Monday, 24 October 2016

Ghosts, Monsters and Grusome Goings-on - Pat Mills' Supernatural Comic for Girls - Misty

Battle, Action and 2000AD were comics which revolutionised the UK market in the seventies.  They finally offered boys* what they wanted, something grittier and with more attitude than the titles that had come before.  All three were the creations, at least initially, of Pat Mills and John Wagner. 

On quitting the editorship of 2000AD Mills was also involved in the development of a similar title for the girls market.  A horror comic for the fairer sex called Misty in which he intended to “use my 2000AD approach on a girls’ comic: big visuals and longer, more sophisticated stories”. 

As a result of a disagreement with IPC management over profit sharing, or lack thereof, his involvement in the title was not as hands on as with Battle, Action and 2000AD but he finally agreed to become consulting editor for the new title.  Misty was never quite the comic that Mills had envisaged. 

“The stories were not as hard-hitting as I would have liked them to be and some punches were pulled” he said in a blog post in 2012.  Mills would have preferred fewer of the short stories and more serials and felt that without his hand firmly at the tiller some old-school thinking had “started to creep back in”. 

But Misty was still an excellent comic.  The artwork, like all British comics of the time, varied in quality but could be stunningly good.  The title lasted two years, beginning in Jan 1978 and there were just 101 weekly issues before it merged with Tammy at the beginning of 1980.  Tammy would continue some of the strips from Misty, most notably “The Black Widow”, but the title refused to be forgotten.  There was a summer special in 1980 and annuals were produced for the Christmas market until 1986.  That same year an eight issue monthly, Best of Misty, was published and a new generation of girls were exposed to the Misty experience.

What is most interesting is how fondly Misty is remembered, mentioned my interest in comics to my female friends usually results in foot shuffling and mumbling, but quite often the conversation will include a short sequence in which I’ll be told, “I loved Misty!”.  It seems to be the girls’ comics that had the biggest impact.   I asked a couple of these friends to note down their thoughts and memories of the comic which show how big an impact Misty had on at least some of its readers.  

Laura Bradley is first, Laura is a former work colleague and read the initial run of Misty from 1978 while far, far too young.  She is an occasional writer of vivid and visceral short stories and should be writing far more often!  

I wasn't very good at being a girl. I hated dresses and ponies and dolls. Due to my mothers’ over-application of religion I was also obsessed with the supernatural, Dante’s various infernos and my own mortality. Which given I was 10 made me a bit of an odd fish.

I don't remember our first encounter, my aunt worked in the corner newsagents so I'm thinking I probably found it on a shelf tucked away between issues of Warlord and Commando. All alone and a bit lost, much like myself. We hit if off immediately and soon were a regular item. Every Wednesday I would pick up my pre-ordered copy.  My Aunt always wrote my name beautifully in the top left hand corner to secure it, in case there was a sudden rush, which was, to be fair, unlikely.

I would curl up somewhere quiet with my bar of Milk tray (yes bar, complete with the ever popular Lime barrel) and get lost in all manner of darkness. I still remember so many of the stories. If, on pain of death, I had to choose then these have to be the top three.

The Cult of the Cat mainlined straight into my 'unpleasant bits of history' obsession. I was the thin pale kid who actually went to the library by choice to find books on mummification. The crochet needle winkling a corpse's brain out of his or her nose was just too exciting.   In it a girls’ affinity with cats ends up with her becoming an Egyptian high priestess of Bast, as you do.  I'm sure there is some postmodern reading about female empowerment etc. etc. But when I was 10 it was just fab

The Four faces of Eve was much creepier, a girl sown together by more evil adults out of the assembled body parts of 4 different girls. I'm sure there is a PhD in woman's studies lurking in that one, women being constructed by male dominated society etc. etc. But again I just thought it was fab.

And, leaving the very best until last, Moonchild. This was basically Carrie for young girls, bullying, angst, evil adults, revenge fantasy and a cool birthmark. Heady stuff. Again I almost taste the Freudian interpretation here but I just thought it was incredibly cool. Still do.

I really wish it was still going so my daughter could read it, or indeed my son because although it was forged in the gender centric seventies it was just so good that boys read it too. Granted it was usually their sisters’ copy that they read in private.   Only looking back now do I actually fully appreciate the fantastic artwork and story-telling. I had nearly every copy not to mention the annuals and summer specials, with accompanying free gifts. Usually a piece of tacky jewellery as the publishers only nod to traditional female baubles.

Nearly every cover featured a very pouty and looking back frankly sexual Kate Bush lookalike (who I was also obsessed with), actually maybe that's explained some of the keener boy fans.

