On this day, 16 October 1976: Action
On this day, 16 October 1976 … This is a publication of particular significance in British comics history. It is the last published edition of Action distributed before IPC banned the comic (a full run of around 200,000 copies of the following week’s issue was produced, but recalled from distributors and pulped). I don’t think it was this edition, dated 16 October – the 36th issue of Action – that led directly to the ban. It’s more likely that the camel’s back was broken by the 18 September edition that I featured on the blog last month, with its law-mugging front cover and Angie Roberts throwing the bottle in Look Out for Lefty, but, with production lead times of up to seven weeks it would have taken a while for the machinations of cancellation to work through. That said, the fact that the 23 October issue was printed then withdrawn and pulped before it reached the shelves suggests that something particular in its pages (or a development behind the scenes) triggered an instant decision to kill the comic off once and for all (which didn’t quite happen, but that’s another story).
So this 16 October issue is a bit of an oddity – the last of the original Actions, yet not the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) example of what made the comic so disreputable. However, there is still plenty within its pages that demonstrates what must have made Action so distasteful to the conservative moral guardians of the day, and so delicious to the kids of 1976.
The cover’s an obvious starting point. That swastika – stark in black and white on a red background – is about as provocative a symbol as one could find on a children’s comic from this time, and I suspect it won’t have gone down at all well in the higher echelons of IPC magazines, whose management predominantly would have comprised WWII veterans. Ironically, the cover hero is Major Kurt Hellman, star of Hellman on the Russian Front, which sought to show a more humane, sympathetic and heroic side of an individual German soldier, but such subtleties aren’t apparent in this image dominated by the Nazi moon, the gun of a Panzer tank between Hellman’s legs and two dead Russians at his feet. Culturally, the swastika carried additional venom in 1976 as it was being widely adopted by the punk movement as a symbol carrying little meaning other than to stick two fingers to a suffocating establishment.
Pages two and three of the comic carried the editorial and readers’ letters, and these too are telling of the reader-publisher divide. ‘Steve’s’ editorial letter reads (and it’s worth repeating here that these were not the words of Battle sub-editor Steve MacManus, despite the use of his photo):
‘I bin sitting here brooding! ‘Cos last week my bird was looking for a pad to share. Well, she found one, in a real slick area on the other side of town to my joint! Now she don’t want to know me! Suddenly I ain’t good enough for her – the cow. Then Ol’ Wooden Leg [‘Steve’s’ nickname for Action editor Dave Hunt] comes marching in demanding this week’s letter. So I thought I’d cry on your shoulder, just for a mo’ … Ya see, I met this other fantastic bit o’ crumpet last night an’ she’s promised to take me out tonight. Ol’ Wooden Leg is seething with jealously! [sic] See ya, Steve.’
The readers’ letters include a Star Letter from David Carter of Bradford-on-Avon, relating the story of his dad blacking up to go to a fancy dress party as blind black Action character Jack Barron (from the boxing tale Blackjack). This probably didn’t cause much of a stir within IPC’s King’s Reach Tower at the time, but it wouldn’t be accepted today. Other letters combine as a chorus of praise for everything Action’s detractors hated about the comic, but which the readers loved – and one suspects the editorial team selected them for publication with a degree of satisfying defiance. Guy Barker of Brentwood reports that his English class had to write an essay about their favourite comic, and nearly all the boys and some of the girls chose Action. A Whyte of Haddington penned a sarcasm-dripping letter which included the line: ‘I would much rather read Desperate Dan or Korky the Cat in other comics than see people having their fists chopped off, their guts ripped out by drills, or their heads bitten off by sharks.’ And R Choudhury of Ashton-under-Lyme asked whether Death Game 1999 would feature in that year’s Action annual; ‘You’re in luck!’, replied Steve. ‘This year’s Action annual includes a real blood thirsty story!’
The stories in this week’s issue are violent and gory, but not as violent and gory as we had seen in Action in previous weeks. Dredger plots a bank heist following the discovery of the body of a dead agent in the back of a trash lorry. There’s more bottle-throwing in Look Out for Lefty, although this time the perpetrators are clear hooligans rather than Kenny’s girlfriend. Probationer Dave Brockman keeps his nose clean as troublemaker Clem Slater gets in trouble with the Fuzz at the dogs. Hook Jaw feasts on bullion thieves in the English Channel. Danny and Steve chase down their hijacked truck in Hell’s Highway. Joe Taggart is targetted for assassination in Death Game 1999, and the Major deals with a traitor in the ranks in Hellman on the Russian Front. Kids Rule OK is perhaps the darkest of the stories, with an image of Ray’s Malvern Road gang descending into the depths of the abandoned Baker Street tube station – where they will face off against a squad of psycho police officers – especially chilling.
It’s possible that the strips in this issue could have been worse. In his fantastic account of the Action story (Sevenpenny Nightmare – a website now out of action but being reproduced on John Freeman’s downthetubes.net), Moose Harris provides examples of some of the ‘taming’ of Action’s art and captions that was being enforced at this time before the comic went to press. Interestingly, there is a frame of this week’s Look Out for Lefty which includes a tell-tale speech bubble outline, suggesting that this particular panel was altered. I wonder what was meant to be said, and on which side of the copper’s leg bad boy Spicer’s left foot originally landed.