Eagle – Volume 3 (1952/53)


A Harold Johns Dan Dare

Volume 3 was the last of Eagle to encompass two calendar years. It also represented three major steps towards the comic’s classic shape, with one change of artist and two new series during its twelve months, though there was an equally major step backwards, arising from another, thankfully temporary, change of artist.
Taking these advances in order of appearances, in issue 7 Frank Humphris succeeded Angus Scott as the third, and eventually permanent artist on Riders of the Range. As much a Western enthusiast as writer Charles Chilton, and a fanatic for accuracy to warm Frank Hampson’s heart, Humphris was the perfect choice for the series. Daniels was too stylised, Scott too cartoony: Humphris represented the photo-realistic approach Eagle required for its adventure strips.
Humphris took some time to settle in, especially in his colouring choices, but long before the end of his first story, he’s close to achieving his mature style. In response, Chilton seems to relax, confident that his artist can handle longer stories, whereas the efforts completed by Daniels and Scott were brief and brisk.
In the centre-pages, Tintin continued until issue 5, completing ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’. The experiment was not repeated, for reasons unknown: perhaps the licence from Darguad cost too much, or perhaps the series was not as popular with Eagle‘s readers as was hoped. After all, it was another six years before Hodder & Staughton began their series of Tintin books, and translators Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner began their long association with the Belgian boy reporter.
Tintin was replaced in issue 6 by a one-off feature intended to run as a twelve-week stopgap. Instead, Luck of the Legion stayed until Eagle’s second major redesign, in 1962, and in popularity polls of the readers, it came second only to Dan Dare.

Trenet and Luck: an annual story

From the outset, Luck was the work of its long-term creators, writer Geoffrey Bond (who would go on to produce six ‘Sergeant Luck’ novels), and artist Martin Aitchison. It stood out among Eagle‘s features for its resolutely horizontal format, which restricted Aitchison unmercifully, but which he never allowed to defeat him.
The series starts with Sergeant ‘Tough’ Luck’s promotion from Corporal and immediate secondment to a secret mission for which he can handpick his men. The first person he turns to is Corporal Trenet, a Belgian, but this is not the Trenet we know so well. He’s fresh-faced, round of features and he isn’t wearing his moustache! He’s also cheery, sunny and completely helpful, though this is because the team does not have it’s third component, Legionnaire 12345 Bimberg, the butt of withering abuse from Trenet for his fatness, greediness, sleepiness, laziness, stupidity and many more characteristics.
Indeed, Trenet is shot during the first story, saving Luck’s life, though the disappearance of his body clues us in to the fact that he will return, deus ex machina-like, in the final episode, leading a rescue platoon to Luck’s besieged men. And he turns up with his immaculately groomed little moustache that is not a million miles away from that of Pierre Lafayette in Dan Dare, and his face is a little thinner. The reason for growing his facial hair? When he was shot, he fell and cut his lip!
The second story, incomplete at the end of the volume, still features only the two characters, though there are a small band of relatively anonymous legionnaires in two, one of whom has the luck of a proto-Bimberg, and pops up occasionally making the kind of remarks Bimberg might make, only not quite so comic: he’s heavy faced, and clearly older and more realistic, but he has the curly moustache and the crumpled kepi, and is given to the odd ‘Caramba’, which makes the connection even more pointed.

A future Eagle novel

The third advance was in a way a two-step forwards, one step back motion. Having been in existence for over two and a half years, the one genre Eagle hadn’t tackled was a school series, and this was much bruited on the debut of Peter Ling’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook, a serial set in and around Northbrook School.
We’re immediately presented with the Three J’s themselves, John, Jimmy (aka ‘Specs’) and Jacko, their hated opposite, Fifth Form bully Bradbury and his two henchmen, the wise and perceptive Headmaster, Mr Ravenshaw and the irascible Fourth Form Master, Mr Wakefield. The story centres upon John Allen being accused of stealing the Football Cup, when this has been thrown out of the gym by Bradbury as a joke, only for it to be found by a tramp and sold, and the bulk of the story is about finding out what’s happened, trying to get the cowardly Bradbury to confess and ultimately exposing the spivs, who are blackmailing him, and recovering the Cup.
The J’s themselves were archetypes: Allen the athletic leader and hero, Specs the bespectacled clever kid and Jacko the cheeky, face-stuffing comic relief: almost Bimberg before Bimberg! The thing was that, after a ten week story, The Three J’s disappeared, and were replaced by a Rex Milligan serial (a change of pace after several more one-off stories throughout the volume). They would return, for a much longer run.
I mentioned above a second change of artist. This was on Dan Dare itself, where ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ rolled on towards a scientifically ingenious solution, including the destruction of the Moon itself, creating an explosion that overwhelms the flagship, sending it to crash on the surface of Mercury.
This allowed Frank Hampson to segue directly into a new story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’, in which the Mekon would return as villain. Unfortunately, as ‘Dan Dare’ fans know, Hampson was only able to complete two weeks of the new story before succumbing to the first of two lengthy, illness-related absences from the series. The Reverend Chad Varah took over writing ‘Marooned on Mercury’ and Harold Johns took on the drawing, being credited every week at the bottom of page 2.
What’s intriguing is that Johns has clearly been the principal artist for several weeks at the end of ‘The Red Moon Mystery’. Hampson almost certainly was directing the conclusion of the story, and I can only assume that, to give himself time to plan the sequel, he had left the main art to his senior assistant (I’m betting Hampson still prepared the colour roughs that were the first stage in the preparation of the pages).
I’ve discussed ‘Marooned on Mercury’ elsewhere at greater length, so suffice to say here that Johns, who went on to be a noted watercolourist, is poor on faces and figures, and gets worse as the story goes alone, and that Varah does not have Hampson’s knack for building a string of incidents into a cohesive story. It makes me wonder if the fact that Hampson’s absence had no apparent effect on circulation figures encourages executives to think of him as dispensible when, many years later, a crunch would come.

