23 AUGUST 1975, Page 12

Comic relief

The biggest change is the price

C.A. Johnson

"The year is 1910 — or 1940, but it is all the same," wrote George Orwell, describing the world of boys' weeklies thirty-five years ago. It is unlikely he would be able to make the same observation today. Magnet and Gem, the papers he founded his investigations upon, have vanished altogether and the world they reflected is likewise gone — if indeed it ever existed at all.

Having occasion recently to buy a batch of ' comics — they provide a simple but effective remedy against talking in the wings while the juniors' annual play is in progress — and glancing through them afterwards, I was struck by the number of stories they contained which referred to currently fashionable preoccupations like class, race, sex and the supernatural. One paper, Warlord, may be stuck somewhere between 1939 and 1945 (its stories are all about the second world war) but the others are products of the 1970s and no mistake.

There are other differences, of course, apart from mere topicality, from the timeless world of the comics of my childhood. The most obvious was the disappearance of all those tightly-packed columns of tiny print, relieved only infrequently by an odd line-drawing, and their replacement by bold, brightly-coloured and occasionally quite well-drawn comic-strips. Nevertheless, I was conscious of a decline, in terms'of value for money, if nothing else. For I p or its equivalent, I was once the proud and happy possessor of enough reading matter to last me for a couple of hours or more. I can only guess at how long it takes one of today's generation of children to read his comic, but half an hour seems a generous estimate. And he pays from five to eight times as much for it as I did.

There is little point, however, in drawing comparisons between the pleasures of one's own childhood and those enjoyed by children today. I daresay parents who had been weaned on Spring-Heeled Jack and Jack Harkaway made disparaging remarks about the Magnet and Gem when they first appeared, and doubtless readers of the Magnet and Gem, growing old in their turn, muttered disapprovingly at the advent of Champion, Wizard, Knockout and Adventure. I know they did. I heard them. Comics have a magic that only the age-group they are intended for can fully appreciate. The only way adults can begin to comprehend the power of that magic is to read comics as children read them, regularly, week by week. OrWell criticised the style of the weeklies he had read for its tautology and failed to see that this was an essential element of its appeal. Repetition is at the very heart of the spell that comics weave.

Theirs is a world where even the elements follow a regular and predictable pattern: winds in March, sunshine in August, fogs in November and, at Christmas, snow — dripping like custard from the candy-striped title-lettering on the cover and with sprigs of holly in the corner of every page.

Themes I remember from my childhood live on, apparently as popular as they ever were. Orwell commented on the borrowings from Kipling, Wells and Doyle, and ideas taken from the Jungle Books, the science-fiction romances and the Sherlock Holmes stories are still plentifully in evidence. Here they are, as fresh as ever: jungle-boys with only a knife and a pair of leopard Skin briefs between them and the force of nature in the wild; journeys into space and invasions of Earth by alien life-forms; robots, giant insects and mad scientists galore. Only the great detective is no longer quite what he was. Nowadays he tends to appear as ZIP Nolan of the Highway Patrol (Valiant) or as Lord Peter Flint — code-name 'Warlord' in the paper of that name — undertaking improbablY feats of derring-do (he makes a rendezvous with Mussolini in the copy I have, only to find the rendezvous is a trick devised by his arch-enemy, Major Adolph Gruber of the Gestapo) in the manner of Ian Fleming's and Alastair Maclean's heroes rather than that of the contemplative, dressing-gowned sage of Baker Street.

