Shut down in its prime, Scream! could have been the Galaxy’s Greatest Horror Comic. Stephen Jewell reports
We head back to 1984 and recall the short-lived but influential British horror comic.
With its “Not for the nervous” tagline and its otherworldly, fictional editor, Scream! was clearly intended as a horror-themed equivalent to 2000 AD. Described by John Wagner – who penned two of its most popular offerings, Monster and The Thirteenth Floor, with his then-regular writing partner, Alan Grant – as “merger fodder”, IPC’s attempt to launch a new boys’ anthology comic proved remarkably short-lived. Debuting in late March 1984, Scream! lasted only 15 issues before it was combined with Eagle just over three months later.
But its stories – boasting work by such top British talent as Brendan McCarthy, Cam Kennedy, Ron Smith and even Alan Moore – have lingered in the memories of those who read the original weekly. Indeed, The Dracula File and The Thirteenth Floor have recently been reprinted by Hibernia Press, while Rebellion will this month release a collection of Scream!’s most acclaimed strip, Monster.
Having previously overseen Roy Of The Rovers in 1976 and then 1982’s warmly received revival of Eagle, IPC Boys’ Adventure Group editor Barrie Tomlinson was charged with bringing Scream! to macabre life. “I was happy doing what I was doing but the management wanted to put out a horror comic, so I was pleased to oblige,” he says. “It was a chance for me to do something different, and despite what some management thought, the end product was a good one.”
Promoting former Eagle assistant editor Ian Rimmer to the top job on Scream!, Tomlinson insists that the new title never consciously emulated 2000 AD’s winning formula. “It didn’t cross my mind, as I always created comics as I wanted them, and I was seldom influenced by events elsewhere,” he says, although he did hire Battle artist Mike Western to design the Tharg-esque Ghastly McNasty’s suitably gruesome, hooded visage. “I knew that he’d come up with just what we needed.” Rimmer was responsible for Ghastly McNasty’s catchy moniker. “There were images for a character who would be Scream!’s editorial figurehead, but no sense of personality or name for him,” he recalls. “For some reason I recalled the name of a band from my teenage years in Liverpool in the ’70s, who were called Filthy McNasty. I tweaked it a bit and came up with Ghastly McNasty.” Having joined IPC as a trainee competition journalist in 1980 before becoming Scream! assistant editor in 1984, Simon Furman believes that 2000 AD was a significant factor in the early days of the fledgling title, although it quickly escaped from under The Mighty One’s formidable shadow. “From the creators to the format
Despite what some thought, the end product was a good one
and Ghastly McNasty, 2000 AD was the template from which Scream! sprung,” he says. “But largely down to Ian, it very quickly gained its own unique identity and style that started to owe less and less to 2000 AD, Eagle and the rest. For the most part, Scream! had a straightforward story and character-led roster of stories – like The Thirteenth Floor and Monster – that differed from 2000 AD’s more scathing and satirical sci-fi content. Even with the supernatural elements, the strips in Scream! were grounded and gripping dramas first and foremost, and readers responded well to that immersive, intelligent kind of storytelling.”
Boasting an opening four-pager by Alan Moore and Heinzl who were then replaced by John Wagner and Alan Grant – writing as “Rick Clark” – and Spanish artist Jesus Redondo, Monster is a prime example of that more sensitive approach. “Alan Moore wrote both the first episode of Monster and also a treatment of how the story might develop but other work commitments meant that he wasn’t available to contribute anything more to the title,” says Rimmer, referring to the Northampton author’s breakthrough stint on Swamp Thing, which began in 1983. “I was never shown Alan’s story treatment, but was told it took the story into areas management wanted to avoid. Naturally, I’ve always wondered what ideas Alan had in mind, but by the time I came on board, Alan Grant and John Wagner had already been selected to take the story forward.”
Focusing on the surprisingly tender relationship between 12-year-old Kenneth Corman and his deformed, preternaturally strong Uncle Terry, who had been secretly locked in an attic for many years, Monster is believed to have been partly based upon the so-called Monster of Glamis. The first child of the Queen Mother’s great-grandparents, the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, he was rumoured to have been hidden away from early 19th century society because of his apparent deformities.
“The story of the Monster of Glamis has lots of staple elements for a classic gothic tale, so perhaps Alan and John had fragments of that legend in mind when they took over writing Monster,” says Rimmer, who also compares it to the original 1931 film of Frankenstein. “There’s a scene where that monster encounters a little girl beside a lake and they play a game of throwing flowers in the water to watch them float. When they run out of flowers, the misguided creature throws her into the water to see if she will float, but of course she drowns. Briefly though, the frail, small child and the huge lumbering monster were in tune and co-operating, and it was a similar relationship between a youngster and his powerful, disfigured relative that we sought to expand upon and explore in Monster.”
