I never expected to get to read this book, given that it is rare, in demand among Eagle fans and usually bloody expensive. But a copy in decent nick came up on eBay in the ruin-up to Xmas, with a cheap starting price and very little interest. Including the P&P, it cost me less than a tenner.
The book also doesn’t have a high reputation as either a Dan Dare adventure or an SF novel in general. Having read some of the criticisms, they are valid, but I did enjoy it and I have a better impression of it than the run of Eagle fans.
Basil Dawson was the real name of Don Riley, who received a one-week billing when he took over the writing of Dan Dare during ‘Operation Saturn’, when Frank Hampson’s second lengthy illness took him away from his artboard. Hampson had originally envisaged at anti-eugenics story, but all elements of that disappeared and the serial proceeded along more conventional lines.
Dan Dare on Mars was Dawson’s only novel. It’s set in 2002, after ‘Operation Saturn’ and before ‘Prisoners of Space’. That it didn’t come out until 19656, by which time Dan was on Cryptos, deeply involved with the Phant invasion, suggests to me that the book was held back for some time after its completion before being issued.
The book’s been described as basically a detective story (Dan paraphrases Sherlock Holmes’ most over-quoted line at one point) with a few, unimportant technical details added to make it appear SF. Whilst elements of that are true, I think it shortchanges the book to describe it thus.
The story starts with an utter disaster on Mars: all airtight domes are cracked open and the entire human population disappears, presumed dead. But there is a more serious problem over and above the colossal loss of life: apart from a few, decreasing sites on Earth, monopolised by the World Helenium Corporation, Earth’s major source of helenium are the mines on Mars. As Dan succinctly puts it, without helenium, there are no impulse waves, and without these, no fleets of ships bringing food from Venus daily.
Dan leads a task force to restore the mines and investigate the disaster. The civilian helenium experts are led by Torval, the senior engineer at the World Helenium Corporation. Right from the start, Torval rubs Dan the wrong way up, but only he suspects the man of active obstructions, despite a number of improbable events, including a messenger from Dan’s archaeologist Uncle, Ivor, still digging on Mars, being killed in the Chief Pilot’s office, nobody takes his concerns seriously.
Sir Hubert Guest is a background figure, and Professor Peabody (referred to only as Peabody throughout the narration) has a substantial supporting role as the liaison between the Spacefleet and civilian sides, but otherwise this is a two-hander for the Old Firm, Dan and Digby: there’s not even a passing reference to Hank or Pierre. And naturally, Dan turns out to be completely right about Torval’s motives: the man is out to render Mars helenium inaccessible permanently, in order to create an expensive monopoly and consequent overwhelming political power for his company.
The solution involves a decently clever insertion into Dan Dare’s continuity, albeit one that remains forever non-canon. There is a surviving race of Martians, the Pleons, who have been underground for the last 200,000 years. The Pleons were the smart Martians, the ones who saw the Red Moon coming and nipped underground to get out of the way.
Torval and co have been trying to whip the Pleons up into a war-like frenzy against the rapacious, militarised earthmen, coming to steal their planet and enslave them, and it takes all Dan’s efforts, aided by Uncle Ivor and the emollient Peabody to avert all-out planetary war, and reset things back to zero.
Not massively brilliant by any means, but better than a lot of the weaker Eagle serials (unlike Eric Eden, Dawson at least knew how to handle an ending). I liked Dawson’s handling of the military and planning aspect of Dan’s task force, and I thought his handling of the relationship between Dan and Dig to be on the mark. He’s obviously no great literary stylist, but I found him proficient.
And of course this is a novel aimed at Eagle‘s junior readership, written in the 1950s and shot through with the attitudes of the time, not to mention references to people like Gilbert Harding. The worst you can say of it is that, given its context, it’s no better than you’d expect, but even from my vastly different perspective, I found it pleasant and not insulting light reading, and I welcome it from more than the completist’s stance.
Lion and Eagle. As an unreconstructed Eagle fan, even as one whose collection deliberately excludes the last two years and four months of its history, I cannot help but see that title as a tragedy. I received Eagle week by week from the first week of January 1964 until its last issue in the last week of April 1969, and I carried on with the merged comic for maybe another seven or eight weeks before ending my connection. I was growing out of comics anyway, I was getting football magazines weekly and monthly, I do not know if any other comics remained on my order. But Eagle was not recognisable as Eagle in any of this, and I did not wish to see more.
As for the host, there was a mass attempt to bring existing stories to a rapid, and in come cases, rushed conclusion. Some old favourites, and several new car-crashes came to an end: The Spider in the first category, the Captain Condor and Rory MacDuff reprints crashed, Andy’s Army, Wyatt Earp and The Mind Stealers were terminated.
In their place were a whole host of new series, all of them to the Lion born, and four transfers from the hapless Eagle, the most significant of which being Dan Dare, for whom the ‘Rogue Planet’ reprints had been cut to ribbons to allow the Pilot of the Future to start with a reprint of ‘Reign of the Robots’ to celebrate his new berth. Though celebrate was not the word: all the new setting did was to demonstrate just how integral the Hampson studio’s painted colour was to the art.
It was not long before faces were being touched up to render them more distinct for B&W and done pretty badly too.
Accompanying Dan was The Gladiators (drawn by Archie’s Ted Kearon), about six Gladiators from the Roman Arena who had escaped thanks to an old sorcerer, who had sent them 2,000 years forward in time, to the middle of World War 2, Lightning Stormm, about a wheelchair bound crime-fighting ex-racing driver, obviously inspired by TV’s Raymond Burr vehicle, Ironside, and The Waxer (with art by Reg Bunn), in which ex-cop Mike Martin tried to convince his old colleagues that sinister waxworks owner, Septimus Creech, was bringing waxworks to life to commit dastardly crimes.
Paddy Payne (going into reprints), Robot Archie, Zip Nolan and Carson’s Cubs all survived from Lion, as did Mowser. New series were Turville’s Touchstone, Gargan and Oddball Oates. The new mix was widespread and it would be some time before the value of these could be assessed. But in a single issue, what was Eagle was buried, deep and dead.
In traditional Lion manner, another new series turned up just four weeks into the merger, a one page cartoon with overtones of Charlie Drake’s sitcom, The Worker, in the form of Chester the Cheerful Chump. Like every such one-pager except the inescapable Mowser, this only appeared when they felt like it.
Frankly, I remember absolutely nothing about the other Eagle transfers, even though I was still reading the comic until the end. Discovering them now, as if anew, they are a mixed bunch. The Gladiators is actually quite entertaining. There’s is a pretty basic fish-out-of-water series, but the writer creates an authentic feel to the gladiators, their attitudes and their speech, that gives the story a strong underpinning.
The Waxer is cheerfully OTT on spookiness, but then if you have Reg Bunn as your artist, I suppose it’s only natural. The story premise is goofy and without Bunn it would probably be an ugly mess, but it’s atmospherics (and the fact that it is not as idiotic as The Spider, which it effectively replaced) sustained it in the first instance.
In contrast, Lightning Stormm is a real loser. It apparently ran in Eagle as Lightning Strikes Again. I don’t know how long it had been around but it was awful: ex-racing driver Dan Stormm, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, fights crime in the motor-racing game. The practically paraplegic Dan, sat ramrod still in his over-armoured Supercar of a wheelchair, was a ridiculous image and the strip no better.
The new series was a similar mix in quality. The best of these was Turville’s Touchstone, a comedy drama. Thomas Turville inherits the family mansion, which is dilapidated and badly run-down. There is a lost family fortune which ‘rascally’ Solicitor Crabtree is determined to get to first. Tom however is aided by his 16th Century alchemist ancestor Sylvester, possessor of the titular touchstone, who is not all that fazed by the difference between the world in which he was cursed and that in which Tom has awoken him.
Oddball Oates, as the title implied, was a straight comedy series. Albert Oates is a mild-mannered, scrawny, bespectacled botanist who has discovered a wonder herb which, when smoked and sniffed, gives him wonderful athletic powers. Oates, who prefers to wander around in a caravan, becomes the target of Dr Vulpex, who wants to kidnap him, learn the secret of the herb and turn his country into a sporting superpower. This was a straight comedy, with exaggerated, quasi-cartoonish art and all sorts of sporting feats.
It’s not steroids, but the story rests on a very dodgy basis that you couldn’t write today. In Carson’s Cubs, at one point, Arthur Braggart calls Herbert Snook a Coke-head. Given that Oddball Oates was getting his ‘powers’ by smoking a wonder herb, and getting one heck of a high off it, I start to wonder just what the writers might have been smoking themselves.
The last series, Gargan, was a bust. Gargan was a big Yeti-type monster from the Himalayas, gentle as a lamb but looking like a monster. He and his sherpa boy companion Rhurki are kidnapped to America by a crooked circus owner who intends to exhibit him as a monster. Cash Maddack has a hold over Rhurki because he steals the magic mirror belonging to the ancient Reega the Wise, who is immortal as long as the mirror isn’t broken.
The series never rises above the predictable and, even as a ‘monster’, Gargan looks too silly to be convincing.
Of the Lion stalwarts, Paddy Payne reverted to reprints, and Robot Archie to the jungle, although without overwhelmed and superstitious natives. Zip Nolan was the same as it always was, week in, week out, as was Mowser, but with the excuse of being reasonably amusing. Chester the Chump totalled only four appearances, and was not a great loss, or any loss at all.
There were a few Reg Bunn Zip Nolans along the way, one of which I definitely recognised. These had to be reprints, leaving me to suspect that Nolan’s stories were the same every week because they were literally the same, reprints from years of formula tales impossible to distinguish any longer.
As for Carson’s Cubs, this had now gone stale as indicated by the fact that the stories were no longer about the Cubs’ progress on the football field but about the distracting shenanigans that took place off. It was rather like the Nineties’ TV series, Playing the Field, about a woman’s football team: two series about the club and its fortunes, and then it collapsed into a soap opera about a group of women whose link happened to be being in a football team.
The new line-up was pretty much settled for the rest of the year, but Lightning Stormm was the first to crack, lasting only twelve issues before transforming into Tales from the Tracks, a series of weekly motor racing stories narrated by Dan Stormm, which got rid of the embarrassing crime-fighter-in-a-souped-up-wheelchair aspect. These were actually surprisingly decent, but the feature was pulled after 29 November, making way for Drive for your Life.
This was a pretty implausible motor-racing story. Count von Drakko’s cowardice on the track causes a massive pile-up, as attested to by six fellow-drivers, resulting in his banning from racing. Six years later, all six drivers are kidnapped to drive a private race track designed by the Count, who means to show them what being scared really is: the track is a vicious obstacle race with fatal traps designed to kill five of the drivers. Only the race winner will survive, and it’s obviously going to be the American, Rev Ryder, because he’s the one with the stupid hero’s name.
The Gladiators had already lost both Ted Kearon and his successor when, on 4 October, The Waxer’s series lost Reg Bunn, and renamed itself Palace of Villainy. However, Bunn was back in harness ten weeks later, for the series’ next phase, When Midnight Chimes, The Waxworks Walk, which has to be one of the most stupid titles in Lion‘s history.
Gargan was now rambling with no real direction and Rhukri just whined all the time. Archie’s time-travelling adventures were having less and less point, and now the pals found themselves in some undated near future period battling the Sludge, that old jelly-like monster from 1964.
These changes apart, the Lion and Eagle line-up occupied the last months of the Sixties, and held over until the end of January 1970, but once again it was time for a revamp, with stories and series coming to abrupt endings and a new round of features starting up.
To begin with, Eagle was gone: we were back to being Lion again, until the next swallowing up of a weaker rival. Dan Dare, whose reprinted adventure had been chopped down into an unnaturally short four page finale to make room, was all that remained. Turville’s Touchstone was renamed Spellbinder and acquired Reg Bunn on art, although the boring rascally Solicitor Crabtree was kept on. Carson’s Cubs started a new story in which they found themselves playing the Circus Wanderers, that is the stars of the Eagle series that didn’t get carried over into Lion. Zip Nolan was no different, Paddy Payne was still in reprints, Archie, Ted and Ken finally got back to the right time and place but, as telegraphed the previous week brought The Sludge with them, Oddball Oates went Rugby League and Dan Dare brought up the rear with an untitled reprint of The Phantom Fleet. The quality of Frank Hampson’s art still shone through, but it was a close run thing, and as the story went on, it stopped being close and more often than not turned into a travesty. And Mowser rolled on, but James the Butler was demoted from co-billing.
Four new series of mixed quality began. Stringbean and Hambone was a comedy thriller about two mismatched wrestlers teaming up to tag-wrestle, with the unknown benefit of a magic wish-granting stone from China, which was marred from the offset with incredibly racist bullshit in the form of Chinese ‘dialogue’ in which no-one could plonounce the letter ‘R’. Yes, 1970, kids comic, blah-de-blah-de-blah, it’s still racist bullshit, and I simply refused to read it.
Flame o’the Forest was an altogether more serious affair, set just after the Norman Conquest, with a young Saxon sworn to vengeance on a vicious Norman baron who’d tortured his father to a premature death, whilst The Fugitive from Planet Scorr was a lumpen SF story about a rebel alien trying to stop his race’s plan to destroy Earth, only to be hated and feared as a monster whatever he did: like Gargan, then. As for General Johnny, this was an unwelcome re-run of Andy’s Army, with a schoolboy military tactician genius becoming a World War 2 General, about which you have to say it’s a wonder we won the bloody thing at all, given some of the notions weekly comics writers came up with in the Sixties. Except that Andy’s Army was actually better and more plausible than this.
This latest line-up was worse than weak, it was dull. Thanks to Reg Bunn, Spellbinder was visually interesting, but there was insufficient variation in the storyline, whilst Flame o’the Forest, after an initially interesting premise, got bogged down in having the Flame act like another superhero, as if this were still 1967. Lion had never pretended to be anything but a boy’s action, adventure and humour comic, but it had always had series, and frequently several off them, that proved interesting to an older audience. Now, the knack of spanning those generations seemed to have been lost. The title was lodged in a very narrow band of appeal, and its stalwart series had gotten very very tired indeed.
Reading it at this point is more of a chore than an enthusiasm. Nor am I surprised to learn that this is when the sales started to dip.
Apart from a run of poorly-reproduced Sky-High Bannion stories, billed as complete adventures, there was no change to the line-up until 25 July, when both The Fugitive from Planet Scorr and Hambone and Stringbean gave up the ghost together. Their replacements were Britain 2170AD, in which a four man spaceship crew returned from a five year mission to a Britain regressed to jungle primitivity and Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman, which I don’t even want to talk about.
Archie, Ted and Ken abandoned the time-travelling Castle at last as if it had never existed, for a trip to Mexico (superstitious peons, sigh), in search of a Golden City under the ocean whilst beating off a villainous rival who sticks at nothing to beat them to it, snore.
It’s not as if any of the new series had decent art, either. By now, only Reg Bunn’s pages for The Spellbinder were of any quality. Frank Hampson’s carefully prepared Dan Dare art was being trashed weekly by catastrophic cross-hatching and shading that looked as if it had been applied with a carpenter’s pencil, and whilst Flame o’the Forest’s artist maintained a decent smooth line, it was no better than bland. But bland was vastly superior to the horrifically scruffy art everywhere else.
At least Dan Dare was put out of its misery on 24 October 1970, when The Phantom Fleet reached an unabridged end. That was it as far as the old Eagle was concerned, and as far as this blog goes. I’ll make one new series an excuse for the next instalment.
This is where I get off.
Though Eagle ran on into 1969, and Volume 20, and I faithfully read it, week by week, in those late Sixties years, my continuing interest in it ends here. Volume 17, and the first issue of Volume 18. With the last of these issues, Eagle ceased to feature new ‘Dan Dare’ stories, the four week ‘Underwater Attack’ excluded, choosing to reprint the series’ glorious past, starting from 1954’s ‘Prisoners of Space’.
Given that, by that time, the only decent feature left in Eagle was ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, for Frank Humphris’s art, and certainly not the stories, and that the comic was destined to experienced a further cheapening, transmuting to a smaller size, coarser paper, I have no interest in going further.
The Eagle story ends dismally, but then we all knew that from the beginning. By the last dozen or so issues of this Volume, my re-read was a skim. It had been a skim for most of the year, but until issue 37, there was at least one other feature that deserved proper attention.
Though ‘Dan Dare’ is usually the star of any volume of the Eagle, my nomination for most entertaining feature belonged to ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, the first of three serials to feature adventurer, freebooter and ‘Saint’-alike, Nick Hazard, whose debut story ran from issue 3 to 39, making it the most substantial text feature since ‘Horizon Unlimited’.
Hazard is very much in the mould of The Saint, though without the romantic aspects. He’s an internationally-sought thief, one of those multi-talented adventurers, quick-witted, lawless, yet still bound by a code that prevents him from cold-blooded murder, even of those deserving, and with a hatred of the rich, powerful and arrogant. In ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, Hazard has been brought in, entirely unofficially, by Superintendent Glanville of Scotland Yard, to put a spanner in the works of a plot by twelve millionaires to take control of the world. Hazard starts with a list of only five ‘confirmed’, and a couple of other suspected members of the plot. His approach is to get close to each in turn, learn his weakness and exploit that to gain the evidence that, if Hazard can beat an unknown deadline, will enable these millionaires to be taken down.
