AGGRO! In the long, hot summer of 1976, ACTION comic’s blood-crazed sharks, spy thugs and football yobs warped young minds across Britain. Creator Pat Mills tells JOHN NAUGHTON about the comic The Sun called the Sevenpenny Nightmare.
In the recent trend for publishing books based around specific years, no-one has yet laid claim to 1976. Like visitors strolling past a boss-eyed mongrel at Battersea Dogs’ Home, prospective authors have failed to see the appeal of a year that began with 15 people murdered in Northern Ireland before the Christmas decorations came down and continued in grindingly grim fashion with front pages dominated by endless tales of industrial aggro or Cod and Cold War stand-offs. Civil war raged in Angola and bombs exploded throughout London. Is this the MPLA, is this the IRA? Yes, on both counts, Johnny.
Listen closely and you can hear the tectonic plates of post-war political consensus pulling apart as Harold Wilson bailed out, James Callaghan took over and Labour tottered on with a majority as insubstantial as a Hill’s Angel halter top.
Inflation hit 24%, while interest rates ran at 11.5% and the pound dipped below $2. Seven years earlier, the Labour government had produced its white paper entitled In Place Of Strife. In 1976, there didn’t seem to be anything else.
Against this febrile backdrop, a story played out in the world of comic publishing that continues to fascinate to this day. Action – a weekly boys’ comic with a new attitude and a roster of radical characters – debuted a week before Valentine’s Day and was closed down by Bonfire Night. This wasn’t due to lack of popularity; when it shut, the comic was selling 180,000 copies per week. Instead, having attracted questions in the House and outrage in the media, its publishers, IPC, withdrew it “for editorial reconsideration”. Like Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy at the conclusion of that year’s multiple Oscar-winner One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it re-emerged a shadow of its former self on December 4. The following year IPC applied the metaphorical pillow over the face when it was merged with Battle and five years later, it quietly expired.
Yet in its short life Action captured a side of Britain that otherwise only music’s clandestine subcultures would touch: the seductive, ultraviolent, bovvered-up, Diamond Dogs-meets-Scum world of street nihilism and black humour. And it left its mark on young minds, not least on that of young Action reader and future film director Ben Wheatley, who would use one of the comic’s most infamous covers in his 2016 movie of JG Ballard’s High-Rise. Action burned briefly but brightly, like a molotov cocktail in mid-air. And for its creator Pat Mills, who immediately went on to launch 2000AD and become one of the most influential figures in British comics, Action’s demise is still a source of regret.
“However it happened, we let the readers down,” reflects Mills, via Skype from his home near Marbella. “Those readers invested in Action and we let them down. I’m sad about that, although I like to think a lot of them will have taken something positive from it rather than, ‘This is what happens when you go too far’. And what also makes me sad is that there’s no reason why, with a bit more time and patience, Action couldn’t have evolved into something like 2000AD. If I’d had more time, it would still be around today.”
In the mid-70s, the British comic industry was dominated by two publishing giants. In London, there was IPC Magazines, the less glamorous but more profitable half of the company originally founded by media tycoon Cecil Harmsworth King in his free time between plotting to overthrow Harold Wilson’s government. Its rival was DC Thomson, powered by the success of the Sunday Post and its two comic behemoths, the Beano and the Dandy. Based in Dundee, it provided the third J in that city’s famous industrial output of “jam, jute and journalism” and was famed, along with its eccentricity and hatred of trade unions, for the excellence of its journalist training programme.
It was here that Pat Mills began his career, first as a trainee and then on the girls’ weekly, Romeo – “the poor relation of Jackie, printed on bog paper.” After mastering the skill of “telling a novel in three pages”, he went freelance, with his colleague John Wagner. The pair found themselves inundated with work. Presently they were asked by John Sanders, managing director of IPC’s Juvenile Periodicals Division, to launch what became Battle Picture Weekly – a response to DC Thomson’s successful Warlord. With all its stories based around WWII, Battle proved an immediate hit. Despite this, Mills remembers a less than favourable reaction.
