Looking Back At Scream!

As with many 9 year olds in 1984 my reading habits did not extend much further than The Beano and Roald Dahl novels. However after finding myself scared yet exhilarated by the ghost stories that my headmaster Mr McGeown read in school assembly I decided to expand my horizons. I headed to Corby library in search of more ghostly reading material. After what felt like a lifetime scouring the shelves I ended up with a handful of books about ghosts, vampires and haunted houses.

One of those books in particular really captured my imagination so I yearned for more. But the library was a long way to go, even on a BMX, and you could only borrow so many books in a month. With the internet at the time being the domain of teenage hackers in movies and real people with a tad more computing power than a ZX Spectrum and a Nintendo Game & Watch I wasn’t sure how I would satisfy this urge for stories.

Then, in early spring of that year, a television advertisement aired between shows on Children’s ITV. On Saturday 24th March, a new title would be launched which proclaimed itself to be “not for the nervous” and also “the creepiest comic ever”!

Perfect!

I biked down to Isobel’s Paper Shop and asked her to reserve, along with my already regular Beano, the new comic called Scream! As the weeks crawled on, the advert was shown again and again between the likes of Emu’s World, Danger Mouse, Trap Door and On Safari. The anticipation was getting too great to bear.

Finally the fated Saturday arrived. I rose early, scoffed down my Sugar Puffs, collected my weekly pocket money from my dad (the soon to be obsolete one pound note), hopped on my Raleigh Burner and pedalled for all I was worth to Isobel’s. I didn’t even care about missing No. 73 or Saturday Superstore – I had to have that comic!

It hadn’t arrived.

I’m welling up a little just remembering that moment. Being typically British I didn’t kick up a fuss or sulk, I just said “Okay, I’ll try tomorrow then” even though, in my heart, I was feeling utterly despondent.

It was while I was unchaining my faithful bike from the fence outside the shop that a delivery van arrived and the driver carried a huge bundle of assorted magazines into the shop. The lock went back on the bike and I went back in. I joined the back of the queue, conscious the whole time, that NO-ONE WAS UNPACKING THE BUNDLE! I could actually see a bulge where I believed the free gift (plastic vampire teeth) to be. The suspense of those few moments was more unbearable than the weeks of build up to the release date!

As the queue slowly abated I was hopping on the spot like I needed to use the loo. FINALLY I got to the front and enquired after whether Scream had NOW come in, pointing at the bundle excitedly.

The weekend girl rolled her eyes and went out to the back of the store (in my head she also blew and popped a gum bubble but I can’t verify that). Isobel came out from whatever it was she used to do back there and handed me a pair of scissors. As she was friends with my parents I was allowed to cut open and look through the bundle as long as it was returned to a tidy pile afterwards and ANY damage caused by stray snippage would come out of my pocket money.

I was never a clumsy child so had no problem carefully locating and retrieving the hallowed tome (I also found my latest Beano – bonus!) and returning the bundle to a relatively tidy pile (by my standards at least). I made my way back to the till grinning like an idiot.

“Just these please… oh, and a He-Man jelly, thanks.”

It was still the wrong side of 9am when I got home and did something which, thinking back, I am amazed I had the willpower for: I threw it on my desk and saved it for bedtime with a torch under the duvet.

The experience of reading it was everything I had hoped. It was exciting, scary, haunting, funny and thought-provoking in all the right places. In short, it gave me the creeps that night – and that was exactly the effect I had been hoping for. The mostly monochrome artwork was very typical of British comics of the time – much more detailed than the American ones I occasionally bought – and a pleasure to look at (it still is a period I hold in high regard when it comes to comic book artwork). So much the better for capturing all the spooky and gory details.

