Review by Moose Harris
When Rebellion announced their forthcoming slew of vintage comic specials, including a new take on Action, I’ll admit to taking a dim view almost immediately. I should state upfront that my lifelong obsession with Action probably stems from the ‘specialist interest’ traits associated with my recent diagnosis of Asperger’s, but to me it’s always seemed more than just some run-of-the-mill comic, which is why after more than 40 years, my fascination remains undiminished. Comics such as Battle Picture Weekly and Action, both from London publisher IPC, adopted an oft described gritty realism when compared with their ‘50s and ‘60s counterparts. IPC’s new wave of titles for boys and girls, which also included Jinty, Misty and 2000AD, didn’t talk down to their readers. Action in particular reflected the popular culture of the time, with stories either riffing on content its readers were probably too young to see on television and in the cinema, or reflecting the hooliganism of the streets and football terraces.
Despite IPC’s new outlook, the dialogue of the strips themselves remained as rudimentary as their predecessors, captions packed with exposition linked the episodic scenes, entire stories rendered over just three or four picture-heavy pages each and every week. The pace of 1970s comics was frenetic, banging out shocks, thrills and plot twists at a fantastic rate. The style of modern comics almost diametrically opposes this. They are far more languid, with sophisticated yet almost glacial plot development favouring a longform approach, enabling greater character development. The almost cinematic storytelling removes the need for captions, as scenes blend seamlessly together in the style of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Rebellion’s anthology specials have a limited page count for each strip, suiting the 1970s style, but will this suit the modern comic reader, and who exactly are these specials aimed at?
Attempts at modern revivals of decades old comics are always a gamble, with publishers attempting to balance a contemporary approach that will appeal to a modern audience against the nostalgic demands of the original readership. Witness Titan Comics’ Hook Jaw revival, which redesigned the eponymous great white shark’s most distinguishing feature, introduced a gender transitioning twist which trampled over the established continuity, and then spent 128 pages tediously overstating the original strip’s ecological credentials without bothering to deliver a great deal of shark-related carnage. Compare this with Hook Jaw’s greatest adventure, published in the first thirteen issues of Action. Spanning just 40 pages, it still managed to encompass mankind’s propensity to commit evil and ravage the planet in the name of capitalism, while amply demonstrating Hook Jaw’s incisor-induced dismembering skills, the body count delivered at an average of one per page.
In naming this particular one-off Action 2020, Rebellion have chosen to use the original editorial team’s abandoned conceit of suffixing the main title of the comic with the year of publication. The idea, from Pat Mills and Geoff Kemp, was intended to show the reader just how up to date the comic was, yet in the case of this revival, it’s an inauspicious omen.
Things start well. Staz Johnson and John Charles’ dramatic cover captures the alliterative exciting essential essence of the classic Action montage, captioned images punctuated with a surplus of exclamation marks. Remove Rebellion’s trademarking and the baseball caps and hoodies, and this could easily be mistaken for a classic cover from Action’s 1976 pomp, much like the BBC once mistook a montage cover I put together for an example of the genuine article, and accidentally included it in their Comics Britannia documentary. There’s blood, there are chains and improvised weapons, there are lots of explosions, and although there’s a barcode for £4.99 instead of the seven penny price tag that led to the infamous Sun headline, the cover stirs familiar feelings, and promises a heady array of delights from the past, including “Hook Jaw“, “Kids Rule O.K.” and “Hellman of Hammer Force“.
If only I’d stopped there because, as we delve into the interior pages the disappointment begins. I am forced to ask: “Who the hell is ‘Action Ed’?” All Action readers of old know the comic is edited by ‘Old Wooden Leg’, and that its public face is the avuncular Action Man, as portrayed by the British comic legend that is Steve MacManus, who was, confusingly, Deputy Editor of Battle at the time, and not actually part of the Action team. This isn’t the jovial editorial content of old, with tales of the staff going out to get drunk, random pointless facts, Twit of the Week and ‘The MAD Money Man of Action’ giving away fivers in rural shopping centres to the first kids to assault him with a copy of the latest issue. Instead, this is all new, all serious, all action Action!
