Eagle Volume 16 (1965)

The new format

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.

He’s dead, Dan

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.

Eagle Volume 15 (1964)

A panel of magic and mystery for a ten year old boy

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.

Luis Bermejo’s Heros art

‘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.

Magnificent Ron Embleton art

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.

enough said

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.

  • Though I couldn’t find anything out about ‘Junior – Reporter!’ in 2018, two years later more information is available and, would you credit it, not only was the series actually drawn by Albert Uderzo, it was an early collaboration with Rene Goscinny, impliedly pre-Asterix, under the title Luc Junior.

Eagle Volume 14 (1963)

Back up front again

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.

It may not be Jeff Arnold, but it’s still Frank Humphris

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.

Did you spot the clue?

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.

See German, kill German

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.

Dan Dare: The Singing Scourge

One aspect of Keith Watson’s tenure as Dan Dare artist that I’ve never seen highlighted is his flexibility. Frank Hampson, Frank Bellamy, Harley and Cornwell, all dealt with a series published in colour on the cover and page 2, with only the most minor of tweaks to account for a re-designed masthead and, in Harley/Cornwell’s case, the loss of cover space to Men of Action for about five months.
But Keith Watson’s art was continually being subjected to new demands, as format succeeded format, with little more than a year on each occasion to settle into Eagle‘s latest notion.
There was the Monochrome Year, of two internal black and white pages; the Hybrid Year, with a colour poster cover and one and a half black and white pages; and the recent years or so of two colour pages, on the front and back covers of the comic.
For a week, things seemed as normal for the new story, The Singing Scourge. But only for a week. Because the second episode was once more inside the comic, although still in full colour, and Dan Dare would never recover the cover for an original story again.
One could justifiably ask what the hell the editor was playing at? Introducing a major format change to his leading strip only a week into a new story, when the merest forethought would have got the two to coincide. But further sloppiness was to follow, rapidly.
Watson had obviously been instructed that Dan Dare was moving to Eagle‘s middle pages, so he drew the next two episodes as a two-page spread. Unfortunately, the story was being printed across two internal pages, because the centrespread was still Heros the Spartan‘s turf, so Watson reverted to two internal pages.
Then, for some reason, Watson missed three or four weeks (this and the following story are the only ones in the entire series that I do not have in collected form and I am missing a handful of episodes, here and there). Whether this was illness, or frustration, I have no idea, but Don Harley was called upon to fill-in for this period, the last of which was in the centre pages, Heros having been demoted to a single page. Watson returned a week later, to continue the strip in centrespread form.
Do you, like me, get the idea that nobody knew what they were doing?
The Singing Scourge re-unites the Tempus Frangit crew for another expedition in Wilf Banger’s ship, though in token to the times, this being 1965, Major Spence is left behind and his seat in the five-man crew goes to American Professor of Radio Astronomy John Fitzgerald (most people call me John F) Smith, who is the first person of colour to take a leading role in the series.
John F.’s an interesting case. The name is an obvious nod to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose assassination had rocked the world about eighteen months earlier. And in his first few weeks of appearance, he is portrayed with quite dark skin and clearly ethnic (but not exaggerated) features.
But once Watson returns, this distinctively black appearance is out of the window. John F. is rarely seen with the same clarity as on his debut, and when he can be seen, his features are much less distinct, and his colour far less pronounced. Indeed, as I’ll come to shortly, Watson’s entire artwork suffers a substantial change at this point.
However, to the story. We are given a brief mysterious introduction on the first page, to a spaceship blasted apart in space in the Vega system and a powerful, fatal radiation source falling to a planet, before Dan and Digby are summoned from leave, fell-walking in Lancashire, to pilot the refitted Tempus Frangit on an expedition to Vega for John F.
The (other) Professor has detected a strange, controlled, radiation in that system, a self-renewing power source that ‘sings’ in a rhythmic fashion. With Earth and the Solar System’s planets liable to run out of atomic power in due course, if this energy can be recovered, it can sustain Earth’s power needs almost infinitely.
Whereas previously the Tempus Frangit simply moved in time, there’s a different explanation now for its purpose. Effectively, the trip from Earth to Vega will take a year each way, but will be instantaneous to its crew. Already that statement makes me nervous: in what Earth craft could Spacefleet reach Vega in a year, given that it is 25 light years distant? And the statement that the journey would take a year is directly at odds with the near-simultaneous statement that the stars multimillion miles distant couldn’t be visited in a human lifetime.
This kind of sloppiness is all over the place. Later in the story, a single panel will state that the captured Earth team have been in prison for two months whilst Dan laments that he has been working on his metal cuff for three weeks without making a scratch.
Then there’s the Tempus Frangit‘s arrival. Almost immediately, it’s struck by a radiation blast that burns out certain of its circuits, primarily those that power the computer calculations of the reverse time-jump, so it’s got to land. The nearest land is an unusual variation of paired planets, this having orbits so close to one another that they have a shared atmosphere, permitting travel from one to the other without going into space.
I am no scientist, but even as a ten year old boy, it struck me as a dodgy set-up, since the gravities of the two near Earth-sized planets ought to have torn them both apart before they got close enough for the atmospheres to touch, let alone merge. And it’s more than convenient that these atmospheres are functionally identical, if two planets are using them.
But the thing about paired planets is that we know what will happen on them. Dan and Co have landed on Lapri, the more fertile planet of the pair, home to the native Trons, but controlled by the brutal, four-armed Vendals, who have moved from the desolate Volk to take over, thanks to the destructive power of The Singing Scourge. This is John F.’s radiation source, fallen to Volk some indeterminate time ago, where it was discovered by the brothers Koo, Koob and Koom.
The Scourge was being forged into weapons by the Koos when it was accidentally broken in two, killing Koom and crippling Koob, who thus broke the law that Vendals are not allowed to be sick, ill, infirm or injured. This ousted Koob and the Scourge was taken over by the villainous Reshnek (or The Reshnek: the story can’t make up its mind), who uses it to devastate Volk in the process of killing off all its non-Vendal races, before going to take over Lapri.
(The scourge having been split into two, there are two Scourges but one gets shot down on the flight to Lapri, vanishing into its ocean, for no apparent reason or point for the story).
All this comes out at various times over the long story. Dan and Co start off by appearing as saviours to the Trons, but being captured and imprisoned by the Vendals as I mentioned above. At long last, they’re taken out to be executed via The Singing Scourge, but their spacesuits happen to be radiation-proof so, after the Tron crowd gets wiped out, the Earthmen are shunted to Volk to forage in its deserts.
Naturally, Dan and Co raise a revolution which proves to be very successful, and takes control of Volk.
Before they were lifted off Lapri, the crew did succeed in inflicting radiation burns on (The) Reshnek which, eventually, force him to return to Volk himself, in accordance with the law, to deal with the revolt. It all gets a little tedious by this point, the story having become primarily one of blood, thunder and cliff-hanging peril that gets overcome thanks to surprise information withheld from the reader until next week, a constant ‘with one mighty bound he was free’.
Ultimately, the defeated Reshnek heads back to Lapri with the Scourge, only for the treacherous stowaway, Koob, to use it to kill him. Koob, planning on taking over and killing everyone in his way, gets shot down trying to land on Lapri, and a final assault by a hastily-built fleet completes the overthrow of the Vendals and the restoration of Tron rule. Since nobody particularly wants the Scourge, Dan and Co are allowed to take it back to Earth, once they’ve repaired the Tempus Frangit.
No, I don’t have a very high opinion of this story. It’s sloppiness and its scientific implausibility, together with the crash-bang nature of the all-action story and its general choppiness lead me towards that half-formed suspicion I mentioned when discussing the ultra-rapid ending of The Moonsleepers. I think that The Singing Scourge marks a change in scripter for Dan Dare, that David Motton’s services had been dispensed with, whether at his choice or not I don’t know.
At different times, I’ve read of different names as writers for the original Dan Dare run. Amongst those is Frank Pepper, a very successful writer of comics series for British comics and, amongst many others, creator of Dan Dare’s hastily-conjured rival in Lion, Captain Condor. There’s a delightful mini-interview with Mr Pepper in Alistair Crompton’s The Man who drew Tomorrow (not retained in Tomorrow Revisited) about Pepper’s approach and attitude to his work that couldn’t be a greater contrast to Frank Hampson if it tried. Pepper is credited in Wikipedia as having written Dan Dare, and this story and its successor do read like the work of someone who was writing an entertainment for small boys that was meant to last for five minutes and then be forgotten.
Finally, I do have to comment on Keith Watson’s art for the majority of this story, and after his return from his brief sabbatical. I’ve been very complimentary about Watson’s art, but I cannot praise this later work in The Singing Scourge. For one thing, the art is very badly served by the colouring, which is some of the flattest, least detailed, and abstract the series has ever seen.
Watson had hired Eric Eden to colour his art once Dan Dare returned to Eagle‘s cover, Watson being colour-blind, and Eden had produced fantastic work, but this is horrible and amateurish. Eden, by this point, was drawing the adventures of Lady Penelope for the new, Gerry Anderson-oriented TV21 and his replacement was simply not good enough. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets, with whole panels coloured in a single shade lacking any relation to the actual setting.
And beneath the colour, and all too often screened by it, Watson’s actual artwork is crude and blocky. His figures are stiff, detail is lacking, and backgrounds are far too often completely absent. I’ve already mentioned the change in John F., but the overall effect is of haste, and skimpiness. All the sterling work in rebuilding the series from the Odhams’ nadir is undermined. I can only assume that Longacre, with Eagle‘s sales steadily sliding, had drastically undercut Watson’s page rates, creating the very situation that Frank Hampson, fifteen years previously, had determined should not be allowed.
Great days, far gone.

