By various (IPC Magazines)
Considering that Halloween is a still a children’s festival (tabloid press and TV reports of bingeing adult excess notwithstanding) I thought I’d re-review this delightful package that epitomises the veritable End of Days of the traditional post-war English Comics industry.
By 1975 the Halcyon era of the children’s periodical publishing business was swiftly fading. Accepted Wisdoms dictating that comics were only read by children who would eventually move on to better and more acceptable forms of entertainment (and these were opinions held by the monolithic managements which produced them!) were gradually being eroded by more creative types within the industry. They still saw potential in the medium and were backed up by an increasingly vocal fan movement which kept on buying and reading the iniquitous, garish little pamphlets even after they had all “grown up.”
Fleetway was an adjunct of the IPC (at that time the world’s largest publishing company) and had, by the early 1970s, swallowed or out-competed all other English companies producing mass-market comics except the exclusively television-themed Polystyle Publications. As it always had been, the megalith was locked in a death-struggle with Dundee’s DC Thomson for the hearts and minds of their assorted juvenile markets – a battle the publishers of the Beano and Dandy would finally win when Fleetway sold off its diminishing comics line to Egmont publishing and Rebellion Studios in 2002.
In 1974 Fleetway’s hidebound, autocratic bureaucracy still ruled the roost, even though sales had been steadily declining in all sectors of the industry (Pre-school, Juvenile, Boys and Girls, Educational) since the end of the 1960s, and increasingly the company were sanctioning niche products to shore up sales rather than expand or experiment.
A dashing young sub-editor on Buster, Dez Skinn – who would go on to produce a number of successful independent publications such as Starburst, House of Hammer and Warrior as well as partially reviving the fortunes of the moribund reprint house Marvel UK – proposed a kids horror comic called Chiller to fill a perceived gap in the market, even preparing new and revised reprint material to show the “higher ups.”
His always reactionary and overly cautious bosses nixed the idea but decreed that the prepared material would be used in one-off annuals as part of occasional themed series “The Buster Book of …”
These one-offs had begun in 1970 with “Gags” and provided cost-effective, profitable items with a longer shelf-life for the lucrative Christmas and summer holiday markets.
Of course, I knew none of this when I picked up this second Buster Book of Spooky Stories in 1975 (UK annuals are forwarded-dated), a period when I was far more interested in girls and beer than funnybooks.
It was a remarkable experience: instant, brand new nostalgia…
Behind its gaudy, soft card covers lay a delightful blend of novel and comfortably familiar; comedy strips, fact-features and scary adventure yarns that had been the stuff of my formative Christmas experiences throughout the 1960s.
The jollity commences with a Reg Parlett ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’ 2-page howler, teasing essay ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ and more ghost gags before the first lengthy scare-fest begins…
‘The Ghostly Guardian’ follows the trials and tribulations of young Jim Frobisher who escapes the home of his abusive foster-uncle and takes up residence with a stray dog and his own deceased ancestor – 17th century freebooting pirate Firebrand Frobisher.
This is a resized weekly serial collected from I know not where, but is still resonates with thrills, spills and comedy chills, delivered in beautiful moody monochrome as rendered by the Solano Lopez studio (sadly these credits are mostly guesswork as the work was deliberately un-attributed at the time).
Our eponymous star contributes the first of two ‘Buster’s Dream World’ episodes, followed by a Ken Reid ‘Face Ache’ yarn, the first of numerous ‘Spooky Scrapbook’ fact-files and a short tale of ‘Horace the Hopeless Haunter’ before the real gem of the book begins: the first of two paranormal exploits featuring Cursitor Doom; jazzed up for the sinister seventies by re-jigging them as cases of Curtis Bronson: Ghost Hunter.
Cursitor Doom first appeared in the revamped Smash in 1969, created by Ken Mennell and illustrated by the indescribably brilliant Eric Bradbury, an elderly mystical troubleshooter (Doom not Bradbury) who hires burly he-man Angus McCraggan to be his agent on the physical side of an eternal battle against manifest evil.
Here Angus has been redrawn to resemble contemporary anti-hero Charles Bronson and in ‘The Phantom Friar’ goes solo to defend a couple of damsels in distress from a spectral monk and greedy relative.
The next comedy tranche comprises ‘Angel Face and Dare Devil’, ‘The Creepy Crawleys’, ‘Whacky Waxworks’, ‘Chilling Chuckles’, an extended jape ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ and ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, neatly bisected by terse text terrors ‘Ghost Stories of the Sea’ and another ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ article before the original spooky thrill-fest resumes with ‘The Ghost of Gaunt Manor’ and a suitably themed ‘Puzzle Page’.
Stalking another ‘Spooky Scrapbook’, Ken Reid returns with an hilarious ‘Davy Jones Locker’ gag-strip before nefarious Buster regular Charlie Peace debuts in a Victorian shocker ‘The House of Thrills’.
Then tyrannical 15th century warlord Ungar the Merciless comes a cropper when he tries to steal ‘The Mystic Fountain’, after which ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’, ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, ‘Whacky Waxworks’ and yet another ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ precede the second and final instalment of ‘The Ghostly Guardian’.
More ‘Angel Face and Dare Devil’, ‘Puzzle Page’ and ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ swiftly follow and a ‘Creepy Cackles with ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, after which ‘The 13th Man’ – a brief western terror-tale – provides some all-new thrills, balanced by more ‘Davy Jones Locker’, ‘Horace the Hopeless Haunter’, ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’, ‘The Creepy Crawleys’, ‘Face Ache’ and ‘Ghost Stories of the Sea’
The serialised Mummy’s Curse then concludes as the final section opens with a last witchly romp for ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’ whilst ‘Curtis Bronson meets The Snake Mummy’: a Bradbury drawn drama which tingles with menace in which Cursitor Doom makes a telling appearance, albeit in the trendier guise of with-it witch man Septimus Drood.
Just to ensure there’s not too many nightmares ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’, ‘Spooky Scapbook’ and the other ‘Buster’s Dream World’ take their last bows before the book ends with an activity page, the ‘Haunted House Escape Game!’
In 1984 Fleetway released the short-lived Scream!, an excellent weekly kids horror anthology modelled on the inexplicably (to management, at least) successful 2000AD, but the supernatural zeitgeist of the 1970s was long gone and the comic foundered and was cancelled after four months, which probably means something, but I’m too polite to say what…
This book is a delightful monster-mish-mash and one that will delight older fans and deliver lots of laughs and shivers to the young. Well worth tracking down and rapturously reading over and over again.
© 1975 IPC Magazines. All rights reserved.