In fact if it was still going now I'd still be reading it. As reading material goes Misty was my first love and you never forget the first one. It told me it was ok to be a bit of a Goth before the concept even existed, and being the outsider was far cooler and more interesting than I had previously thought.

Twinkle be damned, the only puppies you would find in Misty would be guarding the gates to hell, the only midnight boarding school feasts were probably cannibalistic and any dolls were, entirely without exception, possessed by demons.

Patricia Hamilton most likely discovered Misty through the eighties ‘Best of' monthlies or through finding annuals and back issues at school sales.   She is a former Roller Derby player, so I have to be nice to her.  

I started reading Misty when I was about 10. I remember being drawn to the beautiful artwork and general spooky girl feel. The other fluffier girl comics didn't really interest me and all the girls in them were too goody-goody for my taste. Misty, on the other hand, hit you between the eyes.  It was the go-to purchase if I felt like spending any of my money on a comic.

The stories always seemed to open quite innocently however by the end the content was sending chills up your spine right to the top of your head. I was terrified of them but I kept going back. The protagonist of one story that I will never forget was a vain mean girl. She was gorgeous but a horrid person. One night she learnt that there was a beauty contest on in the village. Lights were on in one of the houses and voices could be heard, so she made her way there. Affronted that she had not been told about the contest and confident that she would win, she barged in boasting that she should be the winner. The room was full of people in a dimly lit hall. As the lights went up, she realised to her horror that everyone there was horribly malformed.  Before she could leave they surrounded her and began to tear at her face and body, "Stay and we will make you as beautiful as we are!”

That was when my summer-special edition of Misty had to go in the bin. With the lid on. Tight.

Pat Mills remains convinced that if he had been allowed to guide Misty in the way he guided the 
early days of 2000AD that it would have been a great success and may even have been going today.  He might well be right.  Given time and the right direction Misty might have changed from being a Girls' comic to being a horror title than anyone would be happy to read.   It seems to have held a place in the memory of many of its original readers, perhaps the secret was that Misty did not publish stories for girls, it published stories about girls.  Good stories.     

I’ve yet to find the story that Patricia mentioned, but some details on the stories Laura picked out.

No information yet on the writer on “The Cult of the Cat”, but the art, including the spectacular splash page in issue 1, was by a Catalonian artist, Jaume Rumeu.  In the Franco era in Spain it was forbidden to use Catalonian surnames so he used the names “H. Romeu” or “Honeria Romeu”, it was only in very late seventies or early eighties that he appears to have used his real name.

The Milk Tray bar, the essential companion to Misty
Four Faces of Eve was written by Malcolm Shaw with art by Brian Delaney.  Shaw and Mills had worked together before on the creation of Jinty and Shaw had written some early Judge Dredd strips.  He died in 1984 at the age of 38.    

Moonchild was written by Pat Mills with art by one of the top artists for girls’ comics at the time, John Armstrong.  It has very recently been reprinted by Rebellion, the company which owns 2000AD in a book simply entitled Misty.  

Shaw and Mills had worked together before on the creation of Jinty and Shaw had written some early Judge Dredd strips.  Shaw died in 1984 at the age of 38.    

There is a lot of information on Misty out there.  Take a look at these links.

*At IPC comics were divided very firmly between Boys and Girls titles with a separate section for the humour comics that management allowed that kids of both sexes might read.    

Friday, 21 October 2016

Dan Dare on Mars - a Novel

Nothing ages like the future.  For all that Science Fiction is often set years ahead of today, it tends to reflect the time in which it is written as much as any other genre.  This post deals with “Dan Dare on Mars”, the book which introduced me to prose science–fiction at the age of eight.   I didn’t recognise it at the time, but by the time I got to read this spin-off novel from the Eagle comic it was already a book out of its own time and hopelessly anachronistic.

Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, was the star of the Eagle comic from its beginnings in April 1950.   His wholesome, family-friendly adventures quickly made him one of the popular fictional characters of his time in the UK.  And the planet-hopping adventures of Dan and his crew helped the Eagle to sell what is now an unthinkable three-quarters of a million copies each week in the UK alone.

The Eagle had been designed to be a comic that parents would be happy to let their children read.  It contained bible stories and improving tales from history.  There were stories of explorers and heroes of the empire and the various wars they had won for Britain.  Dan Dare was the centrepiece, a science fiction story designed to appeal to the same kids away who were reading the American horror comics that were the subject of a moral panic in the newspapers at the time.

