The Lion in the Fifties


The DVD collection I bought of Hurricane was a revelation, the realisation that my memories of long ago comics when I was a boy need only only be confined to memory, but might be recovered for a very small price. My next purchase was a five DVD set of Lion.

Lion has a big reputation, second only to that of Eagle, to which it was the biggest rival. It’s history includes classic series such as ‘Captain Condor’, ‘Robot Archie’, ‘Zip Nolan’ and ‘The Spider’. I still remember the last of these with great pleasure.
Lion didn’t appear until twenty-two months after Eagle, and it couldn’t have been more different in appearance: twenty pages in black and white with a limited colour cover, a smaller size and the traditional cheap newsprint paper that Eagle was such a reaction against. Put the comics side by side and Lion is clearly the downmarket neighbour. But it outlasted its rival, and even absorbed it, when the time came for Eagle to be put to rest.
The ‘King of Picture Story Papers’, as it advertised itself from the beginning, ran until 1974 and a total of 1,156 issues. That’s too many years and too many issues for a single post, so I initially decided to split things up into at least three, representing the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies.
But long-running series do not organise themselves that conveniently for the decades later blogger. DVD1 covers issues 1 (23 February 1952) to 496 (7 February 1961). It’s pretty comprehensive as far as issue 254 with few and usually limited gaps, but from then on the cover is pretty sporadic, with several long gaps, twenty issues and more at a time. And during these longer gaps, the comic underwent two revamps, one minor, one major, on unspecified dates.
So thematically, it makes more sense for this first post, notwithstanding it’s title, to cover the period until that major revamp, in 1959, and resume the story from there in the next post. Especially because, up till that point, the Lion in the Fifties was mostly pretty dire.
In deliberate imitation of Eagle, Lion‘s flagship character was it’s own space hero, Captain Condor, created by Frank Pepper. Condor appeared on the front and back covers until 1958, enjoying Lion‘s only page in colour, though this was a poor, mechanically processed colour, with a limited palette applied in visible dots and frequently off-register.
I read once that Frank Pepper (who also created Roy of the Rovers) had been given a very short deadline, and so relied on the somewhat hackneyed set-up of a good man wrongly imprisoned. The series was set in the 31st century, well beyond any connection with the modern day, Earth and its space empire was run by an evil Dictator, and Condor was imprisoned on a slave moon. So the Captain escaped in a stolen spaceship and spent the next three years slowly building up a rebellion that ended with the Dictator destroying his home city, himself and all his forces just to kill Condor (the way power-hungry Dictators are wont to do) only for Condor to streak away in the last split second.
Thereafter that, Condor (who was never given a first name) became Chief Pilot (oh, did he now?) of the Space Patrol.
It’s easy enough to call Captain Condor a pale imitation of Dan Dare but the truth is that beyond being a space ace, he didn’t have enough colour at this time to even be pale. Condor’s stories – and this is going to be a common complaint about so many of Lion‘s series – have no structure or coherent story to them. They begin with an objective that is finally achieved over many many weeks, but the intervening episodes just clatter along with no better intent than to provide an endless series of cliffhangers that spin the adventure out for as long as possible.
And Condor is dogged by poor art. It’s limited and crude beyond the generally dull art for Lion throughout this first era. It’s limited by poor basic drawing skills, a lack of any coherent design, a seriously diminished imagination for spaceships, space stations, uniforms and especially aliens. This, let me remind you, was the cover feature, yet it hard the worst art in the entire comic.

Condor art

Let me expand upon that point about uniforms. Once Condor had overthrown the Dictator and became an official hero of the new (impliedly) democratic government, the Space Patrol had to be depicted in Space Patrol uniform. Frank Hampson based Spacefleet uniforms on British Army and RAF battledress, but Dan Dare’s future was merely decades ahead, not a whole millennium. Condor’s Space Patrol wore rounded metal helmets that balanced on top of their heads as opposed to covering them, bland tops and leggings and, most absurd in appearance, a kind of green tartan check… something around the loins and backsides, that didn’t really resemble any known form of human clothing, looked bulky and the very opposite of stream-lined (it was not so much a case of my bum looking big in this as in bums being swaddled beyond the point of any recognition.)
It looked amateurish and unconvincing, and it made a mockery of the reputation Captain Condor enjoyed.
Not that any of Lion‘s art was anything to write home about. There’s a curiously homogenous look to it, as if the comic was calling on a very limited pool of artists, who may have been drawing more than one series every week: remember that Eagle stood out for its non-professional insistence on paying its artists enough to live on for a week whilst drawing one colour page. The contrast is self-evident.
With the exception of the illustrations to some of the prose series, the majority of Lion‘s art is static and stiff, composed of regular panels in small and rigid tiers, bland drawings with no pretention to story-telling. Everything looks oddly rounded, and whilst backgrounds are not skimped, there’s an unnerving amount of white space on every page, as if the artist is not even using the full extent of the panel.
These criticisms certainly have to be said of the War Serial. That’s not its title, but it might as well be. War story succeeds war story, one after another, each operating to a formula that is only ever mildly tweaked to fit the service and the geographical setting: two British servicemen, from differing regiments or services, but always two, are either sent on a mission behind German lines or get stranded there and the story goes on for week after week after week until eventually the mission succeeds, but each week there’s a cliffhanger to make it carry on longer and longer without rhyme, reason or structure. All with the same, pallid art.
The War Serial is as much an ongoing feature as ‘Captain Condor’, which made it one of four such throughout the Fifties. Another such which, like Condor, survived the 1959 revamp, was ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ (‘Sandy Dean’s First Term’ on it’s debut). Clean-cut Sandy arrives as a new boy at Tollgate School, an old-style Public School with studies and dormitories. Sandy’s a Fourth Former (it’s always the Fourth Form, isn’t it? Never older nor younger) sharing with popular Jack Hardy and studious, chunky but still athletic Owl Watson.
Sandy’s natural enemy is bully Bossy Bates, with his cronies Spider Jessop and Gus Trevor. There’s firm but fair School Captain, Tough Talbot, unpopular prefect, Haughty Hawkins, big-headed Snooty Adams, even would-be detective Beaky Brown, until you start to feel sorry for Sandy and Jack for being condemned to having real names.
The whole thing has the feel of an archaic throwback. These are supposedly contemporary stories, as the serials about scientific inventions demonstrate, but the series screams of the milieu of Billy Bunter and Greyfriars. It feels stuffy at all times.
The art is a little more distinctive than the Lion norm, but is still bland in line and layout. And the series suffers from the usual implausibilities of long-running school stories, such as the sheer volume of sinister boys and sinister masters that pass through Tollgate, not to mention the fact that stories go on for months and terms end and start and nobody ever goes up to the Fifth Form. But what I found hardest to accept was that, over and again, Sandy, Jack and Owl prove themselves to be honest, brave, trustworthy, intelligent and, above all, unfailingly right, yet it only takes the least amount of framing for the Headmaster and Staff to automatically assume that they are lying, cheating hooligans and twisters. It winds me up.

There’s not a lot of varied art available for this period

The last long-running feature throughout this period was ‘The Amazing Mr X’, who is some kind of adventurer/troubleshooter who cannot reveal his real name as his enemies would strike back at his loved ones. X was not one of Lion‘s original features, but turned up during 1952 as a two page prose series, increasing the number of such from two to three. To be honest, I haven’t been able to get through even one such episode, nor could I summon up any greater enthusiasm when, as part of the 1958 revamp, the series was converted to a two page comic series, again complete in each instalment.
One series that began in issue 1 did amuse me. This was ‘The Jungle Robot’, about an amazing metal man being used to search for lost treasure in Africa. The robot was under the control of two friends, Ken Dale and Ted Ritchie, the former of whom controlled the mechanical marvel by means of a control pad he wore on his chest. And yes, the robot’s name was Archie. But this was a far cry from the Robot Archie everyone loved in the Sixties. The art was the same drab, limited stuff of every other series, the adventure dull as ditchwater, and Archie both silent and useless if not under control.
Once the serial was over, that was it. Except that Archie was brought back, years later, in 1957, once more assisting Ken and Ted in Africa. The art was no better, but this time the series went under the title ‘Archie the Robot’ (closer, but still uncatchy), and it was immediately followed by a serial set in the South Seas. It would get better.

It’s Archie, but not as we know him

As for the rest, these were much of a muchness. Same art-style, same rigid tiers of small, regular panels, same devotion to weekly cliffhangers that neither advanced nor built. They might be set in different countries, or different historical periods, they might be westerns, or about Red Indians, they might feature marooned sailors, sabotage-facing whalers, Britons unjustly condemned to the guillotine. They frequently featured sensible, competent, fair-minded leaders trying to rescue stranded parties in the face of the selfish determination of some thug or rich man to be top dog, come what may (this plot even turned up in ‘Captain Condor’). But at the end of the day, they offered nothing original, nothing exciting, nothing beyond the weekly gratification, at minimal invention of a small boy’s unstretched imagination.
Two such I was already familiar with, being ‘Brett Marlowe – Detective’, and ‘The Naval Castaways’, one of the interminable War Serials, both of which turned up as unacknowledged reprints (the latter as ‘Danger Island’) in Hurricane‘s final, desperate phase.
I’ve mentioned that, throughout this period, Lion had two, and then three prose series. These were equally varied, or perhaps unvaried, as the picture stories, and what’s more, where Eagle was deemed to be a bit imperialistic, Lion was decidedly colonialist. Adventures would be set in exotic locations, with Canada a particular favourite, with Mounties, trappers, trading post owners and even a Mountie’s Dog – Rory – knocking back what Simon Templar would call the ungodly on a weekly basis, and many of said godly being other than Anglo-Saxon.
There were Wild West Sheriffs, traders in the South Sea Islands, District Commissioners in Africa (one of whom was the White King of the Pygmies), and all manner of folk that, like Mr X, I found impossible to read. Though I do have to credit one thing about such series: each had an opening, larger scale illustration every week, frequently of a much higher and more detailed quality than the picture stories.
Not all the series were serious, at least in the first half of the decade. There was Jingo Jones and his Invisibiliser, about which it’s better not to ask, Wiz and Lofty, speed merchants and Don’s Diary, the weekly adventures of another schoolboy. These were an improvement on the adventure serials, but eventually were phased out in favour of the latter.
It’s a depressing picture to the older comics fan who is not fueled by nostalgia, nor was the position greatly changed by the 1957 revamp, which took place sometime between issues 282 (13 July) and 291 (14 September).
The most immediate difference was the replacement of ‘Captain Condor’ on the cover by ‘Paddy Payne’, itself an effective replacement for the War Serial. Payne, another of Lion’s long-running characters, was an RAF fighter pilot, at first working with his combat team-mate, Dick Smith.

Warrior of the Skies

At last we had an ongoing character, a long-term hero whose stories enjoyed a proper sense of narrative. Of course the cliffhangers didn’t disappear, but now they were linked to the long-term objective of the story, which was kept in mind, instead of being an end in themselves. And Payne enjoyed better art than Captain Condor thus far. It was still not brilliant, still basically timid in panel structure, but the thick outlines that characterised the basic art of the Fifties were replaced by thinner lines and a greater degree of subtlety. The episodes had a little bit more room in which to breath, with Payne getting three pages per week, including the cover – still the only colour page.
Captain Condor was moved inside but, but more importantly, he too was given better art. It was still not brilliant or innovative, but the newcomer was could actually draw real human beings, and that was a massive jump in itself. By this simple change, Condor’s stories became more realistic, and more entertaining.
There was one negative aspect to the revamp, and that was the addition of a one page comic series, usually but not always on the back page, about ‘Lucky Guffey – The Lad Who Always Laughs Last’. This was pure formula. Each week, Guffey would find something he wanted, volunteer to help or work to get it, completely misunderstand his orders due to an excess of ignorance, create a disaster, but unexpectedly and improbably avert an even bigger disaster and get what he wanted after all, as a reward. Dull stuff but supposedly ‘hilarious’. It’s the comedy strips that really really don’t survive the decades.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the Lion of the Fifties, but for good reason. It’s unfair to other comics of the time to judge them by Eagle‘s standards, but if Lion is typical of the standard boy’s ‘picture story paper’, then everything pales in comparison. Eagle aspired to excite and educate and in everything to avoid talking down to its readers. Lion did nothing more than offer what the Undertones once categorised as ‘dumb entertainment’, neither any better nor any worse than it need be, but certainly not any better.
As time would show, it could be better, it could be much better and after the 1959 revamp, it would start to be.
As a final point, and let credit be given where credit was due, from issue no. 1, Lion credited its writers on every story. We knew that Frank Pepper wrote Captain Condor, that E. George ‘Ted’ Cowan wrote Robot Archie, that Mark Ross wrote Paddy Payne and George Forrest Sandy Dean (though Lucky Guffey was anonymous). As were the artists, though that was probably no bad thing. Perhaps that concealed how many were drawing more than one story at a time?

Eagle Volume 16 (1965)


The new format

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.

He’s dead, Dan

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.

Dan Dare: The Singing Scourge


One aspect of Keith Watson’s tenure as Dan Dare artist that I’ve never seen highlighted is his flexibility. Frank Hampson, Frank Bellamy, Harley and Cornwell, all dealt with a series published in colour on the cover and page 2, with only the most minor of tweaks to account for a re-designed masthead and, in Harley/Cornwell’s case, the loss of cover space to Men of Action for about five months.
But Keith Watson’s art was continually being subjected to new demands, as format succeeded format, with little more than a year on each occasion to settle into Eagle‘s latest notion.
There was the Monochrome Year, of two internal black and white pages; the Hybrid Year, with a colour poster cover and one and a half black and white pages; and the recent years or so of two colour pages, on the front and back covers of the comic.
For a week, things seemed as normal for the new story, The Singing Scourge. But only for a week. Because the second episode was once more inside the comic, although still in full colour, and Dan Dare would never recover the cover for an original story again.
One could justifiably ask what the hell the editor was playing at? Introducing a major format change to his leading strip only a week into a new story, when the merest forethought would have got the two to coincide. But further sloppiness was to follow, rapidly.
Watson had obviously been instructed that Dan Dare was moving to Eagle‘s middle pages, so he drew the next two episodes as a two-page spread. Unfortunately, the story was being printed across two internal pages, because the centrespread was still Heros the Spartan‘s turf, so Watson reverted to two internal pages.
Then, for some reason, Watson missed three or four weeks (this and the following story are the only ones in the entire series that I do not have in collected form and I am missing a handful of episodes, here and there). Whether this was illness, or frustration, I have no idea, but Don Harley was called upon to fill-in for this period, the last of which was in the centre pages, Heros having been demoted to a single page. Watson returned a week later, to continue the strip in centrespread form.
Do you, like me, get the idea that nobody knew what they were doing?
The Singing Scourge re-unites the Tempus Frangit crew for another expedition in Wilf Banger’s ship, though in token to the times, this being 1965, Major Spence is left behind and his seat in the five-man crew goes to American Professor of Radio Astronomy John Fitzgerald (most people call me John F) Smith, who is the first person of colour to take a leading role in the series.
John F.’s an interesting case. The name is an obvious nod to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose assassination had rocked the world about eighteen months earlier. And in his first few weeks of appearance, he is portrayed with quite dark skin and clearly ethnic (but not exaggerated) features.
But once Watson returns, this distinctively black appearance is out of the window. John F. is rarely seen with the same clarity as on his debut, and when he can be seen, his features are much less distinct, and his colour far less pronounced. Indeed, as I’ll come to shortly, Watson’s entire artwork suffers a substantial change at this point.
However, to the story. We are given a brief mysterious introduction on the first page, to a spaceship blasted apart in space in the Vega system and a powerful, fatal radiation source falling to a planet, before Dan and Digby are summoned from leave, fell-walking in Lancashire, to pilot the refitted Tempus Frangit on an expedition to Vega for John F.
The (other) Professor has detected a strange, controlled, radiation in that system, a self-renewing power source that ‘sings’ in a rhythmic fashion. With Earth and the Solar System’s planets liable to run out of atomic power in due course, if this energy can be recovered, it can sustain Earth’s power needs almost infinitely.
Whereas previously the Tempus Frangit simply moved in time, there’s a different explanation now for its purpose. Effectively, the trip from Earth to Vega will take a year each way, but will be instantaneous to its crew. Already that statement makes me nervous: in what Earth craft could Spacefleet reach Vega in a year, given that it is 25 light years distant? And the statement that the journey would take a year is directly at odds with the near-simultaneous statement that the stars multimillion miles distant couldn’t be visited in a human lifetime.
This kind of sloppiness is all over the place. Later in the story, a single panel will state that the captured Earth team have been in prison for two months whilst Dan laments that he has been working on his metal cuff for three weeks without making a scratch.
Then there’s the Tempus Frangit‘s arrival. Almost immediately, it’s struck by a radiation blast that burns out certain of its circuits, primarily those that power the computer calculations of the reverse time-jump, so it’s got to land. The nearest land is an unusual variation of paired planets, this having orbits so close to one another that they have a shared atmosphere, permitting travel from one to the other without going into space.
I am no scientist, but even as a ten year old boy, it struck me as a dodgy set-up, since the gravities of the two near Earth-sized planets ought to have torn them both apart before they got close enough for the atmospheres to touch, let alone merge. And it’s more than convenient that these atmospheres are functionally identical, if two planets are using them.
But the thing about paired planets is that we know what will happen on them. Dan and Co have landed on Lapri, the more fertile planet of the pair, home to the native Trons, but controlled by the brutal, four-armed Vendals, who have moved from the desolate Volk to take over, thanks to the destructive power of The Singing Scourge. This is John F.’s radiation source, fallen to Volk some indeterminate time ago, where it was discovered by the brothers Koo, Koob and Koom.
The Scourge was being forged into weapons by the Koos when it was accidentally broken in two, killing Koom and crippling Koob, who thus broke the law that Vendals are not allowed to be sick, ill, infirm or injured. This ousted Koob and the Scourge was taken over by the villainous Reshnek (or The Reshnek: the story can’t make up its mind), who uses it to devastate Volk in the process of killing off all its non-Vendal races, before going to take over Lapri.
(The scourge having been split into two, there are two Scourges but one gets shot down on the flight to Lapri, vanishing into its ocean, for no apparent reason or point for the story).
All this comes out at various times over the long story. Dan and Co start off by appearing as saviours to the Trons, but being captured and imprisoned by the Vendals as I mentioned above. At long last, they’re taken out to be executed via The Singing Scourge, but their spacesuits happen to be radiation-proof so, after the Tron crowd gets wiped out, the Earthmen are shunted to Volk to forage in its deserts.
Naturally, Dan and Co raise a revolution which proves to be very successful, and takes control of Volk.
Before they were lifted off Lapri, the crew did succeed in inflicting radiation burns on (The) Reshnek which, eventually, force him to return to Volk himself, in accordance with the law, to deal with the revolt. It all gets a little tedious by this point, the story having become primarily one of blood, thunder and cliff-hanging peril that gets overcome thanks to surprise information withheld from the reader until next week, a constant ‘with one mighty bound he was free’.
Ultimately, the defeated Reshnek heads back to Lapri with the Scourge, only for the treacherous stowaway, Koob, to use it to kill him. Koob, planning on taking over and killing everyone in his way, gets shot down trying to land on Lapri, and a final assault by a hastily-built fleet completes the overthrow of the Vendals and the restoration of Tron rule. Since nobody particularly wants the Scourge, Dan and Co are allowed to take it back to Earth, once they’ve repaired the Tempus Frangit.
No, I don’t have a very high opinion of this story. It’s sloppiness and its scientific implausibility, together with the crash-bang nature of the all-action story and its general choppiness lead me towards that half-formed suspicion I mentioned when discussing the ultra-rapid ending of The Moonsleepers. I think that The Singing Scourge marks a change in scripter for Dan Dare, that David Motton’s services had been dispensed with, whether at his choice or not I don’t know.
At different times, I’ve read of different names as writers for the original Dan Dare run. Amongst those is Frank Pepper, a very successful writer of comics series for British comics and, amongst many others, creator of Dan Dare’s hastily-conjured rival in Lion, Captain Condor. There’s a delightful mini-interview with Mr Pepper in Alistair Crompton’s The Man who drew Tomorrow (not retained in Tomorrow Revisited) about Pepper’s approach and attitude to his work that couldn’t be a greater contrast to Frank Hampson if it tried. Pepper is credited in Wikipedia as having written Dan Dare, and this story and its successor do read like the work of someone who was writing an entertainment for small boys that was meant to last for five minutes and then be forgotten.
Finally, I do have to comment on Keith Watson’s art for the majority of this story, and after his return from his brief sabbatical. I’ve been very complimentary about Watson’s art, but I cannot praise this later work in The Singing Scourge. For one thing, the art is very badly served by the colouring, which is some of the flattest, least detailed, and abstract the series has ever seen.
Watson had hired Eric Eden to colour his art once Dan Dare returned to Eagle‘s cover, Watson being colour-blind, and Eden had produced fantastic work, but this is horrible and amateurish. Eden, by this point, was drawing the adventures of Lady Penelope for the new, Gerry Anderson-oriented TV21 and his replacement was simply not good enough. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets, with whole panels coloured in a single shade lacking any relation to the actual setting.
And beneath the colour, and all too often screened by it, Watson’s actual artwork is crude and blocky. His figures are stiff, detail is lacking, and backgrounds are far too often completely absent. I’ve already mentioned the change in John F., but the overall effect is of haste, and skimpiness. All the sterling work in rebuilding the series from the Odhams’ nadir is undermined. I can only assume that Longacre, with Eagle‘s sales steadily sliding, had drastically undercut Watson’s page rates, creating the very situation that Frank Hampson, fifteen years previously, had determined should not be allowed.
Great days, far gone.