Moose Harris celebrates 40 years since the launch of one of Britain’s most contirversial comics, Action, created by Pat Mills…
Britain, 1976. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned. The pound collapsed forcing a bankrupt British economy to borrow £2.3 Billion from the IMF. 22 people died in hurricane force winds, the SAS were sent into Ulster for the first time. Four British warships cruised costal waters intent on fending off Icelandic fishermen as other naval vessels defended the Falkland Islands from the threat of Argentinean invasion. Jeremy Thorpe was ousted from the leadership of the Liberal Party, and it was hot… the hottest summer since records began.
Amid this picture of a nation struggling with rising inflation, record unemployment, a failing economy and global political upheaval, a bold new comic was launched. This comic was designed to reflect the times in which it was published. It was called Action, and it was arguably the most important British comic ever to see print. Action broke the mould of traditional boys’ adventure titles, and British comics would never be the same again.
In the mid-1970s, the domestic comics market was flagging badly. The two main publishers, Dundee based DC Thomson, and London’s IPC Magazines, had lost their way. Sales were in decline and new titles were folding after only a few short weeks. DC Thomson were the first to react to this trend. In 1974, they launched Warlord, an all action war comic for boys. It was a runaway success. IPC needed to respond, and they needed to do it quickly. Their main problem was that the Boys’ Department, under Jack Le Grand, was firmly entrenched in the 1950s. Indeed, many of its incumbents had been there since the 1930s. Editorial Director John Sanders was forced to plan and execute the new comic in secret, hiring in two freelance writers to inject fresh ideas where they were needed most. Sanders secreted the freelancers in a small office within the Girls’ Department. Whilst outwardly, and genuinely, contributing material for a roster of girls’ weekly titles, within the confines of those four walls, an innovative boys’ weekly way taking shape.
The comic was Battle Picture Weekly, and the freelance writers were John Wagner and Pat Mills. Battle was ready and rolling within six months of Warlord’s debut. It was a hit, but the manner in which it had been conceived and executed had enraged those in the Boys’ Department. Le Grand in particular was furious, but Battle was such a success there was nothing he could do.
Seeing the public reaction to Battle, Sanders offered more work to the two freelancers. John Wagner was given Valiant to revive. His labours were just beginning to bear fruit when an impatient IPC pulled the plug and merged Valiant with Battle. Pat Mills was given an entirely new project to work on. With a lead-time of only three months, Sanders asked Mills to produce a comic that he had conceived. The brief was: to be different, realistic and bang up to date, using gritty characters and graphic, hard-hitting storylines. Mills chose Geoff Kemp, who was then working on Lion, to come on board as editor.
Kemp and Mills needed story ideas. They realised that the quickest option was to reflect the current media favourites. They were, effectively, planning to ‘rip-off’ what was popular, and add their own twist. The two most obvious examples of this were “Hook Jaw“, a story Mills thought, rather high-mindedly, to be an ecological tale but was really a blatant rip-off of Jaws. “Death Game 1999“, which would appear later, owed its existence to the movie Rollerball. Some of the other borrowings were less obvious, taking the hard man films of Clint Eastwood for “Dredger“, and The Fugitive as the source of “The Running Man“.
Soon there were eight stories ready to go, and several others in varying degrees of preparation. Writers were assigned and, as was the case with British comics of the day, most of the art chores were farmed out to European agencies.
The final detail was to find a title. Sanders wanted something instant and tough. Boots and Dr. Marten’s were early choices until Steve MacManus, one of the writers who was to become the face of the comic, suggested Action ’76. The idea was to increment the year of the title in order to remain current, but newsagents baulked at this and the idea was soon dropped.
Action was born in February of 1976; the first issue dated February 14th. Co-incidentally, this was the same week that DC Thomson released their follow up to Warlord, an action-adventurer called Bullet.
