It’s not been made the subject of any public announcement that I’ve heard or seen, but I’ve just learned from John Freeman’s ‘Down the Tubes‘ that Don Harley, Frank Hampson’s most skilled and reliable assistant on Dan Dare, has passed away earlier this week. It comes as no surprise as Harley was in his nineties – this year would have been the seventieth anniversary of his joining the team at Bayford Lodge – but any loss of a man so talented, and who brought imagination, colour, life and, most important of all, pleasure into the lives of so many diminishes us all.
It’s not to demean Harley that I quote Frank Hampson’s own words of tribute to him. There is no shame to being ‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’ to Hampson himself. How many times, during the Man from Nowhere trilogy, did Hampson co-sign Harley’s name to his own as the artist of record? Who stayed on to assist Frank Bellamy? Who took over the strip himself, supported by Bruce Cornwell?
The good do not always die young, but they always leave a gap that cannot be filled.
The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.
Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.
The old Eagle that had entertained and enthralled us for a decade had only eleven issues to go when Volume 11 started. Odhams had come in determined to shake Eagle up, to refresh it. Frank Hampson had gone, albeit not (yet) for good, his studio had been dismantled, Marcus Morris had departed for pastures new and Clifford Makins had replaced him as editor, polls had been conducted on what the boys wanted and didn’t want, and change was in the air. Issue 12 would see the first ‘new’ Eagle, whose front page no longer looked like those of the Fifties.
Of those first issues, there was a concerted attempt to bring stories to a close so that as many features as possible should start new tales in week twelve. Dan Dare’s ‘Trip to Trouble’ was never more than a cheap, splashy but insubstantial effort to wind up Frank Hampson’s intended ‘Terra Nova’ cycle as quickly as possible, and it was managed in that perfunctory fashion. The contrast between Frank Bellamy’s art and that of Don Harley was never greater than when Harley attempted to mimic Bellamy’s look with an approach resting more upon impressionism than anything else, but looking more muddy than intricate.
The story’s end had a poignant moment. Five heads appear, musing over what they will discover on their return to Earth. One of them is Professor Peabody, appearing for the last time. One of them was not ‘Flamer Spry’, written out absolutely completely behind everyone’s back.
‘They Showed the Way’ on page 3, wrapped up its run with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. ‘Riders of the Range’ ended Jeff Arnold’s pursuit of Sam Bass. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ brought the highwaymen to justice and got himself back on the right side of the Law, and ‘Storm Nelson’ ended his adventure with the White Shadow. Only ‘Luck of the Legion’, having finished his adventure in Indo-China in issue 5, was already deep into another story, in North Africa, when the great changeover came.
As for the half-pagers, ‘Harris Tweed’ began the year in colour, and stayed that way more often than not, but he had been re-named from ‘Extra Special Agent’ to ‘Super Sleuth’ (though one autumn strip still ran under the old title). The strip itself was now very one-note, building up to a usually predictable punch-line in the final paragraph.
Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ continued throughout the year, sometimes replaced by a ‘Mr Therm presents…’, about which there was nothing new to say, whilst George Cansdale, still partnered by George Backhouse on gorgeous art, continued to show the natural world in all its glory, especially with the new ‘Nature Had it First’ series commencing in issue 12, showing how many scientific developments had their origins in the natural abilities of all manner of animals, birds fish etc. Most of this series was in b&w, but there were a number of colour instalments.
Before going on to the ‘new’ Eagle, there was one more departure to record. MacDonald Hastings, E.S.I. for long years, had less than a handful of stories left, and after a final ‘Men of Glory’ in issue 6, he was let go in ignominious silence, having come bottom of the poll. Not a word of thanks or farewell.
Thus Eagle came to the first of several re-designs.
The changes for the ‘new’ Eagle were obvious from the front page. Gone was the big title-box, the red corner with the eagle and the name and the issue details and date. This was transmuted into a red bar, across the top of the page, the image space for ‘Dan Dare’ suddenly compacted to more like a square.
There was a new story, ‘Project Nimbus’, written by Eric Eden, with Frank Bellamy drawing both pages, and it was finally his chance to carry out his brief from Odhams. There’s a comprehensive redesign of space rockets and Spacefleet uniforms, the latter of which moving away from the military uniform aspect. Bellamy, as was his instinct, concentrates on dynamics, with no concern or feel for plausibility in the terms of the space craft, as is horribly obvious when it comes to the alien ships that have entered the Solar System, whilst the aliens themselves, no matter how well drawn they are, are nothing more than overgrown insects.
Don Harley still struggles to keep up whilst Eden’s notorious weakness at writing endings starts to be painfully obvious. Astonishingly, for a story that is supposed to make a complete departure from Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’, there’s a first appearance in three years for Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette.
‘Project Nimbus’ would last just over twenty weeks before Bellamy was released from his travail. Don Harley was asked to take over the strip, belatedly, but refused to draw two colour pages per week. Thus, Bruce Cornwell returned, to supply the technical art to Harley’s characters. ‘Mission of the Earthman’ began as a good Hampson-lite story, but once again suffered from a feeble ending.
The next big shock was the transplanting of ‘Storm Nelson’ from page 18 (the ‘new’ Eagle was now slated to be a 20 page comic) to page 3, where it would be seen into the next volume. This remained unchanged, as did the other surviving regulars, ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Luck of the legion’ and ‘Jack O’Lantern’. With a new story, artist C L Doughty felt free to draw in his own style, but ‘The Wreckers’ was a weak and short tale, and Jack’s last adventure. Lord Bruneaux sends him down to Cornwall to investigate the local Wreckers (who turn out to be the Preventives themselves). There’s a cameo for cousin Rufus, and the story ends with Jack and Captain Yorke restored to their ancestral home of Brackens, to live without excitement. It was not a particularly worthy end.
Jack’s replacement was to be a glorious series, but first we need to go back to the new series introduced to Eagle in the revamp. These were three: ‘Knights of the Road’, ‘Vic Venture’ and ‘The Hawk’.
The first of these was an orthodox two page black and white comic series, written by Gordon Grinstead and drawn by Gerald Haylock, though the second story was taken over early on and finished by Roland Davies. It’s a comic strip about a lorry driver. I’ll repeat that: a long-distance lorry driver. Among an SF strip, a western, the French Foreign Legion, a Napoleonic era ragamuffin and a sea-faring crew of troubleshooters, the subject alone can’t hold its head up.
The stars are ‘Sir’ Ted Knight, star driver, and his harmonica playing beat obsessed younger brother, Frank. Ted is a delivery firm’s ‘star’ driver who, thanks to Frank’s shenanigans and the machinations of a rival driver, loses his job at the end of the first adventure – all about delivering a long-distance load to Liverpool, and coming back – and sets up his own private lorry firm. Yeah, I know, exciting eh?
The ‘Sir Ted’ bit is overdone by the first week, Frank is an idiot with no sense of responsibility, and the tone of the strip can be determined in the second story when half a page is given over to different types of lorry that Ted might buy. The strip’s only real appeal lies in its attempt to depict contemporary youth in 1960, and I’ve seen worse attempts from middle-aged writers. But Frank’s interest is in jazz, not rock’n’roll or anything resembling pop. That was still off-limits to Eagle, however ‘new’.
