I always tell people that the first comics I really got into were Gaiman’s The Sandman, Transmetropolitan by Ellis, or Preacher by Ennis. However, the truth is that Bunty Annual 1985 was my introduction to the world of comics.
Bunty comics was a British publication aimed at girls. I don’t know if someone bought it for me brand new. It might have been discovered languishing in a charity shop, many years after it was first printed, and chosen for beginner reading material. In any case, it was only when I was around ten years old that I remember actually seeing the Bunty Annual.
I didn’t know what to make of it at first. Everything about it seemed very old, even though it was printed in 1985 according to the cover. This was nothing like the Beano, which had cartoonish characters leaping from vivid pages and a lollipop often stuck to the papery front page. Instead, more realistic illustrations told a weird variety of tales, from historical dramas to jolly school japes. The colour palette changed in each story, with some tinged with monochrome and others using a full range of colour.
I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. The disparity between the picture stories, as they were apparently called, meant it was definitely interesting. One sort of sci-fi story detailed a girl called Belle who hung around with some kind of alien-treated sphere (pun-tastically titled “Belle of the Ball”). Another called “My brother is a chimp!” featured a girl whose father ran a research project and who one day brings home its subject: the titular chimp. Hilarity, presumably, ensues.
One that stuck with me was “The Oak Tree” because it was simultaneously tragic, unsettling, and yet joyful. In it a girl finds her fate entwined with a sapling. In one instance, when its branch breaks, so does her arm. The story chronicles the lives of the woman and the tree and how she discovers that their lives are mirrored. It left a mark on me, and I started to seek out more fantastical and imaginative tales.
The problem with the whole annual, though, was that it showed me the lives of people I couldn’t really relate to. Rich families seemed to feature a lot, as did the idea that a woman’s place was in the home. Then there were the very white girls playing tennis, or larking around at boarding school, or charging around on horses: I didn’t know anyone like that. My parents worked long hours, and we didn’t have time or money to waste on plaiting horses’ manes. Even at ten years old, I was also becoming very aware of what little girls were supposed to like and spent a lot of my later childhood strongly rejecting them. The cut-out paper doll activities between the picture stories infuriated me, as did the stick-thin girls who graced the pages.
And yet, more times than I can remember, I fell asleep with the annual on my face, having read until I was exhausted. I think it was because there was a comfort in these incredibly problematic tales, and it came from the fact they told stories about girls who had adventures and won the day.