by Steve Dillon, Dave Gibbons, Brendan McCarthy et al
90 pages, Hibernia
Review by Pat Black
You can see how influential a children’s comic is by tracking how expensive it is on eBay. Scream! issues aren’t difficult to find, but they go for a few quid, depending on their condition. Compare and contrast with copies of Roy of the Rovers or the Eagle from the same era.
Issue one, dating from early 1984 – if complete with its original free gift of plastic Dracula fangs – is going for as much as £50 now. The summer specials are so rare that you hardly see them listed at all.
I’m always on the lookout. The tragedy is… and some collectors out there might actually scream when they read this… I used to have the complete Scream! collection. Every issue. And all the summer specials. Even the 1989 Spinechillers spin-off.
I don’t know whether to kick myself for having thrown them all away in a brutal cull when we cleared out the old family home many years ago, or to kick myself because I am generally tapped.
“Comics? What age are you? Can’t you grow up? Leave your childhood alone?”
Not 100%, no. I can’t.
Scream! was a horror comic for children. It made a big impression on me as a youngster. I already liked ghosties and ghoulies thanks to Scooby Doo, but this peculiarly nasty little publication was a step into a more macabre world.
I was seven when it came out, and I read it every week, utterly goggle-eyed. This was the era of video nasties; indeed, Mrs Thatcher’s government brought in legislation to curb what people could choose to watch that very same year, with the Video Recordings Act. Some mischievous soul at IPC publications - which brought the world “the sevenpenny nightmare” Action! as well as the one-time punky young upstart turned grand old lady of UK comics, 2000AD - sought to cash in on the craze for all things horrible at this time.
Of course, Scream! was missing the adult preoccupations and sexual morality of the old EC comics in the US, but it was grim enough. The hooded, twinkly-eyed Ghastly McNasty was our sardonic editor, penning snarky introductions to stories at his desk “from the Depths” of Kings Reach Towers in London.
You couldn’t see Ghastly’s face. One of the early hooks was a competition for children to draw what they thought he looked like, with prizes for anyone who got close. Which I did, taking my cue from the clues they gave you every week (though I wasn’t brave enough to send my efforts in).
Dracula was the cover star. The Dracula File placed the count in modern-day Britain, pursued by the KGB agent Stakis (you see what they did, there?). Monster was a modern-day gothic horror, focusing on an English family home in the country with a drunken father, a neglected son and a mysterious, murderous creature kept locked in the attic. Its first episode - which I remember very clearly, one of the first comic episodes where I could not wait to see what happened next - was written by Alan Moore.
Then there was The Thirteenth Floor, narrated by Max the computer, a square screen with an electronic squiggle for features. Max was the multi-purpose caretaker of a modern tower block. For superstitious reasons, the building was missing a 13th floor… except it wasn’t. Whenever teenage yobs, loan sharks or other immoral beings who threatened his tenants got into Max’s lift, the computer would deposit them into a mysterious zone where their crimes were visited upon them, plus plenty of interest.
In the first two issues, a debt collector is chased around a 1980s arcade game-style maze by bankers in bowler hats, distributing electric shocks via their umbrellas. Later, members of the teenage gang The Spiders are chased by thousands of scampering tarantulas, leading to a swarm of eight-legged beasties so horrible that committed arachnophobes like my missus would struggle to look at it.
Graffiti artists, crooked pest controllers and – most controversially – a nosey police officer all fall foul of Max’s ironic punishment nightmare zone, their scared-to-death bodies found dumped in the lift the next day.
Other strips included The Nightcomers, featuring a brother-and-sister team of paranormal investigators, and Terror of the Cats, a James Herbert-themed take on feline furry fury, the concept and title of which I ripped off for the first bad novel I attempted, aged 14. This was one of those efforts that you fantasise about appearing from your filing cabinet to embarrass you after you’re dead, following your successful career as a serious novelist.
Scream! also made an impression on my brother, seven years my elder, who was going through a long hair, biker jackets and heavy metal phase at the time. I once embarrassed him as we walked home from school – me trailing about 10 yards behind, as we’d agreed – when he started telling his mates this story he’d heard about a computer taking over a tower block and killing people.
“That’s from The Thirteenth Floor!” I blurted out, excitedly. “You’ve been reading my comics!”
It was worth the beating.
Scream! ran for 15 issues before stopping its run abruptly, entirely unannounced. This was unusual in UK comics at the time. Usually when a title closed, you’d see that dreaded announcement splattered across the front cover: “Great news for readers inside!” This meant that your favourite comic was going to “merge” with another – shutting down, in other words, with one or two stories cherry-picked for the bigger title to help any faithful readers to “cross the floor”. Both IPC and DC Thomson (Britain’s versions of Marvel and DC, and everything that implies) were regular offenders here. There’s a part of me still aggrieved that Spike was swallowed up by Champ.
