30 years on from the end of Action, I was reviewing the thirty-six pre-ban issues of Action looking for a favourite, or even the best issue. I was struck by one thing; I couldn’t find one. The first issue is very important, but somewhat flawed in terms of both style and content.
I remember a favourite of mine was Issue 11 – I read that one so many times it’s unbelievable, but still flawed. The issue widely regarded as the one where Action fully hit its stride is Issue 13, which saw the first episode of “Death Game 1999“, replacing the less than popular “Sport’s Not For Losers!” Again, there is a flaw, as this issue was the second issue not to feature Hook Jaw. So, perhaps the closest we come to perfection is Issue 14, with the stunning return of the great white to the centre pages. Alas, this issue is ruined by the poor art on Dredger, and despite John Stokes‘ clear and detailed style, he was never the definitive “Death Game 1999” artist. This leaves an ever decreasing window of opportunity, because the original series artists were starting to be moved off of their regular strips, and a major format change was on the way.
The change from Web Offset to Letterpress printing was the single most detrimental move made by IPC outside of the ban itself. Letterpress was cheaper, as it was done ‘in-house’ by Fleetway, whilst Web Offset was farmed out to the aptly named Carlisle Web Offset in Carlisle. The Letterpress paper was of a poorer quality, and didn’t allow for full colour printing of a large palette with bleeds. Letterpress was strictly four-colour printing, giving the bitty feel of a group of dots over solid areas of colour. Battle Picture Weekly had run in web offset for over a year before making the change. Conversely, 2000AD launched in Letterpress and only dabbled with Web Offset a couple of years down the line. For whatever reason, and we must assume that it is financial, Action only managed twenty of the superior Web Offset issues, and any perfect issue would have to come from these. Never mind content, it’s a matter of quality.
So, why was there no ‘perfect issue’? Well, I’d rule out Issues 1 to 8 simply because of “The Coffin Sub“, which was rubbish. Similarly, Issues 9 to 11 for “Play Till You Drop!“, and Issue 12 for “Sport’s Not For Losers!”, and although “Look Out For Lefty!” showed promise on its debut, there was no “Hook Jaw”. Issues 13 and 14 were good, but as discussed above, were marred by poor art, particularly in the case of Issue 14. I can nit-pick Issue 15 for art once more. Issue 16 had a free gift and a Hook Jaw poster, but that succeeded in removing the shark from the colour pages. By the time the poster had finished in issue 20, and Hook Jaw was back in-situ, Ramon Sola was gone, and Felix Carrion was the regular, and markedly inferior, artist. In addition, “Blackjack” had entered its idiotic second phase, Horacio Altuna was long gone from “Dredger”, and Mike Dorey had been replaced on “Hellman“. Whilst several of the replacement artists on strips were either good or excellent, others were poor. This is also true of several of the writers. Personally, I identify “Hellman” with Mike Dorey and “Dredger” with Horacio Altuna. Both artists produced the definitive versions of their respective characters.
In terms of content, the Letterpress issues had some advantage. The less successful stories had mostly been weeded out, allowing others to develop. The big four were undoubtedly “Hook Jaw”, “Death Game 1999”, “Dredger” and “Hellman”. “Lefty” was a favourite and “Kids Rule O.K.” was ticking the boxes for most readers. So, looking from 21 onwards, outside of the format issue, here’s why they fail. From Issue 21 to Issue 30, “Blackjack” is unadulterated rubbish. The unpopular “Green’s Grudge War“, somewhat unfairly derided for Massimo Belardinelli‘s art, continues up to Issue 32. It is replaced a week later by the equally unpopular “Probationer“, which runs until the ban. Job done, there was no perfect issue produced, but why worry about it anyway? This ‘perfect issue’ concept is, in some ways, a matter of personal taste, but can be approached in a logical manner, and also by using the available information regarding reader preferences. We are also presented with a few ‘rules’ to which we must adhere. These relate to the format of, and mix of content within the comic.
Action was a weekly publication of 32 pages, with a colour cover, centre spread and back page. Why specify this? Well, Valiant had no colour centre spread, which made it a penny cheaper. Later publications such as Starlord ran to eight colour pages and a lot of greywash, but had an increased cover price of fifty per cent. Obviously, Action would have benefited from being full colour throughout, printed on high-quality paper, perhaps 48 pages long and only sixpence, but that was never going to happen.
