Voices from the mist
‘The breezes stir the morning mists and so we meet again – in the secret places where we can talk of secret things and you can read more of the uncanny tales I have learned since I began my midnight roamings.’
Happy Halloween! And welcome back to the blog, in which I’m delving this time into the mysteries of Misty. This was, in my opinion and that of many others, a truly brilliant comic which ran for far too short a period (4 February 1978 to 12 January 1980) with stories that are as gripping to read and as beautiful to pore over as they were when first published.
Comics legend Pat Mills conceived the idea and intended tone of Misty and was the comic’s consultant editor. He has kindly answered some questions for this blog. As reported in the previous post, in a couple of weeks Pat will sit on a panel discussing the wider social trends and tensions in British society during the 1970s and 1980s, with a special focus on Action and 2000AD. With this in mind, I asked him what we can learn about social trends by looking back at Misty.
‘Girls’ comics were ready for the darker approach of Misty,’ says Pat. ‘Girls then and now read more than boys. Misty nearly got it right. If it hadn’t been such a male comic world and if Misty had been 20 per cent better it would have survived to this day and outsold 2000AD.’
As it’s Halloween, I asked Pat to pick some of his favourite horror stories from Misty.
‘The two classics are my Moonchild – on which the artist was John Armstrong – and Malcolm Shaw’s The Four Faces of Eve – on which the artist was Brian Delaney. My story was heavily influenced by Stephen King’s Carrie, and he is the master. Malcolm’s story was about a female Frankenstein’s monster – a girl who is physically composed of four girls. But with no stitches or bolts through the neck – that’s for boys.’
The two stories are indeed classics, recalled with relish on various blogs and forums that I’ve been reading over the last few days. Moonchild tells the story of Rosemary Black, cursed and blessed with telekinetic powers inherited by bloodline but which skipped her jealous mother’s generation. Rosemary discovers her powers as she comes of age and her difference gets her singled out for special treatment by the school bullies.
Like Moonchild, The Four Faces of Eve tells a story of identity and self-discovery but with a less gothic and more contemporary, mystery-solving flavour. Eve Marshall wakes in hospital with no recollection of her own former life but with the memories, interests and even the fingerprints of three other girls who all died in tragic accidents. She runs away from the parents she can’t believe are her own and pieces together the puzzle of her life with the help of a friend at a travelling circus.
‘Another personal favourite is my one-off story Roots,’ says Pat. Published in the first issue of Misty, this is the tale of a girl sent to live in the countryside with her hale and hearty grandfather (art by Maria Barrera). ‘Why is everyone in the heroine's village so happy? There's a dark secret waiting ...’
‘I wanted to end on the horror revelation which is really scary. But the editor ends it with a happy reassuring ending – just in case kids got nightmares. Ridiculous. Creepy stories should scare readers! It's like a scary ride at the funfair – it’s got to deliver!’
What sort of stuff scared Pat personally back then? ‘The usual – spiders, snakes, etc., and I wrote a spider story which they watered down. The unknown scares us all. So another story I wrote, which I think they paid me for but didn't use, is about a room painted black and there's a box in the corner. And when the girls open the box, the walls come alive. They're not painted at all, they're covered in flies. And they’ve been waiting to get at what was in the box ... I adapted this story for Nemesis the Warlock in 2000AD.’
Were there any other ideas for Misty stories that you wanted to tell but never did? ‘I would have done girls versions of [the V. C. Andrews novel] Flowers in the Attic, and a toned-down version of the movie Gone Girl would work well today as a Misty-style story. It’s such a shame that it’s now a male comic industry. I'd be just as happy writing stories like Gone Girl. And my background is actually as a girls’ comic and cartoon writer.’
Pat expanded on this theme, and provided an excellent, personal account of both the launch and demise of Misty, on his own blog three years ago. There he makes the point that Misty really should have lasted as long as 2000AD and perhaps even outsold it. The readership was there in 1978 and it’s still here today.