Dan Dare: The Moonsleepers

…in One Thousand Million

In memory, I always think of The Moonsleepers as completing a trilogy of successive Mekon stories, but though the Tyrant of Venus makes a second successive instant return, this adventure is not about him, and he is very much a background figure. Instead, The Moonsleepers sees the return, for the final time, of Xel.
Overall, this is a longer, better story than The Mushroom, though it’s marred by some inattention to detail and inconsistency. Nevertheless, it’s much improved, and in its extensive scenes on Triton, Moon of Neptune, Watson’s art is unsurpassed as he depicts a snow and ice world.
Or, since this is achieved almost solely through colour, with little or no line-work, perhaps that accolade should go to Eric Eden.
Whilst All Treens Must Die! Began with due process, with the Mekon going on trial, The Moonsleepers skips that part and goes straight to Xel’s punishment. He is an alien warlord, nasty and brutish, filled only with hate, beyond all hopes of integration into Earth’s society. He is also powerful beyond most restraint and an obvious threat so, after a presumed trial and conviction, he is sentenced to life imprisonment, on an isolated satellite, on a distant orbit, without the resources to escape. Xel is placed in completely solitary confinement, to be visited once every eleven months when further supplies will be dropped off.
It’s the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s also the only practical solution to Xel’s menace that there is. Digby, showing a touch of soft-heartenedness, wonders why they can’t use the Tempus Frangit to take him back where they found it, whilst Dan, showing a touch of hard-headedness, rules this out on the grounds that time travel is far too costly even for good deeds. And besides, they only know the way to Meit, and have no clue whatsoever as to where Stoll may be.
But everyone knows that prisons do not hold villains in fiction. For there is still the Mekon, who may have no love for Xel but who recognises him as a useful idiot… I mean ally. The Mekon frees Xel from his satellite, by kidnapping a Theron ship, killing its crew and delivering the ship to his ally. And Xel has one further advantage: the Mekon has preserved the ship’s passenger, Sir Hubert Guest, on tour presenting his memoirs, ‘The Parting Guest’.
About which Digby has disingenuously wondered whether Sir Hubert will mention him or Dan.
Under hypnotic control, Sir Hubert admits that Earth scientists have detected potential signs of life on the afore-mentioned Triton. So Xel, with Sir Hubert, heads for Triton, where he will discover a race of indolent, lazy, weak-willed folk, living in cities that provide them with heat, light and food, enabling them to lead a life of doing and thinking nothing.
Xel whips them into shape to create an army, an invading army in spaceships of his design. And whilst he attacks Earth, the Mekon will attack Venus, the two-pronged assault intended to stretch and divide the defences of the Inner Planets and give the attackers victory.
Sir Hubert is the latest, and almost the last of Keith Watson’s nods to the antecedents of the series. Though he is the victim of Xel’s domination at the beginning, he does play an active part in the story, unlike Hank Hogan: once Xel finds his powerbase, Sir Hubert is inessential but, despite his isolation so far away, he manages to cross an ice-desert and pilot an escape craft back to Earth, alone, with inadequate supplies, to warn Dan Dare.
Though it looks to have killed him, the old spaceman makes it, only to find his story doubted as the product of fatigue, dehydration, radiation exposure, space sickness: hallucination. Only Dan is prepared to believe his old chief, so he and Digby set off for Neptune in Anastasia.
What they discover is a well-advanced plot, and a ready-to-launch fleet, complete with trained-and-terrorised crew. The Tritons serve their new master out of a combination of the promise of a warm planet of their own (just like the Navs with the Mekon in The Wandering World), firmly-inculcated fear and the same kind of drugs Xel used on his Stollites in Operation Time Trap).
Though Dan and Digby cause some havoc by attacking Xel, he is too much for them with an army at his back. He steals Anastasia, co-ordinates his attack with the Mekon and, believing his hated earth foes dead from falling into an ice crevasse, launches his fleet. But the Earthmen have been saved by Triton’s weaker gravity and stow on board a ship whose crew have reverted to type and gone to sleep.
Digby accidentally sets off a missile that shoots down another of Xel’s fleet, which leads to some confusion and a deliberate attempt to cripple the fleet before it nears Earth. But automation overrules, and the ship the pair occupy is being drawn back into formation, to be shot down, when Digby once again uses his muscle to bend the pipe mixing Xel’s drug into the Tritons’ food. With a now docile crew at their behest, Dan is able to fly his ship on a shorter route to Earth (?!), so as to arrive first (crash-landing on a beach south of Cromer in Norfolk, with which I was familiar from a couple of family seaside holidays, when even younger).
Earth’s defences are alerted and Dan leads the interceptor squadron. The Therons rush a fleet to assist, the arrival of which, like the Prussians at Waterloo, secures the day. Then they spin on their heels and shot off back towards Venus, where a mighty space fleet has been detected approaching, except that a gigantic white light flares in space, and the fleet vanishes, presumed vaporised.
As for Xel, the last action of the brief war is his being shot down over the Arctic by Dan and, on landing, a few steps leading to the deep icy waters, in which his electric whip floats… Like Vora, Xel is missing, believed dead. He will certainly not return again.
Overall, The Moonsleepers is a good, fast-paced story, told in a crisp, dramatic manner. It introduces a new and unusual race to the panoply of life in the Solar System, bringing Neptune into the range of planets Dan and Co have visited, furthest out from the Sun (discounting the Wandering World as neither a real planet nor properly in our Sun’s orbit). The art’s excellent, whether it be deep space, the ice-deserts of Triton or Cromer Beach.
But there are a number of inconsistencies that nag at the reader’s mind as the story progresses. Primarily, these relate to just how long it takes to get to or from Triton. Xel, in the Theron ship, takes ‘weeks’. Sir Hubert makes the return journey in a mere escape capsule, whose journey coincides with the ‘many weeks’ and indeed ‘months’ that Xel takes to forget the Tritons into fighters.
Almost immediately, this becomes ‘a month’s’ travel, and then ‘several weeks’ and if this were not already confusing enough, Sir Hubert’s journey is analysed as being up to three-quarters of the time since the Theron ship disappeared – time during which an extensive space search was made, leading to the former Controller being presumed dead, coinciding with the moment he is struck by an electric bolt on Triton as Xel discovers the Moonsleepers’ city.
Related to this is the fact that Anastasia – a two-seater personal ship – is presented as the only ship on Earth capable of travelling as far as Triton (because it has Theron magnetic motors) and the time factor goes out of all control.
Then there is Xel’s fleet. I’ve already alluded to Dan racing the fleet to Earth by taking a ‘shorter course’. Obviously, that is complete nonsense. Xel isn’t going to rendezvous with the Mekon’s fleet, he’s heading for the planet and there is no believable reason why he is not taking the direct route down the gravity well. And perhaps we should mention that, Neptune being the eighth planet from the Sun, there’s the small matter of the Empire of the moons of the sixth planet, whose spacelanes, Xel’s armada will have to cross.
But, as better folk before me have long since pointed out, Red Tharl’s disappearance is the great mystery of the series. Once Dan and Digby get outside the orbit of Saturn, it becomes an unavoidable one.
I began this essay by referring to my automatic memories of The Moonsleepers being the final part of a Mekon trilogy, but whilst Ol’ Greenbean is an established threat in the background of this story, his direct role is perfunctory. He actually only appears in two, widely-separated panels, and in one of those a long way from ‘camera’.
And the story’s ending, the menace of his fleet approaching Venus being wiped out in a single, unforeshadowed panel, is a complete puzzle. It’s probably the most care-less moment in the entire series, an abrupt closing off off a plot in the most casual of manners, not much of a step up from ‘…and then they all woke up.’
It smacks of a desperation to end the story, somehow, anyhow, because it had to end, and yet the Mekon was literally the most peripheral element of the story, which belongs to Xel, and there’s not the remotest suggestion that the battle against the Mekon was ever meant to be a significant strand, let alone a segue into another story. Dan Dare isn’t even there to face-down his archenemy.
It’s a complete mystery and I’d dearly love to know the background to this. I have a half-formed suspicion that will require a close re-reading of the next story to see if there is any justification, but even in its half-formed state it’s based on no confirmed information. We’ll see.
Because, yet again, change was on the way.