‘Vic Venture’ was a real oddity. A half-page black and white cartoon from writer D. Chapman and artist G. Bull, its subject was a young boy who would drift off into dreams about various settings – First World War fighter pilots, for one – and follow these adventures over several weeks. The art was very heavy and awkward, placing cartoon characters against settings that, within the cartoonist’s style, were meant to be realistic and detailed, and in stories that were presented as serious adventures. This odd approach makes it look very much like one of Eagle’s advertising half pages, though it was a legitimate part of the comic. On all levels, it failed, and told only three stories over six months before being abruptly replaced by the rather more conventional – and readable – ‘Sir Percy Vere – the Good Knight’, by Roland Fiddy, a straightforward comedy strip in typical Fiddy style.
It all seems very familiar, as if I read these whilst still young, though the strip had vanished before I discovered Eagle first time round. I’m sure I found it funny then, but I don’t now.
By far and away the most successful of the new features was ‘Special Agent’, written by Lee Mayne. This was Eagle‘s first prose series since the ‘Three J’s’ but this was a straight adventure series. The series featured Frenchman, Inspector Jean Collet, aka ‘The Hawk’ of Interpol, a clever and implacable policeman, whose adventures took place all over the world. It was good, clipped, boy’s adventure stuff, whose biggest weakness was that every story consisted rigidly of only four episodes.
There was one more new series in Eagle in volume 11, and although it only ran a short time overall, it was one of Eagle‘s classics, a series to set against the best of the Fifties. This was ‘Fraser of Africa’, replacing ‘Jack O’Lantern’, featuring the continuing scripting of George Beardmore, and it was Frank Bellamy’s reward for his uncomfortable year on ‘Dan Dare’.
Martin Fraser was a white hunter and game warden, in Africa. The strip had been promised to Bellamy as an inducement to take on ‘Dan Dare’ and he was even given the chance to write it if he chose. For Bellamy was an Africaphile: it was his dream feature.
And his enthusiasm shines in every panel. Bellamy not only draws the strip but colours it as well. To create the parched, dry feel of East Africa, his colour palate is dominated by yellows and browns, with only the occasional, almost intrusive depiction of blue skies. Bellamy corresponded heavily wit a local farmer to ensure the authenticity of everything he produced, and whilst the subject of the series is by its very nature colonialist, Fraser himself respects the native populace with whom he works, and holds their interests at heart.
Sixty years on, times have changed, and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is no longer respectable, but ‘Fraser of Africa’ still shines as the work of an incredibly gifted artist on a subject dearest to his heart, for which much must be forgiven.
Did I say one final new series? Technically, that was so, but in a year of upheaval, with the comic being turned towards the less in-depth and serious, there was one final treasure that made its debut. Technically, it was but the latest in the back page ‘Great Adventurer’ series, and in practice, thanks to the culmination of forces in opposition, it was the last great work of a great creator.
The ‘new’ Eagle brought us back Frank Hampson for the last time, drawing ‘The Road of Courage’ under the (ostensible) scripting of Marcus Morris. Since leaving ‘Dan Dare’ the previous summer, Hampson had been on an extensive research trip in Palestine and Israel, preparing to draw the life of Jesus Christ.
For the ‘greatest story ever told’, and scripted by a clergyman, this is an oddly secular, indeed flat story of Jesus, the familiar story told with all the bases touched but everything accounted for in a pragmatic, functional manner that removes the numinous the spiritual, the god-like at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the story invoking faith in any boy. But that’s not why we relish it. We relish it for Frank Hampson, at his glorious, indeed spectacular best, for the very last time.
The characterisations, the body-language, the clothing, the settings, the compositions, the colours: this is Frank Hampson showing us what he can do, as if we needed reminding, and in the process laying the ground for a tragedy. This was the last time his genius, and I repeat, genius, would be used in its natural metier. Over the next year or so, Eagle’s owners, managers and lawyers would break him. There would not be anything like this ever again.
Bellamy’s ‘Fraser’, Hampson’s Jesus, at one and the same time. The peak may be past, the downhill slope already evident, but Volume 11, and its successor, seeing these two strips to their end, contained mountaintops that anyone who loves this artform will remember forever.
The year of the Fall. The lucky amateurs who had created Eagle and made it a stunning success for almost a full decade were replaced by the professionals, who knew what they were doing. Eagle would never be that good again. The control of the comic was handed over from people who respected and trusted their audience to people who thought their audience was basically stupid, and would respond only to simplification and sensation. Fifty years later, maybe forty or thirty, they would have been on the nail. In 1959, they were hideously wrong.
It’s tempting, but not wholly accurate, to think of Volume 10 as two different stories. This was the other ‘short’ Volume, reduced to 45 issues via a seven week long printers’ strike, from June to August, and it would be easy to call what came before it ‘Old’ Eagle and afterwards as ‘New’ Eagle. But real-life doesn’t offer such clear distinctions as that.
The three significant factors were, in order, Hultons selling out to Odhams Press, Frank Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’ and Marcus Morris stepping down as editor: the second and third of these events were a consequence of the first because Odhams made it clear from the start that in their eyes, Eagle was dull, stodgy, long-winded and stale. They were the ones who had produced comics all along, not these luck amateurs. Changes would be made.
For one thing, Hampson’s Studio, with its assistants and profusion of reference material, its expensiveness – Hampson’s expensiveness, being paid more than the Executives – was an instant target. It had to change, and Hampson, frustrated at the lack of backing he’d had from Hultons already, and realising that the protection Morris had afforded him would no longer shield him from attack, decided to leave his premier creation.
And Morris, with his unlimited expense account suddenly choked off, reconsidering his position, fell upwards onto his feet, leaving Eagle to progress in publishing at the National Magazine Company, writing his farewell Letter from the Editor in issue 37. For three weeks, this direct address to the readers was signed merely by ‘The Editor’, before Morris’s successor, Clifford Makins, allowed his name to go forward.
There was no indication at the start of the year of what was to follow. ‘Dan Dare’ started the new year with a new story, ‘Safari in Space’, opening up with Frank Hampson’s personal favourite piece of art, a near full-cover of Dan, Digby and Flamer starting a spell of leave under the sun in the Venusian jungle. It’s bright, intense, detailed, a sign that Hampson’s heart was very much in things again.
And the story bounded forward eagerly. From Venus, and several panels of Professor Peabody in a swimsuit, enjoying her leave with Sir Hubert and Lex O’Malley (hmmmm), to the Asteroid belt, and from there across trans-stellar space to Terra Nova, a near-Earth-like planet. But this was not a story of exploration: for Dan it was the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, long believed dead but not revealed to have gone on a long trip, and perhaps still alive.
There’s a panel that illustrates just how bloody brilliant an artist Frank Hampson was. It doesn’t look like much, it’s not spectacular, it’s on a page 2 so maybe the credit belongs to Don Harley, let’s be fair. Dan and Co have been kidnapped to go on this madcap, private mission to Terra Nova, and Dan’s ahead of the McHoo. He’s leaning back against a desk or something, apart from his friends, at the back, because he sees where this is going, and his hands are by his side, holding on to the desk and he’s tightly contained and by how he half-stands, half-leans, in that single drawing we see how much emotion he is feeling.
Hampson planned a cycle of stories, set in and across the Terra Nova system, as Dan followed his father’s trail from planet to planet, culminating in… what? I have always believed that it would have ended with Dan finding Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare alive. A man who had incarnated his own father so indelibly within his creation could not, I believe, have planned to frustrate that reunion.
