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Thursday, February 07, 2008

February 7th 1976: ACTION vs BULLET

Back in 1976 the two major UK comics publishers of the time went head to head launching two competing titles in the same week. IPC released Action on Saturday 7th February 1976 and, two days later, D.C. Thomson published Bullet No.1.

The two comics were clearly intended to rival each other. Previously, Thomson's had launched tough war comic Warlord, and IPC had followed with similarly gritty war title Battle Picture Weekly. With both war comics proving to be very successful the publishers decided that there was a market for a more edgier style of boys' comic than traditional fare such as Hostspur or Tiger.

How then, did Bullet and Action compare alongside each other? Both had the same price and format, - 32 pages for 7p, - and both had strong, attention grabbing covers. However, inside the comics it was evident from the outset that Action had the edge.

Bullet kicked off with an introduction page stating its remit: "packed with action fast and furious" and main character Fireball preparing the reader for his "super thrill-packed story" and "other rough tough action stories". It sounded a little polite compared to the unrestrained Action intro page: "Look Out! Action is deadly!", "ACTION is the paper of the '70s", and "Read it and get caught in the blast!". And while Bullet was tempting the readers with prizes of pocket calulators Action was enticing them with cash. And it even featured a photo of Steve McManus breathing fire. (Steve would later go on to edit 2000AD and is now in a managerial position at Egmont.)

Action's contents were brash and had a real sense of excitement to them. Amoral secret agent Dredger, violent crime story The Running Man, black boxer Blackjack, and of course killer shark Hook Jaw reflected the kind of tone that Seventies kids were getting accustomed to from other media such as film and tv.

Bullet wasn't as radical. Although not as staid as those in other Thomson adventure comics, the characters were not too different from traditional material. Lead strip Smasher, a giant menacing robot, wasn't exactly cutting edge, and main story Fireball, clocking in at 9 pages, owed more to Sixties icons Jason King and Simon Templar than Seventies star Dirty Harry.
Football strip Twisty was a little more street-cred though, featuring a teenage footballer "left with a slightly deformed leg after a car crash" who's often knocked about by his thieving Uncle. Vic's Vengeance was probably the closest to the promised "rough tough" mandate, about a teenager vowing revenge on the London gangsters who caused his Dad's death.
Compared to Action, Bullet still seemed to be playing it very safe. In tv terms Bullet was like Swap Shop compared to Action being like Tiswas. I've no idea if Bullet took more risks in subsequent weeks because I dropped it in favour of Action, which seemed to have its finger on the button. However, as we know, Action's increasing recklessness and violent content led to its undoing.

Kids were ready for a modern comic but the media saw it as a scapegoat for a more violent society. As with the anti-horror comics crusade of the 1950s, "concerned" parents and establishment rent-a-gobs found it easier to blame a comic for social problems than to look at the issues in a wider context. Presumably it gives such pious people a sense of closure if they convince themselves that forcing a comic off the shelves prevents crime, even though no evidence exists that comics ever caused juvenile deliquency. In fact, from experience I'd wager that the opposite is true: that most comic fans don't have criminal records, or show signs of violent tendencies. If anything, such comics offer a cathartic effect, not incite violence or abuse.

So who won the rivalry between Bullet and Action? For longevity, Bullet had the edge; 147 issues, merging with Warlord on December 2nd 1978. Action had run to just 36 issues before it was pulled off the shelves, and, returning two months later with less controversial content, ran for another 50 weeks before merging into Battle on November 12th 1977.

Today, the children's comics section of newsagents is tamer than ever before. With 2000 AD and even Panini's Marvel reprints moved to a higher shelf out of the reach of children in WH Smith, kids fare is little more than a rack full of tv-based activity magazines. Over thirty years on, the stories in Action still seem relevant and could easily appeal to 21st Century kids who enjoy dramatic video games. Perhaps the time is ripe for an Action revival, or something similar. Perhaps such a publication could make comics "cool" again for modern kids? If only a publisher would risk it...

For much more info on Action visit the fantastic Sevenpenny Nightmare website:


Anonymous said...

