Dan Dare: Mission of the Earthmen


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

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

Dan Dare: Project Nimbus


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


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

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

Dan Dare: Trip to Trouble


To give them their due, Odhams did genuinely think that Dan Dare had gone stale, and that what was needed was an injection of action: shorter stories, less characterisation. Trip to Trouble was produced to those specifications and no doubt they were satisfied with the outcome. Unfortunately, it’s proof positive of exactly how wrong they were.
Trip to Trouble (a title of such horrifying stupidity that is unmatched in the whole cycle) lasted only sixteen weeks, and rounded off what would now have to be referred to as the Terra Nova Trilogy. It was meant to cut off Frank Hampson’s ambitious sequence as briefly as possible, and if realisation of intention is a mark of artistic success, then it’s a masterpiece. As stories go, it’s a shallow flop.
We’ll not hold this against Eric Eden this time, as he was probably working to pretty tight instructions, but as we shall see, he would fail to rise much above this perfunctory effort.
Having learned that his Dad had moved on from the first Novad continent, Dan has an inspiration. McHoo confirms that an inflatable life-raft was among the emergency gear carried by the Galactic Pioneer and that the Galleon has a similar one on board. So Dan and Dig in Anastasia, with Lex O’Malley on hand as naval expert, track wind and water currents to identify the approximate shoreline where Captain Dare would have come to land. They then drop Lex, in the inflatable, to complete the journey. Except that Lex is promptly captured by a gun-shooting powered boat and taken ashore.
When Dan and Digby land, to plan a rescue, they are surrounded by rebels who speak a few words of primitive English, and taken to their leader, Calo, who speaks perfect English, for he, like the Novad tribe elder, knew Captain Dare.
And that’s where the bad news kicks in. We’re only five weeks into the new story, and Calo confirms Captain Dare is dead: dead, not only off-stage, but aways off in time, ten years ago, Dan’s whole expedition both a failure and a complete waste of time before it even began. And Odhams, having delivered such a casual brush-off, compound their callousness by delivering these sad tidings in the Christmas week edition of Eagle: Christmas: Goodwill to all men: Rebirth. Some things just suck.
But let us not fret over this news, there’s action to supply to the readers. Dan, after taking a couple of moments to absorb this loss with the stoic, stiff-upper-lip of the true-born Englishman, dedicates himself to a tribute to his father. They are in the land of Lantor which, for over a decade, has been under the control of the neighbouring country of Gan, and its brutal absolute Dictator, the Grandax. Calo leads the Lantorian rebels, and Captain Dare died, shot in a failed uprising. So Dan will now lead a successful uprising.
And it really is as mechanical as that. Three men overthrowing an overwhelming force takes eleven weeks. First they rescue Lex, then they eliminate the Gan air force, then they capture the Grandax, which leaves a power vacuum with no-one psychologically able to replace him.

The Gan forces retreat to Gan, the Grandax mounts a final attempt to overthrow the rebels, but sends himself to his death instead, and that’s it. All done and dusted, wrapped up, and let’s go home, all traumas forgotten, Dan wholly unconcerned as to his father’s fate and the absence of so much as a grave to mourn at. At a conservative estimate, the complete overthrow of Gan takes about seventeen hours.
Next stop Earth, and Frank Bellamy’s chance, a mere six months into the year-long contract he’d signed to draw Dan Dare, to put into place the changes for which he had been hired. To foreshadow these, the final panel features some thinking heads, musing on what they’ll find when they return after so long an absence. Sir Hubert, The McHoo, the Professor (making one final appearance), Digby and Dan. No Flamer Spry: given his total absence from the series until it’s very last panel, It’s tempting to ask whether he was actually left behind on Terra Nova? It would explain a lot…
In his justly-lauded Sandman series, Neil Gaiman, in one of its early issues, came up with a throwaway idea that is still a mark of sheer genius. Dream’s realm contains at its heart a castle that is infinite and meandering. Like all good castles, it contains a library of extensive proportions. But this is the Library of Dream, and as befits such a thing, it holds not only every book that ever was written, but every book that was ever dreamt of, every book that it’s author thought of, or planned, or imagined, or left unfinished except here. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lost Road exists there in full. Charles Dickens’ The Return of Edwin Drood is complete.
I would dearly love to spend a day (or a night) in the Library of Dream reading the real Terra Nova cycle, as drawn by Frank Hampson.

Dan Dare: What Happened between Volume 10 nos. 27 and 28


                                                                                            A superb book

According to Alastair Crompton in The Man Who Drew Tomorrow (which I still prefer to Tomorrow Revisited, though the latter is a more accurate volume), the downfall of Eagle and Frank Hampson began a long way away, in unrelated circumstances in Russia.
Magazine and periodical publication in Fleet Street was dominated by five houses at the start of 1958, of which Hulton Press was one. On the cryptic instructions of Mirror Group proprietor, Cecil King, Editorial Director Hugh Cudlipp approached the Berry family, who were on the spot, to buy out their controlling interest in Amalgamated Publishing, the largest of these houses.
The Berrys sold, thus changing the balance in Fleet Street publishing. Third place Odhams Press, anxious about their position, decided to fight back by going down the takeover route: their target was Hulton.
Only a short time before, it might have seen unthinkable. But Hultons had gone into a sharp decline, their magazine section losing sales across the board, only its comics division, headed by Marcus Morris, centred upon Eagle and its three red-top stable-mates, Girl, Swift and Robin showing consistent profits.
What had gone wrong? Sir Edward Hulton blamed it on television, on ITV’s arrival in 1956 to start an absorbing rivalry with the BBC that drew everybody away from magazines. His legendary Picture Post editor, Tom Hopkinson (the man who’d looked at Hampson’s home-created three dummy issues of Dragon and advised Hultons to sing up everyone involved and set them to work) argued it was bad editorial direction.
Either way, Sir Edward Hulton took the money, and Odhams Press took over Eagle.
They made it plain that they wanted changes, and moreover economies, and the first place where that should – and would – come from was Frank Hampson’s studio. It was large, it was expensive and no other artist needed anything that looked remotely like it. The fact that it produced Eagle‘s foremost series, and had done so for almost a decade, cut no ice with them.
Looked upon in retrospect, what happened was inevitable for so many reasons. Firstly, there was the sheer expense and, it has to be admitted, improbability of Hampson’s studio. Other artists didn’t need a fleet of assistants, nor reams of reference material to draw for Eagle, so why should Hampson be indulged? Especially, and we already know this to be a powerful motive, as more money was going into the Hampson studio every week than was going to the executives who ran Odhams.
It is a universal peculiarity of the Comics Industry in Britain and America that management just cannot understand the role of the artist and writer in creating a commercially successful product. It’s a blindness that can only stem from a massive sense of internalised inferiority, a jealousy of the presence of imagination in creative people, and a need to denigrate what they produce as being fanciful and unreliable, as opposed to the executive’s consistency and ‘practicality’. Like the Hulton Board in early 1957, when Frank Hampson had tendered his short-lived resignation, they genuinely could not see what made Dan Dare the success it was, and genuinely thought it could be done to the same effect by someone cheaper.
And this effect was exacerbated by Odhams status as ‘professional’ comics publishers. Hulton had had no comics division before the Reverend Marcus Morris turned up with Frank Hampson’s dummies, and neither Morris nor Hampson had any presence in the industry before coming out of nowhere. They were amateurs in Odhams’ eyes, and a decade of success was no corrective to that belief: Morris and Hampson had been lucky.
And they’d achieved this ‘lucky’ success by going against all the ‘correct’ ways to publish comics. Now Odhams were going to come in to show them how to do it right. Anyway, Eagle was dull and unconvincing, and Dan Dare was cardboard, and it was a good job they were there to save the day, before the kids spotted it for themselves (Morris and Hampson had been getting away with it to the tune of 750,000 copies a week for nine years, the readers were bound to twig any day now).
All of which is supplementary to the normal, human instinct to meddle, to change for the sake of change. After all, what point is there, and what use are you, if on taking over a successful venture, you don’t put your own stamp on it? Let it run as it was, and why are you there in the first place?

