Some decades back, “Exciting News Inside” was just about the worst strap line a British comic fan wanted to see on their favourite weekly comic, because it usually meant the title was about to be merged with another. Which is exactly what happened to Action and Battle, back in 1977… but how did fans of both comics react? We plundered the memories of some of them, including Battle Action Special writer Garth Ennis and former Battle editor, David Hunt…
Launched in 1976, weekly adventure comic Action, crammed with plenty of gritty, contemporary tales, remembered today more for its gore than many of its stories, was on its last legs by the time it merged with the more successful, longer-running Battle in November 1977.
Despite the fact that Battle Picture Weekly, a hard-hitting war comic featured often equally violent tales, the wartime setting of its stories, tales that have stuck in the minds of impressionable readers to this day, were, apparently, considered “safer”, as far as the comic’s publishers and mainstream media concerned. Battle‘s conflict-fuelled content, was, apparently, far less dangerous than the adrenalin-pumped, stories in Action, such as the anarchic “Kids Rule OK” and the football strip, “Look out for Lefty“. Nostalgic violence was OK; futuristic violence was fine, as evinced by 2000AD‘s long-lasting popularity; contemporary stories readers might more easily emulate, very definitely not.
By the time Action was merged with Battle, those controversial strips were long gone, after media outcry about the title, the press accusing it of perverting young minds; a campaign against “The Sevenpenny Nightmare” so successful that it led to the Action being taken off the shelves, only to return, revamped and toothless. Where once it had been selling 200,000 copies a week, Action‘s readership plummeted, its longer-running strips, such as “Hookjaw” pale shadows of what had gone before.
IPC had long operated a policy to boost the sales of their other titles by merging them with a failed comic, and so it was that with the issue cover dated 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. The secret agent series “Dredger”, “Hellman”, set in World War Two, and “Spinball”, set in the future, were the only Action stories to survive the merger.
“From memory, I was young so had never heard of Action,” recalls comic writer and editor Paul Goodenough of the merger when it was announced in Battle. “So my worry was what Battle comics would they cut.” His worries were foremost in the minds of some other readers, too, but not all.
“The merger didn’t bother me here in Australia,” says John Davies. “I was buying both comics at the time anyway. They were always weeks late, if I recall correctly.. I remember I liked all three ‘new’ stories.”
“I was 18 at the time so was older than its target audience and didn’t read Battle that often,” recalls comic writer and artist Lew Stringer of the merged title’s debut. “I’d enjoyed the pre-hiatus issues of Action but was disappointed with the way it had been diluted when it returned, and had given up on it. To me, the merger seemed a good thing and gave Battle a refresh. I felt Battle-Action was certainly a better title than the overlong Battle Picture Weekly.”
“I’d never heard of Action,” recalls reader Phillip Meller. “I just presumed it was a struggling comic…to be consumed and phased out. Saying that, ‘Hellman’ immediately became my fave strip. The other strips that came over, not a big fan. I did catch up on back issues of Action though, and was always puzzled as to why ‘Hook Jaw’ didn’t make the cut.”
“He’d have had to go to war to fit into Battle,” Lew responded, “Although ‘War Shark’ does have a ring to it, with him eating Nazis!”
The merger didn’t please everyone. “I was definitely an Action fan,” says Johnny Vosburgh, “‘Hook Jaw’ being my favourite, and l also liked ‘Green’s Grudge War’, ‘Dredger’ and ‘Spinball Wars’. When it merged with Battle, l went for 2000AD.”
But Battle-Action clearly had pull. “It wasn’t until late 1979 I picked up Battle,” Johnny continues, “and discovered ‘Charley’s War‘. On the strength of that, ‘Johnny Red’ and ‘HMS Nightshade’, l became a regular Battle reader, especially enjoying ‘Darkie’s Mob’ and ‘Fighting Mann’, in addition to Charley and Johnny. I continued to get 2000AD and got Battle up until 1984 when things in my life changed and l didn’t read any comics, except Commando, for the next 10 or more years.”
Yet, while many Action fans mourned the loss of their favourite comic, albeit one far less vital and challenging than it had been at its launch, the merger was a success for Battle; the “Action” name remained on the comic’s masthead for early five years, before being dropped as that comic’s content changed in response to perceived changing reader taste.
