It’s a decade now since the surprisingly successful Virgin Comics attempt to revive Dan Dare in a form acceptable to the contemporary age, and now Titan Comics have discarded the habit of a lifetime, of only publishing comics that have been successful for other people, and have hired Peter Milligan to write and Alberto Foche to draw a new series.
This time, we’re looking at four issues, so that if it’s a disaster, at least it will be brief. Today’s visit to Forbidden Planet included the first issue, so I want to record a few immediate impressions.
Garth Ennis, ten years ago, seemed an improbable writer for a traditionally ‘straight’ character who was born out of the desire to present a truly clean-cut cut, moral yet still quite human hero for young boys, yet he understood the ideals of the Pilot of the Future came from and respected Dan Dare, and his version was worthy of revival.
Milligan, on the other hand, has always been an iconoclast, an underminer of all things established, and a trickster of a writer. I’ve read very little of his work, it just not being to my taste, so I was doubtful of the choice from the moment I heard of this.
His set-up does, at first, promise a different approach. For one, there is no Prime Minister appearing as a veiled depiction of David Cameron or even, thanks all the ghosts of Spacefleet, Theresa May. On the other hand, we have the Mekon: of course we’ve got the Mekon, we always have the Mekon. It’s like only ever having Doctor Who face up to the Daleks.
Milligan’s included a lot of the old cast already: Dan, Digby, Peabody, Hank Hogan, Sir Hubert, Flamer Spry, though he’s jumbled some of them around. Digby, or ‘Digs’ is now an engineer and openly calls his Colonel ‘Dan’, Peabody’s a Special Science Advisor who walks around in uniform and carries big guns, and Dan only ever calls her Peabody. Hank’s had one line so far, and already sounds out of character.
Then there’s the Mekon. Milligan’s story, subtitled ‘He Who Dares’ actually starts five years ago, with the Mekon as the democratically elected President of Earth and Dan’s little band declared terrorists. That is, until they expose the hypnosis machine by which ol’ Greenbean has cooked the result.
He’s been in rehabilitation for five years, concentrating his supreme intelligence on growing food on the moon. Even when a Liberation Army comes to free him, he orders them to disband and hands them over to Dan for incarceration.
Can the Supreme Brain overcome the Genetic engineering that made him into a power-crazed overlord? Has he? Milligan’s certainly come at things from a previously unexplored angle (for what it’s worth, I’m going for No).
But the only problem is, if the Mekon is beaten for good, there are no enemies left. No obstacles to Galactic peace and harmony and progress. Nothing for Dan Dare to be Dan Dare for, and Dan’s actually praying for something for him to do, to get back into space for.
Which is when a dirty great spaceship appears out of nowhere, Crypt-like, and destroys one of Saturn’s moons, just like that. Dan’s prayers have been answered, or so it seems. No hint yet as to whether Tharl and his empire exist in this Future, though again I’m going for No.
Apart from this bit about Dan Dare wishing for violence and enemies, which is not, never has been and never will be any part of any legitimate version of the character, it’s reasonable enough so far. Certainly worth suspending judgement over until we see more.
As for Foche’s art, I’m always going to start off by looking askance at anything not authentically Hampsonian, and it’s fair to say that this art in no way draws from the master. Apart from a token effort with Digby, and an even more token one with Sir Hubert, oh, and of course Dan’s eyebrows (that’s all anyone ever cares about: get the eyebrows properly crinkled and it’s Dan Dare, no matter how wide of the mark everything else is), Foche makes no effort whatsoever to follow any existing design work.
And his Mekon, redesigned to make the big brain a bit more organic, has immediately become less frightening, less distinctive, less alien. Even at his most evil in the flashbacks, this guy just doesn’t look in the least bit evil: Hampson’s Mekon, indeed his Treens, were unnatural. It’s why they worked so bloody well in the first place.
But I won’t judge until the series is over, unless it takes an irreversible nosedive into the sludge to the point where it’s obviously a schtumer. There are two pages of Foche’s designs featuring half a dozen and more characters we’ve not yet met, none of whom thrill me with anticipation, but we’ll see. It won’t take long, at least.
Another issue of Spaceship Away and another new Dan Dare story, written and drawn by Tim Booth, comes to an end, temporarily at least.
‘Parsecular Tales’ made its debut as long ago as 2010, immediately following on from the completion of Booth’s ‘The Gates of Eden’. It’s taken over six years to reach this point, issues 22 to 41, a loose, sprawling story, full of rambling diversions that never really amounted to anything, and which ended up in the same place as ‘The Gates of Eden’. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this story, and I’m not immediately convinced about taking it as ‘canon’.
The story is set in 2034, and according to Booth, Dan Dare has only just taken over as Spacefleet controller, as opposed to merely Controller (UK). Digby has finally accepted a promotion to officer, and is now a Major, and still the Controller’s right hand man. Hank and Pierre have left the Service, cashing in on their back pay from their period in suspended animation, Hank to become a Fluffalo (?!) farmer on a Saturnian moon, Pierre as a trader (and sometime smuggler). Everyone’s gotten noticeably older except Sir Hubert Guest, who is now the Prime Minister and looks completely unchanged, even though he’s 91 years old in Frank Hampson’s chronology.
Dan looks haggard and Digby’s gone bald and grown an enormous great handlebar moustache to compensate.
The looseness of the story was reflected by the looseness of its format. ‘Parsecular Tales’ began as six-page episodes, lacking the traditional Spaceship Away format of the Eagle title box. This continued for thirteen episodes, until Booth began producing ‘Mercury Revenant’ contemporaneously, when it dropped back to four page episodes for two issues, and then wound up as traditionally designed two page episodes, with the logo, appearing two an issue until the recent final episode. This puts the whole story at 112 pages by my count.
Booth starts with Hank on his farm, receiving an unscheduled visit from his old copain, Pierre, who has a delivery for him: it is a Thork telesender which he has to switch on and then just watch until something happens. This is many weeks later, in which time Pierre, heading for Venus for a ceremony recognising the overthrow of the Mekon has only got as far as CONSDOCK, a secret Earth Research Station commanded by Colonel Dare, with his batman, Spaceman Digby
Intertwined with this is a Thork take-off from Spacefleet HQ with the Controller and Major Digby on board, already in suspacells to permit a fast getaway at the kind of speeds only Thorks can endure. Funnily enough, they are en route to CONSDOCK.
But the Colonel in command is Alastair Dare, nephew to the newly-elevated Controller and former Olympic Runner (looking good considering that that was the 2000 Olympics on Venus), and Spaceman Albert Digby, scion of the newly-balded Major.
Alastair Dare is overlooking the forthcoming test flight of Project Magellan, the latest attempt to come up with a Faster Than Light drive. Controller Sir Daniel is there to inspect it, Major Digby to inspect his son.
But that’s not all. Booth is tripping from scene to scene, laying a network of seemingly isolated incidents that, as the story develops, will come together to fit a so-far-unseen pattern. Admiral Lex O’Malley, crossing the South Martian Pole solo for what appears to be no more than a bet, discovers something that has him calling for Dan Dare before he’s knocked out in mid-transmission.
And Hank Hogan’s telesender finally delivers an unexpected visitor, all the way from Mekonta: the now somewhat mature but still attractive Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody.
The action is kick-started by the sudden failure of the Asteroid Belt Impulse Wave generators, sending the Solar System grid off-balance. This causes panic everywhere, and the immediate postponement of Project Magellan (to be more or less forgotten for the rest of the story) whilst Dan takes personal charge of the Asteroid situation. Thankfully, there’s a ship on hand at CONSDOCK that can get a hand-picked team to a) the Martian South Pole to rescue Lex and b) the Asteroids, and this is Pierre’s Le Chat Noir, which may be old and decrepit like everyone, but which has multiple motors including Monatomic hydrogen and an untested Halley Drive (to later be forgetfully called the Haley Drive: sloppy).
But let us not forget Hank and Jocelyn, who aren’t exactly shagging from the moment they are re-united but might as well be. Booth goes further than he did in ‘The Gates of Eden’ to pointing this pair at each other, and given that Dan Dare is basically an asexual figure, I suppose it’s only fair, but there’s a large part of me that cannot be reconciled to the idea of this pairing, and which has me struggling uphill for much of the story.
Besides, that the Prof still wanting to crawl into Hogan’s arms when he’s wearing a garish pink zoot suit that’s an offence to the eyes is an improbability no story could ever recover from.
Still: the telesender has bounced Jocelyn from Mekonta to Rhea, and now it bounces both of them back for dinner. The Professor is involved in a Treen project to replace the spaceship with inter-system telesending, and both she and Hank are to be surreptitiously arrested and taken to the base of a secret Treen Trans-Temporal Research station, set up under the behest of Governor Sondar, but headed by one Halcyon Scobal, Chief Scientist.
Scobal is tall and striking, dresses in archaic clothing, plasters a basilisk symbol over everything within reach and his surname practically screams anagram across the entire auditory spectrum, but even with all these clues for the terminally hard of thinking, not to mention that he’s the living spit of his uncle, it takes Hank and Jocelyn absolute ages to recognise him as being the nephew of Doctor Blasco of ‘Operation Saturn’.
One final story element to throw in: before Peabody and Hogan are picked up by the Project security force, they have a strange encounter via the telesender, as a broken and battered version of Syndar appears, seeking aid and mouthing cryptic utterances, before vanishing. Remember Syndar? He was the cyborg Treen of ‘The Gates of Eden’ who was the aid of Bob Dylan, aka John Wesley Hibbings. And according to him, their base, Shelter, has been destroyed and Hibbings is dead. Only one of these things is true.
The thing is that, despite everybody’s memories having been erased after ‘Eden’, and Hogan having no idea who Syndar is, Peabody remembers him instantly, as do most of the others later in the story. Why is this? I’m sorry, Booth doesn’t provide any explanations. In fact, he doesn’t provide much of anything relating to any answers.
I’ve described the set-up at some length so that you can see that a good job is done in providing a web of disparate strands, out of which a good, cohesive story can be forged, but the problem is that they are all little more than gossamer threads, to be abandoned in favour of Booth’s real interest in the story, which turns out to be bloody Bob Dylan again.
