The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that, uncharacteristically, some facts crept into this one; largely in the bit about how The Man stamped on ACTION’s neck. I am indebted for these facts to the book ACTION: THE STORY OF A VIOLENT COMIC by Martin Barker (Titan, 1990). I should have read it in full but I didn’t have time; any errors are mine and any facts are from Martin Barker’s book.
HOOK JAW#1 Art by Ramon Sola Written by Ken Armstrong (and Pat Mills) Coloured by Gary Caldwell, SMOgy and Kirtsy Swan Lettered by Jim Campbell Egmont (2013) comprising 22 "pages" (6 episodes) £1.43 KINDLE Edition
I once physically held a copy of the reprinted Hook Jaw in my hand and thought I’d leave it for later because, really, how much demand could there possibly be for some 1970s B&W kids comics about a shark? Now of course every time I go on-line and gaze tearfully at the prices that slim volume now fetches I am reminded that a) demand might be low for a comic but so might the print run and b) delayed gratification is not all it’s cracked up to be. However. However. Sometimes it turns out hanging on in there pays off because Hook Jaw was later gussied up for the new millennium and reprinted in STRIP magazine. I didn’t buy that mag but those strips are now available digitally in swift sharp jabs of low rent awesomeness. Well, the first shoal of those strips is out now. So, yeah, I snapped that up and now I’m a going to be yammering on about them. (SPOILER: I really liked ‘em!)
Before modern readers wade in it’s probably important to stress a few things about the strips in this digital package. First, they are episodic strips not full comics. This is because Hook Jaw originally appeared in the British children’s adventure strip periodical ACTION WEEKLY. ACTION was an anthology and Hook Jaw was only one of the features within so it had a limited amount of space, around three pages, to get in and get out and leave you feeling like something had happened. Folks used to reading today’s often snail paced forays into confused tedium may need to go carefully with these strips. No one wants today’s delicate sophisticates to end up staggering about puking on their shoes like sugar rushed kids fresh from a roller coaster with a broken speedo. Hook Jaw is high impact stuff, is what I’m getting at here. AGGRO! as at least one ACTION cover spat in Britain’s face. Yes, ACTION was AGGRO! alright. These are not polite strips because ACTION wasn’t a polite comic. Hook Jaw, appropriately enough then, comes to us from a brief slice of time when comics remained a little untamed. ACTION WEEKLY was born in 1976 and died in 1977 because while the kids were up for a ruck The Man bottled it! AGGRO! Sorry, ACTION, the comic, then, was the twisted brainchild of Pat Mills who had proved his mettle with his (and John Wagner’s) successful editorial midwifing of BATTLE PICTURE WEEKLY in 1973. So successful were those efforts that in 1975 IPC told him to go away and do that again, but differently. So Pat Mills did do that; John Sanders and others edited the weekly reality of Mills’ concept. The first issue was cover dated 14 February 1976, which is appropriate because if ever there was a valentine to all the dark little hearts of the children of 1970s Britain then ACTION WEEKLY was it.
As the title indicates ACTION had a much broader remit than BATTLE PICTURE WEEKLY. Mills’ brief here was to be more “realistic” and “contemporary”; terms which at this far more cultured remove are best understood as “brutally violent” and “the 1970s”. Since the kids had taken to BATTLE PICTURE WEEKLY it made sense that there’d be a WW2 strip to ease the little angels in. This was Hellman of Hammer Force and it might as well have appeared in BATTLE; it eventually would due to the terrible events which were soon to befall our plucky periodical. (Bit of suspense there; you’re welcome) Hellman, then, was the first strip about a “Good German” in the sense that he was noble and conflicted, but not good in the sense that he always followed orders; those were the “Bad Germans” and Hellman spent as much time battling them as he did the Allies. His gimmick was
jars of mayonnaise a big hammer. I know it sounds stupid but it worked . That’s key that, to all these ‘70s kids comics; the working bit. This one sop to the (perfectly reasonable) British inability to come to terms with WW2 aside most of the strips were cheekily direct, um, homages to all the ‘70s ultra-violent grown-up fare, rumours of which electrified playgrounds around this Sceptic Isle. ACTION took a while to settle in, so there are strips that didn’t make it but we’ll focus on the ones folks remember. I can’t cover everything but up at the top I did tell you about a book that does. Yes, I am lovely.
