A superb book
According to Alastair Crompton in The Man Who Drew Tomorrow (which I still prefer to Tomorrow Revisited, though the latter is a more accurate volume), the downfall of Eagle and Frank Hampson began a long way away, in unrelated circumstances in Russia.
Magazine and periodical publication in Fleet Street was dominated by five houses at the start of 1958, of which Hulton Press was one. On the cryptic instructions of Mirror Group proprietor, Cecil King, Editorial Director Hugh Cudlipp approached the Berry family, who were on the spot, to buy out their controlling interest in Amalgamated Publishing, the largest of these houses.
The Berrys sold, thus changing the balance in Fleet Street publishing. Third place Odhams Press, anxious about their position, decided to fight back by going down the takeover route: their target was Hulton.
Only a short time before, it might have seen unthinkable. But Hultons had gone into a sharp decline, their magazine section losing sales across the board, only its comics division, headed by Marcus Morris, centred upon Eagle and its three red-top stable-mates, Girl, Swift and Robin showing consistent profits.
What had gone wrong? Sir Edward Hulton blamed it on television, on ITV’s arrival in 1956 to start an absorbing rivalry with the BBC that drew everybody away from magazines. His legendary Picture Post editor, Tom Hopkinson (the man who’d looked at Hampson’s home-created three dummy issues of Dragon and advised Hultons to sing up everyone involved and set them to work) argued it was bad editorial direction.
Either way, Sir Edward Hulton took the money, and Odhams Press took over Eagle.
They made it plain that they wanted changes, and moreover economies, and the first place where that should – and would – come from was Frank Hampson’s studio. It was large, it was expensive and no other artist needed anything that looked remotely like it. The fact that it produced Eagle‘s foremost series, and had done so for almost a decade, cut no ice with them.
Looked upon in retrospect, what happened was inevitable for so many reasons. Firstly, there was the sheer expense and, it has to be admitted, improbability of Hampson’s studio. Other artists didn’t need a fleet of assistants, nor reams of reference material to draw for Eagle, so why should Hampson be indulged? Especially, and we already know this to be a powerful motive, as more money was going into the Hampson studio every week than was going to the executives who ran Odhams.
It is a universal peculiarity of the Comics Industry in Britain and America that management just cannot understand the role of the artist and writer in creating a commercially successful product. It’s a blindness that can only stem from a massive sense of internalised inferiority, a jealousy of the presence of imagination in creative people, and a need to denigrate what they produce as being fanciful and unreliable, as opposed to the executive’s consistency and ‘practicality’. Like the Hulton Board in early 1957, when Frank Hampson had tendered his short-lived resignation, they genuinely could not see what made Dan Dare the success it was, and genuinely thought it could be done to the same effect by someone cheaper.
And this effect was exacerbated by Odhams status as ‘professional’ comics publishers. Hulton had had no comics division before the Reverend Marcus Morris turned up with Frank Hampson’s dummies, and neither Morris nor Hampson had any presence in the industry before coming out of nowhere. They were amateurs in Odhams’ eyes, and a decade of success was no corrective to that belief: Morris and Hampson had been lucky.
And they’d achieved this ‘lucky’ success by going against all the ‘correct’ ways to publish comics. Now Odhams were going to come in to show them how to do it right. Anyway, Eagle was dull and unconvincing, and Dan Dare was cardboard, and it was a good job they were there to save the day, before the kids spotted it for themselves (Morris and Hampson had been getting away with it to the tune of 750,000 copies a week for nine years, the readers were bound to twig any day now).
All of which is supplementary to the normal, human instinct to meddle, to change for the sake of change. After all, what point is there, and what use are you, if on taking over a successful venture, you don’t put your own stamp on it? Let it run as it was, and why are you there in the first place?
Let us now forget…
Frank Hampson had always run up against Hulton Press’s lack of ambition when it came to the ways that Dan Dare could have been exploited, both artistically and commercially. In this last year, believing that Eagle was secure in Hulton’s hands, Morris had agreed a number of points that would go some way to addressing Hampson’s concerns, chief amongst these three months paid leave, including a paid-for two month trip to America, to meet with his contemporaries and discuss approaches to that American market.
But these were not in writing, and they were the first things dispensed with by Odhams, who made it plain that they would not tolerate such things in the slightest. Not only Hampson suffered in that respect: Morris’s unlimited expense account vanished as well!
The Reverend would be alright. Within a few weeks of the takeover, already aware that he was not going to be left alone to edit his stable as he had been, Marcus Morris received and accepted another publishing post, one far more to his tastes, and one which would see him rise to the very top of publishing before taken a well-earned, highly-respected retirement.
Hampson still believed in the future of Dan Dare, but found Odhams no more receptive than Hultons had been before them. Change had been demanded of him, and he had lost his one great ally. Safari in Space had gone well, Terra Nova showed signs of continuing the high quality of his work. By dint of his ability, he might be able to hold off interference for some time, though it would mean stress and argument and even less time for his work.
But Odhams were less blind to the possibility of expansion than they seemed. Hultons had licensed Dan Dare to the hilt, and Odhams were very willing to let this continue, especially when they were approached for an option to turn the Pilot of the Future into a film. They signed away the rights and took the money, and said not a word to Frank Hampson. Who found out.
It was a devastating blow. Here was Dan Dare, Hampson’s creation, Britain’s most popular comic book hero, that he had tried, for exhausting years, to expand in so many different ways., and suddenly, in a back-handed manner, he learned that his employers had sold the right to one of those proposals to other people. There would be no money in it for him, no recognition for what he had done, but worst of all there would be no part for him to play.
The avenue of film had been cut off, and Frank Hampson would be barred from helping to shape what appeared. The Licensees could do what they liked with his creation and he could not stop it. They could twist it round in any respect they wanted to, make Peabody a sexy blonde with a cleavage, make the Mekon a muscleman or give Digby a Cockney accent, they could fix these ideas in the public mind, supplant the reality of Dan and his Universe, and he was powerless to stop it.
There is another factor that has not, to my knowledge, previously been put forward as contributory to this situation, and I have no knowledge as to whether or not this played the slightest part in Hampson’s thinking, but it was contemporaneous to this time and should be mentioned here, and this was the death of Alan Stranks, of a heart attack whilst holidaying in Spain, on June 18.
Though Hampson had always had the final say, and he had exercised that say numerous times in creating each week’s continuity, Stranks had been Dan Dare’s writer for the past half-decade: experienced, professional, reliable, Hampson’s longest lasting collaborator on that front. His death occurred just two days before the final issue of Eagle to see print before the printer’s strike and he would certainly have written those two in-house episodes that would represent Frank Hampson’s final pages.
I have no idea how Stranks’ death places in the chronology of those days, and it is pure speculation to wonder if his collaborator’s death, and the prospect of getting a new scripter imposed on him by Odhams affected his decision but, battered and bruised from his experiences, Hampson took the decision that if he could not control Dan Dare, he would rather have nothing to do with the character, he would resign completely from the series.
Odhams were fortunate that this took place during a hiatus in which Eagle was not appearing: they were not required to come up with a completely new creative team at the snap of a finger. The simple answer, the obvious and just one given that he was officially “the second best Dan Dare artist in the World” was Don Harley, but Don didn’t get the job. Hampson was consulted on the issue of his successor and, surprisingly, was in accord with Odhams’ wish that a new artist be cast.
Odhams were looking for changes and this was their golden opportunity. They wanted someone from the outside, not trained by Hampson, not steeped in the traditions of the series, who would make those changes freely and without argument. Harley would have resisted change, or at least Odhams expected him to do so, so he was out, though not completely. And Hampson? A little vaingloriously but, in the context of his experiences, completely understandably, if he was leaving, he wanted to be seen as having left, and Don Harley, his artistic shadow, would not make the visual difference that would emphasize that Dan Dare was no longer under his creator’s hands.
The choice fell on Northampton’s Frank Bellamy, perhaps the only choice that could have been made. Bellamy was an Eagle veteran, and before that a regular on the comic’s younger brother, Swift. His dynamic, hyper-realistic art, his mastery of colour, the sheer energy that poured out of his pages made him the only possible choice. He had specialised in real-life biographies, Eagle‘s back page, and he was the first Eagle artist to be anthologised when his 56 part The Happy Warrior, the career of Winston Churchill, was collected in a special edition.
But the influence of Frank Hampson could not be cast off that easily. Hampson’s maxim as Art Director of Eagle still held: no artist should be required to draw more that one page of colour art per week. Bellamy accepted a contract to draw Dan Dare for a year, with a promise that he would get to draw a strip based in Africa (his lifelong obsession) at the end of it. But he should not draw both pages every week.
For the other page, it was decided that a semblance of Hampson’s studio should be retained, Don Harley and Keith Watson. The reference materials were broken up and destroyed except what Harley and Watson could carry away with them on one trip. And their ‘studio’ was to be a disused canteen in Odhams’ main building.
Despite his professional obligation to giving the client what they want, Bellamy was unhappy about changing the look of Dan Dare, about trampling on a colleague’s work. Nor did he see the need for assistants. This was nothing personal: the three artists met once a week to hand in their two pages, receive and parcel out the next script and retire to the pub for a welcome conversation. Bellamy, as the senior artist, got to dole out the pages as he saw fit. Pages that introduced new characters were his responsibility, and sometimes he’d draw both pages himself, to be balanced out by a pair of pages from the assistants.
Watson didn’t last long. Sick and disgusted at what was being done to Dan Dare, he wrote to Hampson asking him to use his influence to get something done about it. But Hampson had neither influence nor the desire to use it if he had. Watson went to new editor Clifford Makins and tendered his resignation, only to be told that it was a good job as he would have been fired shortly, anyway.
Keith Watson doesn’t disappear from Dan Dare‘s story, unlike Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Ironically enough, he was replaced by Bruce Cornwell, yet again, who undertook the technical art behind Don Harley’s figure work. And, to replace Alan Stranks, Eric Eden returned again – the only period he and Cornwell worked together instead of as alternatives! – taking over writing the strip.
So it’s now time to go back to Terra Nova, where Dan Dare, Digby and Sir Hubert have been kept in suspense, captured by a primitive tribe of Novad natives, and see what happens next…