“When Battle came out, everyone in comics saw it as a betrayal because someone had shaken up the system,” remembers Mills. “People weren’t speaking to me. There was an angry silence.”
Despite Battle’s success, Mills believed boys’ comics were still trapped in a timewarp – stultifyingly conservative, rigidly in favour of the status quo and staffed predominantly by a WWII generation who detested change. But a template for change in the industry did exist.
“There had already been a revolution in girls’ comics,” he explains. “Tammy was absolutely way out on a limb compared to anything that had gone before. The traditional ‘blind ballerina’ story had gone and had been replaced by stories of quite sensational aggression. The classic one – which I think will one day get reprinted because it was so notorious – was Slaves of War Orphan Farm  which was about evacuees being made to work in a quarry by the brutal Ma Thatcher. The guy who wrote it [Gerry Finley-Day] was very aware that Mrs Thatcher was the up-and-coming star of the Tories. There was a lot of dark humour among all of us.”
John Sanders wanted Mills to head up the boys’ division and effect a similar change there. He lined up an interview with the board. Mills bought a suit, but blew the interview. “I made the cardinal mistake of telling them how things should change,” he laughs. “And how we should shake up the whole system. But what they wanted was a suit. They didn’t want change. I said our first loyalty was to our readers while they obviously saw it as to their shareholders.”
Undaunted by this setback, Sanders gave Mills carte blanche to create Action. As with Battle, he was set up in a secret office away from the prying eyes of the unions, who, because he was freelance rather than staff, viewed him with suspicion, fearful that he might take one of their members’ jobs. Sanders’ brief reflected his belief in Mills’ ability.
“He said, Do a new, generalised comic in the tradition of Battle and really go where you want with it,” Mills recalls. “Work if you can with the existing WWII veterans, but at the end of the day, you can take this where you want. That’s a hell of an endorsement. The only catch was that I had six weeks to produce the stories!” Not only was the deadline tight but Mills struggled to find writers who could deliver his vision for the comic. Nor did the old guard take to his ideas, particularly one about a black boxer who was going blind, titled Blackjack.
“This managing editor from the old school, very south London, came up to me and said, I see you’re planning to do a story about a black boxer,” recalls Mills. “I said, Yeah, sure, you know Muhammad Ali? And he said, No, that won’t work, chum, you’d be better off using an old story we have about a white boxer with a black sidekick. I was aghast. I said, Come again? You want to do the whole Lone Ranger and Tonto shit? He said, It won’t go down well with the readers. You could see it bothered him on a personal level.”
Matters improved when a story that would prove the comic’s most popular began to take shape. Inspired by the success of Jaws, released the previous year, Hookjaw told the tale of a Great White with an appetite for human destruction. Unlike Spielberg’s blockbuster, however, Hookjaw was very much on the side of the shark, rather than the unscrupulous Red McNally, avaricious boss of an offshore oil rig around which Hookjaw did most of his best work.
“It was written initially by Ken Armstrong,” remembers Mills of the strip [which is about to be relaunched by Titan Comics]. “It was his idea, but I ended up co-writing it because I needed to make it much more savage. My premise was simple but effective: Hookjaw has to eat someone every week in a new and different, graphic way. As long as that happens, the readers will be happy.
“If you look at a graphic novel, it might take any number of pages to reach this payoff, but with a weekly comic it’s like every episode is the end of a movie. Think of that scene in Carrie or Poltergeist where everything is going nuts. That’s what we were achieving in Action. Every week we had this explosive thing. And the readers loved it because their complaint about previous comics was that there were too many talking heads scenes, too much chat, too much exposition. There was no John Le Carré-style careful build-up!”
Reflecting once again the comic’s determination to take a different view, Hellman of Hammer Force focused on an eponymous Panzer major – tagline “The Panzers crush. The Panzers smash. The Panzers kill!” This German army professional wants to fight a noble war and respects his British foe, but is constrained by Nazi fanatics. Similarly Dredger, a secret agent story, flipped the traditional roles by having its title character an East End tough while his sidekick Breed was a “David Cameron type”.
Mills: “We so often have something like Colonel Dan Dare and his working-class sidekick from Wigan, Digby. Isn’t it wonderful to reverse things? I think that was so good for the morale of ordinary kids reading this comic. I grew up reading so much stuff where it was Lord this or Duke that who was the hero. It’s so good to have a hero from the streets.”
For Mills, Action was informed more by the wider culture of the time than other comics and would find its readership among those who already enjoyed James Herbert’s The Rats, The Pan Book of Horror Stories and the brutal war stories of Sven Hassel. Films too were an influence with Mills citing Privilege and Tony Richardson’s social realism classic The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
“It was so different to the normal images of heroes being proactive,” he recalls. “This is a guy who wins and then sticks two fingers up.” In Action, Mills had found the perfect outlet for his anti-authoritarianism, a character trait, he realises now, that was informed largely as a reaction to his strict Catholic education at the hands of the De La Salle brothers at St Joseph’s College in Ipswich – also the alma mater of Labour MP Chris Mullin [author of A Very British Coup] and Brian Peter George Eno.
“One of the Brothers there was the basis for Judge Dredd,” says Mills in reference to Mega City One’s uncompromising lawman, who would become the star of 2000AD. “He was so fanatical, so violent and so full of zeal. He was also the basis for Torquemada in Nemesis [another 2000AD strip]. Well, actually it’s a fusion of Brother Solomon and Brother James, but mostly Brother James. Both of them were known as Prefects of Discipline. A fellow old boy told me he was whistling – or Brother James said he was whistling – and so Brother James takes his glasses off, punches him in the face four times, feels his heart and says, ‘You’ll live,’ and then puts his glasses back on. That was a profound influence on me.
“Brother Solomon [who would later have a minor pop career as The Swinging Monk] was a paedophile whereas Brother James was incredibly violent. There was a pupil in my class called Damien who wore these two-inch Cuban heels and I’m amazed and envious that he ever got away with this for a period. But Brother James literally beat him to a pulp in front of us. I can joke about it now but it is traumatising for any child even to witness. I can be quite blasé about it because I have that writer’s escape, I have the last laugh, I’m writing about them and making money. But for every one like me, I’m quite aware that there will be others not so fortunate.”
As well as the eight strips which formed the basis of the comic, Mills also wanted feature material, which he would lay out in a style that aped The Sun. Its concerns were both working-class (speedway, wrestling) and anti-establishment (there was a regular Twit of the Week slot which featured, among others, University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne). Mills enlisted Steve MacManus, who would go on to be one of 2000AD’s most successful editors, but was then working as a sub-editor on Battle, to help out. He became Action Man, the game-for-a-laugh face of the comic who would be set challenges by the readers on a weekly basis.
“I think I was paid a tenner for each stunt I performed,” recalls MacManus (pictured left when editing Action). “For both dramatic and comedic reasons, I would say that the visit to the Reptile House at Chessington Zoo remains seared in my memory!” Under Mills’ guidance, MacManus also wrote two of the original strips, The Running Man and Sport’s Not For Losers. “Pat was passionate about working with picture strips as a means of entertainment,” reflects MacManus. “Slowly, it began to dawn on me that he was a master of the art of creating compelling characters for kids and all he needed was writers who could take those characters on dramatic journeys. The line-up of the characters in Action’s first issue is testament to this.”
Making use of the weakness of the Argentinian peso in relation to the pound (itself not in great shape) Action was able to employ some of South America’s most talented artists to bring these stories to life. “For relatively small money you could get guys who are world famous now,” confirms Mills. “But it would only take a postal strike and suddenly you didn’t have your next issue.”
Working at a breakneck pace, Mills brought the first issue of Action to the streets on February 7, 1976, just a week ahead of Bullet, which was DC Thomson’s response and boasted its own secret agent, Fireball (supposedly modelled on Peter Wyngarde). With TV promotion, Action was soon selling 180,000 copies a week at 7p a time. With the exception of a story called The Coffin Sub – “It was Das Boot meets a haunted submarine which sounds OK but it didn’t come out that way. The readers were unrelenting in their abuse.” – the comic proved a success. Mills soon began to get a measure of Action’s readers.