If you were seven years old you wouldn’t have seen Dirty Harry, but you would have heard about Dirty Harry. Even though the unreliability of the average 7 year old’s breathless recounting of Dirty Harry would make Patrick Bateman look like a reliable narrator you’d have got the gist of Dirty Harry. So when you opened up ACTION WEEKLY and read Dredger, well, let’s say you felt lucky, punk. So, yeah, since there’s no lawyers about - Dredger was Dirty Harry (1971) with a bit of espionage and class war chucked in, Death Game 1999 was Rollerball (1975) and Hook Jaw was Shampoo (1975). Oh, okay, it was Jaws (1975), obviously. (You’re no fun these days.) But it wasn’t all cinematic hand me downs. The comic also enjoyed subverting the typical Brit sport strip. I had to look these others up because, well, that glue didn’t sniff itself back then. It seems that Look Out For Lefty was a slightly harsher Roy of The Rovers (i.e. football AKA soccer) which nodded slightly more directly at reality. There was Blackjack, an apparently defiantly cheerless boxing strip which was accused of being a bit racist. Having survived the ‘70s I can’t imagine how racist something would have to have been to raise an eyebrow in the 1970s themselves. Issues of ACTION containing Blackjack must have actually been on fire with racist flames or something. Or maybe someone overreacted; that happens sometimes. And that’s what happened next. And it happened because of the hooliganism, the carnivorous shark, the violent cop, the sympathetic Jerry, the possibly racist boxing and also because of the Kids. Which is odd because the strip claimed The Kids Rule OK. Ironically of all the strips in ACTION The Kids Rule OK was the one which pointed to the future of British children’s weekly adventure strip periodicals because it was set in the future (1986! Crikey!). A future which ACTION didn’t have much of but its successor 2000AD would go on to define.
ACTION didn’t have a future because in a time displaced echo of the ‘50s Wertham brouhaha which kicked the feet from under EC comics in particular, and gelded the US comics industry more generally, someone decided they knew what was best. Flashpoint occurred with Carlos Ezquerra’s now infamous AGGRO! cover coupled with, inside, a pic of a bottle being thrown into a football crowd. Innocuous enough stuff now but back then it was blood in the water and The Man sharked for the kill. The problem with the cover was the plod’s hat on the right which allowed it to be interpreted as the kid giving a copper a good chaining. Meanwhile, in the pages of Look Out For Lefty, Lefty’s girlfriend threw a bottle at some kids in a football crowd which was unfortunate as violence was staining the real-life terraces of Britain at this time. Chaining coppers and condoning hooliganism wasn’t something people were comfortable with their kids seeing. At least they weren’t when the tabloids of the time told them it wasn’t. These “news” papers had started to kick up a fuss with ACTION’s second issue and kept a completely ethical eye, I’m sure, on ACTION thereafter. Famously, The Sun ( “an ethical dunny”, said an unnamed source) dubbed ACTION “the sevenpenny nightmare” but The Sun wasn’t alone in its concerns on the behalf of the British public. Many of these bastions of journalistic integrity were the types who would later condemn Dennis Potter’s “filth” by going into great detail about said “filth”, printing pictures of said “filth” but, strangely, omitting any artistic context in which said “filth” may have been couched. Their pages were buxom with journalism concerning pressing issues of the day such as a top glamour model’s nights of passion with, say, John Inman (“I was Being Served! Five Times A Night!”) and had so much familiarity with comics they would wheel out Denis Gifford as an expert. As nice a man as Denis Gifford probably was, when it came to 1970s comics he wasn’t so much out of touch as devoid of feeling all together. Unfortunately for ACTION there had also been a rise in moral bodies wishing to protect the tiny minds of children from, well, everything. This was the time of Mary Whitehouse, organisations like DOVE and a new Puritanism which thrived on uninformed fear and which would help Margaret Thatcher inflict herself on Britain.
At one point John Saunders was called to defend ACTION on Television in front of Frank Bough (who would be torn into by the tabloids later in his life); Saunders gave a good account for himself despite Bough ambushing him with questions other than those agreed upon. ACTION’s profile had been raised alright but not in a good way. I can’t verify what happened next but it seems one of ACTION’s major high-street stockists may (perhaps) have intimated a possibility that it might drop not only ACTION but all other IPC publications. (I’m not saying it was W H Smiths but it doesn’t seem to have been John Menzies.) There is no documentation of this but it seems not entirely impossible. Sometimes it’s the right word in the right ear from the right mouth and there’s no proof anything ever happened, M’Lud. After all, ACTION was profitable and popular and you don’t straight up and drop that because some folk are loud about their noses being put out of joint. Or maybe you did in the 1970s, it was a simpler time in some ways at least. Manipulating outrage was certainly in its infancy whereas today O! what hay could be made! Anyway, the initiating event remains unidentified but the 23 October issue of ACTION was pulped with the title returning to shops in a much diluted form on 27 November 1976. Due to this neutering and the loss of publishing momentum ACTION limped along at far lower sales until the inevitable occurred, and it was quietly ingested by BATTLE following its 5 November 1977 issue.
