The Infinite Jukebox: The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset

Some songs are a product of their time, and some songs exist in an eternal present, untouched by the entropy of time. Some songs are both at the same time.
The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ could not, I firmly believe, have been written and recorded in any decade other than the Sixties. Yet at the same time, it has stepped outside any passage of the days, an immortal moment of sound and voice that can never be dated. It carries its time with it, like an aura, worn lightly, its effect undimmed and uncaptured.
This is the mature Kinks, the later Kinks, the Kinks who outgrew their earlier raucousness of guitar. This is the band that, denied access to America, chose to be English, not in some foppish or stilted manner, but to reflect English thought, preoccupation and mannerism in songs that flirted with caricature but maintained a delicate balance due to Ray Davies’ skill with words.
At the same time, the band’s sound drew off a folkish tinge, Ray’s acoustic guitar dominating the sound, Dave’s electric guitar kept from free reign, its early weight taken down. The sound separates, the instruments existing in separate planes. There’s almost a deliberate amateurism to some of the songs, an endearingly English way of being modest, of not getting above oneself.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a London song, sung by London boys, about London. It was written when London was, or seemed to be, pretty much the most important place in the world, Swinging London, the hotspot for fashion, music, progression and hope. Yet it’s a song that, even as it borrows from the touchstones of Swinging London – Terry and Julie are namechecks to actors Terrence Stamp and Julie Christie – stands foursquare on the ground, anchored by its own sense of place.
The song begins with a descending bass-line dominating unobtrusive music, before Dave picks out the melody on a guitar that sounds individual notes, lacking a flow, given a bass edge themselves. This leads into Ray’s opening verse.
He chooses to anchor the song to the city, the dirty old river that both divides and unites it, the eternal rolling into the night, that a part of him would wish to stop, knowing all the time that to do so would destroy the city. It’s a city of motion, the people as much as the river, though their motion dizzies him, as much as the taxi-lights overwhelm him.
But he is where he should be, where he knows he belongs, and the city has a sign for him, the sun setting over Waterloo Bridge. As long as he can gaze on that, he knows he is in his own Earth, and he will not give in to fear.
He then introduces Terry and Julie: not the stars that dazzle up West, but two ordinary young people, whose distinction is only for each other. Terry meets Julie at Waterloo Station, every Friday night. It has the atmosphere of ritual, but it’s nothing so grand. We don’t see beyond the simple words but we instinctively understand all the things that lie behind it. Which one comes by train, which one arrives to meet the other? Unimportant: the working week is over, the things that separate them no longer hold them, they are together again, their real life about to begin.
The singer watches. He has neither a Terry nor a Julie to meet, a lack he shrugs off as being due to his laziness. He doesn’t want to wander, he stays at home at night. But behind the words, they are excuses. Something scares him, and he retreats to his self-adopted place, where the City is his love: he needs no friends. Doth he protest too much?
Terry and Julie need no friends, but that’s because they have each other. They might be lost in the crowd, millions of people, swarming like flies round Waterloo Underground: swarming, with its connotation of flies swarming around a piece of rotten meat, gorging on its foulness perhaps. But Terry and Julie are not part of them: they have crossed the river, gone into their own place, where they feel safe and sound.
They too gaze upon Waterloo Sunset, though now they stand at a different vantage to the singer. There will be others, people for whom place and location are the anchor to lives in the middle of a turbulence that threatened to turn the world upside down, but sadly did not do so.
For the singer, for this young couple, there is the bridge and the sunset, an echo of Wordsworth, drawn from the more upmarket environs of Westminster Bridge to the places where the ordinary people go.
And the bridge and the sunset stand forever. The band gather together to end the song, repeating that Waterloo Sunset’s fine, the melody released, the walls gathering. Terry and Julie married, had kids, grandkids, lived out their lives in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge.
No, not the shadow, but the light, the light of sunset.

In Praise of Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters

This is the one.
It’s the opening scene. A blasted moorland. High mountains. A flash of lightning illuminating a dreadful scene. Three huddled figures around a bubbling cauldron. An eldritch shriek splits the night: “When shall we three meet again?”
Then, after a pause, an ordinary voice replies, “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”
It’s the archetypal Terry Pratchett moment, and I howl with laughter every time I read it, every time I think of it. Let’s face it, if you haven’t laughed at that, you and I have absolutely nothing to talk about.
To put it at its simplest, this is where it clicks. Where everything comes together, without a single false note. Where Pratchett starts pulling comedy gold out of everything in sight. Where story, character and theme blend together to make each element a simple delight and the whole something far greater than the sum of its parts. There will be the odd, less-than-brilliant book to follow, but they’re going to be rare, and even the least of these will still be better than nearly everything around them.
The prentice phase is over.
Wyrd Sisters brings us back to Granny Weatherwax, or rather it re-introduces Granny, along with the rest of the Three Witches, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Forget the Granny we saw in Equal Rites, think of her as a distant relation, the Earth-2 Granny, this is the real thing. The Kingdom of Lancre solidifies around them. The Fool capers dismally, concealing not only a very keen intelligence but also a solid core of human decency, of a kind that will grow to be the underlying characteristic of all Terry Pratchett’s work.
It’s revealing nothing anyone doesn’t know to call this book a Shakespearian adventure. It’s full of exaggeration and inversion, puns and jokes, madcap notions and – which is what always distinguished Pratchett from his (laughable notion) competitors – the gift of depicting a thing in the elemental form that underlies it. It’s about the Theatre, about the ability to lie openly and create the truth. About a form of magic vastly different from that which the Witches manipulate, because it is made between human beings collectively.
The plot is nicely basic. King Verence of Lancre is assassinated by his cousin, Duke Felmet, at the behest of the latter’s bullying wife, the Duchess. Both the Duke and Duchess are, in their separate ways, quite mad. They’re obviously MacBeth and Lady M, though Pratchett distributes the latter’s role between the two conspirators.
There is an heir, a baby, rescued from the melee, and placed by Granny and the coven with strolling players, where he becomes an actor. But the Kingdom needs his return, and despite having made a very good case why Witches can’t meddle and raise Kings, Granny moves Lancre through fifteen years to enable an adult TomJohn to return to his inheritance.
Except that he doesn’t want it. And fortunately there’s a slightly elder half-brother, named Verence, who can take over as King. Kind, conscientious, ecstatic at being able to rip of the hat with the bells on it, not to mention interested in Magrat.
And he and TomJohn really are half-brothers, which is not to say that the late King Verence I is necessarily their father…
What Pratchett had found in this book was the sense of Discworld being a mirror, a twisted, funhouse mirror, but not of Fantasy but rather of Reality. Fantasy ceases to be the subject of Pratchett’s humour, and becomes the vehicle. Each book from now on will have a theme at its heart that resonates, which Pratchett digs into, and draws out of it unexpected insights and deep wisdom, all of which is expressed through laughter.
Let’s not leave without noting the first appearance of Nanny Ogg. Granny’s old friend and sidekick, Nanny arrives full blown, a force of nature in herself, complete with her enthusiasm for that unusual folksong about Hedgehogs. Nanny, the all-mother, the living proof of matriarchal supremacy, secure in her domain.
It’s leaping ahead, but Pratchett once commented that he’d made Nanny a mother of fifteen, and started throwing in names for sons and daughters willy nilly. One day, he thought he’d better add them all up, and found he had named exactly fifteen. He seemed to be a bit surprised at that. I’m not. Whether you call it That From Which It Comes, a la Dave Sim, or a subconscious sense of structure, as I do, it’s a great thing to have.
A lot of writing comes from far more than deliberate thought.

Dan Dare: The Solid-space Mystery

So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen  can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.

                                                                                Recognise him?
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.

It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.

The Infinite Jukebox: God Only Knows

The Infinite Jukebox has a lot of Beach Boys songs on it, and a lot of love songs. The two come together in possibly the purest song of all, Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”.
This is one of those songs where it’s impossible to believe that it was written by two people, that it’s not the creation of a single mind, a single heart and soul, but it’s true. Brian Wilson was no lyricist so, whilst the melody and the arrangements are his, the words, pure and simple yet equally from the heart, come from his frequent collaborator, Tony Asher. They are an integral part of the whole, and Asher deserves the greatest credit possibly for so thoroughly understanding the music as to match its calm, its pure essence, its ethereality with words that waste no language, that cut so truly to the centre of any relationship between two people that’s called by the name of love.
“God Only Knows” was a massive hit here, a number 2 single, the Beach Boys’ biggest success in Britain to date, though immediately overtaken by their next release, “Good Vibrations”. In America, where the religious sensibilities made a song with God in the title – and one that was not about any deity – so much more questionable, it was restricted to the lower half of a double A-side and barely scraped the Top 30.
There are many many instances in the Sixties of American tastes being considerably better than British: this is a welcome opposite.
The song was Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal with the band. Later in his life, he spoke of the greatest honour he had ever received as being when his brother Brian asked him to sing this song. Though the two brothers’ voices were similar, Brian chose Carl to sing “God Only Knows” because of the additional sweetness of his voice. He’s also the only actual Beach Boy to play on this record, the backing track being recorded by the experienced session musicians always called in to do the studio work.
I don’t have the words to describe the music, but from the moment of that introduction, the song exists in a higher atmosphere than we breath on Earth. Musicologists have linked it to the music of the baroque, and of Handel, and there is a choral texture from the outset that suggests harpsichords, though it’s a regulation piano that first emerges from the horns, violas and cellos, laying a suggestion of rhythm for Carl to come in over.
I may not always love you, he sings, a line of ambivalence for which Asher fought Brian’s reluctance. In a song that’s about love, about an overpowering, soul-deep love, it’s a strange way to begin, when every other line in that first verse exists to deny it, but it’s only a lead-in to what the song says, to what love says: God only knows what I’d be without you.
Because, in words that lack decoration, lack equivocation, that are so straightforward as to almost be brutal, which encompass everything in the shortest possible statement but are simply beautiful, Asher’s lyrics and Wilson’s music recognise that love is about transformation, about becoming something which alone you are not and never can be.
And love transcends. Having contemplated but implicitly dismissed the notion that his love might not be eternal, the singer turns to the thought that her love might not be eternal. If you should ever leave me, Carl sings, though life would still go on, believe me (this is not a song to desecrate with the notion of any kind of death), the world could show nothing to me. For what good would living do me?
Instead of answering, when we all know the answer he would give, he repeats: God only knows what I’d be without you. Though by now we understand the import of that line.
So far, that gorgeous intro excepted, the music has been muted, rhythmic, the voice carrying the melody as the piano, a tambourine and the lightest of taps on the rims of the drums provide a propulsion that is joined by an organ playing a series of single notes.
Then the bridge cuts in, with a roll of drums and a hitherto unexpected melody, and for a brief moment voices chant, a Gregorian element, but still only three voices: Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, splitting the range into three parts. No Al Jardine, no Mike Love, no Dennis Wilson. Voices chant and cross, in true Beach Boy harmony, but only for a short space of time, until Carl repeats both his central question and that reinforcing verse that stipulates that, contrary to his opening line, this is eternal. This is love or nothing.
For a moment, the music tallies, reduced to Pete Townsend’s one note, pure and easy, and then the voices return, the same three voices, weaving into and out of each other, variations on that theme, all and part of that line, and it could go on forever and none would mind for the music holds and the voices sustain and there is no end to this melody, only a fade-out.
There are many who liken “God Only Knows” to a spiritual or religious experience, who take the love as being that all-consuming, transcendent love for the God-head, for the spirit. And the music and the sound is holy, even to those of us who have no faith, who believe in no god. This is religious music for all that it is a three minute pop song.
But to me, it is and always will be the love song beyond which there are no love songs, that says all that has to be said, that says to her that you have made me whole and complete, that you have given me something beyond description, that can only be felt, absorbed, lived, that together we are what neither of us could be and nothing could be greater than that.
God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.

