Is This The Year? Update 1


At half-time, it looked absolutely bloody brilliant. FC United a goal up at Grantham Town, Skelmersdale (2nd) and Aston (5th) a goal down, Ilkeston (3rd) drawing and only Workington (4th) in the lead.

Of course, it was too good to be true, with Ilkeston and Aston coming through to win, but FC did make it eleven straight League wins and Skem lost 2-0, so FC’s lead at the top of the table is now three clear points over them, and no change to the rest of the chasers, all games in hand maintained.

We’re in action again on Tuesday night (when aren’t we?) away to Rushall Olympic. Ashton and Ilkeston also have games that night but it’s a chance to distance ourselves even further from Skem and Workington – and who knows, maybe we’ll get some help from Kings Lynn Town and/or Blyth Spartans? But the all-important thing is that twelfth straight win.

Expect these updates on a regular basis unil the end of the season, and expect one bloody big ballyhoo if we pull this off…

Is This The Year?


Last year, I wrote a series of posts about my interests in non-League football, in the twin forms of FC United of Manchester (who I support) and Droylsden FC (who I used to support).

This time last year, Droylsden (aka the Bloods) were in horrendous freefall: a goal difference of more than minus 100 before New Year, confirmed relegation in February. It looked so bad, coming off the back of a similar freefall season in the Conference North the year before, that I seriously feared that they would continue to fall disastrously.

Well, that hasn’t happened. The Bloods have rallied in the Northern Premier League First Division North (I don’t do sponsors unless they sponsor me), and there’s no risk of the plummet continuing. Indeed, for much of the season, Droylsden have been in or about the play-off places and contenders for an immediate return. They are comfortably the highest scorers in the whole Northern Premier League and they are the kings of results, with only one draw in 32 League games.

Promotion looks unlikely, however. Droylsden lie 7th, two places and two points out of the play-offs, but the biggest factor weighted against them is that their 32 games is the highest number played among the promotion contenders. All six teams above them have one to three games in hand (and the next two teams below them have even more games in hand). The odds that at least half of these eight rivals will jointly collapse and let the Bloods overtake them are highly unlikely.

It’s a totally different story for FC United. Last year was the fourth in succession that FC had challenged for the Premier Division title and promotion to Conference North. It was the fourth season in succession that FC got into the play-offs, this time with home advantage in both semi-final and final guaranteed by virtue of finishing second.

It was also the fourth year in succession that they blew it, although disappointment this time came not in the Final but the semi-final: beaten 2-1 by Ashton United with literally the last kick of extra-time: I know, ‘cos I was there.

This season, FC’s progress has been held up by an extraordinarily successful run in the FA Trophy. The club got through to the quarter-finals, the last eight, the only non-Conference team left in the competition, before going out 1-0 at Torquay United, who, last season, were still Football League (I listened to radio commentary from BBC Devon, who were good enough to say that FC didn’t look out of place at Torquay’s level).

The consequence of that run has been that FC now has games in hand over practically everybody else in the Premier Division, and especially over all the viable promotion candidates.

It’s an old saying, but still true, that it’s better to have the points in the bank than games in hand. But as of Tuesday night this week, FC United of Manchester have both. As of Tuesday, we are top of the Northern Premier League Premier Division, for the first time this season, borne there on the stength of ten successive League wins.

FC are top on goal difference (plus 29) from long-term leaders Skelmersdale United (plus 13), but FC have SIX games in hand. They are four points clear of third place Ilkeston, with two games in hand, five points above Workington Town with one game in hand and six points clear of Ashton United, again with one game in hand. And that’s just the current play-off zone.

It’s in our hands, people, in our hands and nobody else’s. They can win all their games from now to the end of the season, but if we win, we are Champions and there’ll be none of this play-offs nonsense.

Promotion would be doubly appropriate, not only to celebrate FC United’s tenth year since formation, but also the long-anticipated move into our own ground. From 2005 to 2014, FC rented Bury’s Gigg Lane as their home ground, whilst this season home matches have been divided between Stalybridge Celtic’s Bower Fold and Curzon Ashton’s Manchester Park. But Broadhurst Park in New Moston, taking the club back to Manchester United’s roots, holds its inaugural game in May, hosting none other than Benfica. How better than to start our new home’s life in a new division!

