There is curiously little to say about Volume 16. I’ve gone on about stability in recent reviews, and it is fair to say that 1965 was a year of at least superficial stability. Only one major feature ended and was replaced by a new major feature. Minor features, such as the excellent Ron Embleton ‘Prizefighters’ half-page might cease and be replaced by a similar half-pager, ‘The Duellists’, by a less smooth and detailed artist, two of Eagle’s remaining top series underwent format changes and there was the annual revamp, coming late in the year and consisting solely of a new cover feature. But issue 52 was easily recognisable as the same comic as issue 1, just shuffled about a bit.
The classic Eagle of the Hulton Fifties had been a vibrant, thriving affair of classic, enduring series, written, drawn and edited with enthusiasm and a simple belief in the quality of what was being done. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Eagle of the Longacre mid-Sixties was sterile and dull. It was rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.
We begin, as always with ‘Dan Dare’. ‘The Mushroom’ concluded within half a dozen issues, giving way to ‘The Moonsleepers’, which featured Xel as it’s villain, alongside a cameo role from the Mekon. It was a longer story, and thus more substantial, but its ending was abrupt and unsatisfactory: Xel drowns in the black waters of the Arctic and the Mekon’s fleet, advancing on Venus, vanishes in a blaze of white light: explanation unforthcoming.
Neither villain will appear again, and the apparent disposal of the Mekon in such a perfunctory, back-handed manner was weak and unsatisfying.
Then, as of issue 31, Dan lost the cover again, this time for good. What happened was a demonstration of how much a shambles the comic had become. Previously, such revamps had been tightly organised around new stories for as many series as possible, but not only did ‘The Singing Scourge’ start one week before the reformat, but the prose serial ‘The Rebel Riders’ had two more instalments to run. Sloppy.
Though my research materials credit David Motton as writer throughout, I’ve long been convinced that Keith Watson was given a new writer at this point. True, Motton’s Tempus Frangit reappears for the first time since the end of ‘The Wandering World’, along with Banger and Cob, and yes, the story once again involves paired planets, but there’s an indefinable difference to the writing that only grows. Some captions are Mottonesque, but mainly there’s a flatness to the scripting that smacks of a different hand. The legendary Frank Pepper, creator of Dan”s first rival, Captain Condor, for Lion, not to mention the minor figure of Roy of the Rovers, is recorded as having written Dan Dare at some point and I believe this to be now. Maybe that explains the hasty despatch of the Mekon, as Motton got the push?
And Keith Watson is not at his best in this story. The shambles is further exemplified by his initially drawing ‘Dan Dare’ as a centrespread when it was placed on pages 6-7, reverting to two separate pages just in time for it to be moved to the centrespread, missing four weeks whilst Don Harley fills in, and then drawing a centrespread consisting of separate panels rather than the gutterless images of his first efforts. His art loses definition, his panels have less room, though as Dan and Co spend most of their time in spacesuits, it’s difficult to animate the story. Eric Eden has moved on from colouring and his replacement is drastically inferior, lacking in subtlety and far too prone to lay single, muddy colours across entire panels. It makers the art drab, and destroys the three-dimensionality of things.
This is, incidentally, the fourth different format Keith Watson has had to draw in since taking over the series in 1962, so he can’t be criticised overmuch, simply for his flexibility.
If ‘Dan Dare’ is now in the centrespread, what of ‘Heros the Spartan’? Luis Bermejo finished his Wolfman story, Frank Bellamy returned for a final, desert set story about El Rashid, his last substantive contribution to Eagle, and Bermejo came back with a new story featuring Heros becoming an outlaw, on the run from Caesar. It began in issue 31, one story at least to herald the revamp, but after only eight weeks, the series was cut back abruptly to a single page, in which form it would run until cancellation.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ continued to showcase Frank Humphris. As usual, it would bounce around on different pages, until the revamp, when it found a ‘permanent’ home on the back page. The stories grew ever more ridiculous. One short tale, involving the troublesome kid Clem Woodley, invokes memories of ‘Riders of the Range’s ‘Terror of the Pecos’, but is much more of an overt joke, showing Blackbow up in a way that would have been unthinkable with Jeff Arnold and Luke, but it’s the succeeding story, in which the villains are a mad scientist and a sentient plant that forms itself into a massive green hand that really makes you want to weep for Humphris. So good an artist, so knowledgeable and informed about the West, and having to draw ridiculous crap like this?
‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ did not have a good year. It spent most of it in single-page format, with the occasional page-and-a-halfer, mostly drawn by Paul Trevillion, looking like holdovers from past years. Trevillion is little in evidence, and most weeks it is the strip’s Spanish artist, loose and impressionistic and inevitably unEnglish in appearance. There’s a third artist at work some weeks, closer to Trevillion in style but much cruder, giving the series an inconsistent look, and even Trevillion’s art, though still crisp and clear, several times looks like it’s fifty percent made up of stock shots and poses seen far too often. The strip was in decline, terminal decline, as we shall see.
I’ve already mentioned ‘The Rebel-Riders’. This was a fourteen week serial, featuring a trio of ‘ton-up’ boys, leather-jacketed motorbike riders, framed by circumstance for the death of two men in a car crash, who escape from a prejudiced Police Superintendent to clear themselves and bring the true culprits to justice. It’s a serial in the old Eagle mould, taut, well-written, the work of someone who knew their subject the way the writers of ‘Runway 13’ and ‘High Quest’ knew theirs. It’s an oasis between two very lengthy serialisations of Anthony Buckeridge Jennings books,
‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ was ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’, and I have nothing more to say about it. It leaves me cold on all levels. So too does ‘The Iron Man’, which isn’t even well enough drawn to hold my attention, whilst the notion that absolutely nobody but Tim Branton has the faintest idea that ‘Robert’, with his metallically rectilinear face, could be anything but human is several stops short of plausible. It’s basically a superhero series without the conviction to admit it, which keeps it from ever amounting to anything. That it was immensely popular is both mystifying, and evidence of Eagle’s grand decline: even its audience was diminished.
‘Billy Binns’, the third Boy’s World holdover, lasted one week of Volume 16, before being dropped, and falling back on his more appropriate home in Wham!, which no longer needed to be advertised incessantly. It’s replacement was the very popular ‘The Guinea-Pig’.
I don’t know what to make of this series at this remove. The Guinea-Pig is adventurer and all-round tough guy, Mike Lane, who gets taken on by Professor Cornelius Dee, boss of a secret research institute on Dartmoor, as tester for the Professor’s increasingly outlandish and unbelievable experiments. Most of the stories don’t last more than two or three weeks, running into one another at the start, but after a quick jumble of these, there’s a completely out-of-character adventure featuring lost Spanish and English Elizabethan tribes fifty miles underground that lasted thirteen weeks.
It’s all deeply implausible, especially as the two wholly anachronistic groups must have discovered parthenogenesis (no women). Art on this tale was by Brian Lewis, though like ‘Can you catch a crook?’ there’s a stable of at least three different artists working at different periods. Lewis was a good artist, prone to detail in a kind of mundanely ornate style, but this only produces dense panels and an overall dark style that is hard to follow because of the lack of clearly identifiable elements. Overall, the effect is heavy and slow, and since the scripting is flat and utilitarian – Lane is one of a crew of nearly half a dozen, who are underground for thirteen weeks in the close confines of a Mole-like machine, but none of the others have names – it’s pretty dull overall. But, like ‘Iron Man’, popular.
This was another strip whose format was unstable. It began as two pages, got cut back to one-and-a-half after a month, and might turn up as one page without the least warning.
Something similar kept happening to ‘Roving Reporter’, sometimes one page, sometimes half a page, and growing steadily less informative. Worse still, though usually in full colour, albeit with a palate vastly more limited than in the Fifties, it would be in black-and-white. With issue 41, this was replaced by ‘Bids for Freedom’, again one page with the odd half-pager, all about people break out of various prisons.
As for Eagle‘s cover, from issue 31 onwards this was a full-page feature, ‘Arms through the Ages’, a full colour short, dominated by a main image, featuring different weaponry. Inside, and encouraging readers to cut up and destroy their copy, there was a printed text, to be cut out and pasted over the Eagle and Boy’s World logo box when the cover was cut off. Sheesh.
No, this was now a comic whose inner conviction and pleasure in itself had withered, and even its few remaining series worthy of respect were being treated shabbily. Though Eagle would limp on into 1969, and volume 20, there was only one further Volume in which I was interested.