Action rolled out with a £50,000 media campaign that included heavy television advertising during children’s programming. The first issue had a print run of 400,000 and was a sell out. Readers were given the free gift of a catapult, which fired a red airplane either up a tree or over a neighbour’s wall, and was usually lost pretty quickly. They had the opportunity to send in their letters, jokes and artwork. They could hunt through their town to find the visiting Money Man, and demand a fiver from him for producing the latest copy of the comic. Steve MacManus would be on hand to perform a series of dangerous stunts, but most important of all were the stories.
Action’s roster kicked off with:
“Dredger” – The story of a no-nonsense, rock hard, British secret agent and his slightly upper crust, play-it-by-the-book partner. Dredger proved a big hit with the readers and lasted longer than Action itself. Fans loved to see his dirty tricks, underhand tactics and the liberties he took with the laws he was supposed to be upholding. Dredger was a series rather than a serial, which meant that many different writers produced stories, with the inevitable fluctuation in quality.
“Hellman of Hammer Force” – A war story with a twist, Kurt Hellman was a German panzer commander who was committed to fighting a clean war without taking lives unnecessarily. He hated Hitler and the Nazis but was a career soldier full of cunning and toughness, making him a formidable enemy to the Allied Forces. Hellman also struck the right note with the readers and became one of the most popular stories. Gerry Finley-Day provided the scripts, which were skilfully rendered by Mike Dorey from within the Action office.
“Blackjack” – John Wagner scripted this tale of a black boxer from London’s East End who had to overcome the steady loss of his eyesight if he wanted to win the World Heavyweight Title. Blackjack wasn’t a great story and suffered badly when Wagner departed. Having beaten all comers to the Heavyweight Crown, Jack Barron went blind as he left the ring. Chris Lowder, writing as Jack Adrian, was given the task of continuing the story from this obvious conclusion, and floundered around with some blind kung-fu musical murder mystery until everyone lost interest.
“Play Till You Drop!” – This was something of a conventional football strip, although lead character Alec Shaw was being blackmailed by a crooked journalist who had evidence that Shaw’s late father, another footballing legend, had taken bribes to lose matches. Plenty of action on and off the pitch, but this story was a plodder that didn’t really fit into the Action style and was soon replaced. Writer Ron Carpenter and artist Barrie Mitchell had both worked on DC Thomson titles and some of IPC’s traditional sporting fare.
“Hook Jaw” – The jewel in Action’s crown. Hook Jaw told the story of a massive Great White shark with an insatiable appetite for the worst specimens of humanity. Mills’ idea of this as an ecological story is somewhat supported by him seeing the shark as the hero, whilst the corrupt human characters were motivated by greed. Hook Jaw came with a high body count and, as it occupied the colour centre pages, required buckets of red ink to get all the blood onto the page. Ken Armstrong handled the scripts with early input from Pat Mills, whilst Ramon Sola, and, later, Felix Carrion, laid on the gore.
“Sport’s Not For Losers!” – Written by Steve MacManus with art by Dudley Wynn, this story fell in between a traditional boys’ tale and the style of Action. The working title was “Smoking’s A Drag”, as the hero was an idle slob, a hooligan and a vandal who wasn’t above a spot of petty crime. He smoked too much and lived on fried food. When his younger brother Dan was injured, it fell to Len Walker to uphold the family honour in amateur athletics. Len had to overcome the prejudices of others and the pressures of Borstal to win through, which he did in the end. Unfortunately, Len didn’t win over the readers so easily, and “Sport’s Not For Losers!” polled very badly.
“The Coffin Sub” – Every comic has a stinker, and this was Action’s. Ron Carpenter’s “Coffin Sub” was straight out of the old school of comics, a boring story about a submarine commander who was the sole survivor when his vessel was sunk by enemy depth charges. The sub was salvaged, and Mark Kane returned to command it again. He spent the whole story wishing he had drowned with his crew. The readers wished he had too. Ironically, it was about the only story from Action that IPC ever reprinted.
