Fran the Fan: Record of Comics History by Claire Napier

Followed a trail til it was dead~

Fran the Fan: Record of Comics History

Step into my mind-car, gentle reader. Take a trip on the thoughtcoaster I call waking life. Oh hey, look! What’s that? “Fran the Fan?” Sounds tasty. Let’s go–

Part one: Reception.

Fran the Fan appears on a rumpled paper artefact I took home rather than throwing away when I worked in a vintage shop. It’s square, and has two layers, and a hole in the middle. The edges are peeling but the glue holds up. Fran the fan is from 196X, or just after, unless she’s very much a throwback, which, given her provenance, seems unlikely. Fran the Fan is the protagonist of a comic story printed on the inner sleeve from a record single (title unknown); she is the property, presumably, of Parlophone for EMI—or perhaps of Morphy-Richards (then by French of London), for whom she acts as Influencer in this strip. As I write, my wifi has been down for four going on five hours, and I cannot find out.

Fran the Fan commands only seven panels, Fran appearing herself in six. This strip (I hope and suspect to be one of many) follows Fran and friend, known as Kate, as they discuss the appeal of a new band and set a plan in motion to step into fantasy and become said band’s “best friends.” The plan is to set up a fan club for this band before anyone else does, as Fran and Kate foresee the Frantics’ tremendous success.

Even within her story, Fran (with Kate) pursues the status of Influencer and there-firster (hipster, really, though without the indication that Fran will move on once the Frantics are indeed big deals). Fran is seen as the active party; the cold open shows her mid-styling on Kate’s hair, urging her to get a better hairdryer. Fran moves the conversation to the foxy Frantics, and from there to the notion of starting a club, and is proactive enough to fetch a pen and paper and actually start writing a letter to the band’s manager. Kate (blonde) is reflective, allowing Fran (dark haired) to keep moving and endorsing (even explaining) Fran’s actions and motivations to the reader. Fran is the Fan, Kate is the Mate. British beauty assumptions are well reinforced: blondes are tractable, brunettes determined; thin girls like fun, double chin girls stick home. (False, but effectively evocative.)

This is supported in their preferences within the Frantics’ lineup: Fran picks one who “drives me frantic,”while Kate’s choice is attributed to her “mother instinct”—clueing us in to looking for the Paul, the babyface, and telling us her mode is “nurturing.” For a seven panel strip, this dialogue is exceptionally well-chosen. It offers a solidly informative portrait of each girl and the form of their friendship, which in turn allow the product placement the story’s pinned on to be buried fairly naturally in the flow of their hangout. We begin with the “buy a new hairdryer,” and conversation flows very smoothly from there to encompass the encouragement of record and memorabilia-buying: Kate tells Fran she doesn’t have the spare money for a new dryer yet because she hasn’t “got a Jim [easy enough for a peer audience to read as ‘a boyfriend who will buy her presents’]”—which leads Fran into reflecting on which boyfriend she’d like even more: Walt, of the Frantics. Cue thoughts of contact, fanclub, boom. The economy of writing is really super. We even learn the band’s manager’s name. Once again, this is all executed in only seven panels.

Fran and Kate are drawn in fairly rough ink lines—clear to read, but presumably done fairly fast for mass-reproduction on throwaway goods. The young people of the time may have kept their singles in the paper sleeves they came in, but that was to protect the vinyl, not to preserve the paper itself. The panels are actually numbered as they fit around the hole, which I would guess is to allow the transition between four and five (from the left of the hole, across it, to the right of the hole) to be indicated seamlessly rather than to guide the reader between every panel in turn. Girls’ papers and magazines still routinely included comics at this time, numbered panels being occasionally a feature but rare, and even those who had perhaps aged out of the best-remembered publications and turned to pop music will have retained the skill to read them. The drawing style would be quite at home amongst the girls’ comics of the day—black and white line drawings were usual, and Kate and Fran smile in every panel, for example—and show their sisterhood with fashion illustration of the late sixties and early seventies quite easily. The swirling rollers in Kate’s hair are reminiscent of the throwback curls on a Biba girl’s crown, for example. Fran’s empire waisted smock dress and knee socks, and the mini-multi-buttons on her shirt, all show attention to the day’s (or thereabouts—I’m still making era assumptions based on these motifs only) detail. Kate’s housecoat makes me think earlier rather than later, but the long line of that smock… hard to call! But this is fun. 

Fran and Kate’s body language is eloquent, all friendly feet-up and dreamy can-you-imagine. The bedroom they’re in—probably Kate’s, or they could used Fran’s hairdryer—looks cosy and shows evidence of life. (That sideboard is very sixties…) The Frantics themselves are well differentiated in the one brief glimpse we’re offered, making it a cheerful digression to figure out which is Walt, which is Pete, which boyband archetypes the other two must fit. I can see this strip appealing to young people then, for sure, but at the very least it appeals to me now.

The only irritation to be found in Fran the Fan is in the lettering: while the choice of green text for dialogue is agreeable, no bolding on (what should be) “I’d rather have one of the Frantics. Walt just drives me frantic[.]” Without it it’s an awkward and ugly repeat; with, a nice bit of reincorporation. Let that be a lesson to you, uncredited EMI or Morphy-Richards hired advertising creative team from 196X! Put that in your notebook!

Two panels worth of additional Fran the Fan space is taken up by Morphy-Richards’ advertising copywriter, inviting readers to send away for a hairstyling booklet at a reduced price (only 1/-! Wow!). It’s not indicated whether Fran and Kate are further featured in this booklet, but text describes it as being in full colour (Fran the Fan is not), inclusive of both “new” styles, hair care advice AND “your zodiac personality.” I must say, I’m intrigued.

(Why do I have this slip and not the record? Honestly, I don’t remember. Hark—my priorities!)

Part two: Research

On day two of no wifi, our neighbour offers us a lifeline. We can borrow theirs until ours comes back. Blessed though this boon is (who wants to get cut off from grocery delivery in times of Covid? No thanks) the thick walls of our building/s prevents the magic air connection from working beyond one corner of our bedroom for my partner’s laptop and anywhere in the house for my devices. I spend the day tidying everything, because I am bored. I do not stop thinking about Fran the Fan—I am sure there could be more of her.

I read part one of this essay to my sweetie. Right before we go to bed, I can’t take the wait any more. Let’s just do one google for Fran the Fan… let’s just look at ONE of the results. One only. Ok?

We pick an eBay result that tells us there was at least one other Fran the Fan strip—it’s different, it’s different! It has a razor (it’s actually a hairdryer—eager eyes can lie) where the hairstyle brochure copy should be! We discover Fran the Fan attended a Frantics show. Exciting! We discover that strip, at least, is from 1965 (according to the seller). I immediately fall info rueful self-recriminations, having supposed ‘67 at the earliest, ‘72 at very latest. That slim-cut tunic! Ahhh. That’s up to seven years off. Disgraceful! Like a baby! Of course a sideboard from the earlier atom age would still look current in the later sixties, people used to keep things! I can never show my face in an antiques market again.

Shame, shame. We go to sleep.

Day three, I sit outside on the neighbour’s steps, borrowing their wifi. A different neighbour sees me, sitting on greenish metal in the rain, and runs a fifteen foot cable out of his window and into ours, somehow bringing our router back into the realm of life. I am sitting on the sofa, and I am ready to become the worldwide expert on Fran the Fan.

Fran the Fan, it turns out, seems to have been special to Beatles releases, “on 45.” I don’t have the urge to learn about vinyl vocab but as far as I can tell that means she was only on singles, which didn’t have album-style artwork printed on them until 1968 when the all-black background and nicely painted halved apple illustration was seen on Hey Jude. Fran the Fan got her oats on We Can Work It out, Paperback Writer and Yellow Submarine, according to part four of the Apple records company sleeve history on Yokono.com. On the bright side, thebeatles-collection (a WordPress fansite) claims these sleeves were issued into 1968—a relief for me, as at least it overlaps my estimate. Further intrigue keeps me on the scent: for a minute I think this popsike listing offers six different Fran strips. But look closer, crazy dancer. They’re just repeats.

Part three: Redux

So, Fran the Fan, a Morphy-Richards concoction, rode out just thrice. Once to love a record (where the appropriate emphasis is in place on a frantic-about-Frantics pun, god bless); once to launch a fanclub; once to meet her idols. Yes—Fran was called to meet the Frantics, in recognition of her efforts in their name. Final panel of the last Fran the Fan, last word to the guitar player with the swoopy blonde mop (by my estimate, neither Walt nor Pete): “Rot the club—I’m a Fran fan!” Even when girls aren’t the subject of the fandom, they’re inseparable from it and from the raising of the status. If she didn’t love you, yeah, yeah, yeah, what would boys ever write about?

As digressions go, as time can be spent, not bad. Frantastic? Pretty much—yeah.

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