‘Action Ed’ asks with some earnest if I can handle it. The graphic design is quite jarring, and the page is littered with Rebellion’s propensity to plaster creator credits all over everything. My honest response, ‘Action Ed’? No, I probably can’t… and so to the strips.
“Kids Rule O.K.” starts harmlessly enough, if that’s possible given its pedigree, and dubious reputation as the strip that got Action killed first time around. Old-school captions sum up the ‘in 1986 all the adults die’ scenario well enough, and Henrik Sahlström’s somewhat sketchy art reveals the familiar setting of a post-apocalyptic London. Unfortunately, from this point on Ram V’s script takes a wrong turn, and goes all Mad Max, rather than Terry Nation’s Survivors. A cast of unidentifiable, unlikable and un-engaging characters deal out violence that is more extreme, yet holds even less meaning than the many mindless acts of thuggery seen in the 1976 original. However, like ‘proper’ Action, Ram V isn’t quite done with plundering popular culture, and somehow manages to throw what I can only assume to be the twist ending of Planet of the Apes into the wrong city, leaving me entirely deflated.
I was genuinely looking forward to seeing Garth Ennis write “Hellman of Hammer Force“; it’s a strip that we’ve previously discussed the highs and lows of at some length. Garth is a massive fan of Battle, and one of the few writers capable of delivering a classic British World War Two strip, having produced the goods with revivals of Battler Britton and Johnny Red.
The return of original artist Mike Dorey, his first comic work in years, added to my anticipation. I was always a big fan of Dorey’s art, whatever the strip. He had a unique style, and worked on “Hellman” within Action’s office at Kings Reach Tower in South London, a building that would become better known as the Mighty Tharg’s Command Module. Dorey would often be seen splattering his bold, high contrast black and white drawings with gobbets of Indian ink launched from the bristles of an old toothbrush. He was an amazing draughtsman, by far the best of the “Hellman” artists, and comparable with the late Joe Colquhoun in his attention to historical detail coupled with vivid storytelling, all of which makes the rather calm, computer-generated greywash of this strip seem a little pedestrian.
While the art is good, it’s not great, for me lacking the detailed fine brushstrokes of his earlier work; it fails to explode from the page. I was reminded of Ron Tiner imitating Carlos Ezquerra on fill-in episodes of “Major Eazy”, the kind of art you’d get in a Summer Special of the period; slightly rushed looking, given the higher page count expected despite the lower budget on offer, Mike Dorey doing his best impression of Mike Dorey, if you like. Even so, it’s still the best-looking strip here.
Garth’s script follows the IPC Summer Special tradition, packing a lot of action into a limited number of pages, yet still delivering a satisfyingly complete adventure. He picks up the action at one of his favourite points in Hellman’s story, the slow and ultimately doomed retreat from Stalingrad. The ever-diminishing cast of regular characters are all here, with absolutely no exposition or explanation offered to the casual reader as the story opens. The action is fast-paced and slightly unbelievable, and Hellman’s past is gradually revealed by a young German civilian who is, oddly, a fan of both the Panzer Major’s combat skills and his humanity. The anti-war message is perhaps a little too on-the-nose but, like the K-Tel cover version albums of the era, it was hard to tell the difference between this and the original artists. A proper slice of 1970s comic nostalgia.