What was O’Malley doing in the Martian Antarctic and what did he find there? No idea, don’t care.
Will Project Magellan succeed? No idea, don’t care.
What is Scobal/Blasco’s plan? Hooking up with the Vashtilian Migration, which is coming through the Solar System and will destroy it en route. What’s his part in all this? Don’t know, don’t care, blast him to death off-panel and have the Professor tell us it happened.
What about the Asteroid Impulse Generator? It was blasted by the Vashtilian’s, one wave of which appears to have slipped through the Solar System without anyone noticing, except that it destroyed Cosmic and the McHugh’s (McHugh’s? McHoo’s: sloppy). Incidentally, they destroy CONSDOCK too, and Shelter, though in contrast to what Syndar said earlier, it seems that was because it was actually in the way of the beam they sent to destroy CONSDOCK.
What’s Dan Dare going to do to protect Earth from the Vashtilian menace? Fuck all, actually, don’t care.
No, seriously. We really are re-running ‘The Gates of Eden’ here. Dan and Co get whizzed off into some kind of hyper-space to board a massive space vessel that looks like a gigantic juke-box, where of course Hibbings has been alive all along and is offering a repeat of the explore-the-Multiverse deal. O’Malley’s too busy with the Navy, Hank wants to go back to his Fluffalo farm, Peabody to join him there and Pierre wants to keep on trading. But Dan the newly-promoted Controller is fed up with Admin and decides to have some fun for himself, and Digby has completely reversed his original opposition, so to Hell with the threat to the Solar System, let’s boogie.
Cue final episode. Dan has disappeared, all sorts of plans are being carried out in and out of Spacefleet, nobody’s talking about or concerned in the slightest about the implacable, invincible Vashtilians, who have vanished as completely as any sense of logic or structure or consistency to this ‘story’. And Digby’s hair has started growing again…
It’s not even an ending, just a coming to a stop. ‘Parsecular Tales’, named for a made-up word whose most plain association is the parsec, a measure of spacial distance approximating to 3.6 Light-years, is a meaningless title, befitting a meaningless story. The inference is that it will return at some future stage but frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that nobody else seems to be able to produce new Hampson-continuity Dan Dare stories, I’d counsel against agreeing to run any more episodes.
This does not count as extended canon as far as I’m concerned.
Thanks to the ongoing endurance and excellence of Spaceship Away, two more complete Dan Dare adventures are now available to be read, and their worthiness to be incorporated in the canon be assessed.
The first of these is another prose novel from New Zealand fan Denis Steeper, whose Report of the Cryptos Commission, with its carefully devised chronology of Dan Dare’s career tends to be my bible for such things. This latest novel has been included with the last five issues of Spaceship Away, comprising five A5 booklets, each of twenty pages.
I was heavily critical of The Invaders of Ixx, which was set well after the Hampson/Watson continuity, for the aggravated cynicism and, to be frank, rampant interculture racism on display so far ahead. Operation Tau Ceti is not unmarked by such things, but is Steeper’s first extended story set within the Dare canon: our hero is still no more than Chief Pilot of Spacefleet, and though the story is set post the Treen Holocaust, with what that implies about the loss of the original Hampsonian innocence, we are still in a world easily recognisable as that we are most used to.
The story is set in 2015. Two years have passed since the return of the Terra Nova expedition, during which time Earth’s World Government (in which the Liberals are still clinging to post-Holocaust power) have been locked in mortal combat with Cosmic over the Halley Drive and every possible offshoot from its discovery. In Thork-space (i.e., Saturn’s sphere of influence) Red Tharl has finally won the Secession Wars and is in control of the Nine Moons.
Though it’s only three years since the end of the Holocaust, Earth is recovering faster than could have been expected. Saturn is still the dominant power in the Solar System, but the signs are already there that Earth will catch it up and surpass it in a decade, and Saturn will never catch up. Despite the legal stalemate with Cosmic, and with the benefit of the many discoveries made among the wrecked spaceships of the Sargasso Sea of Space, Earth has reverse-engineered the Halley Drive. The first starship has been named the William Dare, in honour of Dan’s father, the second will be the Copernicus, after his McHoo co-pilot on the original starship. And, at a secret asteroid base in the Belt, Cosmic have duplicated the Galactic Pioneer.
Unfortunately for all concerned,these developments are not as secret as they ought to be.
The action is precipitated by a clash of Spacefleet and Grand Union ships in the Asteroid Belt, Disputed Territory between the official boundaries of the Inner and Outer Planets. Given that the Thork culture is a richly feudal one, complicated by racial differences between the various colours, there is a certain degree of autonomy among Admirals, continually looking for advantage which, combined with the natural instinct to see the flatfaces as innately inferior, rapidly escalates towards war between Numidol and the Inner Planets.
Actually, it would usually be quite easy to defuse this situation: just get Dan Dare on the line to his old friend Tharl, who probably (and actually) knows nothing of this, and it would all be switched off. But Dan’s not here. At the same time as this skirmish has begun to escalate, a secret thork attack on Cosmic’s secret base has succeeded in space-lifting out of here the Galactic Pioneer II. And it’s gone out-system, towards Tau Ceti. And Dan is commanding the William Dare on immediate instructions to get out after it.
The absurd thing is that, after much thought and calculation, Spacefleet were about to launch on a survey mission to Tau Ceti, as the best of all the potential stars at a similar distance to Terra Nova, with the best prospect of an Earth-type planet. Now, the survey aspect is pushed way down the list: Dan’s top priority instructions are to recover or destroy the Galactic Pioneer II.
Thus the set-up. Steeper deploys his usual technique of multiple, multi-viewpoint scenes, each identified by date and place. He has two parallel strands in motion and flicks backwards and forwards between different elements of each story, which become further entwined when, after Cosmic are placated in order to retrieve Dan via the confiscated Galactic Galleon, Sir Hubert is forced to join the McHoo team. This brings Controller USA Wynard Spencer in as Acting CIC, due to it being Buggins’ turn, and Spencer is an absolute cretin whose completely wrong-headed tactics threaten to open the door to massive Thork victory.
Both stories are built up by confident detail and a careful assembled extrapolation of the real mechanics of Dan’s universe. Steeper is very good on this, and very good also in his imagination of the convoluted Thork personality, which keeps the home system story bubbling along nicely.
But we are here for Dan Dare and, not unincidentally, Earth’s first official interstellar adventure. For crew, he has the old gang, that is, Digby, Anastasia, Hank, Pierre and the Professor. There’s no Flamer Spry (too busy studying for exams) nor Lex O’Malley (too far underwater) and it’s no disrespect to either to say the story is better for not having their implausible presences along, even if much of the action takes place on a substantial moon, named Poseidon for the fact it’s primarily ocean.
Apart from the renegade thorks, who get wiped out eventually by Dan, along with the Galactic Pioneer II, there are two alien races in the Tau Ceti system. Both are colonists. One, the Krevvid, are insignificant in terms of this story, though Steeper takes time to intimate that they could be a problem if their race ever gets to hear of the Solar System. The other are the Pescods, and they’re a problem.
As if this weren’t enough, Steeper takes him to add a related subplot, in the form of a Treen attack on Formby aimed at capturing details of the Copernicus, which gets foiled thanks mainly to former Astral Senior Cadet and SF Resistance leader, Mark Straight. Apart from its illustration of Earth post-Holocaust, this slim subplot is of no great moment, except that it amply demonstrates the sheer panic at the thought of the Mekon getting hold of any information about building a starship.
And not just the Mekon, but any Mekon. The one we know has neither been seen nor heard of since seemingly committing suicide in the Silicon Mass as long ago as The Ship That Lived, but that still doesn’t mean he isn’t out there – or that somewhere, somehow, the Treen breeders have cloned a New Mekon (remember that, as far back as ‘The Venus Story’, twenty years previously in Steeper’s chronology, the next Mekon was fifty years away from coming to maturity.)
Overall, Operation Tau Ceti was enjoyable, and sat well within the Dan Dare stories to which it is supposed to be contemporary. The post-Holocaust cynicism is there, as is the abrasion between the lifeforms of the Solar System, but it is at an entirely less well-developed stage: Hampson’s original utopianism is still the primary influence. I’d like to see how Steeper might tackle a pre-Holocaust story: there’s still room in the long gap between ‘The Venus Story’ and The Red Moon Mystery, even after allowing for Tim Booth’s The Gates of Eden.
And speaking of Tim Booth, his is the other new story completed in this past eight issues of Spaceship Away, which I’ll be considering next.
The advent of Spaceship Away was a godsend to many, not least those who had dreamed of working on their own Dan Dare stories. One who was far more advanced than most, and far more qualified, was Tim Booth, writer, artist and musician, who approached Rod Barzilay with a story he was writing and drawing. Barzilay approved of it, and Booth’s The Gates of Eden debuted in issue 9, running for 39 episodes.
I love it. There are reasons why I shouldn’t, and I’ll explain these, and it’s something Frank Hampson would never have countenanced, for many reasons, and it’s not as if it has a proper ending, except in the closing of a door to something way beyond the Dan Dare series. But I still love it: for the imagination it displays, for the long periods in which it focuses on Hank and Pierre and their continual banter, and for its art.
I didn’t really care for Booth’s contributions to Green Nemesis. He’s not as precise an artist as any of the ‘professional’ stable, his work is frequently fussy and over-detailed, and his colouring is far too Sixties psychedelic to be wholly suited to Dan Dare.
But for The Gates of Eden, Booth adopted, and primarily hewed to a simpler, more direct style, with more naturalistic colouring. In some ways, it’s like a cartoon version of Hampson’s style, and the early style at that, which befits a story that slips into continuity between The Venus Story and The Red Moon Mystery.
And Booth is to be congratulated lavishly in one tiny aspect at least: he is the first and only Dan Dare writer or artist to show Albert Fitzwilliam Digby speaking to his wife!
