HOW BLIND IS JUSTICE IN GIRLS’ COMICS?
A look at injustice in girls’ comics
By Briony Coote
When I came into a haul of old Jintys, I was particularly taken with Toni on Trial, the story of Toni Carr who discovered her late mother was branded a thief and is determined to clear her name. This serial became the inspiration for this feature article on injustice in girls’ comics. It will be exploring how miscarriages of justice occur, how they shape stories and how they are resolved in girls’ comics.
Heroines tend to face charges of theft, shoplifting or causing an accident (accidentally or deliberately). Fathers (or less often, brothers) face charges of robbery, embezzling, theft as a servant, espionage or treason. More unusual charges include nobbling racehorses (Gail at Windyridge, Tammy), wartime cowardice (Daughter of the Regiment, Tammy), and even witchcraft (Sharon’s Stone, Bunty).
Charges related to destruction of property, such as vandalism or arson, also appear, but more often as a plot device rather than miscarriages of justice in their own right. The same goes for another common charge - cruelty to animals. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Browns being wrongly blamed for starting the Great Fire of London in Bridey Below the Breadline (Jinty), and Olympia Jones (Tammy) where Olympia Jones is framed for cruelty to a circus horse and through that, theft of the same horse.
How it starts
In real life, miscarriages of justice are due to misidentification, false confessions, sloppy police work, over-zealous prosecutors, public pressure, bad judges and poor defence. But in girls’ comics the most common causes are frame-ups, fall guys and scapegoats. Victims of circumstance also occur, but they are less common. Frame-ups are the result of jealousy, rivalry, malice, or covering up. Fathers end up as fall guys because they made the mistake of getting mixed up with dodgy people, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As in true life, there are also miscreants who allow innocent people to take the blame because they are either too scared to admit the truth, or are covering up for themselves.
Heroines face false imprisonment, going on the run, public shame and disgrace, or wrongful expulsion. When a relative is accused, he/she either goes on the run or is falsely imprisoned, or dies at the beginning of the story and it’s up to the heroine to clear their name posthumously. Sometimes the victim is a ghost which cannot rest until justice is done. Neither can the heroine because the ghost is causing problems for her, so she sets out to exonerate the ghost so they can both have peace. For example, in Hangman’s Alley (Misty) maidservant Melinda Walpole was wrongly executed for stealing a necklace from her mistress. Now Melinda has returned as a bitter, malicious ghost, who wants to take her revenge out on Jacey’s hapless sister Mel for no other reason that Mel looks exactly like Melinda. Jacey offers to clear Melinda Walpole if the ghost will leave her sister alone, but the investigation proves a slow process and the ghost is losing patience. Sharon’s Stone (Bunty) a curse, rather than a ghost, is causing trouble; when a woman is wrongly accused of witchcraft she sets a curse, inscribed on a stone, which will not be lifted until the accuser recants and their respective families make peace. Centuries later, the curse is set in motion once more when the stone resurfaces and sets the descendants feuding.
When a parent/relative is accused, the heroine has to get to the truth not only for the relative’s sake, but her own. In Toni on Trial Toni Carr discovers her late mother, a promising athlete, was driven out of town in disgrace after being accused of stealing a sports trophy (apparently out of spite because her arch-rival, Adela Rogers, beat her to it in a competition). Despite the passage of years, the affair rankles with the townsfolk as much as ever, so it is rubbing off on Toni and threatening her own sports career. Enemies at the sports club, notably Adela Rogers (now the club coach) and arch-rival Julie, are giving her a terrible time. But Toni refuses to believe her mother stole the trophy and is turning to a little detective work....
Injustice and story structureRegulars such as Bella and Molly Mills (Tammy), the Four Marys (Bunty), Pam of Pond Hill (Jinty) and Penny’s Place (M & J) all get their share of false accusations; it is all in a day’s work to keep us entertained. Loners like Bella tend to go on the run or stick it out until fate gives them the breakthrough they desperately need. In the school strips like The Four Marys they stick together and work out a way to clear themselves (aaah ... the benefits of being able to work as a team).