So you can expect a few more posts between now and May, as the season progresses and the title race gets more and more… what?

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 182


182

The last appearance, published on Saturday 13 March 1977. Back at the office, Suzi is grumpy at Debbie and Maisie getting back late from lunch. Debbie’s initially dismissive, just a temporary mood, but then the phone rings. It’s the invisible John, Suzi’s never-seen husband, and they’re having an argument which Suzi is clearly winning by ordering him to do what he wanted to do in the first place that she didn’t want him to do. It’s the intrusive size of the balloon and the shape of the lettering that carries the gag, and Debbie’s despairing ‘Oh God, aggro all afternoon’ is just a tail-piece.

On Monday 15th March, Spare Ribs had vanished, to be replaced by tEmPS, by Dickens alone. The difference between the two was shocking, less in the art but in the writing. This was the same man! The same writer. And in the space of two days he had gone from some form of the sublime, light through it may have been, to the incomprehensibly unfunny – about the same subject.

Only 182 strips, but still a little gem, carefully polished and glinting in every facet.

Quasi-Eurocrime: Fortitude – part 5


The lovely Elena

Last week’s violent eruption, as Sheriff Dan beat the shit out of naked Frank Sutter in the shower (don’t worry, new readers, only the surly, mumbling, unlikable Frank was naked and there was no soap involved) was the perfect leaping off point for Fortitude to get its chops working, to throw off the slow, deliberate, patient/painful (delete as appropriate) build-up and really slam it up through the gears. However, apart from a certain narrowing of focus, episode 5 offered no change in tempo whatsoever. Five episodes down and still plodding: it is getting harder to believe that this series will ever take off.

Apart from a couple of offshoots, just to remind us that the Who Killed Chris Eccleston? plot isn’t the only game in town, most of the episode focussed on Sutter and his possible guilt in the murder of Professor Stoddart. Sheriff Dan’s mad actions ruled him out of any direct involvement in the interrogation, allowing DCI Morton to step in in his quiet manner. Richard Dormer has totally lost me for the length of this series, but Stanley Tucci has gone too far in the opposite direction, underplaying to such a degree that he’s nearing the Earth’s core.

Sheriff Dan is determined not to be counted out. Governor Hildur is still on his side (until late in the episode when she discovers he’s been keeping secrets from her to protect someone else, after which I assume we shall see something of a rift wi’in the lute). She’s straining to paint Dan’s Puncheminnaface methods of arrest as justifiable in apprehending a suspect in a violent, brutal murder, and Dan’s peddling the traditional Police get out of ‘he was resisting arrest’ toDoctor Margaret, but it isn’t selling to anyone, least of all to Morton, who points out he witnessed it.

Dan’s still determined to fuck this investigation up if he can. They have a Frank Sutter t-shirt covered in human blood, but does it match Stoddart? Instead of having a DNA match done through the proper channels, on the mainland, Dan has it done at the Biology Station, by Stoddart’s ex-colleagues, with no forensic certificate, and a couple of eyebrow follicles tweezered out of Stoddart’s corpse by Dan himself in a deserted morgue, so not a lot of obstacles there for any half-competent barrister getting the DNA evidence (and the whole basis of the case) thrown out. Dan doesn’t care. Dan can’t even be bothered to shut the door behind the late Professor’s body to keep it frozen. Dan is not doing anything to embellish his already shaky image this week.

And guess what? It’s Stoddart’s blood on the t-shirt.

Sutter, in the meantime, is talking to Morton. The blood is that of his son, Liam, who we will remember was desperately sick, but suddenly recovered whilst Frank was in the barn, shagging the lovely Elena. Frank’s story is that he found Liam out of bed, covered in blood, that this thing on/in his throat had ruptured, that he’d got Liam cleaned up in the shower and put him back to bed, miraculously recovered, and simply chucked away his ruined t-shirt.

When pressed, he coughs to Elena turning up and the two of them fucking. Which, as we know, is absolutely true. We saw it in the opening double-episode, the fucking bit, that is, not the blood. So Frank has an alibi: he couldn’t have kiled Charlie Stoddart. Except that Charlie’s blood is the one all over the t-shirt.

