Fast! Fierce! Fantastic! A History of Action Comic

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A history of

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Comics

words by Andrew Screen

1976  

A year recalled for its blistering hot summer, but as the pavements cracked and tarmac melted, culturally Britain had become a desert. The year saw Hammer films belch their final horror opus into the cinema circuit in the shape of the fumbled adaptation of To the Devil a Daughter.

The Carry On film series was dying an undignified death with the addition of Carry on England and stiff competition in the form of Robin Askwith and his The Confessions of a Driving Instructor film. Cinematically things reached an all-time low with another Askwith vehicle, Queen Kong, a truly diabolical waste of 90 minutes of celluloid. Musically it was even worse and the industry was even deeper in the doldrums. Disco dominated and Brotherhood of Man became number one after winning Eurovision.

The UK comic scene was also under threat – sales had fallen on all fronts, with the boy’s adventure comic being particularly hard hit and many titles were struggling to break even. Much of the creative forces behind such titles as Valiant, Victor and Lion had become out of touch with a changing society, trotting out the same mixture of square-jawed sporting heroes and stiff upper lip adventurers they had since the heydays of The Eagle in the 1950s. Fresh blood and a new approach were needed. Something had to change…

The first glimmer was the launch of D.C. Thomson’s Warlord in 1974, the very first UK comic devoted purely to tales of men killing men in armed conflict. It was a huge hit and rival UK comic producers IPC soon launched their response in the form of Battle, an even grimmer and grittier take on all things war. Sales figures were extremely healthy and IPC management was particularly pleased with their gamble to employ freelancers Pat Mills and John Wagner to create Battle. Whilst Wagner was given the task of revitalising the ailing flagship title Valiant, Pat Mills was quickly given another new title to oversee and bring to publication. This comic would appeal to the streetwise kids who had stopped buying the likes of Battle and its predecessors. It would be modern, edgy and tough, and went under the working title of Doc Martens. It really would put the boot in, even more than IPC could ever dream.

Mills needed an angle for the new title. He also needed to change the name, which he did to the succinct and snappy Action. The angle came in the form of pilfering from the best of American cinema taking recent hits or familiar tropes and adding a new slant. The first issue of Action hit unsuspecting newsagents on 7th February 1976 (boasting a 14th February cover date) with a strong lineup of eight strips for the measly sum of 7p. On the inside of the rather tame looking cover, the paper proclaimed, “You are about to experience the toughest stories ever – Fast! Fierce! Fantastic! Action is an explosive of the 70s – read it and get caught in the blast!

action number 1


 

Looking out for Lefty

Action’s poster boy was, and still is, Hookjaw – the most enduring strip to emerge from the comic’s pages, having been reprinted in several formats and relaunched as mini-series since first publication. Essentially a ripoff of the hit Spielberg film, Jaws, served up with lashings of gore and graphic images realised by artist Ramon Sola, Hookjaw took his name from a large fishing hook stuck under his ever-hungry mouth. Our Chondrichthye hero saw out three adventures before the eventual banning of Action, chewing his way through the crew of an oil rig, chomping on unfortunate holidaymakers on a Caribbean island resort and devouring unfortunates of the south coast of England. Hookjaw would return after the ban, but in an emasculated form which saw much of the violence take place just out of the view of the comic panel.

Clint Eastwood and his iconic role Dirty Harry would provide the inspiration for Dredger, a no-nonsense tough guy secret agent. The strip was packed with violent deaths and tense situations, and like Hookjaw, the story survived the ban but became a bland espionage adventure series. Dredger’s first adventure saw him tackle another common theme of the 1970s by violently foiling an aircraft hijacking. The Running Man was inspired by the TV series The Fugitive, with a dash of the Dustin Hoffman movie Marathon Man in the mix. The story saw athlete Mike Carter the victim of a face change operation in order that he take the rap for a Mafia boss. Not only does Carter have to go on the run from both the police and the Mafia, but he also has to hunt down those responsible to clear his name. Boxing strip Blackjack told the story of a pugilist determined to become world champion and was possibly inspired by the forthcoming blockbuster Rocky, with elements of Mohammed Ali’s real-life story. In his struggle, Blackjack came across fight fixers and other miscreants before winning the title and going blind. Then the story took a truly bizarre turn with Blackjack becoming a Kung Fu fighting pop star!