Some stories begin with a miscarriage of justice and end with its resolution – but that is all the injustice serves in the plot. The rest of the story is either centred on a struggle for survival, or a “blackmail” story. Blackmail stories such as Blackmailed! (Suzy) and Sandra’s Sad Secret a.k.a. Cheat! (Bunty) begin when the family is forced to relocate to escape the scandal following a false charge, but some nasty classmate discovers the secret and uses it to blackmail the heroine. The blackmailer may be caught red-handed, as in Sandra’s Sad Secret, but the real answer is to right the wrong so the blackmailer loses her power.
Injustice – or supposed injustice – can set the heroine on a long, terrible and path of revenge which turns out to be for nothing. In Nurse Grudge (Tammy) Greta Jones causes damage at a hospital because she thinks the staff ganged up to get her father wrongly dismissed. Carol-Anne Brabazon in Down with St Desmond’s! (Bunty) is out to ruin a school because she believes her mother was unjustly expelled. Eventually they discover that they were dreadfully mistaken and their victims were entirely innocent. However, fate provides an avenue for forgiveness, reconciliation and a happy ending.
Alan Barker of The Fairground of Fear (Tammy) is more justified in his campaign for revenge against Sir Edgar Whitland. The snobby, ruthless Whitland framed Barker because he considered Barker too common to marry his daughter. Sadly, Barker is so consumed with revenge that he endangers innocent people and even comes close to murder. Barker will only stop if Whitland confesses, but Whitland refuses because this will destroy “the good name of Whitland” (surely not that good because Whitland’s notorious snobbery has made him unpopular in the district). In the end Barker settles for a surprise reunion with his long-lost daughter.
In ‘survival’ stories, either the heroine herself is the victim, or she is left to support her family because the family breadwinner is now rotting in prison for a crime they did not commit. In Cassie’s Coach, (Tammy) Cassie Lord struggles to keep her family out of the workhouse when their mother is unjustly imprisoned for theft and they are turned out of house and home. They make a home out of an old coach from the scrap-heap and make good friends with the scrap-merchant. Eventually, though, it looks like the workhouse after all, because the coach has to be destroyed after an infection and the scrap-merchant has gone out of business – but the children are saved when their mother returns, vindicated by a timely confession from the real thief.
In some stories injustice and the struggle for survival are more closely intertwined. In Slaves of the Candle (Jinty) Lyndy Lagtree stumbles across a candle-making racket operated by Mrs Tallow. Mrs Tallow uses child slave labour to make her candles and then uses her candle business to steal valuables. To silence Lyndy, Mrs Tallow frames her for theft as well as kidnapping her. Since there is now a very substantial price on Lyndy’s head, escape will be pointless – but Mrs Tallow has underestimated the resourcefulness and determination of the girl who is determined to clear her name as well as shut down the candle racket.
“Fugitive stories” i.e. a wrongly accused person going on the run are extremely popular in girls’ comics. When a father is accused, he is often the one who ends up going on the run while trying to track down the real criminal. But in the end it is the heroine who discovers the criminal. Being the only obvious link to the fugitive she is a natural target, and she finds herself the victim of kidnapping, attempted murder or whatever. One example is Cherry in Chains (Sandie). Cherry King takes over her father’s escapology act after he is accused of espionage and goes into hiding. She is using the escapology act to flush out the real spy but succeeds too well; during the act the spy spikes her with a deadly collar which is designed to choke her...
Merry at Misery House (Jinty) becomes a fugitive story but takes an extremely long time to get around to it. For the most part it is a survival story. The story, set in the 1920s, is most peculiar because it gives us no details as to how or why Merry Summers came to be wrongly convicted of theft – we don’t even know what Merry is accused of stealing! Throughout the serial Jinty remains completely silent on this point; instead we watch Merry facing the multitude of reasons why the reformatory is dubbed “Misery House”. The Misery House personnel must rate as some of the most brilliantly-conceived villains ever in girls’ comics. Sure, they are cruel, heartless and brutal – yet at the same time they are caricatures, a parody of prison brutality, which stops their cruelty from going to excess.
