Eagle Volume 12 (1961)


The new front page

The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.

Gone

Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.

Paradoxically, the future…

Eagle Volume 11 (1960)


The new front page

The old Eagle that had entertained and enthralled us for a decade had only eleven issues to go when Volume 11 started. Odhams had come in determined to shake Eagle up, to refresh it. Frank Hampson had gone, albeit not (yet) for good, his studio had been dismantled, Marcus Morris had departed for pastures new and Clifford Makins had replaced him as editor, polls had been conducted on what the boys wanted and didn’t want, and change was in the air. Issue 12 would see the first ‘new’ Eagle, whose front page no longer looked like those of the Fifties.
Of those first issues, there was a concerted attempt to bring stories to a close so that as many features as possible should start new tales in week twelve. Dan Dare’s ‘Trip to Trouble’ was never more than a cheap, splashy but insubstantial effort to wind up Frank Hampson’s intended ‘Terra Nova’ cycle as quickly as possible, and it was managed in that perfunctory fashion. The contrast between Frank Bellamy’s art and that of Don Harley was never greater than when Harley attempted to mimic Bellamy’s look with an approach resting more upon impressionism than anything else, but looking more muddy than intricate.
The story’s end had a poignant moment. Five heads appear, musing over what they will discover on their return to Earth. One of them is Professor Peabody, appearing for the last time. One of them was not ‘Flamer Spry’, written out absolutely completely behind everyone’s back.
‘They Showed the Way’ on page 3, wrapped up its run with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. ‘Riders of the Range’ ended Jeff Arnold’s pursuit of Sam Bass. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ brought the highwaymen to justice and got himself back on the right side of the Law, and ‘Storm Nelson’ ended his adventure with the White Shadow. Only ‘Luck of the Legion’, having finished his adventure in Indo-China in issue 5, was already deep into another story, in North Africa, when the great changeover came.
As for the half-pagers, ‘Harris Tweed’ began the year in colour, and stayed that way more often than not, but he had been re-named from ‘Extra Special Agent’ to ‘Super Sleuth’ (though one autumn strip still ran under the old title). The strip itself was now very one-note, building up to a usually predictable punch-line in the final paragraph.
Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ continued throughout the year, sometimes replaced by a ‘Mr Therm presents…’, about which there was nothing new to say, whilst George Cansdale, still partnered by George Backhouse on gorgeous art, continued to show the natural world in all its glory, especially with the new ‘Nature Had it First’ series commencing in issue 12, showing how many scientific developments had their origins in the natural abilities of all manner of animals, birds fish etc. Most of this series was in b&w, but there were a number of colour instalments.
Before going on to the ‘new’ Eagle, there was one more departure to record. MacDonald Hastings, E.S.I. for long years, had less than a handful of stories left, and after a final ‘Men of Glory’ in issue 6, he was let go in ignominious silence, having come bottom of the poll. Not a word of thanks or farewell.
Thus Eagle came to the first of several re-designs.
The changes for the ‘new’ Eagle were obvious from the front page. Gone was the big title-box, the red corner with the eagle and the name and the issue details and date. This was transmuted into a red bar, across the top of the page, the image space for ‘Dan Dare’ suddenly compacted to more like a square.
There was a new story, ‘Project Nimbus’, written by Eric Eden, with Frank Bellamy drawing both pages, and it was finally his chance to carry out his brief from Odhams. There’s a comprehensive redesign of space rockets and Spacefleet uniforms, the latter of which moving away from the military uniform aspect. Bellamy, as was his instinct, concentrates on dynamics, with no concern or feel for plausibility in the terms of the space craft, as is horribly obvious when it comes to the alien ships that have entered the Solar System, whilst the aliens themselves, no matter how well drawn they are, are nothing more than overgrown insects.
Don Harley still struggles to keep up whilst Eden’s notorious weakness at writing endings starts to be painfully obvious. Astonishingly, for a story that is supposed to make a complete departure from Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’, there’s a first appearance in three years for Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette.
‘Project Nimbus’ would last just over twenty weeks before Bellamy was released from his travail. Don Harley was asked to take over the strip, belatedly, but refused to draw two colour pages per week. Thus, Bruce Cornwell returned, to supply the technical art to Harley’s characters. ‘Mission of the Earthman’ began as a good Hampson-lite story, but once again suffered from a feeble ending.

One mountaintop…

The next big shock was the transplanting of ‘Storm Nelson’ from page 18 (the ‘new’ Eagle was now slated to be a 20 page comic) to page 3, where it would be seen into the next volume. This remained unchanged, as did the other surviving regulars, ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Luck of the legion’ and ‘Jack O’Lantern’. With a new story, artist C L Doughty felt free to draw in his own style, but ‘The Wreckers’ was a weak and short tale, and Jack’s last adventure. Lord Bruneaux sends him down to Cornwall to investigate the local Wreckers (who turn out to be the Preventives themselves). There’s a cameo for cousin Rufus, and the story ends with Jack and Captain Yorke restored to their ancestral home of Brackens, to live without excitement. It was not a particularly worthy end.
Jack’s replacement was to be a glorious series, but first we need to go back to the new series introduced to Eagle in the revamp. These were three: ‘Knights of the Road’, ‘Vic Venture’ and ‘The Hawk’.
The first of these was an orthodox two page black and white comic series, written by Gordon Grinstead and drawn by Gerald Haylock, though the second story was taken over early on and finished by Roland Davies. It’s a comic strip about a lorry driver. I’ll repeat that: a long-distance lorry driver. Among an SF strip, a western, the French Foreign Legion, a Napoleonic era ragamuffin and a sea-faring crew of troubleshooters, the subject alone can’t hold its head up.
The stars are ‘Sir’ Ted Knight, star driver, and his harmonica playing beat obsessed younger brother, Frank. Ted is a delivery firm’s ‘star’ driver who, thanks to Frank’s shenanigans and the machinations of a rival driver, loses his job at the end of the first adventure – all about delivering a long-distance load to Liverpool, and coming back – and sets up his own private lorry firm. Yeah, I know, exciting eh?
The ‘Sir Ted’ bit is overdone by the first week, Frank is an idiot with no sense of responsibility, and the tone of the strip can be determined in the second story when half a page is given over to different types of lorry that Ted might buy. The strip’s only real appeal lies in its attempt to depict contemporary youth in 1960, and I’ve seen worse attempts from middle-aged writers. But Frank’s interest is in jazz, not rock’n’roll or anything resembling pop. That was still off-limits to Eagle, however ‘new’.
‘Vic Venture’ was a real oddity. A half-page black and white cartoon from writer D. Chapman and artist G. Bull, its subject was a young boy who would drift off into dreams about various settings – First World War fighter pilots, for one – and follow these adventures over several weeks. The art was very heavy and awkward, placing cartoon characters against settings that, within the cartoonist’s style, were meant to be realistic and detailed, and in stories that were presented as serious adventures. This odd approach makes it look very much like one of Eagle’s advertising half pages, though it was a legitimate part of the comic. On all levels, it failed, and told only three stories over six months before being abruptly replaced by the rather more conventional – and readable – ‘Sir Percy Vere – the Good Knight’, by Roland Fiddy, a straightforward comedy strip in typical Fiddy style.
It all seems very familiar, as if I read these whilst still young, though the strip had vanished before I discovered Eagle first time round. I’m sure I found it funny then, but I don’t now.