I know, I know, ACTION sounds like the best kids comic ever, and it was. FACT! But not for long. But while we had it? Well, Whitney, didn’t we almost have it all? Luckily nothing ever dies it just changes form. Particularly if you can make money off it. Which brings us here to 2014 and Hook Jaw #1. What was once blurrily printed on cheap paper is now digitally disinterred, disinfected and offered up for the eyes of the children of the children whose eyes originally recoiled in stunned wonder from the brute joys of Hook Jaw; the shark with a hook in its jaw. Although Ken Armstrong is credited with the writing Hook Jaw is clearly Pat Mills’ fault in essence. And it’s clear because Mills carried that essence across into the other two parts of what no one ever calls his Animal Aggro Trilogy™©. Regular readers will (as well as being wholly imaginary) recall the magic of 2000AD’s Shako! (“The only bear on the CIA death List…!”) which strip I have both reviewed and used to work out certain personal issues on this site in years past. That’s the one about the Polar bear with a bellyful of chemical warfare dispatching a bunch of foolish/hateful humans until a slightly rushed ending is forced on him by poor reader feedback. People with debatable taste may well have killed Shako! but Shako! died…WELL! Hook Jaw is very much like an early version of Shako! in that it is a rougher version of the same template. Hook Jaw, however, benefits from the shaky narrative energy of inexperience and the , quite frankly, fucking ridiculous levels of violence displayed. There’s some horrid stuff in Shako! but Hook Jaw is just taking the piss. And the bladder and the whole lower half of some poor screaming bastard. Hook Jaw doesn’t muck about; he’s in it to kill it. Mostly in this “issue” Hook Jaw is killing it around an oil rig in the Bahamas. When he’s not working on his tan anyway. This oil rig plays the same pivotal role as the Time Centre would in Mills’ et al’s Flesh in 2000AD; that is, it is the hub around which the carnage is centred and is also a capitalistic enterprise which values lucre over human life. Flesh is of course the best ever strip about Time Travellers Dressed As Cowboys Harvesting The Dinosaurs Into Extinction. Sure it’s all From Hell, Human Diastrophism, Starstruck and American Flagg! if I’m out in polite society but left to my own devices, yes, Neil and Chris, I probably would. Opt for Flesh, that is. Because the heart wants what the heart wants and the heart wants Flesh.
As does Hook Jaw and what Hook Jaw wants Hook Jaw gets. Some people say Hook Jaw acts as a kind of moral arbiter meting out punishment only upon the guilty, but that’s just hogwash; they wish that were true. Early on in the strip there’s a boaty postman with the worst route in the world (an oil rig surrounded by sharks! Super!) who gets minced and so does his kid (we don’t actually see the kid get it; this visual omission is kindness in the world of Hook Jaw). I’ve thought about this and, other than a really severe penalty for illegally taking his kid to work, I’m at a loss as to how Hook Jaw has provided me with moral instruction there. Hook Jaw is , in fact, instructive; it introduced kids to the phenomenon of nitrogen narcosis and accompanied it with a picture of a man surfacing so fast he actually explodes in a shower of scientifically valid gore. Thanks to Ramon Sola’s artistic offences to the page Hook Jaw’s gore is pretty fruitily represented throughout. The fact that the silliness of what’s on view only hits after the involuntary retching has subsided is testament to the Spaniard’s talent for traumatising tableaux. There’s something raw about everything he draws and his pages are all about maximum impact. Every page is busy and brash but always clear because he wants you to see every screaming face and every bone protruding from every leg snapped like a breadstick. Except for the odd mis-step where a shark looks to be above the water the colouring and restoration work well; it sands down some of the roughness, sure, but to eradicate all the thrilling crudity someone else would have to redraw it from scratch. Decades later and Sola’s savagery still shines through this slick technological sheen like a shark tooth slips through wet skin. A lot of things happen to Hook Jaw in this “issue” and Hook Jaw happens to a lot of folk. To say more would spoil the fun. But remember, gentle reader, these are high impact strips. They are like someone abseiling down your cranium, smashing through your eyes, spraying your brain with tear gas, bellowing GO! GO! GO! and then….they are gone. Subtlety, nuance and sophistication are worn lightly by Hook Jaw. Look, he’s a shark not a poet. He’s Hook Jaw; the shark with a hook in his jaw. And he’s VERY GOOD!
Anyway, we delivered the – COMICS!!!!