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Hellman of Hammer Force was the very first British comic strip to examine the Second World War from the perspective of a German soldier. Hellman was a tank commander who believed in a clean fight, bringing him into conflict with his superiors. The strip was another post-ban survivor, but was stripped of the politics and became an ordinary war strip.

Sport’s Not For Losers had the most direct elements of social commentary with a pushy father who wants his son to become a top athlete. When the boy breaks his leg the father forces his other son, a chain-smoking dosser, to take his place. Despite getting into all kinds of trouble the boy starts winning.

The Coffin Sub was one of the weaker links, being a standard war story that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pages of Battle or Valiant. This was the least popular of the featured strips and would soon be phased out as Mills and Wagner refined the Action formula.

Play Till You Drop was a more traditional sports story detailing the plight of footballer Alec Shaw who is blackmailed into losing games to protect the honour of his father.

The Coffin Sub came to an abrupt end in issue 8 and was replaced by Green’s Grudge War, the story of two soldiers, Bold and Green. Green always gets the blame when things go wrong and is jealous of Bold who always gets the credit. Green loathes Bold but ultimately sacrifices himself to save Bold’s life. This was a strip that would not have looked out of place in the pages of any other of IPC’s boy titles including Battle, Valiant or Lion.

Death Game 1999 took inspiration from the violent future sports movie, Rollerball. Inmates in a future death row are forced to play a bloody, brutal and deadly sport. If they survive they become heroes to the admiring TV viewers, but secretly the prison governor plans to have them executed.

Look out for Lefty replaced Play Till You Drop as the football strip (an obligatory genre strip in any UK boy’s adventure comic) and took a different angle to the traditional form of this type of strip. The central character was Kenny ‘Lefty’ Lampton a top-class player whose career is marred by his terrible temper. Despite his skill, and because of his anger management problems, Kenny is resigned to playing for third division clubs. With the characters working-class background, and a grandfather who surely was modelled on Albert Steptoe, the strip embraced social commentary themes as well as offering the traditional sporting adventures. Little did Action realise that this strip would provide a fatal body blow for the publication.

Kids Rule OK, possibly the second best-remembered strip, was set in an ultra-violent future where a plague has killed all adults, leaving only tribes of juveniles to fight it out on the lawless streets of Britain. Elements of then still recent films such as A Clockwork Orange can be seen as an influence on the strip.


 

The Seven Penny Nightmare

It was soon clear that IPC had a hit on their hands. From initial sales of a quarter of a million, they soon settled down to a comfortable 170,000. Apart from circulation figures, IPC experienced overwhelming feedback from their readership via the veritable landslide of letters they were sent. There are legendary tales of mailbags cluttering up the office corridors at IPC HQ. A UK comic had never connected so well with its intended audience. However, dark forces were gathering and national sporting events, the tabloid press and Frank Bough would all contribute to the demise of Action.

the seven penny nightmare

The first attack came a scant two weeks into publication with The London Evening Standard highlighting the violence and gore in an article published on 23rd February 1976. It took the tabloids a while longer to get in on the act, but when they did so it was with a vengeance. In a two-page splash on April 30th, The Sun dubbed the comic “The Seven Penny Nightmare”. Signs of worry set in at IPC due to an Act of Parliament that decreed explicit horror comics banned in the UK. If enough pressure was brought to bear then IPC could find itself in the courts. Despite these concerns, no one at IPC was prepared for the storm of controversy that would erupt in September 1976. Surprisingly it wouldn’t be Hookjaw that would land the publication in trouble, but the two strips that had recently made their debut appearances – The Kids Rule OK and Look Out for Lefty.

The fateful issue, published 18th September, was Action’s thirty-second. The comic had matured and found its feet and market niche. Perhaps it had grown too confident, but it was also the victim of circumstances. Early in the month, football violence had once more hit the headlines when Millwall fan Ian Pratt died at New Cross station following a scuffle with West Ham supporters that led to him falling under a train pulling into the station. That week’s cover sported an illustration by Carlos Ezquerra, later a stalwart of Judge Dredd in 2000AD, and featured an angry mob in the foreground, flames behind them engulfing tower blocks. In the foreground a punky looking youth swirls a metal chain, bearing down on a middle-aged man, prone on the floor. While nearby a policeman’s helmet lies on the floor. The implication that the fallen figure is a bobby is obvious.

