Back in 1990, ITV broadcast a documentary about Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, co-creator of the Eagle, a figure then even more forgotten than he is today. The programme, running 45 minutes without adverts, was titled Future Perfect, and I knew nothing of it until it was repeated, late one night, in the middle of the decade.
Properly alerted to some of its contents, I videoed it at the start of a new tape, and kept it, though for many years I was unable to watch it due to the absence of a videoplayer on which to play it (the absence on a television set to watch it upon was also a stumbling block).
But, just as I did with that lovely play, The Cricket Match, adapted from A E Housman’s brilliant England, Their England, last year I had it transferred to DVD, and after many other commitments and issues, this evening I have finally won the time to rewatch it.
The documentary is far from perfect. It represents Frank Hampson’s life and career on Dan Dare fairly accurately, but in far more simplistic terms than any of the books about him have done, and it leans heavily towards crediting Marcus Morris as Eagle‘s creator, to the extent of implying that Morris had Hampson create his most famous character to order (though that may be my distinct Hampson prejudice making me over-sensitive).
It also suffers from the flaws of the time in not being sufficiently serious, a relic of the standard it’s-only-a-comic attitude that can’t somehow pretend to fully respect its material. There’s suitably ‘spacy’ music, and the talking heads that provide a lot of the air-time (meticulously identified every time they speak, as if the viewers are continually joining the episode late) may well be enthusiasts, and intelligent with it, but are still somewhat dismissable as serious opinion-makers: ex-Python Terry Jones, Queen guitarist Brian May, ex-Coronation Street actor Geoffrey Hughes. Phil Redmond, creator of Grange Hill and Brookside is the exception.
Even the choice of Tom Baker as narrator was a slight nod to the eccentricity of a comic being worth talking about.
More important are those closest to the actuality of the strip: Hampson’s son Peter, the (facial) model for ‘Flamer’ Spry, Marcus Morris’s three daughters, a copy of their biography about their father prominently displayed. But best of all, extensive participation by Greta Tomlinson, one of Frank Hampson’s original assistants.
There were even footage from Arthur C Clarke, the short-lived scientific consultant for the series, laying claim to inventing the name Treen, and a filmed interview with Frank Hampson himself, talking clearly and intelligently long after, though not comfortably, if his body-language – arms wrapped tightly around himself, legs crossed to the point of being entwined – is anything to go by.
And we kept cutting to pages and pages of Dan Dare art, Eagle covers and picked-out panels, though the same images kept returning, suggesting that there was not much variety available to the makers.
One part that clearly felt flat was the use of Chris Donald, founder of the then incredibly popular Viz comic, to provide a contradictory opinion. Eagle was an intrinsic part of everything Viz rebelled against, and Donald could have made some useful points (even if he was wrong-headed on some aspects of what ‘Dan Dare’ was) but he was clearly not allowed to speak his mind, so his contributions were incredibly diffused, to the point where they became pointless: the programme may as well have gone for all-out hagiography if it couldn’t stomach a true counter-opinion.
But there were three moments in the programme that I recalled, and for which this documentary is worth the retaining. Geoffrey Hughes’ presence was predicated on his recent casting as Digby in a proposed live-action TV series, from which some precious pilot footage, with and without blue-screen projections, was excerpted. It probably wouldn’t have worked, and the money wasn’t there to make it anyway, but Hughes’ eyes sparkled at having had even that amount of chance, and everybody involved were red-hot Dan Dare fans, so it’s a real shame because it really wasn’t updated.
And there was footage from an old Pathe newsreel feature, both colour and sepia black and white, about Frank Hampson at work, with eight year old Peter, and Max Dunlop in Dan’s spacesuit and, most uncanny of all, Robert Hampson in his Sir Hubert Guest uniform. We know Sir Hubert was based on ‘Pop’ Hampson, we’ve seen pictures of him posing that show us just how closely, and accurately, Hampson based the Controller on his Dad. But to see Sir Hubert walking around, in the flesh, was still not entirely canny, even this far on.
But the moment that moved me, and which perhaps spoke most eloquently, and silently, of those days, of what was being created and what it meant to those involved, came in the documentary’s third part. We were taken to the Bakehouse, in Southport, the first Frank Hampson studio, which still exists. Greta Tomlinson was taken too, went inside, looked around it in its much-changed state, identifying things we could not see, but she only too clearly could, her Home Counties, very matronly voice string and firm,until she started talking of the days in there, the sharing, the laughter, and her voice sped up to say it all, and she abruptly asked them to cut it there.
I’m glad to have the film available again, though perhaps having watched it now, I might never need to see it again. There is another VHS tape, somewhere in this flat, that I must find and have transferred, the watching of which is long overdue.
But the title of this DVD is nothing but ironic, given what we know of Frank Hampson’s life as a consequence of his genius. Dan’s future was, in comparison to our present, perfect, but neither we nor Frank Hampson lived in Dan Dare’s universe. If only we had.
The set-up at The Firs was impossible. It suited no-one except Hultons, who had their Editor and Art Director/chief draw close to London, but for everyone else it was a disaster that could only get worse.
So Hulton Press accepted the need to establish Frank Hampson’s studio elsewhere in Epsom, this time at Bayford Lodge, a large, detached home that would double as a home for Frank, Dorothy and Peter, whilst providing ample space for the team to work. Not just studio space, for artists and for the ever-burgeoning reference section, but room for the exacting business of posing for photos, taking and developing film that underlay the increasingly rich and detailed art of the studio.
Hampson even had a bedroom floor removed to enable overhead and steeply angled shots to be taken. All in service of a series that he was determined would get ever better. Frank Hampson had ambitions for Dan Dare: breaking into the American newspaper market, for instance, and beyond that the dream of animation, for which his patient, labour intensive studio of assistants would be the foundation.
But Hulton Press completely lacked Hampson’s vision for the possibilities inherent in the series, which would, in turn, lead to frustration and grief.
In the meantime, the work went on. Increasingly, it went on without direct contributions from Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Even at Bayford Lodge, space was not infinite, and the pair would find themselves working from, first, home, and then studios rented by the two to enable them to continue.
Out of sight seems to imply out of mind: Johns and Tomlinson had less and less to do, and they had an offer for outside work that would both occupy that extra capacity and also give them an additional income. Ever-loyal, Johns went to Marcus Morris on behalf of himself and Greta, to seek permission. This was given, although on the strict condition that Johns and Tomlinson’s first duties had to be to Frank Hampson and Dan Dare, to the extent of setting aside other jobs (and contracts) to work for Hulton.
The duo agreed and started on their new venture, but it did not sit well with Hampson, who saw it as the rankest treachery. All considerations of friendship with Johns were forgotten. Within a few weeks, Johns was summoned to London to meet Morris. Tomlinson traveled with him, taking advantage of the break to visit the shops: thirty minutes after leaving Johns at Hulton, she was shocked at his catching up to her with the news that they had both been sacked.
Neither worked for Frank Hampson again.
But the pantomime continued. Eric Eden had tried to debate the workload and had been sacked as the putative head of a conspiracy. Now Hampson wrote to invite him back: there had been a conspiracy but Eden hadn’t been involved. So Eden returned for his third stint on Dan Dare.
For the most part, that left the Hampson studio in a settled state until the end of the decade. Hampson was in control, with Don Harley as his principal assistant – and during The Man from Nowhere Harley’s contribution was so important that Hampson, off his own bat, began to co-sign his chief assistant’s name to the strip. Joan Humphries managed the Studio, Eric Eden was the airbrush specialist.
Other artists would come and go, in junior roles, but these would be the Frank Hampson studio long-termers at Bayford Lodge, until Keith Watson joined the studio in 1958. There were still choppy waters ahead, times when Hampson sought to reduce, even eliminate his own drawing contributions in favour of a role directing those who worked under him, times when Desmond Walduck would return to help out, but Bayford Lodge would be the safe and stable home to all henceforth, and it would remain Frank and Dorothy’s family home long after Frank was forcibly separated from his creation.
All was set.
With The Red Moon Mystery rolling towards its end, Frank Hampson began preparing for its sequel, which would see Dan, Digby, the Professor, Sondar, and an Atlantine Cadet, Urb, survive the fireball of destruction that accompanied the Red Moon’s explosion to find themselves stranded, believed dead, on the innermost planet, Mercury.
He had already requested Walkden Fisher – famous for the weekly exploded drawings in Eagle that turned thousands of boys’ minds towards engineering – to make model Mercurian landscapes for him, to use in depicting the planet nearest the sun, though Hampson had not liked the results, which did not match his inner visions. And he had already decided that once Dan and co had survived their landing, courtesy of the Mercurians themselves, they would discover an old enemy plotting revenge: the Mekon.
Then disaster struck. Hampson pushed his studio hard, but he pushed himself even harder. He’d had to step back a couple of times during ‘The Venus Story’, missing the last four weeks. But now the self-imposed workload caught up with him with a vengeance. An inner-ear infection, destroying his balance, coupled with a diagnosis of exhaustion resulted in an order of bedrest, and no activity under any circumstances. Dorothy Hampson enforced this, but only two weeks into the story, Marooned on Mercury had lost its creator.
So far as the art was concerned, there was a simple solution. Harold Johns, Hampson’s good friend and senior assistant, took over principal art, working in close collaboration with Greta Tomlinson, with whom he’d already formed a fruitful working partnership, on Rob Conway and on at least one Dan Dare short in an Eagle Annual. As for the script, the Reverend Marcus Morris turned to the seemingly unlikely figure of the Reverend Chad Varah.
Varah had been a friend of Morris for some years. Like Morris, he was the Vicar of a Lancashire parish, in Blackburn, and a founder of Morris’s Society for Christian Publicity. He is remembered for something far greater, as Founder of the Samaritans, the charitable organisation that provides an outlet to talk for people who are desperate, lonely and suicidal. But at this early stage of his carer, Varah also had a sideline as the writer of short adventure stories for boys, several of which had been published in the early days of Eagle. In the circumstances, given the short notice, he was the best available choice.
Whatever Hampson had planned for Marooned on Mercury, assuming he had anything planned as yet, was all in his head and Varah had to hit the ground cold. As for Johns and Tomlinson, they were more than grateful for Fisher’s models.
The major problem with Marooned on Mercury is that Varah simply did not have Hampson’s gift for making it up as he went along. The actual story has nothing intrinsically wrong about it, although there is a continuity error (albeit one that can be loosely explained). But the actual week-by-week tale is choppy and disjointed, as if Varah was not able to sustain extended elements of the story in the way Hampson had with the two previous tales.
Varah’s story is that, when he escaped from Venus following his overthrow, the Mekon sought refuge on Mercury, where he has dominated, but not enslaved (presumably due to lack of resources rather than intent) a basically pacifist society. Among the Mekon’s resources are a group of Earthmen, in fact the Captain and crew of Kingfisher, the impulse drive ship destroyed in Eagle’s second issue, now revealed to have survived and been prisoners in Mekonta throughout ‘The Venus Story’ (improbable as it is that the Treens/Mekon would have kept this secret). The Kingfisher crew are unaware that they are working for the Mekon: they were released from prison by Treens claiming to be rebels against the Mekon and are working towards rejoining a war they don’t know has been won, to oppose him.
On Mercury, the Mekon has discovered a plantform harmless to Mercurians but fatal to Earthmen and Treens. From this, he has synthesized a gaseous substance he calls Panthanaton (Latin: All-Deathbringer: the Mekon has clearly studied Earth languages and would no doubt have got a First at Cambridge).
His plan was to use Captain D’Arcy (D’Arcy?) and his crew to fly a spaceship to Venus, relying on their being allowed through the planetary defences, and, when low enough to do so, detonate a Panthanaton bomb that will kill everyone on the planet.
Now that Dan Dare is (almost) in his hands, the Mekon intends to coerce him into being the pilot instead: with Dan at the controls, all security measures will open up, and the Mekon can reclaim his crown.
That’s the overall story. It’s decent enough in itself, not that it isn’t easy to pick holes in its logic at significant points, but in this clear and concise summary, we see into the heart of Marooned on Mercury‘s central failing. The above is an outline: it’s a four paragraph summary of what will be revealed to the reader over 35 weeks. It says nothing of how the story is to be told, of what will happen, of the journey the characters will go on.
Hampson made The Red Moon Mystery an attractive, taut, compelling story by moving the action through various stages, each logically flowing from one to the other. Varah lacked that capacity. Marooned on Mercury is choppy and bitty, a process emphasised by his almost immediately splitting the party into three pairs (Dan and Sondar, Digby and Urb, the Professor and the friendly Mercurian they nick-name Samson: I am still ignoring that damned pooch), all of whom are following different paths underground, continually running into obstacles they have to pass, the story cutting from one to another.
In fact, there is more running down corridors than in an entire series of Doctor Who.
The hodge-podge nature of the telling is best exemplified by the swing-bridge, an improbable underground bridge across a bottomless chasm encountered by Dan and Sondar, who use it to cross said chasm and strand a pursuing Treen squad on the other side. As such, this is a minor incident, until, that is, Varah switches to Peabody and Samson, who encounter the self-same swing-bridge and this time have endless difficulties getting across it, as if Varah had suddenly realised he’d missed a trick in not complicating Dan’s path.
Dan and Sondar’s crossing leads directly into the sudden appearance of Captain D’Arcy.
D’Arcy and crew are perhaps the hardest thing to swallow in the entire story. In isolation, there is nothing exceptionable about their role in the story. But the whole point of Kingfisher in ‘The Venus Story’ was that the ship exploded in deep space, outside the anti-impulse wave barrier protecting Venus, in space. The explosion was brutal and sudden and the implication was that all the crew were killed. No explanation is given as to how they survived, or how the crew were extracted from the wrecked Kingfisher (which was under astroviewer observation from Earth) without anyone noticing.
And it’s worth remembering that, when they were captured, Dan and Digby were treated as the first Earthmen to come under Treen hands for experimentation: they are only allowed to attempt to rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor on the basis that this would double the number of subjects, yet all the time the Treens are supposed to have a dozen Earth specimens locked up in a Mekonta prison, just cooling their heels. It doesn’t really sit.
The more obvious error is in calling Kingfisher’s captain D’Arcy, when he’s Crane in ‘The Venus Story’, though this is perhaps surmountable. Crane is referred to by his surname in the earlier story, in accordance with military form, and it’s possible that when Dan calls him D’Arcy, he’s greeting a personal friend who he addresses by his first name, making the character Captain D’Arcy Crane.
The encounter is fraught with suspicion. D’Arcy initially attacks Dan, seeing him allied with Sondar, believing him to be in league with the Mekon. An uneasy peace is maintained between the two sides, for long enough that Dan begins to come round to accepting the honesty and probity of D’Arcy’s Treen colleagues, that is until Peabody and Samson catch up and remind him that the very first thing the original Treen party had said to Dan and Co when trying to collect them was to present the Mekon’s compliments…
At least the Kingfisher crew aren’t traitors. The moment they learn they’ve been tricked, they turn on the Treens with a vengeance.
Once everybody’s on the same page, they shoot off into space but, thanks to the use of the Mekon’s magnets, only into the Mercurian equivalent of geosynchronous orbit where, for several weeks, Dan and his arch-enemy play a waiting game.
This section of the story is, for me, even more problematic than the earlier episodes. We now have everyone in the same place, and no more corridors to run down in separate directions, but Varah shifts things into philosophical areas.
It’s now settled that the Mekon wants Dan Dare, and Dan Dare only, to drop the Panthanaton bomb on Venus. D’Arcy and his crew were an expedient, but would be subject to challenge due to their long absence (and the fact that everyone’s thought they were dead since 1995), but no-one would even think to challenge Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot. Knowing what price Dare places on his word of honour, the Mekon rationalises that he only has to get Dan to promise, and his plan ins secured.
So the next phase of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between the Mekon’s forces and one ship, with limited air, food and other resources, trapped in orbit, with the aim of forcing Dan into a promise that will save his friends.
From an adult perspective, Varah overcooks the story. It takes a long time for Dan to come out with the only possible answer, that he cannot possibly place the lives of Digby, Peabody, Sondar and Urb above those of millions of Threens, Therons and Earthmen on Venus. But Marooned on Mercury‘s original audience, the seven to twelve year olds of the first half of 1953, would have been reading their first philosophical dilemma, and perhaps the additional time Varah gives to what, ultimately, is a simple answer, serves more than just the need to perpetuate the storytelling.
Having set things up as turning upon an ethical decision, it’s a shame that Varah then blurs the moral lines in a way unexpected of Eagle‘s ethos. Dan can’t get down from the sky without the Mekon allowing him, but he must get out of the sky and back to Mercury if he’s ever to overthrow his archenemy’s plans. It’s Catch-22, and Varah’s solution is for Sondar, not being affected by the moral convictions of Earthmen, to secretly signal that Dan will indeed do the dirty deed, to break the impasse.
And Dan, discovering that the Treens are expecting him and are indeed willing to lead him to the Panthanaton bomb storage centre, decides to go with the flow and allow the Treens to think that he has given his word, whilst planning all the time to break it the first chance he gets. Please bear in mind that this ethical cross-wired conundrum has been cooked up by a Church of England Vicar: no wonder I turned out an atheist.
However, we are now set up for the end-game, which consists of Dan, with the Mekon having arrived to personally direct his hated foe into the biggest single crime in the Solar System, grabbing a Panthanaton bomb and threatening to kill all of them: it’s worth the sacrifice of his own life to end the threat of the Mekon for once and for all.
With the Mekon temporarily stymied by the Panthanaton bomb, Dan takes the chance to use the Treen controls to contact Earth and signal their survival and the need for an Earth presence, extremely rapidly. By a convenient coincidence, this call comes just as Sir Hubert is unveiling a memorial to the gallant Earth heroes who sacrificed themselves to dispel the menace of the Red Moon (and if that feels oddly remote, remember that, although this took place nearly nine months earlier for Eagle’s readers, in the context of the series only some two to three weeks have passed, making the ceremony almost premature).
Dan’s family is represented by Uncle Ivor, Digby’s by Aunt Anastasia. What should we read into this? In time to come we will know that Dan’s father is believed dead, and it is clear that Lady Jean McGregor Dare must also have passed on. That no other Dare family member is present to pay their respects suggests that Dan was an only child, which sits awkwardly with the introduction of a nephew, Alastair, in the first Eagle Annual short story, running in the first Interplanetary Olympics. A decade later, Dan will also acquire a second nephew, Nigel, but never a mention of a brother to have fathered these close relatives!
And I once again find it notable that neither Mrs Digby nor any of the four Digby children are here to honour the head of the household: I said it before and I’ll repeat it, amicable separation and Digby spends all his time on duty because he hasn’t got any money left for himself once he’s finished paying ample maintenance!
It’s going to take about a fortnight for the Earth fleet to reach Mercury, though it’s a little strange to have that estimate coming from Uncle Ivor, an archaeologist lest we forget, rather than someone from Spacefleet.
Meantime, Dan and Co are still up the sharp end, with the Mekon out for revenge. It’s time to appeal to the Mercurians to rise up against their oppressors. But the Mercurians, for all that they are surprisingly strong for such skinny folk, and fond of bangs and crashes when they travel, are pacifists by nature. The Mekon is a pest, but he’s a bearable pest, is their attitude, and none of Dan’s rhetoric, so effective on the Therons, has any effect. Until the Mekon arrives in his fleet, guns a-blazing, resorting to brute force and ruddy ignorance. And then the Mercurians retaliate, bouncing into the sky and stripping down the Treen ships in midflight. This is rapidly followed by a multifarious Mercurian march cross-planet, aimed at the Mekon’s base, though it arrives just in time to see the Mekon making another tactical retreat.
Thus Sir Hubert arrives to find a peaceful planet, and Dan and co can go back to work.
In all of this, I haven’t, thus far, mentioned the art. It goes without saying, and this is no insult to Harold Johns, that the best art in the entire story is in the four pages directly drawn and supervised by Hampson himself, before succumbing to exhaustion. These are also, in terms of what we’ve already covered with regard to the story, the most fast-paced and story-dense four pages of Marooned on Mercury.