Battle Action – Garth Ennis’ First Memories
It’s no surprise then, that Rebellion has chosen to celebrate that time with an-all new Battle Action collection, on sale from 8th June, curated by Garth Ennis.
“I came in too late for Action,” Garth tells downthetubes. “I really only started with Battle-Action in the summer of ’78. So I was dimly aware that there’d been a comic called Action and that some of the characters I was reading originated there, but at the time my knowledge went no further.
“My first issue was cover dated 15th July 1978, one of those promotional issues with new stories starting alongside the regulars,” he continues. “‘Johnny Red‘ was my instant favourite, but I also thought ‘Crazy Keller‘ was excellent – ‘The Sarge‘ and ‘Dredger‘ too. Never cared much for ‘Operation Shark‘ or ‘Spinball Wars‘. ‘Samurai‘ was interesting, but didn’t last long enough for me to feel one way or the other about it. (I’d be interested to know if there were complaints about this strip; you can’t really make the regular army vs fanatics argument to defend Japanese soldiers the way you can with the ‘good German’ stories (not that the argument really holds much water there, either)).
“Of course I was able to work backwards and see some of the preceding issues, picking them up at jumble sales and so on – I really liked ‘Hellman’ (the Battle Action stories being vastly superior to the Action ones) but never cared much for ‘Major Eazy’. I liked what I saw of ‘Rat Pack’.
“I don’t know if the title is popular today, I suppose that’s what we’re about to find out,” he ponders. “Certainly, the reprints of individual stories seem to do well enough to justify more of the same, testament to their sheer quality.
“The reason I chose the title Battle Action for the special was that that was what I called it as a kid – I didn’t know it as anything else, I’ve only been referring to it as Battle for the last 20-30 years. In 1978, and for several years afterwards the comic I was buying was called Battle Action, and as that was the best period in the comic’s history, it seemed an appropriate title for the special.
“I have been wondering whether the original Battle-Action was the comic that was never supposed to happen,” he conjectures. “After all, ideally you would have had Battle and Action continuing successfully and separately for as long as possible – or the comic that was always going to happen. If your brief is to push the envelope, you’re bound to run into trouble sooner or later, and in 1976-7 serious trouble is probably going to mean cancellation, which in that era means getting folded into another comic. And at the time, the most obvious comic to fold Action into has to be Battle.
“It would be interesting to ask David Hunt about this, if as editor of Battle he saw Action’s downfall coming (or at least suspected it was on the way) and therefore had to get ready for his own comic to absorb the leftovers.”
“The merger experiences when I was editor of Battle always gave me a reasonable cause for concern…”
“I recall the merger experiences when I was editor of Battle always gave me a reasonable cause for concern,” former editor David Hunt tells downthetubes. “First and foremost, Battle was a one themed war comic and I never wanted that to change. Most titles at the time had a mixture of different action stories, be it detective, space, sport, etc., and this certainly applied to Valiant.”
Valiant, was of course, the first title to be merged with Battle, before Action.
“It had been a massive title in the 1960s, but had failed to keep up with a changing readership and, despite John Wagner’s attempt to revive the failing publication in the 1970s, the decision was eventually made for it to cease trading and to be merged with my beloved title. Whilst ‘The Black Crow’, ‘Soldier Sharp’ stories and with Captain Hurricane running the letters’ page, all fitted seamlessly into the war story genre, the story of a tough, no-nonsense New York cop known as ‘One-Eyed Jack’ was a real worry for me. Put simply, would Battle readers relate to a non-war adventure?
“My concern was unfounded because the readership immediately linked into John Wagner’s creatively inspired character and it became a very popular story as voted for by our readers. Also, I now had the excellent artist John Cooper in my ranks and you’ll know that he would go on to create some inspired future artwork for my title.
“When Action comic was pulled from the newsagent’s shelves for excessive violence, I feared there would also be a media backlash against Battle,” Dave reveals. “Thankfully, it never happened, but when the watered down comic was finally given its last rites, Battle inherited three of the Action stories – ‘Spinball Wars’, ‘Dredger’ and ‘Hellman of Hammer Force’.
