Since the independent market came to prominence in the 1980s, comics readers have grown used to the idea that, sooner or later, somehow or other, most stories will be completed in something like the form that their creator envisioned. Breaking the link to mainstream, own-all-the-rights, mass market publishers enabled creators to hew more closely to the idea that first inspired them, and to proceed with sales far lower than those that DC or Marvel would have countenanced, but which could still sustain them because they took a far greater share of the income.
That hasn’t always been the case, and there are still stories that disappear, never to be concluded.
Take the example of Journey, written and drawn by Bill Messner-Loebs, and sub-titled ‘The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire’.
Journey, and MacAlistaire made their debut as a back-up two part story in Cerebus in that period when Dave Sim was flirting with the idea of helping independent creators to improve their visibility by contributing to a successful, noticeable title. Loebs had already seen the benefit of this policy, contributing a five part tale, ‘Welcome to Hell, Dr Franklin’, a fantasy centred upon Ben Franklin. Sim and his wife Deni were impressed enough to offer to publish Loebs for a six-issue mini-series, and the two-parter was designed as a lead into that, introducing Josh ‘Wolverine’ MacAlistaire.
The setting was the frontier, the time somewhere around 1810. MacAlistaire was a fur trapper, out on his own, living off the wild, unsuited to civilization and to more than occasional human contact.
What Loebs was capable of was established on the very first page. MacAlistaire, a lone figure silhouetted against the sky of a grassland dotted by intermittent trees. Birds pour into the sky. He walks towards a stand of trees, the narrative captions slowly setting the time, the place, the pace. It’s the laconic words of a frontiersman, telling tales around a fire, years later. It ends with the words: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin… that was where the Frontier commenced back then… the old Northwestern Territories… No Civilization…No farms… Hardly any Indians… just trees and skies and considerable silence.
I can’t speak for you but that was – is – enough for me. I’m taken there, secure that I’m in the hands of someone who, like the once-legendary, but now near-forgotten trapper himself, knows where he is.
What followed that first page was an astonishingly powerful 14 page sequence that, in an era when the X-Men, under Claremont and Byrne, was the standard to which all aspired, demonstrated that the stakes did not need to be universe-threatening to be extremely intense and powerful.
Simply put, MacAlistaire disturbed and fled from a bear, exhausting himself in a fruitless attempt to escape until the bear finally got bored and turned back.
The sequence began with a bravura pair of pages in which Loebs manipulated the possibilities of comics without ever varying from a static, rigid grid and camera angle.
Both pages are identical: the ‘camera’ is set at ground level, two hundred yards or so from the stand of trees MacAlistaire was approaching. On the left hand page, the laconic dialogue, the campfire voice continues to set the scene, out there where a man has only himself to rely upon. The first two panels are empty of movement, only the narrator metaphorically settling himself down.
But in the third panel, MacAlistaire bursts from the trees, running at full pelt, his pack bouncing. He’s clearly terrified, which grows as he nears the camera, the sixth and final panel focussing on his moccasin as he passes the ‘camera’.
On the second page, we learn why MacAlistaire is running, as the bear emerges from the woods, in pursuit. But without moving the ‘camera’ an inch, Loebs emphasises the relative speeds for pursued and pursuer: the bear does not appear until the third panel of six, and by the fifth, his paw is almost blocking the camera’s view: the sixth panel is empty of everything but the prairie and the trees, and the narrator’s little joke.
It’s not until the second chapter that we get to the point of the mini-series, the MacGuffin. MacAlistaire encounters a pair of French trappers, one of whom is carrying a parcel to be delivered to a settlement the other side of Lake Superior, and agrees to carry it in return for a trade of (decidedly inferior) goods.
In the end, it would take until issue 22 and a change of publishers to deliver the parcel to New Hope. Indeed, from the very earliest of stages, it didn’t look at all possible for Loebs to get MacAlistaire to his destination in anything remotely like six issues, as his journey would take him through a series of encounters with the wierd, the wild and the strange in that empty, unimaginable land. The series became open-ended, to the delight of its readers who were having too good a time to want this to stop any time. The journey was too much fun.
As for Loebs’ art, it was obvious from the first cursory glance that he had seen Will Eisner draw before. Indeed, to begin with it was impossible to see beyond the extraordinary similarity of line work. But Eisner was an artist of the city and the streets, and Loebs was an artist of the wilds, and though his drawing was superficially close, his choice of angles, his sense of pacing was his own, and the longer the series persisted, the less Loebs looked like Eisner-manque, and the more he looked like Loebs-prime.
I mentioned earlier a change of publishers: without warning, Journey 15 appeared published by Fantagraphics instead of Aardvark-Vanaheim. The circumstances behind the switch have never been disclosed, but the hints dropped in interviews and exchanges between Sim and Fantgraphics Publisher Gary Groth paint an image of a total breakdown in the creator/publisher relationship with Loebs and the Sims, with the former apparently turning up at the printers and demanding all his artwork. There were also stories of Dave Sim shouting threats to kill Loebs in the background of a telephone conversation between Groth and Deni Sim that Sim later passed off as humour.
Either way, Fantagraphics took over. There was little change, except in the publisher’s logo, though after two issues on the standard newsprint AV used, the stock was upgraded to a whiter, sturdier paper.
Eventually, after all the diversions, after the long digressions to Fort Miami, facing attack by Indians, MacAlistaire arrived at New Hope, accompanied by the acerbic, self-superior poet, Elmer Alyn Craft (whom many have chosen to see as a stinging satire on Groth himself: though Kraft was introduced long before the move to Fantagraphics, the parallels are easy to see).
What the pair found there was a community sinking under the weight of old sins and hypocrisies. The parcel turned out to be a Bible, delivered to Elinor, who had briefly been a lover of Kraft. But there were undercurrents associated with the death of Elinor’s late Reverend husband that slowly unpeeled over an intense winter until everything was laid bare to be seen, and the community given a chance to survive, free of its secrets.
Which was the cue for Kraft to stay and MacAlistaire to move on. The series ended with issue 27 and whilst it is mostly forgotten now, it is still a masterpiece.
In what way then is Journey Uncompleted? It was always a picaresque series, dependant upon movement from setting to setting. MacAlistaire was never a man to be comfortable in staying in one place for very long. There would always be more to tell, in the same way that no superhero comic really ends. And his past lay behind him, though close to the surface: nightmares about the Dark Man, a continually shifting series of claims about what his father did, occasional glimpses of what Ol’ Josh had seen and done, all contributing but never explaining the need to move on, the desire for silence, the fear of living over his own grave.
That was, however, the intention. Despite everything Fantagraphics had done, Journey still did not sell in enough numbers to sustain itself as an ongoing project. Loebs had made enough of a splash with it that he had begun scripting series for DC: The Flash, Dr Fate. Scripting only: there was no way his art would ever be considered appropriate for mainstream comics.
But he and Fantagraphics had no wish to abandon Journey. Thus it was announced that the series would continue, but as successive limited series, the first of which was to be Wardrums, a six issue series in which MacAlistaire became involved in the war of 1812 between America and the British.
What’s more, Wardrums would be printed in sepia, to reflect its olde worlde nature.
So the series began, though a wonderful tale of MacAlistaire’s encounter with a very territorial beaver had nothing to do with the war of 1812. That would undoubtedly be a part of issue 2.
But issue 2 never appeared. Or rather it did not appear for three years, a fact humorously recognised in its indicia by Loebs. It came out without fanfare, without any being aware, in black and white, the sepia promise forgotten. At a later date, I read reference to the art for issue 3 being destroyed in a housefire. It took me until 2014 to locate a copy of Wardrums 2, to complete what there was of MacAlistaire’s adventures, even though there was no point, no earthly prospect of the series, the story ever coming near to completion.
So far as I am aware, Loebs only drew two more comics, two issues of a new series titled Bliss Alley, published by Image in 1997, centring upon a street tramp with hallucinations, named Wizard Walker. It was the most untypical thing Image ever published and I seized greedily upon it whilst expecting it not to last: there was never a third.
Loebs and his wife Nadine fell on hard times in the 2000s, forced to live in a homeless shelter. As long ago as the 1980s, I was openly stating that we fans of Journey needed to find a rich patron who would settle a private income on Loebs so that he could write and draw Journey forever. But millionaires tend to back the wrong things.
Because of Wardrums, Journey is technically and emotionally incomplete. It would always have felt like that, even if that 27 issues series had been the whole of it, because of its nature. It was a journey, and it would not be finished until Wolverine MacAlistaire reached the end of his trail. We walked beside him for far too short a time for it ever to feel complete.

