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Monday, July 09, 2018

Bella at the Bar

"Bella at the Bar" was one of the longest-running tales in the pages of Tammy. The strip began in June 1974 and Bella's adventures continued appearing at the rate of about one serial a year for a decade.

Jenni McDade – who scripted Bella Barlow's early stories – made her heroine a smart, cheerful, helpful, ambitious girl who was not about to let her circumstances get her down. Living in a seedy terraced house with her over-demanding uncle Jed and aunt Gertrude, who treated her like a skivvy, Bella's natural flair for athletics finds an outlet in gymnastics.

After rescuing a schoolgirl at the gym, she is offered a place by coach Miss Mortimer; however, both her uncle (who doesn't see any profit in it) and the headmistress of the school (who doesn't want her teachers training outsiders) are potential pitfalls to her plan. Convinced of Bella's potential, Miss Mortimer agrees to train her in secret and even the ghastly Jed and Gert are persuaded to let her practice, believing it could be a money-earner in the future.

Loose lips, unfortunately, mean that Miss Crosbie, the headmistress, gets to hear about Miss Mortimer's extra-curricular training of a "guttersnipe" and Bella is sent packing. She again proves her talents – and her utter lack of knowledge about gymnastics competitions – at a local event, where she is spotted by Bob Benson, head of a local sports centre. Paying for classes with Benson with a babysitting job, Bella almost loses her belief that she has the talent to make a good gymnast... but her confidence is restored when she is chosen to appear at a large charity event.

Of course, uncle Jed and aunt Gert see only potential profit and sign Bella up to Morton Stone's theatre variety show where Bella's acrobatic talent earns her plenty of applause and an enemy in the daughter of the show's owner, Amelia. Eventually she pushes herself too far and, scared of permanent injury, runs away.

And so the adventures continue, including run-ins with the police and the welfare department, being kicked out of a Russian gymnastics school, enduring a reputation as low as a snake's, winning and then being disqualified from a competition, running away to work as a care assistant under an assumed name while continuing her gymnastics with the assistance of a mystery supporter, being kidnapped by Jed and Gert...

Bella finally makes it to the British team as a reserve, only to find her reputation precedes her.

"Bella at the Bar" is a classic Cinderella story of a young girl held back by people who for their own benefit would rather she failed and are willing to use violence and cruelty to do so. The strength of the story is that it never stretches credulity as so many comic strips do – the heroine is attacked from all sides but never in a way that is unbelievable; and although there are a few Fairy Godmother characters along the way to offer her training (Miss Mortimer, and Bob Benson, for example), Bella always survives the situations she finds herself in through her own efforts. Her talent, generosity, selflessness and hard work wins the day.

The artwork for Bella is as memorable as the storylines. John Armstrong (whose "Moonchild" was reprinted in the first Misty volume), was able to capture the energy of every leap and spin. Perhaps unsurprising, as his first ever strip twenty years earlier had featured ballet dancing. Bella's emotional journey makes the book a page-turner, and the combination great story and great art makes this a must have.

Bella at the Bar by Jenny McDade & John Armstrong. Rebellion ISBN 978-178625-4, 12 July 2018, 114pp, £10.99. Available via Amazon.

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