Elena alibis Frank, and denies any relationship, sexual or otherwise, with Sheriff Dan. He denies it too. Unfortunately, Elena’s alibi has caused Morton and Governor Hildur to assume she’s in it with Frank, and that she was at Stoddart’s when Frank ripped him up. After all, her name is really Esmerelda and she’s done seven years in prison for murder, a minor detail the besotted Dan has been concealing from all and sundry in Fortitude, even Governor Hildur.

Finding that Elena is now under suspiction, the frantic Dan, who now believes Frank 100%, storms off on a desperate search of the Sutter house to he finds Liam’s blood-soaked pajamas. Hurrah, you’re wrong, says Sheriff Dan. My God, say Morton and Hildur, this means they took the boy with them!

Away from the main story, and by that token rather more interesting, we had a couple of distractions. Ronnie and 10 year old Carrie have left the security of the Little Wendy House on the Ice Prairie and are camping on the glacier. There are disturbances in the night. Ronnie reassures Carrie that it’s nothing, there’s nobody there except a stray reindeer, but in the morning there’s a massive bloodstain on the ice, and Ronnie’s right hand is cracked and blackened by frostbite…

In town, creepy Marcus, a man whose DNA is written through with the letters C R E E P, is feeding Doctor Margaret some unexpected minka whale with the compliance of daughter Shirley, with whom he is a) sleeping and b) conducting a great experiment. Which is to feed up Shirley, who is already on the rotund side, until… well, presumably, until she bursts. That Marcus is so overtly creepy that a three-month old baby would take one look at him and go ‘this man is so creepy’ stretches credibility to the point of insult: are we supposed to just assume that Shirley is so much a sad chubbo that she’d overlook anything just to feel like someone fancies her?

Then there’s the hermaphrodite reindeer. Yes, that’s right, there’s a sudden spate of hermaphrodite reindeer foetuses at the moment, the bio lab are studying them. Presumably like they’re studying the pig in the incubator as well? And with only two staff, who are about to shag each other senseless in self-congratulation at a DNA result that’s plainly cocked up somewhere.

The Radio Times thinks this series is ‘as original as it is beautiful’. Beautiful it is, but if the RT thinks this is original, it needs to stay in more and watch the telly. Out of Twin Peaks by way of The Killing, with an overlay of Strindberg’s Enemy of the People, not to mention a heavy dose of Gary Cole’s Seriously Bad Sheriff from the much-lamented American Gothic, only not so lavishly OTT.

Still, next week is half-way.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 181


img024

Still in the park, as Debbie strikes back, itemising all the opportunities for romance that she and Maisie have passed up. These details go into the massive word balloon in the centre of the strip: I said that Dickens used Roberts’ ability to define things with such elegant style to take a wordy approach at times and this is a prime example. Maisie’s response is to shout ‘Big Deal!’, which is only fair as Debbie is reaching for it here – especially with the tramps (this may be an in-joke: Spare Ribs usually appeared directly under Iain ‘Fiddy’ Reid’s daily strip Tramps about -if you couldn’t guess – two tramps). But I see this as Debbie being slightly more self-aware than usual, knowing that she’s admitting it was a waste of time but sticking up for herself. One flaw: Maisie’s head position in the first image is uncharacteristically awkward, and only the perspective keeps her from being taller than Debbie, which she certainly is not!

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 180


180

We’re in the park now and Maisie’s still a bit frustrated at having her lunch hour taken up by one of Debbie’s pursuits that will get her exactly nowhere – then there’s the first eligible male they meet! Not the best strip of this sequence, but note Roberts’ art in this, especially in the middle image where he conjures up the sense of the park with minimal line-work. My personal favourite part of this strip is Maisie’s expression in the first image.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 179


179

Enter Maisie. Debbie’s still harping on about her romantic magazines but the only response she gets from the down-to-earth Maisie is ‘Sounds a bit sloppy to me’. Maisie’s got her eyes on the practicalties, like where they’re going for lunch, which is the cue for Debbie, still absorbed in her story of love beginning with a meeting in the Park, to suggest – where else? – the Park. Again, Roberts kills it in the last image: Debbie is already leaning away, shyly aware of the response her less-than-innocent remark will get, whilst Maisie’s slightly condescending but amused ‘Silly Devil’ is accompanied by an ambiguous swat to the head: is it an exasperated smack or a patronising pat-down of a silly child? Note too Maisie’s preference for a grey top, to distinguish her from Debbie and Suzi.

