What, in the end, should we make of Action? Did it matter that it died? Or was it, as several people involved in it claimed, already going downhill so fast that the campaigners merely hurried its demise? This is where my personal feelings have to couple with my research into Action’s history.
Several people, Pat Mills and Geoff Kemp among them, argued to me that Action lost its way by mid 1976. Many of the early artists had departed, moved on by IPC to other projects. A lot of the original scriptwriters also moved on. (There was something of a policy in this – start a comic with the best writers, artists and even paper; then gradually shift them off). And the radically different approach that the comic was supposed to have had been reduced to mere violence. They didn’t want to moralise about this. Rather, they suggested that the violence came in because the producers didn’t realty know how to keep producing a ‘new” comic. Its been suggested to me that John Smith fresh from the nursery comics and without experience of how to handle boys’ comic – lost control of Action; “the ones who came after Pat Mills hadn’t learnt his disciplines about not going too far” as one person put it to me. A more experienced editor, for example. might have predicted trouble with a picture allowing actual hooliganism at a football match; or a (possible) Policeman being threatened with a chain. And the stories that were published later on lacked the essential ingredients of the earlier ones. “Kids Rule O.K. had no soul” was another typical remark to me.
I half agree, and half disagree. Insiders’ views of something like this are always interesting, but often too involved in the production side of things to see the whole. The fact is that Action was significantly more popular when it was heading into trouble than it was at the beginning. And the reason, I’m sure, is because the kids sensed the brakes were off. At the beginning, to be sure. Action was different. Who had done a story with a black hero before? Who had told World War II from the German point of view? Where before had a man-eating shark been a hero? All good stuff – but the difference, so far, lay in the characters and settings of the stories. For the kids, my evidence suggests, the real difference lay in the way the stories worked from then on.
I can illustrate this from an interesting mismatch. Pat Mills told me that he had thought The Running Man, a really excellent story. But that it had ‘bombed’ with readers because it had its hero running away. He remembered it being consistently low on readers’ polls, and cursing them for their lack of judgment. On the other hand, many of the comics’ producers remembered Hellman of Hammer Force as having been an effective story. That wasn’t how I found it when I did my research with former readers of Action. I got readers to indicate whether they thought of themselves as committed, regular or casual readers. As noted earlier, I found a really striking difference among their story preferences. Hellman was indeed a popular story with the casual readers. The Running Man was not so popular, true – but its popularity was greater with the committed readers than with the rest. And remember, it was the committed readers who wrote to me saying that Action was for them a comic that made them think, that changed their views on such things as the nature of heroes.
I am pointing here to two gaps. First, there is a gap between those who vote in those readers’ polls, and those who are actually most committed to a comic; apart from anything else, the real fans often refuse to cut up their copies to get the coupon to send in! But as a result, there is a major gulf between what the most committed readers saw as the important elements in the comic, and what the producers concluded about their views. The difference between Hellman and The Running Man is that the first one had a fairly conventional hero. He’s good, he’s successful. True, he has the problem of a swine of a Gestapo agent looking over his shoulder, but that never throws him out of gear. On the other hand Carter the Running Man, is walking the line of survival all the time. He has even lost his identity. He is a desperate man in an urban jungle.
After all this time. I don’t know of any way to prove what it was that readers got out of the comic, but I have a theory. My theory is that Action, as it evolved, hit on a formula, that formula was of desperate heroes, unsure of themselves, owing loyalty only to an innate sense of what is proper, fighting to survive in a world gone crazy. And that formula, for a lot of young kids, coincided with the world of punk, of post-1960s pessimism, of the rise of Thatcherism. If they weren’t on the dole, they probably would be soon. Authority was against them, they had few resources of any kind except a feeling of who and what they were. Action spoke for them, The stories, therefore, which mainly attracted them were precisely the ones that were most over-the-top. They wanted outrage. They liked the excess. The trouble was that the publishers didn’t really know what they had got hold of. Mills had had great ideas for the stories, and the editorial partnership with Kemp had produced a stylish, challenging comic. But in another way they, and those who inherited it from them, were working to formula in quite another way, having to guesstimate what their readers would like from a mixture of readers’ polls (which are notoriously misleading), publishers’ general expertise and their own common-sense judgments. The fit between the comic and its readers, in that sense, was just a little accidental. (I should say here that Pat Mills does not agree with this assessment, but I think it makes sense of a lot of things.)
Where could Action have gone, then, if it hadn’t been killed off? Here I find myself much more in agreement with the doubters. I doubt that the comic would have satisfied the market for much longer – because of a real problem about what you do with those new stories. Look at that ending to Kids Rule O.K. – it is, to put it mildly, a cop-out. Probationer, the story of the lad caught on the wrong side of the law, ended with the hero going back to Borstal, telling himself that from here on he was going to go straight, no matter what. That’s a nice, safe. moral way of tidying up the story, not a resolution. And the problem was: either Action had to keep finding situations where the formula could be built into a story that never came too close to home – the future, Germany, America (be it the Mafia. or boxing), or the sea; or it had to have a conscious idea of what the real future for these kids might be. What kind of a world would they want to make? And it would have had to have a real debate with them about that – through story, editorial matter, and letters. The current production system of comics just doesn’t allow for that kind of thing, even if they had managed to get away with it politically.
Maybe, just maybe, if a team of rather special writers and artists had come together, it could have grown. But I think they would have needed new ways to hear from readers what they wanted, Maybe if some of the ideas for stories which weren’t taken up – like the story about the gang of kids in the French Resistance, the Apaches as they were to have been known; or that photographer story (have fun imagining how, in Action style, these stories might have gone) – had been used, there could perhaps have been a resolution that advanced things, not just a desperate struggle to survive. After all, the Resistance did help beat the Nazis; the photographer could have exposed all kinds of real nasties. But I think the odds were greatly against these things. My best judgment is that Action therefore had to go downhill. The pity is that once again there was no way for those loyal readers, the realty committed ones, to state their case. As a result the critics got away with their hypocritical moralising.
Action and its death had effects. I summarise them in two responses from Steve MacManus during my interview with him in 1985. I wanted to know how senior management at IPC had felt about any repeating of Action: “I suppose the backlash lasted five years. During that time, if you did something that they didn’t like, they’d say ‘Oh no, we don’t want another Action!’ Now it’s been forgotten.” And if there hadn’t been an Action, would Pat have known how to do 2000AD? Though his simple ‘No” may be a bit of an overstatement, it is true enough to be worth saying, against those who want to forget Action as a bit of embarrassing history. Therefore for what Action did, in its brief life, let it be fondly remembered.