Dan Dare: Parsecular Tales


Another issue of Spaceship Away and another new Dan Dare story, written and drawn by Tim Booth, comes to an end, temporarily at least.
‘Parsecular Tales’ made its debut as long ago as 2010, immediately following on from the completion of Booth’s ‘The Gates of Eden’. It’s taken over six years to reach this point, issues 22 to 41, a loose, sprawling story, full of rambling diversions that never really amounted to anything, and which ended up in the same place as ‘The Gates of Eden’. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this story, and I’m not immediately convinced about taking it as ‘canon’.
The story is set in 2034, and according to Booth, Dan Dare has only just taken over as Spacefleet controller, as opposed to merely Controller (UK). Digby has finally accepted a promotion to offer, and is now a Major, and still the Controller’s right hand man. Hank and Pierre have left the Service, cashing in on their back pay from their period in suspended animation, Hank to become a Fluffalo (?!) farmer on a Saturnian moon, Pierre as a trader (and sometime smuggler). Everyone’s gotten noticeably older except Sir Hubert Guest, who is now the Prime Minister and looks completely unchanged, even though he’s 91 years old in Frank Hampson’s chronology.
Dan looks haggard and Digby’s gone bald and grown an enormous great handlebar moustache to compensate.
The looseness of the story was reflected by the looseness of its format. ‘Parsecular Tales’ began as six-page episodes, lacking the traditional Spaceship Away format of the Eagle title box. This continued for thirteen episodes, until Booth began producing ‘Mercury Revenant’ contemporaneously, when it dropped back to four page episodes for two issues, and then wound up as traditionally designed two page episodes, with the logo, appearing two an issue until the recent final episode. This puts the whole story at 112 pages by my count.
Booth starts with Hank on his farm, receiving an unscheduled visit from his old copain, Pierre, who has a delivery for him: it is a Thork telesender which he has to switch on and then just watch until something happens. This is many weeks later, in which time Pierre, heading for Venus for  a ceremony recognising the overthrow of the Mekon has only got as far as CONSDOCK, a secret Earth Research Station commanded by Colonel Dare, with his batman, Spaceman Digby
Intertwined with this is a Thork take-off from Spacefleet HQ with the Controller and Major Digby on board, already in suspacells to permit a fast getaway at the kind of speeds only Thorks can endure. Funnily enough, they are en route to CONSDOCK.
But the Colonel in command is Alastair Dare, nephew to the newly-elevated Controller and former Olympic Runner (looking good considering that that was the 2000 Olympics on Venus), and Spaceman Albert Digby, scion of the newly-balded Major.
Alastair Dare is overlooking the forthcoming test flight of Project Magellan, the latest attempt to come up with a Faster Than Light drive. Controller Sir Daniel is there to inspect it, Major Digby to inspect his son.
But that’s not all. Booth is tripping from scene to scene, laying a network of seemingly isolated incidents that, as the story develops, will come together to fit a so-far-unseen pattern. Admiral Lex O’Malley, crossing the South Martian Pole solo for what appears to be no more than a bet, discovers something that has him calling for Dan Dare before he’s knocked out in mid-transmission.
And Hank Hogan’s telesender finally delivers an unexpected visitor, all the way from Mekonta: the now somewhat mature but still attractive Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody.
The action is kick-started by the sudden failure of the Asteroid Belt Impulse Wave generators, sending the Solar System grid off-balance. This causes panic everywhere, and the immediate postponement of Project Magellan (to be more or less forgotten for the rest of the story) whilst Dan takes personal charge of the Asteroid situation. Thankfully, there’s a ship on hand at CONSDOCK that can get a hand-picked team to a) the Martian South Pole to rescue Lex and b) the Asteroids, and this is Pierre’s Le Chat Noir, which may be old and decrepit like everyone, but which has multiple motors including Monatomic hydrogen and an untested Halley Drive (to later be forgetfully called the Haley Drive: sloppy).
But let us not forget Hank and Jocelyn,who aren’t exactly shagging from the moment they are re-united but might as well be. Booth goes further than he did in ‘The Gates of Eden’ to pointing this pair at each other, and given that Dan Dare is basically an asexual figure, I suppose it’s only fair, but there’s a large part of me that cannot be reconciled to the idea of this pairing, and which has me struggling uphill for much of the story.
