On this day, 31 July 1976: Whoopee!
On this day, 31 July 1976 … ‘We’re only here for the FEAR!’ Scream Inn, which began in Shiver and Shake and continued for three further years in Whoopee! (before the spooky stars spun-off into a new series, The Spooktacular 7), is a bloomin’ great strip. Scripted by Cliff Brown and drawn by Brian Walker, the strip is based around a haunted guest house, managed by the Innkeeper (a sort of Dickensian Steptoe) and inhabited by a team of ghouls who, each week, have to scare off a guest who has been suggested by one of the comic’s readers. If any guest manages to stay for a full night at the inn then the reader who suggested him or her will win one million pounds. I’ve commented before on the brilliant art on this story – Brian Walker finds the perfect balance of humour and creepiness (the mysterious eyes in the shadows add a wonderful sense of paranoia and weirdness) – without giving much comment on the format.
But this weekend (on doctor’s orders to keep my feet up – I’ve developed a grim cellulitis in my ankles and feet after an insect bite got infected while gardening; the lower half of my legs scrunged into something hideous for a while but seem to be on the mend now) I’ve been doing a rare bit of grown-up reading. Martin Barker’s book Comics: ideology, power and the critics (published in 1989 – by coincidence the year that I started a media studies degree; there's a familiarity about the style of text and methodology although I'm pretty sure I didn't read it at the time) conducts textual analysis of a number of comic strips, including – to my surprise and delight – Scream Inn. Barker chose this story because its element of reader interaction offered him the purest opportunity to study the live interaction between a comic text and its actual audience. He interviewed both Cliff Brown and Brian Walker (and Scream Inn’s original writer, Roy Davies); Walker was able to give him a batch of 618 forms, completed by Scream Inn’s original readers with suggestions for guests to feature in the strip, from which 219 were selected for the comic. The results are fascinating to look at now – as much as an indication of the range and balance of readers’ ages at this time, as of the breakdown of character suggestions. I haven’t sought permission for this but I hope I’m OK to post scans of Barker’s breakdown of the statistics here, and that readers of the blog will find them as interesting as I have.
Although the majority of character types chosen for the strip were from the ‘activity types’ category, it’s interesting to see that the majority of readers’ suggestions were for ‘other characters from the comic’ (plus other meta- and intertextual suggestions categorised as ‘strip-related characters’ and ‘other media characters’). Occasionally, the creators would agree to one of these challenges, and it must have been a rare treat for readers when the likes of Sweeny Toddler, Scared-stiff Sam or The Six Million Dollar Man turned up at the door of the Scream Inn. Apparently one week they featured Timothy Tester from Whizzer and Chips – notable because Timothy was drawn by Scream Inn’s writer, Cliff Brown, so Brown and Walker combined the artwork on this episode.
All of this was possible because of the imagination of the strip’s creators and their willingness to push the boundaries of the strip’s format – within the ‘closed text’ rules that meant every episode would end the same way, with the guest failing to win the challenge – in a way that kept it endlessly surprising and entertaining. The episode from this week’s issue of Whoopee! is a great example. The guest is a ‘toffee-nosed kid’ whose defence against the Scream Inn ghouls is that he is used to far more terrifying ghosts in his daddy’s mansion. The Innkeeper summons these scarier spooks to come and help his own team, leading to a great page-wide panel of the regular line-up coming face-to-face with far more hideous versions of themselves, as if they’re looking into some sort of ‘dark dimension’ mirror.
Barker goes on to analyse the Rules of Scream Inn and of most comic strips of this time, which are concerned with almost unlimited absurdity (although there are limits, allowing everything to re-set in time for next week’s comic) treated with reverential seriousness. It’s a sort of Cult of Nonsense not dissimilar to the sort of future-fad one might discover in Mega-City One, or Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole). These Rules were incredibly important to us as children, perhaps as a means of interpreting and negotiating the nonsensical world around us:
‘These strips are about children's experience of adult power and authority, and in themselves constitute a form of response to that power. There is a problem about adult readings of such strips because, even though we can enjoy them, we read them with a sophistication of response that sets us apart from their natural audience. I invite my readers to watch the way children read strips of this kind. They will read with a degree of concentration, but without a flicker of a smile. At the end, they will tell you that they found them very funny. These strips are read by children at an age when they are increasingly aware of forms of adult authority, both at home and school, which must seem (and sometimes unquestionably are) arbitrary. That authority appeals to rules and proscriptions which are simply given. I'm engaging with these strips, children are finding ways to think these relations of power. They are learning distinctions between what can be done about authority in fantasy, and what in reality. In other words, they are gaining from these comics some of the mental resources they need to cope with the living reality of the power we adults routinely hold over their lives. These strips offer insight, and a form of control over the situation: through the game of absurdity.’
Martin Barker, Comics: ideology, power and the critics (Manchester University Press, 1989), pp85-86
I love this because it reminds me of a time that my parents asked me why I never smiled or laughed when reading my comics. It was hard to explain … I was enjoying the humour, greatly so, but my feelings about reading the latest issue went so much deeper than that. It was sacramental.
So, back to this week’s issue Whoopee! Immediately, it’s interesting to note stories such as Scared-stiff Sam, Frankie Stein, Willy Worry and Lolly Pop which are all concerned with children either traumatised by the adult world or trying to integrate despite the irrational or harmful behaviour of their parents. Kids’ Court takes the whole dynamic a step further and has the children actually setting the laws in a world in which the grown-ups have clearly failed to do so responsibly.
Sofa-bound, I’m going to re-read my Whoopee! again this afternoon, and I hope the scans below will help you to join me in trying to recall what it was like to read these crazy, absurd, BRILLIANT stories and characters as a child. These comics were incredibly important to us then, and there must have been good reason for that. I believe that child is still within each of us somewhere, and from time to time it’s important to listen to what she or he has to say to us now. After all, it’s not as if the adult world around us has become any less irrational or governed by arbitrary rules.