By now, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll have worked out that I’ve been into comics for a long time, and that I’ve got a fair few things collected. These include the complete 12 book Hawk Books ‘facsimile edition’ Dan Dare, but whilst Hawk Books were complete, their Dan Dare wasn’t, with several stories left out. By one means or another, I’ve got those covered too, don’t worry.
I’ve even been lucky enough to get my hands on a complete set of the Heros the Spartan stories drawn by the superb Frank Bellamy, not to mention other collections of Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art – including an original 1950s compilation of The Happy Warrior, the life story of Winston Churchill. And I wouldn’t do without these.
But sometimes there’s nothing to match the pure nostalgia of going back to the originals, to those massed piles of weekly comics that, once upon a time, were awaited eagerly, their publication day a touchstone of a small boy’s week: if it’s Wednesday, that means Eagle, and I’m going to be off in my own little world, or in reality several little worlds, as by a page, or two, half a dozen stories resolve cliffhangers, risks and dangers, half a page cartoon strips give me a giggle, and then it’s seven days of waiting and wondering over again over a new set of cliffhangers, risks and dangers.
The comics came in, and in the end they went out, off to the children’s hospital for boys and girls who were ill and in need of entertainment to have their turn. I never expected to read them again, but then I didn’t know I was going to be one of those who never lose their enthusiasm for words and pictures in combination, for the serialised adventure, for imagination and danger and the marvellous.
For various reasons, it’s been a long time, a very long time, since I last added to my collection of old Eagles. I did brilliantly in the Nineties, largely through The Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield, just outside Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s home, and I have a story about that very first visit that you can read here, but even before money became a premium issue, the source seemed to dry up.
On the other hand, there’s always eBay, and on impulse I did a search the other week and found a seller with seven lots to sell, each four or five issues, Volume 11, nos 1-34 in total, complete. With a starting price of 99p a time, and the prospect of combined postage, not to mention a decent bonus for once, this month, I entered the fray, winning four of the five I was after. The parcel arrived this afternoon, and I’ve spent the evening reading my nineteen purchases. As they were meant to be, one issue at a time.
Volume 11 was 1962. It’s an odd year in Eagle’s history, insofar as my personal recollections are concerned. The glory days of the Fifties were over, those long years of the unchanging Dan Dare/PC49/Riders of the Range/Luck of the Legion/Jack O’Lantern/Harris Tweed/Storm Nelson and the Silver Fleet/The Three J’s: the Hulton decade in all its glory. This I knew from months of research into the bound Eagles, Volumes 1 – 10, in Central Ref.
Nor is it the Eagle that was to be, that I discovered towards the end of 1963 and began getting weekly from New Year, the years of Dan Dare/Heros the Spartan/Blackbow the Cheyenne/Mann of Battle/Cornelius Dimworthy/Horizon Unlimited.
No, this was an inbetween year. Not only had Hultons gone, but so too had Odhams. Longacre Press were now the publishers, and they were determined to complete Odhams job of killing off the Eagle of the glory. They’d gone, all of them gone, the classics, even the still-hard-to-believe latecomer, Knights of the Road, about a pair of lorry-drivers. No, Longacre wanted so badly to stamp their authority on ‘their’ Eagle, that they had thrown-out almost everything on their takeover. And by everything, I mean everything.
Only two strips survived the transition. One of these was obviously Dan Dare, but Longacre wanted the strip dead: off the cover, out of colour, other things that I’ll go into more detail about when I get to the Dan Dare stories of that era. The only other survivor was The Wanderers, Eagle‘s first ever venture into a sports strip, the newest feature in the comic: it was never going to be one of the top notch football strips.
