Dan Dare – the 2000AD years


Oh no. Oh no. Oh no no no…

I read the news on Thursday (oh boy…) and one newspaper at least was making much about the reprinting of a large number of Dan Dare stories, unseen for many years. This volume of material will be printed in two volumes, the first of which will appear next year.
Of course, when I say ‘Dan Dare’, it’s on the understanding that this is not any version of the veteran hero that I recognise as actually being Dan Dare. Rather, it’s the complete IPC revival of the character that began eight years after he was finally laid to rest in black and white reprints in the thankfully-forgotten Lion & Eagle. It is the 2000AD ‘Dan Dare’, drawn at different times by Massimo Belardinelli and Dave Gibbons, that is finally to be reprinted, after thirty seven years unseen.
In 1977, Dare’s revival was one of the selling points for the new 2000AD comic. I was 21 that year,  unemployed for most of it, in limbo between Law College and the Articles of Clerkship that would see me on the road to becoming a Solicitor. Money was extremely tight, but I had loved Dan Dare in the latterday Eagle and I was interested to see the return. Not that I ever saw 2000AD 1, which sold out rapidly, so I had to settle for issue 2, which saw the debut of a character who has become as much a definition of British comics as Dan himself, Judge Dredd. It took only a single episode to demonstrate that this ‘Dan Dare’ was not for me.
I didn’t expect to get the original Dan Dare again: if anything, Dan was a very Fifties character, and this was the late Seventies, and the Year of Punk, moreover: when No Future was the watchword, there could hardly be a Pilot of the Future.
But the new ‘Dan Dare’ wasn’t even an updating. It was explained that there had been an accident, centuries before, that Dan had lived on in suspended animation, to be revived in this new future, his body so damaged that his face could not be recreated in any form that looked like he had before.
No Spacefleet, no Digby, no Earth, no eyebrows: they couldn’t have been more comprehensive in throwing out everything about the original Dan, and that went for every tiny aspect of his personality. In short, only the names were the same.
I really have no idea whether the Belardinelli ‘Dare’ was a good character in his own terms. A long time ago, a friend who owned a comics shop in Liverpool allowed me access to his 2000AD back-issues, to read for free, to take notes about the ‘Dan Dare’ strips, in return for me sorting those back issues into numerical and accessible order. There were many gaps towards the beginning, so I never had the chance to form any kind of real assessment of that first revived version, except that it was typically 2000AD: fast, brutal, uncultured, flashy and basically a bit crap.
Well, I was hardly the audience was I? By 1977, the boys who would have once lapped Frank Hampspon’s, or even Keith Watson’s Pilot of the Future wanted violence and destruction and people who fought and swore…
Evidently, the editors of 2000AD agreed with me in some respect about the Belardinelli ‘Dan Dare’, for it was pulled, revamped drastically, and rebooted, this time with art by Dave Gibbons. This was the pre-Watchmen Gibbons, yet to break into the American market. I remember him being regarded in fandom as a good ‘meat-and-potatoes’ action cartoonist, and his artwork on ‘Dan Dare’ bore this out.
It was stronger, steadier, more controlled. It was primarily in black and white, which aided the greater air of stability to the work. Gibbons also met Frank Hampson and apologised to him, though Hampson was pleasant to him about his work!
I read much more of Gibbons’ work in John Mottershead’s shop basement, but I remember very little of it. better art, certainly, and the return of the eyebrows, if nothing else physically about the character. Did it stand up? Better than 2000AD‘s first version.
But that’s the thing. Certain creations impress themselves upon us, slide into our minds and occupy our memories because we recognise the life in them. They are true creations, neither symbol nor puppet, and they have within them an unshakeable, unchageable core that makes them, for better or worse, what they are.
To exist in 1977, Dan Dare had to be ‘updated’. Given how much he was a creation of his times, I doubt very much that, for a weekly boys comic that year, or after, he could have been presented in the context of his times without ignoring far too much of those core qualities. Neither Belardinelli’s nor Gibbons’ characters stood a chance as arsion of ‘Dan Dare’ that stood in any way upon the ground. That clash between the name and the actual stories was unbridgeable.
Burdened by ‘Dan Dare’, neither version stood a chance of breathing. As new creations, they might have established themselves. It’s been the story with the vast majority of the post-1969 attempts to revive Dan.
As far as the historical record is concerned, this is the last of the early 2000AD series to be reprinted and it deserves it from that viewpoint. I shalln’t be rushing, or even idling, to add it to my collection, though I’d borrow it from a Library, out of curiosity. I hope that 2000AD‘s old fans will enjoy it.

