Hampson was back.
Back at full strength, with his imagination primed and brimming. Credited, for twenty weeks, with writing and drawing the new Dan Dare story, Operation Saturn. And then, suddenly, on the 21st week, the credits changed, to written by Don Riley and drawn by Frank Hampson. A week later, and for the rest of the 64 weeks that Operation Saturn would take to unwind, there were no credits.
Sadly, at some point, Hampson suffered a relapse. This time, things were very different. Harold Johns and Great Tomlinson were no longer part of the studio, having been first marginalised, and then sacked. In Harold Johns’ place, Don Harley had risen in Hampson’s confidence: not, as yet, to the position of ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, but to the role of principal artist when Hampson was unwell. But the studio itself was slim on warm bodies, and as the story rolled out, more and more of the work was being sent for completion to a freelance artist who never was part of the Hampson studio but who plays a big role in the story of the series, Desmond Walduck.
We’ll hear more about Walduck during the next story, so for now let’s look closely at Operation Saturn, and Hampson’s plans for a drive towards the Outer Planets.
Operation Saturn is the first of the Dan Dare stories for which we have a preliminary outline, a plot setting out Hampson’s plans for the story ahead, that we can compare with the actual outcome. Details of this outline can be read in Spaceship Away 17.
I am always fascinated by such things, the opportunity to look behind the work to the author’s workings. Hampson’s outline is, really, only half an outline. It sets up a situation, creates an idea-space, but leaves a solution to the working out of the tale over time. The principal elements of Operation Saturn are already in place, but crucial components of the finished work are as yet undeveloped.
For the moment, let’s consider the story as drawn. The gang are re-united for a new mission, brought to Spacefleet HQ by Dan (in the outline, the story begins on Venus). Explanations are postponed by an Emergency Signal, and the crew take up the Space Rescue ship (a rocket on permanent standby) in an ultimately fruitless attempt to rescue the crew of a ship in danger just outside Earth orbit.
The ship’s fate is tied into Dan’s mission: Earth is being spied upon by small, black, robotic craft, nicknamed Black Cats (for their purring engines), whose source has been traced back to Saturn. Dan’s expedition will travel to Saturn to investigate and, if necessary, quash any threat. However, Saturn is way beyond the range of Impulse Wave generators, so the Valiant will have to use the powerful but highly unstable Monatomic Hydrogen.This can be neutralised by lockwaves (developed, in the outline, by the Therons): Dan, Hank and Pierre will learn how to manipulate lockwaves in order to pilot the ship.
Professor Peabody will be part of the expedition as an adjunct to the Science team, headed, and otherwise selected, by Dr Blasco (the lockwave developer in the strip). Blasco, a mental and physical giant, is cold and supercilious. In the outline, Hampson describes him as being ‘cracked’ on eugenics, and it is a part of the story that Blasco’s half-baked theories should be attacked and shown as fallacious by demonstrating the vital importance of character, not ‘breeding’.
Sadly, this worthy ambition is virtually absent from the story as printed. Blasco is indeed a believer in the superiority of certain types – most notably himself – and plans to take over and rule the Earth, but the overt eugenics aspect is not merely buried so deep as to be almost invisible, but the decadent feebleness of the ruling Saturnian caste – intended in the outline to be the spur for Blasco’s ambitions – is from the outset a counterblast to any such notion of aristocratic superiority (Hampson’s essentially humanist and socialist instincts winning through there).
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Saturn, we will learn, is ruled by Lo Rootha Ti Numidol, the ‘purest aristocracy in the entire Solar System’. Hampson’s outline conceals them until Dan’s expedition arrives, after a running battle with Blasco over who is the leader of the expedition. Lo Rootha have no hostile intentions towards Earth, the Black Cats were merely information gathering, but they divide their world on eugenic grounds. Blasco is deemed a perfect specimen and resources are given to him to take over Earth and rule it in accordance with his obsession, with Digby is classed as useless and ends up, with Dan, on some sort of dead-end moon, from where they begin to foment rebellion.
This aspect was drastically changed in the actual story. We learn that Blasco is, and for some time has been in communication with Lo Rootha, and that they have already agreed to give him the resources to take over Earth (that Blasco had actually been to Saturn already is explicitly rejected in the outline as requiring too many flashbacks: Hampson underestimated himself as he fleshes out Blasco’s back-story with very little use of flashback at all).
So what happens in practice is that Blasco and his men take over the Valiant en route and imprison the Spacefleet crew, who will be handed over to Lo Rootha to take part in Roman Arena-esque games, for their amusement.
But instead of Dan and Digby being ranked and downgraded, they have already made a break for freedom. Due to a late Black Cat incursion, our heroes were initially left behind on take-off, but caught up with the main expedition by using the last intact test craft. Blasco overlooks this, his lofty regard having been elsewhere when Dan and Dig came on board, so they are able to use this to escape, and land on the nearest Saturnian moon, where they meet their first Saturnian.
This occurs in the last panel of the last instalment credited as ‘Devised and Drawn by Frank Hampson’. The following week, the credit reads ‘Drawn by Frank Hampson. Story by Don Riley’. There are no further credits, and Hampson’s outline is binned. Hampson’s own influence on the story rapidly dwindles and before long principal art is by Don Harley, until the end of the story. Many Dan Dare fans are highly critical of the later part of the story, the lapses into cliché, the lack of consistency, the intrusion of silliness, and most clear of all, the irretrievable loss of Hampson’s invention and freshness of thought.
Hampson had already, it seemed, abandoned the final phase of his outline. I’ve already indicated that it would have progressed towards Dan and Dig raising a rebellion, but Hampson also planned the introduction of a prominent Saturnian, in the form of a bold and dashing sculptor – physically and mentally a One, but condemned for his rebellious streak. After Dan demonstrates just who is boss, the unnamed sculptor becomes his chief Lieutenant, and a natural-born pirate, leading raid after raid…
But the Thork – as the Saturnians call themselves – was too good a figure to be ignored. He’s Red Tharl, pirate and rebel, leader of the Saturnian underground, whom Dan and Dig meet almost immediately after ‘Don Riley’ takes over (I have no information as to who did write the remainder of Operation Saturn and, rightly or wrongly, will assume that Basil Dawson, the man behind the Riley pen-name, saw it through to the end).
From this point on, the story proceeds at pace. After an initial clash of personalities, Dan and Tharl become allies and friends, helped by the mediation of none other than Sondar, taking a break from his duties as Governor of Mekonta.
Yes, Sondar just appears out of nowhere in Tharl’s base, sole survivor of a Treen expedition to Saturn to investigate Black Cats. It’s a move that completely defies every scrap of logic about both the story and the Dan Dare continuity: only four years after the First Venusian War, that toppled the Mekon, the Treens – who are still under a Vichy Government, a leader appointed by their conquerors – have mounted an expedition to the Outer Planets in complete secrecy, without the Earth Government’s knowledge, clearly using a completely unknown form of rocket fuel/drive, with no explanation.
I cannot conceive of Hampson letting that go through.
Anyway, the revolution is about to start. Dan, Dig and their Thork liaison, Nikki, are telesent to Titan (cue more shenanigans involving Digby and transporters) to raise the troops. Meanwhile, Blasco and Lo Rootha put Hank, Pierre and the Prof into the Arena to face a fire-breathing dragon (no, seriously, they do). Dan rescues them, but Dig gets thrown by a painfully malicious flying seahorse and is rushed off by the dragon.
At which point, Dawson throws away virtually the whole story so far by revealing that Lo Rootha are not the true Lords of Numidol/Saturn, but instead an effete puppet regime shilling for Vora. Vora is an alien: short, plump, arrogant, mocking, beaked of face, in his own atmosphere producing spacesuit, and he owns the Nine Moons of Saturn and everyone is scared of him.
Including Blasco, who quickly goes from being a smooth, urbane equal to Lo Rootha (albeit one who’s dropped his deliberately archaic speech pattern as written by Hampson) to being as fearful and fawning over Vora as he expects Earthmen to be over him.
