Julia Round is a principal lecturer of media and communication at Bournemouth University. But just as important as being fully employed is that Round is also a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and most aspects of geek culture. Combining her fan nature with her academic work has enabled her to produce fantastic materials such as Real Lives, Celebrity Stories: Narratives of Ordinary and Extraordinary People Across Media and Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels: A Critical Approach. Round’s most recent project is the book Gothic for Girls: Misty and British Comics. Wanting to learn more about Round’s career and Gothic for Girls, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what pop culture franchises were you a fan of? Are there any that still make you feel young?
Julia Round: Oh wow, quite a few. I was born in 1977 so my childhood was in the 80s, and it was all about the consumerism! Lots of toy franchises loom quite large in my memory – I was a very big Care Bears fan when I was younger, I had loads of soft toys and figures and I read the comics for nearly two years (and of course I still have them). There were lots of other weird random toy trends that came and went – Holly Hobbie, Boglins, Popples, Pound Puppies, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. TV series like Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (my Dad used to draw us pictures from it to colour in), Thundercats, Transformers, Dungeons & Dragons (that was a favourite!). And of course big movie franchises like Star Wars – my brother and I were big fans after watching the entire trilogy in a cinema one rainy afternoon while holidaying, and had a documentary on VHS that we watched and rewatched religiously – I remember it being called Star Wars to Jedi: Making the Movie [though the Internet tells me apparently I’ve misremembered this and it’s actually ‘The Making of a Saga’]. I’m also a massive hoarder so I’ve still got a fair number of my toys and things – unlike my brother whose Transformers and Star Wars figurine collection was sadly sold…
But do they make me feel young? Hmm, not sure. When The Phantom Menace came out, seeing the opening credits roll (with NEW text) and hearing the fanfare of music definitely gave me goosebumps – but Jar Jar Binks and Bouncing Yoda quickly put paid to that! So probably not overall. I’ve enjoyed the most recent Star Wars trilogy, but mostly in a nostalgic way.
Yanes: As a fellow academic, I am aware that many scholars are researching popular culture. Why do you think this field has grown so quickly?
Round: I think that (to some degree, and albeit slowly), the traditions of elitism are vanishing from academia. Film Studies paved the way for Television Studies, and emergent fields like Comics Studies have followed this trend. A colleague of mine recently objected to the idea that now anything can be a discipline (‘James Bond Studies’, ‘Star Wars Studies’), and I have some sympathy – although these are great texts to analyse, I’m not sure it’s helpful to approach them as separate disciplines. But there are lots of new and old media with their own narratologies and research methodologies that are very deserving of analysis. And students are very interested in studying them – I lead the MA English and Literary Media course at Bournemouth University, which is all about analyzing literature in its cultural and material contexts, and looking at the markets that shape it. The BA English degree we offer at Bournemouth also has a very strong media flavor – it’s studying literature as it is experienced, i.e. within a network of adaptations, intertextual references, and modernisations.
I think this is another reason for the expansion of popular culture studies: we are saturated with entertainment media these days, it’s no longer restricted to a handful of television channels or a selection of weekly comic books. Digital platforms and mobile devices mean we can access anything we want, across a myriad of formats, at any point of the day or night. So the visibility and role of popular culture in our lives has increased significantly, as has the use we make of it (memes, quotes, fan identities, etc).
In terms of why scholars might be drawn to this subject, I think that familiarity breeds curiosity, and it’s easy to see why we might want to unpick the texts and artefacts that made us who we are. Nostalgia is another draw – there’s something comforting about surrounding yourself with old friends. Another appeal might be the critical distance that comes from looking back on something from adulthood. Although I’d watched a lot of 1970s and 1980s children’s TV, I don’t think I truly understood how strange British children’s media was in the 1970s (and to a lesser degree the 1980s) until I started my project on 1970s girls’ horror comics. Sometimes you just stumble across truly weird stuff that needs to be unraveled – like Misty and the other British girls’ comics!
Yanes: From a professional standpoint, do you worry that this field is becoming too saturated with scholars? For instance, if a student said they wanted to pursue a career in academia studying popular culture, would you think that is a good idea?
Round: I take the point that academic jobs seem harder to come by than ever, but to be honest that doesn’t seem limited to the field of popular culture and (to my mind) is much more to do with Universities ring-fencing their budgets and exploiting academics, especially early career researchers, by only offering fixed-term or hourly contracts. This is obviously a disgraceful state of affairs, but it’s not limited to the Humanities.
