All was set.
With The Red Moon Mystery rolling towards its end, Frank Hampson began preparing for its sequel, which would see Dan, Digby, the Professor, Sondar, and an Atlantine Cadet, Urb, survive the fireball of destruction that accompanied the Red Moon’s explosion to find themselves stranded, believed dead, on the innermost planet, Mercury.
He had already requested Walkden Fisher – famous for the weekly exploded drawings in Eagle that turned thousands of boys’ minds towards engineering – to make model Mercurian landscapes for him, to use in depicting the planet nearest the sun, though Hampson had not liked the results, which did not match his inner visions. And he had already decided that once Dan and co had survived their landing, courtesy of the Mercurians themselves, they would discover an old enemy plotting revenge: the Mekon.
Then disaster struck. Hampson pushed his studio hard, but he pushed himself even harder. He’d had to step back a couple of times during ‘The Venus Story’, missing the last four weeks. But now the self-imposed workload caught up with him with a vengeance. An inner-ear infection, destroying his balance, coupled with a diagnosis of exhaustion resulted in an order of bedrest, and no activity under any circumstances. Dorothy Hampson enforced this, but only two weeks into the story, Marooned on Mercury had lost its creator.
So far as the art was concerned, there was a simple solution. Harold Johns, Hampson’s good friend and senior assistant, took over principal art, working in close collaboration with Greta Tomlinson, with whom he’d already formed a fruitful working partnership, on Rob Conway and on at least one Dan Dare short in an Eagle Annual. As for the script, the Reverend Marcus Morris turned to the seemingly unlikely figure of the Reverend Chad Varah.
Varah had been a friend of Morris for some years. Like Morris, he was the Vicar of a Lancashire parish, in Blackburn, and a founder of Morris’s Society for Christian Publicity. He is remembered for something far greater, as Founder of the Samaritans, the charitable organisation that provides an outlet to talk for people who are desperate, lonely and suicidal. But at this early stage of his carer, Varah also had a sideline as the writer of short adventure stories for boys, several of which had been published in the early days of Eagle. In the circumstances, given the short notice, he was the best available choice.
Whatever Hampson had planned for Marooned on Mercury, assuming he had anything planned as yet, was all in his head and Varah had to hit the ground cold. As for Johns and Tomlinson, they were more than grateful for Fisher’s models.
The major problem with Marooned on Mercury is that Varah simply did not have Hampson’s gift for making it up as he went along. The actual story has nothing intrinsically wrong about it, although there is a continuity error (albeit one that can be loosely explained). But the actual week-by-week tale is choppy and disjointed, as if Varah was not able to sustain extended elements of the story in the way Hampson had with the two previous tales.
Varah’s story is that, when he escaped from Venus following his overthrow, the Mekon sought refuge on Mercury, where he has dominated, but not enslaved (presumably due to lack of resources rather than intent) a basically pacifist society. Among the Mekon’s resources are a group of Earthmen, in fact the Captain and crew of Kingfisher, the impulse drive ship destroyed in Eagle’s second issue, now revealed to have survived and been prisoners in Mekonta throughout ‘The Venus Story’ (improbable as it is that the Treens/Mekon would have kept this secret). The Kingfisher crew are unaware that they are working for the Mekon: they were released from prison by Treens claiming to be rebels against the Mekon and are working towards rejoining a war they don’t know has been won, to oppose him.
On Mercury, the Mekon has discovered a plantform harmless to Mercurians but fatal to Earthmen and Treens. From this, he has synthesized a gaseous substance he calls Panthanaton (Latin: All-Deathbringer: the Mekon has clearly studied Earth languages and would no doubt have got a First at Cambridge).
His plan was to use Captain D’Arcy (D’Arcy?) and his crew to fly a spaceship to Venus, relying on their being allowed through the planetary defences, and, when low enough to do so, detonate a Panthanaton bomb that will kill everyone on the planet.
Now that Dan Dare is (almost) in his hands, the Mekon intends to coerce him into being the pilot instead: with Dan at the controls, all security measures will open up, and the Mekon can reclaim his crown.
That’s the overall story. It’s decent enough in itself, not that it isn’t easy to pick holes in its logic at significant points, but in this clear and concise summary, we see into the heart of Marooned on Mercury‘s central failing. The above is an outline: it’s a four paragraph summary of what will be revealed to the reader over 35 weeks. It says nothing of how the story is to be told, of what will happen, of the journey the characters will go on.
Hampson made The Red Moon Mystery an attractive, taut, compelling story by moving the action through various stages, each logically flowing from one to the other. Varah lacked that capacity. Marooned on Mercury is choppy and bitty, a process emphasised by his almost immediately splitting the party into three pairs (Dan and Sondar, Digby and Urb, the Professor and the friendly Mercurian they nick-name Samson: I am still ignoring that damned pooch), all of whom are following different paths underground, continually running into obstacles they have to pass, the story cutting from one to another.