“The Running Man” – Written by Steve MacManus, this was the story of British athlete Mike Carter, who was set up by the mafia, in a convoluted plot involving fire bombs and plastic surgery, to resemble Don Scarlatti’s cop-killer son. Hunted by the police and the mob, Carter ran across America towards San Francisco, where Vito Scarlatti was hiding from justice. Carter was convinced that Vito would be able to prove his innocence, if he could only stay alive long enough to reach him. Horacio Lalia’s artwork was superb throughout. Pat Mills was irritated that this story never got the praise he felt it deserved.
The style of Action was set. Over the next few weeks, there were more free gifts, including an iron on transfer to make your own Hook Jaw t-shirt, a set of football cards to swap with your mates, and the pull out spy game Magnum Force. Inevitably, sales dropped off after a few issues, but Action was still selling around 160,000 copies a week, far more than everything else on the market.
But Action soon began to rock the media boat. In a piece entitled ‘AARGH lives – but the blood is printed red’ published in the Evening Standard on Monday February 23rd, as Issue Two was hitting the shelves, Valerie Jenkins took time to denounce the graphic qualities of the comic, condemning the violence, blood and gore. John Sanders moved to defend Action and its gritty realism, citing other examples of more violent media that were more easily available to children of all ages, but his words were falling on deaf ears. The piece portrayed him as a capitalist whose only interest was to make money, regardless of the harm that was being done to innocent children.
The campaign against Action began that day, and would escalate towards a climax in October of that same year. Over the next few months, the comic gathered more media interest. BBC Radio carried hostile interviews with Sanders on Radio One’s Newsbeat and Radio Four’s Today.
Meanwhile, Action was being developed and refined. After eight turgid episodes, “The Coffin Sub” sank from view. “Green’s Grudge War” by Gerry Finley-Day and Massimo Belardinelli replaced it two weeks later. “Green’s Grudge War” told the story of an intense rivalry between two new recruits to the Royal Marine Commandos during World War Two. Unfortunately, this too proved to be unpopular with the readers. In particular, Belardinelli’s art was criticised, something that would plague the Italian throughout his career.
As” Green’s Grudge War” began, “Play Till You Drop!” ended and “Look Out for Lefty“, a more suitable football strip, which had been gestating for some time, moved into its place, telling the tale of a Midlands schoolboy whose fiery temper usually got in the way of his career. Kenny ‘Lefty’ Lampton lived with his Grandad, an Albert Steptoe knock-off, in an old junkshop in Burmington. After failing his First Division Burmington City trial, Lefty was stuck playing for the reserve team of Third Division Wigford Rovers.
The strip, by Roy of the Rovers scribe Tom Tully, had more gritty action off the pitch than on it. Lefty stuck two fingers up at traditional football strips. In some scripts, this would have happened quite literally, it was only the fact that artist Tony Harding objected to drawing Lefty flicking V-signs at the fans that this never saw print. Certainly, the elements of hooliganism and terrace violence incensed the Football Association so much that the story made the Daily Mail on Friday September 17th 1976.
“It is really appalling that there are people so brainless as to sell comics to children with stuff like this inside them,” commented Football League secretary Alan Hardaker, after an incident in that week’s issue where Lefty’s girlfriend Angie threw a Coke bottle at a Wigford player. “The man responsible ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.
“Really, it’s difficult to find words to express the stupidity of action like this, at least in words that are printable.”
This statement seemed to be delivered without a trace of irony at the amount of hypocrisy involved. Perhaps he’d had a chance to read John Sanders’ comment, published in the Evening Standard earlier: “I didn’t start the kids knifing each other on the terraces. But I can’t turn my back on what’s happening.”
However, “Look Out For Lefty!” wasn’t quite finished with bottles. In the 16th October issue, a gang of rival supporters unleashed a volley of glass projectiles at Lefty, mid-match. It proved to be perhaps the final nail in Action’s coffin, but more of that later.
Action really hit full stride on the 8th May when, as a replacement for “Sport’s Not For Losers!”, “Death Game 1999” was unleashed on the public. “Death Game” was all about a violent future sport called Spinball, a murderous, motorcycle adaptation of pinball played by teams of condemned convicts in order to relieve the general public’s lust for blood. The story started with a bang, or more correctly, a sickening ‘Splat!’, as the captain of the Karson City Killers was launched across the spinball arena at high speed, his body smashing to a pulp against the edge of the ice-drome, before it slid down the inside of the glass, leaving a thick trail of blood and guts in it’s wake. This scene was captured by Ian Gibson, and is some of his earliest published work. Surprisingly, the script came from Tom Tully.
