Action: The Media Backlash

Thanks to the British Library, who have an archive of all British newspapers, and like to accept a few quid for access to this sort of thing, I’ve managed to track down some of  the stories about Action, including the one that gave my original Sevenpenny Nightmare site its name. They’re a good read, and in most cases the facts are reported correctly.

The Sun gives the best account, the Daily Mail focuses on the “Look Out For Lefty!” bottle throwing, and the Evening Standard sent someone with no interest in the story to do what hacks do best, and plant a hatchet firmly in Managing Director John Sanders’ head. There are some rather choice quotes from the usual raft of society busy-bodies and kill-joys, usually based on having no knowledge of the medium they are commenting on.

Surprisingly, the late Denis Gifford, a man who had a lifelong association with comics and was a staunch advocate of the medium, had little of worth to add to the debate. His comments are slight and take a negative view of Action. Other than this aberration, it’s pretty good stuff, presented here in chronological order.

Pious, preaching, patronising, condescending, contrite and contemptible, but enough alliteration on the content of the attack on Action by the Evening Standard. The piece sets its tone and opinion from the very start. Never mind the facts, let’s get a sensationalist opening paragraph out before attacking first the comic, then the man behind it. John Sanders is depicted as a swaggering capitalist, unconcerned with corrupting children as long as he makes his money. A trawl through the Action letters bag allows our journalist to reproduce some of the less literate examples, as if to say that kids who read comics are thick. The fact that the responses shown are universally positive is dismissed with an air of boredom. The tack switches from attacking Action to lampooning its rivals.

Obviously the writer feels comics and the people who produce and read them are beneath her. Much of the rest of the article is given over to the climate in the comics marketplace, before Denis Gifford is wheeled out as a ‘leading expert on children’s comics.’ I won’t spoil you enjoyment by giving away Denis’ comments here, suffice to say that if this is ‘expert opinion’, we are all doomed. Read the full text here.

The story from The Sun is the best of the bunch. It was published at a time where Action was sufficiently established, the first run of “Hook Jaw” was just ending, but “Death Game 1999” was still two weeks away. Action was still shifting something like 200,000 issues a week, and was outselling all its rivals by a country mile. Underneath a graphic showing some of the ‘meatier’ content of previous issues, the story itself is unbiased, allowing John Sanders to put his case without having judgment passed on him.

For his part, John Sanders gets his point across well, citing “the falling sales of our more traditional adventure comics” and the “increasing levels of violence” in other media. However, the following comments bear a little scrutiny: “There is a trend towards realism in action, and comics are bound to reflect this if they are to survive…We would like to stick with traditional stories of Union Jacks fluttering over Boy Scout camps. But kids don’t buy that anymore.”

Although the trend towards violence is very true, I’m inclined to disagree with the last part of that statement, based on other evidence indicating Sanders’ enjoyment of the violent content of Action, rather than some hankering for the jolly days of old. Regardless, Sanders is correct in the other aspect, kids at the time weren’t interested in fantasy stories, and Action only existed because the market for it was there to be exploited.

Some of Sanders’ other analogies fall a little flat, particularly the one relating to the UN: “Should Britain abdicate from the United Nations because we don’t like what is going an in the world today? It’s the same as saying ‘We don’t like what the kids like, so we won’t publish.’ We can’t turn our backs on this trend.” No John, it probably isn’t the same as that at all…

The best stuff, towards the end of the piece, is done with a certain humour. The Sun had no trouble in finding a few stuffed-shirts to spout on about the usual outrageousness and potential harm to innocent young minds. The choices of spokesperson are rather inspired though. An ageing Tory MP and barrister, the creator of Dixon of Dock Green no less, who just happens to be a Peer of the Realm and, for good measure, Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, who is wheeled out to condemn the whole thing.

The quotes are priceless: “A great deal of harm can be done to the impressionable minds of children who read them…This publication must be doing an awful lot of harm to its young readers…There is widespread evidence that viewing and reading violent material can increase aggressive behaviour… Action comic is really dreadful. If the police don’t already know about it, I shall be informing them.” Such hysteria is rapidly shot down by a child psychologist, who dismisses it all as total rubbish: “Youngsters are much better at separating fact from fantasy. They realise that what they are reading or seeing is not real… Children have such a short experience of life they don’t identify with pain and suffering in the same way as an adult.” Whichever opinion you support, as an impressionable and innocent young child who read Action, I can safely say that I’ve hardly ever murdered anyone. Read the full text here.

We finish with a truly revolting piece that the Daily Mail would still be proud to run today, continuing their tradition of the most appalling, ill-conceived tripe ever printed. Some knee jerk reaction from the Football League about Angie Roberts hurling a bottle at a player that would never happen in real-life, apart from the incident the scene is based on. Not bad from the bloke who was also writing Football League favourite Roy of the Rovers.

Football League secretary Alan Hardaker, trying very hard to gloss over the wave of violence sweeping the terraces at the time, made a total arse of himself with this beltingly good quote from a man who supposedly abhors violence: “It is really appalling that there are people so brainless as to sell comics to children with stuff like this inside them. The man responsible ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.” Not a palpable shred of hypocrisy in that statement. Children’s innocent and impressionable minds are up next, once again commented upon by an ‘expert’ in child psychology, World Cup referee Jack Taylor: “People might say that comics do no harm, but even if stories like this affect just one child’s mind I think they’re wrong.”

Cheers Jack, I can think for myself thanks very much. John Sanders comments upon the gentlemen’s lack of qualification to comment on child psychology or children’s publishing. Not so for Mr. Denis Gifford, ‘a leading expert on the history of the comic’, who likens Action to pornography, following up with: “Stuff like this provides violence for a mass market of children…moral considerations do not apply.”

The argument of influence on children is once again shot down, this time by Dr Maurice Jaffe, senior psychologist at Guy’s Hospital: “I don’t think that a comic strip would persuade a child to do anything he wouldn’t have done anyway”. At least the voice of reason was hiding in there somewhere, read the full text here.

Moose Harris

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Text © Moose Harris 


See this section’s Acknowledgments section for more information