As I said, it had taken Frank Bellamy six of the twelve months he had contracted to draw Dan Dare to get the Pilot of the Future back to Earth, and to be able to implement Odhams’ demands for a new look for the series, in uniforms and spaceships. But Odhams had more in mind than just changing Eagle‘s most popular series, they were set upon a redesign of the comic.
The effect on Dan Dare was to remove the traditional red title box that, since Volume 1 number 1, had occupied the north-western quarter of the cover. The red background, the font and the black and yellow Eagle were retained, but these were redistributed to a horizontal title box, crossing the top of the page, leaving a more conventional, almost square space for Bellamy’s art.
Project Nimbus was Frank Bellamy’s third and final story. In view of its significance, he drew both pages of the first episode, meticulously signing each page. The story commenced with a spectacular image of a space station whose design was clean, elegant lines and angles, with nothing of the workable practicality of the Hampson era. It looked amazing, though the new, wrap-around, blouson uniforms looked stupid.
It’s straight into the action. The space station, Spa-One, is searching for Nimbus One, a test ship trialling a new photon drive that has been doing so well until disappearing an hour earlier. Dan and Digby are sent out to help, though it’s noticeable that they don’t travel in Anastasia. It will be a long time before we see ‘Old Annie’ again. Their arrival coincides with the discovery of ten weak signals indicating not-debris, which sends Dan into frantic action: the crew of Nimbus One numbered ten…
The rescue vessel, Andromeda, takes off just before Dan, at top speed, gets back, but there is still a way for him to participate, and get there before the official rescue ship, and that’s in Nimbus Two. Sir Hubert refuses, which seems sensible in all the circumstances if Nimbus One has suffered something disastrous. Indeed, he won’t even ask for volunteers.
But not asking for volunteers is not the same as refusing them when they immediately appear out of the woodwork. How long has Sir Hubert known Colonel Dare and his faithful batman, Albert Fitzwilliam Digby that he thinks they won’t volunteer for anything, no matter how risky? And he also ought to know very well that he’ll have a full crew faster than you can say ‘Odhams are stinkers’ because, a couple of quick, surreptitious phone calls later, who happens to be lounging around HQ, glory be it’s Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette, back for the first time since The Ship That Lived, two years ago.
This only takes three weeks to set up, and up to this point Project Nimbus has the basis for a good, solid story, with old friends reunited. However, from here it goes on to waste all the opportunities available to it.
The first disappointment is Hank and Pierre. They may be there in person but they certainly aren’t in spirit. Both get good, close-up, Bellamy-style portraits, but other than that they are just a pair of accents (Pierre’s hammed up more than Hank’s) speaking utilitarian dialogue that has no bearing on their personalities. Neither does anything particularly substantial in the story either. They could have been replaced by two identikit Spacefleet officers and the story would have been different in no whit.
As for the story, we will ultimately discover, an alien ship, filled with aliens who look like human size white ants, has entered the Solar System on a prospecting tour which has taken them to the Moons of Jupiter (without apparently encountering the Numidol spacefleet, which has been completely forgotten since the days of Operation Saturn despite being as influential a Solar System presence as the Earthmen). They are evil, without any redeeming factors, or at least any redeeming factors that Dan Dare bothers to wait to find out about because he destroys their ship utterly.
But before we get this far, Nimbus Two has to undergo an overlong series of genuinely meaningless threats – it is a test ship, remember, and we have to be reminded of that at all turns – that drain the story of momentum by focusing on trivialities.
The alien craft, when we finally get to see it, in the ninth episode, looks like nothing in the Solar System, but it also looks like nothing a workable spaceship. It is a geometric solid, with extended ski-rails at the back, a globe at the front and a top-heavy cylinder at the back. It’s beautifully drawn, a Bellamy special, and it’s fully within his ‘don’t-be-like-Hampson’ remit, but it immediately looks unworkable, and it gives Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell (Keith Watson had already done his jump-before-pushed) an impossible task to emulate when they get a page it appears on.
But that’s nothing before we see the Erg-Boat, the two seater pilot craft that takes two lazy, indolent and basically silly ant-soldiers down to the surface of the Jupiterian moon on which Nimbus Two is currently landed. That’s basically a triangular wedge of cheese with two cocktail sticks topped with balls at the broad end.
Dan and Digby discover the Erg-Boat, then are confronted by the two gun-toting alien nitwits. In order to combat their captors, Dan and Digby studiously ignore their presence and start acting naturally in an artificial manner. Some food cubes fall from Digby’s space suit. For no apparently logical reason, the starship troopers recognise that these are food cubes and, ignoring the fact that they are the nutritional substance for an alien race whose physiology is in no way comparable to their own, stuff their faces with them. Which means that, given these are concentrates, they effectively overeat fantastically, get upset tummies and sit around groaning like your uncle on Christmas Day whilst Dan and Digby do a sharp one.
Thankfully, from this nadir, the story pulls itself together enough to get into space and have a battle with the invading craft. Nimbus Two comes off potentially worse, the aliens using fireballs with the intent of causing microholes in the ship’s structure, through which oxygen can leak away. This danger is averted by the arrival of a Spacefleet Squadron under Sir Hubert’s command, which drives the ship off long enough for Nimbus Two to be outfitted with a heavy-duty, stainless steel shell, strong enough to enable Dan to ride back into battle in safety.
Whereupon he promptly turns his back on the invading craft, literally, fires up Nimbus Two’s engines to full throttle, and basically fries the sucker with the photon drive. End of story.
Except for the chance finding of the intact and undamaged Nimbus One on a nearby Jupiterian moon. The essentially redundant Hank and Pierre hop off in Two whilst Dan and Dig fly One home, with Sir Hubert (given that these ships apparently required a crew of ten to operate them, it’s seems pertinent to question their being operated by crews of four, three and two). Sir Hubert is allowed a spin, in which he cranks the drive up even faster than Dan has previously gone, whilst foreshadowing the next adventure by claiming that the importance of the Nimbus drive lay in developing a hyperdrive that enabled Mankind to leave it’s own system and explore distant galaxies.
I hear cries from the back pointing out that that is exactly what the Halley Drive does, and that only in the last story, have they forgotten? You really must understand that this is a new era, and that continuity between stories is one of those things that Odhams know the kids don’t want. The little buggers don’t want things that make sense, they want action, excitement, flash.
Frank Bellamy had certainly supplied that, and it is not to denigrate him that I say any of these things. He was a brilliant, astonishingly dramatic artist, as much a genius in his way as was Frank Hampson in his. That Frank Hampson’s approach took in other, wider concerns, that he wrote or directed as much as he drew, does not diminish Bellamy, who could do things with a page, or later a centrespread, that no-one else could, and whose actual art, in line, composition, layout and colour, could not be approached by anyone else.
He’d taken on an unwelcome professional job and done what was asked of him. It’s far from his fault that what he was asked to do was unworthy of the character he’s inherited, and the art he’d produced had been superb.
A Harley/Cornwell page
But it was a mistake to choose him to replace Frank Hampson, as he had no intrinsic interest in, no feel for SF. The new uniforms he designed are evidence of this: Hampson had based uniforms and insignia upon his own British Army wartime experiences, and put Spacefleet firmly in a line from the real history of our world, further cementing its reality as a plausible future for Eagle‘s readers. Bellamy was under instructions to change things for the sake of change, and his new uniforms and spacesuit designs broke that progression and inadvertently rendered Spacefleet more of a generic proposition, with its origins less in Britain 1950 than Science Fiction Anytime.
His year done, Bellamy moved on. It’s not strictly part of this series, but it’s pleasing to report that his reward for this dedicated year was his dream strip, Fraser of Africa, about a game warden in the continent Bellamy was obsessed with, and he was unbelievably good with that.
But for the second time in twelve months, Dan Dare needed a new artist. This time, justice would be served where it had been denied a year ago. Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell would now take over art full-time. Would this see a restoration of the series’ true glories?