In the mid-1970s, Action was the most infamous comic on the market – loved by kids, hated and eventually forced into capitulation and cancellation by hysterical adults. Action had plenty of ultra-violent strips – it was apocalyptic story Kids Rule OK (or more accurately, a cover image for the strip) that finally did for the comic – but the most popular was Hookjaw.
Like many a strip in British comics at the time, Hookjaw was shamelessly inspired by hit movies of the day, in this case the biggest hit of them all, Jaws. Yet just as other strips in Action and, later, 2000AD took their initial inspiration from the likes of Dirty Harry, Rollerball, Rocky and The Six Million Dollar Man only to swerve off into their own distinct direction, so Hookjaw lifted the basics from Jaws – in this case a man-eating killer shark – and then became something very different. For a start, it gave its shark a personality – and in many ways, it made him the hero of the piece, pitting him against environmentally and just plain mentally unsound villainous characters who readers counted the weeks waiting to see eaten. With the cynical, no-nonsense script by Pat Mills and the gritty artwork of Ramon Sola, Hookjaw became the unquestioned highlight of the comic – the Judge Dredd of Action.
This new collection of original Hookjaw strips opens with Great White Death, an origin story that appeared in the Action Summer Special shortly before the comic was emasculated. This origin story shows how the shark developed at taste for human flesh and received the steel hook that gave him his name. It’s extraordinary, savage stuff – in the space of one page alone, a character has his head bitten off and another loses a leg. It’s also somewhat un-PC – more delicate readers might gulp more at the portrayal of fiendish ‘Jap’ Haki than the gore.
The first proper Hookjaw story, McNally’s Rig, launched in the first issue of Action, and is simple stuff: McNally is a ruthless oil rig owner who will stop at nothing to pump oil from shark-infested seas. Rick Mason, his chief diver, constantly battles the psychotic boss, as more and more divers lose their lives in spectacularly gory ways – my favourite as a kid was the man in a shark cage who is eaten alive by baby Great Whites, eventually being pulled from the ocean as a mess of flesh. McNally is not a man to adhere to health and safety rules – indeed, he’s not above shoving enemies into the sea to be eaten. Naturally, he comes to a sticky end after eleven dramatic chapters.
Paradise Island sees the unlucky Mason working for Dr Gelder, the owner of a luxury island resort where Hookjaw turns up and starts eating his way though the guests. Gelder is no more reasonable than McNally, and Rick for some reason doesn’t simply quit and report him to the authorities. But just as it seems that the story is going to simply be a copy of the first, Hookjaw is captured and drugged, with Gelder planning on using him as a tourist attraction, offering a million dollars to anyone who will fight the massive monster in front of a huge crowd and TV cameras. Things get more outlandish with the introduction of a mechanical shark, and Gelder is so mad that you wonder just what laws apply when you buy and island, but the story remains as fast-paced and bloody as before.
Jack Gunn sees an all-new cast (clue: writer Pat Mills was never sentimental about giving his heroes utterly unpleasant deaths) and sees the titular modern pirate hijacking a bullion ship in the English Channel, only for Hookjaw to turn up and sink the vessel. Gunn – of course – wants to salvage the bullion, but Hookjaw is a formidable opponent, and when the Navy arrive, things get… well, actually, they get rather dull. As Action was censored, so Hookjaw ate fewer people, and in rather less spectacular a manner. The story eventually fizzles out entirely, the Hookjaw saga ending with a whimper rather than a bang. As a microcosm of what happened to Action as a whole, it’s a rather sad finale.
But this book ends with previously unpublished pages from the final story that flesh things out a bit – they are still less gory than before, but things at least have more dramatic appeal. And it closes with a one-off Hookjaw strip from the Action annual – sadly without either Mills or Sola involved, though the story of Hookjaw vs a man with a steel arm is not unamusing in its own way.
This is a fantastic collection of these rarely seen stories, and even if the Hookjaw saga fizzled out in the end, the killer shark and his astoundingly hateful human opponents still make for great reading now. magnificent stuff.