Is that what it’s really about? Steve & Eydie’s I Want to Stay Here

This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.

Today’s offering is one of those where the meaning of the song is again fairly clear to us, fifty cynical years ago, but which in 1963 would have not necessarily been interpreted so bluntly, especially not when you considered the source. By which I do not mean the writers, this being yet another production from the pens of husband and wife professional songwriting team, Gerry Goffin and Carol King.

No, I am here talking about the singers, Steve and Eydie, another husband and wife team, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who had separate singing careers under their full names, but when duetting used only their first names. Lawrence was an already successful actor and talk show host, as well as a singer, whilst Gorme has already featured in this series with ‘Yes, My Darling Daughter’. Ten years older than her husband, she’d started as a Big Band singer.

So we’re basically looking at family entertainment, bland and safe, middle of the road singers, singing very middle of the road music. A married couple, of whom, in rock’n’roll terms, there can be nothing more boring and staid, right? So let’s listen to the words.

It all begins with one of those ‘Whoa-oh-oh’ starts, voice as music, cheerful and innocent, the opening exchange is slightly startling for what we’re already assuming is a love song. I don’t want to go to the party with you, announces Gorme, to which Lawrence responds with I don’t want to go to the dance. Gorme’s even more emphatic when she tells him she doesn’t want to go anywhere with him, but the air of bafflement is rapidly dispelled wen both chorus, happily, that they just want to stay here and love you.

Aww, isn’t that nice? Another verse, a bit later on, will extend the list of things that Steve and Eydie don’t want to do to include going for a walk, and even talking to each other, no, they just want to stay here and love each other.

It’s not until we start considering the intervening verses that things start to line-up a bit less abstractedly. Now that I can be alone with you, Gorme offers, I won’t throw away the chance. There’s no place like home with you, Gorme sings, using one of the most glutinous and trite lines ever to stick in a song’s craw, and then they’re harmonising on that line about just want(ing) to stay here and love you. So they don’t want to go out anywhere, do anything, they’re taking advantage of being alone together… oh my god, the dirty sods! They’re singing about sex, aren’t they? At their age? I mean, ok, I know they’re married, so that makes it legal, but that just makes it worse.

And they’re singing this filth on the wireless in 1963, such a decent couple. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Yet on the surface, this is just one more innocent love song, one more good and decent MOR staple that gives off the impression of being sung by a pair of virgins who don’t actually know what to do next after kissing on the lips with their mouths pressed firmly shut, and maybe yes, that’s all the song’s meant to mean. Goffin and King were masters at songs that rang through with innocent, unfocused passion that as yet knew nothing more of love.

And, if challenged, they could have said this was all it was about. After all, good girls didn’t, not until they got the ring. But it isn’t about that at all, because pop has always been about that subversive moment, the song that means more than it’s words are allowed to say, that speaks in a code that parents aren’t supposed to decipher because, after all, your parents don’t do stuff like that.

Do  they?



Once upon a Cerebus Time…

Though I’m no longer the same utterly committed Cerebus fan that I was from 1981 through to about 2001, and whilst I’m one of those who’s never going to sign the Petition that stipulates that I don’t believe Dave Sim is a Misogynist, I lived with the series and the character and the creator for far too long to totally abandon the link.

So, for at least the last year, one of my daily sites has been A Moment of Cerebus, an independent blog dedicated to all things Sim, Cerebus, Gerhard and relevant topics. Today, I had a shock.

If you log into and scroll about for the June 13 2015 blog, you will find reprinted in full, an interview with Dave Sim, published in the once-and-former comicszine, Arkensword, edited by Paul Duncan from Coventry. The interview took place on the Sunday of the 1985 United Kingdom Comics Art Convention (usually known as UKCAC). It was conducted by Paul, his main collaborative partner, cartoonist John Jackson (from Manchester) and a Cerebus expert roped in at the last minute, my good self.

If you link to the interview, you might wonder what the hell I was doing there, given that I ask the opening question, and one other, close to the end, but disappear completely in between. Well, I may have been the Cerebus expert among the three of us, but this was my first (and last) interview and they’d done dozens, so every time Sim was done with his answers, they were ready with the next question and I wasn’t.

I did transcribe the interview though (and I still have a cassette of it), so if you ever discover a copy of that double-sized issue of Arkensword, you are looking at the actual typescript, tapped out painstakingly on my sister’s electric typewriter.

It was the first of not quite a half dozen occasions when I met Sim (not counting the time I phoned his offices to order the limited, numbered edition of the next Graphic Novel and found Sim himself taking my credit card details, and recognising my name). We’d actually met the day before when I got him to sign some of my Cerebus collection, including all the first five (Oh, a Number One! he said. How much do you want for it? Two hundred? Three hundred? Four hundred? We’d got up to Five hundred before I got it back out of his hands. Of course, we hadn’t decided whether he was talking pounds or Canadian dollars, but even so.)

And later that Sunday, doing a signing session, Sim started selling off the original pages for the next issue, no 78, at £30 a page. I’d promised to get my mate John’s comics signed for him, and to request an ‘Elrod Bunny’, so I was going frantic as people at the other end of the table pored over and divided the pages between them whilst I was stuck doing my duty for a mate.

As soon as I was free, I shot off there to look at the remaining pages – no more than a third of the issue. And to my astonishment, no-one had grabbed page 3, an astonishingly powerful page, so I latched onto it and forked out the cash, and I still have it, framed, thirty years on, and I won’t part with it.

But what gave me a shock, as opposed to a pleasant sense of nostalgia, is that, unlike the Arkensword issue, the reprinted interview includes photos, taken for Sim, and which I’ve never seen. And one of them features me, together with Sim and Paul (so it must have been taken by John).