Dan Dare: Prisoners of Space


At different times and from different sources, I have read many different accounts of the creative process that went into the fifth Dan Dare adventure, Prisoners of Space.
The only thing that everyone agrees upon about this new story is that it was principally drawn by Don Harley, and finished by Desmond Walduck, a freelance artist who had helped out in the closing weeks of Operation Saturn, and who was regarded as a safe pair of hands for work that couldn’t be encompassed by the Hampson studio.
Indeed, by the time Prisoners of Space started, it was something of a stretch to call Hampson’s much-reduced team of assistants a ‘Studio’. Eric Eden had gone, Bruce Cornwell had gone (again), Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson had been fired, Joyce Porter had married: all that was left was Don Harley and Joan Humphries.
The main question is who was responsible for the writing of Prisoners of Space. It has been stated to be Alan Stranks’ first Dan Dare story. It’s been stated to have been put together by Frank Hampson, and there is one particular element in the story that inarguably comes from the man at the top. But I find it difficult to believe that either Stranks or Hampson was responsible for the majority of the story, because Prisoners of Space, like Marooned on Mercury before it, is a loose, unstructured story, consisting mainly of running around corridors, lacking in scope or depth.
The story starts by introducing Astral College, Spacefleet’s cadet training school, and head boy Steve Valiant, along with his two best friends and study-mates Mark Straight and Tony Albright.
Now I have an immediate problem with those names. It’s one thing to introduce Steve Valiant, as a junior Dan Dare, complete with similarly symbolic surname, but to surround him with Messrs Straight and Albright is over-egging the pudding. It’s just not real, and it turns all three characters into cyphers from the outset, and not real characters with personalities.
This is demonstrated by the other, and far more important character introduced on the second page, namely Junior Cadet ‘Flamer’ Spry.
‘Flamer’ – who will join the series regular supporting cast for the next six years – is the ineluctable evidence that Hampson was involved in at least the starting weeks of Prisoners of Space because ‘Flamer’ (who is given no real first name in the entire series), is as much Hampson’s son Peter as Sir Hubert is his father Robert. (Actually, less so: Peter Hampson has commented that whilst his father took Peter’s face and hair for ‘Flamer’, Cadet Spry’s body was based upon one of Peter’s classmates).
Cadet Spry, we quickly learn, is a precocious talent. Dan Dare’s latest ship, a one-man craft nicknamed the ‘Performing Flea’ has just been taken off the secret list and ‘Flamer’ has already built a working model. Which gets accidentally set-off in his absence by Cadet ‘Tubby’ Potts. The mini-‘Flea’ almost prangs Sir Hubert, who is understandably testy about the whole thing. Spry confesses and is facing expulsion until Valiant alibis him as being in his study when the rocket went up. Sir Hubert passes responsibility for punishment to Colonel Dare who, impressed by ‘Flamer’ (who he seems to be meeting for the first time), opts to ‘punish’ him by giving Spry and Valiant a tour of the real ‘Performing Flea’.
Thus far, primarily comic. But Hampson also establishes a serious element to the background. Venus Transport ships are going missing without explanation in the area of Station XQY which, by fortunate coincidence, is the destination of the ‘Performing Flea”s test flight: the course is pre-programmed into the Autopilot which will enable Dare to pilot the ship alone – without even the faithful Digby – and the test flight will be the perfect cover for an investigation of that sector.
All is going well so far so here is where fate steps in to overturn the apple-cart. Naturally, when Dan says he’ll show ‘Flamer’ and Steve round the ‘Performing Flea’, he means Digby will do it, under the watchful and disapproving eye of ‘Old Groupie’. Groupie played a small part in Operation Saturn as a madcap, ex-RAF type piloting an air-taxi but he’s now been taken on by Spacefleet as a civilian mechanic, and is acting considerably differently: he’s now a Grumpy Old Man.
Which leads directly into disaster. Digby’s gone to make a cup of tea, ‘Flamer’ is lying on the pilot’s couch, hands on the controls, dreaming of taking off and suddenly grumpy old Groupie grabs his ankles and yanks him back. Before he can let go, ‘Flamer’ has yanked the controls back as well: autopilot kicks in and the ‘Performing Flea’ is launched on course to Station XQY.

