by Si Spurrier, Conor Boyle, Giulia Brusco and Rob Steen
128 pages, Titan Comics
Review by Pat Black
Hook Jaw’s the man. Or so I thought…
Actually Hook Jaw’s a fish, a great big one, who found fame and notoriety in the pages of the British boys’ comic, Action, in 1976. The story was too nasty to live, but once experienced – like a love-bite from Jaws – it’s never forgotten.
After 40 years in the doldrums, Hook Jaw is back. I was more excited for this five-issue run from Titan than I was for the past two Star Wars movies.
IPC Magazines took advantage of the Jaws craze by making a great white shark the focus of Action’s most popular strip. Even for the time, Action was extraordinarily violent, and Hook Jaw boasted the worst of it every week.
The fish was part environmental crusader, part maniac, and he chomped his way through oil rig workers, modern-day pirates and holiday island tourists - the good, the bad and the merely unlucky alike - in rich red detail, every single episode.
Hook Jaw’s gimmick? A gaff stick protruding through his mouth, placed there by a sports fisherman who very quickly rued his rashness. The shark went on to use this appendage to shish-kebab his prey.
After a hysterical media reaction, the strip was neutered by editors before Action was swallowed up by Battle – but its punk rock aesthetic sowed the seeds for 2000AD, which is still going strong to this day. Despite its short run, Hook Jaw lingered long in the memory, so much so that Titan commissioned a fresh run of comics, coinciding with Action’s 40th anniversary.
Hook Jaw was before my time. My first brush with the big guy was in old annuals which belonged to my brother in law. I was goggle-eyed at the gushing red blood and the body parts, as well as the gleeful nihilism on show as Hook Jaw munched his way through most humans in the vicinity. Even the heroes got eaten. I grew obsessed with reading the strips. When they surfaced online, they were as nasty as advertised.
There’s a special collected edition of the original Hook Jaw out now, and I’ll get round to reviewing it – but, entirely separate to that, there’s this reboot from Titan.
Like the original sevenpenny-nightmare, this Hook Jaw is full colour – much of it nice, rich claret. The story is set off the coast of Somalia, where our heroine, the young American, Mag, is helping tag great whites for a research project. There is a female pack known as the Sisterhood which congregates around the same area year after year, and Mag and her assortment of oceanographic oddballs are hoping to find evidence of co-operative behaviour among these eighteen foot monsters.
Somali pirates are operating in the area, and they routinely board the researchers’ boat – and then leave, finding nothing to steal and no-one particularly valuable to kidnap. The scientists merely shrug this intrusion off, utterly blase.
This well-scripted pantomime (there’s a few jokes when the ship’s cook turns out to be related to the pirates, openly insulting his bosses in his own language) is disrupted by a team of Navy SEALs, led by the obnoxious American Klay Clay. Many of the pirates are shot and dumped overboard. This spilled blood and raw meat attracts the attention of a fishie a bit bigger than 18 feet.
Si Spurrier’s script has a decent plot involving the pirates, a missing geoengineering device at the bottom of the sea which might save the world, the CIA and environmental campaigners. The old Hook Jaw had plots, too, but these were a bit of a sideshow compared to what Action’s readership really wanted to see – kills.
Hook Jaw does kill a lot of people in this new version, but, strange as it might sound, there’s some subtlety involved in how the ocean giant dines. In Action, you usually saw characters making their exit inside the shark’s jaws, with full-frame shots showing these victims in the process of being diced. It makes what you saw in Jaws look as tame as an old pub dog. There are gore shots in this book, but nowhere near as much utter carnage as the old Hook Jaw mustered week in, week out. (“It delivers,” as Pat Mills told me of the original).
Instead, you’ll be given hints and flickers, signposts of the shark. One character lost at sea, clinging to a piece of wood, sees something sticking out of the water. Could it be a ship or something? he wonders. Actually no, it’s a gaff stick.