Bill Loebs – life shits on those who least deserve it


Usually I like family conferences. I’m very good at them. I let everyone have his or her say and then I have my say and everyone does as they’re told. I do like neatness and tidiness in human affairs, don’t you?
But that night I just couldn’t arouse any interest.
My mind kept wandering to Winston.
What was he doing? Was he using my toenail clippers again to trim his moustache? Was he sticking his gilberts on the corner of the oilcloth on the kitchen table? Was he happy? Was he out with one of his bits of fluff with yellow teeth and big berdongers? Was he trying to make it up with his wife, his missus? Did he want to go back to her? Was he tired of living with us? Did he like being the the same house as me? Did he like smelling my perfume when I’d been to the loo? Was he fed up with my cheery laugh and the butter under my fingernails when I made french toast for Father? Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
He’d done nothing about the house since he moved in. Not once had I seen him paying attention to the stench pipe. Indeed he seemed to go positively out of his way to ignore it. He hadn’t served at table or unblocked the drains. Not once had he rewired the house or put a new roof on the stables. All he’d done was hose down his dog in the bathroom and hang his dirty socks over the bannisters. Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
Winston is the sequel to Hayballs, but only in the sense of featuring substantially the same characters in substantially the same setting. Almost everything of importance about Hayballs, and especially its plot, has been obliterated for the purposes of this book. Gone are The Duke of Wiltshire, the Marquess of Sturmbridge, Grampy Hayballs, and all the inhabitants of Winterleaf Gunner except Winston himself and the occasional, walk-on, non-speaking part.
Even Father’s death is clumsily swept aside as having taken place only in Nancy Empson’s imagination (and that doesn’t accord with Hayballs, as Nancy arrogates to herself the part played by Grampy in the first book).
It’s very odd indeed.
But that’s because Winston is not a sequel. It is a novelisation of the first of what would eventually be six six-part Radio 4 comedy serials written by Tinniswood. The series were five-handers, centring upon Winston’s various entanglements with the life of the Empson family, now restored to four people with younger daughter Rosie – blonde, beautiful, stylish and thoroughly bad-tempered and argumentative – being whisked back from her never-again mentioned relationship in Derby.
The effect is to further neuter Hayballs, in retrospect, by treating it as a mistake, a false start that should never have appeared at all. The only real gesture of recognition Tinniswood pays to his earlier novel – which, as you may recall, was written the same year as the radio series upon which this is based – is to acknowledge that the Empsons have been living in the Dower House for about a year, that it was in a disastrous state when they bought it, that Winston has done it up for them single-handed and on his own look, for next to nothing.
Oh yes, and that last Autumn Festival, he took Nancy Empson out back under this beech tree and had sex with her, despite their social differences. Strictly speaking, Nancy – who was in her late forties then but has now swept backwards into her mid-forties – had her virginity taken, but let’s not dwell on that.
It doesn’t work with me. It feels all wrong to have an entire story, an entire world deleted by a writer, and have him yet pretend that these two books are a continuum.
The other distinction Tinniswood draws is in having Nancy Empson narrate the novel, as she does in the radio serial: that is, for about 80% of the story, during which she is present. When it is necessary that there be a scene where she is excluded, the novel simply dips into the third person for as long as it has to, before racing back for the sanctuary of Nancy’s mind. The bald-faced manner in which this is done smacks of cheap contrivance.
The story can be summed up very easily. Winston turns up at the Dower House, having been thrown out by his extremely ugly missus (his extremely ugly, totally under his thumb, doormat wife, yeah, right) because of his bits of fluff. He’s come to live with the Empsons.
Initially, they’re against the idea (not that they stop him moving in, the Empsons being, individually and collectively, completely ineffectual) because he’s, well, not really their type is he? A working class man amongst so many superior, cultured, refined upper middle class folk. Of course, the moment Winston slicks himself up and becomes a world class chef/butler/manservant/maid and all round treasure, they change their minds.
But Winston has a plan, which he relates to Nancy. He’s going to work on and manipulate the rest of the family until they all up sticks and leave, so that he can stay in bed with Nancy all day.
And she lets him go about his plan, despite her self-martyrdom to her family and keeping it close by and dependent upon good old Nancy, the only sensible one. Even though it’s blatantly obvious that Father is sufficiently doolally and ga-ga as to be a danger to himself anytime he’s not looked after twenty-four seven three six five.