The story’s told in arcs of three or four parts, seguing into each other in the ‘Horizon Unlimited’ manner. It’s not by the same writer, but it’s in the Eagle manner of a strongly written thriller, and Hazard’s comprehensive skills push at the bounds of plausibility but never topple them. He’s forever falling into cliffhangers and getting out of these by forward planning, inspired improvisation or believable strokes of fortune.
Yes, it’s a juvenile thriller, but it’s a tightly-written one, it holds the interest even of jaded sixty-plus blokes, and it is by far the strongest thing in Eagle this year. Dan Dare certainly doesn’t have his best year. ‘The Singing Scourge’ works to an end, still dogged by murky colouring, obscuring the art. Watson tries a variation on his style for ‘”Give Me The Moon!”’, more angular in his line work, but the story is a load of sub-James Bond tosh, with a terrorist organisation called FIST demanding to be given the Moon (why?), led by a blind Spacefleet Commissionaire. Beyond bringing back Lex O’Malley, it’s a dumb story, falling far below even Eric Eden’s negligible efforts in its rooted objection to making the slightest sense. Several negative marks for ‘killing off’ Digby without anyone caring, and bringing him back between panels as if nobody cared.
But this was before ‘The Menace for Jupiter’, the last story, starting in issue 27. For this, ‘Dan Dare’ was reduced to one page, the same fate as ‘Heros the Spartan’, whose slot it took. Watson’s art got more solid, the colourist improved, but the serial rejects any sense of connection with what has gone before, as surely as any of the 2000AD versions did. Digby’s a cypher, he keeps calling his Colonel ‘Dan’, and not until the penultimate episode does he sound like Digby, or even like a human being instead of a plot function.
There’s little to say about the final six months of Heros. The outlaw story ended with his redemption, of course, but the following week, he was once again fighting for his honour and reputation under the evil Caesar’s hatred. At one page a week, the story had no room to breathe, and no more energy. It’s a compendium of ‘Heros’ tropes and the vindication of the Spartan’s courage at the end falls flat. The series gets a non-ending.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ would go on, until the ultimate end. The thinking plant story that continued from the previous year was thankfully a nadir, and it was followed by a rather straight and non-fantastic story about a gang of thieves, but even that had to include the Hooded One, and it was too short overall, as the ‘Blackbow’ stories tended to be. After that, it was back to the silly stories again, with fantastic elements underpinning them. Poor Frank Humphris.
But that was Eagle now. Once, it had been the home of solid, thoughtful, exciting but utterly realistic story-strips. Only ‘Dan Dare’ was completely outlandish, and Frank Hampson was determined to make everything in the series believable. Now Eagle went in for short, sharp shock stuff, fantastic elements underpinning everything. ‘The Iron Man’ fought criminal masterminds with stupid names, who wore masks concealing only that there was nobody real behind them. ‘The Guinea Pig’ tested weird inventions with no scientific basis, and frequently solved the disasters they spawned in only two episodes.
And the kids wanted this sort of thing. Like ‘Blackbow’, these features went on to the end without producing anything that held the mind for more than the few seconds they took to read.
Nothing demonstrated this more than ‘UFO Agent’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ lasted two more, desultory episodes at the start of the Volume before being replaced by this series, about which I can only reference a song from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1994 album, Sleeps with Angels. Those familiar with the record will anticipate that I am thinking of the short, tight but completely apposite song, ‘Piece of Crap’.
Two former agents of the now closed Ministry of Unusual Activities, Major Grant and Boffin Bailey (sic), are summoned to become Agents of crime-busting Satellite Zeta, with their very own Flying Saucer and fantastic superweapons with which, each week, they defeat agents of ‘E.O.S.’ (‘Enemies of Society’). It’s complete garbage.
The strip started in black and white, initially with art by Paul Trevillion who, rather sadly, hung onto the did-you-spot-the-clue notion, whilst the clues got exponentially dumbed down. Before long it was being drawn by Jose Ortiz, with contributions from Luis Bermejo. The idea is moronic, its execution worse: all it does is demonstrate that it is impossible to tell even a quarter-decent story in two pages.
And ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ continued to be Cornelius Dimworthy.
There was, of course, the traditional revamp. This took place exactly halfway through the year, in issue 27. ‘Dan Dare’ took over ‘Heros’s single page, ‘UFO Agent’ moved to the centrespread and was elevated to colour. What replaced ‘Heros’? That would be ‘Blunderbirds’.
The only decent thing you can say about ‘Blunderbirds’ was that it lasted no more than eighteen weeks, a clear sign that the kids rejected it. It was a cheaply obvious and obviously cheap parody of Gerry Anderson’s greatest and most popular creation, which was still soaring high, and I wonder if the readers made it plain that it just wasn’t wanted. We were talking serious ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ territory here.
Oddly enough, ‘UFO Agent’ greatly improved in the centrespread, not that it was a full centrespread, merely full page three-quarter width, thanks to some eye-catching colouring that suddenly gave Ortiz’s art a fantastic range and a genuine visual appeal. The stories weren’t enhanced one bit, but the almost psychedelic intensity of the colour gave the retina something to take in.
Finally, the cover feature, ‘Arms Through the Ages’ caught up with the present day and was replaced by ‘Did it ever Happen?’, a primarily poster-sized feature on implausible situations, inviting the reader to guess whether these were true or a pack of porkies. A surprising number of them were, in fact, True.
The loss of Nick Hazard left Eagle with little but the token ‘Dan Dare’ page. A new Jennings serialisation, overlapping ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’ by two weeks, took over the prose slot, and what little enjoyment ‘UFO Agent’ provided died for good when Major Grant was evaporated along with a Zetan, merged with him and came back as Smokeman. At least Eagle was being honest by finally turning one of its strips into an actual superhero, instead of the half-hearted pretending that had gone on so far, but they were a very long way from knowing the remotest thing about doing a superhero effectively.
But I began with ‘Dan Dare’ and let’s end with him. The final menace was driven off in issue 53 by a rip-off from H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Keith Watson was given one page more, one panel rather, in Volume 18 issue 1, to depict Dan being congratulated by all his friends, or at least all the Hampson era ones, plus Wilf Banger, on his promotion to Controller of the Spacefleet. His first task? Write his memoirs. And so Longacre finally got out of paying anyone for Dan Dare stories or art, because all those Hampson strips were free.
So my reviews end here, unlike Eagle itself. What have I left out? As I’ve already said, Blackbow, the Guinea Pig and the Iron Man made it to the end. Nick Hazard came back in volume 18, with back to back serials offering another 29 weeks entertainment. There was a fourth and final Jennings serial and a couple more serials of which I have no memory, even from the names.
Cornelius Dimworthy didn’t last through Volume 18, being replaced by Micky Merlin, about whom I have no memories whatsoever, whilst UFO Agent lasted into Volume 19, though it underwent multiple changes of title: ‘Smokeman UFO’, ‘Smokeman CID’, ‘Grant CID’ and finally just ‘CID’. I shudder.
Other strips had short runs: ‘Sky Buccaneers’, whatever that was, ‘Circus Wanderers’, which fifty years on I have still not managed to totally forget, and partial reprints of ‘Mark Question’ (as ‘Mark Mystery’) and ‘Hornblower’. There was even a run of Jack Kirby’s ‘Tales of Asgard’ short back-ups from Marvel’s Thor in Volume 19, strange as that is to recall. Not that they were advertised as reprints, no sir, this was a new Eagle feature so far as its audience was concerned.
But these things were beyond the end and beyond the pale. I have my Eagle collection, to my delight and continuing disbelief, and I’ve read the whole lot, and now I’ve written about it all.
There is curiously little to say about Volume 16. I’ve gone on about stability in recent reviews, and it is fair to say that 1965 was a year of at least superficial stability. Only one major feature ended and was replaced by a new major feature. Minor features, such as the excellent Ron Embleton ‘Prizefighters’ half-page might cease and be replaced by a similar half-pager, ‘The Duellists’, by a less smooth and detailed artist, two of Eagle’s remaining top series underwent format changes and there was the annual revamp, coming late in the year and consisting solely of a new cover feature. But issue 52 was easily recognisable as the same comic as issue 1, just shuffled about a bit.
The classic Eagle of the Hulton Fifties had been a vibrant, thriving affair of classic, enduring series, written, drawn and edited with enthusiasm and a simple belief in the quality of what was being done. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Eagle of the Longacre mid-Sixties was sterile and dull. It was rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.