Dan had originally been conceived as a Christian Superhero by Rev. Marcus Morris before mutating, probably under the influence of Frank Hampson, into Dan Dare Chaplin of the Spaceways, and finally into the chief pilot of the Interplanetary Space fleet, based, off course, in good old blighty.   Toff Dan, together with his, salt of the earth, working class assistant Digby, defeated the enemies of the earth, solved mysteries and restored earth’s (Britain’s) benevolent control across our solar system.

The Rev. Morris was a colourful character himself, his article in the Sunday Dispatch, "Comics which Bring Horror into the Nursery" was one of the key factors in stoking the campaign against 'horror' comics that was so effective in fifties and early sixties Britain.  As an ordained minister and a former RAF Chaplin, Morris' warnings were highly respected and, more importantly, accepted without question or challenge.  Had it been widely known that he was carrying on an "energetic and exotic love-life on the side” right through his marriage to actress Jessica Dunning, his words may have carried a less weight in a time of post-war puritanism? 

His concept of the Eagle was to create a comic that had the quality of art that Morris saw in some US comics and to combine that with moral and improving content.   Dan Dare was to be its centrepiece, a moral and heroic example to the children of Britain.   Perhaps even a reflection of how Morris saw himself.   

The strip was beautifully drawn by Hampson, whose designs for spaceships and technology were a huge part of the success of the strip.   Such was his popularity that Dan Dare merchandise was everywhere.  There was a Dan Dare radio show, toys, games and in 1956 this novel written by Basil Dawson.

This appears to have been Dawson’s only novel, he was better known as a scriptwriter for wireless shows and television.  He wrote Dick Barton for the radio and Robin Hood and Crossroads scripts for TV.

I inherited my copy of the book from someone called Ian Sinclair who had received it as a Christmas gift in the year of publication.  It had been bought as part of a large collection of children’s books by my grandmother in a house sale.  Mostly Enid Blyton and Biggles the Dan Dare book with its bright yellow cover stood out.   I must read it in 1968, something I can tell from the review, and I’m ashamed to say, I wrote on the inside front cover in coloured pencil, even drawing some illustrations of aliens shooting laser beans at each other.  Perhaps an early preparation for Splank!

This was my first exposure to prose science fiction.  Set in the distant future of 2002 the story revolves around the loss of contact with the mines of Mars.  Mines which produced the precious Helenium on which the spaceships which ferry food from Venus to Earth preventing the human race from starving, depend.    Dan is sent to Mars to restore production and find out what is going on.  The science fiction elements of the book are largely trappings, little bits of detail that allow a basic detective story to appear to be science fiction.   At one point Dan even paraphrases Sherlock Holmes when he says “It’s improbable, I know. But didn’t somebody say once, ‘When you’ve eliminated all the impossibles, what’s left must be the solution, however improbable’?”

At the time this was more than enough for me.  I was enthralled by the idea of other worlds, by alien races and by the thrilling adventures of the oh-so respectable hero who seemed to be able to solve every puzzle that was placed before him.

Rereading the book today I’m struck by how easily I accepted a future where Earth was exploiting the inhabitants of two planets.  The Martian Helenium could easily be seen as analogous with the raw materials that the European empires stripped from the developing world during the colonial period.   There are specific parallels with the exploitation of oil which took place around WW1, and may have been one of the prime causes of the Great War.   

The Venusians are feeding the earth, for no other reason than that earth forces had defeated the tyrant who had ruled them, the bright green, big-headed alien floating on a tea-tray, the Mekon.  But seen another way, the earth took over Venus, stripping it of natural resources for the benefit of mankind.

The Mekon
There is no question that earth has the right to exploit its neighbours, or that England should be the place from which the Space fleet should be led.  But even when it was published, it was already as much a novel of the past as it was of the future.   The European hold on their colonies was already slipping.  The deference to the officer class had gone.  Dan Dare on Mars may have featured spaceships and fantastic technology, but it was all about a society that was rapidly disappearing.

Overall it isn't a very good book, it’s poorly written and is really no more than hack-work.  It isn't even good science fiction, there is no real thought about the SF elements, just a rehashing of certain elements from the Dan Dare comic strip for a little added colour.  But for an eight year old it was a revelation.  I quickly moved on to some of the other books in the suitcases my Grandmother had bought.  Skipping the Biggles books I went on the space stories of Capt. W. E. Johns and then to anything else I could find that featured space travel or aliens.

Now little more than an oddity, but back then this was the greatest book ever written.   It would be good to be that eight year old again and to experience the excitement of reading this book for the first time.  But sadly, now I only have a faded memory of the “Dan Dare on Mars” that I loved back then.