Booth takes his time over the first half of the story. He’s not just preparing for the dramatic aspect of his tale, he’s enjoying himself filling in details of Hampson”s world that were left to our assumption. I do have to criticise one immediate detail, which is that The Gates of Eden begins in 1998, and one of its preliminary details is Dan being taken off a mission to the Asteroid Belt to supervise the first full Venus Food Run: given that the Venus Story ended in 1996, that’s an awfully large gap for a planet so desperate to escape from reliance on food blocks.
But Dan, and of course Digby, have to go to Venus, leaving Hank and Pierre, that pair of puzzled pilots, to go it alone in the old-fashioned Nimrod. Their mission is to identify suitable asteroids for Impulse Wave Relay stations to be built upon, extending Earth’s space-shipping range. En route, picking up newly-designed spacesuits, they bump into the designer, Professor Peabody, with Tystar, the young son of the Theron Volstar. These two will also have a part to play, when things hot up. Take note that the ship they are travelling on is the Milton Caniff.
Meanwhile, the ‘Frogboy’ and the ‘Yankee Palooka’ fly on to the Asteroids, the latter toting a ukelele/mandolin on which he sings, badly and, if the picture in his cabin is any evidence, a bit of a torch for the fair Jocelyn. And the two ‘copains’ go about their mission, but Pierre the more sensitive of the two, has the feeling that they are being watched, and he is, of course, right.
On Venus, the urgent reason for Dan to supervise this Food Run is carefully revealed, and it is a genuinely touching moment. There is a symbol of Treen/Theron co-operation, designed and constructed in secret: nostalgia overwhelms as Sondar and Volstar present the Pilot of the Future with his personal spacecraft, the Anastasia.
And there’s a perfect excuse for a first mission, as radio contact is lost with Hank and Pierre in the Asteroids. Dan and Digby take their new craft (about which Dig has doubts, given the number of windows that will have to be polished) and set a course.
En route, two things happen: first, the Milton Caniff goes missing, with young Tystar and Earth’s premier food expert, Jocelyn Peabody aboard, and the Anastasia is overtaken, swept up and given a lift by an American crewed Rescue Fleet commanded by Colonel Estev Cyonna.
Yer what? Estev who?
This is a moment to step away from the story and address some of the issues that ought to disqualify The Gates of Eden from consideration.
Those whose knowledge of comics, strips and cartoonists stretch beyond the purely British world of the Eagle ought to have recognised the name Milton Caniff as being the highly influential master of the adventure strip, the writer and artist of the legendary and rip-roaring Terry and the Pirates. Caniff was a master of chiaroscuro, an artist dedicated to realism and accuracy, one of the most influential American strip artists of the Twentieth Century.
Personally, like many, I prefer the dozen years Caniff put in on Terry to the near fifty he spent on his second great strip, the one he left Terry to create and, more importantly, own. That was Steve Canyon, and if you jumble the letters of the improbable Estev Cyonna… And within Booth’s style, he is drawn to be Canyon.
I’ve not the least objection to that, but I feel that, as a matter of consistency, I ought to. It’s not just Caniff and Canyon, but there are spaceships of all sizes and dimensions, such as the rock-crusher Bo Diddley, the Little Eva, Miss Liberty, Crazy Horse, Dixie Darlin’, the Thomas Pynchon. Admittedly, the list of ship names also includes the Lancastrian but that’s very much an exception. Booth peppers his strip with American names and icons, all of which should be thought of as inimical to the atmosphere of so British – so English – a character and series, as Dan Dare.
That’s not all, but we’ll return to that subject after another section of the plot, this time the ongoing mystery of what is happening to Hank and Pierre.
They are being watched and, what’s worse, whilst investigating one asteroid’s possibilities, their ship is taken, leaving them in desperate straits with only a few hours of oxygen each before inevitable death, long before Anastasia could possibly reach them.
Only death is not inevitable. Hank and Pierre have been led, and where they have been led is into the interior of the asteroid, where they find a strange, unmanned base. It’s accessed through a mysterious, yet familiar to Pierre, set of numbers: 21 – 12 – 1918, it’s got breathable air and it’s got a doorway out into the open. It leads to Eden, a planet of natural goodness and beauty, an idyllic yet empty world that proves to be populated by robots fighting an automatic war.
Just what the heck is going on?
What’s going on is a cyborg-Treen, Syndar by name, vat-brother to Sondar and so valued by the Mekon that, when involved in a bad crash, he was rebuilt with robotic parts. Let’s be honest, if it was hovering near the margins of an authentic Dan Dare story, at this point Booth takes it outside the line and keeps it over for almost everything that follows. The Mekon repair a damaged Treen? No, he wouldn’t, under any circumstances.
Syndar conducts Hank and Pierre from Eden to Isshka, a primarily water planet, via some form of telesender. They are greeted by a mermaid, or rather Professor Peabody, with Tystar. Forget Tystar, the Prof looks like she’s never done before, with a grin on her face far more sexy than any look managed during Eagle‘s run, and she changes out of her wet-suit on-stage, revealing a fetching pink slip. No wonder Hank closes in for a hug. And good old Jocelyn is definitely on-side with what’s going on.
Then, with Dan and Digby being led carefully to a rendezvous at Shelter, a secret asteroid base constructed and run by the man behind all of this, we get the great revelation. And it’s Bob Dylan.
No, it’s actually former Earth scientist and spacepilot John Henry Hibbings, who prefers to be known as Mr Jones (as in you don’t know what’s going on, do you?) and in both the visuals and the dialogue, the Dylan references pile up so thickly you could pick them up in lumps. And is not the title of the very story a not-in-the-least coded reference to the man?
Let’s cut quickly to the chase. Dylan/Hibbings has bummed around in space since the Sixties. Early on, he found some crystals with power over space, time and dimension. He has learned how to master them. But the longer time has gone on, the more he has sensed something dark, dense, distant, a threat of immense proportion. That’s why he’s gathered the Venus team, minus Sir Hubert, together. It’s a repeat of what the McHoo will do in Dan’s future, collecting an unparalleled Space Exploration Team. Will they help him?
Unlike McHoo, Hibbings/Jonesy will not force a decision. Should Dan and Co refuse, they will be returned to those places in space and time where Hibbings first interfered, without memory, to live out their lives as they choose. With Tystar absenting himself from decision-making, it becomes a matter of democracy.
There are two in favour – the Professor, already enthralled with the possibilities of discovery, and the ever-adventurous Hank – and two dead-set against – the disbelieving Pierre and Digby, who has taken against this ‘snake-oil salesman’ on sight. The final decision falls to Dan. As it must always have been, and by this I don’t mean the future we already know of, he turns it down. He’s younger, less convinced, lacks the personal elements of his lost father and McHoo’s fait accompli, but it’s down to his duty, to his Controller, to Spacefleet, to the people of Earth.
So Hibbings keeps his word, and everyone goes back, without memory, without trace (save for Hibbings’ compulsion to re-string Hank’s rackety old mandolin). What remains is the successful conclusion to the Venus Food Run and a soiree hosted by Jocelyn, at which Pierre re-finds the mysterious numbers, that mean nothing to anyone save Digby who, metafictionally identifies them as Frank Hampson’s birthday.
Where do we start with all the ways in which this is absolutely wrong for a Dan Dare story that seeks to ground itself in the authentic canon? I’ve already alluded to the overt Americanisation of things, the worship of Caniff and the utter wrongness of Syndar, but the biggie is of course the presence and tutelary spirit of Mr Robert Allan Zimmerman.
Booth’s fixation with Bob Dylan practically takes over the strip. This buttresses the Americanised aspect of the tale but also gives it a distinct leaning towards the Sixties, when Dan’s proper metier is the Fifties.
Then there’s Eden, and the opening of the gates to a wider world, to more universes that Dan’s own. Booth even uses the word Multiverse to describe what lies beyond, a word that I at least cannot hear or read without instantly thinking of the Justice Society of America and DC Comics. It’s wrong, completely wrong, and it has the unintended effect of diminishing Dan Dare by making his Universe one among, well, a Multitude.
None of this is appropriate to a series whose basis lay in hard science, in plausibility and realism. So far as what Booth introduces here, it is advanced science of a kind indistinguishable, in Arthur C. Clarke’s saying, to magic, and so in Dan Dare terms it is magic, by virtue of not having any rational explanation, such as Impulse Waves, or Nimbus Drives.
Of course, there is another interpretation of this final phase of the story. It can be cast into symbolic terms and read as a metaphor for Frank Hampson’s desire to extend Dan Dare’s reach, into American newspapers, into animated films, to take Dan into a world wider than that occupied by Hulton Press, where stories may well have had to be retold in a different manner to his art boards. Though the analogy is weakened by it being Dan himself, supported by the solid, stolid Digby, who rejects such an expansion.
As for that metafictional ending in which the characters themselves disclaim any knowledge of their creator, let’s adopt Dan’s final verdict and not go there, just not go there.
Yet for all that I said I loved The Gates of Eden, and I still do. That’s why it appears here in this series, on an equal par with the official canon. The only part of it that makes me truly flinch is Peabody’s overt sexuality, because it’s just wrong for Dan Dare’s world (and besides, forget this anonymous Jack Gurk – Professor Jocelyn Mabel Gurk? No way – if there’s any marrying to be done, it should be with Dan, there’s definitely a story there in getting him to come down off his Confirmed Bachelor perch and recognise what good things could ensue).
As I said before, I recognise the people. Booth’s story and setting may be wrong, but I believe it’s Dan and Co who take part in it. And I will forgive much for Booth bringing Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and his wife and four-times mother to his children together at long last, even if it’s over distances counted in the millions of miles, via a viewscreen, Earth to Anastasia. “’Ullo monkey, how’s tricks?” she says, getting a word in edgeways before Aunt Anastasia starts hassling Digby about wrapping up warm in space.
There’s a long overdue world in that greeting, and enough to let us all know just how the Digbys keep their marriage on track when he’s never home. That’s the real Gates of Eden.
Those who feared for the Mekon’s safety in All Treens Must Die! did not have long to wait, for Ol’ Greenbean was back as dastardly mastermind on the opening page of the succeeding story, The Mushroom.