Scream was released weekly for over three months and then, on Saturday 7th July, 1984 (a sunny, yet dark day forever etched in my memory) I sauntered down to Isobel’s to collect issue 16. And it wasn’t there – and that week’s comics were already on the shelf so there was no bundle to rifle through. Nor the next day. Or the following Saturday. Or the one after that. Isobel was as stumped as I was. Then one day I just stopped asking and moved on to new things: the Marvel UK Transformers comic for one, and Secret Wars the following year. I never knew at the time that the delay had been caused by industrial action at IPC’s printers and that, feeling the title had lost momentum and readership during the hiatus, they decided to pull it from their release schedule altogether despite a number of the serial strips in issue 15 being unresolved (and at least one little boy being extremely anxious to carry on buying it).

The rumour at the time spoke of an organised campaign by parents to force the publishers to withdraw the title that had traumatised their youngsters. If only it were that interesting. The truth is that there was an element of fear from the adults but it was IPC themselves who often censored or pulled artwork or strips rather than concerned parents. Ultimately finance, circulation figures and trade union politics resulted in its demise. But such things do not make for an interesting playground tale – and the rumours still persist to this day!

Scream did make a comeback of sorts with an annual Holiday Special over the following five years but they increasingly began to be made up of reprints from the IPC back catalogue (including Scream itself) and not a great deal of new material. The final nail in the coffin was the rebranding as Spinechillers. So in 1989 the once, fleetingly great comic limped into a not-so-early grave.

The weekly comic itself was broken down into a number of long running stories or themed anthology strips so I’ll go into a bit more detail about each of these sections.

From The Depths

Each issue was opened with an editorial by a fictional editor (not unlike 2000 AD with Tharg the Mighty). Ghastly McNasty ran the comic from 29 levels below the ground floor of the IPC headquarters at Kings Reach (now South Bank) Tower. His features were hidden by a dark hooded robe with only his gnarly hands and glowing eyes being visible. The only hint as to what manner of beast lay beneath the cowl was the occasional mention that he was once human.

Readers were encouraged to send in their drawings of what they thought might be under the hood with the closest to Ghastly’s allegedly horrific visage promised the princely sum of £50 (which in 1984 was a LOT of money to a 9 year old) and a smaller prize of £5 (still not to be sniffed at back then) going to anyone lucky enough to have their entries printed. However, IPC managed to save themselves a hefty bill as the comic’s demise came about before the prize could be awarded. The 1986 Holiday Special finally revealed Ghastly’s face and I was more than a little underwhelmed at the final revelation.

Tales From The Grave

Tales From The Grave was a collection of shorter stories set in Victorian London and was inspired by the Penny Dreadful. The focus was more on the evil that men do than supernatural shenanigans. Each tale was narrated by a grave digger called The Leper whose unclean and therefore ignored status gave him a unique position to recount the terrible deeds of revenge, greed and murder that he witnessed from his cemetery.

I bought Scream for the ghouls and ghosts so tended to skip over this section. Reading it again all these years on is actually slightly frustrating as the first page of each chapter was spent recounting what happened last time. As with many of the strips mentioned here, TFTG ended with its final story (about a grave robbing surgeon) unresolved.

The Dracula File

The Dracula File has the honour of being the first strip in Scream’s first edition and continued as one of the flagships for all fifteen issues with the story continuing on into the Specials.

It began with the Count escaping from behind the Iron Curtain and wreaking havoc in the an early 80s Britain gripped in the fear of Cold War paranoia. The Count passed himself off as a Soviet defector to escape his traditional home and establish a new hunting ground. All the while he was pursued by Stakis, a Romanian colonel, who was torn between his duty to the Eastern Bloc, a personal vendetta against the Prince of Darkness and his conscience nagging him that it would be right to warn the British authorities about what they had welcomed into their bosom (although his superiors thought it better to let us find out the hard way).

Personally, I always remembered this to be one of the best strips featuring Dracula of any comic and having re-read it recently my opinion has not changed!

Talent wise it had a very good pedigree as Simon Furman, who went on to write for Marvel UK’s Transformers title offered the occasional script with Rogue Trooper’s creator Gerry Finley-Day providing others. The artwork was by Eric Bradbury, a former RAF gunner and alumni of many British war and adventure comics, not to mention working with Finley-Day on 2000 AD and Rogue Trooper.