And it’s not as if he’s subtle about it, though the Empsons – even the seemingly intelligent and uneccentric Rosie – are unlikely to spot anything less subtle than a sledgehammer to the back of the neck. And Nancy knows his plans, but she is so far under the magical influence of this greasy-haired, Zapata-moustached, fat-bellied, dirty, wellied classic Male Chauvinist Pig with the tattoos of ‘Mild’ and ‘Bitter’ above each nipple, that she can’t bring herself to stop him.
Winston’s plans are, however, foiled (this is based upon a Radio serial, with the requirement of a status quo to be restored, ready for the next series) by Father falling ill, and William and Rosie deciding that a) they prefer family comforts and b) they are too scared to make it on their own, and thus deciding to stay.
In the case of William, the inveterate railway enthusiast whose hyper-detailed books appear to constitute the family income, that’s obvious to the proverbial three-month-old baby, but in Rosie’s case it’s a bit of a stretch and has to be stapled on for it to stick.
That’s not all though. Winston decides that if the other Empsons are going to stay, he and Nancy will go. He plans for them to elope after the Autumn Festival but, guess what, he reminds himself of why he married his wife and goes back to her. But not before having sex with Nancy under the beech tree again (poor woman: it can’t be much fun having a lover who only gives you an orgasm once a year, though according to legend most marriages don’t even achieve that much).
End of story.
I really don’t like this book at all. It’s recognisably Tinniswodian in that no-one else could have written this, but it’s a far cry from the wonderfully funny, grounded books of his early career. It’s irretrievably affected by the fact that I don’t like Winston one bit. He’s meant to be the romantic hero, using the term romantic in its more archaic sense. He’s the rogue, the charmer, the vagabond, the working-class hero befuddling and confusing the stultified middle class that thinks itself so much more sophisticated but which is wide open to the hero’s schemes. Winston follows that template almost to a ‘T’ – it’s not that far from the milieu of the early Leslie Charteris stories of The Saint – but Tinniswood blows it by exaggeration. Winston is so bleeding obvious, and the Empsons so bleeding oblivious that the humour inherent in seeing the stuffy and stuck-up humiliated by the wily ‘inferior’ goes completely by the board. Especially when the stuffies don’t get any comeuppance whatsoever and wouldn’t notice if they did.
Winston – incarnated superbly on radio by Bill Wallis – went on to star in another five radio serials, interfering with the life of the Empsons. It provided gainful employment for Tinniswood’s wife, Liz Goulding, who had been the second TV Pat Brandon, and who appeared in several of her husband’s radio plays, including the part of Rosie Empson. Winston never appeared in print again.


There was a small piece in the Guardian today about the new BBC Genome Project.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an attempt by the Beeb to involve itself in the scientific mapping of human existence. The word ‘Genome’ was a construction first employed by Hans Winkler, botany Professor at Hamburg University in 1920 and is probably a contraction of ‘gene’ and ‘chromosome’. The word repesents the totality of genetic material carried by an organism.

But that’s not the context in which the BBC wants to employ the word. For some strange, pretentious and bewildering reason, the Beeb wants us to associate this word with a Project of completely unrelated trivia: what was on BBC TV (and Radio) the night you were born. Or, well,any night, really.

The BBC’s Genome is, quite simply, a night by night listing of their Schedules as printed in the Radio Times. It is utterly trivial, has no scientific application and is unrelated to any definition of the word ‘Genome’.

Needless to say, I went straight for the day of my birth to check what my parents (and I, of course) missed by not being in front of the telly that night.

I’m not going to start giving away too many personal details here: suffice to say that it was a Friday, and it was in 1955, so there was no BBC 1, 2, 3 or 4 to consider, nor any numbered radio channels: just the BBC broadcasting on 405 lines, in Black and White, on Channel 2 on your dial (ITV would be Channel 9 and I could never get the hang of why there were any other Channels even marked on the dial when nothing else was being broadcast).

The television day started at 1.30pm with Horse racing with a pesumably young Peter O’Sullevan – appropriately enough from Manchester, given that was where I was popping out into the world – and ended round about 11.00pm, I would guess: the last official programme was ‘Music in View’ with Alec Robertson taking a look at the next fortnight of music programmes, followed by The Weather and Close Down.

Amazingly, that far back we had Afternoon TV, not that it was particularly thrilling. There was a Music Festival of Commonwealth Youth, a fifteen minute piece on Costume Jewellery and Watch with Mother: it being Friday, this was The Woodentops. There was even the distant forerunner of Film ’75, ’81, ’93 and all the others, in Film Time, featuring that afternoon the very recent Royal Command Perfomance of Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’.

