The old Eagle that had entertained and enthralled us for a decade had only eleven issues to go when Volume 11 started. Odhams had come in determined to shake Eagle up, to refresh it. Frank Hampson had gone, albeit not (yet) for good, his studio had been dismantled, Marcus Morris had departed for pastures new and Clifford Makins had replaced him as editor, polls had been conducted on what the boys wanted and didn’t want, and change was in the air. Issue 12 would see the first ‘new’ Eagle, whose front page no longer looked like those of the Fifties.
Of those first issues, there was a concerted attempt to bring stories to a close so that as many features as possible should start new tales in week twelve. Dan Dare’s ‘Trip to Trouble’ was never more than a cheap, splashy but insubstantial effort to wind up Frank Hampson’s intended ‘Terra Nova’ cycle as quickly as possible, and it was managed in that perfunctory fashion. The contrast between Frank Bellamy’s art and that of Don Harley was never greater than when Harley attempted to mimic Bellamy’s look with an approach resting more upon impressionism than anything else, but looking more muddy than intricate.
The story’s end had a poignant moment. Five heads appear, musing over what they will discover on their return to Earth. One of them is Professor Peabody, appearing for the last time. One of them was not ‘Flamer Spry’, written out absolutely completely behind everyone’s back.
‘They Showed the Way’ on page 3, wrapped up its run with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. ‘Riders of the Range’ ended Jeff Arnold’s pursuit of Sam Bass. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ brought the highwaymen to justice and got himself back on the right side of the Law, and ‘Storm Nelson’ ended his adventure with the White Shadow. Only ‘Luck of the Legion’, having finished his adventure in Indo-China in issue 5, was already deep into another story, in North Africa, when the great changeover came.
As for the half-pagers, ‘Harris Tweed’ began the year in colour, and stayed that way more often than not, but he had been re-named from ‘Extra Special Agent’ to ‘Super Sleuth’ (though one autumn strip still ran under the old title). The strip itself was now very one-note, building up to a usually predictable punch-line in the final paragraph.
Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ continued throughout the year, sometimes replaced by a ‘Mr Therm presents…’, about which there was nothing new to say, whilst George Cansdale, still partnered by George Backhouse on gorgeous art, continued to show the natural world in all its glory, especially with the new ‘Nature Had it First’ series commencing in issue 12, showing how many scientific developments had their origins in the natural abilities of all manner of animals, birds fish etc. Most of this series was in b&w, but there were a number of colour instalments.
Before going on to the ‘new’ Eagle, there was one more departure to record. MacDonald Hastings, E.S.I. for long years, had less than a handful of stories left, and after a final ‘Men of Glory’ in issue 6, he was let go in ignominious silence, having come bottom of the poll. Not a word of thanks or farewell.
Thus Eagle came to the first of several re-designs.
The changes for the ‘new’ Eagle were obvious from the front page. Gone was the big title-box, the red corner with the eagle and the name and the issue details and date. This was transmuted into a red bar, across the top of the page, the image space for ‘Dan Dare’ suddenly compacted to more like a square.
There was a new story, ‘Project Nimbus’, written by Eric Eden, with Frank Bellamy drawing both pages, and it was finally his chance to carry out his brief from Odhams. There’s a comprehensive redesign of space rockets and Spacefleet uniforms, the latter of which moving away from the military uniform aspect. Bellamy, as was his instinct, concentrates on dynamics, with no concern or feel for plausibility in the terms of the space craft, as is horribly obvious when it comes to the alien ships that have entered the Solar System, whilst the aliens themselves, no matter how well drawn they are, are nothing more than overgrown insects.
Don Harley still struggles to keep up whilst Eden’s notorious weakness at writing endings starts to be painfully obvious. Astonishingly, for a story that is supposed to make a complete departure from Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’, there’s a first appearance in three years for Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette.
‘Project Nimbus’ would last just over twenty weeks before Bellamy was released from his travail. Don Harley was asked to take over the strip, belatedly, but refused to draw two colour pages per week. Thus, Bruce Cornwell returned, to supply the technical art to Harley’s characters. ‘Mission of the Earthman’ began as a good Hampson-lite story, but once again suffered from a feeble ending.
The next big shock was the transplanting of ‘Storm Nelson’ from page 18 (the ‘new’ Eagle was now slated to be a 20 page comic) to page 3, where it would be seen into the next volume. This remained unchanged, as did the other surviving regulars, ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Luck of the legion’ and ‘Jack O’Lantern’. With a new story, artist C L Doughty felt free to draw in his own style, but ‘The Wreckers’ was a weak and short tale, and Jack’s last adventure. Lord Bruneaux sends him down to Cornwall to investigate the local Wreckers (who turn out to be the Preventives themselves). There’s a cameo for cousin Rufus, and the story ends with Jack and Captain Yorke restored to their ancestral home of Brackens, to live without excitement. It was not a particularly worthy end.
Jack’s replacement was to be a glorious series, but first we need to go back to the new series introduced to Eagle in the revamp. These were three: ‘Knights of the Road’, ‘Vic Venture’ and ‘The Hawk’.
