TV Century 21 – 2065


I was lucky to grow up with generous parents.
Like any boy of my generation, I loved comics, and like any parent of their generation, they worried about letting me read them. In this I had an ally, in Mr Phillipson, he who got me into the Eleven plus when I should never have, and who changed my life. He pointed out, quite rightly, that my reading comics did not stop me being a voracious reader of books, and my parents need have no fears that the comics were stunting my mental growth.
I don’t know how closely the two may have been connected, but my parents decided, in their infinite generosity, to allow me six comics a week. Irrespective of their official publication dates, these were doled out to me one a day, Monday to Saturday, in a fixed rotation.
As time passed, and I got older, the titles changed. Things like Robin and Harold Hare Weekly, Beano and Dandy, gave way to older comics, like Victor and Hornet, Eagle and Lion. I was not allowed to chop and change frequently, and I could only swap, not add: for every new title I wanted, I had to sacrifice an old one, and sometimes the choice was far from easy.
Nor did I have a free hand. My parents held a right of veto over what I could select, and anything they decided was too young for me, or too anarchic in its sense of humour, would be refused. I never got to read Wham! or Buster. New titles were very difficult to get added to my list: offhand, I think the only one I did get to read from number 1, or very very soon after, was Hurricane, though I’ve no idea why.
Which meant that I did not get to read my second favourite comic of the decade until, I dunno, anything from 10 to 20 issues after it started, even though it was the only comic that offered production values akin to those of Eagle: clean white paper, photogravure reproduction, full colour and, what’s more, high-quality photographic covers. Even though it was made for me and a generation of boys hooked on Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation SF series, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray.

TV Century 21 was ready-made for me and all the other boys and girls who loved Gerry Anderson’s puppet series, who sat glued to the set through every episode, who almost religiously came in from playing out to watch every second, who can even today recite every word of every introduction. It was even laid out as a newspaper from the future, dated a hundred years ahead, with full colour photos taken from the Anderson series’ every week. Why I didn’t get it from the first week, I don’t know. But I got it, and stayed with it until the days when I grew out of comics for good.
And now I have it on DVD, starting from the beginning.
TV21 debuted on 23 January 1965 but presented as a newspaper, Universe edition, with a publication date of 23 January 2065, and that would be the pretence throughout. The contents however were divided between stories set in the notional publication year, which were all presented in colour, and stories in black and white, set ‘historically’ in 1965.
Officially, the comic was TV Century 21 until issue 155, when it became simply TV21 but we all called it by that name from the start.
With one exception, all the series were directly based on television programmes, with four out of seven featuring Gerry and Sylvia Anderson characters. Fireball XL5, Stingray and Lady Penelope all appeared as two page full colour strips, with reproduction qualities equal to those of Eagle, with Stingray leavened with stills taken from the TV series in place of certain panels. Supercar, in contrast, appeared in black and white, set in 1965, and was played primarily as a comedy.
The back page was given over to a full-colour series about The Daleks, taking up their history from the war on Skaro with the Thals that devastated the planet and led to the construction of the Dalek machines, which in the beginning were merely casings and vehicles protecting a disgusting looking and small organic creature within.
The other two series are long-forgotten now, being a one-page comedy adaptation of the American sitcom My Favourite Martian and a two-page adaptation of the police procedural, Burke’s Law.

My Favourite Martian was one of my favourites of that early Sixties wave of American sitcoms that used to fill the schedules around tea-time. It starred a young Bill Bixby as Tim O’Hara, a reporter, and Ray Walston as Martin the Martian, who’d crash-landed on Earth and, to conceal his secret whilst he was trying to repair his ship, posed as Tim’s Uncle. Martin had various Martian powers, most often invisibility, and two antenna that grew out of his head.
Burke’s Law was a different thing. I don’t remember actually watching it, probably because it held down the 8.00 – 9.00pm slot, when 8.00pm was my bed-time. I do remember a part of its theme tune, the female, breathy cooing of the title. It was a vehicle for Gene Barry, as Amos Burke, a millionaire Police Captain in LA’s Homicide Division, who was driven around in a Roll’s Royce Silver Cloud, and who solved crimes and dropped pithy lines whilst his underlings ran round doing the work.
Both were reproduced as simplified stories in cartoon b&w doing a good caricature of the actors involved, and Supercar, despite being of the Anderson stable, should be grouped with them, but they were also-rans to the colour series, which were detailed and accurate representations of the puppets and the equipment. Mike Noble drew Fireball XL5, Ron Embleton Stingray, and Hampson Studio veteran Eric Eden Lady Penelope. The Daleks were drawn by former Storm Nelson and Eagle star, Richard E Jennings.
The comic was the creation of Alan Fennell, script editor for the Anderson studio, principal writer for TV21, and writer of a couple of paperback novels featuring Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet’s Angels, down the line.