So I wouldn’t say that an increase in popular culture scholarship is a worry – what’s the worst that can happen, we produce too much material? To be honest I don’t think it’s for me to curate the field, and I’d encourage anyone to pursue the subject that inspires them. There may be a lot of popular culture academics but there’s also a lot of pop culture out there! – and more new franchises are emerging all the time, or expanding beyond all our expectations. Look at the scale and impact of something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it’s worthwhile taking the time to explore these products and to try and understand them.
That said, I would welcome more work within popular culture studies that goes beyond critical/thematic/ideological readings of stories, and instead contextualises them more fully. For example, I think there’s a need for more audience studies using quantitative data, more sociological and industry-based investigations that look at the cultures of work and the invisible authors and influences and forces behind the scenes that shape and market these texts.
Yanes: The study of popular culture seems to be largely dominated by content from the United States. What are some other elements of British pop culture you think more academics should examine?
Round: One aspect of researching my book that I particularly enjoyed was revisiting the Public Information Films produced by the British Government in the 1970s. These were short commercial-style pieces that warned of particular dangers – going with strangers, playing with fireworks or on railway lines, that sort of thing. They are so dark! – and filled with horror movie tropes and tricks, including voiceovers by actors such as Donald Pleasance, and some truly shocking special effects. I’d highly recommend a YouTube dive into these – as well as a dip into the very excellent book Scarred for Life (Brotherstone and Lawrence) which is an encyclopedia of all sorts of children’s horror in the 1970s.
But it’s sad to say that British comics generally have been completely overlooked by scholars and historians and even some fans, and have been almost completely forgotten today. But they dominated children and young adults’ entertainment in the UK for over thirty years! – at their peak we’re talking about hundreds of weekly titles, some with sales circulations of over a million copies. And that doesn’t take account of the secondary markets (second-hand and swaps) that also existed. It’s incredible that an industry with that much clout saw such a complete collapse and I think that studying it has a lot of offer outside of the field of popular culture – its production values, franchise capabilities, serial story structures and so on are definitely of worth to those working in media economics, or as publishers, narratologists or structuralists. So I’d definitely welcome more work in this area. Billy Proctor and I have just finished curating a series of blog posts on UK comics from leading scholars for Henry Jenkins’ blog ‘Confessions of an Aca-Fan’ – worth a look for those interested in finding out more about this history.
I’m also interested in how comics fed into other aspects of pop culture. Joan Ormrod is doing some great work on how the romance comics were important access points to pop music, and David Roach has theorized that 1960s London fashions might even have been influenced by the style of drawing that the Spanish artists brought to British comics.
Yanes: Your latest book is Gothic for Girls: Misty and British Comics. What attracted you to this topic?
Round: It was a weird combination of inevitability and complete accident to be honest. My first book (Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels: A Critical Approach, 2014) grew out of a chapter from my PhD and was an exploration of the Gothic qualities of the comics medium. Rather than look closely at horror comics, I wanted to analyse the ways in which the comic medium itself can be usefully read as Gothic. So I combined and developed existing theories of comics narratology using Gothic tropes such as haunting, the crypt, and excess. I wanted to demonstrate how things common to comics, like repeated page layouts, or the hidden actions in the gutter between panels, or a constantly changing point of view, could be viewed as Gothic, and to theorise about how that affects the reading experience.
When that project was over, I was still pretty excited about the idea that Gothic can be found in lots of unusual, non-canonical places, and I particularly wanted to keep investigating the Gothic qualities of comics. I remember having a number of exciting conversations with fellow scholars about the dramatic and traumatic stories that appeared in British girls’ comics, and I started thinking about some of the comics I read when I was young. I had one crystal clear memory of a story in a horror comic that had scared the holy hell out of me, which I read aged around 8 or 9. It was about a girl who was not very pretty. She was given a magic mirror and told it would make her beautiful if she followed its instructions correctly. And it worked! But as she got more lovely, she also became mean and vain, and one day she did something wrong with the instructions, and when she woke up the next day and looked in her mirror, her beautiful face was shattered and warped. The story ended there, with the phrase ‘How would you like to wake up every day … like this?’