“I’d always been a great admirer of the ‘Hellman’ story and, with scriptwriter Gerry Finley-Day, we had earlier created the ‘Panzer G-Man’ story for Battle. I have to be honest and admit that this mainly came about because ‘Hellman’, a war story told from an interesting German perspective, had worked so well in Action. But ‘Dredger’ and the ‘Spinball’ yarns were a different matter and I fretted they would not be well received by the Battle readership. Again, I needn’t have worried because all three Action stories were popular and went on to have longevity in the merged title.
Whilst mergers sometimes caused problems, editors knew it would always give a significant circulation boost to the recipient title,” Dave notes, “all very self-explanatory because our titles obviously lived or died by what we viewed when the circulation department printed the weekly figures.
“You were never given the opportunity to decline a merger by senior management, but most mergers were done with helpful cooperation from the guys on the title that effectively was ceasing to exist. Action had much criticism during its all too brief reign, but essentially we realised it was a ground-breaking title and I knew its stories would fit effortlessly into the Battle line-up. Both titles had always produced hard-hitting stories that never patronised nor spoke down to its readership. Valiant and Action’s demise was very much to Battle’s gain.”
The Spinball Wars – The Odd Strip Out?
Paul Trimble, who runs the popular Battle Fans group on Facebook and who has organised many comic events featuring creators involved in the title, including a launch event on Saturday 18th June 2022 in Northern Ireland for the new collection, is in no doubt about about the success of the creation of Battle Action.
“Growing up in the 1970s, I used to dread the ‘Great News For All Our Readers’ headline on a comic,” he says, “as it usually meant that it was to be merged into another title and I’d lose some of the stories I really enjoyed.
“The long-running titles on the market really didn’t do much for me in the mid-70’s but then Battle Picture Weekly came along in March 1975 and changed all that. Battle was fresh and exciting and up-to date and I immediately placed a regular order with my newsagent – as the Editor requested!
“At the end of the year the previously stodgy Valiant was reborn with a dynamic cover style and some terrific new stories. with ‘One-Eyed Jack‘ my favourite. This too became a regular order with my newsagent. February 1976 then saw the release of Action – what a great time it was to be a comic reader with all these amazing comics on the newsagents shelves! And, yep, you guessed it, another regular order with my local newsagent. How he must have smiled when he saw me coming!
“However the good times couldn’t last, and in October of 1976 my comic reading status quo was shaken up when Valiant was merged into Battle. My pain was somewhat assauged by my three favourite stories continuing in the new combined title, ‘One-Eyed Jack’, ‘Soldier Sharpe’ and the ‘Black Crowe’, rather than any of the more dated stories still running – although I did prefer One-Eyed Jack as a New York cop rather than his new role with the US military.
“That very same week there was no issue of Action in the newsagents but living in the far west of Northern Ireland I was well used to hold ups and delays and thought nothing of it. I knew nothing of all the fuss Action had generated, but did know that when it finally reappeared in the newsagents, it just wasn’t the same.
“Fast forward a year and it was deja vu all over again, as Action was to be merged into Battle. Now, though, the stories being shoehorned into Battle were more of a mixed bag. ‘Hellman of Hammer Force’ of course fitted right in and in Battle-Action went on to far surpass anything that had appeared in Action. ‘Dredger’ was a good series but, like ‘One-Eyed Jack’ previously, had a change of occupation from an agent in the Intelligence Services to working for the military and I kinda preferred the original.
“The real odd man out was ‘The Spinball Wars‘ a new spin (see what I did there?) on the ‘Death Game 1999‘/’Spinball’/’Spinball Slaves’ future sport story,” he notes, “with the team working undercover for the US military, performing covert missions once they’d played their game of Spinball. While I had enjoyed the series in Action, this new take on it really didn’t work for me and I’m afraid Ron Turner’s art really stuck out like a sore thumb in what was otherwise an excellent comic.”
“‘Spinball’ with Ron Turner art – fantastic!” enthuses artist Danny Cushion taking an opposing view. “I know it’s not everyones taste, but I also loved Ron’s take on Dredd… it was early days and no way would it work now…but those strips were glorious!”
“I would assume ‘The Spinball Wars’ made the transition into the new merged comic because it could be adapted, very loosely, into a war concept,” Paul suggests, “whereas ‘Hookjaw’ and the sport stories in Action couldn’t. However, ‘The Spinball Wars’ must have been popular, as it outlasted both ‘Hellman’ and ‘Dredger’ in Battle-Action by more than a year. Shows how much I knew!