There are very few photos of me on the internet. In fact, when it comes to the ones I know of, this unexpected shot doubles the total to two (the other’s on this blog). So that’s what I used to look like when I was 29? Not as bad as used to think, thirty years ago.

Seeing my face staring back at me out of the internet is an unusual situation.

Thank you Rhianna Pratchett

If there’s one piece of good news in the sad loss of Terry Pratchett, it is in the announcement today by his daughter Rhianna, to whom he has left the intellectual rights to Discworld, that firmly closes the door upon the risk of literary necrophilia.

Ms Pratchett has confirmed that the forthcoming The Shepherd’s Crown, the fifth Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle novel, the 41st Discworld novel, will be the last ever.

There will be no attempts to continue, not by herself (though her father gave her his blessing to do so), nor by any person licenced by her.

Thank you Ms Pratchett for making that plain. Thank you for shielding our many lost friends from being distorted at the hands of others, from being sent on false journeys and down wrong pathways, from saying things false, phoney and untrue. Though we will miss them like we miss your father, we are grateful to you for your forthrightness in doing the only right thing to do.

In a world in which the heirs to P.G.Wodehouse and Agatha Christie have gotten so greedy for more that they have commissioned – not merely sanctioned, solicited – the most egregious breaches of their own trust, your resolve gives me a little bit of heart. You can be proud of yourself.

Once was a Stranger…

                                                                                          In the very beginning

It’s four years since DC Comics rebooted their Universe all over again, producing the incarnation known as The New 52, and I made the conscious decision not to continue reading DC Comics any more.
With the exception of one near-incomprehensible Green Lantern graphic novel borrowed from the library, I’ve maintained that stance, though it’s less of a stance than a simple lack of interest in what they’ve been doing with the characters of my lifelong adolescence. And what I’ve read from time to time has reinforced my belief that I made the right decision.
Well, the New 52 is now on the point of becoming the past again, DC having taken the decision to uproot itself from New York to California, and covered the intervening two month removal process with a series named Convergence, a salute to those Universes of yore, which has unexpectedly morphed into the foundation stone for the even newer DCYou.
Meanwhile, I, with my customary off-centre timing, have just paid a first visit to the library in nearly six months and, in addition to the book I was searching for, came away with a New 52 Graphic Novel, featuring one of my favourite characters, The Phantom Stranger.
The Stranger was originally created in 1952 for his own, short-lived comic, written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino. In his initial run, the Stranger was a seemingly non-powered human being with an incredible knack of turning up, out of nowhere, when some ordinary person was being threatened by some demonic-like power. The Stranger, who dressed in trenchcoat and Fedora, over a dark suit and a white shirt/black tie, was basically a supernatural debunker, who could vanish as abruptly and completely as he arrived the moment everything was copacetic again.
And he vanished just as abruptly and completely after six issues, never to be remembered. Until he was unexpectedly revived for issue 80 of Showcase, in 1968.
The issue has the smell of filler all over it, since it was three-quarters reprint. A framing story consisting of a few random pages brings together The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker, who spar verbally whilst recounting past exploits, two for the Stranger, one for Terry Thirteen, before an absurdly rushed and perfunctory ending.
Dr Thirteen had never previously encountered the Phantom Stranger, though they appear to know each other, and the latter greets Thirteen, and his wife Marie, like old friends. Dr Thirteen was another demon debunker from the early Fifties, his series appearing in Star-Spangled Comics. You’d think he’d be on the same side as the Stranger, but instead the Stranger has been revived as a quasi-supernatural character, blessed with undefined powers, a battler against demons etc., and as far as Terry Thirteen is concerned, he’s as big a danger as these phoney, mumbo-jumbo events that the Stranger has undoubtedly set up to prey on the credulous and stupid, and Dr Thirteen is going to expose him as a charlatan.
Almost immediately, and far too soon for the decision to be based upon sales figures for Showcase 80, the Stranger was granted his own bi-monthly title, in which the formula was repeated for the first three issues. After all, it was an incredibly cheap comic to produce when it was predominantly reprint.
However, with issue 4, it was taken over by Neal Adams. The art and story were all-new, an arch-enemy in the form of Tala, Queen of Evil, was introduced, and the Stranger was redesigned, with a cape, a white turtleneck (i.e., polo neck) sweater and a mystic gold amulet, plus eyes shadowed by the brim of his fedora that merely glowed a pupil-less white. Dr Thirteen was still ranting and raving however, even though his position was undercut a dozen times an issue.
And Adams introduced four teenagers who would, for the next half dozen issues, turn up all over the place, spouting what was fondly believed to be contemporary hip-speak, and always, always, bumping into one or other of the Stranger and Terry Thirteen, the other of which would be along almost immediately. For all that they were supposed to be such diametric opposites, it was clear that My People and Your People were keeping their diaries strictly co-ordinated.

                                                                         Classic Jim Aparo (with teenagers)
The series floundered on, passing from hand to hand. Adams did two issues, Mike Sekowsky two more, the great Jim Aparo took over the art, Gerry Conway tried a couple of scripts, introducing a seemingly immortal bad guy in Tannarak, and the whole thing was just lousy with potential that was begging to be realised until issue 12, when Len Wein inherited the job of scripter. That was when things fell into place.
Wein kicked out the crap. Gone were the four teens, gone the idea of dropping mini-stories in, Dr Thirteen was shunted into the back of the book in hos own series and Wein, who was also writing Swamp Thing at the same time, set off on a run of classic stories, which defined the Stranger as part-host, part-narrator, part a spiritual warning to those in danger of going down the wrong path, and ultimately an intervening force for good. Without a name, without an origin, without any definition of powers, but with Aparo drawing the hell out of anything Wein put in front of him.
Including, amusedly, a villain by the name of Cerebus, who appeared in the same issue as a fan letter from a 17 tear old Canadian fan by the name of Dave Sim…
It couldn’t last. Wein slowly built up a loose continuity featuring an organisation of evil mystics called The Dark Circle, headed by Tala. The Stranger, aided by blind seer Cassandra Craft and a converted-for-a-while Tannarak, confronts the Dark Circle and brings it down, Tala and Tannarak disappearing into the bowels of the Earth beneath the statue Christos Redentor, and Cassandra left to believe the Stranger dead, so that she will no longer be at risk from the perils he faces.
Two issues later, Wein and Aparo left simultaneously, snatched away to write and draw the more prestigious, and better selling Batman.