‘Flamer’ Spry with friend yet to be met

Even up to this point, I can believe in Frank Hampson directing the story, even to the discovery, when the ‘Flea’ reaches XQY that its entire staff are dead and that The Mekon has taken control, and is behind the missing spaceships. But I cannot believe that Hampson plays much part, if at all, in what would follow next.
Having two Earth ‘children’ in his hands, the Mekon takes advantage by offering them as hostages: hostages for Colonel Dare, who must come alone and unarmed, to be exchanged for them. It’s opportunistic and this move drives the rest of the story.
Dan’s friends – including Hank, Pierre, Peabody and Sondar – argue against whether he should be allowed to go, and whether he ought to lie to the Mekon – who will undoubtedly lie to him – and go armed and supported. But Dan is adamant about his right to sacrifice himself: who can say that Steve Valiant or ‘Flamer’ won’t grow up to become even more important than him? And his word is his bond, and not just Dan’s bond, but that of Earth.
So Dan borrows Sir Hubert’s Astro-Arrow to set off to XQY. Only he doesn’t go alone and unarmed. Digby has no intention of letting that happen, and whilst Dan is determined to shop his batman to the Mekon once he arrives at XQY, such moral absolutes disappear on the instant when Dan is presented with evidence that the Mekon doesn’t intend to release the hostages at all.
This touches off an extended cat-and-mouse chase around the station featuring Dan, Digby, Steve and Flamer, which goes on for weeks on end. People keep nipping into ventilation or garbage chutes and turning up elsewhere in the station, like a three-dimensional game of Snakes and Ladders. Dan is ‘killed’ three times and each time ‘returns from the dead’ unscathed, impressing and frightening the hell out of the Treen, Xalto, who swaps sides. It really is Marooned on Mercury‘s underground corridors again, this time on a much more restricted scale.
And during this sequence, the Mekon introduces the title of the story: a small, battery-powered space cell, with 24 hours oxygen, in which Dan Dare will be imprisoned and left to die.
The whole thing comes to an end when Digby and ‘Flamer’ get away in the Astro-Arrow (Dan’s attempt to retrieve the ‘Performing Flea’ ends in its destruction and one of his several ‘deaths’), and an Earth fleet has taken off under Sir Hubert’s personal command. He’s in Speedstar and Pierre and Hank are in Lodestar, the two fastest ships in the fleet, but all Hank and Pierre are supposed to do is pick up Dig and ‘Flamer’ and taken them back to Earth, which is tactically moronic.
As for the Mekon, believing Dan Dare to be dead (hint: he’s not) he orders XQY to be booby-trapped and evacuates, to pick up his plan, the one he’s been preparing so carefully. No, he doesn’t (and I refuse to believe that Frank Hampson is party to this): he jets off to Venus and Mekonta where, on arrival the Treens will rise up and reinstate him.

