By Charles EP Murphy
Scream! was that increasingly rare thing, a new British comic made in the 1980s with no licensed property to hang on. It was a horror comic that pushed boundaries, edited by the spectral Ghastly McNasty from the basement of IPC’s offices, and home to the beloved The Thirteenth Floor: the tales of Max, the psychotic computer in charge of a tower block, who inflicts ironic and violent punishments on any transgressors on his hidden 13th floor.
But most of The Thirteenth Floor ran in the revised Eagle (Max even became its editor after its subsequent merger with Tiger!) because Scream! itself only lasted fifteen issues.
The comic retained a strong fan base far in excess of the issues it had and was popular enough to be revived as a series of Halloween specials by 2000AD publishers Rebellion, sharing duties with its girl-comic predecessor Misty. Its strips The Dracula Files and Monster (about young Kenny and his violent hunchback uncle on the run) were two of Rebellion’s earliest Treasury of British Comics trade paperbacks. Two of its characters, Max and psychic investigator Beth Rogan from The Nightcomers, even cropped up in Rebellion’s superhero series The Vigilant, under the pen of former Scream! assistant editor Simon Furman.
Could Scream! have carried on longer? Surely not, if it was cancelled after fifteen issues. Surely sales were too low?
Except that doesn’t seem to be what killed it.
Ghastly Working Conditions
In several interviews, the editorial team and writers have discussed a number of behind-the-scenes issues with getting the comic out at all. IPC had very quickly got cold feet about publishing a horror comic, possibly due to the ‘video nasties’ hysteria of the time where moral outrage reigned in the tabloids about horror films on video. After all, it was only seven years before that media outrage had killed the infamous comic Action!. Who would want to risk the same thing happening again?
Just as possibly, this is another example of UK comic management being increasingly out of touch with what the target audience now wanted. Histories of 2000AD, Battle, and others recount similar clashes with bosses.
However, Scream!’s management meddling manages to top them all! In Hibernia Press’s history book It’s Ghastly! (available currently in PDF form with histories of Valiant, Starlord, and Fleetway/IPC in general; £10 paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org for Dropbox link), editorial staff Barrie Tomlinson, Gil Page, Ian Rimmer, and Simon Furman all recounted dealing with their bosses. First, management wanted a humour strip in Scream! in order to defang it a little, and decided it absolutely had to be an out-of-place Cor! reprint called Fiends and Neighbours. A pitch for a more appropriate humour strip was rejected out of hand. Then, the first issue was verbally torn apart for being unsuitable and sent back with significant revisions before it could see print.
And so was every subsequent issue!
Worse, there was a lengthy chain of managers who all had to be happy, leading to pages being amended more than once. Nobody up top seemed to agree on what was acceptable for a kids horror comic to do but they all agreed it was not what Tomlinson’s team was doing. In one case, quoth Rimmer to Hibernia, a story came “close to never seeing the light of day because someone in the chain of approval thought the next person in the chain wouldn’t like it.” That next person, as it turned out, had no problem at all – with that strip, anyway,
In another example of major meddling, Chris Lowder and Jose Gonzalez’s Terror of the Cats– where a town’s moggies begin turning on mankind – had to be wrapped up due to complaints. This wouldn’t be so bad except that decision came down after the second issue! So, Furman had to very hurriedly write up an ending for another writer’s strip. Cats has been recently reprinted by Judge Dredd Magazine and the seams are clear. An escalating moody piece under Lowder, where strange attacks are escalating throughout town, suddenly turns into an all-out cat attack on a hospital and the culprit is revealed to be a giant brain in a jar. The sudden shift is quite, quite strange.
As a result of all these behind-the-scenes problems, the issues were completed late and printed late. Tomlinson was irritated to find IPC blaming him and his team for the delays they were causing.
The death knell came in 1984 – not from sales, though they were lower than IPC wanted, but from an industrial dispute between the company and the National Union of Journalists. In the standoff with the union, IPC announced the cancellation of six titles, including Scream!, with all the staff sacked. This almost led to a strike before IPC agreed that the staff would get to move on to other titles or take redundancy. The title abruptly ended, and Rimmer and Furman both took the payoff.
When speaking to It’s Ghastly!, both Furman and Rimmer felt IPC was looking for an excuse to get rid of the title and the NUJ dispute provide that excuse. No longer would management have to spend time worrying if someone was going to object to Dracula eating someone in a horror comic. The title was merged with Eagle to boost its sales, with Monster and The Thirteenth Floor carrying on, and various inventory strips were used up in a series of Holiday Specials that ran for several years.
From Beyond The Grave!
So how does Scream! survive? All it takes is no dispute with the NUJ that year.
This won’t save Scream! for long. Senior management will still demand change after change, forcing it to neuter itself in the long run and forcing printing delays. As soon as the comic misses a deadline or drops to a certain sales rate, IPC can wash their hands of the comic.
However, that could at least take a year. It could possibly take longer. That means more strips being published, more children potentially getting a copy, and more work for creators.
We know from the Holiday Specials and Eagle what some of the strips would be. We also know from It’s Ghastly! that The Nightcomers was going to start its second story, one clearly inspired by X-Men, where Beth and her brother face an evil psychic gang.