But Scream! didn’t advertise its demise. It simply reappeared a little bit later, attached as junior partner to the action/adventure/sci-fi warhorse Eagle. I remember my dear old mum – who probably spent more than the family could afford on my beloved comics - asking at RS McColl’s about why the comic simply vanished from the racks. They didn’t know, either.
Scream!’s abrupt closure helped foster its legendary status. There were rumours it was shut down thanks to its grim content – which, looking at it today (you can do so right here, at http://www.backfromthedepths.co.uk/), was quite graphic considering it was aimed at children.
There is a more prosaic explanation, with an industrial dispute leading to the publication simply not being printed for a couple of weeks. Another thing to blame Mrs Thatcher for, then.
Scream! was memorable, grisly stuff. It was skulls, spiders, snakes, cobwebs, tombs and graveyards. It was Dracula, werewolves, skeletons, mummies, zombies and ghosts. There was a little blood… not a lot, but more than enough. I loved it, and still do. But it wasn’t just cheesy. There was a good thick streak of black humour in the stories – a sardonic glee in unfair fates and malevolent agency which the nasty little creature I was thoroughly enjoyed.
Stephen King said that most horror stories have a sense of morality that outstrips that of a puritan. This could be seen in many of the stories in Scream!, where the greedy, the brutal and the vain are punished… But not always. Sometimes, as I knew all too well from real life, the innocent got punished, too. That’s where the Library of Death comes in…
If there was a sinister hand at work in the demise of Scream!, then Library of Death might be a key reason why it got involved. It was a series of one-off shockers, and easily my favourite part of the comic. For years, I’ve been hoping Scream! would get the reprint treatment, so I was delighted to discover that The Best of Library of Death has been resurrected in all its glory by Hibernia Comics.
It’s been a pleasure to flick through this collection and re-encounter some images – especially in the stories I’d forgotten about, like “At Death’s Door”, in issue one. Here, a young boy isn’t allowed to go to the Ghost House at a fairground by his curiously detached foster parents. A ghostly visitor takes the boy to where he wanted to that night – but the apparitions are scarier than he could imagine. What could have been a typical it-was-all-just-a-dream caper has a nasty twist, though, where the boy’s foster parents (“It’s because you’re not my real mum and dad!” the boy yells… And that’s a detail you take notice of as a child) are ushered towards a barred door, beyond which death itself lies. The boy has a key in his hand; all he has to do it turn it, and they meet Death…
Then we get to the real classics. “Spiders Can’t Scream” sees a greedy treasure hunter finding a lost city in the South American jungles. He shoots everyone in the expedition party as well as some of the indigenous people of the city in order to get his hands on the riches contained within – but there’s a big, eight-legged problem lurking behind a secret door. I was horrified at the initial sticky situation, but there’s an even more perverse problem for this particular tomb raider once he comes back to consciousness… after the Spider God eats him.
“The Drowning Pond” is perhaps the most nightmarish of all the stories. It sees a young boy nearly dragged to his doom by a skeleton which appears in a pond when he goes to retrieve a football. It turns out a woman died there, having been “ducked” during witch trials hundreds of years before. But not before cursing the place…
The boy’s dad and a local doctor don their swimming trunks and go for a swim in the pond to investigate… and, “Ye gods!” indeed. I’ll never forget that frame where the long-haired skeleton rises from the pond to strangle the boy’s dad. I see this strip cited now and again on nostalgic “what scared you as a child?” internet articles and forum posts, so I know I wasn’t alone.
“Terror of the Tomb” was a fairly straightforward mummy’s curse story. Looking at it now, what’s most memorable isn’t the bandaged goon that creeps out of its sarcophagus after another vainglorious tomb raider, but the skeletons of its previous victims strewn around the floor. There’s one extraordinary frame where the doomed archaeologist finds the remains of a missing friend, lit by a gas lamp – one of the images chosen for the front cover.
I was obsessed with “Beware The Werewolf”. This story coincided almost perfectly with another memorable event from those days when my brother and his heavy metal biker wannabe mates babysat me… and decided to watch The Howling on video, recorded off the telly. Now, I didn’t watch a single frame of this film, as I was told by my brother to cover my eyes with the drawing pad I scribbled in constantly. I could hear the screams, the growls, and my brother and his mates’ excited commentary (which ran to silence when that brazen werewolf lady went full-frontal). The transformation scene seemed to take an age. “Look! It’s amazing! Just look at it!” my brother said.
