There isn’t a moment of pause between The Man from Nowhere and Rogue Planet. They merge, seamlessly, into one another, the change in story-title the only distinction. Rogue Planet is, however, the finer story. It is not a prelude but a conclusion, it is a major undertaking, dealing not only with the ending of a war between planets that has lasted for tens of millennia, but it is the overthrowing of slavery, the establishment/reinforcement of civilization. Taken all in all, and having regard to the continuing excellent art throughout this story, it’s possible to argue that Rogue Planet is the high point of the entire Dan Dare saga.
That’s not a universal position: more prominent Dan Dare fans and commentators than I, such as Alastair Crompton, author of Frank Hampson’s biography, holds writer Alan Stranks in a degree of contempt, for slowing the pace of Hampson’s stories down, but I cannot agree with him here. For Stranks, in this story, handles brilliantly the most serious weakness of the entire set-up, namely the Earth Cryptos expedition itself.
As I’d already mentioned, Earth really pushed the boat out on this aid mission to the Crypts, sending three men and a boy to hold off a planetary invasion. We know that they’ll succeed, but Stranks’ great gift is that he makes that outcome appear utterly plausible.
The action is non-stop: the Crypt ship has been shot down, its passengers and crew have escaped in individual rescue-torpedos and these come to ground on Cryptos, in the jungles of the Wilderness of Wex. At least, that is, seven do: the capsule containing Flamer Spry cannot be found. We don’t for one moment, believe that Flamer is dead. Frank Hampson is not going to kill his audience’s eye-level character, nor is Hulton – or any other publisher of boy’s comics in the mid-Fifties going to allow the death of a thirteen year old boy to happen. Over their dead bodies, so to speak. But Flamer is conspicuous by his absence, and Stranks/Hampson have the courage of their convictions to allow six full months to elapse before returning him to the story.
So that makes just three full-grown Earthmen to throw back the Phant Invasion. But Dan and Co have landed in the Wilderness – and Hampson’s depiction of Cryptos, with its alien flora, fauna and geography, is lush and gorgeous – and this means that they can operate as a guerilla force, unsuspected by their opponents.
There’s the beginning of the Invasion on the ground, guards and patrols in the woods, and nothing but compliant, passive Crypts. Which is where Stranks makes the single, most important point of the whole story. The Phants – facially modelled on the horse as Crypts are on the cow – are a warrior race, but they are not fighters. Once every 10,000 years, their forces invade a planet that has never raised a finger to stop them. Their soldiers are slaughterers, and nothing more. They simply don’t know how to cope with an enemy that fights back. Literally.
So, despite the smallness of their numbers, Dan, Dig and Lex are more than a match for any Phant patrols. Even Lero is moved to grapple with a Phant, preventing him from raising his weapon.
And in this early, exploratory stage of the plot, Stranks introduces what will prove to be the critical element that will allow this tiny band to change the history of the Rogue Planet. It’s a very simple thing: with Earth-supplies in very limited quantities, Lex O’Malley offers himself as a guinea-pig to test the Phantosian food-capsule, which sends him into a psychotic rage…
But the three Earthmen are far too few to take on the Phant camp, where Cryptosian slaves are being herded, for transport to Phantos. Dan swears a vow that he will rescue them all, but in the meantime, all he can do is to undertake a recce, in Phantosian uniform. Which goes badly, because of Stripey.
It’s an interesting question: why, having been so hard upon the inclusion of the fatuous dog, Sir William Tell, in The Red Moon Mystery/Marooned on Mercury, do I find it possible, even easy, to accept Digby’s new animal adoption, Stripey? What is the difference between the left over pooch on Mars and a docile, mammalian Cryptosian animal, with zebra-like stripes and an elephant’s trunk, and why isn’t the latter just as objectionable?
I don’t have a logical answer. There are significant differences between the two: the dog was just a stupid mutt with no idea of what was going on whilst Stripey is a cheerful, inquisitive and intelligent animal with a personality of his own, which helps a lot, and the much-improved art from the relatively crude early-period Hampson does much to establish the improbable little creature as an asset in his own right.
