Dan Dare: The Phoenix Mission

The real thing

When Comics Journal columnist R. Fiore reviewed the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he began with the line: ‘When you see a man walk on water, you don’t complain that he’s got his (trouser) cuffs wet’. That line applies equally aptly to The Phoenix Mission, a ten-part Dan Dare story, written by long-term Dare fan Rod Barzilay, drawn by Keith Watson and Don Harley, and published in issues 1-4 of Spaceship Away, a magazine created by Barzilay as, ultimately, somewhere to publish this story.
The Phoenix Mission was published under licence from the Dan Dare Corporation Ltd, which now owns the world-wide rights to Dan Dare and his fellow characters. Spaceship Away‘s licence is to publish new stories of Dan Dare within the original Fifties continuity. This first, impossible to imagine story was published between 2003-4, a new, unashamedly Hampson-esque adventure, thirty-six years after Dan’s adventures in Eagle.
That I should live so long, and be so well rewarded.
The history of The Phoenix Mission, and how it took a dozen years to pass from conception to the printed page, is set out in detail in Spaceship Away 1-3 (indeed, it’s practically the only other thing in those issues!). But a quick summary is in order.
The original spark came from Dare fan Dave Westaway. Keith Watson was doing private commissions for fans and Westaway suggested that a group could jointly commission enough boards for a full-scale adventure. Barzilay took up responsibility for the project, contacting Watson and getting agreement from him. Indeed, Watson – who insisted on editorial control – was enthusiastic, although Barzilay’s initial dream of another epic was cut down to a more practical ten episodes. In the absence of a suitable writer with suitable ideas, Barzilay began jotting down thoughts himself, and became the writer, almost by default.
The story was to be set between The Ship That Lived and The Phantom Fleet, and would centre upon the most fruitful gap in the original saga, a return to the Sargasso Sea of Space, justifying the title on multiple levels.
Tragically, after completing the first page to his satisfaction, Watson was diagnosed with a far-too-virulently spread cancer, and died in 1994, at the age of 54, mourned by the entirety of fandom.
The project was rescued when Don Harley agreed to take over, though given his existing commitments, years passed before the story could be completed.
Publication was an equally tricky hurdle. Watson’s death had severed all connection to contemporary Fleetway publications, and whilst Hawk Books would have happily added The Phoenix Mission to their roster, loss of the licence to Titan Books (who will never knowingly print anything that hasn’t been published before) stymied that approach.
Hence the need to create Spaceship Away, with unexpectedly fecund results…
I found the first two issues together in Forbidden Planet in Manchester, and fell upon them like the Assyrian sweeping down upon the fold. My first reaction, on reading what amounted to six episodes in one sitting was that I had died and gone back to the Fifties, not a sensation that I would welcome in any other context. My second reaction was immense jealousy towards Rod Barzilay, even as I recognised that I could not have done what he had done.
The story is fairly tight and clipped, in view of its limitations on length. It’s preceded by a homage to Frank Hampson’s World Daily Post ‘cover’ in ‘The Venus Story’, cramming in tons of exposition in a painless manner. The Mission of the title, which is commanded by Major Steve Valiant, is set against the background of Earth’s slow, painful recovery from the Treen Holocaust: Valiant’s orders are to retrieve King and MacFarlane’s damaged but basically intact craft, together with any other Earth-craft in usable condition. Spacefleet is still desperately undermanned for effective vessels.
As an adjunct to the main mission, our dear old friend Jocelyn Peabody is along to study ‘Crusoe’ and ‘Friday’s hydroponic arrangements, though she’s deeply interested in a ship that, despite her having seen it destroyed, appears to be in perfect condition in the Sargasso.
The first problem in that the Sargasso appears to be a dead radio zone. The lack of communication from the Marco Polo, leads to Dan being sent out, with Digby, in Anastasia, to find out what’s up. En route, he picks up two passengers, one official, one highly irregular. The first is Tharl’s Ambassador to Earth, little Nikki, from Operation Saturn, travelling to view Tharl’s newly-discovered duplicate flagship, and search for his long-missing ally, Captain Nerkut. The second is Uncle Ivor, pragmatically taking the long route back to his Martian diggings, on the only ship that will have him.
Dan’s arrival in the Sargasso is the prelude to chaos. Valiant has taken the Marco Polo outside the dead zone to communicate with Earth, and his team have taken up residence on the damaged Space Clipper, the Delaware, whilst explorations continue. Dan, Dig and Nikki search Tharl’s craft, Uncle Ivor jets off to investigate ancient star writings on another of the mysterious ships, and disaster strikes.
Captain Bud Johnson explores an old ship, unaware that it’s powered by pre-Blasco MH fuel. It explodes in righteous fury, causing ripples of damage across the whole area, the worst being that it activates remote drone-ship defences on the dormant mysterious Red Ship, which threaten to destroy the whole Earth expedition.
Total defeat is held back by the adroit use of Black Cats, but ultimately, it is Valiant, in the returning Marco Polo who gets everyone the hell out of there, to regroup, re-think and, in the case of Professor Peabody, adopt Denis Steeper’s ingenious idea by identifying the Sargasso with the destroyed Red Moon.
End of story, set-up for sequel, and phew!
If I’ve a criticism of this story, it’s a fond one, and entirely understandable, and it’s that Barzilay tries to cram too much into so short a piece. Aside from the characters already mentioned, not to mention the previous stories referenced, there are cameos for Sir Hubert, Flamer, Stripey, Hank and Pierre, whilst the Mission crew I haven’t mentioned also includes Mark Straight, Tony Albright and Tubby Potts.
Indeed, this flaw is foreshadowed in the World Daily Post edition, which lists no fewer than 31 members of the Mission team.
As a consequence of wanting to feature too much – as I said wholly understandably in a story that was originally a one-off – Barzilay corners himself with his one error of pacing, which is the off-hand, and very rushed squeezing-in of Peabody’s theory about the Red Moon in the dwindling number of panels of the last page, which makes for a very weak ending.
Other than that well, as Fiore said, you don’t complain about getting the bottoms of your trousers damp! This is superb, and the art is brilliant. Keith Watson’s final page is heart-breaking, in the thought of what would, in a fairer world, have followed. But Don Harley’s work is easily of the standard of the days when he was ‘the second best Dan Dare artist in the world’.
It is far superior to his work on the series between 1960 and 1962, even without Bruce Cornwell. Though it took literal years to complete, in between other jobs, Harley has still been able to devote more time to each page than in the days when he was on a deadline, and the quality is unmistakeable.
So, there was one more Dan Dare story, and Don Harley, after a certain ambivalence, decided that he could continue the agreement. There would be a second, a direct sequel, the epic that Barzilay had dreamed of, to be called Green Nemesis (and what does that title lead us to expect?)

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