A Ghastly Tale

This was one of my favourite features of Scream, in which Ghastly would personally present a short (often only one page) story which tended to have a comedic feel to it and often a twist ending too. One story in particular from this series has stayed with me for many years. In “Green Fingers” a boy touches a meteorite and gains the terrifying ability to turn anything he touches into plant life but his new-found powers have tragic and unforeseen consequences when all he wants is a hug from his mum!

Monster

Another fan favourite, Monster treads a fine line between the “Gentle Giant” and “Doesn’t Know His Own Strength” tropes with liberal doses of Frankenstein thrown in.

We first meet Kenny Corman as he is burying his father who has died at the hand of the mysterious figure being held hostage in the Corman’s attic. Kenny soon discovers a letter from his late mother explaining that her brother Terry was locked away from the world due to his hideously deformed appearance, toddler level intellect and inability to control his temper and vast strength.

Kenny and Terry soon bond but have to go on the run from the law and those who would destroy the monster. This led to many adventures as they tried to escape to a place where Terry could receive treatment for his condition. Monster is beloved for the relationship at the heart of the story which really drove the narrative along. Terry was fiercely protective of his nephew and Kenny was seemingly the only one who could calm his murderous rampages.

The final issue ended on a cliff-hanger and Terry and Kenny were pitched from their boat into the sea only for us to find that Terry could not swim! It was continued in Eagle for a number of years but I never found out what happened to Uncle Terry until fairly recently.

Monster is perhaps most notable for its first instalment, the script for which was written by a name any comic book reader ought to recognise – Alan Moore.

Library Of Death

Another story of the week anthology, The Library Of Death, usually received the greatest page count per issue. Each story was usually a self-contained story (apart from The Sea Beast which ran over two) but with less emphasis on humour and plot twists than the fairly light-hearted Ghastly Tale. The stories in the Library of Death generally tended to be more creepy ones which played on your mind long after reading it. Now, this was what I was after in a horror comic!

In what were essentially short morality tales (and not unlike 2000 AD’s “Future Shocks”), the protagonist would be introduced as arrogant, negligent or often just plain nasty and would then endure a supernatural encounter with them emerging out the other side as either a better person for their experience… or a dead one!

For me the most memorable of these was called The Drowning Pond, a modern day story with a flashback to Matthew Hopkins’ witch hunts and his persecution of an innocent flower seller called Rosie whose spirit may or may not have returned to wreak a terrible revenge.

Terror Of The Cats

Terror Of The Cats was a cautionary tale of science gone wrong, the abuse of power, the freedom of the press and the fury of nature… Nope. I can’t dress it up as something it’s not. It was a completely barking (meowing?) mad story about a hospital under siege from a bunch of irritated moggies.

In a bizarre twist, the 2008 episode of Doctor Who, “Planet Of The Ood”, had a spookily similar plot (including the reveal of the giant brain being manipulated by an unscrupulous sort to control innocent creatures and said scoundrel’s demise by falling into it).

This story ran for the first six issues and was one of only two strips that didn’t feature in every issue.

The Thirteenth Floor

Arguably the most iconic and well-loved strip of Scream was the story of Max, the A.I., whose all-seeing eye ran everything in Maxwell Tower apartment block from the central heating to “vermin control”. He wasn’t so much evil as terrifyingly over-protective of his tenants.

The Thirteenth Floor was more episodic in nature than Monster or The Dracula File (although there was a continuing thread running throughout). The stories, which were normally two issues long, played out pretty similarly: Max would observe one of his residents being menaced by a variety of thugs, unreasonable bailiffs, cowboy plumbers etc and, rather than just inform the police, he would wait until they entered his elevator and then take them to a hidden floor which didn’t show up on the building plans (“Don’t be stupid, buildings don’t have a floor thirteen” the bully would cry, “++Oh but I assure you this one does++” Max would smugly retort).