In fact, there is more running down corridors than in an entire series of Doctor Who.
The hodge-podge nature of the telling is best exemplified by the swing-bridge, an improbable underground bridge across a bottomless chasm encountered by Dan and Sondar, who use it to cross said chasm and strand a pursuing Treen squad on the other side. As such, this is a minor incident, until, that is, Varah switches to Peabody and Samson, who encounter the self-same swing-bridge and this time have endless difficulties getting across it, as if Varah had suddenly realised he’d missed a trick in not complicating Dan’s path.
Dan and Sondar’s crossing leads directly into the sudden appearance of Captain D’Arcy.
D’Arcy and crew are perhaps the hardest thing to swallow in the entire story. In isolation, there is nothing exceptionable about their role in the story. But the whole point of Kingfisher in ‘The Venus Story’ was that the ship exploded in deep space, outside the anti-impulse wave barrier protecting Venus, in space. The explosion was brutal and sudden and the implication was that all the crew were killed. No explanation is given as to how they survived, or how the crew were extracted from the wrecked Kingfisher (which was under astroviewer observation from Earth) without anyone noticing.
And it’s worth remembering that, when they were captured, Dan and Digby were treated as the first Earthmen to come under Treen hands for experimentation: they are only allowed to attempt to rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor on the basis that this would double the number of subjects, yet all the time the Treens are supposed to have a dozen Earth specimens locked up in a Mekonta prison, just cooling their heels. It doesn’t really sit.
The more obvious error is in calling Kingfisher’s captain D’Arcy, when he’s Crane in ‘The Venus Story’, though this is perhaps surmountable. Crane is referred to by his surname in the earlier story, in accordance with military form, and it’s possible that when Dan calls him D’Arcy, he’s greeting a personal friend who he addresses by his first name, making the character Captain D’Arcy Crane.
The encounter is fraught with suspicion. D’Arcy initially attacks Dan, seeing him allied with Sondar, believing him to be in league with the Mekon. An uneasy peace is maintained between the two sides, for long enough that Dan begins to come round to accepting the honesty and probity of D’Arcy’s Treen colleagues, that is until Peabody and Samson catch up and remind him that the very first thing the original Treen party had said to Dan and Co when trying to collect them was to present the Mekon’s compliments…
At least the Kingfisher crew aren’t traitors. The moment they learn they’ve been tricked, they turn on the Treens with a vengeance.
Once everybody’s on the same page, they shoot off into space but, thanks to the use of the Mekon’s magnets, only into the Mercurian equivalent of geosynchronous orbit where, for several weeks, Dan and his arch-enemy play a waiting game.
This section of the story is, for me, even more problematic than the earlier episodes. We now have everyone in the same place, and no more corridors to run down in separate directions, but Varah shifts things into philosophical areas.
It’s now settled that the Mekon wants Dan Dare, and Dan Dare only, to drop the Panthanaton bomb on Venus. D’Arcy and his crew were an expedient, but would be subject to challenge due to their long absence (and the fact that everyone’s thought they were dead since 1995), but no-one would even think to challenge Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot. Knowing what price Dare places on his word of honour, the Mekon rationalises that he only has to get Dan to promise, and his plan ins secured.
So the next phase of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between the Mekon’s forces and one ship, with limited air, food and other resources, trapped in orbit, with the aim of forcing Dan into a promise that will save his friends.
From an adult perspective, Varah overcooks the story. It takes a long time for Dan to come out with the only possible answer, that he cannot possibly place the lives of Digby, Peabody, Sondar and Urb above those of millions of Threens, Therons and Earthmen on Venus. But Marooned on Mercury‘s original audience, the seven to twelve year olds of the first half of 1953, would have been reading their first philosophical dilemma, and perhaps the additional time Varah gives to what, ultimately, is a simple answer, serves more than just the need to perpetuate the storytelling.
Having set things up as turning upon an ethical decision, it’s a shame that Varah then blurs the moral lines in a way unexpected of Eagle‘s ethos. Dan can’t get down from the sky without the Mekon allowing him, but he must get out of the sky and back to Mercury if he’s ever to overthrow his archenemy’s plans. It’s Catch-22, and Varah’s solution is for Sondar, not being affected by the moral convictions of Earthmen, to secretly signal that Dan will indeed do the dirty deed, to break the impasse.
And Dan, discovering that the Treens are expecting him and are indeed willing to lead him to the Panthanaton bomb storage centre, decides to go with the flow and allow the Treens to think that he has given his word, whilst planning all the time to break it the first chance he gets. Please bear in mind that this ethical cross-wired conundrum has been cooked up by a Church of England Vicar: no wonder I turned out an atheist.
