Thursday, February 07, 2008
February 7th 1976: ACTION vs BULLET
On Saturday February 7th 1976 the two major UK comics publishers of the time went head to head launching two competing titles. IPC released Action and, on the same day, D.C. Thomson published Bullet.
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: