It’s a decade now since the surprisingly successful Virgin Comics attempt to revive Dan Dare in a form acceptable to the contemporary age, and now Titan Comics have discarded the habit of a lifetime, of only publishing comics that have been successful for other people, and have hired Peter Milligan to write and Alberto Foche to draw a new series.
This time, we’re looking at four issues, so that if it’s a disaster, at least it will be brief. Today’s visit to Forbidden Planet included the first issue, so I want to record a few immediate impressions.
Garth Ennis, ten years ago, seemed an improbable writer for a traditionally ‘straight’ character who was born out of the desire to present a truly clean-cut cut, moral yet still quite human hero for young boys, yet he understood the ideals of the Pilot of the Future came from and respected Dan Dare, and his version was worthy of revival.
Milligan, on the other hand, has always been an iconoclast, an underminer of all things established, and a trickster of a writer. I’ve read very little of his work, it just not being to my taste, so I was doubtful of the choice from the moment I heard of this.
His set-up does, at first, promise a different approach. For one, there is no Prime Minister appearing as a veiled depiction of David Cameron or even, thanks all the ghosts of Spacefleet, Theresa May. On the other hand, we have the Mekon: of course we’ve got the Mekon, we always have the Mekon. It’s like only ever having Doctor Who face up to the Daleks.
Milligan’s included a lot of the old cast already: Dan, Digby, Peabody, Hank Hogan, Sir Hubert, Flamer Spry, though he’s jumbled some of them around. Digby, or ‘Digs’ is now an engineer and openly calls his Colonel ‘Dan’, Peabody’s a Special Science Advisor who walks around in uniform and carries big guns, and Dan only ever calls her Peabody. Hank’s had one line so far, and already sounds out of character.
Then there’s the Mekon. Milligan’s story, subtitled ‘He Who Dares’ actually starts five years ago, with the Mekon as the democratically elected President of Earth and Dan’s little band declared terrorists. That is, until they expose the hypnosis machine by which ol’ Greenbean has cooked the result.
He’s been in rehabilitation for five years, concentrating his supreme intelligence on growing food on the moon. Even when a Liberation Army comes to free him, he orders them to disband and hands them over to Dan for incarceration.
Can the Supreme Brain overcome the Genetic engineering that made him into a power-crazed overlord? Has he? Milligan’s certainly come at things from a previously unexplored angle (for what it’s worth, I’m going for No).
But the only problem is, if the Mekon is beaten for good, there are no enemies left. No obstacles to Galactic peace and harmony and progress. Nothing for Dan Dare to be Dan Dare for, and Dan’s actually praying for something for him to do, to get back into space for.
Which is when a dirty great spaceship appears out of nowhere, Crypt-like, and destroys one of Saturn’s moons, just like that. Dan’s prayers have been answered, or so it seems. No hint yet as to whether Tharl and his empire exist in this Future, though again I’m going for No.
Apart from this bit about Dan Dare wishing for violence and enemies, which is not, never has been and never will be any part of any legitimate version of the character, it’s reasonable enough so far. Certainly worth suspending judgement over until we see more.
As for Foche’s art, I’m always going to start off by looking askance at anything not authentically Hampsonian, and it’s fair to say that this art in no way draws from the master. Apart from a token effort with Digby, and an even more token one with Sir Hubert, oh, and of course Dan’s eyebrows (that’s all anyone ever cares about: get the eyebrows properly crinkled and it’s Dan Dare, no matter how wide of the mark everything else is), Foche makes no effort whatsoever to follow any existing design work.
And his Mekon, redesigned to make the big brain a bit more organic, has immediately become less frightening, less distinctive, less alien. Even at his most evil in the flashbacks, this guy just doesn’t look in the least bit evil: Hampson’s Mekon, indeed his Treens, were unnatural. It’s why they worked so bloody well in the first place.
But I won’t judge until the series is over, unless it takes an irreversible nosedive into the sludge to the point where it’s obviously a schtumer. There are two pages of Foche’s designs featuring half a dozen and more characters we’ve not yet met, none of whom thrill me with anticipation, but we’ll see. It won’t take long, at least.
I’ve extended this series of looking at the whole Dan Dare canon to include a handful of exercises in contributing to the extended Dare Universe, but this is where the show finally reaches the end of the road. The Invaders of Ixx is another prose novel by Denis Steeper, to follow on from the Pirates of Numidol Trilogy. It’s again set in the expanded continuity created by Steeper in The Report of the Cryptos Commission to link together all the original stories and bind them into a coherent history. The Invaders of Ixx is a much smaller, entirely linear story, set even later in Steeper’s chronology than anything before it, and resting upon one of the few continuity points Steeper was unable to incorporate into the Trilogy.
But for this link, however, it is almost completely detachable from the official canon. It is set in 2032, four years after Sir Daniel has become Controller in Chief of Spacefleet, in a universe that has changed drastically from that once depicted by Frank Hampson. Lasting peace holds between Earth and Numidol, even if mutual suspicion still affects both sides. Earth and the Therons have now moved on from their weakened state in the wake of the Treen Holocaust, though suspicion of the Treens still burns deep inside everyone. The Mekon’s resources grow ever thinner. Known Space, and the colonised worlds continue to expand. The Fenx are still an enemy and, in another region of Space, so too are the Vorde, despite a peace negotiated by Sir Daniel.
But it’s a Universe in which the cynicism that Steeper posits as inevitable after the Treen Holocaust has only gotten worse. Everyone is more corrupt inside, seeing only aliens and hating them and committing slurs. Politicians are more venal and self-directed. The military more eager for war. It’s a dirty, grimy Universe now, and one that Steeper lays on with a trowel, until it seems that only Dan and his immediate cohorts – Digby and Toby Spry, plus a Steve Valiant who is a junior but unrespected and ineffectual Dan Dare – are capable of acting with a concern for anything but their own private interest.
I’ll return to that thought before I finish, but it is all pervading.
The first of the five parts that go to make up this story, ‘Murder on Mars’, was originally serialised in Spaceship Away, where it appeared complete in itself. That concerns a plan by the Mekon to disrupt the Olympics on Mars, much as he attempted to do so when they were held on Venus, many moons ago. Mars is being terraformed, blocks of ice being catapulted from the Asteroid Belt and directed to sites on Mars where two oceans are slowly growing and more atmosphere is being pinned to the planet. The Mekon’s plan involves diverting one such iceteroid to crash onto the Olympics site…
All well and good, and properly diverted by Dan and Digby, but Steeper then goes on to build upon this footing a rather larger plan, with not too many direct links. Essentially, the Mekon has found allies, allies who are to invade the Solar System and take Mars for themselves, allies who come with an invasion fleet over 1,800 ships strong: an overwhelming enemy even for the combined forces of Earth, Theron, Thork and Lant.
These are the Ixx, and they are the insectoid race that briefly threatened the Outer Planets as long ago as Project Nimbus. Steeper posits their craft as being a scoutship for a race driven from their home planet, in search of a new home. He also posits two crewmembers being overlooked and surviving in a base on Jupiter’s Moon, Ganymede, now a part of Thorkspace.
And he posits these two Ixxians being found by the Mekon, who invites the Swarm in to take Mars from the cursed Earthmen, leaving the Mekon free to return to his rightful place on Venus. And, given the size of the Ixx Swarm, and it’s inevitable strength, humanity faces extinction.