“Death Game 1999” was one of Action’s most popular stories. It was also one of its most violent. The game was often ignored in favour of prison riots and personal feuds, but whenever a spinball match featured, Tully and regular series artist Costa made sure there was plenty of blood on the ice.
By June of 1976, “The Running Man” had made way for “Hell’s Highway“, a story that combined the popularity of all things related to trucking and CB radio after C W McCall’s hit single “Convoy”, with some old-fashioned, dirty tricks and espionage fare. The unlikely idea that two ex-army buddies would be blackmailed by US Government agents into handling covert operations was forgotten about as the bullets started to fly and the body-count increased, but “Hell’s Highway” could be regarded as light reading when Action unveiled their replacement for “Blackjack” on September the 11th.
“Kids Rule O.K.” went further than any comic strip had ever been before. It was based on the premise that in the future society of 1986, environmental factors such as deforestation and pollution, coupled with the pressures of modern living, had created a disease that had effectively wiped out the adult population of the planet. Teenaged gangs ruled the streets of Britain, roaming around in search of new and interesting ways to kill each other. As a story, it had no redeeming qualities, and soon became a headache for all those involved. Writer Jack Adrian struggled to find a purpose or direction for the strip, but for the management of IPC, this headache was becoming a migraine.
“Kids Rule” began just as the media campaign against Action was reaching its peak. In early summer, The Sun published a piece entitled “The Sevenpenny Nightmare”. Although it was, on the whole, an unbiased and even slightly admiring article, it raised the public’s awareness of the comic and in particular, the violent content. Mary Whitehouse, founder and first president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, was interviewed. Although she’d never seen, or even heard of Action up to that point, she was convinced that ‘this publication must be doing an awful lot of harm to its young readers’. She resolved to inform the police immediately. Luckily for her, Lord Ted Willis, creator of Dixon of Dock Green, was also on hand to add his condemnation. John Sanders defended Action vociferously, and a leading psychologist backed up his view that children were unlikely to copy the actions of comic characters, but the damage was done.
Meanwhile in rural Devon, the Delegates Opposing Violent Education (DOVE) began to petition IPC and the retailers to have Action withdrawn. They even began to place stickers of condemnation on copies as they were put onto the newsagents’ shelves, warning parents not to buy the comic. This pressure was backed up by further complaints from the NVLA and the Responsible Society, another of the resurgent moral pressure groups of the seventies. (Ironically, Tom Tully was once a member of the Responsible Society).
Matters were about to come to a head. The September 18th issue featured Lefty’s bottle throwing incident, behind a cover by Carlos Ezquerra, which rocked the boat a little more. “Kids Rule” was the featured strip and Ezquerra had drawn a gang of teenagers advancing over a burning wasteland. The leader of this gang was wielding a chain whilst a man cowered at his feet. Beside the man was a police helmet, suggestive of his profession. The media, and the old guard at IPC, went wild.
At the end of September, Sanders was invited to appear on the BBC’s early evening magazine programme Nationwide. Sanders believes that the presenter that night was Frank Bough, later revealed to have extremely high moral standards of his own, although this is debatable, as another presenter’s name is also mentioned. Unfortunately, according to sources at the BBC, the corporation have destroyed the archive footage, so any claims cannot be verified.
Bough went through a list of questions with Sanders prior to the live broadcast. However, as soon as the item went on air, Bough strayed from the pre-planned format and launched an attack on both Sanders and the comic. Sanders defended his position and the position of IPC as publisher, once again arguing the case with reference to other forms of violent media that were freely available to children, but as he stood up for his creation, forces within IPC acted to bring him down. Members of the editorial staff had gathered to watch the programme at King’s Reach Tower, IPC’s London office. Among them was Jack Le Grand, the man who had always wanted Action to fail.
