Action Comics #1 – A Comic of the Streets

Since I have started reviewing comic books, one name keeps coming up  – Action.  It was devised by Pat Mills and published by IPC between the years of 1976-1977 and now thanks to a dedicated comic book collector friend – I have, on loan, a copy of issue #1.  It’s reputation precedes it, banned, due to a misunderstanding over some poorly chosen colour on the cover art of issue #37. (A riotous scene where a man lies on the ground, hand feebly upheld to hold off a sneering rioter swinging a chain – he was wearing blue clothes – a nearby policeman’s helmet – not connected with the man on the ground was blue, creating a false connection).

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But there’s much more to this title than just controversy, this was the beginning of the British comic book renaissance, a fantastic time where the writing and the art reflected the society of the time.

Thumbing through the issue carefully, I understood why it was so groundbreaking, how it used language.  It was written in perfect harmony with the readership – it didn’t talk down to it’s audience and it was perfectly paced.  For kids who found it hard to sit and read long stories or identify with many of the comic book heroes that the publishers of that time period were pushing – this must have been an incredibly empowering experience.

The characters depicted in the first issue are tough, streetwise and fitted into a nation which had seen Punk music blossom, on the TV there was a struggle in America and the UK for equality and Muhammad Ali was a genuine, working class, celebrity  – a person of colour elevated in a country and indeed a world seemingly so comfortable with racial segregation.

Before I give my views on some of the initial stories, I want to say that I would love to see these strips in some sort of collection – I believe the contribution made by Action was fundamentally important for the comic book world universally and not just in the UK.

Dredger

The comic opens with an incredibly strong character, a maverick agent of DI6 – Dredger, he tackles his targets head on – in the opening scenes, he foils an assassination attempt by slamming a fork-lift truck into the Assassin’s car, killing him.  Teaming up with a stuffy – old school agent called Breed (wearing a suit, while Dredger wear civvies) was a great counterpoint to show exactly how different this action hero was going to be.  It was a pointed difference in the class structure which unfortunately prevailed in British society and Dredger was a working class hero!  That’s an important point to highlight – this was a relatable character.

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He’s an impulsive, emotional character as well, not reserved, but a man of strong emotions placed into a volatile kill or be killed scenario during a plane hijacking.  The writing of one portion of the dialogue which Dredger shouts as he kills a terrorist gave me a clear impression of the power of the character.  He’s often touted as a Dirty Harry-esque character, but on my reading of this strip, he’s more rugged than that, more instinctual.

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Hellman of Hammer Force

There’s no doubt about it Gerry Finley-Day was a risk taker, this comic strip takes a character who, according to popular and traditional cultural values, should be reviled and in four pages turns him into a heroic, determined, sympathetic protagonist.  Hellman is a German Panzer Tank Major whose tactics include charging his tanks at the nearest enemy and blowing them all up before they can respond or even understand what is happening.  It’s incredibly fast paced and a triumph, the twist that he’s a German solider also means that the whole strip is going to be scrutinised and it’s just got to work, this could have been the strip which would have stopped Action from being the popular success that it was – but Gerry makes sure we know that our hero Hellman is not a Nazi, he’s a soldier.

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We see that he doesn’t return the Nazi salute or acknowledge the authority of the SS Officer assigned to his unit, he seeks to spare a British unit rather than (as the loathsome SS Commander demands) to just charge and completely destroy them all.  Hellman recognises that this would be murderous and instead seeks dialogue with the British troops to save their life.

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Blackjack

Created by John Wagner and the first comic strip to feature a person of colour as the protagonist – this is an intriguing narrative about a talented boxer from the East End, fighting his way up the ranks.  The only problem he has, is that he suffers a serious brain injury, which, if he keeps fighting, may lead to permanent loss of sight.

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This is not a one-dimensional character and nothing is traded on the colour of his skin in this story.  Instead we have the sensation that he’s a hero – having stopped some thugs from beating up some kids – he gives them tickets to his next fight.  He realises that if he fights again, he may lose his sight, but realises he’s a beacon of hope for the working class of the area – especially the hopes and dreams of the kids and the strip ends in a cliff hanger with Blackjack not sure how to proceed.

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Hook Jaw

This is a favourite of mine, I love stories which involve monstrous natural beasts fighting against the greed of mankind.  The hero of this strip is a Great White Shark with a massive shiny steel hook which is stuck in it’s jaw.  This is tremendously violent and like some of the other strips, takes it’s ques from the present day blockbuster – Jaws.

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incredibly violent with art and a colour scheme which shows all the gory action in detail, the readers inevitably side with the beast over their own species in a manner that 2000AD would continue with in the Flesh comic strip.  In this issue he goes up against a greedy human searching for oil and we are treated to a diver coming up to fast and exploding as he reaches the surface!

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The way that the Oil Rig boss is written and how he treats his employees like dirt, we just know, in a future issue – that bastard is going to be shark bait!

 

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