We begin, as always with ‘Dan Dare’. ‘The Mushroom’ concluded within half a dozen issues, giving way to ‘The Moonsleepers’, which featured Xel as it’s villain, alongside a cameo role from the Mekon. It was a longer story, and thus more substantial, but its ending was abrupt and unsatisfactory: Xel drowns in the black waters of the Arctic and the Mekon’s fleet, advancing on Venus, vanishes in a blaze of white light: explanation unforthcoming.
Neither villain will appear again, and the apparent disposal of the Mekon in such a perfunctory, back-handed manner was weak and unsatisfying.
Then, as of issue 31, Dan lost the cover again, this time for good. What happened was a demonstration of how much a shambles the comic had become. Previously, such revamps had been tightly organised around new stories for as many series as possible, but not only did ‘The Singing Scourge’ start one week before the reformat, but the prose serial ‘The Rebel Riders’ had two more instalments to run. Sloppy.
Though my research materials credit David Motton as writer throughout, I’ve long been convinced that Keith Watson was given a new writer at this point. True, Motton’s Tempus Frangit reappears for the first time since the end of ‘The Wandering World’, along with Banger and Cob, and yes, the story once again involves paired planets, but there’s an indefinable difference to the writing that only grows. Some captions are Mottonesque, but mainly there’s a flatness to the scripting that smacks of a different hand. The legendary Frank Pepper, creator of Dan”s first rival, Captain Condor, for Lion, not to mention the minor figure of Roy of the Rovers, is recorded as having written Dan Dare at some point and I believe this to be now. Maybe that explains the hasty despatch of the Mekon, as Motton got the push?
And Keith Watson is not at his best in this story. The shambles is further exemplified by his initially drawing ‘Dan Dare’ as a centrespread when it was placed on pages 6-7, reverting to two separate pages just in time for it to be moved to the centrespread, missing four weeks whilst Don Harley fills in, and then drawing a centrespread consisting of separate panels rather than the gutterless images of his first efforts. His art loses definition, his panels have less room, though as Dan and Co spend most of their time in spacesuits, it’s difficult to animate the story. Eric Eden has moved on from colouring and his replacement is drastically inferior, lacking in subtlety and far too prone to lay single, muddy colours across entire panels. It makers the art drab, and destroys the three-dimensionality of things.
This is, incidentally, the fourth different format Keith Watson has had to draw in since taking over the series in 1962, so he can’t be criticised overmuch, simply for his flexibility.
If ‘Dan Dare’ is now in the centrespread, what of ‘Heros the Spartan’? Luis Bermejo finished his Wolfman story, Frank Bellamy returned for a final, desert set story about El Rashid, his last substantive contribution to Eagle, and Bermejo came back with a new story featuring Heros becoming an outlaw, on the run from Caesar. It began in issue 31, one story at least to herald the revamp, but after only eight weeks, the series was cut back abruptly to a single page, in which form it would run until cancellation.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ continued to showcase Frank Humphris. As usual, it would bounce around on different pages, until the revamp, when it found a ‘permanent’ home on the back page. The stories grew ever more ridiculous. One short tale, involving the troublesome kid Clem Woodley, invokes memories of ‘Riders of the Range’s ‘Terror of the Pecos’, but is much more of an overt joke, showing Blackbow up in a way that would have been unthinkable with Jeff Arnold and Luke, but it’s the succeeding story, in which the villains are a mad scientist and a sentient plant that forms itself into a massive green hand that really makes you want to weep for Humphris. So good an artist, so knowledgeable and informed about the West, and having to draw ridiculous crap like this?
‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ did not have a good year. It spent most of it in single-page format, with the occasional page-and-a-halfer, mostly drawn by Paul Trevillion, looking like holdovers from past years. Trevillion is little in evidence, and most weeks it is the strip’s Spanish artist, loose and impressionistic and inevitably unEnglish in appearance. There’s a third artist at work some weeks, closer to Trevillion in style but much cruder, giving the series an inconsistent look, and even Trevillion’s art, though still crisp and clear, several times looks like it’s fifty percent made up of stock shots and poses seen far too often. The strip was in decline, terminal decline, as we shall see.
I’ve already mentioned ‘The Rebel-Riders’. This was a fourteen week serial, featuring a trio of ‘ton-up’ boys, leather-jacketed motorbike riders, framed by circumstance for the death of two men in a car crash, who escape from a prejudiced Police Superintendent to clear themselves and bring the true culprits to justice. It’s a serial in the old Eagle mould, taut, well-written, the work of someone who knew their subject the way the writers of ‘Runway 13’ and ‘High Quest’ knew theirs. It’s an oasis between two very lengthy serialisations of Anthony Buckeridge Jennings books,
‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ was ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’, and I have nothing more to say about it. It leaves me cold on all levels. So too does ‘The Iron Man’, which isn’t even well enough drawn to hold my attention, whilst the notion that absolutely nobody but Tim Branton has the faintest idea that ‘Robert’, with his metallically rectilinear face, could be anything but human is several stops short of plausible. It’s basically a superhero series without the conviction to admit it, which keeps it from ever amounting to anything. That it was immensely popular is both mystifying, and evidence of Eagle’s grand decline: even its audience was diminished.
‘Billy Binns’, the third Boy’s World holdover, lasted one week of Volume 16, before being dropped, and falling back on his more appropriate home in Wham!, which no longer needed to be advertised incessantly. It’s replacement was the very popular ‘The Guinea-Pig’.
I don’t know what to make of this series at this remove. The Guinea-Pig is adventurer and all-round tough guy, Mike Lane, who gets taken on by Professor Cornelius Dee, boss of a secret research institute on Dartmoor, as tester for the Professor’s increasingly outlandish and unbelievable experiments. Most of the stories don’t last more than two or three weeks, running into one another at the start, but after a quick jumble of these, there’s a completely out-of-character adventure featuring lost Spanish and English Elizabethan tribes fifty miles underground that lasted thirteen weeks.
It’s all deeply implausible, especially as the two wholly anachronistic groups must have discovered parthenogenesis (no women). Art on this tale was by Brian Lewis, though like ‘Can you catch a crook?’ there’s a stable of at least three different artists working at different periods. Lewis was a good artist, prone to detail in a kind of mundanely ornate style, but this only produces dense panels and an overall dark style that is hard to follow because of the lack of clearly identifiable elements. Overall, the effect is heavy and slow, and since the scripting is flat and utilitarian – Lane is one of a crew of nearly half a dozen, who are underground for thirteen weeks in the close confines of a Mole-like machine, but none of the others have names – it’s pretty dull overall. But, like ‘Iron Man’, popular.
This was another strip whose format was unstable. It began as two pages, got cut back to one-and-a-half after a month, and might turn up as one page without the least warning.
Something similar kept happening to ‘Roving Reporter’, sometimes one page, sometimes half a page, and growing steadily less informative. Worse still, though usually in full colour, albeit with a palate vastly more limited than in the Fifties, it would be in black-and-white. With issue 41, this was replaced by ‘Bids for Freedom’, again one page with the odd half-pager, all about people break out of various prisons.
As for Eagle‘s cover, from issue 31 onwards this was a full-page feature, ‘Arms through the Ages’, a full colour short, dominated by a main image, featuring different weaponry. Inside, and encouraging readers to cut up and destroy their copy, there was a printed text, to be cut out and pasted over the Eagle and Boy’s World logo box when the cover was cut off. Sheesh.
No, this was now a comic whose inner conviction and pleasure in itself had withered, and even its few remaining series worthy of respect were being treated shabbily. Though Eagle would limp on into 1969, and volume 20, there was only one further Volume in which I was interested.
Whatever degree of stability Eagle achieved in Volume 14 evaporated like the morning mist in 1964, the year I began my weekly association with the comic, delivered every Wednesday for the remainder of its life. There were two, or depending on how you define them, three revamps in Volume 15 alone, starting with issue 6, which saw the departure of the unloved ‘Mann of Battle’ and its replacement by no less than two new series, both of which were finished before the year was out.
‘Dan Dare’ was once again reformatted, finally making it back to two colour pages, this time wrapped around as front and back cover, the latter displacing the famous Cutaway – the only other remaining original feature – inside, never to be seen in colour again.
And poor Swift was dropped from the masthead with issue 38, just in time for another merger, as Eagle absorbed Longacre’s failed attempt at doing a red-top comic without Marcus Morris: Boy’s World didn’t even last two volumes before the stable-leader became Eagle and Boy’s World with issue 40.
This time, four of the latter’s features were carried over, which necessitated an increase to 24 pages to accommodate them all. It was discouraging that two of these series only lasted six weeks before cancellation, and a third did not last much past the end of the year.