The Wein/Aparo run was in midstream when I first discovered The Phantom Stranger in 1974. It’s flawed, and there’s some crazy purple writing in there, but it’s crazy as hell, wild and passionate, and I fell for the character on the spot. Seeing the Stranger taken over by the utterly incompatible team of Arnold Drake and Gerry Taloac, with a truly awful Spawn of Frankenstein back-up drawn by Bernard Bailey, co-creator of the Spectre and looking decades out of date, was an horrendous shock.
The series floundered to an end with issue 41, flopping from hand to hand just as it had at the beginning, with a couple of really good issues and a lot of incredibly crap ones but I persevered until the last.
And of course the Phantom Stranger has turned up all over the place since, a floating character available for any kind of supernatural-oriented series, not to mention occasional solo slots, a mini-series and, most memorably, in his own issue of Secret Origins which, in keeping with the mysterious nature of the character, presented four separate, mutually contradictory versions of his origin – three supernatural, one horribly off-note scientific – the best being Alan Moore’s gloriously imaginative depiction of the Stranger as an Angel who, having failed to make up his mind between God and Lucifer when the latter rebelled, is condemned to walk the Earth ever after, his wings torn off, rejected by Heaven and Hell, forever a stranger.
To be honest, I’ve read very few interpretations of the Phantom Stranger in the last twenty years or so. He’s been presented as an Agent of Order (as opposed to Chaos) which doesn’t work for me. He was shown, in one special, as an aged man who was an angel who’d fallen in love with a demon who ran an old folk’s (demon’s?) home but that especially didn’t take.
For me, the Stranger is fixed as he was in those dozen or so Wein/Aparo stories, leavened by Moore’s too good origin, and as long as he’s been seen consistently with that, as has mostly been the case, I’ve been content.
That was before I read the Phantom Stranger in The New 52.
Formally, this GN is Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger volume 3 The Crack in Creation. It reprints issues 11 – 22 of the Stranger’s solo series, plus the crossover issue  Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger: Future’s End 1. That means that I was coming in after the parameters of the series had been set, and half of it published, so I was having to pick things up as I went along, but hell’s bells, I’ve been doing that with comics all my life, I’m used to it.
But this was, quite frankly, unreadable. Literally unreadable. I put it down after about forty pages, flicked to the back to see if the ending made sense, and gave up. However, when I realised that I was going to write about it, I had to go back and read it properly.

                                                                                 Cassandra Craft. As was.
Firstly, it appears that the Phantom Stranger now has an origin and a name: two names in fact. Given that he’s a mysterious figure who’s not merely gotten on but positively thrives for sixty years without either, this ought to have been an absolute No-no, but whenever you get a radical reboot that updates characters for the modern era, you get some fucking stupid ideas that destroy the principal reality of well-crafted creations, and as this one came from Publisher Dan DiDio, I suppose it was inevitable.
Even worse, one of those names was a human secret identity, Philip Stark, with a beloved wife and two beloved children. Except that it wasn’t actually the Stranger’s name, he just took it, plus the beloved wife and children, from the real Philip Stark, who was a horror story writer, serial torturer and killer and the Stranger’s vehement enemy, Sin-Eater.
But it’s the first name that you’re going to love, because it’s Judas. Of Scarioth. Yes, that one, betrayer of his friend and master, the Lamb, in return for thirty pieces of silver. Except that, after he hung himself, he was taken before the Council of Eternity and sentenced to walk forever as a stranger, wearing an amulet consisting of those thirty pieces of silver, bringing to him constant pain, grief and sorrow. Every now and then, if the Stranger does the right thing, one piece will drop off and, when all thirty are gone…
Meanwhile, Sin-Eater has killed Philip Stark’s beloved wife and children. The Stranger has pursued their souls across both Heaven and Hell but been thrown out of the Afterlife for good by The Presence (who manifests to him as a small brown Scottie Dog). A very different Dr Thirteen, who has lost his scepticism (lost his scepticism? You might as well give Barry Allen a bow and arrow and no speed and still call him The Flash), has killed the Stranger by stabbing him through the heart with the Spear of Destiny. The Sin-Eater has killed a sixteen year old boy called Christopher Esperanza but the Stranger has brought him back from the dead: his family don’t remember this but they know and it’s driving him batty. The Stranger’s tried to rescue Dr Light’s soul (the original one, not the Japanese lady scientist, who’s apparently now a formerly-happy-married-man instead of a raving rapist) but been oblivionated for it by Zauriel the Angel. Have I missed anything out? How can I tell
Dear reader, if you think that this is about the greatest amount of hooey you’ve ever heard of, spare a thought for me, who’s been dealing happily with stuff of this nature for a half century and finds all this a colossal amount of hooey as well.
So the story in this book begins with the Stranger reappearing out of oblivion, courtesy of Zauriel, for no explained reason. The first and biggest mistake, bigger even than everything I’ve already detailed, is that the Stranger’s mind is open to us. We read his thoughts, hear him confess his feelings. We have never done that before: of course not, he was a mysterious figure you noddies! Could it possibly diminish the character any to now be privy to all his hates, fears, selfishness, anger, cowardice, self-pity, dear heaven the self-pity, whiny teenagers have nothing on this guy when he gets started, and his refusal to do what he’s told by God, who is genuinely trying to help him? What do you think?
Zauriel will prove to have been the Stranger’s Guardian Angel since the days he was Judas Iscariot, but to have fallen in love with him to the extent of defying the Will of God for him. This may or may not be the cause of Zauriel suddenly catching a fever and dying, or maybe that’s something that happened in another title which isn’t collected here. You know, like Chris Esperanza a) being taken over by the evil Blight and b) turning into the Angel of Redemption as a direct consequence.
Zauriel certainly isn’t the Zauriel we used to know, especially after he gets resurrected as her. But then Cassandra Craft isn’t the woman we used to know. Nor is John Constantine (bloody hell, J. M de Matteis simply can’t write believable Cockney slang).
Oh, and there’s the other two members of the Trinity of Sin, one being Pandora (that one, yes) and the other being The Question, who seriously is not any kind of Question we’ve ever seen. No longer is he a Steve Ditko paranoid Objectivist hero, nor even a lesbian detective who was so essential to the recent first series of Gotham that she didn’t even appear in the last ten episodes despite being Cast.
No, The Question is evil for reasons nobody, least of all himself, knows, because they’ve been erased (the Stranger gets given an origin when it’s the last thing he needs, the Question, who had a perfectly good one, gets it stripped away and left with nothing). And his superpower is now the ability to ask really cutting questions that undermine everybody’s self-confidence.
As I have had occasion to observe in relation to the various 2000AD incarnations of Dan Dare, this might not be so bad if it were being run with new characters, lacking any kind of history or definition. Actually, this would be just as bad, but seeing this idiot gibberish imposed upon clear-cut, well-drawn existing characters, who are being subject to these outlandish distortions solely for the purpose of having them look and act differently, the overall effect is a hundred times worse.
This is NOT The Phantom Stranger. It is not even a convincing, or even viable simulacrum. This is the state of comics these days, and it is incomprehensible. Purely on a technical basis, given how this meandering and directionless excuse for a story-line twice leads to portentous cliffhangers only for the resolutions to be excluded from this compilation.
Having forced myself to read the Graphic Novel, I find I have no taste nor stamina for detailed, forensic criticism. I simply want to return the book and avoid any other post 2011 DC Comics for the remainder of my given years. Let those who think this valid, worthwhile or even, unbelievably, entertaining have the enjoyment of it: I still have the good comics.
In the end, I can only reflect upon the underlying irony: The Phantom Stranger has indeed become… a Stranger.