In the next frame, there’s just an empty plank of wood.
It’s cleverly done. One kill featuring two environmental campaigners smoking a doobie as they trail their toes in the sea was utterly brilliant – but I should warn people thirsting after the sheer nihilistic carnage of the 70s edition Hook Jaw that there’s not quite as much of it in the 2016 update. I do worry that people up for a bit of bloody mayhem and not much else might be a little bit disappointed. That said, there is one extraordinary kill in the fourth issue which is probably the best of any in Hook Jaw – and you are spared no details.
There is some ret-conning – always a risky affair. First of all, the story makes Hook Jaw out to be a long-standing myth like the Loch Ness Monster, a seafarer’s tale stretching back decades, which turns out to be real. Some people might suck their teeth a little when they read that the legend “even spawned comic books” – and then you’re shown a panel of a little boy in the 1970s reading Action.
So, the Hook Jaw you know isn’t quite the one you see here. This is most apparent in the shark’s appearance – the gaff stick isn’t wedged under its lower jaw, as in the good old days, but protrudes at an awkward angle through the mouth. One element of this I really liked was that the fish’s piercing isn’t merely for cosmetic effect – it is used to explain the shark’s bad attitude and catholic tastes at mealtimes. The metal stuck in its mouth interferes with how it processes sensory information, in effect driving it mad.
And, for any environmentalists present who feel the need to bite down on something when they see a dangerous predator rendered as a dangerous predator: although this comic thrives on the idea of sharks devouring people, it repeatedly stabs home the message that these creatures don’t really hunt humans or acquire a taste for their flesh.
There is one other change which might get a few male readers of a certain age’s claspers in a twist - though again, it made perfect sense to me…
In real life, the girls are a lot bigger.
Indeed, the new Hook Jaw openly invites a feminist reading. The main character, Mag, isn’t a victim, but she has been battered by her experiences, usually at the hands of men. It’s not heavy-handed, just something she refers to here and there. If there’s a way to tidy up the world’s messes, she says, the solution must be driven by women. “Every time I try to do something in my life, some guy comes along and breaks stuff!” she observes.
Another break with tradition is Hook Jaw’s stream of consciousness, near-subliminally represented in the same way as sound effects within the frame of the story, separate from speech bubbles. These are usually things like WRONG FLESH… GOOD FLESH… REND… FIRE IN BRAIN...
This sharky narration slyly places us on team Hook Jaw. The point of the original strip was that the fish was the hero, not the villain, after all.
One complaint – the &*^in’ swearing. If you’re going to swear – swear. As in, write the words down. Or maybe have one little asterisk here and there. But if you’re not going to properly swear, and insist on putting this kind of (*&$in’ thing all the way through the text *&”$%^$!* then maybe next time, don’t &^$£(“) swear at all. It doth offend mine eyes.
The artwork was superb, in particular Giulia Brusco’s colouring. I loved the night-time scenes, the play of light on the water, the sense of gloom and threat beneath the waves, and the glorious bright red blood clouds. Conor Boyle’s sharks are things of beauty – but also authentically-rendered sharks. Massimo Belardinelli’s wonderful monsters from the first run of Hook Jaw were brilliant, but exaggerated – posturing, snarling leviathans, as the medium of the time dictated. Conor Boyle has depicted the real thing, and Hook Jaw is improved as a result. A real shark wouldn’t pose for its close-up all the time, and the same is true here. I think it’s scarier as a result. The underwater sequences where divers are menaced by the giant hunter try to take you close to what it must be like to be stalked in the gloom by a great white shark – one of nature’s greatest ambush predators. A fin here; a tail there; shadows all around. Then, all of a sudden, the jaws.
Not the jaws!
This may seem like a daft thing to say, but aside from the needs of the front covers, we don’t always see Hook Jaw’s teeth, or its mouth agape. So this heightens the effect when we do see the great fish’s tools of the trade, at their bloody work.
And what a craftswoman she is.