Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Girl Flight! Kitty Hawke and Worrals of the WAAF versus Angela Air Hostess

Speaking on this week’s instalment of BBC4’s Comics Britannia, “Boys and Girls”, Jodi Cudlipp, a former member of the editorial staff of Hulton Press’s comic Girl, had this to say: “I thought from the very beginning that Kitty Hawke was wrong … I said, no, this is not the thing that girls of today want … You want stories about animals, or something like a ballerina.”

Kitty Hawke and Her All-Girl Air Crew was the original lead comic strip of Girl , appearing on the front page in full colour from the first issue in November 1951. Modelled to some degree after Dan Dare, the big hit of Eagle, Kitty Hawke was the story of the adventures of a group of women running a charter aeroplane company in the (then) present day.

Reportedly, it went down badly. Marcus Morris, founder of Eagle and Girl, later recalled, “We had received reports that quite a number of girls were reading Eagle and drew the wrong conclusion: we had made Girl too masculine. We therefore made it more romantic in its approach, more feminine. I worked on the theory that you should be a good deal more personal in your motivation in a girls’ paper. The adventure and the danger can be there but the reason for it must be the search for a long-lost uncle or father. If you can add a fair amount of personal rivalry, jealousy and a very close friendship, so much the better. We applied this theory to Girl and sales picked up. Before long they reached 650,000 and stayed there“ (quoted in Sally Morris & Jan Hallwood Living with Eagles: Marcus Morris, Priest and Publisher, Lutterworth Press, 1998).

Part of the revamp was that Kitty Hawke was dropped. The message seems clear: Cudlipp was right. Girls did not want stories about adventurous aviatrices.

Except that, over the previous decade, Captain W E Johns had written and published no fewer than eleven (prose) books about Flight Officer Joan Worralson of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, starting with Worrals of the WAAF in 1941, previously serialised in Girl’s Own magazine. Like her more famous male predecessor, Biggles, Worrals was a pilot known by an abbreviation of her surname, had a sidekick nicknamed after her physical appearance (“Frecks”, rather than “Ginger”), and showed an alarming propensity to stumble on spy rings while on routine missions. There was no romance, Worrals’s family never showed up, and she acted for King and country rather than personal interest.

So why the difference? Perhaps Hulton Press was wrong to conclude that girls did not want stories of this type – perhaps they just did not like Kitty Hawke in particular. Or perhaps boys were buying the Worrals books.

Changes in society provide a more likely explanation. The last Worrals book was published in 1950, just before Kitty Hawke’s abortive flight. Worrals had made her debut in wartime. The girls who read the books were likely to have mothers or other female relatives serving in the armed forces, while others worked in the factories. These were people to be respected and emulated.

By the early 1950s, demobbed men had replaced many of the women in civilian occupations, and the Treasury was struggling to pay for all the men still in the armed forces – women auxiliaries were well down the list of priorities. Class consciousness reasserted itself. For a woman to go out to work was now a sign of economic necessity for her family, rather than for the country. In the middle classes, and those who aspired to be middle class, it was a stigma for a married woman to work. Significantly, the Hulton Press’s expensive titles were aimed at these middle class families, and were reputedly often bought by parents for their children rather than by the children themselves. The parents knew what values they wanted to nurture.

It was no disgrace for single women to work, but only in supposedly feminine occupations. Girl did eventually produce another flying, green-uniformed heroine. But Angela, Air Hostess was not in charge: she wasn’t flying the plane, or dictating the terms of her own adventures. She was right at the bottom of the pecking order, and preoccupied with romance and jealous rivals.

On the whole, the animals and the ballerinas were probably a better bet.

Panels and pictures

Kitty Hawke and Her All-Girl Air Crew, art by Ray Bailey, Girl issue 1, November 2 1951, Hulton Press, scan taken from the Lambiek Comiclopedia

Uncredited illustration from Worrals Carries On by W E Johns, Lutterworth Press, 1942

Angela, Air Hostess written by Betty Rowland, drawn by Dudley Pout, reprinted in The Best of Girl, Prion Books, 2006

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