Another mountaintop…

By far and away the most successful of the new features was ‘Special Agent’, written by Lee Mayne. This was Eagle‘s first prose series since the ‘Three J’s’ but this was a straight adventure series. The series featured Frenchman, Inspector Jean Collet, aka ‘The Hawk’ of Interpol, a clever and implacable policeman, whose adventures took place all over the world. It was good, clipped, boy’s adventure stuff, whose biggest weakness was that every story consisted rigidly of only four episodes.
There was one more new series in Eagle in volume 11, and although it only ran a short time overall, it was one of Eagle‘s classics, a series to set against the best of the Fifties. This was ‘Fraser of Africa’, replacing ‘Jack O’Lantern’, featuring the continuing scripting of George Beardmore, and it was Frank Bellamy’s reward for his uncomfortable year on ‘Dan Dare’.
Martin Fraser was a white hunter and game warden, in Africa. The strip had been promised to Bellamy as an inducement to take on ‘Dan Dare’ and he was even given the chance to write it if he chose. For Bellamy was an Africaphile: it was his dream feature.
And his enthusiasm shines in every panel. Bellamy not only draws the strip but colours it as well. To create the parched, dry feel of East Africa, his colour palate is dominated by yellows and browns, with only the occasional, almost intrusive depiction of blue skies. Bellamy corresponded heavily wit a local farmer to ensure the authenticity of everything he produced, and whilst the subject of the series is by its very nature colonialist, Fraser himself respects the native populace with whom he works, and holds their interests at heart.
Sixty years on, times have changed, and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is no longer respectable, but ‘Fraser of Africa’ still shines as the work of an incredibly gifted artist on a subject dearest to his heart, for which much must be forgiven.
Did I say one final new series? Technically, that was so, but in a year of upheaval, with the comic being turned towards the less in-depth and serious, there was one final treasure that made its debut. Technically, it was but the latest in the back page ‘Great Adventurer’ series, and in practice, thanks to the culmination of forces in opposition, it was the last great work of a great creator.
The ‘new’ Eagle brought us back Frank Hampson for the last time, drawing ‘The Road of Courage’ under the (ostensible) scripting of Marcus Morris. Since leaving ‘Dan Dare’ the previous summer, Hampson had been on an extensive research trip in Palestine and Israel, preparing to draw the life of Jesus Christ.
For the ‘greatest story ever told’, and scripted by a clergyman, this is an oddly secular, indeed flat story of Jesus, the familiar story told with all the bases touched but everything accounted for in a pragmatic, functional manner that removes the numinous the spiritual, the god-like at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the story invoking faith in any boy. But that’s not why we relish it. We relish it for Frank Hampson, at his glorious, indeed spectacular best, for the very last time.
The characterisations, the body-language, the clothing, the settings, the compositions, the colours: this is Frank Hampson showing us what he can do, as if we needed reminding, and in the process laying the ground for a tragedy. This was the last time his genius, and I repeat, genius, would be used in its natural metier. Over the next year or so, Eagle’s owners, managers and lawyers would break him. There would not be anything like this ever again.
Bellamy’s ‘Fraser’, Hampson’s Jesus, at one and the same time. The peak may be past, the downhill slope already evident, but Volume 11, and its successor, seeing these two strips to their end, contained mountaintops that anyone who loves this artform will remember forever.

…and a trough

Dan Dare: The Earth-Stealers


                                                                                      A Don Harley panel

And this is an undeniable nadir.
The Earth-Stealers is a horrible mess from beginning to truncated end, thirteen weeks of which not a panel can be justified, a story whose provisions and effects disappear utterly the moment the next story begins, and which is an insurmountable block in any attempt to collate the various Dan Dare stories into a coherent chronology.
Nor does it have any artistic highlights to at least leaven the criticism, for it is presented throughout in the horrible split-cover fashion foisted on Eagle in the latter weeks of The Platinum Planet, complete with the airless five tier cram on page 2.
Dan and Digby, in the Zylbat, return from years away in deep space to find the Earth surrounded by clouds so that it looks like Venus. Under the cloud cover, they find that the planet has drastically changed: Spacefleet HQ is under water, so too is London, capital cities the world round are deserted and English country villages have turned into swamp and jungle in the tropical heat. In fact, the whole of Earth’s population has vanished.
Finally, our heroes find a remote settlement high in the Andes, only to find themselves shot at when they climb over its wall. The camp belongs to Earth Reclamation Ltd, and the pair are brought before its Director, a South American looking type called Malvol, whose assistant looks like an ex-Nazi concentration camp commander (and probably is).
This is where we get the explanation. During the years of Dan and Digby’s absence (and we are given no clue as to how many years that is), Earth underwent a dramatic increase in temperature and expansive climatic change, shortly followed by a virulent but unexplained plague, which decimated population, so Earth’s Government gave up and evacuated the planet to Mars. Malvol has been given the job of investigating if it’s going to be possible to come back, with a bit of work, but it’s immediately obvious that he’s planning on taking over for himself.
You may well be asking yourself, What the F? (sorry, the Reverend Marcus Morris may be long gone but we’ll have no language like that around here, even though it’s by far and away the most appropriate). This is a large chunk of hindsight, given the years we’ve been exposed to theories about Global Warming and the long term gradual effects of what man has achieved in a considerably more polluted world than that of Dan Dare, but just how bloody long are he and Digby supposed to have been away for?
Climate-changed planet incapable of supporting life, AND a devastating plague all at once? Evacuation to Mars, which is incapable of supporting human life outside of its luxury and limited dome accommodation? Are you serious about this? Giving a private, commercial organisation the contract to see if the planet’s fit to move back to when half of it is still underwater, and lions have shifted their natural habitat to Surrey?
There isn’t an ounce of this that’s remotely plausible, and since we all know that Dan’s going to expose Malvol as some kind of would-be dictator anyway, there is no remotely conceivable way of getting out of this situation for as long as the Dan Dare series lives. The storyline is beyond a joke.
As is the incredibly perfunctory ending. Dan and Digby escape in the Zylbat and head towards Mars to verify this idiot tale. Malvol frames them as having the Plague, which at least results in the unloved (by me) Zylbat being blown to pieces. We don’t get to see anything on Mars that would remotely make the background credible, just Spacefleet’s new HQ and Acting-Controller Burke, late of the Security Division (Sir Hubert went off on a deep space mission shortly after the Zylbat first disappeared: nothing comes of that, so maybe a search for him might have been the next storyline if something bigger hadn’t intervened).
Burke’s suspicious of Malvol but hasn’t a shred of proof, so he lets Dan and Digby ‘escape’ in an unguarded two-seater, to go back to Earth and get the goods for him. En route, Dan catches up on the papers, and discovers a series of discouraging reports from one of Malvol’s experts, our old friend Lex O’Malley.
Sure enough, once Dan tracks Lex down, the Irishman confirms that his reports have been altered for the worse, obviously by Malvol. The Earth is a lot closer to being rehabitable than Mars thinks, despite the overwhelming evidence we’ve seen with Dan. It’s a long time since these friends have seen each other, but Dan hasn’t a word of friendship for the bloke he took to Cryptos: just a business call, no fraternising.
As for Lex, we have some spectacularly poor scripting from Eden, who can’t write a line of dialogue without lapsing into stage Irish cliché in word or accent. O’Malley was never remotely like this, which is not Irish but Oirish: Eden’s ear is horribly tin in this respect.
Anyway, the reason Malvol’s gotten away with everything so far is QX, which is not a forerunner of Spike Milligan’s anarchic BBC2 comedy series’ but a drug that renders Spacefleet visitors from Mars very suggestible about what they think they see, hear and, on this occasion, do. Malvol’s ready to take Mars over militarily, with a flotilla of Spacefleet ships to carry the bombs.
Until Dan and Lex pour all the QX away down the sink. Then it’s just a matter of telling everyone to pretend to be drugged until Malvol is off-Earth and neutralised, whereupon they all beat the living crap out of the would-be dictator and his Nazi aide. End of story.
I’m not going to go on about this story. What I’ve said so far is sufficient to describe the tale. But Eden is not solely culpable for the abrupt, oversimple ending. Elsewhere in Eagle, series’ were coming to sudden endings, stories were cut short. Odhams had owned Eagle for two and a half years, but now it was their turn to be bought out, this time by Longacre Press. Odhams’ name would return to the comics, as an imprint, later in the decade, but Longacre were going to put their own stamp on Eagle, and it would be the biggest upheaval the comic ever experienced.

Dan Dare: The Platinum Planet


                                                                                      The first page

Whilst Mission of the Earthmen and The Solid-space Mystery had been decent, if not inspired efforts at maintaining the standard of Dan Dare stories, The Platinum Planet was where things started to fall apart, a process accelerated in the closing weeks of the story, when a front page re-design cramped up the page area in which Harley and Cornwell had to work, with effects we will go on to discuss.
At the beginning, the set-up offered almost unlimited potential: one of the Mekon’s adherents, escaping Venus Rehabilitation Camp, has stolen a spaceship and aimed for Spacefleet HQ to cause havoc. His target was the Control Tower, and it was not a good auger for things that he missed it completely, for no reason, and instead crashed into an unimportant hanger. Nevertheless, Dan and Digby decided to use the Zylbat’s VTO engines to control the resultant fire with their downdraft, only for the fuel stored under the hangar to go off. The Zylbat’s controls were damaged, and the ship took off at maximum speed, its navigation locked. Worse was to come: though our heroes repaired most of the physical damage, they were not aware that the hibernation gas pipes had been cracked and as soon as they take off their helmets…
In between episodes, the two were knocked out for as long as it took for the gas chambers to run dry. When they woke up, they were in an unknown area of space, having travelled for ‘years’. They were hopelessly lost.
But, as better writers than Eric Eden have found, it is one thing to set up an interesting situation by sending your characters on a journey, but the story stands and falls by what you have for them to find and do at journey’s end.
At this journey’s end is the Platinum Planet of the title. Dan and Digby first discover a green planet, which they narrowly avoid, after which they use their remaining fuel to follow a transporter that seems oblivious to their presence to a planet which appears to be made of platinum, with a few random rock formations. It’s actually a planet-wide artificial construction sealing off the surface from the outside.
(Can you imagine what that would entail? The labour? The time, the engineering achievement? Even if we assume this planet has platinum in abundance, it’s horrendously unbelievable.)
This is a planet with a platinum roof, beneath which, of all the things you could find on a world advanced enough to do something incredible like this, our heroes find a primitive, hypno-controlled absolute dictatorship.
Yes, the entire population lives, works, eats, sleeps, breathes with hypnotic helmets on their heads that continually control their every movement.
Scientifically, it’s perfectly plausible that the technology to build a planet-sized platinum sheath could also create this kind of absolute control but a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the idea is insane beyond belief. Even accepting that someone capable of this level of scientific advancement should actually have the mentality of a crummy gang-boss, how can you control and direct the movements of an entire planet (‘three trillion thought-controlled serfs’) and interlock their vasty and various actions?
It’s the question that blows all credibility out of the water, and it’s not made any more plausible by the fact that, by the close, Eden has produced a single person to run the entire system as a power-crazed, self-indulgent tyrant, named Astorat (a Catalan word meaning astonished, which suggests to me that either Eden made it up as a variant of Ashtoreth, a Syrian deity, or else he was making an extraordinarily perceptive metafictional comment on his own story: I’d go with the former, personally).
However, we’ve a ways to go before Master Astorat – who is as petty, vainglorious and childish as you can imagine, a walking cliché that makes this set-up even less plausible, since there’s no way he could have put this set-up together – appears on the scene. In the meantime, Dan and Digby are thrown off-planet, to the green planet, where they are expected to work for the Platinums.

                                                                               Dan and Dig meet General Zeb
Hmm, paired planets, one technically advanced, the other primitive. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct rip-off from Mission of the Earthmen. This time round, the green planet is a fiefdom of the Platinum one, populated only by the malcontents, misfits and rebels from Platinum society, or would be invaders from other planets in the system. Dan and Digby meet former General Zeb, a purple-skinned humanoid with two tremendous walrus-moustaches, one on his lip, the other on his forehead, where it sweeps round to the back of his head. Zeb explains that ‘to colonise is death’, meaning that as soon as the green planet has been properly civilised, with roads and cultivation etc., the Platinums will take that over and kill the slaves who’ve done the hard work.
Zeb, being a war leader, has not been idle. He’s built a missile to rocket a picked band of colonists back to the Platinum planet, to retrieve all their spaceships and escape. Dan decides to go one better: they’ll overthrow the dictatorship first (shades of Trip to Trouble and the Grandax of Gan).
It’s at this point, when the colonists have escaped back to the sealed-in planet, that an indignity occurs. I don’t know what lay behind the decision but, with six weeks remaining in the story, Odhams made the editorial decision to cramp and weaken Dan Dare by forcing the series to share the cover with a new feature, Men of Action. This feature was a text and art mini-account of the lives of famous people – racing drivers, motorbike riders, skiers, speed record holders, mountain climbers – placed as a strip down the left hand side of the front page, below a truncated Eagle logo box, with Dan Dare squeezed into the right hand side, it’s width approximately three-fifths that of the cover.
It was a shock, and an attack on Dan Dare’s prominence, and to make matters worse, in order to keep the episode length consistent, Harley and Cornwell had to cram the rest of the story into five narrower tiers of panels on page 2, an impossible strait-jacket. There was no room for their art to breathe, no space for anything other than the perfunctory account of what was going on.
It was a demoralising attack on the primacy of Dan Dare within Eagle. Worse would follow in the not-too-distant future, in the form of changes that all Dan’s fans have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to kill the series, and this would naturally appear to be a precursor to that move, were it not for the fact that this was still Odhams in charge, and not the soon-to-be-incoming Longacre.
What momentum remained in The Platinum Planet was killed off. The rebels win. Astorat tries to pull of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive defiant suicide but makes himself look a fool when his leap out of a high window ends in a safety net ten feet down. Once again, Dan and Dig have saved the day.
Of course, they’re still an unknown distance from Earth, having flown on for years, with no way home even if they knew the way home, but not to worry. This insoluble trap unsurprisingly proves to be only too soluble, as Zeb has a limitless number of starcharts and a few details about Earth will soon reveal it’s whereabouts (oh yes? And when exactly did he go a-roving so incredibly far from his home system and not be noticed snooping around by Spacefleet?).
And Dan and Digby can have unlimited amounts of fuel, supplies and presumably the local equivalent of hibernation gas, not that anyone thinks to mention this, to enable them to get home, years later, no doubt. I bet that doesn’t cause any problems!
No, all round, The Platinum Planet is not merely a weak story, unable to create interest in a mixture of former Dan adventures and full of clichés, it’s a dumb story that has thrown in ideas without the slightest notion as to how plausible they are. In that sense, it’s the complete antithesis of Hampson, and from three men trained by him, that’s a disaster.

Dan Dare: The Solid-space Mystery


So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen  can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.

                                                                                Recognise him?
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.


It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.

Dan Dare: Mission of the Earthmen


With Frank Hampson’s chief lieutenant, and another of his senior and highly experienced assistants, in charge of the art, would Dan Dare once again become the brilliant, clear, well-lit and above all intelligent series it had been for so long?
Before we answer that question, there’s another thing to clear up. Much of what I know of Frank Hampson’s life and career derives from Alastair Crompton’s The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, which was published in 1985. Though written during Hampson’s lifetime, the book was still in preparation when Hampson passed away, denying the artist the chance to see proper credit for his works being given.
The book was re-published in 2011 as Tomorrow Revisited, heavily revised by Crompton to take account of new information available, altered perceptions and material that, out of respect for Hampson, that Crompton had chosen not to incorporate in the original book.
One change that puzzles me is that, where in The Man Who Drew Tomorrow Crompton had been unequivocal about stating that Hampson’s departure from Dan Dare was intended to be permanent – twice he refers to Hampson “cut(ting) himself free” – in the revised edition Crompton now has Hampson claiming that he had only ever intended to step away for a year, to refresh himself, devise new stories and ideas. Indeed, Hampson goes so far as to suggest that this was agreed with Odhams as part of the arrangements for him to step down in the first place.
These claims come from interviews with Hampson that were available for the first book, and I see no reason for suppressing these in 1985.
We know that Hampson didn’t return, and Crompton, neither in his conversations with Hampson, nor in his accounts from other sources, makes any attempt to address why this apparent sabbatical didn’t see Hampson resume control. It’s supposed twelve-month duration fits in with Frank Bellamy only being contracted for a year, but nothing in any work I’ve read has intimated that there was ever an attempt, or an intention to bring Hampson back to his creation.
Nor, given that Odhams had broken up the Hampson studio, gotten production of the series under control on their terms, had been more than willing to dispense with Hampson entirely – and given the way in which Frank Hampson would shortly be treated, which is not overdramatised by being called ‘cruel’ and ‘spiteful’ –  nor does it seem in the least bit likely that they would entertain the idea of Hampson’s return to Dan Dare for an instant.
What we did get, both pictorially and narratively, was the most Hampson-esque story of the period. True, Harley and Cornwell had to conform to the new Spacefleet designs introduced by Frank Bellamy, which looked no more natural than they had before. But they were no longer under an obligation to try to draw like Frank Bellamy, and the relief and the release shows in what is probably their best art for the series.
Eden’s story also makes a substantial effort to live up to the Master, and its essence is certainly something that it’s surprising to find Odhams approving, given their attitude to the past. Dan and Digby are part of an Earth expedition to a distant galaxy, billions of light-years from Earth. Whilst the bulk of the expedition explores the outer planets of the system, Dan and Dig have been detached in a two-seater scout ship to survey the Inner Planets.
They are forced down upon the plant Zyl and put through a series of attacks by the ruling Council, a people scientifically advanced. But these are merely tests, not merely of the Earthmen’s capabilities in the face of danger but of their moral capabilities, their willingness to aid what they believe is an enemy.
For Zyl has a sister planet, Vort, home to barbaric races, that it wishes to civilise, but is not qualified to do so. Zyl is too far advanced, too soft: it needs a race that, on an evolutionary scale, is somewhere between those two levels. Their tests have proved that Earthmen are ideal, and Dan and Digby are only too eager to take on what is, essentially, a kind of two-fisted missionary role.
There is a fly in the ointment, however, in that one Council member, Senat, objects, believing the job too much for two strangers to the Zyl system (the man might well have a point, but then he doesn’t know about this pair, plus two others, one a kid, defeating the entire planet of Phantos, not to mention the overthrow of Gan with only one helper: the steadily reducing number of people needed to overcome regimes here reaches its ultimate expression). Without unanimity, the Council cannot proceed, so they hand over a spaceship to enable our heroes to reach the fleet, at the other end of the system.

