The magic ingredient that made Volume 14 an improvement on its predecessor was the thing I criticised last time out: stability. After the chaos of 1962, Eagle‘s editorial staff pulled things together to establish long-running series that appeared faithfully, week after week, solidifying the comic’s latterday appeal.
As in the previous year, the first nine issues were essentially a continuation of the previous Volume. ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and ‘Hornblower’ played out their time. There were two episodes left of ‘Johnny Quick’ and then that short, seven part serial, ‘Runway 13’ which I’ve previously praised so highly, and which was a forerunner of the prose series that would then establish itself as an Eagle fixture.
Everything else ran its stories down, including a final short nine week B&W ‘Dan Dare’ adventure, to enable another internal revamp with issue 10.
These blogs have been concentrating upon Eagle, of course, but its success spawned a small stable of red-topped comics under Marcus Morris for other audiences. First, Girl, for readers’ sisters. Then Robin for their baby/brothers/sisters, 4-7 year olds. And Swift, for the intermediate audience, the 7 – 10 year olds. But Swift was now being cancelled, in the traditional British manner whereby a comic does not simply disappear but suffers death-by-merger, the strongest series of each of the two comics continuing under a single form. With Volume 14, issue 10, Eagle officially became Eagle and Swift, though I’m not going to use that title.
Only two of Swift‘s features survived the merger, according to a disgruntled Swift reader later in the year, but the only unequivocally new feature was the new Western series, ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, and that began its second life with the closest such things came to an ‘origin’ episode that I can only assume was for the benefit of Eagle readers.
For this initial story, ‘Blackbow’ ran in black and white across two pages, dominated by an overall grey tone that rendered the art ineffective and dull. The untitled story featured a seeming ghost Indian Chief, returned from the dead, inciting the local Commanche tribe, under Blackbow’s friend, Chickarro, to attack Powder Creek. As had been the case in at least one ‘Riders of the Range’ saga, and would be repeated more than once in ‘Blackbow’ itself, the villain turned out to be the local banker, trying to drive settlers off so he could buy their land cheap and make a killing.
As for the other Swift holdover, according to Wikipedia that must have been ‘Calling U for Useless’ which had already been appearing in Eagle for ages: surely it can’t have been published in both comics?
Dan Dare had had a year in monochrome, of short stories without recurring characters, and at first, ‘Operation Time-Trap’ looked like more of the same, albeit with a slightly expanded cast. But the revamp introduced an expanded Letter’s Page, and practically the first thing this featured was a couple of letters from readers wanting the Pilot of the Future back in colour. The editor (Bob Bartholomew, though unlike Morris and Makins, he would never name himself to the readers: professional comics publishers, remember) hinted at some change and, four weeks in to the revamp, Dan finally returned to Eagle‘s cover, and to full colour.
But only on the cover. For Heaven knows what reason, perhaps resentment at not being able to dump Dan Dare after all, Eagle saddled their lead character with the worst and most spatchcock of formats, one page full colour, done poster-style, and one-and-a-half pages of monochrome inside.
Add to that the fact Keith Watson was colourblind, and the earliest covers were horribly garish until the ever-reliable Eric Eden was brought back to colour these, and it was the most ridiculous way to treat the series.
However, in terms of scripting, the shackles were off. ‘Operation Time-Trap’ would run for 28 weeks, and then segue, in best Hampsonian manner, directly into its sequel, ‘The Wandering World’.
And those new characters who piloted the Tempus Frangit (Time-Breaker) alongside Dan and Digby, were to become a new supporting cast for much of the Watson era. These were the hot-headed Colonel Wilf Banger, engineer/designer, his assistant Technician ‘Nutter’ Cob, and the prim, fussy administrator, Major Shillitoe Spence, whose forename was only used twice (in captions) in the whole series.
And there was greater change in the air. Motton introduced a new recurring foe for Dan in ‘Operation Time-Trap’ in Xel, short, brutish, silver-skinned, the One in One Thousand Million, who stows away on the Tempus Frangit into ‘The Wandering World’ and beyond.
But the supreme moment came on the cover of issue 42. After three years, he was back, The Mekon, returning to his rightful role as the master villain, the mastermind. It might not be Frank Hampson, and there are those who still criticise Keith Watson’s art, especially when it came to Dan’s face (and they do have a point in certain close-up angles), but he had slaved to make the reduced ‘Dan Dare’ something that the fans could still relish, and he had beaten Longacre, because this was what we thought of when we imagined Dan Dare, and if it wasn’t Frank Hampson, it was a colourable imitation, and it would be good enough for a few years to come, and Keith Watson deserves every kudos going for making sure we could come back to a moment like this.
The page and a half of B&W art inside was completed by a new prose feature, ‘SportingTalk’ by Ex-Pro, the man who knows everybody in the business. From a distance of a half-century these are interesting for the confident features on people whose names are meaningless nowadays, except to specialists, and the confident but inaccurate predictions, like the one that ‘Sonny’ Liston was going to hold the World Heavyweight Boxing title for years and see off all contenders, the least of whom was Cassius Clay.
This was followed by ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, in which Paul Trevillion’s art was at its crispest and cleanest, though every now and then he would be replaced by episodes drawn by Spanish artist Martin Salvador, who just about managed reasonable representations of Bruce and Prior (except that Bruce became inordinately fond of hats those weeks) but in every respect was about as unlike as possible.
And before the year was out the series – which had begun as a three-pager, remember – was cut back to one-and-a-half pages.
One last one-off series ran from issue 10, a Loch Ness Monster rip-off entitled ‘The Beast of Loch Craggan’. Fishermen from the remote village of Craggan disturb a sea monster that ‘escapes’ into the land-locked Loch and causes terror. Young Jamie Farr empathises with the monster, which he sees as an innocent. Everybody’s trying to kill the monster, or else capture, study and then kill it, but young Jamie wants to set it free, and eventually does. Apart from it being drawn by John McLuskey, who’d been the original artist on the Daily Express ‘James Bond’ strip, there was little to commend it.
There was a third short prose serial to accompany the merger/revamp, the eight part mountaineering ghost story, ‘High Quest’, of which I’ve spoken highly elsewhere, but when this finished, it was replaced by Eagle‘s first ongoing prose series since ‘The Three J’s’. Though uncredited, it’s obvious to anyone with half an eye that ‘Horizon Unlimited’ was written by the same guy as ‘Runway 13’. Apart from the knowledgeable love of aviation, there’s the same veteran/youngster combo upfront, in Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, with a penchant for seeing things from Theo’s viewpoint.
‘Horizon Unlimited’ was about a trio of misfits, joined by their love of adventure, new horizons and an old War-veteran Catalina flying boat. Sam’s a Director of a Southampton-based company, a veteran bomber pilot from the War and still unreconciled to ‘flying a desk’. He sees the Cat’ put down on Southampton Water and, on a whim, hires her to travel to Scotland to inspect a new and predictably useless device. There he meets Theo, more recently ‘bowler-hatted’ from the RAF, working for the insurers. They fly back together, relishing the old flying-boat.
But its misery of an owner is more interested in having the Cat’ wrecked for its insurance value, putting down at Great Orme in a storm. Sam and Theo rescue it, pool their resources to buy the Cat’ – and, effectively, its mechanic, a stocky Liverpudlian only known as Plugg – call themselves Horizons Unlimited and set up to charter round the world. Their first charter is to fly to Bermuda and deliver an attache case to a very private billionaire. If I tell you it has a bomb in it, you’ll understand what kind of series this was going to be…
‘Horizon Unlimited’ (not an original name, it having been Milton Caniff’s creation for the early, pre-Air Force days of Steve Canyon) was glorious fun. It moved in story arcs of anything from two to seven parts – there was even a one-parter – each rolling into another, and it was one of my favourite Eagle features of this period, second perhaps only to Dan Dare.
In the centre pages, Frank Bellamy continued to draw, colour and thrill on ‘Heros the Spartan’. The ‘Island of Death’ story had successfully concluded with issue 9, and now Heros returned to Rome, expecting recognition for the completion of his mission from Caesar, in the form of command of a Legion. This he would get, but writer Tom Tully had a reset in mind, as Heros was first forced to fight for his life, masked, in the Arena, and then given command of a Legion made-up of criminals and deserters. For things had changed: the old Caesar was dead and his heir was a corrupt, villainous man, who hated Heros and feared him as a symbol around which opposition to his rule might gather. Ironically, Heros was adamantly loyal, but this did not stop what would be continuous peril and the ever-present risk of engineered disgrace that would underpin the series from hereon in.
