In 1976 the British comics scene was shaken by controversy, all due to a new publication with the innocuously generic title of Action. Outwardly a typical boy-targeted comic – the cover to issue #1 showed a shark, a footballer and a tank, none of them exactly groundbreaking topics – Action was, on the inside, a litany of graphic violence and anti-authoritarian sentiments. As described in Martin Barker’s book Action: The Story of a Violent Comic, the series faced media outcry, heavy censorship and eventual cancellation in 1977.
Quint Amity, Garth Ennis, Henry Flint, Zina hutton, Ram V (writers), Mike Dorey, Henry Flint, Staz Johnson, Dan Lish, Jake Lynch, Henrik Sahlstrom (artists), Jim Boswell, John Charles, Henry Flint, Dan Lish, Henrik Sahlstrom (colourists), Simon Bowland, Petite Crème, Agent PC, Rob Stein (letterers)
Rebellion Publishing/Treasury of British Comics
March 25, 2019
But now Action is back – in the form of Action 2020, the latest special from Rebellion and the Treasury of British Comics to revive a classic title from a bygone age. The special follows on from Scream! & Misty, Cor!! Buster and Tammy & Jinty, but in some respects it faces a tougher challenge. Action, even more so than these other titles, was a product of its specific time and place: its notoriety rests on material that is relatively tame by today’s standards, and its plots borrowed freely from mid-seventies films like Jaws and Rollerball. How, then, can Action be adapted for the modern comics marketplace?
As it turns out, each of the five stories in Action 2020 has a different answer to that question.
“Kids Rule O.K.” revisits a post-apocalyptic future – or, perhaps, an alternate present, given that the story predicted the world’s adult population being wiped out by a disease in 1986. The original version of this strip was the most controversial of Action’s contents thanks to its gleeful depictions of youth gangs brutally murdering one another; the revival keeps up this tradition, with artist Henrik Sahlstrom offering all of the requisite Molotov cocktails and gunned-off faces. But Ram V’s script has an elegiac tone, with a hint that the violent teenagers might be finally coming of age.
It was inevitable that Garth Ennis would be involved with the special – much of his career has exemplified the Action ethos, after all – and sure enough, he teams up with artist Mike Dorey to tell a story of Major Kurt Hellman. The most politically-charged of Action’s anti-heroes, Hellman is a German tank commander of World War II; but while he battles alongside the Third Reich, Hellman has no allegiance to Nazi ideology, instead fighting a war according to a moral code that emphasised avoiding fatalities where possible (something that, in his earlier adventures, put him into conflict with his more fanatical superiors).
Back when the Panzer-themed novels by Sven Hassel and his imitators were big sellers, Hellman’s exploits marked an entirely logical direction for a grittier reworking of the traditional British war comic. Removed from his original context, however, the character is an awkward fit. While Dorey’s artwork is a triumphant throwback to the glory days of comics like Battle and Valiant, Ennis’ script feels uncharacteristically apologetic: the human drama is carried by two children arguing about the Nazi regime, while Hellman gets on with blasting Russian tanks.
The most famous character to appear in Action, the killer shark Hookjaw, turns up in the 2020 special’s most experimental story. The strip’s subject matter is true to the original, with Hookjaw continuing his reign of terror against all unscrupulous humans who encroach his habitat, this time by freeing a captured polar bear; but while the old version had heavy amounts of villainous gloating from the shark’s soon-to-be victims, this story is told entirely without dialogue. “Quint Amity” gets a writing credit, but really, this is an artist’s piece, with Dan Lish providing evocative seascapes and brutal flesh-chomping.
The most straightforward strip in the special is “Dredger”, written by Zina Hutton, drawn by Staz Johnson and coloured by John Charles. The title character is a James Bond-style agent in an adventure that wears its influences on its sleeve, even naming one of its characters after Ian Fleming. This is, for the most part, a typical spy yarn; aside from its graphic gore, it is notable mainly for a subversive ending that questions the morality of Dredger’s superiors and establishes that the protagonist is as much Dirty Harry as he is 007.
The special’s centrepiece story is “Hell Machine”. Written by Henry Flint, who shares art duties with Jake Lynch and Jim Boswell, this tale clocks in at 15 pages – making it the longest strip in the issue. The main character, a girl named Tase (so called, because her pregnant mother went into labour after being tasered by the police during a protest) is part of a rebellion against a dystopian Britain of surgically-implanted debt chips, police officers genetically engineered to have the faces of babies, and citizens being literally fed into giant blender.
As well as being the longest of the five stories in Action 2020, “Hell Machine” is significant as the only one not based directly on a feature from the original Action. A punkish, bloody and tongue-in-cheek tour through a gallery of dystopian sci-fi concepts, the story could easily have appeared in contemporary 2000 AD; but then, given that 2000 AD began as something of a spiritual successor to Action, a degree of overlap is to be expected.
As noted, each story in the special has a slightly different approach to adapting Action for today. “Dredger” does things traditionally. “Hookjaw” plays with execution but keeps the essence. “Kids Rule O.K.” and “Hellman” each come across as epitaphs to their respective stories (the Hellman strip is even subtitled “At the Twilight of the Reich”). And “Hell Machine” tries to imagine what Action would be publishing had it never been cancelled – in other words, had it become 2000 AD. But at the same time, the five stories have a distinct narrative commonality: each one is constructed around a gore money shot.
The original Action is best remembered for its shocking-at-the-time violence, and true to tradition, Action 2020 makes a point of the visceral. Every strip contains a panel – or in some cases, a cluster of panels – depicting graphic violence: sailors are eaten by sharks, faces are blasted off with shotguns, tank drivers flail as their bodies are shattered by missiles. The gore scene is the central image, the overall story being written around it.
Today, when graphic comic book violence is nowhere near the novelty it might have been to British kids in 1976, building an entire special around explicit violence is quite a task. But Action 2020 succeeds, delivering a set of varied, well-executed stories despite the limitations of the central premise.
Unlike Tammy & Jinty, which introduced a mostly original set of characters appealing to readers too young to have read the originals, Action 2020 shows little particular interest in courting a new audience. Its main demographic appears to be people who are familiar with Action and would like to see its anti-heroes return, if only for a last hurrah. But still, this is a solid anthology, and its nostalgic affection for a turbulent time in British comics may just rub off on new readers.
Note: The publishers provided a PDF copy in exchange for an honest review.