But that wasn’t what happened. As well as the growing pressure from Odhams, there was a devastating loss. On June 18, whilst on holiday in Barcelona, Alan Stranks, the writer Hampson had come to trust best to write Dan Dare, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I don’t know how the timings worked out, behind the scenes. The last pre-strike issue of Eagle was no 25, dated 20 June. Two complete issues of Eagle were ready, and appeared without dates as soon as the strike ended. Both featured the work of Frank Hampson on ‘Dan Dare’, his last piece of art a uniquely silent first page, with Dan or any of his companions.
By the time this appeared, Hampson had left Dan Dare. In later life, he claimed he was only taking a year off, to refresh, renew, rethink, and his successor, who was not Don Harley (yet) was hired for a year, but Odhams certainly weren’t interested in having him back, his Studio was broken up, his reference materials destroyed, save for what could be carried by Harley and the only other assistant retained, Keith Watson, and I have never heard of any attempt by Hampson to take up Dan Dare’s reins again.
His replacement was Frank Bellamy, and he had been given a brief. More action, more dynamism, more excitement. Though Bellamy, naturally, drew superbly, there were many problems with the new ‘Dan Dare’. In no particular order, it’s principal artist had no real liking or feel for SF; he was working with Harley and Watson, two artists trained in Hampson’s style, who produced one page between them, resulting in months of unevenness as clashing styles; they had lost the series’ regular writer, who was replaced by Eric Eden, who at best could only produce a decent pastiche but who had no facility for satisfying endings; and with Bellamy dividing the script pages up each week, the series was hampered yet further by a flip-flopping of styles as Bellamy would assign page 1 or 2 to himself alternately.
The seven week absence during the paper strike had damaged Eagle‘s circulation. That its front page not only looked radically different, but was never in the same style two weeks in a row, could not repair the problem.
‘Terra Nova’ rapidly degenerated into a fight with giant ants, whilst its successor, ‘Trip to Trouble’ took only five weeks to undermine the whole point of Hampson’s vision. In Xmas week, the new Eagle revealed that Dan’s father had been killed, offscreen and ten years earlier. Heartless, and pointless.
Page 3 continued to go downhill. The personality-absence that was ‘Cavendish Brown, M.S.’ lasted only three more issues before vanishing, unregretted, after less than a year. He was replaced by ‘They Showed The Way’, for which Pat Williams was retained on art for a series of true-life stories of adventure and achievement: the Suez Canal, Charles Lindbergh, the discovery of anaesthetic, the conquest of Everest, submarines under the North Pole. Educational in their way, with rough-hewn art, this series might have been designed for the new masters, with none of the stories staying long enough to bore, or to interest for that matter.
MacDonald Hastings, ESI, remained confined to quarters throughout this Volume, continuing his ‘Men of Glory’ series, tales of heroism in War, for about three-quarters of the year, with sporadic interruptions.
With issue 16, Eagle expanded, ‘permanently’, to twenty pages, introducing two new series, and yet more advertising space.’Hobbies Corner’ got half a page, sometimes paired with George Cansdale’s excellent ongoing series about household pets, now drawn in black and white by George Bowe, but the other new feature was given two full pages almost ever week. This was ‘As the Scientist Sees It’, by Professor Steele, an educational series well in keeping with Eagle’s traditions. The Professor would take a different subject each week, breaking in down into half a dozen related points, which would be introduced with an enviably simple clarity. For those who regard Eagle as imperialistic and colonialist (which is not untrue), please note that one such entry poured scorn on racism as being completely unscientific and utter nonsense.
‘Riders of the Range’ continued to be steady. The Mexico adventure wended on for the first half of the year, though it suffered from a lack of cohesion as Chilton set up multiple opposing forces – bandits and Indians trying to take over an ill-manned cave-pueblo occupied by women and children, and a Mexican army patrol of limited strength, plus several kidnappings and releases associated with the appearance of a comet in the Sky.
From there, Chilton resumed historical stories with ‘Jeff Arnold and Sam Bass’, the latter being a notorious outlaw and train-robber. Sam’s inserted into the story by his ambition to learn gunfighting from Jeff, but circumstances contrive to put him on the wrong side of the Law, and Jeff has to try to bring him in. It turns out that Sam is an even faster gun than Jeff and, by the volume’s end, the latter is nursing a wound in his shoulder that prevents him using his gun in his right hand…
‘Luck of the Legion’ also maintained its course, without any stories standing out in particular: Bond and Aitchison simply provided good, quick action, and quirky humour from the Fat Man, Legionnaire Bimberg, in the desert and on a return trip to Indo-China, the serial ‘Dragon Patrol’ continuing on into Volume 11.
But Dan Dare was not the only series to lose its long-standing artist. Robert Ayton had drawn ‘Jack O’Lantern’ from its inception, and would continue to do so for the short stories in the Eagle Annuals, In Volume 10, he stayed to complete ‘The Brotherhood of the Key’, Jack’s longest ever adventure at 37 weeks, and to start its successor, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, but after a mere eleven weeks, he left the strip, to be replaced by C. L. Doughty.
The new story was a bit problematic to begin with: in ‘Brotherhood’, Jack had run away from home to sell his beloved horse, Black Dragon, for 80 guineas to assist his father to repay wicked Uncle Humphrey’s debts without selling their ancestral home. Instead, he returned for £1,000 in reward money, but by the next week, Jack and Captain Yorke were out of Brackens, and off to their new home in London anyway.
Unfortunately, they’re immediately attacked by a highwayman, Captain Yorke seriously wounded, their fortune stolen and Jack back in an orphanage, exactly like week 1. He would escape, discover the highwaymen and find himself pressed into becoming a junior tobyman himself.
Doughty’s style was very similar to Ayton, and the change in artist was not immediately apparent on a cursory glance. I did subconsciously recognise a slightly richer, more florid approach in drawing faces, and the contrast between styles was very much less pronounced than that between Hampson and Bellamy.
At this remove, I cannot find any information about why the change of artists came about, and as I said, Ayton was still drawing annual stories into 1961 (when he returned to Eagle for one last series). Perhaps stories for annuals were compiled well in advance, and kept in inventory. Certainly, Jack’s short adventures were still appearing two years after his series ended, which we shall see in the next volume.
For the ‘Three J’s’, this was to be the end of the line. The current, Christmas holiday story, which involved them breaking the ankle of Sixth Former and Prefect Noel Hardy, introduced the notion of forged fivers circulating in Northbrook. This segued into one final term-time story, which dealt with the forgeries at greater length, but once the villain was captured by the Police, and the good guys – including Hardy’s girlfriend, Linda, even though she was never acknowledged as more than a childhood friend – exonerated, the series ended.
Peter Ling would henceforth concentrate on writing for TV, including a Doctor Who serial and its novel. In 1964, he would reach a nadir, by co-creating Crossroads…
The ‘Three J’s’ were immediately followed by ‘Jim Starling and the Colonel’, a ten part adaptation of E. W. Hildick’s third novel, in his Last Apple Gang series, but once this had run its course, the prose serial disappeared, and Odhams sold more advertising space in its place.
