Hampson was back.
And this time it was for the duration. There would be no further extended absences through illness. There would be no more upheavals in the Studio. And Hulton had finally found a writer, a skilful, inventive writer, who could maintain extended storylines of the kind Dan Dare revelled in, and work comfortably with Frank Hampson. The strip was about to enter its middle, or mature period, to begin an ongoing storyline that would, eventually, last almost three years, and see the art on the series hit a peak that would hardly be equalled ever after.
The new, permanent writer was Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran on the PC 49 strip that he had created and still wrote for BBC Radio (to a completely different continuity, it must be added). And as his first trick for a Dan Dare writer, he took the Chief Pilot of Spacefleet under water for several weeks.
The Man from Nowhere is perhaps the most famous Dan Dare story, not so much for itself, excellent though it is, but because it gives its name to that most famous, most highly-regarded sequence known universally as The Man from Nowhere Trilogy (though, as we will eventually see, it actually consists of four stories). It was ground-breaking, both in terms of the quantum leap in the art that accompanied Hampson’s return, in the frequency with which Hampson signed Don Harley’s name to their art, and in being the point at which Dan and Co go on their first interstellar adventure, journeying beyond the Solar System.
The story begins almost immediately after Prisoners of Space, with a celebration reception at the Venusian Embassy, honouring the capture of the Mekon (though this gives rise to a continuity issue with a significant story in an Eagle Annual). Everybody’s there: Flamer and Steve are being presented to the Theron Ambassador, Groupie is dressed up to the nines (he will never be seen again outside flashbacks), Hank, Pierre and Jocelyn Peabody are among the guests, Uncle Ivor and Aunt Anastasia are chatting, and there’s a prominent stranger just right of centre, in naval dress uniform, burly and black-bearded, chatting to another Theron.
Let’s take a moment just to look at this page. It’s one of Hampson’s rare but spectacular full-page covers, designed to be studied for details. But what’s most obvious is the richness and depth of the image. Hampson has used his time away from actual drawing to radically uplift his own work. Gone is any lingering trace of a cartoonist element, of simplification of forms. Hampson has moved four-square into the heart of photorealism.
And it’s not just the line-work. With this single page, the colouring takes on a greater degree of sophistication than we have yet seen. There’s a greater subtlety as to where flesh-tones are placed, using discrete and small areas of white space to simultaneously emphasise light sources and give a three-dimensional look to faces.
It’s not just the front page, which is traditionally Hampson’s purview, for page two shows the same level of attention. The eye is moved around expertly, faces glow, expressions are subtle and the richness of colours takes you into the scene, until you can almost hear the clink of glasses, the murmur of conversation and the strange Theron music occupying am almost subliminal background.
And it’s like that throughout, every week. The Man from Nowhere and the other elements of its Trilogy offer beautiful, textured, utterly convincing art that makes Hampson’s Early Period look, well, like comics in comparison.
That burly, black-bearded naval type comes into focus on the second page, catching Dan’s eye. He is Commander Alexander ‘Lex’ O’Malley, R.N., submariner, explorer, lecturer, and he, like Flamer Spry in the last story, is a new member of Dan’s supporting cast, the cadet and the sailor displacing stalwarts Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for pretty much the rest of the decade, as we shall shortly see.
The Solar System is at peace (or at least the Inner Planets), the Mekon has been captured, Digby is looking forward to a peaceful life and no more messy foreign planets, but of course you know it’s not going to stay that way. The alarm goes off, and poor Dig gets a faceful of fine food in his Colonel’s eagerness to get to Spacefleet HQ and discover the cause of the flap.
And Lex O’Malley is equally eager on his tail.
The ‘flap’ is that a spaceship of unknown design has appeared in the midst of the Solar System, out of nowhere, thousands of miles inside the ‘Peril Perimeter’, Earth’s outer surveillance warning ring. And it’s heading for Earth.
Dan has a theory as to how the strange ship could have appeared without warning inside the borders, a theory that will prove both right and wrong, though we won’t know about the latter for the better part of eighteen months, but that theory has to wait upon action: the ship must be intercepted. Dan leads a three-ship team, and O’Malley’s still at his shoulder, despite having no Spacefleet role whatsoever. Dan isn’t objecting, however.
Since the unknown craft isn’t answering any hails, Dan is reluctantly about to shoot it down, when the ship explodes for no apparent reason (no in-story reason will ever be given). Digby, who for all his tomfoolery, possesses the sharpest pair of eyes in Spacefleet, is convinced he sees something like a ‘flying cigar’ (this is still the era of ‘flying saucer’ sightings, and the cigar shape is a well-known alternative) shoot free, though no-one believes him.
The doomed craft is allowed to fly on and crash-land on Earth, where it hits off the coast of Japan, the Tuscarora Deep in fact, which is where O’Malley’s next exploration is to take place. It’s a little odd that it’s allowed to proceed unhindered, given that Hampson depicts the ship hitting the drink close enough to traditional Japanese fishermen for the waves to swamp and kill them.
Meanwhile, Digby’s cigar also lands, in entirely another hemisphere, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso jungles.
For a time, the story progresses along parallel lines. Dan’s theory about the craft, and the search for it on O’Malley’s vessel, Poseidon, is the major story, but it’s punctuated at intervals by that of the occupant of the ‘cigar’, the mysterious ‘Man from Nowhere’, whose face is hidden from us as he is assisted out of the jungle by two peons and a Doctor (Hampson delicately avoids stereotyping these people, who are a world away from the Spacefleet continuum). It is the Doctor who emphasises, in his almost courtly manner, that whoever the Man from Nowhere may be, he is decidedly alien: “When I examined him, I found a tiny scratch on his arm, which bled when I washed it – it is nothing, you understand…except that his blood is green…”
By far the greater attention is focussed on Dan joining O’Malley on Poseidon for an expedition to the bottom of the Tuscarora Deep to find the missing craft. As is usual, he has company in the faithful Digby – who complains at literally every step about going to sea, and especially how far down they go – and Flamer Spry.
I’m going to have a lot more to say about this new habit of dragging Junior Cadet Spry all round the place a little later.
As in Prisoners of Space, Flamer has struck up a good alliance with ‘Digby Sir’, and his youthful optimism is a counterpart to the Wigan Wonder’s Jonah-like predictions.
Stranks brings the two strands together just before Dan and Co submerge. It’s an unconventional thing to do, but it shows good sense not to drag out the mystery artificially and, whilst the action proceeds underwater, to have the boys eagerly anticipating the next development. And the Man from Nowhere turns out to be a blue-skinned alien, with a long, almost-bovine muzzle: a mystery, but surely not a threat?
Lero the Crypt, as we will later know him, goes on to London and Dan and Co to the bottom of the ocean. Stranks once said that Frank Hampson had thrown away a lot of material in ‘The Venus Story’, that he could have made it last five years. There are Dan Dare fans who use that statement to argue against Stranks, for slowing down the pace of events, for restricting the constant flow of Hampson’s imagination, although as many if not more are grateful to him for being exactly the kind of solid, professional, imaginative writer Hampson needed to carry the narrative weight, AND provide exciting, enthralling adventures.
I bring this up here because it has to be admitted that, no sooner does Poseidon touch bottom than it is attacked by an overwhelmingly huge, Kraken-like undersea monster that is out to eat it, which is no less a cliché than the ‘fire-breathing dragon’ of the arena in Operation Saturn.
The sequence is superbly handled, and Hampson’s art is no less glorious and convincing for being undersea. Poseidon’s evasive tactics lead to it discovering the wrecked Crypt spaceship, with a three ‘man’ crew still aboard, and once the Kraken is suitably distracted by another menace his own side, the ship can be salvaged and Dan and Co return to the surface. To Digby’s eternal relief!
Structurally, The Man from Nowhere is a prelude. The appearance of the Crypt ship, and its recovery, is an interesting phase, but once that is concluded, the whole story’s movement is towards the greater scope of its sequel. Lero, once Dan works out how to communicate with him, is an envoy, who comes seeking assistance. Dan was right: the Crypts have travelled faster than light, but they have done so out of need.
They are a scientifically advanced race, compared to Earth, but they are also a pacific race, lacking in violence and anger. Cryptos orbits the triple-sun system of Los, five light-years distant, but Los also hosts the planet Phantos, home to a race of aggressors, predatory beings. Phantos’s eccentric, comet-like orbit, brings it into conjunction with Cryptos only every 10,000 years, the next of which is near, but each time the Phants invade Cryptos, bringing death, destruction, misery and slavery to the planet.
The Crypts’ fear and passivity renders them incapable of resistance. The men of Earth, and their hero, Dan Dare, are not. They ask for Dan to return with them, to lead a Resistance against the approaching Phant menace.
It’s a bit like Prisoners of Space, except that this time the objections to Dan sacrificing himself go up to World Cabinet level, and are based on a more isolationist approach, rather like America between the Wars. Cryptos is a faraway place, not Earth’s problem: Dan is needed at the centre of Earth’s defences. Nothing to do with us, mate.
But Dan, needless to say, thinks differently. It’s not just the advanced science that Cryptos can share with Earth if we co-operate, it’s Dan’s sense of mission. The weak need the help of the strong. It’s the supreme moral duty placed upon the strong by virtue of their strength (boy, you can’t half tell this was written in the Fifties, can’t you?). Dan insists on his right to go, to protect, to bring peace.
He’s allowed to take three volunteers (four Earthmen, to throw back an entire planetary invasion: we’re really pushing the boat out here for the Crypts, aren’t we?). We all know that Digby, whatever his preferences, will be number one, but instead of reliable old Hank and Pierre, the other two places go to… Naval Commander Lex O’Malley and Junior Astral Cadet Flamer Spry.
They are, after all, the new supporting cast. That they are utterly implausible is beside the point. Lex, at least, has Admiralty and UN Naval authority to volunteer, but Flamer is a true wild card. His inclusion is out of the question, for all the obvious reasons, but his impassioned speech – based in equal measure upon the fantastic opportunities to explore and learn and his complete disposability if it all goes pear-shaped – convinces Sir Hubert to agree.
So the repaired Crypt ship takes off, taking Dan and Co into interstellar space for the first time. It’s a surprisingly long flight. Lero takes up some of it expanding Dan and Co’s (and our) knowledge of Cryptos, the Los system, the ship’s Tengam drive propulsion system, and the terrible Phants who cause such fear in the Crypts that they can barely stand the sight of a shadow and certainly not the real thing (to strike a personal note, that shadow of a Phant warrior is revealed on the cover of the issue of Eagle appearing on my birth date).
Several weeks are devoted to a curious, and ultimately fruitless incident crossing the system of the dark star Sabu. The ship is attacked by strange, tentacular jellyfish that the Crypts cannot see but which are obvious to the Earthmen. Dan takes a space jeep out, encounters and shoots down a tentacle, and brings one back inside for examination, only for it to dissolve into a puddle of liquid. Dan saves the liquid, which is still invisible to Crypt eyes, as a useful disguise tool, assuming a similar weakness among the Phants. But Stranks then presumably forgets this tool as it is never referred to again.
Dan’s promise one day to return and investigate this strange, dark system also goes unanswered, another lead for the enterprising fan writer to explore one day.
At last, however, Los-system is reached. The ending is abrupt: the Phant invasion has begun, its ships attack the Crypt ship. Dan pilots a fightback, but the ship is hit and crippled. The crew bail out in Digby’s space-torpedoes, but from long range a stray shot hits one capsule, which veers off-course, its occupant unconscious. It is Flamer Spry. A caption box announces that the story will continue next week in a new story: Rogue Planet.
It’s difficult, and in many ways inappropriate, to assess The Man from Nowhere on its own. It’s as I said, a prelude to larger things. As a story, it’s indivisible from Rogue Planet. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things I’d like to address in relation to this story alone.
The art is, as I said, superb, a quantum leap forward. It’s not evenly sustained: towards the latter half of the story, there are a number of pages which are simple and bland in comparison to the start of the story, but these do not become the rule, and even then these are only bland by The Man from Nowhere‘s standards: they are still ahead of other, earlier periods.
As for the long space journey, I find it significant that, when I look back to The Man from Nowhere in memory, I recall it primarily for the bulk of the story, the actual Man from Nowhere sequence, from party to blast-off, and always think of the flight to Cryptos as a tacked-on interlude that feels as if it would be better as an intro to Rogue Planet. But when I read the story, this is not the seven-or-so week sequence my memory preserves, but exactly half the length of The Man from Nowhere: nineteen weeks.
Hampson would make a far better job of a similar situation in the Terra Nova Trilogy.
There’s another, far more significant issue about this story, which I’ve already touched upon, but that would be better dealt with as a topic of its own, so I’ll not go further into it here.
The Man from Nowhere doesn’t really have an ending, just a super-continued-next-week. So does this post.