Add to this the near-permanent reduction of ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ to one page (and one clue), though the occasional page-and-a-halfer popped up, and the near-permanent reduction of ‘Roving Rporter’ to half a page, though the occasional full-pager popped up, stir in a bunch of half page factual strips, mostly drawn by Eric Kincaid, about Pirates, Espionage, Prizefighters and an erratic half pager by Paul Trevillion about eccentric modes of transport: no, if there was one word you could not use with a straight face about Volume 15, it is ‘stable’.
‘Dan Dare’ concluded its cycle of stories in the hybrid format by bringing ‘The Wandering World’ to a successful conclusion with the return to Earth and the twin captures of the Mekon and Xel. The latter then temporarily raised a rebellious teenage army in London in the nine-week ‘The Big City Caper’, an slight affair that was both uneasily reflective of the burgeoning, pop-influenced teenage culture and uncannily predictive of twenty-first century broadcast media.
The new, all-colour format began with my favourite ‘Dan Dare’ story of all time, ‘All Treens Must Die!’, a grandiose, sweeping tale built upon the planned genocide of the Treen Race and its intended replacement with a pure, unsullied, race of Treens, that also picked up on Alan Stranks/Frank Hampson’s dangling reference of six years previously to the ‘Last Three’: a trio of Supertreens, perhaps former Mekons, whose appearance on three successive covers impressed itself so firmly upon me at the time. All this in only twenty weeks! (Apparently, the story was originally intended to run twenty-two weeks but was cut short, presumably in response to the Boys World merger that it overlapped by three issues: David Motton has long since forgotten what may have been in those extra two weeks.)
‘Heros the Spartan’ continued to dominate the centrespread. Luis Bermejo saw out ‘The Man of Vyah’, but Heros and Septimus’s return to Rome was interrupted by the quest of ‘The Axe of Arguth’, which saw Frank Bellamy restored to art duties the same week as ‘All Treens Must Die!’ began. But that didn’t see out the year and it was once again Bermejo as the Volume approached its end.
‘Mann of Battle’ had finished after five issues: ‘Horizon Unlimited’ lasted a bit longer, but that too ended in issue 22. Eagle would rarely have such a long-running prose serial again. It was followed first by ‘Voodoo Island’, a ten-part Caribbean Pirate’s Treasure/Horror story, pleasant enough and clearly written by a scuba-diving enthusiast, like ‘Horizon Unlimited’s aviation-enthusiast author. This was followed by the somewhat oddball ‘The Outlanders’, a thirteen part serial of five Liverpool teenagers emigrating to Australia, and driving there across half the world in a beaten-up Land Rover.
After that, the Volume was seen out by the first of several serialisations of ‘Jennings’ books. Anthony Buckeridge had contributed Rex Milligan to Eagle a decade earlier, and now it was the turn of his more famous creation, no longer being serialised for ‘Children’s Hour’ on BBC Radio, to do the honours.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ continued to give Frank Humphris employment drawing his favourite subject, though none of the stories could live up to the glory days of ‘Riders of the Range’, either in length, or subject. Already, there was a tendency to paint the stories with some kind of pseudo-supernatural edge. Tom Tully was doing this with ‘Heros’, where such things could be absorbed into the fantasy of ancient times, but it was unworthy of Humphris to lace good, solid Westerns with that sort of thing. Still, he had not lost any of his skill.
Of the new features, the highlight of these was ‘Johnny Frog’, drawn with a beautifully soft cross-hatched line by Ron Embleton. Visually, it was magnificent in its detail, the entire page a fine tapestry. Master Frog himself was a drummer boy in Napoleon’s army, a fluent speaker of English, or Scottish, rather, given a message by Bonaparte himself to deliver to Boney’s master spy in England, the Schoolmaster.
But Johnny’s a decoy, and an obvious decoy, meant to be tracked as a distraction from the real messenger, and he hardly lasts an episode before being spotted by an English spy, Lieutenant Alain Yeo of Naval Intelligence. Johnny’s determination and shrewdness sees him get to the Schoolmaster himself, only to be shot for his temerity, though barely wounded. At which point Alain outs him as the son of a French Count and an English noblewoman, real name Jean-Marie, Marquis of St Albans.
No sooner is Johnny installed in his new aristocratic life than Alain is borrowing him back for a secret mission to France, first to seed Dijon harbour with forerunners of mines, then to persuade the French fleet to leave Cadiz to present themselves up to the waiting British fleet off Cape Trafalgar…
All very ‘Jack O’Lantern’-manque, without the latter’s breadth and colour, but this was fitting given that the scripter was Jack’s creator, George Beardsmore. ‘Johnny Frog’ was as full of seeming authenticity as Jack Yorke’s adventures had been, albeit it in a far smaller scope, the three stories that went to make up the run being complete in only thirty-four episodes. The series ended patriotically, if not personally, with Lord Nelson’s death, with a slight air of rush. ‘Johnny Frog’ replaced ‘Mann of Battle’ and was ended to make room for the incoming Boy’s World features.
Making its debut alongside ‘Johnny Frog’, and not even lasting quite as long was the half-page strip, ‘Junior – Reporter!’. I know very little about this except that even in 1964 I could tell there was something very different about this comedy series. Looking at it now, it’s as blatant a reprint from something like Pilote as there can be, screaming la ligne claire from the rooftops.
Artistically, it’s a bit like a more angular Albert Uderzo, for all its being presented as an English story. Essentially, in search of a newspaper story, the editor of the Daily Globe accepts the suggestion of Office Boy Junior of a feature on a day in the life of a Press Photographer. The idea is less impressive to the paper’s leading photographer, Len Lenns but, in sending up Junior by taking a photo of his window box of begonias, he accidentally takes a photo of a safe being cracked, leading to a comic investigation to foil a family of professional crooks.
As stories go, it wasn’t bad, but it was ten times better than its sequel, in which the pair took up a challenge to travel to Texas with only sixpence each, which rapidly degenerated into a pirate comedy, with increasingly skimpy and dull art, as if the uncredited artist was either very short of time or very short of ideas.
It was the first European strip reprint since that solitary Tintin adventure a decade earlier, and unlike those Hulton days, the fact that it had to be credited to someone else didn’t appear anywhere near the strip. And by some oversight, it’s omitted from Cliff Wanford’s ‘Eagle Collectors Handbook’, an otherwise comprehensive summary of everything to appear in Eagle. I am unable to find any information about it online.
Four series joined Eagle in issue 40 from Boy’s World. Both the popular Second World War RAF strip, ‘Raff Regan’ and the Greek Mythology fantasy ‘Wrath of the Gods’ were in mid-story, and both were wrung out and completed in six issues. So far as the former was concerned, this was no great shame, but the splendidly vigorous and boldly depicted latter, two full colour pages from Ron Embleton, would have made a superb addition to Eagle, though probably it was felt that this was too close in atmosphere to ‘Heros the Spartan’.
‘Billy Binns and his Wonderful Specs’ fared little better, though it did at least have the advantage of starting a new story. This was a one page black and white comic school story, so it will be pretty obvious to those who know the Eagle of this period why it didn’t last longer. Binns, a Fourth Former, was basically a klutz, especially sporting-wise, unless he was wearing his Wonderful Specs which, in some never-explained manner, gave him confidence, clarity of thought and implausible athletic ability at everything.
Frankly, it was the Sixties. You had to be there.
Actually, Billy Binns, drawn by Bill Mainwaring, had a life after Eagle. Longacre had launched a new comic in 1964, the semi-legendary Wham!, which may or may not have been read as a kid by Georgios Panyiotu. It was basically an anarchic juvenile paper that I wanted to read but which my parents would never let me because they decided I was too old for it. It was advertised practically every week in Eagle, non-stop and Billy Binns had been running there eve as he was appearing in Boy’s World, the only strip to have appeared simultaneously in two papers, as far as I am aware.
Last of the Boy’s World quartet, and certainly not the least of it in terms of success since it lasted as long at Eagle lived was ‘The Iron Man’, drawn by Spanish artist Martin Salvador and written by Ken Meneal. Nothing to do with Marvel’s slightly earlier Iron Man/Tony Stark, the central character of this page-and-a-half black and white strip was Robert, no other given name, and his constant companion, Tim Brunton, the only man in the world to know that the internationally famous crime-buster was secretly a fantastic robot, dressed in a plastic skin to make him look not very human at all. I’m sorry, but this was ghastly, tedious stuff that, aptly, smacked of the superhero, but completely lacking the brio of the far more successful types of story such as Robot Archie, Kelly’s Eye, Morgyn the Mighty and The Spider that thrived at the traditionally more downmarket Lion.
But when it comes to ghastly, the nail had already been driven into Eagle‘s coffin by the series that, more than any other, represented the failure of Longacre to understand what they still, barely, had. This series was introduced in issue 23, in the revamp, and it would run far too long. I speak of ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’.
I don’t intend to speak much of it. As we were reminded every week, ‘Corny’ was Mortlake School’s ‘dreamiest and luckiest’ schoolboy, dreamiest here not being used in the manner it was being used of the by now regular micro-features on pop groups and pop singers. No, Cornelius had his head in the clouds, meaning that he was utterly impractical, self-deluded, self-centred and convinced of his own incomparable abilities at everything, in a way that got the back up of everybody from the Head down to the school sneaks, Smythe and Sweeting (never have a pair of craven, vicious bullies been so thoroughly justified), but from which he was always rescued, half a dozen times every week, by eye-blinkingly implausible accidents.
I only have to look at this now to want to reach through time, grab my juvenile self by the throat and give him a damned good shaking for even reading this tosh, and I am gripped by the urge to apologise to actual tosh for making that comparison. It was, in short, ridiculous, and not in a good way. It was drawn by Frank McDiarmid and the writer’s identity is unknown and for good reason too.
Apparently, shortly after the series ceased in Eagle it was reprinted in Buster as ‘ Dizzy Dimwitty’ and good luck to all who read it.
Such was Eagle in 1964. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the rot had irreversibly set in. The comic had less than five years left to it, and although its big three strips, Dan Dare, Heros and, at least in artistic terms, Blackbow, still had much to give, its circulation remorselessly drained away, and its death was now inevitable. The last few years would be undeniably painful.
The magic ingredient that made Volume 14 an improvement on its predecessor was the thing I criticised last time out: stability. After the chaos of 1962, Eagle‘s editorial staff pulled things together to establish long-running series that appeared faithfully, week after week, solidifying the comic’s latterday appeal.
As in the previous year, the first nine issues were essentially a continuation of the previous Volume. ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and ‘Hornblower’ played out their time. There were two episodes left of ‘Johnny Quick’ and then that short, seven part serial, ‘Runway 13’ which I’ve previously praised so highly, and which was a forerunner of the prose series that would then establish itself as an Eagle fixture.
Everything else ran its stories down, including a final short nine week B&W ‘Dan Dare’ adventure, to enable another internal revamp with issue 10.
These blogs have been concentrating upon Eagle, of course, but its success spawned a small stable of red-topped comics under Marcus Morris for other audiences. First, Girl, for readers’ sisters. Then Robin for their baby/brothers/sisters, 4-7 year olds. And Swift, for the intermediate audience, the 7 – 10 year olds. But Swift was now being cancelled, in the traditional British manner whereby a comic does not simply disappear but suffers death-by-merger, the strongest series of each of the two comics continuing under a single form. With Volume 14, issue 10, Eagle officially became Eagle and Swift, though I’m not going to use that title.
Only two of Swift‘s features survived the merger, according to a disgruntled Swift reader later in the year, but the only unequivocally new feature was the new Western series, ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, and that began its second life with the closest such things came to an ‘origin’ episode that I can only assume was for the benefit of Eagle readers.
For this initial story, ‘Blackbow’ ran in black and white across two pages, dominated by an overall grey tone that rendered the art ineffective and dull. The untitled story featured a seeming ghost Indian Chief, returned from the dead, inciting the local Commanche tribe, under Blackbow’s friend, Chickarro, to attack Powder Creek. As had been the case in at least one ‘Riders of the Range’ saga, and would be repeated more than once in ‘Blackbow’ itself, the villain turned out to be the local banker, trying to drive settlers off so he could buy their land cheap and make a killing.
As for the other Swift holdover, according to Wikipedia that must have been ‘Calling U for Useless’ which had already been appearing in Eagle for ages: surely it can’t have been published in both comics?
Dan Dare had had a year in monochrome, of short stories without recurring characters, and at first, ‘Operation Time-Trap’ looked like more of the same, albeit with a slightly expanded cast. But the revamp introduced an expanded Letter’s Page, and practically the first thing this featured was a couple of letters from readers wanting the Pilot of the Future back in colour. The editor (Bob Bartholomew, though unlike Morris and Makins, he would never name himself to the readers: professional comics publishers, remember) hinted at some change and, four weeks in to the revamp, Dan finally returned to Eagle‘s cover, and to full colour.
But only on the cover. For Heaven knows what reason, perhaps resentment at not being able to dump Dan Dare after all, Eagle saddled their lead character with the worst and most spatchcock of formats, one page full colour, done poster-style, and one-and-a-half pages of monochrome inside.
Add to that the fact Keith Watson was colourblind, and the earliest covers were horribly garish until the ever-reliable Eric Eden was brought back to colour these, and it was the most ridiculous way to treat the series.
However, in terms of scripting, the shackles were off. ‘Operation Time-Trap’ would run for 28 weeks, and then segue, in best Hampsonian manner, directly into its sequel, ‘The Wandering World’.
And those new characters who piloted the Tempus Frangit (Time-Breaker) alongside Dan and Digby, were to become a new supporting cast for much of the Watson era. These were the hot-headed Colonel Wilf Banger, engineer/designer, his assistant Technician ‘Nutter’ Cob, and the prim, fussy administrator, Major Shillitoe Spence, whose forename was only used twice (in captions) in the whole series.
And there was greater change in the air. Motton introduced a new recurring foe for Dan in ‘Operation Time-Trap’ in Xel, short, brutish, silver-skinned, the One in One Thousand Million, who stows away on the Tempus Frangit into ‘The Wandering World’ and beyond.
But the supreme moment came on the cover of issue 42. After three years, he was back, The Mekon, returning to his rightful role as the master villain, the mastermind. It might not be Frank Hampson, and there are those who still criticise Keith Watson’s art, especially when it came to Dan’s face (and they do have a point in certain close-up angles), but he had slaved to make the reduced ‘Dan Dare’ something that the fans could still relish, and he had beaten Longacre, because this was what we thought of when we imagined Dan Dare, and if it wasn’t Frank Hampson, it was a colourable imitation, and it would be good enough for a few years to come, and Keith Watson deserves every kudos going for making sure we could come back to a moment like this.
The page and a half of B&W art inside was completed by a new prose feature, ‘SportingTalk’ by Ex-Pro, the man who knows everybody in the business. From a distance of a half-century these are interesting for the confident features on people whose names are meaningless nowadays, except to specialists, and the confident but inaccurate predictions, like the one that ‘Sonny’ Liston was going to hold the World Heavyweight Boxing title for years and see off all contenders, the least of whom was Cassius Clay.
This was followed by ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, in which Paul Trevillion’s art was at its crispest and cleanest, though every now and then he would be replaced by episodes drawn by Spanish artist Martin Salvador, who just about managed reasonable representations of Bruce and Prior (except that Bruce became inordinately fond of hats those weeks) but in every respect was about as unlike as possible.
And before the year was out the series – which had begun as a three-pager, remember – was cut back to one-and-a-half pages.
One last one-off series ran from issue 10, a Loch Ness Monster rip-off entitled ‘The Beast of Loch Craggan’. Fishermen from the remote village of Craggan disturb a sea monster that ‘escapes’ into the land-locked Loch and causes terror. Young Jamie Farr empathises with the monster, which he sees as an innocent. Everybody’s trying to kill the monster, or else capture, study and then kill it, but young Jamie wants to set it free, and eventually does. Apart from it being drawn by John McLuskey, who’d been the original artist on the Daily Express ‘James Bond’ strip, there was little to commend it.
There was a third short prose serial to accompany the merger/revamp, the eight part mountaineering ghost story, ‘High Quest’, of which I’ve spoken highly elsewhere, but when this finished, it was replaced by Eagle‘s first ongoing prose series since ‘The Three J’s’. Though uncredited, it’s obvious to anyone with half an eye that ‘Horizon Unlimited’ was written by the same guy as ‘Runway 13’. Apart from the knowledgeable love of aviation, there’s the same veteran/youngster combo upfront, in Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, with a penchant for seeing things from Theo’s viewpoint.
‘Horizon Unlimited’ was about a trio of misfits, joined by their love of adventure, new horizons and an old War-veteran Catalina flying boat. Sam’s a Director of a Southampton-based company, a veteran bomber pilot from the War and still unreconciled to ‘flying a desk’. He sees the Cat’ put down on Southampton Water and, on a whim, hires her to travel to Scotland to inspect a new and predictably useless device. There he meets Theo, more recently ‘bowler-hatted’ from the RAF, working for the insurers. They fly back together, relishing the old flying-boat.
