Hard Times for Helen (1984-85)

Logo Hard Times for Helen

Artist: Bert Hill

Published: Judy: #1302 (22 December 1984) to #1312 (2 March 1985)


Helen Shaw’s widowed mother is awarded the Superworker Award for her charity work and becomes a local celebrity. But from the moment Mum wins the award, nothing seems to go right for Helen. Her life changes for the worse, both at home and at school, not least of which is because she becomes “the girl who suffers from being compared to Mum”.

First, being Superworker means increased workloads on Mrs Shaw, which leave her constantly overworked, exhausted, and having no time for other things, such as household chores or devoting time to Helen. Also, Helen finds herself constantly lumbered with the things her mother hasn’t time for (chores, housework, errands, meal preparation, shopping, favours etc), or can’t do because she has been called away to some other task. This begins to interfere with schoolwork, social life, friends, and even makes Helen frequently late for school. Mum takes it for granted that Helen will help out all the time, and never stops think that Helen has other commitments or may not be able to help. For example, she tries to force Helen to miss a rehearsal to help her out, although Helen is playing the lead. As a result, the teacher kicks Helen out of the production (and Helen arrives home too late to help her mother in any case).

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Helen is also feeling neglected and lonely because her mother is scarcely home, and even when she is, she has no time for Helen. Helen had begun to feel this way even before charity-busy Mum became Superworker, but following Superworker it becomes a whole lot worse. Mum is frequently overtired, still encumbered with heavy workloads that she expects Helen to help out with, and dashing out yet again to help someone else. Worse, a lot of the work comes from people who take advantage of Mum’s kindness and never refusing anyone’s request (in other words, unable to say “no”).

Finances also suffer because Mum is becoming over-generous. But she does nothing to curb her over-generosity, although she is keeps saying that she is terribly short of money and she must know the reason for it. Sometimes Helen even goes hungry because Mum is too busy to remember to replenish the larder and doesn’t leave money for it.

And there is a jinx that seems to dog Helen at every turn. It lands her in constant trouble with Mum and giving other people false impressions that she is jealous, lazy, badly behaved, and “not at all like her mother”. Sometimes it’s not able to help because other things get in the way, like people popping in with more favours to dump on Helen when she has other work to do already. Or it’s not able to get other things done, such as homework, because Mum lumbers her with other things to do. Other times, things just seem to go wrong whenever Helen tries to help out her mother. Helen frequently thinks that everything has gone wrong since her mother won the award and wishes she had never won it. Meanwhile, the constant trouble has Mum thinking her daughter is being “awkward” and unhelpful, and their relationship deteriorates.

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To make things even worse for Helen, everyone, from strangers in the street to the next-door neighbour, always compares her unfavourably and unfairly with her mother with the relentless criticism, “You’re not at all like your mother!” or variations thereof. By far the worst culprits are the staff at Helen’s school, with headmistress Miss Pringle being the leader of the pack. Some of the criticisms arise from misunderstandings and affected schoolwork caused by Superworker (for example, Helen being frequently late for school because of the jobs she gets lumbered with in the mornings). But in other cases Miss Pringle and the teachers seem to pounce on even the slightest thing to attack Helen with the criticism. Often these are things that have little to do with Helen’s mother or Superworker. Their conduct becomes more and more like bullying. Examples include:

  • (Helen is eating in the street) “I don’t care much for finding one of my pupils in the street like this! Really, Helen, you’re a disgrace to your mother!”
  • (Helen fails to deliver a message in time) “You stupid girl. You’re not at all like your mother!”
  • (Helen is distracted with worry while teacher is setting homework) “You’re not making a note of the homework I’m setting! Perhaps you have no intention of doing it? Really, Helen! You’re not at all like your mother!”
  • (Helen says she was trying to help her mother) “Your mother couldn’t possibly need help from you! You’ll never be like her!”
  • (Helen asks to be excused from a swimming match to look after her mother) “Helen objecting to something again, is she? It’s all she does. She’s not hardworking like her mother.”
  • (Ignoring that Helen would have homework to do, and she never asked Helen to help in the first place) “Your mother’s giving up this evening to help my dramatic society, Helen. I suppose it would be too much to expect you’d be helping?” At this, Helen realises she cannot win with Miss Pringle.

And on top of the constant criticism there is the notion that Helen is jealous of her mother. This starts as a nasty rumour among Helen’s classmates, but soon spreads and is taken on board by the harsh school staff. And when Miss Pringle misinforms Mum about it and Helen’s so-called bad behaviour, Mum thinks it is the reason for Helen being so “awkward” and their strained relationship is poisoned further.

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Finally, when Mum wrongly blames Helen for a disturbance that wrecks a public demonstration, Helen reaches her limit. She snaps at Mum that she is fed up of everyone saying “You’re not at all like your mother!”. It doesn’t do Helen any good though – Mum still thinks Helen is behaving badly and just says it’s her own fault. But Helen’s outburst indicates that this is the penultimate episode and the final episode will be next.

