There’s a good case for arguing that Volume 9 is the Last Good Year. Most of Eagle‘s classic features were still in place, though the Dan Dare adventure that dominates the volume does not have the best reputation, and there was unrest behind the scenes, and there was a dodgy turn of events in one of the others.
But still they were there. The only change was the end of Mark Question and its replacement by something even blander and duller. And when all was said and done, this was the last year before The Fall, so let’s look for the good in things.
After almost two full years, ‘The Man from Nowhere’ trilogy came to an end, with initially a small handful of remaining episodes of ‘Reign of the Robots’, destroying the Mekon’s Selektrobot control at the seeming price of Dan’s life. This was followed by the brief, usually overlooked coda, ‘The Ship That Lived’, in which the rediscovered Anastasia is preserved, Dan makes a miraculous, non-medical recovery and the Mekon escapes into the swamp with the aid of the ‘Last Three’, a thread that would take six years to be realised.
The new story, ‘The Phantom Fleet’, has excellent art for the first two-thirds of its length although, despite Hampson signing his name to much of it, a sharp eye shows it to be more the work of his very efficient studio, and Don Harley, than Hampson himself.
Behind the scenes, Hampson was unhappy. Hultons would not support his efforts to market Dan to the American market, or to animated films, nor his desire to withdraw from art and direct his more than capable studio. At one point, he submitted his resignation, and Hultons decided to accept it! But before they could send a reply, Hampson withdrew his resignation.
There are clear and jerky changes in direction in ‘The Phantom Fleet’, and the overall opinion is that it was not going down well. Editorial was unhappy with a second successive story based on Earth and concerning an invasion. Alan Stranks proposed to change the title on the story after episode 28, signalling an extension of some kind, and Hampson himself was not unaverse to getting back among alien scenes.
In the end, ‘The Phantom Fleet’ turns into an inarguable mess. Desmond Walduck takes over the art with thirteen episodes left, the storyline turns into a disaster. Inexplicably, in the middle of this muddle, Hampson returns for three weeks of superior art, but leaves just before the eventual villains appear on the page, and the eventual resolution is a pure accident to which Dan Dare contributes nothing.
Mark Question’s adventures in Comorra speedily reach their predictable end: Mark’s courage inspires Max to discover his own, the twin boy sword-experts defeat Black Franz and his cohorts and the day is won. Unfortunately, King Gustavo dies without revealing what he knows about Mark’s background, and he’s back to London still no further forward. Retrospectively, this adventure is named ‘The Black Valley’.
It’s succeeded by ‘The Lost Clan’, which actually becomes an official title. A faded Highland Games medal sends Mark on his bike to Braeloch in Scotland, in pursuit of the survivors of Clan McDhu. En route, he intercepts a canister of microfilm intended for international spy and master of disguise, Babel, who pursues Mark to Scotland with the intention of killing him.
It’s a simple, but unconvincing plot, which ends with an elderly Laird, a caber-tosser, a poacher and two early-teens (if that) capturing the aforementioned international spy, and the revelation, which falls very flat indeed, that Mark is actually Alistair Colin McDhu, grandson of Murdo McDhu, and that he was born and raised in Australia. Funny how nobody remarked on his Aussie accent before now?
Mark would return in the back half of the Sixties, his adventures reprinted as Mark Mystery – the boy with etc. For now, his slot on page 3 went to Cavendish Brown, M.S., written by Bill Welling and drawn by Pat Williams.
Cavendish Brown is a brilliant surgeon and detective: what? how? why? Don’t ask such questions because no background is ever given. He’s just an effortlessly superior toff, with a butler/valet/chauffeur and he tells the Police, in the shape of Inspector Jason, what to do. Come back, Mark Question, all is forgiven.
‘Eagle Special Investigator’ McDonald Hastings spent the year at home, telling war stories under the overall heading of ‘The Bravest Men in the War’. This was interrupted twice for three part series. The first of these, ‘The Way into Space’ looked at scientific developments along the road of launching a man into space, with particular reference to how many of them had been anticipated by Frank Hampson. The second of these got Hastings to Kenya, but only in the context of a film being made for his regular television spot on ITV’s Tonight, and how the raw footage and commentary was shaped for broadcast.
Increasingly, most issues of Eagle in this volume ran to 20pp instead of the usual 16pp. This consisted of an additional B&W sheet, inserted as pp7-8 and 13-14. Most of these were mainly additional advertising with one, sometimes two pages of content, none of which was especially impressive.
Riders of the Range saw ‘The War with the Sioux’ through to its historic conclusion, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the death of General Custer. It’s an impressive story, drawn with Frank Humphris’s customary attention to detail, and with true likenesses of the real-life characters.
After two lengthy historical stories, Charles Chilton steered the series back to adventures in which Jeff and Luke could be the centre. ‘The Penny-Farthing Dude’ brought Jim Forsyth back into the series, which segued into ‘Down Mexico Way’, leading our heroes to defend a second Christian Mission, this time south of the border.
In Luck of the Legion, Luck, Trenet and Bimberg continued their balloon journey with the ‘flying Dutchman’, Professor Vanderdecker, who was not all he seemed. Their quest became one for eternal life, as revealed when they discovered the titular Eyes of Horus, but the eternal life turned out to be a source of water: eternal life for the village and the tribe, not any individual.
Then it was back to the Sahara for the relatively routine ‘Scourge of the Sands’, another story about a leader attempting to raise rebellion against the Legion.
Jack O’Lantern ran through the remaining weeks of ‘The Assassins’, a glorious riot of Bow Street runners and thieves’ cant, although the story’s abrupt ending, with the leader of The Assassins falling on his own pistol and shooting himself through the heart wasn’t up to the standard set.
George Beardmore then resorted to another cheap device in ‘Race for Life’, by resurrecting Jack’s evil Uncle Humphrey from the dead and reinstating him at the family home of Brackens. Humphrey’s up to his cheating and conniving self, robbing young Dick Lawless of his prize racer, Diabolus, Jack ends up racing in the steeplechase and winning it, sending Humphrey overseas to escape his debts, but leaving Captain Yorke faced with selling their home of Brackens in order to pay off those for which he has become responsible.
Jack tries to postpone the evil moment by selling his horse, Black Dragon, which gets him involved in the circus in ‘Brotherhood of the Key’, and a story involving treasure and the evil circus clown, Little Caesar.
Now that I’m having the chance to read Jack O’Lantern as a continuous story, I’ve come to respect it as a better tale than I’d previously realised, but those cheap devices referred to above rather devalued it in this volume.
I found The Three J’s rather pedestrian this year, with the various stories adding very little that was new. The same old tropes – especially those of the increasingly tiresome Jacko – were on display in each story, nor did Peter Ling’s imagination run quite so freely when creating the various new boy that give the J’s something to resolve. Willi Jarmann, the semi-sick boy from last year, joins Northbrook only to be renamed Bill, so that has foreign background can be quickly forgotten.
He makes up the numbers for a Northbrook team in a proto-‘Top of the Form’ TV quiz that, despite Ling’s background in television, is not in the least convincing (not least in its scores), is threatened with removal because his Aunt needs cheaper accommodation and then blots his copybook in a somewhat foolish story about ‘Faraway’ Hill inventing some valuable formula by falling in with Fifth Form bully, Bradbury, and becoming a smoker.
Nor is his replacement, jazz-trumpet loving cool kat, daddio, Raymond Key anything to write home about. This is clearly a story written by an adult with no real understanding of teenagers and their growing musical passions (you’ll note it’s jazz, and not rock’n’roll…). I’m afraid the year smacked of a series that was running out of steam, having used up all its ideas. As a prose serial, and not a comic, the lack of innovation is far easier to perceive.
Pretty much the same could be said of Harris Tweed: in fact, little else can be said about it. John Ryan goes back to one-off gags instead of semi-serialised stories, but Tweed also has nothing new to it. On the other hand, Ryan does maintain a level of interest that ‘Simon Simple’ never reached and which it declined yet further from, week by week.
Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer continued to go strong, thanks to Guy Morgan’s willingness to sail the Silver Fleet to new seas every story and, in the weekly term, Richard Jennings’ vigorous and energetic art. There’s a running theme to the stories in this volume, the ‘Black Box’ giving way to the ‘Yellow Bird’ (a budgerigar, actually) set in the West Indies and seguing into the ‘Magenta Mark’, courtesy of the mastermind behind both threats, the anonymous Nemo.
The ‘He wants to be a…’ series was all but finished now, with only three appearances all year. The George Cansdale/Tom Adams half-page spent most of the year continuing the development of Prehistoric Animals towards their modern day form, but several months in, this became sporadic, alternating with a different series by the same pair, featuring Insects, which was in black and white. There seemed to be no pattern as to which would appear and in some weeks, neither was represented. Ultimately, both series were replaced by a black and white half page featuring dogs, with a variety of artists replacing Adams, whose unsung art was some of the finest ever to appear in Eagle.
What we got instead, inside the back page, was a seriously odd return to Eagle‘s practice of offering advertisers comic strips for their advert. These had been a feature throughout, in corners or one-tier strips, never attracting much attention, unlike the old Tommy Walls’ pages. Now, under the white-on-black banner of an Advertiser’s Announcement, we got a weekly series promoting Gas Central Heating, under the aegis of Mr Therm, a cartoon figure.
It’s one of the most puzzling advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Much of the Volume was taken up by ‘It’s time to learn with…’ which is, and I kid you not, all about redesigning a kitchen, its white goods, cupboards and even a gas-heated airing cupboard, to improve Mum’s daily lot. Unless Eagle’s adult audience was considerably more extensive than suspected, I cannot see the appeal of any of this to an audience of 7 – 12 year olds.
Nor were things much improved, target-wise, by its replacement, late in the year, by ‘Magic in Meter with…’, written and drawn in a quasi-realistic cartoon form by Dennis Mallet, extolling he virtues of gas each week by means of jingly rhyme.
But each week of Volume 9 was decorated on the back page of Eagle by Frank Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art, pristinely realistic, highly detailed and yet imaginatively impressionistic. Once Bellamy got into his swing, without going overboard on lay-outs, he began to vary his pages. He was never less than respectfully accurate to Churchill or any of the many figures who appeared in the story, but once Churchill’s tale reached the First World War, Bellamy never looked back. His battles scenes, in both wars, be they on land, sea or in the air, were breathtaking, his control immaculate and his colours superb.
Once ‘The Happy Warrior’ was complete, at 53 episodes, it was collected as a book, an honour given previously only to the Baden Powell story, and not as quickly. Bellamy stayed on, drawing ‘The Shepherd King’, the story of King David, with rich and flowing colours, stimulated by the Middle East sunlight.
Three Franks, three brilliant artists. It was still a Good Year. But it was the last one.