To mark the one-year anniversary of Blog@Newsarama, we’re resurrecting one of our favorite features from the past year, “I ♥ Comics.” To help us celebrate, each Wednesday comics bloggers and creators will discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week, our guest contributor is Brigid Alversion, who maintains the indispensable MangaBlog and writes for Publishers Weekly’s Comics Week.
By Brigid Alverson
I know this is not what people expect to hear from a dedicated manga blogger, but my favorite comics of all time are not manga at all but the British girls’ comics of the 1960s and 1970s, all of which bore girls’ names: Bunty, Judy, Mandy, Diana.
Printed on cheap paper, with color covers and mostly black-and-white interiors, these comics were filled with gripping, episodic tales of boarding-school hijinks, hard-working orphans, and clever girls who had their own businesses walking dogs, modeling, or solving miscellaneous problems.
My aunts used to send them to me from Ireland, in big rolls tied up with brown paper and string. Each weekly issue contained two- or three-page episodes of five or six serials, plus a few single-page stand-alone comics. My sisters and I would sit down and binge on the whole roll, reading them all at once, and then wonder about the stories left unfinished.
Every Christmas we would get a big box of annuals, brightly colored hardbacks with more stories, these ones satisfyingly complete.
There was nothing like them in the U.S., and even as a child, I wondered why. I enjoyed my superhero comics, but the older I got, the less relevant they seemed to my life. Superman, Justice League of America, Thor, and Conan were entertaining but entirely outside my realm of experience. The girls in Bunty and Judy, on the other hand, were characters I could identify with: They were misunderstood by others, they struggled to be true to themselves, they got themselves into trouble and came up with ingenious solutions.
In fact, what attracted me to manga, many years later, was that they had the same sorts of stories: episodic, multi-character tales of plucky young girls struggling against the odds. Tohru Honda of Fruits Basket would have been right at home in the pages of Bunty. (So would Harry Potter, whose early adventures fit the formula in so many ways: He was an orphan who went to boarding school, where he was both celebrated and persecuted for his special talent, got into frequent trouble, and was buoyed by his loyal chums.)
Often the problems were trivial and the stories were lighthearted. Highly unrealistic depictions of boarding schools were a staple; the longest-running story in Bunty was The Four Marys, about four boarding-school roommates who solved people’s problems between rounds of field hockey and the occasional class. Flipping through my old annuals, I find a slew of stories about girls with interesting jobs: Jane, Model Miss; Jenny Proctor, Doll Doctor; Dopey Dora, School Governor; Pet Shop Pauline. Carol Lawson, the headmistress of Tumbledown Academy, had to use creativity and wit to keep a broken-down school alive. Lots of girls ran boardinghouses for pets or solved people’s problems for a fee. My family’s favorite story was “Wee Slavey,” about a Victorian maid named Nellie Perks who was smarter than her employers and often bailed them out of sticky situations.
Still, many stories had a darker side that was totally absent from American comics of the era. Parents lost their jobs and went on the dole; children were sent to the country to escape the bombing of London and ended up either mistreated or living in a haunted house; and Dickensian tales of Victorian orphans were served up with relish.
The backbone of every story, whether funny or melodramatic, was a smart, self-confident girl who was usually mature beyond her years. And here is where the Bunty girls part company with the girls of manga. While Japanese heroines often show great determination and resourcefulness, their submissive tendencies work against them. The girls in English comics don’t stammer and apologize, and they don’t let themselves be blackmailed; most are sturdy, sensible girls who would as soon whack you with a hockey stick as show their panties.
Still, I’m happy to see shoujo manga and now DC’s Minx graphic novels filling the need for girl-centered comics. Consider The Plain Janes, the first Minx title. While I haven’t read it yet, it looks like all the ingredients are there: A teenager, changed by a traumatic event (a 9/11-type bombing) tries to make friends with some of girls in her class. They give her the cold shoulder, so she gets everyone involved in a project and they become friends as they work together. Classic Bunty!
Jane would have had much in common with the heroine of Bunty‘s Pip at Pony School, a girl of modest means who attended a snooty boarding school on a scholarship. The mean girls constantly try to trip her up, but she manages to make friends and win the day, and each episode ends with the snobs getting their comeuppance. Similarly, the heroines of shoujo manga like Boys Over Flowers, Crimson Hero, and Crossroad fight against parents, teachers, and their classmates to keep their self-esteem and live as they choose.
The girls in British comics never ended up in refrigerators, or if they did, it was on purpose. I’m thinking here about Gelda, The Girl from the Glacier, a skater who was mysteriously kept young by ice and snow. Sunlight acted on her like Kryptonite on Superman. When she entered a skating contest, the over-enthusiastic father of another skater locked her in a refrigerated truck in an attempt to weaken her. It was just what she needed. She won the contest.
Bunty, Judy, and Diana were great because they were girl-centric. The girls were not incidental to the story. They were the center of the universe, and readers knew they would prevail in the end. I’m happy that shoujo manga, homegrown global manga, and graphic novels are finally filling the need I felt so many years ago. And I’m also grateful to the loving aunts who took the time to wrap up those comics and send them across the Atlantic, all those years ago, to delight my sisters and me.
DC Thompson & Co., which still publishes Bunty, Mandy and Jackie annuals
Judy entry at 26Pigs; click “bibliography” for some nice cover scans
Paul Gravett wrote a book on British comics, but the website seems to ignore the girls’ comics altogether.