In Praise of Pratchett: Sourcery

The early Discworld books were certainly inconsistent: odd was naff, even was good. Sourcery certainly lived up, or down, to this syndrome.
It’s definitely a step back from Mort. Rincewind is once again the main character, along with the Luggage, but for the most part, the supporting cast add very little to the setting, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Pratchett feels the need, at the end, to reset Discworld’s reality to negate everything that’s happened in a decidedly ‘…and then they woke up and it was all a dream’ style.
Having tackled deeper matters, Pratchett moves back into pure fantasy, the novel being solely about magic, and the wizards of the Discworld. It’s an old saw of fantasy that wizard’s are made from the seventh son of seventh sons (which translates into eighth of eighth on the Discworld) but what if we go a generation further. What is the magical status of the eighth son of a wizard? He is, in fact, a sourceror.
The pun is obvious, but it’s also central to Pratchett’s conception of the subject. Wizards manipulate the natural magic of the Disc, sourcerors are a conduit for raw magic itself. Into the comfy, cosy world of Unseen University, which is rapidly beginning to evolve away from the serious practice of magic as seen in earlier volumes, towards the Old Buffers’ Club we recognise from today, is dropped a sourceror, with much the same effect as a red-hot iron on a best dress shirt.
The sourceror’s name is Coin, and to everybody’s surprise, he’s only ten years old, a suitable age it may seem for the faux-naivete with which he approaches any question that interests him. And there’s only one question that interests him, which is, why aren’t wizards ruling everything by eminent force.
The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, that, since the Mage Wars of aeons ago, there is no longer the strength in the Discworld’s natural magic field to enable them to do so, and secondly, the wizards don’t really want to rule. They want to potter around, leisurely, making sure to not be too far from the table when the next meal is served.
But Coin brings with him so much raw magic, accessible by all – even Rincewind can perform spells, which should tell you all you need to know – that the first objection is just blown away. And whether it be by fear of the boy sourceror, or else reverting to natural type when accessing unlimited power, Coin pretty much overwhelms the second objection as well.
Not that it’s actually any of his fault. Coin, we deduce, is being manipulated, even ordered about, by his ultra-powerful Octiron staff, in which the spirit of his bitter, twisted father, Ipslore the Red, has taken refuge to escape Death (but not forever, naturally).
Where does Rincewind fit in to all of this? Far from having become Archchancellor, as the ending to The Light Fantastic hinted, he’s ended up as Assistant Librarian, in charge of the banana supply. But despite his utter ineptitude, he finds himself becoming responsible for preserving the Archchancellor’s hat, the true ‘head’ (heh, heh) of wizardry, and keeping it from being possessed by Coin.
In this quest, he is aided by what must be two of Pratchett’s weakest creations, Conina and Nijel the Barbarian. I would prefer not to say anything about Nijel, a barbarian of three day’s standing, who’s obeying his mother’s instructions not to take off his woolly vest. Only the, mercifully brief, presence of a yuppie genie, horrendously dated, spares Nijel from being the worst thing in this book.
As for Conina, she’s a perfectly normal, sweet, platinum blonde with an ambition to become a hairdresser, who just happens to be a daughter of Cohen the Barbarian and to have inherited all of his strength, speed, reactions, instincts and skills. It’s an attempt to pull two widely disparate stereotypes together, and for once Pratchett fails to pull it off.
Indeed, he fails to pull the story off, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rincewind, Conina and Nijel racket around, getting the Hat to Al Khali, where it ends up gravitating to the Grand Vizier, after which a straightforward magical battle with Coin and the Ankh-Morpork wizards ends in the destruction of the Hat, with no more consequences than the destruction of an ordinary cloth cap.
Pratchett also tries to pull off another pun in the threat of the Apocralypse (a kind of Apochryphal Apocalypse that no-one really believes in) which calls for the riding out of the Four Horsemen, except that Rincewind, Conina and Nijel steal everyone’s horses from outside the pub so they stay for more drinks and never set off. It’s a scene the mature Pratchett would have knocked off in his sleep, but in this book it just fails to generate a single bubble of laughter.
In the end, it all boils down to the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are forever lurking in the background in these early Discworld books. Coin’s magic is too much of a draw for them. Rincewind manages to get far enough with a half brick in a sock to finally inspire Coin to stand up against his father, but all its gets them is trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions. One wrong move…
That wrong move never comes. Rincewind identifies the need to avoid the use of Coin’s magic as that would tip the balance and, in an excess of courage, uses the other sock, full of sand, to draw the Things away on an eternal, seemingly fatal chase, whilst Coin returns to Discworld and puts everything back the way it was, with most of the memories clouded.
The ending feels very much like a writer trying to dispose of a character he’d grown tired of, like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Pratchett felt anything like that, and having had Rincewind as hero for three out of five books so far, with a cameo in a fourth, it’s possible that he may have felt confined by his audience’s expectations, he still left a note of hope that, in due course, would be happily fulfilled.
There’s little else to say, save to note that Sourcery is where the Patrician is first named as Lord Vetinari, and first outlined in the shape we know him as, although he spends most of the book transformed into a small, yellow lizard. Pratchett is yet to appreciate the subtlety of the man.
It’s also noticeable, and faintly worrying, that Sourcery sees a recycling of ideas by Pratchett, and only five books in. They may have been created for different purposes, but Coin and Eskarina Smith cousins under the skin: children possessed of a magic that they may control physically to an extent unsuspected by them, but who lack the moral imagination and life-experience to understand the full implications of their actions.
Above all, though, I see Sourcery as a slight failure of nerve on Pratchett’s part, a retreat to pure fantasy after entering deeper waters in Mort. If so, it’s only a momentary hesitation. The Discworld pendulum would swing up again for the sixth book – even numbers – but after that it would only rarely swing back occasionally, as Pratchett’s humour, and the depths we was prepared to explore, took his readers to ever increasing heights.

