(This article was first published in Spaceship Away 29, Spring 2013, copies of which, and other back issues and subscriptions, are available via the Spaceship Away website.
Spaceship Away is published three times a year and, in addition to new strips, features and articles about the classic Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future of the much-missed Eagle comic, also features long-forgotten strips and stories starring other science-fiction heroes of the period.)
Spaceship Away has always concerned itself with Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, including the work by other hands that ended with Eagle‘s cancellation in 1969. From time to time there have been mentions of some of the later versions in 2000AD and the New Eagle, though, Keith Watson’s glorious contributions aside, I’ve tended to find that they could have been perfectly good stories if they hadn’t been saddled with Dan’s name.
But there have been two attempts to do a more mature, darker Dan Dare, a version of the character that is both true to Dan’s past but which sets that past against a much changed future, and it’s worth comparing these two stories, to see if either of them are successful.
The first of these appeared from IPC in 1991, by Grant Morrison (script) and Rian Hughes (art). The story appeared in Revolver 1-7, with the final episode appearing in Crisis 56 after Revolver‘s cancellation. It’s a brief story, eight episodes of 8 pages, and was collected in a single volume, under the name of “Dare” that is now ultra-rare.
The brevity of “Dare” does it no favours. There’s no room for subtlety, or indeed thoughtfulness, though given certain aspects of the story, it’s tempting to be thankful that Morrison – a young Scottish writer who has gone on to be phenomenally successful in the American comic book industry – wasn’t given more room to extend his travesty.
The story introduces Dan as a recluse, an invalid reliant on a cane. Mentally, he’s naïve, clinging to a simple certainty about the world that’s irrelevant to the modern day. At every moment, Dan just doesn’t understand.
He’s drawn out of seclusion to attend Professor Peabody’s funeral, Jocelyn having committed suicide, another in a series of scientists who’ve died whilst working on a food substitute programme (a nod to the Venus story). At Peabody’s funeral, Dan meets the Prime Minister, Mrs Gloria Munday.
I would describe Mrs Munday as a thinly-veiled representation of Margaret Thatcher if that did not discredit the subtleties in previous thinly-veiled representations everywhere. Munday is seeking re-election for the Unity Party and wants to use Dan, and his nostalgic appeal to older, better times, as propaganda.
Also at the funeral is Digby, but he rejects Dan’s approaches. Digby – a northerner and therefore, in this story, the soul of decency because he’s working class, see – has shunned his Colonel for years, since they put down a Treen rebellion during which Dan, following orders without thinking as he tended to do, killed women and children.
But Digby is prepared to show Dan what Munday’s Britain is really like, how the North is being beaten down, neglected, repressed. Digby persuades Dan that there’s something more behind Peabody’s suicide, that the project on which she and the other dead scientists are working has a sinister aspect. They find a tape left by Peabody, detailing that ‘Manna’ is a biomass made by breaking down the bodies of unwanted humans (northerners, of course) in league with the Treens.
Digby is killed getting Dan away, whilst Dan almost immediately loses the tape to the Government, he being an out-of-date simpleton. Mrs Munday is revealed, as if this is going to be a surprise, to be working with the Mekon. Dan mouths empty platitudes but is hauled off by the Police
But Dan Dare always saves the day. In keeping with his intellect, his knack for improvisation and his unending optimism, Dan has, as instructed by Digby, left a thermos flask in Anastasia’s cockpit. It contains a thermonuclear device powerful enough to vaporise London and all its inhabitants, including the Mekon, Mrs Thatch… Munday and Dan himself, not to mention giving Morrison the opportunity for a pretentious ending: the bomb wipes the page clean of everything but white, which dissolves into an artboard waiting for an artist to draw upon it, complete with a ‘voiceover’ from Frank Hampson at a low point in his life, wishing Dan Dare would ‘lay down and die’.
All in all, “Dare” is a pretty thorough act of arrogance and contempt towards another person’s creation, an attitude that reaches its nadir just before the end when Morrison unsubtly suggests that Dan is going to be subject to unpleasant sexual assault. But “Dare”’s biggest problem is that it’s not a Dan Dare story: Dan and his world is simply a shallow peg onto which is hung a political story whose ‘satire’ is delivered in a limp and amateurish fashion that would disgrace a student rag.
As to the art, let’s absolve Rian Hughes from responsibility. His style, based as it is in the European ligne clair tradition, doesn’t fit the world of Spacefleet at all, but he was chosen for that very reason. And, given what he’s called on to illustrate, he’s not totally unsuited for what is pretty much a cartoon story. His Dan and Digby are recognisable for who they ought to be, as is Anastasia, and I’d actually take his version of the Mekon over several of the IPC versions that have preceded it.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that there should have been no other attempts at a mature Dan Dare for a ecade-and-a-half, until the 2007/8 seven issue series from the short-lived Virgin Comics, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Gary Erskine. With the final issue double-sized, this story ran to 176 pages, and Ennis takes full advantage of the additional space to produce a fully-rounded story in which the political points he wishes to make – more sympathetic to Dan’s worldview, and far more nuanced – can be woven into a story that’s more than just a coathanger.
Structurally there are surprising similarities between the Virgin series and “Dare”. Dan is again introduced as a reclusive exile, he is drawn back into the outside world by a Prime Minister clearly meant to represent the current incumbent and is reunited with Digby. Professor Peabody once again plays a substantial role in the story, without meeting Dan, Digby dies again, and the PM is once again in league with the Mekon. But all the relationships are very different from in “Dare” and, crucially, Ennis is not writing with contempt for Dan Dare and all that he stands for.
This came as no little surprise. Ennis, from Northern Ireland, has also enjoyed considerable success in America, primarily with the excellent Preacher, a tough, violent, irreligious and provocative piece of work. He’s an iconoclast whose instinct is to subvert heroic ideals: hardly someone you’d expect to approach Dan Dare with great respect.
And yet he does. Because Ennis also is a student of war and battle, and he has a tremendous empathy for the men who do the job, who get their hands dirty, and the camaraderie of men who fight and kill together. And Dan Dare, for all that he is foremost a pacifist, is still a military man: a commander who has seen action, who has fought for and protected his men and not spent their lives wastefully. To my surprise, Ennis ‘got’ Dan Dare, and Dan’s ideals, and he presented them with respect: yes, as something that was the product of another age, and perhaps a little simplistic, but ideals that were worth having, and that were worth fighting for, even in a compromised future that, in certain respects, was very like our own compromised age.
Dan, as before, is in exile, seemingly in an idyllic South Downs village, with cricket on the green and a friendly local, all of which is merely a holograph projection on a private base in the asteroid belt. But this exile is self-imposed: after Earth’s unity disintegrated, after China and America bombed each other into ruin, after England became master of the world by exploiting and robbing, instead of helping, the other surviving countries, Dan left Earth, unable to bear the betrayal of the former ideals of the UN and Spacefleet, all his battles rendered worthless.
But there are rumours of action by the Mekon, which is why the PM who has guided England on this path the last decade, comes to Dan to ask him to take over the Fleet and defend Earth again.
This Prime Minister is Tony Blair-manqué, a trimmer, a man without convictions, other than that he’s indispensable. It’s no surprise to quickly learn that he’s in thrall to the Mekon, and that he’s a coward who’s prepared to sacrifice all of Britain’s defences, including Dan Dare, superficially in order to minimise casualties, but primarily in order to maintain his role as ‘leader’. Even the Mekon sneers at him.
But Dan answers the call, though the PM clearly can’t understand why, especially as Dan plainly despises him. He receives an explanation he’s incapable of understanding from his Home Secretary: ten years ago, she was his Chief Science Officer and she’s still not lost the scientist’s need to know and understand, which drives her into a position of authority over the Government in the latter half of the story. She is, of course, Professor Jocelyn Peabody.
Dan prepares to take up his command in the wake of the Mekon’s first attack on the Fleet (a version of the Royal Navy, replete with all its traditions, has succeeded to the defunct Spacefleet). He’s assigned to the damaged Achilles where he meets his old friend Digby – an avuncular but sardonic friend – and his new friend, Sub-Lieutenant Christian, ranking officer in command.
