“This is my world. The misty mysterious world of Misty, where bats take wing and things swoop from the shadows, while monsters and unnamed terrors stalk your every footstep. This is no place to be left alone – so take a deep breath and make sure that every step of the way you keep with me, your friend and guide, Misty.”
Britain 1978. The year before Margaret Thatcher came to power. Kate Bush and Boney M in the charts. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in the cinemas, and in your local newsagent a new comic on the shelves alongside Bunty, The Mighty World of Marvel and 2000AD. Misty was a short-lived attempt to produce a horror comic for girls, notable for artist Shirley Bellwood’s atmospheric covers and comic strips that mixed up historical horror with council estate scares, written by the likes of Pat Mills and Malcolm Shaw.
Short-lived – it was folded into Tammy in 1980 – but not forgotten. Rebellion, the publisher of 2000AD, is just about to publish a reprint of two stories from the weekly comic: Shaw’s The Four Faces of Eve, illustrated by Brian Delaney and Moon Child, a British take on Brian De Palma’s film Carrie (itself an adaptation of the Stephen King novel), written by Pat Mills and drawn by John Armstrong.
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Mills, better known for his work on Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine for 2000AD, is one of the principal driving forces of British comics and he played a part in the story of Misty comic. But not quite as big a one as he would have liked to.
He had initially been commissioned to work on Misty but walked away when the publishers were not prepared to give him a share of the profits. “I reluctantly came back as advisory editor and wrote the lead story – Moonchild,” he says now.
Here he talks Misty, editorial short-sightedness, the danger of middle class artiness, why he isn’t as keen on Bellwood’s covers as everyone else and what Misty might look like if he had the chance to do it now. Batten down the hatches.
Why a “horror” comic for girls?
Horror runs the spectrum from EC Comics to Stephen King and I always saw Misty as a diluted Stephen King. What made it special was applying the visual principles of 2000AD to a girls’ comic. Plus, using films like Carrie, Audrey Rose and others as role models on how to tell stories
I used Mia Farrow as the visual role model for Moonchild and I think that works rather well. My story titles often had other cultural references. “Roots”, for instance, was about a girl who goes to a creepy village where people seem to live forever. She discovers their terrible secret, and I wanted the story to end on a note of fear. But the guy who took over from me watered it down with a reassuring ending which I still don't agree with.
You’ve talked before about your idea of making Misty an equivalent of 2000AD for girls. Was that ever realistic?
If I had stayed with Misty it would have easily outsold 2000AD. Honestly, it would have been a no-brainer. A mystery/horror comic is much easier to produce than a science fiction comic, if you know what you're doing. Also, women have always read more than men and girls’ comics always outsold boys’ comics. This changed because girls’ comics were neglected for a number of rather silly short-sighted reasons and paid a terrible price. In simple terms, no one cared enough.
All it required was someone at the helm of Misty who could continue to steer it in a modern direction. Not difficult. Instead, it got taken over by old school people and its appeal was diluted and sales dropped.
What I remember most from reading my sister's copies were Shirley Bellwood’s covers. How important was her work in establishing the mood of the comic?
The covers were memorable. The title Misty was mine, but the covers weren’t my idea. Beautiful as they were, this isn’t a road I’d have taken. I would have gone for more ballsy covers. Like the cover of the Roots issue where a girl is looking horrified out through a window. I was then and still am against anything ethereal. I've seen ethereal fail so many times. Yes, I know it sets the mood, but I learnt the hard way that a surprising number of readers don't like “sensitive, moody, ethereal, romantic” material. They prefer “in your face”. That sounds awful, I know, but I had enough reader feedback from various stories to know this was true.
That said, the covers are so stunning they might just be the exception to the rule. But I still believe in the rule.
Did you follow different rules – self-imposed or imposed on you - when it came to writing for girls? And why were there so few female contributors to Misty?
There are rules to writing girls’ comics; the principal one being stories need to generate emotion. It’s surprising how writers often didn’t understand this. It’s really simple. So if today I was producing Misty I might do a diluted, non-sexual version of Gone Girl, for instance. Or I might do a proactive version of Never Let Me Go - a boarding school for clones. To the shame of all concerned, the film shows the clones accepting their fate. Fine for the middle classes to enjoy, and perhaps indicative of their establishment values, but in my cinema in Colchester I saw young women walk out of the film halfway through. Good for them.
Why no female writers? Firstly, most female magazine journalists wanted to work on the glossies, so it left a gap for all us chaps. And they often looked down on comics. Note how the comic strip is played down in Jackie collections, for instance. Secondly, there wasn’t a younger generation of women writers. Many were traditionalists, with one or two notable exceptions like Primrose Cummings.
Thirdly, the top girls’ comic writer – Pat Davison -– was refused a byline. So she went to work for Dutch Tina. None of us had credits. So we lost our top writer, just around the time Misty was coming out.
What killed Misty?
I think all the above contributed to the death of Misty. The establishment had taken it over, alas. So you see it in various ways – too many one-off stories, especially historical stories. That love of stories with drippy heroines with their hair blowing in the wind as they ride a stagecoach to Jamaica Inn. Fine when it’s Hitchcock, but not otherwise. It’s that “romantic, ethereal” notion creeping in again. It's simply wrong.
As I know from any number of feedback sources, the majority of female readers (including the middle classes) then and now want “Grange Hill”-orientated material, not this middle-class stuff.
And it is a class issue. In simple terms, so many editors and writers are middle class; so many readers are not. It’s why DC Thomson were so successful because in Scotland there isn’t that class divide in culture ; they have more respect for comics and their readers and the drippy middle classes find some other outlet for their self-indulgent storytelling.
Also, too many self-contained stories, Not enough serials. The reason? Laziness. It’s so easy to buy one-off stories and pad out the comic with them – a good serial takes a lot of thought and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. They didn’t. So it was a short cut.
And there should have been an ongoing serial with regular characters. I blame myself there, but I’m pretty certain if I'’ produced the whole package I’d have found a long-running stories.
It could be summed up as "not caring enough".
Does the huge success of manga suggest there's an untapped market still for girls' comics?
Yes – a huge untapped market. Like I say, women have always read more comics than guys. But that changed in the late 1970s because of internal politics. Bear in mind Tammy's circulation was 250,000 copies a week. 2000AD's began with 200,000 copies a week. That tells you something awful happened to girls’ comics.
To put this prejudice against female comics in context. Originally, another publisher wanted to do Misty and had bought the rights, but he couldn't get any of his editors interested. Including female editors. That same female professionals’ resistance to Brit comics I'm afraid. It took Rebellion to have the vision to go for it.
Is reprinting these stories anything more than an exercise in nostalgia?
Winning those readers back is a challenge but the figures above show it's possible. The Misty reprint works on a number of levels.
- It appeals to original Misty readers.
- They've always been looking for a comic to appeal to their daughters. There was lots on Mumsnet about it. Manga is really a different genre; there's a desire for home-grown culture. 3) Loads of guys – especially 2000AD readers – are looking forward to it.
- It has an art fan appeal.
- Casual girl readers will pick it up if it gets into the right shops.
I've done some straw polling on kids and got positive feedback. They were oblivious to the nostalgia factor. After all, a good story is a good story - they never age.
Did the comic leave a legacy?
If this sells, it opens the doors to a vast back catalogue of girls’ comic reprints which I hope, in turn, will inspire origination. To grow, the industry needs comics aimed at the boy or girl in the street, not just adults and aficionados.
Misty is published by Rebellion on September 8, priced £14.99.