By Charles EP Murphy
In our discussion on girls’ comics – indeed, in anyone’s discussion of British girls’ comics – the gothic horror comic Misty came up. It lasted 101 issues, little under two years, with a few specials and annuals after, but its name still carries enough weight that Rebellion has resurrected it for yearly Halloween comics. It was one of the first titles to get reprints by Treasury of British Comics. It’s the only girls’ comic so far to have an academic tome about it, in Julia Round’s Gothic for Girls. And many former readers, when asked, can remember certain frightening images and moments: a face shattered like a mirror, hordes of uglies about to rip the lead apart.
Resource on Jinty found the readers were angry about the cancellation at the time. “The short-lived Best of Misty Monthly that appeared some years after the merger was a response to the demand for the return of Misty. A “Best of” monthly was something neither Tammy nor Jinty ever had.”
If just under two years does that, what if it lasted longer? Could it have lasted longer?
The Undying Comic
Anything specific about why sales dropped and why it was cancelled at the start of 1980 is unclear. Pat Mills, co-founder of the comic, has blamed it on the last editor not understanding this model of comic. Indeed there was an editorial handover to Norman Worker roughly around #78 , and co-founder & first editor Wilf Prigmore told Round “the stories seemed less dramatic at the end”. That could have nudged sales enough to make IPC chuck the comic out, as (according to John Sanders in Gothic for Girls) “a comic was not profitable below a circulation of 200,000 a week, which is ridiculous if you think about it”.
Worse, a scheme seemed to be at work. Art editor Jack Cunningham told Round “they just sort of pulled the rug away from under it [the comic]”, indicating they were cut off unexpectedly. Original reader Helen Fay had written into IPC in 1981 and heard from Bill Harrington (then editing the annuals) that Misty had been merged to “shore up the falling sales of Tammy”. This indicates that both were seeing a dip in sales and Tammy was considered the better one to save, which could be because its sales were the higher, it had been around longer, or someone at IPC just didn’t like Misty.
So, the easiest way to save Misty is to not have the old-school figure Norman Worker take over. Possibly it goes straight to Bill Harrington earlier, as he’s already sub-editor and a regular writer; or Malcolm Shaw doesn’t depart until later. Just keeping sales up a bit will see it survive the start of 1980.
If it had survived, do we know what would run after?
“The Black Widow”, with a quite camp villainess out for spider-related revenge on the British establishment, had an equally Marvel’s-lawyers-annoying sequel in Tammy & Misty called “The Spider Woman”. This was almost certainly was meant for Misty and we can assume #102 onwards would feature Miss Webb’s spidery schemes for world domination.
In an examination of the Tammy & Misty merger, Jenni Scott said there are several spooky strips that ran. ““The Loneliest Girl in the World”, “The Sea Witches”, (possibly) “A Girl Called Midnight”, “Danger Dog” and “The Shadow of Sherry Brown” look like they may have come from Misty. Some of them, such as “The Loneliest Girl in the World”, were undoubtedly Misty… Later on, Misty’s text stories returned; they must have taken the advice of one reader who suggested it.” She also notes the one-off “Monster Tales” stories – tales of monsters, naturally, with nasty punishments for the guilty – had to have been Misty inventory, waiting until there was space for it to run.
“Loneliest Girl” was a serial that steadily revealed the Earth was dead and the protagonist was the sole survivor, kept alive in a simulated world by kindly aliens, before she asked to go home to die with her family. “A Girl Called Midnight” featured the eponymous adopted girl falling into strange ‘moods’ and wandering off, revealed at the end to be searching for a lost sister. “Shadow” had Katy Bishop adopted by the Brown family and being tormented by the ghost of their dead daughter Sherry, who won’t let her have anything that had been ‘hers’. “Danger Dog” told the story of a girl going on the run with a dog that escaped a testing lab, unaware it’s carrying a deadly contagion.
(Describing these stories does raise a question: if Norman Worker didn’t ‘get’ the model Misty used, how the heck did these scripts get commissioned? Had he adapted quite fast or was taking advice? Or were these scripts approved by Shaw and Worker was holding them back?)
We can also expect a return of the comic’s only OTL serial – “The Cult of the Cats”, by Bill Harrington and “Widow” artist Jaime Rumea. Running in the first issue, the first story had the ominous Bast cult try to forcibly recruit young Nicola into being one of them, which then abruptly ends with her joining being a happy outcome. It returned in #53 as “The Nine Lives of Nicola”, where an evil snake cult decapitated the Bast worshippers and sent an agent to take out Nicola in her own school. That would probably have come back for at least a third time.