Lew, another spot on article. Bullet was safer and had the Noel Edmonds' safety net, but with Action, you knew that it was no-holds barred and that anything could happen and did.

Tim Perkins said...

Hi Lew,

Great Blog as usual!!!

I don't think today's version would need to be violent fare, just credible stories made relevant. But I totally agree with you in regards the publishers needing to make them "cool" for kids to read.

Back in 1999 when I tried to get a comic off the ground called "Ballistic" one of the keywords I used all the time was "Street-Cred".

The reason the comic got no further than it did was down to lack of input from half of the team of creatives. Folks like John Ridgway, Jon Haward, Alan Grant, Ferg Handley, Art Wetherell, Paul Roberts, my brother Chris, and maybe a couple of others, whose names escape me, without going to the files on Ballistic in my archives, were the only guys to produce the goods and what they did produce was brilliant!!!

The other guys who had always bemoaned the industry and spent most of the time in talks bickering about their rights sadly, produced "diddly-squat"!!!

My experience of trying to sort this kind of comic out is, that no matter how much some guys may say they want to do something, many times the extra work needed to produce the finished is sadly lacking.

I wonder whether the big publishers have tried to get other stuff off the ground in secret ready for a big launch, that we are unaware of, only to have it fall flat because of commitment on behalf of the publishers themselves, the creative teams, or both because of a lack of original, or innovative content?

The work that came out of the short-lived Ballistic period from the above named guys would have fit into exactly the position that you are looking at here in your Blog.

It’s like I have said before if we, as the creatives don’t enjoy the stuff we are producing then that will show with the readers too…and it ain’t gonna sell!!!

If we as the creators of these comics don't make them appear to be indispensable for the kids then they are hardly likely to pick them up, at least in the long term.

But maybe, just maybe someone will eventually have the enormous amount of money it would take to launch such a venture in the right way, with great content and the right team to make it work…well we can still hope can’t we.


Lew Stringer said...

Hi Tim,
Good comment. I have some sympathies to an extent though with creators who won't produce work free on spec. Particularly when most publishers today aren't interested in doing new comics. Then there's the retail giants to convince, and they only want "lifestyle magazines" based on toys or tv shows apparently.

It'll be interesting to see what DFC offers when it's launched.

Tim Perkins said...

Hi Lew,

Difference here was everyone was going to get an equal share of the profits.

The work wasn't really being done on spec as we would have had investors.

I had already spoken to some guys and knew we could get our hands on money, but I really wanted it to launch with a big splash, hence looking to the big investors.

It always amazes me that comics guys will do enormous amounts of spec work or samples as we call 'em ...;))... for the American comics and yet won't for a chance at doing their own stuff.

Some folks I knew weren't prepared to put the time into the ballistic project, despite them being a big reason for trying it in the first place, yet some folks will work for free for the same reasons for smaller publishers, who we all know don't pay, or folks like Image, who only pay after all the bills are sorted out.

We are almost ten years away from the days of ballistic now, so things have changed even more drastically then we saw them in those days. I agree completely, the publishers won't risk money and the retailers drain publishers' money.

We have to hope that someone will come along with the same mindset as hit football (Soccer) back when the Premiership was launched. Money was invested and suddenly the track was changed, All seater stadiums, which brought kids back to the games. As it was even more "street-cred" again the kids began to wear the replica kits etc.

The same kind of marketing was used with the video games machines and trainers and designer clothes for kids. Okay massive investment, but then again, massive returns.

I think the trouble is too many bad attempts at new comics launches here in the UK, the high costs of production, down to the cost of distribution and the fact so many years have gone by that the investment would have to be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions for the launch to be successful, only a major investor would be able to do this.

But again, like we said, before we can but dream.

All of the above reasons are why I set up as I did in 2005 with Wizards Keep, rather than go to another publisher to produce the work I am presently working on.

Best as always,

Anonymous said...

