Stand by for Action

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For me, 1976 was a transitory period when I finished with primary school and started attending high school.  It was also a period when I remember one topic regularly dominating the conversations I had with my mates in the playground and on the school-bus: what was happening in that week’s edition of Action comic.

 

We’d read comics before, of course.  We’d read kids’ ones like the Beano, Dandy, Sparky, Topper and Beezer.  And we’d read slightly more mature ones that were labelled ‘boys’ comics’, like the Hotspur, Battle, Warlord, Valiant and Victor.  But Action was different.

 

Those other comics provided entertainment that, no matter how kid-centric or boy-centric it was and no matter how much we enjoyed it, had a vibe that suggested it’d been devised by adults and it’d been passed down to us through a filter of what adults believed was acceptable for children.  The stories in Action, though, had a different vibe.  They felt like they’d actually been devised by twelve-year-old boys – or at least, by someone who knew exactly what twelve-year-old boys wanted and were only too happy to serve the stories up that way.

 

And what do twelve-year-old boys want?  Mayhem, basically.  Blood and guts.  Violence.  Nastiness.  No wonder William Golding’s Lord of the Flies still resonates – once those schoolboys had been stranded on the desert island, what else could they become but savages?  Or as Roald Dahl once mused, kids are bloodthirsty monsters because they haven’t been trained to be civilised yet.

 

I was in the Boy Scouts, which meant I was supposed to be a nice, mannerly boy, doing a good deed every day and all that.  Yet I doubt if I’ve heard anything more appallingly gruesome than the horror stories my fellow scouts and I would tell each other around the campfire.  At least, after the adult Scoutmaster had called it a night and retired to his tent.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

The comic-strip stories in Action were certainly gruesome.  They weren’t, however, original.   Death Game 1999 was clearly a rip-off of the recent science-fiction movie Rollerball (1974).  Hellman of Hammer Force, about a tough but noble German Panzer commander on the Russian Front, owed a lot to the vicious World War II novels of Sven Hassel, which in the 1970s were avidly read by young males who’d otherwise never consider looking at a book.  Hellman had the distinction of being the first-ever German hero of a British World War II comic strip; though he despised the SS and the Nazi Party and regularly reminded the readers, “I am a soldier, not a butcher!”

 

Dredger was about a secret agent who plays dirty – ultra-dirty – and its title character was often likened to the one played by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies, though I always thought he was more like a psychotic version of Jack Regan, the tough, craggy police officer played by John Thaw in the popular TV crime show The Sweeney (1975-1978).  And unless your IQ was below room temperature, you’d have no difficulty linking the killer-shark story Hook Jaw to a certain movie directed by a young Steven Spielberg, also about a killer shark, that was doing rather well at the box office at the time.

 

Looking back, I can see how Action had more social comment than was the norm for 1970s British comics.  Dredger contained class tension – Dredger was rough, down-and-dirty working class whereas his sidekick, Simon Breed, was a posh ex-boarding-school type who’d have been the hero in a traditional British spy story (with the oik-ish Dredger as his sidekick).  Ironically, no matter how much Breed disapproved of Dredger’s ungentlemanly way of doing things, it was Dredger who saved the day and saved Breed’s neck at the end of each story.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Hook Jaw, meanwhile, had an environmental theme.  The humans whom the killer shark confronted and, inevitably, ate from week to week were scumbags despoiling his marine habitat – the roughnecks on an oilrig in the original set of Hook Jaw stories, the shysters running a ghastly-looking island holiday resort in the next set of stories.

 

But obviously, what impressed me back in 1976 was the comic’s in-your-face violence.  It had panels that, 40 years later, I can recall more vividly than anything else I’ve ever seen in a comic-book.  For example, a colour panel in Hook Jaw – much of that strip was depicted in colour, for obvious reasons – where Hook Jaw and his toothy pack of fellow sharks devour the survivors (no longer surviving) of a ditched-in-the-sea airliner.  Or a climactic panel in Dredger where the agent, flying a helicopter, takes out a whole rampart of villains by swooping at them, shredding them with the rotors and turning them into a shower of bloody body parts.  (When I saw a scene in the 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later where a helicopter reduces a bunch of zombies to chop-suey, that Dredger image was the first thing I thought of.)

