The ‘Spellbound’ Of The Lost Gothic Comics Books

Julia Round
Julia Round

The British comic book industry is perhaps best known for children’s humour titles such as ‘The Dandy’ (DC Thomson, 1937-present) and the ‘Beano’ (DC Thomson, 1938-present), which began the golden age of British comic books. Alternatively, some older readers might argue that the jewels of British comic books are titles such as ‘2000AD’ (IPC, 1977-present) or ‘Warrior’ (Quality Communications, 1982–1985). These offered science fiction, superhero and dystopian tales that challenged readers’ assumptions and expectations. By comparison, British female comic books have never received the same attention and respect, despite having many of the same creators and at their peak both outselling and outlasting the male’s titles. Comic books such as ‘Tammy’ (IPC, 1971–1984) outsold ‘2000AD’ on launch, selling 250,000 copies per week compared to ‘2000AD’s 220,000 (Mills, 2012). The longest-running British female comic book, ‘Bunty’ (DC Thomson, 1958–2001), lasted for 2249 issues and 43 years, while at the time of writing ‘2000AD’ has just reached its 40th anniversary.

Little scholarly and critical attention has been paid to British female comic books and until recently many comics dealers deemed them unworthy of a collection. Original art and the comics themselves have been largely lost or destroyed. This article seeks to recover some of the lost histories of British female comic books by discussing two “mystery” comic books: DC Thomson’s ‘Spellbound’ (1976–1977) and IPC’s ‘Misty’ (1978–1980). It will first give a brief background to the development of literary horror and gothic and the publishing context of ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Misty.’ It then examines these comic books use of horror and Gothic structures, aesthetics and themes. It argues that these comics predominantly offer a form of terror-Gothic, reconfigured to suit their child and teenage audience.

Gina Wisker argues that “[…] not everything that is Gothic is horror.” The terminology blurs and contradicts, and particular meanings can be hard to separate. Scholarship struggles with content-based definitions and often subsumes horror within Gothic (or vice versa), depending on the writer’s critical perspective or the medium being discussed.

Gina Wisker identifies Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s ‘Supernatural Horror’ (1927) in literature as the first major text that locates and defines supernatural horror. Howard Phillips Lovecraft opens by claiming “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” He then goes on to point out that the “spectral macabre” demands “imagination,” mobilizing our fears of the world around us into a “literature of cosmic fear.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft looks back to the folkloric incarnations of the horror tale and the early British Gothic novels from Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole et al, noting their quick establishment of “dramatic paraphernalia” (stock characters and settings). He seemingly finds little value in these novels except as settling the Gothic as a “literary form” and acting as inspiration for “the real weavers of cosmic terror — the line of actual artists beginning with [Edgar Allan] Poe.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft uses the terms horror and terror interchangeably as responses to a larger cosmic fear that finds one incarnation in Gothic literature.

However, Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work is prefigured by a number of writers and philosophers who have tried to define and distinguish between different types of fear and its literature. James Beattie first distinguishes horror by its physical effects, as it “make [s] the blood seem to run cold.” Ann Radcliffe then further defines the affective qualities of both horror and terror in her landmark essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826). This is written as a fictional dialogue debating the use of the supernatural in the works of William Shakespeare, pointing out that its value lies in its “secret effect upon the imagination,” which works in two different ways. Ann Radcliffe claims that “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” Because of this, terror is a source of the sublime, and horror is not. However, Ann Radcliffe goes beyond affect in defining the two, and for her, the great difference lies in the “uncertainty and obscurity” that accompany the first. Terror “is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades” and excites the imagination to provide the rest. Somewhat ironically, Milton’s use of the phrase “horror plumed” therefore “imparts more of terror than of horror,” as his lack of description creates the sublime. Ann Radcliffe’s speakers go on to debate obscurity and confusion, which are also terms that have been used interchangeably, but are not the same, as “obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate; confusion […] leaves only a chaos.”

Ann Radcliffe’s famous distinction between terror (the obscure, unseen) and horror (the shown atrocity) has been explored by numerous later critics and creators, from Devendra P. Varma to Stephen Edwin King. In general, there is agreement: Gina Wisker points out that “While using elements of the literary Gothic, horror is more likely to be or to threaten to be violent and evoke disgust and/or terror.” Townshend also concurs that “Terror is the writing of sublimity, horror the literature of sensation.” Both critics also point out that the two categories cross and blur at points. Gina Wisker claims that “horror uses many [Gothic] formulae,” and Townshend also notes that both “horror and terror are subsumed under the broader category of the ‘Gothic’” in Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1765) through hyperbole and excess.

Punter defines Gothic at the widest level: as a mode of writing that responds to cultural trauma, and which thus gives rise to various historical genres at different points in time. Punter’s approach reconciles the different qualities of the American and English Gothic, as well as sub genres such as body horror, psychological horror, and so forth. Other critics also seek to distinguish between different types of Gothic and horror writing, although their positions vary according to the medium and historical perspective that they use. For example, Gina Wisker argues that horror is “A branch of Gothic writing,” but by contrast, Xavier Aldana Reyes defines Gothic literature as “the beginnings of a wider crystallization of horror fiction.” Xavier Aldan Reyes’ (2016) argument in particular seeks to divide the two terms, as he points out that as the meaning of “‘Gothic’ becomes more intrinsically connected to aesthetics in the contemporary period — being used, for example, to describe art and fashion — it is even more crucial that a distinction be drawn between the Gothic, an artistic mode, and horror, an effective marker.”

Linda Holland-Toll accords with the efficiency standpoint, defining “Horror fiction […] as any text which has extreme or supernatural elements, induces (as its primary intention and/or effect) strong feelings of terror, horror or revulsion in the reader, and generates a significant degree of unresolved disease within society.” Fred Botting names horror as “the limit of reason […] the very emotion in which the human reaches its limit.” By focusing on affect, these definitions do not offer much in the way of textual markers, and critics such as Gina Wisker add to horror’s indefinability by pointing out that it may come from both realist and supernatural source.

Horror is mobile and fluid, taking on different forms: “Horror is in everyday reality, but it is also a genre, a construction, and a representation of what terrifies and disgusts, what we fear and secretly desire.” Further, and as established above, it is, of course, also an effect and a response to these images.

Critics do not even agree on the structural forms that horror and Gothic may take. Mark Jancovich argues that the pleasure of horror comes from its resolving narrative structure. For Mark Jancovich, horror stories proceed from normality through a period of disorder, and ultimately reach “a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established.” However, Mark Jancovich’s model does not fit with the accepted syntagmatic narrative progression established by Tzvetan Todorov and Arnold Weinstein. This instead suggests that narrative moves from equilibrium, through disequilibrium, to a new equilibrium (emphasis mine). This notion of a changed equilibrium most strongly underpins genres such as the bildungsroman, where characters develop and change during the course of the tale. Mark Jancovich’s model also ignores the ways in which horror changes its characters and the new understandings that its narrative disruptions offer. By contrast, Gina Wisker argues that “the lingering pleasure of horror is its constant destabilizing influence rather than its tendency for resolution.” Linda Holland-Toll’s definition also draws attention to the disaffirmative strength of horror, a genre that Gina Wisker stresses “is the most effective because it refuses to close down the terror at the end of the tale and restore an order.”

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