New strips were also in the works. There was the obligatory UK comic strip about a boarding school: Ghoul School, where the pupils struggling to survive when their headmaster is revealed to be a demonic monster with an army of robot teachers. Another story would move the isolated haunted house to the moon, as astronauts uncover an alien coffin and are haunted by a vengeful spirit. And a story with werewolves was considered solely to have Steve Dillon draw werewolves, as he’d done on for both Scream! and a famous Judge Dredd story where the Judge becomes one.
But in the end, it most likely dies after a year. It has both management against it and IPC is, in general, cancelling quite a few comics at this point – Tiger, Tammy, Whoopee!, and School Fun would all fall as well in the same space of time, leaving just seven comics. Blog Great News For All Readers, named for the traditional lie when a comic was cancelled to be merged with another, has argued this was a “process of rationalisation” as the marketplace changed around IPC.
However, something may save it: the comic industry’s habit of ripping each other off. If Scream! seems to be doing well, even if IPC doesn’t want to keep it around, DC Thomson or Marvel UK might think it’s worth trying a horror comic of their own. And if that happens, IPC could change their mind and back Scream! up rather than let a competitor ‘win’. If you’re an 80s kid who likes horror, this is going to be a great time!
To give Scream! a boost in such a competition, it could potentially be Scream! that has a merger with the cancelled comic Tiger and not Eagle in early 1985. If so, Death Wish– horrifically scared stunt driver Blake Edmonds on a quest to find ever more elaborate escapades so he can die in action – is going to carry on into the new comic, and indeed OTL Edmonds is already facing supernatural foes. The popular Billy’s Boots is about a kid who can play football well due to a dead player’s supernatural boots, and knowing comic mergers, you could expect to see that survive and get a very odd rejigging to be a more spooky story. This would keep Scream! going for a bit longer and lead to some very weird summaries of Billy’s Boots in comic histories.
Following this, Scream! will still likely fade away (and maybe merge with the Eagle in its last days). It will still be remembered and reprinted, having reached ever more readers in its long life. But there’s an extra big result of this: if Scream! continues, Ian Rimmer and Simon Furman might remain at IPC instead of moving to Marvel UK.
In March 1987, Alan McKenzie became a freelance deputy editor on 2000AD and would edit the comic during the 1990s, a tenure that has come in for criticism. Could Furman, with a track record from Scream! behind him, have taken that role instead? What shape does 2000AD take with him there, and are creator relations better in the 90s when he’s already worked with Wagner and Grant elsewhere? Is quality control better? A better time in the early 90s would have massive repercussions for 2000AD’s history.
And then there’s the massive repercussions of Furman staying at IPC for a certain global franchise.
The Haunting Of The Transformers
When Simon Furman wrote “The Enemy Within!” for Transformers, it was just a freelance job on a comic that wasn’t expected to last more than a year or two. How long would kids stay interested in these car robots?
Kids have been interested in Transformers for thirty-six years and counting, and Furman has gone on to be one of the most influential and certainly the most prolific writers on the franchise.
In among his many contributions, he’s turned minor toys like Bludgeon and Nightbeat into recurring characters; established the Dinobots as morally grey dirty jobs soldiers rather than thickos; created the basic foundation of IDW’s comics, one used by writer James Roberts, himself a young fan of Furman’s work, to create his acclaimed More Than Meets The Eye run and bring queer themes and characters into the franchise; and created an entire mythology for the Transformers, making them creations of a god to battle the demonic chaos-bringer Unicron. The main villain in Michael Bay’s third film, one seen by millions worldwide, is Optimus Prime’s mentor Sentinel Prime – a concept and name Furman created as a mere afterthought!
And as a further afterthought,Furman co-created Death’s Head to fill a role on Transformers, and the Death’s Head II revamp has a significant impact on 1990s Marvel UK: it’s Death’s Head II that first cracked the US market for the company and that made Liam Sharp a star artist.
If Scream! lives, this never happens. Another writer gets the job, someone who may not be as good, or is good, but won’t focus as much on this title. Before Furman, respected creators Steve Parkhouse and John Ridgway had created the atmospheric story “Man of Iron”, where the Transformers are barely fathomable beings disrupting the pastoral countryside, but neither man came back – they didn’t need the work.Transformers’ UK strips could be a run of whoever-is-available instead of the consistent, world-expanding series they became.
As a result, everything on the franchise changes. Multiple characters don’t exist, various concepts don’t exist, there’s no mythical origin, there’s no ancient Primes and Liege Maximos, there’s an entirely different plot for several films.
The biggest impact beyond that: a huge formative influence is removed from the childhoods of many creators. This impacts people from Roberts to writer Kieron Gillen (Die, Journey Into Mystery) to Dumbing Of Age webcomic creator Dave Willis. It even impacts several adult creators like artist Kei Zama, brought into robot art by seeing Furman’s Generation 2 comic.
But of course, there would be a number of creators influenced by a longer-running Scream! (and a differently edited 2000AD). And some of the same creators may be influenced but in different ways. When you change the formative influences of so many people, what comics are we going to see?
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.