Dan Dare: The Mushroom

The baddy who always comes back

Those who feared for the Mekon’s safety in All Treens Must Die! did not have long to wait, for Ol’ Greenbean was back as dastardly mastermind on the opening page of the succeeding story, The Mushroom.
It seems an odd thing to do, and featuring Dan Dare’s arch-enemy in successive stories had never been tried before. Shoving the Mekon up front, when he’s not actually active in the story, is a dramatic waste of that revelatory moment. On the other hand, that bit’s been done, over and again, and as memory of the Tyrant of Venus hasn’t had time to fade – there is a hiatus of eight panels – you could say that this kind of classic scene is redundant on this occasion.
And given that treens are introduced on the cover of the next issue, it is rather pointless to propound mysteries. Especially in a story that will only run sixteen weeks, all told.
The plot of The Mushroom is very simple. The Mekon begins a terrorist campaign, using a satellite to project a fiery ‘seed’ into the heart of London. This ‘grows’ into a thrusting, metallic mushroom-shaped tower that sucks the life and the heat out of all the surrounding ground and area. Londoners are forced to flee their homes. The Mekon gives an ultimatum, that he be restored to rule on Venus, or his Mushroom will destroy London and others will be used against other capital cities.
By taking his attack directly to the people, the Mekon expects their panicky, narrow-visioned response to force the Earth Government to act in his favour. He’s wrong, of course, because nobody in Government is stupid enough to think for one second that Appeasement will work (shades of Hampson’s original identification of the Treens with the Nazis again), but this is still early days, and one city only. If the situation escalates, and the public’s fears along with it, who knows where this might go?
(Let me point out the continuity disjunction between this story and Reign of the Robots and the Treen Holocaust. I make no comment. At the time, boys not that much younger than me had not been alive to read Reign of the Robots and we were none of us aware of it. Just mentioning it, that’s all).
That the situation doesn’t escalate is, naturally, down to Dan and Co. He and Digby, in Anastasia,  trace the radiation beam that feeds energy to the Mushroom back to the satellite and confront the Mekon and impossible odds. But it’s Wilf Banger who saves the day, on Earth. Brought in as the scientific specialist, good old Wilf has only one scientific thought in his head from the moment he appears, and that is to blow the Mushroom into pieces small enough to be fried with bacon and eggs, and perform scientific tests on what’s left on the side of the plate.
The Mushroom is impervious to every assault, that is, until Banger has his men tunnel underground, pack explosives round the Mushroom’s base, and knock the whole thing over. With no focus any longer, the energy of the Mekon’s beam reverses back to the Satellite and blows it up. Dan and Digby are rescued, and for once there’s no particular attempt to suggest that the Mekon might have gone down with his ship: a green ‘meteorite’ streaks away in a controlled fashion, making it pretty damned clear that it’ll all happen all over again.
Indeed, the Mekon would again be back in the very next story, The Moonsleepers, though not as the principal villain.
In short, its not a complex story. Indeed, it comes close to a couple of the longer stories of Motton and Watson’s Monochrome Year, though it’s more compact and pursues a tighter plot-line. The sixteen week length is awkward: too short for substance, too long for flimsiness, but it’s real failure lies in coming directly after All Treens Must Die! The fall in scope, in ambition on the Mekon’s plans is bathetic, and The Mushroom just cannot get over that hurdle.
Again, it’s beautifully drawn and glowingly coloured, though I do want to take a little time to expand on that claim, because I’m very much aware that there are many Dan Dare fans who deride certain aspects of Keith Watson’s work.
I’m not an artist, and I lack an artist’s vocabulary to either criticise or commend. I’m biassed in favour of Watson because his is the Dan Dare I grew up on, but I still find his art immensely satisfying as an adult. His version of the Hampson style lacks some of the detail, the lushness that Hampson pioneered, but there’s a reassuring solidity to it, and something of a cragginess to his figures. He’s not as graceful as Hampson, and his figurework can sometimes be stiff, and static, but his technical art is superb. His work carries an extra degree of stylisation over Hampson’s resolutely naturalistic approach, but there’s a more modern, appealingly workaday aspect to it that befits the fact that the series, and Dan, has been at this for a long time. The lack of idealisation is much more appropriate to the times.
That said, I am aware that most criticism of Watson lies around his ability to draw faces, or rather Dan Dare’s face in particular. Given Hampson’s original design, it’s a difficult face to draw, especially the lantern jaw, and there have been several instances in past stories where head-shots of Colonel Dan from the wrong angle have looked disproportionate and clunky.
But the biggest difficulty is the head-on, full-face shot and there are a couple of real stinkers in The Mushroom. Watson cannot make Dan’s face look convincing (and there’s another example with Wilf Banger in there). Head-on, Watson’s faces flatten out and drop towards the cartoonish. Deprived of assistance by the colouring, he has to go to excess on closely inked lines, attempting to set up shadow and form, but these fail to cohere. He also makes an awful mess of Banger’s mouth in his close-up.
It’s a weakness, yet he can draw convincing faces from other angles, so the flaw is in allowing himself to be cornered into that particular composition, and not finding another method of presenting the shot that doesn’t betray him to his worst flaw.
Which pre-supposes that he had that kind of freedom to depart from David Motton’s scripts, about which subject I know nothing whatsoever, save that the two only rarely met, and that this was a scripter’s world in the post-Hampson mid-Sixties.
Those who are familiar with The Mushroom will have been wondering why I’ve not yet spoken of the story’s most famous aspect. I’ve chosen to leave that till last.
Watson had done a magnificent job of shoring up Dan Dare. He’d seen the series back into colour, to extended story-lines, supporting cast, the return of the Mekon, Anastasia and, in the previous story, Sondar. Now, on the second page of the opening episode, a lanky, bespectacled Texan Pilot-Captain, swinging a baseball bat, sends a home run through a window. Venturing inside to retrieve his ball, he becomes the first person on Earth to see the nascent Mushroom and its Treen attendants. It’s Hank Hogan, seen for the first time since The Solid-space Mystery, but to all Dan’s oldest fans a symbol of the truly early days, at the beginning.
So Dan and Digby go to meet Hank, and it’s a proper reunion of friends, none of this business call on O’Malley stuff. And, in a supercharge of nostalgia, Hank has a scrapbook, and it’s got everyone in it, all the old gang.
Pierre Lafayette – Principal of the Lake Chad Rockery College, enjoying piloting, fishing and French food. Lex O’Malley – supervising a Sea-Harvesting Project in the Indian Ocean. Sir Hubert Guest – retired and about to publish his memoirs.
There’s a glaring omission, for there is no mention of former Astral College Cadet Spry, though the young Flamer was seen in All Treens Must Die!‘s montage, capering as he did when Sir Hubert authorised his presence on the Cryptos Mission. But the question all the old fans want answered is “And Miss Peabody – the Professor I mean,?”
Oh, my. What emotions might underlie that enquiry? Are there regrets, expectations, hopes? But Hank, with blythe cheerfulness, pronounces the doom: “You mean Mrs Jack Gurk?” (in the Sixties, though thankfully for not too much longer, a woman’s married name submerged her not only underneath her Lord and master’s surname, but also his first name). Jocelyn has married a Mining Engineer, and moved with him to Mars.
How does Dan react to that news? It’s what everyone wants to know, and upon which everyone projects their own pet hopes. But it’s not even Dan who asks, but Digby. Does Dan care at all? The romantics want him to, but the truth is that, since their return from the Terra Nova Mission, he has apparently neither spoken to or of our favourite redhead. Given his seeming penchant for taking burly sailors and fourteen year old boys off into space, perhaps we should not get our hopes up too high.
But at least Hank is back, and a door opened, although once he’s produced his scrapbook, though he hangs around for the rest of the story, he plays no active part in it. But his little half-page steals all the glory in The Mushroom: it’s the only thing the fans ever remember.

Dan Dare: All Treens Must Die!

