There was clearly something in the air - or maybe in the water - in the mid-1970s. BBC TV series liked Terry Nation’s Survivors (post-plague pandemonium for adults) and The Changes (mankind vs. technology terrors for post-school scholars) suggested a burgeoning fascination with the end of days and how the artifice of an increasingly sophisticated 20th century civilization could so easily be brought to its knees. Even the jaunty world of British girls’ comics (a publishing staple now all but extinct) succumbed to this morbid obsession, and Jinty (1974-81) often specialised in strips and stories with a more fantastical and imaginative edge (we’re keen to find out just what Sue’s Fantastic Fun-Bag was all about).
Fran of the Floods was one of the comic’s first harder-edged SF serials, appearing in Jinty from January to September 1976 and, whilst it’s firmly set in the “cosy catastrophe” subgenre of British apocalyptic fiction, it’s a remarkably uncompromising, no-nonsense and occasionally quite bleak story of death and survival which must have put the jitters up 1970s teenyboppers more used to gazing dreamily at Bay City Rollers posters or wondering when David Essex was going to come and sweep them off their feet (different times, kids).
The sun has emitted “an extra flicker of warmth” which has melted icecaps and evaporated oceans and caused torrents of near-constant rain. Sea levels are rising, land is flooding, the authorities are worried. In the picture postcard village of Hazelford, young Fran Scott is initially ambivalent about the constant deluge of rain; she’s more worried about her crumbling relationship with her disillusioned sister June and an upcoming school show. Fran’s life changes suddenly and quite terribly when Hazelford is subsumed by the floods; she loses contact with her parents in the panic and she assumes that they and her best friend Jill have drowned. Fran escapes and discovers that society has collapsed; there’s now no government, no electricity, no food supply, no rule of law. Lost and alone, Fran sets off across a hostile, drenched landscape, making her way to Scotland in the vague hope of being reunited with her sister June who left home for a fresh start before the world went to Hell in the proverbial handcart.
The entire run of Fran of the Floods has now been collected and reissued by Rebellion, and it’s still a remarkable piece of work. Davidson’s writing is crisp, blunt and focussed, and Gascoine’s art is almost photorealistic. There are few concessions made to gentler sensibilities; the devastation wrought by the floods is depicted with a commendable matter-of-factness and there’s no shying away from themes of death, brutality and starvation. Some sequences are actually quite haunting; there’s an image flooded London, an abandoned teddy bear drifting through swollen waters alongside the tower of Big Ben, and there are numerous scenes of people (and animals) dragged away by the raging water. En route to Scotland, Fran meets up with other young survivors but also encounters the grim reality of life in a desperate world; she has to battle against a ruthless militia, stumbles onto a community riven by a strange plague, and in Scotland she meets the King of Glasgow, a misguided (if not slightly deranged) youth determined to keep the city to himself after everyone else has left it to its fate.
Fran of the Floods is powerful page-turning stuff, but there are certain creaky plot developments and coincidences which necessarily take the edge off what would otherwise be an unacceptably nihilistic children’s adventure. The story’s environmental themes are commendably prescient and serve to remind us that humanity’s dominion over the planet is only ever as secure as nature in its wisdom allows it to be. Fran of the Floods is a genuinely outstanding throwback to an era when kids enjoyed enthralling, exciting adventure stories and weren’t glued to mindless YouTube videos and vacuous celebrity Twitter feeds.
FRAN OF THE FLOODS / WRITER: ALAN DAVIDSON / ILLUSTRATOR: PHIL GASCOINE / PUBLISHER: REBELLION / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 21ST