However, it’s Stripey’s natural curiosity that proves to be Dan’s undoing, following him into the Phant encampment, only to be picked up by a Phant bully, who threatens to cut his trunk off. Dan jumps in, causing a commotion that draws the attention of the Phant High Command, Military Commanders Square, Circle and Triangle and Supreme Commander Gogol, a nine feet tall giant.
Despite a few judo tosses to establish who’s who when it comes to grappling, Dan is overwhelmed and taken back to Phantos for dismantling. You see, the Phants are not aware of any intelligent life beyond Los-system so the strange looking, aggressive creature is clearly some form of robot built by the Crypts to do their fighting for them, and as such has to go before the Mystic Orak – the root force behind Phant civilisation – so that he can be disassembled…
Digby’s first instinct is to rescue his Colonel, and it takes O’Malley pointing out that he might be ignoring Dare’s final orders to do so. But dutifully, he and Lex are lead, by Lero, to the centre of Crypt civilisation, across a planet that is, in all aspects, beautiful, a luxuriant land of incredible flora and fauna, all of it alien and yet all of it perfectly believable and natural. In many ways, this I think marks out Rogue Planet as Hampson’s artistic peak.
Dan, meanwhile, is taken (with the concealed Stripey) to Phantos which, in appropriately symbolic fashion, is a far plainer, far more barren world. Once he reaches Phantos, he is dragged before the figure that commands the whole of Phantos society, Orak, the mighty Robot-brain (It must be said that, whilst Stranks could pull together long, complex and enthralling stories, he was less than imaginative when it came to names – the sun Los, the Tengam drive, the great Kra that rescues Crypt civilisation: on that level Orak(le) is positively stunning).
By the time Dan is dragged before the uncomprehending Orak, genuinely a robot brain, but still the arbiter of Phant Society, he’s at last growing weak from lack of food, the team having been on restricted rations after losing their supplies when the Crypt ship was shot down. He’s left alone during Orak’s ‘Hour of Silence’, only to be rescued from the least likely quarter: Flamer Spry.
As I said above, Flamer’s been missing from the story for just over six months, but Stranks/Hampson have judged their moment perfect;y. In story terms it’s only been a matter of weeks, if as much as that. The shots that damaged Flamer’s escape capsule knocked it off course, causing him to land on Phantos instead, as indeed did the Crypt ship. Flamer’s managed not only to keep out of sight but also retrieve the rations from the ship, so Dan can recover his strength, awaiting Orak’s ‘Aqua-Test’, to be followed by… dismantling.
It’s a clever twist to have the Phants as vulnerable to water as we are to fire, but it requires a lot of scientific speculation to justify it, and when put into practice, it does give the story some problems. On a planet that’s as scientifically advanced as Phantos, it’s a little jarring to find that the ‘Aqua-Test’ involves tying Dan’s arms behind his back then lowering him into a countryside river.
Equally, neither Stranks nor Hampson seems comfortable about the implications. It’s one thing for the story to joke that Flamer has converted one of the weapons into something deadly dangerous to the Phants – a water pistol! – but when the time comes and Dan needs rescuing from Gogol, it is Stripey who intervenes to give Gogol a trunkful of water smack in the face, causing instant collapse. Gogol has obviously been killed before our very eyes, but neither Dan nor Flamer react to it, nor will they acknowledge what has happened. But Gogol is clearly dead: he has no further role in the story despite being supreme military commander, if anyone wants to argue the point.
Dan and Flamer’s next task is to steal Gogol’s ship to rejoin Lex and Dig on Cryptos, where, in accordance with orders, they have been designing a building military defences in the wake of seeing the Kra leave for its 1,000 year journey through space. This has unfortunate implications. Dan and Flamer have prisoners on board, Circle and Triangle (Square has been shot dead by Dan, resisting kidnap). Now, overflying the city of Chakra, in a Phant ship, they get shot down by one of Dig’s missiles, crash-landing in the bay and having their tables turned when Circle and Triangle grab the guns.
