In the year 1976 British weekly comics were stuck in a rut. Roy was still of the Rovers, Commando Comics killed more Nazis than the Allies and Russians did in WW2, Billy still had his Boots, and the Boy’s Adventure Comic needed something to drag it kicking and screaming into the 1970’s. Publisher IPC had tried something different in 1975 when they let Pat Mills and John Wagner loose to create a new war comic called Battle Picture Weekly. More visceral than the 1950’s style of war comic published for decades in the UK, Battle sparked something in kids that read it, and with strips like Major Easy, Darkies War, Johnny Red and probably the finest comic strip published in British comics, Charley’s War, Battle made a name for itself but it was just a taster for what was to come.
In 1976 saw the next creation from the mind of Pat Mills. On Valentines Day 1976 Action was published for the first time and its effect on kids all across the UK was extraordinary. Myself, I never got on the bandwagon until the second issue because it had a cool picture of a shark on it and I nagged my mum to buy it for me as it had an iron-on transfer.
I utterly LOVED that transfer. I also loved the fact that the cover stars were a tough looking bloke threatening to kick your face in by leaping off the cover and a shark called Hook Jaw that did things like this…
Imagine seeing images like this. You’d be insane not to buy it with your pocket money or pester your folks to buy it for you!
For 36 glorious issues Action gave us the adventures of Dredger, a British secret agent who wasn’t bred on the fields of Eton; Death Game 1999, a Rollerball rip-off (all of Action’s strips were “dead cribs” meaning the basic idea was lifted from a film of the time) given a outrageously more violent twist; Look Out For Lefty, a football strip unlike any other previously in British comics; Blackjack, a story about a boxer which is the first time a British comic had a black character as a lead; and of course Hook Jaw.
Kids had found a Boy’s Adventure Comic that spoke to them in 1976. They owned it. Kids like me owned it. Kids like me ran out to the shops to buy it and read it first every week. I still read some of the other titles IPC and DC Thompson produced, but Action was something special and we knew it. Today with the internet it’s impossible to not find something that speaks to you, but in 1976 that wasn’t the case. Action was seismic. It changed everything, shook up the industry in the UK, proved Pat Mills was a genius and set the ground for IPC to commission a new science fiction comic called 2000 AD that’d cash in on the projected SF boom that’d come from some film causing a buzz in America called Star Wars. If they got a good year out of it then they’d be happy. 39 years later 2000AD is still going strong.
Yet 2000 AD would never have existed were it not for Action, nor would it have happened had Action not been banned with #36, though some copies of #37 were printed and indeed, one sold recently for £2555!
Once the likes of Mary Whitehouse had trained their eyes on Action and declared it morally bankrupt the game was up. Our comic was taken from us and although after a hiatus of a few months the comic did return it wasn’t the same. Dredger was a bit less course. Lefty was a bit nicer. Hook Jaw even ate people off-panel and only ever ate bad people. Everything kids like me loved was gone. Action limped on for a while before it was eventually absorbed into Battle, but by this point most people didn’t care.
Action’s legacy though is enormous. It gave birth to 2000 AD. It pushed British comics on, and injected a rebellious punk attitude into comics not to mention those that read those comics. It made us consider other things we’d never thought of before while enjoying heaps of violence and gore but it also showed to kids the power of the establishment in censoring something that threatened them. After all you can’t have kids reading comics that question authority that they can buy from anywhere? No, much nicer to go back to nice heroes.
2000 AD managed to hide much of its rebelliousness in its SF settings, so it was ignored until it was too late to do anything about it. Action in that sense acts like a herald proclaiming the greater thing to come. Reading it today four decades on many of the strips don’t hold up. The scripting is clunky, not to mention flat, but when it shines, dear, god, it shines bright still. Hook Jaw especially is simply demented reading; even today nothing comes close to it.
I’d recommend searching out Martin Barker’s excellent book, Action – The Story of a Violent Comic for the comic’s history. Back issues are easy enough to come by, but complete runs of the essential 36 issues plus a summer special are harder to collect. Do so though because this is a vital bit of British comics history. For me it makes me feel like a wee boy enjoying the thrill of Hook Jaw devouring his next victim for the first time over and over again…..