Favourites. There’s always one in every bunch, one that means more to you than any other, that arouses more excitement and intensity than any other, When it comes to Dan Dare, as The Stone Roses so eloquently put it, This Is The One.
All Treens Must Die! is my personal favourite, the story of my childhood that thrilled and awed me more than any other. It’s also, by general consensus among Dan Dare’s fans, the best, the most Hampson-esque story of the latter days of the series. And it represented another turning point in the history of the strip, in that this was the point at which Dan Dare returned to full colour, never to appear in monochrome again. Not in any format he had enjoyed before, but arguably even more prestigious, since Dan’s adventures now wrapped the Eagle around, appearing on both the front and back covers.
It’s beautifully drawn by Watson, and Eric Eden’s colours are gorgeously deployed to give perhaps the strongest post-Hampson art.
Yet the story has a very simple, linear line, and it is only 20 episodes in length (according to David Motton, it was originally planned to run for 22 weeks, though he could recall neither what had had to be cut, nor the reason for the truncation).
All Treens Must Die! is as much a follow on from The Wandering World as was The Big City Caper. We have dealt with Xel, now it is time to look to the other captive, who faces trial on Earth for his crimes around the Solar System.
Needless to say, the Mekon is surrounded by massive security, both in prison and in his daily transport to and from the Court buildings. Dan attends, watching proceedings, the application of proper Earth justice. It’s the demonstration that Earth’s system, Earth’s code, works.
Not all is well, however. Major Spence is also attending proceedings and is disturbed to receive an irate call from Banger, protesting against orders apparently emanating from Spence that are sending him and Cob to Venus. Banger has too much on to leave Earth at this point and he makes it plain that he has no intention of following these orders. On the other hand, there are Treens in his and Cob’s quarters…
Dan’s concerned enough to call Banger back, although there’s no answer. But he’s even more concerned when, checking Banger’s quarters, he finds them trashed and his two friends gone. The Police are not yet inclined to take it seriously, until a call comes in from the prison because, as we had all been expecting, the Mekon has escaped. And he has gotten off Earth and onto a Venus transport in the luggage of Banger and Cob, drugged and hypnotised into assisting.
There’s a full scale flap on about finding the Mekon, but the clue comes from Banger himself. Waking from his drugged state, he takes the typically aggressive step of forcing his way into the cabin and sending out a partial message, before he is clubbed down with brutal contempt from the Mekon. But he has succeeded in broadcasting both his personal call-sign and the letter M-E-K.
Dan and Digby head for Mekonta in the Anastasia, for our first reunion in years with President (no longer Governor) Sondar, who has not been seen since The Phantom Fleet. Sondar can provide some additional clues from seemingly unconnected incidents in recent months: a mutiny on three ships, the disappearance into the Flame-Belt of fifty Treens who have not been found.
This latter leads Dan and Dig to investigate the Flame-Belt, which is where the Mekon has made his base. The Earth passengers, including Banger and Cob, have been abandoned here to die, but the Anastasia finds them in time and, though too massively overloaded to fly, manages to get the hapless passengers far enough away for proper rescue.
Dan’s presence, and his interference, spurs the Mekon into advancing his attack. A submarine craft enters the Mekontan lagoon, and the Mekon launches a vicious assault on the main island. His merest appearance sees Treens en masse deserting to his colours, but the truly shocking thing is that they are gunned down, mercilessly, in those self-same masses. As the title proclaims: All Treens Must Die.
What lies behind this is a mystery. The Mekon’s plan appears to be, indeed is no less than the complete genocide of the Treen race, despite its willingness to support him. The stakes are raised high, far higher than an eight year old boy had ever encountered in his fiction previously.
Yet it is not this aspect that lifted the story for me. I have yet to come to that.
The Mekon is incredibly well-prepared. Indeed, too well-prepared, with equipment and soldiers, especially for someone who has not only just escaped from Earth custody, but who was absent in space on The Wandering World for most if not all the past three years. He has to have allies, but who on Earth, or Venus, could they be?
It is at this point that Sondar pulls the veritable rabbit out of the hat. It would be years, decades, before I would read The Ship That Lived so that I was not aware that they had been referenced at any previous time, but Motton takes this moment to go back almost the whole of my life, to ‘The Last Three’.
They are, apparently, a legend of Venus’s early times, ‘The Immortal Last Three of Venus’, and it’s significant that every piece of data regarding them has been wiped from Mekontan records. But they are a clue, and so too is an innocuous looking device left behind by the Mekon’s forces, a translucent ball in a metal frame.
This is Cob’s territory, and his tinkering soon establishes that it is giving off a weak signal to somewhere in the Flame-Belt.
This is enough to decide Dan. Leaving Banger behind to assist Sondar in a defence against another attack, he takes Digby and Cob back to the Flame-Belt in Anastasia, just in time to locate the Mekon’s base as a new wave of ships are sent out to support the Mekon in another murderous attack on Mekonta, another slaughter of the Treens.