Dan Dare: Mission of the Earthmen

With Frank Hampson’s chief lieutenant, and another of his senior and highly experienced assistants, in charge of the art, would Dan Dare once again become the brilliant, clear, well-lit and above all intelligent series it had been for so long?
Before we answer that question, there’s another thing to clear up. Much of what I know of Frank Hampson’s life and career derives from Alastair Crompton’s The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, which was published in 1985. Though written during Hampson’s lifetime, the book was still in preparation when Hampson passed away, denying the artist the chance to see proper credit for his works being given.
The book was re-published in 2011 as Tomorrow Revisited, heavily revised by Crompton to take account of new information available, altered perceptions and material that, out of respect for Hampson, that Crompton had chosen not to incorporate in the original book.
One change that puzzles me is that, where in The Man Who Drew Tomorrow Crompton had been unequivocal about stating that Hampson’s departure from Dan Dare was intended to be permanent – twice he refers to Hampson “cut(ting) himself free” – in the revised edition Crompton now has Hampson claiming that he had only ever intended to step away for a year, to refresh himself, devise new stories and ideas. Indeed, Hampson goes so far as to suggest that this was agreed with Odhams as part of the arrangements for him to step down in the first place.
These claims come from interviews with Hampson that were available for the first book, and I see no reason for suppressing these in 1985.
We know that Hampson didn’t return, and Crompton, neither in his conversations with Hampson, nor in his accounts from other sources, makes any attempt to address why this apparent sabbatical didn’t see Hampson resume control. It’s supposed twelve-month duration fits in with Frank Bellamy only being contracted for a year, but nothing in any work I’ve read has intimated that there was ever an attempt, or an intention to bring Hampson back to his creation.
Nor, given that Odhams had broken up the Hampson studio, gotten production of the series under control on their terms, had been more than willing to dispense with Hampson entirely – and given the way in which Frank Hampson would shortly be treated, which is not overdramatised by being called ‘cruel’ and ‘spiteful’ –  nor does it seem in the least bit likely that they would entertain the idea of Hampson’s return to Dan Dare for an instant.
What we did get, both pictorially and narratively, was the most Hampson-esque story of the period. True, Harley and Cornwell had to conform to the new Spacefleet designs introduced by Frank Bellamy, which looked no more natural than they had before. But they were no longer under an obligation to try to draw like Frank Bellamy, and the relief and the release shows in what is probably their best art for the series.
Eden’s story also makes a substantial effort to live up to the Master, and its essence is certainly something that it’s surprising to find Odhams approving, given their attitude to the past. Dan and Digby are part of an Earth expedition to a distant galaxy, billions of light-years from Earth. Whilst the bulk of the expedition explores the outer planets of the system, Dan and Dig have been detached in a two-seater scout ship to survey the Inner Planets.
They are forced down upon the plant Zyl and put through a series of attacks by the ruling Council, a people scientifically advanced. But these are merely tests, not merely of the Earthmen’s capabilities in the face of danger but of their moral capabilities, their willingness to aid what they believe is an enemy.
For Zyl has a sister planet, Vort, home to barbaric races, that it wishes to civilise, but is not qualified to do so. Zyl is too far advanced, too soft: it needs a race that, on an evolutionary scale, is somewhere between those two levels. Their tests have proved that Earthmen are ideal, and Dan and Digby are only too eager to take on what is, essentially, a kind of two-fisted missionary role.
There is a fly in the ointment, however, in that one Council member, Senat, objects, believing the job too much for two strangers to the Zyl system (the man might well have a point, but then he doesn’t know about this pair, plus two others, one a kid, defeating the entire planet of Phantos, not to mention the overthrow of Gan with only one helper: the steadily reducing number of people needed to overcome regimes here reaches its ultimate expression). Without unanimity, the Council cannot proceed, so they hand over a spaceship to enable our heroes to reach the fleet, at the other end of the system.

