The Thirteenth Floor is perhaps the most fondly remembered of all the strips to originate in the very short-lived early ’80s British horror comics weekly Scream!. Written by the popular collaborative team of John Wagner and Alan Grant (under the pseudonym of “Ian Holland”), with atmospheric art from José Ortiz, it went on to a long run in the pages of Eagle when the two comics merged in the ’80s. Collected as part of Rebellion’s much-acclaimed Treasury of British Comics series of books this first volume of stories takes us from the early Scream! episodes up until Spring 1985’s Eagle.
Set in the surprisingly hi-tech 1980s tower block Maxwell Tower, The Thirteenth Floor chronicles the spiralling events in the council tenement that occur when the Artificial Intelligence that runs the building goes rogue. That A.I., known as Max after his environment, develops an incredibly protective attitude to his residents. Woe betide anyone who threatens their safety or security because should you have the temerity to do just that you may find yourself trapped in the virtual reality nightmares that exist on Max’s hidden thirteenth floor. There all your worst fears come to life to mete out fitting punishment; whether they be zombies, giant roaches, medieval executioners or shark attacks!
With Max initially despatching the likes of crooked debt collectors, bullies and bailiffs, the mysterious deaths in the building eventually lead to suspicions from the authorities. Despite his manipulation of both the residents and his “controller” in covering up his crimes, Max begins to discover there are some things that even he can’t control…
Over three decades after its original publication The Thirteenth Floor holds up incredibly well. That’s possibly because its elements of social commentary still resonate but it’s also indicative of how skilfully Wagner and Grant took a premise that seemed designed for short stories with an EC-style sense of poetic justice to them and developed it into something else entirely – a darkly comedic and bleak farce that saw the central character’s machinations spin further and further out of control as bodies mount up and his attempts to cover up his activities become ever more elaborate and convoluted.
With Max arguably both protagonist and antagonist there’s an eerily amoral feel to the strips with the crazed computer seeming sympathetic and monstrous in equal measure. His concerns for his residents evoke our empathy and yet his actions can have dire consequences for some of them. Max’s conspiratorial fourth wall-breaking introductions also ensure the reader feels almost complicit in events, giving the black comedy of the piece an even richer vein of unsettling wit.
It’s José Ortiz’s ability to switch from the familiar and the urban to the bizarre and hallucinatory, though, that really brings the horror of The Thirteenth Floor to morbid life. While the recent re-imagining of the serial in Rebellion’s contemporary Scream! and Misty Specials divided the art chores between John Stokes and Frazer Irving to accentuate the difference between the everyday world and Max’s VR hellscape, Ortiz’s take emphasises the horror far more effectively through the sheer incongruity of the characters’ plights as they are pushed from the recognisable into the unreal.
Ending on a cracking cliffhanger this first volume of The Thirteenth Floor underlines that the strip’s reputation as one of the better 1980s UK comics serials is well deserved. A second, eagerly anticipated collection is announced in the closing pages of this first volume.
John Wagner and Alan Grant (W), José Ortiz (A) • Rebellion/Treasury of British Comics, £14.99
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Review by Andy Oliver