Inside Action: Death Game 1999

Inside Action - DeathGame 19998th May 1976 – 3rd November 1979
Written by Tom Tully
Art by Costa and Massimo Belardinelli (with Ian Gibson and John Stokes)

About Death Game 1999

“Death Game 1999” tells the story of the future sport of Spinball, basically a rip-off of the Rollerball concept with a bit of pinball added in. In essence, two teams of seven men take it in turns to attack the pins on motorbikes, or defend them on ice skates, armed with an object resembling a hockey stick crossed with a gun. Add to that the fact that the game is played by prison inmates as an alternative to execution, and that the fans don’t care about the game at all, just the body count, and you have a sound premise for what proved to be one of Action’s most popular stories.

“Death Game 1999” was written by “Roy of the Rovers” and “Look Out For Lefty” scribe Tom Tully, based on an idea from Geoff Kemp. The first episode featured two pages by Ian Gibson, his only work on Action. Costa provided most of the art, apart from the weeks between the 15th and 29th of May, which were filled by British artist John Stokes (who took over as Hook Jaw’s artist after the ban). Massimo Belardinelli’s work did not appear in print before the ban, and the issues he drew which reached to the end of “Death Game 1999″′s original scheduled run, have all been lost bar two. Belardinelli’s work was cut up and pasted back together for use in the 4th December issue, by which time he had moved on to 2000AD. His work graces the first few episodes of “Spinball“, but with “Dan Dare” on the horizon for Belardinelli, Costa, who had moved on to drawing “Dredger“, returned to the art chores for “Spinball”.

The irony in this is that Costa drew the first “Dan Dare” pages for the dummy issue of 2000AD, but was dropped as his style did not suit the strip, a fate shared by “Blackjack” artist Gustavo Trigo, who was dropped from both “Harlem Heroes” and “The Visible Man”. Towards the end of its Action run, 1950s stalwart Ron Turner took over the artwork, and remained with the strip as it limped to a close in Battle Action.

An unrelated “Death Game 1999” text story appeared in the 1977 Annual, and the sanitised “Spinball” version appeared irregularly in both Summer Specials and Annuals between 1977 and 1981.

Plot Summary

As the story opens, Karson City Killers captain Al Rico has qualified for a ‘Death Run’, a solo attack on the black pin against the entire opposing team. The feat has not been achieved in seven years. Rico fails to break this record and seemingly ends his career and his life sliding down the rear wall of the ice-drome as a bloody pulp. Outside, former football quarterback Joe Taggart makes the mistake of helping out a ticket tout who has been mugged. The police arrive and assume Taggart has performed the act himself. Joe flees on a motorcycle but is brought down by a bullet. The tout dies, but with insufficient evidence for a murder conviction, Taggart is sent down for armed assault and resisting arrest. These ‘minor’ crimes land Joe in the maximum security unit at Karson City. Governor Henry Smailes has requested Taggart be sent there as his skills at football and handling a motorbike make him an ideal candidate to replace Al Rico. Taggart refuses to participate in the ‘Meat Machine’ the sport that ended his football career, but after some relentless pressure from Smailes and his warders, including several physical and mental assaults and a forced ‘try-out’ against the Killers, Joe agrees to lead the team. Seeing how it has affected a former football colleague of his, turning him from a normal man into a desperate killer, Taggart begins to form a new team, if only to get out of jail and away from Smailes.

Taggart selects new players by intimidation. The new squad hates him as much as they hate the prison staff. The first match proves costly for the team, as they spend more time fighting each other than following tactics. Eventually Taggart gets them to play together and Karson win, but Joe plays a clean game and the fans don’t like it. They want blood, and Smailes decides to give it to them. Thanks to some very immoral and questionable science, Al Rico is put back together, but is a near vegetable, unable to reason, just play brutal spinball with a very high body count. Taggart wants out of Karson, but won’t do it over a pile of bodies so he drafts Mad Otto into the team for the express purpose of killing Rico. The resultant on-ice bloodbath impresses the fans, but Rico wins the battle to the death. Taggart is becoming more popular with every game, so Smailes decides he must go. Rico is let loose on Joe in the prison stores, but after a near death battle, Taggart triumphs and Rico sinks to the bottom of a swamp.

