By Jenny McDade and John Armstrong. Reprographics by Joseph Morgan.
Bella Barlow is trapped in an abusive household. She spends her life washing windows for wages never seen, knowing that any objections will have her brought beneath her uncle’s belt. Bella’s only escape lies in her passion for gymnastics, grasping moments of freedom as she somersaults across the bar. At first Bella’s aunt and uncle view her dancing with disdain. Then they realise that her talents are ripe for exploitation.
Bella at the Bar collects stories originally published in Tammy from 1974 to 1975. The British anthology format allowed Bella just three pages a week, encouraging fast-paced story-telling befitting the energetic subject matter. Once again the Treasury of British Comics have released a volume that never wastes a panel in bringing their readers value for money.
The cover blurb and introduction both compare Bella to Cinderella, and it is true that this comic follows the same path as many a fairy-tale. It would be a mistake, however, to overlook Bella assuming you have heard the story before. This is not an old story disguised in modern clothes. It is a modern story that uses classic archetypes because they became classics for a reason. Some tales are told again and again because they continue to resonate, and stories about the futility of childhood will never fail to find an audience.
Writer Jenny McDade conveys that futility with unnerving accuracy. Bella’s every attempt to express herself is ignored, misunderstood, or met with hostility. Everyone who should be able to help either fails or makes things worse. McDade teases us by offering Bella allies only to have events conspire to quickly snatch them away. Yet through this all, Bella endures, and the reader is behind her all the way.
This raw portrayal of youth makes Bella at the Bar brutally accessible. Clean storytelling welcomes readers regardless of their previous comic knowledge. Gymnastic terminology is restricted to scenes in which context alone carries you through the narrative. Though the letterer is not credited, their typed text is easy on the newcomer’s eye. Mention of 1970s prices occasionally remind the reader that they are enjoying a piece of history, but otherwise there is little that would feel out of place today. That these familiar elements include class war, domestic violence, global politics, and police brutality reinforce the honesty of McDade’s writing.
The accessibility of this comic is carried through to John Armstrong’s art. It is naturalistic enough for readers to recognise the world they share with the characters, while minimalist enough to ensure undivided attention is fixed upon the athletics. For a comic story to hinge on gymnastics, anatomy and action are vital. Armstrong uses smooth lines and blocks of black and white to convey events as concisely as possible. Immediate recognition of everything in the frame, without pause to interpret stylised or abstract elements, allows readers to consume the story in time with the dizzying pace of the athletes.
Though Bella at the Bar has been restored from the archive, there is far more to it than nostalgia alone. This is a book to be enjoyed by the young and old alike, be they bitter veterans of the medium or those grabbing a comic for the first time.