Rare “Banned” Action Comic reaches £1320 bid on eBay

Action Issue 37 - Cover dated 23rd October 1976
Action Issue 37 – Cover dated 23rd October 1976

An extremely rare copy of Action – a 1970s British comic whose controversial content provoked storms of protest and was eventually banned – is currently being auctioned on eBay and bidding on the adventure comic has reached £1320.

(Updated 1/6/15: the comic finally sold for £2555)

The opening spread of "Hookjaw" from Action Issue 37, offered on eBay in 2015.
The opening spread of “Hookjaw” from Action Issue 37, offered on eBay in 2015.

Perhaps best known for the Jaws-inspired strip “Hookjaw” but a comic that also featured strips such as secret agent adventure “Dredger”, “Look Out for Lefty”, “Kids Rule OK” and “Death Game 1999”, the comic offered on eBay, cover dated 23rd October 1976, is one of few surviving copies of a legendary “Lost Issue” that was pulped as the media and political pressure on publishers IPC reached fever pitch and led to the title’s shutdown and subsequent re-tooling as a much diluted title, eventually merging with Battle in 1977.

Looking to reverse a decline in the fortune of IPC’s British comic sales in the 1970s, Action – a project developed by Pat Mills and editor Geoff Kemp at the direction of IPC editorial director John Sanders – eschewed  the traditional inspirations for boys comics of the time (mainly, World War Two) and borrowed from popular TV and film for inspiration, adapting JawsRollerball, Dirty Harry and Cross of Iron into strips for an audience legally unable to see them in the cinema. The project was, initially, a huge commercial success, selling some 160,000 copies a week, but the cynicism and violence that permeated the strips provoked the same kind of reaction from the national press that had once greeted cinema in the 1930s; authority, fearful the comic would stir rebellion among those who read it, the powers that be eventually brought Action to its knees.

Although its readers thrilled to the adventures of the man-eating shark in “Hook Jaw” and hooligan Kenny Lampton in “Look Out For Lefty” adults were alarmed at the comics’ content, with national newspapers such as The Sun (dubbing it the “Seven Penny Nightmare”) and Daily Mail leading the charge against the comic. A discussion of the title on the BBC news magazine show Nationwide was followed by debate in the House of Commons. Even veteran crusader Mary Whitehouse got in on the act to ban the comic while, behind the scenes, newsagents organisations and distributors got cold feet about the comic as it was condemned as an example of moral decline in a scare that “prefigured the Video Nasty panic of the Eighties”, according to Paul Fairclough in an article for The Guardian in 2011.

Within months, the stories were stripped of their social comment and violent tendencies; the result was an anodyne boys’ comic that soon folded.

Before its rebirth and eventual slow death, however, 36 issues of Action made it into newsagents intact. Issue 37 – was not so lucky.

 

The opening spread of "Dredger" from Action Issue 37, offered on eBay in 2015.
The opening spread of “Dredger” from Action Issue 37, offered on eBay in 2015.

The Sevenpenny Nightmare website outlined how, as with 2000AD today, the weekly comic was prepared several weeks in advance of release, In the case of Action, this was seven weeks in advance. Scripts were written even further ahead, but normally finished artwork existed for about seven issues (and the site featured numerous examples of those strips before they were re-tooled for the post-ban Action).

The persistent rumour that surrounds this issue is that once the issue was ready for production, 30 copies would be run off the presses for proof reading and internal checks. The 37th issue of Action had reached this phase when the plug was pulled. A full production run was never implemented, making this issue extremely rare.

“Unfortunately, it transpires that this rumour is, in fact, completely untrue,” the site noted in a feature on the “Lost Issue”. “Former 2000AD art editor Robin Smith is one of the lucky few to own a copy of Action 37. He tells a sad tale of IPC production that fateful week. A full print run was completed, something in the region of 200,000 copies were produced. Free copies were distributed to a regular list of recipients, including staff and others, and a set number were reserved as file copies, to be kept in the IPC archive. Once the ban was instigated, the remaining copies were pulled from distribution and sent off to be pulped. That’s just about every issue, turned back into paper sludge. IPC later destroyed all the file copies of every issue, leaving only a scant few in the hands of the comps list.”