I’d remembered that story for 30+ years, and once the Internet appeared I’d searched for it every so often online, using phrases such as ‘mirror girls horror comic story wake up like this’ that produced lots of suggestions (Jinty, Girl, Spellbound, Misty, and June were all possibilities) but no results. So I decided that tracking it down and finding out more about girls’ horror and mystery comics would be my next project. It was initially just a personal mission to uncover some childhood memories and write an article or two developing my previous research. I started with the Misty archive as this was a very likely contender and I had other memories of it from childhood… and quickly found myself totally immersed in cultural, archival and critical research. Five years later I found myself at the other end of a book that has easily been the most rewarding and entertaining project I’ve undertaken to date. It’s the first full-length critical study of any single British girls’ comic and (I hope) a balanced combination of cultural history, textual analysis, and development of existing critical theory around both Gothic and comics. By bringing together scholarship on children’s literature, Gothic and comics, it also combined all my teaching and research fields in a way that hadn’t really happened for me before. It just felt right.
Yanes: While doing research for this project, what were some facts about Misty that took you by surprise?
Round: So many things! Once I started researching Misty, I discovered tons of other stories that, like ‘Mirror…Mirror’, also hit and haunted me. The tension in each individual issue of the comic is fascinating – Beano-style slapstick comedy strips exist alongside coming-of-age style serials (where unlucky heroines ultimately overcome some supernatural affliction or solve a spooky mystery), and horrific one-shot cautionary tales like the one I remembered, where disobedient protagonists are punished dramatically in some sort of magical manner. Its readers must have been so skilled at processing different content and registers.
Misty’s titular host character is also fascinating – she is quite different from all the preceding hosts and cover girls that appear in British girls’ comics. She’s reassuring and supportive: introducing us to every issue and acting as a kind of spirit guide. The way in which an entire mythology around her is constructed through questions and answers between readers and the editorial team is also interesting – it almost reads like a game between creator and reader, where fans desperately want to know more about her while also acknowledging that this is not really possible. Her world is also very Gothic – filled with freefloating signifiers, nameless things and thingless names as she conjures a world and history through references to herself as a ‘child of the mist’, her home in the ‘Cavern of Dreams’ and so forth. She’s drawn by acclaimed portraitist and comics artist Shirley Bellwood, who sets a very different tone from the rest of the comic through the painted covers that appeared on the specials and the annuals, and delicate pen-and-ink sketches that were used on the inside covers.
The incredible artwork and striking layouts were another big draw. As well as celebrated British artists such as John Armstrong, Mario Capaldi, Brian Delaney and John Richardson, a lot of the art came from Europe, in particular Spain and Barcelona. This was not unusual in British comics of the time, but these Spanish artists had incredible skill. Misty’s story episodes are also spread over four pages rather than the more usual three – this means that there are a lot of splash pages and big visuals. I was lucky enough to get some research money for a small project to analyse the different types of layout, such as panel borders and other features, which was conducted by comics scholar Paul Fisher Davies – we mapped the results back onto formalist comics theory, which revealed some very interesting things – lots of pages are extremely hard to fit into any sense of tiers or an underlying grid! Analysing the way in which artwork was cut up, recoloured and reused across the run of 101 issues was also fascinating and revealed a lot about how often the comics industry would reprint material.
There’s lots more! I was so lucky to speak to many of the people involved in creating this comic. Thanks to Paul Gravett, I was introduced to British comics legend Pat Mills and was inspired by his generosity and enthusiasm. Pat put me in touch with the artist David Roach, who shared his encyclopedic knowledge of Spanish comics artists with me, and through them both I managed to track down the surviving Misty editorial team: Wilf Prigmore, Jack Cunningham (now sadly deceased), and Ted Andrews. I also spoke with some of the Spanish artists who contributed to the comic, and had access to some of Shirley Bellwood’s papers and Misty memorabilia thanks to friends of hers, and Malcolm Shaw’s widow also spoke to me extensively.
Yanes: Though Misty was only in print for a few years, how do you think its influence has continued to echo? Specifically, are there any current forms of entertainment you think are directly influenced by Misty?