However harsh they may be, they have met their match in Merry Summers, who refuses to let their cruelty change her chirpy ways or stop her smiling. And so we are locked in a long-running battle of wills and wits between Merry and Misery House, with neither willing to give a quarter.
The deadlock is finally broken when Merry escapes from Misery House (it had to happen). However, her escape is intended to expose the cruelties of Misery House, not prove her innocence. Still, Jinty has to address that little detail eventually – after all, even if Merry does succeed in exposing Misery House she still has to serve a two-year sentence for a crime she did not commit.
Sometimes injustice serves as a plot device rather than the main thrust or catalyst of the story. Fancy Free! (Jinty) uses absent father who escaped from prison, an alleged frame-up and a robbery – but these do not really feature in the story, nor are they ever resolved. The story is concerned with saving Fancy Cole from the downward spiral. Fancy’s life turns around when she meets Ben, an environmentalist caring for birdlife on the moor. But then Fancy discovers Ben is in possession of stolen money. Meanwhile, Mrs Cole tells Fancy her absent father was jailed for a crime he denied committing, but she never believed him. The father escaped from prison and has never been found. When Ben dies at the end of the story he tells Fancy the stolen money was used to frame him for the robbery. Ah, so is Ben really Fancy’s missing father? The story neither gives a definite answer nor fully explains the father’s downfall – which is extremely unusual. No justice or happy ending here, but at least Fancy vows to carry on Ben’s work and is pulled out of the downward spiral.
Another frame-up serves as a plot device in The Black-and-White World of Shirley Grey (Tammy) the school bullies frame Shirley for shoplifting in revenge for telling on them. (Shirley did this because she has sworn never to lie again, irrationally believing that lying for her best friend, Trisha Morris, put her in hospital in a coma.) The frame-up is the nadir in a string of problems that Shirley has brought on herself by refusing to tell even a white lie. The juvenile court convicts Shirley and is waiting upon a social worker’s report before passing sentence. Thankfully, this gets delayed when Shirley is hospitalised alongside Trisha.
Shirley’s world may be black-and-white, but in some ‘injustice’ stories things are not so black-and-white. In Bound for Botany Bay (Jinty) Betsy Tanner and her father are guilty of the crimes that get them transported to Australia. All the same, we feel they are victims of injustice – or rather, harsh 19th century justice – for they did not even want to commit those crimes. They were driven to it through circumstances instigated by the cruel Lady De Mortimer. Standing up to the harshness of the courts and prison authorities only gets them branded “black-hearted” criminals, but they are decent folk who want to lead happy lives, and in the case of Betsy, becoming a famous artist. The real “black hearted” villains are the people responsible for sending the Tanners to Australia, where they continue to persecute them through Lady De Mortimer’s equally cruel cousin, Miss Wortley.
How they get off
As in most real-life miscarriages of justice, the story is often resolved when the real culprit confesses, as is what happens in Cassie’s Coach. Sometimes a little, um, persuasion is required to make the villain confess, as in Linda’s Fox (Tammy) or Paula’s Puppets (Jinty).
At other times they are tricked or provoked into an open admission of guilt. A good example of this is Darling Clementine (Jinty). Promising water-skier Clemantine “Clem” is in hospital in a coma. Uncle Dave, having witnessed the accident from the wrong vantage-point, thinks Clem’s cousin Ella deliberately caused Clem’s accident, but the true culprit is Clem’s snooty arch-rival, Val Lester. Eventually Clem comes out of the coma and remembers everything, but when they confront Val she coolly responds:
“Yes, I did it, but if you accuse me, folk will think you’re only trying to shift the blame from Ella!”
Coo, that Val is a slick one, isn’t she? Unfortunately for her, Uncle Dave happens to be in earshot – and so is a passing policeman!
