February 6, 2018

THE DRACULA FILE

by Gerry Finley-Day, Eric Bradbury et al
98 pages, Rebellio

Review by Pat Black

In 1984, a horror comic called Scream! hit the UK market. This was the height of the video nasties era in Britain, when hype and hysteria helped create something of a sub-cultural boom in all things scary and bloody.

The pattern typically went like this: tabloids hate thing; thing makes money. IPC magazines saw its chance.

I was seven years old. A 10-second TV advert transmitted on a Saturday morning showed Dracula and other horrors hiding behind a sofa, waiting to pounce on a boy reading the comic.

“Don’t buy Scream!” shrieked adverts in other funny pages. “You have been warned!”

Did I fall for it? You betcha.

It was brilliant – aiming for something between a period Hammer Horror and 1950s B-movies, with a few Addams family-style comic cuts thrown in. It had Victorian cryptkeepers, one-off Twilight Zone-style shockers, killer cats, psychic investigators, mutant sea beasts, monsters in the attic, giant spiders, bats, werewolves – and what a werewolf! - graveyards, skulls, cobwebs, tombs, ghosts and ghouls… And who could forget Max the Computer and his 13th Floor? (That’s coming in October… cackle!)

It hit right home - bullseye. I absolutely adored it. If you want a more detailed precis, I’ve extolled its virtues in some depth already, right here

The comic sold very well, but lasted just 15 issues before mysteriously disappearing from Britain’s newsagents. Theories persist that it was a little too near-the-knuckle for a children’s paper, and it had been cancelled as a result of the furore over video nasties then prevalent in the tabloids. Memories of Action! comic’s death-by-media experience were still relatively fresh in the public eye; IPC editorial staff wouldn’t have wanted to take chances.

Other commentators point to a more prosaic fate, with a printer’s strike having caused production on Scream! to stop for two weeks, after which the decision was taken to cancel. Although if that’s the case, why weren’t Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips and all the rest from the IPC stable cancelled, too? Even temporarily? Why did it only kill Scream?

Wherever the truth lies, Scream! was not long for this mortal coil (its top strips ran for a bit longer after they were absorbed into the Eagle), but its black star burned very brightly. In the 34 years since it has enjoyed a charmed afterlife, being very well regarded by serious collectors and casual fans alike. The prices certainly creep up and up on eBay; seeing this, I curse myself for having had the entire collection in my hands before sending them to the cowpp one dark afternoon 15 years ago. Some of those summer specials are going for silly money now.

That said, I would never have sold my copies. If you read Scream! as a child, you never, ever forgot it.

Having bought IPC’s rich back catalogue from Egmont, 2000AD publisher Rebellion is reprinting its Treasure Trove Of British comics in collected form. This means Scream! can look forward to a joyful resurrection.

The Dracula File is a complete collection of strips from all 15 issues of Scream! as well as four holiday specials. It features Scream!’s cover star and its lead story in each issue… Yes, it’s Dracula. The Count sports a timeless look, borrowing from classic screen incarnations, and yet with a style all of his own - hair swept back from his skull, widow’s peak, dark hair, fangs, a cape, a medallion… and scary eyes.

The Dracula File brought the Count into present day England in 1984. It starts with someone defecting from the East German side in Berlin, somehow surviving being zapped with a machine gun as he makes a break for it in no-man’s land.

It soon becomes clear that the defector isn’t your regular Soviet spy come in from the cold. We don’t get into the reasons why Dracula doesn’t just change into a bat or a dog and try to get across that way, or even why he bothers with stealing a uniform when he has a spooky supernatural costume of his own. Logic is dispensed with many times in these stories.