While joking that he “wouldn’t put anything past the royal family”, Alan Grant admits that his only enduring memory of scripting Monster is “laughter, although I’m not sure whether Alan meant it to be a humour story.”
He also speaks fondly of his and Wagner’s other main contribution to Scream!, The Thirteenth Floor, which focused on crazed super-computer Max, who would wreak terrible vengeance upon any unsuspecting wrongdoers who ventured into the elevator of his tower block. “I remember enjoying it immensely as we wrote it,” he says. “Max was a really great character, and boy did he make those evil people pay!
“It was a fun story to write, and like a lot of the stories Alan and I did, it fed off itself, with one thing leading to another until the characters – in this case, Max – took over, dictating to a large extent where the story would go next,” continues Wagner, who suggests that Max is similar in mindset to Doomlord, the genocidal alien, whose exploits he and Grant chronicled in Eagle. “Doomlord opined that the fate of the
individual was irrelevant, as the survival of the species was the important thing, and Max in the same way would happily sacrifice anyone for the good of his tenants.”
Now a successful comics scribe best known for his work on Transformers, Simon Furman cut his teeth on Scream!, penning Beware The Werewolf for artist Steve Dillon, and filling in for Gerry Finley Day on The Dracula File on a couple of occasions. “Most of my scripts for Scream! was me pitching in to avoid some kind of deadline crunch,” he says. “With The Dracula File, I was largely padding out Gerry’s work, and buying him some breathing space. Each of my interjections were designed to feed in and out of what he was doing, and simultaneously not derail his longer-term plans. But I enjoyed them, and especially the latter three-parter from Scream! #13-15, which allowed me to channel my affection for Hammer horror.”
Illustrated by Eric Bradbury and Geoff Senior, The Dracula File updated the familiar tale of the bloodsucking Count to the then-present day, as he flees his Eastern European homeland and is mistaken by British Intelligence for a defector upon his arrival in the UK. “We wanted all the stories to have a contemporary setting, something that readers could relate to,” says Furman, who was also given the more onerous task of wrapping up the less well-received Terror Of The Cats, which focused on insane genius Dr Ulrich Kruhl’s attempt to telepathically control the minds of felines everywhere.
“Terror Of The Cats was right there in the original dummy, but suddenly after only two instalments, IPC got cold feet, and Ian was told to wrap it up ASAP, and in the process move it as far into the realm of the fantastical as possible,” recalls Furman. “Maybe they feared kids culling their household moggies wholesale because ‘it looked at me in a funny way!’ Ian and I discussed how best to move the story to a conclusion, although the big Brain of the Cats was my idea, as it was a homage to those 1950s sci-fi films I’d loved watching as a kid.”
Unfortunately, Terror Of The Cats’ abrupt curtailing foreshadowed Scream!’s equally rapid demise. Beset by interference from higher-ups, who constantly demanded changes in content, often resulting in delays, it eventually became a sacrificial lamb in a bitter conflict between IPC and the National Union of Journalists. “Despite the starburst on the cover of Scream! #1 claiming that it was ‘Not For The Nervous!’ the senior managers at IPC’s youth department seemed terrified that it would cause them problems,” says Rimmer, who maintains that Scream! was not cancelled because of poor sales figures. “It was my feeling at the time, and it remains so, that the IPC board, having sanctioned the title, actually lost its nerve once they saw it in print and decided to axe it to avoid potential allegations of publishing a so-called comic-nasty, hiding behind the smokescreen of an industrial dispute to do it.”
Indeed, both Monster and The Thirteenth Floor went on to enjoy long runs in Eagle after its union with Scream!. “It was a shame that Scream! was cut so short, but the writing was on the wall long before the plug was pulled,” reflects Furman. “Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge now and Scream! – in a kind of undying way – won’t stay buried, so maybe we got the last laugh in the end. Cue a Vincent Price-style creepy cackle!”
Monster is published by Rebellion in July. It’s Ghastly is out soon from Hibernia Press.
It remains my feeling that the IPC board lost its nerve once they saw it
Uncle Terry gets an unfortunately predictable reaction.
We’re leaving you on a cliffhanger here!
And a little bit of Hammer horror for seasoning.
Kids: be good to cats. They’re actually really nice.