John Smith had replaced Geoff Kemp as editor in late June, and was told to bring Action into line. All content was to be approved by senior editorial staff before it could be submitted for publication. This meant editing, or censorship, to be more exact. Foul language was out, although the worst cursing Action ever printed were things like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’, these were neutered to ‘darn’ and ‘heck’. The blood had to go too. White process was added to pages of artwork to mop up the gore, but in some cases, this wasn’t enough. Smith was forced to cut sequences or entire pages from some of the strips, most notably “Death Game 1999” and “Kids Rule O.K.” Curious half-pages of story began to appear, where violent frames had been cut, and the remaining frames pasted together. Strangely, the man IPC left to approve the cuts was John Sanders, previously reported as having ordered an art assistant to “put more blood” onto a page he described as “too boring”.
On September 21st, the Federation of Retail Newsagents met with IPC executives to discuss Action and ‘vigorously protest the excessive violence’. Representatives were offered no defence by IPC who accepted all complaints and expressed their ‘extreme penitence’ at the comic and its contents. The Federation of Retail Newsagents refused to accept that there was any penitence at all from IPC, in light of Sanders’ comments to the Daily Mail only four days earlier.
Following the Nationwide broadcast, Action was debated in the House of Commons. In the same week, IPC received communication from two of the major distributors, John Menzies and W H Smith. The representative from John Menzies referred the matter to the board of IPC ‘for consideration’, but W H Smith took a different tack. Unsubstantiated rumour persists that W H Smith threatened IPC that they would refuse to stock any of their titles if Action was not withdrawn from sale. Jack Le Grand seized the opportunity that had finally been presented to him and ordered Action to be pulled immediately. Smith was sacked. The October 16th issue was already on the shelves, but the issue dated 23rd October (Issue 37) was pulled from distribution and pulped.
John Sanders, holidaying in Italy, read of the demise of Action in a copy of the Daily Telegraph he acquired in Villa Reggio. The official line was that Action had been withdrawn for ‘editorial reconsideration’.
IPC’s first move was to install a replacement for John Smith. The board chose Sid Bicknell, a safe pair of hands and part of the old guard, who was told to “make Action safe again”. Le Grand’s instructions were “to take out all this adult, political stuff out of it and turn it back into a boys’ adventure comic”. He considered each of the stories individually and soon made some drastic decisions.
Nearly all of Action’s strips running at the time of the ban had the potential to cause problems. Some were easier to solve than others. “Hellman” was essentially a war strip, so if all reference to real characters were removed, and any foul language edited, then it could continue much as before. Similarly, both “Dredger” and “Hell’s Highway” could have their excesses trimmed and carry on.
The problems were wider ranging with “Hook Jaw” and “Death Game 1999”. Bicknell’s first decision was to take the shark strip off of the colour centre pages, thereby removing the need for so much red ink. The current storyline was considered to be too violent and was ended hastily, cutting up existing pages into a watered down, single issue finale. The shark himself became more discerning, politely killing only evil men, and always with his back turned to the reader, or behind a passing submarine or some such device.
“Death Game 1999” became “Spinball”, a far less inflammatory title. The prison storyline was cut short in much the same way as “Hook Jaw” was concluded. Leading men Taggart and Devine were freed from jail without a hiccup, and a new, non-violent version of the sport was launched.
“Look Out For Lefty!” had provided critics with a large amount of ammunition in their campaign to have Action banned. Bicknell was very close to axing it altogether, but instead he opted to remove the Rotherfield Rippers storyline that had caused all the controversy without further mention. “Lefty” became a traditional football strip, all about the antics on the pitch rather than the drama away from it. Even Lefty’s bottle-throwing skinhead girlfriend Angie was altered, her hair growing very quickly as she became a girly-girl, and of course, there was that goat…
“Probationer” and “Kids Rule O.K.” were simply removed as if they had never existed. “Probationer” had only run for four episodes, but images of a police officer being shot in the face with an air pistol, and of hero Dave Brockman being stabbed in the back with a metal comb had effectively sealed its fate. Of all the strips, “Kids” was in a world of its own.