From then on Smailes begins paying players to kill Taggart, but Joe won’t die. His team-mate and best friend Yo-Yo Devine watches his back and there are other loyal players who help. The government become involved, deciding Taggart is too powerful a media figure and must be stopped at all costs. Agent Schroeder tells Smailes to take care of the matter personally. Inevitably this leads to the deaths of many Karson City players as the season progresses. Almost every game Taggart has to rebuild the team from rookies, and between matches Smailes arranges ‘accidents’ that kill just about everyone but Taggart.

As the final game arrives, Taggart is short a player, and the governor’s most vicious warder, Kruger, is assigned to the squad. Kruger plants a bomb in Joe’s bike that will detonate as soon as he tries to fire a ball from the scoop gun – everything is set for a big finale which the readers were denied, as this is when the axe fell. “Death Game 1999” was no more, both the game and the story were taken out of the prison environment. “Spinball” arrived and turned the story into a futuristic sports drama about an all-star spinball team run by a corrupt billionaire.

The desperation and danger were gone, along with the violence. The true conclusion of “Death Game 1999” is explained elsewhere on this site and we can only lament the insipid pretender that took its place.

Main Characters

Death Game 1999 - TaggartJoe Taggart

Taggart was a former football quarterback who was wrongly imprisoned when a ticket tout got murdered. Prison Governor Henry Smailes coerced Joe into leading the Karson City Killers, Smailes’ spinball team. Taggart, a man of principal who did not believe in the ‘blood on the ice’ mentality of spinball, attempted to play the game and lead the team in his own way. By winning the league he could secure his freedom. Soon Joe was the best there was, which made him a hero, but the government hated heroes, so Joe had to go. Taggart survived against the odds to the final game of the season, what happened next depends on what you read.

Death Game 1999 - Yo-Yo DevineYo-Yo Devine

Yo-Yo was convicted of the murder of his landlord, although he was severely provoked into doing so to protect the lives of his family. Taggart forced him to play for the Killers, but the two developed trust and respect and became friends.

Yo-Yo was the only other survivor of the Killers’ final game to be released, and the two remained together through all the rubbish that succeeded “Death Game 1999”.

Death Game 1999 - Warden ‘Bull’ KrugerWarden ‘Bull’ Kruger

Another case of ‘depends what you read’. Kruger was Smailes’ dirty tricks man, and a warden of unbelievable cruelty. He either:

a) Died in an enormous explosion after the bomb he planted in Taggart’s bike was switched.


b) Became Chief Warder of Karson City and gloated as Taggart returned to the jail under sentence of death, to get new players for his condemned squad in The Spinball Slaves.

If you answered b), then shame on you.

Death Game 1999 - Governor Henry SmailesGovernor Henry Smailes

Smailes was obsessed by spinball and the popularity it brought. After the ‘death’ of his star player Al Rico, Smailes arranged for Joe Taggart to be brought to Karson City Prison. Smailes saw potential in Taggart as his new captain, but Taggart wouldn’t play by Smailes’ rules. He was forced to take extreme measures to dispose of Taggart after the government decided that Joe must die. His hatred of his new star ran deeply, but however hard he tried, he could never achieve his goal. Although the team eventually won the league, it was not on Smailes’ terms, as Taggart walked away alive.

Death Game 1999 - Al RicoAl Rico

The original captain of the Karson City Killers was seen to die after an unsuccessful attempt at a Death Run. Governor Smailes enlisted the help of Dr. Jeckyl to bring Rico back as a barely animate corpse. Al possessed no true higher cognitive function, just an instinct for spinball, and a pre-programmed hatred of Joe Taggart.

The body count went up during the matches, but Al had to be taken down. He finally fell foul of Taggart, and the weight of his own metal implants, which dragged him to a watery grave in a swamp located in the prison grounds.


Agent Schroeder was a government spook sent to Karson City to keep an eye on star player Joe Taggart. Taggart was seen as too much of a hero to the chattering classes and posed a risk to the whole philosophy behind spinball as an opiate for the masses. He ordered Taggart’s death, but once Karson City won the league, relented to show the public that the government kepy their word, and that spinball worked as it should.

The Karson City Killers, a mixed bag of death row inmates all fighting for survival, all with their own agenda. The Killers came and went, maimed, gored and killed by the Meat Machine. Some were brought in with specific purpose, some were just desperate. Notables included Meatface Malone, who survived almost the entire season, only to fall at the final fence, Mad Otto, drafted in by Taggart to kill Rico, and the fantastic, high-kicking Johnny Silver, who was outstanding as he raised his sharpened skates to boot an opponent across the face, with flesh-splitting results.

Text © Moose Harris 


See this section’s Acknowledgments section for more information