Today’s guest post is from Dr. Nickianne Moody from Medial and Cultural Studies, reporting on a postgraduate research seminar held in the library this week on girls’ comics and magazines.
We listened in horror as Dr Mel Gibson described how comics dealers in the North East would burn any publications for girls that they came across because they lacked resale and monetary value. Her research into the post-war history of the girls’ comic had to start by recovering the substance of a lost culture of girlhood. The varied and much-loved publications were themselves vividly remembered by the public but absent in national and academic collections. Collectors might have them, but the work of particular artists, publishing houses, long running publications such as Bunty (1958-2001) Jackie 1964-1993 and Twinkle 1968-1999, or short run titles trying out new ideas and story lines which didn’t quite catch the popular imagination (and therefore especially valuable), have been sold off piecemeal rather than bequeathed to special collections. Through adventures in academic research, involving clandestine meetings, taking possession of anonymous gifts of series and examples of magazines, finding them in odd locations in second-hand bookshops, and being given them by the general public, Dr Gibson was able to address and investigate the discarded history of a once prolific and shared cultural practice of reading.
To increase her understanding, when the actual material simply wasn’t there, Dr Gibson interviewed producers and readers of the comics. She discovered the passion of childhood reading and how the girls’ comic became a site of play, exchange and the creation of alternative female identity and aspiration. This perspective was often in direct contrast with the critical understanding of the comic for girls and boys, perceived as a doubtful pleasure, instilling conformity or acting as a corrupting influence. Oral history and building up her own collection became the key to challenging academic and public understandings about young people’s comics.
Questions from the participants in the second Qualitative Methods Postgraduate Seminar enquired about the underlying ethos of different girls’ comics, the intentions of the publishers in creating the commercial products, forms of interaction through letters, and the fascination of the problem page both for the seminar participants and oral history accounts. The contrast between specific publications from the 1950s and 60s, such as Roxy, which engaged with emerging forms of teenage culture (particularly music and film), and those like Girl which didn’t, were also discussed in this context. Dr Gibson said that people would often correspond with her about short-lived publications which they remembered very clearly but found other people did not share. We have had a few moments of this in the short period of time that the Femorabilia collection has been in special collections and viewed by schools, staff and visiting researchers.
Questions were also raised about the artwork and the identification material which was published anonymously. Identifying artists and writers can only be achieved through access to publishers’ archives and records of the routine nature of publishing, which in this field is currently lost or denied. Identifying anonymous contributors is invaluable but painstaking work, as the recently completed Punch Ledgers project at LJMU has proved. Through this approach, hundreds of writers unacknowledged by contemporary histories of the publication have been identified, which shed new light on the composition and nature of Punch that will support further scholarly debate.
Femorabilia (named by Sheila Eyre from Library Services) started with a similar aim of providing material which would allow undergraduates and researchers to study material at first hand, and to understand the location of the serial story for girls and women as it was produced for its readers. Popular girls’ publications of the mid twentieth century sold up to 80,000 (Bunty) and a million (Jackie) copies a week, with many different titles serving several generations of readers in Britain. Comics are a form of mass culture and as such they cannot be understood by fragments and assumptions about their content. There are now initiatives to collect and preserve women’s culture and we have become part of that. Dr Gibson, whose book on the history of girls’ comics will be published in the spring, also spoke of a community of contemporary women artists who do not know about this heritage, are surprised by it and want to find out more about it.
In the 1990s Dr Gibson was commissioned to select and acquire publications in 14 week cycles so that the stories could be read in their entirety as well as indicative titles for different age ranges and across post-war publication. The collection now holds women’s magazines, is developing a reference section, and has examples of pre-war publications such as Butterfly and interwar serial story papers such as the mill girl magazine Peg’s Paper (1919-1940), and it is looking to consolidate and grow these holdings. Central to this is the aim to include as part of the collection oral histories of the culture of reading, stories of which are already emerging through people who have seen the exhibition, and it will be produced and preserved so that it can be consulted by future researchers.