The 1970s weekly Action has become something of a legend in the history of UK comics. The brainchild of Pat Mills, that most pivotal of figures in the British industry, it debuted in 1976 as a multi-genre anthology with a number of strips that had familiar starting points for their premises but put their own distinctive spin on them.
While short-lived in terms of publication, Action gains its notoriety from its reputation for strips with a level of violence unseen before at the time. Indeed, it became a target for the British media with tabloid newspapers denouncing it and the right-wing social campaigner Mary Whitehouse casting her censorious eye in its direction. It even found itself the subject of a BBC magazine programme feature and interview.
In late 1976 Action suddenly disappeared from newsagent shelves. When it returned a few weeks later it was a tepid re-imagination of its former defiant self. While it limped on for another year its audience deserted this new incarnation and, as was the habit of the time, it was merged with Battle, another IPC weekly of the era.
With 2000 AD publisher Rebellion now having the rights to a huge back catalogue of classic British comics and characters it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to revamping some of the Action properties. As with their previous Specials like Scream! and Misty, Tammy and Jinty, Cor!! and Buster, and The Vigilant, their recently published Action 2020 Special combines old and new while still looking to capture the core essence of the original.
Five strips feature in these pages, with one of Action’s most infamous stories grabbing the lead. Kids Rule OK takes place in a world where a plague has swept the globe killing all the adults and leaving only children behind. In the ‘70s a cover for the feature (below left) became one of the most criticised aspects of the comic’s original run and Kids Rule OK was quickly wrapped up not long after it began with a rather lacklustre ending.
Here writer Ram V takes us back to that world of warring young people in a story that is slight in characterisation but has an emotional immediacy that impacts the reader on a far more visceral level. There’s a fitting blend of nihilism and hope here. Henrik Sahlström’s stark visuals capture the eerie reality of a new, emerging society clumsily rebuilding itself with its own rituals and conventions amongst the chaos and uncertainty.
The standout story of the issue is the return of Hellman of Hammer Force. In a comic that seems determined to attempt to recreate the notoriety of its predecessor with a pantomime of violence it’s ironic indeed that Garth Ennis – a writer known for the gratuitous excesses in his work – provides the most nuanced and understated piece in the issue.
United with original Hellman artist Mike Dorey, Ennis gives us a very human story of the conflicted tank commander who hates the Nazi but loves his country. Events are portrayed through the varying viewpoints of a trio of kids attempting to escape the Russian advance with Hellman’s aid. It underlines the horrible realities of war with a subtle touch. Dorey’s visual characterisation adds extra layers of empathy, and in many ways it serves as a coda to the original series.
An all-new strip Hell Machine written by Henry Flint with art by Flint and Jake Lynch, gets a comparatively long page count. Its protagonist Tase lives in a dystopian future where existence is effectively taxed and a mysterious syndicate brutally oppresses its citizens. In a tale of rebellion and betrayal – a kind of Kafkaesque struggle against an undefined opponent but with dismemberment and plenty of flying body parts thrown in – Tase finds herself forced into the terrifying Hell Machine, a labyrinthine ordeal of death traps and huge scale butchery.
In terms of the carnage vibe that the Action 2020 Special is trying to evoke it’s a fitting entry but there’s far, far too much thrown into these 15 pages in terms of premise, characters, back story and intriguing sci-fi concepts with little room for Flint’s tale to breathe. Visually, Flint and Lynch give us a world that is frighteningly realised in its casual disregard for humanity but there’s enough narrative material crammed into this short to run across an entire 2000 AD-length serial and it feels like a missed opportunity as a result.
Two old Action faves round out the Special. “Quint Amory” (if you’ve been following these Specials for any length of time you’ll quickly work out who is the writer behind this latest pseudonym) and artist Dan Lish reintroduce perhaps the most well remembered Action character, the killer shark Hook Jaw. This silent tale is moodily illustrated by Lish, feeling intensely claustrophobic despite being set on the vast expanses of the ocean, but essentially it exists as a build-up to a fan-pleasing punchline. It’s admittedly a cracking one and 2000 AD fans of old will love the surprise but while technically inventive it’s the least substantial offering here.
The final returnee is ruthless secret agent Dredger, a kind of Callan-with-gore feature. Writer Zina Hutton covers a lot of ground in just six pages but does so with narrative economy as Dredger is sent to San Sebastian to stop a former agent suspected of planning an act of biological terrorism. Staz Johnson emphasises the bloodshed and explicit injury to dramatic effect (which presumably was an editorial mandate for the book) in a standard tale of double cross that would still make an effective “pilot” for a new series.
As ever, old time readers will doubtless enjoy revisiting these characters but, again, the ultimate question here is who is the target audience? Dredger works as a standalone entry into the character’s world but the others, particularly Hook Jaw, are relying on the foreknowledge of the informed to be at their most effective. There’s just not enough in the way of context or wider explanation of the premise of the strips.
Where last year’s Tammy and Jinty Special, for example, was entirely accessible to new readers with stories that could all be the opening episodes of ongoing serials, Action 2020 is a more patchwork affair. It’s still an inarguably fun exercise in nostalgia for those who remember the comic from its first incarnation but there’s also a feeling that it’s trying a little too hard to be outrageous in delivery; a greater balance of violence and defiant social commentary would have echoed its predecessor far more effectively. It also seems a shame not to see Pat Mills attached to the project in any way.
That said, it’s impossible not to feel a debt of gratitude to Rebellion for continuing to take this back catalogue of classic characters to new audiences through both the Treasury of British Comics reprints and these reboots. After all, it’s something we could have only dreamed of ten years ago and 2020 promises far more in the way of explorations of that treasure trove of comics concepts.
Ram V, Garth Ennis, Henry Flint, Quint Amity, Zina Hutton (W), Henrik Sahlström, Mike Dorey, Jake Lynch, Dan Lish, Staz Johnson (A), Jim Boswell, John Charles (C), Petitcreme, Rob Steen, Simon Bowland, Agent PC (L) • Rebellion, £4.99
Review by Andy Oliver