Eagle Volume 9 (1958)


Not the best regarded…

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.

Eagle Volume 8 (1957)


Issue 3 original art

If Volume 7 was a year in which Eagle needed no more than the lightest-touch editing, Volume 8 was, by definition, the beginning of the end. The line-up that had taken almost six years to develop would, in the end, last just over two years, from Volume 6 no 4 to Volume 8 no 10. Change was on its way.
And change came, rapidly, within the first eleven issues of Volume 8, with new stories starting for Dan Dare, Luck of the Legion and Storm Nelson, together with the end of ‘The Great Sailor’, telling the life-story of Sir Horatio Nelson.
For Dan Dare, the rest of the year was taken up by ‘Reign of the Robots’, with the Cryptos Expedition returning to Earth after ten years’ absence, and finding the planet under the thumb of the Mekon. When the artwork was in the hands of Frank Hampson, it continued to be superb, and those weeks when it was more clearly the work of the studio – frequently credited to ‘Frank Hampson Production’ – was still good, although somewhat variable, but there were weeks when the art looked rough, unfinished, lacking any kind of detailed background, that suggested it had neither seen the inside of Bayford Lodge nor yet been turned over to Desmond Walduck.
There were no such signs of concern for Sergeant Luck or the Silver Fleet, with the former winding up their battle again at the Legion traitor before traveling south to defeat a mysterious slave-trader mastermind dressed as a Templar Knight. At the end of the year, the Legion’s most successful trouble-shooting team found itself in fin-de-siecle Paris, being sent on a mission on a balloon!
The Silver Fleet’s adventures took them from Canada into America, to the West African coast and into the Mediterranean, their colourful adventures involving Blue Beavers, Red Diamonds and Black Boxes.
But this was just the natural shift of story to story within series still maintaining their way, albeit with several such concluding in a short space of time. The changes to which I refer were of a different order.
Excluding a single story drawn by Giorgio Bellavitis, Norman Williams had been the artist in residence on The Great Adventurers for the past five years, but with a single week of Lord Nelson’s story remaining, Williams passed away. Jack O’Lantern‘s artist, Robert Ayton, pitched in to draw the final page, and when the series resumed the following week, with the life of David Livingstone, it was now Peter Jackson who took over Eagle‘s back page.
At the same time, David Langford’s ‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ came to an end after 188 episodes, with neither fanfare nor any sense of loss. To replace it, Langford turned to ‘Simon Simple’, drawn with a much darker, heavier line. This was simple, gag-a-week stuff, about a small schoolboy wearing a cap, round glasses and an imbecilic smile. The new series was silent for the first seven weeks, until the inherent weakness of this approach became obvious: Eagle still had ‘Chicko’ covering the same territory, and doing it better and more imaginatively with three panels to Langford’s six. Even with dialogue, the series was rarely funny.
But the biggest change of all, the true break-up, was on page 3. ‘The Case of the TV Terror’ too a further ten weeks to wrap-up, with the Boy’s Club and PC49 as usual foiling the bad guys. But that was the end for the only other remaining feature from Eagle‘s first week. PC49 had long since disappeared from its original home of the Light Programme, and now, with a farewell in verse, in a story in which he’d at long last given his full name, Police Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby retired.
It was the end of John Worsley’s association with Eagle but not that of Alan Stranks. Apart from his continued association with Dan Dare, which would keep him at Eagle until his death in 1959, Stranks had not done with page 3, and was back the following week with Mark Question – The Boy with a Future but no Past.
There was no comedy in this series, just a straight drama. A neatly-dressed boy aged about fourteen arrives at a London railway station. He has his wallet stolen. The crooks recognise him as someone who can be exploited. But, as he realises he’s lost his wallet, he’s hit by a truck. When he wakes up, he’s lost all memory of who he is and where he’s from. So he gives himself the name ‘Mark Question’ (think about it) and sets off to find out who he is.


Frankly, it’s not very interesting. The art, by Harry Lindfield, is bland, and so too is Mark, who has no personality except for his obsession with discovering his identity. And the plotting is dreadful. The two thieves, Conger and Snuffle, work for Professor Carracul at the British Museum. The Professor, an expert in Natural History, is a criminal mastermind who uses Conger and Snuffle (the names don’t get any better the more you use them) to rob jewellery etc., which he then smuggles out of the country stuffed into stuffed animals bound for foreign museums. The taxidermy is done by Mr Feathers, who owns a pet shop. Where Mark takes a job as a shop assistant.
Oh please, as plots go that has to be the worst contrivance in Eagle to date. Conger and Snuffle keep Mark’s secret to themselves, not telling Carracul, which means that, when the Professor orders them to dispose of Mark, they don’t tell him that the boy might be worth more alive than dead. So, when their speeding car crashes into the river, and only Mark gets out, his identity dies with them.
The series had no formal stories to it, but once Professor Carracul is defeated, when Mark turns out to be an Olympic level fencer, we switch to another, longer story. A Spaniard calling himself Don Scorpio tries to kill Mark by sending him, what else, a Scorpion. This sends Mark and his unofficial guardian Doctor ‘Doc’ Steele (who only has one arm yet can drive a car for twenty hours straight) off to Europe, where they eventually come to the tiny Pyreneean kingdom of Comorra which, despite its Irish-sounding name, is as Ruritanian as you can get, and where Mark appears to be ‘the Boy King’.
No, the story doesn’t quite sink to that level of cliché, but it does directly rip-off Anthony Hope by having Mark be the spitting image of Maximillian, the real Boy King, about to inherit from his grandfather, Gustavo, except that Max is a screaming coward who wants to run away… And Mark is impersonating Max for the King, who knows who he really is but who’s so far gone…
No, Mark Question is no fit substitute from PC49. But he is a foretaste of what is to come as Eagle moves forward.
I’d like to make mention of Jack O’Lantern at this point. His fourth story, ‘Man-Hunt’, took our young shaver, and his faithful dog, Turnspit, across the Channel to France, where Bonaparte was Master. Jack was determined to track down his kidnapped and disgraced cousin Rufus, free him from the captivity of the turncoat Captain Zero, and frustrate Zero’s plan to impersonate Lieutenant Yorke and enable a mass escape of French prisoners from the new Prison on Dartmoor.
Of course, Jack and Rufus succeeded, and the latter cleared his name and resumed his commission, but before that there were several superb weeks of art by Robert Ayton, depicting the English prisoners escaping downriver and out into the Channel, where Ayton’s staging and depiction of the geography was a highlight of each issue, even when set against Frank Hampson!


Riders of the Range spent most of the year on the story of Billy the Kid, with Frank Humphris’s passion for accuracy showing through at every turn. From there, he and Charles Chilton went on to an even bigger story, ‘The War against the Sioux’, that would lead, in the next Volume, to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
MacDonald Hastings was represented in about two-thirds of the issues in this Volume but, apart from a final round-up of photos from Norway in issue 1, there were no further adventures. Instead, E.S.I.’s accounts remained very ‘studio-bound’. At first, there was a series on unexplained events and ghosts, which included a superb two-part take-down of the Mystery of the Mary Celeste that I’ve never read elsewhere and which explodes the myth quite thoroughly. It also included a piece on the then-relatively fresh mystery of the Loch Ness Monster.
Later in the year, Mac devoted his time to a series of reports on acts of wartime bravery that resulted in the award of medals for high courage in both World Wars. All very entertaining stuff, and no doubt exciting, but a far cry from actually going out and participating in adventures on behalf of the readers.
And cheaper too, I imagine. Though we are as yet some distance from the fateful decision by Hulton Press to sell up, that was to have such devastating effects on Eagle, the timescale that led up to that moment had more than likely already started to roll out. Hulton’s empire was past its peak. Picture Post‘s heyday was gone, its circulation declining, the profits from the redtop comics becoming increasingly central to the group’s income.
As the year declined, there was another round of new stories starting together, this time in issue 40, with Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson and Jack O’Lantern all starting fresh tales. There was another new Great Adventurers story on the back page, but this was very different, and astonishingly prestigious.
The Happy Warrior was not only the first, and one of only two serials to feature a living subject, but this was none other than the hero of Wartime, Sir Winston Churchill, and for this feature, Marcus Morris brought over the legendary Frank Bellamy from Swift to make his debut in Eagle.
The story is almost stultifyingly respectful, as it would have had to be, and as it would have been even if there had been no pressure. This was Churchill, and this was long before the merest hint of revisionism was tolerable. Certainly, in the dozen episodes published in this volume, Bellamy is so respectful as to be stiff, his art notable for its realism, and his use of a limited but effective colour palette, but this is not the Bellamy we are used to. There are no dynamic layouts, no expressive colours, no freedom.
But it was nevertheless a landmark. And once Bellamy hit Eagle he stayed, and we were all better for it.
Of The Three J’s, and Harris Tweed, there is not much to say. Apart from the cleverness of running a term-story into a holiday story to create an eighteen part marathon, there was little new in The Three J’s. Two more new Fourth Formers became the focus of two more stories, whilst John Ryan introduced no new themes, motifs or story structures into the Extra Special Agent.
Overall, a number strong year. But the loss of PC49 upset a subtle balance, and that all important page 3 slot was diminished. Eagle would never get so distinctive a strip for that position ever again. Mark Question was its first fumble for a long time, but it was the sign of the future arriving.

Eagle Volume 7 (1956)


Original art

It must have been a breeze to have been editor of Eagle in 1956. The classic line-up was in place, and stayed throughout Volume 7. The comic was cruising or, given the nature of the bird, soaring on the wing.
There was a year of Frank Hampson, and his slimmed-down and highly-functioning studio working at their peak on ‘Rogue Planet’, the middle part of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy. The story ran the enrtire year, leaving only its surprising coda to come in the next Volume, as a lead-in to the final part of the Trilogy. After a six month absence, Flamer Spry returned from the dead. There were rich planet-scapes and glorious alien cities, and seascapes and cultures, and Hampson signing principal assistant Don Harley’s name alongside his, recognising the contribution of the Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’.
On page 3, Alan Stranks and John Worsley took PC49 and the Boy’s Club, with its core membership of Toby Moore, Giglamps, the Mulligan Twins, Tiki and little Bunny Cotton through the end of ‘The Case of the New Member’, the tightly-run thirteen round of ‘The Case of the Square Ring’ and into danger at sea for a holiday in ‘The Case of the Crazy Cruise’. The year ended with the start of ‘The Case of the TV terror’ and Archie’s only in-strip confession of his radio name, Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby. But PC49 the radio series was dead three years by now, and 49 lived on only in this one weekly page.
After a five week underwater exploration with famed diver Hans Hass, McDonald Hastings, ESI, returned for a long trip to India, several weeks of which being dedicated to photos rather than accounts. He then followed up on one reader’s request with a four part consideration of UFOs, providing an even-handed account of what was then known about the subject, and coming to no other conclusion than that to imagine that we were the only form of life in the Universe was ridiculous. In a comic edited by a Church of England Vicar, who still took services once a week, this was a remarkably open conclusion to be permitted.