Never mind, Dig and Lex are boating out to rescue them. What follows, much as I love this story, is one of the most completely fat-headed scenes Frank Hampson and his team ever drew: Dan and Digby are captives. As Dig and Lex approach, they shout out that they are captives, that there are Phants on board controlling them, and to shear off. Digby and Lex have even seen that there’s a Phant on board, via binoculars. And they come sailing blithely on, deliberately dropping themselves in it. I despair, at times, I really do.
So the two Phants have all four Crypt ‘Robot-Things’ under guard. They may have to get through an entire nation of Crypts but their entire history demonstrates that they don’t even need two Phants to cow that many Crypts. They come ashore at Chakra, smug and secure, except for having been so close to water for so long. Circle takes his mask off, and Stripey promptly sprays him in the mug, killing him instantly, though again this is not acknowledged as such.
The creators are into their endgame now. Lex’s violent reaction to the Phant food-capsule earlier has given him a theory. Both types of food-capsule, the purple Phantosian and the yellow Cryptosian, have been analysed and found to consist of different nutrients. It’s possible that it is the diet that is the direct cause of Phant aggression and Crypt fear, so Lex has had the Crypt scientists knock up a batch of Crypt capsules in purple. They feed these to Triangle, and within 24 hours he is as docile and peaceful as any Crypt.
What remains is to switch the entire Phant food production to Crypt capsules, first for the invasion force on Crypt, then on Phantos itself. There are twists and turns and obstacles to be negotiated, not least of which is Triangle himself, so far converted to the cause of peace that he’s almost become a hippie who can’t help himself from trying to convert Phants to the cause before altering their diets.
At last though, the plan succeeds. Orak is exposed for what he is, an outmoded robot created by the cultish warrior-priests, the Kruels (Stranks: tsk, tsk), the Phants turn peaceful, the Kra is recalled and Lero sets off to commit suicide in space.
He’s relieved of this obligation, imposed by the mores of Crypt society, by Dan’s forgiveness of his most serious crime: he has lied to a friend. And it is a most serious lie, with massive consequences, one whose truth Dan keeps to himself until the team is en route home for Earth. I wonder when this idea was devised, and whether it was intended from the very beginning of The Man from Nowhere, when the scope of the whole story was taking shape, or whether it was a late inspiration, a bridge to the forthcoming story of what Dan and Co will find on Earth when they get back.
Because when they get back, they won’t have been gone for a few months only. Because Lero lied, because the Crypts haven’t conquered ‘faster-than-light’ propulsion. Because the ‘acceleration/deceleration’ chambers are no such thing, but instead they’re suspended animation chambers. When Dan and Co return to Earth, in the final panel of the final page, they will have been gone for ten years…
What awaits them is, of course, the third book of The Man from Nowhere Trilogy and we’ll come to that next time out. But before we leave Rogue Planet, I must yet again praise the art as, for me, the finest period in the strip’s history. It’s not just the detail, lush and brilliant as it is without ever once overriding the central image of each panel. It’s not just the skill and deftness with which Hampson composes first his pages, then his panels. It’s not just the invention that creates alien worlds, truly alien worlds, that glow with life, that look real, that look lived in, that make you want to climb inside the panels and go exploring yourself. But perhaps above all of this, it’s the colouring. Each page is a riot of colour, bright, harmonious, three-dimensional. Cryptos becomes that very real world. Hampson renders his heroes in contrasting colours that identify them wherever they are: Dan in his Spacefleet green uniform, Flamer in Astral blue. Lex, with his Naval Cap and his mariner’s rollneck thick white jersey, and Digby, caught in civvies, a red and yellow check shirt and white beach shorts.
Much of this has to do with Hampson reaching his artistic maturity. But much is also due to the presence of Don Harley, ‘the second-best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and also to a tightly organised, largely settled studio that, though still working hard, was not pulling the same kind of twenty-four hour grind of old. The studio was working, and Hampson was able to rely upon them. He had a writer he could trust, who enabled him to devote more time to his art, and more time to Dan Dare’s future, both on and off the page.
So much so that his mind started to turn towards not drawing Dan Dare…