We’re sorry to announce the passing of British girls comics artist John Armstrong, co-creator of “Bella at the Bar” for Tammy and “Moonchild” for Misty, who died peacefully yesterday. He was 94.
As John himself related back in 2003, although drawing from an early age, he later took art lessons while serving in the UK Army in the Far East. Back in civil life, he went to art school in Middlesbrough’s Constantine College, where he graduated in Intermediate Arts and Crafts.
He started as a commercial artist for a Newcastle advertising agency, eventually taking samples of his work to London and, first drawing comics in the 1950s, initially a ballet story, “The Mystery Ballerina“, for Girl’s Crystal, as well as other work for the title, followed by “Cherry and the Children“, which continued in School Friend.
John is best known for his work in Misty and Tammy, especially for “Bella at the Bar”, the character’s initial stories written by Jenny McDade recently republished by Rebellion, but his work also includes “Moonchild” for Misty, written by Pat Mills and also re-published by Rebellion. “Grange Hill” for Beeb and.
Toward the end of his comics career he worked for DC Thomson, on strips such as “The Secret Gymnast” for Bunty (he worked in colour for the first time on Bunty covers and annuals).
All his work was based on people he knew. Bella, for example, was based on his girlfriend’s niece, so he drew her from life and Bella herself aged in the strip.
Outside of comics, he was known fro his love of horses and ice skating, and drew promotional art for local rinks until illness prevented him from drawing on a regular basis.
John made very few public appearances as a comic creator, and I was delighted when, working with the Raptus convention, he accepted an invitation I arranged to talk about his work in Bergen, Norway in 2003, an event I attended with Pat Mills, Will Eisner, John Cooper, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike Collins, Barrie Mitchell, Mike Collins and others.
The recent publication of “Moonchild” and “Bella at the Bar” delighted the veteran creator, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s for some time.
Speaking to me yesterday his niece, Susan Di Murro told me: “It was nice that John was aware of the renewed interest in his artwork and to the very end remained fiercely proud of his work”.
“I was so sad to hear of his passing,” Pat Mills told downthetubes. “He truly was the greatest girls comic artist of all time – the equivalent in importance of Brian Bolland and Simon Bisley in boys comics. This was in an era where girls comics were quite rightly outselling boys comics by two to one, before they were neglected and died.
“His stories were always number one because he had a skill that is valued highly by girls and hopefully by a male audience, too. Namely, he was a master of facial expression. He had astonishing insights into the female psyche. This is a genius talent that is barely recognised today but I have always valued and so did John’s readers. Whereas on a typical male comic characters might have a range of – say – ten facial expressions, John would have fifty. The same range and complexity you would expect from a real life actor. So looking at his art is like watching TV. Only Joe Colquhoun on boys comics had a similar range.
“To me, these are skills that are more important than drawing big guns and amazing spaceships. They are an exploration of inner space; of the soul itself. I was privileged to work with John on ‘Moonchild’ for Misty and also ‘Grange Hill’ for Beeb.
“He was also a smashing guy and – like all the really top professionals – he was ‘low maintenance’. I would tell him what I wanted and he would get it instantly and just get on with it. I miss those happy days when we worked together and I miss him too, greatly.”
“John was up there with the Best of the Best of Comic Artists,” notes writer Jenny McDade, who worked with John on early episode of “Bella at the Bar” for Tammy. “Part of the cabal of North East based illustrators who always remained strong supporters of each other down the years.
“His great talent lay in the meticulous authenticity and ferocious attention to detail he brought to the stories submitted to him by IPC.. He understood right away that ‘social realism’ was what was about revolutionise all comic stories from the early 1970s. And was a brilliant exponent of that.
“Thankfully, John also recently received the recognition he deserved with the archive publication of Bella at the Bar by Rebellion.
“He was also a really nice guy, too, who was only too happy to talk and share his significant illustrious past with his many fans. His Comic Art work (including his Theatrical Posters) will, I’m sure, continue to inspire”.
“It is very sad to learn of John Armstrong’s passing. His contribution to British Comics was phenomenal,” commented Rebellion’s Head of Books and Comics Publishing Ben Smith, who are publishing collections of strips from the Fleetway titles they own.
“That his name and work are not as well known as some of his contemporaries is down to the sad fact that the hugely popular strips he co-created, in many of the bestselling titles of their day, were all in ‘girls comics’ titles which were never collected into graphic novel form. It has been an enormous privilege to start putting that to rights and I am glad John’s niece Sue Di Murro was able to give him the recent Misty and Bella at the Bar collections.
“Aside from all of his other creations and vast catalogue of strips, for me it is John’s extraordinary run as the sole artist on Bella at the Bar that really defines him. His ability to illustrate Bella and her world, and pull off in dazzling form the incredible gymnastics, made that character real for hundreds of thousands of readers across an entire decade.
“I believe that recognition for his work and legacy will only increase in the coming years. Comics was very lucky to have had an artist of his calibre.”
• In His Own Words: The Comics Career of John Armstrong – a biography prepared in advance of Raptus 2003
• Pat Mills has also posted a tribute on his Millsverse website
• John was interviewed by David Roach for the 2009 Misty Special published by Misty.co.uk
All imagery © respective creators/ publishers. “Cherry and the Children” © TI Media (images courtesy Lew Stringer) | Moon Child and Bella at the Bar © Rebellion Publishing Ltd.