Besides, that the Prof still wants to crawl into Hogan’s arms when he’s wearing a garish pink zoot suit that’s an offence to the eyes is an improbability no story could ever recover from.
Still: the telesender has bounced Jocelyn from Mekonta to Rhea, and now it bounces both of them back for dinner. The Professor is involved in a Treen project to replace the spaceship with inter-system telesending, and both she and Hank are to be surreptitiously arrested and taken to the base of a secret Treen Trans-Temporal Research station, set up under the behest of Governor Sondar, but headed by one Halcyon Scobal, Chief scientist.
Scobal is tall and striking, dresses in archaic clothing, plasters a basilisk symbol over everything within reach and his surname practically screams anagram across the entire auditory spectrum, but even with all these clues for the terminally hard of thinking, not to mention that he’s the living spit of his uncle, it takes Hank and Jocelyn absolute ages to recognise him as being the nephew of Doctor Blasco of ‘Operation Saturn’.
One final story element to throw in: before Peabody and Hogan are picked up by the Project security force, they have a strange encounter via the telesender, as a broken and battered version of Syndar appears, seeking aid and mouthing cryptic utterances, before vanishing. Remember Syndar? He was the cyborg Treen of ‘The Gates of Eden’ who was the aid of Bob Dylan, aka John Wesley Hibbings. And according to him, their base, Shelter, has been destroyed and Hibbings is dead. Only one of these things is true.
The thing is that, despite everybody’s memories having been erased after ‘Eden’, and Hogan having no idea who Syndar is, Peabody remembers him instantly, as do most of the others layer in the story. Why is this? I’m sorry, Booth doesn’t provide any explanations. In fact, he doesn’t provide much of anything relating to any answers.
I’ve described the set-up at some length so that you can see that a good job is done in providing a web of disparate strands, out of which a good, cohesive story can be forged, but the problem is that they are all little more than gossamer threads, to be abandoned in favour of Booth’s real interest in the story, which turns out to be bloody Bob Dylan again.
What was O’Malley doing in the Martian Antarctic and what did he find there? No idea, don’t care.
Will Project Magellan succeed? No idea, don’t care.
What is Scobal/Blasco’s plan? Hooking up with the Vashtilian Migration, which is coming through the Solar System and will destroy it en route. What’s is part in all this? Don’t know, don’t care, blast him to death off-panel and have the Professor tell us it happened.
What about the Asteroid Impulse Generator? It was blasted by the Vashtilian’s, one wave of which appears to have slipped through the Solar System without anyone noticing, except that it destroyed Cosmic and the McHugh’s (McHugh’s? McHoo’s: sloppy). Incidentally, they destroy CONSDOCK too, and Shelter, though in contrast to what Syndar said earlier, it seems that was because it was actually in the way of the beam they sent to destroy CONSDOCK.
What’s Dan Dare going to do to protect Earth from the Vashtilian menace? Fuck all, actually, don’t care.
No, seriously. We really are re-running ‘The Gates of Eden’ here. Dan and Co get whizzed off into some kind of hyper-space to board a massive space vessel that looks like a gigantic juke-box, where of course Hibbings has been alive all along and is offering a repeat of the explore-the-Multiverse deal. O’Malley’s too busy with the navy, Hank wants to go back to his Fluffalo farm, Peabody to join him there and Pierre wants to keep on trading. But Dan the newly-promoted Controller is fed up with Admin and decides to have some fun for himself, and Digby has completely reversed his original opposition, so to Hell with the threat to the Solar System, let’s boogie.
Cue final episode. Dan has disappeared, all sorts of plans are being carried out in and out of Spacefleet, nobody’s talking about or concerned in the slightest about the implacable, invincible Vashtilians, who have vanished as completely as any sense of logic or structure or consistency to this ‘story’. And Digby’s hair has started growing again…
It’s not even an ending, just a coming to a stop. ‘Parsecular Tales’, named for a made-up word whose most plain association is the parsec, a measure of spacial distance approximating to 3.6 Light-years, is a meaningless title, befitting a meaningless story. The inference is that it will return at some future stage but frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that nobody else seems to be able to produce new Hampson-continuity Dan Dare stories, I’d counsel against agreeing to run any more episodes.
This does not count as extended canon as far as I’m concerned.

Collecting Eagles


Just you wait…

It’s just over two years ago now. I was still in the relatively early stages of a blog series about Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future, reading and studying all the official stories in the canon created by Frank Hampson, a genius son of my home city, Manchester. I wasn’t rushing things: the early stories ran for anything between six and eighteen months at a time, which was a lot of reading. Still, it took me the best part of six months for the penny to drop.

I’d been introduced to Eagle in late 1963, less than halfway through the long decline, but I’d become a Dan Dare fan just like all the other little boys who’d preceded me in the dozen plus years the comic had then existed: just one front page, and we were gone.

From the first week of 1964 until about two months after its ignominious end, merged into Lion – which had begun as a cheaper, tattier knock-off of Eagle – I got it every week, apart from that one when the newsagent forgot to deliver it. I had a complete collection from that point on.

A long time passed. The comics went to the children’s hospital, I went on to other things. I proved to be one of those who still loved comics as an adult, though mostly American ones. But there were those landmark Dragon’s Dream collections of the Man from Nowhere trilogy, and Alastair Crompton’s magnificent The Man Who Drew Tomorrow that didn’t quite make it to publication before Frank Hampson succumbed to cancer, that reminded me.

And there was the fellow fan who, long long ago, alerted me to Manchester’s Central Reference Library having bound editions of Volumes 1 to 10 of the Eagle, 1950 to 1960. Dozens of Saturday afternoons I spent, reading, researching, making notes with the ambition of writing a book about Dan Dare.

It would have been possible, even relatively easy, to have bought back issues in the Eighties, complete volumes in one go, instant collections. I had the money, but not the room, so I let the opportunity go.

When I did start to collect old Eagles, it was the early Nineties, and I had a plan. Since Volumes 1 – 10 could be read any old Saturday afternoon, I would focus on everything after, try to build a collection of Volumes 11 to whenever Dan Dare went into reprint (Volume 17 no 2, incidentally). My main source was Sheffield’s Old Magazine Shop, from which I returned with treasures. I would drive over on otherwise unoccupied Saturday afternoons with my scrawled out list in hand, and once I started following Droylsden, every away game that saw me traveling through Sheffield included a visit, no matter how depressed the market was.

Sometimes I’d dig a bit further back, if something particularly cheap turned up, but the objective was still Volumes 11 onwards. Anything more was just a pipe-dream.

Then along came a wonderful wife and three brilliant step-children, and old freedoms to splash my money on whatever frivolity I chose became a thing of the past. I had no regrets. She was with me when I passed through Sheffield, but the stays were shorter, the searches more desultory, the collection no longer growing.

Like I said, with life much changed, I was several months into writing my Dan Dare series when the penny dropped. I did an eBay Search for Eagle comics. I wrote about the experience here.

That was just two years and one week ago today. The ease, and relative inexpensiveness, of collecting started that old ambition of collecting Volumes 11 – 17 in full. And, who knows, maybe, in time, working a bit further back, those late Fifties volumes where I had some issues already.

I’ve still not been back to re-read the bound volumes at Central Ref. I searched ‘Eagle Comics’ on eBay at least twice a week. Once you strip out the results that obviously don’t relate to my Eagle, there’s still somewhere around 4,000 items whenever you search, so I go through the first ten pages, make a note of when the last item is due to end, and re-search when that item will be on page 1 instead of page 10.

And slowly I extended my ambition. Maybe, if I was patient, if I kept my eyes open and didn’t overextend what I could afford, maybe, just maybe I could, perhaps, one day, get a complete collection? It’s a pipe dream.

Well, guess what, people? Today I have added three more issues to my collection. They’ve yet to arrive so they don’t get knocked off the list until they do, but once they arrive, my Wants List is in single figures.

That’s right. I am nine issues away from a complete sixteen year run of the Eagle. Nine issues. Nine.

Of these outstanding issues, six come from volume 1, and I am currently Watching four of them. One is No. 1, which I do have, but in such a ratty state, I will still be on the look-out for a better copy. One sold today on eBay, for nearly £80: far too rich for me, unless, until it’s the only one left and then… I’ll think about it.

And there’s maybe a dozen or so that are complete, where the Centrespread is missing because someone extracted it for the Cut-out, and there are people who sell just these on eBay, so when I have that unbelievable collection, I will make a list of incompletes and maybe I can mix-and-match.

