Action: The Story of a Violent Comic – Developing the Formula

The Coffin Sub” was the first to go. Massively unpopular with readers, it was really a carry-over from previous styles. In its place came “Green’s Grudge War“, written by Gerry Finley-Day and drawn by a youthful Massimo Belardinelli. This was a war story about two soldiers. One of them, Bold, always gets the credit while the other gets the blame whenever things go wrong. Green, as his name implied, was jealous of Bold, loathed him, but had to cooperate with him, At the end of the story, despite himself, Green dies saving Bold’s life. Again, the story was not popular. Belardinelli’s style really did not suit this story, but his name will crop up later in our story, in more dramatic contexts.

Into later issues came stories which began to bring out the full force of the Action promise. “Death Game 1999” (written by Tom Tully, drawn mainly by Giollitti Agency artist Costa) was an adaptation of the film Rollerball. It told of a team of death-row inmates forced to play the deadly game of Spinball. If they survived and became heroes, the prison governor was likely to have them eliminated.

When “Play TilI You Drop” ended, it was replaced by “Look Out For Lefty“, a football story with a difference – again large sections are included later. Kenny ‘Lefty’ Lampton was everything Alec Shaw wasn’t. He was his own worst enemy, having an appalling temper; he was working class; he didn’t get accepted by the First Division side and had to play for a Third Division outfit. And to cap it all, he had a Grandad (no parents) straight out of Steptoe and Son (an idea that Tom Tully, its writer, had toyed with in an earlier story).

Finally came “Kids Rule O.K.” and “Probationer“. “Kids Rule” is the story of rival gangs fighting in the streets of 1986 Britain, after a mysterious disease has wiped out the adult population. Only three episodes of “Probationer” saw print before the story was killed off. It told of a lad caught on the wrong side of the law, and unable to get back on the right side. Written by Stuart Wales, and oddly drawn by an unidentified artist, it ran too short a time to have an impact. These were all the stories that Action managed to cram into its brief but eventful life, before the axe fell.

Action: Putting On The Style

A quote from Geoff Kemp, Action’s first editor, captures a lot about the style of the comic and the unusual mechanics of its production:

“For about three months Pat and I had an office to ourselves, talking not just about story-lines but the basic idea of a comic which was different. At that time Jaws the film had come out and it was pretty clear that people were rather enjoying seeing bits of bodies floating around in the water; and we were really thinking we could go much more violent than the comics had done before. There was still a very 1950s attitude towards this sort of thing. So what we were basically after was, what the title suggests, action, violence, very busy, lots going on in the stories. We were using a new set of writers.

“The plain fact of the matter is that a lot of them weren’t very good as writers but at least they had afresh attitude. Through their rather inept way of putting things over we managed to catch a style which was slightly different to what was going on in, say, Valiant or Tiger But they needed terrific subbing. I remember the first issue of ‘Look Out For Lefty’. We wanted a real-life approach rather than the rather middle class attitude that had been going on. And I remember writing an opening scene for that. Lefty would come in and say ‘Grandad, what have you got there for your supper!’ And he was eating a tin of Doggomeat. And he said. ‘I like it better than the other stuff. It’s more tasty.’ And that was the essence of Action at that time. It was a bit under-the-arm.”

Several things in this call for comment. That ‘breaking with the l950s’, symbolised by the clean, safe, moral Eagle. That need to find new writers who weren’t trapped in the conventions of the 1950s. That willingness to be violent, tasteless and anti-middle class. Of course there could he no guarantee that just proclaiming these qualities would lead to an effective comic, especially since there were no landmarks, no real precedents. It was hard work for Pat Mills and Kemp. They faced a good deal of hostility from the old-timers in the boys’ comic department, in part due to the rate of pay Mills received as a freelancer. It took continuous effort to oversee the new writers, and to cajole the old ones they used into adopting new ways. But equally, Pat Mills suffered from a masochistic perfectionism which made him want to control every aspect of the comic, every script, every hit of editorial material. He even recognised this in himself. This was the reason he wanted to hand over the day-to-day running as soon as possible to an editor. (In the case of Battle, Mills told me he was lucky to get Dave Hunt – a “superb editor” – who stopped him interfering and made sure the comic got out on time.)

The way Mills would work with writers illustrates his obsession. Steve MacManus, then one of the new writers, remembers this: “When Pat was working on it, most of the stories had his imprint on them. He used to work incredibly hard. But you can’t keep doing that. I would go down to the office twice a week, and we would work out the plot between us, then I would go away and write it.”

More experienced writers could find these talk-outs a bit painful. Jack Adrian told me of one “Dredger” idea he had come up with. Set Dredger a ‘mission impossible’. and have him come up with a brilliant solution at the end. The idea was that Dredger and Breed have got themselves trapped inside Russia … in an isolated log cabin … weaponless … with no secret tunnels down which to escape … surrounded by Soviet troops. Can they get out? Great idea. So, take it up to Pat and start talking around 7.00pm (Pat never liked working office hours). Talk it round the houses. Russia’s boring, how about China? How about setting it on an island with no way off it? Should they be in a cabin or a boat, perhaps? Is there some other way they can escape?

Finally, late in the evening, Pat suggests a really great idea. How about having them inside Russia, in a log cabin, weaponless, and there’s no way out …

“But Pat,” screamed a frustrated Jack Adrian, “that was my original idea!”

“That just proves what a good story-line it is,” replies Pat.

The solution, by the way, was to use the cabin itself as the weapon. Knocking out the corner posts, Dredger unleashes the logs on the advancing troops, and thus they escape. Natty, eh? (Incidentally, Pat Mills recalled this quite differently, insisting the solution was his.)