Dan gains access to the base with Cob, Digby having sensibly but reluctantly been sent on to the south to enlist Theron aid: after all, they know him. Inside the base, Dan and Cob are quickly separated, and the former captured. The latter, finding himself blocked off from escape, starts to strip down machinery, bringing his technical skills to bear. Dan, meanwhile, is dragged by robots through a super-automated factory until he is brought in from of a gigantic Treen eye. And for Martin Crookall of Openshaw, Manchester, age eight, the story exploded.
There were only four weeks to go, and four banner front pages which built one upon another to elevate this story out of all rational attempts to analyse it.
A front page banner drawing reveals to us a Treen of ancient face, no longer wholly organic. His arms and legs have been replaced by metallic limbs. He is the first of the Last Three, the master of mechanism. Dan Dare is dismissed as mechanically insignificant, of no interest, to be dismissed. All the while that this fantastic figure – a Treen cyborg, long before I was ever to encounter that word – continues the task of administering this vast manufactory, uninterrupted.
If the Mekon was a superbrain, how far beyond him was this creature, this part-machine,showing even less emotion?
Dismissed, Dan was flung away, literally, into a cloud of swirling mists in which his every thought and feeling was pored through  and he was escorted through his own life. This was represented by a glorious panel in which everyone – everyone – who had ever been of importance to the Dan Dare series, appeared. Faces and figures, human and otherwise, a bare handful of which meant something to me then. It was an awe-inspiring moment, a kaleidoscope of stories, tales and adventures unknown to me, strangers who were yet of significance and I wanted to know who each of these were, what they were called, what they meant.
Even earlier than the mind-expanding effects of the incredible sequence in Justice League of America 37, in which the Thunderbolt ranges up and down time, obliterating origins, in this panel I was looking across Time itself.
Then the final panel and those words: “Dan Dare, you are living the last hour of your life!”
And a week passed, revealing the second of the last three: a gloating, floating Supertreen, poised yogicly in thin air, without arms, or so it seemed, for these have merged into the gigantic globic head, bigger even by far than the Mekon himself, impossibly so, even more inhuman. Dan Dare has caused the Mekon’s failures, and so he must die.
And the plan is unfolded, made explicit. The Treen race has failed. It has failed the Mekon, and so All Treens Must Die. The present race has been condemned, and a new Treen race, pure, unsullied, will be born to take up its proper place in the Universe, as conquerors in the Mekon’s name.
Frank Hampson, in devising the Treens and the Mekon at the beginning, had the coldness of the Nazis in his mind. Motton makes that connection flesh, in this story.
And Dan is flung away, to fall again. Meanwhile, in Mekonta, the Mekon has all but taken the city. But there is a message, Cob playing a distant but significant part, transmitting over and over the letter ‘D’. And at the thought of Dare among his allies, the Mekon panics. It’s a foreshadowing moment. The Mekon cracks, giving way to emotion, and in a very short time, this will prove his downfall.
Dan lands on a slab and lies there stunned. Asking where he is, he receives the answer, “This is the place called Life – the place of your extermination and Death.”
Thus the final part of the tryptich, the Last of the Three. Unlike the others, we do not see him clearly, from above, but from below, always at an angle. For he has the form of a normal Treen, albeit much taller, and he lacks the excessive brain-pan. But the Third of the Three is red-skinned, and he is served by Red Treens whose skin colour is even deeper in tone.
He has two questions to ask: “Would you die to save a broken machine?” and “Is dying to save a useless object called ‘Courage?’” For this ultimately what Treens are to Mekons: machines. He is the Breeder, and behind him in vats lie the new Treens, the Pure Treens, who will not be released until the least possible chance is gone that they may be afflicted by Sondar’s condition. They are why All Treens Must Die.
And why Dan must fight now, for himself, for Venus and the Solar System.
Then it’s on into the final episode, and those three portraits of the Last Three are completed by the Mekon, arriving at the head of his troops, to the sudden destruction of his plans. For the Third of the Three is dead, his neck broken by Dan, the stakes so high that our hero must kill. Then, as he climbs back to the halls of the First, he is confronted by the Mekon, who strikes with a tongue of flame, but too hasty, for Dan evades, the First dies and the factory, deprived of its mind, erupts into chaos. And the Mekon reacts in anger, anger towards the Second, the planner whose plans have failed, have ended in success by Dan Dare, yet again, and the supposedly-emotion free Mekon kills, and the Last Three are Immortal no longer.
But before the Mekon can attack Dan, the roof falls in on top of him, a hole blown in the mountain by Digby arriving in proper deus ex machina fashion with the Treens. And it’s over.
I know I’ve gone on too much about those four last episodes, but they’re why I can’t be objective about All Treens Must Die! I know that I can say that the end, in its final tier of panels, is too abrupt, that those two extra episodes should have been expended. I know that I can say that the penultimate episode, and the panel devoted to the Third, would have looked better without the top-of-the-page ballyhoo about the jointure of Eagle with the failed Boy’s World (bringing over the tedious British version of Iron Man).
But this one’s my story, my favourite. And I’m ready to read it again.