Tharl attacks the city, and battle sweeps backwards and forwards over several weeks, until Dan wins the day for the rebel forces. Unfortunately, Vora has callously, indeed gleefully, abandoned the hapless, hand-wringing Lo Rootha to their fate, and taken Blasco’s resources (plus Blasco) to travel to Earth and conquer that. Once he’s settled in, he will return to retake the Nine Moons.
Tharl can’t help. He’s won a battle, and with it Titan, but there are nine Moons and much to do. All he can do is restore the Valiant, and send Dan and Co. after Vora’s fleet. A complex and not very convincing substitute for monatomic hydrogen is contrived and the long chase back to Earth begins.
Dan arrives just as the invasion is beginning. Earth is besieged by Black Cats, but in a last, desperate throw, Dan, Dig and Sondar get into Vora’s flagship and use the masterbrain to command all the Black Cats to turn and destroy each other. There’s a brief struggle in which Blasco’s space helmet comes off and he dies in vacuum (one aspect of the story that is not depicted with true scientific rigour) whilst Vora, too proud to accept confinement, turns his cosmic rays on himself, committing suicide.
(Or does he? I first read Operation Saturn in the late Eighties, in the bound volumes of Eagle collections in the Reference section of Manchester’s Central Library. Everyone takes Vora’s action as suicide, but my first thought was that he had teleported himself out of danger/reach. There is nothing in the story to rule that out, or definitively establish suicide: indeed, in a comic aimed at young boys in the Fifties, edited by a Vicar, no such thing would have been conceivable. Should any aspiring writer/artist, looking to add to the universe of the original Dan Dare, be reading this, here is a potential story angle sitting and waiting.)
So Dan wins again. But it’s a mixed victory, albeit not a Pyrrhic victory. Operation Saturn begins as an excellent story, a tremendous advance on Marooned on Mercury, and demonstrably better than Prisoners of Space, it’s successor. However, the story hits the equivalent of an underground rock when Hampson relinquished writing control, and whilst the hull of the boat is sturdy enough to carry things a very long way, slowly but steadily originality drains out. The story starts to rely too much on contrivances. Sondar’s appearance is an unthought-out mess. The arena is a farce. Blasco is not only supplanted as villain by an inverted deus ex machina, but becomes a completely different character.
As for Vora himself… I have very mixed thoughts about the little puffed-up alien. He is a cartoon dictator, a supreme Lord who simply appears without warning, but who demonstrates no justification for his position. What does Vora do? How does he rule? What is his power and how is it effected? We just don’t see this. All we see is people cringe in fear around him, and Vora giving himself airs which, in a purple skinned cross between a teddy bear and a bird-face, is lacking in conviction.
Yet I like the little tyrant. There’s energy and inventiveness in his rants. I like his being batted out of the way when Digby (who spends weeks with yellow coloured skin) drives a space car through Vora’s palace. And I can forgive much when Vora, dangling from a girder, hears his minions call for a Doctor, responds with the outraged roar of: “A Doctor? One Doctor? Fool! I Am Vora – bring all the Doctors!”
Art-wise, the story’s beginning is a refreshing improvement upon the stunted figures and somewhat lurid colouring of Marooned on Mercury. Hampson is still in his early phase: the almost photo-realistic art of The Man from Nowhere trilogy is still a couple of years away and his work, and that of his team, is still crude in spots. As the story goes on, and has to rely more and more on Don Harley, the work becomes more simplified, though not to the extent of becoming sketchy. And in the closing weeks, when Harley was sending work to outside artist Desmond Walduck for finishing, the change in style as Walduck starts to impose on the final version is noticeable.
Given that this combination will draw practically all of Prisoners of Space, the augurs were not good for the next story.
For me, Operation Saturn is very good to begin with, but loses its way and ultimately ends up flawed. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in the Library of the Dreaming, he introduces a section devoted to books their authors planned but never wrote/finished. Among them, for example, is J R R Tolkien’s The Lost Road. I should like very much to visit that library one day, to sit down and read the copy of Operation Saturn that Frank Hampson wrote and drew from start to finish.