However, it will continue to be dominated by finite serials and the thing that makes it most famous among fans: the brutal morality tales, where the guilty are mowed down by nasty, ironic fates. Prigmore told Round the one-offs were to test out the new writers and artists, similar to how the Future Shock is used in 2000AD, as well as a practical consideration “if the post was late from Spain or people were ill, etc.” This was also a personal preference: “What does a new reader get if they buy, say, issue five and it’s full of serials? … Personally, I think much of the greatest literature is found in the short story.”
Shaw and Worker both carried this on. This will be part of the Misty ‘brand’.
There is also the art. The extra space given to artists ala 2000AD led to some stunning splash pages and imaginative page layouts, which Mills wanted and Jack Cunningham pushed for as art editor; he even would annotate the scripts, determined not to have anything visually “static” and to give them eye-catching first pages. Cunningham told Round that they kept in contact with the Spanish artists’ agency and if the comic had continued, “we could have given the artists their head more, because they were very imaginative”.
A longer Misty is an increasingly visually inventive Misty. Just like 2000AD, it would look nothing like its peers. What kind of art could be created?
Mills in the Mists
One man believes Misty could have survived: Pat Mills, and he laments that it would have survived if he’d become editor. “If I had stayed with Misty,” he told The Herald in 2016, “it would have easily outsold 2000AD. “
Mills left early into production as IPC wouldn’t give him a share in the profits – Prigmore, became the editor instead. (Both men are quoted saying they came up with the name, from the film Play Misty For Me) Mills came back to consult and would write several stories for it, including the early serial “Moonchild”, a deliberate riff on Carrie.
Can you change this? Well, Mills is extremely unlikely to budge as he’d made multiples hits for IPC without seeing any financial return for it, and considered this a matter of principle. However, it is possible he might budge as he’d done on 2000AD, when he and Wagner were promised a stake and then didn’t receive it; IPC would never budge on this in any timeline.
If Mills is editor, however, Misty will end up quite different. As Jill Round notes, “his vision of Misty was very different from that of the IPC management and the comic that it eventually came to be”.
“Without my direct involvement, the stories were not as hard-hitting as I would have liked them to be and some punches were pulled,” Mills wrote on his website. “There were far too many short, self-contained stories, some a bit weak, not enough serials – which are vital to hook the reader – and more than a little “old school” thinking slowly starting to creep back in. Despite this, Misty was still very good, the art was fantastic – often better than 2000AD – and it was very much part of the Comic Revolution.”
Pat Mills’ early idea was an all-out horror comic, while IPC framed Misty as a “mystery story paper” (as per Gothic for Girls). The first difference is the covers: he’s told the Herald he felt they were “beautiful” but he would have gone “for more ballsy covers”, believing the audience preferred this, and told Round he felt the ones that exist were “less confrontational” to ensure “middle-class mum would see it as ‘safe’”. A number of the covers were indeed based on moments of horror but it’s true the ones best remembered are the ethereal ones with Misty herself on.
The difference in content is illuminated by a Mills-penned strip in #1. “The Banana King”, which would build to the girl’s implied death at the fangs of a spider, was relatively toned down in redrafts as “Red Knee… White Terror!”. In the original script, reprinted in Gothic for Girls, a creepy figure with a market stall as ‘The Banana King’ is selling bananas to smuggle killer spiders into people’s homes. The spider crawls up our heroine and is implied to be about to kill her, and Mills’ direction for the artist says to put “a lot of detail” into the spider, to show “the girl’s face becoming increasingly terrified.”
In the printed version, there is no human villain – the spider just came into the country with the bananas – and the attack becomes her brother’s practical joke with a prop. The last panel, however, is the real spider is closing in on her hand, just as she thinks she’s safe…
Round says the change “indicate that from the start the vision for the comic was of emotional tension and uncanny intrigue, where everyday settings and characters would be made strange and unfamiliar through the supernatural, rather than outright horror.” Prigmore is quoted saying Mills’ script was “quite a frightening story” but they decided “we’re definitely not looking for a horror comic, it’s going to be mystery.” Round’s study on stories notes that a number will not show anything gruesome for a long part but instead build tension “by suggesting an impending doom”. Often there’s suggestion, implication, “the horror remains largely unshown”.
