There was a gender divide in British comics during the golden period of the 1950s to the early 1980s. There were “boys’ comics” and “girls’ comics”. Boys comics, such as Tiger, Eagle, and Battle Picture Weekly, focused on action, adventure, science fiction, war, and similar genres. The girls’ comics focused more on domestic matters and romance. These comic anthologies were handled by magazine publishers, so drilling down to specific demographics was their bread and butter. However, there were a few anomalies in that practice, one of the most notable being Misty.
Misty was a horror anthology. While that mightn’t seem all that odd, where it veered from genre expectations was its target audience – young girls. It was devised as a “female 2000 AD“, focusing on horror and the supernatural instead of action and science fiction. (Although, it was one of the rare instances where a “girls’ comic” also appealed to male readers.) These elements were in the zeitgeist of late-1970s Britain, with interest in things like witchcraft, haunted houses, Uri Geller, Steven King, and more in the public consciousness. Misty took advantage of them for its 101-issue run from 1978 to 1980, with many memorable stories.
Misty: 45 Years of Fear, published by Treasury of British Comics, curates some of the most notable tales. These vary from creature features to psychological horrors, with some bound to creep you out and others being a little campy by today’s standards, as told through four long-form serials and a selection of shorter tales. Along with 250+ pages of comics are introductions for each story and a gallery of some excellent Shirley Bellwood covers.
There’s plenty of variety in these stories, each covering different themes. Sometimes they could closely relate to what the readership was experiencing in their everyday life, albeit more fantastical. For instance, the Carrie-inspired Moonchild explores the stress and anxiety of fitting in amongst your peers. In this tale, Rosemary Black is targeted by bullies because of her weird mother while trying to adjust to developing powers. Other times, they were cautionary tales. Mirror Mirror is the best example of this, which speaks to the reader about the potential dangers of vanity. Another, The Day The Sky Grew Dark, discusses animal cruelty. In both these examples, the transgressor gets their comeuppance with deadly results. These are breezy reads, roughly five pages each, and offer a twist at the end to drive their message.
The girls in these stories are mostly working class. Ordinary girls, similar to the readership, who have their own problems. Their family is struggling financially or worried about being weird at school. The protagonists don’t ask for the supernatural but encounter it through circumstance. For instance, in The Sentinels, a girl and her family are forced to squat in an abandoned apartment tower, which just so happens to have a portal to an alternate history when the Nazis won World War II. Other times, the girls inherit their horrors, such as the previously mentioned Moonchild or The Loving Cup, where a family heirloom tries to tempt a young girl to do bad things.
So, what’s horror made for young girls like? It varies from story to story. Some are not all that scary, aiming for creepy instead to cater for the target audience’s age. The Power of Young Melissa is an example of this, where it’s more about framing a supernatural story with an eerie atmosphere than any legitimate scare. However, there are a few surprising stories in the mix. The previously mentioned Moonchild, for instance, absolutely torments the protagonist. Rosemary Black is agonised by her mother, deprived of modern amenities and beaten regularly. When not at home, she’s the victim of cruel bullying. While there’s never anything graphic put to page, it’s still surprising to see the level of torment in a story made for young readers. The Loving Cup takes a psychological horror route, where the magical goblet puts a young girl through mental anguish, trying to tempt her to commit crimes. The story depicts her in mental distress as she pushes against impulses planted by the goblet, almost losing her sanity in the process. So, while there might be an absence of gore, there are still heavy elements.
The stories in this collection feature a mixture of British and Spanish artists who tackle the horror visuals in different ways. While many have a gothic overtone, the British artists tend to be focused on tales with a more domestic flavour. These were set in the home, school, or regular neighbourhoods – something they could draw due to familiarity. Here, the visual styles of artists like John Armstrong and Brian Delany are informed by realism, implementing considered and understated strokes for facial expressions and environments.
The Spanish artists tackled more fantastical settings, such as mansions and castles. As a result, their work, while detailed, was more stylised in approach. Plentiful strokes and heavy use of spot blacks make visually appealing pages rich in composition depth. Artist Jaume Rumeu draws multiple pages of a stunning gothic castle in Nightmare Academy. With the commanding use of blacks, blanketing much of it in shadow, the structure looming over the landscape is an instant mood-setter and elevates one of the weaker scripts.
While the domestic settings might not be as exciting, the British artists shake things up through their page layouts. The pages don’t follow a grid structure, with panels having different shapes and sizes. Borders are not always defined but are formed through the density of the surrounding art. It makes the ordinary look more exciting, but sometimes it comes at a cost. Some pages were more difficult to read because of it, with a few instances where I had to stop to determine which panel I should read next. The Spaniards, on the other hand, were more rigid in their page layout. Panels were more geometric – even if they didn’t strictly follow a grid-like structure – with the lush art rarely spilling out.
Misty was only in publication for two years but it established itself as one of British comics’ greats through unique stories and lush art. This collection does these stories a service by spotlighting some of the most notable tales 45 years on. At the same time, it’s a reminder that horror can thrive when you tell exciting stories from another perspective. And more importantly, it’s not made less by catering for young girls.