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Mutts – a Touching Tribute


I don’t know how many of you are aware of the US daily cartoon strip, Mutts, written and drawn by Patrick McDonnell?
On the surface, it’s a simple cat and dog strip, centred upon Earl (a dog) and Mooch (a cat) living next door to each other: Earl with Ozzie, Mooch with Millie and Frank. The strip is animal oriented, with more animal supporting characters than human, and McDonnell is a passionate believer in animal welfare and environmentalism who uses his strip to advocate these themes.
Mutts has been around for the best part of twenty years. It had the great fortune to make its debut just as Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes was withdrawing: the two strips are radically different in style and theme, but Mutts was perfect for those readers who wanted a strip possessing a unique, offbeat humour, beautifully stylised minimalist art and an almost impossible amount of charm.
The first Mutts collection, gathering the first year of the strip, had a foreword by none other than Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, who praised McDonnell for Earl, calling him ‘an absolutely perfect little cartoon dog’. From the creator of Snoopy, those are high words.
I don’t know if Mutts is reprinted in the UK anywhere: I get my daily dose by e-mail, sent free from the Mutts website every day. This week’s strips have had a magical undertheme, in the run-up to Hallowe’en. Mooch, in his guise as the Great Proshpero, performs a magic trick, causing not just himself and Earl but the entire last panel on Tuesday to disappear!
The following day was a beautiful example of using the comic strip format: two entirely black panels, the third a balloon with the single word ‘Oops.’ On Thursday, the still invisible Earl asks Mooch to use his cat magic to bring them back: Mooch is happy to do so but asks ‘Can you see mu magic wand.’
So to today, which is Hallowe’en. For years, decades in fact, Charles Schulz would use this time of year to gentily satirise his own religion. Each Hallowe’en would find Linus van Pelt in the pumpkin patch, faithfully yet hopelessly waiting for the ‘Great Pumpkin’ to rise. And Mooch’s cat magic brings back one startled cat and dog in today’s final panel – in the pumpkin patch, with a perfectly Schulz Linus, still waiting all these years after Schulz passed on.
It was hilarious and touching: McDonnell is a daily treasure.

14-10-31

Travelling with Tinniswood: Witney Scrotum


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Slakehouse is an elderly gentleman of obvious Northern extraction who lives in our village under an upturned zinc bath in the back yard of the cricket bag repository.
What other village, I ask you earnestly, would tolerate the presence in its midst of a wizened, moth-infested, fetid, belching, terminal inebriate with congenitally unbuttoned flies and a yellowing tongue encrusted with what appears to be a full set of aged rusting mountaineers’ crampons?
Who is he?
What is he?
No, he is not an ITN newscaster ‘down on his luck’.
No, he is not a former financial advisor to the Duchess of York.
No, he is not a younger version of Mr. Ned Sherrin.
The answer is far more potent and pungent – he is, dear readers, a sportsman.
And thus he is welcome in our village.
How and when did he arrive in Witney Scrotum?
On the matter of date we cannot e precise.
But neither can Mr. Raymond Illingworth be certain of the date on which he last captained Yorkshire from his bath chair.
And Sir Geoffrey Boycott is in a sea of total confusion concerning the date on which he is to have the next mammogram on his wallet under local anaesthetic.
There were four years between Winston, and Witney Scrotum, a far cry from the prolific Eighties when Peter Tinniswood was producing two Brigadier books a year. Not that he had eased up on his workload: in the Nineties, Tinniswood’s energy was directed towards Radio 4, to Winston serials and a plethora of well-received plays.
Witney Scrotum returns us one last time to the village and the world of the Brigadier, forever unchanged. I was concerned at the lack of imagination in the book’s title: we had already had Tales from Witney Scrotum, and this latest volume was confusingly close in name.
What can I say? It’s the Brigadier, and by now we know all there is to know about what we’ll be reading. Tinniswood changes the formula in no whit, save to include references to cricketers who have come along since the very Eighties era of the Brigadier’s creation: thus we have the shy Reverend Michael Atherton and those cheerful vandalisers, the Tufnell Twins, but apart from a handful of throwaway references, we might still be back where England were thrashing the Aussies in 1981.
The major difference between this and other Brigadier efforts is that I can’t find anything funny in it. It’s not simply a case of once too often to the well, though the sheer familiarity of the format is discouraging. It’s more that, whilst previous works have seemed to be effortless, too effortless as I have remarked, Witney Scrotum is constantly striving for effect.
Paragraphs droop with the density of improbable, incongruous adjectives. Tinniswood tries to cram in more and more detail into each moment, oversalting the fantastic elements. It’s the perils of any kind of eccentric or exaggerated humour: the writer continually has to overtop himself, to the point that the exaggeration ceases to be of real life, but of the previous level(s) of exaggeration. At some point, it snaps.
What’s worse is that Tinniswood is running out of sustainable ideas. There a couple of chapters that are made up of letters written by the Brigadier, with no genuine connection between them that would sustain a viable chapter. They are pressed into contiguity simply because the individual ideas are limited in length.
And the book ends with a Cricket Quiz that, in terms of humour, falls flat on its face. There are pages and pages of questions, followed by pages of answers, all serious and factual, save for the odd comic one thrown in to drown. The level of the humour can be demonstrated by the section on cricketer’s middle names, about one in every three of which is John.
It’s desperately sad to see a book like this published by Tinniswood, who was by now well-ensconced on Radio 4. It’s a pale reflection of his gifts, and a sad justification for his complaint, late in life, that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions to do his best work. In books, at least, it was far behind him. And one last utter disaster awaited.