With Mills as editor, this is changed: more gruesome material, more terror, more people in peril. Another change would also be “The Formula”, as Mills puts it: his process for creating a commercial strip. In essence:
“picking a subject and a genre where there is strong evidence it will appeal to the reader”, which includes the tradition of a comic version of something else out there
“relate to the character on some personal level” (for “Moonchild”, he mentioned basing several characters on people he’d known)
Have a proactive motivation that will appeal.
A title that usually is the character’s name
This was not the model either Prigmore or second editor Malcolm Shaw followed, either with what they commissioned or, in Shaw’s case, wrote (“The Sentinels”, “The Four Faces of Eve”, various one-shots).
Mills also lamented what he considered “middle class” attitudes and treatment to the Herald: “that “romantic, ethereal” notion creeping in again. It's simply wrong. As I know from any number of feedback sources, the majority of female readers (including the middle classes) then and now want “Grange Hill”-orientated material, not this middle-class stuff.” What would this mean for Misty herself and the ‘voice’ on her editorial pages and letter columns?
An even greater change is the fundamental difference between Mills and Prigmore, the view on serials versus one-offs. Mills felt there should have been more continuing serials and characters, and the famous one-offs were actually a cause of the comic’s demise. He told the Herald the one-offs seemed like a shortcut as serials require “a lot of thought and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. They didn’t.”
If Mills is editor from the start, even under later editors, Misty as we know it vastly changed. A number of the same creators would appear – Mills greatly rated Malcolm Shaw as a writer, for example – but the work they’d be doing would be different. Based on the lengthy runs for Jinty, Battle, and 2000AD, Misty would likely last longer if he was directly running it but what would it look like?
The Manager’s Curse!
Whoever the editor is, whatever shape Misty takes, there’s one issue: as the editors on Scream! found, IPC/Fleetway in the early 1980s was very leery about doing a horror comic at all. That title suffered from delays and chaos as management demanded to see every strip in triplicate until it was approved and was eventually killed under cover of a union strike.
Misty did not suffer management’s wrath OTL but if this is Mills-Misty, it definitely will (and probably before Scream!’s even out) as it pushes boundaries. Even the Prigmore-model Misty may not be able to keep going as it is before people start to write into IPC and complain; and even if they don’t, once management start focusing on Scream!, they might start to wonder about the girls’ comic.
It may survive this with a few quiet edits – as did 2000AD at various points – as long as it sells. The ‘mystery’ focus and that ‘ethereal’ quality will allow it to avoid the worst of the wrath. This would be hard for Mills-Misty, which will eventually be forced to tone it down and if sales drop as a result, could it suffer the same fate as Scream!? Misty may survive 1980 only to die in 1984!
It and Scream! would not be alone. In our timeline, Tammy was going to be cancelled in August but IPC decided to abandon it early during the NUJ strike, right in the middle of various continuing serials. This would be a problem for one of these comics if Misty is dying here as well – Girl is the only suitable title left to merge with, which means one is just going to be left to die unloved while another gets a brief half-life.
This brings up another thing if Misty survives any length of time: a failing comic is going to be merged with it. But which one(s)?
The first and most obvious answer is that Tammy is merged into Misty rather than vice versa – but can it? The bulk of Tammy’s tales aren’t horror or mystery based; the one-off ‘Strange Tales’ won’t cut it on their own. The famous gymnast soap “Bella at the Bar” – working-class Bella struggling against her guardians to achieve her dreams – won’t fit into a horror comic, which sacrifices the big draw. The only two strips that could easily go in is the newly started “Daughter of the Desert”, where a school is mysteriously transforming into a desert after an Arabian princess transfer in; and the gag strips “Miss T” and “Edie”, which easily merged in OTL anyway.
Alternatively, Misty is forced to undermine its unique selling point for a few months to incorporate comics like “Bella”, which will reduce its own sales as dedicated readers leave. More likely, Tammy is merged with Jinty instead.
Now in OTL, Jinty bows out on the 21st November 1981, and in its final issues it was already running several supernatural stories. “World’s Apart” has six girls suffer through ‘dream worlds’ that are ideal for one but nightmarish for others, and the only way out is for one to die; the serial abruptly ended for the Tammy merger but could live on a few more issues at Misty. The “Gypsy Rose” strip, a series of spooky morality tales told by Rose, would be an easy transfer. And there’s “Gaye’s Gloomy Ghost”, a humour tale about the titular Gayle and her pal, the ghost of the knight Sir Roger.