At 5.00pm Children’s TV presented a play about Lord Nelson, the cast including a young Laurence Hardy and a decidedly young Michael Aldridge among other names that are now completely meaningless to me, though it’s nice to see that the BBC even then was not entirely male dominated, the play eing both adapted AND directed by Naomi Capon, holding open a door through which Verity Lambert would seize her fabled opportunity when I was a bit more used to watching the box.

The next listing was for the News at 7.00pm. Now either the play lasted two hours, which I somehow doubt, or this was evidence of the infamous Children’s Truce, when TV would switch off for an hour to enable parents to shuffle tinies off to bed without the distraction of the demon in the corner.

The evening schedule doesn’t exactly enthrall, considering this is Friday night telly: a kind of TV version of Radio’s ‘Two-Way Family Favourites’, playing requests for servicemen stationed overseas, a programme about hobbyist clubs broadcast from a Territorial Army Drill Hall, ‘Puzzle Corner’, filmed in Bridgend in which the audience was selected from people in Bridgend who put copies of this Radio Times in their window that Friday. This appears to be the only example of spontaneity that night.

Even that only lasted thirty minutes, including dances (?!), to make room for a political discussion (guests including Denis Healey!) as a lead up to the evening news at 10.00pm.

So far, the one common denominator about all these shows (and I don’t mean that they sound universally dreadful and dull, although they do) is that they’re all English. Homegrown TV for the entire schedule the day I was being homegrown, no flooding of the airwaves with trashy US imports, not then. Oh, no, wait, there’s still that awkward 10.15 to 10.45 pm slot to fill and, hey, waddaya know? It’s an American import! It’s the ‘Burns and Allen Show’, starring the veteran US comedian George Burns and his flighty, daffy wife and comedienne, Gracie Allen.

It’s also the only damned thing on the night I was born that I regret having missed, not that I’d have been allowed to sit up that late to watch it, not at the age of however many hours I’d lasted by then. Well, ok,maybe The Woodentops, but then I always preferred Thursday’s Rag, Tag and Bobtail, and I’d be nearly a week old before that came round again. Heavens, I was positively ancient!

On a more serious note, what does surprise me is the absence of any programmes relating to Remembrance Day. It was all over the Home Service on Radio, but nothing on the Box, a strange oversight given that it was only a decade since the end of the Second World War, and not forty years since the day being commemorated. My Grandfathers had been in their twenties during that War.

That was what was on TV the night I was born, or at least on the BBC side of things (ITV wouldn’t even launch in the North until I was six months old). It’s impossible to imagine that world and I’m glad to have grown out of it. There again, given that UKIP want to basically drag us back to the Fifties, the time may come when we get a stark reminder of it!


There’s getting to be a lot of comic-book based shows on TV all of a sudden, and it’s interesting to see that Channel Five have taken up the two newest, taking a gamble on both The Flash and Gotham. I’ve already given my opinion on the former, which has yet to start in the UK, but Gotham‘s already made a heady start, pulling down an audience that exceeded Channel Four and BBC2.

Of course, the one word reason for Gotham‘s pulling power is, ironically, the one word that will never ever be spoken on the series (not unless they do something incredibly stupid, that is), and that word is *Batman*. Because the point of Gotham is that it’s not about Batman. It’s about the city that creates him, about the years that lead to his first appearance, about the slow disintegration of the city to where it needs Batman, and about the Police and villains as they slowly grow or deteriorate into the people who populate Batman’s world.

Which makes Gotham pretty much a Police-procedural, albeit it with a difference. And instead of Bruce Wayne being at the heart of it, the centre is – and had better remain if this is going to work at all – Commissioner Gordon. Or, as he currently is, newly-promoted, new-to-Gotham Detective James Gordon.

Before watching the pilot episode, I did read one or two responses, one of which pretty much nailed to the wall the total absence of Batman as the over-riding weakness in the concept. Certainly, a lot of the comments I’ve read on the actual episode do ring with the disappointment of it not being about the Caped Crusader, even though that’s the whole point.

However, watching it for myself, I’m certainly ready to give it a few weeks’ extra chances, my main reason being Ben McKenzie’s determined and direct performance as Jim Gordon, which I enjoyed. The episode – which begins with the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne and the orphaning of their twelve year old son Bruce – throws a hell of a lot in, too much to be honest, mostly aimed at giving the naive and honest Gordon an idea of where Gotham stands and what he and the audience has to expect.

Basically: the Waynes get murdered and Gordon, and his senior partner and potentially corrupt guide to hell, Harvey Bullock, catch the case. When it goes nowhere, Bullock enlists the aid of rising gangboss Fish Mooney who sets up a patsy. This set-up is leaked to Major Crimes Detectives Montoya and Allen by Fish’s underling, Oswald Cobblepot. When Gordon learns of this, he insists on challenging Fish, who has him and Bullock set-up for a grisly death that is only halted by Carmine Falcone, the crimeboss of Gotham. Falcone wants Gordon in the ‘programme': he can live provided he executes Cobblepot. Gordon is smart enough to make it look like he does so whilst letting Cobblepot live.

So far, so(deliberately) unspectacular, but promising. The tone is set, the challenge laid down, Gordon’s path shown to be incredibly difficult to walk. The fun, we hope, will be in watching him walk it.

Where the episode was OTT was in its rush to throw in as many future supervillains as it could, at least a decade before Bruce Wayne can possibly become that person we’re not going to mention but can’t stop thinking about. Oswald Cobblepot is already being called the Penguin by Fish and her thugs. And coronor Edward Nygma, with his fetish for riddles, is too blatant. A young street/rooftop woman thief doesn’t even have to speak for us to know her as the future Catwoman, and the nervous stand-up comedian is apparently just the first of mny hints as to who might become the Joker.

That’s where I feel Gotham is betraying a serious weakness. As long as they don’t go too overboard with the city-crying-out-for-someone-to-save-it stuff, making the absence of Batman into too much of a theme, this can work. But if Batman truly can’t arrive for, say, another decade, then it seems very short-sighted to be setting up major villains with their key characteristics so fast.