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Sure enough, in the next episode everything comes to a head. Mum has gone to help Miss Pringle at her drama society. But while Mum is out, the electricity is cut off because she had neglected the bill too. This leaves Helen in a quandary over how to complete her homework, and is so distracted that she stumbles into the road and gets hit by a car. While in a semi-conscious state, she starts rambling about all the problems Superworker has caused for her. The medical personnel are listening and then have a word with Mum. Mum apologises to Helen and promises that things will now be different. She also informs Helen that at the drama society meeting she wised up to Miss Pringle’s conduct.

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This story certainly belongs in the long-established formula of the “jinxed girl” – where events always seem to conspire against the protagonist and everything goes wrong in every episode for her. So at the end of each episode she always ends up in deep trouble and people think she’s jealous, spiteful or whatever, and she becomes more and more unpopular. The formula makes for a story that is more episodic in structure than having a single story arc and the advantage is that it can be spun out as long as necessary. The disadvantage is a risk of stretching credibility too far and readers may begin to think, “Oh come on, nobody can be that unlucky!”

However, Helen suffers a lot more than many protagonists who just have things that keep going wrong for them. She is suffering from bullying too, mostly from people who keep comparing her to her mother and putting her down with unfair and unwarranted criticisms. The conduct of Miss Pringle fits exactly into the bully who uses unreasonable criticism to bully someone: constant put-downs and sarcasms, often using a supposed kernel of truth to justify their comments; making big mountains out of molehills in criticizing even trivial things; blowing things all out of proportion; and there is no pleasing or reasoning with Miss Pringle, regardless of what Helen does. And it’s not just Miss Pringle but all the teachers. Helen can’t seem to be in class for five minutes without some teacher humiliating her in front of the classmates with the criticism, “You’re not at all like your mother!” Helen hears it so much that she feels like screaming.

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No doubt this conduct from the teachers would have fuelled the bullying from Helen’s own classmates, who started the rumour that she was jealous of her mother. It began with their misreading Helen’s unhappy expressions, but there must have been some schoolgirl cattiness as well. Perhaps they were the jealous ones and projecting their jealousy onto Helen.

Protagonists who suffer because their parents are too busy/famous to pay them serious attention is a well-established formula in girls’ comics too. But in this case it’s even more heart-breaking in that the misery comes from charity, of all things. This is because of Mrs. Shaw’s personality as much as the demands of Superworker itself. She is always ready to help and never refuses anyone – but the flip side of that is that she cannot say “no”. So in addition to all the increasing demands of Superworker, Mum gets more and more people who take advantage of her: food, money, free favours, or using her as a dumping ground. All too often we have seen this type of thing in real life: good-natured people who are too nice for their own good, get lumbered and taken advantage of, and don’t stand up for themselves and say “no”.

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Mum in turn starts taking Helen for granted. She uses Helen as a dumping ground for things she hasn’t time for, or expects her to help all the time and doesn’t stop to think that sometimes Helen may not be able to help. Never once does she say, “All right, I’ll get someone else to help.” To others, she never says things like “Sorry, I’ve got too much to do right now, please ask someone else” or “Sorry, I can’t loan you any money, I need my money for other things.” And so she leaves herself open for people to walk all over her. And there certainly never is “I’m giving up Superworker – it’s too much for me and I’m turning into a nervous wreck,” although it is so hectic that it constantly wears Mum out with exhaustion. More than once we see her collapsed in a chair or laid up in bed because of it.

This story certainly is a cut above an average “jinxed girl” story because it draws so much on real life: Bully teachers who constantly put pupils down with nasty, uncalled-for remarks. People who use criticism to bully others. People who can’t say “no” and get turned into doormats because they are not assertive enough. People who overwork themselves, causing their family to suffer as well as themselves. Nasty schoolkids who bully others, very likely because they are jealous. Parents who get so busy with new commitments that they lose sight of other things in life that matter too, including their family. People who take others for granted and make selfish demands on them – even ones who do not see themselves as selfish.

It’s all brought to life with the artwork of Bert Hill. Hill has a very clean style that can produce a lot of panels on one page without it looking cluttered. His style has become linked with several Judy classics, including “The Fish Twins” and “The Girl with the Golden Smile”. Just one thing about the artwork – why does Mrs Shaw’s hair suddenly switch from blond to dark in the final episode, with no explanation possible?

And there is one thing about the story that is really puzzling: throughout the course of this entire story, we never see the Superworker Award itself. What the heck does it look like? Is it a trophy? Is it a medal? Or is it something else? We never know because it never appears. Not once are we shown Mrs Shaw with it, nor does she ever show it to Helen.

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