Eagle‘s last, and shortest volume consisted of only 17 issues before its cancellation by merger with Lion, this latter much to my chagrin as I was getting both papers, and was not granted dispensation to replace Eagle with anything else. The cancellation was known a long way in advance, as demonstrated by the sudden shortening of Rogue Planet, starting only a couple of issues into the new Volume. Blackbow’s stories were also radically truncated. A new feature, drawn by Tom Kerr, started in no. 5, The Day The World Forgot. If it seemed unfamiliar, that was because it was the first of a half dozen features created in preparation for the merger, so that none of Eagle‘s own characters save Dan Dare would survive to appear in the merged title. It was followed in no. 6 by Speed Mann, a troubleshooter, which also saw the last instalment of Quarrel. Wild of the West, boxer, debuted in no. 8. Yet all of this was being done without removing any of the regular strips, just yet: a case of quantity but not quality. But the exodus couldn’t be postponed any longer. Mickey Merlin ended in no. 10, to be replaced a week later by Lightning Strikes Back. The Mark Mystery reprints were curtailed by a caption jump to the original end of the series in the same issue. It looked like Speed Mann wasn’t even good enough for Lion as his story lasted a measly six issues before making way for The Gladiators. The Hornblower reprints sailed away in no. 13 and The Waxer, most ghastly of all the new creations, started in no. 14. The last Blackbow story began in the same issue, but Frank Humphris had left early, to beat the rush. The next issue featured the last Cut-Out, Ashwell-Wood coming through as he had done for nearly twenty years. The Guinea Pig got out in the penultimate issue, and that meant that Eagle‘s final issue, Volume 20 no. 17, cover-date 26 April 1969, the 993rd issue of all, saw the end of the truncated Rogue Planet, but also the ends of Blackbow the Cheyenne and The Iron Man. The Circus Wanderers bit the dust, taking Wild in the West and The Day Time Forgot with them. And that was the end of it all. You may think that I’ve given unfairly short shrift to this last volume but that’s not the case. Even Blackbow’s last few stories were inadequate and as for all the rest, there was literally nothing to write home about. The story of Eagle‘s last four months is one of a once-superb comic being strangled to death by mediocrity, the final exercise of power by a Manager who resented the comic’s very existence as the refutation of everything his own career in comics had been, and finally diminishing it to the point where it could no longer survive. The last months were just dragging the humiliation out until no-one could deny that Eagle was unsavable. I was right not to collect further copies after my pre-set endpoint, and I should perhaps have stuck to my guns and stayed away, because satisfying this particular curiosity has indeed been painful. I’m sorry for the 13½ year old boy who had to endure that. It hastened the moment when he gave up comics altogether, though we now know that that didn’t last all that long. It was only a decade to the Dragon’s Dream republication of The Man from Nowhere…
The writing had been on the wall for Eagle ever since its major cheapening in Volume 18 no. 37, so it came as some surprise that the title survived through a final full volume of 52 issues. Even more surprisingly, for a comic that was clearly being done cheaper every week, it retained a solid core of series that had been stalwarts for several years: Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, The Guinea Pig, The Iron Man, Blackbow the Cheyenne were all standing in no. 52. Dan Dare started the volume with the second episode of his last original adventure, Underwater Attack. It ran only four episodes all told, including one black and white internal page, revealing at the last second that its invading ‘aliens’ were actually naval men testing a new underwater exploration suit. Not worthy of comment.
The rest of the year was given over to classic reprints, of The Man from Nowhere, seguing into Rogue Planet. Reprint it was, and not always treated with the respect it was due – squashed up pages, one or two in black and white, bounced all over the title – but this was prime Frank Hampson, and at the time it was my first ever exposure to the work of the great man, and with all that Eagle did to it, it was still glorious, and head and shoulders above anything else the title offered us. Indeed, for most of The Man from Nowhere, the original gap for the old Eagle title-box was ingeniously filled by newspaper headlines, recapping the story to date. Of the other regulars, only Blackbow was worthy of serious consideration, and although the pseudo-horror/magic stories were mostly now a thing of the past and the stories more grounded, it was still only Frank Humphris’ art that deserved attention. The last full serial of the Volume, from no. 44 to 51, was drawn by Eric Kincaid instead.
As for The Guinea Pig and The Iron Man, neither were worth reading. Though the former was now popular enough to spend most of the Volume in colour, albeit a flashy, splashing colour that looked to be the work of a hyperactive fourteen year old, the stories had nothing new to offer, whilst the Iron Man was formulaic and as grey as its monochrome art. The same beats – Robert is temporarily taken over, is set upon killing Tim, the villain is ultimately defeated by discovering The Iron Man is a robot and falling off a mountain in shock – repeat ever more frequently in shorter stories that suited the attention span of at least one reader whose letter was printed. Sadly, I cannot avoid mentioning Mickey Merlin, which lasted the whole volume, though after the first two or three weeks I wasn’t even skimming it. It was nothing but a Cornelius Dimworthy-manque and you know how I felt about that series. Stupid beyond belief. Of the other series tagging on from the previous year, Grant CID went backwards when the Zetans turned up to temporarily restore Smokeman’s powers, but the long and inglorious career of Grant and Bailey, in all its myriad forms, came to a greatly-overdue end in no 16, whilst Jennings’ serial, the last to feature in Eagle, wound up in no. 5. Jennings was succeeded by Eagle‘s last individual sequel, The Spook Commando, in which Major Guy Haslam takes a team of commandos to his ancestral home, where has has never lived, for exercises to narrow them down to a special, stream-lined unit, psychologically as well as physically solid. The former castle is haunted. Though the serial wasn’t credited, it had the feel of more work by Donne Avenell, and the spooky stuff harked back to things like Runway 13 and High Quest – respectable antecedents indeed. It was overall a decent, if not first class adventure, mainly marred by crossing it over with a grounded spy b-story. Grant CID was replaced by a new cover feature, Sky Buccaneers. Like Mickey Merlin, I had absolutely no memory of this, nor any great expectations. And evidence supported that theory: two pilots, Red Morgan and Ben Kidd (of course) were acting as the aerial arm of a submarine-based pirate crew. Or were they? They and their boss, Blackbeard, talked and acted pirate-like but the story had them invading the secret island base of someone called Veldez, a South American dictator or a revolutionary if I ever heard of one (revolutionary). The problem was that the series was neither fish, fowl nor good red meat. Were Blackbeard and the Buccaneers 100% genuine pirates or were they antiheroes foiling a dangerous villain? The only question the series engendered that I could confidently answer was, did I care? And that answer was No. Three weeks of Sky Buccaneers then gave way to round-robin cover stories. On any given week, any of Eagle‘s features – including Dan Dare – might be on the cover in full colour. To me, this smacked of desperation, of throwing things at the wall to see if anything stuck.
There was another new feature started in no. 7, running through to no. 48, an American import that for all its qualities did not sit easily alongside the rest of the inherently English features. This was Tales of Asgard, and it was Jack Kirby’s back-up series in Marvel’s Thor reprinted in black and white without any acknowledgement or credit beyond a small copyright notice. For the past eighteen months or so, Odhams had been pushing a line of comics – Wham!, Smash, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific – based largely on Marvel reprints, advertising each one in Eagle for several weeks as it debuted. My parents had refused to let me have any of the first three, regarding them as too childish, but I was allowed the (very) occasional copy of the last two, no doubt with reservations. The bottom was obviously falling out of the market because already in 1968, adverts had plugged Wham! and Pow‘s merger, rapidly followed by that of Fantastic and Terrific, so perhaps it made sense to try putting less directly connected material into Eagle, as a well-established title being slowly ridden into the ground. Though it was another example of the ongoing decay of the comic, there was nevertheless something primal about Tales of Asgard. Though its outlines were simplistic and its stories confined to two pages at a time, this was pure Kirby, and little or no trace of Stan Lee, and it was superb stuff, dealing with genuine Norse myth. Unfortunately, even that degenerated after a while, abandoning myth for adventures of Thor with the Warriors Three. Some episodes of this were astonishing powerful, but it was not quite the same. The Spook Commando ended in no. 21, to be succeeded by Eagle‘s last prose serial, Cue in… Quarrel. Quarrel, or Cue Quarrel to give him his full, unrealistic name, was a roving TV reporter, heading a three man technical team, with a mission to find trouble spots all round the world and send back exciting TV programmes. He was as unconventional and capable as Nick Hazard, without the criminal aspect, and the format was the same linked short-serials of Horizon Unlimited. But the problem with Quarrel was that it was predictable. It lacked the flair of Nick Hazard and the range of Horizon Unlimited. It was a we-have-been-here-before kind of thing, and that made it dull. No. 30 offered me a moment of personal significance of which I was not aware when I read it so long ago, not knowing that the reprinted episode of Dan Dare was that which appeared on the Eagle of the day of my birth, not thirteen years previously. Then the very next week, the art got squashed down into crudity again, so it didn’t have to fill two whole pages. Sigh.
Eagle introduced a eight page soccer special feature in no. 32, complete with an additional colour strip in the centre spread, Circus Wanderers. Bankrupt Shelford Wanderers fall out of the Fourth Division and its players all quit. Player manager Tim Masters inherits a bankrupt circus whose performers all love football. Put the two together and maybe you’ve got something fit for Lion in a weaker year, but Eagle? Throw in a Director who wants to close the club and use the ground for his factory and it’s pretty much Carson’s Cubs all over again, though with far less actual football. The club has to battle for survival, at which it succeeds. The second serial, starting in no. 52, was another out of the Carson’s Cubs playbook, this time the eccentric trainer with their nutty methods that disrupt everything. So what if this was the new scientific doctor with curious notions and potions, the template was the same. Sky Buccaneers passed on, unmourned and unloved, with no. 36, with no-one the wiser as to what it was all supposed to be about. Right at the end, that writing on the wall suddenly became all but luminous. Tales of Asgard, after a week’s gap, was replaced by Mark Mystery, or rather, as older readers knew him, Mark Question, a second reprint feature to join Dan Dare. And the issue after that, Hornblower was back, across the centre spread, multiplying the reprints even further. Two more pages of cheap copy, and two fewer pages of advertising: it is as clear as can be that Eagle is being run down to cancellation. The only consolation was to be that this embarrassment would soon be over, as Eagle was prepared for the slaughter in its shortest and final Volume.
It’s been a while, since Derby in January in fact, since I went anywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s going to mean breathing through a facemask.
Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Working Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.
It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.
Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.
Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time for steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.
There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus having to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.
As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.
It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, pull down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.
I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was my first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast walking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Front had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?
But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.
The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.
There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is in far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.
But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day I was born! There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.
Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually, Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.
But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel StKitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.
There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.
It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.
After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shopping estate dominated by Matalan.
This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side. Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that I finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.
I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of a wander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in to draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than a vague idea where it is: another time then, again.
So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time I come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.
I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.
But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resort and whilst I might be an old person myself now, I’m not that kind of old person. The one I seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.
So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a Norwich train and off again in Stockport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…
This is where I get off.
Though Eagle ran on into 1969, and Volume 20, and I faithfully read it, week by week, in those late Sixties years, my continuing interest in it ends here. Volume 17, and the first issue of Volume 18. With the last of these issues, Eagle ceased to feature new ‘Dan Dare’ stories, the four week ‘Underwater Attack’ excluded, choosing to reprint the series’ glorious past, starting from 1954’s ‘Prisoners of Space’.
Given that, by that time, the only decent feature left in Eagle was ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, for Frank Humphris’s art, and certainly not the stories, and that the comic was destined to experienced a further cheapening, transmuting to a smaller size, coarser paper, I have no interest in going further.
The Eagle story ends dismally, but then we all knew that from the beginning. By the last dozen or so issues of this Volume, my re-read was a skim. It had been a skim for most of the year, but until issue 37, there was at least one other feature that deserved proper attention.
Though ‘Dan Dare’ is usually the star of any volume of the Eagle, my nomination for most entertaining feature belonged to ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, the first of three serials to feature adventurer, freebooter and ‘Saint’-alike, Nick Hazard, whose debut story ran from issue 3 to 39, making it the most substantial text feature since ‘Horizon Unlimited’.
Hazard is very much in the mould of The Saint, though without the romantic aspects. He’s an internationally-sought thief, one of those multi-talented adventurers, quick-witted, lawless, yet still bound by a code that prevents him from cold-blooded murder, even of those deserving, and with a hatred of the rich, powerful and arrogant. In ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, Hazard has been brought in, entirely unofficially, by Superintendent Glanville of Scotland Yard, to put a spanner in the works of a plot by twelve millionaires to take control of the world. Hazard starts with a list of only five ‘confirmed’, and a couple of other suspected members of the plot. His approach is to get close to each in turn, learn his weakness and exploit that to gain the evidence that, if Hazard can beat an unknown deadline, will enable these millionaires to be taken down.
The story’s told in arcs of three or four parts, seguing into each other in the ‘Horizon Unlimited’ manner. It’s not by the same writer, but it’s in the Eagle manner of a strongly written thriller, and Hazard’s comprehensive skills push at the bounds of plausibility but never topple them. He’s forever falling into cliffhangers and getting out of these by forward planning, inspired improvisation or believable strokes of fortune.
Yes, it’s a juvenile thriller, but it’s a tightly-written one, it holds the interest even of jaded sixty-plus blokes, and it is by far the strongest thing in Eagle this year. Dan Dare certainly doesn’t have his best year. ‘The Singing Scourge’ works to an end, still dogged by murky colouring, obscuring the art. Watson tries a variation on his style for ‘”Give Me The Moon!”’, more angular in his line work, but the story is a load of sub-James Bond tosh, with a terrorist organisation called FIST demanding to be given the Moon (why?), led by a blind Spacefleet Commissionaire. Beyond bringing back Lex O’Malley, it’s a dumb story, falling far below even Eric Eden’s negligible efforts in its rooted objection to making the slightest sense. Several negative marks for ‘killing off’ Digby without anyone caring, and bringing him back between panels as if nobody cared.
But this was before ‘The Menace for Jupiter’, the last story, starting in issue 27. For this, ‘Dan Dare’ was reduced to one page, the same fate as ‘Heros the Spartan’, whose slot it took. Watson’s art got more solid, the colourist improved, but the serial rejects any sense of connection with what has gone before, as surely as any of the 2000AD versions did. Digby’s a cypher, he keeps calling his Colonel ‘Dan’, and not until the penultimate episode does he sound like Digby, or even like a human being instead of a plot function.
There’s little to say about the final six months of Heros. The outlaw story ended with his redemption, of course, but the following week, he was once again fighting for his honour and reputation under the evil Caesar’s hatred. At one page a week, the story had no room to breathe, and no more energy. It’s a compendium of ‘Heros’ tropes and the vindication of the Spartan’s courage at the end falls flat. The series gets a non-ending.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ would go on, until the ultimate end. The thinking plant story that continued from the previous year was thankfully a nadir, and it was followed by a rather straight and non-fantastic story about a gang of thieves, but even that had to include the Hooded One, and it was too short overall, as the ‘Blackbow’ stories tended to be. After that, it was back to the silly stories again, with fantastic elements underpinning them. Poor Frank Humphris.
But that was Eagle now. Once, it had been the home of solid, thoughtful, exciting but utterly realistic story-strips. Only ‘Dan Dare’ was completely outlandish, and Frank Hampson was determined to make everything in the series believable. Now Eagle went in for short, sharp shock stuff, fantastic elements underpinning everything. ‘The Iron Man’ fought criminal masterminds with stupid names, who wore masks concealing only that there was nobody real behind them. ‘The Guinea Pig’ tested weird inventions with no scientific basis, and frequently solved the disasters they spawned in only two episodes.
And the kids wanted this sort of thing. Like ‘Blackbow’, these features went on to the end without producing anything that held the mind for more than the few seconds they took to read.
Nothing demonstrated this more than ‘UFO Agent’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ lasted two more, desultory episodes at the start of the Volume before being replaced by this series, about which I can only reference a song from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1994 album, Sleeps with Angels. Those familiar with the record will anticipate that I am thinking of the short, tight but completely apposite song, ‘Piece of Crap’.
Two former agents of the now closed Ministry of Unusual Activities, Major Grant and Boffin Bailey (sic), are summoned to become Agents of crime-busting Satellite Zeta, with their very own Flying Saucer and fantastic superweapons with which, each week, they defeat agents of ‘E.O.S.’ (‘Enemies of Society’). It’s complete garbage.
The strip started in black and white, initially with art by Paul Trevillion who, rather sadly, hung onto the did-you-spot-the-clue notion, whilst the clues got exponentially dumbed down. Before long it was being drawn by Jose Ortiz, with contributions from Luis Bermejo. The idea is moronic, its execution worse: all it does is demonstrate that it is impossible to tell even a quarter-decent story in two pages.
And ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ continued to be Cornelius Dimworthy.
There was, of course, the traditional revamp. This took place exactly halfway through the year, in issue 27. ‘Dan Dare’ took over ‘Heros’s single page, ‘UFO Agent’ moved to the centrespread and was elevated to colour. What replaced ‘Heros’? That would be ‘Blunderbirds’.
The only decent thing you can say about ‘Blunderbirds’ was that it lasted no more than eighteen weeks, a clear sign that the kids rejected it. It was a cheaply obvious and obviously cheap parody of Gerry Anderson’s greatest and most popular creation, which was still soaring high, and I wonder if the readers made it plain that it just wasn’t wanted. We were talking serious ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ territory here.
Oddly enough, ‘UFO Agent’ greatly improved in the centrespread, not that it was a full centrespread, merely full page three-quarter width, thanks to some eye-catching colouring that suddenly gave Ortiz’s art a fantastic range and a genuine visual appeal. The stories weren’t enhanced one bit, but the almost psychedelic intensity of the colour gave the retina something to take in.
Finally, the cover feature, ‘Arms Through the Ages’ caught up with the present day and was replaced by ‘Did it ever Happen?’, a primarily poster-sized feature on implausible situations, inviting the reader to guess whether these were true or a pack of porkies. A surprising number of them were, in fact, True.
The loss of Nick Hazard left Eagle with little but the token ‘Dan Dare’ page. A new Jennings serialisation, overlapping ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’ by two weeks, took over the prose slot, and what little enjoyment ‘UFO Agent’ provided died for good when Major Grant was evaporated along with a Zetan, merged with him and came back as Smokeman. At least Eagle was being honest by finally turning one of its strips into an actual superhero, instead of the half-hearted pretending that had gone on so far, but they were a very long way from knowing the remotest thing about doing a superhero effectively.
But I began with ‘Dan Dare’ and let’s end with him. The final menace was driven off in issue 53 by a rip-off from H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Keith Watson was given one page more, one panel rather, in Volume 18 issue 1, to depict Dan being congratulated by all his friends, or at least all the Hampson era ones, plus Wilf Banger, on his promotion to Controller of the Spacefleet. His first task? Write his memoirs. And so Longacre finally got out of paying anyone for Dan Dare stories or art, because all those Hampson strips were free.
So my reviews end here, unlike Eagle itself. What have I left out? As I’ve already said, Blackbow, the Guinea Pig and the Iron Man made it to the end. Nick Hazard came back in volume 18, with back to back serials offering another 29 weeks entertainment. There was a fourth and final Jennings serial and a couple more serials of which I have no memory, even from the names.
Cornelius Dimworthy didn’t last through Volume 18, being replaced by Micky Merlin, about whom I have no memories whatsoever, whilst UFO Agent lasted into Volume 19, though it underwent multiple changes of title: ‘Smokeman UFO’, ‘Smokeman CID’, ‘Grant CID’ and finally just ‘CID’. I shudder.
Other strips had short runs: ‘Sky Buccaneers’, whatever that was, ‘Circus Wanderers’, which fifty years on I have still not managed to totally forget, and partial reprints of ‘Mark Question’ (as ‘Mark Mystery’) and ‘Hornblower’. There was even a run of Jack Kirby’s ‘Tales of Asgard’ short back-ups from Marvel’s Thor in Volume 19, strange as that is to recall. Not that they were advertised as reprints, no sir, this was a new Eagle feature so far as its audience was concerned.
But these things were beyond the end and beyond the pale. I have my Eagle collection, to my delight and continuing disbelief, and I’ve read the whole lot, and now I’ve written about it all.
There is curiously little to say about Volume 16. I’ve gone on about stability in recent reviews, and it is fair to say that 1965 was a year of at least superficial stability. Only one major feature ended and was replaced by a new major feature. Minor features, such as the excellent Ron Embleton ‘Prizefighters’ half-page might cease and be replaced by a similar half-pager, ‘The Duellists’, by a less smooth and detailed artist, two of Eagle’s remaining top series underwent format changes and there was the annual revamp, coming late in the year and consisting solely of a new cover feature. But issue 52 was easily recognisable as the same comic as issue 1, just shuffled about a bit.
The classic Eagle of the Hulton Fifties had been a vibrant, thriving affair of classic, enduring series, written, drawn and edited with enthusiasm and a simple belief in the quality of what was being done. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Eagle of the Longacre mid-Sixties was sterile and dull. It was rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.
We begin, as always with ‘Dan Dare’. ‘The Mushroom’ concluded within half a dozen issues, giving way to ‘The Moonsleepers’, which featured Xel as it’s villain, alongside a cameo role from the Mekon. It was a longer story, and thus more substantial, but its ending was abrupt and unsatisfactory: Xel drowns in the black waters of the Arctic and the Mekon’s fleet, advancing on Venus, vanishes in a blaze of white light: explanation unforthcoming.
Neither villain will appear again, and the apparent disposal of the Mekon in such a perfunctory, back-handed manner was weak and unsatisfying.
Then, as of issue 31, Dan lost the cover again, this time for good. What happened was a demonstration of how much a shambles the comic had become. Previously, such revamps had been tightly organised around new stories for as many series as possible, but not only did ‘The Singing Scourge’ start one week before the reformat, but the prose serial ‘The Rebel Riders’ had two more instalments to run. Sloppy.
Though my research materials credit David Motton as writer throughout, I’ve long been convinced that Keith Watson was given a new writer at this point. True, Motton’s Tempus Frangit reappears for the first time since the end of ‘The Wandering World’, along with Banger and Cob, and yes, the story once again involves paired planets, but there’s an indefinable difference to the writing that only grows. Some captions are Mottonesque, but mainly there’s a flatness to the scripting that smacks of a different hand. The legendary Frank Pepper, creator of Dan”s first rival, Captain Condor, for Lion, not to mention the minor figure of Roy of the Rovers, is recorded as having written Dan Dare at some point and I believe this to be now. Maybe that explains the hasty despatch of the Mekon, as Motton got the push?
And Keith Watson is not at his best in this story. The shambles is further exemplified by his initially drawing ‘Dan Dare’ as a centrespread when it was placed on pages 6-7, reverting to two separate pages just in time for it to be moved to the centrespread, missing four weeks whilst Don Harley fills in, and then drawing a centrespread consisting of separate panels rather than the gutterless images of his first efforts. His art loses definition, his panels have less room, though as Dan and Co spend most of their time in spacesuits, it’s difficult to animate the story. Eric Eden has moved on from colouring and his replacement is drastically inferior, lacking in subtlety and far too prone to lay single, muddy colours across entire panels. It makers the art drab, and destroys the three-dimensionality of things.
This is, incidentally, the fourth different format Keith Watson has had to draw in since taking over the series in 1962, so he can’t be criticised overmuch, simply for his flexibility.
If ‘Dan Dare’ is now in the centrespread, what of ‘Heros the Spartan’? Luis Bermejo finished his Wolfman story, Frank Bellamy returned for a final, desert set story about El Rashid, his last substantive contribution to Eagle, and Bermejo came back with a new story featuring Heros becoming an outlaw, on the run from Caesar. It began in issue 31, one story at least to herald the revamp, but after only eight weeks, the series was cut back abruptly to a single page, in which form it would run until cancellation.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ continued to showcase Frank Humphris. As usual, it would bounce around on different pages, until the revamp, when it found a ‘permanent’ home on the back page. The stories grew ever more ridiculous. One short tale, involving the troublesome kid Clem Woodley, invokes memories of ‘Riders of the Range’s ‘Terror of the Pecos’, but is much more of an overt joke, showing Blackbow up in a way that would have been unthinkable with Jeff Arnold and Luke, but it’s the succeeding story, in which the villains are a mad scientist and a sentient plant that forms itself into a massive green hand that really makes you want to weep for Humphris. So good an artist, so knowledgeable and informed about the West, and having to draw ridiculous crap like this?
‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ did not have a good year. It spent most of it in single-page format, with the occasional page-and-a-halfer, mostly drawn by Paul Trevillion, looking like holdovers from past years. Trevillion is little in evidence, and most weeks it is the strip’s Spanish artist, loose and impressionistic and inevitably unEnglish in appearance. There’s a third artist at work some weeks, closer to Trevillion in style but much cruder, giving the series an inconsistent look, and even Trevillion’s art, though still crisp and clear, several times looks like it’s fifty percent made up of stock shots and poses seen far too often. The strip was in decline, terminal decline, as we shall see.
I’ve already mentioned ‘The Rebel-Riders’. This was a fourteen week serial, featuring a trio of ‘ton-up’ boys, leather-jacketed motorbike riders, framed by circumstance for the death of two men in a car crash, who escape from a prejudiced Police Superintendent to clear themselves and bring the true culprits to justice. It’s a serial in the old Eagle mould, taut, well-written, the work of someone who knew their subject the way the writers of ‘Runway 13’ and ‘High Quest’ knew theirs. It’s an oasis between two very lengthy serialisations of Anthony Buckeridge Jennings books,
‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ was ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’, and I have nothing more to say about it. It leaves me cold on all levels. So too does ‘The Iron Man’, which isn’t even well enough drawn to hold my attention, whilst the notion that absolutely nobody but Tim Branton has the faintest idea that ‘Robert’, with his metallically rectilinear face, could be anything but human is several stops short of plausible. It’s basically a superhero series without the conviction to admit it, which keeps it from ever amounting to anything. That it was immensely popular is both mystifying, and evidence of Eagle’s grand decline: even its audience was diminished.
‘Billy Binns’, the third Boy’s World holdover, lasted one week of Volume 16, before being dropped, and falling back on his more appropriate home in Wham!, which no longer needed to be advertised incessantly. It’s replacement was the very popular ‘The Guinea-Pig’.
I don’t know what to make of this series at this remove. The Guinea-Pig is adventurer and all-round tough guy, Mike Lane, who gets taken on by Professor Cornelius Dee, boss of a secret research institute on Dartmoor, as tester for the Professor’s increasingly outlandish and unbelievable experiments. Most of the stories don’t last more than two or three weeks, running into one another at the start, but after a quick jumble of these, there’s a completely out-of-character adventure featuring lost Spanish and English Elizabethan tribes fifty miles underground that lasted thirteen weeks.
It’s all deeply implausible, especially as the two wholly anachronistic groups must have discovered parthenogenesis (no women). Art on this tale was by Brian Lewis, though like ‘Can you catch a crook?’ there’s a stable of at least three different artists working at different periods. Lewis was a good artist, prone to detail in a kind of mundanely ornate style, but this only produces dense panels and an overall dark style that is hard to follow because of the lack of clearly identifiable elements. Overall, the effect is heavy and slow, and since the scripting is flat and utilitarian – Lane is one of a crew of nearly half a dozen, who are underground for thirteen weeks in the close confines of a Mole-like machine, but none of the others have names – it’s pretty dull overall. But, like ‘Iron Man’, popular.
This was another strip whose format was unstable. It began as two pages, got cut back to one-and-a-half after a month, and might turn up as one page without the least warning.
Something similar kept happening to ‘Roving Reporter’, sometimes one page, sometimes half a page, and growing steadily less informative. Worse still, though usually in full colour, albeit with a palate vastly more limited than in the Fifties, it would be in black-and-white. With issue 41, this was replaced by ‘Bids for Freedom’, again one page with the odd half-pager, all about people break out of various prisons.
As for Eagle‘s cover, from issue 31 onwards this was a full-page feature, ‘Arms through the Ages’, a full colour short, dominated by a main image, featuring different weaponry. Inside, and encouraging readers to cut up and destroy their copy, there was a printed text, to be cut out and pasted over the Eagle and Boy’s World logo box when the cover was cut off. Sheesh.
No, this was now a comic whose inner conviction and pleasure in itself had withered, and even its few remaining series worthy of respect were being treated shabbily. Though Eagle would limp on into 1969, and volume 20, there was only one further Volume in which I was interested.
The magic ingredient that made Volume 14 an improvement on its predecessor was the thing I criticised last time out: stability. After the chaos of 1962, Eagle‘s editorial staff pulled things together to establish long-running series that appeared faithfully, week after week, solidifying the comic’s latterday appeal.
As in the previous year, the first nine issues were essentially a continuation of the previous Volume. ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and ‘Hornblower’ played out their time. There were two episodes left of ‘Johnny Quick’ and then that short, seven part serial, ‘Runway 13’ which I’ve previously praised so highly, and which was a forerunner of the prose series that would then establish itself as an Eagle fixture.
Everything else ran its stories down, including a final short nine week B&W ‘Dan Dare’ adventure, to enable another internal revamp with issue 10.
These blogs have been concentrating upon Eagle, of course, but its success spawned a small stable of red-topped comics under Marcus Morris for other audiences. First, Girl, for readers’ sisters. Then Robin for their baby/brothers/sisters, 4-7 year olds. And Swift, for the intermediate audience, the 7 – 10 year olds. But Swift was now being cancelled, in the traditional British manner whereby a comic does not simply disappear but suffers death-by-merger, the strongest series of each of the two comics continuing under a single form. With Volume 14, issue 10, Eagle officially became Eagle and Swift, though I’m not going to use that title.
Only two of Swift‘s features survived the merger, according to a disgruntled Swift reader later in the year, but the only unequivocally new feature was the new Western series, ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, and that began its second life with the closest such things came to an ‘origin’ episode that I can only assume was for the benefit of Eagle readers.
For this initial story, ‘Blackbow’ ran in black and white across two pages, dominated by an overall grey tone that rendered the art ineffective and dull. The untitled story featured a seeming ghost Indian Chief, returned from the dead, inciting the local Commanche tribe, under Blackbow’s friend, Chickarro, to attack Powder Creek. As had been the case in at least one ‘Riders of the Range’ saga, and would be repeated more than once in ‘Blackbow’ itself, the villain turned out to be the local banker, trying to drive settlers off so he could buy their land cheap and make a killing.
As for the other Swift holdover, according to Wikipedia that must have been ‘Calling U for Useless’ which had already been appearing in Eagle for ages: surely it can’t have been published in both comics?
Dan Dare had had a year in monochrome, of short stories without recurring characters, and at first, ‘Operation Time-Trap’ looked like more of the same, albeit with a slightly expanded cast. But the revamp introduced an expanded Letter’s Page, and practically the first thing this featured was a couple of letters from readers wanting the Pilot of the Future back in colour. The editor (Bob Bartholomew, though unlike Morris and Makins, he would never name himself to the readers: professional comics publishers, remember) hinted at some change and, four weeks in to the revamp, Dan finally returned to Eagle‘s cover, and to full colour.
But only on the cover. For Heaven knows what reason, perhaps resentment at not being able to dump Dan Dare after all, Eagle saddled their lead character with the worst and most spatchcock of formats, one page full colour, done poster-style, and one-and-a-half pages of monochrome inside.
Add to that the fact Keith Watson was colourblind, and the earliest covers were horribly garish until the ever-reliable Eric Eden was brought back to colour these, and it was the most ridiculous way to treat the series.
However, in terms of scripting, the shackles were off. ‘Operation Time-Trap’ would run for 28 weeks, and then segue, in best Hampsonian manner, directly into its sequel, ‘The Wandering World’.
And those new characters who piloted the Tempus Frangit (Time-Breaker) alongside Dan and Digby, were to become a new supporting cast for much of the Watson era. These were the hot-headed Colonel Wilf Banger, engineer/designer, his assistant Technician ‘Nutter’ Cob, and the prim, fussy administrator, Major Shillitoe Spence, whose forename was only used twice (in captions) in the whole series.
And there was greater change in the air. Motton introduced a new recurring foe for Dan in ‘Operation Time-Trap’ in Xel, short, brutish, silver-skinned, the One in One Thousand Million, who stows away on the Tempus Frangit into ‘The Wandering World’ and beyond.
But the supreme moment came on the cover of issue 42. After three years, he was back, The Mekon, returning to his rightful role as the master villain, the mastermind. It might not be Frank Hampson, and there are those who still criticise Keith Watson’s art, especially when it came to Dan’s face (and they do have a point in certain close-up angles), but he had slaved to make the reduced ‘Dan Dare’ something that the fans could still relish, and he had beaten Longacre, because this was what we thought of when we imagined Dan Dare, and if it wasn’t Frank Hampson, it was a colourable imitation, and it would be good enough for a few years to come, and Keith Watson deserves every kudos going for making sure we could come back to a moment like this.
The page and a half of B&W art inside was completed by a new prose feature, ‘SportingTalk’ by Ex-Pro, the man who knows everybody in the business. From a distance of a half-century these are interesting for the confident features on people whose names are meaningless nowadays, except to specialists, and the confident but inaccurate predictions, like the one that ‘Sonny’ Liston was going to hold the World Heavyweight Boxing title for years and see off all contenders, the least of whom was Cassius Clay.
This was followed by ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, in which Paul Trevillion’s art was at its crispest and cleanest, though every now and then he would be replaced by episodes drawn by Spanish artist Martin Salvador, who just about managed reasonable representations of Bruce and Prior (except that Bruce became inordinately fond of hats those weeks) but in every respect was about as unlike as possible.
And before the year was out the series – which had begun as a three-pager, remember – was cut back to one-and-a-half pages.
One last one-off series ran from issue 10, a Loch Ness Monster rip-off entitled ‘The Beast of Loch Craggan’. Fishermen from the remote village of Craggan disturb a sea monster that ‘escapes’ into the land-locked Loch and causes terror. Young Jamie Farr empathises with the monster, which he sees as an innocent. Everybody’s trying to kill the monster, or else capture, study and then kill it, but young Jamie wants to set it free, and eventually does. Apart from it being drawn by John McLuskey, who’d been the original artist on the Daily Express ‘James Bond’ strip, there was little to commend it.
There was a third short prose serial to accompany the merger/revamp, the eight part mountaineering ghost story, ‘High Quest’, of which I’ve spoken highly elsewhere, but when this finished, it was replaced by Eagle‘s first ongoing prose series since ‘The Three J’s’. Though uncredited, it’s obvious to anyone with half an eye that ‘Horizon Unlimited’ was written by the same guy as ‘Runway 13’. Apart from the knowledgeable love of aviation, there’s the same veteran/youngster combo upfront, in Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, with a penchant for seeing things from Theo’s viewpoint.
‘Horizon Unlimited’ was about a trio of misfits, joined by their love of adventure, new horizons and an old War-veteran Catalina flying boat. Sam’s a Director of a Southampton-based company, a veteran bomber pilot from the War and still unreconciled to ‘flying a desk’. He sees the Cat’ put down on Southampton Water and, on a whim, hires her to travel to Scotland to inspect a new and predictably useless device. There he meets Theo, more recently ‘bowler-hatted’ from the RAF, working for the insurers. They fly back together, relishing the old flying-boat.
But its misery of an owner is more interested in having the Cat’ wrecked for its insurance value, putting down at Great Orme in a storm. Sam and Theo rescue it, pool their resources to buy the Cat’ – and, effectively, its mechanic, a stocky Liverpudlian only known as Plugg – call themselves Horizons Unlimited and set up to charter round the world. Their first charter is to fly to Bermuda and deliver an attache case to a very private billionaire. If I tell you it has a bomb in it, you’ll understand what kind of series this was going to be…
‘Horizon Unlimited’ (not an original name, it having been Milton Caniff’s creation for the early, pre-Air Force days of Steve Canyon) was glorious fun. It moved in story arcs of anything from two to seven parts – there was even a one-parter – each rolling into another, and it was one of my favourite Eagle features of this period, second perhaps only to Dan Dare.
In the centre pages, Frank Bellamy continued to draw, colour and thrill on ‘Heros the Spartan’. The ‘Island of Death’ story had successfully concluded with issue 9, and now Heros returned to Rome, expecting recognition for the completion of his mission from Caesar, in the form of command of a Legion. This he would get, but writer Tom Tully had a reset in mind, as Heros was first forced to fight for his life, masked, in the Arena, and then given command of a Legion made-up of criminals and deserters. For things had changed: the old Caesar was dead and his heir was a corrupt, villainous man, who hated Heros and feared him as a symbol around which opposition to his rule might gather. Ironically, Heros was adamantly loyal, but this did not stop what would be continuous peril and the ever-present risk of engineered disgrace that would underpin the series from hereon in.
The ‘Eagle of the Fifth Legion’ story dominated the rest of the volume, but there was a surprise to come when the next serial, ‘The Man of Vyah’, saw a change of artist. Another Spanish artist, Luis Bermejo – Spaniards were cheap in comparison to English artists, rather like DC Comics discovering the Phillippines in the early Seventies – replaced him. Bermejo’s art was appropriately atmospheric, but never realistic. Nevertheless, once the shock was over, he was more than good enough, and the pair would basically alternate in future.
But once we were past ‘Heros’ the quality, and the solidity of the new Eagle and Swift dropped off rapidly. ‘Mann of Battle’ found a home in the back half, it’s weekly single page drawn by Brian Lewis, according to most records. That may be so, but there are constant subtle changes to the art-style from week to week, and Lewis’s signature would only appear on those pages most clearly in his style. There were no drastic changes in line-work, though Slogger Bates’ features go up and down the age-range. Either Lewis was farming some of the work out to assistants/colleagues aping his style, or some weeks he just didn’t have the same amount of time to spare as others, but the look was constantly shifting back and forwards in a way that didn’t help the weak storylines and unconvincing dialogue.
Whether it be an island off the Libyan coast, Sicily or the Burmese Jungle, the formula was identical. Pete Mann and Slogger Bates would be sent on a secret mission against the Nazis, run into trouble, get shot at, shoot a lot of people, so on and so forth. I can’t remember my reaction to it then, when I was pretty undiscriminating, but it completely fails to convince me now.
I think that’s because this was a Second World War story, so close to the end of the actual wall itself. Less than twenty years had elapsed, enough that none of Eagle‘s readers had any experience of it, but still short enough that practically every one of them would have had someone – a father, an uncle, even a grandfather maybe – who had fought in the War. My father had been close to call-up age when the war ended, and was soon on National Service, his elder brother had been in the Pacific, in the Navy. Eagle wasn’t like the DC Thomson papers, the Victor, the Hornet, with their endless jingoistic War series. In its way, ‘Mann of Battle’ was not much different to them, maybe slightly more sophisticated, but it was not at home here. It feels superficial, because it is superficial, on too important a subject. It didn’t work.
The revamp also introduced a new feature, a third go at the kind of factual feature that had been meat and drink to MacDonald Hastings. ‘Roving Reporter’ was the first time this had been tried in strip form, with the odd photo of the Roving Reporter himself, ‘Larry Line’ (really the writer, Roger Parry) accompanying a page of art from, primarily but not exclusively, Eric Kincaid. It never achieved any great depth, and it wasn’t immune to being messed around with, with random episodes in black and white and then, about the same time ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ lost half a page, being cut back to half a page itself.
The ‘Are you the… type?’ feature continued, but at this remove, the types being set up are of only remote interest, figures of a bygone age, whose life is summed up in so superficial a manner for the youngsters that they hold no interest even as a record of historical perceptions then. And there’s ‘Calling U for Useless’ and ‘Fidosaurus’, about which I plan to waste no more words.
Also introduced with issue 10 was a new, expanded Letters page, soon rebranded ‘It’s Your Opinion’, with the Editor soliciting letters on specific topics. This might pop up anywhere, and it’s amusing to read some of the opinions being expressed by kids aged 10 or thereabouts, many of which are inveterately stupid, and some of which explain a little about what our county’s been like for the past fifty years.
The overall effect was to give Eagle an imbalanced feel. Yes, it had settled into a secure format, where a standard line-up appeared in a regular order, but whilst ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, ‘Horizon Unlimited’ and ‘Heros the Spartan’ were all substantial features demanding concentrated reading, once you hit the back of the bus, so to speak, there was little to stop you skimming through the rest.
There was one magic feature to Eagle in Volume 14 however that I’ve not mentioned so far, but which you may have been able to guess for comments here and there, and that’s me. On a dark November Saturday afternoon, at the fag-end of a Church Bring-and-Buy sale, my Dad spent a couple of pennies on a bunch of Eagle‘s, maybe fifteen or so, from this year. I loved it from the start, which is why I’m maybe a little more forgiving of the later Dan Dare in particular, because this is my Dan Dare, and I would not read any Frank Hampson for years.
But from here to the end of the ride, I was one of those small boys who read Eagle every week. I remember the thrill so much.
There were only nine issues remaining of that version of Eagle that connected back to the leading boy’s comic of the Fifties. With issue 10, the new owners, Mirror Group, as Longacre Press, brought in their first revamp. Two more, less sweeping, would happen before the end of this Volume alone, but this was the one that severed the connection between what was and what would be.
The cover of issue 10 was a brutal shock. Dan Dare was gone, and so too was the red banner. Instead, the word Eagle was spelled out in red characters against a weak, white background, and instead of a cover feature there were three colour panels, each teasers for features inside.
One was, still, Dan Dare, but that was the only thing left. Gone, at long last and forever, were ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’. Gone were ‘Danger Unlimited’ and ‘Knights of the Road’. Gone was George Cansdale, whose long association with Eagle was severed at the beginning of the year. Gone were almost everything that appeared in issue 9, with the exception of the Pilot of the Future, the hapless ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and a new feature that had debuted at the start of Volume 12, ‘The Man from Eagle’, or ESI Resurrected in all but name, and MacDonald Hastings.
‘Fidosaurus’ was retained, and Reg Parlett also introduced the equally unfunny ‘XYZ Cars – Calling ‘U’ for Useless’, the very title of which representing the confusion. A few ‘Harris Tweed – Super Chump’s were leftover, and these half-pagers would pop up here and there, at random, along with a couple of unused ‘Mr Therm’s.
But a concerted effort was made to rid Eagle of everything that smacked of the Hulton days, of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson (whose name was NOT to be whispered around the offices). It’s clear that Longacre would also have got rid of Dan Dare if they thought they could. As it was, the entire creative team were dropped (Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell were treated infamously, with no notice of their dismissal: the scripts just stopped turning up abruptly). David Motton took over scripting, with a brief to limit stories to no more than thirteen weeks, and no recurring characters except Dan and Digby, Keith Watson was re-hired on art (well aware that if the editorial staff had known he’d been part of Hampson’s studio, he would have been out on his ear) and the series was slid inside, and dropped into black and white.
Later in the Volume, it would be pushed into the back half of the comic, and split over non-facing pages. Watson refused to let it die, producing masterful greywash art and restoring the old Spacefleet uniforms, waving the flag.
‘Home of the Wanderers’ continued to rival ‘Knights of the Road’ for dullness. It changed title twice, to ‘Wanderers Away’ and ‘The New Wanderer’ for two more stories then reverted to its overall title, for an extremely silly story about the team’s right winger becoming a pop singer in addition to his footballing duties, which was notable only for being the first time in which ‘pop’ music, as opposed to jazz, was recognised in Eagle.
Before I go on to the wholly Longacre Eagle, I should briefly mention the short-lived ‘The Sword of Fate’, which replaced ‘Last of the Saxon Kings’ in the centrespread, was drawn by the same flat artist and, despite not being recorded as such in the publication I rely on, is clearly another leftover from Comet. It ended with the hero going into unjust exile, suggesting there may have been a sequel lurking around somewhere, but we were never to be honoured by that.
So, what was the new ‘new’ Eagle made up of?
First of all, it was full of adaptations. Martin Aitchison moved smoothly on into drawing an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’. Frank Humphris picked up ‘Vengeance Trail’, adapted from the story, ‘Flaming Irons’ by ‘famed Western author, Max Brand’ (this latter in black and white). Later in the year, Humphris would get yet another B&W Western series to draw, in the shape of ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’, though from issue 11 onwards, Eagle ceased to credit either writer or artist except where required to, i.e., the originators of these adaptations.
From ‘The Lost World’, Aitchison was then commissioned to draw a series of adaptations of C.S Forrester’s ‘Hornblower’ novels, initially as ‘Lieutenant Hornblower R.N.’ across the centrespread, where his art seemed somehow flat and lifeless, and then in single page format, as ‘Captain Hornblower R.N.’, at which point his art recaptures his old energy, subtly reinforcing Frank Hampson’s point about artists only drawing one page of full colour art per week.
But that is to deny the evidence of the other artist to work on Eagle’s centrespread, the great Frank Bellamy.
After his early success with Sir Winston Churchill, Bellamy returned to the war years with the life of the British General, Bernard Montgomery, drawn as a centrespread and drawn with vigour and detail that betrayed none of the early uncertainty due to dealing with a living figure. Bellamy was in fantastic form, linework, composition, colouring, and his battle scenes were masterpieces of detail and impression.
And towards the end of the year, as part of Eagle‘s third revamp, Bellamy was back with the series that he is most recognised for, ‘Heros the Spartan’.
I’ll come to that. Meanwhile, there were three further, very contrasting series introduced in issue 10. The first of these was a new Police Crime strip, ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D.’, which went through a variety of artists before settling on the long-term choice of Paul Trevillion, creator of ‘You are the Referee’.
This was a black and white two-pager, set in the Midlands industrial city of Manningham, and starred Londoner Detective Sergeant Dave Bruce and his realistically depicted crime-cracking efforts. The situation, which was never really played up to any serious degree, was that Bruce was resented for having beaten out local man Bill Prior for the Sergeant’s role. Prior was Bruce’s partner and the only man with no grudges, not like the burly Inspector Wade. Bruce was supposed to be slowly earning his colleague’s trust but this never played into the series except tangentially.
Secondly, there was a true-life story series, ‘Only the Brave’, recounting actions by ordinary people, sometimes but not exclusively members of official services or the Services, undertaking rescues at their own, frequently severe risk. First, these were winners of the George Medal, then the British Empire Medal. This series lasted twenty-seven episodes from various artists, including Richard E Jennings and a sequence of five fine pages from Frank Bellamy, and the stories themselves were several times very touching.
The last new feature was the new prose series, replacing ‘The Gay Corinthian’ (brought to an abrupt end with a half-page final instalment). We remained in Georgian times with ‘Beau Fortune’, author unknown but suspected to be Lee Mayne, though I incline more towards ‘Corinthian’s Ben Bolt, for the similarity of background.
Valentine ‘Beau’ Fortune is the leading Dandy of the day (which is usually between 1803 and 1805 but which skips to 1814 for one episode), a personal friend of George, Prince of Wales, the arbiter of High Fashion, an effete, unconcerned fop. Any resemblance to Sir Percy Blakeney is, of course, purely a coincidence, as is that of Fortune’s secret identity, The Masked Rider, a strong, confident adventurer, wanted to be hung as a highwayman and a thief but in secret a righter of wrongs.
For all its lack of originality, ‘Beau Fortune’ was nicely vigorous and enjoyable. The series, which only lasted as long as revamp no 3, mixed single episodes and two-parters, with one three-parter, and was good fun, and a highlight of this ill-thought out year.
And this Volume was ill-thought-out. The Hulton Eagle had had its series each in their places, but the Longacre Eagle never looked the same two weeks running, with series flipping pages. The certainty of two colour sheets and two black and white sheets was broken down, with what implications for the cost of printing I have no idea, but the colour-oriented cover would have the b&w Wanderers on page 2 and the colour ‘Lost World’ on page 3, backed by b&w on page 4.
What’s more, the drastic reduction in recurring series seriously weakened the overall effect of the paper. Where the reader had had a half dozen wide-ranging series to follow, having built up a consistent enthusiasm for Dan Dare, Jeff Arnold, Sergeant Luck et al., there were now few people to recognise and welcome back.
For example, ‘The Lost World’ was replaced by ‘Island of Fire’, in which two charter pilots, hired to fly an eccentric vulcanologist to a remote Pacific island that he believed would erupt and cause a chain reaction ripping the planet apart, found themselves caught up between an American gangster who’d stashed his bullion on the island, and a British warship. It lasted ten weeks, went nowhere, was just a one-off, and was notable only for giving Richard Jennings something to draw again, in colour for the first time since ‘Tommy Walls’.
But there were two more revamps to come. The first was only a partial revamp, starting in issue 35. This introduced ‘The Devil’s Henchman’, mentioned above, replacing ‘Only the Brave’, but more prominently was a new front cover look, ‘Kings of the Road’. These were superb, full-page poster paintings of vintage motor racing cars, in action, an open invitation to tear out and pin to bedroom walls, and were very much a change for the better.
However, the real revamp came with issue 43, and the introduction of three new ongoing series, stabilising Eagle‘s weekly content, and the replacement of ‘The Gay Corinthian’ with the first of three new prose serials.
It was a second substantial revamp in seven months, and if it was for the better, it was still a sign of the comic’s weakness that it had to be rescued so quickly. ‘Dan Dare’ moved into the back of the comic, it’s two pages split to appear on opposite sides of the same sheet, the first Eagle strip to be treated that way.
The first new series was ‘Mann of Battle’, a Second World War strip featuring Captain Pete Mann and his batman, ex-boxer Slogger Bates, on a secret mission in the Mediterranean. Drawn competently by Brian Lewis, beginning a long association with Eagle, this began a week early, with two pages, before being chopped down to one. Neither of the characters have much by way of personality and it just seems like it’s about killing Nazi soldiers, with no well-developed plotline.
Much better was ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’, which was a revamp of ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D’, on which Trevillion’s art was rapidly improving. Basically, the new format threw out the ‘resent-Dave-Bruce’ backstory, and introduced a challenge to the reader: two or three times during the episode, Bruce would make a deduction from something, and the reader was told to study the panel to spot the clue for themselves.
In this form, the series would last for years, though once again it was jerked around by Longacre, like ‘Mann of Battle’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ started as an expansive three-pager, only to abruptly lose a page. Did you ever get the feeling that somebody didn’t know what they were doing?
‘The Man from Eagle’ bit the dust with this revamp, and was replaced by ‘Are you the… type?’ This was another non-fiction two-pager, combining biography and yet more reader-participation. Each week, a prominent figure, e.g., astronaut John Glenn, or Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev (the series was nothing if not eclectic) would be profiled before the reader was faced with half a dozen multiple choice questions: anyone who got all the answers ‘right’ was deemed to be the feature’s ‘type’, which must have been real fun for the Kruschev Kid.
The new prose serial, writer unknown, was ‘Johnny Quick’, which overlapped into Volume 14. This was a boxing story, and a well-written, authentic-seeming story, albeit very much a history piece now. The title character is an up-and-coming boxer bidding for a challenge for the British title. He’s a former hothead, an ex-tearaway from a tough area, who’s gotten himself under control and got himself out through boxing, but someone is trying to blacken his reputation, paint him as a jumped-up hoodlum, a picture his own suppressed temper isn’t helping to dispel. It’s clearly a frame, but it’s one that took some unravelling.
Ok, again, it was a one-off: we would never hear of Johnny Quick again. But its quality was of a singularly higher level than much of the work we’d seen this volume. It was not a renaissance, but it was a sign that not all was lost.
What was a renaissance, however, was ‘Heros the Spartan’, drawn in the centrespread by Frank Bellamy, with some of the most masterful art of his career. Heros was the orphaned son of a Spartan leader, adopted by a Roman General, and a dignified, honourable, loyal soldier of Rome. This initial story, written by Tom Tully, creator of the series, features Heros being given his first command and sent to a mysterious island where lurks sorcery, black magic, evil priests.
It was to set the tone for ‘Heros’s entire run. Wherever he was sent, whatever his fate, the supernatural in one form or another would put the Spartan through all manner of incredible adventures.
Thanks to Frank Bellamy, who made everything not just plausible but dynamic, exciting, active, expressive and horribly creepy at times, ‘Heros the Spartan’ would for years rank second only to ‘Dan Dare’. Longacre wanted to kill off the Pilot of the Future but Dan was too big for them. In ‘Heros’, they gave Eagle more than one good thing. It was The Last Great Strip, and it was the best thing to come out of 1962.
The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.
Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.
The old Eagle that had entertained and enthralled us for a decade had only eleven issues to go when Volume 11 started. Odhams had come in determined to shake Eagle up, to refresh it. Frank Hampson had gone, albeit not (yet) for good, his studio had been dismantled, Marcus Morris had departed for pastures new and Clifford Makins had replaced him as editor, polls had been conducted on what the boys wanted and didn’t want, and change was in the air. Issue 12 would see the first ‘new’ Eagle, whose front page no longer looked like those of the Fifties.
Of those first issues, there was a concerted attempt to bring stories to a close so that as many features as possible should start new tales in week twelve. Dan Dare’s ‘Trip to Trouble’ was never more than a cheap, splashy but insubstantial effort to wind up Frank Hampson’s intended ‘Terra Nova’ cycle as quickly as possible, and it was managed in that perfunctory fashion. The contrast between Frank Bellamy’s art and that of Don Harley was never greater than when Harley attempted to mimic Bellamy’s look with an approach resting more upon impressionism than anything else, but looking more muddy than intricate.
The story’s end had a poignant moment. Five heads appear, musing over what they will discover on their return to Earth. One of them is Professor Peabody, appearing for the last time. One of them was not ‘Flamer Spry’, written out absolutely completely behind everyone’s back.
‘They Showed the Way’ on page 3, wrapped up its run with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. ‘Riders of the Range’ ended Jeff Arnold’s pursuit of Sam Bass. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ brought the highwaymen to justice and got himself back on the right side of the Law, and ‘Storm Nelson’ ended his adventure with the White Shadow. Only ‘Luck of the Legion’, having finished his adventure in Indo-China in issue 5, was already deep into another story, in North Africa, when the great changeover came.
As for the half-pagers, ‘Harris Tweed’ began the year in colour, and stayed that way more often than not, but he had been re-named from ‘Extra Special Agent’ to ‘Super Sleuth’ (though one autumn strip still ran under the old title). The strip itself was now very one-note, building up to a usually predictable punch-line in the final paragraph.
Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ continued throughout the year, sometimes replaced by a ‘Mr Therm presents…’, about which there was nothing new to say, whilst George Cansdale, still partnered by George Backhouse on gorgeous art, continued to show the natural world in all its glory, especially with the new ‘Nature Had it First’ series commencing in issue 12, showing how many scientific developments had their origins in the natural abilities of all manner of animals, birds fish etc. Most of this series was in b&w, but there were a number of colour instalments.
Before going on to the ‘new’ Eagle, there was one more departure to record. MacDonald Hastings, E.S.I. for long years, had less than a handful of stories left, and after a final ‘Men of Glory’ in issue 6, he was let go in ignominious silence, having come bottom of the poll. Not a word of thanks or farewell.
Thus Eagle came to the first of several re-designs.
The changes for the ‘new’ Eagle were obvious from the front page. Gone was the big title-box, the red corner with the eagle and the name and the issue details and date. This was transmuted into a red bar, across the top of the page, the image space for ‘Dan Dare’ suddenly compacted to more like a square.
There was a new story, ‘Project Nimbus’, written by Eric Eden, with Frank Bellamy drawing both pages, and it was finally his chance to carry out his brief from Odhams. There’s a comprehensive redesign of space rockets and Spacefleet uniforms, the latter of which moving away from the military uniform aspect. Bellamy, as was his instinct, concentrates on dynamics, with no concern or feel for plausibility in the terms of the space craft, as is horribly obvious when it comes to the alien ships that have entered the Solar System, whilst the aliens themselves, no matter how well drawn they are, are nothing more than overgrown insects.
Don Harley still struggles to keep up whilst Eden’s notorious weakness at writing endings starts to be painfully obvious. Astonishingly, for a story that is supposed to make a complete departure from Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’, there’s a first appearance in three years for Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette.
‘Project Nimbus’ would last just over twenty weeks before Bellamy was released from his travail. Don Harley was asked to take over the strip, belatedly, but refused to draw two colour pages per week. Thus, Bruce Cornwell returned, to supply the technical art to Harley’s characters. ‘Mission of the Earthman’ began as a good Hampson-lite story, but once again suffered from a feeble ending.
The next big shock was the transplanting of ‘Storm Nelson’ from page 18 (the ‘new’ Eagle was now slated to be a 20 page comic) to page 3, where it would be seen into the next volume. This remained unchanged, as did the other surviving regulars, ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Luck of the legion’ and ‘Jack O’Lantern’. With a new story, artist C L Doughty felt free to draw in his own style, but ‘The Wreckers’ was a weak and short tale, and Jack’s last adventure. Lord Bruneaux sends him down to Cornwall to investigate the local Wreckers (who turn out to be the Preventives themselves). There’s a cameo for cousin Rufus, and the story ends with Jack and Captain Yorke restored to their ancestral home of Brackens, to live without excitement. It was not a particularly worthy end.
Jack’s replacement was to be a glorious series, but first we need to go back to the new series introduced to Eagle in the revamp. These were three: ‘Knights of the Road’, ‘Vic Venture’ and ‘The Hawk’.
The first of these was an orthodox two page black and white comic series, written by Gordon Grinstead and drawn by Gerald Haylock, though the second story was taken over early on and finished by Roland Davies. It’s a comic strip about a lorry driver. I’ll repeat that: a long-distance lorry driver. Among an SF strip, a western, the French Foreign Legion, a Napoleonic era ragamuffin and a sea-faring crew of troubleshooters, the subject alone can’t hold its head up.
The stars are ‘Sir’ Ted Knight, star driver, and his harmonica playing beat obsessed younger brother, Frank. Ted is a delivery firm’s ‘star’ driver who, thanks to Frank’s shenanigans and the machinations of a rival driver, loses his job at the end of the first adventure – all about delivering a long-distance load to Liverpool, and coming back – and sets up his own private lorry firm. Yeah, I know, exciting eh?
The ‘Sir Ted’ bit is overdone by the first week, Frank is an idiot with no sense of responsibility, and the tone of the strip can be determined in the second story when half a page is given over to different types of lorry that Ted might buy. The strip’s only real appeal lies in its attempt to depict contemporary youth in 1960, and I’ve seen worse attempts from middle-aged writers. But Frank’s interest is in jazz, not rock’n’roll or anything resembling pop. That was still off-limits to Eagle, however ‘new’.
‘Vic Venture’ was a real oddity. A half-page black and white cartoon from writer D. Chapman and artist G. Bull, its subject was a young boy who would drift off into dreams about various settings – First World War fighter pilots, for one – and follow these adventures over several weeks. The art was very heavy and awkward, placing cartoon characters against settings that, within the cartoonist’s style, were meant to be realistic and detailed, and in stories that were presented as serious adventures. This odd approach makes it look very much like one of Eagle’s advertising half pages, though it was a legitimate part of the comic. On all levels, it failed, and told only three stories over six months before being abruptly replaced by the rather more conventional – and readable – ‘Sir Percy Vere – the Good Knight’, by Roland Fiddy, a straightforward comedy strip in typical Fiddy style.
It all seems very familiar, as if I read these whilst still young, though the strip had vanished before I discovered Eagle first time round. I’m sure I found it funny then, but I don’t now.
By far and away the most successful of the new features was ‘Special Agent’, written by Lee Mayne. This was Eagle‘s first prose series since the ‘Three J’s’ but this was a straight adventure series. The series featured Frenchman, Inspector Jean Collet, aka ‘The Hawk’ of Interpol, a clever and implacable policeman, whose adventures took place all over the world. It was good, clipped, boy’s adventure stuff, whose biggest weakness was that every story consisted rigidly of only four episodes.
There was one more new series in Eagle in volume 11, and although it only ran a short time overall, it was one of Eagle‘s classics, a series to set against the best of the Fifties. This was ‘Fraser of Africa’, replacing ‘Jack O’Lantern’, featuring the continuing scripting of George Beardmore, and it was Frank Bellamy’s reward for his uncomfortable year on ‘Dan Dare’.
Martin Fraser was a white hunter and game warden, in Africa. The strip had been promised to Bellamy as an inducement to take on ‘Dan Dare’ and he was even given the chance to write it if he chose. For Bellamy was an Africaphile: it was his dream feature.
And his enthusiasm shines in every panel. Bellamy not only draws the strip but colours it as well. To create the parched, dry feel of East Africa, his colour palate is dominated by yellows and browns, with only the occasional, almost intrusive depiction of blue skies. Bellamy corresponded heavily wit a local farmer to ensure the authenticity of everything he produced, and whilst the subject of the series is by its very nature colonialist, Fraser himself respects the native populace with whom he works, and holds their interests at heart.
Sixty years on, times have changed, and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is no longer respectable, but ‘Fraser of Africa’ still shines as the work of an incredibly gifted artist on a subject dearest to his heart, for which much must be forgiven.
Did I say one final new series? Technically, that was so, but in a year of upheaval, with the comic being turned towards the less in-depth and serious, there was one final treasure that made its debut. Technically, it was but the latest in the back page ‘Great Adventurer’ series, and in practice, thanks to the culmination of forces in opposition, it was the last great work of a great creator.
The ‘new’ Eagle brought us back Frank Hampson for the last time, drawing ‘The Road of Courage’ under the (ostensible) scripting of Marcus Morris. Since leaving ‘Dan Dare’ the previous summer, Hampson had been on an extensive research trip in Palestine and Israel, preparing to draw the life of Jesus Christ.
For the ‘greatest story ever told’, and scripted by a clergyman, this is an oddly secular, indeed flat story of Jesus, the familiar story told with all the bases touched but everything accounted for in a pragmatic, functional manner that removes the numinous the spiritual, the god-like at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the story invoking faith in any boy. But that’s not why we relish it. We relish it for Frank Hampson, at his glorious, indeed spectacular best, for the very last time.
The characterisations, the body-language, the clothing, the settings, the compositions, the colours: this is Frank Hampson showing us what he can do, as if we needed reminding, and in the process laying the ground for a tragedy. This was the last time his genius, and I repeat, genius, would be used in its natural metier. Over the next year or so, Eagle’s owners, managers and lawyers would break him. There would not be anything like this ever again.
Bellamy’s ‘Fraser’, Hampson’s Jesus, at one and the same time. The peak may be past, the downhill slope already evident, but Volume 11, and its successor, seeing these two strips to their end, contained mountaintops that anyone who loves this artform will remember forever.
The year of the Fall. The lucky amateurs who had created Eagle and made it a stunning success for almost a full decade were replaced by the professionals, who knew what they were doing. Eagle would never be that good again. The control of the comic was handed over from people who respected and trusted their audience to people who thought their audience was basically stupid, and would respond only to simplification and sensation. Fifty years later, maybe forty or thirty, they would have been on the nail. In 1959, they were hideously wrong.
It’s tempting, but not wholly accurate, to think of Volume 10 as two different stories. This was the other ‘short’ Volume, reduced to 45 issues via a seven week long printers’ strike, from June to August, and it would be easy to call what came before it ‘Old’ Eagle and afterwards as ‘New’ Eagle. But real-life doesn’t offer such clear distinctions as that.
The three significant factors were, in order, Hultons selling out to Odhams Press, Frank Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’ and Marcus Morris stepping down as editor: the second and third of these events were a consequence of the first because Odhams made it clear from the start that in their eyes, Eagle was dull, stodgy, long-winded and stale. They were the ones who had produced comics all along, not these luck amateurs. Changes would be made.
For one thing, Hampson’s Studio, with its assistants and profusion of reference material, its expensiveness – Hampson’s expensiveness, being paid more than the Executives – was an instant target. It had to change, and Hampson, frustrated at the lack of backing he’d had from Hultons already, and realising that the protection Morris had afforded him would no longer shield him from attack, decided to leave his premier creation.
And Morris, with his unlimited expense account suddenly choked off, reconsidering his position, fell upwards onto his feet, leaving Eagle to progress in publishing at the National Magazine Company, writing his farewell Letter from the Editor in issue 37. For three weeks, this direct address to the readers was signed merely by ‘The Editor’, before Morris’s successor, Clifford Makins, allowed his name to go forward.
There was no indication at the start of the year of what was to follow. ‘Dan Dare’ started the new year with a new story, ‘Safari in Space’, opening up with Frank Hampson’s personal favourite piece of art, a near full-cover of Dan, Digby and Flamer starting a spell of leave under the sun in the Venusian jungle. It’s bright, intense, detailed, a sign that Hampson’s heart was very much in things again.
And the story bounded forward eagerly. From Venus, and several panels of Professor Peabody in a swimsuit, enjoying her leave with Sir Hubert and Lex O’Malley (hmmmm), to the Asteroid belt, and from there across trans-stellar space to Terra Nova, a near-Earth-like planet. But this was not a story of exploration: for Dan it was the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, long believed dead but not revealed to have gone on a long trip, and perhaps still alive.
There’s a panel that illustrates just how bloody brilliant an artist Frank Hampson was. It doesn’t look like much, it’s not spectacular, it’s on a page 2 so maybe the credit belongs to Don Harley, let’s be fair. Dan and Co have been kidnapped to go on this madcap, private mission to Terra Nova, and Dan’s ahead of the McHoo. He’s leaning back against a desk or something, apart from his friends, at the back, because he sees where this is going, and his hands are by his side, holding on to the desk and he’s tightly contained and by how he half-stands, half-leans, in that single drawing we see how much emotion he is feeling.
Hampson planned a cycle of stories, set in and across the Terra Nova system, as Dan followed his father’s trail from planet to planet, culminating in… what? I have always believed that it would have ended with Dan finding Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare alive. A man who had incarnated his own father so indelibly within his creation could not, I believe, have planned to frustrate that reunion.
But that wasn’t what happened. As well as the growing pressure from Odhams, there was a devastating loss. On June 18, whilst on holiday in Barcelona, Alan Stranks, the writer Hampson had come to trust best to write Dan Dare, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I don’t know how the timings worked out, behind the scenes. The last pre-strike issue of Eagle was no 25, dated 20 June. Two complete issues of Eagle were ready, and appeared without dates as soon as the strike ended. Both featured the work of Frank Hampson on ‘Dan Dare’, his last piece of art a uniquely silent first page, with Dan or any of his companions.
By the time this appeared, Hampson had left Dan Dare. In later life, he claimed he was only taking a year off, to refresh, renew, rethink, and his successor, who was not Don Harley (yet) was hired for a year, but Odhams certainly weren’t interested in having him back, his Studio was broken up, his reference materials destroyed, save for what could be carried by Harley and the only other assistant retained, Keith Watson, and I have never heard of any attempt by Hampson to take up Dan Dare’s reins again.
His replacement was Frank Bellamy, and he had been given a brief. More action, more dynamism, more excitement. Though Bellamy, naturally, drew superbly, there were many problems with the new ‘Dan Dare’. In no particular order, it’s principal artist had no real liking or feel for SF; he was working with Harley and Watson, two artists trained in Hampson’s style, who produced one page between them, resulting in months of unevenness as clashing styles; they had lost the series’ regular writer, who was replaced by Eric Eden, who at best could only produce a decent pastiche but who had no facility for satisfying endings; and with Bellamy dividing the script pages up each week, the series was hampered yet further by a flip-flopping of styles as Bellamy would assign page 1 or 2 to himself alternately.
The seven week absence during the paper strike had damaged Eagle‘s circulation. That its front page not only looked radically different, but was never in the same style two weeks in a row, could not repair the problem.
‘Terra Nova’ rapidly degenerated into a fight with giant ants, whilst its successor, ‘Trip to Trouble’ took only five weeks to undermine the whole point of Hampson’s vision. In Xmas week, the new Eagle revealed that Dan’s father had been killed, offscreen and ten years earlier. Heartless, and pointless.
Page 3 continued to go downhill. The personality-absence that was ‘Cavendish Brown, M.S.’ lasted only three more issues before vanishing, unregretted, after less than a year. He was replaced by ‘They Showed The Way’, for which Pat Williams was retained on art for a series of true-life stories of adventure and achievement: the Suez Canal, Charles Lindbergh, the discovery of anaesthetic, the conquest of Everest, submarines under the North Pole. Educational in their way, with rough-hewn art, this series might have been designed for the new masters, with none of the stories staying long enough to bore, or to interest for that matter.
MacDonald Hastings, ESI, remained confined to quarters throughout this Volume, continuing his ‘Men of Glory’ series, tales of heroism in War, for about three-quarters of the year, with sporadic interruptions.
With issue 16, Eagle expanded, ‘permanently’, to twenty pages, introducing two new series, and yet more advertising space.’Hobbies Corner’ got half a page, sometimes paired with George Cansdale’s excellent ongoing series about household pets, now drawn in black and white by George Bowe, but the other new feature was given two full pages almost ever week. This was ‘As the Scientist Sees It’, by Professor Steele, an educational series well in keeping with Eagle’s traditions. The Professor would take a different subject each week, breaking in down into half a dozen related points, which would be introduced with an enviably simple clarity. For those who regard Eagle as imperialistic and colonialist (which is not untrue), please note that one such entry poured scorn on racism as being completely unscientific and utter nonsense.
‘Riders of the Range’ continued to be steady. The Mexico adventure wended on for the first half of the year, though it suffered from a lack of cohesion as Chilton set up multiple opposing forces – bandits and Indians trying to take over an ill-manned cave-pueblo occupied by women and children, and a Mexican army patrol of limited strength, plus several kidnappings and releases associated with the appearance of a comet in the Sky.
From there, Chilton resumed historical stories with ‘Jeff Arnold and Sam Bass’, the latter being a notorious outlaw and train-robber. Sam’s inserted into the story by his ambition to learn gunfighting from Jeff, but circumstances contrive to put him on the wrong side of the Law, and Jeff has to try to bring him in. It turns out that Sam is an even faster gun than Jeff and, by the volume’s end, the latter is nursing a wound in his shoulder that prevents him using his gun in his right hand…
‘Luck of the Legion’ also maintained its course, without any stories standing out in particular: Bond and Aitchison simply provided good, quick action, and quirky humour from the Fat Man, Legionnaire Bimberg, in the desert and on a return trip to Indo-China, the serial ‘Dragon Patrol’ continuing on into Volume 11.
But Dan Dare was not the only series to lose its long-standing artist. Robert Ayton had drawn ‘Jack O’Lantern’ from its inception, and would continue to do so for the short stories in the Eagle Annuals, In Volume 10, he stayed to complete ‘The Brotherhood of the Key’, Jack’s longest ever adventure at 37 weeks, and to start its successor, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, but after a mere eleven weeks, he left the strip, to be replaced by C. L. Doughty.
The new story was a bit problematic to begin with: in ‘Brotherhood’, Jack had run away from home to sell his beloved horse, Black Dragon, for 80 guineas to assist his father to repay wicked Uncle Humphrey’s debts without selling their ancestral home. Instead, he returned for £1,000 in reward money, but by the next week, Jack and Captain Yorke were out of Brackens, and off to their new home in London anyway.
Unfortunately, they’re immediately attacked by a highwayman, Captain Yorke seriously wounded, their fortune stolen and Jack back in an orphanage, exactly like week 1. He would escape, discover the highwaymen and find himself pressed into becoming a junior tobyman himself.
Doughty’s style was very similar to Ayton, and the change in artist was not immediately apparent on a cursory glance. I did subconsciously recognise a slightly richer, more florid approach in drawing faces, and the contrast between styles was very much less pronounced than that between Hampson and Bellamy.
At this remove, I cannot find any information about why the change of artists came about, and as I said, Ayton was still drawing annual stories into 1961 (when he returned to Eagle for one last series). Perhaps stories for annuals were compiled well in advance, and kept in inventory. Certainly, Jack’s short adventures were still appearing two years after his series ended, which we shall see in the next volume.
For the ‘Three J’s’, this was to be the end of the line. The current, Christmas holiday story, which involved them breaking the ankle of Sixth Former and Prefect Noel Hardy, introduced the notion of forged fivers circulating in Northbrook. This segued into one final term-time story, which dealt with the forgeries at greater length, but once the villain was captured by the Police, and the good guys – including Hardy’s girlfriend, Linda, even though she was never acknowledged as more than a childhood friend – exonerated, the series ended.
Peter Ling would henceforth concentrate on writing for TV, including a Doctor Who serial and its novel. In 1964, he would reach a nadir, by co-creating Crossroads…
The ‘Three J’s’ were immediately followed by ‘Jim Starling and the Colonel’, a ten part adaptation of E. W. Hildick’s third novel, in his Last Apple Gang series, but once this had run its course, the prose serial disappeared, and Odhams sold more advertising space in its place.
That was two of the classic line-up gone, a third near its end and the leading serial having undergone a seismic shock. In contrast, ‘Harris Tweed’ started the new volume in colour, for most of the first six months. Even then, his adventures would switch backwards and forwards between colour and the traditional black-and-white and this continued throughout the entire volume, with no apparent pattern, but a crude balance between the two kinds of episodes. The contents were never affected, of course. It was interesting to note that John Ryan’s artistic approach did not vary. In American comics, there is usually a perceptible difference between art drawn for colour and for black-and-white reproduction, but Ryan’s flat, cartoon style, using clearly defined figures with no sense of shading or greying, was ideal for a strip that now flipped back and forth. Whether Ryan himself was responsible for the colour, or whether this was the work of an occasional artist, I have no idea.
Like ‘Luck of the Legion’, ‘Storm Nelson’ survived the volume unaffected by the winds of change (apart from a brief promotion from page 14 to page 13 in issue 1, and very strange it looked to meet the Silver Fleet even a page before they were usually expected.
With the exception of a single, remaining ‘He wants to be…’ Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ had the inside back page to itself all through the volume, and it still continued to be the most baffling thing Eagle had featured to date. Unless there was evidence of a rising tide of youngsters badgering their parents to install Gas central heating I can only think that it was aimed deliberately at Eagle’s adult readership (figures undefined), though if that were the case, surely Mallet’s twee cartoon figures were not the best promotion. How bizarre. Eagle‘s back page continued to be the province of the ‘Great Adventurers’ series. We began still in the midst of the story of ‘David, The Shepherd King’, drawn stunningly by Frank Bellamy, and told in a determinedly secular manner, with God’s influence never rising beyond David acting upon Christian principles.
Bellamy was retained for the next subject, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, but his transfer to Dan Dare necessitated his giving this up to the reliable Peter Jackson. Here the timeline again becomes confused: Bellamy’s last instalment of ‘Marco Polo’ is in issue 23, two issues before the printer’s strike struck, and four before Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’. Clearly, Bellamy’s take-over could not have been a precipitate affair, especially as a total of eleven weeks elapsed between the two assignments.
How it went, exactly, is something I don’t expect ever to learn, though these are the details I find so fascinating.