Saturday, March 15, 2008

Girls Comics in Old Blighty (ca. 1984)

In my six weeks in England, I have purchased but a single comic book: a used hardcover annual that I bought as a surprise for a friend back in the States and have already surrendered to the Royal Mail. When I took it to the Post Office for shipping, the two women behind the counter recognized it with surprise: “Oh, it’s Mandy! I used to read that!” “It must be an antique!” Sure enough, it’s a pretty old comic (cover-dated 1984), and it was apparently meant for such as those women in their youth, for Mandy is subtitled For Girls.

Its target audience is clear enough not just from the subhead (duh) but also from the table of contents, illustrated with about twenty figures of girls engaged in various solo leisure pursuits—mostly of the sports and arts varieties, though the girl at the top and center is shown reading. Oh, and there’s one other tip-off that it’s for girls: the recurring feature “About Horses,” offering factoids about galloping, show horses, horses in mythology, etc. Mandy makes an interesting point of comparison with those crappy Marvel & DC comics from the 70s and 80s that Isaac has been blogging about. The Mandy anthology, produced by uncredited artists and writers for Britain’s D.C. Thompson comics company, offers a curious mix of short comic pieces, stern moral warnings, contrived coincidences, and grim wholesomeness.

Now admittedly, I am far from Mandy’s target audience, being an adult American male who read other comics entirely when I was a lad, but I found the proceedings rather cheerless, even when it sought to be funny. The stories are at times alarming in the merciless judgments meted out to wrongdoers, whose crimes might be fairly minor (one self-centered girl is cursed with permanent physical disfigurement just for refusing to help an old woman—a gypsy, of course—negotiate some stepping-stones across a stream). The overriding narrative formula owes much to the “gotcha” style of storytelling found in EC horror comics or O. Henry stories (not that I’ve read much of either, but you probably know the type of cheap ironic reversal and heavy-handed coincidence commonly associated with such works).

The heroines of the pieces include the following specimens:

• a penniless orphan, whose nearest relative tries to defraud her of her inheritance (he fails, but when in the final panel she smiles about being in “a cosy room of [her] own, with true friends at last,” the only other person visible in her spacious surroundings is the maid, who isn’t looking at her);

• another penniless orphan, who feigns infirmity to win the love of her foster parents (with ironic consequences befitting its EC-style presentation);

• a chronic invalid in a hospital, the optimistic Smiley, whose scheme to help another invalid backfires (causing Smiley to have a bit of a relapse herself);

• a fourteen-year old with a terminal disease, who ministers to other homeless children (her “dear waifs”) in Victorian London (and whose own impending doom is forecast in her nickname: “Angel”);

• a girl with the “Gift” of dream-clairvoyance, who is terrified of what truthful portent she might see when she next falls asleep (with reason, given that the last panel shows her dreaming the dates on her own gravestone);

• and a friendless new student at a girls’ school, who finally makes friends by delivering a piece of misdirected mail to a classmate who’s home sick with the flu (thereby deciding that the best way to make new friends is deliberately to drop a piece of mail addressed to herself, rather than, say, joining the circle of friends of her new flu-ridden pal).

Having seen the women at the Post Office, I’m reasonably confident that reading Mandy wouldn’t necessarily prevent a girl from growing into a well-adjusted adult. Still, the proportion of indigent invalid orphans, socially awkward schoolgirls, and luckless victims of slavery and witchcraft in Mandy makes the prospect of reading a contemporaneous Flash comic by Cary Bates seem positively life-affirming.

But there’s more to Mandy than enslaved ambassador’s daughters who look as if they’ve been drawn by Adrian Tomine:

There are also unexpected glimpses of British tastes in television program[me]s and home decorating:

(Not a bad likeness of Hoss Cartwright, that. Fun fact: Britain’s SkyTV satellite network currently has a dedicated Bonanza channel!)

And what American eater of pancakes à l’américaine would have pictured Aunt Jemima thus?

Great-aunt Jemima there provides one of the few happy endings in Mandy, in a tale of Charmette, the trendy fairy who loves to grant wishes. How trendy is she? Check out these “awesome” mid-80s fashions!

