Frank Hampson: Ambition and Frustration


It was evident from the opening weeks of The Phantom Fleet that Frank Hampson was devoting less time to drawing Dan Dare than he had in the past, periods of illness aside.
Hampson is clearly in place for the opening page: his personal style is still easy to distinguish from the members of his team. But thereafter, as evidence by the absence of his signature week after week, it is Don Harley and new recruits Keith Watson and Gerald Palmer who do most, if not all of the drawing.
From the outset of Eagle, Frank Hampson was ambitious for his creation. He had set up an unprecedented, and at times unwieldy studio system, to produce a Rolls Royce of a strip, driving through a junkyard of rusting bicycles, and it had been an unbelievable success.
But that was not enough. Much of what Hampson brought to Dan Dare, his approach to visual story-telling in a country that had never begun to think of what this meant, had been heavily influenced by American artists, the giants of the newspaper strips in the Thirties, who had developed the adventure serial to a height that is has rarely equaled since.
Hampson wanted to be part of that market. He wanted to meet his contemporaries, learn what governed their markets, develop a version of Dan Dare that would meet their requirements and appreciation. He also wanted to take Dan’s adventures off the page, to develop them into films, animations for which his existing studio system was the ideal basis, artists working under him who had learned his style, his philosophy, his approach.
To do this, Hampson would need time, time that would be denied him if he had to devote the hours he had to date on the day-to-day preparation of Dan’s two weekly pages. So he wanted to step back, to remove himself from the physical aspects of the strip, leave the work to the men (and women) he had trained, and whom he could trust to execute his vision. He wanted to develop that vision, devise better, bigger, more exciting stories for the Pilot of the Future. He needed time to think.
But in order to develop even a fraction of this, Hampson needed something even more crucial. He needed help. He needed allies. He needed people in positions of authority to recognise the possibilities inherent in his ambitions and who would be prepared to back him in the effort to achieve these.
He did not have allies. He did not have men of vision. Instead, he had men who were running a publishing empire that was in slow but steady decline, who were trying to manage that decline, who did not have ideas that might have reversed it. He had men who had no idea, no comprehension of the things that Hampson aspired to, and no interest in learning.
Eagle made good money, money that supported the loss of profits elsewhere at Hulton Press. The greatest factor in Eagle’s success was still Dan Dare. And it was a damned expensive strip to produce, thanks to Hampson’s absurd studio system, a studio that received more in salary than Hulton’s executives who, like almost every executive to work in the comics industry anywhere at any time, could not comprehend that it was the creative elements on whom such success was built, not them.
Hampson’s frustrations built, so much so that, in 1957, early in the production of Reign of the Robots, he tendered his resignation. And Hulton accepted it.
Seriously, they did. They took a cold hard look at the cost of Hampson’s studio, and decided that they could continue the series much more cheaply, and to much the same effect (or so they thought) without Hampson. Fortunately, in the time it took them to come to this decision, and before they could organise a letter accepting Hampson’s resignation, he wrote to withdraw it. So the series continued, but the first crack had appeared.
A second crack would come in the form of an offer by Mirror Group Publishing for Frank Hampson’s services, to develop a brand new comic, Bulldog, along lines to be devised by him, at a salary double that which he received from Hulton for Eagle. This would raise Hampson’s income to an astonishing £7,000@, an unbelievable figure for the Fifties, and one that was certainly far higher than the executives of Mirror Group Publishing.
Hampson thought long and hard but, in the end, declined the offer. Bulldog, which had been devised as a vehicle for Hampson, collapsed and never appeared. One of Hampson’s reasons for declining was a loyalty towards Eagle that seems unthinkable these days, but which was very much in keeping with the attitudes of the fifties, where jobs were meant to be jobs for life, and loyalty to one’s employers was deeply ingrained, along with a concern for ones pension rights.
But there was another, perhaps more fundamental difference. Hampson wanted to withdraw from drawing. He wanted to create, devise, direct and plan series. But at that price, Mirror Group wanted Frank Hampson’s pencils and inks. So the deal fell through.
But this development was yet to come, and would arise under very different circumstances to those in which Hampson found himself in early 1958. The timing is wrong to suggest that this lay behind Hampson’s distancing of himself from much of The Phantom Fleet‘s art in its first half. No doubt he was still working on plans destined never to see fruition, and it’s certainly arguable that the doubts about the story might not have risen had Hampson been giving his daily attention to the story: Stranks may have been scripter, but only within the limits of Hampson’s overall control.
All was not well between Frank Hampson and Hulton Press. And far off, unseen by the artist and his team, and indeed Eagle‘s editor, Marcus Morris, distant forces were gathering whose moves would soon impact on Eagle, Dan Dare and Frank Hampson.
And not for the better.

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