Amazingly, it turns out that comics aren’t just for boys! No one saw that coming, right? Except, of course, for the countless millions of readers of non-boy-exclusive comics whose voices are still frequently being either ignored or silenced.
Younger readers might find it hard to believe, but back in the day (that day being roughly around about the end of June, 1977, if you want me to be precisish) there were lots of weekly comics published in the UK. Lots and lots. Dozens of different titles. And let’s not forget the monthly publications, and the occasional old-fashioned story-paper that was still refusing to acknowledge the invention of drawings. Here’s a list of some of the titles the average newsagent’s store might have had on its shelves in that particular week: 2000AD, Action, Amazing Stories of Suspense, Astounding Stories, Battle Picture Library, Battle Picture Weekly, The Beano, The Beezer, Blue Jeans, Bullet, Bunty, Bunty Picture Story Library for Girls, Buster, Captain Britain, Commando Comics, Creepy Worlds, The Dandy, Debbie, Fury, The Hotspur, Jack and Jill, Jackie, Jinty, Judy, Judy Picture Story Library for Girls, Krazy, Look and Learn, Look-In, Mad, The Magic Comic, Mandy, Mates, Mickey Mouse, The Mighty World of Marvel, Mirabelle, Oh Boy, Pink, Pippin, Playhour, Read to Me, Roy of the Rovers, Secrets of the Unknown, Secrets Story Library, See-Saw, Shoot, Sinister Tales, Sparky, Spellbound, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, Star Love Stories, Sundance Western, Tammy, Tarzan Weekly, Tiger, Toby, The Topper, TV Comic, Twinkle, Uncanny Tales, The Victor, War Picture Library, Warlord, Whizzer and Chips, Whoopee!, and The Wizard.*
(A note for the pedants: You’re right: some of these comics did have different titles during that week, such as Spider-Man Comics Weekly going by Super Spider-Man and the Titans because of its recent merger, but this isn’t the place to get into that.)
Of the 65 titles in our list, 25 are clearly aimed at boys, and 18 at girls (humorous titles like Sparky, nursery titles like Toby and those aimed at older readers, like Look-in and Mad, are harder to classify, so let’s not count them). A 25:18 ratio isn’t bad, but it’s still a long way from the actual ratio of boys to girls.
Anyway, the point of that is to demonstrate that as long as there have been comics, girls have read comics. It’s not a new thing, and yet it does sometimes feel like every time a female comic-creator or fan has the audacity to be a female comic creator or fan, she’s in danger of being abused and assaulted by some folks who somehow believe that comics are a one-gender-only medium.
Guys, if girls choose to create and consume comics, that doesn’t take anything away from you! Your preferred comics will still be there! OK? Good, glad we got that cleared up! Coming soon: We’ll be exploring basic science in an all-new episode of “The World Doesn’t Actually Revolve Around Straight White Cis Males, So Get Over Yourself.” (If you’re a straight white cis male and you feel offended by that comment, please go back and re-read it.)
There are few British girls’ comics that have transcended their roots and lodged themselves into common culture in the same way that so many boys’ comics have. Bunty and Twinkle are arguably just about the only ones that most non-fans might be able to name off the tops of their heads, though there is a strong case for including Misty in there: it didn’t last long, but by crikey it made an impression! Both my older sister and my wife were fans, but sadly neither of them held onto their collections. I’ve almost forgiven them.
(As mentioned in previous posts: vintage girls’ comics are generally harder to find than boys’ comics, partly because girls were less likely to be encouraged to collect them, and partly because some girls’ comics, such as Bunty, had things like cut-out paper dolls on the back covers. It’s not as easy to feel protective towards a comic when you’ve already butchered it with the scissors.)
When a title started to fail, the publishers would rarely just abandon it. Even if it had only 40,000 regular readers and they were only earning a penny on each copy sold, that was still £400 per week (£400 in 1977 is equivalent to about £2414 in 2018), plus whatever they could make by selling ads. They wanted to keep as many of those readers as possible, hence the practise of merging one title into another.
The publishers would generally do their best to match titles that had similar demographics. They weren’t going to merge Woodworker’s Monthly into Teddy-Bear Tales, fascinating as the resulting compound publication might be. So in this family tree we see that romance titles Marilyn, Roxy and Serenade were all folded into the more successful Valentine, also a romance title and aimed at readers of about the same age.