I didn’t look… but what I imagined, and later drew in that self-same pad, was worse than anything I might have actually seen. Perhaps inspired by that ITV screening of The Howling, “Beware The Werewolf”, drawn by Judge Dredd artist Steve Dillon, saw a brilliantly realised hybrid monster stalking the cities of England, ripping people apart every full moon. A detective gets a strange tip-off about a big game hunter who has pledged to hunt the unidentified animal… Could it be that he’s a werewolf?
The visuals and the denouement were remarkable for the medium and its intended audience, but what’s also unusual is that the story broke a taboo. The opening page shows the werewolf springing off a wall to attack a pretty young woman. Practically nowhere else in Scream!’s pages can you find any images of women in peril. Even Dracula seemed to prefer the necks of men to those of women (maybe after you live a thousand years or so, your tastes change, I dunno). The comic was very careful not to place young, attractive women in dangerous situations. In the only other story I can recall which features a woman killed – the fake-medium-gets-ironic-come-uppance tale “All Done With Wires”, which also appears here – the victim is middle-aged, short-haired and overweight; ie, not sexualised.
“Beware the Werewolf” was different. You don’t see the girl hurt, but it’s clear what’s going to happen. If a censor finally decided to put a red pen through Scream!, this one frame would have been a key example used to help make the decision.
Then there’s the two-part “Sea Beast”, which featured a B-movie style monster created by nuclear pollution. Again, Scream! teased us by hinting at the monster’s form in a cliffhanger (“Ye gods!” again), before revealing it on the front cover of the next issue. I waited patiently for seven days, with a hook stuck right in my gob. When the creature was duly outlined in all its crab-clawed, spiny-backed, Moray eel-mouthed glory, I used tracing paper to try and learn how to draw it perfectly.
This story featured the sea monster picking off tramps – they never get a break in these tales – before lurking in swimming pools at seafront houses, waiting for people to dive in. That was one to bear in mind before I leapt into the public baths, around the corner from our old house.
The roster of talents involved in Scream! is impressive. Alan Moore contributed to the writing side in the Monster serial; although many of the Library of Death writers here are listed as “unknown”, it’s not out of the question that he may have been involved. Was this too early for Neil Gaiman? I think he was featured in 2000AD by this point. Simon Furman wrote most of the memorable stories, though, and he’s fully credited here.
As for art, there are two linked stories featuring Dave Gibbons’ distinctive penmanship, “Tales of the Nightcomer”, which were stock strips held over from the late 1970s according to this book’s introduction. I remember reading both of these in the 1986 Holiday Special (which boasted an extraordinary image of a green-faced, bloody-fanged Dracula), and while I didn’t really like these stories compared to the grungy charm of Library of Death, I do remember thinking that the art was a cut above the normal. Dave Gibbons is the reason why.
Brendan McCarthy’s work is also distinctive, decorating “The Punch and Judy Horror Show” – retrospectively, the scariest story in the book. It sees an end-of-the-pier seaside performer deciding to murder his boss after he’s given the sack, only to be brought to book by his own puppets.
I was slightly disappointed to find that some of the shorter, one-page Ghastly Tales were included here at the expense of others from the Library of Death – I’d been looking forward to seeing “Death Road” again, where a ghostly hitch-hiker haunts a lonely route, but no dice. That was before I read them again...
Returning to these nasty titbits as an adult, it’s clear they were a key part of the charm of Scream! “Green Fingers”, “Aunt Mary, Uncle Sid” and “Goodbye Uncle George” are all tight little shockers with a knowing smirk on their face, but some of the images – particularly the caring mother turned into a stricken-faced weed monster in “Green Fingers” – are disturbing. Most impressive of all is “Unlucky for Some”, originally printed in issue 13. This takes the form of family album snapshots leading up to the narrator’s 13th birthday, when he undergoes a fairly radical change more in step with Michael Landon than Adrian Mole. The notes reveal that the artist is Trevor Goring, who is now a storyboard artist for major films.
Scream! is not for the nervous – or so it warned on you on the cover. “Read if you dare!” Even if you were a bit nervous, you simply couldn’t resist that invitation. This book is a little piece of history - my own, as well as many others’ in my generation. But even if you’ve never experienced Scream! before, this is an important slice of British publishing history, complete with an appropriately mysterious demise. And who knows… if you’re open-minded enough… you might even have a little monster in your life who’ll love it as much as I did.
Hibernia also printed collections of The Thirteenth Floor and The Dracula File. The former is sadly sold out; but the latter is heading for my shelves, soon. Get these fantastic pieces of work while you can… If you dare…