An interesting little compare-and-contrast; certainly I'd agree with the broad strokes of the (what is now a fairly) orthodox DC Thomson = safe/IPC = edgy narrative. But I do recall a distinct trend from the Dundonian crew, from the late 70s to mid-80s, where boys' titles were moving more into morally ambiguous territory. 'The Crunch' in particular comes to mind, and 'Buddy' and 'Champ' - comics where strips weren't always about heroes and villains, but shades in between. Stories which played around with linear forms.

But I think I'd definitely have to concede that overall the exceptions prove the rule.

In the humour titles though, I think things were more evenly matched into the 80s - 'Nutty' certainly pushed things forward I think, whereas I'm not sure IPC managed a genuinely good new title since the 'Whoopee'-'Krazy'-'Cheeky' axis, relying instead on the more derivative, MOR 'W&C'/'Buster' style knock-offs ('Nipper', 'Wow'), or else niche-launching in the extreme ('School Fun')... Again, exceptions prove the rule - 'Oink' (obviously...).

But speaking as a punter, I gave everything a go. I don't ever think I favoured one house over the other, because in each resided runts and champions. That said, the feel was always different, from the signatures/no signatures; handlettered/stencilled or typeset; splodgy rich colour/muted spot colour; thick, raggy, fat pages/flimsy, skinny, guillotined pages; stapled/glued... So perhaps overall I had more of an affinity for the rough-and-ready, matey, personable titles which IPC put out. DC Thomson annuals were pretty uniformly superior though (at least till the mid-80s!

Crikey, what an anal and uninteresting response I've just churned out - sorry! Great blog though :-)

Anonymous said...

i kinda like what colcool said about noel edmonds and a safety net, he'd have done well to heed that opportunity a few years down the line. a good analogy though, i was thoroughly action and tiswas, not bullet and swap shop.

thanks for the weblink. may i just pick a small hole? although they had the same cover price, bullet ran to 36 pages over action's 32. this was probably because bullet was a letterpress title and had only one accession to colour, which was to plaster a bit of red here and there. action was originally in the vastly superior web offset format and used full colour on four pages (sometimes more).

chalk and cheese, but highlighted the changing face of IPC after battle and pre-2000ad, as opposed to thompson's safe hands approach. despite the hype, neither warlord nor bullet were really any match for their IPC counterparts.

keep up the good work!

Hypersonic said...

Action was the comic for me, though my little brother got Bullet. Wasn't Hook Jaw written by Alan Grant?

Gavin Burrows said...

Bizarrely, its like the covers are the wrong way round. The Bullet cover is much more dynamic!

Lew Stringer said...

Yes, that is a great cover it must be said. Bullet had quite a few dynamic covers. Thomsons were very good in that area.

Unknown said...

any idea who the cover artist for Bullet #6 was?

Lew Stringer said...

No idea, Dennis, sorry. I don't have that issue.

Unknown said...

What a great post and insight ...Oh if only a publisher somewhere would take a chance with a new concept of comic again like they did in those days. But alas i think times and generations have changed . Without sounding like an old git our chidhoods from what i see were vastly different from the chidhoods of todays with internet and social media. I would say all contributors to these blogs are roughly the same age and look back with great fond memories of the days when reading comics were our main pass time and kept our generation so content .Thats why i love what the Treasury is doing reprinting and trying to encourage an interest in comics again its totaly rejuvenated me and bought me back into a world that i loved. Thank you for that Lew brilliant blog

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks. There have been many changes since the 1970s that no longer make the traditional way of selling comics feasible.
1) Modern generations haven't developed the habit of going to the local newsagent to look through comics.
2) Most newsagents have become mini-markets and print periodicals are low on their list of priorities when they can make more money from booze.
3) Retail giants like Smiths and Asda now charge for shelf space, which didn't happen generations ago.
4) All of that has led to sales falling, unit costs rising, cover prics rising, making comics less affordable.

While I enjoy a nostalgic look back I think it's important not to stay stuck in the past. Comics have always evolved, and these days the graphic novel is the popular format. We can no longer judge the state of the industry by the few items we see in newsagents, because graphic novels are on sale in bookshops and from online sellers. True, the industry is smaller and less prosperous than it was (as are many industries) but there are still lots of comic strips being produced.

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