Dan Dare The Audio Adventures: A Debate


Dan Dare Audio

Before I listen to the latest Dan Dare Audio Adventure, I want to address a couple of things Garth Groombridge and I have been debating since I started these reviews. Garth’s reaction has been far more severe than mine with such comments as:
Ugh! No, no, please, why do people who have no love, no knowledge of, no understanding of, a well-established, beloved fictional character, let loose on writing something that pleases no one really;
Yeah, Dan Dare, but why change things? Just because they can? Annoys me; and
Why does anyone write or want to broadcast this inane crap? But, there again, changing the characters and who they were, is akin of Beeson’s equally stupid and wrong-headed changing Valerian from a time-space agent into a quasi-military Major and Laureline, rather than a fellow agent and equal, into a lowly sergeant, with Valerian only wanting to get into her panties. The word is: SACRILEGE.
Now I did enjoy the Luc Besson Valerian film, but at the time I was not at all familiar with the series, and as such wasn’t as disturbed by the changes made. I agree with Garth’s purist response to the Dan Dare stuff, but I’m less roused by it than he, possibly because I’m more resigned to it, and more cynically attuned to why something like this has been done. This was my response to him:
The short answer is that Dan Dare is, in their eyes, a valuable commercial property to be exploited. There is no point in owning the rights to him if you don’t use him. The only people interested in portraying him as he ought properly to be are Spaceship Away, and they have a licence that limits them to Hampson’s continuity (not that they’d ever want to go outside that), and that continuity restricts Dan to a dedicated audience.
The scripter who I quoted had half a point but only half. Dan is right in these constructions but everything else is wrong. It obviously made them money – the sale of the CDs, the multiple broadcasts on BBC radio, it’s all income. I was curious… But like I said, Dare is Intellectual Property and what use is IP if you can’t make money off it? That was ultimately Frank Hampson’s problem. He thought like a creator but his creation was owned by businessmen.
To expand upon that a little, I want to draw a distinction between categories of change. Almost inevitably, when a work of art is adapted from one medium to another, changes have to be made. These relate to the different media. Comics and books have the space and time to lay things out in detail. They can do background stories, situations, emotional responses in some depth because they can rely on their audience’s attention being focussed in their own time. Film and television have a different luxury: audience attention can only be given at the director’s pace, things have to be shown, not told. Stories have to be simplified, details left out, to retain the audiences’ focus. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson telescoped seventeen years of book time into about three minutes of screen-time.
If you like, these can be categorised as enforced changes. What gets Garth and my backs up are the gratuitous change, the ones unrelated to the differences in media. Sometimes these have a purpose: in his film adaptation of The Hot Rock, William Goldman reduces the Dortmunder Gang from five to four members by omitting Chefwick the locksmith and transferring his skills to Kelp, who is otherwise no more than a second-in-command: simplification.
But what possible good can it do a Valerian film to change the pair’s relationship from equal partners to military subservience? In The Devil Rides Out, what good does it do for the film to make Rex van Ryn a contemporary of the Duc de Richleau instead of thirty years younger?
The changes in the Audio Adventures are no better than this. They are in no way justifiable, but they are unfortunately explicable, however gratuitous they are. That is because the original Dan Dare, the one Garth and I respect, is sadly no longer a workable character in the Twenty-First Century.
Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare is a Fifties hero, in a Fifties-envisaged future that science and technology has condemned forever as Fantasy. He’s an optimist in an optimist’s universe that time and cynicism has condemned to be unbelievable. And in his particular roots, he is an idealised Forties character, the dashing RAF pilot brought forward into the dream of that future: it wasn’t just coincidence that his subtitle is Pilot of the Future.
Yes, he is still presented in those terms in these adaptations, and so he should be because these qualities are intrinsic to the character and what makes his stories live. To quote Garth again:
Maybe not purist purist….I could see the Dare stories modified, but within the criteria of the characters and the setting. Chang(e) personalities and you may as well give them new names and not write a Dan Dare story, but space pilot X. It’s a matter of respect for that character, and respect also for these who are fans of that character.
But I don’t see that original working anymore. Sherlock Holmes survives today because his original milieu is still valid. People are still attracted to Victorian times and Victorian crimes. The Sherlock tv series (which impressed me but not Garth) was a root and branch recreation that nevertheless kept the basic relationships between the players, transforming that into the Twenty-First Century. The Dan Dare Audio Adventures doesn’t do that. It keeps the names and nothing more, it strands the intrinsic Dan Dare in a universe whose construction is completely antithetical to his values. Better by far to leave the stories and the relationships as they were, but to do so is to try to preserve a time period in which there is no general interest, in fact for which there is a high degree of contempt, and no concurrent appeal.
I wish they would leave well alone, but understand why they make changes. I loathe the changes they make because, in rejecting the structures of the original, they reject the spirit of the original. Understanding why someone does something doesn’t mean their actions are justified.
The ones doing this for pleasure don’t understand what they’re actually doing. I think, in their way, they think they’re being creative, contributing to the legend if the character, making an addition. Instead, they’re being destructive but they don’t realise that.
As for the businessmen who own the name and the rights, they are only interested in making another penny off them, and don’t care as long as some cash comes in. Those of us who know and understand and respect the original, like Garth and I, are too few in number, and a dying audience. What these people don’t understand is that they are killing their goose, just as much as time is killing the Pilot of the Future. Dan Dare is nothing more than a label to be attached to some hard SF space adventure, to be changed on whim, without consistency to its latterday use, and that each change makes the name more and more just a label, to be be stuck on, then peel itself off as the gum decays…

Dan Dare The Audio Adventures: 02 – The Red Moon Mystery


Dan Dare Audio 2

New Readers Start Here:

B7 Media’s second foray into turning Dan Dare into Audio Adventures in the form of 60 minute radio plays loosely adapted the second Eagle story, ‘The Red Moon Mystery’, loosely here being used in the way you would describe the fit of a ten-times-too-large kaftan: it fits where it touches but you wouldn’t recognise what it covers as a human being.

This story is ‘adapted’ by James Swallow, whose upfront note was very interesting, if in a negative fashion. Swallow first discovered Dan Dare in the pages of 2000AD, and freely admits that his favourite version is the second phase Dare, the leather flying jacketed version drawn by Dave Gibbons. I don’t hold that against him in the least: we always attach ourselves emotionally to what we first read. But it’s in what else he says, which I’m tempted to read as self-defensive though I’m sure it’s not, consciously anyway. But he points out, correctly, that Dan Dare has been reinvented many times before saying ‘I’ve always thought that Dan Dare’s persona is strong enough to transcend his origins and retain what makes him compelling wherever you find him…’, not to mention, ‘(p)recisely because Dare encapsulates the elements of a classic hero, he can be reinvented for a new audience time and again…’

Well, yes and no. The problem with that thinking is that it assumes that Dan Dare is an infinitely malleable creation, that as long as you keep certain aspects consistent – the verve, the intelligence, the optimism, the skill – you can drop him down in any situation and you’ve got a Dan Dare story. That’s to completely ignore context because, just as Sherlock Holmes is not recognisable without Dr Watson, Dan is more than just the sum of his own character. He requires a context in which he is surrounded by recognisable figures. And nothing around him is properly recognisable.

