I’ve briefly covered Action, the infamous and well loved comic which was created with a unique vision for it’s young UK readers in the 1970’s – namely to address the issues and to represent the popular culture emerging in Britain at the time. Action had a unique voice and although I wasn’t born when it was published, it has soon come to my attention when studying British comic book history, it is one of the cornerstones of the comic book revolution fostered by Gerry Finley Day, Pat Mills and John Wagner and others. This revolution brought mature, character driven narrative and a sense of danger and excitement to a market which was staid and limp.
So I am gong to look at some of the pivotal characters which affected me as I read it today, which is a testament of sorts to how the narratives have survived and their core has remained relevant.
Starting with a hero whose inclusion pushes social boundaries in the UK for two distinct reasons, he was a person of colour and he was from the working class. Now the second reason is something that we will keep returning to – Action was a comic book which wanted to readdress the balance – the fact that there were very few heroes that were presented from the working class.
The first reason, the colour of Blackjack’s skin – that was something that had never been tackled before. In British comic history people of colour had been lampooned and had consistently been viewed as the butt of the racist and stereotypical jokes which regularly featured in the popular comic strip panels of the day. Blackjack can be looked at today as a first, an attempt to legitimately write for and about those of colour who lived in the working class areas of the UK
It’s the story of a boxer, someone rising up the ranks of the boxing arena, he’s a Rocky type character but far more bombastic than Stallone’s lovable but monosyllabic creation. Things are looking great for him, in Action’s first issue we see him defeat his opponent – Tully with some fancy footwork and a hard hitting punch which is something that Blackjack is famous for.
After the victory celebrations, Blackjack receives some devastating news, at some stage in his career a piece of bone had worked it’s way towards his optic nerve. It was a routine visit to the Doctor’s office which would change his life – he was warned to never box again, if he did, he would definitely lose his sight in twelve months.
There’s a complete piece of writing genius inherent here, we are introducing personal drama, career and life changing drama into a successful man’s life. His biggest threat is not a stronger, tougher opponent, but now becomes the very thing which he loves, the sport which has given him self respect in a nation that treats him as a second class citizen just because of the colour of his skin.
As Blackjack is thinking about what he should do, we the readers see his self identification with his fellow East Enders, he’s become a symbol of hope for them, he found a way out of the poverty. This is underlined when he stops a pair of thugs from beating up a pair of street kids, they recognise him and express their admiration for him and for his ability. It’s clear that they model their hopes after him and he knows that he has to keep fighting, he can only stop when he gets to the top, to show them that anyone can make it, to never stay a victim of circumstance or to be told where their place is in society by the ‘elite’
This begins Blackjacks adventures, fighting against racism, against stereotype and against time. As the narrative progresses he gets closer to the championship match, through these issues, he’s seen as intelligent and resourceful, not a sidekick – but a leading man. He gets the better of a card cheat on his way to America in a not dissimilar way to James Bond – but perhaps in a ingenious way and when I saw this, I punched the air and exclaimed my admiration for the character…I promise I did, it may have been internally, but surely that still counts?
It’s a tremendous character and I sincerely hope that he gets a re-released compilation of his stories. Beautifully and heartfelt authenticity of dialogue and a man overcoming social adversity and prejudice make this series of stories very important and close to my heart