Interview with Jo Bevan of Bring Back Bunty

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Before women write about comics, girls read them

Nostalgia, motherhood, and the quality of children’s sequential entertainment

Claire Napier

This interviewee may need a longer introduction than most simply based on geography. British children’s comics aren’t going to mean much to a lot of you – despite how many members of whichever wave of British Invasion probably opened their eyes and cut their teeth on them! But Jo Bevan is a mum of two who wants her kids (and everybody else’s) to keep the chance to read great, appropriate comics. Weekly. She’s launched a campaign to keep the conversation – Hey Kids! Comics! – going.

Speaking personally for a long time I thought that the first comic I read was some random Avengers issue I got off an auction website in my early teens. I’ve never followed the Avengers. I don’t really care about the Avengers. That was the one issue, and I thought it was my introduction to storytelling through sequential art. Later I realised that that was a bunch of trash! I remember my first Bunty, and I can’t believe I forgot her.

I was born in 1987 and by the time my Dad bought me that first issue they’d already switched to photographic covers; smiling girls in ugly hats signalling the finalised change that had been coming on for years. No more illustrated covergirls. Far fewer comics. Free gifts on the cover and giveaways of huge plastic merry-go-round ornaments.

In British 1958 D C Thompson published the first issue of a new comic magazine for girls (“Bunty: the book for girls”). It wasn’t the first, or the last, but it endured at least in album form until somewhere in the 2000s. Bunty died a slow, disintegral death that I missed because children grow out of childish things until they’re ready to grow back into them again – by that time, I was too late.

D C Thompson were getting type-time in early August because their sixty-five year old boys’/unisex comic the Dandy is ceasing print. It’ll still be digital but I remember when I was bought my first Dandy too: it felt like how you’re supposed to feel when an old person gives you a Worther’s Original.

For the non-British (or emotionally miserly British), saying “The Dandy isn’t printed any more” feels like a loss in a way that I can’t impress upon you, but can attempt to help you to empathise with through anecdote. Are you sitting comfortably in your treehouse*? Then I’ll begin. A few months ago I went out to semi-fancy dinner with my sweetheart and his parents; I was wearing my Bunty pin and it sparked a children’s comics conversation that lasted two courses. We’re not exactly slow eaters but then we’re not exactly slow talkers – it made for a pretty decent conversation length, is what I mean. My mister’s father has seen his sixtieth birthday but a handful of the characters he was reminiscing about (the numbskulls, the four marys, desperate dan, minie the minx..) were the same ones that I knew from reading them first-hand, straight from the newsagent’s. The Dandy, and the Beano, and Bunty (and Spitfire and Schoolfriend and) have cultural significance! They were a constant. And this is a different thing to the decade-spanning American superhero comics – the aspirational, noble adult fantasy was absent. It wasn’t about looking up so much as looking about.

Bunty teaches home-hairdressing

Bunty teaches home-hairdressing

Beyond the usual “hey did you read (x strip) this week”, children’s comics were ‘educational’ without really being edutainment – see Jaqueline Rayner’s recent Guardian article about knowing the names of complicated dives and gymnastic feats. She writes In the 1970s and 80s, comics – or “picture-story papers”, as they called themselves – drew their readers effortlessly into other worlds, whether competitive sport, Victorian slums or alien planets. Girls’ comics, particularly, made the world bigger by providing pictures and putting a girl Just Like You right in the middle of events. Or sometimes a dog.

But they’re mostly gone now – BUY THE PHOENIX FOR YOUR CHILDREN – and enthusiasts are left wondering how we can.. bring them back.

The phoenix' pin-badge - to wear with pride

One such: Jo Bevan, and her Bring Back Bunty campaign.

So, Bunty. Why Bunty? I mean, I know, but.. for the audience.

Bunty was the comic I used to read every week when I was a girl. Either my Mum or I would collect it every week from the local newsagents along with my brother’s copy of Whizzer and Chips. I loved my weekly collection of stories and re-read them many times over. On my blog I’m not so much calling to bring back just ‘Bunty’ as such, rather a return of comics like Bunty, Judy, Tammy etc, aimed at girls today; and the alliteration in ‘Bring Back Bunty’ does sound good.

What do you feel the importance is of “girl comics”? And what does girl comics mean here, to Britain, to our collective history?

(I’m not really sure how to answer that, I don’t know much about comics or history, I’m just a mum looking for something that seems to have disappeared…)

When I was young I read loads of comics, and there was a vast variety to choose from. When I looked for something similar for my then nine-year-old daughter I couldn’t find one in the shops and I felt she was missing out – not because I was feeling nostalgic, rather I thought she’d love to read those sorts of comics just as I did. By my feeling my daughter was missing out places an importance in girl comics and I know many of my ‘Mum’ friends feel the same way. As to historically, well there used to be such a huge range of titles available in local newsagents and they simply don’t exist these days. The majority of comics available today have mutated into slick, marketing magazines often linked to the latest TV or toy craze. I’ve found that children of my daughters age are really interested in good storytelling which is in short supply in such magazines. Since January The Phoenix comic has been filling the gap nicely, we have subscribed and both my children look forward to opening the envelope when it arrives every Friday. We’re really happy that they can enjoy reading stories in a comic that introduces them to both brilliant writing and amazing artwork; both children have been inspired and have since created their own stories, drawings and comics which must help to boost their literacy, understanding and reading for pleasure.

(I don’t think that has really answered your question, but at least I’ve got that off my chest!)

That was a great answer! The personal, the academic – they’re both so important.

So – what’s up with those secondhand prices?

I’ve bought a few Bunty annuals and been sent some comics, none of which have been too pricey – perhaps I was just lucky?

You must have been! Although, I must say that eBay is a FAR better bet than second-hand dealerships. Maybe that’s obvious..

Pat Mills’ support – how did that come about, and what’s the ideal outcome of having him involved? What does having the support of a writer of such famously machismatic fictions (I should think Judge Dredd will ring a bell, reader? Lobo?) mean to your campaign – and even to Bunty’s image?

I’d heard from some of the contacts I initially made within the comic industry that Pat Mills was very much behind girls comics, so I contacted him about it. He liked my campaign and offered to help. Pat Mills began his career in the 1970s working on girls comics so I don’t think his later later work for 2000AD and other male dominated titles can harm Buntys image – if anything, it just makes it cooler.

When the Royal Mail put out the British Comics stamps, how many did you buy? How much merchandise? Do you think it could be a good platform from which to re-launch Bunty, or do you see it as more of a museum-y knell of long death?

I thought the set of stamps was great, and I only bought the first day cover and a badge which is plenty. I don’t think it’ll help re-launch Bunty, but it helps to keep it and the other great British comics in people’s minds.

British comic stamps from the Royal Mail

Jacky, Misty, School Friend.. what made Bunty shine above them all?

Actually I’m not sure, I think they all have their merits and appeal to different tastes, but Bunty was the comic I had when I was young. Personally, I didn’t like the photo stories in Jackie, I preferred a drawn comic, I appreciated the artwork as much as the storylines. Misty [Misty was a horror-focused title - C.] would have been far too scary for me (I’m a wimp!) but my daughter really likes it.

An example of a 1970s Bunty premise

An example of a 1970s Bunty premise

There are some noticeable common themes of Bunty stories, and some noticeable genre tropes. Which were your favourites, and how do you think they reflect upon your personal psychology? What do you think they say about the audience or the editors’ opinion of the audience, that these themes came up over and over again?

I didn’t enjoy the ballerina/gymnast/horse type stories so much, I preferred more historical, futuristic and ghostly stories. I can remember stories about orphans, girls overcoming a disability, or carrying out a mission of some sort. Many of the stories were based around groups of friends working together to achieve a common goal or solve a mystery, and people learning to deal with each other in different situations. My daughter has read some of the old Buntys that I have and she enjoyed them despite it being a bit old fashioned.

Bunty and other such comics did fail to move-with-the-times and keep children reading

Jinty's THE HUMAN ZOO

Jinty’s THE HUMAN ZOO

through the 90s, somehow they lost sight of their audience, perhaps there was too much repetition of the same themes?

Childrens’ literature today has become a massive industry and can surely be brought into quality comics for children.

I have read many comics and books over the years; it’s often easy to work out how a story will end, but I suppose that’s the same for any avid reader.

(I have no idea how they reflect on my personal psychology!)

What’s the weirdest Bunty story or character you can pull up from your memory?

I’ve no idea what it was called and it is a long, distant memory… I can remember a story in which there was a doll shop: the dolls were actually girls forced into pretending to be dolls. The girl-dolls were then bought by rich parents (for their child) and the girl-doll would have to rob the house of the rich people in the middle of the night and take all the loot back to the doll shop owner. It was scary and weird, a kind of ‘Oliver Twist’ story with dolls. I loved it and can remember re-reading it over and over again.

What do you think Bunty would have to do to become relevant again? What
would change, what would stay – what would revert? Do you envision a 90s-style Bunty, or a Bunty of the years before the covers went photo-only?

I think Bunty could easily become relevant with the right people behind it, it could be fresh, original and modern. As previously mentioned, we subscribe to The Phoenix and both my children love it, its full of amazing artwork and great stories. The kids can’t wait to open the envelope to see what the cover image is (the excitement can be extreme!). So, yes, we don’t need photos, kids love pictures, lets keep the artwork. I’d love to see a Neill Cameron or Etherington Brothers version of Bunty, wouldn’t you?

YES.

How do you imagine a Four Marys of 2013?

I would imagine them to be just like my daughter and her group of friends (of course I am biased here) – they all love school and have lots of friends, are very imaginative, active and fun. At present they are not interested in celebrities and pop culture which will no doubt change in a few years time when they hit their teenage years.

Danica Starborn, the Phoenix' space heroine

Danica Starborn, the Phoenix and Paul Duffield’s space heroine

How did you become motivated to launch your campaign, and how much work has gone into it so far? Do you have a One True Goal?

It was something that had been on my mind for a while and after chatting with other mums about the lack of comics I wanted to make my views more public. Many of my friends were fed up with the comics available for girls (and children in general), we all reminisced about the comics we had when we were young and I wanted to do something about it. Blogging is a great medium for connecting with people and sharing thoughts, everyone I’ve been in contact with in the comic industry has been enthusiastic and helpful, I’ve met an amazing bunch of people. I don’t have a true goal, I think its more of an awareness campaign to support the industry and spread the word that there is a market out there for children’s comics.

What do you think it means to the British as a comic-reading, art appreciating culture that Bunty and similar publications operated without creator attribution?

I’m not sure about this one. I think it is different these days, many of the creatives involved in comics and stories are credited, and they all have their own websites and blogs for their fans to follow them – as my children do.

Thanks so much, Jo! I really wish you the best of luck.

Links!
Jo on twitter: https://twitter.com/ooteeny
Pat Mills on twitter: https://twitter.com/PatMillsComics
Bring Back Bunty’s facebook group
Get Misty Back In Print facebook group (not affiliated): here
BBB on Mumsnet
BBB on 2000AD forums
BBB hub!
British Girls’ Comics selection on scans daily
Bunty on 26pigs

*The bushes in the alley at the end of the garden, probably

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Claire Napier

Claire: internet godmother for the scrappy businessperson. Rowdy. READ! At WWAC. LISTEN! At UnKamen, WWACRadio and Giant Podcast Ring Out Attack TWITTER! @illusclaire

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