In fact, a recent market survey suggests that women once again represent the majority of comic readers. This appears to be a US-based researcher and I’d be interested to know what the figures were like in the UK. Not wildly different, I suspect. If the format were right – whether that means producing a digital edition, or perhaps pitching it in appearance towards the women’s magazine market – then I think a modern-day Misty re-boot could be well worth a punt. Judging by the books, TV and film they consume, I could see both my 11-year-old daughter and my partner’s 14-year-old daughter being attracted to a Misty-style anthology if presented to them in the right way. I can imagine my 14-year-old son, my partner and myself wanting to take a look too! Rebellion, publishers of 2000AD since, er, 2000AD, are the masters of the 21st-century weekly anthology comic. I’d love to see them taking a chance on Misty.
Whether or not a publisher ever attempts to revive the comic, it occurs to me that it also offers great content potential for TV. Youth and young adult programming appears to be in healthier shape (creatively, at least) than it has been for a couple of generations. Have a read of this article, posted yesterday on The Pool, about women and horror, then imagine how good a Misty series of one-off stories – part-adapted from and part-inspired by the original comic – would be; a Thriller or Tales of the Unexpected for CBBC ... any takers?
I love reading Misty but I wasn’t part of the target readership and I didn’t read it at the time, so I’ve been searching for some of those people who were and did and asking them for memories of the serials that made the greatest impact on them.
Jac Rayner, who has written a number of excellent books, audio dramas and comic strips (one of the latest of which, Doctor Who: Blood and Ice, is included with her original commentary in this new collection from Panini), grew up reading many IPC comics and was a particular fan of Misty, Tammy and Jinty.
‘The Misty stories that really haunted me were generally the one-offs (I’ve just been looking through some comics to write this and am currently having particularly traumatic flashbacks about the stories The Gravedigger’s Daughter and Take the Money! …), but one serial that freaked me out was Winner Loses All! (art by Mario Capaldi). It’s the tale of Sandy, a girl whose father has become a drunkard following the car accident that killed his wife, Sandy’s mother. With their home, livelihood and happiness at risk, she trades her soul for a sober father and a horse called Satan – but might not have long to enjoy these benefits, because the instant that someone guesses the true nature of her horse, she will be dragged down to Hell for all eternity.
‘The story ends with her father realising what she’s done and making his own deal with the Devil to save her, sacrificing his soul immediately. Sandy finds him dead on the ground. So now she’s an orphan – and, although it’s not explicitly stated, the reader knows her father is now in Hell. For ever. And it’s all her fault. This week in 2015 there’s been uproar over Jekyll and Hyde, a mildly scary family drama, being shown on TV at 6.30pm. Compare with this tale of death and devils and eternal torment from 1979, aimed at 7- to 9-year-old girls! (I was seven at the time and goodness, the nightmares I had …)
‘I’m going to cheat and mention another Misty serial that had a huge impact on me, but which was actually printed in Tammy and Misty, a few months after the merger: The Loneliest Girl in the World (art by Honiera Romeu). It rivals Winner Loses All! for bleakest ending ever. Heroine Karen discovers that her parents are robots. Then she discovers that an evil monster is responsible. And so it goes on, as Karen uncovers the ‘truth’. Except it isn’t the truth. The rug is pulled from under the reader’s feet with the final reveal: the Earth has been destroyed and Karen is the only survivor. Kindly aliens recreated her world for her, and as she kept investigating they added layer upon layer to the story so she’d never realise that her family, friends and entire world were dead.
‘The story ends with Karen making the choice to return to Earth a few days before its destruction so she can see her family for one last time – knowing that she and they are about to die but she can do nothing about it. Not only has she gone to her death, she can’t even tell anyone and share her burden. Kick in the guts, anyone? And people think that girls’ comics were all ponies and ballet!’
I sought further afield for other original Misty memories – or, rather, asked my partner to ask on mumsnet for me. There were some vivid recollections to be found there too.
DreamingOfThruxtons said: ‘My sister and I LOVED Misty! One story which I do remember was one about a girl who absolutely loved eating prawns live – and which ended with aliens landing on a beach where she was holding a party, and gobbling up all the humans with a similar show of gluttony. Odd.’ This must have been the creepy colossal crustacean creature-feature Food for Thought (art by Ramon Escolano Metaute).
PlentyOfPubeGardens remembers that story too, and this one which I believe is another one-off, Your Time is Up!: ‘There was a story about a girl who wished she could live forever and her wish was granted. Eventually everything else on the planet had died and she was still sitting there on a chair amidst the emptiness, then everything began again. She sat on her chair and watched dinosaurs roam the earth and time continued until it was the present day again and she was back in the classroom about to make a wish.’