The ‘Eagle of the Fifth Legion’ story dominated the rest of the volume, but there was a surprise to come when the next serial, ‘The Man of Vyah’, saw a change of artist. Another Spanish artist, Luis Bermejo – Spaniards were cheap in comparison to English artists, rather like DC Comics discovering the Phillippines in the early Seventies – replaced him. Bermejo’s art was appropriately atmospheric, but never realistic. Nevertheless, once the shock was over, he was more than good enough, and the pair would basically alternate in future.
But once we were past ‘Heros’ the quality, and the solidity of the new Eagle and Swift dropped off rapidly. ‘Mann of Battle’ found a home in the back half, it’s weekly single page drawn by Brian Lewis, according to most records. That may be so, but there are constant subtle changes to the art-style from week to week, and Lewis’s signature would only appear on those pages most clearly in his style. There were no drastic changes in line-work, though Slogger Bates’ features go up and down the age-range. Either Lewis was farming some of the work out to assistants/colleagues aping his style, or some weeks he just didn’t have the same amount of time to spare as others, but the look was constantly shifting back and forwards in a way that didn’t help the weak storylines and unconvincing dialogue.
Whether it be an island off the Libyan coast, Sicily or the Burmese Jungle, the formula was identical. Pete Mann and Slogger Bates would be sent on a secret mission against the Nazis, run into trouble, get shot at, shoot a lot of people, so on and so forth. I can’t remember my reaction to it then, when I was pretty undiscriminating, but it completely fails to convince me now.
I think that’s because this was a Second World War story, so close to the end of the actual wall itself. Less than twenty years had elapsed, enough that none of Eagle‘s readers had any experience of it, but still short enough that practically every one of them would have had someone – a father, an uncle, even a grandfather maybe – who had fought in the War. My father had been close to call-up age when the war ended, and was soon on National Service, his elder brother had been in the Pacific, in the Navy.
Eagle wasn’t like the DC Thomson papers, the Victor, the Hornet, with their endless jingoistic War series. In its way, ‘Mann of Battle’ was not much different to them, maybe slightly more sophisticated, but it was not at home here. It feels superficial, because it is superficial, on too important a subject. It didn’t work.
The revamp also introduced a new feature, a third go at the kind of factual feature that had been meat and drink to MacDonald Hastings. ‘Roving Reporter’ was the first time this had been tried in strip form, with the odd photo of the Roving Reporter himself, ‘Larry Line’ (really the writer, Roger Parry) accompanying a page of art from, primarily but not exclusively, Eric Kincaid. It never achieved any great depth, and it wasn’t immune to being messed around with, with random episodes in black and white and then, about the same time ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ lost half a page, being cut back to half a page itself.
The ‘Are you the… type?’ feature continued, but at this remove, the types being set up are of only remote interest, figures of a bygone age, whose life is summed up in so superficial a manner for the youngsters that they hold no interest even as a record of historical perceptions then. And there’s ‘Calling U for Useless’ and ‘Fidosaurus’, about which I plan to waste no more words.
Also introduced with issue 10 was a new, expanded Letters page, soon rebranded ‘It’s Your Opinion’, with the Editor soliciting letters on specific topics. This might pop up anywhere, and it’s amusing to read some of the opinions being expressed by kids aged 10 or thereabouts, many of which are inveterately stupid, and some of which explain a little about what our county’s been like for the past fifty years.
The overall effect was to give Eagle an imbalanced feel. Yes, it had settled into a secure format, where a standard line-up appeared in a regular order, but whilst ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, ‘Horizon Unlimited’ and ‘Heros the Spartan’ were all substantial features demanding concentrated reading, once you hit the back of the bus, so to speak, there was little to stop you skimming through the rest.
There was one magic feature to Eagle in Volume 14 however that I’ve not mentioned so far, but which you may have been able to guess for comments here and there, and that’s me. On a dark November Saturday afternoon, at the fag-end of a Church Bring-and-Buy sale, my Dad spent a couple of pennies on a bunch of Eagle‘s, maybe fifteen or so, from this year. I loved it from the start, which is why I’m maybe a little more forgiving of the later Dan Dare in particular, because this is my Dan Dare, and I would not read any Frank Hampson for years.
But from here to the end of the ride, I was one of those small boys who read Eagle every week. I remember the thrill so much.