Comics based on successful toy ranges invariably please everyone. The toy manufacturer gets a weekly advert for their product range, the comic publisher gets increased publicity and sales and the kids get to read about their favourite characters and then act out the scenes for real with their action figures. Only mum and dad seem to suffer when it comes to the annual Christmas demand for the latest tank, aircraft or morphing robot. In the 1980s, British comics based on toy ranges included Marvel UK’s Transformers and Spiderman and Zoids and IPC / Fleetway’s Mask and Supernaturals. There were also several toy-inspired stories in Eagle including ‘Robo Machines’ and ‘Manta Force.’ One of the most popular and enduring toy-inspired comics, however, was Battle Action Force.
The Palitoy Action Force toys were a smaller version of the successful Action Man range, similar in scale to the highly prolific Star Wars figures. Released in 1982, the first wave of Action Force characters were based on real historical soldiers and toys in that first range included a British Royal Marine and a German Stormtrooper from World War Two. In 1983, a second generation of figures was released. Action Force was now a modern, crack military team consisting of four separate units. On land - SAS Force and Z Force. At sea - Q Force. In outer space - Space Force. Their enemies were the terrorist organisation the Red Shadows, led by the evil Baron Ironblood and his deputy the Black Major. Many of the second wave figures were made from the same moulds as the original run (hence, the Red Shadows looked a little like the German Stormtroopers) and moulds were also borrowed from the American GI Joe range of toys, made by Hasbro.
IPC’s Battle comic, which had been running under various titles since 1975, was the perfect home for an Action Force strip. In June 1983, the publication began a four part Action Force story which, although primarily a promotion for the Action Force toy range, can in retrospect be seen as a pilot strip for what was to come. The story was a hit and five colourful Action Force mini-comics were subsequently given away free in various IPC comics including Battle itself, Eagle and 2000AD (a trick which would be repeated a few years later when Supernaturals was launched). From October 1983, under the editorship of Terry Magee, Action Force joined Battle full time and the comic became… Battle Action Force. The first issue of Battle Action Force, cover dated 8 October 1983, featured a SAS Force cover and had three Action Force stories within its pages, establishing the template for future issues. Interestingly, one of the Action Force strips, ‘Operation Bloodhound’, was in colour on the centre pages of the comic, with Battle regulars like ‘Johnny Red’ and ‘Charley’s War’ consigned to black and white pages elsewhere.
‘Operation Bloodhound’ was drawn by Geoff Campion who would become an Action Force regular and, intriguingly, the first episode featured a picture of Baron Ironblood’s unmasked face. For the majority of the character’s run, we would only see him through the filter of his metal mask - strange given that the mask issued with the Ironblood action figure was removable, meaning that every child in the land knew what his face looked like! The other two AF stories in the premier issue were ‘Desert Strike’, illustrated by Vanyo, featuring Z Force, and a story simply entitled ‘Q Force’ drawn by Jim Watson. Both Vanyo and Watson would, like Campion, have long runs on the Action Force stories and would be joined later by other artistic talent including Jim Bleach, Ron Turner and John Cooper. Regular writers would include Gerry Day, Ken Owen and James Nicholas. he ‘Q Force’ story was a flashback adventure explaining the origins of the AF character known as Shark. The supporting black and white Action Force strips would often take this format and the backstory of various AF characters would later be told. Incidentally, as there were four units of Action Force and only three story slots, each unit would be rested every so often so that a story related to another unit could be told.
James Nicholas recalls writing for Battle Action Force and other toy-based comics. ‘We were given a large amount (sometimes too much!) of background info about characters such as Ring Raiders, Action Force, MASK and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles from the toy companies… This was all very useful and helped the stories hugely. The main problem was that the stories usually had to be ‘vetted’ by the toy manufacturer which sometimes resulted in changes having to be made. I had to stick closely to what the toy company wanted and there was little room to try anything new or exciting. But despite this they were great fun to write… usually!’