The Eagle comparisons extended to more than paper quality and full colour art as the comic also featured factual articles on space, the oceans and countries around the world. There was also a micro-celebrity feature where Lady Penelope answered questions about TV stars. The space articles, by Roger Dunn of the British Interplanetary Society, were especially fascinating, coming as they did halfway between the first Apollo launches and the actual Moon landing, making them historical documents of the (simplified) development of space travel.
There was also a curious Eagle-like wildlife series, The World We Share, each week featuring a different creature, be it animal, bird, fish or snake. At least 80% of these fellow creatures turned out to be vicious, lethal predators of a kind you wouldn’t even want to share a pen-pal correspondence with!
Though it looked like caricatural cartooning from the start, it took me quite some time to see an increasing continental influence on Supercar, primarily in the poses and actions. The strip may not have originated in Pilote or Spirou (unless rights to Supercar had been sold before TV21 was a gleam in Alan Fennell’s eye), but I strongly suspect a French or Belgian cartoonist.

It wasn’t until issue 15, 1 May, that I recognised a couple of things: a line in Burke’s Law, the closing panel in The Daleks, which I already remembered and had been expecting. I don’t think that was necessarily my first issue, however.
Amos Burke received a new artist the next issue, one with a far more representational style which, given its similarity to one of the existing crew, I’m confidently ascribing to Gerry Embleton, Ron’s brother. The feature was also upgraded to a semi-serial, with each story now taking two weeks to conclude. Gerry Embleton, if indeed it were him, was excellent in realistically portraying Burke and his two side men, though as the weeks went by, he did seem to rely on a very limited stock of headshots for the trio.
The underlying idea was still the Supermarionation Universe, and the several series, Supercar aside, were treated as occurring simultaneously. This was primarily a background theme, more often on the newspaper cover than in the strips, where occasional mention was made of the other services, but there was an interesting crossover in issue 19 (29 May). The Fireball XL5 serial running featured an attempt to avoid space war with the adjoining Astran Empire (the Astrans looking like human-sized coloured jellybeans). Disaster was threatened in Fireball XL5 when the Astran Kaplan (or Emperor) was assassinated in Earth’s capitol, Unity City.
Fortunately, Lady Penelope and Parker were taking a week off between stories, and their strip saw Thunderbirds’ future London Agent track down and capture the assassin, leaving him tied to a lamppost for Steve Zodiac and Commander Zero to pick up! I don’t believe such a crossover had ever taken place in British comics before.
The story continued in Fireball XL5 the following week, with Steve and the Commander rammed off the road and the assassin being killed, but the thought was there.
Fittingly enough, the comic’s first new feature arrived in issue 21 (12 June), in the form of a one page b&w strip, 21. This was set in 2046 and featured toy salesman Brent Cleever of Century 21 Toys, a front for the Universal Secret Service. Cleever is Special Agent 21, already familiar to the readers as the seeming editor of the comic, Twenty One, bringing news, letters and quizzes to the audience and now being personified (artist John Cooper’s ‘likeness’ was, of course, no likeness at all, Twenty One being a highly secret figure.)

