Bella at the Bar - SNIP

In Preview/ Review: Bella at the Bar Volume One

Bella at the Bar - cover courtesy Rebellion
Bella at the Bar – cover courtesy Rebellion

Written by Jenny McDade Art by John Armstrong
On Sale: 12th July 2018, 114 Pages
ISBN: 9781781086254
Publisher: Rebellion Publishing/ Treasury of British Comics

The Book: Bella’s gymtastic adventure begins here! Bella Barlow is a young orphan with ambitions to be a world class gymnastic. She has the talent, but is hampered by her cruel Uncle Jed and Aunt Gert who constantly exploit her for their own selfish gains. While out cleaning windows for her uncle’s business, Bella comes across an exclusive school with a great gymnastics program. A kind teacher named Miss Mortimer would happily accept her, but the young athlete faces great opposition from her guardians and the horrible snobbery of the school’s headmistress.

A collection of the first year of Bella stories that first appeared in the British girls weekly Tammy from 1974 to 1975, plus “That Barlow Kid” reprinted from a Tammy).

The opening page of "Bella at the Bar', written by Jenny McDade with art by John Armstrong

Bella at the Bar - Episode One Page Two

The opening episode Bella at the Bar captures all the strip's elements and anguish from the start thanks to writer Jenny McDade and artist John Armstrong
The opening episode “Bella at the Bar” captures all the strip’s elements and anguish from the start thanks to writer Jenny McDade and artist John Armstrong

The Review: Back in the 1970s (and, indeed, on decades before and after), British girls comics regularly outsold boys comics, their stories largely focusing on character rather than action. One of the success stories was IPC’s Tammy, published between 1971 and 1984.

Always a title keen on a good weepy, it rivalled DC Thomson’s Bunty in sales terms and incorporated six other titles during its lifetime, including JuneMisty and Jinty, and introduced readers to strips such as “Girls of Liberty Lodge”, “Slaves of War Orphan Farm” and even re-launched the these days decidedly un-PC Bessie Bunter, created decades earlier by Frank Richards.

Capitalising on the huge following for gymnastics spurred by the young Soviet female gymnast Olga Korbut at and following the 1972 Olympics, “Bella at the Bar” (also known as “That Barlow Kid”, or simply “Bella”) ran in Tammy from June 1974 to June 1984, drawn by John Armstrong, written by creators that included Jenny McDade, John Wagner, Primrose Cumming and Malcolm Shaw.

Perhaps the most popular character in the comic, her look was inspired by artist John Armstrong’s niece, who captured the stories told by orphan Bella, a young girl with a great natural talent for gymnastics, perfectly. True to many a girl comic story, just like literary heroines down the years, stretching right back to the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontes, there are plenty of flies in the ointment that seem set to crush her dreams and aspirations to be a world-class gymnast. Not least of them, her legal guardians – the deliciously awful Uncle Jed and Aunt Gertrude, who force and bully Bella to their own advantage.

Despite its large panel count per page, artist John Armstrong deftly delivers a tale capturing Bella at the Bar's gymnastic elements in style
Despite its large panel count per page, artist John Armstrong deftly delivers a tale capturing Bella at the Bar’s gymnastic elements in style

These early stories were penned by Jenny McDade was one of very few female writers in comics at the time, who recalls her introduction to the world of writing comics began with a  two and a half hour masterclass from Tammy editor Gerry Finley-Day, who quickly made her aware that “writing for comics” wouldn’t be a doddle, or remotely easy, and that she had to knuckle down instantly to a steep learning curve.

Her first strip for Tammy was the award-winning ““Star Struck Sister”, which confirmed the title as a true rival to DC Thomson’s Bunty.

The influence of the popularity of gymnastics on TV in the early 1970s is apparent even in the strip
The influence of the popularity of gymnastics on TV in the early 1970s is apparent even in the strip

Her writing captures Bella’s situation perfectly and along with John Armstrong’s art, is what makes “Bella at the Bar” so memorable even today to those who read the strip back in the 1970s. In a decade where TV audience were literally blown away by the stunning acrobatic skills of Russian gymnastic stars such as Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics, it’s no surprise that readers were prepared to suspend their disbelief at some of the more unlikely developments in the strip’s first year. No-one seems to have blinked an eyelid at the idea that Bella would be transported to Russia, after saving the life of an important Russian diplomat, for example, and the horrors her aunt and uncle put her through were of course simply par for the course.

You can't go wrong with a  wicked, jealous villain, and this one punches every button!
You can’t go wrong with a wicked, jealous villain, and this one punches every button!

With some great storytelling and wonderful twists as Bella stays positive in the face of lying, cheating rivals – some of them the worst of bullies – this is a terrific collection of a much-loved strip, well presented given the fine line to John Armstrong’s stunning art.

I sincerely hope this first collection is one of several and Rebellion are to be congratulated for finally getting some of the very best of British girls comics from the 1970s back into print. Complemented by an introduction to the whole series from its original author Jenny McDade, and a smashing tribute from Jinty resource editor Jenni Scott to John Armstrong (who is, I’m pleased to say, still with us), “Bella at the Bar” is a terrific addition to the Treasury of British Comics line, which now includes three volumes of stories from Misty and a Jinty collection, out next month.

"Bella at the Bar" art by John Armstrong crated for a fan-published Misty title.
“Bella at the Bar” art by John Armstrong crated for a fan-published Misty title.

My one criticism is that cover of the collection, for me, is a disappointment. While capturing the essence of the strip, there are a few painted pieces by John Armstrong out there which could have made for something more eye catching, including one of the last artworks he was able to draw, published in one of the Misty specials produced by the Misty fan site.

Despite this niggle, it’s still great to see this material back in print, and I look forward to seeing more.

• Bella at the Bar Volume One is on sale in all good bookshops and online stores from 12th July 2018

• Jinty Volume 1: The Human Zoo & The Land of No Tears is currently scheduled for a June 2018 release

• Creating Tammy: A True Story

Jenny McDade, who now writes animation and children’s TV drama, reveals how she became a Tammy writer, one of very few women to regularly write girls’ comics at the time

• Jinty web site jintycomic.wordpress.com 

• Girls Comics of Yesterday

• Girls Comics of Yesterday: Artist John Armstrong

• Girls Comics of Yesterday – Artist Guy Peeters

• Great News for all Readers celebrates the arrival of “Bella” in Tammy, cover dated 22nd June 1974

• Books Monthly profiles Bella across the strip’s decade of storytelling

 

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John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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