                                                                                 A modern day cut-away
Dan and Digby have other ideas, however, like losing their way heading back and accidentally arriving on Primitive Planet Vort anyway. Except that Senat isn’t as stupid as you normally expect and stows away with a gun to ensure the boys don’t get off course. Nevertheless, he is so advanced, civilisation-wise, that he isn’t familiar enough with guns to be not be taken in by a routine bluff, and we’re off to Vort anyway. Where Senat’s fears over being on such a dangerous planet lead him to fly off the moment Dan and Digby leave the ship to reconnoitre.
This action at least has a positive outcome. The Zylans immediately crank up to locate and assist the Earthmen, whilst Dan and Digby use their wits to firstly survive among true barbarians, and secondly escape with a more civilised version, who is a raider from more sophisticated tribes.
These higher-level barbarians are still stuck at the raiding party stage: war is fun, plunder is profit and the gods rule their lives. The technology of the Zylans is advanced magic, the ships are Dragons, and its a relatively easy task for Dan and Digby to organise a situation where the two warring peoples (the real barbarians don’t get a look in on this) are led to believe that the Earthmen are gods who derive their magical powers from the war, and who can be defeated by peace.
This results in a treaty, after which Dan and Dig hand the situation back to the Zylans to monitor, with the occasional poke-and-prod to make sure things stay on the right track.
Mission of the Earthmen was Eric Eden’s third complete story for Dan Dare and the first in which he was writing for artists who he would, presumably, have thought of as friends and colleagues. This reunion of Hampson Studio alumni has the feel of people suddenly relaxing, eager to flex their muscles in a manner with which they are intimately familiar, freed from the obligation to be something that, by instinct, they are not. It’s this, I think, that makes the story into something that reads like a success, when in reality it’s no more than a workable shadow of what was so good about the series to begin with.
Because by ‘doing’ Hampson without Hampson, Mission of the Earthmen does little more than demonstrate the qualities of imagination, inspiration and sheer bloody-minded invention Hampson brought to Dan Dare. Yes, Eden’s story uses a Hampson-esque notion, and it is four-square with the great purpose of the leading character that it should be about peace, and the nobility of helping to bring that about, from no greater obligation that one’s own conscience (in Morris’s day, they would have been a slightly more overt statement of mission in the story, as opposed to the title).
But to be honest, what Eden writes is little more than the middle third of a Hampson story.
Take the beginning. Eden starts in media res. Hampson would have started on Earth, with a purpose for the expedition, a team defined, a specific link to the Nimbus Drive, the clear identification of the target galaxy/system. Things would have a place. And he would not have been able to resist defining the Outer Planets before allowing Dan and Digby to progress to the Inner Planets, with some logical explanation for why Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot, Earth’s many-times-over saviour, is being sent on a glorified scouting expedition, of the kind usually given to extras. Hampson would probably have had signals from the Inner Planets detected and Dan volunteering to check these out, such signals having been a decoy, the Zylans having detected the presence of intruders in their system.
Instead, Eden drops Dan and Dig into a story already many weeks along, with no more than a blurred fog behind them, leaving the ground wobbly for the first few weeks as these strangers pile up the pressure.
And then there’s the end, or rather there isn’t. Looked at objectively, Dan and Digby haven’t completed their mission. At best, they’ve disturbed the couple of pebbles that, with careful direction, will turn into the avalanche. Indeed, it’s nothing but a con. The Vortans have been tricked into peace, a very dangerous tactic, given that it will, inevitably be uncovered some day, and even the most settled of civilisations, deep and rich in peace, can react badly on finding that its prosperity has been forced upon it against its will. The Phants didn’t have their pacificity forced on them planet-wide: they opted for it.
Eden’s been criticised for setting up strong stories but only having perfunctory, unsatisfying endings for them, as if he didn’t know how to build up to a climax. Some people just don’t have that in them. Mission is a perfect example: it ends abruptly, with so little done, that it can’t help but be unsatisfying.
I’m in two minds about the art. In places, particularly in mid-story, when Dan and Digby escape from the truly primitive Vorts, in the wake of the pirate Arkrut (Arkwright?), with half an eye closed it could pass for Hampson himself, with its exuberance and its light and colour. But open the other eye. The landscapes are attractive, but ordinary. There is the absence of line and detail, of shade and hatching. It’s not the dichotomy between line and dot of Hampson vs Bellamy but the absence of both, the reliance on outline, on shape to form faces and figures, with colour too often too flat to do more than fill in spaces. And smoother, rounded spaces at that, lacking sharp edges, clear definition.
Don Harley was indeed the second best Dan Dare artist in the world, and he drew Dan better than anyone not Frank Hampson himself. But he lacked the inspiration, the spark of genius. For this omission, he had a longer, happier life than Frank Hampson, is still alive and drawing today. Who is to say which was better?
But this was not quite the end of Mission of the Earthmen. By now, even Dan and Digby were aware that it was strange no-one from the main expedition had come looking forward, given how long they had been out of contact (in a Hampson story, they would have turned up, just in time for Dan to enfold them into a bigger, more definitive plan to bring guaranteed, recognised peace). The Zylans have given Dan his own personal spacecraft, the Zylbat, but when Dan pilots it back to Expedition base, the Expedition has packed up and gone home, abandoned them.
To be sure, there’s a good reason, one that Eden will use to parlay this story into the next one: a message from Earth the day the scouts were declared missing, great danger, sudden recall, no alternative, have left you twenty years food and will try to get back to you before it runs out… A sticky situation, and one that would have been hopeless if our heroes had been relying on Anastasia, but the Zylbat has hibernation tanks…
Earth, here we come!

