On this day, 18 September 1976: Action
On this day, 18 September 1976 … This is where it all started to unravel for Action, the comic of 1976. Seven months after the title launched, and at the end of a long, hot summer of simmering discontent and disapproval over increasing levels of graphic violence in what the Sun labelled ‘The Sevenpenny Nightmare’. The final insults appeared to be two instances in today’s issue (my copy of which is rather torn and mangled – I like to think some rabid youth of ’76 took a few bites out of it), leading to IPC Youth Group’s publisher John Sanders having to appear on Frank Bough’s Nationwide to defend Action. This humiliation was not sufficient, however, and the comic lasted only another four weeks before being withdrawn from the newsstands (and re-introduced before the end of the year in sanitised form).
The front cover was the first trigger. The image, by the mighty Carlos Ezquerra, illustrated a street riot representing the serial Kids Rule OK. It was not an actual scene from the story, but featured a middle-aged man on the ground, at the mercy of a chain-wielding youth. A policeman’s helmet lies next to him. According to Action’s founder Pat Mills, the man was not supposed to be a policeman but the cover’s colourist (not Ezquerra) had chosen to given him a blue outfit matching the tones of the hat, thus creating the impression that the youth was assaulting an officer of the law. This was an outrage too far for the moral guardians of the time (would it have been acceptable if the man clearly was not a policeman?).
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the conservative outrage, I think it’s fair to say that the cover was highly provocative and I don’t think the blame should be laid solely on the palette of the colourist. That there was a police helmet positioned prominently in the foreground at all is fairly telling of the image’s message. In his memoir, Steve MacManus describes a recklessness in the editorial team at this time (Pat Mills no longer had editorial control, and Steve himself was less involved in Action – his bawdy ‘Action Man’ editorial on page two was ghosted), and managing editor Gil Page is quoted in David Bishop’s Thrill-power Overload saying that the editors were ‘being called up by different people and being told to get more blood into [Action], to be more controversial’.
The second troublesome incident in this issue was in the football strip Look Out for Lefty. Usually it was the serial’s protagonist, hot-headed Wigford Rovers apprentice Kenny Lampton, causing aggro but on this occasion his girlfriend Angie Roberts was the instigator. Watching a reserve game from the terrace, Ange throws a glass coke bottle at one of Kenny’s team-mates who has been trying to nobble him throughout the game. She throws the missile from behind a crowd of agitating rival fans, leading to them being ejected from the ground as the player is ‘carried off with blood streaming from his head’. ‘Good old Ange!’, thinks Kenny, giving an apparent nod of approval to her actions.
All of the above has been recorded before, but I was interested to look again at this issue. Considering the amount of attention it must have been receiving from concerned parents and self-righteous media vultures with the scent of a wounded victim, what else might they have found inside it to further offend their sensibilities?
The letters page probably didn’t help matters. Alongside ‘Steve’s’ editorial, in which he calls Action’s editor an ‘annoying git’ of whom ‘we reckon he’s got a bird somewhere’, are some gutsy readers’ letters – far more interesting than most other comics’ fare, but including one from Sunil Joshi of Croydon proclaiming ‘I like [Action] because there is lots and lots of blood in it – and I like blood!’. On the opposite page, hardboiled British agent Dredger gets into a bar brawl.
This week’s episode of Kids Rule OK – described by David Bishop as ‘Lord of the Flies for the Scum generation, the epitome of Action’s anarchic, anti-authority ethos – features no fallen coppers, but a battle between two factions of an urban street gang. A petrol bomb is shown being made and then thrown the window of a house before two youths blast each other’s stomachs with shotguns. Violent future sport strip Death Game 1999 sees Karson City Killers’ skipper Joe Taggart murder four opposing team players on a ‘Death-run’ to score the match-winning points. And in Hell’s Highway, truckers Steve and Danny are assaulted Walking Dead-style by a mob of chemically-infected residents of a small town in the Ozark Mountains.
Hook Jaw could always be relied upon for satisfying the bloodlust of Sunil and the nation’s other corrupted youths and this week’s episode is no exception as the harpoon-chinned Great White and a pack of other sharks overturn a hovercraft and – in one blood-red panel – rip the passengers to gory shreds. Hellman on the Russian Front is probably the issue’s least visceral strip: Kurt Hellman elects not to kill members of a pack of convicts who have just tried to murder him. I wonder how Action’s critics felt about the comic’s most honourable hero being a German Panzer major. The strip is in contrast to Green’s Grudge War, the last episode of a Second World War strip about a British commando with a jealous grudge against a fellow soldier. There’s a fair bit of killing, although nothing any worse than would be found in other war comics of the time, and the story ends with an ironic twist as Green is gunned down by Germans and remembered by his fellows as a hero, even though he only got himself into a vulnerable position in the process of trying to murder one of his own.
Lest readers were pacified by this sombre final story, however, the comic featured a full-page Brooke Bond Oxo ad starring a mutton-chopped Mick Channon – horrific enough to turn even Frank Bough to the dark side.