What then has been the order of my reading? With Dan banished inside, Longacre used the cover for teasers for what was inside, three panels hinting at three features. Suddenly, Eagle had gone big on adaptations: Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and the Lost World in colour, Max Brand’s Vengeance Trail, a Western, in black and white. A page of The Wanderers, two of Dan Dare, with Keith Watson newly hired. There was a surprisingly moving one page strip, Only the Brave, that each week presented a different hero, a real-life person who had acted bravely in one circumstance or another, winning themselves the George Cross. These were quiet, undramatic retellings of the ordinary, everyday, courage and dedication these people had shown in saving others lives, or confronting injury or death.
The centrespread was given over to Frank Bellamy’s magnificent Montgomery of Alamein, another real-life story, told with drama, dynamics and incredibly powerful art, and when that was done it was yet another adaptation, this time of the early Hornblower novels.
Dan’s big rival now was Sergeant Bruce, C.I.D., a police series. I was to know it well later on as Can you catch a Crook?, when the hook was that we were told Bruce had seen certain clues in certain panels, and challenged to spot what he had seen. The series was being drawn by Paul Trevillion by that point (though in the mid-Sixties, when the object was to do it even cheaper, Trevillion was alternated with a spanish artist whose clash of styles was quite unbelievable.)
Here, the peg was that Dave Bruce had been transferred up from London to the Midlands industrial city of Manningham, and been given the promotion to Detective Sergeant that had previously been ear-marked for local boy Detective Constable Bill Prior. Everybody on the force, including Inspector Wade, resented Bruce, except for Prior himself, so he was always under pressure.
And then there was Beau Fortune. By rights, this should have been a silly mess, the weekly prose story, but it works better than it deserves to from clichéd material. Beau Fortune is a pre-Regency dandy (the series is set mostly in 1805 but could drift around carelessly, episodes taking place in 1803 and 1814 for no apparent reason), an effete fop interested only in clothes. But, known only to his loyal valet Robinson, Fortune is also the mysterious Masked Rider, strong, brave, known throughout the underworld, wanted by the Bow Street Runners but, in reality, a writer of wrongs.
Then there was the half page stuff. Throughout my night’s reading there was Fidosaurus, the Prehistoric Poodle, not to mention the occasional XYZ Cars – Calling ‘U for Useless’, which I probably found funny when I was that age, though why I’ll never understand now. There were even a few left-over Harris Tweed half-pagers, some colour, some black and white, though the once-and-former ‘Extra Special Agent’ is now being demeaningly dubbed ‘Super Chump’.
I can’t let things go without mention of a couple of adverts. One was ‘Mr Therm’, a half-page ad for, well, it’s difficult to say. It’s all about different types of technology, with no linking theme, nor commercial aspect, and it’s done for the Gas Counsel to promote their services, but for this target audience? Sheesh.
But the final biscuit has to be taken by the debut of an advert series that would run for years: Bobbity, Babs & Buster, The Barrett’s Troubleshooters. These half-page cartoons starred a small boy, and even smaller girl and a dog of indeterminate breed who, every week, would start by watching a different type of TV programme only to discover that their favourite (insert blank here) was in trouble, Rapidly kitting themselves out in what gear was appropriate to this week’s genre, our intrepid trio would come through the TV screen to the rescue, which invariably involve Bobbity freeing the TV hero whilst Babs created a diversion by some imaginative use of a Barratt’s liquorice sweet, whilst Buster went ‘Woof!’, after which the TV hero would take them to the nearest sweet shop where they pigged themselves out on even more Barratt’s sweets.
How did I grow up to be both intelligent and sane?
Actually, it’s not the story, it’s the art, which is so awkward and clunky that I could produce something better, and given that Eagle invented the idea of making its adverts into cartoons to fit the comic, AND started off with Frank Hampson himself drawing the Tommy Walls page, this kind of stuff is terribly shabby.
So no, it’s not been one of Eagle‘s great years or even one of my years, but it’s been an evening somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore, and now I think I’ll go downstairs for a while and ask Mummy if I can have a cup of Jusoda before I go to bed, and sit on Daddy’s lap for five minutes, and maybe if the wind’s in the right direction I can hear him, faintly, call me ‘Champ’ one time again…