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BRAVE BELLA BARLOW,TAMMY’S MOST POPULAR HEROINE

Comic: Tammy

Publisher: IPC Media and Fleetway Comics

Duration: 22 June 1974 to 23 June 1984

Artist: John Armstrong

Writers: Jenny McDade, John Wagner, Primrose Cumming, Malcolm Shaw

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Bella, originally titled Bella at the Bar, began as an ordinary serial and ended as arguably Tammy’s most popular and beloved character. Going on from an ordinary serial to endure for ten whole years, Bella Barlow holds a joint record with maidservant Molly Mills (q.v.) for the longest-running character in Tammy.

Bella Barlow was the product of a flourish of gymnastics stories in girls’ comics in the wake of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. Before Bella, Tammy had only one gymnastics story, Amanda Must not be Expelled (1972). But when Korbut and Comaneci made gymnastics the favourite sport for girls, girls’ comics wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon. In Bunty, Josie the Gymnast scored top marks with readers while Tammy’s answer to Olga Korbut was Bella Barlow!

So Bella’s genesis was inspired by Olga Kolbut, her appearance modelled on John Armstrong’s niece. Her first story followed Tammy’s pioneering style of Cinderella stories, of which Little Miss Nothing was the template, and dark stories with tortured heroines, of which “Slaves of ‘War Orphan Farm’” is the most infamous.

Orphan Bella Barlow lives with her Uncle Jed and Aunt Gert. Jed runs a window-cleaning business but doesn’t make as much out of it as he should because he and Gert are lazy, greedy, tight-fisted, and squander their money on drink, bingo and dog-racing. They make Bella do all the work, both at the window-cleaning business and at home. Bella is overworked, badly fed (although she has to cook hearty meals for the Barlows), denied education, beaten, and even chained up after she runs away in her second story. But Bella never reports them to the authorities because that would mean being put in a social welfare home. Bella has a deep-seated fear of welfare homes – a fear that must have intensified in her 1979 story when she is wrongly convicted and sent to a remand home.

 

Whenever Bella finds the opportunity, she indulges in the one thingshe has in life – gymnastics and working out on the makeshift apparatus she has installed in the back yard. The Barlows disapprove of her “monkey tricks” – except when they find a way to make money from it. Bella starts making headway when she finds proper coaches but still faces obstacles from the Barlows and other people. But of course everything ends happily when Bella saves a man’s life. He happens to be the Soviet ambassador, and he rewards her with a scholarship at a top Soviet gymnastics school.

However, unlike most heroines, Bella’s happy ending was not to last. Popular demand that Bella would never have the ‘happily-ever-after’ ending that the other Cinderella heroines had. Instead, Bella would run the entire gamut of ordeals that any Tammy heroine could face. She could arguably the most tormented heroine ever in Tammy: exploitation from the Barlows and other villains; spiteful rivals; getting arrested; false imprisonment; frame-ups and public disgrace; smear campaigns and harassment; getting stranded in foreign countries; amnesia, injuries, nervous breakdowns; and even attempted murder.

 

 

 

No sooner had her first story ended when the demand for her return began. A subsequent gymnastics serial, The Gypsy Gymnast, must have poured fuel on the lobby – not least because it was also illustrated by John Armstrong. Very likely, The Gypsy Gymnast was riding on the crest of Bella’s popularity, and probably an early response to the ‘Bring back Bella’ campaign. And Bella returned, taking over from The Gypsy Gymnast (what else?) on 22 March 1975.

Bella’s sequel was even darker than her first story. Escaping exploitation is one thing; how on earth do you escape being branded “Bad Bella”, the most hated girl in Britain? This is the problem Bella faces when Natalia Orlov, the first in a long line of jealous rivals, orchestrates a frame-up to get her expelled from the Russian gymnastics college. Poor Bella now has to keep up her gymnastics not only against the Barlows’ cruelty (which is worse than ever) but against her public disgrace as “Bad Bella”.

Despite her disgrace, Bella manages to be selected for the British team at a Gymnastics Championship in Warsaw – where she meets Natalia again! Hmm … could this be Bella’s chance to clear her name? First she has to survive Natalia’s renewed attempts to destroy her, but we all know that she will – somehow.

But not quite in the way we expect. When Natalia tries a dangerous move on the beam, Bella damages her back by acting as Natalia’s landing pad. Natalia confesses, so “Bad Bella” the outcast returns to Britain as “Brave Bella” the heroine – but in a wheelchair. If it isn’t one thing, it’s something else for our poor Bella!

Swimming therapy works wonders for Bella’s back, but not even her injury brings respite from the Barlows’ cruelty. At least Bella gets the satisfaction of seeing the Barlows thrown into prison for theft in this story. Nonetheless, they return again and again to exploit Bella – until 1983. Bella defies the Barlows once too often and they throw her out for good. No great loss to Bella there.

The 1972 Olympics had inspired Bella, so naturally the 1976 Montreal Olympics inspired an Olympic-based Bella story (and Tammy’s equestrian Olympic classic, Olympia Jones). Here Bella begins a most difficult, convoluted odyssey in her quest to reach Montreal. Montreal is the only Olympics Bella ever attends, but she only manages to participate in the opening ceremony. Bella’s wealthy adoptive parents, the Courtenay-Pikes, support her bid for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and she passes the qualifying event in Texas. But then the Courtenay-Pikes suddenly go bankrupt, leaving Bella stranded and no money to reach Moscow. A shipwreck eventually brings her home but a broken ankle ends her hopes for Moscow. As for the 1984 Olympics, Bella gets no chance because Tammy was cancelled.