Jenni Scott, aka comixminx, has written a fascinating article on her Jinty blog which gathers and analyses comments about girls’ comics including Misty from a number of other mumsnet threads. The comic is clearly fondly remembered and surely should have had a longer life than it did.
Dr Julia Round is a Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University and researcher in the fields of gothic, comics, adaptation and children's literature. In a recent paper she drew comparisons between Misty and the horror comics that enjoyed significant popularity in America in the previous generation. She found that there were often similarities in form and content – such as ironic twists of fate, trick endings, direct addresses to the reader by a ‘host’ character, and protagonists who are non-heroic characters meeting a sticky end – although Misty stories were more inclined to end without jokes or reassurance, ‘which may be due to the more subversive potential of its female genre and readership’.
‘Misty's stories often ended on a distinctly disturbing note, for example Happy Birthday, Spooky Sue! (art by John Richardson), narrated by our heroine Jenny, who is invited to her classmate Sue's birthday party. Of the thirteen classmates invited she is the only one who has ever been nice to Sue. The others make mean comments and say they are going to just vanish after the food – and then suddenly they each begin to disappear, in a puff of smoke, as Sue blows out the candles on candles on her cake. the story ends with Jenny being given her own candle and told "It will stay alight forever", but this is somewhat overshadowed by the final picture, which shows the girl's fear as she leaves the house, desperately shielding the little flame that is now tied to her life.’
I corresponded with Julia this week and she told me that although she was born just a few years too late to read Misty at the time it was actually published, as a child she remembers reading back issues in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms:
‘The one-shot stories are what attracted me and stick in my head the most – they stopped me sleeping for more than one night. The writers were masters of the twist ending and not afraid to leave characters in horrible situations if they deserved it – and sometimes if they didn't! The artwork was varied and fantastic – from ethereal woodlands to dramatic shadowed houses and horrific monsters, and of course those wonderful inside covers. I loved that it had normal, everyday protagonists alongside princesses and boarding schools. For me it was all about the variety – and the scares, of course.
‘Mostly I loved Misty herself – she was dramatic and wise and beautiful. I used to pore over her introductions to the issues which seemed poetic and magical to me.’
Misty, always drawn by the distinguished illustrator and portrait painter Shirley Bellwood, was of course the comic’s host. Misty never had any stories of her own but would sometimes introduce them, and she appeared on many covers, the letters page and most memorably on the inside front page of most issues with a dreamy message of greeting, celestial tidings or sometimes foreboding.
As I started preparing for this blog post I had a preconception – betraying perhaps one of the ways that a man brought up in one comics tradition might misunderstand what appealed to a woman brought up in another – that Misty was all about the great serials such as Moonchild, The Sentinels, The Cult of the Cat and The Four Faces of Eve, just as I love great serials from the comics of my own youth. They are all very important of course, but I have been surprised to discover how much love there is for Shirley’s Misty. My partner Helen adores the covers that feature her art. Comics scholar Dr Mel Gibson, a Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University, has researched British women’s memories of their girlhood comics reading and has written a book on the subject in which ‘Elsa’, a rights activist from London who worked in computing, said: ‘Misty was my very first comic, and my introduction to horror/occult/general weird shit writing *and* I fancied Misty like mad.’
Thank you Helen, Pat, Jac, Julia, Jenni, Mel and the mumsnetters for your invaluable help in researching and contributing to this post. I hope that the voices of those who were there at the time have made it a more authentic read. Please share your own memories of Misty in the comments below.
And now it’s FREE GIFT! time. In the style of the Cheeky guide I put together a few weeks ago, here’s your very own cut-out, fold and keep Misty Story Index. The list of wonderful story titles alone is something to drool over. You can download a PDF here.
If you’ve enjoyed this blog and the memories it's sparked, please look me up on Twitter and Facebook, where I have recently been posting (on most mornings) an ‘On This Day’ memory of an IPC comic from the 1970s or 1980s. As John Freeman and Lew Stringer have pointed out, it’s a bit misleading because the date featured is the ‘off sale’ date so it’s not quite the anniversary of when you would have read the comic the first time round … but I don’t want to have to explain that every day in my 140-character limit so I hope you can live with the misdirection for the sake of a fun memory!