The idea of a horror host is almost as old as the horror genre itself, dating all the way back to radio serials where an in-character narrator would ensure that the audience stuck around between stories; television viewers are similarly familiar with the notion, with names like Elvira, Mistress of the Night and Svengoolie transcending the B-movies they introduced on a weekly basis. It’s in comic books, however, that the horror host has truly blossomed, with characters like The Crypt Keeper, Uncle Creepy, and DC’s Cain and Abel becoming as famous — if not more so — than the stories they foisted upon the unsuspecting reader.
Amongst the scores of comic hosts, one holds an especially dear place in the heart of a generation of British readers: Misty, the cover star and fictional editor of the short-lived horror weekly of the same name, which ran from 1978 through 1980. The only constant in an anthology of continually changing serials — such as Moonchild, School of the Lost, and the haunted apartment block drama The Sentinels — the raven-haired Misty was exactly as glamorous and beguiling as you’d expect from a horror hostess, but she held a secret from most of her fans: she wasn’t exactly as fictional as she seemed.
The Misty that readers saw each and every week for two years was, in fact, Shirley Bellwood — the artist who created and painted each cover, modeling the character after her own likeness. It was, perhaps, the crowning achievement of a career that, by that point, been ongoing for more than two decades and included covers and strips for titles including Glamour Library, Valentine, and Jinty, as well as non-comics work for the Folio Society and Heron Books. (She would continue to work all the way through to her death in 2016.
It was Bellwood’s Misty covers that are most fondly remembered, however. Enigmatic and seemingly perpetually bemused by some cosmic joke that readers were never let in on, she was the ideal face to tempt unsuspecting readers into the purely low-grade horror that lurked inside each issue. (It was, after all, a horror title aimed squarely at pre-teen children; there’s only so much that can be done without upsetting the kids — or, more importantly, their parents.)
“Shirley’s covers for Misty were iconic and set the tone for the comic,” Pat Mills — one of the title’s primary writers — told comic book site Down The Tubes following her death. “They conveyed an air of magic, mystery and femininity that was unique and compelling.”
Certainly, Bellwood’s Misty covers and frontispieces — editorial pages would feature unique portraits of the character to accompany her letters to readers, often signed “Your friend, Misty” — looked unlike anything else on the stands, owing more to classic gothic romance pulps than other comic books; avoiding the traditional action scene, Bellwood would show Misty as an unusually passive, knowing figure portrayed with atmospheric lighting, leaning hard on a sense of foreboding with the blanks filled in my the viewer: Who is she? What does she want? What is just off to the side of the page that she keeps looking at, and should I be scared of them?
Misty lasted 101 issues, but — suitably for a horror comic — it has enjoyed a fruitful afterlife. Although the regular weekly releases ended, the title continued, zombie-like, for six years with a regular holiday season annual, and in 2017, the title was revived alongside fellow British horror series Scream for a new run of annual releases from new owner Rebellion that continues to this day. The new issues do feature Misty on the cover, but something’s missing — the indefinable magic and life that Bellwood brought to the character.
Shirley Bellwood’s magnificently covered Misty comics are still being collected through Rebellion, with new annual specials still being released every year.