That was two of the classic line-up gone, a third near its end and the leading serial having undergone a seismic shock. In contrast, ‘Harris Tweed’ started the new volume in colour, for most of the first six months. Even then, his adventures would switch backwards and forwards between colour and the traditional black-and-white and this continued throughout the entire volume, with no apparent pattern, but a crude balance between the two kinds of episodes. The contents were never affected, of course. It was interesting to note that John Ryan’s artistic approach did not vary. In American comics, there is usually a perceptible difference between art drawn for colour and for black-and-white reproduction, but Ryan’s flat, cartoon style, using clearly defined figures with no sense of shading or greying, was ideal for a strip that now flipped back and forth. Whether Ryan himself was responsible for the colour, or whether this was the work of an occasional artist, I have no idea.
Like ‘Luck of the Legion’, ‘Storm Nelson’ survived the volume unaffected by the winds of change (apart from a brief promotion from page 14 to page 13 in issue 1, and very strange it looked to meet the Silver Fleet even a page before they were usually expected.
With the exception of a single, remaining ‘He wants to be…’ Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ had the inside back page to itself all through the volume, and it still continued to be the most baffling thing Eagle had featured to date. Unless there was evidence of a rising tide of youngsters badgering their parents to install Gas central heating I can only think that it was aimed deliberately at Eagle’s adult readership (figures undefined), though if that were the case, surely Mallet’s twee cartoon figures were not the best promotion. How bizarre. Eagle‘s back page continued to be the province of the ‘Great Adventurers’ series. We began still in the midst of the story of ‘David, The Shepherd King’, drawn stunningly by Frank Bellamy, and told in a determinedly secular manner, with God’s influence never rising beyond David acting upon Christian principles.
Bellamy was retained for the next subject, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, but his transfer to Dan Dare necessitated his giving this up to the reliable Peter Jackson. Here the timeline again becomes confused: Bellamy’s last instalment of ‘Marco Polo’ is in issue 23, two issues before the printer’s strike struck, and four before Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’. Clearly, Bellamy’s take-over could not have been a precipitate affair, especially as a total of eleven weeks elapsed between the two assignments.
How it went, exactly, is something I don’t expect ever to learn, though these are the details I find so fascinating.
It must have been a breeze to have been editor of Eagle in 1956. The classic line-up was in place, and stayed throughout Volume 7. The comic was cruising or, given the nature of the bird, soaring on the wing.
There was a year of Frank Hampson, and his slimmed-down and highly-functioning studio working at their peak on ‘Rogue Planet’, the middle part of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy. The story ran the enrtire year, leaving only its surprising coda to come in the next Volume, as a lead-in to the final part of the Trilogy. After a six month absence, Flamer Spry returned from the dead. There were rich planet-scapes and glorious alien cities, and seascapes and cultures, and Hampson signing principal assistant Don Harley’s name alongside his, recognising the contribution of the Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’.
On page 3, Alan Stranks and John Worsley took PC49 and the Boy’s Club, with its core membership of Toby Moore, Giglamps, the Mulligan Twins, Tiki and little Bunny Cotton through the end of ‘The Case of the New Member’, the tightly-run thirteen round of ‘The Case of the Square Ring’ and into danger at sea for a holiday in ‘The Case of the Crazy Cruise’. The year ended with the start of ‘The Case of the TV terror’ and Archie’s only in-strip confession of his radio name, Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby. But PC49 the radio series was dead three years by now, and 49 lived on only in this one weekly page.
After a five week underwater exploration with famed diver Hans Hass, McDonald Hastings, ESI, returned for a long trip to India, several weeks of which being dedicated to photos rather than accounts. He then followed up on one reader’s request with a four part consideration of UFOs, providing an even-handed account of what was then known about the subject, and coming to no other conclusion than that to imagine that we were the only form of life in the Universe was ridiculous. In a comic edited by a Church of England Vicar, who still took services once a week, this was a remarkably open conclusion to be permitted.
Mac would go on from his investigation of the stars to a rather more hands on visit to northern Norway, meeting the Lapps and visiting the most northerly town in the world, inside the Arctic Circle, where the day last six months, and so does the night.
‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ occupied the lower part of the sports page for another year, with their curiously anodyne version of children’s fantasy and unhumorous settings, whilst directly opposite, Riders of the Range had another strong year.
‘The Terror of the Pecos’, continuing the long story begun with ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’ ended with Jeff Arnold successfully keeping the Army and the Indians from war, and with young Matt returning voluntarily from life with the Indians, bringing with him his friend Pinaro, son of the Chief, who is to return with Matt to Scotland and enjoy an education there.
Frank Humphris took a nine-week sabbatical for ‘The Wreckers’, drawn in a more brightly coloured style by an uncredited Giorgio Bellavitis, before returning for ‘The Hooded Menace’, during which Jeff’s shirt got burned and he changed it again, albeit not drastically. There was just time before the end of the Volume to start ‘Jeff Arnold and Billy the Kid’. This marked a change in the series as, from this point onwards, Chilton’s stories would relate to real life characters and events, and would keep as closely as possible to the historical reality of such stories. Luck of the Legion completed its adventure ‘South of Senegal’ and returned to the desert for ‘Shadow of the Scimitar’, featuring a renegade Legion Captain commanding a Toureg tribe, in which our intrepid trio found themselves taking an early motor car across the sands to a friendly chief.
Things started to look up for Jack O’Lantern, with ‘The Prisoner of Newgate’ ending for victory for bare-knuckle fighter Jem Slammer, the exposure of Uncle Humphrey as a French spy and his death at his own side’s hands, the vindication and pardon of Captain Yorke and Jem and the restoration to the Yorke’s of family home, Brackens.
Not that it lasted. The Captain was sent back to war, along with faithful Corporal Kettle, leaving Jack to travel to the South West, in ‘The Moonshiners’ to reside with his cousin Rufus, an effete, lisping fop. At the same time, English-born French spy, Captain Zero, is springing French prisoners from local prisons and getting them back to France with the aid of the local smuggling network.
Rufus turned out to be a Naval Intelligence Officer operating under his wisping, sorry, lisping cover, but the story ended in disaster, with Rufus captured and taken to France. Jack swore to rescue him, which is where the next story, ‘Man Hunt’ began, shortly before Xmas.
Now it was established, the ‘Eagle Club’ was confined mainly to the editor’s page, after which The Three J’s went through their usual routine of school and holiday adventures. a slapstick story about Jacko inheriting a potentially valuable stamp segued into a holiday adventure in Spain, during which Specs’ resemblance to the boy-King of a small European country led to a) trouble and b) the Prince coming to Northbrook, that is, until Specs was kidnapped in his place, as a means of forcing the Prince back to the throne under the Regency of his evil uncle. Business as usual.
And the same for ‘Harris Tweed’ as John Ryan continued his new practice of ‘serial’ stories lasting about six weeks each, with a vague link to the next one. Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer concluded ‘The Quest of the Southern Cross’ successfully, of course, with a double dose of disguise: Storm fixes himself with a fake beard to pose as a Swedish captain, and Jonah McCann, infiltrating the bad guy’s crew, shaved off his own to evade detection.
Richard E Jennings was back in place for ‘The Quest of the Blazing Boomerang’, still set in Australian waters, but from there the Silver Fleet transferred to Canada and the Great Lakes, with the crew becoming temporary members of the Mounties in order to operate on Canadian territory for ‘The Blue Beaver Mystery’.
Inside the back page, George Cansdale’s half-page nature series about various animals continued to impress, with awesome nature art throughout the year from Tom Adams. The other half of the page saw the introduction of a new feature, again at reader’s request, ‘He wants to be a…’ Most weeks, there would be a short account of various professions different types of boys wished to follow: the qualities required for it, the course of training, the constant reference to the (deferred) National Service that dates this series even more than the massive salaries the boys could earn when they are successful: £365 per annum! It’s terribly dated but it’s a social picture of the times since the roles involved vary between intellectual professions such as Doctors, Dentists and Solicitors, and skilled manual trades like Plumbers and Plasterers.
On the back page, Norman Williams continued to preside over The Great Adventurers. The first half of the year was devoted to Charlemagne, ending not with his death but his elevation to Emperor, after which the scene shifted to ‘The Great Sailor’, Horatio Nelson (down to one eye and one arm by year’s end, but still a way away from Trafalgar.
Thus was Eagle in 1956, it’s peak year. In the next volume, changes would begin. It would never be such a classic comic again. There was a lot of good stuff to come, and the decline would, at first, be slow and difficult to see. But from such a line-up as this, such a set of writers and artists working in such complete command of their skills, any change could only be for the worst.
Having lived the dream of practically every Dan Dare fan who’s ever lived in writing a new story that had been drawn by two ‘real’ Eagle artists, Rod Barzilay got what he’d originally wanted: the chance to write a true ‘epic’ adventures, a story that would last forty episodes, and of course feature the Mekon as the protagonist. Green Nemesis follows directly on from The Phoenix Mission, as a reconstituted Marco Polo expedition returns to the Sargasso to resume the original expedition and, this time, investigate Professor Peabody’s theory that the whole thing has been created by the destruction of the Red Moon. Given that the Prof’s theory centres upon the Moon and the Sea having been powered by a small and manipulable Black Hole, it’s hardly a surprise that it attracts the attention of Earth’s most implacable enemy.
I have to be honest and say that, enjoyable as it is, Green Nemesis is nothing like as successful as its predecessor. In part this is, unavoidably, due to the inconsistency of the art. Don Harley had agreed to continue drawing the revival, but upon the same conditions as before: that it should be fitted in around his other, ‘professional’ commitments. For something that involved nineteen pages, and which had an indefinite deadline, that was perfectly workable.
But Green Nemesis not only demanded eighty pages of work, it had a real deadline. Spaceship Away was published three times a year and it set out to publish three episodes of the story each issue. That meant eighteen pages a year. Barzilay had temporised when Harley had not yet made up his mind, contacting latter-day Dan Dare artist David Pugh to produce a splendid first page, but that still left seventy-nine, and Harley is no longer young.
Inevitably, things had to give. Barzilay had already been contacted by artist/writer Tim Booth, whose own new Dan Dare story, The Gates of Eden (coming up next) had started appearing in Spaceship Away. Booth was a natural choice to assist Harley in completing one page, and frequency was reduced to two episodes per issues.
But even at this rate, Green Nemesis was proving too time-consuming. When it became clear Harley would not be able to fit enough pages into his schedule, Booth was the obvious replacement. For a time, the art would alternate between the pair, as Harley was considered the number one choice, but eventually Booth took over the story completely (in parallel to The Gates of Eden, which he was also writing) until the story was done.
This artistic muddle did not help Green Nemesis one little bit, but the story was in any event a much less coherent affair from the outset. I said about The Phoenix Mission that Barzilay had, understandably, tried to cram too much into too little space. But now he had the space to justify the extended cast he’d devised, he made the mistake of dividing the story into too many strands.
Whilst the majority of post-Hampson stories had focussed upon Dan and Digby only, with very few and brief tangents into what other characters might be doing, Dan’s creator had never been averse to maintaining parallel tracks, centred upon multiple characters. Barzilay attempts to extend this approach, but is too ambitious. Counting the Mekon himself, there are four separate, interweaving, principle tracks in the body of the story, only two of which (Dan and Dig, the Professor and Uncle Ivor) feature major characters.
There are simply too many things going on, featuring unknown or minor characters for smooth reading. At three (or two) episodes every four months, I found the story sprawling and confusing, and reading the whole thing in a concentrated Spaceship Away session was little better. Only when I deliberately set out to read Green Nemesis as a whole, ignoring everything else, could I get a grasp of its structure, and follow the individual threads with understanding.
Leaving aside the complicated structure of the story, Barzilay continues to be ambitious in filling in elements of a coherent Dan Dare universe. He ventures towards a slightly more feminist milieu by bringing in another woman scientist, in the form of the Theron Katoona Kalon, granddaughter of the Theron President. President Kalon is missing, presumed dead, since the Treen Holocaust, and the Mekon spends a great deal of time trying to capture Katoona, including trying to tempt her to surrender by revealing that her grandfather lives, in suspended animation, like Dan’s friends.
That the President’s whereabouts on Venus are discovered off-screen, relieving Katoona of her emotional struggle, is a bit of a cop-out.
Barzilay had already, in The Phoenix Mission, introduced Dennis Steeper’s conception of the Union Wars that keep Red Tharl and Saturn out of the way for many years, and in Green Nemesis he goes one better, off his own bat, introducing into the derelict ships of the Sargasso the craft on which the late dictator, Vora, entered the Solar System, itself powered by two balanced suns that, together with the Sargasso’s black hole, threatens to destroy everybody before the job is done.
I’d like to like Green Nemesis better than I do, and whilst I wouldn’t hesitate to criticise, say, Eric Eden over his writing of an adventure, I’m loathe to do the same with Rod Barzilay. He’s not a professional writer. He’s a fan like me, and, more importantly, he’s done something that I don’t believe I could have done, and written no less than two whole Dan Dare stories. And he was candid on more than one occasion in Spaceship Away about the very flaws I’ve identified and where he’d gone wrong. I’ve no doubt that, given the chance of a re-write, he’d have done a much better job.
But whilst I think that Green Nemesis was flawed, confused and difficult to follow, which is a failing of Barzilay’s plotting, on the other hand, except in minor respects, his actual scripting is solid, his dialogue not just believable but believable in the mouths of characters we tell ourselves we know as intimately as our own family, and when I read Green Nemesis, I believe that I am reading Dan Dare, the Pilot of the Future.
Being aware of The Phoenix Mission when writing The Report of the Cryptos Commission, Denis Steeper included both that and Green Nemesis in the index of Dan’s adventures. Indeed, he went further, completing a trilogy with Ghosts of the Sargasso, a story that remains to be told. Rod Barzilay has retired from Spaceship Away and writing Dan Dare stories, but I’ve still got a hankering to see what the final part contains: presumably, it would encompass examination of the spherical spaceship that is the progenitor of the Tempus Frangit…
One point remains to be considered. Both these stories are what, in the American comics industry, would be called “retcons” (a contraction of retroactive continuity). The stories have been fitted in between The Ship That Lived and The Phantom Fleet, though they’ve been used in large part to colour in large swathes of the unknown background to stories up to that point.
There’s only one piece of blatant foreshadowing, near the end, when ‘Friday’ MacFarlane decides that all this racketing around in danger is too much for him and he’s going to put in for a transfer to the Moon Run – where we see him one final time in the first week of The Phantom Fleet.
But there’s a bigger issue to think of. In the official saga, there is no sign of the Mekon between The Ship That Lived (where everybody but Digby thinks he’s dead) and The Solid-space Mystery where Dan and Digby both react in shock to his appearance, exclaiming that he’s dead. Green Nemesis is at least consistent in leaving our heroes thinking that the Mekon to be dead again when the Spacelab blows up.
A foolish consistency is not always the hobgoblin of little minds.
When Comics Journal columnist R. Fiore reviewed the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he began with the line: ‘When you see a man walk on water, you don’t complain that he’s got his (trouser) cuffs wet’. That line applies equally aptly to The Phoenix Mission, a ten-part Dan Dare story, written by long-term Dare fan Rod Barzilay, drawn by Keith Watson and Don Harley, and published in issues 1-4 of Spaceship Away, a magazine created by Barzilay as, ultimately, somewhere to publish this story. The Phoenix Mission was published under licence from the Dan Dare Corporation Ltd, which now owns the world-wide rights to Dan Dare and his fellow characters. Spaceship Away‘s licence is to publish new stories of Dan Dare within the original Fifties continuity. This first, impossible to imagine story was published between 2003-4, a new, unashamedly Hampson-esque adventure, thirty-six years after Dan’s adventures in Eagle.
That I should live so long, and be so well rewarded.
The history of The Phoenix Mission, and how it took a dozen years to pass from conception to the printed page, is set out in detail in Spaceship Away 1-3 (indeed, it’s practically the only other thing in those issues!). But a quick summary is in order.
The original spark came from Dare fan Dave Westaway. Keith Watson was doing private commissions for fans and Westaway suggested that a group could jointly commission enough boards for a full-scale adventure. Barzilay took up responsibility for the project, contacting Watson and getting agreement from him. Indeed, Watson – who insisted on editorial control – was enthusiastic, although Barzilay’s initial dream of another epic was cut down to a more practical ten episodes. In the absence of a suitable writer with suitable ideas, Barzilay began jotting down thoughts himself, and became the writer, almost by default.
The story was to be set between The Ship That Lived and The Phantom Fleet, and would centre upon the most fruitful gap in the original saga, a return to the Sargasso Sea of Space, justifying the title on multiple levels.
Tragically, after completing the first page to his satisfaction, Watson was diagnosed with a far-too-virulently spread cancer, and died in 1994, at the age of 54, mourned by the entirety of fandom.
The project was rescued when Don Harley agreed to take over, though given his existing commitments, years passed before the story could be completed.
Publication was an equally tricky hurdle. Watson’s death had severed all connection to contemporary Fleetway publications, and whilst Hawk Books would have happily added The Phoenix Mission to their roster, loss of the licence to Titan Books (who will never knowingly print anything that hasn’t been published before) stymied that approach.
Hence the need to create Spaceship Away, with unexpectedly fecund results…
I found the first two issues together in Forbidden Planet in Manchester, and fell upon them like the Assyrian sweeping down upon the fold. My first reaction, on reading what amounted to six episodes in one sitting was that I had died and gone back to the Fifties, not a sensation that I would welcome in any other context. My second reaction was immense jealousy towards Rod Barzilay, even as I recognised that I could not have done what he had done.
The story is fairly tight and clipped, in view of its limitations on length. It’s preceded by a homage to Frank Hampson’s World Daily Post ‘cover’ in ‘The Venus Story’, cramming in tons of exposition in a painless manner. The Mission of the title, which is commanded by Major Steve Valiant, is set against the background of Earth’s slow, painful recovery from the Treen Holocaust: Valiant’s orders are to retrieve King and MacFarlane’s damaged but basically intact craft, together with any other Earth-craft in usable condition. Spacefleet is still desperately undermanned for effective vessels.
As an adjunct to the main mission, our dear old friend Jocelyn Peabody is along to study ‘Crusoe’ and ‘Friday’s hydroponic arrangements, though she’s deeply interested in a ship that, despite her having seen it destroyed, appears to be in perfect condition in the Sargasso.
The first problem in that the Sargasso appears to be a dead radio zone. The lack of communication from the Marco Polo, leads to Dan being sent out, with Digby, in Anastasia, to find out what’s up. En route, he picks up two passengers, one official, one highly irregular. The first is Tharl’s Ambassador to Earth, little Nikki, from Operation Saturn, travelling to view Tharl’s newly-discovered duplicate flagship, and search for his long-missing ally, Captain Nerkut. The second is Uncle Ivor, pragmatically taking the long route back to his Martian diggings, on the only ship that will have him.
Dan’s arrival in the Sargasso is the prelude to chaos. Valiant has taken the Marco Polo outside the dead zone to communicate with Earth, and his team have taken up residence on the damaged Space Clipper, the Delaware, whilst explorations continue. Dan, Dig and Nikki search Tharl’s craft, Uncle Ivor jets off to investigate ancient star writings on another of the mysterious ships, and disaster strikes.
Captain Bud Johnson explores an old ship, unaware that it’s powered by pre-Blasco MH fuel. It explodes in righteous fury, causing ripples of damage across the whole area, the worst being that it activates remote drone-ship defences on the dormant mysterious Red Ship, which threaten to destroy the whole Earth expedition.
Total defeat is held back by the adroit use of Black Cats, but ultimately, it is Valiant, in the returning Marco Polo who gets everyone the hell out of there, to regroup, re-think and, in the case of Professor Peabody, adopt Denis Steeper’s ingenious idea by identifying the Sargasso with the destroyed Red Moon.
End of story, set-up for sequel, and phew!
If I’ve a criticism of this story, it’s a fond one, and entirely understandable, and it’s that Barzilay tries to cram too much into so short a piece. Aside from the characters already mentioned, not to mention the previous stories referenced, there are cameos for Sir Hubert, Flamer, Stripey, Hank and Pierre, whilst the Mission crew I haven’t mentioned also includes Mark Straight, Tony Albright and Tubby Potts.
Indeed, this flaw is foreshadowed in the World Daily Post edition, which lists no fewer than 31 members of the Mission team.
As a consequence of wanting to feature too much – as I said wholly understandably in a story that was originally a one-off – Barzilay corners himself with his one error of pacing, which is the off-hand, and very rushed squeezing-in of Peabody’s theory about the Red Moon in the dwindling number of panels of the last page, which makes for a very weak ending.
Other than that well, as Fiore said, you don’t complain about getting the bottoms of your trousers damp! This is superb, and the art is brilliant. Keith Watson’s final page is heart-breaking, in the thought of what would, in a fairer world, have followed. But Don Harley’s work is easily of the standard of the days when he was ‘the second best Dan Dare artist in the world’.
It is far superior to his work on the series between 1960 and 1962, even without Bruce Cornwell. Though it took literal years to complete, in between other jobs, Harley has still been able to devote more time to each page than in the days when he was on a deadline, and the quality is unmistakeable.
So, there was one more Dan Dare story, and Don Harley, after a certain ambivalence, decided that he could continue the agreement. There would be a second, a direct sequel, the epic that Barzilay had dreamed of, to be called Green Nemesis (and what does that title lead us to expect?)
Except… The Menace from Jupiter was the last Dan Dare story to appear in Eagle, but before we end this sequence, there’s an oddity to consider. Not a story from one of the Annuals, nor any of the other Eagle-related publications that came out from Hulton, or Odhams, or Longacre. But a genuine, little-considered but authentic Sixties adventure. Mission to the Stars was the only Dan Dare adventure to appear outside Eagle. From 20 April to 4 October 1964, 29 weeks in b&w, three tiers a week, Dan’s extraneous adventure appeared in the Sunday People, drawn by Don Harley and written by William Patterson, best known as the scripter for Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke strip in the Daily Express.
As far as I am aware, the only place in which this story can be read, outside of those who carefully clipped each instalment out of the People, every week, and preserved them carefully in their collections, is in The Dan Dare Dossier, a wonderfully informative book published by Hawk Books as a companion to their Facsimile Reprint Series. At the time of writing (July 23rd), there were three copies available on eBay, starting from £16.00.
I’d recommend getting the Dossier for itself, but not if all you want is Mission to the Stars. Reproduction is not consistent: approximately two-thirds of the story is printed neatly, with good, clean line-work, from the original art or at least first generation negatives, but the rest of the episodes, at random, look to have been shot from photocopies of very different standards.
Even if the entire story was printed from the highest quality originals, I still can’t say much in favour of this story. It features Dan, Digby and Wilf Banger on a hyperspace mission in Copernicus II, on a mission to track down the Copernicus I, lost on a mission to Alpha Centaurus five years earlier. There, the trio discover a machine civilisation, robots out to steal the Copernicus II’s overdrive, in order to spread their metal rule throughout the Universe.
These robots have the power to teleport things, and also to duplicate the ‘fleshmen’, which they start by impersonating Digby, except that they haven’t noticed that they duplicate things the wrong way round, making Digby left-handed.
To be honest, it’s a dull and uninspired story, unable to rise above the central improbability of robots, with no apparent creator but themselves, turning out to be identical to cheap, dictator obsessed human villains. Given the timing, and assuming a short lead-in to the serial, it’s possible that Patterson may have been ‘inspired’ by the very recent debut of the Daleks in the fledgling Dr Who Saturday early evening children’s serial.
But Patterson brings nothing to the idea. His Dan and Banger are mere cyphers, and though Digby has the glimmerings of the ‘other ranks’ personality, he’s nowhere near the Lancashire lad we are so familiar with.
This is doubly disappointing. Patterson was so witty and subtle on Jeff Hawke that his era on the series is universally recognised as definitive. He was so much better than this effort, which is just phoned in. And given that this series appeared in a Sunday newspaper directed at an audience of adults, it is a cruel irony that Mission to the Stars turned out to be so much simpler and unimaginative than the stories still being aimed at 7 – 12 year olds.
I’m going to exempt Don Harley from most criticism, given that he was trapped by both the limited range of the story and the restricted space of the format. What he does is perfectly good, though he is far from convincing on Banger’s moustache, and he is as always neat and precise. Though used to drawing for colour on Eagle, he understands the differing demands of black and white
But I can’t help but be disappointed with his Alpha Centaurus robots, who are weedy collations of cones, circles and tubes with little logic to their design, who look like they could be pushed over by a six year old.
Overall, for completists only and they should approach it with large amounts of salt. It has no bearing upon the main Dan Dare sequence, though Denis Steeper will fit it into his Chronology where he boggled (rightly) at trying to incorporate The Menace from Jupiter.
An anomaly, in all respects, a sidebar before the true end.
And this is an undeniable nadir. The Earth-Stealers is a horrible mess from beginning to truncated end, thirteen weeks of which not a panel can be justified, a story whose provisions and effects disappear utterly the moment the next story begins, and which is an insurmountable block in any attempt to collate the various Dan Dare stories into a coherent chronology.
Nor does it have any artistic highlights to at least leaven the criticism, for it is presented throughout in the horrible split-cover fashion foisted on Eagle in the latter weeks of The Platinum Planet, complete with the airless five tier cram on page 2.
Dan and Digby, in the Zylbat, return from years away in deep space to find the Earth surrounded by clouds so that it looks like Venus. Under the cloud cover, they find that the planet has drastically changed: Spacefleet HQ is under water, so too is London, capital cities the world round are deserted and English country villages have turned into swamp and jungle in the tropical heat. In fact, the whole of Earth’s population has vanished.
Finally, our heroes find a remote settlement high in the Andes, only to find themselves shot at when they climb over its wall. The camp belongs to Earth Reclamation Ltd, and the pair are brought before its Director, a South American looking type called Malvol, whose assistant looks like an ex-Nazi concentration camp commander (and probably is).
This is where we get the explanation. During the years of Dan and Digby’s absence (and we are given no clue as to how many years that is), Earth underwent a dramatic increase in temperature and expansive climatic change, shortly followed by a virulent but unexplained plague, which decimated population, so Earth’s Government gave up and evacuated the planet to Mars. Malvol has been given the job of investigating if it’s going to be possible to come back, with a bit of work, but it’s immediately obvious that he’s planning on taking over for himself.
You may well be asking yourself, What the F? (sorry, the Reverend Marcus Morris may be long gone but we’ll have no language like that around here, even though it’s by far and away the most appropriate). This is a large chunk of hindsight, given the years we’ve been exposed to theories about Global Warming and the long term gradual effects of what man has achieved in a considerably more polluted world than that of Dan Dare, but just how bloody long are he and Digby supposed to have been away for?
Climate-changed planet incapable of supporting life, AND a devastating plague all at once? Evacuation to Mars, which is incapable of supporting human life outside of its luxury and limited dome accommodation? Are you serious about this? Giving a private, commercial organisation the contract to see if the planet’s fit to move back to when half of it is still underwater, and lions have shifted their natural habitat to Surrey?
There isn’t an ounce of this that’s remotely plausible, and since we all know that Dan’s going to expose Malvol as some kind of would-be dictator anyway, there is no remotely conceivable way of getting out of this situation for as long as the Dan Dare series lives. The storyline is beyond a joke.
As is the incredibly perfunctory ending. Dan and Digby escape in the Zylbat and head towards Mars to verify this idiot tale. Malvol frames them as having the Plague, which at least results in the unloved (by me) Zylbat being blown to pieces. We don’t get to see anything on Mars that would remotely make the background credible, just Spacefleet’s new HQ and Acting-Controller Burke, late of the Security Division (Sir Hubert went off on a deep space mission shortly after the Zylbat first disappeared: nothing comes of that, so maybe a search for him might have been the next storyline if something bigger hadn’t intervened).
Burke’s suspicious of Malvol but hasn’t a shred of proof, so he lets Dan and Digby ‘escape’ in an unguarded two-seater, to go back to Earth and get the goods for him. En route, Dan catches up on the papers, and discovers a series of discouraging reports from one of Malvol’s experts, our old friend Lex O’Malley.
Sure enough, once Dan tracks Lex down, the Irishman confirms that his reports have been altered for the worse, obviously by Malvol. The Earth is a lot closer to being rehabitable than Mars thinks, despite the overwhelming evidence we’ve seen with Dan. It’s a long time since these friends have seen each other, but Dan hasn’t a word of friendship for the bloke he took to Cryptos: just a business call, no fraternising.
As for Lex, we have some spectacularly poor scripting from Eden, who can’t write a line of dialogue without lapsing into stage Irish cliché in word or accent. O’Malley was never remotely like this, which is not Irish but Oirish: Eden’s ear is horribly tin in this respect.
Anyway, the reason Malvol’s gotten away with everything so far is QX, which is not a forerunner of Spike Milligan’s anarchic BBC2 comedy series’ but a drug that renders Spacefleet visitors from Mars very suggestible about what they think they see, hear and, on this occasion, do. Malvol’s ready to take Mars over militarily, with a flotilla of Spacefleet ships to carry the bombs.
Until Dan and Lex pour all the QX away down the sink. Then it’s just a matter of telling everyone to pretend to be drugged until Malvol is off-Earth and neutralised, whereupon they all beat the living crap out of the would-be dictator and his Nazi aide. End of story.
I’m not going to go on about this story. What I’ve said so far is sufficient to describe the tale. But Eden is not solely culpable for the abrupt, oversimple ending. Elsewhere in Eagle, series’ were coming to sudden endings, stories were cut short. Odhams had owned Eagle for two and a half years, but now it was their turn to be bought out, this time by Longacre Press. Odhams’ name would return to the comics, as an imprint, later in the decade, but Longacre were going to put their own stamp on Eagle, and it would be the biggest upheaval the comic ever experienced.
Whilst Mission of the Earthmen and The Solid-space Mystery had been decent, if not inspired efforts at maintaining the standard of Dan Dare stories, The Platinum Planet was where things started to fall apart, a process accelerated in the closing weeks of the story, when a front page re-design cramped up the page area in which Harley and Cornwell had to work, with effects we will go on to discuss.
At the beginning, the set-up offered almost unlimited potential: one of the Mekon’s adherents, escaping Venus Rehabilitation Camp, has stolen a spaceship and aimed for Spacefleet HQ to cause havoc. His target was the Control Tower, and it was not a good auger for things that he missed it completely, for no reason, and instead crashed into an unimportant hanger. Nevertheless, Dan and Digby decided to use the Zylbat’s VTO engines to control the resultant fire with their downdraft, only for the fuel stored under the hangar to go off. The Zylbat’s controls were damaged, and the ship took off at maximum speed, its navigation locked. Worse was to come: though our heroes repaired most of the physical damage, they were not aware that the hibernation gas pipes had been cracked and as soon as they take off their helmets…
In between episodes, the two were knocked out for as long as it took for the gas chambers to run dry. When they woke up, they were in an unknown area of space, having travelled for ‘years’. They were hopelessly lost.
But, as better writers than Eric Eden have found, it is one thing to set up an interesting situation by sending your characters on a journey, but the story stands and falls by what you have for them to find and do at journey’s end.
At this journey’s end is the Platinum Planet of the title. Dan and Digby first discover a green planet, which they narrowly avoid, after which they use their remaining fuel to follow a transporter that seems oblivious to their presence to a planet which appears to be made of platinum, with a few random rock formations. It’s actually a planet-wide artificial construction sealing off the surface from the outside.
(Can you imagine what that would entail? The labour? The time, the engineering achievement? Even if we assume this planet has platinum in abundance, it’s horrendously unbelievable.)
This is a planet with a platinum roof, beneath which, of all the things you could find on a world advanced enough to do something incredible like this, our heroes find a primitive, hypno-controlled absolute dictatorship.
Yes, the entire population lives, works, eats, sleeps, breathes with hypnotic helmets on their heads that continually control their every movement.
Scientifically, it’s perfectly plausible that the technology to build a planet-sized platinum sheath could also create this kind of absolute control but a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the idea is insane beyond belief. Even accepting that someone capable of this level of scientific advancement should actually have the mentality of a crummy gang-boss, how can you control and direct the movements of an entire planet (‘three trillion thought-controlled serfs’) and interlock their vasty and various actions?
It’s the question that blows all credibility out of the water, and it’s not made any more plausible by the fact that, by the close, Eden has produced a single person to run the entire system as a power-crazed, self-indulgent tyrant, named Astorat (a Catalan word meaning astonished, which suggests to me that either Eden made it up as a variant of Ashtoreth, a Syrian deity, or else he was making an extraordinarily perceptive metafictional comment on his own story: I’d go with the former, personally).
However, we’ve a ways to go before Master Astorat – who is as petty, vainglorious and childish as you can imagine, a walking cliché that makes this set-up even less plausible, since there’s no way he could have put this set-up together – appears on the scene. In the meantime, Dan and Digby are thrown off-planet, to the green planet, where they are expected to work for the Platinums.
Dan and Dig meet General Zeb
Hmm, paired planets, one technically advanced, the other primitive. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct rip-off from Mission of the Earthmen. This time round, the green planet is a fiefdom of the Platinum one, populated only by the malcontents, misfits and rebels from Platinum society, or would be invaders from other planets in the system. Dan and Digby meet former General Zeb, a purple-skinned humanoid with two tremendous walrus-moustaches, one on his lip, the other on his forehead, where it sweeps round to the back of his head. Zeb explains that ‘to colonise is death’, meaning that as soon as the green planet has been properly civilised, with roads and cultivation etc., the Platinums will take that over and kill the slaves who’ve done the hard work.
Zeb, being a war leader, has not been idle. He’s built a missile to rocket a picked band of colonists back to the Platinum planet, to retrieve all their spaceships and escape. Dan decides to go one better: they’ll overthrow the dictatorship first (shades of Trip to Trouble and the Grandax of Gan).
It’s at this point, when the colonists have escaped back to the sealed-in planet, that an indignity occurs. I don’t know what lay behind the decision but, with six weeks remaining in the story, Odhams made the editorial decision to cramp and weaken Dan Dare by forcing the series to share the cover with a new feature, Men of Action. This feature was a text and art mini-account of the lives of famous people – racing drivers, motorbike riders, skiers, speed record holders, mountain climbers – placed as a strip down the left hand side of the front page, below a truncated Eagle logo box, with Dan Dare squeezed into the right hand side, it’s width approximately three-fifths that of the cover.
It was a shock, and an attack on Dan Dare’s prominence, and to make matters worse, in order to keep the episode length consistent, Harley and Cornwell had to cram the rest of the story into five narrower tiers of panels on page 2, an impossible strait-jacket. There was no room for their art to breathe, no space for anything other than the perfunctory account of what was going on.
It was a demoralising attack on the primacy of Dan Dare within Eagle. Worse would follow in the not-too-distant future, in the form of changes that all Dan’s fans have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to kill the series, and this would naturally appear to be a precursor to that move, were it not for the fact that this was still Odhams in charge, and not the soon-to-be-incoming Longacre.
What momentum remained in The Platinum Planet was killed off. The rebels win. Astorat tries to pull of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive defiant suicide but makes himself look a fool when his leap out of a high window ends in a safety net ten feet down. Once again, Dan and Dig have saved the day.
Of course, they’re still an unknown distance from Earth, having flown on for years, with no way home even if they knew the way home, but not to worry. This insoluble trap unsurprisingly proves to be only too soluble, as Zeb has a limitless number of starcharts and a few details about Earth will soon reveal it’s whereabouts (oh yes? And when exactly did he go a-roving so incredibly far from his home system and not be noticed snooping around by Spacefleet?).
And Dan and Digby can have unlimited amounts of fuel, supplies and presumably the local equivalent of hibernation gas, not that anyone thinks to mention this, to enable them to get home, years later, no doubt. I bet that doesn’t cause any problems!
No, all round, The Platinum Planet is not merely a weak story, unable to create interest in a mixture of former Dan adventures and full of clichés, it’s a dumb story that has thrown in ideas without the slightest notion as to how plausible they are. In that sense, it’s the complete antithesis of Hampson, and from three men trained by him, that’s a disaster.