However, we are now set up for the end-game, which consists of Dan, with the Mekon having arrived to personally direct his hated foe into the biggest single crime in the Solar System, grabbing a Panthanaton bomb and threatening to kill all of them: it’s worth the sacrifice of his own life to end the threat of the Mekon for once and for all.
With the Mekon temporarily stymied by the Panthanaton bomb, Dan takes the chance to use the Treen controls to contact Earth and signal their survival and the need for an Earth presence, extremely rapidly. By a convenient coincidence, this call comes just as Sir Hubert is unveiling a memorial to the gallant Earth heroes who sacrificed themselves to dispel the menace of the Red Moon (and if that feels oddly remote, remember that, although this took place nearly nine months earlier for Eagle’s readers, in the context of the series only some two to three weeks have passed, making the ceremony almost premature).
Dan’s family is represented by Uncle Ivor, Digby’s by Aunt Anastasia. What should we read into this? In time to come we will know that Dan’s father is believed dead, and it is clear that Lady Jean McGregor Dare must also have passed on. That no other Dare family member is present to pay their respects suggests that Dan was an only child, which sits awkwardly with the introduction of a nephew, Alastair, in the first Eagle Annual short story, running in the first Interplanetary Olympics. A decade later, Dan will also acquire a second nephew, Nigel, but never a mention of a brother to have fathered these close relatives!
And I once again find it notable that neither Mrs Digby nor any of the four Digby children are here to honour the head of the household: I said it before and I’ll repeat it, amicable separation and Digby spends all his time on duty because he hasn’t got any money left for himself once he’s finished paying ample maintenance!
It’s going to take about a fortnight for the Earth fleet to reach Mercury, though it’s a little strange to have that estimate coming from Uncle Ivor, an archaeologist lest we forget, rather than someone from Spacefleet.
Meantime, Dan and Co are still up the sharp end, with the Mekon out for revenge. It’s time to appeal to the Mercurians to rise up against their oppressors. But the Mercurians, for all that they are surprisingly strong for such skinny folk, and fond of bangs and crashes when they travel, are pacifists by nature. The Mekon is a pest, but he’s a bearable pest, is their attitude, and none of Dan’s rhetoric, so effective on the Therons, has any effect. Until the Mekon arrives in his fleet, guns a-blazing, resorting to brute force and ruddy ignorance. And then the Mercurians retaliate, bouncing into the sky and stripping down the Treen ships in midflight. This is rapidly followed by a multifarious Mercurian march cross-planet, aimed at the Mekon’s base, though it arrives just in time to see the Mekon making another tactical retreat.
Thus Sir Hubert arrives to find a peaceful planet, and Dan and co can go back to work.
In all of this, I haven’t, thus far, mentioned the art. It goes without saying, and this is no insult to Harold Johns, that the best art in the entire story is in the four pages directly drawn and supervised by Hampson himself, before succumbing to exhaustion. These are also, in terms of what we’ve already covered with regard to the story, the most fast-paced and story-dense four pages of Marooned on Mercury.
Unlike Hampson, Johns – whose signature on the work appears only once in the entire story – was grateful for Walkden Fisher’s models. Hampson had already designed and depicted the Mercurians, so he and Tomlinson are left with little in the way of innovation.
They’re solid and competent, and of course, just as when they were mere assistants, they’re drawing in Frank Hampson’s style, so there are no major differences in the art. What proportion of the Dan Dare audience actually noticed is impossible to say but based on my own experience as a comics reading kid a decade later, I suspect it would have been very small.
But to the adult eye, the change in artist is unmistakeable. It’s not immediately noticeable in backgrounds, in landscape or technology, but it is in faces and, as the story progresses, in figure scale. At this stage in his career, Hampson’s art still contained an identifiable element of cartooning when it came to faces, but Johns’ style exaggerates this back towards the very early days.
His scale is off, too. The Studio research materials contained style-sheets and figure guides including relative heights, enabling characters to be depicted in proportion to one another, and these distinctions are maintained, but there is a general shrinkage of everyone vis-a-vis their setting. Bodies are shorter and stubbier: not by any pronounced degree, but by enough for it to be noticeable.
Digby, who was closest to being a cartoon to begin with, is even more unrealistic throughout the story, and suffers the indignity of having his face drawn in different styles at different times. He’s never not recognisable, but the eye halts far too often for comfort. The effect is like seeing a different actor taking over an established part.
I don’t know just how long Frank Hampson’s illness remained debilitating, but by the time he was fit again, Marooned on Mercury had progressed so far that, rather than re-take the reigns with the concomitant disruption of rebuilding the story into something more impressive, he chose not to interfere but instead concentrated upon Dan Dare’s next adventure.
This fourth story, the second longest single story in the entire canon, would take Dan and Co deeper into space than they had ever been, would introduce another race of aliens to the teeming life of Earth’s Solar System, and demonstrate another step forward in Hampson’s evolution as an artist. But Hampson’s health would still play a crucial part in the telling of this story.