The issue offered on eBay by Phil’s Comics, vintage comic dealers and auctioneers specialising in British comics, annuals, summer specials, free gifts and original artwork from the 1930s to the 1980s, had been kept by its first and only owner, one of the workers at IPC’s print works in Kent, since 1976, as a potential investment in a brown paper envelope until the company acquired it from the man’s family.

“They have had it in the family since 1976 when he acquired it from the original run of 30,” Phil’s Comics state on the bid page. “They have consigned the comic along with Action dated 16th October, the last official-release copy, plus the first post-ban issue dated 4th December, the much toned down version, so an interesting selection is on offer in our auctions.

“The family had kept all the comics stored unread in brown paper envelopes since the 1970s and so their grade is particularly high, with vibrant colours and the usual page tanning with age.”

The eBay page has some background on Action, but despite their research, it incorrectly states that Steve MacManus was editor of Action. In fact, he was just paid a tenner a throw to do a few stunts, and be used as the face of the comic. The Action Man stunts ended when he refused to be thrown into the North Sea. (Throughout Action’s run Steve was Dave Hunt’s deputy editor on Battle, so had no input into the comic other than scripting “Sport’s Not For Losers!”, “The Running Man” and a couple of issues of “Dredger”).

As such, the words attributed to him in ‘Write Away’ section of this comic (and previous issues) are not his, nor were they ever. Geoff Kemp, and later John Smith, had final say on the editorial copy in ‘Write Away’. Steve in fact took issue with the way the comic portrayed him, and cites the column in Issue 37 as a particular example as one of the worst in the introduction to Martin Barker’s Story of a Violent Comic.
A perhaps unwise editorial attributed to the face of Action, Steve MacManus - but in fact, he never wrote it!
A perhaps unwise editorial attributed to the face of Action, Steve MacManus – but in fact, he never wrote it!
 “This issue was important for several reasons,” the Sevenpenny Nightmare web site noted. “The original stories had already begun to be toned down. Alterations were made to both text and art before going to press. ‘Kid’s Rule O.K.’ had half a page removed entirely because of the graphic violence taking place as a battle raged between the Malvern Road Gang and a group of enthusiastic Police Cadets. In ‘Death Game 1999,’ new artist Massimo Belardinelli drew a particularly spectacular panel featuring the death, by explosion, of Karson City Warden Kruger. The panel was obscured by a giant white BA-ROOM!, entirely covering the disembodied portions of Kruger’s corpse.

Action staffer John Smith tried to save the original artwork by adding the sound effect lettering as an overlay, rather than painting onto the original art, but unfortunately all of Belardinelli’s finished work ‘went missing’ from the IPC archive for several years. A source close to the comic has told this site an unrepeatable tale of exactly who was responsible for the destruction of so many pages of the original art, and it brings a tear to the eye just contemplating this act of vandalism.

“When Action eventually resurfaced on December 4th, major changes had been made to the issue. ‘Kid’s Rule O.K.’ and ‘Probationer’ had been axed from the comic. Further edits in both art and dialogue were made to the remaining stories that survived the transition from the October 23rd issue. Tragically, ‘Death Game 1999’ was cut to pieces and sacrificed at the alter of moderation. The Karson City Killers story was compressed to a mere four pages. The insipid ‘Spinball’ emerged in its place, but would never fill its shoes. Even the cover was recycled for the December 11th issue.”

On the plus side, although Action‘s ban and slow demise as a watered down title is for many British comics fans and comic creators a major tragedy, it did pave the way for 2000AD, which is still with us to this day…

Update 1st June 2015: The ebay bidding page for Action Issue 27 is here: it sold for a staggering £2,555.00

The Guardian, 2011: Time for Action: when comics hit the headlines

Other Action items on offer from Phil’s Comics

• Action Issue 3 – cover dated 28th February 1976 plus free gift Soccer Cards

11 pre-ban issues of Action

• Action comic Issue 36 – cover dated 16th October 1976 – the last pre-ban issue to be officially released

• Action – Cover dated 4th December 1976 – the first post-ban issue

47 issues of post-ban Action, published in 1977 – the last full year of publication

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a “freelance comics operative”, currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY.

John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor.

He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY.

Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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