Saturday, 30 August 2014

What is Sid's relationship with his Snake?

If you grew up in Britain in the 1970s or 80s you will almost certainly have read Whizzer and Chips at some point. Even more so if you are reading this blog. Which you are. It was produced by Fleetway between 1969 and 1990, making it second only to Buster as long-running title for the publisher.
The USP of W&C was that was "Two rival comics in one!". See, where some comics stirred up mild rivalry between their competitors within their publishing house (e.g. The Sparky People being challenged by The Beano's staff), Whizzer's in-fighting with Chips happened in THE SAME ISSUE. Supposedly we, the readers, were to pick a side and be either a Whizz-Kid or a Chip-Ite and throw the other half of the comic away. Obviously no-one did, but it was a fun conceit.
Sid's Snake was the cover star of Whizzer (and by extension the cover star of Whizzer and Chips, as Chips was the pull out middle for most of the run) for the majority of issues, however (and this may come as a shock to any hard-core Whizz-Kids still out there) the strip actually started in Chips before proving popular enough to make the cover.
It was a really basic premise - boy has pet snake, snake contorts itself to fit whatever hijinks as required - and therefore surprisingly far-reaching in influence.
It was the obvious influence of early Viz character "Victor and His Boa Constrictor", back when Viz was more concerned with comics pastiche:
 (Heck of a camel-toe, there, Victor) ...and continues to be a go-to design for cartoon snakes.

Sometimes, however, when you read a bunch of comics in a row, certain patterns begin to emerge...

You see, the outward appearance may have been of two best pals having fun...
...and sure, the gags were built on Slippy helping Sid in some way...
...which were sometimes quite elaborate... 
...but after a while you start to feel the poor reptile is somewhat put-upon. I mean, actually look at his face when he's "helping": 
And now look at Sid's face when they're behind closed doors and he demands "help": 
I can't help but think that they are in an abusive relationship. "Work for me, Slippy. I took you in when no-one else would have you! Don't be ungrateful!" 
Even the title "Sid's Snake" is denying him his individuality. He's only defined by what he is to Sid. HE HAS A NAME! His name is Slippy. Unless it wasn't...
Was Slippy his slave name? Or was he Born Slippy? (Sorry)


Thursday, 28 August 2014

Jim Petrie: An Appreciation

I have just learned of the passing of Jim Petrie, another of the British comics greats. He drew Minnie the Minx for FORTY DROKKIN' YEARS.
Petrie took over from creator Leo Baxendale in 1961 and retired in 2001, making him second only to David Sutherland (who is still drawing The Bash Street Kids after 52 years) in terms of time spent at DC Thomson.
 I've written elsewhere about Min's feminist agenda and she truly was a significant character for challenging gender roles who was rightly pushed by the Beano staff as their second biggest star. The above image was a mini poster (Minnie poster?) sent to readers in the mid 80s.
Petrie also drew the biggest crossover fight between the two biggest stars for the 1996 Beano Annual.
There were plenty of other strips he drew over the years but a personal favourite of mine is The Sparky People.
Sparky was a DC Thomson also-ran which was published between 1965 and 1977 and in 1971 a strip titled "We Are the Sparky People!" showed us the comic strip adventures of the comic strip creators in the Sparky office. Bossed about by an unseen editor - the mighty "Sir" - we were treated to an odd bunch of folks who may or may not have been based on actual personnel at DC Thomson HQ. The legacy of this idea of cartoon staff bled through to many other comics, see also Uncle Pigg and Tharg the Mighty.
A fun feature of this was sometimes rivalry with other comics, which was entirely appropriate as Sparky was clearly the in-house underdog. In one strip Team Sparky are challenged to a darts match by The Beano. In another there is a cross-title office beauty contest where all the female staff were forced to wear bikinis...
It was the 70s. Things were different.
A strip I grew up reading, however, was a spin-off for Minnie's most common antagonist, Fatty Fudge.
In this one-page strip, Fatty would be the star of a new movie parody every week. Here he is as a caveman in "1,000,000 Years BC (Before Cakes)":
And here he is as an astronaut in "2001 A Space Obesity" (Not joking):
Odd that I happen to have pulled out the only two Fatty Fudge strips set in specific years...

And being a huge comics fan (and that includes those of our American cousins) I always love finding superhero parodies. So we'll end this tribute (well, almost) with...
Fatty plays "Ordinary schoolboy Herman Kent" who is waiting for his dinner which leads to this delightful exchange:

Not lying, I love that. Anyway, we discover that when Eric eats a banana when Herman eats soup...
As always with British superhero parodies we get a Captain Marvel/Superman mash up.

So, farewell then, Jim Petrie. Thanks for all the good times.
I'll leave you with this. When Petrie retired he drew his final (and his 2000th) Minnie the Minx strip and drew himself a cameo as the one person in complete control of things.
P.S. Petrie was persuaded to come out of retirement once in 2011 to do a final Fatty Fudge parody. Read it and some other nice stuff from The Beano here.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Judge Judy? Yes, yes I will.

Let's dip a toe into the deep waters of classic girls' comics.

I didn't start reading girls' comics until I was in my thirties. Wait. That sounds weird.

Hang on.... No, it is weird. But it's just me.

As a child (a boy-child) it was an extreme no-no to wander into areas of pop culture meant for "the other". As a child (a man-cub) to pick up or even look at a Bunty or a Care Bear would be like painting a sign saying "I like girls' things!" which was patently horrific.

Nowadays those gender lines do not seem to be as firmly set, as the growth of the Brony movement can show. And I can look upon the classic comics I totally ignored as a child (a he-pup) to the point where I did not realise just how many of them there were.