But its misery of an owner is more interested in having the Cat’ wrecked for its insurance value, putting down at Great Orme in a storm. Sam and Theo rescue it, pool their resources to buy the Cat’ – and, effectively, its mechanic, a stocky Liverpudlian only known as Plugg – call themselves Horizons Unlimited and set up to charter round the world. Their first charter is to fly to Bermuda and deliver an attache case to a very private billionaire. If I tell you it has a bomb in it, you’ll understand what kind of series this was going to be…
‘Horizon Unlimited’ (not an original name, it having been Milton Caniff’s creation for the early, pre-Air Force days of Steve Canyon) was glorious fun. It moved in story arcs of anything from two to seven parts – there was even a one-parter – each rolling into another, and it was one of my favourite Eagle features of this period, second perhaps only to Dan Dare.
In the centre pages, Frank Bellamy continued to draw, colour and thrill on ‘Heros the Spartan’. The ‘Island of Death’ story had successfully concluded with issue 9, and now Heros returned to Rome, expecting recognition for the completion of his mission from Caesar, in the form of command of a Legion. This he would get, but writer Tom Tully had a reset in mind, as Heros was first forced to fight for his life, masked, in the Arena, and then given command of a Legion made-up of criminals and deserters. For things had changed: the old Caesar was dead and his heir was a corrupt, villainous man, who hated Heros and feared him as a symbol around which opposition to his rule might gather. Ironically, Heros was adamantly loyal, but this did not stop what would be continuous peril and the ever-present risk of engineered disgrace that would underpin the series from hereon in.
The ‘Eagle of the Fifth Legion’ story dominated the rest of the volume, but there was a surprise to come when the next serial, ‘The Man of Vyah’, saw a change of artist. Another Spanish artist, Luis Bermejo – Spaniards were cheap in comparison to English artists, rather like DC Comics discovering the Phillippines in the early Seventies – replaced him. Bermejo’s art was appropriately atmospheric, but never realistic. Nevertheless, once the shock was over, he was more than good enough, and the pair would basically alternate in future.
But once we were past ‘Heros’ the quality, and the solidity of the new Eagle and Swift dropped off rapidly. ‘Mann of Battle’ found a home in the back half, it’s weekly single page drawn by Brian Lewis, according to most records. That may be so, but there are constant subtle changes to the art-style from week to week, and Lewis’s signature would only appear on those pages most clearly in his style. There were no drastic changes in line-work, though Slogger Bates’ features go up and down the age-range. Either Lewis was farming some of the work out to assistants/colleagues aping his style, or some weeks he just didn’t have the same amount of time to spare as others, but the look was constantly shifting back and forwards in a way that didn’t help the weak storylines and unconvincing dialogue.
Whether it be an island off the Libyan coast, Sicily or the Burmese Jungle, the formula was identical. Pete Mann and Slogger Bates would be sent on a secret mission against the Nazis, run into trouble, get shot at, shoot a lot of people, so on and so forth. I can’t remember my reaction to it then, when I was pretty undiscriminating, but it completely fails to convince me now.
I think that’s because this was a Second World War story, so close to the end of the actual wall itself. Less than twenty years had elapsed, enough that none of Eagle‘s readers had any experience of it, but still short enough that practically every one of them would have had someone – a father, an uncle, even a grandfather maybe – who had fought in the War. My father had been close to call-up age when the war ended, and was soon on National Service, his elder brother had been in the Pacific, in the Navy. Eagle wasn’t like the DC Thomson papers, the Victor, the Hornet, with their endless jingoistic War series. In its way, ‘Mann of Battle’ was not much different to them, maybe slightly more sophisticated, but it was not at home here. It feels superficial, because it is superficial, on too important a subject. It didn’t work.
The revamp also introduced a new feature, a third go at the kind of factual feature that had been meat and drink to MacDonald Hastings. ‘Roving Reporter’ was the first time this had been tried in strip form, with the odd photo of the Roving Reporter himself, ‘Larry Line’ (really the writer, Roger Parry) accompanying a page of art from, primarily but not exclusively, Eric Kincaid. It never achieved any great depth, and it wasn’t immune to being messed around with, with random episodes in black and white and then, about the same time ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ lost half a page, being cut back to half a page itself.
The ‘Are you the… type?’ feature continued, but at this remove, the types being set up are of only remote interest, figures of a bygone age, whose life is summed up in so superficial a manner for the youngsters that they hold no interest even as a record of historical perceptions then. And there’s ‘Calling U for Useless’ and ‘Fidosaurus’, about which I plan to waste no more words.
Also introduced with issue 10 was a new, expanded Letters page, soon rebranded ‘It’s Your Opinion’, with the Editor soliciting letters on specific topics. This might pop up anywhere, and it’s amusing to read some of the opinions being expressed by kids aged 10 or thereabouts, many of which are inveterately stupid, and some of which explain a little about what our county’s been like for the past fifty years.
The overall effect was to give Eagle an imbalanced feel. Yes, it had settled into a secure format, where a standard line-up appeared in a regular order, but whilst ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, ‘Horizon Unlimited’ and ‘Heros the Spartan’ were all substantial features demanding concentrated reading, once you hit the back of the bus, so to speak, there was little to stop you skimming through the rest.
There was one magic feature to Eagle in Volume 14 however that I’ve not mentioned so far, but which you may have been able to guess for comments here and there, and that’s me. On a dark November Saturday afternoon, at the fag-end of a Church Bring-and-Buy sale, my Dad spent a couple of pennies on a bunch of Eagle‘s, maybe fifteen or so, from this year. I loved it from the start, which is why I’m maybe a little more forgiving of the later Dan Dare in particular, because this is my Dan Dare, and I would not read any Frank Hampson for years.
But from here to the end of the ride, I was one of those small boys who read Eagle every week. I remember the thrill so much.
There were only nine issues remaining of that version of Eagle that connected back to the leading boy’s comic of the Fifties. With issue 10, the new owners, Mirror Group, as Longacre Press, brought in their first revamp. Two more, less sweeping, would happen before the end of this Volume alone, but this was the one that severed the connection between what was and what would be.
The cover of issue 10 was a brutal shock. Dan Dare was gone, and so too was the red banner. Instead, the word Eagle was spelled out in red characters against a weak, white background, and instead of a cover feature there were three colour panels, each teasers for features inside.
One was, still, Dan Dare, but that was the only thing left. Gone, at long last and forever, were ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’. Gone were ‘Danger Unlimited’ and ‘Knights of the Road’. Gone was George Cansdale, whose long association with Eagle was severed at the beginning of the year. Gone were almost everything that appeared in issue 9, with the exception of the Pilot of the Future, the hapless ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and a new feature that had debuted at the start of Volume 12, ‘The Man from Eagle’, or ESI Resurrected in all but name, and MacDonald Hastings.
‘Fidosaurus’ was retained, and Reg Parlett also introduced the equally unfunny ‘XYZ Cars – Calling ‘U’ for Useless’, the very title of which representing the confusion. A few ‘Harris Tweed – Super Chump’s were leftover, and these half-pagers would pop up here and there, at random, along with a couple of unused ‘Mr Therm’s.
But a concerted effort was made to rid Eagle of everything that smacked of the Hulton days, of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson (whose name was NOT to be whispered around the offices). It’s clear that Longacre would also have got rid of Dan Dare if they thought they could. As it was, the entire creative team were dropped (Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell were treated infamously, with no notice of their dismissal: the scripts just stopped turning up abruptly). David Motton took over scripting, with a brief to limit stories to no more than thirteen weeks, and no recurring characters except Dan and Digby, Keith Watson was re-hired on art (well aware that if the editorial staff had known he’d been part of Hampson’s studio, he would have been out on his ear) and the series was slid inside, and dropped into black and white.
Later in the Volume, it would be pushed into the back half of the comic, and split over non-facing pages. Watson refused to let it die, producing masterful greywash art and restoring the old Spacefleet uniforms, waving the flag.
‘Home of the Wanderers’ continued to rival ‘Knights of the Road’ for dullness. It changed title twice, to ‘Wanderers Away’ and ‘The New Wanderer’ for two more stories then reverted to its overall title, for an extremely silly story about the team’s right winger becoming a pop singer in addition to his footballing duties, which was notable only for being the first time in which ‘pop’ music, as opposed to jazz, was recognised in Eagle.
Before I go on to the wholly Longacre Eagle, I should briefly mention the short-lived ‘The Sword of Fate’, which replaced ‘Last of the Saxon Kings’ in the centrespread, was drawn by the same flat artist and, despite not being recorded as such in the publication I rely on, is clearly another leftover from Comet. It ended with the hero going into unjust exile, suggesting there may have been a sequel lurking around somewhere, but we were never to be honoured by that.
So, what was the new ‘new’ Eagle made up of?