How Gotham intends to deal with time, I don’t yet know. As we’ve already got a 12 year old actor playing the 12 year old Bruce Wayne, I assume each season will represent a year. That’s why Walt had to be written out of Lost: because show-time was so incredibly slow in comparison to child-actor-growing-up-and-I-do-mean-up! time. To accommodate David Mazouz,something of that sort will be required.

It’ll also be interesting to see the core audience react to Gotham packing in Batman supporting characters whilst not being strictly faithful to their roles in the comics. Especially Alfred.

Basicaly, though, I enjoyed it and thought it has potential. If I change my mind, I’m sure I’ll let you know.


A man named Frank Hampson

It was the spring of 1950, and it was the spring of 1995. At a Spacefleet Base on Formby Sands, not far from Southport, the launching of a rocket, Kingfisher, was reaching its final stages. In the Command centre, Sir Hubert Guest, Controller of Spacefleet, conferred with Chief Pilot Colonel Dan Dare. Kingfisher‘s launch was crucial for two reasons: firstly, a planet that had united under a single World Government, that had eliminated War and Disease, faced the onset of Famine for an expanding population on exhausted soil. Kingfisher was launching for Venus which, under its impenetrable clouds, was believed to be an Earth-like planet, capable of growing the food that could sustain the human race.
Kingfisher had to succeed. But two previous expeditions had failed, succumbing to explosions in space in the vicinity of the planet. If this expedition were to meet a similar fate, Sir Hubert would resign rather than order more men be sacrificed in a fourth.
Dan Dare was fretting because, as Chief Pilot, at the young age of 27, he had been passed over for command of this mission. His Chief, Sir Hubert, was a rocket flight veteran, part of the first landing on the Moon, the second man to walk on a surface not of Earth.
Sir Hubert Guest was born in 1943. The boys who flocked in their almost-a-million to buy the first issue of the new, glorious, colourful comic, Eagle, were also mostly born in 1943. Not only were they being offered a vision of a future, but the future held a similar problem to that which Britain still faced, five years after the Second World War: food rationing.
And each and every one of them might well grow up to be Sir Hubert Guest, and take part in adventures such as those which were to come.
Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future was to become one of the most popular and enduring characters ever to appear in British comics, and the only series to appear in every issue of Eagle from its debut in the colour and excitement-starved 1950 and its dismal fade into oblivion and merger with Lion in 1969. Though the series had been in reprint for over two years by that point, Dan Dare still appeared in every single issue. He’d survived a long attempt by new owners, in 1962, to diminish his glory and diminish his audience, and had returned to the front cover solely through readers’ demands. Nearly fifty years after his original demise, Dan Dare has been revived countless times, with differing degrees of success (mostly not). For the last ten years, a three-times a year magazine, licenced to produce new stories set in the classical Fifties era, has added to the mythos, some of which has been drawn by artists who worked on the original series. Despite the wish once expressed by his creator, Frank Hampson, in a very low state, Dan Dare will never lay down and die.
Hampson, born in Audenshaw, Manchester six weeks after the end of the Great War, was brought up in Southport, where he discovered not only a talent for art, but also an overwhelming enthusiasm to it, and a commitment to continual improvement.
After serving in the Second World War, during which he got married and fathered a son, Hampson returned to Southport and Art College. His passion for detail, and the research that would support it, brought him to the attention of the Reverend Marcus Morris, Vicar of the Parish of Ainsdale, a man who believed passionately in the necessity of the Church adopting all methods possible to spread the Christian message. Morris had already turned his Parish newsletter into a nationally distributed Christian magazine named The Anvil and, in an era when the front page of The Times still featured only classified ads, wanted to make The Anvil more appealing through illustrations.
Though he’d anticipated a career in advertising and commercial art, Hampson agreed to hold off the necessary move to London for twelve months, in order to assist Morris. During that year, one of Morris and Hampson (both would later claim credit) urged the creation of a national boys comic with good, clean, exciting action underpinned by a clear, though not overt, Christian morality. This would, after almost a year of hard work, be realised as the Eagle.
Whoever first pressed the idea of a full-scale comic on the other, there has never been the slightest doubt as to Hampson’s sole responsibility for the creation of Dan Dare. The character’s roots are confused: Hampson and Morris had originally planned to collaborate on a weekly newspaper strip, Lex Christian, about a fighting young priest in a touch East End slum parish. Via a brief idea about Girl Detective Dorothy Dare, Lex became Dan Dare, Chaplain to Spacefleet, and appeared as such in the dummy issues written and drawn by Hampson, and hand-coloured by his closest friends from the Art College, contemporary Harold Johns, and the younger Eric Eden. We don’t know exactly why Dan switched from being a Parson to a Pilot – ‘Bulldog‘, as the nascent project was originally styled, was sold to Hulton Press and we can only assume that they gently (or not) insisted that they wanted a pilot, not a Sky Pilot!
The choice was inspired. Hampson wanted something colourful and exciting for the cover, which to him meant a choice between SF and westerns: and, he dryly observed, he couldn’t draw horses (of course he could: they would feature as a vital part of the plot before the original story finished). Besides, young boys looked up in awe to the RAF pilots, the young, glamorous, dashing heroes of the air.
It sounds as if the choices being made in putting Eagle together were cynical and calculated. Not so: Hampson had the priceless gift of being able to bend his own fertile intelligence to what a seven year old boy loved to see – he was aided by having one under his feet – and in SF he saw not just endless possibilities for the creative artist, but also the chance to paint a vision of the future that worked. Against the dystopic trend in contemporary SF, Hampson wanted to give hope that the future would not only be good, but fulfilling, and exciting: exactly what his intended audience wanted.