E.S.I. and Indian friend

Mac would go on from his investigation of the stars to a rather more hands on visit to northern Norway, meeting the Lapps and visiting the most northerly town in the world, inside the Arctic Circle, where the day last six months, and so does the night.
‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ occupied the lower part of the sports page for another year, with their curiously anodyne version of children’s fantasy and unhumorous settings, whilst directly opposite, Riders of the Range had another strong year.
‘The Terror of the Pecos’, continuing the long story begun with ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’ ended with Jeff Arnold successfully keeping the Army and the Indians from war, and with young Matt returning voluntarily from life with the Indians, bringing with him his friend Pinaro, son of the Chief, who is to return with Matt to Scotland and enjoy an education there.
Frank Humphris took a nine-week sabbatical for ‘The Wreckers’, drawn in a more brightly coloured style by an uncredited Giorgio Bellavitis, before returning for ‘The Hooded Menace’, during which Jeff’s shirt got burned and he changed it again, albeit not drastically. There was just time before the end of the Volume to start ‘Jeff Arnold and Billy the Kid’. This marked a change in the series as, from this point onwards, Chilton’s stories would relate to real life characters and events, and would keep as closely as possible to the historical reality of such stories.
Luck of the Legion completed its adventure ‘South of Senegal’ and returned to the desert for ‘Shadow of the Scimitar’, featuring a renegade Legion Captain commanding a Toureg tribe, in which our intrepid trio found themselves taking an early motor car across the sands to a friendly chief.

The latterday Tweed

Things started to look up for Jack O’Lantern, with ‘The Prisoner of Newgate’ ending for victory for bare-knuckle fighter Jem Slammer, the exposure of Uncle Humphrey as a French spy and his death at his own side’s hands, the vindication and pardon of Captain Yorke and Jem and the restoration to the Yorke’s of family home, Brackens.
Not that it lasted. The Captain was sent back to war, along with faithful Corporal Kettle, leaving Jack to travel to the South West, in ‘The Moonshiners’ to reside with his cousin Rufus, an effete, lisping fop. At the same time, English-born French spy, Captain Zero, is springing French prisoners from local prisons and getting them back to France with the aid of the local smuggling network.
Rufus turned out to be a Naval Intelligence Officer operating under his wisping, sorry, lisping cover, but the story ended in disaster, with Rufus captured and taken to France. Jack swore to rescue him, which is where the next story, ‘Man Hunt’ began, shortly before Xmas.
Now it was established, the ‘Eagle Club’ was confined mainly to the editor’s page, after which The Three J’s went through their usual routine of school and holiday adventures. a slapstick story about Jacko inheriting a potentially valuable stamp segued into a holiday adventure in Spain, during which Specs’ resemblance to the boy-King of a small European country led to a) trouble and b) the Prince coming to Northbrook, that is, until Specs was kidnapped in his place, as a means of forcing the Prince back to the throne under the Regency of his evil uncle. Business as usual.
And the same for ‘Harris Tweed’ as John Ryan continued his new practice of ‘serial’ stories lasting about six weeks each, with a vague link to the next one.
Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer concluded ‘The Quest of the Southern Cross’ successfully, of course, with a double dose of disguise: Storm fixes himself with a fake beard to pose as a Swedish captain, and Jonah McCann, infiltrating the bad guy’s crew, shaved off his own to evade detection.

Nelson by Bellavitis

Richard E Jennings was back in place for ‘The Quest of the Blazing Boomerang’, still set in Australian waters, but from there the Silver Fleet transferred to Canada and the Great Lakes, with the crew becoming temporary members of the Mounties in order to operate on Canadian territory for ‘The Blue Beaver Mystery’.
Inside the back page, George Cansdale’s half-page nature series about various animals continued to impress, with awesome nature art throughout the year from Tom Adams. The other half of the page saw the introduction of a new feature, again at reader’s request, ‘He wants to be a…’ Most weeks, there would be a short account of various professions different types of boys wished to follow: the qualities required for it, the course of training, the constant reference to the (deferred) National Service that dates this series even more than the massive salaries the boys could earn when they are successful: £365 per annum! It’s terribly dated but it’s a social picture of the times since the roles involved vary between intellectual professions such as Doctors, Dentists and Solicitors, and skilled manual trades like Plumbers and Plasterers.
On the back page, Norman Williams continued to preside over The Great Adventurers. The first half of the year was devoted to Charlemagne, ending not with his death but his elevation to Emperor, after which the scene shifted to ‘The Great Sailor’, Horatio Nelson (down to one eye and one arm by year’s end, but still a way away from Trafalgar.
Thus was Eagle in 1956, it’s peak year. In the next volume, changes would begin. It would never be such a classic comic again. There was a lot of good stuff to come, and the decline would, at first, be slow and difficult to see. But from such a line-up as this, such a set of writers and artists working in such complete command of their skills, any change could only be for the worst.

Eagle Volume 6 (1955)


The Man from Nowhere

And so it came to pass. The classic Eagle, the mid-Fifties version of the paper that is the height of excellence and stability finally came together in Volume 6. You may date that to issue 4, when the last of the classic line-up finally made it’s appearance, George Beardmore and Robert Ayton’s Jack O’Lantern, a wonderfully atmospheric Napoleonic Wars-set series centred upon ten year old Jack York, son of a supposed traitor fighting to clear his father’s name, or if you want to be really pernickety about it, you could postpone that moment to issue 18, when Frank Hampson returned to Dan Dare with the first instalment of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy, displaying a quantum leap in his art, not just from ‘Prisoners of Space’ but from Hampson’s own best work.
The difference between stories, replacing ‘Prisoners’ undetailed outlines, two-dimensional art and pallid, flat, primarily pastel colouring in which even the space scenes appear to be brightly lit, to Hampson’s rich, detailed art, its ranger and depth of colouring and, most of all, the subtle use of light and shadow to give everything a three dimensional aspect, is immediate. The difference in story quality is also immediate: I’ve seen Alan Stranks credited as starting his Dan Dare run with both ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Man from Nowhere’, but taking into account the latter’s bitty and inconsistent storyline, I can only believe that he makes his debut with Hampson’s return.
‘The Man from Nowhere’ ran for twenty-eight weeks, including the issue of Eagle published the day I was born, for which I have an obvious special affection. It segued into ‘Rogue Planet’: indeed, the entire series still had more than two full Volumes to go before it’s end and it was superb its whole length.
Stranks’ accession to ‘Dan Dare’ doubled his work for Eagle, with ‘PC49’ going strong on page 3. ‘The Case of the Golden Knight’ took until issue 21 to complete, and ‘The Case of the New Member’, introduced a new, stereotyped, self-important and prank-playing new character in Elmer Cheeseborough Nutt, not to mention his over-protective mother was still in action when the volume ended. This last, at an eventual 37 weeks, was the longest ‘PC49’ adventure to appear.
By this time, 49 was only appearing in Eagle, with the BBC Radio series having been discontinued in 1953, by which time Archie had not only married Joan but had been turned into a father, a continuity a world away from that enjoyed by Eagle’s readers.
‘ESI’s third series, consisting of two very long foreign journeys, to the Kalahari and the Middle East, only came to and end the week before Xmas. Professor Puff’ forged on, inexorably, though instead of travelling to far off and foreign lands, the Professor and his little Dog spent most of this year travelling to far off and implausible times.
‘Riders of the Range’ completed ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’, writing out the monocled Jim Forsyth by finally guiding him to his ancestral home and lairdship in Scotland before segueing into ‘The Terror of the Pecos’, as Jeff and Luke set off back to Texas with Jim’s young cousin, Matt, who’s coming to Texas to learn how to be a man. Unfortunately, he’s going to learn it from the Indians, and Matt, having given his word, is determined not to be rescued.
‘Luck of the Legion’ was dominated by ‘Earthquake Island’, in which a shipwreck distracts our familiar trio from a secret mission in the Far East by stranding them in India where they restore a young boy to the Rajahship usurped by his tyrannical uncle. Then it was off ‘South of Senegal’ for the next adventure, still getting up steam.

Page 1

And so to ‘Jack O’Lantern’ on page 10. This was the last, and in some ways the least of Eagle‘s great line-up, though most of that status derives from it running the shortest time: only nine serials, several of which, in the great Hampson manner, ran into one another, like phases of a greater novel. Jack York is the son of an accused traitor, Captain Yorke, and is being bullied in an orphanage when he is assisted to escape by Corporal Kettle. Though delighted to find his father alive, he is shocked that the Captain has become a Tobyman, or Highwayman.
But the Captain has been framed by his rascally brother Humphry, who has taken their ancestral home. And Humphry is the actual French spy, and the Captain’s new profession a means of searching guests to the house to find who is Humphry’s contact.
But ‘Stand and Deliver!’ ends with Captain Yorke trapped, wounded, arrested and thrown into Newgate Prison. Jack, who knows the truth, battles on alone to right the wrong.
Ayton’s art, in full colour on page 10, is firmly in the Eagle tradition of photo-realism. He is strong on period detail, just as Beardmore is full of the times. Jack is befriended by gypsies, who talk in the Romany manner, and by the thieves culture of London under the Bow Street Runners, who are full of their thieves cant. It’s bright, colourful and atmospheric, and if sometimes Jack’s actions exceed the plausibility required of his age, it never extends too far into the fantastic.
‘The Three J’s’ continued in their established manner, though matters were enlivened in the holiday story ‘Vive Le Northbrook’, which saw the boys travelling to France with a slightly older companion in a decrepit car, striving to keep a rendezvous with ‘Goosey’ Gander and his father, who are to transport them back to England. It’s a predictable but enjoyable deadline-story, up-against-the-odds stuff enlivened by the unusual decision to have the J’s driver meet and fall in love with a French Mademoiselle in the last chapter.
The half page format was not really working for ‘Harris Tweed’, there being insufficient space to engineer anything but cheap and obvious gags, so John Ryan decided to change to a serialised format himself, extending stories over six weeks or so, to much greater effect. There’s further evidence throughout this volume of his art gradually softening and rounding, to the point where it’s possible to see the connection to the animated ‘Captain Pugwash’ style that was so successful for so long on BBC TV.
After the conclusion of ‘The Silver Sampan’, Richard E. Jennings took a nine-month sabbatical from ‘Storm Nelson’, with Giorgio Bellavitis taking over the art duties for the next two stories, overlapping into the next volume. Bellavitis was a much less distinctive artist, with far less vigour and a less bold use of black-and-white, though visually the most obvious change was to stick a leather pilot’s helmet onto Bash Callaghan almost permanently. Jennings’s controlled exaggeration was definitely missed!