Round: In my book I argue that although Misty’s serial stories followed many of the trends in girls’ comics of the time, its one-shot tales drew on tropes from fairytales and cautionary tales, as well as the Female Gothic, to create a ‘Gothic for Girls’. I’m quite fascinated by the amount of dark and traumatic literature we give our children, particularly girls – fairytales are filled with fear and trauma, and children’s literature more generally often contains grotesque villains, and a strong strand of punishment or suffering in the guise of moral lessons (whether explicit or implicit). Misty directly rewrote a number of fairytales (‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’), combining them with the tropes of girls’ comics (‘The Red Shoes’ is woven into a ballet story, for example). So it offered its readers many interpretative positions to choose from, depending on their knowledge of girls’ comics, or fairy tales, or both. Chloe Buckley argues that 20th century children’s literature also constructs this sort of active child reader who must use their intertextual knowledge to access the multiple subject positions that the narrative offers them.
I think Misty creates a particular type of Gothic, which draws on a lot of influences. Its stories take place against a dislocated and abstract backdrop that is disrupted by the intrusion of magical realism. Characters exist in a juxtaposed world: their lives and priorities are mundane and everyday (chores and teenage worries) but simultaneously set adrift in fairytale abstraction (nameless places, stereotypes). These worlds are then disturbed by the presence of magic, which is a subversive and confrontational force. Some Misty stories demonstrate female restrictions (imprisonment, isolation), but in others, particularly the serials, the protagonists’ struggles against these limitations celebrate female strength and agency. For me, this fits into a bigger picture of a type of Gothic that runs from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Twilight – stories that revolve around female protagonists awakening to strange worlds, and depict their struggles to negotiate or escape these. The work of writers and directors like Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton, and franchises such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight, Once Upon a Time, Wicked, Maleficent and more, all seem to have this sort of protagonist and construct a young female reader and give her agency. And many of the most popular have similarities. Their female protagonist will experience isolation, transformation, and Otherness during a quest for individuation. This often takes the form of an identity exploration with the ultimate goal of discovery and acceptance of their ‘true’ self. I think this emphasis distinguishes Gothic for Girls from Children’s Gothic or Female Gothic, and it dominates many of the Misty stories.
Yanes: When people finish reading Gothic for Girls: Misty and British Comics, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Round: I thought about this a lot while wrapping up the project, so I actually set it out in the introduction to my book, so I’ll just quote from that if I may:
‘Producing this book has been a peculiarly Gothic process of exploring, uncovering, and decrypting. I can’t imagine that anyone else will ever enjoy it as much as I have, but if (in traditional fairy-tale style) I had three wishes, I know what they would be. First, that the book provides useful new material for readers already interested in the lost history of British girls’ comics. Second, that it might introduce some new readers to this disregarded genre—and maybe even to the joys of comics more generally. And third, that it helps to increase the visibility of an often-marginalized audience and develop our understanding of the range and complexity of Gothic literature.’
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Round: Ha, I’m supposed to be slowing down at the moment since I had a baby daughter 18 months ago, but to be honest I still have quite a few projects on the go (don’t tell my partner). You can find extracts from a lot of my recent work on my website www.juliaround.com – I’ve also dipped my toe into practice-based research and I’ve published some short Misty-style stories in anthologies and fanzines (also available on my website). Currently, as well as teaching, and co-editing Studies in Comics journal, I’m also co-editor for a new book series called Encapsulations (University of Nebraska Press), which is a short monograph series that uses understudied comics texts or well-defined bodies of comics work to develop existing comics theory.
In terms of my own writing, I’m currently working on an Essential Guide to Comics Scholarship that’s coauthored with two excellent scholars: Rikke Platz Cortsen and Maaheen Ahmed. It’s basically a literature review of the field of comics scholarship aimed at students and those new to this area, and we hope it’ll be out by early 2021. I have a few articles and book chapters on the go as well – I’m really interested in extending Catherine Spooner and Chloe Buckley’s work on non-canonical gothic/s, and in looking more closely at some additional aspects of 1970s British comics, for example based on the exploitation cinema model.
In terms of bigger projects, I’ve recently been invited to join a project called ‘Lost in Translation’ that aims to make German comics scholarship available to a wider international audience by creating a publication that translates key texts into English. Working on the Essential Guide with an international team has shown me how limited comics scholarship can be by a lack of dialogue across languages, so I’m really pleased to be involved in this.
Finally, I’m also working with colleagues at Bournemouth University on a large-scale database of British comics and other periodicals – the aim is to create a live shared resource that many comics scholars can contribute to, which will enable researchers to combine and interrogate data in new ways by raising SQL queries. Both these projects are really aimed at centralizing and cohering the brilliant work that’s being done within Comics Studies. I’m really excited to be a part of it!