Maureen Hartley – Writing for DCT Girls’ Comics

Maureen Hartley has kindly written a piece about her experiences writing picture stories and working for DCT. A list of stories she wrote can be found on the next page.

Quick Link: Story list 

 

WRITING   FOR   THE   D.C. Thomson   GIRLS’   COMICS

I first started writing picture script stories in 1968.   I  had several short stories published by then, in women’s magazines  and had always fancied trying my hand at picture scripts,  so when I saw an advertisement in The Observer one Sunday asking for scripts for DCT comics,  I decided to try my luck.   MANDY had been launched the year before and the Mandy 425editors needed more writers to fill both the boys’ and girls’ comics.  There was a specimen script to follow and various helpful tips and I finally,  rather belatedly,  sent off my effort.    A few days later I received a letter from Dundee  –  could I meet the editors in Manchester?   Two of the editors were touring round the country meeting people who had submitted promising scripts  –  they had already planned their schedule,  but when my script had been read in Dundee I had been slotted into their programme.

That was the start.   They talked over my script with me,  pointing out mistakes  (e.g. describing two actions for one picture –  impossible for the artist to depict ),  and then suggested that I try a story.    I was given an outline of the plot, which we discussed in detail,  and told to submit the first instalment when I had finished it.

Sadly I cannot remember the name of that story but it did appear some months later in MANDY.   I learned afterwards from the editors that they had received thousands of scripts in answer to their advertisement.    100 possibles had been picked out,  30 people invited to meet the editors and out of those 12 had actually completed a story.

I worked for DCT from 1968 until 2001.  My last contributions to be published were 6 stories in the 2001 Bunty Annual.Lost in the Snow

(Lost in the Snow – Bunty Annual 2001)

I was working mainly for the editor of MANDY, and I soon learnt what was required.   He was extremely helpful, but could be quite sharp-tongued and demanded very high standards of work.    I learned that in every instalment the heroine must take some form of executive action.  That may seem highly obvious,  but it is easy to be distracted from the heroine by other facets of the plot or more interesting characters.   Also there must be no cliffhangers.   The editors felt strongly that the readers should get value for the money they had paid for the comic and should be given a full self-contained story in each instalment,  interesting enough to make them want to read more  but not blackmailing them with a cliffhanging ending into buying the next issue.

Synopses for new stories,  either from the editors or my own suggestions, were discussed at the regular sessions held with the editors when they travelled round the country to meet the writers.    The opening episode of each story would be worked out and the ending, towards which the story would move in 8 – 16  parts,  would be agreed.  What happened in between was up to me.   I would submit a synopsis for each instalment which would be approved by the editor of the comic it was intended for and then I would write it up.

Little auntie annie

(Little Auntie Annie – Mandy)

The opening frame of each instalment would set the scene,   usually with a caption bringing the reader up to date with the story,  then what was to happen in each frame was described very briefly for the artist,  together with the dialogue which would be added later in the speech bubbles.    I was told to trust the artists  –  they knew what they were doing and  only the briefest of descriptions were necessary.  When the final instalment had been written up and sent off to Dundee,  that was the last I had to do with the story.   The scripts were sent to the appointed artist and months later the story would appear.    The artists were indeed brilliant.     Sadly I never met any of them,  nor indeed any fellow writers,  and there was no chance of discussing the stories with them,  so I had no idea how
timid tinaeach story would turn out,  but with only one exception the artwork greatly enhanced the scripts.    The exception was a story of children in Victorian times working in a mine, drawn in an almost cartoon-like form which seemed quite inappropriate to the theme.   Much of the artwork was sent to Spain,  where figure drawing was considered to be of a much higher standard than in England,  but this could lead to language complications.  In a Wild West story for one of the boys’ comics the editor was surprised to find an extra figure standing in the corner in one of the scenes in a saloon bar.   This turned out to be the one-armed bandit the writer had mentioned in the script. (Above: Timid Tina – Art by Julio Bosch)

I soon learnt not to send off a synopsis to the editor if I felt in the slightest way uneasy about it.   Was there a flaw in the sequence of events?    Some part that did not hang together?   Or was it based on coincidence  (the worst possible crime in plotting)?    On several occasions I had my work packed up ready to send off  but  then ripped off the Sellotape and started again on the synopsis,  knowing that it would be returned with some telling comment if I did not tighten up the plot.