A bit (retro-) political… 3


That Mike Reid claim about ‘inadvertently’ causing offence with the ‘UKIP Calypso’ irresistably reminds me of an incident twenty-five or so years ago, in pre-Mandela’s release, Apartheid South Africa. Yorkshire and occasionally England) opening bat Martyn Moxon was coaching in the Republic during the English winter when, after a long, gruelling net session under the South African sun with a very promising young fast bowler, the Yorkshire captain headed for the Pavilion for some refreshing alcoholic drinks, only to be amazed when his young protege – who was black – hung back and didn’t seem to want to follow him to the bar…

To which my then-girlfriend, no cricket fan, commented: “With eyesight like that, it’s amazing he can even see a cricket ball…”

Insubstantial Airfill Reconsidered: New Tricks learns new tricks


Messrs Griffin, McAndrew, Miller and Standing, aka UCOS

Nine weeks ago, I celebrated the return for an eleventh series of the BBC comedy/drama cold-case series New Tricks. I’d describe it as a ‘guilty pleasure’ except for the fact that I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about it. But I did describe it as Insubstantial Airfill, which is a fair way of putting what the series has been for the past several years.
However, over the last couple of series, New Tricks has been shaken up by the departure of three-quarters of its cast, with James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman leaving and being replaced by Denis Lawson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Tamzin Outhwaite respectively.
The latter two came on board at different times in series 10, so this has been the first time the new team has had a proper opportunity to shine, and the outcome has been surprising. I might have enjoyed New Tricks but that didn’t blind me to it being pretty formulaic, and just a bit prone to the comedy aspect. Insubstantial Airfill.
But the change of cast has refreshed the show, to the point almost of regeneration and I think this has been the strongest series I’ve seen.
What has impressed the most is how the writers and production team have suddenly found themselves able to deal with much darker and more complex themes without at any time appearing superficial. Though the light-hearted element remains, it has been muted to a degree as a response to the more serious cases that have been explored.
The series finale this week was a perfect example of the new standards. The team were investigating the 1983 death of sixteen year old Amy Taskerland, on the night of the school disco at a private school, found with a broken neck after falling down a set of stone steps. The death turned out to be an accident, a shoving match between best friends when the dead girl was in a confused and frightened state, but the outcome was not the point of the story, as with so much of the series, but rather the catalyst for uncovering a very dark seam of recent British history.
The case had been re-opened after the accidental uncovering of a ‘time-capsule’ buried in 1983, to which Amy had contributed a mix-tape (i.e. cassette, for our younger readers) that was found to include a terrified message from her, forecasting her death and referring to fear of ‘Alec’, a name that baffled everyone, there being no Alec known to anyone who was around her.
On the way to the almost anti-climactic ending, it was revealed that Amy had been having sex with her teacher, now the School’s headmaster, whose engagement had been broken off that same night, and who had been anxious to keep the tape covered up. This was deep water in itself, but only a red herring ultimately.
Whilst it was being investigated, we were introduced, as if a background element, to Amy’s father, a former Civil Servant, played with customary brilliance by Jack Sheppard. Mr Taskerland was emotionally distant, somewhat vague, paranoid about dirt and disease, and curiously disinterested in the loss of his only child, which had been followed within the year by divorce initiated by his late wife.
A curious, but seemingly irrelevant sub-theory was introduced by Danny Griffin. This as bee Nicholas Lyndhurst’s series in spades: the dry, reserved polymath has figured prominently in several episodes and was central to this and its predecessor last week. Here he theorises that Amy may have been reading from a speech by the Queen that gave the episode its title.
The problem was that the speech was never delivered, that its existence was Top Secret and it was only de-classified eighteen months earlier: it was the Speech the Queen would have read to the Country in the vent of Nuclear War.
The impossibility of Amy having ever known of this speech, not to mention the security aspects, meant this thread was officially disregarded, but Danny’s persistence with it, as the Teacher theory unravelled into a dead end, took the programme into its bleak final third.
I know there are some who think Nicholas Lyndhurst has spoiled New Tricks and whilst I completely disagree, it was very clear last night that he was the star: the case also revolved around Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’, it’s length and release date, which Danny determined with the help of Ethan, Sasha’s first post-Divorce boyfriend, not to mention a brilliantly timed shot of the gang, playing basketball hoops in the school courtyard, first up, ending with Danny flinging a gloriously casual one-handed shot over his shoulder and into the basket from what looked like fifteen yards!