In cases of exonerating ghosts (or lifting curses) it is a matter of finding missing evidence and/or a long-hidden confession to set the record straight. This happens in Hangman’s Alley and Sharon’s Stone. Sometimes a bit of time travel is used to collect the required evidence, as in Ghost Train (Bunty).
In other stories the supernatural itself takes a hand in clearing a person, as it does in Paula’s Puppets. Paula Richards’ father is convicted of burning down his toy factory for the insurance. The Phillipses, the foster-family Paula is staying with, are wonderful, but the townsfolk ostracise Paula because their jobs depended on the factory. At the burnt-out factory Paula finds some mysterious wax puppets and finds they act like voodoo dolls, and finds she can make things happen to whoever she makes the puppets resemble. At first the bitter Paula uses them to exact revenge, but eventually she realises she can use them to help her father. If we had any doubts that the puppets have powers they are quickly dispelled when one of the puppets walks all by itself! The puppet leads Paula to a clue she cannot understand, but it seems to implicate Mr. Phillips. Yes, Phillips is the true criminal. He was embezzling from the factory and burned down the factory to destroy the evidence. He never meant Mr. Richards to get the blame, but has been too scared to make a confession to clear him. His daughter finally persuades him to do so, so Paula has no more use for the puppets – but they are still around for someone else to find....
In some stories, it is a matter of good old fashioned detective work. In Rosie’s Revenge (Judy) Victorian maidservant Emily Carter is driven to her death when another servant frames her for theft. Emily’s sister Rosie goes into service under an assumed name at the household to unmask the real thief. Since the household is so huge Rosie has to recourse to a process of elimination. The eliminations proceed nicely but Rosie is no nearer the truth when the thief discovers her true identity and is out to get rid of her....
Daughter of the Regiment is a bit more unusual in being a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit. Tessa Mason, with the help of a group of urchins called the Mudlarks, is determined to clear her father, who was executed for cowardice during the Charge of the Light Brigade. Unfortunately there is a very sinister and dangerous adversary who blocks her every move. So the question here is not who, but why.
In other stories, the villain plays one trick too many – or rather, the same trick once too often. Such is the case in Toni on Trial. Shame on the reader who hasn’t guessed after reading the penultimate episode that Adela Rogers framed Toni’s mother because she discovered Rogers had broken a rule while winning the trophy. Rogers is afraid that Toni knows something, so she repeats the trick she pulled on Toni’s mother. This time, however, there is a witness! Cornered, Rogers confesses everything.
In Linda’s Fox, Mallory, an evil policeman, goes even further than ‘once too often’. He well and truly digs a bear trap for himself, although fate does take a hand, er, paw, in it as well. Mallory commits perjury to get a fellow policeman, Charlie Barnes, sent to prison for stealing the money that some criminals left behind. Hmph ... most likely Mallory stole the money himself, for he is an utter criminal and raising his son to be the same.
Mallory’s undoing begins when he burgles a house which happens to be the Barnes’ new home. Oops. Then the fox cub from the derelict house next door breaks a milk bottle, which alerts the Barnes and leaves some nice broken glass for Mallory to slash his feet on as he flees. By the time the police trace the burglary to Mallory, he has gone into hiding, slashed feet and all.
Oops again – Mallory picks the derelict house for his hideout! A storm makes the house collapse, leaving Mallory trapped and injured. Barnes’ daughter Linda finds him, but refuses to fetch help unless Mallory makes a confession to clear her father. Mallory is forced to agree.
Sometimes pure courage and heroism clear everything up. In Bridey Below the Breadline (Jinty) Bridey Brown and her father are on the run after the father is wrongly accused of starting the Great Fire of London. All is resolved when Bridey saves the king from being poisoned by traitors, and he pardons her father. Similar resolutions occur in the Jinty stories, Wenna the Witch and Mark of the Witch! The accusation is witchcraft, brought about by superstitious villagers who still cling to witch-beliefs. The villagers change their minds when the so-called witch proves her goodness with an act of courage. Sadly, such endings are too idealistic; when someone is accused of being a witch the label sticks, even for generations. More realistic examples include Bad-Luck Barbara (Mandy) and Witch! (Bunty). In the former, Barbara Petty saves a child’s life, but her arch-enemy twists it to reinforce the villagers’ view that she is a witch. In the latter, the truth about the village witch is printed in the local newspaper, but this does not affect the villagers’ attitude towards her or the girl they have branded and persecuted as her descendant.