And then a long, leisurely sitting back and reading, without having to leave the flat on Saturday afternoons. Then we’ll see some real Nostalgia.

 

Leo Baxendale: School’s Out Forever


No fan of comics, no matter how much they are removed from their childhood enthusiasms, can let the passing of Leo Baxendale go by without a formal salute. Baxendale, from Lancashire, was one of the greatest artists to work on the_Beano of legend, not to mention the even more anarchic comics of the Sixties, such as Wham and Smash. He worked on classic series such as Lord Snooty, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum, not to mention Frankie Stein and his icnic Uncle, Grimly Feendish.

But Baxendale’s immortality is secured by his having been the creator of the Bash Street Kids. I can’t type those words without images tumbling through my head.

Cartoonists tend to live long lives, and Baxendale’s reached 86 before succumbing to cancer, which really ought to learn to be more discriminating.

Baxendale’s brand of anarchy was tolerated by my parents as long as it was confined to the Beano or the Dandy but they objected to the likes of Wham and Smash, for which I had to rely on my mate Alan’s weekly order.

Despite that, I still grew up a happy absurdist, for which I can thanks Spike Milligan and the Goons. Lots of others got it from Leo Baxendale. All of us mourn the passing of a genius.

It’s good not to care


For quite some time now, I’ve been withdrawing into myself, moving further and further away from the world outside my own head. Increasingly, that world has been making itself inhospitable to someone with my hopes, opinions and thoughts, and since the reversal of massive political decisions within any kind of foreseeable future is not on the cards, that process is unlikely to stop.

But it’s not just rejection of a world that no longer reflects the fundamental values I have held all my life. There are personal issues that have accelerated the process of collapsing into myself, slowly increasing the distance between me and the people around me. More and more the past is coming to absorb my thoughts because of the absence of a future that involves more than repetitive actions, without prospect of change.

This is not without its blessings.

For over thirty years, month by month, I followed the comic book Cerebus written and drawn by Canadian Dave Sim, a man approximately six months younger than me. Artistically, Sim is a genius, a fantastically skilled creator, an inspiration. For over thirty years, Cerebus was a consistent in my life. Compare my interests when first I discovered it with those interests I had when its final issue appeared, take a cross-section of each and, unless you count Manchester United, it is the only thing to appear in both lists.

Sim has long been controversial for the anti-feminist opinions he espouses and which became an explicit part of Cerebus with issue 186. He has become widely regarded as a misogynist, an accusation he regards as being the worst possible aspersion that can be made about anyone in these Marxist-Feminist Times.

He has largely withdrawn from the world. He believes that he has been/is being persecuted because people have allowed him to be accused thus without defending him. He will not communicate with anyone unless they sign a letter he has drawn up stating that they do not regard him as a misogynist.

Sim has also had a petition put up on the internet asking people to sign to say that they do not believe he is a misogynist. He has refused to go out in public until that petition has reached 2000 signature. I have not signed that petition. I could not, in anything remotely resembling good conscience, sign it. But now 2000 people have.

This is Sim’s response: http://momentofcerebus.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/2001-signatures.html

I spent thirty years plus following Cerebus, absorbed in it. Disregarding its content, I would still rate Dave Sim as one of the most consistently inventive, thoughtful, insightful and original comic book creators. I just happen to disagree with his worldview, his opinions and his completely paranoid mindset, to the point where I am now beginning to get ever so slightly ashamed – to myself – of liking the series as much as I did (and, up to issue 268, do).

But, do you know, what? My current issues with the world around me are less concerning than they usually are when I read bullshit like the above link and realise: do you know what, Sim? I just don’t fucking care what ‘intellectual’ contortions you go through any more. They’re right: you’re batshit crazy.

And I don’t give a damn any more.

Alas: Bernie Wrightson RIP


Most people will be mourning the loss of Chuck Berry, a rock’n’roll legend, but for me the sadder news is the death of comic book artist, Bernie Wrightson, aged 68, after several years of illness during which he was unable to draw.

I’ve read very little of Wrightson’s work, but enough to recognise him as a major artist. He was one of those ultra-bright sparks of the early-to-middle Seventies, an instantly recognisable artist whose work was on a higher level than the generic art you got. Wrightson’s work took its inspiration from an older generation of artists than his contemporaries: Frank Frazetta, and EC’s Graham Ingels in particular.

