TITLE: Hookjaw Classic Collection
WRITERS: Pat Mills & Ken Armstrong
ARTISTS: Ramon Sola, Felix Carrion, Juan Arancio, Eric Bradbury & Jim Bleach
PUBLISHER: Titan Comic
FORMAT: Hardback, 29.5cm x 22cm colour + black and white 158 page book
PRICE: UK £29.99 US $34.99 CAN $45.99
Britain's 'Action' comic should not be confused with the American comic of the same name that featured to first appearance of Superman. IPC's 'Action' was a UK anthology comic for boys that first appeared on Valentine's Day 1976. It was part of a new breed of adventure comic which were aiming their stories at a slightly older readership than comics had up to that point… more teenagers than the under tens. The team behind 'Action'… John Wagner, Steve McManus and Pat Mills had just launched 'Battle' for IPC and were about to go onto create the ever popular '2000AD'. 'Action' took the approach of taking ideas from popular (and quite adult) mainstream movies of the day and putting it's own spin on them.
Undoubted star of the comic was 'Hookjaw', heavy influenced by Steven Spielberg's shark thriller 'Jaws' (which had been a hit only a year before.) The difference was that whereas Spielberg's monster Great White had to be dispatched at the end of the feature, 'Hookjaw' was an on-going strip and the killer shark had to survive and thrive. This led to 'Hookjaw' being presented as a kind of shark-hero in the strip (if sharks read comics, 'Hookjaw' would be their 'Superman'!)
This monster shark gets his name from the billhook that is left jutting out from his chin by an encounter with fishermen in the first episode. This spear and the mis-shappen fin on his back keep him distinctive from any other sharks featured in the strip.
Although the strip presents us with many villainous humans for Hookjaw to chow-down on, the star of the strip doesn't restrict his diet to only the black hats… He gets to eat heroes, villains and the innocent along the way. He is a sort of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers of the deep. Stalking, killing and eating his way through the oceans of the world. And like those horror movie bogeyman he is just as unstoppable. Shot, stabbed, impaled, run-down, bombed… even hauled ashore… nothing seems to kill him or even slow him down.
Where Spielberg's film had been a thriller, 'Hookjaw' was a horror movie in serialised comic strip form. Each weekly episode features him killing someone in new and graphic ways. Often in 'Action's colour middle pages the waters and the pages run literal red. People are bitten in two… Legs, arms heads go missing… or even worse… float free from the beast's jaws. There is a gleeful humour to all this gore in much the same way '2000AD' and many strips by Garth Ennis capitalise on. It's so over-the-top that it can't possibly be taken seriously.
Much has been made of 'Hookjaw's environmental agenda, but I think this is stretching a point really. It's true the first strip does feature a villainous oil rig owner who cares nothing for how much he pollutes, but this is more by way of giving us a bad guy to jeer at. By the second adventure the green agenda is much less clear, by the third story it has disappeared completely and the villains are merely robbers.
These strips were written in the mid-seventies and as such they are a product of their time. With that in mind I must call out the rather embarrassing racism in the second adventure. Set on a Caribbean island with some black characters who are not just disparaged by the villains (which would have been fair-enough social commentary), but are presented in an unflattering light by the writer. They speak in poor English, they refer to white people as 'Masa' (master) and worst of all are continually (and without correction at any point) referred to as 'natives'. Black people are no more native to the Caribbean than the white people! In defence of the writer of these episodes, this is all done out of ignorance rather than hate. Still, if I had been Pat Mills writing his new introduction for this book, I would have wanted to put this all into some sort of context and perhaps make my apologies for it (but he doesn't mention it.)
Anyway it all came crashing down for 'Action' when the newspapers started campaigns against it. The 23rd October 1976 edition was printed… but never made it to the newsagents. Most of the print run was pulped and if you have a copy of it, it fetches very high prices today. When the comic returned on 4th December 1976 it had been gutted as effectively as one of Hookjaw's victims. The violence, gore and anti-establishment style of the comic had been totally removed. The killer shark was now only allowed to kill bad guys and then only out-of-shot. The fun had gone out of it too and within a year 'Action' was merged with 'Battle' and 'Hookjaw' was gone completely.
There are a couple of misleading blurbs on this book, which I must make potential buyers aware of. Firstly, the cover reads 'The complete original series!' This is not true. Of the original run this book only reprints the first three 'Hookjaw' serials (along with a strip from the 1976 'Action Summer Special' and one from the 1977 'Action Annual'.) The regular strips in this volume end with the 4th December episode, but the strip continued on for another year (admittedly with Hookjaw only bloodlessly eating people behind rocks!)
Also this book declares several times that the 'Lost Pages' were 'Not previously published'. These are the uncensored pages which featured in the banned issue and those that were intended to follow it. Great though it is to have these revealing pages included in the book, most of them have indeed seen print before in Martin Barker's 'Action: The Story of a Violent Comic' from this very same publisher. A better way of putting it would have been to say that these pages were 'Not originally published'. Still, there is a least one page I hadn't seen before.
I would recommend 'Hookjaw Classic Collection' with some reservations. This is a fantastic look at a crazy time in British comic history and the stories are so over-the-top as to be laugh-out-load funny… But if the dated racism in it will up-set you… This is best avoided.
Reviewed by John A. Short