Steeper uses the same technique as before, of multiple viewpoints weaving separate strands from multiple places. This time, without time travel, the timeline proceeds undisturbed. Dan and Digby fall into the Mekon’s hands at an early stage but escape with the aid of the two Ixxians who survived Project Nimbus, who introduced the Mekon to their people and who now bitterly regret it.
Ultimately, these two get Dan and Digby, now joined by Toby Spry, the Fleet’s leading zeno-expert, to the command of the Swarm where, with the aid of a surprisingly sympathetic senior advisor, not to mention Toby’s dueling skills with a Phant short sword, a treaty is negotiated to end the growing bloodshed without further loss or destruction to either side.
And only at the end is it revealed that the Ixx were not, in fact, the overwhelming menace they were taken for, and Earth could easily have had them. Indeed, Dan’s naturally chivalrous nature has struck one final time, instead of letting it all go to custard (a phrase that is used, over and again, in this novel, the meaning of which being obvious though not the derivation: maybe it’s just a New Zealand thing?)
I realise that I’ve presented the story in fairly perfunctory terms, and this is unfair to the novel. It is considerably more complex in its development and execution than I’m giving it credit for, and it’s a far better proof-read volume than the Trilogy. But in my present mood, I’m finding myself wanting to reject it.
Some part of that is that I am not in a sympathetic frame of mind at this time, some even is that I’ve been re-reading and writing about Dan Dare for almost a year and this is the end of it for me.
But most of it, too much of it is sadness and despondency at the Dan Dare story ending in this manner, ending in this damned grubby universe of mean and miserable people. Steeper is sadly right to say that, after the Treen Holocaust, it would be beyond naïve to think that Dan’s Earth would have, could have remained as clean and bright and optimistic, as utopianly hopeful as Frank Hampson had meant it to be. Jean Amery once said that “the first blow forever changes the torture victim’s world”. Beyond that, there is no more trust, no more illusion.
Steeper is only following that inviolable dictate. But that doesn’t make for a world in which I can be completely happy at seeing the Pilot of the Future: this, for me, is not the Future of which he was meant to be part. It may be realistic, but it is not worthy of Dan Dare, nor Digby, nor any of their companions who fought so many times to steer that world through dangerous presents, to achieve a universe that is as broken and corrupt as the one in which we live, you know, the one without an Impulse Engine.
I’d exclude The Invaders of Ixx if I could, consign it to an alternate Universe, much like that in which Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ Dare the Future belongs. But because of the Pirates of Numidol Trilogy, I can’t do that. It’s both or neither, and the Trilogy is too important to too many things in Dan’s universe to be ignored.
But I don’t have to like it.
Two things in this book exemplify the magnitude of this aspect. Steeper presents a series of newspaper headlines at the start of each chapter, from different levels of newspaper, one of which is clearly a tabloid. It’s headlines include the ongoing appearances, on page 3, natch, of Stephanie Rocket, a topless pin-up of implicitly voluminous size.
This latter aspect is emphasised when, turning the joke on its head, the implants explode during an illicit photoshoot at SFHQ.
It’s a mildly amusing but wholly irrelevant little strand, included presumably for satiric content, feeble though that is. But instead of leaving the joke at its evident punch-line, Steeper then goes on to write Ms Rocket into the actual story, with a slick lawyer intent on suing everybody even peripherally involved for million pound libel suits. A bitter taste extrudes itself into the mouth.
But for me the conclusive touch is indeed conclusive. One of Steeper’s creations is Major Hanna Bovaird, of Army Intelligence, stationed in Mekonta. Major Hanna plays an active role in investigations into the murders on Mars and subsequent intelligence operations derived from that. Her role changes once the Ixx Invasion ties up all of Earth’s resources, and Treenland revolts, throwing off the Occupation Forces’ yoke in readiness for the Mekon’s return.
Lieutenant Colonel Bovaird (promotion comes quickly) finds herself as Senior Officer. As such, she is responsible for the deeply secret Final Solution for the Treen Problem, an exceedingly illegal hydrogen bomb, stored in Mekonta, to be activated to wipe out the Mekon and the entire Treen race. Genocide.
Hanna, and a Sergeant, are the last ones left, with the responsibility of doing something that is ultimately the greatest wrong, but which will leave open the door for the human race to one day come back, a door the Mekon would close forever. It’s an irrevocable step: even the knowledge that the bomb, the plan existed, would forever change humanity’s relationship with every race that is prepared to trust it.
Dan’s success in negotiating a settlement with the Ixx obviates the need for the bomb. Hanna is a true-blue, honest, loyal patriot: though she gets a second promotion to full Colonel, she wants nothing in exchange for keeping her mouth shut. But that’s not good enough at the highest levels of Army Intelligence: the sergeant is killed in a hit-and-run accident at exactly the same time Hanna’s apartment block blows up, though she’s smart enough to avoid being in it at the time.
And to go on the run, keep out of it, until she reaches the Deputy of Spacefleet Intelligence, Steve Valiant’s old dorm-mate, Mark Straight. Under SF protection, she negotiates her safety at the highest level, a new role, posting to France, genuine prospects, and she will not speak.
All well and good. Steeper spends enough time on this, shows the value of intelligent diplomacy, the calming of the situation in everybody’s favour.
Virtually the last item in the book is a news item of the death of an Intelligence Officer, killed in a car accident in Paris, believed to have been drinking. Reports of a second car have been dismissed.
That’s too much cynicism for me. I could take it in the Trilogy, but it’s gotten too far away. No matter The Invaders of Ixx‘s qualities, I cannot accept the cynicism of the Universe any further. A very sad note on which to end this examination of Dan Dare’s Future.
I’m gratified to note that, on Peter Crawford’s Dan Dare blog, the entire story page, which contained the vast majority of rip-offs of my essays here, no longer exists: thank you, Google.
This still leaves his Introduction, which is, of course, my Introduction, and the section on Flamer Spry on the page about Characters is my ‘Elephant in the Spaceship’ blog, with some light editing to remove the title.
Hopefully, Mr Crawford will take the hint and clean up his act, but if those pages still exist tomorrow, I’ll be submitting further Complaints about both.
Get it through your head, Mr Crawford, that what other people spend time and thought in preparing and writing and putting on the Internet is not for you to freely thieve and claim to be your own work. Someone supposedly ten years older than me, not that your picture suggests that, should have been taught better.
The truth was, there wasn’t that much that was radically different about Frank Bellamy’s first Dan Dare page, on the cover of Eagle Volume 10 no 28. But then again we were not privy to Bellamy’s original art which, legendarily, featured a close-up on Dan which was not recognisable as the Pilot of the Future. To Bellamy’s (private) mortification, Don Harley was brought in to redraw Dan’s face for consistency – a move that distinctly pre-dates the similar treatment handed out to Jack Kirby when he first drew Superman.
Artistically, the remainder of Terra Nova is something of a mish-mash. Bellamy clearly decided not to launch immediately into wholesale artistic changes, but to tone his naturally dynamic style down in the first few weeks, so as not to rattle the audience. And there was also the matter of Harley/Watson’s page. It’s no disrespect to either man to say that they couldn’t draw like Frank Bellamy, but they were also steeped in Frank Hampson’s style and there was a contrast.
Nor was Bellamy favoured by the point of the story where he took over, which was not conducive to dramatic action and exciting perspectives – and he was frustrated from making the major changes Odhams wanted by being in the middle of an ongoing story, millions of miles from Earth: there could be no abrupt changes in uniform or spaceship design for a long time.