That’s just how I remember the 80s, all right. (Fun fact #2: When I first lived in England in the mid-90s, there was a season when the shopwindows in London featured fashions in orange and lime green; compare the shirt stripes and the hair colo[u]r on the second woman in the “Trendies” magazine spread, above)

But alas, all too often Mandy traffics in heartbreak. Here’s Becky Brown, formerly resident at an orphanage, but now in the loving care of Mr and Mrs Lyons, who believe her to be a cripple:

Becky in fact has legs in good working order, but she pathetically believes that the Lyonses only sympathize with her because of her supposed infirmity. So Becky resolves to keep up her pretense of cripplehood—after all, that way she can keep “nice things” like her new cat, Snowy.

But alas, cruel fate! When fire attacks the Lyons home, Becky uses her legs to rescue her foster parents, temporarily knocked out from smoke inhalation; but when she races back to rescue Snowy, horrors!

Becky survives (though Snowy is seen no more), but the doctors tell her that now she’s a cripple for real. Just to twist the knife a little more, the story has Becky ask her foster parents if they would still have loved her if she’d had the use of her legs. “Of course,” answers Mrs Lyons, “it would only have increased our joy.” And the penultimate panel offers a closeup of the tearstricken Becky. Cheerful, no? (Actually, the final panel offers a rare bit of relief as the creepy narrator, an EC-style emcee known as “the Storyteller,” returns to reveal that Becky’s doctors hadn’t counted on medical advances, for five years later she would learn to walk again. Great!)

Amongst all these tales of woe and mistreated girls, there is a remarkable exception in the opening tale of “Valda, Girl of Mystery.” Valda lives in the Canadian Rockies, where she looks after the wildlife and assists Canadian police and military figures in their patrols against poachers and other malefactors. Valda possesses a “Crystal of Life” that maintains her youthful vigor, keeps her warm in all weathers despite her skimpy garb, and restores life to a mortally wounded wolf cub. It also gives her powers of command and strength in the service of her sternly administered justice, of a kind with that of Fantomah, the fierce enforcer of jungle justice by the now-famous Fletcher Hanks. Mind you, the unnamed artist of “Valda” lacks Hanks’s distinctive drawing style and sense of design…

… but her character is surprisingly like Fantomah in her independence, her absolute moral certainty, and her chilly imperiousness.

All in all, Mandy presents a weirdly threatening moral universe for its young readers. And while the endpapers offer a quiz on superstition designed to shame those who overdo it with the lucky charms, the tales trade often on magic, mystery, and the occult. No wonder one of the waifs in the story of “Angel” has such a downbeat take on Christian theology:

If you want to learn Angel’s answer to the waif, you’ll have to get your own copy of Mandy for Girls (1984). Mine is out of the house, and I’m not looking for another!


Darcy said...

My first reaction, I admit, was WHO writes these things? But my second reaction was that now you understand what adult American women feel like when they read mediocre boys' comics. Boys all seem to fantasize about swimmng in shark-infested waters and traveling on spaceships that run off course; girls who relish peril fantasize about being orphaned or being obliged to attend a new school at which no one likes them. One scenario isn't more inherently ridiculous than another. And some of the "solutions" that appear in boys' comics (suddenly King Kong shows up, punches the spaceship, and sends it hurtling back towards earth-- oh, joy!) aren't really much more sensible than, say, pretending to be a cripple in order to elicit sympathy. I was intrigued by the Victorian overtones of some of the stories you mentioned in your review . . . after all, I can remember 1984!

Mike said...

I admit that part of my interest in skimming the contents of Mandy before sending it off was precisely to broaden the mind, as it were, though the result may have been more likely to flatten it. Be that as it may, I'm certainly not going to argue that American boys' comics make any more sense than British girls' comics. Isaac's researches in the subject of their general nonsense have been pretty conclusive, I think.

I will say, however, that I still find the power fantasy more attractive than the impotence fantasy, at least for my own imaginative recreation. Successfully fending off sharks, even with the help of King Kong, appeals to me more than a broken back any day, though frankly the later scenario probably has more "practical life-lessons" to offer than the former. But I wouldn't really recommend these kids' comics, from either country, for moral instruction!

As for your question "WHO writes these things?", I believe the short answer is "hacks," by which may be understood "professional writers who work to formula on a deadline" or "repetitive drones," depending on the individual case. I've read some hackwork that boggles the mind in terms of the writer's patience in churning out infinite variations on the theme of, say, "World War II fighting troop battles dinosaurs on a remote Pacific island," but--incredible as it may sound--it's not all bad. (Which is not the same thing as declaring any of it to be really any good, I realize.)