“Our publisher encouraged us in our excesses. For one page of Hookjaw, he got the red paint out saying, More blood, More blood!”
“We featured one of the very first cruise missiles,” he recalls. “We researched all the technical details, but to my disappointment they didn’t really care about it. What they really liked was a Dredger story where a guy is dissolving in sulphuric acid and disappearing down the plughole. They loved that! OK, this is where we’re going, this is what they want…”
With the magazine established, Mills handed over control to a full-time editor, Geoff Kemp. As Britain baked in a summer-long heatwave, the magazine maintained its shocking momentum and Hookjaw continued his carnivorous rampage in full colour across the centre pages.
“John [Sanders] actually encouraged us in our excesses. I remember one episode of Hookjaw, which was beautifully painted in watercolours. I recall John getting a paintbrush with red paint on it and saying, More blood, More blood!”
Meanwhile, Action’s unconventional football story Look Out For Lefty (which featured yobbo soccer prodigy Kenny Lampton, his dog food-eating, Steptoe-style grandad and skinhead girlfriend, Angie) started to make waves. When an opponent was giving her boyfriend a hard time on the pitch, Angie knocked him out with a Coke bottle thrown from the stands. “Good old Angie!” commented a grateful Kenny. In a climate where football hooliganism was on the rise, this was strong stuff.
One of Mills’ final acts before leaving was to commission a strip called Death Game 1999, loosely modelled on the dystopian drama Rollerball released the previous year. “That story was probably better than the story it begat in 2000 AD which was Harlem Heroes,” Mills reflects. “It was hugely popular with the readers but it did eventually go too far. One of the artists, I think it was [Massimo] Bellardinelli drew a scene where someone had been torn open and his intestines are – in the most beautiful way – flying all over the floor. I remember seeing the scene and thinking it was so beautifully inked.”
As early as the second issue, Action attracted negative attention in the media. Under the headline, “Aargh lives – but the blood is printed red”, the Evening Standard catalogued Action’s acts of violence. “See a youth murder five policemen, see a body hurtle through a car window, see several limbs chomped off by today’s most modish monster, the killer shark… Action is a deliberate, calculated and commercially minded attempt to cash in on What The Kids Want.”
“There was a picture of John Sanders holding up a page of Hookjaw and looking quite proud of it,” remembers Mills. “I think at that point we realised that the media were coming after us.”
So it proved. The Sun dubbed it “The Sevenpenny Nightmare”, while the Daily Mail – plus ça change – objected to the perceived endorsement of football hooliganism and demanded a reaction from the Football League. Its secretary Alan Hardaker obliged: “It is really appalling that there are people so brainless as to sell comics to children with stuff like this inside them. The man responsible ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.” The man who dissuaded English clubs from taking part in European competitions on the grounds that there would be “too many wogs and dagos” had lost none of his media eloquence.
“See a youth murder five policemen… see limbs chomped off by today’s most modish monster, the killer shark… Action is a calculated attempt to cash in on What The Kids Want.”
As the summer drought finally came to an end, Geoff Mills moved on from Action and was replaced by one John Smith whose previous berth had been as editor of Bobo Bunny. “This underlies John Sanders’ fantasy idea that we can all be moved around, that we’re interchangeable,” says Mills with a rueful grin. “So this poor guy… well I’m sure he knew how far to go on Bobo Bunny.”
For Mills, this lack of experience would prove fatal for the comic. “Having built an entire career out of being subversive, I kind of revel in it,” he laughs. “But I knew roughly how far to go. Not because I was a superior being but because I’d found out over the years. After I left there were newbies on the block and they didn’t know. They were told, Hey, you’ve got to be controversial, you’ve got to be cutting edge. But there are so many ways to interpret that and sadly, Action paid a price for it.”
