The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.
Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.