The “rip-off’, this time from the film Rollerball but again with a difference. Rollerball was something of a cult film in the mid-1970s, science-fictionish but arty. It showed a future society where order is kept by providing “bread and circuses” to the downtrodden population in the form of a violent game played by convicted prisoners. Death Game 1999 kept the whole of this basic formula, but trimmed the whole thing down to a straightforward survival dilemma: either play the deadly game, or be executed. The prison governor and his cronies are mercilessly brutal and manipulative.
In many ways, the vision of the future developed in Death Game seems to set the scene for a lot of the stories in 2000 AD. Authority is brutal, and its sole purpose seems to be to degrade and destroy its subject population. Cities are jungles of concrete and gangs. Action, though, did not have the relieving qualities of parody, absurdity and satire that worked against the potential oppressiveness of a lot of Judge Dredd stories, for example.
Death Game was conceived by Geoff Kemp, and scripted (somewhat surprisingly) by Tom Tully. It had several artists tried out on it. The first episode even used two artists, the first two pages being by Costa, a Giollitti agency artist, the second two by a young Ian Gibson (though that was all he contributed to this series). Very late on in the series, another up-and-coming artist was tried out on Death Game – one Massimo Belardinelli. In between, the bulk of the artwork is by Costa.
Death Game was high up in the popularity stakes right from its start. It has all the Action ingredients: it is fast and furious, gritty and painful. Its heroes are not really heroes at all. They are desperate men who, in the very moment of becoming heroes to the Spinball crowds, put themselves in more and more danger. Its villains are that, no question. They are cynical and profiteering, but prepared where necessary to put on a nice face and pretend to humanity. They have power and they love it: and they are quick and happy to misuse it. The science fiction setting, as so often, allowed these ideas to be explored in an unrestrained way.
One small oddity worth picking up on is a persistent recall by a number of people that there were complaints of racism against Action. Ken Peters, General Secretary of the Federation of Retail Newsagents, put this in his letter to me. This is really odd, given Action’s deliberate and bold use of black characters. There was Blackjack, in his own story, and there was Yo-Yo Devine, Joe Taggart’s most important team-mate and the only one to survive the whole distance with him (as we will see). My strong suspicion is that this complaint arose from the often badly-formulated middle class guilts about racism in literature that permeated the 1970s. Because, in one episode, Yo-Yo is called a “black boy” by one of the other characters, it was assumed that the comic must be denigrating black people. Absolute nonsense – both Blackjack and Yo-Yo were powerful black heroes, and if anything was unsatisfactory about their presentation in the strip, it was that they weren’t seen to be insulted enough for their colour. In real life, that would have happened – and their fight to survive would have been against this racism as well as all the other problems they had. Only in this did Action pull its punches.