Creating Comics: “The Four Marys” writer Judy Maslen reveals some British Girls comics secrets…

Between the 1960s through to 2001, Judy Maslen was an extremely prolific writer for British girls comics during the golden era of the weekly, writing hundreds – perhaps even thousands of different comic strip episodes, primarily for DC Thomson, but also working for Fleetway and others.

A mainstay writer for Bunty from the 1960s through to its cancellation in 2001, Judy’s 40-plus year career, like many other creators for girls titles, went uncredited. She’s very kindly agreed to talk to fellow comics writer and author Rik Hoskin about the sometimes secretive world of writing girls comics…

Judy Maslen and daughter Lynn make an appearance in a guide to how Bunty's photo stories are created, in the 1990 Bunty annual. Image © DC Thomson Media
Judy Maslen and daughter Lynn make an appearance in a guide to how Bunty’s photo stories are created, in the 1990 Bunty annual. Image © DC Thomson Media

Rik Hoskin: Tell me a bit about yourself. What years were you writing, for which titles, and which strips?

Judy Maslen: I began working on Bunty in the early 1960s. I was working from my first acceptance until DC Thomson’s pulled the plug overnight and closed down the girl’s comics [in 2001].

I worked mainly for Bunty, but sometimes my work appeared in Mandy or Judy, and it was also in the Annuals.

At times I was working on five or six stories a week – one instalment a day for each serial, ending each one with a cliff-hanger of course – and luckily, I never found it a problem to keep them all separate in my head. These stories sometimes ran into 20 instalments.

Twice a year, the editors would travel from Dundee to London to meet the writers at St. Ermin’s Hotel, in London. We would be handed bundles of newspaper cuttings and bits of paper with ideas and suggestions for plots, and I also turned up with my own selection. The idea was to pick items in the news and place our heroine in the middle of it and see how it turned out.

For instance, I saw an item about a child who was so allergic to sunlight that she could not leave her home in the day and this became one of my most popular stories, I think it was called “The Girl in the Bubble“. [This is most likely a working title and should not be confused with the Jinty story of the same name created by Pat Mills – Ed].

The Gilchrist Good Cause” [possibly the working title] came from another news story, about a private school who had brought over a child from Vietnam to educate her; my story was how I imagined things would go for her once the novelty wore off.

In the 1970s, I also did work for a while on [the Bunty humour strip] “Mighty Mo, the Strongest Girl in Cactus Creek“.

The best moment when working for Thomsons was when I was asked to take over “The Four Marys” from the previous writer – a gentleman of 80, which explained why the Marys were a bit dated. I was the [main] writer on that series until Thomsons closed the title, and in that time I managed to get them from the Third Form into the Fourth Form. They were slow learners, Rik!

Bunty - The Four Marys

I also did some work for two Fleetway teenage magazines – I think Mirabelle was one of them. Still picture scripts, they were obviously for a different age range, introducing boys and broken hearts and I got my inspiration for these from the song titles which were current at the time.

I was also an agony aunt for Fleetway for a while. Girls were invited to write in with their problems and I then had to pick one or two and write a picture script featuring a heroine with that very problem and how she solved it.

My scripts were bashed out on an old typewriter and I employed a typist to create the good copies which were then posted daily up to Dundee [for DC Thomson]. No internet in those days. In the big postal strike – I think that might have been 1971 -twice a week all my scripts had to be driven up to Head Office in London during the evening, where a van was waiting to drive up to Dundee in time for work the next day. I think that lasted for almost three months.

Rik: How did you get into writing?

Judy: I attended a Writers’ Circle in the 1960’s – a group where mainly unpublished local writers could share their work and receive feedback. We had a couple of published writers as our patrons, though I don’t think we ever saw them at our meetings. I met a lovely older couple there and it was through their encouragement that I kept on writing. Without them, I would probably have given up trying to get published!

Rik: Do you have any idea how many episodes you wrote in total?

Judy: An instalment had to be OK’d by the editor before I could write the next, with no such thing as emails a reply could take over a week. To get over this problem, I was usually running six different stories a week, writing a new instalment for each one in succession. My maths aren’t good enough to work this out – six different stories a week during all those years?

By the way, if I ever got stuck on what would happen next, I always turned to a great little book, Thirty Six Dramatic Situations, by George Polti. It was always beside my typewriter and I do remember that it never let me down.

Bunty No. 1716, cover dated 1st December 1990. Cover by Ian Kennedy
Bunty No. 1716, cover dated 1st December 1990. Cover by Ian Kennedy

Rik: Who were your favourite characters to write for? Is there a story you were especially pleased with?

Judy: I don’t even remember any plots and I can’t recall the characters either, other than “The Four Marys”, who were my constant companions for many years.

Right from the start of writing for comics, I was told by fellow-writers [in the Writers’ Circle] that “it’s not proper writing – you should not be wasting your time on trash…” So I never thought of myself as a writer – just as someone doing a job. After the comics closed down I just considered it to be the end of a job like any other and I moved on to different things.

I never kept copies of scripts and as I didn’t have a computer at that time, nothing was ever saved. All I did have was 40 years of the actual comics and Annuals going yellow in the loft, which eventually got sent to the tip when we moved.

