Sunday, April 13, 2008

Girls Comics in Old Blighty, part 2: An Editor Speaks

You may recall my previous post (ages ago) about the British comics annual Mandy from 1984. I expressed some perplexity at the kinds of stories on display, especially given their ostensible appeal to girls, and friend and reader Darcy offered some interesting explanations and challenges in the comments, which I commend to your attention (with apologies for my longwindedness).

I'm pleased now to offer further comments on Mandy and her ilk that are probably more authoritative than the remarks by yours truly and Darcy, though whether "more authoritative" means "more convincing" is up to you. Click here for a link to an interview on the UK comics website Down the Tubes with Bill Graham, an editor from D.C. Thomson, the publishers of Mandy way back when and of Wendy today.

Much of what the editor has to say concerns his long-term involvement with boys' comics, but here he is confirming that the girl-aimed "About Horses" feature in Mandy was no fluke:

Early in the 1980's DC Thomson had started syndicating stories from our girls' papers like Bunty and Judy to a group of publishers in Europe. These were all about girls and their ponies. There was a big market for those types of stories there. These were stories which had appeared as weekly serials/series and they were just cobbled together into comp[l]ete stories of 30-36 pages.

It was Graham's task to turn these stories into more polished works and to improve the pony package, as it were. The result is a magazine called Wendy that is now produced in Britain but sold on the Continent, where it has quite the following, apparently. To see a current sample of the Wendy comic, click here (and break out your German dictionary; "Pferde sind mein Leben," indeed!). You might also want to go straight to the home page,, just to see the astonishing variety of horse-related material gathered under the Wendy rubric. Be sure to watch the banner for a few moments, and make sure the volume is turned up on your computer!

Graham also briefly discusses the character Ebony Jones, "a black female secret agent," in answer to a question about whether introducing Ebony to the boys' comic The Crunch in the 1970s was an effort at "boosting a female readership" ("boosting" rather than "creating," because the letters pages of The Crunch already testify to its female readership--hardly surprising, but I mention it out of my loyalty to the late, lamented lettercol as an unparalleled ethnographical resource for comics).

Anyway, Graham says:

In the mid 1970's I had been involved in the development of a new girls' paper for DC Thomson. This was going to be totally different from the likes of Bunty and Judy - no ballerinas and ponies, the heroines were going to [be] all-action characters. One of these characters was Ebony Jones.

The paper was abandoned but Ebony was too good to waste, so I brought her into The Crunch. It wasn't a conscious effort to attract girls as readers.

It's a pity he doesn't say more about why the "paper" was abandoned; did market research suggest that girls just weren't interested in reading "all-action characters," even if female? For that matter, did Ebony attract girls as readers of The Crunch, even if unintentionally? Finally, given the effort to hook girl readers on boys' fare, why no mention of any attempt to market horse comics to boys? (After all, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, right?)

Happily, Graham is a bit more forthcoming on the subject of the older boys comics and girls comics (before the late 80s or so), finding the latter to be sub-par by comparison. He notes that a lot of writers and artists worked on both kinds of comic (again, not really surprising), but he also alleges that Wendy is superior to its predecessors (like Mandy, I imagine) precisely because the staff who got Wendy off the ground had honed their skills in the boys' comics. This sounds a bit contradictory to me (if the same writers were involved, why did they forget their storytelling skills when writing about poverty and ponies?), but here he is, responding to the allegation that "girls' comics were better written than boys' comics because the former could rely less on violence to move a story forward":

No. Since I started editing Wendy I have read quite a few of the girl's stories published over the years. They are often mind-numbingly repetitive and the plots are full of holes and amazing coincidences.

Here's the typical girls' story plot. Girl is happy. Circumstances change and girl is miserable. Unexpected benefactor appears and girl is happy again. That's why I think Wendy has been so successful. I, and many of the staff in the early years, were trained on boys' papers. The stories are better plotted with two or three story lines in each episode - and there is very little violence.

If what Graham says is true, it suggests that one lesson that the boys' comics could learn from Wendy is that their multi-storyline plots might benefit occasionally from a reduction in violence, if only for variety. (In fact, what broke me of the superhero-comics habit in my teens--before my recent recidivism--was precisely the "mind-numbingly repetitive" nature of the stories month after month--though the plot holes and amazing coincidences didn't bother me as much.) At any rate, I would be even more interested now to hear from a woman artist, writer, or editor at DC Thomson, let alone a woman reader of Bunty (or The Crunch!)--so if anybody turns up more online interviews of that sort, please do pass them along.

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