The first of these was an orthodox two page black and white comic series, written by Gordon Grinstead and drawn by Gerald Haylock, though the second story was taken over early on and finished by Roland Davies. It’s a comic strip about a lorry driver. I’ll repeat that: a long-distance lorry driver. Among an SF strip, a western, the French Foreign Legion, a Napoleonic era ragamuffin and a sea-faring crew of troubleshooters, the subject alone can’t hold its head up.
The stars are ‘Sir’ Ted Knight, star driver, and his harmonica playing beat obsessed younger brother, Frank. Ted is a delivery firm’s ‘star’ driver who, thanks to Frank’s shenanigans and the machinations of a rival driver, loses his job at the end of the first adventure – all about delivering a long-distance load to Liverpool, and coming back – and sets up his own private lorry firm. Yeah, I know, exciting eh?
The ‘Sir Ted’ bit is overdone by the first week, Frank is an idiot with no sense of responsibility, and the tone of the strip can be determined in the second story when half a page is given over to different types of lorry that Ted might buy. The strip’s only real appeal lies in its attempt to depict contemporary youth in 1960, and I’ve seen worse attempts from middle-aged writers. But Frank’s interest is in jazz, not rock’n’roll or anything resembling pop. That was still off-limits to Eagle, however ‘new’.
‘Vic Venture’ was a real oddity. A half-page black and white cartoon from writer D. Chapman and artist G. Bull, its subject was a young boy who would drift off into dreams about various settings – First World War fighter pilots, for one – and follow these adventures over several weeks. The art was very heavy and awkward, placing cartoon characters against settings that, within the cartoonist’s style, were meant to be realistic and detailed, and in stories that were presented as serious adventures. This odd approach makes it look very much like one of Eagle’s advertising half pages, though it was a legitimate part of the comic. On all levels, it failed, and told only three stories over six months before being abruptly replaced by the rather more conventional – and readable – ‘Sir Percy Vere – the Good Knight’, by Roland Fiddy, a straightforward comedy strip in typical Fiddy style.
It all seems very familiar, as if I read these whilst still young, though the strip had vanished before I discovered Eagle first time round. I’m sure I found it funny then, but I don’t now.
By far and away the most successful of the new features was ‘Special Agent’, written by Lee Mayne. This was Eagle‘s first prose series since the ‘Three J’s’ but this was a straight adventure series. The series featured Frenchman, Inspector Jean Collet, aka ‘The Hawk’ of Interpol, a clever and implacable policeman, whose adventures took place all over the world. It was good, clipped, boy’s adventure stuff, whose biggest weakness was that every story consisted rigidly of only four episodes.
There was one more new series in Eagle in volume 11, and although it only ran a short time overall, it was one of Eagle‘s classics, a series to set against the best of the Fifties. This was ‘Fraser of Africa’, replacing ‘Jack O’Lantern’, featuring the continuing scripting of George Beardmore, and it was Frank Bellamy’s reward for his uncomfortable year on ‘Dan Dare’.
Martin Fraser was a white hunter and game warden, in Africa. The strip had been promised to Bellamy as an inducement to take on ‘Dan Dare’ and he was even given the chance to write it if he chose. For Bellamy was an Africaphile: it was his dream feature.
And his enthusiasm shines in every panel. Bellamy not only draws the strip but colours it as well. To create the parched, dry feel of East Africa, his colour palate is dominated by yellows and browns, with only the occasional, almost intrusive depiction of blue skies. Bellamy corresponded heavily wit a local farmer to ensure the authenticity of everything he produced, and whilst the subject of the series is by its very nature colonialist, Fraser himself respects the native populace with whom he works, and holds their interests at heart.
Sixty years on, times have changed, and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is no longer respectable, but ‘Fraser of Africa’ still shines as the work of an incredibly gifted artist on a subject dearest to his heart, for which much must be forgiven.
Did I say one final new series? Technically, that was so, but in a year of upheaval, with the comic being turned towards the less in-depth and serious, there was one final treasure that made its debut. Technically, it was but the latest in the back page ‘Great Adventurer’ series, and in practice, thanks to the culmination of forces in opposition, it was the last great work of a great creator.
The ‘new’ Eagle brought us back Frank Hampson for the last time, drawing ‘The Road of Courage’ under the (ostensible) scripting of Marcus Morris. Since leaving ‘Dan Dare’ the previous summer, Hampson had been on an extensive research trip in Palestine and Israel, preparing to draw the life of Jesus Christ.
For the ‘greatest story ever told’, and scripted by a clergyman, this is an oddly secular, indeed flat story of Jesus, the familiar story told with all the bases touched but everything accounted for in a pragmatic, functional manner that removes the numinous the spiritual, the god-like at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the story invoking faith in any boy. But that’s not why we relish it. We relish it for Frank Hampson, at his glorious, indeed spectacular best, for the very last time.
The characterisations, the body-language, the clothing, the settings, the compositions, the colours: this is Frank Hampson showing us what he can do, as if we needed reminding, and in the process laying the ground for a tragedy. This was the last time his genius, and I repeat, genius, would be used in its natural metier. Over the next year or so, Eagle’s owners, managers and lawyers would break him. There would not be anything like this ever again.
Bellamy’s ‘Fraser’, Hampson’s Jesus, at one and the same time. The peak may be past, the downhill slope already evident, but Volume 11, and its successor, seeing these two strips to their end, contained mountaintops that anyone who loves this artform will remember forever.