The Evening Standard: Argh Lives

The Evening Standard: Argh LivesAARGH lives – but the blood is printed red
VALERIE JENKINS meets the man producing an alarmingly realistic new children’s comic

taken from the Evening Standard, Monday February 23rd 1976

LOOK OUT! Action is deadly! You are about to experience the toughest stories ever – fast! fierce! fantastic! Action is an explosive new paper of the Seventies – read it and get caught in the blast.”

See a youth murder five policemen, see a body hurtle through a car window, see several limbs chomped off by today’s most modish monster, the killer shark. All this and more, some in glorious Technicolor, in the new British children’s comic called Action, second issue out today.

Action is a deliberate, calculated and commercially-minded attempt to cash in on What the Kids Want. What the Kids Want is, allegedly, what they already see on television and in the cinema. This is the reasoned conclusion of Mr. John Sanders, the publisher of Action. He strides about his office on the 19th floor of the new IPC tower at King’s Reach on the South Bank, unbuffetable by criticism. He says it is regrettable but true that comics must keep up with the times. These times are violent times. Mr. Sanders is a businessman. Action is a sell-out: 400,000 of the first Issue were sold last week, more than twice as many as any of the other IPC comics from jolly little Playhouse and Jack and Jill upward.

Is there room for doubt that killer sharks and murderous Mafiosi are what the kids want? Letters are arriving at the rate of 1,000 a day: here are today’s two tubsful, and I can open any of them I like (they are still unopened) and see. Mr. Sanders has the confidence of the trump card­holder. The first letter I picked out was from the Wirral, Che­shire: “Dear Action. My name is Christopher Cooper. I think Action is the best comic ever printed. It has tough stories, which no other comic has ever dared to print. P.S.: I think Steve is crazy to do these dangerous stunts.” The second letter was from Clonmel in the Republic of Ireland. “I as a girl read your comic too. You have a great imagination, the comic is colourful, it is wonderful and only an experienced person could write so good. I will always read it. It ought to go down in history. Love from your friend, Clare Ryan.” The next two enraptured letters both contained vibrantly coloured drawings of killer sharks. I said I thought I had seen enough of the letters now, thank you…wasn’t it true that what distinguished Action particularly from its adventure-story predecessors was that on the centre-spread story the one about sharks, called Hook Jaw, the blood was printed In red, which British comics have hitherto scrupulously avoided?

“So was it red in the movie”, said Mr. Sanders, “remember Jaws is an A movie, and a 14-year-old can take his 10-year-old brothers and sisters to see it. The readers of Action are packing the cinemas to see Jaws. They know that when a shark eats a body he spills blood. And Hook Jaw is way up at the top of our polls.”

Brutal

Mr. Sanders has been in comics for 16 years and remembers when they had scruples and standards too. “We never showed a dagger or a noose; they were considered too brutal. We still take a moral line – we only put in fast, rugged, tough action where the story demands it. But we live in a rough, tough, rugged world and children are already mercilessly exposed to it. We only try to keep a few paces behind the leading media, TV and films, which play a greater part in children’s lives.”

I cited one parent of an eight-year-old Action reader from Fulham who had written to us. “Although I can’t claim an instant blood-lust effect on him,” he wrote of his son, “I feel that an accumulation of this sort of thing will build up as a hardening of sensitivity in kids.”

This does not impress Mr. Sanders. “I saw a man blown to pieces in Dr Who at six o’clock the other night in a way I’d never allow in Action. It made even me shudder. A child can push a button and see this sort of thing at five-years-old. Before my readers go to bed, at about 9:30 in the evenings, their parents will let them gawp at the most astonishing violence and brutality. The kids write to us all the time about The Sweeney, and how great it is, and that’s about as near the knuckle as you can get. People have got to stop being sensitive about only one of the children’s media, i.e. comics, and ignoring the fact that the other media are smashing them in the eyes. If you say to me, Ah but the kids will copy it! you’re on to a loser. Maybe once, one backward kid might go out and do something he saw in a comic. Do you therefore penalise all comics? When the same thing is all around them on TV? If we don’t move up alongside the TV we will die.”

IPC are already the publishers of several comics which most of us would prefer to believe reflect the interests of little boys: comics called Valiant and Tiger, for Instance. They have all the well-worn characteristics: an obsession with sport (Roy of the Rovers, Hot-Shot Hamish) abysmally wooden dialogue (“He brings down the caves roof! We’ll be crushed! … “You fools! That’s One-Eyed Jack, the meanest cop in the State!”) ludicrous heroes (Tornado Jones, the Aussie Stuntman; Adam Eterno, doomed to live for ever unless struck a fatal blow by a weapon made of gold): and jokes so bad they are enjoyable (“Where do spiders play football?” – “Webbly Stadium!”).

But in the opinion of Mr. Sanders, these comics were becoming too tame their circulations were falling. “The circulation was being slowly eroded in my view b­ecause we were falling too far behind the standards of toughness in the other children’s media. For Instance: five years ago we started the strip in Scorcher about a boy who finds his grandfather’s football boots in the attic and when he wears them he gets all the goals. But the kids have started going off Billy’s Boots, It’s just not realistic, magic boots! So what football story do we put In Action? The story of an East End kid who could be a great footballer but he’s got a temper that makes him his own worst enemy. He takes a swipe at another player, a fight breaks out among his chums in the crowd. Our line is, he’d be a great player if he’d curb his temper. So there is a moral to it. But what is more important is that it relates to today’s kids, today’s aggro, today’s violence. I didn’t start the kids knifing each other on the terraces. But I can’t turn my back on what’s happening.”

What a long haul it is from fondly remembered child­hood comics – The Marcus Morris stable of the not so very distant past (the fifties) where Girl gave you a world of boarding school and ballet, nurses and horses, and Eagle more manly adventures like Dan Dare. I dare say they weren’t realistic. But nobody could call them harmful.

Of course, Mr. Sanders says they could carry on publishing such stuff today, “but it wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t reflect what’s hap­pening outside. You can’t paint the world all beauty and light. The kids see through you.”

Fantasy

A few years ago we launched two new comics that had the routine fantasy stuff: robots that take over the world, a King Kong-type monkey that could knock over the Empire State Building. But both comics folded in a matter of weeks.” Mr. Sanders. It should be said, still does publish buffoony old Billy Bunter and the extremely good educational Look and Learn comic, and he is happy to do so. But…those markets are much harder to work in profit terms.” he sighs.

Denis Gifford who is probably the leading expert on children’s comics and is even now organising a Comics Convention in London next month, probably voices the thoughts of most parents “I look back to the days of my youth” he says, “when comics were things of joy and pleasure, rather than blood and guts. My own favourite was the one called Happy Days. The most violent thing in Happy Days was somebody slipping on a banana skin or falling into a pot of paint. Nothing but fun from beginning to end.”

Sevenpenny Nightmare Section Index

Text © Moose Harris 

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