Let’s get an admission out of the way before we begin: I never read Misty as a child. In my defence, I was barely three years old when it was merged into rival comic Tammy, effectively ending its run, but it was also, as the title of this cultural history of the comic defiantly reclaims, “for girls”. In the Lancashire of the late 70s and early 80s that, unfortunately, made it very much “not for boys”.
That said, I was a ravenous consumer of the British comics that boys were expected to read. I scuttled to the local newsagent every week, secure in the knowledge that titles like The Beano, Eagle, Scream! and, of course, the thrill-filled 2000AD would be waiting behind the counter for me. Even now I can remember the rough feel of the paper they were printed on, the taste of the occasional cover-mounted Wham bar.
Will Gothic for Girls make me regret that I missed out on Misty?
Gothic for Girls’ investigation into the history of Misty begins, appropriately, with a one-shot comic. Here we learn how a girl, a girl called Julia Round, discovers a stack of comics, a comic called Misty, in a mid-80s jumble sale. She’s a polite girl and, based on her Brownies uniform and badges, a studious one. Yet, in true British comic fashion, virtue is not always its own reward. Julia is terrified by the stories she finds in her new comics, particularly one in which a vain girl is given her just desserts, and sleep eludes her. The only way to exorcise that terror is to write a book. A book which spreads the terrible knowledge to other unsuspecting victims…
I have to admit that this brought a smile to my face. I knew that even though I didn’t have the same childhood memories of reading Misty specifically, an 8-year-old me was probably in the same jumble sale dragging a yellowing bundle of Battle comics to the till. It is, frankly, a genius way to open a reference work on comics.
Yet, as any comics fan knows, a good cover doesn’t always translate to good stories. We need instead to plunge into the main body of Gothic for Girls, which I’m going to consider by splitting it roughly into two sections, each composed of a number of chapters.
The first of these sections can be thought of as covering the How of Misty – the comic’s origin and weekly publication. Here Round delves into quirks of the British publishing industry that had implications for Misty in particular but which also explain much about how British comics of the time were made and marketed, quirks which I was blissfully unaware of as a child. The intense rivalry between IPC, home to Misty, and rival publishers DC Thomson led to a ruthless attitude to comics that were considered under-performers, for example. It also led to clashes between young creators – perhaps most notably the notoriously independently-minded Pat Mills – and senior management. Round explains how Mills’ initial concept was for a pure horror comic – at one point he complains that “I wanted it to be much scarier,” perhaps underestimating how scary readers found Misty – but IPC marketed it as a more generic “mystery paper”. This did, however unintentionally, mean that Misty relied less on the horrific, which Round describes as “the startling and repulsive image”, and looked towards the terrifying, “the threat of something unseen about to happen”. This, interestingly, lies in opposition to my experience of comics made more intentionally for boys. Scenes like the corpse-strewn trenches of Charley’s War or the now-classic image of Judge Dredd punching through the bat-winged helmet of the Dark Judge Fear are striking and memorable but, unlike the implied terrors of Misty, they don’t involve the reader any more than as a passive observer. Misty, crucially, accepted (perhaps even assumed) that its readers had enough imagination to add those little touches of exquisite, personal fear.
Something which was common between girls’ and boys’ comics, at least until the early 80s, was the practice of not crediting artists or writers in the comic itself. Round spends two fascinating chapters investigating uncredited work from Misty and, where possible, correcting the publisher’s (intentional) oversight. Here she explores the subtle differences between artists and, surprisingly, reveals just how much of the artwork in Misty and other “girls’ papers” was sourced from Spanish artists. This was done largely for reasons of price and availability but Round also looks at the practice’s implications on how the comic’s stories were presented.
Comics are, at their most basic, a story told through a series of sequential images, often arranged in a grid format. There is an assumed orthodoxy, at least in Western comics that they are read left-to-right, top-to-bottom in a kind of Z-shape. However, where there is the orthodox there is also the unorthodox, even the iconoclastic. Round deeply analyses, in a section that’s fascinating to me as a comics reader, how Misty’s artists and unifying art directors used unbalanced panel sizes or permeable (sometimes even removed) panel boundaries to create a “laceration of space” that is only possible precisely because it works against our expectations.
This clash between the boundaries of what a comic is expected to be, even the literal boundaries that a comic is constructed from, brings us to the second major section of Gothic for Girls; the What of Misty – its narrative contents and the Gothic elements that narrative embodies.
Here Round initially looks at Misty through the lens of the “female gothic”, a form of gothic narrative where “transgression and transformation are used to explore identity formation and fears of the body, addressing issues of control and change”. Round draws attention to Misty’s use of the female gothic’s doubles and others – many of the comic’s stories deal with masks of various kinds or even the irruption of past lives into the protagonist’s reality – and the abject loss of agency that is exemplified by the Feminine Carceral – “where the female body is either imprisoned or itself experienced as a prison” – and reflected in Misty with protagonists trapped in unpleasant families, traumatic experiences and even literal, if often unusual, prisons.
Moreso than this, however, Round reminds us that “growing up is a perilous period, a negotiation of identity and a journey of individuation that constantly threatens to collapse into uncertainty and abjection” and that, specifically, “girlhood has been identified as a slippery category that contains a tension and lack of stability”. From this, Round develops her concept of “Gothic for Girls” where “protagonists will experience isolation, transformation and Otherness during a quest for individuation”. The narratives that Round identifies as being part of her Gothic for Girls are the narratives of Misty, “driven by simultaneous fear and attraction, generally in the form of terror” rather than the more blatant (and less mature) horror narratives of boys’ comics. Even after finishing Gothic for Girls, I’m drawn back to the chapters in which Round explores this idea and think I will be for some time. It’s a rich realm of theory and one in which, in her own act of gothic doubling, Round takes on the role of Misty – the comic’s eponymous figurehead – to lead the reader into the liminal world that lies between children’s gothic and female gothic.
In her summary, Round worries that “although I’m not sure if my definition of Gothic for Girls will endure, I remain convinced of the value of such an attempt”. I can’t agree with her worry but I whole-heartedly agree that her attempt is valuable. When I return to my opening question as to whether Gothic for Girls would make me regret not having read Misty as a child, I have to answer yes. Round’s book is a fascinating insight into a world which “acknowledges girlhood as an uncanny experience [by] interrogating and reimagining its fears” and I can only imagine what the world would be like if my boyhood, and that of others like me, had been afforded the same acknowledgement rather than repetitive, static representations of war and conflict. Hopefully, Round’s attempts to shine a light on the body of work that Misty represents will start to correct this imbalance.
Gothic for Girls combines a demonstrably rigorous and determined scholarship with a hearteningly wide-eyed enthusiasm for the subject matter that sweeps the reader along in clear, immensely readable text. I don’t hesitate in calling it an absolutely necessary addition to the libraries (haunted or otherwise) of those interested in comics, British popular culture of the 70s and 80s, and gothic theory in general.
Gothic for Girls: Misty and British Comics, written by Julia Round, is published by University Press of Mississippi.