Fearful Symmetry

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Comic Strip Hooligans!

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The story of the banned comic Action.

(Originally published in Vector, Nov 1999)

Action was a short-lived comic that was first published on 14th February 1976 and was ‘killed’ towards the end of that year. It was content was unique, not so much for the subject of its stories but for their tone, written with a maturity not seen before in this field. It was, on the one hand massively popular with its loyal army of fans whilst on the other, nationally infamous and reviled by its critics. The following is a brief history of the comic, and of some of more its more controversial and interesting stories.

During the 1950s and 60s the sales of comics boomed. The two main publishers, IPC (later Fleetway) and D. C. Thompson published comics for boys to a formula established by Eagle. It was middle class, written by middle-aged men and aimed to instill a high moral tone in Britain’s youth. Clean cut heroes had simple adventures against unproblematic baddies, and it was always obvious who was going to win. This formula had worked successfully for twenty years, but by the late 60s things were changing. Sales were sliding, comics had folded and many titles that were left were at close to brake-even point. The Eagle itself went in 1969. Both companies decided to act. D.C. Thompson brought-out the gritty Warlord in 1974 with all its stories based in the Second World War. It was much more aggressive than previous titles, with greater realism and heroes who found life that bit tougher than before. It sold well, so IPC had to respond. The problem was that virtually all of IPC staff firmly rooted in the traditions and values of the Eagle. In secret the Editorial Director, John Sanders, hired in two freelancers Pat Mills and John Wager to produce Battle. The in-house staff naturally did not like this, but Battle was a hit. Wager was given Valiant to revive whilst Mills was asked to work on something new and without precedent – Action.

John Sanders wanted a comic to reflect the 70s and appeal to group who up to that point had not been regular comic buyers, working-class streetwise kids. Mills worked with Geoff Kemp, a long serving IPC editor who was desperate to do something fresh. The two quantities that Mills wanted the comic to have were ‘difference’ and ‘realism’. It was quickly decided instead of having stories of one theme, like Warlord, Action would be a ‘sampler’ with a wide variety of stories including war, football, spy, crime and futuristic stories. As they were only given a very short run-in time they decided to do a number of ‘cribs’ of what was currently popular (a formula which would be continued in 2000AD) but add what was to become a distinctive Action spin, showing a different, interesting and equally valid response to the subject.

In its short life, Action had a number of interesting stories, including some with a SF slant. Looking back they can seem somewhat crude. However in comparison to what else was being produced in the comic field at the time they had a new depth and maturity and dealt with ambiguous adult issues. They were also significant quantities of, at times, very graphic violence.

One of the more violent stories was Hookjaw. The eponymous hero is a great white shark which has the hooked end of a gaff stuck in its lower jaw, giving its name and also distinguishing it visually from other sharks in the strip. Whilst it was obviously cribbed from Jaws, it had significant differences. The shark was not an anonymous threat as in the film. From the start Miles instructed the writers that the shark would be the ‘hero’ of the story and we would follow and sympathise with his actions and desires. Although there was at the beginning a nominal human hero, he was eaten halfway through the second story, and most of the humans featured were thoroughly nasty villains who are set-up as being deserving of been eaten. An oil-man sacrifices his workers to the sharks in order to keep the oil pumping and a land developer is prepared to lie and commit assault rather than risk the profits of his island paradise. Right from the start Hookjaw was given a reason to hate humans. He is hunted and maimed by shark fisherman, his mate and offspring killed (coincidentally as in the truly awful killer-whale film Orca). As in the Alien film sequence the humans are generally more vicious than the monster. Hookjaw was very popular and ran throughout the whole of the life of the comic. It was helped by occupying the full-colour centre pages so that the artists were able to use copious blood red ink. Although Hookjaw was very violent this was very much ‘comic book’ violence taken tongue-in-cheek, both by its creators and readers. There was even a competition for readers to suggest who they wanted to be gobbled-up by Hookjaw!

Another significant story was the delightfully named Death Game 1999. This was yet another ‘rip-off’, this time the cult SF film Rollerball, with a smattering of its near namesake Death Race 2000. The title is one of many in a tradition of millennial or near millennial dated SF titles. Well know examples include Space 1999, the robot film Class of 1999, the comic and sequel to Action2000AD, and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are many other similar examples in SF film, book and story titles. As we are now living through these dates they unfortunately seem, very ‘dated’. Death Game was based around the violent game of spinball (rarely a game would go by without several fatalities) on a gigantic ice-floored pinball table featuring players on skates or spiked wheeled motorbikes. They always had plenty of willing players as they were drawn from convicts wanting to avoid execution. The story is set in a future world which would become a template for many popular 2000AD stories such as Harlem Heroes, the population governed by brutal authority, living in gang-ridden concrete jungles. Except that Death Game had none of the parody, absurdity and satire of, for instance, the Judge Dread stories. This setting would of course become a staple in cyberpunk fiction and Death Game featured other proto-cyberpunk ideas such as cyborgs. The plot was a fast moving ‘football’ type of story with desperate players trying to win promotion, but here the men are also fighting for their lives and eventual freedom in a parody of the gladiatorial battles of ancient Rome. In this story, as in many other Action stories, the villains are authority figures, a fact which would become a significant factor in the comic’s downfall.

According to the critics, Kids Rule OK was the worst villain. A ‘plague’ (whose origins are ambiguous but are initially blamed on pollution) wipes out nearly everyone over the age of nineteen. Here the influence was clearly The Lords Of The Flies meets Terry Nation’s Survivors, a post apocalyptic series which had just started on BBC1. Set in contemporary London, the action follows a gang of school kids who fight for survival against other kids (including members of their own gang), bikers and towards the end, a vicious gang of police cadets. Some, but not all of the villains are authority figures. Unlike the Lord Of The Flies where an authority figure appears at the end to rescue the children from their savagery, in Kids Rule OK the authority figures turn out to vicious fascists worse that the ‘savage’ kids. The action of Kids Rule OK is fast, furious and extremely violent, and unlike Hookjaw and Death Game 1999 is realistically set against a contemporary background. After the prologue, frame one of page one proper, features a surviving ‘crumbly’ getting booted in the head, and the first page ends with the start of a knife fight. The story also featured, justifiably in context, such lawless behaviour as stealing a bus, pointless vandalism and the burning down of a school as the consequence of a violent siege.

As it started towards the end of the comic’s life Kids Rule OK was short-lived, so we are unfortunately able to see how the story might have developed beyond its action-packed but downbeat start. Ideas for the future of the strip did include the introduction of a hippy contingent, the rebuilding of civilisation and the kids getting hold of the crown jewels!

Other significant stories included the Dirty Harry/Ipcress Files imitation Dredger, the football story Look Out For Lefty and Hellmann’s Heroes, the first UK comic-strip story to show World War Two from a German point of view.

Action was a success throughout its all too brief history. It had high sales and, unusually for the time, received many letters from highly enthusiastic loyal readers.

Attacks from the critics started almost immediately. The London Evening Standard published an article when the comic was only two issues old (‘ARRGH lives – but the blood is printed red’, February 23 1976). The Sun ran a double page spread (‘The Sevenpenny Nightmare’ April 30 1976). It was however somewhat tongue-in-cheek and included a sizeable defence of the comic by a child psychologist. Throughout the criticism Action was always defended by John Sanders, even when comparison was made to the American horror comics of the 1950s which had been banned by parliament.

However in September two developments provided considerable ammunition to Action’s enemies. The highly controversial Kids Rule OK started and there was an incident of terrace violence, including ‘bottling’ of fans and players, in the football story Look Out For Lefty. This was against a recent rise of football hooliganism in the real world culminating in a riot between Aston Villa fans and Glasgow Rangers. The critics went for the throat. The Daily Mail launched a major attack (‘Comic Strip Hooligans!’ September 17 1976) instigating a letter writing campaign by parents. There were attacks by Mary Whitehouse’s Nation Viewers and Listeners Association, and by the Responsible Society (which was especially ironic as one of Look Out For Lefty’s writers was a member of the Society at the time). Sanders was ambushed on Nationwide when Frank Bough deviated from the questions he said he would ask to launch a full-scale vitriolic attack. This all occurred against a background of the ‘new morality’ that coincided with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and concern for the protection of the children. These sorts of attacks would be repeated many times as ‘video nasty’ scares in the early ’80s.

Not only was the comic being lambasted from without, it was also being attacked from within. Some members of the boys comic department, annoyed at being circumvented, had wanted Action to fail from the start. There were also rumours that certain right-wing evangelists on the board were applying pressure, arguing that the title unsuitable for the image of the company.

However Action might have survived all this except for one thing. Although Menzies where happy with the comic, W H Smiths were disturbed by the adverse publicity and threatened to withdraw sale-and-return-privileges, so that it would only supply direct orders unless the comic was ‘cleaned-up’ to appease the critics. It was rumoured that all IPC publications were being similarly threatened.

While Sanders was defending the comic in public, behind the scenes he put on the brakes, toning down excessive violence and taking overall charge of production. Even so, IPC decided to withdraw its best selling comic while Sanders was on holiday. Writers were told to ‘take out all the adult political stuff out of it and turn it back into a boys comic’ Under a new editor, the most controversial stories were finished or removed and it returned to limp on in a safe, emasculated form.

As can be seen Action was always unconventional. It had strong streak of anti-authoritarianism and its stories were more mature and adult, both in theme and content, than the comic market could then comfortably stand. Although Action was short lived it proved it was possible to successfully introduce more serious ‘adult’ themes into what was though of as purely a ‘kids’ market, and without Action there would be no 2000AD (which was also highly controversial in its early years). Indeed, many of the writers and artists who cut their teeth on Action followed Pat Mills to 2000AD.

In many ways the criticism which killed Action was political in origin. Though the comic was, in parts, grim and violent, to many of its readers it reflected the world they lived in. Its attitude fitted the burgeoning punk ethic of the time. It was rough and ready, streetwise and working class in the tradition on James Herbert and Richard Alan. Action – the comic so good it had to die.

Note

For those who interested in more information about Action try and seek out Action – The Story of a Violent Comic (1990) by Martin Barker, the inspiration for this article. This gives more details of the history of Action and reprints some of its more notorious strips.

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

June 25, 2009 at 3:27 pm

One Response

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  1. […] one of those great unanswered questions. If you’ve not heard of Hookjaw go and have a look at my Action […]


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