 

After the Barlows’ arrest, Bella becomes more of a free spirit. Sheadopts the life of a wanderer, roaming the countryside and the globe. She has visited France, Denmark, Poland, Soviet Union, Iceland, Canada, the United States, Australia and the fictitious Islamic country, Ramaski. Since Bella is such a nomad, she is never in one place for long. As soon as her wandering feet start itching, she is moving on to new people, new places, and new avenues to explore gymnastics - or otherwise. Sometimes the move is a bad one, such as in the very last, unfinished Bella story. There is no gymnastics club in Bella’s new location so she explores a new form of acrobatics instead. Incidentally, it is in this last story that Bella acquires a boyfriend, Benjy. Benjy starts as Bella’s partner for her new acrobatics, but could it turn into something deeper? Sadly, Tammy was cancelled before we find out.

Bella survives by doing odd jobs, making her gymnastics pay its way, and there is always her handy old stand-by – window cleaning. In one story Bella meets up with the Coxes from Australia and is offered a job coaching gymnastics in Port Tago, where the sport is unheard-of. From the outset there are warning signals that her Australian job will not work out. Sure enough, everything falls through when she must compete successfully at the Sydney Games for her contract to be renewed, but fails dismally because of two vengeful rivals and their smear campaign. So Bella is now left stranded in Australia with no money, no job and no means to get home. But as usual, something turns up for Bella; she finds another gymnastics-related job and eventually returns to Britain. Incidentally, it is in the Australian episode that Bella finally expands her wardrobe beyond her trademark overalls and black t-shirt which gives her a decidedly scruffy appearance.

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What was the appeal behind Bella Barlow? In 1978 Tammy herself addressedthat question with an open invitation for readers to express their views on why they loved Bella so much. The best letters were published in the feature ‘We Love Bella because ...’ in the 1978 Christmas issue. They are summarised as follows:

  1. Determination. Well, that goes without saying. Who wouldn’t be impressed by Bella’s determination and her iron will to persist with her gymnastics in the face of everything that is thrown against her?
  2. Inspiration. Naturally gymnasts would be among Bella’s greatest fans. One reader said that she had passed all her BAGA awards thanks to Bella. Whenever she faced a difficult exercise she would think how Bella would tackle it. It is fair to assume that Bella inspired Tammy readers to explore gymnastics.
  3. Integrity. One reader commented that he was impressed that success “has not spoiled her in any way.” I might add that the constant adversity and ill-treatment never embittered her.
  4. Unpredictability. For all Bella’s courage and determination, her stories do not always end in clichéd “happy ever after endings” and things do not always go her way. She has her share of failures; the Sydney Games are one example – too many guns for even our resolute Bella to handle. The unpredictability helped to keep Bella fresh, keep her adventures from falling into tiresome happy endings.

Indeed, some Bella stories are there to remind us that she human. However talented, courageous and iron-willed Bella may be, she is does have her limits. In one story she has a disastrous and embarrassing performance. Exhaustion was the cause but Bella gives up gymnastics because she has lost confidence in herself. Bella’s coach and her new friend Jenny wheedle her into a situation where she must perform again and her confidence is restored.

Nobody commented on what really sells Bella for me: the gymnastics itself. Nobody can surpass John Armstrong for his natural, graceful yet powerful, anatomical illustrations of gymnastics which is simply mouth-watering and always left me hungering for more. It is for the same reason that Armstrong’s depiction of athletics was so brilliant and so realistic.

 

 

Bella’s free spirit must have been another factor in her popularity.Bella was a nomadic adventurer, never tied anyone or anything; “I’m no toady.” What kid wouldn’t give to be like that? Be free to be themselves, not be dependent on any interfering grown-ups, to wander anywhere in the world and have amazing adventures? Besides, we all love a good adventure story and whenever her wandering foot began to itch we knew it was time for a whole new Bella story. This helped keep Bella fresh; being a wanderer her situations could change. She could meet new people, revisit old friends, travel to all kinds of places, face new challenges, and live in abodes ranging from tents to rich mansions.

It is a testament to the popularity of Bella Barlow that she was the awarded her own annual: Bella’s Book of Gymnastics 1981. Features included a repeat of Bella’s first story, and something we never seen before or since in Bella: a supernatural story. The book was stacked with heaps of information about gymnastics including an interview with Susan Cheesebrough, ‘The Best of B.A.G.A.’ the story of Nadia Comaneci at the Forth Worth World Gymnastics Championship, Modern Rhythmic Gymnastics and a gym quiz. Here’s hoping Bella will be awarded with her very own reprint book or graphic novel as well. It is the very least Brave Bella deserves.

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Sources and Acknowledgements

To David Roach, Jenni Scott and Pat Mills for information on background to girls’ comics, and artistic and writing credits

Gifford, Denis, Encyclopedia of Comic Book Characters, Longman Press UK, 1987

Gravett, Paul and Peter Standbury, Great British Comics, Aurum Press Ltd, London, 2006

John Armstrong Interview, Misty Halloween Special 2, www.mistycomic.uk, 2009

Scott, Jenni, Raptus 2003: Norway’s 8th Year of an International Comics Festival,

www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/smallpress/106489809477469.htm, accessed 8 May 2006