However, every now and then there was no immediately obvious match and they had to go for the closest fit: TV Fun was a spin-off from Film Fun (as was Radio Fun) and as such was packed with strips based on TV shows or about TV personalities, but in it later years it had angled itself more towards love stories and retitled itself TV Fun and Romance in Pictures. A comic changing its format is a sure sign that not all is well. It was relaunched as TV Fan, but that didn’t work either, so it was chosen to be cast into the great volcano to appease the gods that keep the printing-presses running. It should have been absorbed back into Film Fun or even Radio Fun, but it had changed so much that they no longer matched. So it became another one of Valentine‘s victims.
Taking a step back, though, and looking at these family trees from a longer view, it can be fascinating to see how sometimes very disparate titles are connected by only a few links: In the Eagle family tree, for example, we saw how Comic Cuts (1890) was only two titles away from 1975’s Battle Picture Weekly. In today’s family tree, we see even more of that… June ends up as the repository of a whole chain of spiffing girls’ adventure comics like The Ruby, Schooldays, The Schoolgirl’s Own and Girl’s Crystal, but it also absorbed Pixie which was aimed as much younger kids. Similarly, the bubbly, early-teens title Pink absorbed the pop-star fan magazine Music Star, the romance comic Mirabelle (which is where Valentine ended its days) as well as the younger-targeted Princess Tina.
And speaking of Princess Tina… In 1951, in response to the overwhelming and almost unprecedented popularity of Eagle, the publishers attempted to catch the same lightning in another bottle with a version aimed at the other half of the market. Picture the intense brain-storming session:
“Well, we’re making a fortune with our boys’ comic, Eagle! What’ll we name this new girls’ version? What’s a female eagle called?”
“I think they’re still just eagles.”
“Really? Huh. OK. Well, this is a girls’ comic, so that has to be very clear in the title, otherwise boys might read it and then, y’know, be affected by it. Mummy’s boys, if you know what I mean.”
“Say no more. I’m suppressing a shudder of ill-informed bigotry even as we speak. Look, this is a comic for girls… We’ll call it Girl.”
“Isn’t that a bit, well, lazy and obvious and horribly patronising?”
“True, but this is 1950s Britain, barely out of the war. It’s all ration-books and pipe-smoke and the importance of a good crease in the trousers, and kids getting excited about things like licorice as they gallop away to lob rocks at that mysterious grey metal cylinder they spotted half-buried in the bomb-crater, and boys being legally obligated to wear really short shorts right up to the day before they get married, and girls being carefully schooled on how their only value to society is as a provider of baked goods and/or male babies.”
“You’re saying that future comic-historians will understand that we know no better and thus will forgive us?”
“I’m saying that the pub opens in four minutes so we’re calling this one Girl.”
And so it came to pass. Girl was quite successful for its time, but couldn’t touch Eagle‘s numbers, and a mere thirteen years later it was absorbed by relative newcomer Princess. Thirteen years might seem like an amazing run these days, but back then it was those days, and in those days thirteen years was a little over average.
Subsequently, Princess merged with Tina and was relaunched as the aforementioned Princess Tina, then that was consumed by Pink, and so on, ultimately leading to My Guy, which regular viewers might recall was the subject of a recent investigation on this blog.)
Seventeen years after the demise of Girl, in the allegedly enlightened 1980s, IPC decided to launch a new girls’ comic called… Girl. Which just goes to show you something or other. The new version of Girl predated the new version of Eagle, which is possibly indicative of something else, though probably not. I suspect I’m giving it more thought than they did.
This is, as far as I can tell, the largest and most diverse of all the British Comics Family Trees. We’ve got 73 different titles spanning over a century, with kids’ humour comics, romance titles, a “nursery” comic for tiny kids, photo-love stories, story-papers for grown-up adult women, pop-music magazines, serious “proper” music mags, those two aforementioned comics called Girl and another two called Princess, one called Poppet and one about a puppet (Lady Penelope, in case you were wondering).
It’s possible that we’re not done with this one, but I’ve travelled along each branch as far as the evidence can take me, right up to the point beyond which there is only speculation, madness and oblivion. New evidence turns up quite frequently, though, so please don’t be surprised if I revisit this tree in the near future.
And, as always, if you find any serious errors or omissions, please do let me know! These things aren’t meant to be the definitive word on comics history: think of them more like treasure maps that might not yet have all the parts filled in.
* For those who were wondering, the publishers of those titles on sale at the end of June, 1977 are as follows:
- Alan Class: 6 issues
- Fleetway / IPC: 25 issues
- DC Thomson: 24 issues
- Marvel UK: 4 issues
- Polystyle Publications: 3 issues
- Others: 4 issues