In real life, grassroots campaigners, the media and public pressure play a huge role in getting a wrongful conviction overturned, but they don’t play much part in girls’ stories. There are exceptions, however. In Sandra’s Sad Secret (Bunty), Sandra’s grandparents are hard, strict, and they hate her father (because of a family feud, not his conviction). Then, after grandfather has experienced a false charge himself – and catches the aforementioned blackmailer red handed – he has a complete change of heart and launches a press campaign to free Sandra’s father. The campaign takes months, but there can be no doubt grandfather will succeed for he is a very strong-minded man. In House of Heartbreak (Bunty) Penny invites a television programme, “Injustice” which specialises in exposing miscarriages of justice, to exonerate a Victorian girl who was wrongly blamed for her brother’s death (and is now haunting the house, causing trouble). When the television crew re-enact the scene, it ends up being re-enacted a little too well. The cameraman looks set to meet the same fate as the brother – but this time the girl succeeds where she failed before.
Public pressure seems to have played a part in clearing Shirley Grey. Let her parents explain:
“[The social worker] found out all about Trisha’s accident – and your compulsion never to lie!”
“All the doctors here have backed us up on it. Said that if you’d stolen that dress you’d have admitted it!”
A few weeks later:
“Well, to cut a long story short she thinks she can get the verdict changed! … But you’re not to set your hopes too high yet!”
Hmmm … and what about the bullies who framed her? We find Shirley has given her classmates the courage to stand up to them, and they are utterly miserable because they have lost their power – but we are not shown anything else.
And what about the courtroom, which really should be the place where justice is done? All too often the reverse applies; the court wrongly convicts the victim, and truth has to be sought outside the courtroom. Olympia Jones is one of the few serials where injustice is resolved in the courtroom itself.
The trouble begins when Linda Rott brutally flogs a circus horse, Prince, and her father sacks Olympia Jones for the cruelty to avoid prosecution from the League of Love for Animals (LOLA). Olympia removes Prince from the circus to protect him from further cruelty while offering her valuable antique caravan in exchange. The Rotts are happy with this arrangement until Prince and Olympia are short-listed for the Olympic team. The Rotts dupe LOLA into helping them frame Olympia for stealing Prince so they can seize the fortune he is now worth as an Olympic prospect.
Linda is under strict instructions from her father not to ill-treat Prince again because of the upcoming trial – but on the eve of the trial she disobeys orders. However, Linda doesn’t know a friend of Olympia’s has been secretly watching her and taking photographs! When the new evidence is presented in court, Linda flies into a tantrum that is a blatant admission of guilt, and the jury is swayed toward a very prompt acquittal.
A miscarriage of justice can serve as the catalyst, the main focus, or a plot device for a girls’ serial. How strongly it serves the plot depends on the type of serial, the story’s purpose, its structure and its resolution. Serials featuring injustice have little in common with real-life miscarriages of justice, but that is to be expected – and in any case, so much the better. Considering how difficult it can be to rectify a real miscarriage of justice, suffering injustice as a character in a girls’ serial is infinitely preferable, and with extremely rare exceptions, guarantees a happy ending.
Artist unknown, Merry at Misery House, Jinty 1974, © Egmont UK Ltd
Artist unknown, Darling Clemantine, Jinty 1977, © Egmont UK Ltd
Diane Gabbot, The Black-and-White World of Shirley Grey, Tammy 1981, © Egmont UK Ltd
Julian Vivas, Paula’s Puppets, Jinty 1978, © Egmont UK Ltd
Artist unknown, Toni on Trial, Jinty 1979, © Egmont UK Ltd
Eduardo Feito, Olympia Jones, Tammy 1976, © Egmont UK Ltd