Whilst I’m by no means qualified as an art critic, the fundamental differences between Messrs Hampson and Bellamy that I see can be broken down thus: Stylism vs Realism, Interpretative vs Dramatic art, Line vs Dot.
The first of these is in some respects a false dichotomy. Hampson strove at all times for realistic, convincing art, art that depicted the fantastic in such depth that it would be automatically accepted as real, as Truthful. Three of the characters appearing in Terra Nova were based directly upon real people, Robert Hampson, Peter Hampson and Greta Tomlinson. But neither Dan nor Digby had been based in any comparable degree on models. To that extent, they were abstractions, stylised figures, still reflecting a touch of the symbolic: Dan’s long face, lantern jaw and his eyebrow quirk, Digby’s rotundity, his quiff and those decidedly cartoon eyes. They were stylisms designed by Hampson to facilitate the instant recognisability of characters who would be spending large periods of time in generally identikit spacesuits: think of Hank Hogan’s glasses, Pierre Lafayette’s moustaches.
Bellamy, in contrast, was always far more of a photorealist in his approach. He’d cut his teeth at Eagle on real-life histories and he’d been entrusted with drawing Winston Churchill – Churchill, the Greatest Living Englishman, as the period saw him – and that was down to the realism inherent in every brush-stroke. Physically, Dan and Digby become ‘real’ figures in a way very different to that established by Hampson. The underlying cartoon is stripped out. Digby’s eyes develop irises and pupils. Dan’s eyebrows start to look improbable, freakish. And there’s a close-up panel of Jocelyn Peabody that would make you start to think a bit differently about Greta Tomlinson.
No wonder Don Harley had to re-draw that first panel.
The second difference is easier to define. Hampson, from the first, was concerned with what he called the ‘pictorial sub-plot’. This was the second reading, where the boy, having satisfied himself as to the latest development of the plot, would return to study each panel, to read himself into those panels, to ‘walk around’ the consistent, convincing, strange-yet-understandable world in which Dan & Co existed.
Bellamy simply didn’t think that way. His images were concerned with immediacy, with the exiting effect each instant had, not with any longer term attempt to convince people that here was a real, alien world that had functioned before Dan & Co came to this spot, and which would continue to function thereafter. All that mattered was this instant.
Hampson focussed on showing his readers exactly what happened, in imaging an entire world into being for them. Bellamy thrilled them, made them gasp in awe, scared them, but did not even attempt to address what kind of world lay behind the image.
The third difference is a purely artistic distinction. Both Hampson and Bellamy pursued realistic art in terms of the panels they drew. But for Hampson, detail, shade, contrast, these were all achieved by consistent line-work. Short, straight lines, hatching, meticulously laid into place. This detail of work is what so consistently set Hampson’s work apart from his assistants. But it sets it apart from Bellamy, because the latter’s artistic style was built around a form of pointillism. Bellamy used dots as opposed to lines, intense and detailed and as distinctive as Hampson, but also better suited to his dynamism, since pointillism was always associated with the Impressionist approach. It can be much more conducive to impressing an image, where hatching imposes a greater solidity. It’s a fluid approach, and one that, in Bellamy’s hands, was glorious to read.
But it did not help Harley/Watson one little bit in producing work that would complement Bellamy as opposed to jar wildly against his look. And, once Bellamy had relaxed into his own style of lay-out, the intensity and photorealism of his best work, the contrast with the other page is indeed jarring. Which could not be anything but bad for the story.
Ah, the story. The poor story. Terra Nova‘s back was broken when Frank Hampson left. The grand story cycle was dead in the water. Alan Stranks was no longer there to guide the story as he had done for the past half-decade, half Dan Dare’s life. To replace him, Eric Eden returned once more, this time as scripter. His brief was obviously to get this thing over with as soon as he could (though that would take six months and another story before he could do that: Odhams may well have fumed at the delay but they would not take it out on Eden, who would script the series for another two years after that).
I’ll have more to say about Eden in later posts. He came in on a hiding to nothing and I won’t blame him for what follows. Dan, Dig and Sir Hubert are taken to the Novad city, in the jungle, on an isolated peak, where they discover that Captain Dare not only passed that way but stayed many years, naming the city Pax (latin for Peace), helping the villagers and even teaching one perfect English that he recalls on the spot despite having not practiced speaking it for ten years.
That’s right, Dan’s Dad stayed for what must have logically been twenty years and then moved on, across the ocean, about ten years ago, in search of other Novad civilisations with scientific achievements that might get him back home to his son. So basically he sat around for twenty years before starting to work on a return?
(And we’ve still not considered the point that, in the thirty years Captain Dare has gone, his son – and all his friends around him – have had ten years taken out of their lives courtesy of suspended animation, so is that thirty years real or subjective? Has Captain Dare been away for forty years?).
That established, Terra Nova relapses. The Novads are continually threatened by the Nagrebs: not another tribe but a colony of giant ants (and people thought Stranks prone to cliché). Flamer, Lex and the Prof come planet-side in search of their friends and are attacked by the Nagrebs. Dan goes off to rescue Lex and Peabody, then uses Anastasia to bomb the living shit out of the ant’s nest: bye bye menace.
All of which may have been based upon Stranks’ original synopsis for this part of the cycle but somehow I can’t see Hampson tolerating such a dull idea for anything greater than an Annual. Terra Nova ends with Dan still in pursuit of his father, and having Digby and Lex detached to assist him. Sir Hubert stays behind to help McHoo map the heavens on the Galactic Galleon, the Professor and Cadet Spry to help improve the biochemistry of the food available to the Novads of Pax.
Take a long look at Jocelyn and Flamer for this is their departure point. From here, they are declared redundant to the Dan Dare series. There are more adventures to come for other’s of Dan’s supporting cast, even in the fast-approaching Sixties when Keith Watson would be the Dan Dare artist, fighting at all turns to reflect and restore the glory days.
There is literally one last appearance for them at the wrap-up of this cycle. Each will appear in a glorious montage panel that features literally everyone of any importance to the series, in 1964. The ‘ultimate’ fates of everyone bar Flamer will be revealed a year after, and at the very end they will gather on a stage to celebrate the end of the series.
But this is where they leave, quietly, unwanted by Eagle‘s new masters. Despite my reservations about the Astral College Junior Cadet, it is sad to see them go.
Where The Man from Nowhere had imbalanced itself by stretching the journey from Earth out to fully half the length of the story, by 1959, Frank Hampson had learned better. Terra Nova started immediately after the blast-off from the McHoo Asteroid Belt base, and it took a mere four weeks to get into orbit around Earth’s twin planet, four weeks that were occupied mainly by a near disastrous extra-vehicular expedition for the male members of the team, and the incidental discovery of a micro-galaxy through which the Galactic Galleon ploughed en route.
This was a far better approach, keeping the main purpose of the story well to the forefront of the readers’ attention. For on arrival at Terra Nova, the expedition discovered the shell of the Galactic Pioneer, intact but abandoned, in orbit about the planet. Dan Dare insisted on being the first to explore the stranded ship.
Frank Hampson had planned a whole cycle of stories. Dan Dare would pursue the trail of his missing father from planet to planet across the Novad system: new adventures, new environments and, what? What would Dan find? Surely, ultimately, he would be reunited with the father had had missed for most of his life. Given his primary audience, given that his own father had been an integral part of the story, as Sir Hubert Guest, from the very outset, Hampson could not have intended to end his saga with disappointment and death. Surely parental loss could not be the ultimate end of a story told to children in an optimist’s universe?