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Aggro is a way of life in Kids Rule OK!” screamed the strapline on the cover. Inside the comic, Look Out for Lefty would only fan the flames; bearing in mind the real-life headlines of football violence. Lefty was playing his first match for his team and one his own players was determined to get Lefty dropped from the squad, by any means necessary. In the crowd, Lefty’s girlfriend witnesses a deliberate kick against Lefty’s ankle by his teammate and promptly picks up a glass bottle. She hurls it on to the pitch and smacks the offending player on the head, knocking him out. It was all the ammo the comic’s critics needed, and sensing blood, like Hookjaw, went in for the kill.


 

This is a blacked publication

The self-appointed guardian of Britain’s moral standards, The Daily Mail, was the first off the blocks with a headline in their September 17th edition that frothed, “Comic Strip Hooligans” and then went into a detailed attack of the latest edition. A torrent of parental complaints by letter and phone followed, flooding the IPC offices. Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association was next to climb on the moral bandwagon alongside other moral pressure groups such as DOVE (Delegates Opposing Violent Education). DOVE wrote to distributors and newsagents demanding the withdrawal of Action. In their letters, they threatened to “black” the publication by adding their own stickers to the front of displayed editions. The stickers read:

“CAUTION. This is a BLACKED publication. Certain things in this work are not cleared by DOVE as being pro-child, in that they are either by direct meaning, context or implication, an incitement for adults to breach the primary fundamental written principles of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. Section 1 which clearly prohibits: ‘Assault, ill-treatment, abandonment, neglect and/or mental derangement’ of the child to age 16. In the interests of free speech this publication remains undamaged. DIRECT ACTION by DOVE, Totnes Devon. On the side of the child only – Britain’s Future”

By late September, the TV news media had also got wind of things and nightly news magazine programme Nationwide invited John Sanders (IPC’s editorial director) to be interviewed on air. Sanders tried bravely to defend the comic during the grilling given by Frank Bough. Sadly his appearance was not enough to convince many of the employers at IPC itself. There was rank resentment and bitterness in the air already – staff felt they had been sidelined during the creation of Battle and Action by the creative and editorial powers granted to Mills and Wagner. Pressure was building, not just externally, but internally too. The IPC parent company Reed International’s board of governors had several members with strong religious and moral beliefs and they felt that Action was bringing the company into ill-repute and propagating an unsuitable image for IPC.

The final blow was the stance taken by the two biggest distributors and stockists of IPC comics, John Menzies and WH Smith. Both companies wrote to IPC threatening not to stock Action, with WH Smith taking an even stronger line and threatening to not stock other IPC comic titles or publications as well. John Sanders issued an edict to try and put the brakes on Action. He demanded the publication be toned down with all examples of excessive violence removed. All pages of artwork were to be seen and cleared by Sanders personally before they went to press. It wasn’t enough, however. Action was a profitable publication, but the threat to blacklist all other IPC publications was too heavy a price to pay for the company. Under attack by the media, moral pressure groups and from within by IPC employees, and Reed board members, the comic was withdrawn.

Comics were produced many weeks in advance with several dummy copies printed for final checks before the presses rolled and the issue dated 23rd October had reached this point by the time the decision was taken to halt publication. Some of these dummy issues have survived and there are scans in circulation on the internet. After a number of substantial changes, the 23rd October issue would be the basis for the relaunch issue of Action, dated 4th December. The comic did not acknowledge the reasons for the hiatus with readers.

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Kids Rule OK never reappeared, just seemingly vanishing into the ether from my ten-year-old point of view. Death Game 1999 and Hookjaw were considerably less brutal, and there were two new strips – Roaring Wheels (a bland motor racing story) and Double Dynamite (an even blander and safe sports yarn). The comic rode the coattails of previous popularity, but sales saw a decline as once faithful readers left in droves. Action limped on for nearly another year until November 1977 when the title was merged with Battle.


