Let's take another trip back in time and review a single issue of an old British comic.
Previously I have looked at the humour comics which were my childhood favourites and a couple of girls' comics which were utterly alien to me until adulthood, now I'm looking at another genre I had little interest in before: Boys' comics.
Though written and drawn by mostly the same people, British comics for boys were very different from those for girls. Where girls had stories of bullied children kept away from their ponies or indentured servants who want to be ballerinas, boys had war. Usually stories set in the Second World War. Big stories about menly men giving Jerry what for.
My choice here is the first issue of Battle-Action!
This is not actually a first issue, per se, it is the next issue of Battle, after Action was merged into it.
Battle was an IPC comic that ran from 1975 to 1988, originally called Battle Picture Weekly until a canny editor noticed that made it sound like a throwback to older "your dad's" comics. It had a more modern sensibility than other, similar comics on sale at the time, even absorbing the long-running Valiant (1962-1976) when that title started losing sales.
After the merger with Action it went from strength to strength with a notable high point being Charley's War, a realistic and extremely well-researched journey the whole of the First World War told from the perspective of a young man (he is sixteen at the start) becoming increasingly disillusioned. It was written by comics legend Pat Mills and drawn by Joe Colquhoun (of Roy of the Rovers) and is available in a series of graphic novels by Titan.
Soon, however, problem started to set in. In 1983 the publisher struck a deal with Palitoy, the comany that owned GI Joe, and space was given over to reprint GI Joe comics.
Now GI Joe never took off in the UK for some reason, which is a shame as I know what a touchstone it is for American boys who grew up in the 80s. Over here the comics, the cartoons and the toys were renamed Action Force, maybe because "GI" was a specifically American term, maybe to make Brits associate them with Action Man, a popular toy line that was linked thematically if not legally.
The comic was renamed Battle Action Force until 1986 when Marvel UK got the rights to GI Joe and started publishing its own Action Force comic. Battle limped along with its own rip-off Storm Force until January 1988.
As for Action.... Hoo boy, that's a story for another time.
Short version: two of the freelancers whose work on Battle had made it a best-seller (the afore-mentioned Pat Mills and future Dredd co-creator John Wagner) were hired to create a new boys' comic for the modern world and today's boys. The result was an exciting blend of tough guys, hyper-violence and killer sharks. Most stories were set firmly in the present, though some were still at war and some in dystopian futures.
The result: high sales, huge enjoyment and a tabloid "Ban this sick filth" backlash. A threat of boycott by WH Smith meant the editors were forced to pull back on what made it exciting in the first place and sales dropped so much that the title ended with some rescued strips carrying over to Battle.
Or should I say Battle-Action? For that is where we start today!
As you can see from the contents page above, we are promised 7 powerful hard-hitting stories! So let's Jump in to Story 1: Major Eazy.
Created for Battle from the start by writer Alan Hebden and aritist (and other co-creator of Dredd) Carlos Ezquerra, Eazy is a tough no-nonsense fighter who always went into battle in a chauffeur-driven Bentley.
Above you can see him driving while his companion (at this point a Bedouin called Tewfik) mows down a bunch of Jerries with ease.
It's worth noting that in spite of Tewfik calling the Major "El Eazy" and "effendi" it is still refreshing to see an Arab character on the heroic side, even as a sidekick. This is historically acceptable too, as this story starts off in North Africa (date unknown but early in the war).
However we are about to move...
Typical hothead hero who won't play the rules.
Hilariously he insists on taking his car with him.
Shortly after docking in Greece, Eazy sees something suspicious beneath the water...
Spotting two Italian scuba divers planting a bomb on the ship, he does the only thing he can with only one harpoon....
It's too late to stop the bomb, so Eazy makes sure the priority objective is achieved. Saving his car.
This 4-page strip was fun! It bodes well for the the rest of this issue.
Now, a paid message from Palitoy.
