There’s nothing like a good bit of media to bring to mind a good bit of criticism—to deepen it, to clarify. There’s nothing like freedom to remind you of discipline—how it works, which parts help you grow, which parts curtail. I read a lot of comics made for mean slutty girls, and I had to go back and read Juliet Kahn’s The “Good Role Model for Girls” Makes a Boring Superhero on the late ComicsAlliance. I knew what she meant when she wrote it, when I first read it, in 2015. I knew that it felt true. But circling back with more experience of the other side of the coin—that was when I saw what she meant: diagrammatic, fully able to conceptualise the difference and the problem. When comics let girls—the girls in them, the subjects of the comics—be shallow, horny, amoral, mistaken, arrogant, selfish, or triumphant, and when they let them lose, the girl-reader feels better. Here’s the caveat: the comic has to be on the girl’s side. The narrative perspective has to understand and validate the girl’s motivations and desires. The creative force has to get it. Get girls. Like girls. It has to welcome the status “girl.”
These comics happened and they happened in an unexpected way: they happened as photostories, of all things, in the British magazine My Guy between 1978 and 1999. Hands up in the crowd—who here is dead prejudiced against photo comics? It’s most of you, isn’t it. Don’t lie. I’ve done Twitter polls. I know it.
My Guy’s photostories are the photostories that turned me around on the form; I was a hater too thanks to a childhood resenting Luv, Lisa. This is actually quite appropriate, as My Guy claims to have invented the format for the British market, citing subsequent girls’ mags’ use of photograph comics as their own bandwagon being jumped. My Guy did it first, and frankly My Guy did it best, hiring drama students and jobbing actors, using proper locations and interesting angles and often even people who knew how to light a scene, etc. The dialogue was generally great—casual, and pointed. Hair and makeup was fashionable and timely, because it was a girls’ magazine.
But more than I enjoy the retro hair and the regularly fantastic outfits, I’ve been buying My Guys in charity shops, vintage specialists, and on eBay because of the stories these comics tell. The stories aren’t always about girls, but they usually are, and what they always are is melodrama about characters of whom their narratives are fond. Very, very often, they are romance stories—far more often than I’ve experienced anywhere else, those romances are non-traditionally structured. These aren’t girl meets boy, loses him like a little fool, repents, is allowed to get married—these are day-in-the-life girls’ stories of love and attraction, of power struggles within even casual relationships, of lust or pride steering you wrong but that not being a matter of sin, only mishap. Featuring real live actresses (good ones) allows the wryness inherent in the human experience to flavour the scene.
The Girl Who Came to Stay, a four-part weekly three-pager, begins with a man thanking the private investigator he contracted for gathering information on his fiancée. She’s had a lot of previous rich boyfriends, and they’ve all been happy to chat shit about her. Hmm, thinks the man. Maybe she’s a gold digger [as I clearly already suspected]? But I do like her a lot… We meet the girl and her rich fiancé tells her he’s keen for her to meet his sister, and then they can be married at once. She’s like, okay.
The rich guy has hired an actress to pretend to be an alarmingly insensible “sister” with an imaginary husband. His plan is to see if this will drive off the girl, because gold diggers, I suppose, are in it for an easy life, not a mad sister life. We are treated to many panels of the girl saying she missed her fiancé, being sweet, being worried when nobody collects her from the station, walking two miles to the house he said his sister lives in, and being alarmed when the sister who answers the door is unpleasant and hostile. We see her try to deal with the shock, with the secrecy of her fiancé, with having to stay in a house with a woman who shouts at her not to sit on an empty chair because “Cecil is in it.” We are given the opportunity to sympathise with this girl’s experiences—her negative experiences at the hands of her suspicious fiancé, to whom we have seen her be only delightful and supportive.
Eventually, she discovers his subterfuge and, upset, decides to get revenge. Pretending to be unaware that his sister is a fake, and having survived the effectively haunted weekend, she declares they should marry right away and calls her flatmate’s brother, who is a vicar (LOL, so practical! Also a lie). Within a page or two they’re “married,” he’s bought them last-minute tickets to Barbados for their honeymoon, and she’s ditched him with a note to go off on the trip alone. The reader feels good about this. The narrative approves of this. She’s won a battle of wits—and we have no idea whether or not she was really a scammer, whether or not he’s gotten off lightly by only losing the cost of a flight to Barbados, if they were in love for real but he ruined it. It doesn’t matter! What matters is the story, the momentum of this girl’s experience, the validation of her bounce back from being alone and tricked. The story gives both characters absolute agency, which makes the romance the aesthetic backdrop and the decisions of the characters the driving force. The girl responds to the facts she is given, and the drama and excitement is in how she retains her dignity, not how she sheds it in exchange for a wifely role. The narrative takes an amoral stance, to allow a woman to really, harmlessly win.