The Count has used his defection as the perfect cover to get back to England and take up residence in the streets he knew 100 years before. After turning two humans into his servants, he is soon out for blood on those 1980s mean streets…

I’ll make a confession. Although I loved Dracula as a kid, I didn’t love The Dracula File. It wasn’t what I really looked forward to every issue. This is because Dracula wasn’t scary to me, the same was as Bruce the Shark or Darth Vader weren’t scary to me either – I saw them as heroes (anti-heroes might be a better term, although they were proper heroes to me). I’d have been happy with posters of them above my bed – and I was.

I’m not saying I identified with Dracula or anything, although I do recall lying in a cardboard box at my folks’ and pretending it was my coffin. Should I admit to that in public? Shit, I just have.

So, as I loved Dracula rather than feared him, I was more intrigued by the things which I did find scary about Scream! - such as the Library of Death anthology series, or The 13th Floor.

Looking at it with fresh eyes but an older head, I’m struck by how fantastic The Dracula File was – particularly Eric Bradbury’s artwork. Scripted by Rogue Trooper creator Gerry Finley-Day, this is a cheesy old Dracula, but he wasn’t rendered cheesily. In the front covers – in particular the unforgettable image snarling at you from the 1986 Holiday Special – he could be horrific, with greenish skin and blood smeared over his fangs. Bradbury paid particularly close attention to Drac’s eyes – his scariest feature. In these stories, you’ll see Drac morph into a bat or wolf, you’ll see him stalking people in the dark, and you’ll see him turn into smoke and choke people.

In one brilliant frame, Dracula waits inside a postbox, his eyes blazing forth from the slot when a luckless blood donor passes by one night.

I should have been more scared than I was, if that makes sense. And although you’ll never see Drac with his mouth fixed on anyone’s throat (there’s nothing remotely sensual in his blood-sucking, an understandably puritanical rendering of the vampire mythology), you’ll see him do some surprisingly nasty things. The worst graphic death by a mile is the punishment he metes out to a street hooligan he finds bullying a young boy in an alley – instant death with one swipe of his clawed hands.   

Of course, Drac is no white knight. After killing or scattering the bullies, he gluts himself on the boy they were picking on.

See? It’s nasty. You remember these things.

That aside, it’s pleasingly tongue-in-cheek. Let loose in London, Dracula stalks victims in a cinema, as they watch a horror movie entitled Dracula’s Death. Drac pounces at the same moment his on-screen depiction does the same to a victim in the film, with the very real screams drowned out by the audience. Then, even more deliciously, Dracula is invited to a Hallowe’en costume party by people impressed by his get-up. People offer him a drink, and he smiles sardonically. You almost don’t want this episode to end.

The prince of darkness is stalked by a man called Stakis (har de har), a tough KGB defector with a briefcase full of vampire-killing goodies… but you’re never quite on his side. He gets close to Dracula – at more than one point his stake is poised, waiting for the hammer to fall - but never close enough. A few flashback episodes show you an English vampire hunter who succeeds in making a killing stroke on his undead quarry back in Transylvania… but if Hammer Horror has shown us anything, it is that Dracula always comes back.

This handsome hardback collection is a bargain, and I treasure it already. It has the full bhoona (the full black pudding might be a better description) – absolutely everything Dracula-related from Scream!, including the full serial, all the one-off holiday special strips from 1985-88, a Dracula quiz, Dracula readers’ letters and artwork, all the front cover images and a quick essay detailing IPC’s horror output. If you were in the same sweet spot as me, a comics fan aged 7-12 in 1984, then you probably have this already. If you don’t, you should.

Creature feature Ant Wars from 2000AD (I encountered it in a 1980s reprint in Eagle) is out now from Rebellion; Scream! stalwart The 13th Floor is coming in October, and I cannot wait for that.

If anyone out there is listening, can we please, please have Bloodfang the tyrannosaur?

I dunno how successful this relaunch is, but I can tell you that it’s got my money safe. HookJaw the shark, another reprint from Action!, will be reviewed soon… after that, we’ll check out fellow Scream! alumni Uncle Terry, from Monster. Do tune in…

If you dare…  

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