And so it came to pass. The classic Eagle, the mid-Fifties version of the paper that is the height of excellence and stability finally came together in Volume 6. You may date that to issue 4, when the last of the classic line-up finally made it’s appearance, George Beardmore and Robert Ayton’s Jack O’Lantern, a wonderfully atmospheric Napoleonic Wars-set series centred upon ten year old Jack York, son of a supposed traitor fighting to clear his father’s name, or if you want to be really pernickety about it, you could postpone that moment to issue 18, when Frank Hampson returned to Dan Dare with the first instalment of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy, displaying a quantum leap in his art, not just from ‘Prisoners of Space’ but from Hampson’s own best work.
The difference between stories, replacing ‘Prisoners’ undetailed outlines, two-dimensional art and pallid, flat, primarily pastel colouring in which even the space scenes appear to be brightly lit, to Hampson’s rich, detailed art, its ranger and depth of colouring and, most of all, the subtle use of light and shadow to give everything a three dimensional aspect, is immediate. The difference in story quality is also immediate: I’ve seen Alan Stranks credited as starting his Dan Dare run with both ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Man from Nowhere’, but taking into account the latter’s bitty and inconsistent storyline, I can only believe that he makes his debut with Hampson’s return.
‘The Man from Nowhere’ ran for twenty-eight weeks, including the issue of Eagle published the day I was born, for which I have an obvious special affection. It segued into ‘Rogue Planet’: indeed, the entire series still had more than two full Volumes to go before it’s end and it was superb its whole length.
Stranks’ accession to ‘Dan Dare’ doubled his work for Eagle, with ‘PC49’ going strong on page 3. ‘The Case of the Golden Knight’ took until issue 21 to complete, and ‘The Case of the New Member’, introduced a new, stereotyped, self-important and prank-playing new character in Elmer Cheeseborough Nutt, not to mention his over-protective mother was still in action when the volume ended. This last, at an eventual 37 weeks, was the longest ‘PC49’ adventure to appear.
By this time, 49 was only appearing in Eagle, with the BBC Radio series having been discontinued in 1953, by which time Archie had not only married Joan but had been turned into a father, a continuity a world away from that enjoyed by Eagle’s readers.
‘ESI’s third series, consisting of two very long foreign journeys, to the Kalahari and the Middle East, only came to and end the week before Xmas. Professor Puff’ forged on, inexorably, though instead of travelling to far off and foreign lands, the Professor and his little Dog spent most of this year travelling to far off and implausible times.
‘Riders of the Range’ completed ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’, writing out the monocled Jim Forsyth by finally guiding him to his ancestral home and lairdship in Scotland before segueing into ‘The Terror of the Pecos’, as Jeff and Luke set off back to Texas with Jim’s young cousin, Matt, who’s coming to Texas to learn how to be a man. Unfortunately, he’s going to learn it from the Indians, and Matt, having given his word, is determined not to be rescued.
‘Luck of the Legion’ was dominated by ‘Earthquake Island’, in which a shipwreck distracts our familiar trio from a secret mission in the Far East by stranding them in India where they restore a young boy to the Rajahship usurped by his tyrannical uncle. Then it was off ‘South of Senegal’ for the next adventure, still getting up steam.
And so to ‘Jack O’Lantern’ on page 10. This was the last, and in some ways the least of Eagle‘s great line-up, though most of that status derives from it running the shortest time: only nine serials, several of which, in the great Hampson manner, ran into one another, like phases of a greater novel. Jack York is the son of an accused traitor, Captain Yorke, and is being bullied in an orphanage when he is assisted to escape by Corporal Kettle. Though delighted to find his father alive, he is shocked that the Captain has become a Tobyman, or Highwayman.
But the Captain has been framed by his rascally brother Humphry, who has taken their ancestral home. And Humphry is the actual French spy, and the Captain’s new profession a means of searching guests to the house to find who is Humphry’s contact.
But ‘Stand and Deliver!’ ends with Captain Yorke trapped, wounded, arrested and thrown into Newgate Prison. Jack, who knows the truth, battles on alone to right the wrong.
Ayton’s art, in full colour on page 10, is firmly in the Eagle tradition of photo-realism. He is strong on period detail, just as Beardmore is full of the times. Jack is befriended by gypsies, who talk in the Romany manner, and by the thieves culture of London under the Bow Street Runners, who are full of their thieves cant. It’s bright, colourful and atmospheric, and if sometimes Jack’s actions exceed the plausibility required of his age, it never extends too far into the fantastic.
‘The Three J’s’ continued in their established manner, though matters were enlivened in the holiday story ‘Vive Le Northbrook’, which saw the boys travelling to France with a slightly older companion in a decrepit car, striving to keep a rendezvous with ‘Goosey’ Gander and his father, who are to transport them back to England. It’s a predictable but enjoyable deadline-story, up-against-the-odds stuff enlivened by the unusual decision to have the J’s driver meet and fall in love with a French Mademoiselle in the last chapter.
The half page format was not really working for ‘Harris Tweed’, there being insufficient space to engineer anything but cheap and obvious gags, so John Ryan decided to change to a serialised format himself, extending stories over six weeks or so, to much greater effect. There’s further evidence throughout this volume of his art gradually softening and rounding, to the point where it’s possible to see the connection to the animated ‘Captain Pugwash’ style that was so successful for so long on BBC TV.
After the conclusion of ‘The Silver Sampan’, Richard E. Jennings took a nine-month sabbatical from ‘Storm Nelson’, with Giorgio Bellavitis taking over the art duties for the next two stories, overlapping into the next volume. Bellavitis was a much less distinctive artist, with far less vigour and a less bold use of black-and-white, though visually the most obvious change was to stick a leather pilot’s helmet onto Bash Callaghan almost permanently. Jennings’s controlled exaggeration was definitely missed!
Bellavitis came off the back-page Real-Life Adventures story, ‘Mark, the Youngest Disciple’, written by Chad Varah, to take over ‘Storm Nelson’, which saw Norman Williams return to draw the life of Abraham Lincoln, as written by Alan Jason, a pen-name for Sergeant Luck’s Geoffrey Bond.
Among the minor features, the excellent George Cansdale half-page, with Backhouse’s superb art, gave way to the writer’s ‘Insect World’, with similarly excellent colour art but slightly less appeal for one adult reader.
The other big thing of 1955, was the big promotion given to the Eagle Club, which got several full-page features on p15 when it was introduced, before rather dwindling away to a calmer position on page 6, alongside the sport, when more art was required.
So now Eagle had achieved a settled line-up of excellence and vivid quality as it hit the middle of the decade. How long would this last?