Orwell in 1940 was already prophesying the demise of the public-school story of the Magnet and Gem variety.. Now it seems to have gone for good. School stdries today are about up-to-date comprehensives or the equivalents of Roedeafi rather than Eton. Hardly any modern boys papers run school stories at all, except strictly for laughs, and even these are about Victo: ran-like boys-only primaries like that attended by the Bash Street Kids in Beano, or oddities like 'Spy School' in Whoopee or 'Spookum School' (for ghosts) in Cracker. But the straight school story is still popular enough with girls to Judge from the number appearing in Runty and Tammy — four in each. Ballet and stage-schools provide occasional settings, but the comprehensive and the public school remain predominant: Even here, though, there are changes. The eponymous heroine of 'Run, Rana, Run!' (Burity) comes from 'Bokana', and is, the Synopsis assures us, a 'brilliant athlete'. Her only handicap is the presence of an elder from her village who is there to supervise her education and insists on her keeping up with tribal customs like eating bowls of maize at Meal-times, much to her embarrassment. Luckily, her friends understand her difficulties. The Four Marys, also in Runty, befriend a newcomer to their school, Toole, 'from Hio Island in the South Pacific', and manage to clear her of the accusation of having stolen fruit from the bedroom of an ailing fellow-pupil. (They are barely in time to prevent her walking across red-hot coals to prove her innocence.) Otherwise, foreigners are still funny or in the case of the ubiquitous war-stories, sinister. To Captain Hurricane, for example, who seems to have taken part in every major theatre of oPeration during the second world war, they are either 'flamin' Nips' or 'sausage-eating squareheads'.

As for social divisions, according to Orwell, the working-classes appeared only as servants Or figures of fun in the Magnet and Gem and their like. Nowadays, if anything, the boot is on the other foot. In 'The Toffs and the Toughs' (Whizzer) the Toffs are a top-hatted, weakchinned. bunch — rather like Lord Snooty and hIS pals from Beano — who live in a castle overlooking a ramshackle hut which houses the Toughs, two boys and a girl, jolly, well-fed Children , in sweater and jeans. Battle is joined With the Toffs extinguishing the bonfire on which the Toughs are roasting potatoes. The latter are soon avenged, however, when the ,Toffs' castle is buried beneath a lorry-load of trozen fish and chips, the lorry having Performed one of those bucking-bronco feats Peculiar to lorries in comics. 'Wee Sue' (Tommy) is intensely annoyed by the snobbish condescension of her uncle and aunt when they come on a visit. They arrive in a Rolls and turn tiP their noses at the "appalling depressing streetin which she lives — until she finds a Photograph that reveals them to be a maid and Chauffeur on their day off. Only Lord Peter Flint 411 Warlord, already referred to, keeps the flag qing for the old order. What is very noticeable is the plethora of sPooks and ghosts: 'Ghastly Manor' in Topper, ‘rsqlookie Cookie' in Cracker, 'Rent-a-Ghost' in 'uuster and 'Mystery Museum' in Whizzer, fwilich also contains a whole section taken over r°M another comic, 'Shiver and Shake',. containing 'Frankie Stein', 'Evil Eye', 'Fun-Fear', 'Creepy Car', 'Scream Inn' and Orrible 'Ole', among others. Maybe the levelling of class-barriers has created a demand for heroes and stories out of Ihe ordinary which only the supernatural can "ii. Personally, I miss the eccentric and often ajistocratic heroes of my youth: the monocled, tnglishman holding hordes of saVages at bay W,ith his cricket-bat and the tophatted dude '° Could tame the roughest towns in the West Jthe force of his personality and a knowledge the Queensbury rules. Nor were they always Mit of the top drawer socially. One remembers th especial affection the enigmatic Wilson, iePutedly nearly 200 years old, who emerged M the Yorkshire moors to win several Yrripic gold medals and Test matches for '48Iand, and who always wore a peculiar Prinent like nothing so much as black woollen hl,0mnations. Lord Peter Flint had nothing .on

American comics have always been strong mi super-heroes and the present lack of any

British equivalent may explain their present popularity. Among the most recent newcomers are Planet of the Apes (TV again) and Dracula Lives! The first opened with a serial based on the film of the same name which was in its turn based on Pierre Boulle's book, Monkey Planet: now it features other characters in the same setting and in stories of its own. The second, despite the usual paraphernalia of crucifixes, wild garlic and shadowy crypts, seems to owe even less to Brain Stoker, apart from its central character. There is a disproportionate but not unexpected amount of physical violence in both — Orwell noted the cult of 'bully-worship' in the 'Yank mags' of 1940 and foresaw its spread to English publications — but there is no sadism. There is not really any sex, either. Dracula Lives! has a pretty and very pneumatic heroine but Dracula's interest in her is purely sanguinary and no one else lays a finger on her.

