Dan Dare: Keith Watson’s New Eagle Story

Long years passed after The Menace from Jupiter, long years with nothing but reprints to sustain the Dan Dare fan and, once Eagle had gone under, merged into Lion, even these were so poorly treated, they were an offence rather than a delight. Long years passed whilst Dan was no more than a memory, until his name was revived with the new 2000 A.D. comic, Eagle‘s only rival for the title of Britain’s best ever weekly comic.
But this was no Dan that we old fans remembered, a name attached to something that so deeply rejected everything that went with our hero’s name that the point of calling this new brawling, swearing, space monster killing Dan Dare was beyond understanding.
Long years passed, and the 2000 A.D. Dan disappeared himself, mid-story, and another Dan appeared, as part of a new Eagle, an Eagle that seemed ashamed of being a comic and tried to tell its stories in photographs, which have never, ever worked as a substitute for art. And this Dan, these Dans, at least tried to feed off the original, though not in ways that satisfied or convinced.
Then it was announced, to everyone’s delight and surprise, that the original Dan Dare would be coming back to the New Eagle, and what’s more, to prove it, he would once again be drawn by Keith Watson.
And Keith Watson came back to the character and the series that he had honoured, on 26 August 1989, and though his art had developed in the intervening twenty years, it was as it all had been. A single look at a single panel, and once more we were in that Universe in which Dan Dare had been the Pilot of the Future, a future once again as familiar to us as warm toast on a breakfast tray.
And not just Dan, but Digby too, and Sir Hubert, and an adult Flamer, and on board the Valiant II there’s a Theron, a Mercurian and a Phant, and the Mekon and his Treens were back, because who could think for even a second of writing a story that did not involve Earth’s Archenemy as its villain: sooner should we have the Sun rise in the West. And even Professor Peabody, on Moonbase, Greta Tomlinson restored to life and youth once more.
And three pages a week, not two, and all of them in full colour. What more could we want?
As it turned out, rather a lot.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this un-named story, but then again there’s not much that is intrinsically right with it, either, saving only Watson’s art, which shone. The story itself lasted only six weeks, which made eighteen pages, as many or as few as The Evil One, but this was not David Motton who was writing, nor Alan Stranks nor Frank Hampson himself, and it was 1989, but eighteen pages here contained considerably less story than had eighteen pages in 1962.
Dan is supervising the maiden flight of the Valiant II, though his role on the mission is hazy: Flamer Spry is doing the actual piloting, and Sir Hubert is along for the ride, supervising communications (what? No, Hank Hogan is Communications, and Pierre Lafayette pilot). And there’s an odd reference to plotting a course on ‘Annie’s systems, when there is no place in the story for the Anastasia.
It’s a flight packed with VIPs and visiting alien representatives, but it’s also a flight that’s taking highly-dangerous nuclear waste for disposal on the Moon, which is, well, implausible.
Disposing of nuclear waste that’s been buried on the Earth since the 1980s, when it was A Bad Idea, is a noble aim, because Nuclear Waste is A Bad Thing, and burying it on Earth was also A Bad Thing. This moralising is indeed as heavy-handed as I’ve made it sound, whilst being out of place in a Universe that had the advantage of Impulse Power superceding Nuclear Energy.
Nevertheless, the Waste is necessary to attract the Mekon, who decoys Dan and Digby away to a derelict spaceship that’s primed to blow up and kill them, whilst he jams the Valiant’s comms and steals the ship, with the intention of seeding Earth’s atmosphere with the afore-mentioned Waste, killing the population in a horrible, painful and Very Bad way.
By the time the villain’s plan is revealed, the story is already one-third over and with only four weeks left, Dan and Digby have to either come up with a clever plan to foil Ol’ Greenbean, or else a very simple one because the writer hasn’t much imagination and pages are already running short.
So basically, after an interlude for a spot of space golf (I am not making this up), Dan and Dig get into Moonbase, release the prisoners and everyone goes out guns blazing and drives the Mekon off again for next time. Cue further reminder that Nuclear Waste is, yes, I think we’ve got it by now, and it’s over.
It’s not even really Eric Eden, is it?
In terms of depicting our old friends after so much time, we are mainly concerned with Dan and Digby. Flamer and the Professor get barely a dozen words between them, and Sir Hubert’s role is not that much more detailed, so it is Dan and Digby, plus the Mekon, who have to carry the burden. In general, the characterisation focusses on Digby, and is decidedly mixed. The Lancashire dialect is laid on a bit too thickly and whilst everybody’s favourite Other Ranks pays the requisite homage to fish’n’chips, the research has been inadequate: it is genuinely jarring to hear him eager to get back to Rochdale.
On the other hand, Digby gets the best line of the whole piece, clouting a Treen guard in the face with an oxygen canister, and apologising for not taking the gas out of its wrapper!
If it weren’t for Watson’s art, this story would not be worth consideration, but this is Keith Watson one last time, and if we can shut our eyes to what’s actually happening, and our ears to what people are saying, we have eighteen more precious pages to treasure, when we thought there would never be one more. True, in a couple of sequences, Watson is hindered by his colourist taking the odd decision to basically mono-colour panels in a space-blue, but that aside, he is the Keith Watson of old, and we had no right to see that without access to the flight deck of the Tempus Frangit.
This story was reprinted in the same Dan Dare Dossier as Mission to the Stars and is a far worthier reason to search out the book. It is not, as far as I am aware, available anywhere else except in old copies of the half-dozen New Eagle‘s in which it first appeared.
That Keith Watson did not do more is explained away as being down to his schedule not allowing the time. But Watson did draw, or partially draw, one further story, a two-part adventure as perfunctory as its length suggests, the second part of which had to be finished by Andrew Skilleter. There was no doubt more to it, not that it matters now, not with what was too soon to ensue.

