Comics artist John Armstrong died this week, He’s best known for his work on the girls comics titles Bunty, Misty and Tammy, and for co-creating the long-running “Bella at the Bar” strip for the latter – but made very few appearances at comics events, but in 2003 I persuaded him to be part of the line up for Raptus, held in Bergen, Norway.
While preparing for that event, John sent me this long form biography, which was published in the Raptus programme…
In His Own Words: The Life and Times of John Armstrong
To begin at the beginning: the family archives relate that when just a baby I ran out of the house and kicked a policeman. Soon after, on being collected from infants’ school the Head Mistress was heard to say: “Go and find Armstrong. He’ll be drawing a horse somewhere.” I still get a kick out of drawing horses.
Later, in secondary school, I’d be the only on in a class of 60 doing any art work: the rest would be painting their desks or seats or themselves, setting booby traps with water pots and powder colour etc. – anticipating modern art school work by decades.
My first proper art lessons were whilst serving in the Army, in the Far East. To keep us occupied, art lessons were started in a deserted palace outside Rangoon; local people in ethnic dress posed for us. I still have portraits of Burmese and Indian women, and West African and Indian soldiers.
On leaving the army, this course and its artwork steered me to art school in Middlesbrough’s Constantine College. In five years I passed Intermediate Arts and Crafts and gained National Diplomas in Design in both painting and illustration – making me more qualified than any of the staff.
On the Principal’s advice, I next did a year in Teacher Training College. We students used to take the bus to various schools for teaching practice. Two characters who sold toy bows and arrows in the local market boarded the same bus and expressed their amazement that an aspiring teacher was always reading a comic. In those days, “educationists” regarded comics as a subversive element. During teaching practice, I’d amuse the kids by drawing Tarzan a la Hogarth on the blackboard. The kids got to like me and would beg, “Don’t be a teacher, sir!”
With this excellent advice and with my art school specimens, I got my first job in a Newcastle Advertising Agency, meeting with commercial artists for the first time – a daunting experience. I was astonished by the skill of the head layout artist who would simulate a brochure – photos, lettering, typesetting – all by hand using pencils, inks and water colour so that it looked exactly like the eventual printed article. Art schools knew nothing about such expertise.
After a year there I headed south and pounded the streets of London with a heavy folder filled with art school work. Using an A-Z and a Writers and Artists Year Book, I visited about 40 studios, publishers and agents and eventually got a job in a studio [Chamberlain’s Art Studio] opposite St. Paul’s – great for watching the Lord Mayor’s show. The artists would bring their wives and children to watch from the second floor “grand stand”. While there, I got my first freelance commission from Putnam Books Education Department who had kept one piece of my artwork on a previous visit. It was a poetry book – quite a lot of school book work followed.
Leaving this studio after a year, I acquired an agent in Holborn and got my first comics job – a ballet story for Girls Crystal. It was girls comics from then on. The most notable stories I did for IPC were “Cherry and the Children“, which ran for five years, and “Bella at the Bar“, which covered 10 years in Tammy. So far as I know, Bella was the only character to get her own book at IPC.
When Misty came out, working on it was a relief from trying to draw thousands of gymnastic poses without repeating myself. Misty was a success despite of – or because of – its horror story content aimed at young girls.
After publisher Robert Maxwell arrived on the scene and the demise of Tammy and Misty, I did about a year doing the comics version of the popular children’s school drama Grange Hill for a new magazine, BEEB.
After that I transferred to DC Thomson where I got to do coloured work for the first time in several annuals and Bunty covers – plus some horse stories, my original passion.
On the subject of passions, age has not withered nor the years condemned my love of skating – ice or roller. The rinks have provided me with a string of heroines, most notably Bella, the niece of my then girl friend, who grew up with the fictional character.
Lately, I enjoy providing artwork for the Ice Rink Pantomimes while gradually reviving my oil painting skills, mainly doing portraits of my skating friends.
All in all, thanks to all the writers and editors who have provided the inspiration for my artwork my life seems to have been one long holiday, just being absorbed by my favourite pastimes!
John Armstrong, 2003
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All imagery © respective creators/ publishers. “Cherry and the Children” (images courtesy Lew Stringer) | Moon Child and Bella at the Bar © Rebellion Publishing Ltd.