory act.

The Crunch
D.C. Thomson & Co., in an attempt to capitalise upon the success of both their World War Two-fixated Warlord and more trend-conscious Bullet, brought out The Crunch. This (the latest in the line of ‘new wave’ comics of the 1970s) was radical in that they offered their readers highly identifiable heroes – or, more typically, fallible anti-heroes. As James Chapman, in British Comics – A Cultural History (2011), insists, these anti-heroes were “‘real’ people facing up to their own problems and anxieties rather than fantasy supermen or unbelievably flawless heroic archetypes” (p.138). Thus, with The Crunch (every Monday, 1979 – 1980), here was the revolutionary notion that a comic should portray – and, thus, encourage its readers to acknowledge that they, themselves, were – real people, tackling their own problems and anxieties. This was, according to Graham Kibble-White (2005), the comic’s “high concept”, that was to be found in the title itself; that life-affirming – life-changing even – moment where “men had to be men and take the tough line” (p.93). Accordingly, yet rather unbelievably (that is, for a boys’ comic), The Crunch even had its similarly assertive problem page: a problem page that not only offered a prize of two Pounds for every problem printed, but a state-of-the-art Sinclair calculator for the one that Andy, (the trendy, young editor of the page) liked best.

Problem Pages
The notion that such a boys’ comic as The Crunch could offer – in such violent times – a problem page (which, of course, had come to typify girls’ comics and women’s magazines), was vindicated by the fact that The Crunch was, after all, part of the new wave. It was precisely because The Crunch came into being during such an era of ‘bovver’, that its problem page was both justified and, indeed, needed. For the problem page was, each week, headed with a variation on “THE CRUNCH QUESTION”, whereby readers were asked, as with The Crunch No. 2 (the 27th of January, 1979), “Are YOU facing the CRUNCH in your life? Got a problem you need help in solving … at home … at school … with your friends? Write to me – Andy – at Crunch”.

No surprise, then, those readers wrote in and shared their troubles with regards, for example, bullying by the ‘bigger boys’, both at school and at the youth clubs. Considering that the 1970s became increasingly violent as the decade progressed, The Crunch’s letter of the week often reflected an ‘Aggro Britain’ quite dramatically:

Dear Andy,
A few months ago, a family from London moved into the house next to ours and I’m convinced that the three children in the house are victims of baby battering. Both parents drink very heavily, and when they go out, they leave their 13-year-old daughter in charge of the two younger children. Sometimes we even hear the children screaming when their parents return from the pub, and next day, they are covered in bruises (The Crunch, No. 5, the 17th of February 1979).

If, by the late-1970s, baby battering was a growing problem that had now entered the very lives of the comic’s boy readership, The Crunch’s problem page also began to include readers’ letters that were, moral panic-wise, of their time:

Dear Andy,
I am very worried about a friend of mine who persists in glue sniffing. Although he has tried to kick the habit many times, he cannot. As I have recently read that glue sniffing can be very dangerous, I have started to get very concerned (The Crunch, No. 19, the 26th of May 1979).

‘Concerned’ was an understatement. For, Warlord, Bullet, and The Crunch – through their provocative strips and equally in-yer-face editorial content (readers’ letters, problem pages, and the like), that laid bare the societal ills of the era such as baby battering and glue sniffing – were, let’s face it, encouraging their boy readership to confront the harsh realities of an ‘Aggro Britain’ of the 1970s.

And then there were the girls and their comics…

Part Two Here

Read 5067 times Last modified on Thursday, 19 November 2020 12:54
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Peter Jachimiak

Peter Jachimiak

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