It seems an odd thing to do, and featuring Dan Dare’s arch-enemy in successive stories had never been tried before. Shoving the Mekon up front, when he’s not actually active in the story, is a dramatic waste of that revelatory moment. On the other hand, that bit’s been done, over and again, and as memory of the Tyrant of Venus hasn’t had time to fade – there is a hiatus of eight panels – you could say that this kind of classic scene is redundant on this occasion.
And given that treens are introduced on the cover of the next issue, it is rather pointless to propound mysteries. Especially in a story that will only run sixteen weeks, all told.
The plot of The Mushroom is very simple. The Mekon begins a terrorist campaign, using a satellite to project a fiery ‘seed’ into the heart of London. This ‘grows’ into a thrusting, metallic mushroom-shaped tower that sucks the life and the heat out of all the surrounding ground and area. Londoners are forced to flee their homes. The Mekon gives an ultimatum, that he be restored to rule on Venus, or his Mushroom will destroy London and others will be used against other capital cities.
By taking his attack directly to the people, the Mekon expects their panicky, narrow-visioned response to force the Earth Government to act in his favour. He’s wrong, of course, because nobody in Government is stupid enough to think for one second that Appeasement will work (shades of Hampson’s original identification of the Treens with the Nazis again), but this is still early days, and one city only. If the situation escalates, and the public’s fears along with it, who knows where this might go?
(Let me point out the continuity disjunction between this story and Reign of the Robots and the Treen Holocaust. I make no comment. At the time, boys not that much younger than me had not been alive to read Reign of the Robots and we were none of us aware of it. Just mentioning it, that’s all).
That the situation doesn’t escalate is, naturally, down to Dan and Co. He and Digby, in Anastasia, trace the radiation beam that feeds energy to the Mushroom back to the satellite and confront the Mekon and impossible odds. But it’s Wilf Banger who saves the day, on Earth. Brought in as the scientific specialist, good old Wilf has only one scientific thought in his head from the moment he appears, and that is to blow the Mushroom into pieces small enough to be fried with bacon and eggs, and perform scientific tests on what’s left on the side of the plate.
The Mushroom is impervious to every assault, that is, until Banger has his men tunnel underground, pack explosives round the Mushroom’s base, and knock the whole thing over. With no focus any longer, the energy of the Mekon’s beam reverses back to the Satellite and blows it up. Dan and Digby are rescued, and for once there’s no particular attempt to suggest that the Mekon might have gone down with his ship: a green ‘meteorite’ streaks away in a controlled fashion, making it pretty damned clear that it’ll all happen all over again.
Indeed, the Mekon would again be back in the very next story, The Moonsleepers, though not as the principal villain.
In short, its not a complex story. Indeed, it comes close to a couple of the longer stories of Motton and Watson’s Monochrome Year, though it’s more compact and pursues a tighter plot-line. The sixteen week length is awkward: too short for substance, too long for flimsiness, but it’s real failure lies in coming directly after All Treens Must Die! The fall in scope, in ambition on the Mekon’s plans is bathetic, and The Mushroom just cannot get over that hurdle.
Again, it’s beautifully drawn and glowingly coloured, though I do want to take a little time to expand on that claim, because I’m very much aware that there are many Dan Dare fans who deride certain aspects of Keith Watson’s work.
I’m not an artist, and I lack an artist’s vocabulary to either criticise or commend. I’m biassed in favour of Watson because his is the Dan Dare I grew up on, but I still find his art immensely satisfying as an adult. His version of the Hampson style lacks some of the detail, the lushness that Hampson pioneered, but there’s a reassuring solidity to it, and something of a cragginess to his figures. He’s not as graceful as Hampson, and his figurework can sometimes be stiff, and static, but his technical art is superb. His work carries an extra degree of stylisation over Hampson’s resolutely naturalistic approach, but there’s a more modern, appealingly workaday aspect to it that befits the fact that the series, and Dan, has been at this for a long time. The lack of idealisation is much more appropriate to the times.
That said, I am aware that most criticism of Watson lies around his ability to draw faces, or rather Dan Dare’s face in particular. Given Hampson’s original design, it’s a difficult face to draw, especially the lantern jaw, and there have been several instances in past stories where head-shots of Colonel Dan from the wrong angle have looked disproportionate and clunky.
But the biggest difficulty is the head-on, full-face shot and there are a couple of real stinkers in The Mushroom. Watson cannot make Dan’s face look convincing (and there’s another example with Wilf Banger in there). Head-on, Watson’s faces flatten out and drop towards the cartoonish. Deprived of assistance by the colouring, he has to go to excess on closely inked lines, attempting to set up shadow and form, but these fail to cohere. He also makes an awful mess of Banger’s mouth in his close-up.
It’s a weakness, yet he can draw convincing faces from other angles, so the flaw is in allowing himself to be cornered into that particular composition, and not finding another method of presenting the shot that doesn’t betray him to his worst flaw.
Which pre-supposes that he had that kind of freedom to depart from David Motton’s scripts, about which subject I know nothing whatsoever, save that the two only rarely met, and that this was a scripter’s world in the post-Hampson mid-Sixties.
Those who are familiar with The Mushroom will have been wondering why I’ve not yet spoken of the story’s most famous aspect. I’ve chosen to leave that till last.
Watson had done a magnificent job of shoring up Dan Dare. He’d seen the series back into colour, to extended story-lines, supporting cast, the return of the Mekon, Anastasia and, in the previous story, Sondar. Now, on the second page of the opening episode, a lanky, bespectacled Texan Pilot-Captain, swinging a baseball bat, sends a home run through a window. Venturing inside to retrieve his ball, he becomes the first person on Earth to see the nascent Mushroom and its Treen attendants. It’s Hank Hogan, seen for the first time since The Solid-space Mystery, but to all Dan’s oldest fans a symbol of the truly early days, at the beginning.
So Dan and Digby go to meet Hank, and it’s a proper reunion of friends, none of this business call on O’Malley stuff. And, in a supercharge of nostalgia, Hank has a scrapbook, and it’s got everyone in it, all the old gang.
Pierre Lafayette – Principal of the Lake Chad Rockery College, enjoying piloting, fishing and French food. Lex O’Malley – supervising a Sea-Harvesting Project in the Indian Ocean. Sir Hubert Guest – retired and about to publish his memoirs.
There’s a glaring omission, for there is no mention of former Astral College Cadet Spry, though the young Flamer was seen in All Treens Must Die!‘s montage, capering as he did when Sir Hubert authorised his presence on the Cryptos Mission. But the question all the old fans want answered is “And Miss Peabody – the Professor I mean,?”
Oh, my. What emotions might underlie that enquiry? Are there regrets, expectations, hopes? But Hank, with blythe cheerfulness, pronounces the doom: “You mean Mrs Jack Gurk?” (in the Sixties, though thankfully for not too much longer, a woman’s married name submerged her not only underneath her Lord and master’s surname, but also his first name). Jocelyn has married a Mining Engineer, and moved with him to Mars.
How does Dan react to that news? It’s what everyone wants to know, and upon which everyone projects their own pet hopes. But it’s not even Dan who asks, but Digby. Does Dan care at all? The romantics want him to, but the truth is that, since their return from the Terra Nova Mission, he has apparently neither spoken to or of our favourite redhead. Given his seeming penchant for taking burly sailors and fourteen year old boys off into space, perhaps we should not get our hopes up too high.
But at least Hank is back, and a door opened, although once he’s produced his scrapbook, though he hangs around for the rest of the story, he plays no active part in it. But his little half-page steals all the glory in The Mushroom: it’s the only thing the fans ever remember.
So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.
It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.
Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.
Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.
Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.
At different times and from different sources, I have read many different accounts of the creative process that went into the fifth Dan Dare adventure, Prisoners of Space.
The only thing that everyone agrees upon about this new story is that it was principally drawn by Don Harley, and finished by Desmond Walduck, a freelance artist who had helped out in the closing weeks of Operation Saturn, and who was regarded as a safe pair of hands for work that couldn’t be encompassed by the Hampson studio.
Indeed, by the time Prisoners of Space started, it was something of a stretch to call Hampson’s much-reduced team of assistants a ‘Studio’. Eric Eden had gone, Bruce Cornwell had gone (again), Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson had been fired, Joyce Porter had married: all that was left was Don Harley and Joan Humphries.
The main question is who was responsible for the writing of Prisoners of Space. It has been stated to be Alan Stranks’ first Dan Dare story. It’s been stated to have been put together by Frank Hampson, and there is one particular element in the story that inarguably comes from the man at the top. But I find it difficult to believe that either Stranks or Hampson was responsible for the majority of the story, because Prisoners of Space, like Marooned on Mercury before it, is a loose, unstructured story, consisting mainly of running around corridors, lacking in scope or depth.
The story starts by introducing Astral College, Spacefleet’s cadet training school, and head boy Steve Valiant, along with his two best friends and study-mates Mark Straight and Tony Albright.
Now I have an immediate problem with those names. It’s one thing to introduce Steve Valiant, as a junior Dan Dare, complete with similarly symbolic surname, but to surround him with Messrs Straight and Albright is over-egging the pudding. It’s just not real, and it turns all three characters into cyphers from the outset, and not real characters with personalities.
This is demonstrated by the other, and far more important character introduced on the second page, namely Junior Cadet ‘Flamer’ Spry.
‘Flamer’ – who will join the series regular supporting cast for the next six years – is the ineluctable evidence that Hampson was involved in at least the starting weeks of Prisoners of Space because ‘Flamer’ (who is given no real first name in the entire series), is as much Hampson’s son Peter as Sir Hubert is his father Robert. (Actually, less so: Peter Hampson has commented that whilst his father took Peter’s face and hair for ‘Flamer’, Cadet Spry’s body was based upon one of Peter’s classmates).
Cadet Spry, we quickly learn, is a precocious talent. Dan Dare’s latest ship, a one-man craft nicknamed the ‘Performing Flea’ has just been taken off the secret list and ‘Flamer’ has already built a working model. Which gets accidentally set-off in his absence by Cadet ‘Tubby’ Potts. The mini-‘Flea’ almost prangs Sir Hubert, who is understandably testy about the whole thing. Spry confesses and is facing expulsion until Valiant alibis him as being in his study when the rocket went up. Sir Hubert passes responsibility for punishment to Colonel Dare who, impressed by ‘Flamer’ (who he seems to be meeting for the first time), opts to ‘punish’ him by giving Spry and Valiant a tour of the real ‘Performing Flea’.
Thus far, primarily comic. But Hampson also establishes a serious element to the background. Venus Transport ships are going missing without explanation in the area of Station XQY which, by fortunate coincidence, is the destination of the ‘Performing Flea”s test flight: the course is pre-programmed into the Autopilot which will enable Dare to pilot the ship alone – without even the faithful Digby – and the test flight will be the perfect cover for an investigation of that sector.
All is going well so far so here is where fate steps in to overturn the apple-cart. Naturally, when Dan says he’ll show ‘Flamer’ and Steve round the ‘Performing Flea’, he means Digby will do it, under the watchful and disapproving eye of ‘Old Groupie’. Groupie played a small part in Operation Saturn as a madcap, ex-RAF type piloting an air-taxi but he’s now been taken on by Spacefleet as a civilian mechanic, and is acting considerably differently: he’s now a Grumpy Old Man.
Which leads directly into disaster. Digby’s gone to make a cup of tea, ‘Flamer’ is lying on the pilot’s couch, hands on the controls, dreaming of taking off and suddenly grumpy old Groupie grabs his ankles and yanks him back. Before he can let go, ‘Flamer’ has yanked the controls back as well: autopilot kicks in and the ‘Performing Flea’ is launched on course to Station XQY.
Even up to this point, I can believe in Frank Hampson directing the story, even to the discovery, when the ‘Flea’ reaches XQY that its entire staff are dead and that The Mekon has taken control, and is behind the missing spaceships. But I cannot believe that Hampson plays much part, if at all, in what would follow next.
Having two Earth ‘children’ in his hands, the Mekon takes advantage by offering them as hostages: hostages for Colonel Dare, who must come alone and unarmed, to be exchanged for them. It’s opportunistic and this move drives the rest of the story.
Dan’s friends – including Hank, Pierre, Peabody and Sondar – argue against whether he should be allowed to go, and whether he ought to lie to the Mekon – who will undoubtedly lie to him – and go armed and supported. But Dan is adamant about his right to sacrifice himself: who can say that Steve Valiant or ‘Flamer’ won’t grow up to become even more important than him? And his word is his bond, and not just Dan’s bond, but that of Earth.
So Dan borrows Sir Hubert’s Astro-Arrow to set off to XQY. Only he doesn’t go alone and unarmed. Digby has no intention of letting that happen, and whilst Dan is determined to shop his batman to the Mekon once he arrives at XQY, such moral absolutes disappear on the instant when Dan is presented with evidence that the Mekon doesn’t intend to release the hostages at all.
This touches off an extended cat-and-mouse chase around the station featuring Dan, Digby, Steve and Flamer, which goes on for weeks on end. People keep nipping into ventilation or garbage chutes and turning up elsewhere in the station, like a three-dimensional game of Snakes and Ladders. Dan is ‘killed’ three times and each time ‘returns from the dead’ unscathed, impressing and frightening the hell out of the Treen, Xalto, who swaps sides. It really is Marooned on Mercury‘s underground corridors again, this time on a much more restricted scale.
And during this sequence, the Mekon introduces the title of the story: a small, battery-powered space cell, with 24 hours oxygen, in which Dan Dare will be imprisoned and left to die.
The whole thing comes to an end when Digby and ‘Flamer’ get away in the Astro-Arrow (Dan’s attempt to retrieve the ‘Performing Flea’ ends in its destruction and one of his several ‘deaths’), and an Earth fleet has taken off under Sir Hubert’s personal command. He’s in Speedstar and Pierre and Hank are in Lodestar, the two fastest ships in the fleet, but all Hank and Pierre are supposed to do is pick up Dig and ‘Flamer’ and taken them back to Earth, which is tactically moronic.
As for the Mekon, believing Dan Dare to be dead (hint: he’s not) he orders XQY to be booby-trapped and evacuates, to pick up his plan, the one he’s been preparing so carefully. No, he doesn’t (and I refuse to believe that Frank Hampson is party to this): he jets off to Venus and Mekonta where, on arrival the Treens will rise up and reinstate him.
When the Mekon returns to Mekonta, he is indeed greeted with an impromptu Treen uprising. However, he has carried with him on his flagships two things of which he is not aware. One is Dan Dare, and the other is a limpet bomb due to go off more or less at the same time as touchdown. Dan gets out with sufficient time to adjust the timer, and to call in Spacefleet (who have gone to Theronland) to bomb the living crap out of Mekonta.
So Sir Hubert leads both Speedstar and Lodestar (you seriously did not think that Messrs Lafayette, Hogan, Digby and Spry would actually obey a direct order from the Controller of Spacefleet to go back to Earth?) on a bombing raid. The crew includes ‘Flamer’ Spry, as it obviously would, and it’s a damned good job too, because he’s the one who spots Dan, Steve, Groupie and Xalto staked out in the Mekonta sun, ready to be fried.
The Multum Mark V missile is diverted into space where, as luck would have it, it hits and vapourises the other two ships of the Mekon’s fleet. The Mekon intends to retreat to ‘Orbit Mortus’ where even Dan Dare cannot follow him (what and where ‘Orbit Mortus’ is was never referred to again, a delicious loophole for the enterprising who write and draw new Dan Dare stories to this day). But Dan hastily radios the Mekon to alert him to the limpet bomb attached to his ship, which hasn’t got long to go… In order to survive the Mekon has to abandon ship, in the very space-globe he intended for Dan Dare’s death-cell. At long last, he is captured by his arch-enemy, and taken to Earth to be tried to his crimes.
That’s more or less the whole story, though I note that I have rather short-changed Steve Valiant in my account. Valiant pulls off a familiar Digby-like trick whilst a hostage, pleading with Dan to sacrifice himself to get the hostages free, whilst all the time tapping out a Morse message of defiance, demanding Dare stay away, that his life and that of his fellows is meaningless and should be sacrificed. In order to maintain his usefulness to the Mekon, Valiant has to endure the taints of his fellow hostages, who truly believe him to be a coward and a traitor.
I’ve also short-changed Old Groupie, but that’s rather more intentional. After kick-starting everything by yanking ‘Flamer’s ankles, Groupie is required to do little more than make grumpy remarks. His only other contribution to the story is to be ‘killed’ by a Treen blaster in the back. But he miraculously recovers, a recovery that remains unexplained until the last page when, with everyone in the shower, we finally see that he’s wearing a large mustard plaster for his back, made with unusual ingredients that turn it into the perfect defensive shield against Treen blasters! Yerssss.
(For those who do not understand what a mustard plaster is, which included your blogger until he googled the term, it is a poultice of mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing and applied to the body to stimulate healing. It can be used to warm muscle tissues and to treat chronic aches and pains. For long a part of conventional medical treatment, and available in prepared versions in pharmacies, it fell from favour in the 20th century, and is now only used as a home remedy. Thank you, Wikipedia).
Despite all I’ve said, and despite a number of flaws that I’ll come to in a moment, Prisoners of Space is a much more enjoyable adventure than Marooned on Mercury, a fast-paced if inconsequential romp, even if it does border faintly on the ridiculous when you stop to count just how many people use that chute to the ‘Obbo’ turret, both up and down.
A substantial part of this is the art. Visual continuity to Hampson is maintained by Harley’s pencils: without wishing to be disrespectful to the late Harold Johns, Harley is a substantially superior figure artist. Walduck’s finishes, superimposed on Harley, give the overall appearance of the art a slightly blurred effect, softening the look. As the story proceeds, the overall art gets simpler and rougher: Harley has stated that he believed Walduck was working on other art simultaneously and devoting less time to Dan Dare than he should.
Incidentally, Walduck does insert one (forgivably) self-indulgent touch: in the last episode he draws himself as a press photographer (the one who shouts ‘Hot Headlines!’).
However, it has to be allowed that Harley’s visual imagination did not extend to the creation of space vessels of realistic or distinctive appearance: Speedstar and Lodestar are simple, smooth-sided rocketships with tailfins, a design far below Hampson’s standards.
Ultimately though, I have to get back to the story. Up to a point, I can accept Frank Hampson as its prime mover, but just as with Operation Saturn, I am convinced by internal evidence that Hampson removes himself, or is removed by his health once more, from the direction, leaving inadequate and cliche-driven hands to progress matters.
The most blatant evidence for me is in how the story totally ignores the consistency of Dan Dare’s Solar System. ‘The Venus Story’ clearly established that travel between Earth and Venus takes seven days by Impulse Wave engine, and there is no suggestion that this has suddenly been supplanted by much faster fuel (monatomic hydrogen was a one-story thing).
But in the later stages of the story, Dan calls in Elite Squadron to attack XQY, a flight that will take 12 hours. Not long after, he sets a limpet bomb to the Mekon’s flagship on a three-hour timer, which expires very shortly after touchdown. So the Earth to Venus run can now be done in a mere fifteen hours?
This cavalier attitude is compounded by the fact that Dan then resets the bomb by a further hour, an hour that then spans thirteen weeks of publication and, more importantly, the arrival of Elite Squadron (which is not as fast as Speedstar/Lodestar, remember), its diversion to Theronland, which is in the other hemisphere of Venus, a lot of kicking of heels waiting for a decision on what to do and a bombing run to Mekonta. This is not something Frank Hampson has concocted.
There’s also a major story discrepancy over the Mekon’s initial plans. The story starts with concerns over the disappearance of five ships on the Venus Transport run, followed immediately by a blackout at XQY. This is all down to the Mekon, and is clearly a planned assault, leading up to some attack that the mighty brain has devised.
However, the plan is ultimately no more than a MacGuffin: once the Mekon has his hostages, he focuses upon using them to rid himself of his worst nightmare, Dan Dare. Having believed that he’s done so (third time round), does the Mekon revert to his carefully devised plan? No: that’s forgotten: all he can think of doing is to make an unplanned landing on Venus, and overthrow the Theron guards.
Without backing. Without resources (three ships do not a fleet make). With a perfectly good plan, that has had all the time since Marooned on Mercury to be worked out, just thrown to the space winds. And with the Therons and Earth set to oppose him with all their military might. That’s not the Mekon, seriously. Ol’ Greenbean just doesn’t work that way.
Another thing that jars in the latter half of the series is the collective disobedience of Digby, Flamer, Hank and Pierre. Of course they weren’t going to go back to Earth and watch from afar. But all four of them were in flagrant breach of direct orders from their Commander-in-Chief, who huffs and puffs and threatens them all with punishment, as indeed they all deserve: they’ve mutinied in a combat situation, this is court-martial stuff. The story breaks all its own insistence upon realism by allowing them to get away with it unscathed.
And it positively sinks beneath the waves when Digby and ‘Flamer’ are not only taken aboard Sir Hubert’s ship for the bombing raid on Mekonta, but given positions of vital responsibility. I mean, ‘Flamer’ Spry is only an Astral College Junior cadet. A precociously talented one, granted, but when battle breaks out, he’s running around with a paralysing pistol fighting Treens that are about two foot taller than him.
But ‘Flamer’ Spry was now a foregone conclusion. There would be no space for Hank and Pierre in the next couple of stories, but despite the discrepancy of having a Junior Cadet on active service, ‘Flamer’ was here for the duration. Of the Frank Hampson era, at least.
I’ll have more to say about him in relation to the next story. The only other thing for now is that name. Given his bright red hair, and his status as a Junior Cadet, aged about thirteen at a push, ‘Flamer’ is a pretty obvious nick-name. But nowhere in the series is Cadet Spry accorded a first name. In the military world of Spacefleet, it beggars belief that no-one in authority uses Spry’s baptismal name even once.
Long term fans, especially those who have laboured to produce elaborate continuities that interlock all the Dan Dare stories into a consistent time-line for the Eagle run and beyond, have given the adult Captain Spry the first name of either Christopher or Toby: Denis Steeper, who is my particular source for such things, formally names him Toby Christopher Spry.
So enter Flamer Spry. And in the next story, which definitely introduces Alan Stranks as Dan Dare’s writer for the rest of the Fifties, enter a second new member of the supporting cast. The early days of the series were done: Dan Dare and Frank Hampson were about to move into their Mature Age.
Hampson was back.
Back at full strength, with his imagination primed and brimming. Credited, for twenty weeks, with writing and drawing the new Dan Dare story, Operation Saturn. And then, suddenly, on the 21st week, the credits changed, to written by Don Riley and drawn by Frank Hampson. A week later, and for the rest of the 64 weeks that Operation Saturn would take to unwind, there were no credits.
Sadly, at some point, Hampson suffered a relapse. This time, things were very different. Harold Johns and Great Tomlinson were no longer part of the studio, having been first marginalised, and then sacked. In Harold Johns’ place, Don Harley had risen in Hampson’s confidence: not, as yet, to the position of ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, but to the role of principal artist when Hampson was unwell. But the studio itself was slim on warm bodies, and as the story rolled out, more and more of the work was being sent for completion to a freelance artist who never was part of the Hampson studio but who plays a big role in the story of the series, Desmond Walduck.
We’ll hear more about Walduck during the next story, so for now let’s look closely at Operation Saturn, and Hampson’s plans for a drive towards the Outer Planets. Operation Saturn is the first of the Dan Dare stories for which we have a preliminary outline, a plot setting out Hampson’s plans for the story ahead, that we can compare with the actual outcome. Details of this outline can be read in Spaceship Away 17.
I am always fascinated by such things, the opportunity to look behind the work to the author’s workings. Hampson’s outline is, really, only half an outline. It sets up a situation, creates an idea-space, but leaves a solution to the working out of the tale over time. The principal elements of Operation Saturn are already in place, but crucial components of the finished work are as yet undeveloped.
For the moment, let’s consider the story as drawn. The gang are re-united for a new mission, brought to Spacefleet HQ by Dan (in the outline, the story begins on Venus). Explanations are postponed by an Emergency Signal, and the crew take up the Space Rescue ship (a rocket on permanent standby) in an ultimately fruitless attempt to rescue the crew of a ship in danger just outside Earth orbit.
The ship’s fate is tied into Dan’s mission: Earth is being spied upon by small, black, robotic craft, nicknamed Black Cats (for their purring engines), whose source has been traced back to Saturn. Dan’s expedition will travel to Saturn to investigate and, if necessary, quash any threat. However, Saturn is way beyond the range of Impulse Wave generators, so the Valiant will have to use the powerful but highly unstable Monatomic Hydrogen.This can be neutralised by lockwaves (developed, in the outline, by the Therons): Dan, Hank and Pierre will learn how to manipulate lockwaves in order to pilot the ship.
Professor Peabody will be part of the expedition as an adjunct to the Science team, headed, and otherwise selected, by Dr Blasco (the lockwave developer in the strip). Blasco, a mental and physical giant, is cold and supercilious. In the outline, Hampson describes him as being ‘cracked’ on eugenics, and it is a part of the story that Blasco’s half-baked theories should be attacked and shown as fallacious by demonstrating the vital importance of character, not ‘breeding’.
Sadly, this worthy ambition is virtually absent from the story as printed. Blasco is indeed a believer in the superiority of certain types – most notably himself – and plans to take over and rule the Earth, but the overt eugenics aspect is not merely buried so deep as to be almost invisible, but the decadent feebleness of the ruling Saturnian caste – intended in the outline to be the spur for Blasco’s ambitions – is from the outset a counterblast to any such notion of aristocratic superiority (Hampson’s essentially humanist and socialist instincts winning through there).
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Saturn, we will learn, is ruled by Lo Rootha Ti Numidol, the ‘purest aristocracy in the entire Solar System’. Hampson’s outline conceals them until Dan’s expedition arrives, after a running battle with Blasco over who is the leader of the expedition. Lo Rootha have no hostile intentions towards Earth, the Black Cats were merely information gathering, but they divide their world on eugenic grounds. Blasco is deemed a perfect specimen and resources are given to him to take over Earth and rule it in accordance with his obsession, with Digby is classed as useless and ends up, with Dan, on some sort of dead-end moon, from where they begin to foment rebellion.
This aspect was drastically changed in the actual story. We learn that Blasco is, and for some time has been in communication with Lo Rootha, and that they have already agreed to give him the resources to take over Earth (that Blasco had actually been to Saturn already is explicitly rejected in the outline as requiring too many flashbacks: Hampson underestimated himself as he fleshes out Blasco’s back-story with very little use of flashback at all).
So what happens in practice is that Blasco and his men take over the Valiant en route and imprison the Spacefleet crew, who will be handed over to Lo Rootha to take part in Roman Arena-esque games, for their amusement.
But instead of Dan and Digby being ranked and downgraded, they have already made a break for freedom. Due to a late Black Cat incursion, our heroes were initially left behind on take-off, but caught up with the main expedition by using the last intact test craft. Blasco overlooks this, his lofty regard having been elsewhere when Dan and Dig came on board, so they are able to use this to escape, and land on the nearest Saturnian moon, where they meet their first Saturnian.
This occurs in the last panel of the last instalment credited as ‘Devised and Drawn by Frank Hampson’. The following week, the credit reads ‘Drawn by Frank Hampson. Story by Don Riley’. There are no further credits, and Hampson’s outline is binned. Hampson’s own influence on the story rapidly dwindles and before long principal art is by Don Harley, until the end of the story. Many Dan Dare fans are highly critical of the later part of the story, the lapses into cliché, the lack of consistency, the intrusion of silliness, and most clear of all, the irretrievable loss of Hampson’s invention and freshness of thought.
Hampson had already, it seemed, abandoned the final phase of his outline. I’ve already indicated that it would have progressed towards Dan and Dig raising a rebellion, but Hampson also planned the introduction of a prominent Saturnian, in the form of a bold and dashing sculptor – physically and mentally a One, but condemned for his rebellious streak. After Dan demonstrates just who is boss, the unnamed sculptor becomes his chief Lieutenant, and a natural-born pirate, leading raid after raid…
But the Thork – as the Saturnians call themselves – was too good a figure to be ignored. He’s Red Tharl, pirate and rebel, leader of the Saturnian underground, whom Dan and Dig meet almost immediately after ‘Don Riley’ takes over (I have no information as to who did write the remainder of Operation Saturn and, rightly or wrongly, will assume that Basil Dawson, the man behind the Riley pen-name, saw it through to the end).
From this point on, the story proceeds at pace. After an initial clash of personalities, Dan and Tharl become allies and friends, helped by the mediation of none other than Sondar, taking a break from his duties as Governor of Mekonta.
Yes, Sondar just appears out of nowhere in Tharl’s base, sole survivor of a Treen expedition to Saturn to investigate Black Cats. It’s a move that completely defies every scrap of logic about both the story and the Dan Dare continuity: only four years after the First Venusian War, that toppled the Mekon, the Treens – who are still under a Vichy Government, a leader appointed by their conquerors – have mounted an expedition to the Outer Planets in complete secrecy, without the Earth Government’s knowledge, clearly using a completely unknown form of rocket fuel/drive, with no explanation.
I cannot conceive of Hampson letting that go through.
Anyway, the revolution is about to start. Dan, Dig and their Thork liaison, Nikki, are telesent to Titan (cue more shenanigans involving Digby and transporters) to raise the troops. Meanwhile, Blasco and Lo Rootha put Hank, Pierre and the Prof into the Arena to face a fire-breathing dragon (no, seriously, they do). Dan rescues them, but Dig gets thrown by a painfully malicious flying seahorse and is rushed off by the dragon.
At which point, Dawson throws away virtually the whole story so far by revealing that Lo Rootha are not the true Lords of Numidol/Saturn, but instead an effete puppet regime shilling for Vora. Vora is an alien: short, plump, arrogant, mocking, beaked of face, in his own atmosphere producing spacesuit, and he owns the Nine Moons of Saturn and everyone is scared of him.
Including Blasco, who quickly goes from being a smooth, urbane equal to Lo Rootha (albeit one who’s dropped his deliberately archaic speech pattern as written by Hampson) to being as fearful and fawning over Vora as he expects Earthmen to be over him.
Tharl attacks the city, and battle sweeps backwards and forwards over several weeks, until Dan wins the day for the rebel forces. Unfortunately, Vora has callously, indeed gleefully, abandoned the hapless, hand-wringing Lo Rootha to their fate, and taken Blasco’s resources (plus Blasco) to travel to Earth and conquer that. Once he’s settled in, he will return to retake the Nine Moons.
Tharl can’t help. He’s won a battle, and with it Titan, but there are nine Moons and much to do. All he can do is restore the Valiant, and send Dan and Co. after Vora’s fleet. A complex and not very convincing substitute for monatomic hydrogen is contrived and the long chase back to Earth begins.
Dan arrives just as the invasion is beginning. Earth is besieged by Black Cats, but in a last, desperate throw, Dan, Dig and Sondar get into Vora’s flagship and use the masterbrain to command all the Black Cats to turn and destroy each other. There’s a brief struggle in which Blasco’s space helmet comes off and he dies in vacuum (one aspect of the story that is not depicted with true scientific rigour) whilst Vora, too proud to accept confinement, turns his cosmic rays on himself, committing suicide.
(Or does he? I first read Operation Saturn in the late Eighties, in the bound volumes of Eagle collections in the Reference section of Manchester’s Central Library. Everyone takes Vora’s action as suicide, but my first thought was that he had teleported himself out of danger/reach. There is nothing in the story to rule that out, or definitively establish suicide: indeed, in a comic aimed at young boys in the Fifties, edited by a Vicar, no such thing would have been conceivable. Should any aspiring writer/artist, looking to add to the universe of the original Dan Dare, be reading this, here is a potential story angle sitting and waiting.)
So Dan wins again. But it’s a mixed victory, albeit not a Pyrrhic victory. Operation Saturn begins as an excellent story, a tremendous advance on Marooned on Mercury, and demonstrably better than Prisoners of Space, it’s successor. However, the story hits the equivalent of an underground rock when Hampson relinquished writing control, and whilst the hull of the boat is sturdy enough to carry things a very long way, slowly but steadily originality drains out. The story starts to rely too much on contrivances. Sondar’s appearance is an unthought-out mess. The arena is a farce. Blasco is not only supplanted as villain by an inverted deus ex machina, but becomes a completely different character.
As for Vora himself… I have very mixed thoughts about the little puffed-up alien. He is a cartoon dictator, a supreme Lord who simply appears without warning, but who demonstrates no justification for his position. What does Vora do? How does he rule? What is his power and how is it effected? We just don’t see this. All we see is people cringe in fear around him, and Vora giving himself airs which, in a purple skinned cross between a teddy bear and a bird-face, is lacking in conviction.
Yet I like the little tyrant. There’s energy and inventiveness in his rants. I like his being batted out of the way when Digby (who spends weeks with yellow coloured skin) drives a space car through Vora’s palace. And I can forgive much when Vora, dangling from a girder, hears his minions call for a Doctor, responds with the outraged roar of: “A Doctor? One Doctor? Fool! I Am Vora – bring all the Doctors!”
Art-wise, the story’s beginning is a refreshing improvement upon the stunted figures and somewhat lurid colouring of Marooned on Mercury. Hampson is still in his early phase: the almost photo-realistic art of The Man from Nowhere trilogy is still a couple of years away and his work, and that of his team, is still crude in spots. As the story goes on, and has to rely more and more on Don Harley, the work becomes more simplified, though not to the extent of becoming sketchy. And in the closing weeks, when Harley was sending work to outside artist Desmond Walduck for finishing, the change in style as Walduck starts to impose on the final version is noticeable.
Given that this combination will draw practically all of Prisoners of Space, the augurs were not good for the next story.
For me, Operation Saturn is very good to begin with, but loses its way and ultimately ends up flawed. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in the Library of the Dreaming, he introduces a section devoted to books their authors planned but never wrote/finished. Among them, for example, is J R R Tolkien’s The Lost Road. I should like very much to visit that library one day, to sit down and read the copy of Operation Saturn that Frank Hampson wrote and drew from start to finish.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a genuine sense of concern about the second Dan Dare story. Would it work again? Would the kids suddenly get bored with it. Could Hampson do it again?
Well, we know that the answer to that was ‘of course’, but that was not what was in the air at Eagle in the autumn of 1951, as the Venus Story came to an end and there was this sudden realisation that nothing had been prepared for its sequel. Hampson had worked himself hard, had twice had to take month long holidays from his self-imposed long hours at the drawing board. But now was the time to show that Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future was not a one-trick pony. The Red Moon Mystery began on Mars. This would have come as little surprise: in the decades before rocketships, even unmanned, were anything like a reality, SF’s greatest fascination was with Earth’s sister planets, and Dan Dare had already been to Venus. The time was rapidly approaching when scientific understanding would prove false all those theories that had held hold about Earth’s neighbouring satellites. Venus would not have, beneath its cloud cover, anything remotely resembling a surface compatible for humans, nor would Mars prove to have the long-imagined canals.
But whilst the chance was still there, Dan Dare would have to go to Mars.
Whereas the uncertain passage of time was the greatest weakness of the ‘Venus Story’, The Red Moon Mystery works to a detailed, day by day chronology that is maintained throughout the story in a manner that would feature in no other Dan Dare adventure.
It’s already been established in Hampson’s chronology that Earth has reached Mars, almost a decade earlier, but found it a dead planet. Now, in 1998, two years after the Venus expedition, we begin by learning that the Red Planet is actually a Resort, with a thriving tourist industry (and by implication a very healthy Earth economy to sustain interplanetary holidays less than forty years on from the first Landing on the Moon.)
Dan’s on leave on Mars, intent on some skiing at the North Pole, and Digby, instead of going off to Wigan to spend some time with his wife and four children, is alongside him to look after his Colonel (just how helpless would Dan have been in reality if he had to get his own uniforms pressed?). They’re travelling in Anastasia, Dan’s personal, two-seater spaceship, named for Digby’s fearsome Aunt, and a gift from Venus for his part in ending the reign of the Mekon. Designed by Sondar himself, it combines four different propulsive systems, including Theron magnetic motors, which will make the Anastasia more than useful in the forthcoming events.
But before Dan can give himself over to any hedonistic pursuits, he has a courtesy call to make. The chief Archaeologist on Mars, investigating the ruins of Mars’ last emperor, and seeking out the reason for the destruction of the Martian civilization, is Doctor Ivor Dare, Dan’s uncle.
Uncle Ivor plays a significant part in The Red Moon Mystery. Later, he plays a cameo role in its sequel, Marooned on Mercury, as the representative of Dan’s family at a premature Memorial Service, and he has a small role to play in the late fifties story, The Phantom Fleet, but outside of this he plays no other part in the saga.
Which is why it’s interesting to speculate just how Uncle an ‘Uncle’ he is.
Hampson’s biography of Dan is necessarily spare. His father is the spacepilot and explorer Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare, and his mother Lady Jean McGregor, whom Mad Billy rescued from her disapproving family in an elopement, but that’s all we learn. Dan describes Ivor as being from the ‘Welsh branch’ of the family, so I think we can rule out his being Billy Dare’s brother. And apart from the famous Dare eyebrow, there’s no physical resemblance, with Dr Ivor sporting red hair and extravagant moustaches. From which I’d infer that the Welsh branch of the Dare family diverges from the main branch at least one generation earlier, probably more, making Uncle Ivor more of a cousin than any other consanguinous relation, and the ‘Uncle’ being a courtesy title.
Either way, Doctor Dare has been busy excavating Dorton-uth-Agar’s palace, and has learned that the Martian Civilisation was destroyed by something called ‘the Red Moon’. What the Red Moon is is another thing entirely, though its mystery is not to be delayed as long as the good Doctor anticipates. Courtesy call done, Dan and Dig take off to start their holiday only for Sir Hubert to summon them back from leave: a mysterious asteroid has entered the Solar System on a direct course for Earth. It’s already been nick-named ‘the Red Moon’.
And this was only the first episode!
Nor did Hampson let-up. Whilst I wouldn’t accuse the ‘Venus Story’ of being slow at any time, in contrast there is no let-up to events in The Red Moon Mystery. The crisis is there from the first episode and the threat of the Red Moon drives every moment that follows.
Having had his leave so abruptly terminated, Dan needs to get to the Red Moon and find out what it is without delay. A very familiar team is quickly assembled at SFJ2, the main Mars satellite. It’s commander, the newly-promoted Pilot Major Pierre Lafayette, has commandeered a ship, the Hirondelle, for Dan and Dig. For co-pilot he has seconded the captain of the Space-Clipper, ‘Yankee’, currently at the station, Hank Hogan. And, to handle the spectroscope and thermocouple he has had installed, a scientist is needed, and who should be on the passenger manifests, vacationing at the south pole? None other than everybody’s favourite boffin, Professor Peabody. But for Sir Hubert being on Earth, the gang is all here.
While Sir Hubert picks Ivor Dare’s brain about ‘his’ Red Moon, Hirondelle makes haste to the current day version. Unfortunately, the Moon is generating a powerful magnetic field that overwhelms the craft and drags it in at incredible speed. Only by pushing the engines to full burn and exercising a slingshot turn can Dan push Hirondelle to the speeds necessary to escape the magnetic pull. But in the course of things, all the crew are knocked out by a mysterious, overwhelming throbbing noise generated from the Red Moon.
So its back to SFJ2, not to lick wounds but to make a second attempt, this time using Anastasia, whose Treen magnetic motors should be proof against the Red Moon’s attraction.
But that plan has to be abandoned. The Red Moon has altered course and is now approaching Mars. Given the devastation the Moon caused on its first visit, Earth has no option but to evacuate th planet, and Dan, as senior officer, is placed in charge. He has one major problem: it can’t be done.
It’s an example of the cold equations of space travel, and of Hampson’s determination that Dan Dare should occupy a realistic and scientifly justifiable Universe. There are over 1000 people on Mars, civilians and Spacefleet combined. The available passenger transport, including ships that can return to or reach Mars in the three day period before the Red Moon completes its attack, will jointly hold about 900.
Dan takes charge of the impossible ‘Dunkirk’, whilst Hank and Pierre are detached to make a second approach to the Red Moon in Anastasia. Though the magnetic motors have the desired effect, both are again affected by the throbbing noise. Pierre, who sees something fleetingly, is badly injured and Hank has to get him back. We never directly learn what Pierre has seen, for he disappears from the story at this point, but it’s safe to assume that he has seen one of the inhabitants of the rogue asteroid.
As for Dan, he, Dig, and the Mars ferry Captain, George Bryan, descend to Mars to check everyone has been evacuated, save for stubborn old Uncle Ivor, working frantically to find anything that the long gone Dortan-uth-Algar had left to identify the specific menace of the Red Moon.
In his absence, there is a riot on the station. Two passengers, given low priority numbers after women and children, panic, imagining that Spacefleet is saving themselves at the passenger’s expense. In one of the few moments that speak to the era, these two passemgers are clearly not English. Their nationality is not defined, but one wears a red fez. They are easily beaten by Progessor Peabody, who waits for them to reach the top of the control tower then simply suspends gravity, bringing the riot to a dramatic stop and demonstrating the Prof’s cool and good judgement.
It also inadvertently solves Dan’s problem. The Red Moon has moved into its third and final pass, and SFJ2 is caught in its magnetic grip. Not all the available ships, at full poqwer, can drag the station out of an inevtiable descent to the Moon’s surface, but Dan orders all the remaining staff and passengers up to the comming tower whilst he prepared Anastasia‘s disintegron shot to blow the control tower away from the bulk of the station and enable it to be towed to Earth, solving the evacuation.
It’s a desperate, deadly shot, and not even Dan can take it in safety. But chance, and the seven year old audience, are satisfied as the abandoned dog Digby brought back from Mars leaps on Dan’s firing hand, causing the perfect shot.
Under Hank Hogan’s command, the evacuees sail back to Earth, and Hank from further substantial participation in the story, and Dan is free to tackle the Red Moon head on. He retrieves Uncle Ivor and the metal box hidden by Dortan that the archeologist has discovered thanks to the last pass. But back on Earth a frantic Hank is making a final appearance in the story, gabbling excitedly to Sir Hubert that they have left someone behind: that Professor Peabody was trapped on the station and has fallen to the Red Moon.
Once again, Hampson obeys the cold equations. Sir Hubert refuses to notify Dan that the Professor is in need of rescue. Despite his own personal regard for Jocelyn, his recollection of the time they faced the silicon mass, he will not allow Dan to be distracted from a mission that affects the safety of the entire Earth.
Though it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Dan brings Anastasia in to land on a tall, rectangular column in an area of wild ranges and steep peaks. Exploration is limited but they have landed close to the area where the station has crashed, close enough to catch sight of Peabody’s SOS lights. Tracking her seems impossible, but with the Red Moon once more bound for earth, and the evidence of the devastation is causes all too evident, Spacefleet set out to try to stop/divert the Moon by using Earth’s last dozen A-Bombs. They are ineffectual, but they roll up the clouds surrounding the surface long for Dan to take Anastasia down, discover a Sargasso Sea of wrecked spaceships, held by the Red Moon’s magnetism, and pull Peabody’s fat out of the fire.
Anastasia high-tails it for Earth coming in for a crash-landing at the very doors of Spacefleet HQ, under Sir Hubert’s nose, literally.
The crash gives Hampson a visual narrative for the only slow spot in the entire story: it takes several issues to fully explain what Dan’s team have discovered about the Red Moon. Between the discovery in Dortan’s box of primitive natural photographic plates, and the discovery of a dead body blown into Anastasia’s engines, the story of the Red Moon is unfolded. Against a background of Construction Branch moving it to retrieve and remove Anastasia, and start repairing the scene whilst five people stand around in coats and spacesuits and discourse!
The Red Moon, it appears is home to a race of insects that Hampson calls Space-Bees, though a more appropriate term would be Space-Locusts. The Bees are magnetically polarised and can cause the Red Moon to travel through space by jointly displaying one pole or other in the desired direction. In sight of a planet with vegetation, the Bees send the Moon into a three day orbit, creating the throbbing noise by rubbing the sounding boards on their legs, effectively blasting away opposition, before issuing forth to strip the planet, after which they go into hibernation on the journey to the next target.
The Bees are lethal, destructive on a planetary scale, yet it is typical of Hampson’s Universe, of the morality that Eagle existed to promote, that there is no condemnation of the Bees as evil: they are just an example of ‘life twisted into an unsual pattern by circumstances’. This line is vitally important to understanding the Dan Dare series and its central character. Even the Mekon has a motive for what he does. There is no such thing as evil per se, no easy or soft options for dismissing anyone, no excuse therefore to just blindly slaughter even in self-defence.
Better yet, Peabody’s involuntary excursion has equipped Earth with a means to save itself. The Professor’s spectographic readings show a decided change in that region corresponding to chlorophyll before and after: Peabody analyses from this that the Red Moon navigates by response to that part of the visual spectrum corresponding to chlorophyll: how else can the Space Bees detect a target. It can therefore be decoyed away by dangling ‘a tastier planet’ in front of it. There may be no such thing on hand, but Dan seizes on the concept to suggest a powerful space beacon, draped with chlorophyll filters, to create the same effect.
This ingenious solution is quickly adopted. Anastasia is repaired and Dan is presented with the beacon, all set to decoy away the danger. It’s a tense wait whilst the confused Moon tries to handle the sudden emergence of a better target, but once it moves in pursuit, Dan and digby are off at full-speed to rendezvous with a Treen-Theron fleet, headed by Governor Sondar himself, carrying a weapon that they believe will paralyze the Red Moon in its tracks. It’s only when Anastasia is committed that the stowaway emerges from her hiding place with recommendations for Digby’s dusting: Peabody has no intention of missing out on the fun, just because she’s a woman.
At the rendezvous point, the crew transfer to Sondar’s ship. What is not made explicit at this point is that Dan and co are abandoning Anastasia. That clearly wasn’t the intention, but the Treen superweapon fails to immobilise the Red Moon, which responds like a cat whose tail has been trapped under arocking chair, and takes off sunwards. In the rush to pursue, in the decision to destroy the Moon to prevent it from ever menacing another planet, Anastasia is silently left behind. The ship will not surface for many years…
The pursuing fleet finally catches up with the Red Moon in the vicinity of Mercury. Sondar’s ship advances, firing the shot that destroys the Moon once and for all. But the destruction is greater than anticipated. The blast sphere expands faster than anticipated. It sweeps over Sondar’s ship, carrying Dan, Dig and the Professor. No trace of it is found, and the death of the gallant allies is reported to Earth, which is plunged into morning.
Only the reader sees the crippled flagship descending to the surface of Mercury… The Red Moon Mystery was a very different story to its predecessor, maintaining a high-paced, all-action storyline with the dial continually turned up to Crisis. As such, Frank Hampson was able to complete a wholly satisfying, exciting story in a mere 38 weeks, a fraction over half the length of ‘The Venus Story’.
Of course, he had some natural advantages. On the one hand, we know all the characters, and they know each other: interactions are smoother and easier and are on the level of pleasant insults that characterises so many friendships. On the other, the action takes place primarily on Mars, which is a) a known quantity to the characters, who do not need to discover anything about it and b) is a dead planet. The only alien race to be dealt with is the Martians, who have been dead for a couple of millennia, unless you count Uncle Ivor, as a Welshman of minuscule modesty.
And the ending of the story demonstrated a technique that would be utilised on subsequent occasions, whereby the end of one story would segue directly into another adventure. This would be used most notably in The Man from Nowhere Trilogy, and again in the Terra Nova Trilogy, and would even be revived in the Sixties when future creative team David Motton and Keith Watson would have their shackles unloosed.
One aspect that ought to receive greater attention than it does is the closing sequence. Earth faces attack from the Red Moon: it’s Venusian allies are working together to come to Earth’s assistance, although their distance from Earth means they cannot arrive in time to directly affect any attack. But it’s not yet three years since the Venusian war and the driving off of the Mekon, and the Treens are allowed a space force and access to lethal battle technology. It shows a remarkably trusting attitude from Earth, although one that is at least consistent with the approach taken at the end of ‘The Venus Story’.
Over the years, many Dan Dare fans have constructed elaborate chronologies that try to encompass all the stories from Eagle and its Annuals. New Zealand based fan Denis Steeper has been one of the most zealous among these, and has written a number of Dan Dare prose stories, including four full-length novels, that develop this overarching chronology, and in finding Earth’s leniency naive at this point, we must bear in mind that Frank Hampson did not create any overarching chronology, and had no idea at this time just how many times the Mekon would return. The Red Moon Mystery was the first story to be wholly completed in Epsom, at Bayford Lodge, in surroundings much more conducive to luxuries like breathing in independently of someone else breathing out, and during the course of the story, a new assistant joined the team, Don Harley, who would go on to become, in Frank Hampson’s own words, ‘the second-best Dan Dare artist in the world’. Don’s first panel appeared during the riot and featured its culprits.
One final point: Except where it was absolutely essential to the plot, as it regrettably became, I’ve avoided mention of Digby’s dog. I’m no longer seven years old, and to be truthful I wasn’t even born when The Red Moon Mystery was appearing, but I was and am completely out of sympathy with the hound. Digby picks him up, abandoned, on the Martian surface and smuggles him into his spacesuit. Originally, he nicknames the dog ‘Towzer’, a once popular name for dogs that slipped completely out of fashion half a century ago, but after the pooch’s feats of marksmanship, Dan renames him Sir William Tell. For some reason, the dog goes with Dan and Dig in Anastasia on the mission to dangle the beacon in front of the Red Moon, when he really ought to have been dropped from the story at that point. Digby makes him a ‘cute’ spacesuit of his own and the hound is transferred to Sondar’s flagship, meaning of course that he is counted among the survivors that continue into the sequel.
Not a wise move, methinks.
For more information about Dan Dare and for new stories fit to stand alongside the originals, go to Spaceship Away…