Bella at the Bar
Jenny McDade & Primrose Cumming (Writers), John Armstrong (Artist)
In 1971, Fleetway began publishing Tammy, a weekly comic for girls. One of its long-running stars was the newly-collected Bella at the Bar. However, what new readers might not realize (and what no one mentions in the collection’s introduction) is that Tammy’s focus was not happy-go-lucky tales of fun, but rather dark, gritty, realistic depictions of Cinderella-esque girls. The comic’s cheerful name belies a grim story littered with abuse and deprivation. This is a content warning for the following review. If it may upset you in a dangerous way, please do not continue reading.
Bella Barlow, orphaned amateur gymnast extraordinaire, struggles through life in mid-1970s Britain, with her aunt Gertrude and uncle Ted as domestic servant-cum-child labor in her uncle’s window washing business. One day on the job she spies on a gymnastics class, and she’s hooked. After all, she’s been doing these sorts of tricks in the back yard and on ladders her entire childhood.
Unfortunately for Bella, her aunt and uncle see anything she does that doesn’t save them time and effort or make them money (including school, apparently) as a waste of time. Worse, the private school whose windows Bella cleaned refuses to allow her to train, even if she pays, despite her obvious talent, due to her lower-class background. How dare she expect them to sully their hands or equipment with the likes of such a guttersnipe?
Time and time again Bella tackles the challenges facing her with determination and grit. And time and time again, just as she makes a little progress, someone or something comes along and smacks her down again. Bella, however, always gets back up, her fighting spirit as incredible as her athletic ability.
Taken weekly as it was originally published, Bella’s appeal to young readers, particularly young girls who seem to have an innate fascination with gymnasts, is undeniable. John Armstrong’s illustrations reflect his respect for the human form and his time spent observing and sketching ice skaters. None of the characters are sexualized. Instead, they’re depicted realistically, showing off the sport’s grace and fluidity with still images. In addition, Jenny McDade’s Bella is compelling. She rescues the toddler sibling of a gymnastics student whose mother rejects her as a babysitter over her lowbrow origins. She travels to Russia to train with their gymnastics team. Eventually, she even makes the British national team and travels with them to Poland to compete internationally.
On the more intense reading provided by this new collected volume and possibly with the passage of forty years, however, Bella has a much greater emotional impact. The physical and emotional abuse Bella suffers at her relatives’ hands repeats in episode after episode. At one point, she literally passes out from hunger because her relatives refuse to feed her as punishment for pursuing gymnastics lessons behind their backs.
Her home situation is then compounded by the brutal impact of classism on her life: instructors refusing her encouragement to keep her from rising above her station; the entire country refusing to listen when she’s manipulated by the star Russian gymnast because of course such trash would behave poorly and lash out at her competition; the national team coaches refusing to assist her in any way and instead abandoning her in Poland with no money or prospects when the international competition is postponed (Bella lacks the funds to fly home and then back).
Read in a single sitting, the abuse Bella suffers overwhelms the stories of pluck and honor and hard work McDade and Armstrong initially intended the comic to convey. To me, it makes Bella at the Bar one of the rare comics negatively impacted by presentation as a cohesive whole rather than single issues. I find that unfortunate, because Bella was such an iconic 1970s character that she deserves a chance to find a modern audience.