The editorial matter was to be different too. Steve MacManus: “Before Action, comics had treated what kids did outside their comic-reading with disdain. Action plunged into that world, and said, ‘We know what you’re thinking’.”

MacManus, who had got to know Pat and John Wagner on Battle, initially joined Action to write two scripts: “Sport’s Not For Losers” and “The Running Man“. Then Pat declared that they needed an ‘Action Man’ who would be photographed doing stunts for the comic. He invited Steve to take the job, because he had a “restless face”. Steve was paid £10 a stunt. He stayed with Action until about Issue 20, but his name and photograph continued to appear for quite a while after that – causing him some annoyance and embarrassment when ‘his’ column had him saying he’d been going out getting drunk!

Others involved with Action were Milton Finesilver, who fulfilled the role of “Know-all”, answering daft queries from the readers; and “Money Man”, Stuart Wales, who went round the country giving away fivers to kids who could produce that week’s copy of Action.

But much more significant was the famous “Twit of the Week” column, which featured everybody from Nicholas Parsons to the Bay City Rollers. Readers were encouraged to vent their dislikes for “famous names” whose photographs would be published along with a bit of dismissive prose. The whole purpose was to produce a comic, which would reach the kids who didn’t want to hero-worship anyone. These were the streetwise kids.

MacManus again: “Maybe Action was the first working­-class comic, with working-class heroes”.

Action was created at the time of the rise of the sports superstar. They appeared sometimes on the back page. Along with advice to readers on various sports. But the editorial material was as likely as not to take the piss out of the idea of stars. And the heroes in the stories were anything but stars, even in the making.

In place of venerating stars, Action sided with the kids who had a rough life, and found that authority was not ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’. It sided with them by being deliberately outrageous.

Tom Tully: “Action put two fingers up to authority.” This attitude to authority spilled over into a mocking attitude towards their critics. Mills tells the story of a train journey from his home in Colchester. Mary Whitehouse – who lives in the same area – often used the same line. Pat was sitting editing a story for Action when he realised that she was sitting opposite him in the compartment. Quickly adding some extra mayhem to the script, he muttered under his breath: ‘This one’s for you. Mary!”

From the word go, Action was a success. Backed by TV adverts, its initial sales were 250,000; and although, like all comics, sales slipped back to around 160-170,000 per week, that slippage was a lot slower than for many other comics. But then, as the comic established itself and the new stories came on stream with more of the specific Action flavour, sales actually began to rise again. This was virtually unheard of in this period. At the time of closure, sales had gone back up to 180,000 a week. But the success of Action can’t be measured by crude sales figures alone. Action was developing a loyal following the like of which hadn’t been seen in a long time. The volume of its mail was notorious in IPC’s post room, and virtually all of it was bursting with enthusiasm. On more than one occasion, when confronted with hostile journalists, John Sanders had simply called for the latest unopened mail to be sent up. He would invite them to dip in and open at will. Always the letters showed unalloyed delight for the comic.

My own research confirms this; even now, former readers recall it with affection, and hold clear memories of its stories. Here’s one sample quotation: “What is very strange is that I can remember some of the strips of this comic which I have not seen for nine years. I do not have a good memory, so it is an indication of how important an impression Action made upon me.”

Action made a difference, however briefly, to many of its readers’ lives. They felt they had found a ‘friend’, something that was on their side when not much else was.

It is difficult to say how much of this was intended by its creators. Perhaps it was as much that, briefly, a space was made possible by a strange combination of circumstances. There was the unusual freedom accorded to Pat Mills. There was the conscious seeking of that new formula: “difference” and ‘realism”. But to be truthful, that could have meant many different things. Under the pressures of IPC’s production system, the easiest way to achieve results was to “rip off’ all the most popular things around, and add in a smidgeon of violence. In the event, they did much more; for a brief time its creators brought a truly Radical comic to life.

DC Thomson could not do it. They tried, with Bullet. Also a “sampler” comic, this came out almost in the same week as Action, even sharing one or two writers and artists. But it lacked something essential. Comparing Action with Bullet, artist Barrie Mitchell (who worked on both) said: “Pat Mills was given a free hand. He could do almost whatever he wanted. DC Thomson were still restricted. So Bullet didn’t have the credibility. It lacked the punch of Action.” Remarkably for a Thomson comic, it lasted only a short time.

Whatever Action’s faults, whatever the arguments over the elements, which eventually gave its enemies their chance to kill it, in my view Action was a very important publication.

Read More in this Section of “Sevenpenny Nightmare”

Action: The Story of a Violent Comic (about the book by Martin Barker) | Action: The Story of a Violent Comic – Introduction | Developing the Formula | The Critics Bite Back – TO BE ADDED | Moving in for the Kill – TO BE ADDED | So, Should Action Have Been Censored? – TO BE ADDED | Hook Jaw: The Shark Bites Back – TO BE ADDED | The Lost Pages of Hook Jaw – TO BE ADDED | How Lefty Lost His Bottle  – TO BE ADDED | The Lost Pages of Lefty – TO BE ADDED | Death Game 1999: Steel Balls to the Finish | The Lost Pages of Death Game 1999 – TO BE ADDED | When The Crumblies Flipped It: Kids Rule OK…? | The Lost Pages of Kids Rule O.K. | Dredger… No Comment | The Final Reckoning | Estimating Action

Sevenpenny Nightmare Section Index

This is an excerpt from Action: The History of a Violent Comic by Martin Barker, featured here as part of the Sevenpenny Nightmare project edited by Moose Harris. Text © Martin Barker. 


See this section’s Acknowledgments section for more information