Action generally had eight picture stories, a few features, editorial content, readers’ contributions, “Action Mouse“, a free gift and the odd competition. As cost became a factor, advertising took up space reserved for editorial or feature content, but without losing story pages. The perfect issue has to fit in with this, so for the sake of argument, the perfect issue is 32 pages, with seven stories, some editorial and features.
We’ll take it as read that we’re talking about pre-ban content over post-ban content. The most popular stories should be included in the perfect issue. However, there needs to be a degree of balance.
Using three very broad style templates, the stories can be divided into: Adventure, Sport and War. There’s a little bit of crossover. “Death Game 1999” is an adventure strip, but has sporting content. Both “Death Game 1999” and “Kids Rule O.K.” are set in the ‘future’, but neither are really science fiction, they’re more about survival. “Blackjack” was a sport story that became a very poor adventure story. Popularity of a story has been ascertained through the weekly readers’ poll and Martin Barker’s poll for his 1989 book Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Using the three categories, we can group the stories, in order of popularity, like this:
- Hook Jaw – Adventure
- Death Game 1999 – Adventure
- Dredger – Adventure
- Hellman of Hammer Force – War
- Look Out For Lefty! – Sport
- Kids Rule O.K. – Adventure
- The Running Man – Adventure
- Hell’s Highway – Adventure
- Blackjack – Sport
- Sport’s Not For Losers! – Sport
- Green’s Grudge War – War
- The Coffin Sub – War
- Probationer – Adventure
- Play Till You Drop! – Sport
Though Action ran two war stories simultaneously through most of its run, and there were normally two, sometimes three, sports stories, there were never two football stories at once. Given the popularity of the sports stories in general, we are easily able to avoid this overlap. Neither “Green’s Grudge War” nor “The Coffin Sub” are likely to worry “Hellman”. That leaves space for the normal average of three adventure stories. Looking at the table, we can guarantee the top five a place. “Kids Rule O.K.” might just scrape it, but add either “The Running Man” or “Hell’s Highway” and there’s too much adventure. To redress the balance, either war or sport is needed. As the most popular story of either genre, “Blackjack” would get the nod, with “Green’s Grudge War” next up.
The trouble is, it’s not looking like a perfect issue if you stick to the scientific method. Overall, from the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected whilst writing this site, sports stories were the least popular genre to feature in Action, followed closely by the war strips. “Look Out For Lefty” and “Hellman of Hammer Force” were the exceptions to each respective genre, with both stories rounding out the top five. After that, it’s adventure all the way for the eight most popular strips, which is probably the best way to pick a perfect issue. Action was, after all, an adventure comic. Best to leave the war stories to Battle and the sport stories to Tiger, it’s what they were there for. You could debate the top eight a little, and I’m a little torn because nostalgia says Green’s Grudge War to me, but the cold light of day doesn’t.
Ultimately, I decided to base my own perfect issue on a combination of the preceding factors. I took my favourite eight stories, then selected an episode from each based on artist preference, story content and how representative of the strip as a whole the individual episode was. In some cases, one episode was pretty much as good as another, or was the best from a strong sequence of issues. Other times, it was just because I liked it. I ended up with the following…
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A favourite four pages with some heavy drinking thrown in. Dredger at his dirty and vengeful best.
Hellman of Hammer Force
Shows Hellman’s cunning, ingenuity, humanity and hatred of the Nazis in just three pages.
Kids Rule O.K.
With so few episodes to choose from, this one has a run of violence that reflects the story as a whole.
Hook Jaw 8
A four page feeding frenzy that Mason struggles to survive, being heroic amidst the greed of the other men.
Death Game 1999
The game in all its glory, with Taggart trying to be brave yet humane as the new leader. Part of a good run.
Double-crossing Hartwell shows how expendable his operatives are, plus there was that bridge in the face…
Look Out For Lefty!
Could have been any episode, but this one has representative action both on and off the pitch.
The Running Man
The best episodes had Crazy Luigi, and this was also the point you begin to see the resolution coming.
Although selecting representative episodes misses out some great sequences and favourite scenes, I think the above provides a good cross section of the better-written episodes, drawn by the best artist for each strip. There’s some pretty iconic images in there too. By adding a few feature pages, you get a very good, if not exactly perfect, issue.
If you don’t believe me, then read it for yourself, and if you think you can suggest better, then drop me a line with your own perfect issue, giving the reasons for your choices, and it’ll be added here.
Text © Moose Harris
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