Without the violence, there simply wasn’t enough story content to carry the strip. Writer Jack Adrian was already having problems finding things for the characters to do, so a lame ending was written to round the strip off after the ban. Regardless of Action’s withdrawal, “Kids” would have tasted the axe. There was no way to fit it into the revised version of Action that was planned before its eventual withdrawal. Sid Bicknell felt no need to prolong the agony, and quietly dropped the story. The ending never saw print, which was a mercy in itself.
Following a six-week absence, Action returned to the newsagents’ shelves carrying a cover dated 4th December 1976, but it was a pale shadow of its former self. No reason was ever given for the withdrawal. “We’re back! We’re sensational! We’re Action” trumpeted the cover, but this proclamation failed to ring true. Inside, ‘Steve MacManus’ (the real Steve had long since quit Action for other projects) told us: “It’s great to be with you again! Don’t think we’ve been idle during our short break, either, ‘cos we’ve been working flat out producing two new picture stories for you, ‘Roaring Wheels’ and ‘Double Dynamite’”.
“Roaring Wheels” was a damp squib of a motor racing story that failed to capture the imagination, and if rumour is to be believed, “Double Dynamite” was a story rejected from another IPC boys’ comic that had been languishing at the back of a filing cabinet for a few years. Jack Adrian was reported to have said that only the art had survived, and he was asked to write a new script to fit the pages that were already drawn. This is unsubstantiated, as the story was really written by M. Scott Goodall, with regular art from Felix Carrion after he was replaced on “Hook Jaw” by the superior John Stokes.
After a week spent wrapping up the loose ends of all Action’s former excesses, the violence, politics and originality were notably absent from the re-launched title, which limped on in a reduced capacity. Although “Hook Jaw”, “Hellman”, “Spinball”, “Dredger”, “Lefty” and “Hell’s Highway” continued, they became formulaic, tame and boring. The spark of originality that had made Action so popular had been extinguished. The new stories failed to excite. The writers became bored with the creative restrictions placed on the old favourites and gradually wound them up. Their replacements were straight out of the traditional stable. The readership plummeted. Within eleven months, the writing was on the wall, and Action was cancelled with the issue dated 12th November 1977.
IPC operated a policy to boost the sales of their other titles by merging them with a failed comic, and so it was that on 19th November 1977, like Valiant before it, Action was devoured whole by Battle Picture Weekly, to give us Battle Action, a war themed comic that was essentially just Battle with a few extra stories. “Dredger”, “Hellman” and surprisingly, “Spinball”, all carried on in the merged title in a slightly different format, but the essence of Action was no more.
Action left a legacy for all IPC comics that followed it. The fledgling 2000AD was well into its development cycle when the Action ban occurred. Suddenly Pat Mills and his team were subject to massive restrictions on theme and content, and many strips in development had to be radically altered. IPC appointed Bob Bartholomew to oversee all picture and script content and John Sanders took on something of a “poacher turned gamekeeper” role within the company. The routine checking of every aspect of every page for approval before going to press proved enormously frustrating for creators, particularly Pat Mills. It would eventually lead to many fine talents walking away from IPC altogether, and enormous confrontations at editorial level.
According to Steve MacManus, the fallout lasted around five years. In that time, no new comic or strip would be commissioned if it were a little different. IPC senior management “didn’t want another Action” on their hands.
This policy was eventually relaxed, and with the launch of ‘Mature Reader’ titles, graphic content became more freely available. Comparing Action to many titles on the shelves today, including 2000AD, the content is comparatively tame, but Action was never aimed at a ‘Mature’ market. In its brief life, it shook the establishment of British comics to its core, and without it, we as readers would be a lot worse off today. For its brief, blinding spark of brilliance, we should be truly thankful.
A version of this article was published in Issue Four of Accent UK’s Red Eye Magazine, a review of independent and historic UK comics, in May 2005.
Text © Moose Harris
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