Science fiction and fantasy adventures in girls’ comics

How British comics Bunty and Mandy had more fun with science fiction and fantasy stories than they were ever given credit for...

In some ways, the 80s and early 90s weren’t such a terrible time for young girls and speculative fiction. We had a few of our own exciting toy-based animated shows, like She-Ra and Jem And The Holograms – but the really big franchises aimed at us were things like My Little Pony and Care Bears, which while full of magic and joy didn’t have the same kind of appeal for slightly older girls as stuff like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Thundercats. In much of the really popular kids’ media of the time, a girl was something you had one of, just sort of hanging around. I’d watch every Turtles episode hoping that April would get something cool to do this week.

TV science fiction and fantasy aimed at adults was pretty much the same story. I was already obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I spent hours running around the house with a banana clip on my face pretending to be Geordi, or, my favourite, being Counselor Troi to my older brother’s Captain Picard. But even then I understood the limitations of the Star Trek universe – Deanna Troi might have been my favourite character, but she almost never got to lead an episode. In spite of her impressive array of skills she almost never got to be the one who saved the day. I wanted more and different – I wanted science fiction and fantasy where girls could be the heroes, where I could picture myself at the centre of the story.

Enter Bunty, a British girls’ comic filled with a mixture of comic strips, photo stories, letter pages, puzzles and competitions, published by D.C. Thomson & Co and running from 1958 to 2001. With it’s catchphrase, “Bunty – a girl like you!”, it was aimed mainly at working class girls and crammed full of rags-to-riches tales of social mobility, with scholarship girls, poor ballet dancers and orphans making good and living their dreams in every issue.

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I bought it religiously with my pocket money, investing any extra cash in issues of the Bunty Picture Story Library, which squeezed one complete story into each monthly edition. I also inherited a big stack of old annuals from older cousins and friends, covering both Bunty and its sister comic, Mandy, which had already ceased publication by the time I was old enough to have bought it for myself.

Bunty and Mandy, in addition to the more Earthbound stories, were both treasure troves of exciting and innovative science fiction and fantasy. Almost every possible speculative fiction subgenre was represented in their pages at some point, all of them filtered through tween girls’ perspectives.

In The Flights Of Flopear, schoolgirl Tessa Worth stumbled across a combination spacecraft and time machine built in the form of a giant, sentient rabbit, and they explored the cosmos together, getting into and out of scrapes on alien planets. Gelda – The Girl From the Glacier followed a teen frozen in time for decades, emerging to find herself in the modern world. In Stella Starr, an alien girl made the best of being stranded on Earth by trying out a variety of careers. In Lost On The Planet Of Fear, the inhabitants of a human space colony begin to disappear.

Stories like these were some of the first places I encountered a lot of common science fiction and fantasy tropes and settings – superpowers, alien visitors ranging from the evil to the benevolent, witchcraft, time travel, epic fantasy, space adventures, magical objects and ghosts. When I graduated to reading and watching other science fiction and fantasy a few years later, the groundwork that Bunty had laid helped me to get a grip on the genre.

Plenty of the science fiction in Bunty and Mandy was on the comedic side, verging on the ridiculous. Lydia And The Little People followed the trials of a girl kidnapped by leprechauns, and her various ill-fated attempts to escape. Mojo The Milky Way Dog was the story of a talking alien dog who constantly got his human ‘owner’ into trouble. But its stories could also be thoughtful and innovative.

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One that stuck with me was The Survivors. Printed in the 1984 Bunty annual, it was the story of a teenage girl in a futuristic Britain taken over by cruel alien invaders, travelling across the country in an attempt to get her younger siblings to safety and find her missing father. The bleak, dystopian artwork was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and the focus on the downtrodden, disheartened populace was darker storytelling than I’d so far encountered anywhere else.

Valda, one of Mandy’s flagship stories, was another one that captured my imagination. A superpowered immortal woman who lived in the mountains, Valda emerged from hiding every now and then to rejoin the human world, often when people or animals were in need of help, or when she wanted to test herself in a contest of physical skill. Then, she would disappear as mysteriously as she had come, leaving only legends in her wake. The storytelling was mature and thoughtful, often exploring the loneliness of immortality and the wisdom Valda had learned over her long lifetime.

Sometimes Bunty’s storytelling was influenced by the other popular media of the time – a 1977 strip called Supergirl (no relation) featured a schoolgirl rebuilt with bionic enhancements after a car accident who became a secret agent, quite possibly drawing on America’s Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman, which were airing at around that time.

But one of the things that made Bunty and Mandy unique was the freedom with which they combined currently popular science fiction and fantasy concepts with other genres enjoyed by pre-teen girls, mashing together tropes that might otherwise never have existed in the same space – ballet stories that veered into alien abduction tales, boarding school romps with a supernatural twist, heartthrob pop stars who were really robots. The pages of these comics were a place where I didn’t have to choose between stereotypically feminine and masculine interests – I could have both at the same time, without judgement.

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One story that I loved especially was Wendy’s Wonder Horse – the tale of a girl whose father built her a state-of-the-art robot horse after a bad riding accident. Wendy and Miracle had plenty of adventures that were already familiar to me as a reader of a-girl-and-her-horse adventures – they rescued lost children and galloped across the hills with urgent messages, understanding each other perfectly across the species divide. But Miracle had super speed, eyes that could light their way through fog, and legs that could extend to keep Wendy dry and safe in deep water. I was entranced. I even named my own imaginary horse Miracle (half the girls at my junior school had imaginary horses).

I don’t read so many horse stories these days, but I still read – and watch – a lot of science fiction and fantasy. It was shows like Star Trek that first drew me to space adventures, artificial life forms and time travel, but it was Bunty that helped keep me there and made me feel like I could belong. It was Bunty that showed me girls could be at the forefront of these kinds of stories without having to apologise for who they were or what else they were interested in. And that’s a lesson I’m glad I had a chance to learn.