Dan Dare: Project Nimbus


As I said, it had taken Frank Bellamy six of the twelve months he had contracted to draw Dan Dare to get the Pilot of the Future back to Earth, and to be able to implement Odhams’ demands for a new look for the series, in uniforms and spaceships. But Odhams had more in mind than just changing Eagle‘s most popular series, they were set upon a redesign of the comic.
The effect on Dan Dare was to remove the traditional red title box that, since Volume 1 number 1, had occupied the north-western quarter of the cover. The red background, the font and the black and yellow Eagle were retained, but these were redistributed to a horizontal title box, crossing the top of the page, leaving a more conventional, almost square space for Bellamy’s art.
Project Nimbus was Frank Bellamy’s third and final story. In view of its significance, he drew both pages of the first episode, meticulously signing each page. The story commenced with a spectacular image of a space station whose design was clean, elegant lines and angles, with nothing of the workable practicality of the Hampson era. It looked amazing, though the new, wrap-around, blouson uniforms looked stupid.
It’s straight into the action. The space station, Spa-One, is searching for Nimbus One, a test ship trialling a new photon drive that has been doing so well until disappearing an hour earlier. Dan and Digby are sent out to help, though it’s noticeable that they don’t travel in Anastasia. It will be a long time before we see ‘Old Annie’ again. Their arrival coincides with the discovery of ten weak signals indicating not-debris, which sends Dan into frantic action: the crew of Nimbus One numbered ten…
The rescue vessel, Andromeda, takes off just before Dan, at top speed, gets back, but there is still a way for him to participate, and get there before the official rescue ship, and that’s in Nimbus Two. Sir Hubert refuses, which seems sensible in all the circumstances if Nimbus One has suffered something disastrous. Indeed, he won’t even ask for volunteers.
But not asking for volunteers is not the same as refusing them when they immediately appear out of the woodwork. How long has Sir Hubert known Colonel Dare and his faithful batman, Albert Fitzwilliam Digby that he thinks they won’t volunteer for anything, no matter how risky? And he also ought to know very well that he’ll have a full crew faster than you can say ‘Odhams are stinkers’ because, a couple of quick, surreptitious phone calls later, who happens to be lounging around HQ, glory be it’s Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette, back for the first time since The Ship That Lived, two years ago.
This only takes three weeks to set up, and up to this point Project Nimbus has the basis for a good, solid story, with old friends reunited. However, from here it goes on to waste all the opportunities available to it.
The first disappointment is Hank and Pierre. They may be there in person but they certainly aren’t in spirit. Both get good, close-up, Bellamy-style portraits, but other than that they are just a pair of accents (Pierre’s hammed up more than Hank’s) speaking utilitarian dialogue that has no bearing on their personalities. Neither does anything particularly substantial in the story either. They could have been replaced by two identikit Spacefleet officers and the story would have been different in no whit.
As for the story, we will ultimately discover, an alien ship, filled with aliens who look like human size white ants, has entered the Solar System on a prospecting tour which has taken them to the Moons of Jupiter (without apparently encountering the Numidol spacefleet, which has been completely forgotten since the days of Operation Saturn despite being as influential a Solar System presence as the Earthmen). They are evil, without any redeeming factors, or at least any redeeming factors that Dan Dare bothers to wait to find out about because he destroys their ship utterly.
But before we get this far, Nimbus Two has to undergo an overlong series of genuinely meaningless threats – it is a test ship, remember, and we have to be reminded of that at all turns – that drain the story of momentum by focusing on trivialities.