A lesser example of the amoral love story are the common examples of the “this boy is hot, but we aren’t suited, but . . . he’s really hot” tale. Girls take a liking to various boys, go out with one for physical reasons, enjoy him physically, and are dissatisfied with his personality and habits. That’s the whole of the story: once upon a time, a girl fancied someone she didn’t really get along with, and she went for it anyway. The end.
Sometimes they break up before the story ends and sometimes they don’t—this, too, doesn’t matter, because it’s not about prioritising the goal of a long term relationship. These stories are there to say “Hey, we know. We know! Boys are pretty fine sometimes, even when they are also huge drags. You can enjoy them as much as you like, and you will probably also be annoyed by them. Go forth, my sisters, and pull.” The validatory aspect is in the acknowledgement that girls have libidos and imaginations, that a relationship or romance can be completely faulty but still happen and be deemed, to the extent that desire exists, worthwhile. That boys can be disappointing even as they’re enticing! These stories carve out halls within the mines of the romantic, for girls to gather in, and relate to one another. The worthwhile fallibility of hope! It’s your basic poetry in photostory.
An outlier of the mode above is the relationship ender. My Guy: Just the Photostories (2007) reprints two relationship ender comics: one agreeable, one catastrophic, but both mutual. In the former a couple reflects on the chaos of their prior relationships, during which they were just friends, and the comparative calm of their relationship as it stands by the time of this strip. They decide it’s a bit boring, actually, getting on so well with your significant other, and figure they may as well call it “an experience” and part (romantic) ways. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that plot anywhere else. The other example brings its audience through the first sweet days of a budding summer romance, shows us how it’s strengthened, how well things go . . . for a while. Then we see the first argument, and the narrative captions detail how she decided not to call, how she began to miss him. By the end she’s gone back to “their” tree, now felled by bad weather, and he’s there too—with his new girlfriend. There’s no confrontation, no cathartic drama, only this sad girl with a broken tree knowing her summer love is over.
The end of a relationship is often used to punish a female character, to create an externalised sense of social failure (“she can’t even keep a man”). These stories counteract both by showing the shared communicative demands of a relationship and by refusing to allow the end to be anything more than an emotional beat: for the former, wistful and warm; for the latter, simply sad. Our perspective character is stuck with from comic start to comic end, and her frame for events is also ours: she wanted something nice, she had something nice, and now she doesn’t. We think “that’s a shame, love,” not “how will you stand the shame of losing his love.” She’s able to gothicly hug a tree in the rain, to give us that sympathetic sense of emotional scale, without losing herself to behavioural templates or an idea that she can or should get him back. There’s no obligation of effort. This, I think, is perhaps the most singular thing about My Guy’s romance comics.
The worst behaviour I’ve come across in a My Guy protagonist is attempted murder—the worst likely behaviour I’ve come across in My Guy, and one that goes fully unpunished, is purposeful romantic cheating. Both strips are extremely good.
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is from 1978, My Guy’s first year of publication, and is about a hypochondriac driven to brakes-cutting when a boy not only rejects her, but mocks her belief that she’s dying. She is unrepentant, and pleased that he has been “pretty badly hurt” (doctor-speak) even after it turns out she herself is set to live. Anemia—not actually always that dire! She gets an implicit comeuppance, as her well-meaning mother has posted her intended post-mortem gloating, but the reader is at least spared that. The strip ends on a wah-wah moment that still allows our evil heroine some open-ended opportunity to recoup (steal the post? Why not, after sabotaging a person’s motorcycle). This can’t be found in any reprint anthologies, but can be read here.
The Go-Between, featuring a young Hugh Grant and reprinted in The Best of My Guy (2006), is a fairly standard (if agreeably overcomplicated) rumours-ruin-relationships story. The main character is seen with a boy who isn’t her boyfriend, word gets around, the girl gets dumped. Her friend (who saw them in the first place) begins to feel guilty about setting this in motion and tries to push our cross protagonist into forgiving the untrusting boyfriend by . . . being seen with him, so that jealousy forces a reconciliation. It works, and the girl gets back with her original boyfriend after all. Awwh! What a happy ending! . . . Is exactly what the main character thinks, as she spends a smug thought-bubble congratulating herself for finessing both of her boyfriends. The story establishes the hurtfulness of cheating, in baby Hugh Grant’s first response to hearing that his girl was playing around on him. It establishes the hurtfulness of gossip in the way everything starts to fall apart. And it also allows its heroine to be a hurtful person, and enjoy it. This does not read like an argument for cheating; it takes too much care to display people who don’t want to be cheated on. It reads like an accurate statement: some people do what they want. Some people get away with things. Some people hurt people and fail to really care. Girls can do that—and so of course girls can choose not to. But they don’t have to to be real people who exist.
My Guy‘s photo stories establish a level of dimensionality and value-irrespective moral flexibility for young women that maybe only Shade the Changing Girl (—maybe There’s Nothing There?) is hitting right now amongst direct market comics. Their amoral narrative stance leaves room for the audience to flex their own muscles, make their own evaluations, and appreciate their own unfettered inner selves.