So Dan entered the derelict spaceship and makes his way to the pilot’s cabin where he finds a body. But the following week, he confirmed that it was Copernicus McHoo. Captain Dare has escaped the ship and descended to Terra Nova, but where? A tour of the planet at night, in Anastasia, identifies concentrations of light, and therefore settlements, so Dan, Dig and Sir Hubert descend to investigate further.
At this point, seven weeks into the story, events in the outside world intervened. A nationwide printer’s strike took Eagle off the street for ten long weeks. Two issues stood in hand, numbered but not dated, ready to go to print when the strike was lifted. The end was sudden, no time to add dates to these unnumbered issues, just the rush to get them out, resume circulation. The second of these featured a fine, silent front page from Hampson as a race of primitive tribesmen prepare their forces to capture the intruders, Dan, Dig and Sir Hubert. The date returned to the cover the week after but there was an even greater shock. Frank Hampson had gone. He would never return.
Whatever the truth of the final weeks of The Phantom Fleet, Frank Hampson had used the time well to plan the next phase of Dan Dare’s adventures. In keeping with the broad, sweeping themes of the Man from Nowhere trilogy, Hampson planned an extensive sequence, a series of adventures across a strange planetary system, as Dan pursued an important psychological goal. It was going to be glorious, majestic even. It never happened.
As a prelude to this cycle, Hampson devised Safari in Space. At eighteen weeks in length, it was second only to The Ship That Lived in its brevity, but whereas the latter was a coda-within-a-coda, Safari‘s position as a scene-setter, a gateway to greater things, made its modest length entirely appropriate.
For nobody was to know that it was to be the last full Dan Dare story that Frank Hampson would devise and draw. But that’s not for now.
It’s noticeable that, after a period spent trying to escape from the daily grind of drawing into a directorial role, Hampson had returned in full force. If Rogue Planet had demonstrated the mature Hampson at his peak, then Safari in Space would surpass that work for images that were some of the most glowing, enthralling, highly-detailed and plain superb of his career.
Indeed, the opening page would turn out to be Frank Hampson’s favourite among all the Dan Dare pages he drew, as he later admitted. And it’s a worthy favourite, a single, full-page scene, simultaneously cinematic and near three-dimensional, and featuring some of the most vibrant and astounding colouring the series ever enjoyed,
Dan and Digby are on leave, which they’ve chosen to spend in the Venusian southern hemisphere, on the unexplored island of Maraku. Unsurprisingly, they’ve once again included Flamer Spry in their expedition, although there is no sign of Stripey (nor will there be again, nor any regret from Digby for the loss of his pet). Whilst Digby sets out to cook, Dan and Flamer are led by their Atlantean guides to the Black Lake, where Flamer arouses a stereotypical sea-serpent by throwing a stone. But whilst this is going on, Digby is shot in the back at camp by an electro-stunner. His assailant takes off in Anastasia.
This is just the start. When Dan and Flamer return to camp, they are swept up in a flying net and taken prisoner. Nor does it end there for, in the northern hemisphere, a slightly unlikely trio are on leave in Mekonta, these being Sir Hubert Guest, Lex O’Malley and, in a rather fetching yellow one-piece bathing costume, Professor Jocelyn Peabody (Peabody and O’Malley? Hmmm).
Peabody sees the mysterious ship surface in the Mekontan lagoon, but her sighting is dismissed with casual misogyny by her two male co-vacationers, as typical female hysteria brought on by the Venusian sun. However, once they think to turn their heads, on hearing Peabody scream at being dragged into the water, they both leap gallantly, but ineffectually to the rescue.
The spaceship leaves Mekonta for space, bound for an unknown base, with its five prisoners. Dan has a pocket-tracker that indicates they are bound for the Asteroid Belt, but there is no major space-port there. (This in a Universe post-the Treen Holocaust on Reign of the Robots). Their only clue is that their kidnappers speak in, of all things, a Scottish accent. This seems to give the game away to Sir Hubert, though he doesn’t share his suspicions with anyone else, least of all the readers.
Explanations are given once the mysterious ship lands at a magnificently equipped base in the Belt (complete with cows to provide fresh milk). Digby, and Anastasia, are already there, as are correct uniforms, and some decent threads for the Professor. And it’s all so impeccably, implacably Scottish, even down to the fact that the kidnappers only refer to Dan – who is half-Scottish himself on his mother’s side – as ‘McGregor Dare’.
Sir Hubert’s suspicions are proved correct when the sextet are brought before the Chieftain, Galileo McHoo, Laird of Clan McHoo, who own and operate Cosmic Shipping, Earth’s largest and most successful commercial spaceflight providers. Galileo is nephew to Copernicus McHoo, Cosmic’s founder, and son to Halley McHoo, a brilliant scientist whose work was scorned on Earth, hence the construction of this base where he could pursue his theories.
Dan and Co are here because of events thirty years earlier. Copernicus had discovered a distant planet whose temperature and atmosphere were so close in composition to Earth that he had named it Terra Nova. And Halley had developed an incredible space hyperdrive that could cross the distance to the new planet.
Between them, with Cosmic’s resources, the McHoo brothers had designed and built the Galactic Pioneer, and Copernicus, accompanied by his best friend, and Cosmic’s test pilot, had taken off for Terra Nova. But something went tragically wrong on take-off: there was an explosion that destroyed New Caledonia, killing Halley McHoo. But a final radio message confirmed that the Pioneer had lifted off safely, and begun its voyage
Galileo McHoo has spent the past thirty years rebuilding Cosmic, New Caledonia and, finally the Galactic Galleon, a sister ship complete with his own improvements, now ready to take-off for Terra Nova, to discover the fate of Copernicus McHoo and his co-pilot – who may still be alive.
And the McHoos have kidnapped Daniel McGregor Dare, Sir Hubert Guest, Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, a team of space explorers without equal, to go on this flight. (O’Malley and Spry are mere unwanted obstructions, though O’Malley’s reaction is priceless, telling McHoo that he’ll never get anywhere without at least one Irishman on board!)
The team’s reaction is mixed. Sir Hubert is sceptical, Digby his usual reluctant self, Peabody, O’Malley and Spry are all intrigued and enthused. But it is to Dan that everyone looks, and for Dan there is simply no question. Thirty years ago, he was told that his father, Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare, had died in a test flight. Now he has learned otherwise. For Cosmic’s test pilot, and Copernicus’s best friend and co-pilot was Mad Billy Dare.
Dan’s father is out there, somewhere, and maybe he’s still alive. There isn’t an atom of Dan Dare’s body that can not want to go.
Everyone, including Sir Hubert, agrees to join the expedition, though the Controller is merely biding his time, a time that doesn’t need biding for long as a Spacefleet Squadron is hot on their trail and in pretty short order surrounds the base. The plot appears to have been nipped in the bud, but Sir Hubert hasn’t reckoned with the fanaticism of Galileo McHoo, who is prepared to detonate an explosion that will wipe out everyone – the entire base and Sir Hubert’s men in their pursuing ships – if they do not immediately agree to join him on board the Galactic Galleon. Given the circumstances, the sailor and the boy will have to go too (as if there was ever any real risk of their being left behind).
This leads directly to a page of such stunning detail and colour that I have no hesitation in declaring it my favourite Hampson page ever. It’s a single image of the Galactic Galleon in its launch chamber, with Flamer and Digby to the foreground, and if I could ever afford even one page of Dan Dare original art, this would be it.
So everyone, including McHoo, boards. The Galleon rises slowly on launch jets until it exits the dome. And then it blows free, a spaceship bigger and bulkier than any seen before, dwarfing the Spacefleet squadron and barrelling through them and away. And that’s before the Halley drive is employed, and the ship just runs away from all pursuit and all surveillance.
En route to Terra Nova. En route to, perhaps, Dan’s reunion with his long lost father. En route to the greatest Dan Dare story of all time.
I’ve already written at length about Dan Dare and The Phantom Fleet for Spaceship Away 23, also available on this blog here.
Before I first read this story, in the Hawk Books facsimile reprint series, the only thing I knew about the background to this story was the very limited reference made to it by Alastair Crompton in the wonderful The Man Who Drew Tomorrow: “(not a success in most people’s eyes, Marcus [Morris] gave him instructions to cut it short)” (brackets in original). Crompton has since updated and revised his book as Tomorrow Revisited from which the above comment has been removed, but still praises Hampson for being not so egotistical that he couldn’t accept others’ opinions when work was sub-par, which amounts to the same thing.
This brief dismissal left me greatly intrigued about The Phantom Fleet and, in a perverse way, almost determined to enjoy it.
My previous essay set out to explore at what point this wrap it up ‘command’ had come, and the effect this had had on the story. Indeed, as far as I was concerned, most of what was wrong with this story was a consequence, not a cause precedent, of such interference, and I was arrogant enough to suggest a more Hampson-like ending that I still believe would have vastly improved The Phantom Fleet.
However, the best outcome was that my article was the spur for a letter published the following issue, from David Gould, a former Fleetway lettering artist and a contributor to Dan Dare fandom, bringing back to light information that had been published in the Eighties that included the original Phantom Fleet synopsis, and a memo to Marcus Morris about the unwelcome prospect of the story being extended into a second phase, under a change of name, but which also commented that Hampson himself would be happy himself to see this tale wound up, allowing Dan to start exploring new planets again.
There are different opinions to this day about The Phantom Fleet, and whilst I am still in the camp of those who don’t think it deserves its poor reputation, it can hardly be argued that it is without flaws, especially with regard to its ending.
To begin with, The Phantom Fleet has to operate under the handicap of following the Man from Nowhere Trilogy. For just short of three years, Hampson and Co had guided their audience through non-stop, high-power adventure, for great stakes: a planetary invasion to foil, the Earth to liberate from the Mekon. And suddenly, after literally longer than most of Dan’s readers could remember, they had a new story to read. A new story, with new dangers, new opponents, new problems, all of which had to be set up. The non-stop action of three whole years had had to stop.
Moreover, just as with Reign of the Robots, the story is set on Earth, and is about another threatened invasion by an alien race.
This created a massive internal opposition within the story. Because you’d hardly know that Earth had just come out of a decade of Treen Occupation. Spacefleet is back up to full strength, an entire fleet of alien ships enters the Solar System unnoticed and, after ten years of devastation at the Mekon’s hands, when it is proposed that a wholly unknown alien race should colonise one of Earth’s oceans, only a single member of the World Government Cabinet seriously objects – and he is made to appear an extremist! And if that is not enough, the Treens are already operating their own, independently controlled fleet of fighting spaceships!
Captive of the Pescods
Stranks’ synopsis makes clear that the ‘Phantom Fleet’ and its unknown occupants are to be considered a danger throughout. The very presence of the Fleet cuts radio/electronic communication throughout the Solar System, leaving Dan and Digby (in Anastasia) to operate on sight only as they seek to retrieve Sir Hubert from the luxury liner Gargantua, which is in danger.
Hampson however had already made one substantial, if not major change to the synopsis. In Stranks’ original plan, Professor Peabody would have been heavily involved from the start, but Hampson replaces her with Flamer Spry (and Stripey).
But after episode 8, the synopsis is as good as junked, with an unexpected change of direction. The Cosmobes, having been built up as a danger to the entire System, are revealed to be small and cute, and the idea that they plan to take over Earth and shape it to their needs is completely forgotten: the newcomers just want help: a single ocean to occupy. It’s the Crypts all over again; especially once the Cosmobes reveal that they’re being pursued by a hereditary enemy, the Pescods (who are not even mentioned in the synopsis).
The parallels increase when we discover that the Cosmobes are not above lying and manipulating for their own benefit. Dan Dare is put into a sticky situation when, having used his influence to get the Cabinet to allow for a Cosmobe ship to descend to Spacefleet HQ for examination, the Cosmobes, having won safe passage through Earth’s defences, promptly split (literally) and invade the ocean.
Though this is a truly serious situation, and one over which, if Dan were to be court-martialled, he would have neither complaint nor defence, the story lets itself down badly by letting all of this go in a very inferior way. The Cosmobes disarm the Navy, and Lex O’Malley, by looking cute, Peabody overcomes the Government’s suspicions by telling them, in very stern tones, that the Cosmobes Are Our Friends, and the Pescods breeze in, squirting all manner of acidic liquids all over the place, in a manner that positively shouts of serious of serious psycho-sexual issues on somebody’s part.
In my previous article, I speculated that Morris’s ‘instructions to wrap it up’ might well have come into effect around episode 23. This was based upon all 23 episodes to this point having been signed by Frank Hampson (though the majority of the principal art was evidently being done by Don Harley). But the next episode not only lacked Hampson’s name, it was clearly the work of another artist, Desmond Walduck stepping in again. And it’s at this point that the story started to go haywire.
However, David Gould produced not only the much-departed from synopsis, but also the afore-mentioned memorandum, from Ellen Vincent, dated 16 September 1958. In it, Mrs (?) Vincent refers to the arrival of script 29, which is a bit better than recent weeks, but also to a telephone conversation with Hampson in which he mentions that Stranks is thinking of changing the story title on script 30, leading Ms Vincent to surmise that this means another twenty weeks.
She also records that Hampson would be “happy to see this present story wound up”, and concludes that both this and Reign of the Robots have been about saving Earth, “which is getting monotonous!”
The memo gives us an idea of how far ahead of publication the series was working. Ellen Vincent’s memo was sent in the week of publication of Eagle Volume 9 no 37, eight weeks in advance of the issue that would feature script 29 (which Hampson and his team had not yet begun drawing). Only three weeks later, Walduck would start a four week stint of art. Hampson and Co would return for three weeks, the second of which being script 29.
Needless to say, the story title did not change with script 30, the last episode of The Phantom Fleet drawn by Frank Hampson. The story did not last a further twenty weeks, only six, all drawn by Walduck, before the Pescod threat was abruptly eliminated, without any input by the star of the series, when they blew themselves to smithereens by burrowing, all unaware, into the base of Krakatoa.
Dan meets the Pescods
So The Phantom Fleet, which was beginning to come apart from episode 24, was wound up, leaving Dan Dare and Frank Hampson free to leave Earth and explore strange planets again. Its flaws are shown to be the responsibility of Alan Stranks, the writer of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, the decision to cut losses and go a response to his wish to extend a story that only superficially resembled that which he had described at length when selling the tale in advance.
Some Dan Dare fans are adamant that the concept was never strong enough for a series: an eight-pager for an Eagle Annual maybe. I’m not of that opinion, but mine is that of the adult fan who never read this story at the age it was originally intended for, who could read a story without a thirst for non-stop action, and who therefore didn’t mind playing a longer, patient game. Perhaps reading it one episode at a time, over three-quarters of a year, would have coloured my response differently.
And perhaps there were other factors, behind the page, that detracted from Frank Hampson’s attention, that kept him from investing his full heart into his work as he had done for the past several years.
By this time, the Bayford Lodge studio was running very smoothly with its smallest number of artists: Joan Porter, to manage the studio and act as personal assistant to Hampson, Don Harley as first lieutenant and ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, Keith Watson, who would become more prominent in the future, and Gerald Palmer, who never played a major role of any kind. They worked well, they bore up under the strain, they were what Hampson had been seeking.
Because Hampson wanted to step back, to relinquish day-by-day responsibility for the series, to draw much less. He wanted to use his time to design, to conceive, to set directions. He had ambitions for Dan Dare, ambitions that, now the strip was well established and he had a Don Harley to lean on, he could begin to explore.
Hampson wanted to sell Dan Dare in America. He wanted to move into film production. The one would require a wholesale re-think, of format, pace, attitude, the other was a logical development from the studio he had trained to work together.
But Hulton weren’t interested. They didn’t have the knowledge, the contacts or the interest. They were magazine publishers, in England, and they were fighting decline, a decline which meant that Eagle’s profits were to be earmarked for supporting the group, not fulfilling Frank Hampson’s ambitions.
Frustration had already led him to submit a letter of resignation a year earlier, whilst Reign of the Robots was still in its early stages, a resignation Hulton were minded to accept if it rid them of the expensive studio at Bayford Lodge, but before they acted, Hampson withdrew his letter. The following year, things were no better. Was Frank Hampson’s heart as deeply in the current story as it would ordinarily be? It was taking place on Earth, which didn’t call for any great exercise of his imagination. And he had an idea that would fulfil that hope.
And nobody knew what was about to happen.
Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.
Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.
Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.
There isn’t a moment of pause between The Man from Nowhere and Rogue Planet. They merge, seamlessly, into one another, the change in story-title the only distinction. Rogue Planet is, however, the finer story. It is not a prelude but a conclusion, it is a major undertaking, dealing not only with the ending of a war between planets that has lasted for tens of millennia, but it is the overthrowing of slavery, the establishment/reinforcement of civilization. Taken all in all, and having regard to the continuing excellent art throughout this story, it’s possible to argue that Rogue Planet is the high point of the entire Dan Dare saga.
That’s not a universal position: more prominent Dan Dare fans and commentators than I, such as Alastair Crompton, author of Frank Hampson’s biography, holds writer Alan Stranks in a degree of contempt, for slowing the pace of Hampson’s stories down, but I cannot agree with him here. For Stranks, in this story, handles brilliantly the most serious weakness of the entire set-up, namely the Earth Cryptos expedition itself.
As I’d already mentioned, Earth really pushed the boat out on this aid mission to the Crypts, sending three men and a boy to hold off a planetary invasion. We know that they’ll succeed, but Stranks’ great gift is that he makes that outcome appear utterly plausible.
The action is non-stop: the Crypt ship has been shot down, its passengers and crew have escaped in individual rescue-torpedos and these come to ground on Cryptos, in the jungles of the Wilderness of Wex. At least, that is, seven do: the capsule containing Flamer Spry cannot be found. We don’t for one moment, believe that Flamer is dead. Frank Hampson is not going to kill his audience’s eye-level character, nor is Hulton – or any other publisher of boy’s comics in the mid-Fifties going to allow the death of a thirteen year old boy to happen. Over their dead bodies, so to speak. But Flamer is conspicuous by his absence, and Stranks/Hampson have the courage of their convictions to allow six full months to elapse before returning him to the story.
So that makes just three full-grown Earthmen to throw back the Phant Invasion. But Dan and Co have landed in the Wilderness – and Hampson’s depiction of Cryptos, with its alien flora, fauna and geography, is lush and gorgeous – and this means that they can operate as a guerilla force, unsuspected by their opponents.
There’s the beginning of the Invasion on the ground, guards and patrols in the woods, and nothing but compliant, passive Crypts. Which is where Stranks makes the single, most important point of the whole story. The Phants – facially modelled on the horse as Crypts are on the cow – are a warrior race, but they are not fighters. Once every 10,000 years, their forces invade a planet that has never raised a finger to stop them. Their soldiers are slaughterers, and nothing more. They simply don’t know how to cope with an enemy that fights back. Literally.
So, despite the smallness of their numbers, Dan, Dig and Lex are more than a match for any Phant patrols. Even Lero is moved to grapple with a Phant, preventing him from raising his weapon.
And in this early, exploratory stage of the plot, Stranks introduces what will prove to be the critical element that will allow this tiny band to change the history of the Rogue Planet. It’s a very simple thing: with Earth-supplies in very limited quantities, Lex O’Malley offers himself as a guinea-pig to test the Phantosian food-capsule, which sends him into a psychotic rage…
But the three Earthmen are far too few to take on the Phant camp, where Cryptosian slaves are being herded, for transport to Phantos. Dan swears a vow that he will rescue them all, but in the meantime, all he can do is to undertake a recce, in Phantosian uniform. Which goes badly, because of Stripey.
It’s an interesting question: why, having been so hard upon the inclusion of the fatuous dog, Sir William Tell, in The Red Moon Mystery/Marooned on Mercury, do I find it possible, even easy, to accept Digby’s new animal adoption, Stripey? What is the difference between the left over pooch on Mars and a docile, mammalian Cryptosian animal, with zebra-like stripes and an elephant’s trunk, and why isn’t the latter just as objectionable?
I don’t have a logical answer. There are significant differences between the two: the dog was just a stupid mutt with no idea of what was going on whilst Stripey is a cheerful, inquisitive and intelligent animal with a personality of his own, which helps a lot, and the much-improved art from the relatively crude early-period Hampson does much to establish the improbable little creature as an asset in his own right.
However, it’s Stripey’s natural curiosity that proves to be Dan’s undoing, following him into the Phant encampment, only to be picked up by a Phant bully, who threatens to cut his trunk off. Dan jumps in, causing a commotion that draws the attention of the Phant High Command, Military Commanders Square, Circle and Triangle and Supreme Commander Gogol, a nine feet tall giant.
Despite a few judo tosses to establish who’s who when it comes to grappling, Dan is overwhelmed and taken back to Phantos for dismantling. You see, the Phants are not aware of any intelligent life beyond Los-system so the strange looking, aggressive creature is clearly some form of robot built by the Crypts to do their fighting for them, and as such has to go before the Mystic Orak – the root force behind Phant civilisation – so that he can be disassembled…
Digby’s first instinct is to rescue his Colonel, and it takes O’Malley pointing out that he might be ignoring Dare’s final orders to do so. But dutifully, he and Lex are lead, by Lero, to the centre of Crypt civilisation, across a planet that is, in all aspects, beautiful, a luxuriant land of incredible flora and fauna, all of it alien and yet all of it perfectly believable and natural. In many ways, this I think marks out Rogue Planet as Hampson’s artistic peak.
Dan, meanwhile, is taken (with the concealed Stripey) to Phantos which, in appropriately symbolic fashion, is a far plainer, far more barren world. Once he reaches Phantos, he is dragged before the figure that commands the whole of Phantos society, Orak, the mighty Robot-brain (It must be said that, whilst Stranks could pull together long, complex and enthralling stories, he was less than imaginative when it came to names – the sun Los, the Tengam drive, the great Kra that rescues Crypt civilisation: on that level Orak(le) is positively stunning).
By the time Dan is dragged before the uncomprehending Orak, genuinely a robot brain, but still the arbiter of Phant Society, he’s at last growing weak from lack of food, the team having been on restricted rations after losing their supplies when the Crypt ship was shot down. He’s left alone during Orak’s ‘Hour of Silence’, only to be rescued from the least likely quarter: Flamer Spry.
As I said above, Flamer’s been missing from the story for just over six months, but Stranks/Hampson have judged their moment perfect;y. In story terms it’s only been a matter of weeks, if as much as that. The shots that damaged Flamer’s escape capsule knocked it off course, causing him to land on Phantos instead, as indeed did the Crypt ship. Flamer’s managed not only to keep out of sight but also retrieve the rations from the ship, so Dan can recover his strength, awaiting Orak’s ‘Aqua-Test’, to be followed by… dismantling.
It’s a clever twist to have the Phants as vulnerable to water as we are to fire, but it requires a lot of scientific speculation to justify it, and when put into practice, it does give the story some problems. On a planet that’s as scientifically advanced as Phantos, it’s a little jarring to find that the ‘Aqua-Test’ involves tying Dan’s arms behind his back then lowering him into a countryside river.
Equally, neither Stranks nor Hampson seems comfortable about the implications. It’s one thing for the story to joke that Flamer has converted one of the weapons into something deadly dangerous to the Phants – a water pistol! – but when the time comes and Dan needs rescuing from Gogol, it is Stripey who intervenes to give Gogol a trunkful of water smack in the face, causing instant collapse. Gogol has obviously been killed before our very eyes, but neither Dan nor Flamer react to it, nor will they acknowledge what has happened. But Gogol is clearly dead: he has no further role in the story despite being supreme military commander, if anyone wants to argue the point.
Dan and Flamer’s next task is to steal Gogol’s ship to rejoin Lex and Dig on Cryptos, where, in accordance with orders, they have been designing a building military defences in the wake of seeing the Kra leave for its 1,000 year journey through space. This has unfortunate implications. Dan and Flamer have prisoners on board, Circle and Triangle (Square has been shot dead by Dan, resisting kidnap). Now, overflying the city of Chakra, in a Phant ship, they get shot down by one of Dig’s missiles, crash-landing in the bay and having their tables turned when Circle and Triangle grab the guns.
Never mind, Dig and Lex are boating out to rescue them. What follows, much as I love this story, is one of the most completely fat-headed scenes Frank Hampson and his team ever drew: Dan and Digby are captives. As Dig and Lex approach, they shout out that they are captives, that there are Phants on board controlling them, and to shear off. Digby and Lex have even seen that there’s a Phant on board, via binoculars. And they come sailing blithely on, deliberately dropping themselves in it. I despair, at times, I really do.
So the two Phants have all four Crypt ‘Robot-Things’ under guard. They may have to get through an entire nation of Crypts but their entire history demonstrates that they don’t even need two Phants to cow that many Crypts. They come ashore at Chakra, smug and secure, except for having been so close to water for so long. Circle takes his mask off, and Stripey promptly sprays him in the mug, killing him instantly, though again this is not acknowledged as such.
The creators are into their endgame now. Lex’s violent reaction to the Phant food-capsule earlier has given him a theory. Both types of food-capsule, the purple Phantosian and the yellow Cryptosian, have been analysed and found to consist of different nutrients. It’s possible that it is the diet that is the direct cause of Phant aggression and Crypt fear, so Lex has had the Crypt scientists knock up a batch of Crypt capsules in purple. They feed these to Triangle, and within 24 hours he is as docile and peaceful as any Crypt.
What remains is to switch the entire Phant food production to Crypt capsules, first for the invasion force on Crypt, then on Phantos itself. There are twists and turns and obstacles to be negotiated, not least of which is Triangle himself, so far converted to the cause of peace that he’s almost become a hippie who can’t help himself from trying to convert Phants to the cause before altering their diets.
At last though, the plan succeeds. Orak is exposed for what he is, an outmoded robot created by the cultish warrior-priests, the Kruels (Stranks: tsk, tsk), the Phants turn peaceful, the Kra is recalled and Lero sets off to commit suicide in space.
He’s relieved of this obligation, imposed by the mores of Crypt society, by Dan’s forgiveness of his most serious crime: he has lied to a friend. And it is a most serious lie, with massive consequences, one whose truth Dan keeps to himself until the team is en route home for Earth. I wonder when this idea was devised, and whether it was intended from the very beginning of The Man from Nowhere, when the scope of the whole story was taking shape, or whether it was a late inspiration, a bridge to the forthcoming story of what Dan and Co will find on Earth when they get back.
Because when they get back, they won’t have been gone for a few months only. Because Lero lied, because the Crypts haven’t conquered ‘faster-than-light’ propulsion. Because the ‘acceleration/deceleration’ chambers are no such thing, but instead they’re suspended animation chambers. When Dan and Co return to Earth, in the final panel of the final page, they will have been gone for ten years…
What awaits them is, of course, the third book of The Man from Nowhere Trilogy and we’ll come to that next time out. But before we leave Rogue Planet, I must yet again praise the art as, for me, the finest period in the strip’s history. It’s not just the detail, lush and brilliant as it is without ever once overriding the central image of each panel. It’s not just the skill and deftness with which Hampson composes first his pages, then his panels. It’s not just the invention that creates alien worlds, truly alien worlds, that glow with life, that look real, that look lived in, that make you want to climb inside the panels and go exploring yourself. But perhaps above all of this, it’s the colouring. Each page is a riot of colour, bright, harmonious, three-dimensional. Cryptos becomes that very real world. Hampson renders his heroes in contrasting colours that identify them wherever they are: Dan in his Spacefleet green uniform, Flamer in Astral blue. Lex, with his Naval Cap and his mariner’s rollneck thick white jersey, and Digby, caught in civvies, a red and yellow check shirt and white beach shorts.
Much of this has to do with Hampson reaching his artistic maturity. But much is also due to the presence of Don Harley, ‘the second-best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and also to a tightly organised, largely settled studio that, though still working hard, was not pulling the same kind of twenty-four hour grind of old. The studio was working, and Hampson was able to rely upon them. He had a writer he could trust, who enabled him to devote more time to his art, and more time to Dan Dare’s future, both on and off the page.
So much so that his mind started to turn towards not drawing Dan Dare…
During my post about The Man from Nowhere, I started to touch upon the incongruity of Flamer Spry’s presence on both the undersea expedition in Lex O’Malley’s Poseidon, and as one of the four man Earth Expedition across interstellar space to the planet Cryptos to save the peaceful Crypts from invasion, slaughter and slavery at the hands of their war-like enemies, the Phants. Started, but soon realised that the subject was one that needed to be considered as more than an aside.
Let’s say it bluntly. Under no circumstances, in any kind of realistic frame, should Flamer have gone on the Cryptos Expedition, nor probably on the Poseidon exploration too. He’s a thirteen year old boy, for heaven’s sake, and whilst I can understand and appreciate the commercial appeal of including a member of Eagle‘s audience directly in the story, the fact remains that Frank Hampson never touches on why this young boy should form an integral part of so many adventures.
We should probably gloss over this, and in a lesser series that would be easy. But Hampson has set standards of realism, in art and story construction, that do not allow us to ignore flaws and weaknesses in the logic of his world.
It was one thing for Flamer to play a substantial role in Prisoners of Space. His introduction in that story was logical, well-planned, and the result of a perfectly believable accident that, once it took place, established a situation from which the story-dynamic didn’t leave any room to extract the child.
And it was equally proper for Flamer to be at the Embassy Reception and enjoy recognition for his part in what occurred. Note though that, when the alarm sounded, and Dan scooted off into space with the interceptor squadron, Flamer is rightly not among the crew. That Lex O’Malley, who’s known Dan for maybe a half hour, does go up is another matter and one we’ll return to.
The one big question that’s never answered is just who Junior Cadet nickname-only Spry is in the first place. Flamer appears out of nowhere, along with Astral College and all its other cadets, Senior and Junior, in the first episode of Prisoners of Space. There’s no suggestion that Dan Dare has even heard of him before Flamer’s model rocket ship nearly prangs Sir Hubert, but Dan is sufficiently impressed by the young boy that he ‘punishes’ him by giving him a tour of the real thing. All of this is perfectly plausible, and given how well Flamer conducts himself in difficult circumstances, it’s entirely understandable that Dan should then look upon him as a sort of protegé. In that light, the decision to wangle a place for Flamer on the Poseidon expedition – a non-combat, search-and-rescue mission, remember – is equally understandable and even logical.
It’s what follows that stretches credibility. Dan is off to Cryptos, across interstellar space, with three volunteers, one of whom is going to be Digby. That Flamer should put himself forward as a volunteer is only to be expected. But he’s accepted: a thirteen year old boy on a potentially suicide mission, traveling to avert war five light-years from Earth? Were he and Lex O’Malley the only volunteers?
Consider the circumstances: Flamer is an approximately thirteen year old boy at Astral College, a full-time, military-based establishment. Like a boarding school pupil, he lives in. The College is in locus parentis. In practice, that would mean the Headmaster, and devolved authority to the masters. Ultimately, the responsibility vests in the Controller of Spacefleet, Sir Hubert Guest, who is also the supreme authority on Dare’s Expedition. Sir Hubert’s response is the screamingly obvious one: No. But he is persuaded to relent, and to authorise Flamer’s admission, by a speech from the young man.
What does Flamer say that convinces Sir Hubert, against his own better judgement, to allow him to go? It’s made up in equal parts of positive and negative arguments. The positive arguments are what you would expect in the circumstances: the opportunity, to see, to experience, to grow and to bring back to his classmates everything he learns. But it is the negative argument that is unusual. It’s basically a statement of the complete unimportance of Flamer Spry. Who is he? Nothing but a single Astral College cadet. If he should die, what has been lost? Just one, tiny, insignificant figure, less than nothing in the grand scheme of things.
It’s an impressive moment. I confess that I find it difficult to believe that a thirteen year old boy should have, let alone speak such thoughts. In their way, they speak to a nobility that is in keeping with Dan Dare himself, but which sits awkwardly with so young a figure. Or is it perhaps that, a long way away from what may follow, in the familiar surroundings of Spacefleet, Flamer is suffering from an excess of naiveté that lets him say things that do not suit his age?
But the statement is fateful in calling our attention to the complete blackout of everything that lies behind Flamer’s debut in Prisoners of Space. When he describes himself as nothing, as someone whose death would cause no loss, create no absence, leave no trace behind, it draws attention to that imposing lacuna: who is Flamer Spry?
He must have had parents (we cannot assume anything else without doing irreparable damage to Dan’s Universe, taking it into areas unimaginable by Hampson and impermissible by the Rev. Marcus Morris), but who are they? Where are they? What’s happened to them? And whilst there must have been Grandparents, are there other relatives? Brothers and sisters? Aunts and Uncles? Cousins? Is Flamer Spry really so alone in the world that there is no-one outside of Astral who has any interest in what might be his fate?
Though Frank Hampson began Dan Dare with short biographies of its principal characters, there does not seem to have been anything similar prepared in respect of Flamer Spry. Fans have long since set themselves to create continuities for the Dan Dare Universe, linking stories that were originally planned as one-offs. I am particularly impressed by the efforts of New Zealand Dan fan Denis Steeper in binding together so many stories into a comprehensive continuity.
But when it comes to Flamer Spry, there is no critical consensus among fans as to how his presence in the saga from 1954 to 1960 is to be explained. It’s been tentatively suggested that perhaps Dan knew the Spry parents, and Flamer when he was very young, and that he has taken an avuncular stance in relation to him. It’s a simple construct, and perhaps the Spry parents died when Flamer was young, or are stationed on Mars, or else working in some element of the Service that provides an equivalent to the Twentieth Century manner of getting unwanted parents out of the way, running Rubber Plantations in Malaya, or on diplomatic missions with the Foreign Service.
This might seem to be an awful lot of straining at gnats, but there’s a very good reason to hit upon an explanation of why Earth’s Chief Pilot of Spacefleet hangs around an awful lot with a thirteen year old boy. Because that really is the Elephant in the Spaceship.
Before I go any further, I’d better say that I don’t believe a single word of anything that I’m about to discuss. But nevertheless, certain things come together to make a substantial, if circumstantial case that in the modern world has to be addressed.
Let’s begin with the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, a book written by the German-born Child Psychologist, Dr Frederic Wirtham, and published to great notoriety in 1954, a year before The Man from Nowhere.
Though he was far from being the only moral crusader against comics in the early Fifties, Wirtham’s book has come to be the focal point for that period. Wirtham was a man who was seriously concerned about the moral health of America’s juveniles and who became fixated upon the idea that their comics were the most important single factor in leading them to juvenile delinquency, criminal habits and perverted sexuality.
I’m not going to tackle the book itself, nor any of its specious arguments, but one of the many accusations leveled by Wirtham was directed at Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Wirtham accused the Dynamic Duo of portraying an idealised homosexual life-style, the man and his underage boy spending all their time living in a house with no female element, eating and drinking with sybaritic delight whilst lolling around in silk dressing gowns. It’s utter nonsense, but it’s only a short step from there to cross the Atlantic and look at the relationship between a tall, handsome bachelor man, who has demonstrated a lack of interest in any female company (Professor Peabody). He already spends all his life with a devoted male who has abandoned his wife and children to serve him. And now this ‘confirmed bachelor’ suddenly starts taking around with him a thirteen year old boy…
I’ll repeat myself: I think it’s nonsense. But though I don’t for one moment believe there’s a fire, there is an inordinate amount of smoke to be waved aside.
Go back to the opening episode of The Man from Nowhere. Dan sees a tall, burly, bearded Naval Commander (and what else is the Navy famed for, beside Rum and the Lash?). Dan immediately wants to be introduced to this craggy, ultra-male figure, and before you know it, O’Malley is following him out of his element into space, and Dan is following O’Malley out of his own element into the deeps.
And who are the two less-than-plausible figures who follow Dan into Interstellar Space? Not the devoted Hank and Pierre, colleagues, friends and spacemen, but a Naval officer and a thirteen year old cadet.
Just how much smoke do we have to experience before we cannot help seeing the red flame within?
I know what Dr Frederic Wirtham would have made of it, and the good doctor would have been wrong about it. But in after decades, when we have all grown cynical, when we have become infinitely more aware of transgression being concealed by the face of celebrity or authority, we cannot any longer ignore such signs. Even in the Fifties, the phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’ was being used as a code for men whose interest was not in women.
Unfortunately, there’s not an answer, a definitive conclusion to be written. We have a situation that was created in conditions of innocence that have, in changing times, become impossible to maintain without an effort of naiveté. I don’t believe any conscious undertones were intended, and I know nothing about the people principally involved that would suggest any unconscious undertones were involved, but in 2015, we have to face the fact that someone, somewhere, would have called Social Services long before Flamer Spry blasted off from Earth in Lero’s ship.