Tuesday 2 June 2015

Action: The Story of a Violent Comic by Martin Barker (Titan Books, 1990) Feat. Kids Rule OK

There was quite a bit of excitement in British comics circles – and beyond – last week when an eBay auction got underway for a copy of the 23 October 1976 issue of short-lived ultra-violent 1970s weekly British kids' anthology comic Action; within days it had sailed past the thousand pound mark and eventually sold for just north of £2,500 – a remarkable sum considering the issue before it, dated 16 October 1976, offered by the same seller, went for just under sixty quid. But this wasn't just any issue of Action: the 23 October issue was the last one before Action went on hiatus – the comic resumed publication over a month later but in a watered-down form – and the vast majority of copies were pulped, with only a few dozen known to have survived.

A censored version of that 23 October issue formed the basis of the post-hiatus 4 December issue, but at least some of the comic strips appeared as originally intended fourteen years later in this book:

Action: The Story of a Violent Comic, published in hardback by Titan Books in 1990. Compiled and written by Professor Martin Barker, the 288-page book details the history of the comic The Sun newspaper dubbed "The Sevenpenny Nightmare" and presents large chunks of key stories Hookjaw – a blood-soaked blatant Jaws rip-off – Death Game 1999 – a blood-soaked blatant Rollerball rip-off – and Look Out for Lefty – an underclass take on Roy of the Rovers – as well as a small selection of strips from spy thriller Dredger.

Best of all it reprints in its all-too-brief entirety the brutal Kids Rule OK, a bovver-booted dystopia which envisions a world where the adults have all largely carked it and gangs of feral youth reign supreme. Written by Jack Adrian – an alias of Chris Lowder – and drawn by Mike White, the story owes an obvious debt to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, something Adrian acknowledged in his initial notes for the series, as quoted by Martin Barker. But an even more apposite antecedent is Dave Wallis's 1964 novel Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the adults also cark it – at their own hands in this instance – and the unruly teens take over.

Unfortunately, in the years since its publication Action: The Story of a Violent Comic has become almost as elusive as that 23 October issue of Action: there are only around a dozen copies available online at present, and the cheapest of those is nearly sixty quid (most are more like £90 to £100). When I was in charge of the graphic novels department at Titan in the mid-2000s I remember there being a single copy of the book tucked away on the shelves in the library room behind where I sat, and I must admit I did occasionally entertain the notion of 'borrowing' it. In the end, though, I left it where it was (it may even still be there).

Happily, earlier this year I chanced upon a pristine copy in Dave's Books, the next-door-but-one back issue department of Dave's Comics in Brighton, priced at just nine pounds. Which just goes to show that good things eventually come to those who, er, elect not to thieve.