Dan Dare: The Wandering World

The One Who Is Obeyed

In a manner that hadn’t been seen since Trip to Trouble, or perhaps even the transition from The Man from Nowhere into Rogue Planet, The Wandering World ran directly on from the last page of Operation Time Trap. Like its predecessor, this was a story that I knew only partially for half a century. There were pages from this story in the bundle bought at that Bring and Buy sale, though from the first week of 1964, I had Eagle on weekly order. The only gaps in the story throughout all that time came near its beginning.
But ultimately I got the complete story, which contained the last pages of the original Dan Dare run that I had never before seen. It’s a fine and private irony that my first and last Dan Dare pages should have been so close together in publication.
The new adventure starts with a dramatic aerial shot of the Tempus Frangit blasting off from Meit’s North Pole. They were indeed close enough to the exact Pole and escape into space, beyond two suns. There, Banger executes the Time Jump to take them home. His calculations have been thorough and precise, he has allowed for every pound of weight, and the removal of every ‘gift’ donated to the Meitians, the Jump will be to an exact position within Earth space. Except that he hasn’t accounted for the stowaway, Xel, and his weight.
And the Tempus Frangit arrives in the Solar System at the right time. Or rather, just outside of it. Beyond the orbit of Pluto (this was before the Kuiper Belt was discovered, indeed before Pluto’s main moon, Charon). They do not have enough fuel to return to Earth down the entire length of the Solar System.
Xel immediately makes his presence known – and felt – attempting to take over the ship. But he quickly realises this is a waste of time if it effectively cannot go anywhere. The impasse is quickly forgotten as sensors pick up a nearby object, what appears to be an artificial world, of immense clustered bubbles broken up by gaping pits that emit blazing radiation. Xel abandons ship to search for something more promising on this satellite/moon/world, with Dan and Dig closely behind, hoping to get to the native people – assuming there are any – before Xel creates a terminally bad example.
What they find on the Wandering World is something completely unexpected: the Mekon.
Whereas, on his last reappearance, Dan and Digby greeted the Mekon with nothing more than the generic “You’re supposed to be dead”, I’m impressed by the fact that David Motton has them reference The Solid-space Mystery.
Indeed, there’s a definitely understated continuity between the two adventures. It puzzled me for years why the Mekon is alone, with a perfectly constructed Treen spaceship, but without any Treens to carry out his bidding. But then when we last saw him, he was ejecting – alone – in an escape capsule from the Solid-space satellite, which was then promptly destroyed with no survivors.
It still begs the question of how he’s gotten from a satellite between the orbits on Mercury and Venus to the far side of Pluto, unaided, though he’s done a world class job on getting the native Navs to duplicate Treen construction.
What is most important is that the Mekon not only has a functioning spaceship, he has fuel for it, and enough to fill the Tempus Frangit‘s tanks as well. Unfortunately for the latter’s crew, he has the local population, the Navs – spindly, blue-skinned, hairless humanoids – under his complete control, and now he has an uneasy ally in the form of Xel.
As a newly introduced reader, completely lacking any knowledge of the series’ history, I spent my formative years thinking of Xel as Dan Dare’s primary adversary. He’s a constant presence throughout the trilogy of stories of which The Wandering World is the middle part, and he has a further role to play as villain in the future. But even at my young age, the contrast between Xel and the Mekon, their alliance a triumph of circumstance above nature, was fascinating to contemplate. Brutishness versus brain. Strength against feebleness. Bull-headed attack against thought and planning.
The Mekon was always the more deadly of the two, and where the Earthmen are incapable, ultimately, of overcoming the Stollite Emperor (though Dan does, incredibly, succeed in knocking him out, temporarily), it takes the greater villain to put Xel out of action with sufficient permanence to permit the story to proceed to a denouement.
The Wandering World is an intriguing conception. The Navs are survivors of an unspecified civilisation (from within the Solar System? From without?) that destroyed itself, leaving only those who were aboard a fantastic sky city, a metal construct powered by great nuclear engines. Over an unspecified period of time, the city has both wandered and developed its surface of bubbles, initially a kind of detritus generated by the engine, but now home to the Nav civilisation and its curious flora and fauna.
Dan and Digby, with Banger, explore the Wandering World until they reach the bubble where the Mekon has taken control. He has enlisted the Navs on a basis of lies about his role in the Solar System, and promises of giving them a planet of their own one he is ‘restored’, but they are quick to turn to Dan’s assistance when he puts them right.
But they are even quicker to turn against everyone when the matter becomes a three-way argument between the Earthmen and the two villains. “A plague upon both your houses!”, they cry, expelling the massive bubble from their world, leaving a massive hole, but dispensing with the threat for (their) good.
This is just what Dan and Co needed. The last few seconds of the Tempus Frangit‘s fuel is used to close in on the Mekon ship and its spare fuel. The Mekon is captured, Xel is incapacitated and the voyage home to Earth is before them.
Going by my personal impressions, The Wandering World is not as good a story as Operation Time Trap. It’s a less active adventure, with a stronger element of exploration: Dan and Dig see several of the bubbles and face various perils that have no direct bearing on the spine of the story, where all the actions of Operation Time Trap are focused upon the menace of Xel and the need for escape from Meit.
But it’s a strong, solid story, and if not up to the level of prime Hampson, it’s a far more worthy substitute than the pallid efforts of Eric Eden’s period as writer. Though it does have advantages that were denied to him, in that the overall story, from the Tempus Frangit‘s blast-off from Earth until it finally turns for home spans almost a full year of story. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen something with that scope.
And there’s still a direct follow-up to come.