Frank Humphris and Jeff Arnold

PC49‘s adventures with the Boys Club rolled on entertainingly. Much of the volume was taken up with ‘The Case of the Little Black Prince’, which has become a rather problematic story with the passing of the decades.
The basis of the story is pretty simple. 49 is due a fortnight’s leave, which he intends to spend in peace and quiet, camped out at the isolated Loch Laggmore in Scotland. Unfortunately for him, two crooks are bound for the same spot, to dig up loot buried under the ruined castle, and further disturbance is ensured by the titular character, his Uncle and two rivals for leadership of his tribe back in Africa, intent on kidnapping Prince Mongatiki in order to foment a rising that will enable them to take leadership of the tribe.
Mongatiki, his Uncle Abawi and the two brothers, Umtogo and Mambata are black. In a story published in 1952/3 in an English boy’s comic.
It’s fair to say that the story is not overtly racist. Eagle was edited by a liberal CofE Vicar, and would not have allowed a directly racist line. But at the same time, the story is coloured by the instinctive attitudes of the time.
Mongatiki, or Tiki as he became known, was to become a fixture in the Boy’s Club for the rest of the series, and never would he be treated with anything less than complete respect, nor did any of the other Club members – universally white – treat him in the least different from each other. But Tiki’s character is quickly formed in his debut: a sober, serious, mature young boy, aware of his duties as Prince of his tribe and determined to live up to them.
Artistically, Worsley draws him with slightly thicker lips than the other boys. It’s not the blackface caricature we are so heartily sick of seeing, but it’s not untouched by it. It’s more prevalent on Uncle Awabi, another serious figure, who is immaculately besuited throughout, but it’s even more pronounced on the villainous Umtogo and Mambata, who are also depicted as being slightly naïve as to British ways and prone to superstition, which Tiki rejects.
I admit to being biased in Eagle‘s favour. For me, the story treads the line throughout, but manages, just, to stay on the side of innocent ignorance rather than casual racism. Others may disagree, and I wouldn’t take arms opposing them. We are talking about an entertainment for younger readers that was written and drawn sixty-five years ago. That doesn’t excuse it, and you may very well argue that it is what we show and tell to our children at the age when attitudes and beliefs are being formed that requires the greatest caution of all, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.
But the intention is good, and to me the proof comes when the Boy’s Club (now led by Toby Moore) arrives in Scotland to surprise 49 in his holiday, find Tiki in danger and without a second’s hesitation, put themselves at risk to save him. They don’t draw a distinction based on colour, not then, not ever.

PC 49 on film: Brian Perks

One of the other regular strips underwent a change in this volume, and one that was, in a sense, ambitious, and in another, utterly ludicrous. This was Tommy Walls which, with effect from issue 5, after 109 single-issue strips, turned into a serial for the remainder of its run. Richard E. Jennings remained the main artist, but his stories in Volume 3 alternated with tales drawn by J. Pannett.
Whereas Tommy & Co’s adventures had been reasonably grounded and bordering on plausible in terms of how the lads so consistently got into scrapes, the serials abandoned any attempt to stick with realism. Tommy & Co started getting involved with serious organised crime, national security and the Secret Service. They were treated as being on a par with fully adult, highly-trained agents.
And the strip’s purpose as a promotion for Wall’s Ice Cream became utterly ridiculous as on multiple occasions through stories covering relatively short periods, Tommy & Co, not to mention the head of the British Secret Service, stuffed their faces with Walls Ice Cream or, if fitting a trip to a shop or a Wallsie’s van was just too outside the plot, they would yearn for the bloody stuff.
Oh, and maybe that far back ice cream was made with something that has since been removed from the formula, but all it took was a wrapping in newspaper and the ice cream would last forever without melting.
I’m sorry, the constant harping on ice cream as a source of energy, not to mention mental alertness, and the regularity with which it was consumed leaves me unable to take the Tommy Walls serials even remotely seriously. The Trade Descriptions Act is a long, long way off, I can tell you.
On the back page, ‘Louis the Fearless’ confounded my expectations by living a long life and dying of natural causes, outliving all those baronial opponents and championing the peasants and livestock to the end, only, unless I’m misremembering European History A Level studies (Grade A), it didn’t seem to have any longlasting effect on the poor buggers.
That was followed by ‘Deep Sea Doctor’, the life of Grenfell of Labrador, a Doctor who fought to raise standards of health in Canada, and then ‘Man of Courage’, the life of St Vincent de Paul, whose story reversed the trend of figures whose lives were getting nearer and nearer to modern times. This last carried over into Volume 4.
I’ve already mentioned the frequent prose appearances of Rex Milligan this volume, mainly in complete short stories, but in issue 49, the comic began serialising a book-length story, ‘Rex Milligan’s Busy Term’. This aside, the state of Eagle’s prose serials in volume 3 was not impressive, with the only homegrown serial being the brief and somewhat reptitive ‘Truants Abroad’, another scientist’s-son-is-kidnapped-only-they-get-his-friend-instead story.