What about sex in children's comics? Is there any? A little, yes, and chiefly in the girls' comics. Many of these now feature boys as leading characters in their stories, and several have pin-ups of currently popular male singers. A typical story is Mandy's 'A Boyfriend for Bonnie' which each week relates a different tale of how Bonnie adopts as her own the hobby of her latest boyfriend. The issue I read had her simultaneously taking up tennis and a lad called Barry. With her help Barry wins a doubles match and then ignores her all evening to watch Match of the Day, while Bonnie reflects 'off the court, I just can't win!'

It is all very innocent. Even the boys of Greyfriars were allowed their occasional 'girl-chums'. It is left to Diana — possibly aimed at a slightly older age-group, from eleven upwards say — to take a more intense interest in the subject. Its stories have grown-up sounding titles like 'Freedom is a Long, Lonely Road' (a love-story set in wartime France) or ,`Sam and the Preservationists' which highlights the problems of a young girl with trendy parents. The Ed's 'letter' begins: "Any of you lot beginning to sniff spring in the air? No! Ah, what a pity, cos it's in the spring that a young girl's thoughts turn to romance — or so my auntie Ermintrude is always saying. Mind you, she's an 82-year-old spinster whose only affair of the heart was with a white mouse called Tony who was her little pet for two years till he died of pneumonia and she buried him in her rose garden with her broken dreams. So maybe we shouldn't listen too much to dear old Erm."

No, and maybe we shouldn't worry too much about sex in comics, either. Despite its horoscope, its pop pin-ups and its lonely-hearts page, one suspects that it may be as much for its horse-features, 'Saddle Up for Summer' and 'Una in the Saddle', that its readers buy it as for anything else. There is even a serial feature on 'Blue Peter'. Could respectability go further?

Is there nothing then for the boys? Well, Danny Doom, in Valiant, "boy assistant of a thirteenth-century sorcerer hurled through time to the present day", has a girl-chum called Carol to share his adventures with and there is also the Garth Annual winch reprints some of the Daily Mirror superman's adventures in a slightly-edited version. It remains quite clear, despite deletions, that Garth no longer worships his girlfriends from afar as he used to. These too are unusually well-developed creatures, much given to posing in profile to show off their figures to best advantage.

There is also `Vampirella', who probably owes something to `Barbarella', heroine of a comic-strip for adults circa 1960, and who has cantered out of the IPC stable at 30p an issue — a very racy filly indeed. Wearing a swim-suit that looks literally as if it's painted on, she leaves her home planet, Drakulon, where the principal source of nourishment, rivers of blood, no longer exists and heads for Earth in a spaceship, hotly pursued by her resurrected boyfriend. A story called 'Wolf-Hunt' has a heroine called Lupagar who spends most of her time wandering about in the altogether when she is not changing into a wolf. She is captured by a hunter who locks her up in his castle and by implication rapes her each evening until she finally manages to transform herself once more and kill him.

This publication is American in origin and at 30p it probably would make too much of a hole in a boy's pocket-money for him to be seriously tempted to buy it. Should he be allowed to, though? Orwell remarked that the moral code implied by most British comics was a decent one, based on fair play and `no sneaking', very like the ideals propagated by the Boy Scout movement. "Crime and dishonesty are never held up to admiration," he wrote. "There is none of the cynicism and corruption of the American gangster story." But does a moral code of this kind have any place in what is probably the longest lived form of underground literature in the world? I don't see Vampirella surviving long, not at 30p. But it will be her price, rather than her lack of costume and moral standards, that will kill her off.

To conclude, here is an extract from 'Varney the Vampire', a serial from a penny-dreadful of 1847. Varney has invaded a young girl's bed-chamber and dragged her from her bed: "Shriek followed shriek in rapid succession. Her beautiful rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. The glass horrible eyes of the figure ran over the angelic form with hideous satisfaction and horrible profanation. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth — a gush of blood and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned and the vampire is at his hideous repast!"

1910 or 1940, 1847 or 1975. Maybe Orwell was right, after all. Things haven't changed that much. Today, we tell it in pictures, that is all.