“Despite not really enjoying ‘The Spinball Wars’, the new Battle-Action went from strength to strength under the steady hand of editor Dave Hunt and still to come were ‘Crazy Keller’, ‘The General Dies At Dawn’, ‘HMS Nightshade’ and ‘Charley’s War’, before the decade was out.
“Battle-Action – I salute you!”
• The Battle Action Special is available in all good comic shops from 8th June 2022 and from bookshops from 14th September 2022
Writer Garth Ennis (Preacher, The Boys) presents his own take on the classic characters of Battle and Action. Ace fighter pilot Johnny Red battles Skreamer of the Stukas on the nightmarish Russian front. Veteran leader The Sarge and his section face hell in the brutal Italian campaign. Wheeler-dealer Crazy Keller drives for his life as World War Two comes to its bloody conclusion. Lethal British agent Dredger doles out justice- of a kind- on the streets of 1980s London.
All these and more in this high-octane collection of fantastic new combat strips, featuring scripts by Ennis and art by some of the biggest names in modern comics, including Kevin O’Neill (Nemesis The Warlock, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Chris Burnham (Batman) and John Higgins (Watchmen, Dreadnoughts). Get your front-row seats to the front line, as only the legendary Battle Action can deliver!
• Johnny Red V Skreamer of the Stukas
• The Sarge – Italy, 1944
• Crazy Keller
• Dredger – 1980
• Hellman V Glory Rider
• Kids Rule O.K.
• Nina Petrova and The Angels of Death
Battle Action Launch Events
Writer Garth Ennis will head up two special signing events in the UK to mark the direct market release of the Battle Action Special from Rebellion Publishing – one in London, one in Northern Ireland.
GOSH Comics London – Battle Action Special Signing
1.00 – 2.00pm, Saturday 11th June 2022
GOSH, 1 Berwick Street, London, W1F 0DR
Join writer Garth Ennis, veteran artist Mike Dorey (Hellman of Hammer Force, Ro-Busters), artist John Higgins (Watchmen), and colourist Sally Jane Hurst (Judge Dredd) will be signing copies at Gosh Comics
Enniskillen Comic Fest Presents Garth Ennis and More
11.00am – 5.00pm, Saturday 18th June 2022
• Facebook: EnniskillenComicFest
Enniskillen Comic Fest will be hosting one of the biggest names in comics on 18th June as Garth Ennis promotes the new Battle-Action Special hardcover at one of just two signings in the UK… an event featuring four artists featured in the book as well!
This is Garth Ennis first convention signing on the island of Ireland in 23 years, appearing alongside Keith Burns, PJ Holden, Patrick Goddard and Mike Dorey.
Battle – The Mergers
Compiled by Moose Harris
Throughout its near thirteen-year history, Battle took two other titles under its wing, and had many name changes forced upon it. The original and cumbersome Battle Picture Weekly moniker was not the co-creators’ first choice, but was supposedly used to prevent confusion with the monthly Battle Picture Library titles published by IPC between January 1961 and December 1984. How adding the word ‘picture’ to a title that already had ‘battle’ in it was meant to reduce confusion is best left to those who were there at the time. Here are Battle’s many evolutions in chronological order.
Battle Picture Weekly
Cover dated 8th March 1975 to 16th October 1976
Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant
Cover dated 23rd October 1976 to 1st October 1977
Valiant stories that transferred were “Soldier Sharp – The Rat of the Rifles”, “One-Eyed Jack” and “The Black Crow”
Battle Picture Weekly
Cover dated 8th October 1977 to 12th November 1977
Valiant is dropped from the title in preparation for the next merger
Cover dated 19th November 1977 to 25th July 1981
Action stories that transferred were “Dredger”, “Hammer Force, retitled “The Early Adventures of Hellman of Hammer Force” and “Spinball”, retitled “The Spinball Wars”
Cover dated 1st August 1981 to 20th February 1982
The ever-decreasing Action name is finally dropped from the cover
Cover dated 27th February 1982 to 1st October 1983
Relaunched as an Adventure comic with “The Hunters S.I.6.”, “The Fists of Jimmy” and “The Fists of Jimmy Chiang and “Truck Turpin”
Battle Action Force
Cover dated 8th October 1983 to 29th November 1986
Marks the introduction of stories licensed from Mattel’s Action Man figures
Cover dated 6th December 1986 to 17th January 1987
Matttel pull the plug on the Action Force range of stories and sell the rights elsewhere
Battle with Storm Force
Cover dated 24th January 1987 to 23rd January 1988
An attempt to plug the gap left by Action Force’s retreat, a new range of characters in a similar vein
Eagle and Battle
Cover dated 30th January 1988 to 7th May 1988
Battle stories that transferred were: “Johnny Red” (reprints), “Charley’s War (reprints), “Gaunt” (reprints), “Storm Force”
Merging Battle with Eagle created a cyclic effect,” Moose Harris notes. “The original Eagle had been merged into Lion in 1969, which was absorbed by Valiant in 1974. Having later taken on the short-lived Vulcan, Valiant itself was merged into Battle. The 1982 version of Eagle became something of a vacuum-cleaner for other titles.
