The decline of the Dandy is sad news, but let's not forget the plucky young heroines who have already perished in the Great Comics Bloodbath, from Diving Belle to Lisa the Lonely Ballerina
Piked back-dive. Somersault in tuck position. As Tom Daley won his bronze, a host of women in their 30s and 40s – like me – were able to show off our surprisingly exhaustive knowledge of diving terms. Many of us had never been near a diving board in our lives – but back in 1981 we were glued to the adventures of Diving Belle in the comic Jinty and Penny. That's the one where school champion Belle McBane vows never to dive again after her father is lost at sea, but a mystic Gypsy persuades her to train in secret, leading to Belle diving off an oil rig and finding her father, who's trapped in a bathyscope with only an hour's worth of oxygen left. Phew!
Then there was gymnastics, whose bar, floor and beam were no mystery to the thousands of us who grew up with Tammy's Bella Barlow, the orphan gymnast who still managed a big smile despite her many, many troubles (selfish aunt and uncle, loss of memory, homelessness, arrests, cheating rivals, blackmail, injuries and unwittingly causing an anti-gymnastics uprising in the Kingdom of Ramaski, to name but a few).
Diving and gymnastics weren't the only Olympic events enhanced by a grounding in girls' comics. Name almost any sport (well, maybe not wrestling or modern pentathlon) and there was once a comic-strip heroine who excelled at it. It didn't matter if, in real life, you were last to be picked for hockey or, like June's Bessie Bunter, preferred biscuits to beach volleyball and cake to canoeing. In the 1970s and 80s, comics – or "picture-story papers", as they called themselves – drew their readers effortlessly into other worlds, whether competitive sport, Victorian slums or alien planets.
There were usually medals all round in the final episode of a sporting story – but that didn't mean our heroines had an easy ride getting there. We're used to the sob stories of the wannabe-famous on The X Factor. Ha! Reality-show contestants haven't got anything on girls' comic characters, who had to overcome unbelievable obstacles to achieve their goals. It didn't take the comics' (usually male) editors long to work out that girls just loved wallowing in misery. The story titles flaunt their heroine's sufferings: Tears of a Clown; The Girl the World Forgot; Bridey Below the Breadline; No One Cares for Cora; Lisa – the Lonely Ballerina; The Sadness of Happy Jones; Merry at Misery House. There were Slaves of, variously, the Mirror (orphan girl is hypnotised into destroying her sister's boarding house), the Candle (Victorian candlemaker enslaves girls and tries to steal the Crown Jewels), Form 3B (meek girl is hypnotised by scheming classmate), the Clock (reluctant ballerina is forced to dance whenever she hears a clock ticking), the Dolls (girl is turned into servant for the inhabitants of a Victorian dolls' house) and the Swan (amnesiac girl is forced to work for injured ballerina).
Beloved animals were threatened with death. Miscarriages of justice saw girls ostracised by their schoolmates and innocent fathers put in prison. Girls were forbidden to do the one thing – music, swimming, horse-riding – that meant everything to them. Dystopian futures were rife (and occasionally prescient – Jinty's Fran of the Floods saw civilisation "almost brought to an end by gigantic floods and freak weather", while Land of No Tears showed a world where the disabled were treated as second-class citizens). Homeless orphans (often with sick little brothers in tow) dealt stoically with obstacles that would horrify even Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
Full piece at The Guardian