                                                                                 A modern day cut-away
Dan and Digby have other ideas, however, like losing their way heading back and accidentally arriving on Primitive Planet Vort anyway. Except that Senat isn’t as stupid as you normally expect and stows away with a gun to ensure the boys don’t get off course. Nevertheless, he is so advanced, civilisation-wise, that he isn’t familiar enough with guns to be not be taken in by a routine bluff, and we’re off to Vort anyway. Where Senat’s fears over being on such a dangerous planet lead him to fly off the moment Dan and Digby leave the ship to reconnoitre.
This action at least has a positive outcome. The Zylans immediately crank up to locate and assist the Earthmen, whilst Dan and Digby use their wits to firstly survive among true barbarians, and secondly escape with a more civilised version, who is a raider from more sophisticated tribes.
These higher-level barbarians are still stuck at the raiding party stage: war is fun, plunder is profit and the gods rule their lives. The technology of the Zylans is advanced magic, the ships are Dragons, and its a relatively easy task for Dan and Digby to organise a situation where the two warring peoples (the real barbarians don’t get a look in on this) are led to believe that the Earthmen are gods who derive their magical powers from the war, and who can be defeated by peace.
This results in a treaty, after which Dan and Dig hand the situation back to the Zylans to monitor, with the occasional poke-and-prod to make sure things stay on the right track.
Mission of the Earthmen was Eric Eden’s third complete story for Dan Dare and the first in which he was writing for artists who he would, presumably, have thought of as friends and colleagues. This reunion of Hampson Studio alumni has the feel of people suddenly relaxing, eager to flex their muscles in a manner with which they are intimately familiar, freed from the obligation to be something that, by instinct, they are not. It’s this, I think, that makes the story into something that reads like a success, when in reality it’s no more than a workable shadow of what was so good about the series to begin with.
Because by ‘doing’ Hampson without Hampson, Mission of the Earthmen does little more than demonstrate the qualities of imagination, inspiration and sheer bloody-minded invention Hampson brought to Dan Dare. Yes, Eden’s story uses a Hampson-esque notion, and it is four-square with the great purpose of the leading character that it should be about peace, and the nobility of helping to bring that about, from no greater obligation that one’s own conscience (in Morris’s day, they would have been a slightly more overt statement of mission in the story, as opposed to the title).
But to be honest, what Eden writes is little more than the middle third of a Hampson story.
Take the beginning. Eden starts in media res. Hampson would have started on Earth, with a purpose for the expedition, a team defined, a specific link to the Nimbus Drive, the clear identification of the target galaxy/system. Things would have a place. And he would not have been able to resist defining the Outer Planets before allowing Dan and Digby to progress to the Inner Planets, with some logical explanation for why Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot, Earth’s many-times-over saviour, is being sent on a glorified scouting expedition, of the kind usually given to extras. Hampson would probably have had signals from the Inner Planets detected and Dan volunteering to check these out, such signals having been a decoy, the Zylans having detected the presence of intruders in their system.
Instead, Eden drops Dan and Dig into a story already many weeks along, with no more than a blurred fog behind them, leaving the ground wobbly for the first few weeks as these strangers pile up the pressure.
And then there’s the end, or rather there isn’t. Looked at objectively, Dan and Digby haven’t completed their mission. At best, they’ve disturbed the couple of pebbles that, with careful direction, will turn into the avalanche. Indeed, it’s nothing but a con. The Vortans have been tricked into peace, a very dangerous tactic, given that it will, inevitably be uncovered some day, and even the most settled of civilisations, deep and rich in peace, can react badly on finding that its prosperity has been forced upon it against its will. The Phants didn’t have their pacificity forced on them planet-wide: they opted for it.
Eden’s been criticised for setting up strong stories but only having perfunctory, unsatisfying endings for them, as if he didn’t know how to build up to a climax. Some people just don’t have that in them. Mission is a perfect example: it ends abruptly, with so little done, that it can’t help but be unsatisfying.
I’m in two minds about the art. In places, particularly in mid-story, when Dan and Digby escape from the truly primitive Vorts, in the wake of the pirate Arkrut (Arkwright?), with half an eye closed it could pass for Hampson himself, with its exuberance and its light and colour. But open the other eye. The landscapes are attractive, but ordinary. There is the absence of line and detail, of shade and hatching. It’s not the dichotomy between line and dot of Hampson vs Bellamy but the absence of both, the reliance on outline, on shape to form faces and figures, with colour too often too flat to do more than fill in spaces. And smoother, rounded spaces at that, lacking sharp edges, clear definition.
Don Harley was indeed the second best Dan Dare artist in the world, and he drew Dan better than anyone not Frank Hampson himself. But he lacked the inspiration, the spark of genius. For this omission, he had a longer, happier life than Frank Hampson, is still alive and drawing today. Who is to say which was better?
But this was not quite the end of Mission of the Earthmen. By now, even Dan and Digby were aware that it was strange no-one from the main expedition had come looking forward, given how long they had been out of contact (in a Hampson story, they would have turned up, just in time for Dan to enfold them into a bigger, more definitive plan to bring guaranteed, recognised peace). The Zylans have given Dan his own personal spacecraft, the Zylbat, but when Dan pilots it back to Expedition base, the Expedition has packed up and gone home, abandoned them.
To be sure, there’s a good reason, one that Eden will use to parlay this story into the next one: a message from Earth the day the scouts were declared missing, great danger, sudden recall, no alternative, have left you twenty years food and will try to get back to you before it runs out… A sticky situation, and one that would have been hopeless if our heroes had been relying on Anastasia, but the Zylbat has hibernation tanks…
Earth, here we come!