credit: Eric Bradbury

The video nasty nonsense in the UK was cresting in 1984, when culture was swamped in tenacious concerns that horror movies were corrupting the youth. Films were banned and video store owners were prosecuted.

And the publishers behind the 2000 AD, Battle and Eagle titles decided it was the perfect time to launch a horror comic for little kids, and gave the world Scream!.

There hadn’t been a hell of a lot of horror comics for kids produced in the UK, especially after the US scene got spanked down by the Comics Code Authority crew. There had been the notable exception of Misty, the horror weekly aimed at all the happily weird young girls in the school playground. That lasted 101 issues in the late 70s, and there were also loads of reprints from across the Atlantic, but that was largely it.

They gave Scream! a good shot —with editor Barrie Tomlinson having raided the titanic talent pool from those other titles — and there was a real publicity push, with television advertisements as far away as New Zealand. Plus, there was a fictitious editor in the hooded Ghastly McNasty, an editorial trick that never grew old.

It lasted 15 weekly issues. A couple of the strips switched to Eagle in one of the publisher’s largely bullshit ‘mergers’ and carried on for many more installments, but the regular Scream! comic was dead in less than four months.

The reasons for the quick demise of Scream! are unclear. While it probably had much to do with some kind of industrial action at the time, the general conservative social movement of the 1980s didn’t help matters. Maybe, in a shocking twist worthy of the comic itself, it just did not sell enough copies.

But as stiff upper lips all over Britain were quivering over the likes of Antropophagus: The Beast appearing at the local video store, they didn’t really have much to fear from Scream!. The comic had an impressive body count – although nothing like 2000 AD’s mega-death events such as Judge Dredd’s “Apocolypse War” or “The Quartz Zone Massacre” of Rogue Trooper fame -- but the gore was tasteful and largely off-panel, and there was certainly no sex or nudity.

What Scream! had instead were some things that the British do very well – a total sense of doom and gloom, rotten kitchen-sink psycho melodramas, decaying monsters, and obscured murders. If you couldn’t show the kind of gore that EC Comics gleefully inflicted on 50s kids, you could still make a world that is full of dark and murky terrors.

The stories themselves were often nothing special – mostly silly and obvious, with daft punchlines. There were familiar writers like Tom Tully, Simon Furman and Gerry-Finlay Day, and a bunch of names that are suspiciously unfamiliar, (which means they were probably John Wagner and/or Alan Grant behind them, ripping off a Hammer House of Horror episode they half-remembered for a quick paycheque).

The target audience for Scream! were 9-year-olds, so the comics were about as intense as the kind of horror comics DC had been putting out for the past few decades. But what they did share with their US counterparts was some fantastic art. And while Scream! died a quick death, some of that gloriously bleak comic art in those 15 issues is immortal.

Ghastly Tales and Libraries of Death

Every issue of Scream! had a number of regular features that were there every week, as well as a couple of one-offs, with plots that ranged from slightly upsetting – ‘you’re turning into an insect!’ - to absolute pedestrian – ‘it was all a dream!’.

What the stories lacked in imagination, they made up for in artistic talent, with 2000 AD veterans like Brendan McCarthy, Steve Dillon, Steve Parkhouse, Ron Smith and Cam Kennedy happily getting in on the horror, even if the comic was printed on some of the worst paper stock on the planet.

credit: Brendan MCarthy

McCarthy got to do a demonic Punch and Judy show in #7 and Dillon’s werewolves in #8 would be familiar to anybody who followed the artist’s work in a lycanthropic Judge Dredd strip. Parkhouse’s Sea Beast shows up in a two-parter late in the comic’s run, and goes from a mysterious and unrevealed menace in #13 to over-burdened monster on the cover of #14, (although the story still has some gleeful in the absurdity generated by the artist’s innate comic timing). Judge Dredd legend Ron Smith got to draw a giant spider.

Cam Kennedy – arguably one of the greatest action artists Britain has ever produced – also got heavy into the atmospherics behind the chills. The ghostly parents and haunted house in the first issue is deeply creepy, even if it’s immediately undermined by a two-panel happy ending -

credit: Cam Kennedy

But there is no happy ending in Kennedy’s second story for Scream!, with the amoral protagonist in All Done With Wires in #4 seeing the truth behind reality in his last moments, and Kennedy give us vast puppet-masters hovering over us all -

credit: Cam Kennedy

The best looking single-issue story in Scream!’s entire run is another bloody mummy story, as an archaeologist raids the wrong goddamn tomb. It might be the most prosaic plot in the history of horror, but has stunning work by Jose Casanovas. The artist, who would later have the misfortune of illustrating the most hated run of Robo-Hunter in the history of 2000 AD, is on fire in the five-page Terror of the Tomb from #12. Never mind the exquisite detailing of his line, his use of shadow is brilliant, generating foreboding, moving the plot forward with splayed momentum and rendering utter terror in all its sweaty darkness.

credit: Jose Casanovas

A Weekly Terror

The short stories were fun, but a British comic relies upon its regular features to keep the dedicated reader coming back every week. Some of that was also pedestrian and predictable, but even the stories about paranormal investigators and killer cats had some nice pacing, and clear, slick art by John Richardson.

But the short stories weren’t as satisfying as the other main features. There was The 13th Floor with Max the mad computer spiriting away wrong ‘uns to a mad virtual reality/supernatural dimension to be served up a massive helping of just desserts. It had real humor, with the strip creators always striving to avoid too much repetition (and not always succeeding) by relying on a nasty wit.

credit: Jose Ortiz

The 13th Floor also had one absolute ace in the late, great José Ortiz The hugely versatile artist etched the horror into the terrified faces of the unfortunate folk who ended up visiting the 13th floor, sold the absurdity of it, and kept the ordeals lively with an unparalleled sense of panicked urgency from panel to panel.

It also helped that Max’s face was a stupidly simple design by Oritz, easy for any kids to replicate, and able to show a surprising amount of complex emotions with a few jagged lines.

credit: Jose Ortiz

Meanwhile, Misty veteran Jesus Redondo's scratchy realism gave the fearsome Uncle Terry in the Monster strip plenty of humanity, with plenty more lines carved into the main character's face. The ongoing story never really lived up to the unsettling first chapter by Alan Moore, where the deep terror of being a kid being left alone in a house when something terrible has happened is exposed.

Once Terry and his nephew Kenny escaped into the world, it was another harsh place under Redondo’s pen, and any creeping horror was replaced by the rush to get away from all the people who wanted to do him harm.

credit: Jesus Redondo

Both Monster and The 13th Floor moved over to the Eagle comic for long runs after Scream! dissolved like a vampire in the sun, but Dracula himself only got a couple of later appearances in the comic’s holiday specials.

The Dracula File anchored the entire run of the comic, because you can’t go wrong with Dracula. The creators were much better at bringing the Count into the late 20th century than the Hammer movie attempts a decade earlier - especially with the cold war edge involved in escaping East European countries in the 1980s - but also had the bonus of being the filthiest thing in the comic.

credit: Eric Bradbury

Not in any sexual way, it was just that Eric Bradbury's art looked like everything was literally covered in decaying dirt, as the vampire's undead rot spread out into a modern world of biker gangs and MI5 agents. The entire world was frayed around edges under Bradbury’s eye and was the perfect accompaniment for Dracula’s latest English holiday, the count materializing out of the swill that fills the world and murdering vast amounts of innocent people.

All of these artists obviously relished getting to tell a different type of story, and one of them produced some of the best work in his career, with Jim Watson’s gross and disturbing art for the Tales From The Grave strip.

Most of the short dramas it told were the usual Victorian supernatural vengeance kind of thing, with the wise and deformed gravedigger acting as host to the six-page dreadfuls. But Watson’s art was the real star.

credit: Jim Watson

The artist -- a familiar sight in war comics in the previous decade -- seized the opportunity to get into something that didn’t involve guns and Nazis and created a Victorian England that had never looked so seedy, so gross, and so repulsive. There isn’t much beauty in the workhouse, and Watson never romanticized anything. The stories are full of nasty people, from hanging judges to murderous dentists, and they’re all doing terrible things, and they always paid the price in the meanest and most apt way possible.

credit: Jim Watson

Watson's characters were these haggard, desiccated souls with the darkest eyes – all heavy, black and pendulous – but when confronted with something ‘orrible from beyond the veil, their stark terror and heart-stopping shock would fill the panel.

Watson’s graveyard fog curled through its plots and the whole thing was gloriously awful, especially when the occasional rotting corpse would pop up. Watson conjured new chills and thrills out of the metaphysically dank world he created, and gave horrid life to the miscreants with fantastic eyebags who were mired in it.

Scream Like You Mean It

The eighties video nasties drama came and went, and wrecked some lives in the progress, just like all the moral crusades always do. All of the films on that dreaded list are now easy to get for anybody who puts in a tiny bit of effort, and something like The Witch Who Came From The Sea —once deemed too dangerous for public health - can be easily found.

There’s enough time under the bridge that the video nasties list has even created its own legacy, and there’s now plenty of films that are only known for just being on that list in the first place.

Scream! has had a surprisingly robust afterlife. There were the two Eagle survivors, and even a Scream! holiday special every year for a while, although the quality dropped rapidly every year.

credit: Brendan McCarthy

And that was it for decades, until all those mildly traumatized 9-year-olds grew up enough to demand collected editions. Rebellion has owned the rights to all the Scream! stories for several years and have put out books featuring the usual suspects, but there’s still a lot there to unearth.

There have also been brand-new Scream! comics in the past few years. It has been revived as an annual special, sharing a masthead with Misty, and there was even a whole new 13th Floor comic, written by Guy Adams.

These new comics were printed on the kind of slick paper the modern comic consumer demands, and have some genuinely lovely work by Frazer Irving, Kyle Hotz, Jimmy Broxton and Kelley Jones, but they don’t have that decaying brilliance of the original art on that grotty old paper.

These horrors for kids were always meant to be cheap and nasty, even if they didn’t always worry the parents.

Robert Smith is a digital news editor at Radio New Zealand and a total dork. As Bob Temuka, he has been blogging at the Tearoom of Despair for 12 years, and has no reason to stop.