A Bellavitis page

Bellavitis came off the back-page Real-Life Adventures story, ‘Mark, the Youngest Disciple’, written by Chad Varah, to take over ‘Storm Nelson’, which saw Norman Williams return to draw the life of Abraham Lincoln, as written by Alan Jason, a pen-name for Sergeant Luck’s Geoffrey Bond.
Among the minor features, the excellent George Cansdale half-page, with Backhouse’s superb art, gave way to the writer’s ‘Insect World’, with similarly excellent colour art but slightly less appeal for one adult reader.
The other big thing of 1955, was the big promotion given to the Eagle Club, which got several full-page features on p15 when it was introduced, before rather dwindling away to a calmer position on page 6, alongside the sport, when more art was required.
So now Eagle had achieved a settled line-up of excellence and vivid quality as it hit the middle of the decade. How long would this last?

 

Eagle – Volume 3 (1952/53)


A Harold Johns Dan Dare

Volume 3 was the last of Eagle to encompass two calendar years. It also represented three major steps towards the comic’s classic shape, with one change of artist and two new series during its twelve months, though there was an equally major step backwards, arising from another, thankfully temporary, change of artist.
Taking these advances in order of appearances, in issue 7 Frank Humphris succeeded Angus Scott as the third, and eventually permanent artist on Riders of the Range. As much a Western enthusiast as writer Charles Chilton, and a fanatic for accuracy to warm Frank Hampson’s heart, Humphris was the perfect choice for the series. Daniels was too stylised, Scott too cartoony: Humphris represented the photo-realistic approach Eagle required for its adventure strips.
Humphris took some time to settle in, especially in his colouring choices, but long before the end of his first story, he’s close to achieving his mature style. In response, Chilton seems to relax, confident that his artist can handle longer stories, whereas the efforts completed by Daniels and Scott were brief and brisk.
In the centre-pages, Tintin continued until issue 5, completing ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’. The experiment was not repeated, for reasons unknown: perhaps the licence from Darguad cost too much, or perhaps the series was not as popular with Eagle‘s readers as was hoped. After all, it was another six years before Hodder & Staughton began their series of Tintin books, and translators Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner began their long association with the Belgian boy reporter.
Tintin was replaced in issue 6 by a one-off feature intended to run as a twelve-week stopgap. Instead, Luck of the Legion stayed until Eagle’s second major redesign, in 1962, and in popularity polls of the readers, it came second only to Dan Dare.

Trenet and Luck: an annual story

From the outset, Luck was the work of its long-term creators, writer Geoffrey Bond (who would go on to produce six ‘Sergeant Luck’ novels), and artist Martin Aitchison. It stood out among Eagle‘s features for its resolutely horizontal format, which restricted Aitchison unmercifully, but which he never allowed to defeat him.
The series starts with Sergeant ‘Tough’ Luck’s promotion from Corporal and immediate secondment to a secret mission for which he can handpick his men. The first person he turns to is Corporal Trenet, a Belgian, but this is not the Trenet we know so well. He’s fresh-faced, round of features and he isn’t wearing his moustache! He’s also cheery, sunny and completely helpful, though this is because the team does not have it’s third component, Legionnaire 12345 Bimberg, the butt of withering abuse from Trenet for his fatness, greediness, sleepiness, laziness, stupidity and many more characteristics.
Indeed, Trenet is shot during the first story, saving Luck’s life, though the disappearance of his body clues us in to the fact that he will return, deus ex machina-like, in the final episode, leading a rescue platoon to Luck’s besieged men. And he turns up with his immaculately groomed little moustache that is not a million miles away from that of Pierre Lafayette in Dan Dare, and his face is a little thinner. The reason for growing his facial hair? When he was shot, he fell and cut his lip!
The second story, incomplete at the end of the volume, still features only the two characters, though there are a small band of relatively anonymous legionnaires in two, one of whom has the luck of a proto-Bimberg, and pops up occasionally making the kind of remarks Bimberg might make, only not quite so comic: he’s heavy faced, and clearly older and more realistic, but he has the curly moustache and the crumpled kepi, and is given to the odd ‘Caramba’, which makes the connection even more pointed.

A future Eagle novel

The third advance was in a way a two-step forwards, one step back motion. Having been in existence for over two and a half years, the one genre Eagle hadn’t tackled was a school series, and this was much bruited on the debut of Peter Ling’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook, a serial set in and around Northbrook School.
We’re immediately presented with the Three J’s themselves, John, Jimmy (aka ‘Specs’) and Jacko, their hated opposite, Fifth Form bully Bradbury and his two henchmen, the wise and perceptive Headmaster, Mr Ravenshaw and the irascible Fourth Form Master, Mr Wakefield. The story centres upon John Allen being accused of stealing the Football Cup, when this has been thrown out of the gym by Bradbury as a joke, only for it to be found by a tramp and sold, and the bulk of the story is about finding out what’s happened, trying to get the cowardly Bradbury to confess and ultimately exposing the spivs, who are blackmailing him, and recovering the Cup.
The J’s themselves were archetypes: Allen the athletic leader and hero, Specs the bespectacled clever kid and Jacko the cheeky, face-stuffing comic relief: almost Bimberg before Bimberg! The thing was that, after a ten week story, The Three J’s disappeared, and were replaced by a Rex Milligan serial (a change of pace after several more one-off stories throughout the volume). They would return, for a much longer run.
I mentioned above a second change of artist. This was on Dan Dare itself, where ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ rolled on towards a scientifically ingenious solution, including the destruction of the Moon itself, creating an explosion that overwhelms the flagship, sending it to crash on the surface of Mercury.
This allowed Frank Hampson to segue directly into a new story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’, in which the Mekon would return as villain. Unfortunately, as ‘Dan Dare’ fans know, Hampson was only able to complete two weeks of the new story before succumbing to the first of two lengthy, illness-related absences from the series. The Reverend Chad Varah took over writing ‘Marooned on Mercury’ and Harold Johns took on the drawing, being credited every week at the bottom of page 2.
What’s intriguing is that Johns has clearly been the principal artist for several weeks at the end of ‘The Red Moon Mystery’. Hampson almost certainly was directing the conclusion of the story, and I can only assume that, to give himself time to plan the sequel, he had left the main art to his senior assistant (I’m betting Hampson still prepared the colour roughs that were the first stage in the preparation of the pages).
I’ve discussed ‘Marooned on Mercury’ elsewhere at greater length, so suffice to say here that Johns, who went on to be a noted watercolourist, is poor on faces and figures, and gets worse as the story goes alone, and that Varah does not have Hampson’s knack for building a string of incidents into a cohesive story. It makes me wonder if the fact that Hampson’s absence had no apparent effect on circulation figures encourages executives to think of him as dispensible when, many years later, a crunch would come.

Frank Humphris and Jeff Arnold

PC49‘s adventures with the Boys Club rolled on entertainingly. Much of the volume was taken up with ‘The Case of the Little Black Prince’, which has become a rather problematic story with the passing of the decades.
The basis of the story is pretty simple. 49 is due a fortnight’s leave, which he intends to spend in peace and quiet, camped out at the isolated Loch Laggmore in Scotland. Unfortunately for him, two crooks are bound for the same spot, to dig up loot buried under the ruined castle, and further disturbance is ensured by the titular character, his Uncle and two rivals for leadership of his tribe back in Africa, intent on kidnapping Prince Mongatiki in order to foment a rising that will enable them to take leadership of the tribe.
Mongatiki, his Uncle Abawi and the two brothers, Umtogo and Mambata are black. In a story published in 1952/3 in an English boy’s comic.
It’s fair to say that the story is not overtly racist. Eagle was edited by a liberal CofE Vicar, and would not have allowed a directly racist line. But at the same time, the story is coloured by the instinctive attitudes of the time.
Mongatiki, or Tiki as he became known, was to become a fixture in the Boy’s Club for the rest of the series, and never would he be treated with anything less than complete respect, nor did any of the other Club members – universally white – treat him in the least different from each other. But Tiki’s character is quickly formed in his debut: a sober, serious, mature young boy, aware of his duties as Prince of his tribe and determined to live up to them.
Artistically, Worsley draws him with slightly thicker lips than the other boys. It’s not the blackface caricature we are so heartily sick of seeing, but it’s not untouched by it. It’s more prevalent on Uncle Awabi, another serious figure, who is immaculately besuited throughout, but it’s even more pronounced on the villainous Umtogo and Mambata, who are also depicted as being slightly naïve as to British ways and prone to superstition, which Tiki rejects.
I admit to being biased in Eagle‘s favour. For me, the story treads the line throughout, but manages, just, to stay on the side of innocent ignorance rather than casual racism. Others may disagree, and I wouldn’t take arms opposing them. We are talking about an entertainment for younger readers that was written and drawn sixty-five years ago. That doesn’t excuse it, and you may very well argue that it is what we show and tell to our children at the age when attitudes and beliefs are being formed that requires the greatest caution of all, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.
But the intention is good, and to me the proof comes when the Boy’s Club (now led by Toby Moore) arrives in Scotland to surprise 49 in his holiday, find Tiki in danger and without a second’s hesitation, put themselves at risk to save him. They don’t draw a distinction based on colour, not then, not ever.

PC 49 on film: Brian Perks

One of the other regular strips underwent a change in this volume, and one that was, in a sense, ambitious, and in another, utterly ludicrous. This was Tommy Walls which, with effect from issue 5, after 109 single-issue strips, turned into a serial for the remainder of its run. Richard E. Jennings remained the main artist, but his stories in Volume 3 alternated with tales drawn by J. Pannett.
Whereas Tommy & Co’s adventures had been reasonably grounded and bordering on plausible in terms of how the lads so consistently got into scrapes, the serials abandoned any attempt to stick with realism. Tommy & Co started getting involved with serious organised crime, national security and the Secret Service. They were treated as being on a par with fully adult, highly-trained agents.
And the strip’s purpose as a promotion for Wall’s Ice Cream became utterly ridiculous as on multiple occasions through stories covering relatively short periods, Tommy & Co, not to mention the head of the British Secret Service, stuffed their faces with Walls Ice Cream or, if fitting a trip to a shop or a Wallsie’s van was just too outside the plot, they would yearn for the bloody stuff.
Oh, and maybe that far back ice cream was made with something that has since been removed from the formula, but all it took was a wrapping in newspaper and the ice cream would last forever without melting.
I’m sorry, the constant harping on ice cream as a source of energy, not to mention mental alertness, and the regularity with which it was consumed leaves me unable to take the Tommy Walls serials even remotely seriously. The Trade Descriptions Act is a long, long way off, I can tell you.
On the back page, ‘Louis the Fearless’ confounded my expectations by living a long life and dying of natural causes, outliving all those baronial opponents and championing the peasants and livestock to the end, only, unless I’m misremembering European History A Level studies (Grade A), it didn’t seem to have any longlasting effect on the poor buggers.
That was followed by ‘Deep Sea Doctor’, the life of Grenfell of Labrador, a Doctor who fought to raise standards of health in Canada, and then ‘Man of Courage’, the life of St Vincent de Paul, whose story reversed the trend of figures whose lives were getting nearer and nearer to modern times. This last carried over into Volume 4.
I’ve already mentioned the frequent prose appearances of Rex Milligan this volume, mainly in complete short stories, but in issue 49, the comic began serialising a book-length story, ‘Rex Milligan’s Busy Term’. This aside, the state of Eagle’s prose serials in volume 3 was not impressive, with the only homegrown serial being the brief and somewhat reptitive ‘Truants Abroad’, another scientist’s-son-is-kidnapped-only-they-get-his-friend-instead story.


This separated two serialisations of Eric Leyland novels about Flame & Co. I remember reading at least one of that series as a library book in the early Sixties and even allowing for nostalgia, they really haven’t worn well. It’s all fast action, constantly being told how tough/determined/skilful the gang are without every really waiting to show it, and David Flame’s manner of speaking will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Leslie Charteris story.
The trend towards serialising stories about existing popular characters was extended at the volume’s end to its logical conclusion: after many reader’s letters, Eagle did a deal with Captain W.E.Johns to serialise his latest Biggles novel. It may have been abridged: traditionally (i.e., formulaicly), Biggles books start in the jungle somewhere with Ginger Hebblethwaite about to stand on a log that turns out to be a crocodile instead: Chapter 2, back in the Air Commissioner’s office, instructing Biggles on his latest case, but these story starts in the Air Commissioner’s office. A bit confusing, that, old boy.
I’ve not mentioned Harris Tweed: apart from John Ryan’s art softening slightly, and getting a little bit less grotesque, it was much the same all year.
One final word: Marcus Morris’s efforts to actively involve the readers continued unabated, one new development being the devotion of an occasional page to Readers Efforts, featuring short stories, cartoons, micro-crosswords, jokes and puzzles put forward by the readers themselves. Set against the professional standards around them, such things were almost never more than commendable for their age, but two efforts in different issues deserve a mention.
One was a short story by a young lady, 170 words in length, cute, stylish and florid, in which every word began with the letter ‘T’, a tremendous effort. The other was a notable cartoon, not very good in itself, of various Eagle characters, with heads swapped onto each other’s bodies: notable for the identity of its artist – Gerald Scarfe!
Such was Volume 3: we ended the volume with Dan Dare, PC49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Harris Tweed and Tommy Walls, all of these with their permanent and best artists. But there was still more to be done, as will be seen in Volume 4.

Eagle – Volume 2 (1951/2)


Dan Dare in ‘The Red Moon Mystery’

Eagle‘s second volume feels very much like an exercise in consolidation. There are no startling advances, just good, solid progress. Dan Dare completes his first, and longest, adventure, but the second proves to be just as good and as popular, despite an inexplicable backstage panic, whilst both PC49 and Riders of the Range change artists, the one to great effect, the other to marginal improvement.
Volume 2 started with a birthday issue, though in the comic this was represented by an extended Editor’s page with photos of the principal editorial staff and some of the main artists, and a full-page centrespread showing how Eagle is produced, from logging of trees in Canada to the newsagent’s shop.
I have to correct an error on my part in the last blog when I claimed Skippy the Kangaroo was replaced by another European strip: it was, but not immediately. First we had to experience the home-made The Legend of the Lincoln Imp, written and drawn by Norman Spargo: repeat after me, this is for the seven year olds, this is for the seven year olds.
The volume had barely started when Marcus Morris was making excuses for another increase in price, this one based on a threefold increase in the cost of paper. This time, the price went up by only a halfpenny, but that still made for a 50% increase in the price of Eagle in little over a year.
Dan Dare’s adventures on Venus continued until issue 25, making the overall story 77 issues in length: the longest Dan Dare story and the longest story in Eagle‘s history. Oddly enough, after the muddy and dull colouring I criticised in volume 1, several weeks of art go to the opposite extreme, applying light colours to a bleached background, as if there was an extreme light-source. I’m assuming that this was an aspect of Frank Hampson’s ceaseless experimenting.
But once the story returned to Earth, the colouring settled into a more naturalistic palette. Behind the scenes, Hampson’s tendency to overwork began to take its toll, and he was absent from the last four weeks of the story.
Apparently, the realisation that the story was nearing its end caused some panic in Eagle‘s offices, especially as it was realised that nothing appeared to have been done to prepare for a sequel. There were fears that a different story would be a flop, and some effort was putting into publicising the forthcoming adventure on Mars, but of course the panic was unnecessary. ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ was just as popular, and whilst the art retained a somewhat cartoonish edge, especially in Dan’s Uncle Ivor, it was stronger overall, with a bolder and more aggressive use of black lines. Hampson’s friend and chief assistant Harold Johns was, on a couple of occasions, elevated to the status of co-artist, his name signed alongside that of the master.

John Worsley’s PC49

After finishing off the absurd story with the midget and the giant, Strom Gould’s fourth and last PC49 story was the absolute nadir, though the blame for that goes to writer Alan Stranks. ‘The Curse of Killer’s Keep’ was a horrible and absurd mess from start to finish, with Joan Carr missing as 49 is knocked out and kidnapped to a remote island serving a ridiculous dictator going by the name of Napoleon Bloggs. It’s an idiotic story that’s completely wrong for a level-headed beat copper, but Stranks showed that he recognised it by taking a completely different approach with the very next story, which saw ex-POW John Worsley take over as artist for the rest of the run.
‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ is everything PC49 hasn’t been before now, but will be until the feature ends. It’s down to earth, with an easy, well-developed flow, and it introduces the Boy’s Club who will effectively co-star from hereon in.
The ‘Terrible Twins’ are the Mulligans, Pat and Mick, a rowdy and rebellious pair of Irish extraction. They’re not bad kids, just wild, and irresponsible. 49 tries to take them under his wing at the Boy’s club, whose leader, Snorky, is the only one identified, but the irrepressible pair blot their copybook. Their wildness attracts the attention of Knocker and Slim, the first of Worsley’s gallery of grotesque baddies. This pair are street level crooks, breaking into factories, coshing nightwatchmen, that level of street crime, and they con the Mulligans into helping them. Only when the Twins start to realise what’s really going on do they start to repent, though they only really learn their lessons when Mick is captured and Pat wounded in the arm and the Boys Club rally round to help 49 bring down the crooks.
Worsley’s art is not quite as we will get used it it on this first story. He is far more polished than Gould, and his faces considerably more varied and, even when he is caricaturing crooks, more realistic. At this stage there’s a rounded fullness to his work that will later drift towards a more impressionistic style, and his backgrounds are far more detailed. It’s a tremendous improvement, and the change in direction for the stories is also positive.
His second story is set in and around the Docks, with 49 being assisted to bring down smugglers by cabin boy Toby Moore, but as the volume ends, the Club is ready to play a direct part, with the Mulligans and others identified.
Jack Daniels had already started his second and last Riders of the Range story when Volume 1 ended. Based on a true incident, ‘The Cochise Affair’ was everything the first story was in terms of art, though the colours were even more stylised this time, baked out under a desert sun. He was replaced by Angus Scott, whose approach was more conventional and whose cartooning was a little more realistic, but who was not much more than a cartoonist, his faces sketchy and angular. Scott was also give short stories to draw, and was into the third and last of his stint when Volume 2 ended.
We shall leave The Legend of the Lincoln Imp under its deserved shroud, because it and its predecessor were completely overshadowed by Eagle‘s second venture into the world of European comics. In Volume 2 issue 17, Herge’s famous Tintin made his first appearance in English.

Tintin in Eagle

The story chosen was ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’, though the title was never given. This was an interesting choice as the story had originally been serialised in ‘Le Petit Vingtieme’ in 1938/9, in black and white. By 1951, Tintin was starring in a magazine bearing his own name, but whilst Herge was undergoing periods of depression, his studio was busy reworking, polishing and colouring earlier adventures.
Nevertheless, this is still very different from the album version we now know so well. The translator (s) is unknown, but the legendary Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not begin their long association with Tintin until Methuen started publishing the adventures in books in 1958. Certainly, none of the signature flourishes of the series are present. Tintin is given to be French (!), his dog is Milou as in the original, and whilst the Thompsons are indeed Thompson and Thomson, their humour is purely physical, with none of the malapropisms and careful manglings of the English language. The translation appears to be no more than literal and workmanlike.
For all that, Tintin is still head and shoulders above its predecessors, and it’s a feather in the cap for it to be Eagle who brought the famed boy Reporter to England for the first time.
As for the remaining strips, there’s little to say. Despite John Ryan introducing, late in the volume, a small amount of continuity, in the form of the Extra Special Agent spending four weeks on holiday in the Caribbean, Harris Tweed stuck to its formula of the blowhard winning by accident or the actions of the put-upon Boy, and coming up with some form of self-justifying pun in the final panel.
Equally, Tommy Walls stuck to its little model. Most strips were drawn by Richard E. Jennings, with the occasional interpolations by others, and every strip ended with yet more blocks of Walls Ice Cream, until you fear for the dental health of Tommy, Bobby, Lennie and Sue. In the back end of the Volume, there’s an increased presence by ‘Wallsie’, the name for any driver/vendor of Walls Ice Cream vans, just to render Tommy’s attacks on grown men slightly more plausible, though I do emphasise the word ‘slightly’.
The Great Adventurer only lasted a handful of issues into the new Volume, before ending with the rather unsparing detail of St Paul’s beheading on the orders of the Emperor Nero. It was succeeded by Patrick, Fighter for Truth, the life of St Patrick of Ireland, though the story risked confusion by referring to Patrick by his childhood name of Hygaid, and showing him as a spoilt half-Roman and all round nasty piece of work for the first couple of months.
By now, Norman Williams was well-established as the back-page artist, and once again the strip did not shirk unpleasant details, such as Patrick’s devoted sister and fellow-slave Lupait being beaten to death by her master.
St Patrick’s story was much shorter than that of St Paul, and we had time to start Louis the Fearless, about the French King who inherited the crown at an early age and, from his start, had a very socialist attitude in being for fair and decent treatment of the peasantry, causing much opposition from the Barons, who were very much of the ‘Keep the rabble down’ camp: I anticipate assassination in Volume 3.

Tommy Walls by Richard E Jennings

On the prose side, ‘The Scarlet Snuffbox’, a London-set carryover from volume 1, was aggressively anti-female in a way Eagle hadn’t previously been. In contrast, it’s successor, ‘North Wind’, featured a highly competent girl, who spent the entire story disguised as a boy until the final episode, when her true gender is revealed. Unfortunately, the moment she becomes a girl, she starts getting a bit soppy about how the British boy she’s been partnered with will react to the deception, but he’s more concerned with the person beneath than her superficial characteristics, so there’s not even the slightest hint of a romance blooming!
The serial was written by Geoffrey Beardsmore, and appeared as a complete novel after its serialisation was completed. This was Beardsmore’s first contribution to Eagle, but a few years later, he would become a permanent fixture in the comic, with more than one comics series.
‘North Wind’ finished in issue 26, but there was not another serial until Rex Rients’s ‘s ‘Nightmare Island’, which ran from issue 40 to 51. This was a much more conventional story, with an amusingly ‘Lost’-like set-up: plane off course in the South Pacific crashes on mysterious island, but the set-up was much more down-to-earth. Pirate treasure is discovered on the island, and a sleazy, dictatorial Brazilian and two scummy Americans team up with the intention of killing everyone else and keeping it. Needless to say, two teenage boys, one British and one Australian, foil them.
The rest of the time was taken up by Anthony Buckeridge’s Rex Milligan. Buckeridge, already famous for his Jennings and Darbishire stories both in books and on the radio, had been asked to contribute to Eagle and came up with his other popular creation specifically for the comic. Rex Milligan was a London-based Grammar school boy who, alongside his best pal, Jigger Johnson, was constantly getting into trouble – and getting out of it as the strapline on the series proclaimed. These were all self-contained stories, bright and breezy, and appeared throughout the volume in two separate tranches.
Otherwise, there was the usual assortment of short stories, no better and no worse than those that preceded them, although six were published under the heading of ‘The Merman of the Fijis’, about a wonderboy swimmer out in the South Pacific, frustrating the evil plans of a crooked boat-owner, who commits suicide by shark in the last paragraph.
One of the things that distinguished volume 2 was the increased intensity of Marcus Morris’s efforts to involve Eagle‘s readers, in games, competitions and events outside the mere reading of the paper. A small section for Letters was introduced, events and holidays organised, especially Carol Services around Christmas, with a special service for Eagle readers at none other than St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s a lot of energy going into the kind of extra-curricular things the readers would like, including the establishing of the first of Eagle‘s sister papers, sister being the operative word here, as Girl was established for readers’ sisters, in an effort to stop them pinching their brothers’ copies of Eagle.
So that was volume 2: more of the same, only different. Some incremental improvement, most notably in respect of PC49, but overall, the comic still has some way to go to hit its peak period. We’ll see how things progress next time out.

 

Frank Hampson: Ambition and Frustration


It was evident from the opening weeks of The Phantom Fleet that Frank Hampson was devoting less time to drawing Dan Dare than he had in the past, periods of illness aside.
Hampson is clearly in place for the opening page: his personal style is still easy to distinguish from the members of his team. But thereafter, as evidence by the absence of his signature week after week, it is Don Harley and new recruits Keith Watson and Gerald Palmer who do most, if not all of the drawing.
From the outset of Eagle, Frank Hampson was ambitious for his creation. He had set up an unprecedented, and at times unwieldy studio system, to produce a Rolls Royce of a strip, driving through a junkyard of rusting bicycles, and it had been an unbelievable success.
But that was not enough. Much of what Hampson brought to Dan Dare, his approach to visual story-telling in a country that had never begun to think of what this meant, had been heavily influenced by American artists, the giants of the newspaper strips in the Thirties, who had developed the adventure serial to a height that is has rarely equaled since.
Hampson wanted to be part of that market. He wanted to meet his contemporaries, learn what governed their markets, develop a version of Dan Dare that would meet their requirements and appreciation. He also wanted to take Dan’s adventures off the page, to develop them into films, animations for which his existing studio system was the ideal basis, artists working under him who had learned his style, his philosophy, his approach.
To do this, Hampson would need time, time that would be denied him if he had to devote the hours he had to date on the day-to-day preparation of Dan’s two weekly pages. So he wanted to step back, to remove himself from the physical aspects of the strip, leave the work to the men (and women) he had trained, and whom he could trust to execute his vision. He wanted to develop that vision, devise better, bigger, more exciting stories for the Pilot of the Future. He needed time to think.
But in order to develop even a fraction of this, Hampson needed something even more crucial. He needed help. He needed allies. He needed people in positions of authority to recognise the possibilities inherent in his ambitions and who would be prepared to back him in the effort to achieve these.
He did not have allies. He did not have men of vision. Instead, he had men who were running a publishing empire that was in slow but steady decline, who were trying to manage that decline, who did not have ideas that might have reversed it. He had men who had no idea, no comprehension of the things that Hampson aspired to, and no interest in learning.
Eagle made good money, money that supported the loss of profits elsewhere at Hulton Press. The greatest factor in Eagle’s success was still Dan Dare. And it was a damned expensive strip to produce, thanks to Hampson’s absurd studio system, a studio that received more in salary than Hulton’s executives who, like almost every executive to work in the comics industry anywhere at any time, could not comprehend that it was the creative elements on whom such success was built, not them.
Hampson’s frustrations built, so much so that, in 1957, early in the production of Reign of the Robots, he tendered his resignation. And Hulton accepted it.
Seriously, they did. They took a cold hard look at the cost of Hampson’s studio, and decided that they could continue the series much more cheaply, and to much the same effect (or so they thought) without Hampson. Fortunately, in the time it took them to come to this decision, and before they could organise a letter accepting Hampson’s resignation, he wrote to withdraw it. So the series continued, but the first crack had appeared.
A second crack would come in the form of an offer by Mirror Group Publishing for Frank Hampson’s services, to develop a brand new comic, Bulldog, along lines to be devised by him, at a salary double that which he received from Hulton for Eagle. This would raise Hampson’s income to an astonishing £7,000@, an unbelievable figure for the Fifties, and one that was certainly far higher than the executives of Mirror Group Publishing.
Hampson thought long and hard but, in the end, declined the offer. Bulldog, which had been devised as a vehicle for Hampson, collapsed and never appeared. One of Hampson’s reasons for declining was a loyalty towards Eagle that seems unthinkable these days, but which was very much in keeping with the attitudes of the fifties, where jobs were meant to be jobs for life, and loyalty to one’s employers was deeply ingrained, along with a concern for ones pension rights.
But there was another, perhaps more fundamental difference. Hampson wanted to withdraw from drawing. He wanted to create, devise, direct and plan series. But at that price, Mirror Group wanted Frank Hampson’s pencils and inks. So the deal fell through.
But this development was yet to come, and would arise under very different circumstances to those in which Hampson found himself in early 1958. The timing is wrong to suggest that this lay behind Hampson’s distancing of himself from much of The Phantom Fleet‘s art in its first half. No doubt he was still working on plans destined never to see fruition, and it’s certainly arguable that the doubts about the story might not have risen had Hampson been giving his daily attention to the story: Stranks may have been scripter, but only within the limits of Hampson’s overall control.
All was not well between Frank Hampson and Hulton Press. And far off, unseen by the artist and his team, and indeed Eagle‘s editor, Marcus Morris, distant forces were gathering whose moves would soon impact on Eagle, Dan Dare and Frank Hampson.
And not for the better.

Dan Dare: Rogue Planet


The first reprint

There isn’t a moment of pause between The Man from Nowhere and Rogue Planet. They merge, seamlessly, into one another, the change in story-title the only distinction. Rogue Planet is, however, the finer story. It is not a prelude but a conclusion, it is a major undertaking, dealing not only with the ending of a war between planets that has lasted for tens of millennia, but it is the overthrowing of slavery, the establishment/reinforcement of civilization. Taken all in all, and having regard to the continuing excellent art throughout this story, it’s possible to argue that Rogue Planet is the high point of the entire Dan Dare saga.
That’s not a universal position: more prominent Dan Dare fans and commentators than I, such as Alastair Crompton, author of Frank Hampson’s biography, holds writer Alan Stranks in a degree of contempt, for slowing the pace of Hampson’s stories down, but I cannot agree with him here. For Stranks, in this story, handles brilliantly the most serious weakness of the entire set-up, namely the Earth Cryptos expedition itself.
As I’d already mentioned, Earth really pushed the boat out on this aid mission to the Crypts, sending three men and a boy to hold off a planetary invasion. We know that they’ll succeed, but Stranks’ great gift is that he makes that outcome appear utterly plausible.
The action is non-stop: the Crypt ship has been shot down, its passengers and crew have escaped in individual rescue-torpedos and these come to ground on Cryptos, in the jungles of the Wilderness of Wex. At least, that is, seven do: the capsule containing Flamer Spry cannot be found. We don’t for one moment, believe that Flamer is dead. Frank Hampson is not going to kill his audience’s eye-level character, nor is Hulton – or any other publisher of boy’s comics in the mid-Fifties going to allow the death of a thirteen year old boy to happen. Over their dead bodies, so to speak. But Flamer is conspicuous by his absence, and Stranks/Hampson have the courage of their convictions to allow six full months to elapse before returning him to the story.
So that makes just three full-grown Earthmen to throw back the Phant Invasion. But Dan and Co have landed in the Wilderness – and Hampson’s depiction of Cryptos, with its alien flora, fauna and geography, is lush and gorgeous – and this means that they can operate as a guerilla force, unsuspected by their opponents.
There’s the beginning of the Invasion on the ground, guards and patrols in the woods, and nothing but compliant, passive Crypts. Which is where Stranks makes the single, most important point of the whole story. The Phants – facially modelled on the horse as Crypts are on the cow – are a warrior race, but they are not fighters. Once every 10,000 years, their forces invade a planet that has never raised a finger to stop them. Their soldiers are slaughterers, and nothing more. They simply don’t know how to cope with an enemy that fights back. Literally.
So, despite the smallness of their numbers, Dan, Dig and Lex are more than a match for any Phant patrols. Even Lero is moved to grapple with a Phant, preventing him from raising his weapon.
And in this early, exploratory stage of the plot, Stranks introduces what will prove to be the critical element that will allow this tiny band to change the history of the Rogue Planet. It’s a very simple thing: with Earth-supplies in very limited quantities, Lex O’Malley offers himself as a guinea-pig to test the Phantosian food-capsule, which sends him into a psychotic rage…
But the three Earthmen are far too few to take on the Phant camp, where Cryptosian slaves are being herded, for transport to Phantos. Dan swears a vow that he will rescue them all, but in the meantime, all he can do is to undertake a recce, in Phantosian uniform. Which goes badly, because of Stripey.
It’s an interesting question: why, having been so hard upon the inclusion of the fatuous dog, Sir William Tell, in The Red Moon Mystery/Marooned on Mercury, do I find it possible, even easy, to accept Digby’s new animal adoption, Stripey? What is the difference between the left over pooch on Mars and a docile, mammalian Cryptosian animal, with zebra-like stripes and an elephant’s trunk, and why isn’t the latter just as objectionable?
I don’t have a logical answer. There are significant differences between the two: the dog was just a stupid mutt with no idea of what was going on whilst Stripey is a cheerful, inquisitive and intelligent animal with a personality of his own, which helps a lot, and the much-improved art from the relatively crude early-period Hampson does much to establish the improbable little creature as an asset in his own right.

Stripey, with friend

However, it’s Stripey’s natural curiosity that proves to be Dan’s undoing, following him into the Phant encampment, only to be picked up by a Phant bully, who threatens to cut his trunk off. Dan jumps in, causing a commotion that draws the attention of the Phant High Command, Military Commanders Square, Circle and Triangle and Supreme Commander Gogol, a nine feet tall giant.
Despite a few judo tosses to establish who’s who when it comes to grappling, Dan is overwhelmed and taken back to Phantos for dismantling. You see, the Phants are not aware of any intelligent life beyond Los-system so the strange looking, aggressive creature is clearly some form of robot built by the Crypts to do their fighting for them, and as such has to go before the Mystic Orak – the root force behind Phant civilisation – so that he can be disassembled…
Digby’s first instinct is to rescue his Colonel, and it takes O’Malley pointing out that he might be ignoring Dare’s final orders to do so. But dutifully, he and Lex are lead, by Lero, to the centre of Crypt civilisation, across a planet that is, in all aspects, beautiful, a luxuriant land of incredible flora and fauna, all of it alien and yet all of it perfectly believable and natural. In many ways, this I think marks out Rogue Planet as Hampson’s artistic peak.
Dan, meanwhile, is taken (with the concealed Stripey) to Phantos which, in appropriately symbolic fashion, is a far plainer, far more barren world. Once he reaches Phantos, he is dragged before the figure that commands the whole of Phantos society, Orak, the mighty Robot-brain (It must be said that, whilst Stranks could pull together long, complex and enthralling stories, he was less than imaginative when it came to names – the sun Los, the Tengam drive, the great Kra that rescues Crypt civilisation: on that level Orak(le) is positively stunning).
By the time Dan is dragged before the uncomprehending Orak, genuinely a robot brain, but still the arbiter of Phant Society, he’s at last growing weak from lack of food, the team having been on restricted rations after losing their supplies when the Crypt ship was shot down. He’s left alone during Orak’s ‘Hour of Silence’, only to be rescued from the least likely quarter: Flamer Spry.
As I said above, Flamer’s been missing from the story for just over six months, but Stranks/Hampson have judged their moment perfect;y. In story terms it’s only been a matter of weeks, if as much as that. The shots that damaged Flamer’s escape capsule knocked it off course, causing him to land on Phantos instead, as indeed did the Crypt ship. Flamer’s managed not only to keep out of sight but also retrieve the rations from the ship, so Dan can recover his strength, awaiting Orak’s ‘Aqua-Test’, to be followed by… dismantling.
It’s a clever twist to have the Phants as vulnerable to water as we are to fire, but it requires a lot of scientific speculation to justify it, and when put into practice, it does give the story some problems. On a planet that’s as scientifically advanced as Phantos, it’s a little jarring to find that the ‘Aqua-Test’ involves tying Dan’s arms behind his back then lowering him into a countryside river.
Equally, neither Stranks nor Hampson seems comfortable about the implications. It’s one thing for the story to joke that Flamer has converted one of the weapons into something deadly dangerous to the Phants – a water pistol! – but when the time comes and Dan needs rescuing from Gogol, it is Stripey who intervenes to give Gogol a trunkful of water smack in the face, causing instant collapse. Gogol has obviously been killed before our very eyes, but neither Dan nor Flamer react to it, nor will they acknowledge what has happened. But Gogol is clearly dead: he has no further role in the story despite being supreme military commander, if anyone wants to argue the point.
Dan and Flamer’s next task is to steal Gogol’s ship to rejoin Lex and Dig on Cryptos, where, in accordance with orders, they have been designing a building military defences in the wake of seeing the Kra leave for its 1,000 year journey through space. This has unfortunate implications. Dan and Flamer have prisoners on board, Circle and Triangle (Square has been shot dead by Dan, resisting kidnap). Now, overflying the city of Chakra, in a Phant ship, they get shot down by one of Dig’s missiles, crash-landing in the bay and having their tables turned when Circle and Triangle grab the guns.
Never mind, Dig and Lex are boating out to rescue them. What follows, much as I love this story, is one of the most completely fat-headed scenes Frank Hampson and his team ever drew: Dan and Digby are captives. As Dig and Lex approach, they shout out that they are captives, that there are Phants on board controlling them, and to shear off. Digby and Lex have even seen that there’s a Phant on board, via binoculars. And they come sailing blithely on, deliberately dropping themselves in it. I despair, at times, I really do.
So the two Phants have all four Crypt ‘Robot-Things’ under guard. They may have to get through an entire nation of Crypts but their entire history demonstrates that they don’t even need two Phants to cow that many Crypts. They come ashore at Chakra, smug and secure, except for having been so close to water for so long. Circle takes his mask off, and Stripey promptly sprays him in the mug, killing him instantly, though again this is not acknowledged as such.
The creators are into their endgame now. Lex’s violent reaction to the Phant food-capsule earlier has given him a theory. Both types of food-capsule, the purple Phantosian and the yellow Cryptosian, have been analysed and found to consist of different nutrients. It’s possible that it is the diet that is the direct cause of Phant aggression and Crypt fear, so Lex has had the Crypt scientists knock up a batch of Crypt capsules in purple. They feed these to Triangle, and within 24 hours he is as docile and peaceful as any Crypt.
What remains is to switch the entire Phant food production to Crypt capsules, first for the invasion force on Crypt, then on Phantos itself. There are twists and turns and obstacles to be negotiated, not least of which is Triangle himself, so far converted to the cause of peace that he’s almost become a hippie who can’t help himself from trying to convert Phants to the cause before altering their diets.

From the colour rough to the finished page

At last though, the plan succeeds. Orak is exposed for what he is, an outmoded robot created by the cultish warrior-priests, the Kruels (Stranks: tsk, tsk), the Phants turn peaceful, the Kra is recalled and Lero sets off to commit suicide in space.
He’s relieved of this obligation, imposed by the mores of Crypt society, by Dan’s forgiveness of his most serious crime: he has lied to a friend. And it is a most serious lie, with massive consequences, one whose truth Dan keeps to himself until the team is en route home for Earth. I wonder when this idea was devised, and whether it was intended from the very beginning of The Man from Nowhere, when the scope of the whole story was taking shape, or whether it was a late inspiration, a bridge to the forthcoming story of what Dan and Co will find on Earth when they get back.
Because when they get back, they won’t have been gone for a few months only. Because Lero lied, because the Crypts haven’t conquered ‘faster-than-light’ propulsion. Because the ‘acceleration/deceleration’ chambers are no such thing, but instead they’re suspended animation chambers. When Dan and Co return to Earth, in the final panel of the final page, they will have been gone for ten years…
What awaits them is, of course, the third book of The Man from Nowhere Trilogy and we’ll come to that next time out. But before we leave Rogue Planet, I must yet again praise the art as, for me, the finest period in the strip’s history. It’s not just the detail, lush and brilliant as it is without ever once overriding the central image of each panel. It’s not just the skill and deftness with which Hampson composes first his pages, then his panels. It’s not just the invention that creates alien worlds, truly alien worlds, that glow with life, that look real, that look lived in, that make you want to climb inside the panels and go exploring yourself. But perhaps above all of this, it’s the colouring. Each page is a riot of colour, bright, harmonious, three-dimensional. Cryptos becomes that very real world. Hampson renders his heroes in contrasting colours that identify them wherever they are: Dan in his Spacefleet green uniform, Flamer in Astral blue. Lex, with his Naval Cap and his mariner’s rollneck thick white jersey, and Digby, caught in civvies, a red and yellow check shirt and white beach shorts.
Much of this has to do with Hampson reaching his artistic maturity. But much is also due to the presence of Don Harley, ‘the second-best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and also to a tightly organised, largely settled studio that, though still working hard, was not pulling the same kind of twenty-four hour grind of old. The studio was working, and Hampson was able to rely upon them. He had a writer he could trust, who enabled him to devote more time to his art, and more time to Dan Dare’s future, both on and off the page.
So much so that his mind started to turn towards not drawing Dan Dare…

Dan Dare: The Elephant in the Spaceship


During my post about The Man from Nowhere, I started to touch upon the incongruity of Flamer Spry’s presence on both the undersea expedition in Lex O’Malley’s Poseidon, and as one of the four man Earth Expedition across interstellar space to the planet Cryptos to save the peaceful Crypts from invasion, slaughter and slavery at the hands of their war-like enemies, the Phants. Started, but soon realised that the subject was one that needed to be considered as more than an aside.
Let’s say it bluntly. Under no circumstances, in any kind of realistic frame, should Flamer have gone on the Cryptos Expedition, nor probably on the Poseidon exploration too. He’s a thirteen year old boy, for heaven’s sake, and whilst I can understand and appreciate the commercial appeal of including a member of Eagle‘s audience directly in the story, the fact remains that Frank Hampson never touches on why this young boy should form an integral part of so many adventures.
We should probably gloss over this, and in a lesser series that would be easy. But Hampson has set standards of realism, in art and story construction, that do not allow us to ignore flaws and weaknesses in the logic of his world.
It was one thing for Flamer to play a substantial role in Prisoners of Space. His introduction in that story was logical, well-planned, and the result of a perfectly believable accident that, once it took place, established a situation from which the story-dynamic didn’t leave any room to extract the child.
And it was equally proper for Flamer to be at the Embassy Reception and enjoy recognition for his part in what occurred. Note though that, when the alarm sounded, and Dan scooted off into space with the interceptor squadron, Flamer is rightly not among the crew. That Lex O’Malley, who’s known Dan for maybe a half hour, does go up is another matter and one we’ll return to.
The one big question that’s never answered is just who Junior Cadet nickname-only Spry is in the first place. Flamer appears out of nowhere, along with Astral College and all its other cadets, Senior and Junior, in the first episode of Prisoners of Space. There’s no suggestion that Dan Dare has even heard of him before Flamer’s model rocket ship nearly prangs Sir Hubert, but Dan is sufficiently impressed by the young boy that he ‘punishes’ him by giving him a tour of the real thing. All of this is perfectly plausible, and given how well Flamer conducts himself in difficult circumstances, it’s entirely understandable that Dan should then look upon him as a sort of protegé. In that light, the decision to wangle a place for Flamer on the Poseidon expedition – a non-combat, search-and-rescue mission, remember – is equally understandable and even logical.
It’s what follows that stretches credibility. Dan is off to Cryptos, across interstellar space, with three volunteers, one of whom is going to be Digby. That Flamer should put himself forward as a volunteer is only to be expected. But he’s accepted: a thirteen year old boy on a potentially suicide mission, traveling to avert war five light-years from Earth? Were he and Lex O’Malley the only volunteers?
Consider the circumstances: Flamer is an approximately thirteen year old boy at Astral College, a full-time, military-based establishment. Like a boarding school pupil, he lives in. The College is in locus parentis. In practice, that would mean the Headmaster, and devolved authority to the masters. Ultimately, the responsibility vests in the Controller of Spacefleet, Sir Hubert Guest, who is also the supreme authority on Dare’s Expedition. Sir Hubert’s response is the screamingly obvious one: No. But he is persuaded to relent, and to authorise Flamer’s admission, by a speech from the young man.
What does Flamer say that convinces Sir Hubert, against his own better judgement, to allow him to go? It’s made up in equal parts of positive and negative arguments. The positive arguments are what you would expect in the circumstances: the opportunity, to see, to experience, to grow and to bring back to his classmates everything he learns. But it is the negative argument that is unusual. It’s basically a statement of the complete unimportance of Flamer Spry. Who is he? Nothing but a single Astral College cadet. If he should die, what has been lost? Just one, tiny, insignificant figure, less than nothing in the grand scheme of things.
It’s an impressive moment. I confess that I find it difficult to believe that a thirteen year old boy should have, let alone speak such thoughts. In their way, they speak to a nobility that is in keeping with Dan Dare himself, but which sits awkwardly with so young a figure. Or is it perhaps that, a long way away from what may follow, in the familiar surroundings of Spacefleet, Flamer is suffering from an excess of naiveté that lets him say things that do not suit his age?
But the statement is fateful in calling our attention to the complete blackout of everything that lies behind Flamer’s debut in Prisoners of Space. When he describes himself as nothing, as someone whose death would cause no loss, create no absence, leave no trace behind, it draws attention to that imposing lacuna: who is Flamer Spry?
He must have had parents (we cannot assume anything else without doing irreparable damage to Dan’s Universe, taking it into areas unimaginable by Hampson and impermissible by the Rev. Marcus Morris), but who are they? Where are they? What’s happened to them? And whilst there must have been Grandparents, are there other relatives? Brothers and sisters? Aunts and Uncles? Cousins? Is Flamer Spry really so alone in the world that there is no-one outside of Astral who has any interest in what might be his fate?
Though Frank Hampson began Dan Dare with short biographies of its principal characters, there does not seem to have been anything similar prepared in respect of Flamer Spry. Fans have long since set themselves to create continuities for the Dan Dare Universe, linking stories that were originally planned as one-offs. I am particularly impressed by the efforts of New Zealand Dan fan Denis Steeper in binding together so many stories into a comprehensive continuity.
But when it comes to Flamer Spry, there is no critical consensus among fans as to how his presence in the saga from 1954 to 1960 is to be explained. It’s been tentatively suggested that perhaps Dan knew the Spry parents, and Flamer when he was very young, and that he has taken an avuncular stance in relation to him. It’s a simple construct, and perhaps the Spry parents died when Flamer was young, or are stationed on Mars, or else working in some element of the Service that provides an equivalent to the Twentieth Century manner of getting unwanted parents out of the way, running Rubber Plantations in Malaya, or on diplomatic missions with the Foreign Service.
This might seem to be an awful lot of straining at gnats, but there’s a very good reason to hit upon an explanation of why Earth’s Chief Pilot of Spacefleet hangs around an awful lot with a thirteen year old boy. Because that really is the Elephant in the Spaceship.
Before I go any further, I’d better say that I don’t believe a single word of anything that I’m about to discuss. But nevertheless, certain things come together to make a substantial, if circumstantial case that in the modern world has to be addressed.
Let’s begin with the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, a book written by the German-born Child Psychologist, Dr Frederic Wirtham, and published to great notoriety in 1954, a year before The Man from Nowhere.
Though he was far from being the only moral crusader against comics in the early Fifties, Wirtham’s book has come to be the focal point for that period. Wirtham was a man who was seriously concerned about the moral health of America’s juveniles and who became fixated upon the idea that their comics were the most important single factor in leading them to juvenile delinquency, criminal habits and perverted sexuality.
I’m not going to tackle the book itself, nor any of its specious arguments, but one of the many accusations leveled by Wirtham was directed at Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Wirtham accused the Dynamic Duo of portraying an idealised homosexual life-style, the man and his underage boy spending all their time living in a house with no female element, eating and drinking with sybaritic delight whilst lolling around in silk dressing gowns. It’s utter nonsense, but it’s only a short step from there to cross the Atlantic and look at the relationship between a tall, handsome bachelor man, who has demonstrated a lack of interest in any female company (Professor Peabody). He already spends all his life with a devoted male who has abandoned his wife and children to serve him. And now this ‘confirmed bachelor’ suddenly starts taking around with him a thirteen year old boy…
I’ll repeat myself: I think it’s nonsense. But though I don’t for one moment believe there’s a fire, there is an inordinate amount of smoke to be waved aside.
Go back to the opening episode of The Man from Nowhere. Dan sees a tall, burly, bearded Naval Commander (and what else is the Navy famed for, beside Rum and the Lash?). Dan immediately wants to be introduced to this craggy, ultra-male figure, and before you know it, O’Malley is following him out of his element into space, and Dan is following O’Malley out of his own element into the deeps.
And who are the two less-than-plausible figures who follow Dan into Interstellar Space? Not the devoted Hank and Pierre, colleagues, friends and spacemen, but a Naval officer and a thirteen year old cadet.
Just how much smoke do we have to experience before we cannot help seeing the red flame within?
I know what Dr Frederic Wirtham would have made of it, and the good doctor would have been wrong about it. But in after decades, when we have all grown cynical, when we have become infinitely more aware of transgression being concealed by the face of celebrity or authority, we cannot any longer ignore such signs. Even in the Fifties, the phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’ was being used as a code for men whose interest was not in women.
Unfortunately, there’s not an answer, a definitive conclusion to be written. We have a situation that was created in conditions of innocence that have, in changing times, become impossible to maintain without an effort of naiveté. I don’t believe any conscious undertones were intended, and I know nothing about the people principally involved that would suggest any unconscious undertones were involved, but in 2015, we have to face the fact that someone, somewhere, would have called Social Services long before Flamer Spry blasted off from Earth in Lero’s ship.

Dan Dare: The Man from Nowhere


Hampson was back.
And this time it was for the duration. There would be no further extended absences through illness. There would be no more upheavals in the Studio. And Hulton had finally found a writer, a skilful, inventive writer, who could maintain extended storylines of the kind Dan Dare revelled in, and work comfortably with Frank Hampson. The strip was about to enter its middle, or mature period, to begin an ongoing storyline that would, eventually, last almost three years, and see the art on the series hit a peak that would hardly be equalled ever after.
The new, permanent writer was Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran on the PC 49 strip that he had created and still wrote for BBC Radio (to a completely different continuity, it must be added). And as his first trick for a Dan Dare writer, he took the Chief Pilot of Spacefleet under water for several weeks.
The Man from Nowhere is perhaps the most famous Dan Dare story, not so much for itself, excellent though it is, but because it gives its name to that most famous, most highly-regarded sequence known universally as The Man from Nowhere Trilogy (though, as we will eventually see, it actually consists of four stories). It was ground-breaking, both in terms of the quantum leap in the art that accompanied Hampson’s return, in the frequency with which Hampson signed Don Harley’s name to their art, and in being the point at which Dan and Co go on their first interstellar adventure, journeying beyond the Solar System.
The story begins almost immediately after Prisoners of Space, with a celebration reception at the Venusian Embassy, honouring the capture of the Mekon (though this gives rise to a continuity issue with a significant story in an Eagle Annual). Everybody’s there: Flamer and Steve are being presented to the Theron Ambassador, Groupie is dressed up to the nines (he will never be seen again outside flashbacks), Hank, Pierre and Jocelyn Peabody are among the guests, Uncle Ivor and Aunt Anastasia are chatting, and there’s a prominent stranger just right of centre, in naval dress uniform, burly and black-bearded, chatting to another Theron.
Let’s take a moment just to look at this page. It’s one of Hampson’s rare but spectacular full-page covers, designed to be studied for details. But what’s most obvious is the richness and depth of the image. Hampson has used his time away from actual drawing to radically uplift his own work. Gone is any lingering trace of a cartoonist element, of simplification of forms. Hampson has moved four-square into the heart of photorealism.
And it’s not just the line-work. With this single page, the colouring takes on a greater degree of sophistication than we have yet seen. There’s a greater subtlety as to where flesh-tones are placed, using discrete and small areas of white space to simultaneously emphasise light sources and give a three-dimensional look to faces.
It’s not just the front page, which is traditionally Hampson’s purview, for page two shows the same level of attention. The eye is moved around expertly, faces glow, expressions are subtle and the richness of colours takes you into the scene, until you can almost hear the clink of glasses, the murmur of conversation and the strange Theron music occupying am almost subliminal background.
And it’s like that throughout, every week. The Man from Nowhere and the other elements of its Trilogy offer beautiful, textured, utterly convincing art that makes Hampson’s Early Period look, well, like comics in comparison.
That burly, black-bearded naval type comes into focus on the second page, catching Dan’s eye. He is Commander Alexander ‘Lex’ O’Malley, R.N., submariner, explorer, lecturer, and he, like Flamer Spry in the last story, is a new member of Dan’s supporting cast, the cadet and the sailor displacing stalwarts Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for pretty much the rest of the decade, as we shall shortly see.
The Solar System is at peace (or at least the Inner Planets), the Mekon has been captured, Digby is looking forward to a peaceful life and no more messy foreign planets, but of course you know it’s not going to stay that way. The alarm goes off, and poor Dig gets a faceful of fine food in his Colonel’s eagerness to get to Spacefleet HQ and discover the cause of the flap.
And Lex O’Malley is equally eager on his tail.