There have been a number of suggestions put forward by academics researching in the field of girls’ comics about the motives of the producers of the comics.   Feminists accuse them of attempting to reinforce the idea that girls see achieving  marriage and children as being the ultimate aim in life.   It is suggested that there may have been ‘emotional reorganisation’ and ‘attempts to reconstruct British girlhood’ as an aim of the stories.   However, in my experience there was no interest whatsoever among the editors in exerting this kind of influence over the readers.    There was no hidden agenda and I never felt under any pressure of any kind to push a particular message.     The editors’ primary  interest was to sell as many comics as  possible and that was done by giving the readers the kind of stories  they wanted.     Perhaps the main message of the DCT stories was simply that good should finally triumph over evil and should be seen to do so.

wedding of the week

(Wedding of the Week – Mandy)

The only possible market for a freelance writer of picture scripts at that time was D.C.Thomson.   IPC,  which also published girls’ comics,  only used staff writers for picture stories.   I soon realised that what was said about DCT  was,  sadly,  true  –  that their writers needed DCT more than DCT needed the writers.   Writers seemed to be at the bottom of the pile.    Payment to artists was three times more than that paid to writers.   With every payment slip came a form on which one signed away one’s copyright to the work,  so that the stories could be syndicated abroad under the DCT name with no further payment to the writer.   When the DCT comics ceased publication and I began to sell work through an agent to TINA,  a Dutch teenage girls’ magazine,  I was paid more than three times as much as I had received for similar stories published in Dundee.

All the work I did for DCT was for the girls’ comics.   It was an accepted fact among the staff there that women weren’t capable of writing stories for the boys’ comics.    Men could write for girls  –  the creator of ‘The Comp’ was a headmaster  –  but not vice versa.   Not that that I would have wanted to write about football or war,  which were the main topics for the boys.

The only story I didn’t enjoy writing was ‘Nothing Ever Goes Right’ for JUDY.    The editor offered me this story line to write up and it was clear when we first discussed the idea that he was fixed on an unhappy ending.   He relished the idea of the last frame,  showing people gathered round a nameless grave who would be remembering the girl who helped them all in some way and changed their lives for ever,  while regretting they never knew her name or where she had come from.   It was a tale of unremitting tragedy and sorrow for the poor heroine,  and I felt guilty as I worked out the next heart-wrenching episode that I couldn’t tell her,  as I did with all the other heroines-in-trouble,  to hold out  –  all would be well in the end.    Fortunately unhappy endings were very rare in the girls’ stories.

nothing ever goes right_06

(Nothing Ever Goes Right! – Judy)

I loved writing the fantasy stories,  in which you could make anything happen  –   I can well understand why JK Rowling kept going with the Harry Potter books!  –   and of course the many tales of lonely girls searching for  –  and finding  –  the family they longed for.    The shy girls,  the feisty ones who stood up for their friends and faced down the snobs and bullies,  the hardworking ones,   the girls who followed their dreams –  all became part of my life as I wrote about them.    And I often thought – “These girls are much nicer and braver than I am.” !

sad spells of fay martin

(The Sad Spells of Fay Martin – Mandy)

When I first started writing picture script stories the target readership was judged to be girls 11 – 12 years old.   Over the years the readers became younger and younger – by 1999 their average age had gone down to about 8 years.   The comics were no longer sustainable in their original form;  through the 1990s titles had been withdrawn or had merged with another comic until only BUNTY remained.   I believe in her final years I was one of only four writers of girls’ stories left in the country and in 1999 I was told the end had come for the last DCT girls’ comic and I completed my last story for DCT,  a Four Marys story called “The Mystery Virus”.

I moved on to writing for several years for TINA,  a Dutch girls’ comic still offering picture script stories.    This was done at a distance through an agent with no contact of any kind with the editors.    The stories were similar,  aimed perhaps at pre-teenage readers  ( they printed a large number of DCT stories with Dutch dialogue ) but it took me some time to work out that in these stories there were no villains  –  no evil rivals or sneaks of the Third year to make the heroine’s life a misery.   Also it was important not to show  mothers working in the kitchen  –  Dutch women did not want to be portrayed as spending their lives doing housework.