Rik: “The Four Marys” is probably the most-fondly remembered comic strip from Bunty. When did you take over, and did you write it until the end?

Judy: At least I remember them! In the past I have had grown women hug me when they learned I used to write about the goings-on at St. Elmo’s. I was indeed there until the final curtain.

Bunty - The Four Marys

Rik: How did you get into the comics field? Were you a comic book reader as a child? If so, what were your favourite comics?

Judy: I answered an advert for comic writers where we had to submit a script. My first one was rejected with the words that “we don’t feel you would be suited to this type of writing” but something just told me it was a mistake and I could do it so I promptly sent off another which was accepted with the words “By jings girl, you can write!”

I will never ever forget that first acceptance letter … probably one of the most pivotal moments of my life!

As a child I read anything and everything I could lay my hands on, and that included Girl and Girl’s Crystal. I believe Girl’s Crystal was text stories, not pictures.

Rik: From what I can find out, Crystal began as a story paper – which is to say it ran illustrated text stories, but later carried comic strips. Perhaps you read it during both incarnations!

What interactions, if any, did you have with the artists? Did you ever meet, or was it all strictly conducted through the editors? And did you meet any other writers?

Judy: I never met another artist or [comic] writer. In fact you are the only other person I have ever met who does anything remotely similar.

Rik: Did you find approaches differed between DC Thomson, Fleetway and others?

Judy: The few times I went to see Fleetway editors it was in their offices, with them at one side of a desk and me the other and very businesslike. Being based in Dundee, the Thomson editors met me in St. Ermin’s hotel in London, and it was far more of an in-depth chat.

Rik: Are there any characters you wish you’d had a chance to write but never did?

As far as I can recall, I don’t think so.

Rik: This almost sounds like a girls comic plot, but you got into comic book writing through a course that taught Writing for Children, and I understand that that your place was paid for by a mystery patron! Did you ever find out who that patron was?

Judy: I was eventually told that the course was paid for by the elderly couple [from the Writers’ Circle] who had always supported and encouraged me! Which explains why they were so pleased when I got into the comics – although the rest of the group told me it was trash.

The writing course had no bearing on me later writing for comics [but] I think why it was important is that it showed that someone believed in me enough to pay for the course.

Rik: Did you do any work that might be surprising, given the credits we’ve spoken about? Any work on Boy’s comics, for instance? Or for overseas?

Judy: Bunty kept me so occupied, I don’t think I would have had the time to try anything else.

Rik: Lorraine Nolan, of the Girls Comics of Yesteryear website, wondered about your experience of being a female writer for the comics, as she’d heard there was a divide from those who worked in the office – often a more male environment – and those who worked from home. Did you find there was a difference?

Judy: It’s amusing, because what I do remember was the divide between male and female writers. As I explained, I went up to a London hotel several times a year to meet my editor, but was always given a mid-morning appointment. He would always say, hopefully “You’ll not be wanting a coffee”. When I got brave enough to say I would like a coffee, he reluctantly brought out a purse and picked out the coins like gold dust. I later found out that the men had lunchtime appointments -with lunch!

At Christmas, I was given a box of shortbread but one editor did let it slip that the men got a bottle of Scotch.

I never met or heard about any other writers, other than the 80-year old gentleman who used to write “The Four Marys”.

Rik: There exists a huge affection and fanbase for these comics, even today. Does it surprise you to hear that people still hold those weekly comics in such high esteem?

Judy: As mentioned, I was quite shocked to be hugged by an ex-reader, so I suppose there are a lot of women of my age who remember their comics.

Rik: Lastly, what are you up to these days? Do you still write?

Judy: I’m having a great time, Rik! Still writing but for adults now in the form of instructions for the craft patterns I design for the Parchment Craft Magazine. My daughter and I also run a craft website, with [daughter] Lynn doing the technical side whilst I design patterns which customers can buy and download straight to their computers.

When we aren’t in lockdown situations, I also run day workshop at Barton (in Dorset) with many loyal students who travel quite a few miles to attend.

I’d like to thank Judy for her time, and for sharing her memories of such an amazing career.

Rik Hoskin

With thanks to Judy Maslen, and the Girls Comics – UK Facebook Group for questions and information

Web Links

There are several great web sites with plenty information about British girls comics.

Girls Comics of Yesterday is a fan site dedicated to British girl comics of the past, looking mostly at the long running publications of Bunty, Mandy and Judy, but also some of the other DC Thomson like Nikki, Emma, Spellbound and IPC comics like Misty. As well as longer posts about stories and comics, the site includes an index of stories and when they appeared

• Inspired by the Girls Comics of Yesterday site and the now no longer published Tammy Project, partially archived here on Wayback, A Jinty Resource is intended to be a index for a specific UK girls comic, namely the IPC/Fleetway publication Jinty.

It is an ongoing work aiming to provide a general guideline to the contents of these comics. Eventually you should be able to see listings of the contents of a specific issue, look up a particular story, or get lists of the stories a specific creator worked on.

All images © DC Thomson Media

Categories: British Comics, Comic Creator Interviews, Comic Creator Spotlight, Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News

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