                                                                                        Let us now forget…

Frank Hampson had always run up against Hulton Press’s lack of ambition when it came to the ways that Dan Dare could have been exploited, both artistically and commercially. In this last year, believing that Eagle was secure in Hulton’s hands, Morris had agreed a number of points that would go some way to addressing Hampson’s concerns, chief amongst these three months paid leave, including a paid-for two month trip to America, to meet with his contemporaries and discuss approaches to that American market.
But these were not in writing, and they were the first things dispensed with by Odhams, who made it plain that they would not tolerate such things in the slightest. Not only Hampson suffered in that respect: Morris’s unlimited expense account vanished as well!
The Reverend would be alright. Within a few weeks of the takeover, already aware that he was not going to be left alone to edit his stable as he had been, Marcus Morris received and accepted another publishing post, one far more to his tastes, and one which would see him rise to the very top of publishing before taken a well-earned, highly-respected retirement.
Hampson still believed in the future of Dan Dare, but found Odhams no more receptive than Hultons had been before them. Change had been demanded of him, and he had lost his one great ally. Safari in Space had gone well, Terra Nova showed signs of continuing the high quality of his work. By dint of his ability, he might be able to hold off interference for some time, though it would mean stress and argument and even less time for his work.
But Odhams were less blind to the possibility of expansion than they seemed. Hultons had licensed Dan Dare to the hilt, and Odhams were very willing to let this continue, especially when they were approached for an option to turn the Pilot of the Future into a film. They signed away the rights and took the money, and said not a word to Frank Hampson. Who found out.
It was a devastating blow. Here was Dan Dare, Hampson’s creation, Britain’s most popular comic book hero, that he had tried, for exhausting years, to expand in so many different ways., and suddenly, in a back-handed manner, he learned that his employers had sold the right to one of those proposals to other people. There would be no money in it for him, no recognition for what he had done, but worst of all there would be no part for him to play.
The avenue of film had been cut off, and Frank Hampson would be barred from helping to shape what appeared. The Licensees could do what they liked with his creation and he could not stop it. They could twist it round in any respect they wanted to, make Peabody a sexy blonde with a cleavage, make the Mekon a muscleman or give Digby a Cockney accent, they could fix these ideas in the public mind, supplant the reality of Dan and his Universe, and he was powerless to stop it.
There is another factor that has not, to my knowledge, previously been put forward as contributory to this situation, and I have no knowledge as to whether or not this played the slightest part in Hampson’s thinking, but it was contemporaneous to this time and should be mentioned here, and this was the death of Alan Stranks, of a heart attack whilst holidaying in Spain, on June 18.
Though Hampson had always had the final say, and he had exercised that say numerous times in creating each week’s continuity, Stranks had been Dan Dare’s writer for the past half-decade: experienced, professional, reliable, Hampson’s longest lasting collaborator on that front. His death occurred just two days before the final issue of Eagle to see print before the printer’s strike and he would certainly have written those two in-house episodes that would represent Frank Hampson’s final pages.
I have no idea how Stranks’ death places in the chronology of those days, and it is pure speculation to wonder if his collaborator’s death, and the prospect of getting a new scripter imposed on him by Odhams affected his decision but, battered and bruised from his experiences, Hampson took the decision that if he could not control Dan Dare, he would rather have nothing to do with the character, he would resign completely from the series.
Odhams were fortunate that this took place during a hiatus in which Eagle was not appearing: they were not required to come up with a completely new creative team at the snap of a finger. The simple answer, the obvious and just one given that he was officially “the second best Dan Dare artist in the World” was Don Harley, but Don didn’t get the job. Hampson was consulted on the issue of his successor and, surprisingly, was in accord with Odhams’ wish that a new artist be cast.
Odhams were looking for changes and this was their golden opportunity. They wanted someone from the outside, not trained by Hampson, not steeped in the traditions of the series, who would make those changes freely and without argument. Harley would have resisted change, or at least Odhams expected him to do so, so he was out, though not completely. And Hampson? A little vaingloriously but, in the context of his experiences, completely understandably, if he was leaving, he wanted to be seen as having left, and Don Harley, his artistic shadow, would not make the visual difference that would emphasize that Dan Dare was no longer under his creator’s hands.
The choice fell on Northampton’s Frank Bellamy, perhaps the only choice that could have been made. Bellamy was an Eagle veteran, and before that a regular on the comic’s younger brother, Swift. His dynamic, hyper-realistic art, his mastery of colour, the sheer energy that poured out of his pages made him the only possible choice. He had specialised in real-life biographies, Eagle‘s back page, and he was the first Eagle artist to be anthologised when his 56 part The Happy Warrior, the career of Winston Churchill, was collected in a special edition.
But the influence of Frank Hampson could not be cast off that easily. Hampson’s maxim as Art Director of Eagle still held: no artist should be required to draw more that one page of colour art per week. Bellamy accepted a contract to draw Dan Dare for a year, with a promise that he would get to draw a strip based in Africa (his lifelong obsession) at the end of it. But he should not draw both pages every week.
For the other page, it was decided that a semblance of Hampson’s studio should be retained, Don Harley and Keith Watson. The reference materials were broken up and destroyed except what Harley and Watson could carry away with them on one trip. And their ‘studio’ was to be a disused canteen in Odhams’ main building.
Despite his professional obligation to giving the client what they want, Bellamy was unhappy about changing the look of Dan Dare, about trampling on a colleague’s work. Nor did he see the need for assistants. This was nothing personal: the three artists met once a week to hand in their two pages, receive and parcel out the next script and retire to the pub for a welcome conversation. Bellamy, as the senior artist, got to dole out the pages as he saw fit. Pages that introduced new characters were his responsibility, and sometimes he’d draw both pages himself, to be balanced out by a pair of pages from the assistants.
Watson didn’t last long. Sick and disgusted at what was being done to Dan Dare, he wrote to Hampson asking him to use his influence to get something done about it. But Hampson had neither influence nor the desire to use it if he had. Watson went to new editor Clifford Makins and tendered his resignation, only to be told that it was a good job as he would have been fired shortly, anyway.
Keith Watson doesn’t disappear from Dan Dare‘s story, unlike Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Ironically enough, he was replaced by Bruce Cornwell, yet again, who undertook the technical art behind Don Harley’s figure work. And, to replace Alan Stranks, Eric Eden returned again – the only period he and Cornwell worked together instead of as alternatives! – taking over writing the strip.
So it’s now time to go back to Terra Nova, where Dan Dare, Digby and Sir Hubert have been kept in suspense, captured by a primitive tribe of Novad natives, and see what happens next…

Dan Dare: The Phantom Fleet


I’ve already written at length about Dan Dare and The Phantom Fleet for Spaceship Away 23, also available on this blog here.
Before I first read this story, in the Hawk Books facsimile reprint series, the only thing I knew about the background to this story was the very limited reference made to it by Alastair Crompton in the wonderful The Man Who Drew Tomorrow: “(not a success in most people’s eyes, Marcus [Morris] gave him instructions to cut it short)” (brackets in original). Crompton has since updated and revised his book as Tomorrow Revisited from which the above comment has been removed, but still praises Hampson for being not so egotistical that he couldn’t accept others’ opinions when work was sub-par, which amounts to the same thing.
This brief dismissal left me greatly intrigued about The Phantom Fleet and, in a perverse way, almost determined to enjoy it.
My previous essay set out to explore at what point this wrap it up ‘command’ had come, and the effect this had had on the story. Indeed, as far as I was concerned, most of what was wrong with this story was a consequence, not a cause precedent, of such interference, and I was arrogant enough to suggest a more Hampson-like ending that I still believe would have vastly improved The Phantom Fleet.
However, the best outcome was that my article was the spur for a letter published the following issue, from David Gould, a former Fleetway lettering artist and a contributor to Dan Dare fandom, bringing back to light information that had been published in the Eighties that included the original Phantom Fleet synopsis, and a memo to Marcus Morris about the unwelcome prospect of the story being extended into a second phase, under a change of name, but which also commented that Hampson himself would be happy himself to see this tale wound up, allowing Dan to start exploring new planets again.
There are different opinions to this day about The Phantom Fleet, and whilst I am still in the camp of those who don’t think it deserves its poor reputation, it can hardly be argued that it is without flaws, especially with regard to its ending.
To begin with, The Phantom Fleet has to operate under the handicap of following the Man from Nowhere Trilogy. For just short of three years, Hampson and Co had guided their audience through non-stop, high-power adventure, for great stakes: a planetary invasion to foil, the Earth to liberate from the Mekon. And suddenly, after literally longer than most of Dan’s readers could remember, they had a new story to read. A new story, with new dangers, new opponents, new problems, all of which had to be set up. The non-stop action of three whole years had had to stop.
Moreover, just as with Reign of the Robots, the story is set on Earth, and is about another threatened invasion by an alien race.
This created a massive internal opposition within the story. Because you’d hardly know that Earth had just come out of a decade of Treen Occupation. Spacefleet is back up to full strength, an entire fleet of alien ships enters the Solar System unnoticed and, after ten years of devastation at the Mekon’s hands, when it is proposed that a wholly unknown alien race should colonise one of Earth’s oceans, only a single member of the World Government Cabinet seriously objects – and he is made to appear an extremist! And if that is not enough, the Treens are already operating their own, independently controlled fleet of fighting spaceships!

                                    Captive of the Pescods
Stranks’ synopsis makes clear that the ‘Phantom Fleet’ and its unknown occupants are to be considered a danger throughout. The very presence of the Fleet cuts radio/electronic communication throughout the Solar System, leaving Dan and Digby (in Anastasia) to operate on sight only as they seek to retrieve Sir Hubert from the luxury liner Gargantua, which is in danger.
Hampson however had already made one substantial, if not major change to the synopsis. In Stranks’ original plan, Professor Peabody would have been heavily involved from the start, but Hampson replaces her with Flamer Spry (and Stripey).
But after episode 8, the synopsis is as good as junked, with an unexpected change of direction. The Cosmobes, having been built up as a danger to the entire System, are revealed to be small and cute, and the idea that they plan to take over Earth and shape it to their needs is completely forgotten: the newcomers just want help: a single ocean to occupy. It’s the Crypts all over again; especially once the Cosmobes reveal that they’re being pursued by a hereditary enemy, the Pescods (who are not even mentioned in the synopsis).
The parallels increase when we discover that the Cosmobes are not above lying and manipulating for their own benefit. Dan Dare is put into a sticky situation when, having used his influence to get the Cabinet to allow for a Cosmobe ship to descend to Spacefleet HQ for examination, the Cosmobes, having won safe passage through Earth’s defences, promptly split (literally) and invade the ocean.
Though this is a truly serious situation, and one over which, if Dan were to be court-martialled, he would have neither complaint nor defence, the story lets itself down badly by letting all of this go in a very inferior way. The Cosmobes disarm the Navy, and Lex O’Malley, by looking cute, Peabody overcomes the Government’s suspicions by telling them, in very stern tones, that the Cosmobes Are Our Friends, and the Pescods breeze in, squirting all manner of acidic liquids all over the place, in a manner that positively shouts of serious of serious psycho-sexual issues on somebody’s part.
In my previous article, I speculated that Morris’s ‘instructions to wrap it up’ might well have come into effect around episode 23. This was based upon all 23 episodes to this point having been signed by Frank Hampson (though the majority of the principal art was evidently being done by Don Harley). But the next episode not only lacked Hampson’s name, it was clearly the work of another artist, Desmond Walduck stepping in again. And it’s at this point that the story started to go haywire.
However, David Gould produced not only the much-departed from synopsis, but also the afore-mentioned memorandum, from Ellen Vincent, dated 16 September 1958. In it, Mrs (?) Vincent refers to the arrival of script 29, which is a bit better than recent weeks, but also to a telephone conversation with Hampson in which he mentions that Stranks is thinking of changing the story title on script 30, leading Ms Vincent to surmise that this means another twenty weeks.
She also records that Hampson would be “happy to see this present story wound up”, and concludes that both this and Reign of the Robots have been about saving Earth, “which is getting monotonous!”
The memo gives us an idea of how far ahead of publication the series was working. Ellen Vincent’s memo was sent in the week of publication of Eagle  Volume 9 no 37, eight weeks in advance of the issue that would feature script 29 (which Hampson and his team had not yet begun drawing). Only three weeks later, Walduck would start a four week stint of art. Hampson and Co would return for three weeks, the second of which being script 29.
Needless to say, the story title did not change with script 30, the last episode of The Phantom Fleet drawn by Frank Hampson. The story did not last a further twenty weeks, only six, all drawn by Walduck, before the Pescod threat was abruptly eliminated, without any input by the star of the series, when they blew themselves to smithereens by burrowing, all unaware, into the base of Krakatoa.

                                                                                  Dan meets the Pescods

So The Phantom Fleet, which was beginning to come apart from episode 24, was wound up, leaving Dan Dare and Frank Hampson free to leave Earth and explore strange planets again. Its flaws are shown to be the responsibility of Alan Stranks, the writer of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, the decision to cut losses and go a response to his wish to extend a story that only superficially resembled that which he had described at length when selling the tale in advance.
Some Dan Dare fans are adamant that the concept was never strong enough for a series: an eight-pager for an Eagle Annual maybe. I’m not of that opinion, but mine is that of the adult fan who never read this story at the age it was originally intended for, who could read a story without a thirst for non-stop action, and who therefore didn’t mind playing a longer, patient game. Perhaps reading it one episode at a time, over three-quarters of a year, would have coloured my response differently.
And perhaps there were other factors, behind the page, that detracted from Frank Hampson’s attention, that kept him from investing his full heart into his work as he had done for the past several years.
By this time, the Bayford Lodge studio was running very smoothly with its smallest number of artists: Joan Porter, to manage the studio and act as personal assistant to Hampson, Don Harley as first lieutenant and ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, Keith Watson, who would become more prominent in the future, and Gerald Palmer, who never played a major role of any kind. They worked well, they bore up under the strain, they were what Hampson had been seeking.
Because Hampson wanted to step back, to relinquish day-by-day responsibility for the series, to draw much less. He wanted to use his time to design, to conceive, to set directions. He had ambitions for Dan Dare, ambitions that, now the strip was well established and he had a Don Harley to lean on, he could begin to explore.
Hampson wanted to sell Dan Dare in America. He wanted to move into film production. The one would require a wholesale re-think, of format, pace, attitude, the other was a logical development from the studio he had trained to work together.
But Hulton weren’t interested. They didn’t have the knowledge, the contacts or the interest. They were magazine publishers, in England, and they were fighting decline, a decline which meant that Eagle’s profits were to be earmarked for supporting the group, not fulfilling Frank Hampson’s ambitions.
Frustration had already led him to submit a letter of resignation a year earlier, whilst Reign of the Robots was still in its early stages, a resignation Hulton were minded to accept if it rid them of the expensive studio at Bayford Lodge, but before they acted, Hampson withdrew his letter. The following year, things were no better. Was Frank Hampson’s heart as deeply in the current story as it would ordinarily be? It was taking place on Earth, which didn’t call for any great exercise of his imagination. And he had an idea that would fulfil that hope.
And nobody knew what was about to happen.

Dan Dare: Reign of the Robots


Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.

The Elektrobots strike! (original art)

Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.

Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in  Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.

Dan Dare: Rogue Planet


The first reprint

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

Stripey, with friend

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

From the colour rough to the finished page

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

The Frank Hampson Studios: Bayford Lodge


The set-up at The Firs was impossible. It suited no-one except Hultons, who had their Editor and Art Director/chief draw close to London, but for everyone else it was a disaster that could only get worse.
So Hulton Press accepted the need to establish Frank Hampson’s studio elsewhere in Epsom, this time at Bayford Lodge, a large, detached home that would double as a home for Frank, Dorothy and Peter, whilst providing ample space for the team to work. Not just studio space, for artists and for the ever-burgeoning reference section, but room for the exacting business of posing for photos, taking and developing film that underlay the increasingly rich and detailed art of the studio.
Hampson even had a bedroom floor removed to enable overhead and steeply angled shots to be taken. All in service of a series that he was determined would get ever better. Frank Hampson had ambitions for Dan Dare: breaking into the American newspaper market, for instance, and beyond that the dream of animation, for which his patient, labour intensive studio of assistants would be the foundation.
But Hulton Press completely lacked Hampson’s vision for the possibilities inherent in the series, which would, in turn, lead to frustration and grief.
In the meantime, the work went on. Increasingly, it went on without direct contributions from Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Even at Bayford Lodge, space was not infinite, and the pair would find themselves working from, first, home, and then studios rented by the two to enable them to continue.
Out of sight seems to imply out of mind: Johns and Tomlinson had less and less to do, and they had an offer for outside work that would both occupy that extra capacity and also give them an additional income. Ever-loyal, Johns went to Marcus Morris on behalf of himself and Greta, to seek permission. This was given, although on the strict condition that Johns and Tomlinson’s first duties had to be to Frank Hampson and Dan Dare, to the extent of setting aside other jobs (and contracts) to work for Hulton.
The duo agreed and started on their new venture, but it did not sit well with Hampson, who saw it as the rankest treachery. All considerations of friendship with Johns were forgotten. Within a few weeks, Johns was summoned to London to meet Morris. Tomlinson traveled with him, taking advantage of the break to visit the shops: thirty minutes after leaving Johns at Hulton, she was shocked at his catching up to her with the news that they had both been sacked.
Neither worked for Frank Hampson again.
But the pantomime continued. Eric Eden had tried to debate the workload and had been sacked as the putative head of a conspiracy. Now Hampson wrote to invite him back: there had been a conspiracy but Eden hadn’t been involved. So Eden returned for his third stint on Dan Dare.
For the most part, that left the Hampson studio in a settled state until the end of the decade. Hampson was in control, with Don Harley as his principal assistant – and during The Man from Nowhere Harley’s contribution was so important that Hampson, off his own bat, began to co-sign his chief assistant’s name to the strip. Joan Humphries managed the Studio, Eric Eden was the airbrush specialist.
Other artists would come and go, in junior roles, but these would be the Frank Hampson studio long-termers at Bayford Lodge, until Keith Watson joined the studio in 1958. There were still choppy waters ahead, times when Hampson sought to reduce, even eliminate his own drawing contributions in favour of a role directing those who worked under him, times when Desmond Walduck would return to help out, but Bayford Lodge would be the safe and stable home to all henceforth, and it would remain Frank and Dorothy’s family home long after Frank was forcibly separated from his creation.

Dan Dare: The Man from Nowhere


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

A leap of art

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

Lex O’Malley

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

The Crypt ship in deep space

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

Dan Dare: Prisoners of Space


At different times and from different sources, I have read many different accounts of the creative process that went into the fifth Dan Dare adventure, Prisoners of Space.
The only thing that everyone agrees upon about this new story is that it was principally drawn by Don Harley, and finished by Desmond Walduck, a freelance artist who had helped out in the closing weeks of Operation Saturn, and who was regarded as a safe pair of hands for work that couldn’t be encompassed by the Hampson studio.
Indeed, by the time Prisoners of Space started, it was something of a stretch to call Hampson’s much-reduced team of assistants a ‘Studio’. Eric Eden had gone, Bruce Cornwell had gone (again), Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson had been fired, Joyce Porter had married: all that was left was Don Harley and Joan Humphries.
The main question is who was responsible for the writing of Prisoners of Space. It has been stated to be Alan Stranks’ first Dan Dare story. It’s been stated to have been put together by Frank Hampson, and there is one particular element in the story that inarguably comes from the man at the top. But I find it difficult to believe that either Stranks or Hampson was responsible for the majority of the story, because Prisoners of Space, like Marooned on Mercury before it, is a loose, unstructured story, consisting mainly of running around corridors, lacking in scope or depth.
The story starts by introducing Astral College, Spacefleet’s cadet training school, and head boy Steve Valiant, along with his two best friends and study-mates Mark Straight and Tony Albright.
Now I have an immediate problem with those names. It’s one thing to introduce Steve Valiant, as a junior Dan Dare, complete with similarly symbolic surname, but to surround him with Messrs Straight and Albright is over-egging the pudding. It’s just not real, and it turns all three characters into cyphers from the outset, and not real characters with personalities.
This is demonstrated by the other, and far more important character introduced on the second page, namely Junior Cadet ‘Flamer’ Spry.
‘Flamer’ – who will join the series regular supporting cast for the next six years – is the ineluctable evidence that Hampson was involved in at least the starting weeks of Prisoners of Space because ‘Flamer’ (who is given no real first name in the entire series), is as much Hampson’s son Peter as Sir Hubert is his father Robert. (Actually, less so: Peter Hampson has commented that whilst his father took Peter’s face and hair for ‘Flamer’, Cadet Spry’s body was based upon one of Peter’s classmates).
Cadet Spry, we quickly learn, is a precocious talent. Dan Dare’s latest ship, a one-man craft nicknamed the ‘Performing Flea’ has just been taken off the secret list and ‘Flamer’ has already built a working model. Which gets accidentally set-off in his absence by Cadet ‘Tubby’ Potts. The mini-‘Flea’ almost prangs Sir Hubert, who is understandably testy about the whole thing. Spry confesses and is facing expulsion until Valiant alibis him as being in his study when the rocket went up. Sir Hubert passes responsibility for punishment to Colonel Dare who, impressed by ‘Flamer’ (who he seems to be meeting for the first time), opts to ‘punish’ him by giving Spry and Valiant a tour of the real ‘Performing Flea’.
Thus far, primarily comic. But Hampson also establishes a serious element to the background. Venus Transport ships are going missing without explanation in the area of Station XQY which, by fortunate coincidence, is the destination of the ‘Performing Flea”s test flight: the course is pre-programmed into the Autopilot which will enable Dare to pilot the ship alone – without even the faithful Digby – and the test flight will be the perfect cover for an investigation of that sector.
All is going well so far so here is where fate steps in to overturn the apple-cart. Naturally, when Dan says he’ll show ‘Flamer’ and Steve round the ‘Performing Flea’, he means Digby will do it, under the watchful and disapproving eye of ‘Old Groupie’. Groupie played a small part in Operation Saturn as a madcap, ex-RAF type piloting an air-taxi but he’s now been taken on by Spacefleet as a civilian mechanic, and is acting considerably differently: he’s now a Grumpy Old Man.
Which leads directly into disaster. Digby’s gone to make a cup of tea, ‘Flamer’ is lying on the pilot’s couch, hands on the controls, dreaming of taking off and suddenly grumpy old Groupie grabs his ankles and yanks him back. Before he can let go, ‘Flamer’ has yanked the controls back as well: autopilot kicks in and the ‘Performing Flea’ is launched on course to Station XQY.

‘Flamer’ Spry with friend yet to be met

Even up to this point, I can believe in Frank Hampson directing the story, even to the discovery, when the ‘Flea’ reaches XQY that its entire staff are dead and that The Mekon has taken control, and is behind the missing spaceships. But I cannot believe that Hampson plays much part, if at all, in what would follow next.
Having two Earth ‘children’ in his hands, the Mekon takes advantage by offering them as hostages: hostages for Colonel Dare, who must come alone and unarmed, to be exchanged for them. It’s opportunistic and this move drives the rest of the story.
Dan’s friends – including Hank, Pierre, Peabody and Sondar – argue against whether he should be allowed to go, and whether he ought to lie to the Mekon – who will undoubtedly lie to him – and go armed and supported. But Dan is adamant about his right to sacrifice himself: who can say that Steve Valiant or ‘Flamer’ won’t grow up to become even more important than him? And his word is his bond, and not just Dan’s bond, but that of Earth.
So Dan borrows Sir Hubert’s Astro-Arrow to set off to XQY. Only he doesn’t go alone and unarmed. Digby has no intention of letting that happen, and whilst Dan is determined to shop his batman to the Mekon once he arrives at XQY, such moral absolutes disappear on the instant when Dan is presented with evidence that the Mekon doesn’t intend to release the hostages at all.
This touches off an extended cat-and-mouse chase around the station featuring Dan, Digby, Steve and Flamer, which goes on for weeks on end. People keep nipping into ventilation or garbage chutes and turning up elsewhere in the station, like a three-dimensional game of Snakes and Ladders. Dan is ‘killed’ three times and each time ‘returns from the dead’ unscathed, impressing and frightening the hell out of the Treen, Xalto, who swaps sides. It really is Marooned on Mercury‘s underground corridors again, this time on a much more restricted scale.
And during this sequence, the Mekon introduces the title of the story: a small, battery-powered space cell, with 24 hours oxygen, in which Dan Dare will be imprisoned and left to die.
The whole thing comes to an end when Digby and ‘Flamer’ get away in the Astro-Arrow (Dan’s attempt to retrieve the ‘Performing Flea’ ends in its destruction and one of his several ‘deaths’), and an Earth fleet has taken off under Sir Hubert’s personal command. He’s in Speedstar and Pierre and Hank are in Lodestar, the two fastest ships in the fleet, but all Hank and Pierre are supposed to do is pick up Dig and ‘Flamer’ and taken them back to Earth, which is tactically moronic.
As for the Mekon, believing Dan Dare to be dead (hint: he’s not) he orders XQY to be booby-trapped and evacuates, to pick up his plan, the one he’s been preparing so carefully. No, he doesn’t (and I refuse to believe that Frank Hampson is party to this): he jets off to Venus and Mekonta where, on arrival the Treens will rise up and reinstate him.

Our Mutual Friend

When the Mekon returns to Mekonta, he is indeed greeted with an impromptu Treen uprising. However, he has carried with him on his flagships two things of which he is not aware. One is Dan Dare, and the other is a limpet bomb due to go off more or less at the same time as touchdown. Dan gets out with sufficient time to adjust the timer, and to call in Spacefleet (who have gone to Theronland) to bomb the living crap out of Mekonta.
So Sir Hubert leads both Speedstar and Lodestar (you seriously did not think that Messrs Lafayette, Hogan, Digby and Spry would actually obey a direct order from the Controller of Spacefleet to go back to Earth?) on a bombing raid. The crew includes ‘Flamer’ Spry, as it obviously would, and it’s a damned good job too, because he’s the one who spots Dan, Steve, Groupie and Xalto staked out in the Mekonta sun, ready to be fried.
The Multum Mark V missile is diverted into space where, as luck would have it, it hits and vapourises the other two ships of the Mekon’s fleet. The Mekon intends to retreat to ‘Orbit Mortus’ where even Dan Dare cannot follow him (what and where ‘Orbit Mortus’ is was never referred to again, a delicious loophole for the enterprising who write and draw new Dan Dare stories to this day). But Dan hastily radios the Mekon to alert him to the limpet bomb attached to his ship, which hasn’t got long to go… In order to survive the Mekon has to abandon ship, in the very space-globe he intended for Dan Dare’s death-cell. At long last, he is captured by his arch-enemy, and taken to Earth to be tried to his crimes.
That’s more or less the whole story, though I note that I have rather short-changed Steve Valiant in my account. Valiant pulls off a familiar Digby-like trick whilst a hostage, pleading with Dan to sacrifice himself to get the hostages free, whilst all the time tapping out a Morse message of defiance, demanding Dare stay away, that his life and that of his fellows is meaningless and should be sacrificed. In order to maintain his usefulness to the Mekon, Valiant has to endure the taints of his fellow hostages, who truly believe him to be a coward and a traitor.
I’ve also short-changed Old Groupie, but that’s rather more intentional. After kick-starting everything by yanking ‘Flamer’s ankles, Groupie is required to do little more than make grumpy remarks. His only other contribution to the story is to be ‘killed’ by a Treen blaster in the back. But he miraculously recovers, a recovery that remains unexplained until the last page when, with everyone in the shower, we finally see that he’s wearing a large mustard plaster for his back, made with unusual ingredients that turn it into the perfect defensive shield against Treen blasters! Yerssss.
(For those who do not understand what a mustard plaster is, which included your blogger until he googled the term, it is a poultice of mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing and applied to the body to stimulate healing. It can be used to warm muscle tissues and to treat chronic aches and pains. For long a part of conventional medical treatment, and available in prepared versions in pharmacies, it fell from favour in the 20th century, and is now only used as a home remedy. Thank you, Wikipedia).
Despite all I’ve said, and despite a number of flaws that I’ll come to in a moment, Prisoners of Space is a much more enjoyable adventure than Marooned on Mercury, a fast-paced if inconsequential romp, even if it does border faintly on the ridiculous when you stop to count just how many people use that chute to the ‘Obbo’ turret, both up and down.

Art by Harley, finishes by Walduck

A substantial part of this is the art. Visual continuity to Hampson is maintained by Harley’s pencils: without wishing to be disrespectful to the late Harold Johns, Harley is a substantially superior figure artist. Walduck’s finishes, superimposed on Harley, give the overall appearance of the art a slightly blurred effect, softening the look. As the story proceeds, the overall art gets simpler and rougher: Harley has stated that he believed Walduck was working on other art simultaneously and devoting less time to Dan Dare than he should.
Incidentally, Walduck does insert one (forgivably) self-indulgent touch: in the last episode he draws himself as a press photographer (the one who shouts ‘Hot Headlines!’).
However, it has to be allowed that Harley’s visual imagination did not extend to the creation of space vessels of realistic or distinctive appearance: Speedstar and Lodestar are simple, smooth-sided rocketships with tailfins, a design far below Hampson’s standards.
Ultimately though, I have to get back to the story. Up to a point, I can accept Frank Hampson as its prime mover, but just as with Operation Saturn, I am convinced by internal evidence that Hampson removes himself, or is removed by his health once more, from the direction, leaving inadequate and cliche-driven hands to progress matters.
The most blatant evidence for me is in how the story totally ignores the consistency of Dan Dare’s Solar System. ‘The Venus Story’ clearly established that travel between Earth and Venus takes seven days by Impulse Wave engine, and there is no suggestion that this has suddenly been supplanted by much faster fuel (monatomic hydrogen was a one-story thing).
But in the later stages of the story, Dan calls in Elite Squadron to attack XQY, a flight that will take 12 hours. Not long after, he sets a limpet bomb to the Mekon’s flagship on a three-hour timer, which expires very shortly after touchdown. So the Earth to Venus run can now be done in a mere fifteen hours?
This cavalier attitude is compounded by the fact that Dan then resets the bomb by a further hour, an hour that then spans thirteen weeks of publication and, more importantly, the arrival of Elite Squadron (which is not as fast as Speedstar/Lodestar, remember), its diversion to Theronland, which is in the other hemisphere of Venus, a lot of kicking of heels waiting  for a decision on what to do and a bombing run to Mekonta. This is not something Frank Hampson has concocted.
There’s also a major story discrepancy over the Mekon’s initial plans. The story starts with concerns over the disappearance of five ships on the Venus Transport run, followed immediately by a blackout at XQY. This is all down to the Mekon, and is clearly a planned assault, leading up to some attack that the mighty brain has devised.
However, the plan is ultimately no more than a MacGuffin: once the Mekon has his hostages, he focuses upon using them to rid himself of his worst nightmare, Dan Dare. Having believed that he’s done so (third time round), does the Mekon revert to his carefully devised plan? No: that’s forgotten: all he can think of doing is to make an unplanned landing on Venus, and overthrow the Theron guards.
Without backing. Without resources (three ships do not a fleet make). With a perfectly good plan, that has had all the time since Marooned on Mercury to be worked out, just thrown to the space winds. And with the Therons and Earth set to oppose him with all their military might. That’s not the Mekon, seriously. Ol’ Greenbean just doesn’t work that way.
Another thing that jars in the latter half of the series is the collective disobedience of Digby, Flamer, Hank and Pierre. Of course they weren’t going to go back to Earth and watch from afar. But all four of them were in flagrant breach of direct orders from their Commander-in-Chief, who huffs and puffs and threatens them all with punishment, as indeed they all deserve: they’ve mutinied in a combat situation, this is court-martial stuff. The story breaks all its own insistence upon realism by allowing them to get away with it unscathed.
And it positively sinks beneath the waves when Digby and ‘Flamer’ are not only taken aboard Sir Hubert’s ship for the bombing raid on Mekonta, but given positions of vital responsibility. I mean, ‘Flamer’ Spry is only an Astral College Junior cadet. A precociously talented one, granted, but when battle breaks out, he’s running around with a paralysing pistol fighting Treens that are about two foot taller than him.
But ‘Flamer’ Spry was now a foregone conclusion. There would be no space for Hank and Pierre in the next couple of stories, but despite the discrepancy of having a Junior Cadet on active service, ‘Flamer’ was here for the duration. Of the Frank Hampson era, at least.
I’ll have more to say about him in relation to the next story. The only other thing for now is that name. Given his bright red hair, and his status as a Junior Cadet, aged about thirteen at a push, ‘Flamer’ is a pretty obvious nick-name. But nowhere in the series is Cadet Spry accorded a first name. In the military world of Spacefleet, it beggars belief that no-one in authority uses Spry’s baptismal name even once.
Long term fans, especially those who have laboured to produce elaborate continuities that interlock all the Dan Dare stories into a consistent time-line for the Eagle run and beyond, have given the adult Captain Spry the first name of either Christopher or Toby: Denis Steeper, who is my particular source for such things, formally names him Toby Christopher Spry.
So enter Flamer Spry. And in the next story, which definitely introduces Alan Stranks as Dan Dare’s writer for the rest of the Fifties, enter a second new member of the supporting cast. The early days of the series were done: Dan Dare and Frank Hampson were about to move into their Mature Age.