Instincts, intuition, experience from the Diplomatic Protection Squad and detective skills lead Danny, and us, to the chilling truth. In 1983, with Thatcher in Downing Street, Reagan in the White House and Russia still very pre-Gorbachev, the Doomsday Clock was set at three minutes to midnight.
There were plans, highly secret plans, for the event of nuclear war: speeches, propaganda that openly lied to the public about ‘survivability’ that were no more than a deliberate deception intended to get the greatest number to barricade themselves in their homes – oversized coffins – in order to die neatly, division of the country into police-controlled statelets, and underground bunkers to be stocked by people who would outlast nuclear winter before emerging to ‘rebuild’ the country.
Amy’s father was one of those men. She’d accidentally seen the secret Speech, found the committee acronym –  A.L.E.C. – understood the horror that her father would go away and leave her and her mother to die horribly, to be vapourised.
All the more potent for being delivered in Danny’s dry, unemotional tones (he is so much a contrast to Brian Lane, being as far underplayed by Lyndhurst as Lane was overplayed by Armstrong), this exposure moved from the abandoned bunker itself to a confrontation with Taskerland over the crucial night.
Einstein was quoted: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought but I can tell you how the Fourth World War will be fought: with sticks and stones.” Sheppard rose to the occasion magnificently. Outwardly, the story was simple and callous: a Nato exercise had spooked the Russians, their finger was trembling on the button, Taskerland was summoned to the Bunker, leaving a screaming, distraught Amy, who understood what this meant, hysterical that he would leave them. To die.
Sheppard, however, incarnated Taskerland brilliantly. The weary protest that if he had not gone voluntarily, he would have been forced to go by armed Police was but a part of it. Taskerland had a duty, a duty to the country’s future, to trying to restore it afterwards. Sasha tried to say that his family was his future, but it was the episode’s one mistake, a repetition of the argument laid in the episode about the Special Branch operative who’d raised a family undercover. But where that argument was pretty solid and unequivocal, it was a one-dimensional response to something of far greater moral complexity.
Because, horrifying as it was, Taskerland’s duty was also right, and necessary on levels that we cannot disclaim, cold, hard, pragmatic levels that we may want to ignore, or discard, but which have to be confronted unless we collectively decide to give up. What Sheppard did was to show us what a choice of that nature had done to Taskerland, what it would do to any of us with half an imagination, half a conscience, to be forced into making that choice.
Poor Amy, who didn’t live to see that the Russians relaxed, that we didn’t all die, ended up pouring out her fears and distress to a best mate who, despite her desire to help, couldn’t understand the way Amy understood, and it ended in a fight and a fall and a death. And the residual thought remains as to what shape Amy’s life would have taken if she had lived on, with the knowledge, and the heretic thought that maybe, just maybe, it might have been better not to. Taskerland showed the danger of a life spent in that knowing.
Yet, despite this deeply serious theme, the programme also managed to maintain its original comic impulse, and indeed had more of a light-hearted element to it than the whole of the series before it collectively, without misjudging the tone. Sasha had met someone, record shop owner and vinyl enthusiast Ethan, but was finding herself too scared to go away for a weekend in Barcelona. Strickland was hanging round the team, wanting to fit in on drinks, seeking someone to share his worries about becoming a father again at 55. The team, and especially Danny, were running the rule over Ethan, who came in handy about ‘Club Tropicana’, and Gerry’s suffering the stag-do of his future son-in-law, who’s terrified of admitting that his fiancée is pregnant.
New Tricks has been confirmed for a twelfth series in 2015, though Dennis Waterman will only appear in the first two episodes before leaving. That means that the entire cast will have changed. There’s no news as yet as to who his replacement might be, though based on past performance we should probably expect him to be a bit of a jack-the-lad, a bit fly, so as to fit the jigsaw. It’s not just mischief on my part to hope for something a little more adventurous, along the lines of he being a she, maybe?
Either way, New Tricks has shown that it can handle changes of personnel without losing its touch, indeed can thrive on them to give it new scope. If this year’s standard can be kept up next year, there’s no reason why the series couldn’t be kept going far longer than would have seemed desirable, let alone likely only a short time ago.
Another series like this one and I won’t be calling it Insubstantial Airfill again.

A bit political…


Let’s get this straight: Mike Reid, a white DJ, records a song promoting a political party whose most prominent policy is anti-immigration. He sets his lyrics to a traditional Jamaican musical form and sings it in a fake Jamaican accent. And he apologises for causing unintentional offence?