 

Pre-ban vs. post-ban

So how violent was Action? It’s legendary in UK comics for being very graphic with a high body count. But just how do the figures stack up – which is the most graphic strip? Is there a difference between the two runs of Action, with the post-ban issues being markedly less gruesome and brutal? Below is a strip by strip body count for the entire run, broken down into post and pre-ban runs, with a grand total of graphic incidents. To be included in the count, the death has to take place in the panel (ie. visually). Characters seen lying dead in the frame that have not already been counted are also included. There is also a count of graphic violence culminating in a character becoming beaten, wounded, maimed or disabled and these two figures are added together to provide a total. Finally, there is an average number of violent incidents for each strip per issue. This figure is achieved by dividing the violence total by the total number of issues the strip appeared in. Results are ranked by highest average total.

Issues 1 – 35 (Pre-Ban)

Comic Strip

Notes

Deaths

Beating / maiming / wounding

Violence Total

Average violence per issue

Kids Rule OK

Ran from issue 31 – 36

44

7

51

8.5

Dredger

Featured in all pre-ban issues

212

21

233

6.5

Hell’s Highway

Ran from issue 19 onwards

90

23

113

6.3

Green’s Grudge War

Ran from issues 11 – 32

128

3

131

6

Death Game 1999

Ran from issue 13 onwards

85

33

118

5

Hellman of Hammer Force

Featured in all pre-ban issues

168

7

175

4.9

The Coffin Sub

Ran from issues 1 – 8

30

1

31

3.9

Hookjaw

Featured in all pre-ban issues

98

8

106

2.9

The Running Man

Ran from issues 1 – 18

31

19

50

2.8

Blackjack

Ran from issues 1 – 30

6

73

79

2.6

Probationer

Ran from issue 33 – 36

5

0

5

1.25

Look Out For Lefty

Ran from issue 12 onwards

None

22

22

0.9

Sport’s Not For Losers

Ran from issue 1 – 12

None

6

8

0.7

Play Till You Drop

Ran from issues 1 – 11

None

6

6

0.5


Pre-ban statistics

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Examining the stats by average throws some surprising results into the spotlight. Accordingly, the most striking stat is the first rank placing for one of the prime strips responsible for the downfall of Action, Kids Rule OK. The spectacular high average of 8.5 is in part due to the short run of only six issues, but also to the fact that during the strip’s scant run it had a high number of violent incidents. If the strip had continued in the same fashion, and not been dropped after the break in publication, it would have been in pole position by a considerable margin. Also worth noting is the lowly placing of Hookjaw (6th), above The Running Man which ran for just over half the total number of issues Hookjaw did. Surprisingly, after a strong start to the comic strip featuring several violent incidents in each early issue, the body count quickly tailed off with only one victim, and on occasion zero deaths, per issue.

This has an effect on the placing of the strip at odds with the recall of fans as one of the ‘nasty’ strips. This result has to be viewed in the context of just how images of violence or death in the various strips were depicted. Whilst compiling these results I was struck with just how gruesome and brutal some of the deaths are in Hookjaw, shown in gleeful, gory detail.

War based stories The Coffin Sub, Hellman and Green’s Grudge War all rank above Hookjaw, with the latter two stories having considerably higher body counts. Yet, none of these strips is recalled as being key Action stories nor particularly violent, which can also be viewed in the context of how graphic the depiction of death is. In all the war-based strips there is a high body count (no more or less than similar strips in such concurrent comics as Battle or Valiant), but they are not as gory or brutal as the ones seen in Hookjaw. Before moving on to analyse the post-ban results, keep in mind the averages and results for second-placed Dredger, Hell’s Highway and Death Game 1999 with healthy averages and violence totals. These will all experience a measurable drop in both results.