Dan Dare: Operation Time Trap

A page it took fifty years to read

watsontimetrapA year had gone by, a year of short stories in black and white, hidden on the inside. But Keith Watson’s determination to hold the fort, to give the Dan Dare series the best of Hampson-standard art, to satisfy the reader’s anticipation, had given the readers something to cling to.
And the readers had done their part, pressurising Longacre about the series, continually asking for Dan Dare to be put back on the cover, put back in colour, in enough numbers, consistently, that Longacre had to admit defeat on all fronts.
Operation Time Trap is where the tide turns, where it starts to flow back towards something like a peak. It won’t ever get far enough up the beach to match Frank Hampson at his peak, but this can joyfully be said to be The Restoration. Back on the cover, back in colour were just the symbols, but with this story, Motton and Watson were freed from the restriction to short, thirteen week or less stories, and the ban on recurring characters was also lifted, equipping Dan and Digby with a new supporting cast to last them almost to the end.
Even better, Operation Time Trap would not merely run 28 weeks but, in the grand Hampson tradition, its ending would segue into the next adventure, and that would lead directly to a third, giving Dan and Co a year of continuous adventure.
But though the point was won, especially with regard to longer, more flowing stories, Longacre had merely compromised, not acknowledged defeat. The new format for Dan Dare did not kick in until three B&W episodes had appeared, and there was still a surprise to come: colour covers maybe, but only the cover – to be done poster-style, with two small panels in the bottom right corner, balancing the yellow-backed Eagle and Swift logo box in the top left corner – but inside the art was still black and white and grey, and there were one and a half pages of it.
One has to wonder why. Why, if the concession was to be made, hold it back until a story had already started? Was it really that impromptu a decision, or was it some feeble attempt to demonstrate that the editor was the one in charge here, no matter what the readers said? And why this unheard of, hybrid format? Was it hedging their bets? Leaving the door open to taking the series back into pure black and white again when they said it wasn’t popular enough? We don’t know, and it’s too late now for more than speculation. But I think the questions imply their answers.
There was one more thing. Watson had done marvelously in black and white, but, being colourblind, was handicapped by the return to colour. So he hired an assistant, an airbrush specialist, to colour these expansive, impressive covers. For the fourth time, no less, Eric Eden was back on the series from which it seemed he could never get away.
When it comes to the story, it’s time I acknowledged that a lot of Dan Dare fans are critical of David Motton’s scripting, regarding his dialogue as unrealistic and stilted. I’m biased by this being the Dan Dare I grew up upon, but I can’t agree. I’ve already spoken about his more descriptive writing in captions, and he’s certainly on top form in the first episode, succinctly setting up the situation and three new characters, in economical stokes.
Operation Time Trap was still on two internal B&W pages when it started, but the astute reader could have drawn from it the inference that the story was about to expand. That opening episode sets up Dan’s new mission, as pilot on the test run for the Tempus Frangit, and the giant, jet black ship, primarily spherical, is given impressive prominence in the opening panel. And the mission involves not merely space travel, but traveling in time as well, a new theme.
Plus Motton introduces three new crewmates, taking care to establish their characters in a manner that we have simply not seen over the past twelve months.
First is Colonel Wilf Banger, Engineer, Scientist, Designer and Builder of the Tempus Frangit: bull-headed with sweeping black moustaches and a bull in a china shop approach to problems. Then there’s his long-term assistant, electronics and mechanical genius, Technician ‘Nutter’ Cob (in later stories, the quotes that imply this is a nickname will be dropped and Nutter will become a genuine first name) who’s no respecter of ranks when his Colonel is in the wrong. And lastly, in all respects, was Major Spence, receding hairline, plump, little moustaches: a fussy, nervous administrator, a stickler for Spacefleet Rules and Regulations, whose value to the expedition – or nearly every other adventure – was impossible to discover.
Incidentally, the Major did have a first name, being Shillitoe. This was not disclosed at first, though it did come out in the first episode, and it would be mentioned only once again.
(Which was more than could be said for the meaning of Tempus Frangit. This was only ever explained in that first episode, which I didn’t read until the 2010s. Of course, the Latin translation was fairly simple, if you’d studied Latin which, apart from the Latin-tagged concepts I needed to know as a Solicitor, and some classic classical tags, I didn’t. I was finally clued in by a fellow Eagle fan at a Manchester Comics Mart in in the early 1990s).
So, the first Time Jump begins. Dan pilots the Tempus Frangit to the pre-determined point in space and Banger engages the Jump, much to Digby’s misgivings about the physical effects of the journey. But the Earthmen’s first shock is that they arrive in a region of lightless space, with no stars visible at all.
Unable to navigate, Banger engages the reverse jump, but the Tempus Frangit goes nowhere: it is held by some kind of magnetic lock.
Use of the short-range astroscope identifies a strange binary sun system with a single planet, Meit, on an eccentric orbit around/between the two suns. Dan reconnoitres the planet without finding any signs of civilisation, though it’s clear that the land is unstable, racked with earthquakes. Eventually, he lands the ship on an island the size of Sicily, only to find that it is made of concentrated, matted weeds that roll with the tidal swell, though they do support the spaceship.
The native Meitians are friendly, though they insist on gifts from their visitors, gifts that ‘give a man dignity’. Dan and Co quickly realise that there is another spaceship already on Meit who have already provided the Meitians with an invaluable gift – instant translators. And Cob quickly picks one apart to discover that it’s also a complex tv and radio surveillance device, which is being watched elsewhere.
There isn’t long to wait before the other visitors to the planet make themselves known. They – or rather he – is  Xel, the One in One Thousand Million, the One who is obeyed, leader of the Svallokin Empire of Stoll. His ship landed on land and has been wrecked by an earthquake, and he demands two places on the Tempus Frangit to escape the planet. Dan must leave two of his crew behind.
That’s never going to be an option, though everybody but Dan does discuss it as if it were a serious proposition. It never would have been, but Dan has already seen Xel for what he is: a tyrant, a brutal dictator, heedless of others lives: he is not putting anybody into jeopardy for someone like that.
Thus a mini-war rages between the two spaceships. The Meitian wise man confirms that it is possible to escape Meit’s magnetic grip. Xel has the wise man kidnapped to prevent him revealing to the Earthmen where and how they can escape Meit, though the wise man’s young assistant, Noli, confirms that it is from the magnetic north pole on midsummer’s day, between the two suns.
Xel temporarily gains control of the Tempus Frangit, at least until the ocean swell incapacitates the Stollites through major seas-sickness. Dan and Digby take one of Xel’s bubblecraft to locate his wrecked spaceship, trying to rescue the wise man and regain the Meitians’ goodwill and cooperation. They are captured, and Xel intends to enslave them, as he has his own, nasty, brutish, short, silver-skinned people.
But Digby saves the day with his usual luck: he’s earlier fallen into a food vat and, in climbing out, bent a feed pipe so that it spewed on the floor, instead of into the mix. That proved to be the drug by which Xel maintained his hold on his slaves. They run riot, rebelling against him, and he is forced to flee, with Dan and Digby (plus wise man) in pursuit.
The threat appears to be over, and Dan and Co can concentrate on floating the island to the North Pole. They are not aware, however, that Xel has stowed away on board, intent on taking the ship, but not until he has killed Dan Dare with his bare hands.
With the conditions getting ever colder, and the remnants of the island freezing and cracking, it becomes a slow-motion race against to get the Tempus Frangit into exactly the right place. Dan is forced to act when the ship is less than 100 yards from the exact point…
And the adventure went on, with a new story, The Wandering World, picking up the following week, directly from the cliffhanger of that take-off.
Incidentally, as an eight year old unused to words beginning with an X, I pondered over how to pronounce Xel’s name and in my head sounded it with an X, as in X-L, or excel, a word I was many years away from encountering. Not until much later, and exposure to xylophone, or Xavier, did I come to realise that, phonetically, it should be ‘Zel’. But that little mental stutter is forever there, and I still stumble in my head over the One in One Thousand Million, X-L.
I have mixed feelings about trying to analyse this story. This is where my relationship with Dan Dare and the Eagle began. Among its pages are the Eagle‘s Dad bought for me at that long ago Bring and Buy Sale. They leap out at me when I read the story with all the force of fifty years of memory.
In truth, this is a difficult story to read. For nearly fifty years, I knew it only partially, without beginning or end, a heavy weighting towards the middle and end, but with one sole b&w episode, and now I read the complete story at last, I find it hard to accept the additional episodes that complete and make sense of the tale.
It’s as if they are not quite real, as if they are an incredibly good pastiche, but still pages that have been made up afterwards, to fill in gaps where the ‘real’ pages have been lost forever.
Ultimately, the fifty-nine year old Crookall can’t override the eight year old boy who first read parts of this story and was so thrilled and excited by it that he wanted to read this every week. The best I can do by way of an objective assessment is that Motton and Watson took full advantage of the freedom from restrictions to broaden Dan’s horizons immeasurably.
Time travel. Distant galaxies. High peril. Strange planets with unusual natural laws. And a new recurring enemy who was in many ways the opposite of the Mekon, but no less evil and no less deadly. To a boy ignorant of Dan Dare’s past, this was glorious fun and astonishing adventure – and the rest of the comic wasn’t bad either!
It was indeed the beginning of a new era: a silver age of excitement and imagination.

