Girls' Crystal and "The Schoolgirl" No. 940
Medium: comic
Year: 24 October 1953
Published: Amalgamated Press, later Fleetway
Writer: Ida Melbourne, Doris Graham, Sheila Austin
Country: UK
Format: 20 pages
Website category: Comics UK
Review date: 30 March 2013
It's a girls' comic from 1953. We were clearing out our attic in order to put in loft insulation and found some things from the fifties. There was a policeman's card, a pile of newspapers and this comic. At first I didn't realise it wasn't another newspaper. It's printed on the same paper stock, it's similarly faded and it looks like another newspaper, but smaller.
There were also lots of issues of Reveille up there, incidentally, which was a newspaper of tame 1950s cheesecake photos, Hello-level fluff and a ton of one-panel cartoons.
Anyway, this magazine had reached number 940, so it had clearly been successful. Girls' Crystal (initially just The Crystal) was a weekly publication from Amalgamated Press, later Fleetway, that started in 1935. At first it only did short stories, but in March 1953 it started doing comics too. In 1940 it merged with The Schoolgirl (1922-23, 1929+) due to paper rationing, then in 1963 it combined with School Friend. The Schoolgirl had been mostly set in Cliff House School, a sister school to Billy Bunter's Greyfriars, and had his sister Bessie Bunter as an equivalent character. She's not in the issue I read, though.
On first glance, it looked like ephemeral fluff, to be honest. However the English-speaking comics industry isn't traditionally much good at catering for girls and I was mildly intrigued by the idea of sampling a long-forgotten tradition of English girls' comics.
It's rather good. The strips are fine, while the short stories are even better.
There are seven comic strips and three short stories. The comic strip episodes are almost all ongoing serials and are 1-3 pages long each, with the one-page strips having twice as many panels per page (twelve instead of six). They're okay. The art styles feel unified and the plots move along briskly, assisted by the occasional panel-sized insert of blocks of close-typed text. Even one or two pages' worth of this feels substantial enough to count as a meaningful episode, whereas two random pages of, say, a modern DC comic would be quite likely to contain almost nothing at all.
The short stories on the other hand are all two pages long, printed in a tiny font that allows a surprisingly high word count. They're self-contained stories and it's a shame this kind of thing has gone out of fashion in British publishing, because I enjoyed them all. They're enjoyable, punchy tales with thoroughly dislikable villains and engaging plots. We have bullying school prefects, cold-as-ice headmistresses, someone trying to sabotage a photography competition and a jobsworth park warden.
Going through in order:
(a) Friends of the Gipsy Skater (comic strip) pp1-2
The first of many exotic locations, this being Switzerland. (The scenery is pretty.) It's also the first of several stories here to be pleasingly non-bigoted, which one might be bracing oneself to expect in 1953. Our heroes are befriending and scheming to assist a gypsy with limited English, while the villains of the piece are authority figures. I approve. Furthermore the protagonists of later stories will have a friend who's black (Brenda and the Boy Buccaneer) or actually be Native American (Wanda of Bear Park).
This artist draws all female faces essentially the same.
(b) Trixie's Diary (prose) pp3-4
Because this is the diary of fictional Trixie, it's not "written by" but instead "edited by Ida Melbourne". The short stories all get author credits, but the comic strips are anonymous. Anyway, this is brilliant. It's easily the best thing in the magazine. I laughed at the bit where the headmistress makes a goof in demonstrating this (gasp) new-fangled tape recorder, then I loved the main story with a power-mad new prefect. You could call it formulaic if you wanted to be bloody-minded, but it's solid, entertaining skulduggery that far outclasses any short story I've seen in DWM, for example.
(c) Shirley's Detective Schooldays (comic) pp5-7
Begins This Week: Thrilling New School And Mystery Story Told In Pictures. This is a entertaining beginning to a story of detectives, mystery thieves and school plays. It made me want to read episode two. In addition, modern readers with filthy minds might also be amused by its heroine's semi-crush on her uncle ("Nunky"). "'Oh, poor Nunky -- no wonder you've been so worried! If only -- if only I could do something to help you!' Shirley's eyes widened in amazement, as Uncle Rex led her into his dressing-room."
Slightly naive art. The figures look like posed dolls and their faces are a bit plastic. However it's otherwise perfectly competent and it reads smoothly.
(d) Lucy's Perilous Mission (comic) p8
The costumes suggest an 18th century historical, but the dialogue is older. "Prithee, good sir, I heard he was ill. I can play the lute and I thought I might be able to help you." Well, that's a theatrical harlequin who's about to go on stage, so okay.
(d) Molly on the Riviera (prose) pp9-10
This one's "as told to Doris Graham". Unusually this story includes some boys (!), but of course there's no romantic element and instead the boys and girls are going to fall out with each other over some intemperate accusations. "Of course, as soon as they had gone, the girls started heartily discussing boys and their stupidity in general, and of those boys in particular." It's okay. I liked it.
(e) Brenda and the Boy Buccaneer (comic) pp11-12
The Boy Buccaneer (called Derek) is a girl. Was the artist given the wrong script or something? That's so surreal. It can't merely be artistic incompetence; he's blatantly 100% female.
(f) Wanda of Bear Park (prose) pp13-14
"By Sheila Austin." This one has charming morality, with our two girls turning down a hundred-dollar reward while a greedy son-of-a-bitch gets humiliated. There's also sensitive treatment of a sympathetic character who'd acted out of character in stealing from her kind, generous employer. The other appealing thing about the story is Wanda's friend and co-investigator Meenha, who's a Native American and the coolest character in the entire magazine. Her English is a bit stereotyped ("Thief was woman!"), but who cares when she can find and follow a trail like Sherlock Holmes?
(g) The Girls who ran the Tuck-Shop (comic) pp15-17
Probably the best art and certainly the best at making the girls look pretty. It's set in Scotland and I'm amused by the idea for the strip. Instead of being a regular adventure (which is easy), it's about three girls trying to run a school tuck shop. Admittedly there's an adventure here too, but it's still something a bit different.
The tuck shop sign says 'Roll up for the best Tuck' with a slightly flowery 'T'. Young, fresh schoolgirls come flocking. I won't pretend that the 'T' could be mistaken for an 'F', but it's been written in a way that invites mischievous amendment.
(h) Not-So-Simple Susie (comic) p18
More cartoonish than the rest of the magazine, both in art and story. Lightweight, mildly amusing but nothing special. Fortunately the title isn't ironic and Susie is indeed clever.
(i) The Girls' Crystal Club (competition page) p19
Complete four very easy anagrams and win a table-tennis set!
(j) Bruce the Circus Dog (comic) 20
If you don't count Derek the Transvestite Buccaneer (who was in any case second fiddle to Brenda), this is the only male protagonist. He's a dog.
It's quite good. If there were other issues in our loft, I'd read them. I could even imagine someone hunting them down and building a collection, although I don't think I'd go that far myself. I never read girls' comics like Bunty, Mandy, Jackie, Twinkle, etc. when I was young, but this is surprisingly solid fare that is very readable regardless of gender. It doesn't attain greatness, mind you. For the most part it's 'merely' good and entertaining, although its comics stand up a good deal better than I'd have expected given their origin and vintage. Trixie's Diary is bloody good, though.
I have a tentative theory, which came to me when reading Selina's The Girly Comic, that female-oriented comics tend to be more interesting. I genuinely enjoyed this magazine. It's good. At the very least, it's an intriguing historical artefact.