The next 3-page strip is Johnny Red, by Tom Tully and the aforementioned Joe Culquhoun. The strip is surtitled "The pilot who can't fly for Britain!" His backstory (from previous issues of Battle) is that he was dishonourably discharged from the RAF and ended up in Russia with a stolen Hurricane, fighting Nazis from the other side.
This strip opens at one of history's greatest tragedies: Stalingrad.
All right, keep it light...
A caption tells us it is May 1942 (and also calls it Leningrad) and we see Johnny (known to the locals as "'Djavol' - The Red Devil!") saving some civilians from an aerial attack.
Tales of his heroism do not sit well with him, however and he slips into uneasy dreams...
A vision of death haunts him as he is called out to another mission...
To Be Continued...
Next up, a message from the Airfix Modellers Club, and its Club President, the man with the sandpaper penis.
On now to Hellman of Hammer Force. Or, more accurately, The Early Adventures of... Hellman of Hammer Force.
Hellman was created for Action by Gerry Finley-Day and Mike Dory and was unique (as far as I'm aware) in British war comics heroes because he was (drum roll) German!
Even though the text make it clear he is not a Nazi and has no affiliation to the German war effort, it was still too confusing for some readers.
"How is it that a German can be a hero?" was the thought of one reader's letter. And the publicity blurbs in the comics themselves still referred to him as a "Squarehead" and a "Kraut".
This story, however, takes place years before the Action strips, giving us the Secret Origin of Hellman (heir to the mayonnaise fortune).
Here "Hun" is not meant pejoratively, it is the name of the commander of the tank division, rolling into Poland in September 1939. They come across a Polish cavalry on horseback and all tanks are commanded to fire on them. Hellman disobeys because of how unfair it is and after the the Poles are obliterated he is disciplined.
That evening the soldiers have celebratory drinks in a stable in a nearby village to which Hellman and his crew are not invited.
All of the tank division but Hellman's crew are wiped out and when an unarmed Hellman stumbles into the stable he takes whatever comes to hand as a weapon. Fortunately what comes to hand is a massive sledgehammer.
With Hun dead, Hellman is promoted to Major and put in command of the division, which he now renames "Hammer Force".
Now, have you ever imagined having Yogi Bear to tell you the time? Me too!
Not going to lie, I would wear that Hong Kong Fooey watch today.
The centre pages are given over to part one of a giant 4-part poster featuring aircraft through the ages. The large image in the centre you can see on the cover at the top of the page, but I'll present the three World War II planes on this week's quarter in full for those who like that kind of thing:
There's an ad for Cheeky on the next page (with what looks like Dicky Howett art)...
...below which is this exciting ad for Airfix Eagles, a new kind of modelling from the company...
...and the page is completed with the rules to Spinball...
Ah, yes, Spinball. Originally titled Death Game 1999, it was one of the strips in Action that caught the eye of the moral guardians. Essentially a rip-off of the movie Rollerball, with bits of Death Race 2000 thrown in, it tells of a future in which criminals are forced to play in a deadly team sport with motorbikes and huge steel balls for the entertainment of the masses. Some elements seem to prefigure The Running Man too.
Conceived by Geoff Kemp but written by Tom Tully, it was drawn by various artists (I can't say for sure who drew this issue's strip but I'm guessing Costa who seemed the closest thing to a regular artist it had).
The strip was renamed The Spinball Wars to appease the professionally outraged and on its arrival here in Battle-Action we get an introduction to this far off world of 2001. It's always funny seeing predictions of a future that is now our past, so let's have a chuckle at how wrong it is...
"By the year 2001 the world had still to find a formula for total global peace. Rival dictatorships still clashed in short, isolated wars, and people still suffered and died for a thousand different causes... Border clashes
That was the world of 2001.
It's spot on.
How unbelievably depressing.
Anyway, we press on with a game already in progress.
So, we're kicking off with violence. Lovely.
A quick info dump on our protagonist before we're introduced to the whole team individually, my favourite is Steel.