 

Predictably, almost from when Action debuted in February 1976, the comic was under attack for its content.  Within months, an unholy alliance that included Mary Whitehouse’s sanctimonious Viewers and Listeners’ Association, excitable tabloids like The Sun and the junk newsagent chain W.H. Smith were pressuring its publisher, IPC Magazines, to censor or withdraw it.

 

Two strips that appeared a little later in Action poured fuel on the fire.  Look Out for Lefty was an example of that staple of British boys’ comics, the soccer story; but unlike previous soccer stories, it took as much interest in hooligan activities on the terraces as it did in footballing activities on the pitch.  A scene where Lefty’s skinhead girlfriend ‘takes out’ an opposition player by chucking a bottle at him from the crowd sparked an outcry.  What sort of example was this comic setting our children?  Britain’s Football League secretary Alan Hardaker raged that the writer responsible “ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.”

 

Even more inflammatory was Kids Rule OK which, seemingly taking its cue from the nascent – and to the British establishment, terrifying – punk rock movement, posited a near-future Britain where a plague has killed everyone over the age of 20 and gangs of teenagers battle to the death on the nation’s ravaged streets.  An Action cover in September 1976 showing a Kids Rules OK teenager using a chain to attack a man who appeared to be a police constable didn’t go down well with the country’s self-appointed moral guardians either.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Issue 36 of Action appeared dated October 16th, 1976.  But its 37th issue, dated October 23rd, never went on sale.  IPC Magazines surrendered to the comic’s many critics and pulped almost all 200,000 copies that’d been printed of issue 37.  (Only about thirty copies of it survived and they’re worth a fortune today.)

 

After a six-week hiatus, Action reappeared at the end of November, but in the meantime IPC Magazines had replaced its editor, John Sanders, and drastically toned down its content to make it as innocuous as every other British comic on the market.  I remember buying a few copies of the revamped Action and being dismayed by the fact that (a) Hook Jaw was no longer in colour, (b) the shark now only ate about one person each week, and (c) the eating now mostly occurred ‘off-panel’.

 

Without the blood, gore and anarchy that’d made the original Action so thrilling, sales of the comic fell.   It limped on until November of the following year, when it was merged with and subsumed into another comic, Battle.  I didn’t even notice its disappearance.  By then I’d stopped reading it.

 

Still, Action’s legacy endures.  In 1977 much of its creative team – particularly the brilliant Pat Mills and John Wagner – were responsible for the launch of the immensely influential 2000 AD, the self-styled Greatest Comic in the Galaxy, which today is one of the very last survivors from Britain’s once huge and lucrative comics industry.

 

Pat Mills, 2000 AD’s first editor, had clearly learnt lessons from the Action debacle.  2000 AD was violent too, but because its violence took place in unreal, science-fictional settings, it was deemed less offensive.  It also helped that much of 2000 AD’s violence was wreaked by that fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd, a policeman – so that was okay, then.  Actually, some of 2000 AD’s early stories had Action connections.  Shako, about a murderous polar bear, was basically Hook Jaw with fur and claws; whereas Flesh, a time-travelling story about cowboys trying to harvest dinosaurs, was originally planned as an Action strip.

 

In 2016, the 40th anniversary of both its appearance and disappearance, Action is recognised as a ground-breaker in British comic history – basically because it attempted to give kids, or at least boys, what they really wanted.  It seems fitting that filmmaker Ben Wheatley should grant Action a cameo appearance in this year’s High Rise, his kaleidoscopic adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard.  From the doghouse in 1976 to the arthouse in 2016.  How times change.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For further Action, check out:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/21/action-70s-kids-comics-violence-magazine-publishing

http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/2016/10/this-week-in-1976-action-is-suspended.html

 

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