Many older British comic fans will remember Marvel UK’s Action Force comic, but the team had another home – in issues of IPC’s Battle in the early 1980s. Luke Williams looks back at the stories…
By the early 1980s, sales on the war / action title Battle, the first wave in the Pat Mills / John Wagner revitalisation of the IPC comics library, were on the wane. The weekly comic had already absorbed two others IPC titles – the John Wagner edited and long standing bastion of British comics Valiant and the Pat Mills created Action – but something new was needed to add to the mix to keep readers on board. Battle needed a shot in the arm, what it got was a licence to print stories based around the Action Force toy line.
Licensed British comics were not a new phenomenon, Star Wars Weekly (later monthly) had been a huge hit in the 1970s, and TV Century 21 , packed with strips inspired by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation series, had been popular before that. Battle’s sales were slipping, despite the inclusion of classic strips such as “Johnny Red” and the now much celebrated “Charley’s War”.
Palitoy’s Action Force – produced under license from Hasbro – was a miniaturised spin-off of its Action Man toy line, itself a response to the slipping sales of its larger counterpart. Initially, these were a generic action figure line of soldiers and other suitably active types – the SAS, Royal Marines etc. However, someone had the brainwave of making them far more marketable by repainting, retooling and rebranding the figures as an international fighting force.
Action Force was divided into four teams: “Z Force” (regular army), SAS Force (black ops), “Space Force” (NASA with guns), and “Q Force” (the Navy), formed to fight the evil Baron Ironblood, his sidekick The Black Major and his army of fanatical Red Shadows.
Following a four-week run in Battle in June 1983, IPC gave away five free Action Force mini comics with their line, including Tiger, Eagle and Battle, introducing the characters and expanding on the initial run. Clearly a success, and in a bid to secure greater sales the strips took up permanent residence in Battle with issue cover dated 8th October 1983.
The first issue of Battle Action Force starred SAS Force in “Operation Bloodhound”, pursuing the nefarious Baron as he wrought havoc around the world by the creative team of Gerry Finley-Day and British great Geoff Campion; and “Z Force” in “Desert Strike”, where the conventional ground troops of Action Force act as advisers and bring stability to a fictitious destabilised middle eastern country but beat a hasty retreat into the desert following a religious inspired revolution, a story written by Frank Noble and artistic brothers Vanyo. The final “Action Force” strip was an origin story of “Shark” the Q Force frogman, written by Ken Owen and drawn by Jim Watson.
In between what you could cynically consider the extended toy advertisements, the remainder of the package was made up with ongoing Battle strips: “Johnny Red” by Tom Tully and John Cooper, “Charley’s War” by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, “Invasion 1984” by R. Clark (John Wagner and Alan Grant) and Eric Bradbury, plus reprints of “D Day Dawson” and The Professionals-inspired/ derived secret agent strip, “The Hunters”.
Looking back, seven strips for 20p is quite a bargain.
As a 10 year old reader and fan of the line, I couldn’t wait for the new toys to arrive in the comic, stories were often focussed on specific figures or vehicles and “Data Files” giving background on all your favourite vehicles and figures were found on the back pages of the comic.
You knew when a character was expendable when there wasn’t a toy named after them, but I was shocked when about half way through the “Operation Bloodhound”, all the SAS seemed to be killed, followed by cliff-hanger lasting around two months, replacing the strip with a Jim Bleach story focussing on Baron Ironblood and the Red Shadows. I clearly had no idea that they wouldn’t kill off their cash cow, nor had the power to do that even if they wanted to.
After the initial run of stories, the balance maintained a new “SAS force” story and a new “Z Force” story. For continuity, the leaders of the “SAS” and “Z Force” teams remained, but with a whole new cast, meaning of course, the latest waves of the toy line.
Initially, the “Action Force” strips were interspersed with the non licensed content, but with issue cover dated 13th October 1984, a clear demarcation was set up between licensed and non licensed strips with “Action Force” moving to a centre pull out section. John Cooper was off “Johnny Red”, and Carlos Pino was brought in following the end of “The Hunters”, who had gone back to Russia, “The Nightmare” a story of a young British boy kidnapped by Nazis had begun, written by John Richard with beautiful art by Capaldi.