"In the 1970s, his left eye, and his left arm, would have been termed bionic..." but we're not saying that so don't sue us.
(Aside: Too many commas in the captions here)
A twist to the story up to now to show the strip is moving on as it moves house as the stadium explodes! But before anything can happen to the team, an SPV from Captain Scarlet arrives.
*Edit* A reader points out that this vehicle is much closer in design to SHADO 2 from UFO and they are not wrong. It's copyright-infringingly close. Viddy:
They are whisked away and given a demonstration of some brand new equipment...
But who are these benefactors and what do they want? And why?
The above ad shares space with the following message for readers:
Ah, Captain Hurricane. By now, the only surviving character from Valiant, created in 1962 by Charles Roylance, his more whimsical adventures had been driven further and further out of place as war stories got grittier and so was relegated to the letters page when Battle absorbed Valiant.
Next up: Joe Two Beans!
Originally created for Battle by John Wagner and Eric Bradbury, he is introduced here as "Indian fighter Joe Two Beans" which took me a moment to parse. He doesn't fight Indians, he is an Indian who fights. He's not from India, he's a Native American (Blackfoot to be precise).
Apparently for the first eleven issues he didn't speak (I'm guessing because Wagner had just watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) but by now he's talking um heap big dialect. He's not exactly Little Plum but it's not much better. At the start of this week's strip he's in a company in New Guinea with his "blood brother" Sawdust Smith whom he is about to save from a snake!
And Native Americans use the whole snake...
However, when some Japanese fighters fly in out of nowhere, Joe is forced to use the snake as a makeshift lasso!
Those sneaky Japanese are destroying aircraft carriers with "a fanatical suicide group known as kamikaze... or divine wind", the one pilot they capture alive does not stay that way for long ("Crazy Nip! He jest shot himself")
Joe is assigned a new partner to infiltrate an enemy base on Pointless favourite the Solomon Islands.
Joe immediately takes against the new guy for racist reasons.
To be continued...
I like that a lot, setting up stories to challenge prejudices. Also this story will now have both protagonists non-white. Which is very rare.
I didn't mention earlier but every story ends with an exciting strap line telling us how great Battle-Action is. I'll include the one from this page:
See, a lot of the personnel from Battle and Action had recently collaborated on the brand new comic 2000AD which made a big deal out of its "Thrill Power!"
Next up, another well-remembered Action hero: Dredger! I'm including the whole first page of his story, cos it's awesome.
Oh yes, Britain's got Dredger!
Dredger was James Bond as filtered through Dirty Harry. He was tough, no nonsense (yes, I know, it's the remit for a lot of these characters) and gave little boys of the 70s what they wanted. Created by Geoff Campion but written and drawn by many people (I don't have credits for this story).
Someone is targeting members of the agency to which Dredger belongs (DI6). In fact the explosion above has just taken out Breed, who, up till now, was Dredger's sidekick!
When his boss tells him to leave the case, he makes like Bond and goes rogue.
Except Bond never punched out M and then hung him out of a window with tied-together sheets until he gave up his information!
The whole thing ends on a cliffhanger as Dredger returns home to a booby trap...
To be continued!
The strap line on this page might solve our Trident problem:
Finally, we have The Sarge, a pipe-smoking Sergeant in North Africa (1942) who we keep being told is the best.
This proved trickier to research (no, Google, I don't mean the WWE wrestler) but I think the art is by Mike Western.
It is, however, the weakest story in the issue so it's a shame it's the last. Some nice depiction of mine-clearing machinery aside it had nothing to recommend it.
So that was Battle-Action. A more fun read than I was expecting, to be honest. And I have the next few issues so will read on to find out what happens next!
I'll leave you with the back page ad, a reminder that once every few years, yo-yos come back into fashion. When I was at school they were "Coca-Cola Spinners" and in 1977 you could get a "Treborland Yo-yo and Trick Book" by saving up sweet wrappers.