The alien craft, when we finally get to see it, in the ninth episode, looks like nothing in the Solar System, but it also looks like nothing a workable spaceship. It is a geometric solid, with extended ski-rails at the back, a globe at the front and a top-heavy cylinder at the back. It’s beautifully drawn, a Bellamy special, and it’s fully within his ‘don’t-be-like-Hampson’ remit, but it immediately looks unworkable, and it gives Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell (Keith Watson had already done his jump-before-pushed) an impossible task to emulate when they get a page it appears on.
But that’s nothing before we see the Erg-Boat, the two seater pilot craft that takes two lazy, indolent and basically silly ant-soldiers down to the surface of the Jupiterian moon on which Nimbus Two is currently landed. That’s basically a triangular wedge of cheese with two cocktail sticks topped with balls at the broad end.
Dan and Digby discover the Erg-Boat, then are confronted by the two gun-toting alien nitwits. In order to combat their captors, Dan and Digby studiously ignore their presence and start acting naturally in an artificial manner. Some food cubes fall from Digby’s space suit. For no apparently logical reason, the starship troopers recognise that these are food cubes and, ignoring the fact that they are the nutritional substance for an alien race whose physiology is in no way comparable to their own, stuff their faces with them. Which means that, given these are concentrates, they effectively overeat fantastically, get upset tummies and sit around groaning like your uncle on Christmas Day whilst Dan and Digby do a sharp one.
Thankfully, from this nadir, the story pulls itself together enough to get into space and have a battle with the invading craft. Nimbus Two comes off potentially worse, the aliens using fireballs with the intent of causing microholes in the ship’s structure, through which oxygen can leak away. This danger is averted by the arrival of a Spacefleet Squadron under Sir Hubert’s command, which drives the ship off long enough for Nimbus Two to be outfitted with a heavy-duty, stainless steel shell, strong enough to enable Dan to ride back into battle in safety.
Whereupon he promptly turns his back on the invading craft, literally, fires up Nimbus Two’s engines to full throttle, and basically fries the sucker with the photon drive. End of story.
Except for the chance finding of the intact and undamaged Nimbus One on a nearby Jupiterian moon. The essentially redundant Hank and Pierre hop off in Two whilst Dan and Dig fly One home, with Sir Hubert (given that these ships apparently required a crew of ten to operate them, it’s seems pertinent to question their being operated by crews of four, three and two). Sir Hubert is allowed a spin, in which he cranks the drive up even faster than Dan has previously gone, whilst foreshadowing the next adventure by claiming that the importance of the Nimbus drive lay in developing a hyperdrive that enabled Mankind to leave it’s own system and explore distant galaxies.
I hear cries from the back pointing out that that is exactly what the Halley Drive does, and that only in the last story, have they forgotten? You really must understand that this is a new era, and that continuity between stories is one of those things that Odhams know the kids don’t want. The little buggers don’t want things that make sense, they want action, excitement, flash.
Frank Bellamy had certainly supplied that, and it is not to denigrate him that I say any of these things. He was a brilliant, astonishingly dramatic artist, as much a genius in his way as was Frank Hampson in his. That Frank Hampson’s approach took in other, wider concerns, that he wrote or directed as much as he drew, does not diminish Bellamy, who could do things with a page, or later a centrespread, that no-one else could, and whose actual art, in line, composition, layout and colour, could not be approached by anyone else.
He’d taken on an unwelcome professional job and done what was asked of him. It’s far from his fault that what he was asked to do was unworthy of the character he’s inherited, and the art he’d produced had been superb.

                                                                                    A Harley/Cornwell page
But it was a mistake to choose him to replace Frank Hampson, as he had no intrinsic interest in, no feel for SF. The new uniforms he designed are evidence of this: Hampson had based uniforms and insignia upon his own British Army wartime experiences, and put Spacefleet firmly in a line from the real history of our world, further cementing its reality as a plausible future for Eagle‘s readers. Bellamy was under instructions to change things for the sake of change, and his new uniforms and spacesuit designs broke that progression and inadvertently rendered Spacefleet more of a generic proposition, with its origins less in Britain 1950 than Science Fiction Anytime.
His year done, Bellamy moved on. It’s not strictly part of this series, but it’s pleasing to report that his reward for this dedicated year was his dream strip, Fraser of Africa, about a game warden in the continent Bellamy was obsessed with, and he was unbelievably good with that.
But for the second time in twelve months, Dan Dare needed a new artist. This time, justice would be served where it had been denied a year ago. Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell would now take over art full-time. Would this see a restoration of the series’ true glories?

The Frank Hampson Studio – At The Firs


For the first eight months of the series, Frank Hampson and his team produced Dan Dare in the constricted confines of the Bakehouse in Southport. Eagle’s editor, the Reverend Marcus Morris, continued to hold his living at Ainsdale, and to conduct services as often as his editorial duties made possible.
But Eagle‘s circulation, settling in at around three quarters of a million copies every week, made it of great importance to Hulton Press, and thus made its editor’s availability in London a thing of importance to them. And given that Dan Dare was the most important element of Eagle, and the amount of money being invested weekly into Frank Hampson and his unique studio, it was of equal importance to bring the whole studio much closer to home.
The destination was Epsom, in Surrey, home to the Derby and only twenty miles outside of London. The Morrises moved into a spacious house, The Firs, as a home, and the Hampson studio moved in right after them, bringing the entire team, and the already burgeoning reference materials that Hampson accumulated, fundamental to the consistency and realism of the art, into a private home.
It was not an easy mix. Remember too that Hampson’s approach to the strip involved two days a week of shooting and developing multiple photographs as each panel of the colour rough was staged, with multiple photos frequently required for a single scene, as each element of the same might need to be separately defined.
Add to this that the studio still consisted of half a dozen people, working the same extremely long, unsociable hours, and making cups of tea in the family kitchen all the time and it was a recipe for conflict. Hampson’s assistants did not live at the Firs, but they still spent far more time there than they did at their scattered lodgings.
And the move to Epsom brought in another member of the studio in Don Harley. Harley was at College locally, and had trained under Sir Stanley Spencer, but he had been immensely impressed by Hampson and his work, and when he qualified, he approached Hampson and was taken on board. Within a few years, Hampson would be describing him as ‘the second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and would be co-signing Harley’s name, together with his own, to the Dan Dare series.
As one man entered, another departed (not literally). The pace was punishing, so much so that Hampson fell ill during the last month of ‘The Venus Story’ and was forced to take four weeks off. Everyone was exhausted. Don Harley would leave at tea-time to go home and eat, but rarely escaped without Hampson catching him and seeking reassurances that Harley would be back: not tomorrow, but later that evening. Sometimes there were telegrams, asking why he wasn’t back yet.
Everyone was unhappy, and Eric Eden voiced the team’s concerns to Hampson. Was this punishing schedule really necessary. Were the hours not too much? Hampson was angered. Eden was his friend from Southport Art College. He’d come aboard to replace Bruce Cornwell, had moved to the other end of the country. But this was unacceptable, was insurrection. Was he the ringleader for a mass rebellion? Eden was sacked, abruptly.
His replacement was, ironically, Bruce Cornwell. Cornwell lived nearby in Ruislip and was persuaded to return on promises that things had changed, that the workload wasn’t as insane as before. It was. Cornwell moved on again.
And there were other departures, but by then the studio had moved again. It really wasn’t a good fit in the Firs. Morris’s wife, the actress Jessica Fanning, was very unhappy at having all these artists hanging around her house. They were, after all, mere employees, underlings, lucky to have a job but insufficiently grateful to her husband for that.
Hultons bit the bullet. They bought Bayford Lodge, also in Epsom, as a home for the Hampsons and a studio for the strip and the team. Here the Hampson studio would stay for the emainder of Frank Hampson’s tenure on his creation. But it still would not be entirely peaceful.