And it was going to be infinitely better than anything the ‘professional’ comics companies were currently doing. Hampson looked around at static, unexciting, black-and-white-and-one-colour-if-you’re-lucky strips on poor quality newsprint, and knew he could do far better.
In this, he was lucky. Marcus Morris’s attempts to sell ‘Bulldog‘ had been haphazard, random and improbable, but they had brought him to Hulton. Hulton didn’t publish comics, they published magazines: most famously the war-time legend, Picture Post (not to mention the men’s magazine Lilliput, on whose design Morris had based The Anvil). Hulton’s showed Picture Post‘s editor, Tom Hopkinson the samples Morris left: Hopkinson said that for the first time ever, his advice was to sign up everybody involved and set them to producing the comic without delay.
But the point of Hampson’s luck was that Hulton may have given Morris only a small budget to create Eagle, but it was a small magazine budget and, as such, considerably better than even the most generous comics budget to be offered at any of the ‘professional’ publishers. It was enough for a higher quality grade of paper, for eight pages per week of full colour, for lithographic printing, the presses of which had to be especially installed in the chosen printers, Eric Bemrose & Co, in Liverpool. And it was also big enough to enable Frank Hampson to create his (in)famous Studio.
As Art Director, Hampson had very strict standards. No artist should be required to complete more than one full-colour page each week, and would be paid to enable him to concentrate on that work without having to take on extra work to survive. The artist also had to take responsibility for the quality of their work by signing it: no hack work hidden by anonimity. But Hulton wanted two pages of Dan Dare each week. Ten weeks of continuity had been written and drawn by Hampson on his own, but after that he could and would only tackle the two page requirement by creating a studio of young, enthusiastic artists, working under his direction and supervision. What evolved was one of the most astonishing ways of drawing a comics story ever devised. Hampson was drawing things that were, literally, incredible: alien planets with alien flora, fauna, seas, geology, races, customs, architecture. To make what he devised believable, Hampson insisted upon the highest degree of realism achievable in the art. What this mean was that, working alone, he would write, layout, pencil, ink, colour and letter two pages of rough art (rough art: more than one of his assistants, including the man Hampson would later call ‘the second best Dan Dare artist alive’ believed that with a little finishing, Hampson’s roughs would have made better pages than those eventually produced).
But when the roughs were done, Hampson and his team would pose and photo every panel. Hampson’s father Robert was Sir Hubert Guest (I have seen TV footage of Robert Hampson and that is a frighteningly literal statement), and later son Peter would model facially for ‘Flamer’ Spry. Once the reference photos were taken, the work would be divided among the team, with Hampson usually taking the cover and his assistants parcelling out panels (and sometimes parts of panels) between them to redraw, to combine the best elements of the roughs with the reality of light sources, folds in clothing, etc.
It was a seriously weird way of working, but it got incredible results.
Though they did not feature on any of the first ten weeks, Harold Johns and Eric Eden were the first assistants to join Hampson’s studio. They were quickly followed by young, promising artists such as Joan Porter (who became studio manageress and researcher), Greta Tomlinson (who would work very well with Harold Johns) and, briefly, experienced Canadian Bruce Sterling, the first to react to Hampson’s punishing schedule.
All Hampson’s assistants suffered from his demands upon their time, his insistence on excellence and, worse of all, the additional pressure of catching up when Hampson would get a new and better idea and scrap most or all of that week’s works. The studio worked morning, afternoon, evening and night, the only saving grace of what was frequently a dictatorial situation being, as everyone acknowledged, that for all they did, Hampson did more.
In time, it would lead to two long periods of absence from the series, as Hampson drove himself into debilitating illness.
But it all stemmed from Hampson’s obsession with perfection, in the face of all the demands of reality: on at least one occasion, the two pages were finished so late, Greta Tomlinson was sent by taxi from Southport to the printers in Liverpool to meet the deadline, holding the pages firmly apart whilst the ink continued to dry!
Writers were very rarely credited on Dan Dare, and that was mainly because few writers could keep up with Hampson’s prodigious, and original imagination. He had written as well as drawn the first en weeks’ continuity, and part of the Hulton deal was that he would be provided with a writer. This gentleman continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson out to dinner to, charmingly, announce that he had no idea what do do next: as he was classically educated, he could not be responsible for this failure!
So Hampson took back writing the strip, as well as its art. Sometimes, he would employ others, paying them out of his own pocket as an experiment, but always, inevitably, having to come back to the job himself. Naturally, when he was ill, other writers filled in – one in particular is a name the world would not expect – but it would be years before a stable, experienced, solid writer would come along, in the form of Alan Stranks, an Eagle and BBC Radio veteran already. And even then, Hampson was the last word, freely changing the story as his imagination was sparked.
Sixty and more years ago. What other comics series from so back was ever so influential, so loved, so commemorated? What other series of that age is perpetuated as more than often cloudy memories of something seen and now gone? What other series has aged so little? For despite the different directions our technology has taken, despite the dystopic future that we have made for ourselves, instead of the collective joy and progress of which Hampson dreamed, Dan Dare convinces. Immediately and utterly.
So, over the next few weeks and months I’m going to be taking a look into those original stories, that near twenty years: the Hampson years, with its two long interruptions, the Bellamy year, the Harley/Sterling interlude and the Watson revival. This could take a long time: I’m looking forward to it.