That last strip will surely continue because it has a ghost in it but the humour angle is likely to clash with Misty’s usual tone; then again, as with the gag strip about Miss T the bumbling witch, it could carry on as the light relief. (In OTL, “Gaye’s Gloomy Ghost” was given a definitive ending but this wouldn’t happen in a Misty merger) As this strip was in every issue of Jinty for two years, it could become a weekly regular for Misty – its first one, for as long as it’s popular.
After that, Princess is for the chop on 31st March 1984. There again simply aren’t enough strips that would suit Misty for a transfer, so this would likely go to Tammy. If someone in management decides they want Misty boosted over Tammy anyway, however, there are a few choices. The time travel mystery tale “The Haunted Station” would be the obvious transfer. “School of Dark Secrets” – a coven of witches are running a school – had recently concluded but could presumably have been restarted. And then there’s “The Dream House”, a reprinted Tammy strip about a malevolent immortal in a doll’s house, waiting to mind-control children into letting her out. Could Misty have started a sequel to it, with the evil Miss Royd getting out once more?
And then there’s the OTL demise of Tammy. If this merges with Misty, some of its strips will get to carry on instead of die out mid-run and this time there are a few more good fits. (Unfortunately, “Bella at the Bar” would again not be one, nor would the lengthy schoolgirl soap opera “Pam of Pond Hill”.)
This all said, it’s possible Jinty survived longer thanks to merging with Tammy – and so instead, in 1984 Misty gets merged with it. Can Jinty & Misty continue and survive the 1980s?
While it would never have happened in the 1980s, let’s imagine: what if Scream! merged with Misty, as it has done for the Rebellion specials? The obvious surviving strips from the boys’ title would be “The Thirteenth Floor”, the most popular one in the comic and fit for nasty morality tales; and “The Nightcomers”, as one half of the heroes is the psychic teenage girl Beth Rogan and that makes it tailor made for Misty. There was even a new “Nightcomers” story ready to go with an X-Men inspired group of villainous psychics, as reprinted in Hibernia Press’ “It’s Ghastly!”.
The remaining two serials, “The Dracula Files” and “Monster”, would need some work to be suitable. For the latter, young Ken and his murderous hunchback Uncle Terry would likely need to run into a young girl who can join them in their adventures, and Terry’s violence is probably toned down. “The Dracula Files” would to some extent be easier to transfer, as all you need to retain is Dracula himself and Eric Bradbury on art. And of the upcoming planned strips, “Ghoul School” – with an evil headmaster and his robot hordes running a school – would need a genderswap for its protagonist but otherwise be good to go.
What would the boys reading Scream! think of all this? Misty had enough of a male readership that it could probably retain more of the readers than you’d think, but will their presence – writing in letters to back or decry strips, possibly joining fan groups – change how the comic develops? And there’ll be male co-leads in some of the strips, is Misty going to remain ‘co-ed’ afterwards?
The Four Lives of Fandom
The readers were a voracious, inventive lot who produced fanworks, attempted to create fan clubs, wanted to know who made the strips, and in general could have been the core for an entire fandom for girls’ comics if given the chance. We’ve discussed that before – but what else might happen specific to this comic?
One thing the readers really loved was the mysterious host Misty, to the extent of writing in with poems about her. The longer Misty goes on, the more they’ll have explain who Misty actually is – she hadn’t been planned to go with the title (a male ‘host’ was dropped), there was no intended backstory, but readers kept writing in and asking about her.
Prigmore admitted to Round that other than “we’d really thought she was dead”, they had no idea about her backstory and were playing for time with every hint dropped – which include that “I am old as time itself”, “born on the very first midnight hour”, and educated by the Lords of the Mists “who now, alas, are now more”. Allegedly, all the stories come from Misty herself, and “the publishers send their very bravest men” to make contact. Her presence deters evil forces and threats from reaching you, the reader. When the comic was cancelled, Misty said she was departing to misty lands “helping to quell the dark forces of evil which are rising there”.
Which means inevitably, inexorably, someone will have to explain all of this. Equally inevitably, it will upset and anger some fans for doing it ‘wrong’.