This separated two serialisations of Eric Leyland novels about Flame & Co. I remember reading at least one of that series as a library book in the early Sixties and even allowing for nostalgia, they really haven’t worn well. It’s all fast action, constantly being told how tough/determined/skilful the gang are without every really waiting to show it, and David Flame’s manner of speaking will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Leslie Charteris story.
The trend towards serialising stories about existing popular characters was extended at the volume’s end to its logical conclusion: after many reader’s letters, Eagle did a deal with Captain W.E.Johns to serialise his latest Biggles novel. It may have been abridged: traditionally (i.e., formulaicly), Biggles books start in the jungle somewhere with Ginger Hebblethwaite about to stand on a log that turns out to be a crocodile instead: Chapter 2, back in the Air Commissioner’s office, instructing Biggles on his latest case, but these story starts in the Air Commissioner’s office. A bit confusing, that, old boy.
I’ve not mentioned Harris Tweed: apart from John Ryan’s art softening slightly, and getting a little bit less grotesque, it was much the same all year.
One final word: Marcus Morris’s efforts to actively involve the readers continued unabated, one new development being the devotion of an occasional page to Readers Efforts, featuring short stories, cartoons, micro-crosswords, jokes and puzzles put forward by the readers themselves. Set against the professional standards around them, such things were almost never more than commendable for their age, but two efforts in different issues deserve a mention.
One was a short story by a young lady, 170 words in length, cute, stylish and florid, in which every word began with the letter ‘T’, a tremendous effort. The other was a notable cartoon, not very good in itself, of various Eagle characters, with heads swapped onto each other’s bodies: notable for the identity of its artist – Gerald Scarfe!
Such was Volume 3: we ended the volume with Dan Dare, PC49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Harris Tweed and Tommy Walls, all of these with their permanent and best artists. But there was still more to be done, as will be seen in Volume 4.

Eagle – Volume 2 (1951/2)


Dan Dare in ‘The Red Moon Mystery’

Eagle‘s second volume feels very much like an exercise in consolidation. There are no startling advances, just good, solid progress. Dan Dare completes his first, and longest, adventure, but the second proves to be just as good and as popular, despite an inexplicable backstage panic, whilst both PC49 and Riders of the Range change artists, the one to great effect, the other to marginal improvement.
Volume 2 started with a birthday issue, though in the comic this was represented by an extended Editor’s page with photos of the principal editorial staff and some of the main artists, and a full-page centrespread showing how Eagle is produced, from logging of trees in Canada to the newsagent’s shop.
I have to correct an error on my part in the last blog when I claimed Skippy the Kangaroo was replaced by another European strip: it was, but not immediately. First we had to experience the home-made The Legend of the Lincoln Imp, written and drawn by Norman Spargo: repeat after me, this is for the seven year olds, this is for the seven year olds.
The volume had barely started when Marcus Morris was making excuses for another increase in price, this one based on a threefold increase in the cost of paper. This time, the price went up by only a halfpenny, but that still made for a 50% increase in the price of Eagle in little over a year.
Dan Dare’s adventures on Venus continued until issue 25, making the overall story 77 issues in length: the longest Dan Dare story and the longest story in Eagle‘s history. Oddly enough, after the muddy and dull colouring I criticised in volume 1, several weeks of art go to the opposite extreme, applying light colours to a bleached background, as if there was an extreme light-source. I’m assuming that this was an aspect of Frank Hampson’s ceaseless experimenting.
But once the story returned to Earth, the colouring settled into a more naturalistic palette. Behind the scenes, Hampson’s tendency to overwork began to take its toll, and he was absent from the last four weeks of the story.
Apparently, the realisation that the story was nearing its end caused some panic in Eagle‘s offices, especially as it was realised that nothing appeared to have been done to prepare for a sequel. There were fears that a different story would be a flop, and some effort was putting into publicising the forthcoming adventure on Mars, but of course the panic was unnecessary. ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ was just as popular, and whilst the art retained a somewhat cartoonish edge, especially in Dan’s Uncle Ivor, it was stronger overall, with a bolder and more aggressive use of black lines. Hampson’s friend and chief assistant Harold Johns was, on a couple of occasions, elevated to the status of co-artist, his name signed alongside that of the master.

John Worsley’s PC49

After finishing off the absurd story with the midget and the giant, Strom Gould’s fourth and last PC49 story was the absolute nadir, though the blame for that goes to writer Alan Stranks. ‘The Curse of Killer’s Keep’ was a horrible and absurd mess from start to finish, with Joan Carr missing as 49 is knocked out and kidnapped to a remote island serving a ridiculous dictator going by the name of Napoleon Bloggs. It’s an idiotic story that’s completely wrong for a level-headed beat copper, but Stranks showed that he recognised it by taking a completely different approach with the very next story, which saw ex-POW John Worsley take over as artist for the rest of the run.
‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ is everything PC49 hasn’t been before now, but will be until the feature ends. It’s down to earth, with an easy, well-developed flow, and it introduces the Boy’s Club who will effectively co-star from hereon in.
The ‘Terrible Twins’ are the Mulligans, Pat and Mick, a rowdy and rebellious pair of Irish extraction. They’re not bad kids, just wild, and irresponsible. 49 tries to take them under his wing at the Boy’s club, whose leader, Snorky, is the only one identified, but the irrepressible pair blot their copybook. Their wildness attracts the attention of Knocker and Slim, the first of Worsley’s gallery of grotesque baddies. This pair are street level crooks, breaking into factories, coshing nightwatchmen, that level of street crime, and they con the Mulligans into helping them. Only when the Twins start to realise what’s really going on do they start to repent, though they only really learn their lessons when Mick is captured and Pat wounded in the arm and the Boys Club rally round to help 49 bring down the crooks.
Worsley’s art is not quite as we will get used it it on this first story. He is far more polished than Gould, and his faces considerably more varied and, even when he is caricaturing crooks, more realistic. At this stage there’s a rounded fullness to his work that will later drift towards a more impressionistic style, and his backgrounds are far more detailed. It’s a tremendous improvement, and the change in direction for the stories is also positive.
His second story is set in and around the Docks, with 49 being assisted to bring down smugglers by cabin boy Toby Moore, but as the volume ends, the Club is ready to play a direct part, with the Mulligans and others identified.
Jack Daniels had already started his second and last Riders of the Range story when Volume 1 ended. Based on a true incident, ‘The Cochise Affair’ was everything the first story was in terms of art, though the colours were even more stylised this time, baked out under a desert sun. He was replaced by Angus Scott, whose approach was more conventional and whose cartooning was a little more realistic, but who was not much more than a cartoonist, his faces sketchy and angular. Scott was also give short stories to draw, and was into the third and last of his stint when Volume 2 ended.
We shall leave The Legend of the Lincoln Imp under its deserved shroud, because it and its predecessor were completely overshadowed by Eagle‘s second venture into the world of European comics. In Volume 2 issue 17, Herge’s famous Tintin made his first appearance in English.

Tintin in Eagle

The story chosen was ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’, though the title was never given. This was an interesting choice as the story had originally been serialised in ‘Le Petit Vingtieme’ in 1938/9, in black and white. By 1951, Tintin was starring in a magazine bearing his own name, but whilst Herge was undergoing periods of depression, his studio was busy reworking, polishing and colouring earlier adventures.
Nevertheless, this is still very different from the album version we now know so well. The translator (s) is unknown, but the legendary Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not begin their long association with Tintin until Methuen started publishing the adventures in books in 1958. Certainly, none of the signature flourishes of the series are present. Tintin is given to be French (!), his dog is Milou as in the original, and whilst the Thompsons are indeed Thompson and Thomson, their humour is purely physical, with none of the malapropisms and careful manglings of the English language. The translation appears to be no more than literal and workmanlike.
For all that, Tintin is still head and shoulders above its predecessors, and it’s a feather in the cap for it to be Eagle who brought the famed boy Reporter to England for the first time.
As for the remaining strips, there’s little to say. Despite John Ryan introducing, late in the volume, a small amount of continuity, in the form of the Extra Special Agent spending four weeks on holiday in the Caribbean, Harris Tweed stuck to its formula of the blowhard winning by accident or the actions of the put-upon Boy, and coming up with some form of self-justifying pun in the final panel.
Equally, Tommy Walls stuck to its little model. Most strips were drawn by Richard E. Jennings, with the occasional interpolations by others, and every strip ended with yet more blocks of Walls Ice Cream, until you fear for the dental health of Tommy, Bobby, Lennie and Sue. In the back end of the Volume, there’s an increased presence by ‘Wallsie’, the name for any driver/vendor of Walls Ice Cream vans, just to render Tommy’s attacks on grown men slightly more plausible, though I do emphasise the word ‘slightly’.
The Great Adventurer only lasted a handful of issues into the new Volume, before ending with the rather unsparing detail of St Paul’s beheading on the orders of the Emperor Nero. It was succeeded by Patrick, Fighter for Truth, the life of St Patrick of Ireland, though the story risked confusion by referring to Patrick by his childhood name of Hygaid, and showing him as a spoilt half-Roman and all round nasty piece of work for the first couple of months.
By now, Norman Williams was well-established as the back-page artist, and once again the strip did not shirk unpleasant details, such as Patrick’s devoted sister and fellow-slave Lupait being beaten to death by her master.
St Patrick’s story was much shorter than that of St Paul, and we had time to start Louis the Fearless, about the French King who inherited the crown at an early age and, from his start, had a very socialist attitude in being for fair and decent treatment of the peasantry, causing much opposition from the Barons, who were very much of the ‘Keep the rabble down’ camp: I anticipate assassination in Volume 3.

Tommy Walls by Richard E Jennings

On the prose side, ‘The Scarlet Snuffbox’, a London-set carryover from volume 1, was aggressively anti-female in a way Eagle hadn’t previously been. In contrast, it’s successor, ‘North Wind’, featured a highly competent girl, who spent the entire story disguised as a boy until the final episode, when her true gender is revealed. Unfortunately, the moment she becomes a girl, she starts getting a bit soppy about how the British boy she’s been partnered with will react to the deception, but he’s more concerned with the person beneath than her superficial characteristics, so there’s not even the slightest hint of a romance blooming!
The serial was written by Geoffrey Beardsmore, and appeared as a complete novel after its serialisation was completed. This was Beardsmore’s first contribution to Eagle, but a few years later, he would become a permanent fixture in the comic, with more than one comics series.
‘North Wind’ finished in issue 26, but there was not another serial until Rex Rients’s ‘s ‘Nightmare Island’, which ran from issue 40 to 51. This was a much more conventional story, with an amusingly ‘Lost’-like set-up: plane off course in the South Pacific crashes on mysterious island, but the set-up was much more down-to-earth. Pirate treasure is discovered on the island, and a sleazy, dictatorial Brazilian and two scummy Americans team up with the intention of killing everyone else and keeping it. Needless to say, two teenage boys, one British and one Australian, foil them.
The rest of the time was taken up by Anthony Buckeridge’s Rex Milligan. Buckeridge, already famous for his Jennings and Darbishire stories both in books and on the radio, had been asked to contribute to Eagle and came up with his other popular creation specifically for the comic. Rex Milligan was a London-based Grammar school boy who, alongside his best pal, Jigger Johnson, was constantly getting into trouble – and getting out of it as the strapline on the series proclaimed. These were all self-contained stories, bright and breezy, and appeared throughout the volume in two separate tranches.
Otherwise, there was the usual assortment of short stories, no better and no worse than those that preceded them, although six were published under the heading of ‘The Merman of the Fijis’, about a wonderboy swimmer out in the South Pacific, frustrating the evil plans of a crooked boat-owner, who commits suicide by shark in the last paragraph.
One of the things that distinguished volume 2 was the increased intensity of Marcus Morris’s efforts to involve Eagle‘s readers, in games, competitions and events outside the mere reading of the paper. A small section for Letters was introduced, events and holidays organised, especially Carol Services around Christmas, with a special service for Eagle readers at none other than St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s a lot of energy going into the kind of extra-curricular things the readers would like, including the establishing of the first of Eagle‘s sister papers, sister being the operative word here, as Girl was established for readers’ sisters, in an effort to stop them pinching their brothers’ copies of Eagle.
So that was volume 2: more of the same, only different. Some incremental improvement, most notably in respect of PC49, but overall, the comic still has some way to go to hit its peak period. We’ll see how things progress next time out.

 

The Frank Hampson Studios: Bayford Lodge


The set-up at The Firs was impossible. It suited no-one except Hultons, who had their Editor and Art Director/chief draw close to London, but for everyone else it was a disaster that could only get worse.
So Hulton Press accepted the need to establish Frank Hampson’s studio elsewhere in Epsom, this time at Bayford Lodge, a large, detached home that would double as a home for Frank, Dorothy and Peter, whilst providing ample space for the team to work. Not just studio space, for artists and for the ever-burgeoning reference section, but room for the exacting business of posing for photos, taking and developing film that underlay the increasingly rich and detailed art of the studio.
Hampson even had a bedroom floor removed to enable overhead and steeply angled shots to be taken. All in service of a series that he was determined would get ever better. Frank Hampson had ambitions for Dan Dare: breaking into the American newspaper market, for instance, and beyond that the dream of animation, for which his patient, labour intensive studio of assistants would be the foundation.
But Hulton Press completely lacked Hampson’s vision for the possibilities inherent in the series, which would, in turn, lead to frustration and grief.
In the meantime, the work went on. Increasingly, it went on without direct contributions from Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Even at Bayford Lodge, space was not infinite, and the pair would find themselves working from, first, home, and then studios rented by the two to enable them to continue.
Out of sight seems to imply out of mind: Johns and Tomlinson had less and less to do, and they had an offer for outside work that would both occupy that extra capacity and also give them an additional income. Ever-loyal, Johns went to Marcus Morris on behalf of himself and Greta, to seek permission. This was given, although on the strict condition that Johns and Tomlinson’s first duties had to be to Frank Hampson and Dan Dare, to the extent of setting aside other jobs (and contracts) to work for Hulton.
The duo agreed and started on their new venture, but it did not sit well with Hampson, who saw it as the rankest treachery. All considerations of friendship with Johns were forgotten. Within a few weeks, Johns was summoned to London to meet Morris. Tomlinson traveled with him, taking advantage of the break to visit the shops: thirty minutes after leaving Johns at Hulton, she was shocked at his catching up to her with the news that they had both been sacked.
Neither worked for Frank Hampson again.
But the pantomime continued. Eric Eden had tried to debate the workload and had been sacked as the putative head of a conspiracy. Now Hampson wrote to invite him back: there had been a conspiracy but Eden hadn’t been involved. So Eden returned for his third stint on Dan Dare.
For the most part, that left the Hampson studio in a settled state until the end of the decade. Hampson was in control, with Don Harley as his principal assistant – and during The Man from Nowhere Harley’s contribution was so important that Hampson, off his own bat, began to co-sign his chief assistant’s name to the strip. Joan Humphries managed the Studio, Eric Eden was the airbrush specialist.
Other artists would come and go, in junior roles, but these would be the Frank Hampson studio long-termers at Bayford Lodge, until Keith Watson joined the studio in 1958. There were still choppy waters ahead, times when Hampson sought to reduce, even eliminate his own drawing contributions in favour of a role directing those who worked under him, times when Desmond Walduck would return to help out, but Bayford Lodge would be the safe and stable home to all henceforth, and it would remain Frank and Dorothy’s family home long after Frank was forcibly separated from his creation.

Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury


hampsonjohns3-24

All was set.
With The Red Moon Mystery rolling towards its end, Frank Hampson began preparing for its sequel, which would see Dan, Digby, the Professor, Sondar, and an Atlantine Cadet, Urb, survive the fireball of destruction that accompanied the Red Moon’s explosion to find themselves stranded, believed dead, on the innermost planet, Mercury.
He had already requested Walkden Fisher – famous for the weekly exploded drawings in Eagle that turned thousands of boys’ minds towards engineering – to make model Mercurian landscapes for him, to use in depicting the planet nearest the sun, though Hampson had not liked the results, which did not match his inner visions. And he had already decided that once Dan and co had survived their landing, courtesy of the Mercurians themselves, they would discover an old enemy plotting revenge: the Mekon.
Then disaster struck. Hampson pushed his studio hard, but he pushed himself even harder. He’d had to step back a couple of times during ‘The Venus Story’, missing the last four weeks. But now the self-imposed workload caught up with him with a vengeance. An inner-ear infection, destroying his balance, coupled with a diagnosis of exhaustion resulted in an order of bedrest, and no activity under any circumstances. Dorothy Hampson enforced this, but only two weeks into the story, Marooned on Mercury had lost its creator.
So far as the art was concerned, there was a simple solution. Harold Johns, Hampson’s good friend and senior assistant, took over principal art, working in close collaboration with Greta Tomlinson, with whom he’d already formed a fruitful working partnership, on Rob Conway and on at least one Dan Dare short in an Eagle Annual. As for the script, the Reverend Marcus Morris turned to the seemingly unlikely figure of the Reverend Chad Varah.
Varah had been a friend of Morris for some years. Like Morris, he was the Vicar of a Lancashire parish, in Blackburn, and a founder of Morris’s Society for Christian Publicity. He is remembered for something far greater, as Founder of the Samaritans, the charitable organisation that provides an outlet to talk for people who are desperate, lonely and suicidal. But at this early stage of his carer, Varah also had a sideline as the writer of short adventure stories for boys, several of which had been published in the early days of Eagle. In the circumstances, given the short notice, he was the best available choice.
Whatever Hampson had planned for Marooned on Mercury, assuming he had anything planned as yet, was all in his head and Varah had to hit the ground cold. As for Johns and Tomlinson, they were more than grateful for Fisher’s models.
The major problem with Marooned on Mercury is that Varah simply did not have Hampson’s gift for making it up as he went along. The actual story has nothing intrinsically wrong about it, although there is a continuity error (albeit one that can be loosely explained). But the actual week-by-week tale is choppy and disjointed, as if Varah was not able to sustain extended elements of the story in the way Hampson had with the two previous tales.
Varah’s story is that, when he escaped from Venus following his overthrow, the Mekon sought refuge on Mercury, where he has dominated, but not enslaved (presumably due to lack of resources rather than intent) a basically pacifist society. Among the Mekon’s resources are a group of Earthmen, in fact the Captain and crew of Kingfisher, the impulse drive ship destroyed in Eagle’s second issue, now revealed to have survived and been prisoners in Mekonta throughout ‘The Venus Story’ (improbable as it is that the Treens/Mekon would have kept this secret). The Kingfisher crew are unaware that they are working for the Mekon: they were released from prison by Treens claiming to be rebels against the Mekon and are working towards rejoining a war they don’t know has been won, to oppose him.
On Mercury, the Mekon has discovered a plantform harmless to Mercurians but fatal to Earthmen and Treens. From this, he has synthesized a gaseous substance he calls Panthanaton (Latin: All-Deathbringer: the Mekon has clearly studied Earth languages and would no doubt have got a First at Cambridge).
His plan was to use Captain D’Arcy (D’Arcy?) and his crew to fly a spaceship to Venus, relying on their being allowed through the planetary defences, and, when low enough to do so, detonate a Panthanaton bomb that will kill everyone on the planet.
Now that Dan Dare is (almost) in his hands, the Mekon intends to coerce him into being the pilot instead: with Dan at the controls, all security measures will open up, and the Mekon can reclaim his crown.

A Mercurian City

That’s the overall story. It’s decent enough in itself, not that it isn’t easy to pick holes in its logic at significant points, but in this clear and concise summary, we see into the heart of Marooned on Mercury‘s central failing. The above is an outline: it’s a four paragraph summary of what will be revealed to the reader over 35 weeks. It says nothing of how the story is to be told, of what will happen, of the journey the characters will go on.
Hampson made The Red Moon Mystery an attractive, taut, compelling story by moving the action through various stages, each logically flowing from one to the other. Varah lacked that capacity. Marooned on Mercury is choppy and bitty, a process emphasised by his almost immediately splitting the party into three pairs (Dan and Sondar, Digby and Urb, the Professor and the friendly Mercurian they nick-name Samson: I am still ignoring that damned pooch), all of whom are following different paths underground, continually running into obstacles they have to pass, the story cutting from one to another.
In fact, there is more running down corridors than in an entire series of Doctor Who.
The hodge-podge nature of the telling is best exemplified by the swing-bridge, an improbable underground bridge across a bottomless chasm encountered by Dan and Sondar, who use it to cross said chasm and strand a pursuing Treen squad on the other side. As such, this is a minor incident, until, that is, Varah switches to Peabody and Samson, who encounter the self-same swing-bridge and this time have endless difficulties getting across it, as if Varah had suddenly realised he’d missed a trick in not complicating Dan’s path.
Dan and Sondar’s crossing leads directly into the sudden appearance of Captain D’Arcy.
D’Arcy and crew are perhaps the hardest thing to swallow in the entire story. In isolation, there is nothing exceptionable about their role in the story. But the whole point of Kingfisher in ‘The Venus Story’ was that the ship exploded in deep space, outside the anti-impulse wave barrier protecting Venus, in space. The explosion was brutal and sudden and the implication was that all the crew were killed. No explanation is given as to how they survived, or how the crew were extracted from the wrecked Kingfisher (which was under astroviewer observation from Earth) without anyone noticing.
And it’s worth remembering that, when they were captured, Dan and Digby were treated as the first Earthmen to come under Treen hands for experimentation: they are only allowed to attempt to rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor on the basis that this would double the number of subjects, yet all the time the Treens are supposed to have a dozen Earth specimens locked up in a Mekonta prison, just cooling their heels. It doesn’t really sit.
The more obvious error is in calling Kingfisher’s captain D’Arcy, when he’s Crane in ‘The Venus Story’, though this is perhaps surmountable. Crane is referred to by his surname in the earlier story, in accordance with military form, and it’s possible that when Dan calls him D’Arcy, he’s greeting a personal friend who he addresses by his first name, making the character Captain D’Arcy Crane.

Ol’ Greenbean is back!

The encounter is fraught with suspicion. D’Arcy initially attacks Dan, seeing him allied with Sondar, believing him to be in league with the Mekon. An uneasy peace is maintained between the two sides, for long enough that Dan begins to come round to accepting the honesty and probity of D’Arcy’s Treen colleagues, that is until Peabody and Samson catch up and remind him that the very first thing the original Treen party had said to Dan and Co when trying to collect them was to present the Mekon’s compliments…
At least the Kingfisher crew aren’t traitors. The moment they learn they’ve been tricked, they turn on the Treens with a vengeance.
Once everybody’s on the same page, they shoot off into space but, thanks to the use of the Mekon’s magnets, only into the Mercurian equivalent of geosynchronous orbit where, for several weeks, Dan and his arch-enemy play a waiting game.
This section of the story is, for me, even more problematic than the earlier episodes. We now have everyone in the same place, and no more corridors to run down in separate directions, but Varah shifts things into philosophical areas.
It’s now settled that the Mekon wants Dan Dare, and Dan Dare only, to drop the Panthanaton bomb on Venus. D’Arcy and his crew were an expedient, but would be subject to challenge due to their long absence (and the fact that everyone’s thought they were dead since 1995), but no-one would even think to challenge Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot. Knowing what price Dare places on his word of honour, the Mekon rationalises that he only has to get Dan to promise, and his plan ins secured.
So the next phase of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between the Mekon’s forces and one ship, with limited air, food and other resources, trapped in orbit, with the aim of forcing Dan into a promise that will save his friends.
From an adult perspective, Varah overcooks the story. It takes a long time for Dan to come out with the only possible answer, that he cannot possibly place the lives of Digby, Peabody, Sondar and Urb above those of millions of Threens, Therons and Earthmen on Venus. But Marooned on Mercury‘s original audience, the seven to twelve year olds of the first half of 1953, would have been reading their first philosophical dilemma, and perhaps the additional time Varah gives to what, ultimately, is a simple answer, serves more than just the need to perpetuate the storytelling.
Having set things up as turning upon an ethical decision, it’s a shame that Varah then blurs the moral lines in a way unexpected of Eagle‘s ethos. Dan can’t get down from the sky without the Mekon allowing him, but he must get out of the sky and back to Mercury if he’s ever to overthrow his archenemy’s plans. It’s Catch-22, and Varah’s solution is for Sondar, not being affected by the moral convictions of Earthmen, to secretly signal that Dan will indeed do the dirty deed, to break the impasse.
And Dan, discovering that the Treens are expecting him and are indeed willing to lead him to the Panthanaton bomb storage centre, decides to go with the flow and allow the Treens to think that he has given his word, whilst planning all the time to break it the first chance he gets. Please bear in mind that this ethical cross-wired conundrum has been cooked up by a Church of England Vicar: no wonder I turned out an atheist.
However, we are now set up for the end-game, which consists of Dan, with the Mekon having arrived to personally direct his hated foe into the biggest single crime in the Solar System, grabbing a Panthanaton bomb and threatening to kill all of them: it’s worth the sacrifice of his own life to end the threat of the Mekon for once and for all.
With the Mekon temporarily stymied by the Panthanaton bomb, Dan takes the chance to use the Treen controls to contact Earth and signal their survival and the need for an Earth presence, extremely rapidly. By a convenient coincidence, this call comes just as Sir Hubert is unveiling a memorial to the gallant Earth heroes who sacrificed themselves to dispel the menace of the Red Moon (and if that feels oddly remote, remember that, although this took place nearly nine months earlier for Eagle’s readers, in the context of the series only some two to three weeks have passed, making the ceremony almost premature).
Dan’s family is represented by Uncle Ivor, Digby’s by Aunt Anastasia. What should we read into this? In time to come we will know that Dan’s father is believed dead, and it is clear that Lady Jean McGregor Dare must also have passed on. That no other Dare family member is present to pay their respects suggests that Dan was an only child, which sits awkwardly with the introduction of a nephew, Alastair, in the first Eagle Annual short story, running in the first Interplanetary Olympics. A decade later, Dan will also acquire a second nephew, Nigel, but never a mention of a brother to have fathered these close relatives!
And I once again find it notable that neither Mrs Digby nor any of the four Digby children are here to honour the head of the household: I said it before and I’ll repeat it, amicable separation and Digby spends all his time on duty because he hasn’t got any money left for himself once he’s finished paying ample maintenance!
It’s going to take about a fortnight for the Earth fleet to reach Mercury, though it’s a little strange to have that estimate coming from Uncle Ivor, an archaeologist lest we forget, rather than someone from Spacefleet.
Meantime, Dan and Co are still up the sharp end, with the Mekon out for revenge. It’s time to appeal to the Mercurians to rise up against their oppressors. But the Mercurians, for all that they are surprisingly strong for such skinny folk, and fond of bangs and crashes when they travel, are pacifists by nature. The Mekon is a pest, but he’s a bearable pest, is their attitude, and none of Dan’s rhetoric, so effective on the Therons, has any effect. Until the Mekon arrives in his fleet, guns a-blazing, resorting to brute force and ruddy ignorance. And then the Mercurians retaliate, bouncing into the sky and stripping down the Treen ships in midflight. This is rapidly followed by a multifarious Mercurian march cross-planet, aimed at the Mekon’s base, though it arrives just in time to see the Mekon making another tactical retreat.
Thus Sir Hubert arrives to find a peaceful planet, and Dan and co can go back to work.

The last Hampson page

In all of this, I haven’t, thus far, mentioned the art. It goes without saying, and this is no insult to Harold Johns, that the best art in the entire story is in the four pages directly drawn and supervised by Hampson himself, before succumbing to exhaustion. These are also, in terms of what we’ve already covered with regard to the story, the most fast-paced and story-dense four pages of Marooned on Mercury.
Unlike Hampson, Johns – whose signature on the work appears only once in the entire story – was grateful for Walkden Fisher’s models. Hampson had already designed and depicted the Mercurians, so he and Tomlinson are left with little in the way of innovation.
They’re solid and competent, and of course, just as when they were mere assistants, they’re drawing in Frank Hampson’s style, so there are no major differences in the art. What proportion of the Dan Dare audience actually noticed is impossible to say but based on my own experience as a comics reading kid a decade later, I suspect it would have been very small.
But to the adult eye, the change in artist is unmistakeable. It’s not immediately noticeable in backgrounds, in landscape or technology, but it is in faces and, as the story progresses, in figure scale. At this stage in his career, Hampson’s art still contained an identifiable element of cartooning when it came to faces, but Johns’ style exaggerates this back towards the very early days.
His scale is off, too. The Studio research materials contained style-sheets and figure guides including relative heights, enabling characters to be depicted in proportion to one another, and these distinctions are maintained, but there is a general shrinkage of everyone vis-a-vis their setting. Bodies are shorter and stubbier: not by any pronounced degree, but by enough for it to be noticeable.
Digby, who was closest to being a cartoon to begin with, is even more unrealistic throughout the story, and suffers the indignity of having his face drawn in different styles at different times. He’s never not recognisable, but the eye halts far too often for comfort. The effect is like seeing a different actor taking over an established part.
I don’t know just how long Frank Hampson’s illness remained debilitating, but by the time he was fit again, Marooned on Mercury had progressed so far that, rather than re-take the reigns with the concomitant disruption of rebuilding the story into something more impressive, he chose not to interfere but instead concentrated upon Dan Dare’s next adventure.
This fourth story, the second longest single story in the entire canon, would take Dan and Co deeper into space than they had ever been, would introduce another race of aliens to the teeming life of Earth’s Solar System, and demonstrate another step forward in Hampson’s evolution as an artist. But Hampson’s health would still play a crucial part in the telling of this story.

The Frank Hampson Studio – The Bakehouse Days


‘The Venus Story’ lasted almost eighteen months, the longest story ever to appear in Eagle, and possibly the longest story ever to appear in a British boys comic. It was originated by Frank Hampson who not only drew but also wrote (without compensation) the first ten episodes on his own. Hulton then provided a writer, Guy Treece, who continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson to lunch and charmingly advising that he had no idea what to do next: having been classically trained, he couldn’t possibly do more!
Hampson soldiered on with the majority of the writing, occasionally paying other writers out of his own pocket, but he would not find a reliable writer in whom he could trust on a regular basis until 1954, when Alan Stranks, already an Eagle veteran, would take over.
Stranks would comment that Hampson threw away an awful lot of material in The Venus Story, and that he could have made the same story last for five years! Whilst the majority of Dan Dare fans hold Stranks in high regard for bringing stability to the writing of the series, and freeing Hampson up to concentrate upon the art, taking it to even greater heights, there are others who are critical of him for doing exactly as he said, and slowing the pace down.
At the same time as Treece made his invaluable contribution, Hampson had begun assembling his studio.
Harold Johns, Hampson’s contemporary and close friend from Southport Art College, was an obvious first choice, and quiet, almost secretive advertisements in trade papers brought in young, enthusiastic artists who were fascinated by Hampson and his plans and wanted to work with him: Jocelyn Thomas and Joan Humphries (later Porter), Greta Tomlinson (who would form a very fruitful partnership with Johns) and Canadian Bruce Cornwell, a much more experienced contemporary of Hampson and the first to leave after suggesting that the punishing hours and conditions were not necessary.
With a team, a studio was required, and the most unlikely of sites was found on Botanic Road, Southport. It was called the Bakehouse, and it was a brick-built lean-to and former bakery that nevertheless offered two large overhead windows, a third in one end wall and fanlight windows along its length. It was cold and cramped – an exploded drawing of the Bakehouse was produced by Graham Bleathman for Spaceship Away and reprinted in Alastair Crompton’s high quality Hampson biography Tomorrow Revisited – and everyone hated it.
But it was home to Frank Hampson’s studio, and that meant not only Dan Dare but The Great Adventurer (the life of St Paul), Rob Conway (an undistinguished strip about an air cadet joining the search for a Himalayan secret city) and Tommy Walls, a full-page advert for Wall’s Ice Cream in comic strip fashion.
And in this tiny place, a team of seven people worked longer hours than Victorian factory hands to fulfil the vision of Frank Hampson.
As I’ve already said, each weekend Hampson – who was writing the story as well as drawing it – worked alone on two full-colour ‘rough’ pages, drawn in high detail, fully-coloured and not far from being finished. Then two days were devoted to the team posing, photographing and developing each scene, leaving only three days in which to create that week’s art. Hampson would usually take the first page, it being Eagle‘s cover, and his studio would divide the panels of page two between them.
It was not merely a case of drawing individual panels and sticking these down, whilst disciplining one’s natural talent into channeling what Hampson wanted into the realism he demanded. Some original pages are little short of a jigsaw puzzle, with cut-out space ships pasted onto Spacefleet backgrounds, and figures pasted over scenes.
It was cumbersome, it was awkward, it was draining. It took hours, long draining hours, frequently working (unpaid) extra hours until the birds woke up in the morning. And that was when Frank Hampson didn’t have another, better idea that would cause days of work to be thrown out.
Bruce Cornwell, older than his colleagues, an established professional, though it unnecessary. Given his background, he was also prepared to stand up to Hampson in arguments about art where the junior artists, in their first jobs in an era where the prevailing anticipation was of jobs being for life, were not willing to do so. Exit Sterling, enter Eric Eden, another of Hampson’s friends from Southport Art College, although in a junior year. Eden would go on to a long involvement with Dan Dare, stretching way beyond Hampson’s departure in 1959, and would become the studio’s master with the airbrush, in which role he would eventually specialise.
The Bakehouse lasted less than eight months. It was inadequate from the start and Hampson had already started looking for better. Hultons wanted Marcus Morris in London, rather than commuting from Southport and, since so much money was going into it, it was better to have Hampson’s studio closer to ‘home’ as well. At first, they had to share The Firs, in Epsom, with Morris and his actress wife, Jessica Fanning, who did not like the thought of so many strangers in her home, but eventually Hampson and his wife Dorothy bought Bayford Lodge and transferred a by then much streamlined studio to there.
Why did Hampson’s assistants put up with what were extremely cruel and stressful working conditions that would horrify anyone trying to keep up with that today? In part it was because they were young, a decade junior to Frank Hampson, who was, let’s not forget, a War veteran. This was the Fifties, and not even deep enough into the Fifties for it to have taken shape as a different decade. The War was not a decade behind, food rationing still existed when Eagle was born, and you did not question your boss.
But there were two other considerations that, given all the comments made in later life by those privileged to have worked with Frank Hampson, seem, to me, to be more powerful.
The first is that not only did Frank Hampson never ask any of his studio to do something he was not prepared to do, he committed more, far, far more, in terms of intensity, in terms of effort, in terms of sheer time even than they did. Whilst some would argue whether it was all necessary, no-one ever suggested that their boss did not do even more than he asked them to do.
And every one of them were absolutely fascinated by Frank Hampson’s work. They had a ringside seat at the creation of something that, with the greatest possible respect, was beyond them, and everybody wanted to see it happen. It sounds like a dream to me (apart from the hours): to be an artist, to have the ability to create what the eye sees, and to be part of the great wellspring of ideas of someone with the ability to create what the eye could not see.
Yes, as Don Harley, the future ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, always said, Hampson’s own pure unadulterated work needed only finishing to be complete, and in Harley’s eyes contained a freshness that the eventual art lacked, but Keith Watson, who would restore Hampson’s look to a feature that resisted being killed, pointed to what was published, and regards that as all the justidication ever needed for Hampson’s complex, unweildy approach.
And in 2014, we’re still talking about a weekly comic story created for seven year old boys. What more proof do we need that Frank Hampson did something spectacularly right?