As a starting point, here is an issue Judy from 1974.
 As always, history lesson first. Judy was published by DC Thomson from 1960 to 1991, originally tagged "Companion paper to Bunty" (which had arrived two years previously). It combined with Mandy in '91 to make Mandy and Judy, or eventually M&J which, remarkably, survived until 1997. Along the way it swallowed up other ailing girls' comics Emma and Tracy. Yes, naming girls' comics was much easier than Boys'. Just pick any name.

The original cover star was Judy herself. That's her in the top right of the cover.
 Her adventures with those three kittens were apparently so dull that by the mid-60s she had been removed from the comic as all but mascot. Cover star from 1968 was Bobby Dazzler "the only girl at Westbury Boarding School for Boys". You'd think that would make her very popular.

Bobby Dazzler was full of very proto-feminist "I'll show those boys I'm just as good" shenanigans which seems like it would have done a lot of good for the age group at which Judy was aimed.

Before we move on to the other strips, here is an image from an Airfix ad to haunt your nightmares:
 Change your underwear and we'll move on.

Just like big sister Bunty, Judy's strips consisted of many tales of girls in terrible circumstances outside of their control or forced into menial jobs that were beneath their talents.

There was "Backstage Betty", the wannabe ballerina who worked as a stage-hand and Wilma and the Wild One ("Wilma Simpson was a shy girl, and she found life at Windrush School hard. But she made friends with Lorne, a wild girl who lived on the moors").
There was also "Pam the Peacemaker" whose parents were a Richard and Judy-ish TV couple, always forced to smooth over their marital difficulties.
 And Victorian housemaid Nellie Perkins, for whom all subtlety flies out the window when they named the strip "Wee Slavey"
 Also worthy of note is "The Little War on Coral Island", a tale of four shipwrecked children in 1945. Two British, two Japanese which means that rather than help each other they choose to maintain the state of war between them. The girls on either side try to nudge the boys towards peace but they will not have it!

It is interesting to see the scars of the second world war still showing in 1970s childrens' comics. Of course boys' comics were full of stories of brave derring-do amongst tommies fighting the evil Hun, so this is a surprising "girlish" take on that.
 So on to the letters page. Presided over by someone called Beatrice, it is "Busy Bea's Pages" and also contains sort-of reviews of long-forgotten pop music!
 I feel a little sorry for Gene Young as his career clearly went nowhere. Although if that artist's impression is accurate it may not be hard to see why.

Elsewhere you could have your portrait sketched by an in-house artist and win the art as a prize!
 I wonder if Jackie Smith (if that is her real name) still has that art?

Here's a letter I doubt you'd get in a magazine aimed at children today:
 It would seem very odd if, say, Toxic printed a letter about the frequency of praying.

Best of all though is this letter of one excited girl's encounter with a certain "famous disc jockey":
 Fame, fame, fatal fame. Poor Gene was never heard from again yet Noel is still inescapable.

There is a small smattering of humour strips, too (the best being "Tell-Tale Tess" a Munchausen-esque auntie who's seen some adventures) and a weekly biographical strip on the famous faces of the day.

This issue: the true-life story of Faron Young!
 Nope, me neither.

Also about were a couple of fantasy strips. There was robot hijinks with a Tin Lizzie, who was quite similar to The Dandy's Brassneck, except, this being for girls, Lizzie was a robot maid. Losing some feminism points there, Judy.

To be fair, it appears Tin Lizzie originated in The Dandy in 1953. I'm not sure how similar they were (it started as prose stories before becoming a strip from 55-59) but my attempts to research it have just told me that the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy named themselves after her!
 My favourite strip in this issue is this:
 Ali is a cat with ill-defined low-level psychic powers who seems to want to act as guardian angel to the children he meets. This feels like the sort of strip one would find in Misty (which would not arrive for another four years).
 This opening panel makes me imagine all his thought "dialogue" in a strong French accent.
 This panel immediately made me think of "Dream of a Thousand Cats" from Neil Gaiman's Sandman (#18, art by Kelley Jones). If you haven't read it (and you should) it tells a possible story where once the world was run by cats who kept people as pets. When a thousand people dreamed at once that they were dominant, the world was reversed. Now some cats are trying persuade others to dream the world back the right way round.
I now choose to believe Ali, presiding over his "cohorts of cats" is doing just that.
Anyway, no time for catnaps, Ali.
 Love his ticked-off expression here.
 Ah, little David Foreman. He's going to be trouble.
 That's right. When cats demand fuss it is for YOUR benefit. Don't forget that.

Ali sends a psychic push to David's teacher, sending her outside.
 Ali decides to watch over David to see if he can help.
 He's certainly disruptive. And those eyes are disturbing.
 "In a minute David" says David's mother, dismissively, while telling his teacher how attentive she is.
 Ali creeps in through the Foremans' window to observe him playing. At this point we have the information we need for a diagnosis. Like one of those 70s Batman stories: can YOU figure it out?
 When you see a cat gazing at the moon, it is thinking. Plotting. They will take this world back. Oh yes, they will.
 Yes! Those car number plates from page one! David was adding them up!
 Ali decides that David needs puzzles to keep his mind occupied. He also lacks social skills and has only been seen to relate to a cat. This is an early diagnosis of autism, isn't it?
 I mean, I'm pretty sure the writer would not have been aware of autism or Asperger in 1974 (although it is possible) but this seems very much like the sort of story that would be created today to help children and families understand the condition.
 So well done Ali, the "House" of comic strip cats.
All in all, Judy issue 754 from June 22nd 1974 was a surprisingly entertaining read.

And I don't care that it was a girls' comic.