A banner on the front cover of the 6 October 1984 edition declared that it was a ‘Big News Issue!’ From the following week the comic would, a little like Whizzer and Chips, be two comics in one - Battle and the Action Force pullout section. With its own cover, letters page and features in addition to the stories, Action Force was now effectively a comic in its own right. Not only that, but the first new look issue came with a free Baron Ironblood mask as well!
In January 1985, a new story, ‘World Enemy No.1’, brought big changes to the world of Action Force. In real life, Palitoy ceased producing Action Man toys and Action Force became a repackaged version of Hasbro's GI Joe. Action Force was united into one single team and Baron Ironblood and the Red Shadows replaced by a new foe - Cobra. In the story it was explained that Ironblood had changed his identity to become Cobra Commander, ditched the Red Shadows and recruited new troops. Hence the toys in the shops and the characters on the page continued to correspond. It was a masterful piece of marketing and made for a fine story in the process. Interestingly, the Red Shadows would return under the leadership of Ironblood’s former deputy, the Black Major, and the four original AF units which were, we were told, continuing to operate, would also make reappearances. It was a nice bit of continuity which rewarded long-time readers and made for some exciting story possibilities - the Black Major was somewhat miffed by Ironblood’s betrayal, to say the least!
In May and June 1985, there was an exciting run of free gifts in Battle Action Force including posters, stickers - and 3D glasses! Selected panels from the Action Force stories were shown in 3D, an experiment which had earlier been tried with the 1980s Eagle. The 24 May 1986 issue of Battle Action Force featured an interesting twist of events. Cobra was said to have taken over the comic and the words 'Action Force' were ruthlessly crossed out on the front cover. Cobra Commander oversaw the letters page, a position normally occupied by Action Force Sergeant Duke, and stories in the comic were told from Cobra’s point of view. Action Force was soon back in charge, however, and the stories were retold the following week from Action Force’s point of view!
June 1986 saw the beginning of a huge Action Force story, ‘Operation Deep Cover’, which it was promised would ‘show every aspect of the AF operation… On land, sea and in the air.’ Readers were asked to vote on who they wanted to win the final battle between the two old foes - Action Force or Cobra. The results of the ballot remain unknown. Either way, the Action Force stories ended in the 29 November 1986 issue with Cobra down but not necessarily out and Cobra Commander apparently insane. Battle Action Force became Battle once more, the rights to Action Force passing to Marvel UK. Their Action Force comic started in March 1987, combining reprints of American GI Joe strips with new stories from British creators. That, however, is another story…
There were still good times for Battle ahead. The comic changed to higher quality paper and a replacement for Action Force was dreamed up in the form of a new fighting team - Storm Force. Battle Group Editor Barrie Tomlinson remembers this time: ‘When we lost Action Force I had either to find a replacement or just carry on with the rest of Battle. We dreamed up Storm Force and spent a lot of time on creating characters and situations. I think we did so well that Storm Force would have made a great toy product. Richard Burton worked with me on creating Storm Force and the story proved to be a hit with the readers. Artwork by the Vanyo brothers was a big plus for the story. The other day I came across some of my original notes about Storm Force and found the documents to be fascinating. If only I could remember where I have put them…’ In early 1988, Battle merged with Eagle and some of the Battle stories continued to be reprinted for many years. The Action Force toys and comic strips continue to have a big fan following today, as evidenced by the successful fan website, Blood For The Baron. This continued interest pleases Barrie Tomlinson: ‘It's a great compliment to all the writers, artists and editorial staff who worked on the title.’
The Action Force characters are so popular, in fact, that an adapted version of the Red Shadows have appeared in the American GI Joe comics! Recently, there has of course been a GI Joe film allowing fans to see characters such as Cobra Commander and Destro on the big screen. The Action Force legacy lives on.
With thanks to Barrie Tomlinson.
Originally published in Crikey #16.
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