The final phase of “Action Force” within the comic was the revamp of the toy line – out went SAS, Z, Q and Space Force, and in came the rebranded “GI Joes” and “Cobra” lines, led by “Duke” and “Cobra Commander” respectively, the transition explained in the “World Enemy Number 1″ strip beginning in the 19th January 1985 issue by Gerry Finley Day and John Cooper linking the two eras.
Out went the four separate “Action Force” teams, “Baron Ironblood” and the “Red Shadows”. In came “Duke”, “Flash”, “Blowtorch”, “Scarlett” “Gung Ho” and others, facing off against (spoilers) “Baron Ironblood” in his new identify of “Cobra Commander” head of the terrorist organisation “Cobra”.
“Operation Snakebite”, by Gerry Finley-Day and Jim Watson, acted as an introductory story to the new “Action Force”, and this was backed up by the origin of “The Baroness” by James Nicholas and the Vanyo brothers. In the meantime, that wasn’t the end of the “Red Shadows”. Obviously popular and, despite no longer being in production, they returned in a strip called” Revenge of the Red Shadows”, quickly followed by “Death In South America”, which involved rogue Red Shadows, Nazis, a cloned Adolf Hitler and SAS force. Very Gerry Finley Day and a bit nuts, but great fun.
The “classic” line would return again, but the focus was now on the new generation, the same mix of multi character strips, origin stories and solo tales, highlighting the latest in the toy lines in much the same way as the comic had done previously.
(The changes were the result of Palitoy ceding control of the European market to Hasbro in 1985, following the death of Alfred Pallett, one of Palitoy’s owners, and the winding up of operations at their Leicester factory. Hasbro purchased the Palitoy factory, copyrights, and moulds and began to package G.I. Joe figures under the Action Force brand).
For me, the new phase of characters didn’t have the same appeal, even though they differed from the US versions – as although they had the same names, their backgrounds were international. This new “Action Force” stayed longer in the comic than its predecessors, perhaps buoyed by the greater international recognition.
By this time the non-licensed content of the comic consisted, of “Charley’s War”, by Scott M. Goodall and Joe Colquhuon moving the action to World War Two, “The Nightmare” with the new creative team of Terry Magee and Jesus Redondo and “The Sarge” by Ken Owen and Mike Western made a reappearance, followed by a rerun of “HMS Nightshade” by John Wagner and Mike Western, and “Johnny Red” had a new artist in Carlos Pino, although Tom Tully remained on script.
The final issue of Battle Action Force was Cover dated 29th November 1986 as IPC lost publication rights to the line, and despite trying to replace the toys with an internally created replacement team “Storm Force” in 1987, Battle was “matched” with Eagle and “dispatched” in 1988.
As much as the title had become an advert for a toy line, the “Action Force” strips were largely good quality, with some great visuals. It became became a veritable who’s who of classic British comic art, with work by the brothers Vanyo, Geoff Campion, Cam Kennedy Ron Turner, Jim Watson, Jim Bleach, Kim Raymond the seemingly forgotten “Gual” and John Cooper. The stable of writers included Ken Owen, Gerry Finley Day, Frank Noble, James Nicholas, most of them specialising in specific teams.
My favourite strips included “The Black Major”, “Operation Bloodhound”, “Codename Stakeout”, “Desert Strike”, ”Codename Sealion” and “Revenge Of The Red Shadows”.
The strips were always going to be limited to the confines of the publication agreements , but if it wasn’t for the support of the “Action Force” strips the title may never have lasted long enough to have published the final Pat Mills “Charley’s War” episodes, plus some other great non licensed strips.
Derided by some fans as the death knell for a once great comic, and limiting storytelling to within the confines of the licence in a title which gleefully dispatched characters previously, but for many (including your scribe) this was their way into action orientated comics, graduating from the Beano, and before they went onto other titles, or (god forbid) gave up comics altogether.
• For everything you wanted to know about Action Force, then your starting point should be bloodforthebaron.com
• ActionForceToys.com is a dedicated site for vintage toy collectors of Action Force, GI Joe, Star Wars, Transformers, M.A.S.K and more
Action Force © Hasbro | Battle Picture Weekly is © Rebellion Publishing Ltd