Meanwhile, the Astra assassination story took another crossover twist, with Stingray joining in for another one-off continuation, shooting down the villains as they attempted to flee underwater.
The Dalek strip on the back page was the justification for issue 28 (31 July) to break with the Anderson theme and feature the cinema Dr Who film on the photo cover. This was Dr Who and the Daleks, Peter Cushing’s non-canonical outing as the Doctor, with an annoyingly spoilery feature on the film, giving away the entire story, inside. The following week there was a poignant moment, as Roger Dunn’s space feature, working its way through the Solar System, reached Neptune. The page included a sidebar on real-life astronauts which, that week, highlighted a 34 year old back-up pilot for ‘a forthcoming Gemini mission’. The man was Neil Armstrong, who would become the first man to walk upon the Moon.
Agent Twenty-One established another link between the Anderson worlds when it was revealed that Brent Cleever’s boss, S, was former General Zodiac, namely the father of Fireball XL5’s Steve Zodiac: a decidedly Marvel Universe moment.
The same strip was given an upgrade in issue 37 (2 October) with a change of art-style to a superb, soft pencil shading technique, introducing a host of grey shades into what had been a plain pen-and-ink approach. This delicate style was toned down after only a week, though the series showed an admirable modernity by sending Twenty-One’s assistant in by parachute to save him, his assistant being Agent Twenty-Three, Tina, a woman!
And there was a switch of artists on Fireball XL5 in issue 40 (23 October) with Mike Noble’s clean and simple lines being replaced by an artist who was trying to render the crew’s faces more like-like than puppet-like, with varying degrees of success: almost perfect on Mat Matic, patchy with Steve Zodiac and bottling out of trying to depict Venus at all. This was only for a four part story, however, with Noble back for the new story starting in issue 44 (21 November).
This turned into another of those tales I remembered, as a new engine fitted to Fireball for testing saw it travel so fast, it went back in time. To the soon-to-come 1966…

Issue 44 also saw a foretaste of what was to come, as the Lady Penelope Investigates mini-feature was expanded to a page and filled with colour photos as the Lady investigated Thunderbirds over two weeks. The Anderson studio’s most popular and successful series had debuted on 30 September (the week of issue 36) in three ITV regions, and we of Granada had had it the next month. Lady Penelope’s series had been a foreshadowing, and it was plainly only a matter of time before the International Rescue organisation would make its debut in TV Century 21.
The Thunderbirds connection took another turn in the new Lady Penelope adventure, with the arrival of a mysterious torch at Creighton-Ward Manor drawing the attention of both British Intelligence and an exotic freelance spy, a bald man with bushy eyebrows going by the name of The Hood…
The same issue also confirmed that the Supercar strip, which had suddenly developed serial-like aspects, had undergone a permanent cutback to 1½ pages.
And in issue 46, the countdown began, the first of five full page colour photos of the Thunderbird craft and their pilots. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… And or those with sharp eyes, a two-page boardgame space race was decorated by drawings of Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 5 from two angles, the artwork being identifiable as being by Frank Bellamy.
But the Thunderbirds countdown had only reached 2 when TV Century 21 reached issue 49, 25 December, bringing to an end the comic’s first year. It’s funny to think that, re-reading these issues in December 2018, I am slightly nearer the 2065 of the comic’s fictional era than the 1965 of its production.
What’s my impression of this first year, so much later? I’m sorry to say that I found most of it impressive but bland. There’s a high standard of full colour art, reproduced on paper fit to show it at is best, and the artists in use represent some of the best talents of their time. The imagery is clean and bright, the colours primary, and each of the Anderson series is a wonderful thing that I still love to this day.
But there’s something essential to good comics series that’s mainly missing from all the colour Anderson strips, and that’s living, breathing people. Let us not forget that these were all puppet series, in which the least realistic elements were the puppet people. They were all SF series in which the focus was on the machinery: it was Fireball XL5, not Steve Zodiac, Stingray, not Troy Tempest. The focus had to be on the equipment, because the only way to make the puppets remotely natural was to sit them down at pilot’s consoles.
And this carries over into the various comics series. The artists are forced to draw people who are based on puppets, artificial, caricatural humans beings, and are only being held to be successful by literal ten year old boys such as myself to the extent that the characters most closely resemble their originals.
Though it’s a comedy series, Supercar works the best because the characters are characters, no matter how much they are played for laughs, and Supercar itself is much the smallest part of the strip. And both Burke’s Law and My Favourite Martian are more substantial because they derive from real people and take on more substance by association.
Nor are the Anderson series done any favours by the brevity of their stories, allowing insufficient time and space for complexity to develop, because complexity can either enable more realistic character portrayals, or at least cover up their absence a bit better.
But this is merely the first year. Will we see an improvement when we move on into 2066?

Eagle Volume 12 (1961)


The new front page

The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.

Gone

Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.

Paradoxically, the future…

Dan Dare: The Moonsleepers


…in One Thousand Million

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

Dan Dare: The Earth-Stealers


                                                                                      A Don Harley panel

And this is an undeniable nadir.
The Earth-Stealers is a horrible mess from beginning to truncated end, thirteen weeks of which not a panel can be justified, a story whose provisions and effects disappear utterly the moment the next story begins, and which is an insurmountable block in any attempt to collate the various Dan Dare stories into a coherent chronology.
Nor does it have any artistic highlights to at least leaven the criticism, for it is presented throughout in the horrible split-cover fashion foisted on Eagle in the latter weeks of The Platinum Planet, complete with the airless five tier cram on page 2.
Dan and Digby, in the Zylbat, return from years away in deep space to find the Earth surrounded by clouds so that it looks like Venus. Under the cloud cover, they find that the planet has drastically changed: Spacefleet HQ is under water, so too is London, capital cities the world round are deserted and English country villages have turned into swamp and jungle in the tropical heat. In fact, the whole of Earth’s population has vanished.
Finally, our heroes find a remote settlement high in the Andes, only to find themselves shot at when they climb over its wall. The camp belongs to Earth Reclamation Ltd, and the pair are brought before its Director, a South American looking type called Malvol, whose assistant looks like an ex-Nazi concentration camp commander (and probably is).
This is where we get the explanation. During the years of Dan and Digby’s absence (and we are given no clue as to how many years that is), Earth underwent a dramatic increase in temperature and expansive climatic change, shortly followed by a virulent but unexplained plague, which decimated population, so Earth’s Government gave up and evacuated the planet to Mars. Malvol has been given the job of investigating if it’s going to be possible to come back, with a bit of work, but it’s immediately obvious that he’s planning on taking over for himself.
You may well be asking yourself, What the F? (sorry, the Reverend Marcus Morris may be long gone but we’ll have no language like that around here, even though it’s by far and away the most appropriate). This is a large chunk of hindsight, given the years we’ve been exposed to theories about Global Warming and the long term gradual effects of what man has achieved in a considerably more polluted world than that of Dan Dare, but just how bloody long are he and Digby supposed to have been away for?
Climate-changed planet incapable of supporting life, AND a devastating plague all at once? Evacuation to Mars, which is incapable of supporting human life outside of its luxury and limited dome accommodation? Are you serious about this? Giving a private, commercial organisation the contract to see if the planet’s fit to move back to when half of it is still underwater, and lions have shifted their natural habitat to Surrey?
There isn’t an ounce of this that’s remotely plausible, and since we all know that Dan’s going to expose Malvol as some kind of would-be dictator anyway, there is no remotely conceivable way of getting out of this situation for as long as the Dan Dare series lives. The storyline is beyond a joke.
As is the incredibly perfunctory ending. Dan and Digby escape in the Zylbat and head towards Mars to verify this idiot tale. Malvol frames them as having the Plague, which at least results in the unloved (by me) Zylbat being blown to pieces. We don’t get to see anything on Mars that would remotely make the background credible, just Spacefleet’s new HQ and Acting-Controller Burke, late of the Security Division (Sir Hubert went off on a deep space mission shortly after the Zylbat first disappeared: nothing comes of that, so maybe a search for him might have been the next storyline if something bigger hadn’t intervened).
Burke’s suspicious of Malvol but hasn’t a shred of proof, so he lets Dan and Digby ‘escape’ in an unguarded two-seater, to go back to Earth and get the goods for him. En route, Dan catches up on the papers, and discovers a series of discouraging reports from one of Malvol’s experts, our old friend Lex O’Malley.
Sure enough, once Dan tracks Lex down, the Irishman confirms that his reports have been altered for the worse, obviously by Malvol. The Earth is a lot closer to being rehabitable than Mars thinks, despite the overwhelming evidence we’ve seen with Dan. It’s a long time since these friends have seen each other, but Dan hasn’t a word of friendship for the bloke he took to Cryptos: just a business call, no fraternising.
As for Lex, we have some spectacularly poor scripting from Eden, who can’t write a line of dialogue without lapsing into stage Irish cliché in word or accent. O’Malley was never remotely like this, which is not Irish but Oirish: Eden’s ear is horribly tin in this respect.
Anyway, the reason Malvol’s gotten away with everything so far is QX, which is not a forerunner of Spike Milligan’s anarchic BBC2 comedy series’ but a drug that renders Spacefleet visitors from Mars very suggestible about what they think they see, hear and, on this occasion, do. Malvol’s ready to take Mars over militarily, with a flotilla of Spacefleet ships to carry the bombs.
Until Dan and Lex pour all the QX away down the sink. Then it’s just a matter of telling everyone to pretend to be drugged until Malvol is off-Earth and neutralised, whereupon they all beat the living crap out of the would-be dictator and his Nazi aide. End of story.
I’m not going to go on about this story. What I’ve said so far is sufficient to describe the tale. But Eden is not solely culpable for the abrupt, oversimple ending. Elsewhere in Eagle, series’ were coming to sudden endings, stories were cut short. Odhams had owned Eagle for two and a half years, but now it was their turn to be bought out, this time by Longacre Press. Odhams’ name would return to the comics, as an imprint, later in the decade, but Longacre were going to put their own stamp on Eagle, and it would be the biggest upheaval the comic ever experienced.

Dan Dare: The Platinum Planet


                                                                                      The first page

Whilst Mission of the Earthmen and The Solid-space Mystery had been decent, if not inspired efforts at maintaining the standard of Dan Dare stories, The Platinum Planet was where things started to fall apart, a process accelerated in the closing weeks of the story, when a front page re-design cramped up the page area in which Harley and Cornwell had to work, with effects we will go on to discuss.
At the beginning, the set-up offered almost unlimited potential: one of the Mekon’s adherents, escaping Venus Rehabilitation Camp, has stolen a spaceship and aimed for Spacefleet HQ to cause havoc. His target was the Control Tower, and it was not a good auger for things that he missed it completely, for no reason, and instead crashed into an unimportant hanger. Nevertheless, Dan and Digby decided to use the Zylbat’s VTO engines to control the resultant fire with their downdraft, only for the fuel stored under the hangar to go off. The Zylbat’s controls were damaged, and the ship took off at maximum speed, its navigation locked. Worse was to come: though our heroes repaired most of the physical damage, they were not aware that the hibernation gas pipes had been cracked and as soon as they take off their helmets…
In between episodes, the two were knocked out for as long as it took for the gas chambers to run dry. When they woke up, they were in an unknown area of space, having travelled for ‘years’. They were hopelessly lost.
But, as better writers than Eric Eden have found, it is one thing to set up an interesting situation by sending your characters on a journey, but the story stands and falls by what you have for them to find and do at journey’s end.
At this journey’s end is the Platinum Planet of the title. Dan and Digby first discover a green planet, which they narrowly avoid, after which they use their remaining fuel to follow a transporter that seems oblivious to their presence to a planet which appears to be made of platinum, with a few random rock formations. It’s actually a planet-wide artificial construction sealing off the surface from the outside.
(Can you imagine what that would entail? The labour? The time, the engineering achievement? Even if we assume this planet has platinum in abundance, it’s horrendously unbelievable.)
This is a planet with a platinum roof, beneath which, of all the things you could find on a world advanced enough to do something incredible like this, our heroes find a primitive, hypno-controlled absolute dictatorship.
Yes, the entire population lives, works, eats, sleeps, breathes with hypnotic helmets on their heads that continually control their every movement.
Scientifically, it’s perfectly plausible that the technology to build a planet-sized platinum sheath could also create this kind of absolute control but a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the idea is insane beyond belief. Even accepting that someone capable of this level of scientific advancement should actually have the mentality of a crummy gang-boss, how can you control and direct the movements of an entire planet (‘three trillion thought-controlled serfs’) and interlock their vasty and various actions?
It’s the question that blows all credibility out of the water, and it’s not made any more plausible by the fact that, by the close, Eden has produced a single person to run the entire system as a power-crazed, self-indulgent tyrant, named Astorat (a Catalan word meaning astonished, which suggests to me that either Eden made it up as a variant of Ashtoreth, a Syrian deity, or else he was making an extraordinarily perceptive metafictional comment on his own story: I’d go with the former, personally).
However, we’ve a ways to go before Master Astorat – who is as petty, vainglorious and childish as you can imagine, a walking cliché that makes this set-up even less plausible, since there’s no way he could have put this set-up together – appears on the scene. In the meantime, Dan and Digby are thrown off-planet, to the green planet, where they are expected to work for the Platinums.

                                                                               Dan and Dig meet General Zeb
Hmm, paired planets, one technically advanced, the other primitive. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct rip-off from Mission of the Earthmen. This time round, the green planet is a fiefdom of the Platinum one, populated only by the malcontents, misfits and rebels from Platinum society, or would be invaders from other planets in the system. Dan and Digby meet former General Zeb, a purple-skinned humanoid with two tremendous walrus-moustaches, one on his lip, the other on his forehead, where it sweeps round to the back of his head. Zeb explains that ‘to colonise is death’, meaning that as soon as the green planet has been properly civilised, with roads and cultivation etc., the Platinums will take that over and kill the slaves who’ve done the hard work.
Zeb, being a war leader, has not been idle. He’s built a missile to rocket a picked band of colonists back to the Platinum planet, to retrieve all their spaceships and escape. Dan decides to go one better: they’ll overthrow the dictatorship first (shades of Trip to Trouble and the Grandax of Gan).
It’s at this point, when the colonists have escaped back to the sealed-in planet, that an indignity occurs. I don’t know what lay behind the decision but, with six weeks remaining in the story, Odhams made the editorial decision to cramp and weaken Dan Dare by forcing the series to share the cover with a new feature, Men of Action. This feature was a text and art mini-account of the lives of famous people – racing drivers, motorbike riders, skiers, speed record holders, mountain climbers – placed as a strip down the left hand side of the front page, below a truncated Eagle logo box, with Dan Dare squeezed into the right hand side, it’s width approximately three-fifths that of the cover.
It was a shock, and an attack on Dan Dare’s prominence, and to make matters worse, in order to keep the episode length consistent, Harley and Cornwell had to cram the rest of the story into five narrower tiers of panels on page 2, an impossible strait-jacket. There was no room for their art to breathe, no space for anything other than the perfunctory account of what was going on.
It was a demoralising attack on the primacy of Dan Dare within Eagle. Worse would follow in the not-too-distant future, in the form of changes that all Dan’s fans have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to kill the series, and this would naturally appear to be a precursor to that move, were it not for the fact that this was still Odhams in charge, and not the soon-to-be-incoming Longacre.
What momentum remained in The Platinum Planet was killed off. The rebels win. Astorat tries to pull of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive defiant suicide but makes himself look a fool when his leap out of a high window ends in a safety net ten feet down. Once again, Dan and Dig have saved the day.
Of course, they’re still an unknown distance from Earth, having flown on for years, with no way home even if they knew the way home, but not to worry. This insoluble trap unsurprisingly proves to be only too soluble, as Zeb has a limitless number of starcharts and a few details about Earth will soon reveal it’s whereabouts (oh yes? And when exactly did he go a-roving so incredibly far from his home system and not be noticed snooping around by Spacefleet?).
And Dan and Digby can have unlimited amounts of fuel, supplies and presumably the local equivalent of hibernation gas, not that anyone thinks to mention this, to enable them to get home, years later, no doubt. I bet that doesn’t cause any problems!
No, all round, The Platinum Planet is not merely a weak story, unable to create interest in a mixture of former Dan adventures and full of clichés, it’s a dumb story that has thrown in ideas without the slightest notion as to how plausible they are. In that sense, it’s the complete antithesis of Hampson, and from three men trained by him, that’s a disaster.

Dan Dare: The Solid-space Mystery


So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen  can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.

                                                                                Recognise him?
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.


It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.

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.

The Frank Hampson Studio – At The Firs


For the first eight months of the series, Frank Hampson and his team produced Dan Dare in the constricted confines of the Bakehouse in Southport. Eagle’s editor, the Reverend Marcus Morris, continued to hold his living at Ainsdale, and to conduct services as often as his editorial duties made possible.
But Eagle‘s circulation, settling in at around three quarters of a million copies every week, made it of great importance to Hulton Press, and thus made its editor’s availability in London a thing of importance to them. And given that Dan Dare was the most important element of Eagle, and the amount of money being invested weekly into Frank Hampson and his unique studio, it was of equal importance to bring the whole studio much closer to home.
The destination was Epsom, in Surrey, home to the Derby and only twenty miles outside of London. The Morrises moved into a spacious house, The Firs, as a home, and the Hampson studio moved in right after them, bringing the entire team, and the already burgeoning reference materials that Hampson accumulated, fundamental to the consistency and realism of the art, into a private home.
It was not an easy mix. Remember too that Hampson’s approach to the strip involved two days a week of shooting and developing multiple photographs as each panel of the colour rough was staged, with multiple photos frequently required for a single scene, as each element of the same might need to be separately defined.
Add to this that the studio still consisted of half a dozen people, working the same extremely long, unsociable hours, and making cups of tea in the family kitchen all the time and it was a recipe for conflict. Hampson’s assistants did not live at the Firs, but they still spent far more time there than they did at their scattered lodgings.
And the move to Epsom brought in another member of the studio in Don Harley. Harley was at College locally, and had trained under Sir Stanley Spencer, but he had been immensely impressed by Hampson and his work, and when he qualified, he approached Hampson and was taken on board. Within a few years, Hampson would be describing him as ‘the second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and would be co-signing Harley’s name, together with his own, to the Dan Dare series.
As one man entered, another departed (not literally). The pace was punishing, so much so that Hampson fell ill during the last month of ‘The Venus Story’ and was forced to take four weeks off. Everyone was exhausted. Don Harley would leave at tea-time to go home and eat, but rarely escaped without Hampson catching him and seeking reassurances that Harley would be back: not tomorrow, but later that evening. Sometimes there were telegrams, asking why he wasn’t back yet.
Everyone was unhappy, and Eric Eden voiced the team’s concerns to Hampson. Was this punishing schedule really necessary. Were the hours not too much? Hampson was angered. Eden was his friend from Southport Art College. He’d come aboard to replace Bruce Cornwell, had moved to the other end of the country. But this was unacceptable, was insurrection. Was he the ringleader for a mass rebellion? Eden was sacked, abruptly.
His replacement was, ironically, Bruce Cornwell. Cornwell lived nearby in Ruislip and was persuaded to return on promises that things had changed, that the workload wasn’t as insane as before. It was. Cornwell moved on again.
And there were other departures, but by then the studio had moved again. It really wasn’t a good fit in the Firs. Morris’s wife, the actress Jessica Fanning, was very unhappy at having all these artists hanging around her house. They were, after all, mere employees, underlings, lucky to have a job but insufficiently grateful to her husband for that.
Hultons bit the bullet. They bought Bayford Lodge, also in Epsom, as a home for the Hampsons and a studio for the strip and the team. Here the Hampson studio would stay for the emainder of Frank Hampson’s tenure on his creation. But it still would not be entirely peaceful.

The Frank Hampson Studio – The Bakehouse Days


‘The Venus Story’ lasted almost eighteen months, the longest story ever to appear in Eagle, and possibly the longest story ever to appear in a British boys comic. It was originated by Frank Hampson who not only drew but also wrote (without compensation) the first ten episodes on his own. Hulton then provided a writer, Guy Treece, who continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson to lunch and charmingly advising that he had no idea what to do next: having been classically trained, he couldn’t possibly do more!
Hampson soldiered on with the majority of the writing, occasionally paying other writers out of his own pocket, but he would not find a reliable writer in whom he could trust on a regular basis until 1954, when Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran, would take over.
Stranks would comment that Hampson threw away an awful lot of material in The Venus Story, and that he could have made the same story last for five years! Whilst the majority of Dan Dare fans hold Stranks in high regard for bringing stability to the writing of the series, and freeing Hampson up to concentrate upon the art, taking it to even greater heights, there are others who are critical of him for doing exactly as he said, and slowing the pace down.
At the same time as Treece made his invaluable contribution, Hampson had begun assembling his studio.
Harold Johns, Hampson’s contemporary and close friend from Southport Art College, was an obvious first choice, and quiet, almost secretive advertisements in trade papers brought in young, enthusiastic artists who were fascinated by Hampson and his plans and wanted to work with him: Jocelyn Thomas and Joan Humphries (later Porter), Greta Tomlinson (who would form a very fruitful partnership with Johns) and Canadian Bruce Cornwell, a much more experienced contemporary of Hampson and the first to leave after suggesting that the punishing hours and conditions were not necessary.
With a team, a studio was required, and the most unlikely of sites was found on Botanic Road, Southport. It was called the Bakehouse, and it was a brick-built lean-to and former bakery that nevertheless offered two large overhead windows, a third in one end wall and fanlight windows along its length. It was cold and cramped – an exploded drawing of the Bakehouse was produced by Graham Bleathman for Spaceship Away and reprinted in Alastair Crompton’s high quality Hampson biography Tomorrow Revisited – and everyone hated it.
But it was home to Frank Hampson’s studio, and that meant not only Dan Dare but The Great Adventurer (the life of St Paul), Rob Conway (an undistinguished strip about an air cadet joining the search for a Himalayan secret city) and Tommy Walls, a full-page advert for Wall’s Ice Cream in comic strip fashion.
And in this tiny place, a team of seven people worked longer hours than Victorian factory hands to fulfil the vision of Frank Hampson.
As I’ve already said, each weekend Hampson – who was writing the story as well as drawing it – worked alone on two full-colour ‘rough’ pages, drawn in high detail, fully-coloured and not far from being finished. Then two days were devoted to the team posing, photographing and developing each scene, leaving only three days in which to create that week’s art. Hampson would usually take the first page, it being Eagle‘s cover, and his studio would divide the panels of page two between them.
It was not merely a case of drawing individual panels and sticking these down, whilst disciplining one’s natural talent into channeling what Hampson wanted into the realism he demanded. Some original pages are little short of a jigsaw puzzle, with cut-out space ships pasted onto Spacefleet backgrounds, and figures pasted over scenes.
It was cumbersome, it was awkward, it was draining. It took hours, long draining hours, frequently working (unpaid) extra hours until the birds woke up in the morning. And that was when Frank Hampson didn’t have another, better idea that would cause days of work to be thrown out.
Bruce Cornwell, older than his colleagues, an established professional, though it unnecessary. Given his background, he was also prepared to stand up to Hampson in arguments about art where the junior artists, in their first jobs in an era where the prevailing anticipation was of jobs being for life, were not willing to do so. Exit Sterling, enter Eric Eden, another of Hampson’s friends from Southport Art College, although in a junior year. Eden would go on to a long involvement with Dan Dare, stretching way beyond Hampson’s departure in 1959, and would become the studio’s master with the airbrush, in which role he would eventually specialise.
The Bakehouse lasted less than eight months. It was inadequate from the start and Hampson had already started looking for better. Hultons wanted Marcus Morris in London, rather than commuting from Southport and, since so much money was going into it, it was better to have Hampson’s studio closer to ‘home’ as well. At first, they had to share The Firs, in Epsom, with Morris and his actress wife, Jessica Fanning, who did not like the thought of so many strangers in her home, but eventually Hampson and his wife Dorothy bought Bayford Lodge and transferred a by then much streamlined studio to there.
Why did Hampson’s assistants put up with what were extremely cruel and stressful working conditions that would horrify anyone trying to keep up with that today? In part it was because they were young, a decade junior to Frank Hampson, who was, let’s not forget, a War veteran. This was the Fifties, and not even deep enough into the Fifties for it to have taken shape as a different decade. The War was not a decade behind, food rationing still existed when Eagle was born, and you did not question your boss.
But there were two other considerations that, given all the comments made in later life by those privileged to have worked with Frank Hampson, seem, to me, to be more powerful.
The first is that not only did Frank Hampson never ask any of his studio to do something he was not prepared to do, he committed more, far, far more, in terms of intensity, in terms of effort, in terms of sheer time even than they did. Whilst some would argue whether it was all necessary, no-one ever suggested that their boss did not do even more than he asked them to do.
And every one of them were absolutely fascinated by Frank Hampson’s work. They had a ringside seat at the creation of something that, with the greatest possible respect, was beyond them, and everybody wanted to see it happen. It sounds like a dream to me (apart from the hours): to be an artist, to have the ability to create what the eye sees, and to be part of the great wellspring of ideas of someone with the ability to create what the eye could not see.
Yes, as Don Harley, the future ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, always said, Hampson’s own pure unadulterated work needed only finishing to be complete, and in Harley’s eyes contained a freshness that the eventual art lacked, but Keith Watson, who would restore Hampson’s look to a feature that resisted being killed, pointed to what was published, and regards that as all the justidication ever needed for Hampson’s complex, unweildy approach.
And in 2014, we’re still talking about a weekly comic story created for seven year old boys. What more proof do we need that Frank Hampson did something spectacularly right?