Although seemingly populated by zombies, spiders, city bankers (!) and even the Grim Reaper himself, the eponymous floor was, in fact, an advanced virtual reality suite designed to put the miscreant face to face with their greatest fear – and this would normally culminate in the malefactor doing one of three things: turning over a new leaf, running away in terror-induced insanity or dying from a shock induced heart attack in the elevator (and Max would alert his controller with an oh-so-innocent “++There has been a terrible tragedy in the lift++”). The running thread through each of these stories was a copper who cottoned on to the fact that a lot of people were dying in the elevator of Maxwell Tower.

Like Monster, Max’s adventures carried over to Eagle and ran for a good while longer.

Fiends & Neighbours

For a little light relief amongst the horror of death and domestic pets run riot, a reprint of a strip from IPC’s Cor!! – a contemporary of titles like of Whizzer & Chips, The Beano and The Dandy in the 70s and 80s – was included.

We’ve all seen the story before – a family moves in next door and there is something strange and sinister about them but the monstrous new residents are just as bemused by the unusual behaviour of their nosey middle-class neighbours. Think The ‘Burbs, The Addams Family, Rentaghost or The Munsters with a helping of Keeping Up Appearances and you’re just about there.

The artwork was by IPC stalwart Graham Allen who seems to have been channelling Leo Baxendale (he of Willy The Kid and The Bash Street Kids fame, among many others).

The Nightcomers

My favourite strip did not appear in the comic until the 7th issue. The Nightcomers was the kind of thing I had hoped to read in Scream. A ghost story set in a haunted house with clearly defined heroes and villains and all manner of supernatural goings on. The story focused on the teenage children of a pair of stage psychics-cum-ghost hunters who were killed by the restless spirits during their final investigation at the ominously named Raven’s Meet. Rick and Beth Rogen discover that they have inherited the family psychic abilities and vow to use them to solve the final mystery their parents had never been able to. Some classic horror images and tropes were used in this story such as blood gushing through the house, a reanimated severed hand, portraits whose eyes seemed suspiciously realistic and a heavily Aleister-Crowley-inspired villain.

Fortunately, the first Nightcomers story reached its conclusion in the final issue. We were promised a new adventure in the absent 16th issue so I’d be fascinated to see what happened to the Rogens next. Sadly this strip never continued into Eagle, the Holiday Specials or any other comics ever again.

As with many of the other strips in Scream, there was a wealth of talent and The Nightcomers was scripted and illustrated (respectively) by Tom Tully and John Richardson – alumni of great British titles such as Roy of the Rovers, 2000 AD and Tornado.

The End?

Over 30 years after its demise the memory of this great title is being kept alive and kicking by a number different fine folk.

At Back From The Depths, which has seemingly been resurrected by old Ghastly himself, you can find lots more information about Scream and also read online copies of all 15 issues. BFFD’s sister site Theatre of Terror has a wealth of stuff about all kinds of old horror comics, including scans of long-forgotten volumes from decades past.

In conjunction with Scottish comic artist Malcolm Kirk BFTD have produced tribute to Scream called Hallowscream every year on Halloween since 2009. My own story, The Conductor, was featured in the 2015 edition.

As well as fan produced work there have been a couple of other interesting developments in the world of Scream! Hibernia Comics, which specialises in restoring and reprinting old British comics have included several Scream titles in their roster of goodies including The Dracula File, The Thirteenth Floor, The Best of The Library Of Death and It’s Ghastly – an in depth look at the death and legacy of Scream! It’s Ghastly also included details and artwork from issues which never made it to print such as the cover to issue 16, details on a new planned strip called Ghoul School and also – this was the main selling point for me – a new Nightcomers adventure in its entirety.

In 2016, Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD, printed a complete volume of Monster, including all the strips from Scream and The Eagle and also the text story from the Summer Special. This book also included a newly drawn full colour front cover by original artist Jesus Redondo. Later that year they acquired the rights to a number of old IPC/Fleetway publications from current owner Egmont, and this included the Scream back catalogue. In mid-2017 they announced a new reprint of The Dracula Files which, like Monster, has brand new full colour cover art – this time by 2000AD stalwart Chris Weston.

The question is, what unpublished goodies were included in that transaction and what can we hope to see in future? Hopefully Scream will flourish, rather than wither and die in its new home!