There was more to the old Eagle than merely Dan Dare, though reading this blog you could be forgiven for not realising that. But as well as the Pilot of the Future, the Eagle throughout the mid-Fifties had one of the most reliable, consistent and highly entertaining line-ups of series that British comics has ever put together.
It sounds incredible to say this but, for the best part of about four years in the Fifties, Eagle‘s line-up of series did not change. It was the same, week-in, week-out, for years. And whilst that wouldn’t play in modern times, back then the strength of the comic’s features and the certainty that they brought to the week was overwhelmingly important to its 750,000 weekly purchasers. And not a small proportion of their parents too.
That line-up, in reading order from front cover to back, was Dan Dare, P.C. 49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Jack O’Lantern, The Three J’s of Northbrook, Storm Nelson and the Silver Fleet and the back page Lives of Great Men series, featuring luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Marco Polo and David, the Shepherd King (these last three with art from the blazingly brilliant Frank Bellamy.
The range of stories was inimitable. Dan Dare offered space travel and the wonders of the Universe, P. C. 49 a comedy drama, Riders of the Range a highly researched and impeccably accurate Wild Western, Luck of the Legion international pre-WW1 adventure with the French Foreign Legion, Jack O’Lantern the efforts of an orphan boy in Regency England to clear his father’s name and fortune, The Three J’s a prose school story and Storm Nelson globe-trotting naval adventures.
I love them all, and my pursuit of old Eagle‘s gives me greater joy for collecting instalments of these supposedly lesser strips’ stories. I’m looking forward to the point when I can write about each of these series with the authenticity of comprehensive knowledge of their contents.
In the meantime, I have enjoyed a minor coup. Whilst undertaking one of my frequent searches on eBay for Eagle comics, I happened on an unusual item. There were a handful of occasions in the Fifties when Eagle collaborated in the publication of original novels featuring their characters. The most famous (and expensive) of these is Basil Dawson’s ‘Dan Dare on Mars’ (currently available on Amazon for £195.00) but there were three Sergeant Luck novels by series writer Geoffrey Bond, and here I was looking at a very reasonably priced, dustjacketed copy of ‘Storm Nelson and the Sea Leopard’, written by Nelson’s creator, Edward Trice. I couldn’t resist.
The book arrived 48 hours later. It smells like a sixty year old book, but it’s complete, and with only a couple of scuffs to the dustjacket. Richard Jennings contributes a very small colour drawing to the cover, and one full-page black and white drawing prefacing the actual story.
The idea behind the Storm Nelson series is that Nelson, a former Royal Navy Officer, with a spell in Naval Intelligence behind him. After the War, Nelson couldn’t settle to an ordinary life and put together a small private navy for hire to deal with troublespots. The Silver Fleet is based on the ocean going yacht, the Silver Spray, plus the motorboat Silver Foam, submarine Silver Fish and helicopter Silver Hawk. Nelson’s team consists of Scots radio operator and electronics expert Jonah McCann, from Auchermuchty, the East End mechanic and scrapper, ‘Spanner’ Webb, Irish pilot ‘Bash’ Callaghan and their ten year old Australian mascot, ‘Kerfuffle’ Kidd.
Trice created the Silver Fleet series and wrote all except the last two adventures. With the exception of two mid-Fifties stories, art was by Richard Jennings, an early recruit to Eagle, who took over writing late on, when Trice was too ill to continue. Titles had a colour theme: ‘The Mystery of the Blue Pearl’, ‘…the Yellow Bird’, ‘… the Magenta Mark’ etc. Many of the Silver Fleet’s cases, including their first, came through Nelson’s former naval comrade Don Kenyon, now a high level fraud investigator for Lloyds of London.
The book is a good, solid, boys adventure story of its time, a thrilling adventure well-written, with well-defined characters. The story starts with the Silver Fleet at anchor at Cape Town, awaiting another job, which comes from the direction of an AngloNorwegian Whaling Company whose Directors include another of Nelson’s old naval comrades.
It appears that the company’s operation in the Antarctic are big interfered with. A whaling ship with all its crew were lost last year, and two more ships have disappeared this season, within a couple of days. The Silver Fleet heads south to investigate.
There’s a built-in deadline: once the Silver Fleet arrives, there is about nine days before the Antarctic freeze, which will make the waters far too dangerous for wooden vessels. The Fleet heads for the area in which the later of the two recent whaling ships has disappeared, hoping to pick up some kind of trail or, alternately, offer itself as bait.
Trice doesn’t over-complicate the plot. The Sea Leopard of the title, apart from being a dangerous animal, is the name of a ship which has been hijacking the whalers, not, it turns out, for their cargo but for their crew. There is an Antarctic volcano creating a kind of warm spot, and there is a remarkably pure diamond mine in its base, which the crews are being used as slaves to mine.
Storm recognises the ultimate villain, though, Pedro Barranquilla, former South American dictator, intent on raising a fortune to take back control of the country from which he was deposed. It’s clear that the Silver Fleet were involved in that, though I don’t have a sufficiently complete collection to check whether this took place in Eagle or is another adventure dreamed up by Trice for this story.
It’s interesting that, in overthrowing the dictator, the story doesn’t shirk from the death of several of the imprisoned crews, as well as that of Barranquilla and his ex-Nazi sidekick, the latter’s being by way of suicide.
But the outcome is imperiled by the early arrival of the ice, leading to a tense, drawn out escape with the whaling ships acting as ice-breakers for the Silver Fleet.
This was an entirely enjoyable book for what it is, and it holds up well for something almost sixty years old. If I had a criticism, it’s that the story is too Nelson-centric: of course he’s the hero, but the strip managed to spread events round the supporting cast very easily. Kerfuffle comes off really badly in this respect, pushed out of virtually every aspect of the plot.
I’m not aware of any other Storm Nelson novels, but I’d happily pick up any others, and I’ve certainly a mind to try the ‘Luck of the Legion’ books (I am almost certain that I did read one from the Library, a long time ago).
Of course, the Dan Dare one would be favourite, but it’s very much out of my present range.