Onward then, for some unknown reason, to “Hell Machine“, a quasi-political dystopia “created by Henry Flint” with art by Flint and Jake Lynch. I generally like Flint’s art, particularly on “Judge Dredd”, but this Flint-scripted creation has no place here. Action had a number of highly popular strips, many of which could have easily been revived for this special. A modern version of “Look Out for Lefty!” perhaps, with Lampton recast as a player of colour from a Windrush generation family, fighting against racism both from the stands and from the British Home Office. Better yet, a quick game of spinball, obviously from the prison-based “Death Game 1999” version of the strip, rather than its many tame sequels. But no, instead we have this faux-enigma which, at 15 pages, is by far the longest strip, yet is more suited to the depths plumbed by late-1990s era 2000AD than an Action special. The story reaches a natural conclusion at the end of its sixth page, the last drawn by Flint, then beats the reader over the head for a further nine pages of confusion that fails to resolve itself or any of the mysteries it presented the reader. Surely the simplest solution to escaping the hell machine is not to walk into it quite so willingly in the first place.
Next up is 2000AD’s “Shako!“, with a story so bad it’s presented under the not at all clever pseudonym ‘Quint Amity’, and features a brief cameo from Hook Jaw. This dialogue-free snooze-fest is ably drawn by Dan Lish, but spends six pages meandering towards what seems to be its sole raison d’etre, a poorly conceived mini-poster of Hook Jaw vs. Shako!TM. A rare opportunity to erase the memory of Titan’s lamentable Hook Jaw revival wasted, this strip is truly disappointing in every aspect of its existence. “Hook Jaw” was Action’s centrepiece, consistently its most popular strip, and doubtless one of the major draws of this special. It could have been fantastic, instead it’s just a re-tread of many similar episodes of “Shako!”, with the lead character reduced to a supporting role, akin to Gareth Thomas appearing as Roj Blake for only a few minutes at the end of series three of Blake’s 7.
Finally, we have the return of the formerly double denim and dog-tag clad, monosyllabic D.I.6 special agent “Dredger“, now besuited and looking as if he’s aged in real time since we last saw him in 1978. Staz Johnson’s art fails to live up to the standard he sets on the cover, and is a far cry from the stylish look that original series artist Horacio Altuna gave the strip. Zina Hutton’s script drags three pages of story out over six, and reads like some of the worst “Dredger” episodes from the thrill-free 1977 version of Action. Without his educated, upper class partner Simon Breed on hand to provide exposition for the reader, Dredger comes across as something of an imbecile who, far from being D.I.6’s toughest and sharpest operator, misses obvious clues, including a heavily signposted double cross, gets his own people killed and then shoots everyone left standing in the head for good measure. Action was never this stupid or gratuitous, I’m genuinely horrified.
I wish I could have enjoyed this, but Action 2020 is an irredeemable dud, saved only by Ennis and Dorey’s Hellman and, if you spend an extra fiver, a vague and inaccurate ‘reproduction’ of the lost 23rd October 1976 issue of ‘proper’ Action. I think I gained the most pleasure from finally setting eyes on a legible version of the final three published pages of “Probationer“. At £11.66 including P&P, I don’t feel I’ve been offered value for money. Rebellion have thrown a version of the multi-part Hook Jaw poster onto the back cover, seemingly as an afterthought, but they didn’t bother to colour match the scans of the various pages or remove any white space, so it looks like a bad patchwork.
The coming months offer The Cor!! Buster Easter Special, Smash!, Roy of the Rovers, Tammy and Jinty, and Misty and Scream! before delivering Battle (of Britain) in September. None of these titles meant as much to me as Action does, and yet I’m still dreading each and every one of them.
• The Action 2020 Special is available now from newsagents not closed because of the Coronavirus Pandemic; and direct from the Treasury of British Comics web ship as a print or digital edition – both versions include the “Banned” Action supplement
• Moose Harris created and wrote almost all the material featured on our Action: The Sevenpenny Nightmare Micro Site dedicated to Action, and was instrumental in achieving a huge improvement to the scans for Titan Books Charley’s War books during my editorship of the series
Moose is a Senior Lecturer for the Institute of Health at the University of Cumbria – played bass for New Model Army and The Damned – provided location medical services for film and television including Top Gear and Rush – is married with two daughters – writes features for magazines – restores comic art for book publishers – got a BSc (Hons) at 40 having left school at 15 – is currently completing an MSc in Clinical Education
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