Our Mutual Friend

When the Mekon returns to Mekonta, he is indeed greeted with an impromptu Treen uprising. However, he has carried with him on his flagships two things of which he is not aware. One is Dan Dare, and the other is a limpet bomb due to go off more or less at the same time as touchdown. Dan gets out with sufficient time to adjust the timer, and to call in Spacefleet (who have gone to Theronland) to bomb the living crap out of Mekonta.
So Sir Hubert leads both Speedstar and Lodestar (you seriously did not think that Messrs Lafayette, Hogan, Digby and Spry would actually obey a direct order from the Controller of Spacefleet to go back to Earth?) on a bombing raid. The crew includes ‘Flamer’ Spry, as it obviously would, and it’s a damned good job too, because he’s the one who spots Dan, Steve, Groupie and Xalto staked out in the Mekonta sun, ready to be fried.
The Multum Mark V missile is diverted into space where, as luck would have it, it hits and vapourises the other two ships of the Mekon’s fleet. The Mekon intends to retreat to ‘Orbit Mortus’ where even Dan Dare cannot follow him (what and where ‘Orbit Mortus’ is was never referred to again, a delicious loophole for the enterprising who write and draw new Dan Dare stories to this day). But Dan hastily radios the Mekon to alert him to the limpet bomb attached to his ship, which hasn’t got long to go… In order to survive the Mekon has to abandon ship, in the very space-globe he intended for Dan Dare’s death-cell. At long last, he is captured by his arch-enemy, and taken to Earth to be tried to his crimes.
That’s more or less the whole story, though I note that I have rather short-changed Steve Valiant in my account. Valiant pulls off a familiar Digby-like trick whilst a hostage, pleading with Dan to sacrifice himself to get the hostages free, whilst all the time tapping out a Morse message of defiance, demanding Dare stay away, that his life and that of his fellows is meaningless and should be sacrificed. In order to maintain his usefulness to the Mekon, Valiant has to endure the taints of his fellow hostages, who truly believe him to be a coward and a traitor.
I’ve also short-changed Old Groupie, but that’s rather more intentional. After kick-starting everything by yanking ‘Flamer’s ankles, Groupie is required to do little more than make grumpy remarks. His only other contribution to the story is to be ‘killed’ by a Treen blaster in the back. But he miraculously recovers, a recovery that remains unexplained until the last page when, with everyone in the shower, we finally see that he’s wearing a large mustard plaster for his back, made with unusual ingredients that turn it into the perfect defensive shield against Treen blasters! Yerssss.
(For those who do not understand what a mustard plaster is, which included your blogger until he googled the term, it is a poultice of mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing and applied to the body to stimulate healing. It can be used to warm muscle tissues and to treat chronic aches and pains. For long a part of conventional medical treatment, and available in prepared versions in pharmacies, it fell from favour in the 20th century, and is now only used as a home remedy. Thank you, Wikipedia).
Despite all I’ve said, and despite a number of flaws that I’ll come to in a moment, Prisoners of Space is a much more enjoyable adventure than Marooned on Mercury, a fast-paced if inconsequential romp, even if it does border faintly on the ridiculous when you stop to count just how many people use that chute to the ‘Obbo’ turret, both up and down.