Ms Christian is never given a first name, but I will go to my grave swearing that it must be Alexandra, or “Lex” Christian.
The story takes an unnecessary diversion onto a colony planet threatened by Treen-created Bug-Eyed Monsters, things unworthy of Dan’s world, and unworthy of this story. But Ennis makes use of this excursion to flesh out his Dan in splendid fashion, to introduce the Royal Marines, and to give Dan and Dig the opportunity to revive the old partnership a final time.
Because, when rescue shuttles arrive from a fleet that, under Ms Christian, is defying the PM’s order to fly into an ambush, Dan and Dig get in different shuttles and are transported to different ships. Dan returns to Achilles, leading a fleet suddenly under threat from Treens, and needing minutes to escape from destruction. Those minutes are bought for everyone when Temeraire breaks formation to carry out a head-on attack. When Dan contacts the ship’s commander, we are shocked, but not surprised, to hear Digby’s voice.
Digby goes to his death honourably, in the series’ most emotional moment, saving his Colonel one final time, doing his duty to his country. Dan is shell-shocked, but conceals his pain as a man of his generation was taught to do: their farewell conversation is light and confident but no less emotional for that.
Meanwhile, on Earth, Peabody has worked out the PM’s schemes, he has fled to join his master, and Peabody becomes effectively the PM. From here on, except during the Battle for Neptune, a fight that assumes the same importance as the Battle of Britain that the PM has never heard of, she and Dan are in subspace communication, during which a complex understory can be read between the lines these two can speak to one another.
The Battle of Neptune, and Dan’s final confrontation with the Mekon, dominates the remainder of the story. Though he remains the cold dictator he has always been, the Mekon has been finally tainted with hate. Denied his chance to torture Dan into infinity, he attacks from a position of strength that is not enough. It ends with Dan running the Mekon through with a sword, in honour of Digby. Perhaps not a thing our Dan would even consider, but autre temps, autre mores. This Dan has learned that finality is necessary.
Perhaps aptly, the story ends with Peabody, awaiting news, planning to run herself for Prime Minister, determined on a platform of restoring Britain to its real greatness, in decency, fairness and honesty, not in power and deceit, a platform we would all of us love to see enacted in real life. A platform made possible by the report of victory, made possible once again by Dan Dare.
So far as the art is concerned, Gary Erskine is a typically comic-book photorealist, with a decent, if not outstanding, command of facial expressions. His figure work is sometimes stiff, but his technical art is good. His Dan has the twisted eyebrows, his Digby the white hair and the broad, open face and his Peabody is an attractive but not spectacular or sexy redhead, but except in these respects, they are not recognisable as the faces we know. Nor, in uniforms or technology, is there any continuity from Hampson’s era. Only the Mekon and the Treens are rendered faithfully.
This decision seems strange in that Erskine can draw the Dan of old, as he demonstrates in issue 3. But it’s ironic, really, that after so many visually consistent representations of Dan Dare that haven’t had an ounce of the spirit of the character, this series should ignore visual continuity yet come closer than any before to channelling the essence of the man.
And so it ended. I may be in a minority, but to me the story brought Dan into a later life, not unchanged, but still familiar. He was a Dan Dare that I could recognise and believe in, a Dan Dare, and a Professor Peabody, who still carried within them the ideals of a better, stronger time, all the hopes and dreams we had when we read the Pilot of the Future for the first time: ideals that had been betrayed and tarnished as they have been by years of Government by reference to private gain and personal power, but ideals that Ennis could put to the front of his story and hold up as things that needed to return.
And they would have done, perhaps, if Virgin Comics hadn’t collapsed and gone under. There is no permanent collection of this story*, only the individual issues for as long as they can be found, and a reportedly substandard over-sized money-grabbing hardback of issues 1-3. The hardback collection promised in September 2008, on the inside back cover of the final issue, and the new series coming in the ‘Fall’ of that year, never materialised. More’s the pity in the case of the latter.
*Not so. I subsequently discovered that Dynamite Entertainment published a paperback collection in 2009 that clearly went massively under-publicised, and which is no longer in print. Scour eBay and Amazon for copies, and keep your pocket full of money!