To whet your appetite…


Back in the summer months, some stray thought brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The first of these books is Leslie Thomas’s His Lordship.
Thomas, who died in May this year, was largely forgotten by his death. A former Barnado’s Boy, he had gone into journalism after doing his National Service in Singapore and Malaya, experiences that underlined his debut and most famous novel, The Virgin Soldiers in 1966. He was very popular until the middle to late Eighties, when his style seemed to slip out of fashion, though he continued writing until 2007, when he published his thirty-first novel of a more than forty year career.
The Virgin Soldiers, which was quickly filmed with Hywel Bennett and Lynn Redgrave in the leading roles, typified Thomas’s style, by combining broad comedy with a bawdiness that was more sexually explicit than was usual for the time, without tipping over into outright pornography.
He was a very reliable writer, publishing a novel a year until 1979. This run included two Virgin Soldier sequels, and the first of what would prove to be four novels featuring Dangerous Davies – The Last Detective, the concept of which, if not necessarily the actual plots, were later developed for television, initially with Bernard Cribbins in a one-off adaptation of the first noel, and later Peter Davidson in a series.
But Thomas wasn’t just a writer of light comic fiction with sexual overtones. He was more explicit than was common for the time, paving the way for the popular Seventies series of Confessions of a… books, but what distinguished Thomas’s work was an underlying sadness, and a sense of the darkness underpinning life. Tragedy, even if only on a very commonplace, usually farcical level, lies behind all his books.
Or should I say, the majority of those I read. Thomas was popular and his paperbacks were seen everywhere. This was a time when books were not sold merely in bookshops, when the Net Book Agreement kept boks at the same price everywhere, before the bigger stores and operations were permitted to offer discounts of the kind we expect today.
The Agreement enabled little bookskops to survive, enabled virtually every newsagent in the country to have at least a spinner rack or two of paperbacks, if not shelves of books. Thomas’s titles were popular, they were in every little shop, they stayed in print once they reached paperback, and I wound up reading at least a dozen of them over time.
His Lordship, Thomas’s fifth novel, originally published in 1970, was the first one to catch my eye, which had to be surreptitious about it, because my family would definitely not have approved at me looking at anything remotely designed to suggest sex. It’s acquisition this summer is the first Thomas book I ever purchased.
The cover I remember telegraphed the subject of the book: a blonde model, her hair in a long plait, dressed as a schoolgirl holding a hockey stick, bending over to pick up a hockey ball. She’s wearing long socks, green and white, pulled halfway up her thighs, and her green skirt is drawn up so high that we’re looking at her knickers. She’s bent so far forward that her bum is on the same level as her eyes.
Spells it out, rather. If there is ever a major Leslie Thomas revival, I’m pretty certain that this book will not be at the forefront of it, indeed I expect it would be quietly ignored. That sexy schoolgirl pose did catch my eye, but then I was seventeen at best, and an emotionally young and decidedly ignorant seventeen year old, and the image was aimed squareky at mean a lot older than me because the book was about a sportsmaster having sex with underage schoolgirls in his charge.
It’s once more a reflection of the times, when the idea that grown men fancying schoolgirls wasn’t sad, creepy, pathetic and sinister, but rather taken for granted, only natural, good on you if you can get it: innocent rather than criminal.
I can’t remember what I thought when I read this then. It’s overwhelmed by too many years of understanding and empathy since.
Thomas takes an interesting approach on a technical level, by beginning at the end. William Herbert, former County standard tennis player, latterly tennis coach at an exclusive private school for girls, has been arrested for being drunk and disorderly and trying to sit on an elderly Pakistani in the Station buffet at Victoria Station. When searched, his case was found to hold a silver presentation tennis cup belonging to his former employers at Southwelling School. And five pairs of girl’s school knickers, each embroidered with a different name on the gusset.
William Herbert is being held on remand, pending trial, at Wandsworth Prison.
I’m sure that at the time, that set-up was meant to have a distinct element of farce to it – the comic specificity of trying to sit on an elderly Pakistani points to that – but it’s lost to the decades. It’s the come-on for the book: who is this guy and how did he get here? The book is the playing out of that story until it reaches the ‘present day’ of the opening which, in keeping with the demands of such an approach, will be only a very short time before resolution.
Thomas unfolds William Herbert’s story in chapters alternating between dialogue only interogations between William and his friendly, sympathetic investigating officer, a Detective-Sergeant who invites William to call him Rufus. Rufus is engaging and locquacious, seemingly on William’s side whilst casually sure that he’s up shit creek, banged fully to rights, without a leg to stand on and doomed to the most dozy and inept legal representative in the whole of the country.
All of which is a complete lie, we will learn by the end, even down to the name Rufus.
In between these to-and-fros, which do a grand job of painting William as a naif, who genuinely believes that the Policeman is on his side and his own legal epresentative isn’t, Thomas moves outwards, recording the story in third person chapters. These appear to be objective, but they are, in context, objectified translations of William’s longer accounts to ‘Rufus’, full of his own emotions, full of his own limitations.
Nor does Thomas shrink from undermining William even in his own head, as these chapters record other characters – his ex-wife, Connie, the American student who is William’s main lover and who is made pregnant by him – exploding his claims of innocence, as the fact slowly emerges that William, for all that he is something of a victim of active undermining by the teenage girls at Southwelling, is open and eager to their sexuality.
At the end of the day, the comedic aspect no longer works as comedy, nor does the line that William peddles, that it’s the girls’ fault and they led him on, really stand any chance of convincing any longer. William is a ‘victim’, in the sense that the various seductions are all carried out by the girls – one comes to his room at night, screws with him then leaves at midnight: the new day is her birthday,and ‘anyone can do it when they’e sixteen’ – but that’s to relieve him of his responsibility, as a thirty-five year old adult man who’s in a position of authority and duty not to fucking well do it.
But he’s also a pervert who wants to look up the skirts of girls aged fifteen or under.
It’s a dark book, and William is a weak and ultimately tormented man, but Thomas was primarily a light entertainment novellist and his native approach is too broad to properly allow the strain of darkness to be explored.
So: a book that once appealed to my sense of humour and adolescent sexuality in the days when I wasn’t that much removed from fifteen year old girls becomes, after time and change, a clever but ultimately inadequately serious exploration of male sexuality. Verdict: back on the outpile.