First of all, it was full of adaptations. Martin Aitchison moved smoothly on into drawing an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’. Frank Humphris picked up ‘Vengeance Trail’, adapted from the story, ‘Flaming Irons’ by ‘famed Western author, Max Brand’ (this latter in black and white). Later in the year, Humphris would get yet another B&W Western series to draw, in the shape of ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’, though from issue 11 onwards, Eagle ceased to credit either writer or artist except where required to, i.e., the originators of these adaptations.
From ‘The Lost World’, Aitchison was then commissioned to draw a series of adaptations of C.S Forrester’s ‘Hornblower’ novels, initially as ‘Lieutenant Hornblower R.N.’ across the centrespread, where his art seemed somehow flat and lifeless, and then in single page format, as ‘Captain Hornblower R.N.’, at which point his art recaptures his old energy, subtly reinforcing Frank Hampson’s point about artists only drawing one page of full colour art per week.
But that is to deny the evidence of the other artist to work on Eagle’s centrespread, the great Frank Bellamy.
After his early success with Sir Winston Churchill, Bellamy returned to the war years with the life of the British General, Bernard Montgomery, drawn as a centrespread and drawn with vigour and detail that betrayed none of the early uncertainty due to dealing with a living figure. Bellamy was in fantastic form, linework, composition, colouring, and his battle scenes were masterpieces of detail and impression.
And towards the end of the year, as part of Eagle‘s third revamp, Bellamy was back with the series that he is most recognised for, ‘Heros the Spartan’.
I’ll come to that. Meanwhile, there were three further, very contrasting series introduced in issue 10. The first of these was a new Police Crime strip, ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D.’, which went through a variety of artists before settling on the long-term choice of Paul Trevillion, creator of ‘You are the Referee’.
This was a black and white two-pager, set in the Midlands industrial city of Manningham, and starred Londoner Detective Sergeant Dave Bruce and his realistically depicted crime-cracking efforts. The situation, which was never really played up to any serious degree, was that Bruce was resented for having beaten out local man Bill Prior for the Sergeant’s role. Prior was Bruce’s partner and the only man with no grudges, not like the burly Inspector Wade. Bruce was supposed to be slowly earning his colleague’s trust but this never played into the series except tangentially.
Secondly, there was a true-life story series, ‘Only the Brave’, recounting actions by ordinary people, sometimes but not exclusively members of official services or the Services, undertaking rescues at their own, frequently severe risk. First, these were winners of the George Medal, then the British Empire Medal. This series lasted twenty-seven episodes from various artists, including Richard E Jennings and a sequence of five fine pages from Frank Bellamy, and the stories themselves were several times very touching.
The last new feature was the new prose series, replacing ‘The Gay Corinthian’ (brought to an abrupt end with a half-page final instalment). We remained in Georgian times with ‘Beau Fortune’, author unknown but suspected to be Lee Mayne, though I incline more towards ‘Corinthian’s Ben Bolt, for the similarity of background.
Valentine ‘Beau’ Fortune is the leading Dandy of the day (which is usually between 1803 and 1805 but which skips to 1814 for one episode), a personal friend of George, Prince of Wales, the arbiter of High Fashion, an effete, unconcerned fop. Any resemblance to Sir Percy Blakeney is, of course, purely a coincidence, as is that of Fortune’s secret identity, The Masked Rider, a strong, confident adventurer, wanted to be hung as a highwayman and a thief but in secret a righter of wrongs.
For all its lack of originality, ‘Beau Fortune’ was nicely vigorous and enjoyable. The series, which only lasted as long as revamp no 3, mixed single episodes and two-parters, with one three-parter, and was good fun, and a highlight of this ill-thought out year.
And this Volume was ill-thought-out. The Hulton Eagle had had its series each in their places, but the Longacre Eagle never looked the same two weeks running, with series flipping pages. The certainty of two colour sheets and two black and white sheets was broken down, with what implications for the cost of printing I have no idea, but the colour-oriented cover would have the b&w Wanderers on page 2 and the colour ‘Lost World’ on page 3, backed by b&w on page 4.
What’s more, the drastic reduction in recurring series seriously weakened the overall effect of the paper. Where the reader had had a half dozen wide-ranging series to follow, having built up a consistent enthusiasm for Dan Dare, Jeff Arnold, Sergeant Luck et al., there were now few people to recognise and welcome back.
For example, ‘The Lost World’ was replaced by ‘Island of Fire’, in which two charter pilots, hired to fly an eccentric vulcanologist to a remote Pacific island that he believed would erupt and cause a chain reaction ripping the planet apart, found themselves caught up between an American gangster who’d stashed his bullion on the island, and a British warship. It lasted ten weeks, went nowhere, was just a one-off, and was notable only for giving Richard Jennings something to draw again, in colour for the first time since ‘Tommy Walls’.
But there were two more revamps to come. The first was only a partial revamp, starting in issue 35. This introduced ‘The Devil’s Henchman’, mentioned above, replacing ‘Only the Brave’, but more prominently was a new front cover look, ‘Kings of the Road’. These were superb, full-page poster paintings of vintage motor racing cars, in action, an open invitation to tear out and pin to bedroom walls, and were very much a change for the better.
However, the real revamp came with issue 43, and the introduction of three new ongoing series, stabilising Eagle‘s weekly content, and the replacement of ‘The Gay Corinthian’ with the first of three new prose serials.
It was a second substantial revamp in seven months, and if it was for the better, it was still a sign of the comic’s weakness that it had to be rescued so quickly. ‘Dan Dare’ moved into the back of the comic, it’s two pages split to appear on opposite sides of the same sheet, the first Eagle strip to be treated that way.
The first new series was ‘Mann of Battle’, a Second World War strip featuring Captain Pete Mann and his batman, ex-boxer Slogger Bates, on a secret mission in the Mediterranean. Drawn competently by Brian Lewis, beginning a long association with Eagle, this began a week early, with two pages, before being chopped down to one. Neither of the characters have much by way of personality and it just seems like it’s about killing Nazi soldiers, with no well-developed plotline.
Much better was ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’, which was a revamp of ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D’, on which Trevillion’s art was rapidly improving. Basically, the new format threw out the ‘resent-Dave-Bruce’ backstory, and introduced a challenge to the reader: two or three times during the episode, Bruce would make a deduction from something, and the reader was told to study the panel to spot the clue for themselves.
In this form, the series would last for years, though once again it was jerked around by Longacre, like ‘Mann of Battle’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ started as an expansive three-pager, only to abruptly lose a page. Did you ever get the feeling that somebody didn’t know what they were doing?
‘The Man from Eagle’ bit the dust with this revamp, and was replaced by ‘Are you the… type?’ This was another non-fiction two-pager, combining biography and yet more reader-participation. Each week, a prominent figure, e.g., astronaut John Glenn, or Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev (the series was nothing if not eclectic) would be profiled before the reader was faced with half a dozen multiple choice questions: anyone who got all the answers ‘right’ was deemed to be the feature’s ‘type’, which must have been real fun for the Kruschev Kid.
The new prose serial, writer unknown, was ‘Johnny Quick’, which overlapped into Volume 14. This was a boxing story, and a well-written, authentic-seeming story, albeit very much a history piece now. The title character is an up-and-coming boxer bidding for a challenge for the British title. He’s a former hothead, an ex-tearaway from a tough area, who’s gotten himself under control and got himself out through boxing, but someone is trying to blacken his reputation, paint him as a jumped-up hoodlum, a picture his own suppressed temper isn’t helping to dispel. It’s clearly a frame, but it’s one that took some unravelling.
Ok, again, it was a one-off: we would never hear of Johnny Quick again. But its quality was of a singularly higher level than much of the work we’d seen this volume. It was not a renaissance, but it was a sign that not all was lost.
What was a renaissance, however, was ‘Heros the Spartan’, drawn in the centrespread by Frank Bellamy, with some of the most masterful art of his career. Heros was the orphaned son of a Spartan leader, adopted by a Roman General, and a dignified, honourable, loyal soldier of Rome. This initial story, written by Tom Tully, creator of the series, features Heros being given his first command and sent to a mysterious island where lurks sorcery, black magic, evil priests.
It was to set the tone for ‘Heros’s entire run. Wherever he was sent, whatever his fate, the supernatural in one form or another would put the Spartan through all manner of incredible adventures.
Thanks to Frank Bellamy, who made everything not just plausible but dynamic, exciting, active, expressive and horribly creepy at times, ‘Heros the Spartan’ would for years rank second only to ‘Dan Dare’. Longacre wanted to kill off the Pilot of the Future but Dan was too big for them. In ‘Heros’, they gave Eagle more than one good thing. It was The Last Great Strip, and it was the best thing to come out of 1962.