Dan Dare – the 2000AD years

Oh no. Oh no. Oh no no no…

I read the news on Thursday (oh boy…) and one newspaper at least was making much about the reprinting of a large number of Dan Dare stories, unseen for many years. This volume of material will be printed in two volumes, the first of which will appear next year.
Of course, when I say ‘Dan Dare’, it’s on the understanding that this is not any version of the veteran hero that I recognise as actually being Dan Dare. Rather, it’s the complete IPC revival of the character that began eight years after he was finally laid to rest in black and white reprints in the thankfully-forgotten Lion & Eagle. It is the 2000AD ‘Dan Dare’, drawn at different times by Massimo Belardinelli and Dave Gibbons, that is finally to be reprinted, after thirty seven years unseen.
In 1977, Dare’s revival was one of the selling points for the new 2000AD comic. I was 21 that year,  unemployed for most of it, in limbo between Law College and the Articles of Clerkship that would see me on the road to becoming a Solicitor. Money was extremely tight, but I had loved Dan Dare in the latterday Eagle and I was interested to see the return. Not that I ever saw 2000AD 1, which sold out rapidly, so I had to settle for issue 2, which saw the debut of a character who has become as much a definition of British comics as Dan himself, Judge Dredd. It took only a single episode to demonstrate that this ‘Dan Dare’ was not for me.
I didn’t expect to get the original Dan Dare again: if anything, Dan was a very Fifties character, and this was the late Seventies, and the Year of Punk, moreover: when No Future was the watchword, there could hardly be a Pilot of the Future.
But the new ‘Dan Dare’ wasn’t even an updating. It was explained that there had been an accident, centuries before, that Dan had lived on in suspended animation, to be revived in this new future, his body so damaged that his face could not be recreated in any form that looked like he had before.
No Spacefleet, no Digby, no Earth, no eyebrows: they couldn’t have been more comprehensive in throwing out everything about the original Dan, and that went for every tiny aspect of his personality. In short, only the names were the same.
I really have no idea whether the Belardinelli ‘Dare’ was a good character in his own terms. A long time ago, a friend who owned a comics shop in Liverpool allowed me access to his 2000AD back-issues, to read for free, to take notes about the ‘Dan Dare’ strips, in return for me sorting those back issues into numerical and accessible order. There were many gaps towards the beginning, so I never had the chance to form any kind of real assessment of that first revived version, except that it was typically 2000AD: fast, brutal, uncultured, flashy and basically a bit crap.
Well, I was hardly the audience was I? By 1977, the boys who would have once lapped Frank Hampspon’s, or even Keith Watson’s Pilot of the Future wanted violence and destruction and people who fought and swore…
Evidently, the editors of 2000AD agreed with me in some respect about the Belardinelli ‘Dan Dare’, for it was pulled, revamped drastically, and rebooted, this time with art by Dave Gibbons. This was the pre-Watchmen Gibbons, yet to break into the American market. I remember him being regarded in fandom as a good ‘meat-and-potatoes’ action cartoonist, and his artwork on ‘Dan Dare’ bore this out.
It was stronger, steadier, more controlled. It was primarily in black and white, which aided the greater air of stability to the work. Gibbons also met Frank Hampson and apologised to him, though Hampson was pleasant to him about his work!
I read much more of Gibbons’ work in John Mottershead’s shop basement, but I remember very little of it. better art, certainly, and the return of the eyebrows, if nothing else physically about the character. Did it stand up? Better than 2000AD‘s first version.
But that’s the thing. Certain creations impress themselves upon us, slide into our minds and occupy our memories because we recognise the life in them. They are true creations, neither symbol nor puppet, and they have within them an unshakeable, unchageable core that makes them, for better or worse, what they are.
To exist in 1977, Dan Dare had to be ‘updated’. Given how much he was a creation of his times, I doubt very much that, for a weekly boys comic that year, or after, he could have been presented in the context of his times without ignoring far too much of those core qualities. Neither Belardinelli’s nor Gibbons’ characters stood a chance as arsion of ‘Dan Dare’ that stood in any way upon the ground. That clash between the name and the actual stories was unbridgeable.
Burdened by ‘Dan Dare’, neither version stood a chance of breathing. As new creations, they might have established themselves. It’s been the story with the vast majority of the post-1969 attempts to revive Dan.
As far as the historical record is concerned, this is the last of the early 2000AD series to be reprinted and it deserves it from that viewpoint. I shalln’t be rushing, or even idling, to add it to my collection, though I’d borrow it from a Library, out of curiosity. I hope that 2000AD‘s old fans will enjoy it.