The forces ranged against Action were growing more vocal. As well as Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association there was the short-lived Delegates Opposing Violent Education. In a move which prefigured Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory stickers of the early 90s, DOVE issued newsagents with stickers which they were supposed to place on each issue. The stickers read, “CAUTION. This is a BLACKED publication. Certain writings in this work are not cleared by DOVE as being pro-child.” The comic which had laughed along with readers with taglines such as “Warning To Nervous Readers – Don’t Buy Action!” now saw that the joke wasn’t funny anymore.
In September 1976 John Sanders was summoned to explain himself to a pre-disgrace Frank Bough on the early evening news programme, Nationwide. “I think John mishandled the interview with Nationwide,” suggests Mills. “He was defending the comic but not perhaps in quite the right way. Bough said something like, This is a terrible comic and this is what I think of it, and tore it up live on air. Obviously it made for very good television.” And Steve MacManus is unequivocal. “It was a premeditated, studio drive-by stitch-up.”
Sanders was now firmly in the firing line. Questions were asked about Action in the House of Commons. According to comic historian Martin Barker, WH Smith and John Menzies threatened to refuse to stock all IPC titles unless Action was withdrawn.
It’s impossible to isolate one factor which led to the 23 October issue of Action being pulped and the comic withdrawn. A new strip entitled Kids Rule OK updated Lord of the Flies and depicted rival tribes of British kids fighting it out on the streets. A September 18 cover pictured a chain-wielding youth about to attack a cowering policeman – it’s this infamous image that appears briefly in Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, a movie whose tone, look and lurid violence could have been an Action strip in another life. Perhaps most significantly, Sanders left the country to go on holiday. In his absence, IPC acted, pulping the entire run of issue 37 bar a legendary 30 copies, one of which recently sold on eBay for £2,550.
For Steve MacManus the source of the comic’s demise was obvious. “It was a sitting duck from the moment the men from the press got interested,” he says. “IPC’s board wasn’t going to prejudice its range of women’s titles by defending a comic.” But for Mills, there were other factors at play.
“We brought Action out at a ridiculous pace,” he reasons. “Nobody was committed to it, including me because I’d moved on. My feeling was there was almost something inevitable, that sooner or later the establishment would pull it down. There probably was a bit of a conspiracy. Martin [Barker] showed a page before and after censorship and they took out all references to Cuba, the Soviet Union, the CIA etc – which sort of proves Martin’s case that it was political. The problem was that IPC were churning out endless comics at that time and it probably was a licence to print money. I think their attitude was, OK let’s get rid of this one and start another one. That attitude prevailed with 2000AD. Their big idea was that we were all interchangeable.”
Both Mills and MacManus see Action as having a profound influence on 2000AD. On a practical level it convinced Mills to abandon the “insanity” of the eight-strip format and introduce fewer, longer stories. For Mills, Action’s legacy was its cultural contribution to changing attitudes to authority.
“Comics like Eagle said, You must have respect for authority,” he explains. “Authority is wise and good and you must do what you are told. And Action was saying the polar opposite of that. And rightly so. It needed to be said.”
Yet despite his evident pride in the achievements of 2000AD, particularly since its return to the safe hands of current editor, Matt Smith, there is still a palpable sense of loss for what Action could have achieved.
“I don’t think we’ve ever hit that note again,” Mills concludes with a hint of wistfulness. “Science fiction is not the same. I remember thinking, If we say it’s science fiction, if we say they’re robots or androids or whatever, we can get away with so much more. But it was a retreat. I always see science fiction as a retreat. People always say how profound a science fiction or fantasy story is, but I’m not convinced that a satire or an allegory can every be as potent as actually telling it like it is on the streets.”
Pat Mills’ latest work, Requiem Vampire Knight is available in English as a digital download from his website. The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre by Steve MacManus is published by Rebellion on September 8, 2016 and is available direct from the 2000AD shop.
Listen to 2000AD virgin Miranda Sawyer’s first impressions of Judge Dredd – plus much more – on the weekly BIGMOUTH pop culture podcast. Click to play.