These adventures are set against a very different world whose similarities to the original are literally only superficial. The overwhelming milieu is of cynicism and capitalisation. Dan may still be a Colonel and a Spacefleet pilot, and Spacefleet is now rather more overground after the Venus expedition than at the start, but it’s hedged in with restrictions due to being primarily financed by Eagle Corporation, a multinational that behaves like an alternate Government, concerned only with its commercial interests. Professor Peabody is both Chief Scientist for Eagle Corp and chief shill, Lieutenant Digby is military – marines? – and proud of it, Sir Hubert is complaisant at the situation. Nobody is who they are.

This episode also introduces two other supporting characters, one being an impertinent schoolboy named Flamer Spry and, more substantially, Dan’s Uncle Ivor, except that he’s a scientist working for Eagle Corp, instead of being an archaeologist, he’s a fool and a coward and a would-be murderer, and he’s not even bloody Welsh! Hugh Fraser speaks with a posh southern England accent.

The story borrows some elements of the original ‘Red Moon Mystery’, which can be seen poking through the miasma of this ‘drama’ like a ghost skeleton. Basically, Dan, Digby and Peabody are still confined to orbit thanks to the lethal virus implanted in them by the Mekon that, if they descend to the surface, will destroy not only them but the entire population of the planet. Peabody has, however, discovered that the virus is not biological but nanotechnological. The leading authority on that is Ivor Dare, and he’s on Mars.

The problem is not in the breach in the Dare family between Dan and his father and Ivor but that Mars is a dead and uninhabitable planet except for one secret, commercial base, owned and jealously guarded from interference by, you guessed it, Eagle Corp. Where, or where, is Frank Hampson’s utopian future? This one’s too bloody much like our own shitty present.

So, even though Spacefleet can’t interfere, Dan can take the Anastasia on a routine testing flight to Mars, with marines, where we discover that half the Thoris complex (a borrowing from Edgar Rice Burroughs) is missing along with all of its staff except Dr Dare.

Rather than waste any more time on this, let’s just explain that the menace is giant cyborg insect-like robots, or ‘Space Bees’ per the original, but that there is no Red Moon as such, instead this lot hibernate inside Deimos in between stripping planets and civilisations bare. Thanks to Ivor Dare, they’re starting to wake up and Earth will be their next target. Also they’re a damned sight more sentient, consider every other lifeform in the universe as food and don’t negotiate.

So what we have is an unstoppable menace that makes the Daleks look like kids in the park. I make the comparison deliberately: instead of Hampson’s ingenious decoy satellite per Peabody and Dan, the latter comres up with a debilitating sonic boom stunning the Bees and a burnt toast smell that pts them to sleep. At which point we have a replay of Genesis of the Daleks, where Dan can wipe out the universe’s greatest and most malevolent predators, if he can countenance genocide.

Of course, whereas you and I would fry the fuckers and award ourselves a chestful of medals for doing so, Dan can’t do it. Yes, of course, that is completely in character, but placing him in a situation where he puts the entire universe at risk by deciding to just keep them asleep forever is poor writing, and overlooks the moral question about the actual difference between killing someone and putting them in suspended animation until entropy pulls the lever.

So, no, once more a potentially interesting story is crippled by shackling it to the names of characters who deserve better. There are four more such adventures in this series, which I shalln’t be keeping. The first set will be put on eBay as soon as I’ve discovered how the writer of the next episode plans to circumvent the now-non-existent segue into ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

Dan Dare The Audio Adventures: e01 – Voyage to Venus


Dan Dare Audio 1

They’ve been around for quite a while, since 2016 in fact, and they’ve been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra as well as being issued in rather expensive triple CD boxsets. The pair of these, each comprising three full-length episodes, have been around my compacted dwelling space for quite a while too, albeit measured in months rather than years, awaiting time amongst all the other things I do for me to just sit down and listen undistracted. Now I have begun and, late though it may be, I’m going to set out my response.

The Dan Dare The Audio Adventures Project was set up by B7 Media, using a team of scripters, with Andrew Mark Sewell as Director and Simon Moorehead as Producer. B7 have a lot of experience in SF Audio books, having done a number of Dr Who projects beforehand. However, I have to give them massive black marks for Volume One for claiming that Dan Dare was created by the Reverend Marcus Morris and only ‘written and drawn’ by Hampson. Dare was entirely Hampson’s work and Morris gave him full credit for creating everything about the character. It got my back up a long way.

Six stories have been produced, each taking their titles and at least the shells of the subjects of Frank Hampson’s original Eagle stories in mostly chronological order. I remember reading brief synopses of the planned stories, which had been freely adapted. Indeed, there’s a charmingly self-congratulatory note from episode 1 scripters Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle about the sterling ways in which they’d not just updated Dan Dare to accomodate changes in scientific knowledge and technology in the years since his debut, but how they’ve revised the whole thing to put female characters on a par with male and to remover ‘all traces of cap-doffing class deference’ out of the Dan/Digby relationship. I reserve making comment.

Anyway, what of the actual adaptation? Let me credit the good things first. The acting is generally excellent throughout, though I have reservations about Geoffrey McGivern’s portrayal of Digby, though much of that has to do with the writing of the character. Ed Stoppard (son of playwright Tom) is very good as Dan himself whilst Icelandic actress Heida Reed plays Professor Peabody. These three are the central characters, alongside Raad Rawi fighting his way through several effects as The Mekon and Bijan Dameshmand arriving late as Sondar but clearly intended for a more major role in the ongoing series. The acting is good, the production very clear and precise and the effects effective.

Those are the good things.

You all know me as a lifelong Dan Dare fan, wedded inextricably to the original Frank Hampson version of the character. Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle say the character had to be updated. I say that’s not necessarily true. BBC Radio once did a four part play, which I also have, that adapted the first story pretty closely, so it can be done without dipping into satire and cynicism about older and simpler ideals. But I’m not so stupid as to imagine that most attempts at a modern Dan Dare will be of a modern Dan Dare. That means changes.

There are three principle types of change that have gone into this episode. Advances in scientific knowledge and technology have been catered for. They preserve the science of the original stories from seeming foolishly outdated. These I am ok with. The other two types, changes of character and of plot, which are inter-related, are much more serious and for me, only Dan Dare, of the central cast of characters, remains a fair representation of the character worthy of the name. He’s solid, he’s intelligent, he thinks quickly, he is an inveterate optimist, free of cynicism. Overall, he tends more to the flippant that the original, but he never goes OTT with this, and at least one of his quips is laugh-out-loud funny, if rather obvious. In the comic, these lines would have come from Digby, but we don’t have that Digby with us.

However, cynicism is the word I would apply, in spades, to both Professor Peabody and Lieutenant, not Spaceman, Digby, though both of them would prefer it if you called them pragmatic. I’ll go into these interpretations in a little more detail shortly, but their ‘remaking’ is part and parcel with the overall episode.

It’s the same old story. This is a perfectly good, in fact probably very enjoyable radio SF series crucified by having Dan Dare and other quasi-random names attached to it surgically when these names lack the associations they’re earned. Dan is the only character to remain properly true to his original: everyone and everything else is no more than a label.

As for the story, it is, naturally, about Earth’s first contact with Venus and the first encounter with the Treen (not Treens, the name is here plural instead of singular) and their Supreme Leader, the Mekon (whose title is Supreme Leader, not Mekon, mking the name by which he is known illogical). That’s all the similarities, though. As for the set-up, where do I begin? Practically every detail has been changed. Let me try.

Ten years ago, due to a spaceship crash on Birmingham, for which the Pilot, William Dare, left on life support ever since, was scapegoated, the ISF (Interplanetary Space Fleet). His son Dan, a Colonel and a Test Pilot (Colonel in what? Test Pilot for what? Never explained) is committed to clearing his father’s name (resemblances to Geoff Johns’ revised origin for the Barry Allen Flash, written 2009, 100%). He also applies to be transferred to ISF every year on the anniversary of the disaster even though it no longer exists, because he believes it will once again.

He is unaware that seven years previously an alien spacecraft crashed in Lancashire, chock full of advanced alien technology and instructions from Sondar on Venus, explaining how to build a spaceship to travel to Venus and meet him. ISF was revived, secretly, still under Sir Hubert (we assume Guest, his surbame is not mentioned) but supported by private enterprise – the Eagle Corporation, natch – who leading scientist and premier free-market worshipper and all-round corporate shill is Professor Peabody (Jocelyn, mentioned once). Dan will pilot both the ship to Venus and the massive publicity campaign over the return to space, because he has a pretty face.

Meanwhile, very much against Dan’s wish, the final member of the crew is Lieutenant Digby (we assume Albert, also not mentioned, probably too old-fashioned). What Digby is Lieutenant of is never mentioned: we assume it’s of ISF since Sir Hubert sends him to fetch Dare, but then Dare is disgusted by him because he represents military brass, and is the warmongerer and weapons master on the mission.

I think that is enough to demonstrate just how different the audio adventure is to the original story. Only the shell of the latter is preserved. Nevertheless, I have one more serious example to put before you, and that’s The Mekon. Yes, he’s the Supreme Intelligence behind the Treen but he is portrayed as almost a benevolent dictator. He runs everything and everyone along lines devised by himself and which guarantee an orderly and peaceful environment for his subjects. He has no desire to take over Earth, not yet anyway.He is content where he is. As for Sondar, he’s a terrorist.

This is a much-diminished version of the Mekon, and I have to say that he loses traction by being only heard and not seen: the brilliance of the character and his true menace lay, like the Daleks over decade later, in his being simultaneously an easy shape/design to recognise yet by that being utterly unhuman. And it is painful to listen to both Peabody and Digby calling him ‘Supreme Leader’ (Christ, no!) and theformer sucking up to him and talking about corporate mergers, sharing his technology and off about ‘No profit, no freedom’.

Yes, true colours come out at the end. The Mekon intends to send the Earthmen back home infected with a disgusting, fatal, rapid-spreading virus that will trigger as soon as they’re in Earth orbit and basically kill off the entire population, leading Peabody to flutters of self-disgust at how she could even have thought of collaborating with him, but by then she has touched pitch.

And as for the Mekon, once he’s forced into flight off-planet by Dare’s ingenious trick that raises the Treen mindlessly against him, he decides on revenge by taking over the entire solar system: better late than never. Meanwhile, he’s taken the only virus antidote with him, so Dare, Peabody and Digby can’t go homde and are forced to go chasing after him, thus setting up the sequel.

So, overall, the same old story. A potentially good audio adventure crippled by tagging it to an existing creation with only minimal and superficial connection to the original, mostly in name only. Why do that? The audience that knows Dan Dare will only be offended, the audience that doesn’t won’t know the difference. Give the characters new names – if you have a spark of originality in you. After all, based on the first episode at least, this is substatially the best effort I’ve seen, read or hurt – in its own terms.

So I’ll make a point of listening to the test of the series, and I’ll drag out the BBC radio series as well, of which I think I’ve got two DVDs. I shall keep you posted.

Eagle Volume 20 (1969)


Eagle 20 - 3

Eagle‘s last, and shortest volume consisted of only 17 issues before its cancellation by merger with Lion, this latter much to my chagrin as I was getting both papers, and was not granted dispensation to replace Eagle with anything else. The cancellation was known a long way in advance, as demonstrated by the sudden shortening of Rogue Planet, starting only a couple of issues into the new Volume.
Blackbow’s stories were also radically truncated. A new feature, drawn by Tom Kerr, started in no. 5, The Day The World Forgot. If it seemed unfamiliar, that was because it was the first of a half dozen features created in preparation for the merger, so that none of Eagle‘s own characters save Dan Dare would survive to appear in the merged title.
It was followed in no. 6 by Speed Mann, a troubleshooter, which also saw the last instalment of Quarrel. Wild of the West, boxer, debuted in no. 8. Yet all of this was being done without removing any of the regular strips, just yet: a case of quantity but not quality. But the exodus couldn’t be postponed any longer. Mickey Merlin ended in no. 10, to be replaced a week later by Lightning Strikes Back. The Mark Mystery reprints were curtailed by a caption jump to the original end of the series in the same issue.
It looked like Speed Mann wasn’t even good enough for Lion as his story lasted a measly six issues before making way for The Gladiators. The Hornblower reprints sailed away in no. 13 and The Waxer, most ghastly of all the new creations, started in no. 14. The last Blackbow story began in the same issue, but Frank Humphris had left early, to beat the rush. The next issue featured the last Cut-Out, Ashwell-Wood coming through as he had done for nearly twenty years.
The Guinea Pig got out in the penultimate issue, and that meant that Eagle‘s final issue, Volume 20 no. 17, cover-date 26 April 1969, the 993rd issue of all, saw the end of the truncated Rogue Planet, but also the ends of Blackbow the Cheyenne and The Iron Man. The Circus Wanderers bit the dust, taking Wild in the West and The Day Time Forgot with them.
And that was the end of it all. You may think that I’ve given unfairly short shrift to this last volume but that’s not the case. Even Blackbow’s last few stories were inadequate and as for all the rest, there was literally nothing to write home about. The story of Eagle‘s last four months is one of a once-superb comic being strangled to death by mediocrity, the final exercise of power by a Manager who resented the comic’s very existence as the refutation of everything his own career in comics had been, and finally diminishing it to the point where it could no longer survive.
The last months were just dragging the humiliation out until no-one could deny that Eagle was unsavable. I was right not to collect further copies after my pre-set endpoint, and I should perhaps have stuck to my guns and stayed away, because satisfying this particular curiosity has indeed been painful. I’m sorry for the 13½ year old boy who had to endure that. It hastened the moment when he gave up comics altogether, though we now know that that didn’t last all that long. It was only a decade to the Dragon’s Dream republication of The Man from Nowhere…

Eagle Volume 19 (1968)


Eagle 19 - 4

The writing had been on the wall for Eagle ever since its major cheapening in Volume 18 no. 37, so it came as some surprise that the title survived through a final full volume of 52 issues. Even more surprisingly, for a comic that was clearly being done cheaper every week, it retained a solid core of series that had been stalwarts for several years: Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, The Guinea Pig, The Iron Man, Blackbow the Cheyenne were all standing in no. 52.
Dan Dare started the volume with the second episode of his last original adventure, Underwater Attack. It ran only four episodes all told, including one black and white internal page, revealing at the last second that its invading ‘aliens’ were actually naval men testing a new underwater exploration suit. Not worthy of comment.

The rest of the year was given over to classic reprints, of The Man from Nowhere, seguing into Rogue Planet. Reprint it was, and not always treated with the respect it was due – squashed up pages, one or two in black and white, bounced all over the title – but this was prime Frank Hampson, and at the time it was my first ever exposure to the work of the great man, and with all that Eagle did to it, it was still glorious, and head and shoulders above anything else the title offered us. Indeed, for most of The Man from Nowhere, the original gap for the old Eagle title-box was ingeniously filled by newspaper headlines, recapping the story to date.
Of the other regulars, only Blackbow was worthy of serious consideration, and although the pseudo-horror/magic stories were mostly now a thing of the past and the stories more grounded, it was still only Frank Humphris’ art that deserved attention. The last full serial of the Volume, from no. 44 to 51, was drawn by Eric Kincaid instead.

Eagle 19 - 19

As for The Guinea Pig and The Iron Man, neither were worth reading. Though the former was now popular enough to spend most of the Volume in colour, albeit a flashy, splashing colour that looked to be the work of a hyperactive fourteen year old, the stories had nothing new to offer, whilst the Iron Man was formulaic and as grey as its monochrome art. The same beats – Robert is temporarily taken over, is set upon killing Tim, the villain is ultimately defeated by discovering The Iron Man is a robot and falling off a mountain in shock – repeat ever more frequently in shorter stories that suited the attention span of at least one reader whose letter was printed.
Sadly, I cannot avoid mentioning Mickey Merlin, which lasted the whole volume, though after the first two or three weeks I wasn’t even skimming it. It was nothing but a Cornelius Dimworthy-manque and you know how I felt about that series. Stupid beyond belief.
Of the other series tagging on from the previous year, Grant CID went backwards when the Zetans turned up to temporarily restore Smokeman’s powers, but the long and inglorious career of Grant and Bailey, in all its myriad forms, came to a greatly-overdue end in no 16, whilst Jennings’ serial, the last to feature in Eagle, wound up in no. 5.
Jennings was succeeded by Eagle‘s last individual sequel, The Spook Commando, in which Major Guy Haslam takes a team of commandos to his ancestral home, where has has never lived, for exercises to narrow them down to a special, stream-lined unit, psychologically as well as physically solid. The former castle is haunted. Though the serial wasn’t credited, it had the feel of more work by Donne Avenell, and the spooky stuff harked back to things like Runway 13 and High Quest – respectable antecedents indeed. It was overall a decent, if not first class adventure, mainly marred by crossing it over with a grounded spy b-story.
Grant CID was replaced by a new cover feature, Sky Buccaneers. Like Mickey Merlin, I had absolutely no memory of this, nor any great expectations. And evidence supported that theory: two pilots, Red Morgan and Ben Kidd (of course) were acting as the aerial arm of a submarine-based pirate crew.
Or were they? They and their boss, Blackbeard, talked and acted pirate-like but the story had them invading the secret island base of someone called Veldez, a South American dictator or a revolutionary if I ever heard of one (revolutionary). The problem was that the series was neither fish, fowl nor good red meat. Were Blackbeard and the Buccaneers 100% genuine pirates or were they antiheroes foiling a dangerous villain? The only question the series engendered that I could confidently answer was, did I care? And that answer was No.
Three weeks of Sky Buccaneers then gave way to round-robin cover stories. On any given week, any of Eagle‘s features – including Dan Dare – might be on the cover in full colour. To me, this smacked of desperation, of throwing things at the wall to see if anything stuck.

Eagle - Sky Buccaneers

There was another new feature started in no. 7, running through to no. 48, an American import that for all its qualities did not sit easily alongside the rest of the inherently English features. This was Tales of Asgard, and it was Jack Kirby’s back-up series in Marvel’s Thor reprinted in black and white without any acknowledgement or credit beyond a small copyright notice.
For the past eighteen months or so, Odhams had been pushing a line of comics – Wham!, Smash, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific – based largely on Marvel reprints, advertising each one in Eagle for several weeks as it debuted. My parents had refused to let me have any of the first three, regarding them as too childish, but I was allowed the (very) occasional copy of the last two, no doubt with reservations. The bottom was obviously falling out of the market because already in 1968, adverts had plugged Wham! and Pow‘s merger, rapidly followed by that of Fantastic and Terrific, so perhaps it made sense to try putting less directly connected material into Eagle, as a well-established title being slowly ridden into the ground.
Though it was another example of the ongoing decay of the comic, there was nevertheless something primal about Tales of Asgard. Though its outlines were simplistic and its stories confined to two pages at a time, this was pure Kirby, and little or no trace of Stan Lee, and it was superb stuff, dealing with genuine Norse myth.
Unfortunately, even that degenerated after a while, abandoning myth for adventures of Thor with the Warriors Three. Some episodes of this were astonishing powerful, but it was not quite the same.
The Spook Commando ended in no. 21, to be succeeded by Eagle‘s last prose serial, Cue in… Quarrel. Quarrel, or Cue Quarrel to give him his full, unrealistic name, was a roving TV reporter, heading a three man technical team, with a mission to find trouble spots all round the world and send back exciting TV programmes. He was as unconventional and capable as Nick Hazard, without the criminal aspect, and the format was the same linked short-serials of Horizon Unlimited.
But the problem with Quarrel was that it was predictable. It lacked the flair of Nick Hazard and the range of Horizon Unlimited. It was a we-have-been-here-before kind of thing, and that made it dull.
No. 30 offered me a moment of personal significance of which I was not aware when I read it so long ago, not knowing that the reprinted episode of Dan Dare was that which appeared on the Eagle of the day of my birth, not thirteen years previously. Then the very next week, the art got squashed down into crudity again, so it didn’t have to fill two whole pages. Sigh.

Eagle 19 - 39

Eagle introduced a eight page soccer special feature in no. 32, complete with an additional colour strip in the centre spread, Circus Wanderers. Bankrupt Shelford Wanderers fall out of the Fourth Division and its players all quit. Player manager Tim Masters inherits a bankrupt circus whose performers all love football. Put the two together and maybe you’ve got something fit for Lion in a weaker year, but Eagle? Throw in a Director who wants to close the club and use the ground for his factory and it’s pretty much Carson’s Cubs all over again, though with far less actual football. The club has to battle for survival, at which it succeeds.
The second serial, starting in no. 52, was another out of the Carson’s Cubs playbook, this time the eccentric trainer with their nutty methods that disrupt everything. So what if this was the new scientific doctor with curious notions and potions, the template was the same.
Sky Buccaneers passed on, unmourned and unloved, with no. 36, with no-one the wiser as to what it was all supposed to be about.
Right at the end, that writing on the wall suddenly became all but luminous. Tales of Asgard, after a week’s gap, was replaced by Mark Mystery, or rather, as older readers knew him, Mark Question, a second reprint feature to join Dan Dare. And the issue after that, Hornblower was back, across the centre spread, multiplying the reprints even further. Two more pages of cheap copy, and two fewer pages of advertising: it is as clear as can be that Eagle is being run down to cancellation.
The only consolation was to be that this embarrassment would soon be over, as Eagle was prepared for the slaughter in its shortest and final Volume.

Eagle Volume 18 (1967)


On the other hand, an insatiable curiosity can only be disposed of by satiating it.

In three and a half storage crates in a corner of my pokey little flat there is a massive pile of paper and print that represents the fulfilling of an ambition I never expected to complete. It is the Eagle, the home of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, my first and favourite comic book hero. It is Eagle Vol. 1 No. 1 to Vol. 18. No. 1: in print, intact, entire. All the great stories, all the great characters from my childhood and before, complete.

It only goes as far as Vol. 18 No. 1 because that was Dan Dare’s swansong, the last original page – well, not quite but good enough for me. Beyond that was nothing but reprints. Beyond Dan himself was nothing of interest save more Frank Humphris art on Blackbow the Cheyenne: good enough, but not enough to justify more hours combing eBay for yet more copies. I had what I wanted, and I was content.

But the curiosity persisted. That’s why it’s called insatiable. Which is why I ended up with a set of three DVD-ROMs containing Eagle Volumes 18-20. I read these a very long time ago, between 1967 and 1969. They may not be much cop, in fact I expect them to be not much cop at all, especially the further we go along, but I am a completist at heart, so let’s sit down with the last throes of a once brilliant comic that gripped my imagination, and relive those days, without which the tapestry is not complete.

Eagle 18 - 1

For most of the year, Eagle managed to maintain – and in one case improve upon – the reduced standards it was setting by the end of 1966. The big exception to this was the obvious one – Dan Dare.

Ironically, the comic’s signature series offered original work in the first and last issues of the Volume: Keith Watson’s final page of art in no. 1, and two pages of Eric Kincaid art in no. 52, about which I shall have more to say in relation to Volume 19, where the majority of the story, ‘Underwater Attack’, appeared.

In between times, Odhams went back into Dan Dare’s past, reprinting the 1954/5 story, ‘Prisoners of Space’, as drawn by Don Harley and Desmond Walduck, which introduced ‘Flamer’Spry. It ran under the rubric of Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, which was one thing, but it was treated with disrespect throughout its reprint run. The series may have ben given the same 50 week run as its original, but it suffered under a multiplicity of formats.

Firstly, from no. 2 to 7, the serial was split between page 16 and the back cover, page 20. Then, from no. 8 to 27, it was crushed into a corner of the centre spread, aligned to the top left corner but reprinted at a reduced size that took up no more than two-thirds of the actual space available. Then, when Eagle underwent its last and most regrettable revamps, the serial was further degraded by being restored to the split scenario, but with the top tier of page 2 surgically attached to the internal page and the remaining two tiers taking up no more than half the back cover, one week in black and white.

Do you wonder that I refused to give house-space to the comic that perpetrated this?

Next, let’s remind ourselves of what Eagle contained. In terms of strips, the best of the rest of the bunch was still Blackbow the Cheyenne, for Frank Humphris’s art and little else, though one short story of twelve weeks duration was started by Humphris but had the majority of its episodes drawn by Harry Bishop. Story-wise, there was still nothing to touch Riders of the Range, but the silliness and the fantastic elements were turned down to a degree by writer Ted Cowan, of Robot Archie fame. One story did rather telegraph its villain, as early as its fifth episode of fourteen.

But if I were to rack the other four strips in descending order of quality then I would struggle whether to cast The Guinea Pig or The Iron Man in third place. Mike Lane’s adventures as chief tester for Professor Dee’s stupid inventions were complete nonsense (an undersea craft that promptly ended up being used on land was the Sea-Landing Under The Tide, otherwise known as the SLUTT: someone was taking the piss), but at least had the merit that several of them were over in a mere two or three episodes, whereas Robert the Robot was not merely dull but long-winded.

After disposing of Zadak the Evil (no comment) in no. 1, the next serial ran for 29 issues. It felt like a throwback to the Lion of the Fifties and those endless stories that dragged from cliffhanger to cliffhanger with no story development, just dragging the story out week after week. It involved a villain called Maskface (seriously) who was trying to prevent the car Robert and Tim Branton were driving in an international rally from winning and depriving him of a fortune. At a plot a week, the villain must surely have spent more failing than he could ever hope to have made, and he died without our ever finding out who he was, why he was doing this and how he was supposed to get rich out of it, which says all you ever need to know about the Iron Man and his stories.

Eagle - Iron Man

Beware, we are now getting to the real crap. The only reason I place Smokeman, UFO Agent next to bottom is because Cornelius Dimworthy was still going (I must have found that stupid at age 11, please tell me I loathed it at age 11).

Smokeman still had the benefit of brightly coloured art by Jose Ortiz, who signed his work prominently throughout the run, and it was popular enough to take over the cover from no. 8 onwards, until no. 29. It was still a stupid series, an ineffectual attempt to do superheroes by a writer who couldn’t lend the concept any conviction: if he had, would he have been writing about a hero whose superpower was to turn to smoke?

It didn’t even last that long as Smokeman, since in no. 25 the Zetans returned, removed Grant’s powers (except for a few transitional goes) and installed Grant and Bailey as Detective-Constables with Belminster CID, the feature being variously renamed Smokeman CID, or Grant CID from No. 38, by which time it had developed the distinct feel of a Rory MacDuff story from the ghoulies’n’ghosties period.

That left the prose serial. We left Volume 17 with the latest Anthony Buckeridge Jennings serial, which ran through to no. 8 before being replaced by what was, frankly, the year’s highlight for me, being back-to-back Nick Hazard serials, running from no. 9 to no. 37 before disappearing for good.

Thanks to an editorial response, I now know the Nick Hazard stories to have been written by Donne Avenell, he of ‘High Quest’. First up was The Cat Has Nine Lives, just titled Nine Lives in its first two episodes. This I remembered, though only certain bits in any detail. It took up Hazard’s story nine months after The Croesus Conspiracy, with bribery and corruption keeping druglord Paul Bendix from conviction on evidence collected secretly by Hazard. Infuriated at seeing a naïve scientist sentenced to three years inside, Hazard breaks him out of Court, helps him rob the British Museum of a cat-shaped amulet and is rewarded by being shot in the chest at point-blank range.

And living.

Because the scientist, Nevil Wade, has turned the amulet into an invulnerability device. Whilst Hazard wears it, he cannot be killed or injured. So he chooses to fly out to Bangcock and use his invulnerability to follow Bendix’s pipeline back to England, destroying it step by step and finally ending Bendix. The bit I remembered clearest was an underwater cliffhanger. The Cat has just saved Hazard’s life for the ninth time and he’s musing to himself about whether it will only work nine times when his aqualung is destroyed. And a protective field against injury can’t full a drowning man’s lungs with air…

Of course Hazard won. And Avenell went straight on into a story of which I had no memories whatsoever. It featured reporter Gil Bennett trying to locate Hazard to get his life story, getting involved in another druglord-busting campaign during which Hazard related, Horizon Unlimited style, some short adventures from his past, setting up his career as a freebooter, before flying off into the night sky, never to return, more’s the pity.

Someone should have collected these Nick Hazard stories into books. I’d have bought them, and maybe I’d even have kept them.

Eagle guinea pig

Of course, Eagle was always more than just stories. Did It Ever Happen? stayed on the cover until no. 7, with the Yes or No answer on page 3. After Smokeman’s intervention, it would briefly feature Legends in their Lifetime, with a page inside about such folk as motor racer Tazio Nuvolari, Sergeant York, of legendary film status, boxer Joe Louis and fighter pilot Douglas Bader. |The series would run to the end of the year, even after losing its cover lead.

Bids for Freedom, with stiff colour art, limped on intermittently until no. 9, after which it was replaced by What’s in a Name?, looking into the derivation and famous examples of various surnames: they never featured Crookall, the buggers.

Ex-Pro’s sports page and the famous Cut-Out page, mostly but not exclusively by Leslie Ashwell-Wood also continued throughout the year, all at 7d per week, or 3p.

Curiously, the comic was still officially titled ‘Eagle and Boy’s World magazine, incorporating the Merry-Go-Round’: seventeen years on, the comic’s indicia still bore witness to the never-published device that provided a double paper ration to allow Eagle to print weekly.

Interestingly, despite the weekly signs of editorial incoherence, Eagle was a surprisingly stable comic throughout most of the year, that is, until no. 37. The following week, the comic underwent the biggest revamp of its history. This time it was less the contents that were shuffled than the physical comic. After over seventeen years, it was taken off the paper standard Frank Hampson and Marcus Morris had demanded for it. Eagle was reduced to newsprint, and its page depth was cut. After alternating intermittently between 20 and 24 pages, it jumped to 32 It was now the Modern Paper for the Modern Boy, though I doubt that very much.

It would remain in this cheap format for the rest of its life.

There was surprisingly little change to the features, mostly a shuffling. Somkeman CID was renamed Grant CID and pushed inside into black and white, whereas The Guinea Pig went into the centre-spread, in full colour, with a bit more space allotted to it than Dan Dare had had, but not full-size until no.46. Mike Lane’s first story involved him being affected by radiation that changed him into a yellow skeleton every time he saw a particular shade of yellow, including women’s blouse, and cured only by cold, such as ice cream lollies. So, no upgrade there.

Jennings replaced Nick Hazard just as Hazard had replaced him earlier on, whilst two new scientific features were introduced, Futurescope and Frontiers of Science, article and strip respectively, even if the latter was a Fifties reprint still marked with its original numbering.

The one big change was the replacement of Cornelius Dimworthy, put out of my misery at last, by Mickey Merlin. One panel was enough to tell that the nightmare lingered on: Merlin was ‘awkward’ as opposed to ‘dreamy and lucky’ but only the names had changed. Even though the second week clarified Merlin to be some sort of cross between Dimworthy and the long-gone Billy Binns, without artificial aids, it was just the same, all over again.

Futurescope caught my eye in No. 44, looking at the way we might live in the unimaginably distant future of, say, the Nineties in a world of home computers and the things they could do to order and run your life for you. The feature was over-optimistic, by two decades, but it was amazingly prescient. It even foresaw PINs, though it called them Secret Account Codes instead.

As Xmas approached, Eagle was full of adverts for Xmas presents. I was struck by memories of the Airfix Monte Carlo Rally set, with nearly nineteen feet of track and Alpine supports to create mountainous hairpin bends for the two Mini-Cooper model cars. I wanted it, but as I already had an Airfix set, I never got it. I look at the pictures now, and I want again, for the small boy within me and the adult I’ve become. If only there was time travel…

The Xmas edition Futurescope was another of the few things from 1967 that I remembered, positing a Xmas Day 300 years thence that had been transferred to the Winter Solstice, December 22, and re-named Nicholas Day, to enable Jew and Muslim to participate equally. For a comic founded by a Church of England Clergyman, this is astonishing, but to think that a comic in a nation that still thought of itself as impeccably Christian, such an ecumenical notion – such a notion of peace, love and acceptance between creeds and people – could be thought was astounding. Would that the people who thought this at Xmas 1967 had prevailed. What better a world would we be in now? For all my complaints about Eagle Volume 18, this piece earned the comic a massive tick-mark.

Eagle 18 - 38

A Pugwash Expedition


Let’s get the paranoia bit over first. It’ll never disappear but these days it’s dimming, thanks to mt increasing confidence in back-planning, otherwise known as I-am-catching-a-train-to-Southport-at 11.18am, when do I have to start to be there in time? Result? From shower at 9.47am to the Platform 14 waiting lounge at Piccadilly Station at 11.02am. The ticket has been bought (a whole 90p extra than if I’d bought it in advance, Crookall, you profligate fool!) and I’m already relaxing with the Southport train in red on the board.

I’ve been on an Expedition like this before, last summer, when travelling across West Lancashire to the Fylde Coast was a bit more of a daredevil process. The occasion then was a Dan Dare Exhibition at the Atkinson Gallery on Lord Street and I wanted to steal the framed original art for Frank Bellamy’s first episode of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Now, we’re free to travel wherever we want, with or without facemasks, and this year it’s John Ryan, cartoonist and cartoon-maker, an original Eagle stalwart, creator of the immortal Captain Pugwash, a most incompetent pirate. Joy it was in that dawn tp be alive.

So far, it’s been a mostly sunny day. It has rained, earlier, and there are enough grey-white clouds permeating the blue to suggest that’s not all for the day. I’ve read the Weather Forecast for Southport last night, but who believes weather reports? They’re about as reliable as Government explanations.

We’re summoned to Platform 14 just as a long, slow, container train is going through, its wheels squealling so loud that it’s going to take a ton of WD40 to cure. I never like this platform, too many memories of a near decade travelling to Bolton when I worked for the Council. We go through Bolton today: I will have my ears full of mp3s and my nose in a book.

My section of the carriage is near empty, and indeed empties at Bolton, not to pick up another traveller until Apsley Bridge (you may say ‘where?’, if you choose). It’s not until then, from the signboard omn the station, that I discover we’re running ten minutes late. Despite the fact that we crawl into Southport Station so slowly that we could arrive sooner by moving the station towards us, we arrive only five minutes late.

I paid little attention. Beyond Bolton, my native county is both less familiar and less intyeresting. It’s flat, in both senses, and I am a creature of hills, fells and mountains. West Lancashire has little to offer the eye, even on the traditional road approach from the East Lancs Road via Ormskirk, though there’s a nice bit where we go over a canal bridge…

At Southport, the blue is bluer but the grey is greyer and it strikes me that both more sunshine and more rain is possible. One was right but the other raised its dreary head for five minutes when I was sat out on a bench. By now, I needed the loo but there were none in the station nor nearby. I found my memories easier to comprehend than the street plan opposite, which took me past The Monument Sports Bar. This pronounced itself NOT A PUBLIC TOILET and IF YOU ASK NO, but as long as you can hold it in long enough to consume a pint of lager and lime, they have no objections.

Liquid having been suitably transferred through my body, I headed for the Gallery. The exhibition was on the same small side-room on the second floor, called ‘The Discovery Box’, but I went in the proper way, to pass the permanent Dan Dare display, very much reduced, its original art being panels and half-paghes from ‘The Earth Stealers’, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s last story, not that they knew they’d been sacked until scripts stopped coming. Don’t you just love the comics business?

Harris

The Ryan Exhibition is very limited for something with so many elements, and there was next to no original art. It’s built around Captain Pugwash, naturally, but proper regard is made to so many other elements of Ryan’s career, from Pugwash’s debut in Eagle no. 1 in 1950, to Ryan’s death in 2009, aged 88 and still a working cartoonist. Some, like Lettice Leefe and Sir Prancealot, were familiar to me, but there were more of which I was completely unfamiliar.

When Marcus Morris accepted Pugwash for Eagle, Ryan was art master at Harrow Public School and had had the character turned down a dozen times. It ran for nineteen weeks before being cancelled by Molrris for being ‘too juvenile’, but went on to a happy berth in the Radio Times. Meanwhile, Ryan had conjured up Harris Tweed, Extra Apecial Agent for Eagle, the features overlapping as Tweed, and his Boy, debuted in issue 16.

At that stage, Ryan’s art was harsh and angular, which made Pugwash look dark and hangdog to me, and not in the least funny. Tweed started off with full-page adventures, heavy on black ink and sinister happenings, for which Ryan’s original style was well-suited. By the time his work was softening to its more familiar, rounded, indeed almost cuddly style, Tweed was dropping into a half-page status to which the new approach was far more appropriate.

Ryan was a stalwart of Marcus Morris’s little stable of Red-top comics, contributing Lettice Leefe, the Greenest (i.e., most impressionable) Girl in School for Eagle‘s literal sister-paper, Girl, with his wife Priscilla designing the dresses for the Headmistress, Miss Froth, and then Sir Boldasbrass (who was left out of the Exhibition) for their younger brothers in Swift.

Lettice

Pugwash made his TV debut in 1957, as well as appearing in the first of seven childrens’ picture books. I was barely two then, but the cartoons were shown over and over until I was old enough to watch them. Ryan masterminded everything, in a limited animation style that made Hanna Barbera look like Studio Ghibli. Characters were made as jointed carboard cut-outs, poked up through slots in the backgrounds, their ‘movements’ being the manipulation up and down, and sometimes side to side, of limbs and mouths. The other genius of the programme was voice-artist Peter Hawkins, doing all the voices. This is the same Peter Hawkins who voiced, among many others, Bill and Ben, the original Daleks, Captain Haddock in the Tele-Hachette Tintin cartoons and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, so we are talking god-like genius here.

It was all so primitive but we loved it then, and again in the mid- Seventies when Ryan re-made Pugwash in colour. They had a tape playing, including B&W and colour Pugwashes, with Ryan’s wit and imagination, Hawkins’ voices, that jaunty theme music and simple but wonderful stories that still had the power to make me laugh. We were so lucky to live then.

I’d forgotten that Ryan’s first colour commission for the BBC was Mary, Mungo and Midge in 1968, but that was my younger sister’s turn to enjoy his abilities. I got back with Sir Prancealot, in 1971, with its wonderful, sharp theme music and all the old Ryan tricks on a medieval theme. Not until today did I know it was also a comic series.

And there was The Ark Series, bible stories in which Ryan himself appeared as storyteller, St George and The Dragon, Frisco a nd Gred, about a reluctant astronaut and his dog, and what about his position as cartoonist for the weekly Catholic Herald, creating Cardinal Grosci, another Pugwash-substitute, this time in the Vatican. Ryan held that post for forty-two years. Imagine that.

Sir B

Despite all this, there was nothing to keep me more than half an hour, nor much in Southport I haven’t seen before to detain me long. I was feeling peckish by now, but I was not prepared to walk all the way out to Pizza Hut, which is way past the Marine Lake. Even with the surprising smell of sea in the air as far inland as Lord Street, I wasn’t going to trudge that far. I had seen a tight little arcade I’d not noticed before so I took a stroll down there.

There was a vintage collectable shop halfway down with an SF section. They had the complete set of all five Jane Gaskell ‘Atlan’ books in the matching Eighties paperback edition. I used to have the first four in the rather more impressive Seventies edition, all yellow covers and sexy bronze-skinned, dark-haired, long-legged and little clothed woman. The fifth I’d only ever read from the Library but that was seriously peculiar. I’d got rid at least thirty years ago but, at a fiver for the lort, I overcame my expectation that they’d still be a bit crap and bought them. The guy behind the counter told me I was lucky: he’d beemn going to change the prices. Upwards. If I believed him…

There being little now in Southport but a change of scenery, I decided to return to the Station. By this time, my pint had worked its way through and was calling for asttention so I returned to The Monument. No, they didn’t do bar food so I ordered and drank a half before leaving returns in the Gents.

I really do enjoy train rides home, for their peace and quiet and freedom from distraction. I can really get down for an extended session of mp3s and reading as we progress back across the flat bits to Manchester. And its Pizza Hut is a lot closer than Southport’s though they’re still not doing either tuna or sweetcorn. I had the pleasure of walking through Piccadilly Gardens at four-thirty, against the flow, but a flow of young women of all skirt-lengths coming out of work, intent on making an early start on Friday night. Another good day: where next?

An End to Things: Greta Tomlinson R.I.P.


It’s a terrible thing to wake and the first thing you learn is of the passing of someone whose work enthralled you. Today, I’m barely awake and I’m having to commemorate the life of Greta Tomlinson, Greta Edwards in married life, who has died at the afe of 94. With her has gone, to the best of my knowledge, the last link to those madcap days when Frank Hampson and a team of perspiring assistants, produced Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in a more than overcrowded lean-to in alongside a Southport house.

Greta Tomlinson was one of the original team of assistants that joined Hampson in the Bakehouse, a few weeks into the life of Dan Dare. She was the youngest of his assistants, fresh from Art College, who responded to an ad that led her to Southport. There, she looked at Frank Hampson’s work and thought it fantastic, and that when Hampson she had to get involved in this.

Like all the rest of Hampson’s assistants she was overworked mercilessly, to the point where her exhaustion led her to hallucinate, but like the rest she bore up under the strain, because of her belief in Hampson’s genius, and becase he never asked her, or any of them, to do anything that he would not do, and indeed did even harder than them.

Greta formed a close bond with Hampson’s former College friend and senior assistant, Harold Johns. Together, they worked on several short stories for Eagle Annuals but, most notably, it was this pair who took over the third Dan Dare story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’ when Hampson worked himself to illness and was prescribed bed rest for months.

Sadly, that artistc relationship resulted in their unjust dismissal from Hampson’s studio. Johns and Tomlinson could not be accomodated at Bayford Lodge in Epsom, the studio’s new and permanent location, and were based in town. Finding themselves under-used, the pair sought permission to take on outside work, permission reluctantly granted on the accepted condition that Hampson’s work came first, and then they were both sacked abruptly, for the crime of doing what they had permission for. It was a disgraceful and wholly undeserved ending, yet Tomlinson bore Hampson no malice.

I never met her, indeed I never met any of the Dan Dare team, though I would have loved to thank each and every one of them personally for what they did. My most vivid memory of Greta Tomlinson was in the lovely documentary, Future Perfect, that took her back to the Bakehouse and filmed her as she looked around, descrivbing cheerfully how it had been laid out as a studio, and who sat where, plainlyt seeing everyone around her, and suddenbly asking the Director to cut as those memories plainly overwhelmed her.

But Greta Tomlinson was more that just an artist, and more than just, I believe, the last one left of those men and women. As any Dan Dare fan knows, part of the strip’s success lay in Hampson’s use of his assistants to model panels in order to get exactly every nuance of expression, every shadow and every wrinkle of clothing. Some of his assistants and models were the exact model for characters in the series. Geta Tomlinson was Professor Peabody, the botanist, the scientist, the forthright, independent and highly intelligent feminist long before there were feminists. Greta Tomlinson’s passing takes Peabody with her: I mourn them both.

‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’


It’s not been made the subject of any public announcement that I’ve heard or seen, but I’ve just learned from John Freeman’s ‘Down the Tubes‘ that Don Harley, Frank Hampson’s most skilled and reliable assistant on Dan Dare, has passed away earlier this week. It comes as no surprise as Harley was in his nineties – this year would have been the seventieth anniversary of his joining the team at Bayford Lodge – but any loss of a man so talented, and who brought imagination, colour, life and, most important of all, pleasure into the lives of so many diminishes us all.

It’s not to demean Harley that I quote Frank Hampson’s own words of tribute to him. There is no shame to being ‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’ to Hampson himself. How many times, during the Man from Nowhere trilogy, did Hampson co-sign Harley’s name to his own as the artist of record? Who stayed on to assist Frank Bellamy? Who took over the strip himself, supported by Bruce Cornwell?

The good do not always die young, but they always leave a gap that cannot be filled.

Eagle 1964: A Mystery Half-Solved?


Some years ago, whilst reviewing the Eagle of 1964, I touched upon the mystery of the short-lived ‘Junior, Reporter’ series, two stories running over 40 issues, one excellent, the other far less so. The series wasn’t credited, though it was clear from just one look that it was a European import.
Not only was ‘Junior, Reporter’ not credited but, most unusually, it did not appear in ‘The Complete Book of Eagle Strips’, which provides comprehensive details of every series and feature to be printed in Eagle between 1950 and 1969. Unless I’m overlooking something, it’s the only Eagle feature to be missed out.
Nor could I find anything about the series on the Internet. A Google Search turned up no reference to ‘Junior, Reporter’ whatsoever. All I could do was go on my own impressions, and these led me to compare the art to the legendary Albert Uderzo, of Asterix fame, only a rather more angular version (exact words: ‘it’s a bit like a more angular Albert Uderzo ‘).
A couple of months ago, for no better reason than impulse, I repeated the Google Search. This time, the answer was absurdly easy to find, and I had my answer. ‘Junior Reporter’ was really ‘Luc Junior’. The artist wasn’t just influenced by Uderzo, it was Uderzo. And the writer was, with wonderful appropriateness, his partner in Asterix, Rene Goscinny.
I knew that Goscinny had teamed up with Uderzo at least once before coming up with their little fighting Gaul, on a Western series known as Oumpah-Pah the Redskin. Oumpah-Pah was a Red Indian in American Revolutionary War times, a proto-Obelix in terms of his size, strength and simplicity, though lacking the big Gaul’s genial lack of perception. I’d even had three or four Oumpah-Pah albums translated into English, slim volumes showing his meeting with eager but inept British Army Officer, Lieutenant Hubert Brussels Sprout.
Oumpah-Pah was interesting mainly in the sense of its status as an Asterix forerunner, and now I had discovered a second series by Goscinny and Uderzo. What’s more, from the article that identified that old Eagle series for me at long last, it was an easy step to discover Luc Junior Integrale via Amazon.fr. And as well as the complete Luc Junior, I also discovered a third pre-Asterix series by Goscinny and Underzo, also available in ‘Integrale’ fashion, Jehan Pistolet, a Pirate.
Thus the mystery was solved, with a pat on the back for my not-always-reliable ability to recognise an artist from his art. I ordered the book as a self-Xmas present, even though it is, naturally, in French, and my French-reading abilities do not go much beyond a Grade 4 O-Level which will be fifty years old this year. And thereby did I discover that only half a mystery has been cleared up, and half a mystery remains.
The first of Eagle‘s two reprints was the first ‘Luc Junior’ story: of course it had to be, the series starts with Luc’s first assignment as a journalist. It starts at the daily newspaper, ‘Le Cri’, whose editor. M. Bonbain is berating his staff because nobody has a story. Office Junior Luc Junior suggests a feature on a Day in the Life of a Press Photographer. M. Bonbain thinks the idea is wonderful and assigns Luc to to follow his top photographer, M. LaPlaque, around all day.
M. LaPlaque is less impressed with the notion and decides to be benignly uncooperative: his big photo is of a window box of begonias. But when developed, the photo captures a safe being cracked in an apartment building across the street.
Eagle took the story, in black and white as opposed to colour. It anglicised the newspaper to the Daily Globe, Luc to Junior (no other name) and LePlaque to Len Lenns (Junior’s big floppy spotted dog, Alphonse, remained Alphonse).
From such beginnings, the serial was reprinted complete, except for the final panel (which included a background cameo of Goscinny and Uderzo that no-one would have picked up on at the time), which was to become the traditional closing image for all seven stories. ‘Luc Junior et le Vole’ (Luc Junior and the Thieves) had run from 7th October 1954 to 3 May1955, nearly a decade before its appearance in English. And before I was on this Earth, too!
The second ‘Junior, Reporter’ story was nothing like as good. Junior and Mr Lenns are assigned to win a competition to be the first to get to Texas spending no more than 6d. First, they travel by raft then, when it sinks, they’re picked up by a millionaire’s yacht on which a rival is serving as drinks waiter, then they’re boarded by pirates and set adrift before hitching a lift off a rapidly melting iceberg that finally gets them there.
It’s a thin story that gets thinner as it goes along, as does the art. Intriguingly, despite the fact I cannot see more than a single page of the first story that I don’t recognise in the French edition, there’s clearly been some serious editing going on. ‘Junior, Reporter’ ran for forty weeks in Eagle, issues 6-45 of Volume 15, whereas Luc Junior et les Voles runs for thirty five weeks alone. And the race to Texas is far more than a mere five episodes.
It’s a mystery. But the real mystery is something else entirely, namely that the second story is not in Luc Junior, Integrale.
So only half the mystery is solved after all. Looking at the art of the Texas story, it’s immediately clear that, although the characters of Junior and Mr Lenns look the same, overall the art is much simpler, lacking backgrounds, especially as the strip goes on. The detail of the first story has vanished, yet Uderzo was always an artist who thrived on detail, and the absence of a realistic world around the characters emphasises that they are cartoons. Perhaps the series was continued after Uderzo (and Goscinny?) moved on, by lesser hands?
Maybe the other half of the mystery lies in the text of the book, in which case I need to educate myself past the standard of a fifty-year old Grade 4 O-Level to discover it.

Postscript

And maybe you just need a bit of perspicacity. A little bit more Googling and an answer presents itself. ‘Luc, Junior’ (later simply ‘Junior’) did not come to an end in October 1957, when Goscinny and Uderzo moved on but was transferred to ‘Greg’, the main pen-name for Michel Regnier, Belgian cartoonist and scripter (who wrote for Franquin’s Modeste et PomPom better know in the UK as ‘Jinx’ in Valiant).
Greg continued ‘Luc, Junior’ until 1965 when the series was finally cancelled, adding another fifteen stories to the seven from Goscinny and Uderzo. I found a list of ‘Luc, Junior’ titles online, with no description of the contents, but one was a 1961-2 story called ‘Junior, Globe-Trotter’, which seemed a definite possibility for the story Eagle turned to next.
And… There’s quite a few pages of Greg’s ‘Luc, Junior’ to be examined online through Google Images, and one of them is the cover for an album collection of ‘Junior, Globe-Trotter’ which I recognised instantly.
So the mystery is solved in it’s entirety, except for need to learn enough French to read Luc, Junior Integrale and fully enjoy the stories that weren’t translated into English for the delight of an eight year old boy with a long memory that stretches all the way back to 1964.