A serialised strip will come into being – Misty not being treated like 2000AD’s editor Tharg, but like Judge Dredd in getting a detailed ‘origin’ story. From the thrown-out hints, this would end up being a dark fantasy story, heavy on atmosphere and detached from the real world – a very different story to what had gone before. The annuals did have some text stories where Misty appears as a helper character, which Round describes as “high-fantasy tales… not very well written” in their attempt to keep some of the mystery, so this may be an entirely doomed endeavour.
This big obsession with Misty by an active fandom will also mean Shirley Bellwood’s artwork of the character is now going to be ‘worth something’. This means more of it will survive, as opposed to our timeline where much of it was tragically junked by Fleetway and the only surviving piece is damaged because it was used as a cutting board.
Another noted thing with the fandom, recorded both Round and Dr Mel Gibson, is that several lesbian readers admitted that Misty character was part of the draw for the comic. You can expect that to become more visible if the comic continued past the 1980s, as these readers get older and new young lesbians (and bisexuals etc) come in. This may just mean Misty is known for its queer fanbase, as the X-Men were. But what happens if Misty ends up being adopted in gay circles? This would be quite awkward for Egmont Fleetway! They’ll likely want to ignore it but can they?
As previously discussed, a number of these fans will want to work on Misty if it lasts beyond the mid-80s. But everything discussed before is just on Misty making it past 1984 – how much longer can it go after that, so these fans can get in?
Well, there’s a big advantage coming in the late 1980s…
As the 1980s came to a close, several horror books like R.L Stine’s The Babysitter were published and took the tween & teen girl market by storm. That led to the Point Horror book series in 1991, which would go on to sell seven million books by 2000. These were followed by the mass-published Christopher Pike, and R.L. Stine’s kiddie horror hit series Goosebumps (and its many ripoffs including one by Pike), as well as TV shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, and Bonechillers from America and CITV’s homegrown The Frighteners. In the late 90s, teenagers got Buffy.
If you were between 5 to 20 in the UK during the 1990s, there was a huge amount of horror aimed at you on multiple fronts.
A surviving Misty is in a good position to profit off this. As well as grabbing new readers in the newsagents and comic shops, cheap trade paperback collections of old strips might sell in bookstores with the target audience if anyone at Egmont Fleetway thinks of it (and they did do trade deals for Judge Dredd with Hamlyn). This will also happen around a time that Misty is potentially following 2000AD in ‘aging up’ with part of its audience. This can be a fraught time for a comic’s sales and stories, but if you have Point Horror pointing the way, Misty could easily navigate this.
To best attract these new teens from Point Horror, however, Misty needs to speak their language. That means stories of teenagers in lurid horror and mystery situations, with covers – as Pat Mills wanted! – more garish and openly frightening. This is, after all, part of the appeal, as Emily Withrow noted at AV Club: “Fluorescent text seared across some foreboding image… and the ones that depicted teenagers depicted awesome teenagers”, while the plots talked about teenage concerns and gruesome acts your parents wouldn’t let you see in films.
And a British comic can’t really deal with the other part of the appeal for British & Irish kids identified by Beth Rodgers and Eva McDermott in a retrospective for the Irish Times, “the glamorous American settings” right out of TV. They also note Point Horror aimed middle-class with its heroines, which Misty would obviously not.
This means changing some of Misty’s aesthetic and tone, however, which will irk existing readers. In this, we again look to 2000AD in the 1990s, which lost readers as it tried to adapt to the new decade and didn’t quite get it right under new management and creators. Whether Misty can handle this change depends entirely on the people working on it. If it can’t, then it’ll finally die in the 1990s – over a decade and a half of stories, a respectable run, with fans remembering that ‘unfortunate trend-chasing’ period. There’s also a risk if it becomes too attached to this model, that Withrow found herself aging out of Point Horror because they became too teenage, “the romance of growing up” for the reader until you did it.
But if it can survive that – well, Buffy’s on the way to BBC One and has a whole new model. And a premise Misty can, as fits the Fleetway tradition, rip off mercilessly.
If Misty can survive and adapt, it’ll be a healthier comic than 2000AD and so also be around for when Rebellion buys that title up at decade’s end – Egmont Fleetway might also sell Misty for the same reason, this comic is at odds with their business plan and someone’s offering cash. And if Misty makes it to 1999 and new ownership, if it has several generations of fans and dedicated creators…
….nothing’s killing it.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.