His work had depth, passion and detail, and his forte was horror, and he wasn’t going to last, like the other ultra-bright sparks, because he needed time to draw, to make art, and the soul-crushing, intensely-pressured and dirt-cheap comics of the era, where every expense was spared to make the package cheaper and nastier, more inimical to quality, as long as it was cheap, was no environment for Wrightson and his ilk.

He produced an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the only time I’ve ever read the novel, with full-page, intensely detailed drawings that looked like engravings of a fineness way beyond anything Marvel or DC could have produced.

But Berni (as he then styled himself) Wrightson’s legacy is his co-creation, with Len Wein, of the Swamp Thing: a ten page short which is one of the most perfect short stories ever done, and the first ten issues of a series that is the foundation of an astonishing character, alive to this day and beyond.

He was a great.

Another Good Man… RIP Murray Ball


When I was an active comics fan, I used to pride myself on getting in ahead of the crowds on new American newspaper strips, before they’d achieve public consciousness over here. I had the first three Far Side collections on import through Comics Conventions and Marts before a single Desk Calendar appeared on a single UK desk, I was up to my ears in the hilarity of Calvin & Hobbes before it made it big over here. I wasn’t smug or anything, as nobody cared, but being tuned into that world meant picking up on things sooner.

That was the case with the only New Zealand newspaper strip I’ve ever seen. Murray Ball had lived and worked in the UK in the Seventies but gone home, set up a farm, and started writing and drawing a daily strip about one. Footrot Flats was simple, direct, at times relatively earthy. It grew out of its culture, but its jokes were mostly universal. It was frequently hilarious. And it had the Dog.

I may be a cat-lover, but there’s something about dogs in strip cartoons. Snoopy is, of course, the doyen, and Charles Schulz himself called Earl, in Mutts, perfect. He might only be a mongrel, and rather more interested in mating with Jess, Cooch Windgrass’s bitch, than any other cartoon dog around, but Ball’s Dog is worthy of standing in that company (though knowing the Dog, he’ll have been rolling around in the crutchings first).

The Dog has a name, but no-one uses it. he hates it and will go to great lengths to ensure it doesn’t get out. Ball was canny enough never to reveal what that name actually is.

And now he’s passed away, at the age of 78, after eight years with Alzheimers. It’s a bastard, being crook like that. Ball ended Footrot Flats in 1994, after nearly twenty years. I used to have fifteen collections of it. Ironically, the report of his death comes the day that a buyer on eBay will win the last couple of these from me.

Times change, tastes change. Humour is especially vulnerable to that. You can’t always keep laughing at the same jokes all the time. But there are some gags you’ll keep in your mind forever. I wish I could show you my favourite but I don’t have a copy so I’ll have to explain it.

Wal Footrot has just installed a new electric sheep fence but doesn’t know if it’s switched on or not. To test, he forces the Dog to lay a paw on it. The Dog touches it without reaction. Assuming it’s inert, Wal lays a hand on it. The shock flips him head over heels. Cut to the Dog trotting away, thinking, “It’s worth taking 10,000 volts for a sight like that.”

Another good man gone. Do we have enough of them left?

From Uncompletion to Completion: welcome back Mage


A few years back, I did a series on Uncompleted Stories (of which one post remains unwritten, though I will get to it one of these days), about comic book series/stories which were never ended and which, by implication, would remain forever without an ending.

One such was Matt Wagner’s Mage: intended to comprise three series of fifteen issues, of which only two have appeared, then and now. Fifteen years had passed at that point since Mage II – The Hero Defined. It’s eighteen years now, but you may officially now laugh and point at me, and cry jeers about my lack of faith but, starting in May, we will finally have Mage III – The Hero Denied.

Like the second series, it will be published by Image Comics, in four blocks of four monthly issues, each block separated by a skip month in which the Graphic Novel compilation of each block will appear, which at least settles one question for me: I will forego my curiosity, my eagerness for the story, and I will wait for the books.

So: one more thing to anticipate. 2017 is rapidly becoming a year of unexpected comebacks: Twin Peaks, Mage, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books final book (when, oh when, will that be translated and published in English?) and even my thirty year old novel.

And Mage is going to take me into 2018 as well.

Now, all we need is another Play (or a dozen) from the Sandman Mystery Theatre and I’m almost going to be a happy bunny…