A leap of art

The ‘flap’ is that a spaceship of unknown design has appeared in the midst of the Solar System, out of nowhere, thousands of miles inside the ‘Peril Perimeter’, Earth’s outer surveillance warning ring. And it’s heading for Earth.
Dan has a theory as to how the strange ship could have appeared without warning inside the borders, a theory that will prove both right and wrong, though we won’t know about the latter for the better part of eighteen months, but that theory has to wait upon action: the ship must be intercepted. Dan leads a three-ship team, and O’Malley’s still at his shoulder, despite having no Spacefleet role whatsoever. Dan isn’t objecting, however.
Since the unknown craft isn’t answering any hails, Dan is reluctantly about to shoot it down, when the ship explodes for no apparent reason (no in-story reason will ever be given). Digby, who for all his tomfoolery, possesses the sharpest pair of eyes in Spacefleet, is convinced he sees something like a ‘flying cigar’ (this is still the era of ‘flying saucer’ sightings, and the cigar shape is a well-known alternative) shoot free, though no-one believes him.
The doomed craft is allowed to fly on and crash-land on Earth, where it hits off the coast of Japan, the Tuscarora Deep in fact, which is where O’Malley’s next exploration is to take place. It’s a little odd that it’s allowed to proceed unhindered, given that Hampson depicts the ship hitting the drink close enough to traditional Japanese fishermen for the waves to swamp and kill them.
Meanwhile, Digby’s cigar also lands, in entirely another hemisphere, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso jungles.
For a time, the story progresses along parallel lines. Dan’s theory about the craft, and the search for it on O’Malley’s vessel, Poseidon, is the major story, but it’s punctuated at intervals by that of the occupant of the ‘cigar’, the mysterious ‘Man from Nowhere’, whose face is hidden from us as he is assisted out of the jungle by two peons and a Doctor (Hampson delicately avoids stereotyping these people, who are a world away from the Spacefleet continuum). It is the Doctor who emphasises, in his almost courtly manner, that whoever the Man from Nowhere may be, he is decidedly alien: “When I examined him, I found a tiny scratch on his arm, which bled when I washed it – it is nothing, you understand…except that his blood is green…”
By far the greater attention is focussed on Dan joining O’Malley on Poseidon for an expedition to the bottom of the Tuscarora Deep to find the missing craft. As is usual, he has company in the faithful Digby – who complains at literally every step about going to sea, and especially how far down they go – and Flamer Spry.
I’m going to have a lot more to say about this new habit of dragging Junior Cadet Spry all round the place a little later.
As in Prisoners of Space, Flamer has struck up a good alliance with ‘Digby Sir’, and his youthful optimism is a counterpart to the Wigan Wonder’s Jonah-like predictions.
Stranks brings the two strands together just before Dan and Co submerge. It’s an unconventional thing to do, but it shows good sense not to drag out the mystery artificially and, whilst the action proceeds underwater, to have the boys eagerly anticipating the next development. And the Man from Nowhere turns out to be a blue-skinned alien, with a long, almost-bovine muzzle: a mystery, but surely not a threat?
Lero the Crypt, as we will later know him, goes on to London and Dan and Co to the bottom of the ocean. Stranks once said that Frank Hampson had thrown away a lot of material in ‘The Venus Story’, that he could have made it last five years. There are Dan Dare fans who use that statement to argue against Stranks, for slowing down the pace of events, for restricting the constant flow of Hampson’s imagination, although as many if not more are grateful to him for being exactly the kind of solid, professional, imaginative writer Hampson needed to carry the narrative weight, AND provide exciting, enthralling adventures.
I bring this up here because it has to be admitted that, no sooner does Poseidon touch bottom than it is attacked by an overwhelmingly huge, Kraken-like undersea monster that is out to eat it, which is no less a cliché than the ‘fire-breathing dragon’ of the arena in Operation Saturn.
The sequence is superbly handled, and Hampson’s art is no less glorious and convincing for being undersea. Poseidon’s evasive tactics lead to it discovering the wrecked Crypt spaceship, with a three ‘man’ crew still aboard, and once the Kraken is suitably distracted by another menace his own side, the ship can be salvaged and Dan and Co return to the surface. To Digby’s eternal relief!

Lex O’Malley

Structurally, The Man from Nowhere is a prelude. The appearance of the Crypt ship, and its recovery, is an interesting phase, but once that is concluded, the whole story’s movement is towards the greater scope of its sequel. Lero, once Dan works out how to communicate with him, is an envoy, who comes seeking assistance. Dan was right: the Crypts have travelled faster than light, but they have done so out of need.
They are a scientifically advanced race, compared to Earth, but they are also a pacific race, lacking in violence and anger. Cryptos orbits the triple-sun system of Los, five light-years distant, but Los also hosts the planet Phantos, home to a race of aggressors, predatory beings. Phantos’s eccentric, comet-like orbit, brings it into conjunction with Cryptos only every 10,000 years, the next of which is near, but each time the Phants invade Cryptos, bringing death, destruction, misery and slavery to the planet.
The Crypts’ fear and passivity renders them incapable of resistance. The men of Earth, and their hero, Dan Dare, are not. They ask for Dan to return with them, to lead a Resistance against the approaching Phant menace.
It’s a bit like Prisoners of Space, except that this time the objections to Dan sacrificing himself go up to World Cabinet level, and are based on a more isolationist approach, rather like America between the Wars. Cryptos is a faraway place, not Earth’s problem: Dan is needed at the centre of Earth’s defences. Nothing to do with us, mate.
But Dan, needless to say, thinks differently. It’s not just the advanced science that Cryptos can share with Earth if we co-operate, it’s Dan’s sense of mission. The weak need the help of the strong. It’s the supreme moral duty placed upon the strong by virtue of their strength (boy, you can’t half tell this was written in the Fifties, can’t you?). Dan insists on his right to go, to protect, to bring peace.
He’s allowed to take three volunteers (four Earthmen, to throw back an entire planetary invasion: we’re really pushing the boat out here for the Crypts, aren’t we?). We all know that Digby, whatever his preferences, will be number one, but instead of reliable old Hank and Pierre, the other two places go to… Naval Commander Lex O’Malley and Junior Astral Cadet Flamer Spry.
They are, after all, the new supporting cast. That they are utterly implausible is beside the point. Lex, at least, has Admiralty and UN Naval authority to volunteer, but Flamer is a true wild card. His inclusion is out of the question, for all the obvious reasons, but his impassioned speech – based in equal measure upon the fantastic opportunities to explore and learn and his complete disposability if it all goes pear-shaped – convinces Sir Hubert to agree.
So the repaired Crypt ship takes off, taking Dan and Co into interstellar space for the first time. It’s a surprisingly long flight. Lero takes up some of it expanding Dan and Co’s (and our) knowledge of Cryptos, the Los system, the ship’s Tengam drive propulsion system, and the terrible Phants who cause such fear in the Crypts that they can barely stand the sight of a shadow and certainly not the real thing (to strike a personal note, that shadow of a Phant warrior is revealed on the cover of the issue of Eagle appearing on my birth date).
Several weeks are devoted to a curious, and ultimately fruitless incident crossing the system of the dark star Sabu. The ship is attacked by strange, tentacular jellyfish that the Crypts cannot see but which are obvious to the Earthmen. Dan takes a space jeep out, encounters and shoots down a tentacle, and brings one back inside for examination, only for it to dissolve into a puddle of liquid. Dan saves the liquid, which is still invisible to Crypt eyes, as a useful disguise tool, assuming a similar weakness among the Phants. But Stranks then presumably forgets this tool as it is never referred to again.
Dan’s promise one day to return and investigate this strange, dark system also goes  unanswered, another lead for the enterprising fan writer to explore one day.

The Crypt ship in deep space

At last, however, Los-system is reached. The ending is abrupt: the Phant invasion has begun, its ships attack the Crypt ship. Dan pilots a fightback, but the ship is hit and crippled. The crew bail out in Digby’s space-torpedoes, but from long range a stray shot hits one capsule, which veers off-course, its occupant unconscious. It is Flamer Spry. A caption box announces that the story will continue next week in a new story: Rogue Planet.
It’s difficult, and in many ways inappropriate, to assess The Man from Nowhere on its own. It’s as I said, a prelude to larger things. As a story, it’s indivisible from Rogue Planet. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things I’d like to address in relation to this story alone.
The art is, as I said, superb, a quantum leap forward. It’s not evenly sustained: towards the latter half of the story, there are a number of pages which are simple and bland in comparison to the start of the story, but these do not become the rule, and even then these are only bland by The Man from Nowhere‘s standards: they are still ahead of other, earlier periods.
As for the long space journey, I find it significant that, when I look back to The Man from Nowhere in memory, I recall it primarily for the bulk of the story, the actual Man from Nowhere sequence, from party to blast-off, and always think of the flight to Cryptos as a tacked-on interlude that feels as if it would be better as an intro to Rogue Planet. But when I read the story, this is not the seven-or-so week sequence my memory preserves, but exactly half the length of The Man from Nowhere: nineteen weeks.
Hampson would make a far better job of a similar situation in the Terra Nova Trilogy.
There’s another, far more significant issue about this story, which I’ve already touched upon, but that would be better dealt with as a topic of its own, so I’ll not go further into it here.
The Man from Nowhere doesn’t really have an ending, just a super-continued-next-week. So does this post.