The Frank Hampson Studio – The Bakehouse Days


‘The Venus Story’ lasted almost eighteen months, the longest story ever to appear in Eagle, and possibly the longest story ever to appear in a British boys comic. It was originated by Frank Hampson who not only drew but also wrote (without compensation) the first ten episodes on his own. Hulton then provided a writer, Guy Treece, who continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson to lunch and charmingly advising that he had no idea what to do next: having been classically trained, he couldn’t possibly do more!
Hampson soldiered on with the majority of the writing, occasionally paying other writers out of his own pocket, but he would not find a reliable writer in whom he could trust on a regular basis until 1954, when Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran, would take over.
Stranks would comment that Hampson threw away an awful lot of material in The Venus Story, and that he could have made the same story last for five years! Whilst the majority of Dan Dare fans hold Stranks in high regard for bringing stability to the writing of the series, and freeing Hampson up to concentrate upon the art, taking it to even greater heights, there are others who are critical of him for doing exactly as he said, and slowing the pace down.
At the same time as Treece made his invaluable contribution, Hampson had begun assembling his studio.
Harold Johns, Hampson’s contemporary and close friend from Southport Art College, was an obvious first choice, and quiet, almost secretive advertisements in trade papers brought in young, enthusiastic artists who were fascinated by Hampson and his plans and wanted to work with him: Jocelyn Thomas and Joan Humphries (later Porter), Greta Tomlinson (who would form a very fruitful partnership with Johns) and Canadian Bruce Cornwell, a much more experienced contemporary of Hampson and the first to leave after suggesting that the punishing hours and conditions were not necessary.
With a team, a studio was required, and the most unlikely of sites was found on Botanic Road, Southport. It was called the Bakehouse, and it was a brick-built lean-to and former bakery that nevertheless offered two large overhead windows, a third in one end wall and fanlight windows along its length. It was cold and cramped – an exploded drawing of the Bakehouse was produced by Graham Bleathman for Spaceship Away and reprinted in Alastair Crompton’s high quality Hampson biography Tomorrow Revisited – and everyone hated it.
But it was home to Frank Hampson’s studio, and that meant not only Dan Dare but The Great Adventurer (the life of St Paul), Rob Conway (an undistinguished strip about an air cadet joining the search for a Himalayan secret city) and Tommy Walls, a full-page advert for Wall’s Ice Cream in comic strip fashion.
And in this tiny place, a team of seven people worked longer hours than Victorian factory hands to fulfil the vision of Frank Hampson.
As I’ve already said, each weekend Hampson – who was writing the story as well as drawing it – worked alone on two full-colour ‘rough’ pages, drawn in high detail, fully-coloured and not far from being finished. Then two days were devoted to the team posing, photographing and developing each scene, leaving only three days in which to create that week’s art. Hampson would usually take the first page, it being Eagle‘s cover, and his studio would divide the panels of page two between them.
It was not merely a case of drawing individual panels and sticking these down, whilst disciplining one’s natural talent into channeling what Hampson wanted into the realism he demanded. Some original pages are little short of a jigsaw puzzle, with cut-out space ships pasted onto Spacefleet backgrounds, and figures pasted over scenes.
It was cumbersome, it was awkward, it was draining. It took hours, long draining hours, frequently working (unpaid) extra hours until the birds woke up in the morning. And that was when Frank Hampson didn’t have another, better idea that would cause days of work to be thrown out.
Bruce Cornwell, older than his colleagues, an established professional, though it unnecessary. Given his background, he was also prepared to stand up to Hampson in arguments about art where the junior artists, in their first jobs in an era where the prevailing anticipation was of jobs being for life, were not willing to do so. Exit Sterling, enter Eric Eden, another of Hampson’s friends from Southport Art College, although in a junior year. Eden would go on to a long involvement with Dan Dare, stretching way beyond Hampson’s departure in 1959, and would become the studio’s master with the airbrush, in which role he would eventually specialise.
The Bakehouse lasted less than eight months. It was inadequate from the start and Hampson had already started looking for better. Hultons wanted Marcus Morris in London, rather than commuting from Southport and, since so much money was going into it, it was better to have Hampson’s studio closer to ‘home’ as well. At first, they had to share The Firs, in Epsom, with Morris and his actress wife, Jessica Fanning, who did not like the thought of so many strangers in her home, but eventually Hampson and his wife Dorothy bought Bayford Lodge and transferred a by then much streamlined studio to there.
Why did Hampson’s assistants put up with what were extremely cruel and stressful working conditions that would horrify anyone trying to keep up with that today? In part it was because they were young, a decade junior to Frank Hampson, who was, let’s not forget, a War veteran. This was the Fifties, and not even deep enough into the Fifties for it to have taken shape as a different decade. The War was not a decade behind, food rationing still existed when Eagle was born, and you did not question your boss.
But there were two other considerations that, given all the comments made in later life by those privileged to have worked with Frank Hampson, seem, to me, to be more powerful.
The first is that not only did Frank Hampson never ask any of his studio to do something he was not prepared to do, he committed more, far, far more, in terms of intensity, in terms of effort, in terms of sheer time even than they did. Whilst some would argue whether it was all necessary, no-one ever suggested that their boss did not do even more than he asked them to do.
And every one of them were absolutely fascinated by Frank Hampson’s work. They had a ringside seat at the creation of something that, with the greatest possible respect, was beyond them, and everybody wanted to see it happen. It sounds like a dream to me (apart from the hours): to be an artist, to have the ability to create what the eye sees, and to be part of the great wellspring of ideas of someone with the ability to create what the eye could not see.
Yes, as Don Harley, the future ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, always said, Hampson’s own pure unadulterated work needed only finishing to be complete, and in Harley’s eyes contained a freshness that the eventual art lacked, but Keith Watson, who would restore Hampson’s look to a feature that resisted being killed, pointed to what was published, and regards that as all the justidication ever needed for Hampson’s complex, unweildy approach.
And in 2014, we’re still talking about a weekly comic story created for seven year old boys. What more proof do we need that Frank Hampson did something spectacularly right?