Issues 36 – 87 (Post-Ban)

Comic Strip

Notes

Deaths

Beating / maiming / wounding

Violence Total

Average violence per issue

Hellman

Featured in all issues

268

36

304

5.9

Dredger

Featured in all issues

149

64

213

4.2

School For Survivors

Ran from issue 67 – 87

11

53

64

3.2

The Loner

Ran from issue 56 – 79

25

49

74

2.96

Spinball (Formerly Death Game 1999)

Featured in all issues

57

63

120

2.3

Hell’s Highway

Finished issue 55

36

8

44

2.3

Hookjaw

Featured in all issues

71

19

90

1.8

Double Dynamite

Ran from issue 37 – 66

0

46

46

1.6

Jinx Jackson

Ran from issue 67 – 87

3

16

19

0.95

Roaring Wheels

Ran from issue 37 -66

16

25

41

0.8

Slater’s Steamer

Ran from issue 68 – 87

2

8

10

0.5

Look Out For Lefty

Featured in all issues

0

23

23

0.4

Post-ban statistics

Apart from the war-based comic strip, Hellman, bucking the trend by having an average of violent incidents increase by 1%, the rest of the strips continued over from the post-ban era all see a marked decrease. Dredger suffers a 2% drop in gruesomeness. Death Game 1999, rebranded as Spinball, suffers an equally obvious emasculation with its average halved. Lead strip Hookjaw also drops 1% and on researching these figures I can confirm the graphic imagery is considerably scaled back.

It is very evident, taking into account the raw stats and the way the artwork depicts death scenes, that there is a marked change in approach between the two periods of Action. This left the comic somewhat toothless and far less cutting edge and this is also reflected in the quality of the new strips featured in the comic after the relaunch. They simply do not cut-the-mustard compared to the more visceral approach of the pre-ban period. Jinx Jackson, The Loner and Double Dynamite are standard boy’s adventure strips that could feature in any other contemporary comic. The edge had gone.


 

Action comic – A legacy in red

Does Action have a legacy? Without a doubt it does. If Action had never been produced, 2000 AD, the last man standing of the once burgeoning UK comic scene, would simply not exist. After the controversy over Action, Pat Mills moved, along with a considerable proportion of writers and artists, to his next project for IPC. Action had been a rehearsal room and breeding ground for talent and ideas that would blossom in the new science fiction-themed comic.

Conceptualised to cash-in on the growing popularity of science fiction, 2000 AD would see familiar themes and tropes from Action transplanted to a place under the cooling shade of science fiction. Mills realised that Action had been too realistic, too urban, and that was part of the reason it had fallen. 2000AD would go on to publish equally graphic content with similar controversial social commentary as Action (possibly even more so) but got away with it as it didn’t register on the radars of tabloids, watchdogs and governing bodies. It was cloaked.

The 200AD comic strip Flesh, which saw time travellers hunting and farming dinosaurs for their meat to feed a future society, featured much of the narrative as told from the point-of-view of embittered T Rex, Old One Eye, seeking revenge on the anachronistic humans. Just as graphic as early Hookjaw adventures, the strip showed giant spiders feeding on the bodily juices of their victims, men being torn limb-from-limb and an early venture into body horror when a time travel accident combines the bodies of humans with a dinosaur. Apart from sharing a vengeful carnivore in a lead narrative role, the strip shared, not only the same artists but many other themes with Action’s Hookjaw.

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Hellman established a pattern for an unconventional or unsympathetic character as the hero, which carried over into many 2000AD strips – witness Cockney freedom fighter Bill Savage remorselessly kills the occupying Volgan forces oppressing England in the strip Invasion. Many other lead characters in this vein would follow. Harlem’s Heroes took its cues (deadly future sport, part-robot / part human players, etc.) from Death Game 1999 but was given more polish thanks to the sparkling art of Dave Gibbons. Looking back you may also be able to spot further similarities between 2000AD’s star strip, Judge Dredd, and Action’s tough-guy lawman / secret agent Dredger. They share more than just the first couple of letters of their surname and a surly attitude to lawbreakers. Elements of Dredger could also be seen in the Six Million Dollar Man-inspired secret agent strip, Mach One.

Was Action just a victim of a moral panic that can be seen as a precursor to the Video Nasties panic of the 1980s? In some ways, yes, but the comic certainly pushed the envelope for UK comics up to that period and did deserve some of the criticism levelled at it. Action was akin to the UK comic scene as The Damned’s New Rose single was to the UK music scene, a vibrant cultural firework that would send shockwaves through their respective industries and change them forever.

Andrew Screen

Andrew Screen

Writer on things film & TV by night, author of The Book of Beasts, an official guide to the Nigel Kneale series, (coming soon). SEN practitioner by day.

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