“Not content with sucking the old content out of 2000AD, Eagle took on Scream! in 1984 after only 15 issues, and the long-running sport anthology Tiger in 1985. Having only recently been taken over by Eagle in January of 1988, Battle’s name disappeared from the cover after the issue cover dated 7th May 1988, to allow Eagle to absorb both M.A.S.K. and Wildcat over the following year.
Presented on downthetubes, with the full permission of Moose Harris, creator of the original Sevenpenny Nightmare site (now defunct and the domain under a different ownership), is his fascinating history of Fleetway’s fondly-remembered Action comic, going behind the scenes on the origins of all its strips, including Hook Jaw, Dredger and more.
The Sarge Volume One
By Gerry Finley-Day (Writer) and Mike Western (Art)
Out: 12th May 2022, Hardback, 144 Pages, £19.99
THEY DEPENDED ON THE SARGE. AND THE WORLD DEPENDED ON THEM.
British Sergeant Jim Masters, a veteran of WW1, has to protect and lead his inexperienced platoon during the Second World War.
From Dunkirk to North Africa, the might of the German Army face the ultimate adversaries when Masters and his boys spring into action – Nothing can substitute experience!
One of the most prolific writers in the comic’s history, Gerry Finley-Day holds a special place in many 2000AD fans’ hearts as the creator of classics like “Rogue Trooper”, “Fiends of the Eastern Front” and “The V.C.s”, as well as “Harry 20 on the High Rock” and “Ant Wars”. A keen “ideas man”, Finley-Day’s concepts of the horrors future warfare had in store were key to both Rogue and The V.C.s’ continuing popularity, ensuring that their recent return to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic was well-received. Finley-Day also scripted episodes of “Judge Dredd” and “Dan Dare”, and co-scripted much of “Invasion!” (and entirely scripted the prequel story, ‘Disaster 1990!’).
Widely regarded as one of the best artists to ever grace the British comic industry, Mike Western began his career on Knockout, having already spent time working for GB Animation. During the 1950s he shared art chores with Eric Bradbury on the popular western strip Lucky Logan. In 1960 he moved onto TV Express where he drew “No Hiding Place” and “Biggles”. Buster and Valiant followed, where Mike found himself drawing long-running strips such as “Wild Wonders”. In the 1970s, he was very prolific, illustrating Buster’s Leopard from Lime Street and several key strips for Battle, including “Darkie’s Mob”, “The Sarge” and “HMS Nightshade”. Mike also made an impact on the iconic Roy of the Rovers, illustrating the newspaper strip which ran in the Daily Star during the 1990s.
Hellman of Hammer Force
Released: 9th December 2021
Format: Standard paperback and webshop exclusive hardcover
Dimensions: 276×210 mm
This isn’t your grandad’s war comic – never had there been an anti-hero like Hellman of Hammer Force! One of the major highlights of the controversial 1970s comic, Action, Major Kurt Hellman is a Panzer commander in the 1940 German invasion of Belgium. But this man is no Nazi – he avoids taking life wherever possible, all while facing foes without and treachery within!
Collected for the first time, and from the very beginning, this groundbreaking series of thrilling combat is written by Gerry Finley-Day (Rogue Trooper) and drawn by Mike Dorey (Ro-Busters).
• The Battle Action Special is available in all good comic shops from 8th June 2022 and from bookshops from 14th September 2022