Dan Dare: The Web of Fear

Keith Watson at home

Take away the continuingly excellent crisp, clean, black, white and grey art from Keith Watson, and The Web of Fear is a mess. In fact, with Watson’s art it’s still a mess, quite possibly the nadir of the Dan Dare series, but at least offers some great visuals. But it’s still a mess, whose only saving grace is that it is so short, a mere ten weeks and it is over.
Once again, Earth is subject to a world-threatening threat. That makes the fourth already this year, and that’s not counting the situation on New Year’s Day, when the planet was still half under water, subject to virulent plague and everybody had over-anticipated Jonathan King and gone to Mars. At this point, the Law of Diminishing Returns has not only set in, but is building a bungalow on an acre plot of land.
And it’s not as if it’s in any way a good, or even remotely convincing story either, full of holes and unexplained things that undermine the plot’s already minimal credibility.
Dan Dare is mentoring Cadet Peter Young, the son of old friends, on his test flight to qualify as a Pilot. Unfortunately, young Young crashes and seems to have blown his chances, but Dan stubbornly refuses to accept his judgement may be wrong.
Whilst he’s debating this, Earth finds itself subject to strange, white drifting webs appearing in the atmosphere, which prove to be lethally corrosive, He and Dig are sent to investigate the Moon, and he takes Young, despite the fact that the cadet has started prophesying doom and destruction over the webs, even though he isn’t aware of it.
Once on the Moon, Young goes into a trance and uncovers a cave full of spiders, which forces the Moon to be evacuated. The spiders stow away on the ships and are carried to Earth, where the threat builds. It gets even worse when Dixon’s Comet arrives and hordes of the things are found nesting in it.
Young isn’t the only Spacefleet personnel to be unconsciously and unexplainedly helping the spiders, just the only one we get to see, but Dan trusts him throughout and is, of course, proved to be right when Young saves him and Dig from being blown up on the Comet by Earth when they’re burning out all the nests. End of story, and good riddance.
This really is an awful story. Motton does nothing to establish his spiders, relying solely on the idea that spiders are inherently creepy, and great big ones from space – think Tarantula, think Black Widow, think Shelob for later generations – are creepy enough for us not to care how they’ve gotten onto the Moon in so many numbers without anyone noticing, from a Comet that hasn’t been around for 500 years.
And there is nothing about how the spiders can dominate the will of people like Peter Young to make them into slaves, especially if the hold can be broken in an instant, when it’s convenient to the story, without anything actually being done.
And there’s this business of Dan’s childhood friends, the Young’s from Little Fletchworth, who come and deservedly go in this story with no other mention. The back story is completely invisible, the only hints being that Little Fletchworth reminds Dan of endless happy days in his childhood. Except that, as we proud Mancunians will point out at every opportunity, Dan was born and brought up in Manchester and I can assure you that there is a complete absence of villages called anything like Little Fletchworth. Not even with high-rise apartment blocks.
In his splendid The Report of the Cryptos Commission New Zealand fan Denis Steeper tries to bring the entire Dan Dare story together into a comprehensible chronology. To do so, he leaves out only three stories, one of which was The Earth-Stealers. The second is this, and he’s absolutely right to do so.