Dan Dare: Operation Earth-Saver

Dan Dare in black and white

The boy who had been reading Eagle since Odhams had taken over had seen plenty of changes in Dan Dare alone, not to mention changes in the other features the comic had to offer. But he could not have been prepared for the changes between the 3rd and 10th March, 1962.
One week he was reading not merely Dan Dare but also Storm Nelson and ‘Riders of the Range’, veterans of the Hulton glory years, as well as the more recent but still established ‘Knights of the Road’ and ‘Danger Unlimited’. Then there was the series of Famous Short Stories, the new football strip, ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and the centrespread, a rather stilted historical drama entitled ‘The Sword of Fate’.
Then, a mere seven days later, it was all gone. No more Silver Fleet or Jeff Arnold and Luke. No crime-cracking lorry-drivers or Queen’s Messengers. Everything swept away, even down to the famous red title box, with the name of Eagle spelt out in red letters against a white background, the eagle itself flying across the middle letter.
After a mere twenty weeks, ‘Men of Action’ had gone from the cover, but the biggest shock of all was that, after nearly twelve years, so too had Dan Dare. Eagle’s cover was now divided into three colour panels, advertising stories inside.
‘Home of the Wanderers’ had survived the cull, sneaking onto page 3, and it had been joined by adaptations of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger book, ‘The Lost World’ and Max Brand’s short story ‘Flaming Irons’. Frank Bellamy had taken over the centrespread for the life story of Montgomery, and there were yet more new features, one in comics form, ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D.’ and the other in words, ‘Beau Fortune’.
Thankfully, there was still Dan Dare, but there were still more shocks. Not only had Dan lost the cover for the first time in Eagle’s history, but he wasn’t in colour any more. Eagle’s flagship character had not just been shunted inside, he was reduced to black and white!
Indeed, there was even more change than the boy reader realised, for on top of everything else, there was a complete change in the creative team. Eric Eden, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell were kicked off the series without a word of explanation and, in Harley and Cornwell’s case at least, without a word. Notoriously and disgracefully, they had completed the art for the final episode of The Earth-Stealers and then were left to wonder where the next script was coming from. Whether Eden was treated similarly has never been disclosed, but presumably he did get some notification about not pitching a new story.
Eden’s place was taken by David Motton, who would write most of the rest of the series, to mixed responses from Dan Dare fans, but it was the new artist who was the most interesting part of the changeover, for this was Keith Watson.
After quitting Eagle in disgust at Odhams’ treatment of the series, Watson had gone on success drawing Dan’s main rival, Captain Condor, in the rather more downmarket Lion. When Longacre decided on a new artist, Watson was free, having recently been relieved of the Captain Condor job, and accepted the offer to take over.
Ironically, Watson got the job on the strength of his work at Lion, not because he had previous experience on Dan Dare. Incredible as it may seem, Longacre had no idea Watson had ever worked on the series before. And, as Watson later commented, had they known, he would not have got within a mile of Dan Dare. And because of that twist of fate, the series survived.
Because Longacre wanted Dan Dare killed. It was never admitted, but the conditions they placed on the series made it obvious. Taken off the cover, crammed inside, reduced to black and white, restricted to stories no longer than thirteen weeks in length, no supporting characters and nothing but Earth-threatening menaces, it is abundantly clear that the intention was to weaken the series and kill its appeal until it could be cancelled with minimal protest.
But appointing Keith Watson would frustrate Longacre’s plan. He’d started as Frank Hampson’s assistant, he’d resigned over the mis-treatment of the series and here he was as its artist, and his heart and soul went into the determination to restore Dan’s former glories. Out went Frank Bellamy’s designs, in favour of the traditional Spacefleet uniforms and insignia. Watson would show, with some of his inventive layouts, that he had learned from Bellamy too, but he brought back the Look, so that Dan Dare looked like Dan Dare again.
And without the need to colour the art, Watson had additional time to hone his work. In some ways, he was more stylised than Hampson, and in years to come there would be occasions when his faces were too abstract and cartoonish, but at least at first he was drawing his socks off and giving every reader something to cling to.
If Longacre hadn’t appointed Keith Watson, and instead brought in an artist who was just doing the job his client wanted of him, Longacre would probably have got their way. Thankfully for all of us, their ignorance, and their underlying arrogance in not needing to know, undermined them fatally.
The story itself was crisp and direct, and might have made a good story if allowed room in which to breathe. It ran a mere thirteen weeks and would not have felt over-stretched if that length had been doubled.
Operation Earth-Saver started in Australia, at Woomera, where Dan and Digby supervise the launch of a new satellite, to study cosmic radiation at an orbit of 5,000 miles, before they go on a fishing trip. Almost immediately, various regions on Earth, starting in Cornwall, suffer rapid and excessive plant growth.
This plant growth threatens a world crisis. Food, vegetables, flowers and even garden insects grow to fantastic sizes, becoming unusable as food and causing ecological disaster everywhere.
Dan enlists the assistance of leading biologist Professor Grainger, who has to be rescued from a seaweed draped liner in the Atlantic. They quickly diagnose the issue as being radiation reflected from the new satellite, but are unable to launch to reach it when two gigantic grasshoppers jump on their ship and over-balance it.
The solution comes when the trio are inadvertently drawn into a bell-like spaceship that is gathering deposits of organic material piled up on Earth (they are not aware that they share the craft with a nuclear warhead). This ship takes them to a distant planet whose dominant life-form is intelligent and mobile plants, using cowed human slaves to attend to them.
Dan and Digby succeed in fomenting rebellion against the plants, by their example, and are packed off back to Earth, leaving the revolution to proceed without them. No radiation, plants go back to normal.
It’s well-written, and not without sufficient character-differentiation in the dialogue, whilst Motton introduces a new, more descriptive element, sometimes expressed in florid similes and metaphors, into the narration, but it’s without frills, and it’s pacy and punchy. It’s just that it could have been more with little effort.
As for Keith Watson, his art was superb. The black & white format allowed him to concentrate on clear, distinct, rounded images and his use of grey wash to indicate shade is also excellent. Later in his term, when I began reading Eagle as a boy, I would look at his B&W work and naively assume that he had worked in colour, only for it to be printed and black and white.
The biggest flaw in this initial effort is how frequently, and melodramatically, the story harps on the utter devastation being caused by the overgrowing vegetation, to the point where it would take more than just stopping the damage to enable Earth to recover: the clean-up would have to take forever, and the planet couldn’t recover at all quickly. This has to be the new reality for future stories. But you know that’s not going to be. And it isn’t.


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