The Misadventures Of Sugar Jones

The comic strip stories of a manipulative fame-seeker and shameless self-publicist seem more pertinent today than when they first appeared.

In the world of 1970s British comics, those titles aimed at girls have always come a distant second in the affections of fans. Some might – indeed, have – blamed this on sexism and toxic masculinity, and some have even tried to suggest that it is somehow connected to the battle for equal rights. A more prosaic explanation might be that boys simply didn’t read girls’ comics, which were not remotely pitched as being appealing to them – and that the fan base for comic books was, until fairly recent times, overwhelmingly male. We should, then, hardly be surprised that 2000AD and Action have been more appreciated than Bunty or Tammy – and in truth, they were much better comics.

Still, in recent years people have become more aware of the better British girls’ comics that eschewed the cliched romance and soap opera strips that dominated the popular titles. Misty, with its gothic tales of the supernatural, has had a long-overdue revival, and the more interesting strips from other comics have also been republished. Foremost among them – though far from the best known – is the caustically cynical Sugar Jones, which followed the fame-and-money-grubbing adventures of the titular character and was a mainstay of Pink, which ran from 1973 to 1980.

Pink was, like several other girls’ titles of the era, less comic strip based and more a weekly magazine that mixed features on pop music and fashion with comic strips. Aimed at teenagers rather than the younger market that British comics of the time were generally pitched at, Pink had features that were a touch more risque than you’d find in more juvenile titles – pop stars were there to be fancied rather than admired for their musical prowess, an agony aunt answered those awkward teenage problems about fancying boys and the comic strips had a more mature edge.

Sugar Jones was the creation of Pat Mills, who was one of IPC’s top creatives. Over the decade he would launch and write stories for Battle, Action, 2000AD, Misty, Jinty and others. He was someone who could turn his hand to all sorts of genres and much of his work was infused with a cynical, satirical edge that made it stand out from everything else out there – though like most British comic writers of the era, he went uncredited on his work for years*. On this strip, which ran from 1974 to 1977, he worked with Spanish artist Rafael Busóm Clúa, one of many European artists who worked on British comics at the time. Clúa specialised in work on girls’ comics and brought a distinctly continental feel to the strip, giving it a sense of glamour and exoticism.

Sugar Jones is a TV star and general celebrity who is loved by the whole country and who would turn up to the opening of an envelope. Despite her hunger for fame, the public adore her, never quite seeing through her facade and discovering the truth that only her put-upon young assistant Susie Ford knows. In fact, the apparent 20-something model, singer and dancer is actually 40 years old, only able to pass herself off as younger thanks to the wonder of make-up and wigs, rides on the talents of others and far from being a charitable, caring person is actually a scheming, bitter individual who manipulates and exploits people and situations to her own advantage. Or at least tries to – each three-page strip usually ends with Sugar’s plans falling apart, though she is still able to maintain her public image.

The Sugar Jones strips are tremendous fun, with Clúa’s dramatically striking visuals blending perfectly with the bitingly sarcastic narratives that often play on the popular culture of the time. TV shows like Doctor Who, Charlie’s Angels, Police Woman and Planet of the Apes – retitled ‘Dr When’, ‘Charley’s Cherubs’, ‘Law Lady’ and ‘World of the Monkeys’ – singers like Mick Jagger (‘Rick Zagger’)and Charles Aznavour (‘Charles Vaznamoor’, revealed as a former flame of the younger Sugar) and groups like Pan’s People (‘Pam’s Folks’) all turn up to give the strip a sort of parallel universe familiarity and to raise the envy of Sugar, who can’t stand the idea of anyone or anything being more popular than her and so concocts wild and doomed schemes to steal their glory. When not attempting to ruin the careers of others, she’s desperately trying to seduce young and good-looking male celebrities or hook up with rich and titled older men who she can marry for their money and titles. The hapless Susie – often dismissed as ‘Brat’ – is on hand to carry out Sugar’s demands while undermining her plans for the greater good – as the only person who can knows her secrets and can see through her public persona, she has to manipulate Sugar’s schemes to make sure that people are not conned, exploited or used.

The striking thing about this strip is just how current it feels. While I don’t doubt that the 1970s had its fair share of fame-hungry attention seekers, the strip seems to be uncannily predictive of our modern world of influencers and social media self-publicists. Sugar would thrive in a world where you can reinvent your past, photoshop your images and autotune your vocals and where you really can become famous for simply being famous. Her manipulative greed for fame, her self-importance and her lack of regard for others even as she posits herself as a charitable, caring celebrity – there is not a political protest or environmental campaign that Sugar won’t attach herself to if she believes it will get her more attention or can be turned to her advantage – feels only too familiar in a world of empty celebrity platitudes. If anything, Sugar would seem a rank amateur by modern standards, given how her schemes always fail. Modern celebs are masters of saying one thing and doing another, and getting away with it.

Of course, Sugar Jones is also a product of its time and its audience. For the readers of Pink, 40 must have seemed unimaginably old – older than their mothers in many cases I suspect. The idea that someone of that age being past it is, hopefully, something that we have moved on from… though probably not if you are fifteen and everyone of that age seems to be a geriatric. Mills knew his audience and their fears of growing old. It must be said that, in the hands of Clúa, Sugar’s make-up skills are exemplary and she looks effortlessly glamorous throughout, especially in the splash image that dominates the first page of most strips. As much as Mills’ satire makes the stories still feel relevant despite the myriad of 1970s pop culture references, it is Clúa’s art that makes this strip so enticing.

Pink ceased publication in 1980 and by that time, Sugar Jones had already faded into comic book history. Reading it now, I’m surprised that it didn’t find a home elsewhere – after all, female-led comic strips had begun to appear in boys’ comics during the 1980s as the cultural lines that separated the genders began to blur. Some of the more mature comics that began to appear in that decade like Toxic could’ve found room for a sexy, cynical strip like this – but I suspect that everyone involved had more or less forgotten about it. Luckily, Rebellion unearthed a selection of the stories in 2020 as part of their Treasury of British Comics series and I heartily recommend it. It feels unlike anything else of its era (or now, for that matter) and if anyone is looking for a British comic book to film that has appeal beyond the science fiction/superhero market, they could do worse than to consider this.

* To confuse the issue on this, Mills has denied being the writer of most of the stories in the Rebellion book. The character is his creation but other people worked on it – including artist Ramon Sola – uncredited and this is the confusion of many British comic books I’m afraid.



Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!