Unlike Hampson, Johns – whose signature on the work appears only once in the entire story – was grateful for Walkden Fisher’s models. Hampson had already designed and depicted the Mercurians, so he and Tomlinson are left with little in the way of innovation.
They’re solid and competent, and of course, just as when they were mere assistants, they’re drawing in Frank Hampson’s style, so there are no major differences in the art. What proportion of the Dan Dare audience actually noticed is impossible to say but based on my own experience as a comics reading kid a decade later, I suspect it would have been very small.
But to the adult eye, the change in artist is unmistakeable. It’s not immediately noticeable in backgrounds, in landscape or technology, but it is in faces and, as the story progresses, in figure scale. At this stage in his career, Hampson’s art still contained an identifiable element of cartooning when it came to faces, but Johns’ style exaggerates this back towards the very early days.
His scale is off, too. The Studio research materials contained style-sheets and figure guides including relative heights, enabling characters to be depicted in proportion to one another, and these distinctions are maintained, but there is a general shrinkage of everyone vis-a-vis their setting. Bodies are shorter and stubbier: not by any pronounced degree, but by enough for it to be noticeable.
Digby, who was closest to being a cartoon to begin with, is even more unrealistic throughout the story, and suffers the indignity of having his face drawn in different styles at different times. He’s never not recognisable, but the eye halts far too often for comfort. The effect is like seeing a different actor taking over an established part.
I don’t know just how long Frank Hampson’s illness remained debilitating, but by the time he was fit again, Marooned on Mercury had progressed so far that, rather than re-take the reigns with the concomitant disruption of rebuilding the story into something more impressive, he chose not to interfere but instead concentrated upon Dan Dare’s next adventure.
This fourth story, the second longest single story in the entire canon, would take Dan and Co deeper into space than they had ever been, would introduce another race of aliens to the teeming life of Earth’s Solar System, and demonstrate another step forward in Hampson’s evolution as an artist. But Hampson’s health would still play a crucial part in the telling of this story.
‘The Venus Story’ lasted almost eighteen months, the longest story ever to appear in Eagle, and possibly the longest story ever to appear in a British boys comic. It was originated by Frank Hampson who not only drew but also wrote (without compensation) the first ten episodes on his own. Hulton then provided a writer, Guy Treece, who continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson to lunch and charmingly advising that he had no idea what to do next: having been classically trained, he couldn’t possibly do more!
Hampson soldiered on with the majority of the writing, occasionally paying other writers out of his own pocket, but he would not find a reliable writer in whom he could trust on a regular basis until 1954, when Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran, would take over.
Stranks would comment that Hampson threw away an awful lot of material in The Venus Story, and that he could have made the same story last for five years! Whilst the majority of Dan Dare fans hold Stranks in high regard for bringing stability to the writing of the series, and freeing Hampson up to concentrate upon the art, taking it to even greater heights, there are others who are critical of him for doing exactly as he said, and slowing the pace down.
At the same time as Treece made his invaluable contribution, Hampson had begun assembling his studio.
Harold Johns, Hampson’s contemporary and close friend from Southport Art College, was an obvious first choice, and quiet, almost secretive advertisements in trade papers brought in young, enthusiastic artists who were fascinated by Hampson and his plans and wanted to work with him: Jocelyn Thomas and Joan Humphries (later Porter), Greta Tomlinson (who would form a very fruitful partnership with Johns) and Canadian Bruce Cornwell, a much more experienced contemporary of Hampson and the first to leave after suggesting that the punishing hours and conditions were not necessary.
With a team, a studio was required, and the most unlikely of sites was found on Botanic Road, Southport. It was called the Bakehouse, and it was a brick-built lean-to and former bakery that nevertheless offered two large overhead windows, a third in one end wall and fanlight windows along its length. It was cold and cramped – an exploded drawing of the Bakehouse was produced by Graham Bleathman for Spaceship Away and reprinted in Alastair Crompton’s high quality Hampson biography Tomorrow Revisited – and everyone hated it.
But it was home to Frank Hampson’s studio, and that meant not only Dan Dare but The Great Adventurer (the life of St Paul), Rob Conway (an undistinguished strip about an air cadet joining the search for a Himalayan secret city) and Tommy Walls, a full-page advert for Wall’s Ice Cream in comic strip fashion.
And in this tiny place, a team of seven people worked longer hours than Victorian factory hands to fulfil the vision of Frank Hampson.
As I’ve already said, each weekend Hampson – who was writing the story as well as drawing it – worked alone on two full-colour ‘rough’ pages, drawn in high detail, fully-coloured and not far from being finished. Then two days were devoted to the team posing, photographing and developing each scene, leaving only three days in which to create that week’s art. Hampson would usually take the first page, it being Eagle‘s cover, and his studio would divide the panels of page two between them.
It was not merely a case of drawing individual panels and sticking these down, whilst disciplining one’s natural talent into channeling what Hampson wanted into the realism he demanded. Some original pages are little short of a jigsaw puzzle, with cut-out space ships pasted onto Spacefleet backgrounds, and figures pasted over scenes.
It was cumbersome, it was awkward, it was draining. It took hours, long draining hours, frequently working (unpaid) extra hours until the birds woke up in the morning. And that was when Frank Hampson didn’t have another, better idea that would cause days of work to be thrown out.
Bruce Cornwell, older than his colleagues, an established professional, though it unnecessary. Given his background, he was also prepared to stand up to Hampson in arguments about art where the junior artists, in their first jobs in an era where the prevailing anticipation was of jobs being for life, were not willing to do so. Exit Sterling, enter Eric Eden, another of Hampson’s friends from Southport Art College, although in a junior year. Eden would go on to a long involvement with Dan Dare, stretching way beyond Hampson’s departure in 1959, and would become the studio’s master with the airbrush, in which role he would eventually specialise.
The Bakehouse lasted less than eight months. It was inadequate from the start and Hampson had already started looking for better. Hultons wanted Marcus Morris in London, rather than commuting from Southport and, since so much money was going into it, it was better to have Hampson’s studio closer to ‘home’ as well. At first, they had to share The Firs, in Epsom, with Morris and his actress wife, Jessica Fanning, who did not like the thought of so many strangers in her home, but eventually Hampson and his wife Dorothy bought Bayford Lodge and transferred a by then much streamlined studio to there.
Why did Hampson’s assistants put up with what were extremely cruel and stressful working conditions that would horrify anyone trying to keep up with that today? In part it was because they were young, a decade junior to Frank Hampson, who was, let’s not forget, a War veteran. This was the Fifties, and not even deep enough into the Fifties for it to have taken shape as a different decade. The War was not a decade behind, food rationing still existed when Eagle was born, and you did not question your boss.
But there were two other considerations that, given all the comments made in later life by those privileged to have worked with Frank Hampson, seem, to me, to be more powerful.
The first is that not only did Frank Hampson never ask any of his studio to do something he was not prepared to do, he committed more, far, far more, in terms of intensity, in terms of effort, in terms of sheer time even than they did. Whilst some would argue whether it was all necessary, no-one ever suggested that their boss did not do even more than he asked them to do.
And every one of them were absolutely fascinated by Frank Hampson’s work. They had a ringside seat at the creation of something that, with the greatest possible respect, was beyond them, and everybody wanted to see it happen. It sounds like a dream to me (apart from the hours): to be an artist, to have the ability to create what the eye sees, and to be part of the great wellspring of ideas of someone with the ability to create what the eye could not see.
Yes, as Don Harley, the future ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, always said, Hampson’s own pure unadulterated work needed only finishing to be complete, and in Harley’s eyes contained a freshness that the eventual art lacked, but Keith Watson, who would restore Hampson’s look to a feature that resisted being killed, pointed to what was published, and regards that as all the justidication ever needed for Hampson’s complex, unweildy approach.
And in 2014, we’re still talking about a weekly comic story created for seven year old boys. What more proof do we need that Frank Hampson did something spectacularly right?
The first Dan Dare story has no official name. In view of its subject, it’s usually referred to as ‘The Venus Story’ or ‘Voyage to Venus’, the title applied to the last round of reprint editions, published by Titan. It’s by a substantial margin the longest story, running to 77 weeks, a week short of eighteen months. The boy who started reading this story in the week of his seventh birthday was nearly halfway towards his ninth before he finished it, an almost incredible example of retaining attention.
The Venus Story has first to set-up Dan Dare and his cast of regular supporting characters and, more importantly, the world in which they lived. Though Hampson had no prior experience of building a story, or a world, he managed all of this with an instinctive skill, and an eye for building in exposition without ever nearing the shores of the miserable ‘As you know’.
Part of Hampson’s success was in his canny construction of a story that, whilst set in a future that was close enough for each reader to imagine himself growing into, was also keyed to their current experience. Dan is the Pilot of the Future, immediately linking him to the dashing RAF pilots of the recent War, heroes to small boys. And his task is to eliminate Food rationing, an issue that still plagued Britain five years after the end of the War, not being abolished until 1951. The theme joined dismal present to colourful future, a future that Hampson crammed dozens of fantastic futuristic devices into: fantastic but utterly plausible and realistic.
I’ve already described the first week’s set-up. In addition to that, Hampson announced that ‘Kingfisher’s flight to Venus, via this future’s dominant technology, Impulse Wave Engines, would take seven days, automatically drawing its audience back for week 2 when, that dull and mundane week of waiting done, they could find out what happened when Kingfisher reached the clouded planet.
What happened was another disaster. To the frustration of a control tower that could do nothing, Kingfisher is consumed in a space explosion exactly as its predecessors were, and Sir Hubert and Colonel Dare must fly immediately to a World Cabinet meeting, at which the Controller will report, and the Chief Pilot will give his quick-witted (and of course correct) theory of what is happening and how it can be overcome.
Which is that Venus is shielded by a barrier that causes explosions in Impulse Wave Engines, which can be by-passed by approaching in old style Chemical Motor Rockets (i.e., our own technology).
Dan’s theory is accepted, a fourth expedition is ordered, and this time Dan Dare has his way: it will be under his command. He won’t be left out any longer.
This, after three weeks continuity, will give Hampson the chance to introduce the rest of his cast, as they assemble to crew under Colonel Dare, but before we meet the men (and woman) who will be regulars in the strip for the next decade, we must pause to examine that one essential cast member, the other ranks Spaceman who will be the most loyal and most consistent member of the team for the entirety of the run, Spaceman First Class Albert Fitzwilliam Digby, of Wigan.
The faithful Digby, Dan’s batman (i.e., personal servant). Short where Dan is tall, prematurely white-haired (with a quiff) where Dan has smooth, well-brushed brown hair, tubby where Dan is slim, Dig is the physical opposite of his Colonel just as he is the other pole in the series.
Before long, Hampson would break down his two principal characters into an easy, aphoristic line: “Dan Dare was the man I dreamed of being, Digby the man I was afraid I was.”
It’s easy to take such a jokey approach to Digby: after all, he was the comic relief character, the constant companion to whom everything had to be explained, benefiting the audience. He was Other Ranks, he came from Wigan, with the appropriate accent and language, he was concerned with his comfort, he was rotund (almost to the extent that you wondered about the Health Requirements for Spacefleet). But Digby was brave, and he was loyal, and he never let anyone, especially ‘his’ Colonel down.
Well, perhaps that’s not wholly true. Digby was married, and the father of four, with his wife and children back at home in Wigan, but despite his longing for familiar surroundings (only slightly less pronounced than his desire for a plate of fish’n’chips), the one place we would never see Albert Fitzwilliam was Wigan, with his family. Whether or not he took leave was never revealed: certainly, every time Dan is on leave, Dig is by his side, brewing up and looking after his clothes. And on those rare occasions that Digby received awards for his bravery, it would not be his wife who came to the ceremony but his spinster Aunt Anastasia, who had brought up the orphaned Albert from a very early age and retained no high opinion of him.
As adults, we can perhaps wonder about this: even if Hampson would have been minded to address the Digby marriage in the series, Morris as Editor and Vicar would certainly not have allowed any reference to marital discord, so perhaps we are on safest ground in assuming that the Digbys’ relationship was like that of so many happy marriages of the Twentieth Century and before, and founded on never seeing each other! We can at least be sure that Digby made over enough of his pay for Housekeeping!
But the next member of the cast that would dominate the early years of the series had already been introduced before Dig. Sir Hubert Gascoigne Guest, Controller of Spacefleet, was a veteran of space travel (Guest had been part of the expedition that made the first Moon landing in 1965, and was the third man to walk on the Moon). A crusty, old-fashioned Commander, Sir Hubert was a father figure to Dan, a man he clearly regarded with a paternal eye, though not one unfocused in its adherence to rank and order. It would be many years before we heard about Dan’s actual father, though Hampson had composed a biography of his hero – of each of his characters – that underpinned their on-panel solidarity whether such details were ever mentioned or not.
Sir Hubert may have been as a stern, strict father to Dan Dare but to the boys who read Dan’s adventures, he would have been seen as a grandfatherly presence. As I’ve already mentioned, given that he was born the same year as the first generation of Eagle readers, Sir Hubert was their promise of an exciting future.
He also stood more firmly on the ground than any other character, for Frank Hampson sought the only father figure he knew, former Detective Inspector Robert Hampson of the Southport Police, and tremendously popular and supportive figure in the Dan Dare Studio (or the Bakery, as it was in real life). Frank simply drew his own father, to a level that is almost frightening in its accuracy. I was fortunate enough to see a Granada TV documentary on Dan Dare that included film of an interview with Hampson in the Fifties, seen drawing at his table with Robert, in his Hubert Guest uniform, overlooking his shoulder. It is disturbing to see Sir Hubert walking around, off the page: very disturbing.
Hampson completed his cast in the fourth week of the story, jumping ahead three months. Spacefleet Construction Branch had knocked itself out, completing three two-seater scout ships with old-fashioned chemical rocket motors. These would be transported to Venus orbit, outside the presumed Barrier zone, where Dare’s expedition would then launch and try to penetrate the Barrier.
Three times two made six: Dan and Digby counted as two of these, and Sir Hubert, despite being over the age for active service, insisted on forming a member of the party: as a veteran of the early days of spaceflight, he wasn’t going to miss this nostalgic chance.
This still left three. Two were accounted for quickly. Dan had arranged for two of Spacefleet’s most-accomplished pilots, and his two closest service friends, to be assigned to the mission. Pilot Captains Pierre Lafayette and Henry Brennan “Hank” Hogan emphasised the international element of the future, of the World Government. Borders may have been abolished, but Pierre and Hank were as distinctively French and American as their names suggested, the one with his slightly tubby appearance and his little Gallic moustache, the other a Texan with an exuberant disdain for authority, and little wire-rimmed glasses: features that would easily identify who was who in the plentiful scenes in spacesuits.
Hank and Pierre would be mainstays of the series for the first five years, missing only from Marooned on Mercury. They were easy-going, reliable lieutenants, cheerfully insulting each other along the way, and occasionally causing accidents. But Hank and Pierre’s main weakness was that they were only lieutenants: they lacked the initiative to take independent action when they were removed from their commander, as we would see later in The Venus Story.
But Hank and Pierre would be overlooked for the first two parts of the classic Man from Nowhere trilogy, only to disappear again immediately after its conclusion, appearing only in one final adventure together in the early Sixties.
There was one more almost indispensable member of the series, the last to be introduced in those early weeks, and the most usual of all in the context of a boy’s comic. Professor Peabody was a Botanist, directed to the mission by the World Government to carry out the necessary tests to determine if food for Earth could be grown in Venusian soils.
But the Professor was not the ancient greybeard that the team expected. The Professor turned out to be a capable, cool, slim red-headed young woman in her late twenties, Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody. And she was an attractive young woman to boot, though not portrayed as a knock-out of any kind (as Robert Hampson modelled Sir Hubert, the Professor’s template was the studio’s youngest member, Greta Tomlinson).
A woman in a boy’s comic! And not just a woman but an independent highly-qualified woman who was determined to look out for herself and perfectly capable of so doing. In all the ways Dan Dare and Eagle broke with convention, in the early Fifties, Miss Peabody was probably the most radical. Jocelyn was a feminist almost twenty years before feminism began.
Of course she would still need rescuing, from time to time. And once, but only once, she was left crying. But the Professor, despite the chauvinistic response of Sir Hubert, was part of the team, and she would be so for most of the rest of the decade.
There was one team member that Hampson was not allowed to introduce. To emphasise the utopian nature of the series, that the recent War had led towards the inexorable development of a United Planet under a World Government, Hampson wanted to include Boris, a Russian, among Dan’s team. Sadly, with Germany partitioned, with Stalin still in charge, with the Iron Curtain settling across Europe, that was a step Hultons were not prepared to accept, not in a comic directed primarily at seven year old boys, who might think the Russians and the Communists were not dire enemies forever.
And so the adventure begins. ‘Ranger’ conveys the team to Venus orbit, and the expedition prepares for Venus-fall.
The team split themselves up naturally: Dan and Dig in ship 1, Hank and Pierre in ship 2 and the odd couple, Sir Hubert and the Professor in ship 3. How else it could have been done was irrelevant: Sir Hubert insisted on accompanying the Professor, in order to keep an eye on the clearly unreliable female.
So Dan and Dig made the first approach, proving Dan’s theory. However, by a clearly understandable design oversight, the ships had been provided with standard issue Impulse wave radios. This blew, cutting off communications and forcing a crash-landing on Venus, in a tropical belt of strange and wonderful vegetation, waters and fauna.
This, as much as the story itself, is what Frank Hampson excelled at, and was what made Dan Dare so memorable over so many years. Hampson imagined into being, in an utterly convincing manner, the surface of an alien planet. Not so alien that it was utterly unrecognisable, without logic, but coherent: a wonderland for the reader’s imagination, which after reading the story would return to sink into the landscape and explore, in their mind, what lay out of sight in the panel.
Meanwhile, Dan and Digby were marooned, unable to escape or even earn their team-mates about the risk. All they could do was set off towards the planned rendezvous point at the equator.
Back in space, it is the logical Pierre who divines the reason behind Dan’s radio silence and, after the radios are removed back on ‘Ranger’, he and Hank set off from the second attempt. But when Sir Hubert announces his intention, should they fail, to return the Professor to the ship and proceed alone, Miss Peabody, who is a fully qualified space pilot and is at the controls, defies orders and sends no 3 ship in pursuit.
We leave them for now and return to Dan and Dig on the Venus surface. The air, it appears, is breathable, though their suits’ atmosphere testers don’t agree. But their first encounters with Venusian life are imminent.
First they are captured by blue-skinned primitives, human in shape save for their thick red hair and a pronounced bump on their forehead. These primitives take then to a base controlled by a technologically superior race, green-skinned, hairless, seven foot tall dressed in near identical costumes.
These are the Treens, the dominant life-form of the northern hemisphere of Venus, cold, calculating, scientific, of lizard-like descent. In due course, the Treens will be found to be led by their Chief Scientist, the Mekon.
The ever-present threat
The blue-skinned people are the Treens’ slaves. They are Atlanteans, descendents of slaves stolen from Earth a millennium ago, by the Treens, whose depredations led to the destruction of the great land barrier that preserved the vast inland valley where Atlantis lay, and which is now the Mediterranean Sea. There is a third race on Venus, but we are not destined to meet them just yet.
Dan and Dig are taken to the Treen capital, Mekonta, the first chance Hampson had to draw a full-page spread, sixteen weeks into Eagle and the series’ life. It is Mekonta, a fantastic yet logical creation, set in an artificial lagoon of multi-coloured water. It is a page that can be studied forever.
In the city, they learn that they will be subjected to scientific experiment. The Treens apparently know a great deal about Earth, and have plans to invade and take over the planet in order to scientifically rationalise it and its population. Furthermore, Dan and Dig are shown a broadcast of the other two ships of their expedition.
This is where the one significant failing of this story first appears. It’s at least heavily implied that what Dan and Dig see is happening live, yet their own experiences and journeys have taken the equivalent of a couple of Earth days, and no such lapse in time could possibly have happened to the other four members of the team. It could be that the Treen scientist is only showing a recording of what has already happened, but if this is so, it’s certainly not made in any way clear, and as the issue of time on the Venusian surface against time in space and on Earth will continue to be completely at odds, this is not an explanation I am prepared to accept.
It appears that Venus’s Equator is surrounded by a ferocious flame-belt, separating the hemispheres completely, and the expedition’s rendezvous point is right in the flamebelt. Pierre and Hank manage to force their craft out of its dive and soar away, trailing smoke, into the southern hemisphere – which the Treens dismiss as lost – which the Professor’s piloting gets her and Sir Hubert down in one piece, but with no hope of lift-off or escape.
Dan’s pleas to be allowed to go to his friends’ help fall on deaf ears until he cleverly intimates that more experimentation – including vivisection – would be possible with four subjects, one of them female. He and Digby are sent out with a Treen pilot to rescue Sir Hubert and Miss Peabody.
That they are sent with a single Treen is either a subtle expression of a Treen overwhelming superiority complex, or else a convenient device for ensuring Dan and Dig don’t have to do anything improbable to take over the craft – or indeed, possibly both. The Treen is Sondar, who is to become the first ‘good’ Treen, though no explanation will really ever be given for his turning out to believe in Earth’s democratic ideals.
It’s an interesting defection. There is nothing – physically or intellectually – to distinguish Sondar from any other Treen. The only thing that seems to differentiate Sondar from his fellows is that he reacts with anger to being attacked by Dan, and fear when the craft is threatened with the Silicon mass that inhabits the Flamebelt. Once he’s beaten, he is glumly resigned to the knowledge that he will now be wanted back in Mekonta just as much as the Earthmen, because he showed an emotion.
Sondar throws in with Dan’s expedition on the purely pragmatic grounds of survival, and his later absorption of human principles seems to take place by osmosis.
So the trio rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor from the menace of the semi-sentient Silicon mass that threatens to sweep over them and, with a Treen military party in hot pursuit, they set off into the interior, trying to escape. Their flight is ended at the top of high cliffs: a brief battle reaches a horrifying moment as a blast from Sit Hubert’s para-gas pistol inadvertently hits Dan who, paralysed but unstable, falls from the edge. The others are captured and returned to Mekonta.
Thus, and surprisingly, the first meeting with the ultimate enemy, the threat to peace in the Solar System, the mighty Mekon, takes place without his inveterate enemy, Dan Dare, missing presumed dead.
The Mekon. Though Hampson would go on to say that he kept bringing the Mekon back because he couldn’t think of anything better to do, there’s no doubt that he had created something that resonated acutely with his readership.
Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who, has been sneered at and satirised for decades for the supposedly amateurish, cheap and unconvincing design of the Doctor’s oldest enemies. Not one of these ignoramuses has given a moment’s thought to what Nation did. He conceived of an alien race that was simultaneously clean, sharp and comprehensible, and utterly, disturbingly alien. Why do you think the Daleks have lasted almost as long as the Doctor, and with fewer essential changes? Because we see them, we interpret them and yet they are wholly unlike us.
A decade earlier, Frank Hampson did exactly the same with the Mekon. He had already introduced the Treens: humanoid in shape, hairless, with heavy-lidded eyes and a wide, flat mouth, just above a wide, flatter jaw. The Treens are descended of some lizard-like genus, but they are still shaped like us. They’re functionally identical, which many commentators – having regard to the superb Sixties story, All Treens must Die!, in support – have interpreted as being a race that does not reproduce sexually, but rather by some biomechanical process: what SF would later term as ‘cloning’.
But the Mekon, like the Daleks, was disturbing and ‘wrong’ to look at, yet instantly comprehensible. It is his head that disturbs, that great, circular, globe-like formation, with the compressed, cruel face beneath it, Treen in structure but closer to human in its inner configuration. And the globe, which houses a brain that is not born, but bred and developed by sophisticated and lengthy procedures, dominates not just the face but the body: thin, spindly arms and legs, incapable of supporting themselves, a shrivelled trunk, the whole balanced upon a flying boat that places the Mekon, literally, above everyone he surrounds himself with. As they look up to him politically, so must they all look up to him physically.
The form is human, in that it was resembled human, but the dictates of the brain have thrown the body into terminal imbalance that we recognise but shrink from, sensing instantly that t is unhealthy. As is the mind it bears.
What many forget is that the Mekon is not a name but a title: Il Duce without the presence of Benito Mussolini. If the Mekon ever had a name, a Treen name, it is never spoken, and it probably never existed. Mekons are not natural: they have to be bred from a special strain of Treen, developed over a course of injections and treatments that take decades.
The Treens fear the loss of their leader: the ‘next’ Mekon, we are told, is fifty years away from being ready to assume power. That is the only word we ever have about the New Mekon: he is not mentioned again, not found on Venus when the Mekon is beaten and escapes, not taken with him. The most logical assumption is that he was concealed in the Mekon’s undiscovered base in the equatorial flamebelt, under the supervision of the ‘Last Three’. But that is a story for a much later time.
So it is Digby, Sir Hubert and Professor Peabody who first encounter the Mekon of Mekonta, the most advanced scientific brain on the planet Venus. Like any villain, he cannot resist relating his plans to them, the long-developed plan for the Treens to invade and take over Earth, and rationalise it to run on scientific principles.
It’s a Saturday Morning Serial Villain ploy but none the worse here, as the Mekon plans to use the puny humans to assist his plan. The Treens will soften Earth up first, into allowing them to place a base on the Moon, by pretending that the Dare expedition has been a disaster, that Dare is dead, and that the Treens have nursed and succoured the three badly-injured survivors. They will provide messages for Earth to this effect.
It’s time to return to Dan Dare. He hasn’t of course, died. He may have fallen from a cliff, been swept into an underground river and spent nearly twenty-four hours underground, under water, being swirled along, but the influence of the paragas shot has placed him in a form of suspended animation: he wakes, south of the Flamebelt, alive and unharmed.
The Southern Hemisphere seems to be an idyllic place, agrarian, beautiful, unspoiled, and yet somehow tended, unlike the Atlantean lands where Dan and Digby first landed. It also seems unpopulated: the only city Dan finds is robotic: clean, elegant, efficient, non-polluting. It’s a complete puzzle. Until Dan encounters his first Theron, a young boy, about the age of the reader, who addresses him with the immortal words, “Got any gum, chum?”
It’s pure Hank Hogan, and Dan quickly discovers his two lieutenants lazing in the sun, idly discussing repair plans for the crashed spacecraft with their Theron host, Volstar. So much for the Treen claims that the Southern Hemisphere is a vile and barbarous place.
The Therons – golden brown of skin, given to long, immaculately coiffed hair – can be seen as humanity tuned up. They are scientifically advanced but, unlike the Treens, they have retained their emotions. They have achieved peace. They care for their half of the planet, confining industry to clean, efficient robot cities, and avoiding living off the ground. They occupy flying houses that ride Venus’s Gulfstream. Environmentalist: in 1950!
President Kalon outlines the history of the Therons, the Treens and the Atlanteans, attributing their blue pigment to the different effects of the sun’s rays filtering through Venus’s clouds, and the forehead bump as being an evolutionary development, forced by Venus’s long days: it contains extra tear-ducts to keep eyes moistened.
The Therons are even responsible for awakening the intelligence of the Treens and setting them, inadvertently, on their path to their particular breed of arrogance and science. Since the disaster on Earth, the two races have maintained a closeted neutrality, using the physical impassability of the equatorial Flamebelt as an excuse for avoiding contact. Nevertheless, the Therons do do some judicious spying from time to time, just in case.
This is all very well, but in their commitment to peace, the Therons have forgotten something, until Dan issues a stirring lecture upon good people’s relationship with the bad. Peace is all very well, but men must take up arms against evil and not simply allow it to propagate. Not for the last time, Earth’s shining example shames more advanced races into recognising their responsibility to fight for what is right.
With Hank and Pierre safe and trying to return to Ranger, Dan’s main concern is to get back to the north and rescue the rest of the gang. To aid him, the Therons arrange to disguise him as an Atlantean. This involves a change in pigmentation to turn Dan blue, and the provision of a wig incorporating an artificial lump: the wig does dual-service as a translator.
So Dan heads back to the Treen hemisphere. Hank and Pierre head back into space, only to discover that ‘Ranger’ is no longer there, having stayed to the utmost limits of its power and rations before returning to Earth. This latter is another of the few loose holes in the plot: if the Therons are as technologically advanced as they are, to the extent of maintaining covert surveillance on the Treens every fifty years or so, why have they not detected Ranger’s departure beforehand?
But Hampson needs this craft to take off and become apparent to the Treens. This evidence of interference from their Southern neighbours outrages the Mekon into starting military action against the Therons. This means that able-bodied Atlanteans are conscripted into armies. And that means Dan will be swept up in that war.
Though his disguise is perfect, Dan’s blown his cover at the first encounter, being unaware of Atlantean ritual. He’s in danger of being speared when his wig is knocked off, revealing his smooth forehead: the Atlanteans immediately equate him with their legendary rebel, Kargaz, who is prophesied will return to lead them to freedom. They keep his secret from the Treens, but it is a narrow thing before the Treens arrived to conscript villagers into an army.
Dan is therefore sent to Mekonta. Unfortunately, his familiarity with straps and buckles alerts the suspicions of the Dapon-in-Chief (a Sergeant Major to his Atlantine socks). Thankfully, the Dapon is a believer in the old ways and as soon as Dan reveals his smooth forehead, he is recognised as Kargaz, and the Dapon immediately surrounds him with a squad of trusted men.
Having arrived undiscovered in Mekonta, Dan is lucky enough that the Dapon’s squad is summoned to act as a guard to the Mekon as he advises the captive humans that their usefulness has now been outlasted and they are to be escorted to scientific enquiry and dissection. Sir Hubert leads the protests, mainly about Professor Peabody, but it is Digby (of course) who sees through the blue camouflage to his Colonel and who is the first to react when Dan decides to take a hand and bundle the Mekon off his flying chair.
The Earthmen try to get away with the Mekon as a prisoner, using the Treen flying chairs, but the Mekon’s superior brain power overrides the controls and dumps them all in the lagoon. He escapes, but Dan and Co get away with one of the Telezero Reflector ships, taking off for Theronland, under pursuit and fire.
And that is the whole of Dan Dare’s interaction with his arch-enemy in their very first encounter: fifteen minutes, maybe twenty tops. It’s a surprise to realise that all those years and hatred turn upon so short, and indeed tangential a meeting, but from this point onwards Dare and the Mekon are eternal foes.
The raid is succesful in freeing the prisoners and escaping. Though the Reflector ship is shot to pieces, it lasts as far as the Theron border, where the escapees are rescued and enough of the plate hull of the Reflector ship stripped by the Therons to enable them to proof themselves against the Telezero ray in future. And there is a moment of sadness and gallantry, as the wounded Dapon, symbol of a race that has been enslaved for thousands of years, pilots the doomed ship back to Mekonta to destroy its base, sacrificing himself in the process.
Dan’s rescue brings the story to an interesting point. In Mekonta, the enraged Mekon opens war upon the Therons for their interference, and advances his plans to establish a base on the Moon. The materials have been prepared, though the Earth prisoners refused to record personal messages, except for Digby.
But Dig is only playing on his image as a bumbling coward, concerned only for his comforts: he volunteers a personal message to his Aunt Anastasia in Wigan, comparing his conditions on Venus to that week on holiday in Sunnymouth.
The Treens land on Earth, disrupting a village cricket match, and are advancing negotiations for the base they want for a spearhead, when Digby’s message get to his Aunt Anastasia: ‘Just like Sunnymouth’. Which brings Miss Digby marching into Spacefleet HQ at Formby, ‘to speak to the manager’ and tell him that Albert Fitzwilliam Digby’s only experience with Sunnymouth, when he was mistaken for an escaped murdered and kept in prison all week. The Moon-bound Treens are intercepted and imprisoned and the day saved.
Back on Venus, the War takes an unexpected turn. The Venus Story has been adapted twice, for a 1977 paperback written by comics scripter Angus Allen and a 1980 four-part BBC Radio 4 serial starring Mick Ford as Dan. Both adaptations abandon the story at this point, preferring flashbang endings to the actually completion of the story as devised by Hampson.
Admittedly, on the surface, it’s a bit of an absurd resolution, but as explained in the story it’s not only completely logical but also the only practical approach.
With both sides earnestly jamming the other, electronics on Venus start to fail. Whilst they can, Dan’s party head back to Earth, with Sondar for the Treens, and representatives of the Therons and Atlantines, to seek aid from Earth, despite its gaping technological inferiority.
But that’s where Earth’s strengths lie. Remove electronics from the equation and all that is left is force of arms. And whilst the Treens have rationalised itself, eliminating animal life as useless, Earth’s sentimentality and love of ritual has led them to preserve their horses. And everybody knows that in a fight, cavalry beats infantry hands down.
So, strange as it may seem, Earth can tip the balance by transporting mounted troop: ceremonial army units, mounted Police, cattle herders (cowboys to you and I). It’s an unlikely and motley army, but it does the job: under cover of their attacks, Dan leads a sabotage team into Mekonta that switches off the Treen jamming, and ends the war. The Mekon, not for the last time, beats a strategic retreat.
Earth wins the War, but the only reparation it demands is complete disarmament. The food it has needed all along is a matter of request.
And with this demonstration of the moral principles that Marcus Morris as a Reverend of the Church of England, and Frank Hampson as simply a decent human being were out to propagate through Eagle, the first and longest Dan Dare story came to a satisfying end with that most apt of comics conclusions: a feast!