Darcy said...

Hm. I wouldn't really consider the scenarios in the girls' comics-- worrying about whether one's adoptive parents will keep one, not being liked at school-- to be "impotence fantasies" except in the sense that swimming with sharks or traveling on a runaway spaceship is also an impotence fantasy. I would suggest, rather, that the emotional adversity scenarios in the girls' comics are roughly equivalent to the physical adversity scenarios in the boys' comics, and that the resolutions, which involve exerting emotional or social power by devious means-- means that the fantasist probably couldn't get away with in real life-- are roughly equivalent to the resolutions in the boys' comics, which typically involve exerting an improbable degree of physical power by some means not available in normal life. Yes, the girls' stories depict behavior that is manipulative, twisted, kind of disgusting, but the fantasy implicit in them is still, like the boys' fantasy, basically a fantasy of power. The heroine faces obstacles, devises an elaborate (often unnecessarily elaborate) plan for negotiating them, and fights her way to social/emotional victory. I would further suggest that comics of this sort cater to boys who are fascinated by their own physical power and are struggling to learn how not to misuse it, and to girls who are fascinated by their own emotional and social awareness and are struggling to learn how not to misuse their insight and manipulative skill.

Fortunately, the adolescents who read these things DO eventually grow up . . .

Isaac said...

I think that's a really excellent reading, Darcy -- though admittedly I haven't read the girls' comics in question. And the link to the adolescent fear of developing personal "power" is a smart one. Very nice.

I'd like to add a prediction that Alan Moore, that great redefiner of other people's characters, will find a way to use Charmette in one of his comics before the end of the next decade, if he hasn't already.

Mike said...

Hey, Darcy (& Isaac),

I don't disagree with your observation that the heroines of these tales may have to exercise ingenuity and display fortitude in putting up with the slings and arrows of their outrageous plotlines. I also think you're right that the boys' comics are also "impotence fantasies" insofar as their appeal rests, in part, on the distance between the powers & resourcefulness on display in the stories and that on call in their readers (about which more in a moment). But allow me to clarify two points with respect to my use of the terms "power fantasies" vs. "impotence fantasies."

First, I may not have been clear that when I wrote "power fantasies" in reference to boys' comics I was actually using a term of art. A very familiar way of referring to superhero comics, for instance, is as "adolescent (male) power fantasy," where the "male" is sometimes omitted (though truthfully it might be more accurate to omit "adolescent" rather than "male," given the demographics of superhero comics' readership these days). So "power fantasies" was a kind of shorthand for "improbable or even impossible fictions directed mostly at a young male readership." To some extent, "impotence fantasies" was just a contrastive riff on the preexisting phraseology.

However--and this is the other point--the outcome of almost every superhero story or boys' adventure comic is triumph for the hero, whereas even the successful negotiations of peril in Mandy often involve some sort of diminished returns on initial hopes. And some of the stories in Mandy end in disaster for their heroines; the girl with the ruined face in "I am Margaret!" faces a future in which her identity as Margaret is belied by her changed appearance. Now, this might be read optimistically as a kind of success--henceforth she'll probably have greater love for her fellow human beings, etc.--but it's totally unintentional on her part (no ingenuity involved), and so it's of a different order from the solutions found by, say, Lyra Silvertongue to her problems in the His Dark Materials series (or, say, by Hermione Granger or Ginny in Harry Potter). That's why I invoked the EC horror comics as a more fitting analogue to the stories in Mandy rather than superhero comics per se: the genre of the tales in Mandy turns frequently on the helplessness and even inaction of the characters.

One last thought, as I fear I'm belaboring the proceedings all too much already. It's a slight demurral from my Esteemed Colleague's assessment of your take on the "adolescent fear of developing personal 'power.'" It's only slight because I also think that that's a smart and compelling reading. But I hesitate to buy into it completely, if only because so few young male comics readers fit the profile of those with physical power they're afraid to misuse. More likely they're afraid of those with more physical power beating them up and taking their lunch money. There are other physical & psychological changes that might work just as well in your reading--I think Isaac's scare quotes around "power" hint at that--but sublimating, say, sexual development into mutant powers seems different, to me, from a more naked interest in physical power per se.

(And appropriately, I seem to have just discovered my own superpower: windbaggery!)

Levi Jacob Bailey said...

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Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.

Mila said...

nice work :)