Art by Harley, finishes by Walduck

A substantial part of this is the art. Visual continuity to Hampson is maintained by Harley’s pencils: without wishing to be disrespectful to the late Harold Johns, Harley is a substantially superior figure artist. Walduck’s finishes, superimposed on Harley, give the overall appearance of the art a slightly blurred effect, softening the look. As the story proceeds, the overall art gets simpler and rougher: Harley has stated that he believed Walduck was working on other art simultaneously and devoting less time to Dan Dare than he should.
Incidentally, Walduck does insert one (forgivably) self-indulgent touch: in the last episode he draws himself as a press photographer (the one who shouts ‘Hot Headlines!’).
However, it has to be allowed that Harley’s visual imagination did not extend to the creation of space vessels of realistic or distinctive appearance: Speedstar and Lodestar are simple, smooth-sided rocketships with tailfins, a design far below Hampson’s standards.
Ultimately though, I have to get back to the story. Up to a point, I can accept Frank Hampson as its prime mover, but just as with Operation Saturn, I am convinced by internal evidence that Hampson removes himself, or is removed by his health once more, from the direction, leaving inadequate and cliche-driven hands to progress matters.
The most blatant evidence for me is in how the story totally ignores the consistency of Dan Dare’s Solar System. ‘The Venus Story’ clearly established that travel between Earth and Venus takes seven days by Impulse Wave engine, and there is no suggestion that this has suddenly been supplanted by much faster fuel (monatomic hydrogen was a one-story thing).
But in the later stages of the story, Dan calls in Elite Squadron to attack XQY, a flight that will take 12 hours. Not long after, he sets a limpet bomb to the Mekon’s flagship on a three-hour timer, which expires very shortly after touchdown. So the Earth to Venus run can now be done in a mere fifteen hours?
This cavalier attitude is compounded by the fact that Dan then resets the bomb by a further hour, an hour that then spans thirteen weeks of publication and, more importantly, the arrival of Elite Squadron (which is not as fast as Speedstar/Lodestar, remember), its diversion to Theronland, which is in the other hemisphere of Venus, a lot of kicking of heels waiting  for a decision on what to do and a bombing run to Mekonta. This is not something Frank Hampson has concocted.
There’s also a major story discrepancy over the Mekon’s initial plans. The story starts with concerns over the disappearance of five ships on the Venus Transport run, followed immediately by a blackout at XQY. This is all down to the Mekon, and is clearly a planned assault, leading up to some attack that the mighty brain has devised.
However, the plan is ultimately no more than a MacGuffin: once the Mekon has his hostages, he focuses upon using them to rid himself of his worst nightmare, Dan Dare. Having believed that he’s done so (third time round), does the Mekon revert to his carefully devised plan? No: that’s forgotten: all he can think of doing is to make an unplanned landing on Venus, and overthrow the Theron guards.
Without backing. Without resources (three ships do not a fleet make). With a perfectly good plan, that has had all the time since Marooned on Mercury to be worked out, just thrown to the space winds. And with the Therons and Earth set to oppose him with all their military might. That’s not the Mekon, seriously. Ol’ Greenbean just doesn’t work that way.
Another thing that jars in the latter half of the series is the collective disobedience of Digby, Flamer, Hank and Pierre. Of course they weren’t going to go back to Earth and watch from afar. But all four of them were in flagrant breach of direct orders from their Commander-in-Chief, who huffs and puffs and threatens them all with punishment, as indeed they all deserve: they’ve mutinied in a combat situation, this is court-martial stuff. The story breaks all its own insistence upon realism by allowing them to get away with it unscathed.
And it positively sinks beneath the waves when Digby and ‘Flamer’ are not only taken aboard Sir Hubert’s ship for the bombing raid on Mekonta, but given positions of vital responsibility. I mean, ‘Flamer’ Spry is only an Astral College Junior cadet. A precociously talented one, granted, but when battle breaks out, he’s running around with a paralysing pistol fighting Treens that are about two foot taller than him.
But ‘Flamer’ Spry was now a foregone conclusion. There would be no space for Hank and Pierre in the next couple of stories, but despite the discrepancy of having a Junior Cadet on active service, ‘Flamer’ was here for the duration. Of the Frank Hampson era, at least.
I’ll have more to say about him in relation to the next story. The only other thing for now is that name. Given his bright red hair, and his status as a Junior Cadet, aged about thirteen at a push, ‘Flamer’ is a pretty obvious nick-name. But nowhere in the series is Cadet Spry accorded a first name. In the military world of Spacefleet, it beggars belief that no-one in authority uses Spry’s baptismal name even once.
Long term fans, especially those who have laboured to produce elaborate continuities that interlock all the Dan Dare stories into a consistent time-line for the Eagle run and beyond, have given the adult Captain Spry the first name of either Christopher or Toby: Denis Steeper, who is my particular source for such things, formally names him Toby Christopher Spry.
So enter Flamer Spry. And in the next story, which definitely introduces Alan Stranks as Dan Dare’s writer for the rest of the Fifties, enter a second new member of the supporting cast. The early days of the series were done: Dan Dare and Frank Hampson were about to move into their Mature Age.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 178


178

A continuation of yesterday’s gag, still playing on the theme of the age-based disparity between Debbie and Suzi’s interests, and returning to the occasional hint that, a few years ago, the pre-marriage Suzi was a lot like Debbie. It’s a superb example of Roberts’ non-panel approach, as the images flow into each other, concentrating solely upon the two girls. Again, look at the expressiveness of the faces: even without the blush lines, Suzi knows she’s been caught out, whilst Debbie’s smile combines glee and superiority without any trace of malice.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 177


173

A simple gag today, a gentle play on the difference in age (and marital status) between Suzi and Debbie. The two-step nature of the gag allows Roberts to insert a wealth of detail in the left hand image. Note that, even in their winter coats, Suzi and Debbie are distinguished by the same black/white contrast. This also works to distract attention away from the slouching guy at panel left, giving an admiring glance to Suzi: her black coat lands the eye in mid-image, progressing naturally rightwards from there and leaving him to smirk almost unnoticed. Beautiful staging.