The dreams of an old man.
Northern city rife with frost and haltered horses in station yard. Being poorly. Two weeks in bed. Coal fire flickering the black skirts of night. Saturday roar of distant, clinkered football terraces. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Mother’s anxious face. Creak of mangle. Smell of sour, spent ale on father’s breath. Deep nicotine of thumbs.Doctor’s whisper on ice-breathed landing.
The dreams of a young man.
Morecambe Bay. Ponies plodding for prawns. The tumble off the wall.Stone jag on bridge of nose. Swab of steel-rimmed chemist. Grass-tufted shore. Dunlin wheeling. Dizziness. Oozing pus from wound. Darkness of stranger’s bedroom. Mother’s anxious face. Slow car ride home.No jolting. Urgent – no jolting. Jolting verboten. Home. The bedroom with its soothing walls. Tight coil of purring cat. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Pepperminted breath of father fighting back the smell of sour, spent ale. Shy, stubby fingers stroking at his brow. I love you, lad. I love you. But don’t tell your mam.
Northern dreams fighting back the South.
They awoke simultaneously.
As you might have guessed from the title, Uncle Mort’s South Country is a sequel. To the earlier North Country book, to the earlier North Country radio series. It’s the same idea: Carter Brandon is given a fortnight off work and decides to go on a touring holiday down South. Pat won’t accompany him, so Uncle Mort does.
It’s the last appearance of the Brandons in print. There is no Mrs Brandon, whose final words lie back in North Country. Mr Brandon has passed on, his original words quoted by Uncle Mort, gone to join the late, great John Comer, who incarnated him so perfectly on television.
There’s still Pat, swooping in in the final chapter to drag Carter and Uncle Mort back north. And then it’s over. They’re all gone (though Tinniswood would write another sequel for Radio 4, Uncle Mort’s Celtic Fringe, which, for reasons unknown was never converted to prose). It’s a simultaneously sad and unhappy ending.
I have very mixed feelings about this book.To be frank, I don’t enjoy it. It’s thin, it’s insubstantial. Tinniswood has ‘refined’ his style to the extent where the most important aspect is the radio-oriented use of language. The situation is perfunctory, there are no events, the wordage is lush but ineffectual. Uncle Mort waxes locquacious in ever-expanding monologues. His TV catch-phrase, ‘I served all through the First World War’ makes a belated appearance, and repeats and repeats. The flow is continually being interrupted by paragraphs of verbless statements, bedizened with adjectives, as the extract quoted above demonstrates. This is not Uncle Mort and Carter Brandon as far as I am concerned. The thread of continuity that ran through A Touch of Daniel, I Didn’t Know You Cared, Except You’re a Bird and even the weaker Call it a Canary is here snapped, as is the connection to reality. Tinniswood has become a parody of a parody and there is nothing but eccentricity and grotesquerie left. The years of the Brigadier have, to me, destroyed his ability to focus upon a humour whose strength lies in its proximity to the mundane and real instead of its ever-widening distance from it.
And yet.
And yet you look at the quote above. Both tell stories, both tell the same story of illness of a child, fear of parents, the encompassing world that binds and eventually heals the boys. They’re told in compressed language, mundane poetry that removes any inessential word, strips down the experience to a series of snapshots that, in turn, reflect the memories of ailing boys.
It’s extraordinarily deep writing, and you can’t dismiss out of hand a book that contains a passage like this, a writer who can come out with that.
Perhaps if this wasn’t Carter Brandon and Uncle Mort, if it were two other characters without the baggage of those wonderfully funny early books, I might enjoy this book more?
Maybe, and maybe not. Tinniswood paints so many quasi-poetic pictures, employing startling and vivid adjectives, but the effect tires, and the adjectives frequently come across less as startling, head-turning moments that shed new lights than as random, unconnected images pulled out of a dictionary. There are so many, at such regular intervals, that they become much of a muchness, sandbars breaking up the tide, something to be gotten across whilst not really paying attention. Just another landscape.
And in between, the conversations are not really conversations. Carter’s pithyness is little more than an excuse to break up Uncle Mort’s endless rambling into bite-sized pieces. Indeed, his entire presence is primarily to be the mover, the activist, continually moving the pair on from scene to scene, to counteract Uncle Mort’s natural tendency to stop at home and do nothing.
Which is to take Carter himself out of character, a character most firmly established as avoiding change, avoiding decisions, preferring to be left to himself, where he is. In truth, were this taking place in the novels, it would be Pat who wanted to visit the South, climb it socially, bask in its refinement and cleanliness and young-executive friendliness, and Carter who would not want to budge.
And that leads to another question that I cannot avoid asking myself, seeing the Brandons as part of a continuum: the novels were set in the Sixties, but the North and South Country stories are very clearly contemporary. That would make Carter and Pat, who were in their late twenties in Call it a Canary, close to fifty years old: enough time for their basic characters to have crossed over, but given that Uncle Mort was sixty-bloody-six in I Didn’t Know You Cared, he’s now got to be about bloody-ninety.
Reading the final chapter, I can’t help but think that Tinniswood was saying goodbye to his oldest and best characters. Mr Brandon’s gone. Mrs Brandon isn’t there and may very well have followed her husband to his grave. Carter’s lost a lot of his fire: the woman he’s sniffing around is not an Erika, an Alison Shirtliffe, a Hazel Huskisson, not even a Linda Preston, but instead a small girl with rimless spectacles, hair in a pony tail, given to long cotton frocks, with bare, spindly arms, who’s part of a Methodist convention from Selby, Humberside. And Pat’s smart enough to suss him out over the phone and sweep him off before he seduces the flat-chested, freckle-nosed, insignificant thing.
And Uncle Mort? Uncle Mort has lost his cloth cap, blown off his head after fifty-three years. And he’s ill and convinced his time is up, though it turns out only to be mild heat-stroke.
It’s over. It’s all over, and the worst of it is that it’s all for the best. I couldn’t have stood another Brandon story that wasn’t worthy of them. Not long before his death in 2002, Tinniswood was rumoured to be writing another Brandon novel, but nothing ever came of it. I’m sorry to say that I’m probably glad of that.