In the 1990s the look of the comics  changed,  with glossy colour pages and photo stories replacing the artwork and cheap newsprint of the original comics.   Other features such as whats newpop music and  fashion, were introduced following the model of JACKIE and other magazines aimed at teenagers.    And the stories became far less interesting to write.    Gone were the feisty heroines fighting to right a wrong,  or  searching against the odds for lost family members, or coping bravely with some terrible affliction.   No more fantasy stories  –  they could not be portrayed in photo stories   Now it was all about boys and shopping and sleepovers with mates,  with the moral message so important in the older stories that you should be good and kind submerged in the need to be popular and to have friends.   And as most of the current comics are product-based or centred on TV and film characters,  there are no opportunites for free-lance writers.   The world has moved on,  and the decline of BUNTY, JUDY, MANDY and their companions was sadly inevitable.    But the magic of the comics will still be there for those loyal readers who remember them with affection.

 

13 thoughts on “Maureen Hartley – Writing for DCT Girls’ Comics

  1. A very interesting document!
    Were the stories for Tina possibly written under the name Maureen McAdam? I didn’t find any stories credited to Maureen Hartley, but there are five stories in 1999 and one in 2000 credited to Maureen McAdam. From 2001 onwards I do not have any information yet.

    1. Yes – I did write for TINA as Maureen McAdam. DCT rarely named the writers in their comics because, I was told, they did not want other publishers poaching their writers. I suspect it may have been more to do with finance.

  2. In the Little Auntie Annie panel, Miss Smith does have a point about the nephews looking a bit old to be looked after by Annie and should be independent at their ages. But then, they’ve been spoiled and expect to be waited on hand and foot, which is what their mother did. So they never really developed the skills to look after themselves.

  3. This is such a great piece – many thanks to Maureen!

    I was particularly interested in the glimpses we get of the behind the scenes principles that were worked to:
    “I learned that in every instalment the heroine must take some form of executive action. That may seem highly obvious, but it is easy to be distracted from the heroine by other facets of the plot or more interesting characters. Also there must be no cliffhangers.”

    I’m a bit surprised by the ‘no cliffhangers’ rule – surely in a serial story there normally are cliffhangers of some sort, to encourage the readers to come back next week?

    I was also a little surprised to read the bit about DCT vs IPC as markets for writers: “The only possible market for a freelance writer of picture scripts at that time was D.C.Thomson. IPC, which also published girls’ comics, only used staff writers for picture stories.” We know that plenty of writers of girls comics in the 70s were freelancers, and indeed some writers (Alison Christie, Anne Digby) wrote for both DCT and subsequently for IPC, the latter paying more than the former. I wonder how it came to be that Maureen knew that it wasn’t worth trying IPC, especially if she didn’t know other writers. Could it be that the DCT editors encouraged this view, for instance?

    1. I was surprised about cliffhangers too, but I think it depended on the story and that MANDY tended to have less cliffhangers, unlike JUDY which several stories I can recall ended on cliffhanger episodes. May have been different Editor preferences.

    2. No cliffhangers goes against Pat Mills, who advises an episode of a serial to end on a cliffhanger or dramatic point. That’s what he told me.

      But it certainly explains the episodic structure that a lot of DCT serials had, even ones with a story arc, such as Bunty’s “Witch!”, or Mandy’s “I’ll Take Care of Tina!”. I reckon what kept readers reading was to find out how the serial would end.

    3. DC Thomson usually did have self-contained episodes, their text-based story papers for boys, dating back to the twenties, were the same. On the other hand IPC / Amalgamated Press always went in for dramatic endings to episodes, except in The Champion (and maybe Triumph and, erm, the other one), which was a “Thomson-style” paper. Oddly Girls’ Crystal, also a Thomson-style paper, did have cliffhangers.

  4. A wonderfully informative piece, and beautifully written. Wouldn’t it be great if some day enough writers, artists and editors of British girls’ comics could be located to fill a whole book with accounts like this?

  5. Very interesting! Thanks for posting it. The “no cliffhangers” aspect is quite a clever technique. The DCT boys comics did the same for the most part, with each episode being self contained but still advancing the plot. More subtle than Fleetway’s method of the hero going from one cliffhanger to the next every week.

  6. I saw a lot of DCT serials with “no cliffhangers” until the penultimate episode, where it does end on a cliffhanger that is part of resolving the plot in the last episode. Often this format was a cue that told the reader this was the penultimate episode and not a routine episode. Hard Times for Helen (Judy) and The Truth about Wendy (Mandy) are two examples.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *