From the shortest Volume of Eagle to the longest, as the vagaries of the calendar gave Volume 5 53 Fridays on which to publish. From this point onwards, each Volume represents a calendar year.
We’re very close now to Eagle‘s classic form, with only one feature still to make it’s debut. Well in advance of that, a stalwart of the first four years took it’s bow: only two short serials, both drawn by Hampson assistant Harold Johns, not long before his unjust sacking, before Tommy Walls came to an end in issue 13: four years, almost to the week, of fanatical ice cream consumption. Did the average health of 11 – 14 year olds suddenly soar?
Otherwise, there was little change in the strips and series, the main ones being MacDonald Hastings’ return as Eagle Special Investigator and the debut of the best of its half-page true-life/nature series.
ESI’s second run lasted just over a year but, as the readers themselves noted, did not involve the same degree of potentially dangerous activity as before, and much less need for Hastings’ brand of self-deprecation. Every so often, his page was supplanted by Readers Letters about his adventures, the best of which earned an ESI Pen-knife.
His break was taken up mainly by real-life adventure stories, but in November he was back, this time with a serial adventure featuring Mac and his regular photographer, Chris Ware, on an extended African safari to find the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, which carried over into the following year.
The other feature was to be a long-running half-page by popular TV naturalist of the era, George Cansdale, with splendid detailed and coloured art by Backhouse. Too many of Eagle’s half-pagers, though factually accurate, suffered from sketchy and imprecise art, but Backhouse’s style, and his vivid colouring, set a standard the comic never equalled in any other of its factual features, and the series ran for years.
Dan Dare saw ‘Operation Saturn’ through to its end, and a substantial portion of ‘Prisoners of Space’. By this time, there’s no overt suggestion that Frank Hampson is doing any part of the drawing, and its usually accepted that the latter part of ‘Saturn’ was pencilled by Don Harley and, because the studio was greatly reduced of assistants, and Hampson’s second physical breakdown meant that prolonged rest was essential, the work was sent out of the studio to be finished by Desmond Walduck, the preferred freelancer for situations like this.
But, especially in ‘Saturn’, there was still a clear difference in art between the cover and page 2, with the latter less-detailed and more bland, except in close-ups of Vora, last of the High Ones. When ‘Prisoners of Space’ takes over, however, Walduck’s style more or less swamps that of Harley, and there is little of interest in that. Colouring on both stories is flat and dull, making the style particularly two-dimensional.
This is not a good volume for the qualities of Dan Dare.
PC49 was fully settled into a familiar groove, in which each case would be inspired, in one fashion or another, by a new Boys Club member. ‘The Case of the Bad Egg’ introduced potential wild kid Dusty Dawson, fending for himself whilst his mother was ill in hospital, and trying to help his Uncle Knocker, of Knocker and Slim and ‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ in Volume 2. But Dusty believes what his Uncle has told him about being framed, and as soon as he discovers Knocker is a crook, and one who intends forcing him into the business, he does his best to break away and help 49 and the Boys Club bring in the crooks.
But Dusty doesn’t reappear, despite being made a member at the end, and being invited to bunk in at Mrs Mulligan’s until his Mother is out of the hospital (the Mulligan Twins, well aware of their own brush with wildness, have turned into the most generous with waifs and strays needing somewhere to stay).
In contrast, Tam Piper, who is so much a Scot he goes around in a tartan kilt (and tartan pyjamas) doesn’t generate the case, but being a mechanically inclined young lad, is central to the Boys Club being able to present an old crock of a car to their President, to relieve his sore feet, and have it run. But the car conceals a map of the stash from a jewellery heist ten years ago, coincidentally in the same Cornish cove 49 and the boys are going to on holiday and the theif has just got out of prison… But Tam stays on and features in other stories, with his heavy Scots accent.
Partway through the volume, the increasingly simple adventures of Harris Tweed are moved out of the back half of the comic and onto page 5, opposite ESI, whilst David Langdon’s ‘Professor Puff’ continues on its mildly fantastic way, with the Prof and his dog Wuff having adventures initially in the Arctic and then in Outer Space.
It’s still not all that enthralling and, with Swift coming along to complete Hulton’s little group of Redtop comics, aimed at the gap between the kiddies of Robin and the more mature readers of Eagle/Girl, it may have been a bit more appropriate to shunt Puff and Wuff sideways a bit.
When we left Luck of the Legion, the Sergeant and Corporal Trenet were taking on a new mission in ‘The Secret City’. Bimberg turned up working (inefficiently) as a cook, but when the new Commandant refuses to believe in the mission, Luck and Trenet fake an attack to cover breaking away in defiance of his orders, and take Bimberg with them, as he actually is a good sharpshooter. It marks the beginning of the true partnership, and the continual balance between Bimberg’s childishness, love of toffees and ability to form relationships with every kind of animal, and the senior Legionnaires’ constantly inventive insults about his weight and general competence. The Three J’s was also as well-established as PC49 and adopting a similar formula in introducing a new boy at Northbrook School in each story, who in one form or another turns out to be at the heart of the adventure, being a French boy facing kidnap attempts, Martin ‘Goosey’ Gander, who is confined to a wheelchair, or the mysterious ‘Somebody’ who is running a secret protection ring.
Ling by now was cleverly attuning his stories to the rhythm of the school year, alternating 10-12 week serials corresponding with terms, and 4-6 week serials set in school holidays. On the other hand, every time the J’s started a new School Year, they were always back in the Fourth Form, which, with two supposedly clever boys among the Three, suggests that everybody was bloody awful at exams and kept having to be kept back en masse!
Storm Nelson demonstrated its international spread, concluding the first adventure in rescuing not merely Lloyds Agent Don Kenyon – who would become a regular source of commissions for the Silver Fleet – but Captain Kidd, aka Kerfuffle’s Dad, who promptly leaves his spunky Aussie son in Storm’s care to run permanent risk of death and danger!
The Silver Fleet next turned up in the Mediterranean, running a fake archaeologist and an exiled bandit to a Greek Island wracked by earthquake in search of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, before sailing out to the Pacific to intercede between feuding South American republics. Jennings’ art was clear and bold, robust and dynamic, and his depiction of Honeybun and Xerxes were lovely models of eccentric looking people who nevertheless remained completely believable.
On the back page, ‘Alfred the Great’s life story continued until issue 16, after which it was succeeded by that of Scout Movement founder, Robert Baden-Powell. Marcus Morris was at pains to point out the personal significance of this to artist Norman Williams who, as a Scout aged 12, had been commended for his artistic skills by B-P himself!
To be honest, I found the hagiographical portrait of B-P, especially in his school and early Army career, to be off-putting of the man, making him appear to be arrogant rather than confident, but then I am not and never have been a Boy Scout or any similar creature, so I’m not necessarily the best to judge. Or maybe I am? The series was collected as an Eagle book in 1957, incidentally.
To conclude: I’ve already mentioned that Frank Hampson is popularly regarded as having been absent from Dan Dare throughout this period, and his name does not appear on any page of art in the series. Indeed, ‘Operation Saturn’ strays widely from the original synopsis Hampson develops, completely dropping the attack on eugenics he’d conceived as fundamental, and despite his using his son Peter as the model for ‘Flamer’ Spry (at least from the neck up!), I can’t see him having any input into ‘Prisoners of Space’.
And there was still a substantial chunk of that story to go in Volume 6, but Frank Hampson did contribute one page of splendid art, beautifully coloured and detailed, on the penultimate page of the Christmas issue. Entitled ‘The Editor’s Christmas Nightmare’ it is a fantastic mash-up as (nearly) all Eagle‘s characters turn up in a single spot, wearing each other’s gear – Dan and Digby swapping outfits with Jeff Arnold and Luke, Sergeant Luck and PC49 arresting each other for impersonating the other, and Harris Tweed improbably popping up in the Mekon’s pink jumpsuit and on his flying boat, to lead everyone to the true culprit, Marcus Morris sleeping on the job after too much wine at Christmas lunch!
It’s brilliantly drawn, in the mature style Hampson would unveil when he made his full-time return to Dan Dare, but there’s also a bit of barely suppressed nastiness to it, with Morris being ridiculed openly (the bit about the wine was definitely true to life), and the panel where he pleads for mercy from the characters had to be altered to eliminate the noose Hampson had put around his neck…
But as a harbinger of what to come, it’s mouth-watering, and Volume 6 would see that standard of art burst onto the scene, along with the final piece of the classic Eagle puzzle.
People, I have an ethical and economic dilemma to consider this weekend.
My long quest for a completion collection of the Eagle (until they stopped doing original Dan Dare adventures) is almost at an end. I have one to go, one issue. True, some of my collection is in poor condition, and some are incomplete, with the centrespread and the famous cutaway drawings of L. Ashwell Wood removed, and I will keep an eye open for upgrades, but I’m down to the last Eagle.
And there’s one on e-Bay.
Technically, there’s two. One seller is offering the individual issue, whilst another is offering the complete volume, a full year’s worth.
On the surface, this is a no-brainer to beat all no-brainers. Buy the comic, dum-dum, and cease wasting our time. For what possible reason would you want to pay more money to buy several dozen comics you already have?
But things are more complex than they seem. I have long been aware of the availability of this issue. It has been offered for sale at a Buy It Now price over and over again over the two years I have been consistently combing eBay. This seller has dozens of Eagles for sale, and they circulate over and over, never, or at least rarely selling, because each and every copy they are offering are vastly over-inflated in price.
We are talking £23, £27, £30, even £50 for individual issues, each and every one one of which (except one) I’ve been able to buy for a fraction of those prices. The most I’ve had to pay for one of those issues on offer was only six weeks or so ago, when an auction copy came up and I secured it for £12.50, over a tenner cheaper, and that was far more than I’d had to pay for any of the others. Hell’s bells, I’ve bought complete volumes for as little as the prices this seller is asking for single issues. On auction.
So, I have a violent antipathy towards this seller, and towards rewarding them for this unrealistic and horrendous charge.
On the other hand, the full volume that includes my missing issue is currently under Buy It Now or Best Offer at over twice the price of the individual issue. A much higher outlay, a near year’s worth of copies I don’t need (my duplicates pile, which I’m trying to dispose of through eBay, is already about 250 issues strong, and I don’t need to add to it), the cons list is powerful.
On another other hand, this set may be in better condition than my existing copies. It may represent a partial or even complete upgrade. If I have any incomplete copies in this volume, or pages where coupons have been cut out, I may have an instant remedy. And I won’t be funding that rip-off merchant.
Before I take a decision, I’ll have a look through my existing volume, see whether there’s a substantial case for buying the bundle for upgrades, as opposed to cutting off my nose to spite my face. Either way, I’m nearly at the end of the road that, for literal decades, I never even imagined I could set foot upon, and before too long I will have laid my hands upon the last Eagle.
A half day later, an inspection of the relevant volume confirms that there are no centrespreads missing, and only four issues from which coupons have been clipped. I’ve made a note of them for replacement but they don’t amount to enough to shift the balance. So, unless a third copy suddenly appears in the next few days, I think the decision has been made for me.
Here’s a story.
A creative person creates a character who becomes immensely popular. But at the very beginning, the creator has to give up ownership of his creation. Thus, when the character goes big, the creator is not entitled to credit for what he has done, control of his creation, the ability to profit from it and, eventually, the right to even use his own character. Instead of the rewards that creation brings, the creator suffers years of deprivation, misery and bitterness.
Unfortunately, it’s a common story. On one side of the Atlantic it’s Jerry Seigel, Joe Schuster and Superman, on this side it’s Frank Hampson and Dan Dare. In that sense, Hampson’s story is but an echo of what had already happened to Jerry and Joe when Eagle first appeared, but there are aspects to the story that are even worse in Hampson’s case.
Nobody disputes that Dan Dare was created by Frank Hampson. Despite the fact that he began as Chaplain, rather than Chief Pilot, to the UN Spacefleet, and one of his immediate precursors was Lex Christian, a co-creation of Marcus Morris, the Reverend disclaimed utterly any part in the Pilot of the Future.
Under British Copyright Law, copyright vests in the creator of an original piece of work from the moment it is created. At the time Hampson first put that distinctive twist on Dan’s eyebrows, that copyright attached to him for the duration of his life and 50 years from his death (that term was extended to life plus 75 years to protect Great Ormond Street Hospital, who are largely funded from James Barrie’s royalties from Peter Pan). The ownership of the copyright, which can be assigned, left by will, or sold, endures for the requisite term but once that expires, the creation falls into the public domain. Frank Hampson died in 1986: the rights to Dan Dare are currently held by the Dan Dare Corporation Ltd: Dan will go into the public domain in 2061, unless the game is badgered once again.
In order to get Hulton Press to publish Eagle and Dan Dare, the copyrights of all the art and stories that appeared in it were assigned to Hulton. I assume that a clause to this effect, in whatever express or general terms it may have been framed, was inserted in Hampson’s contract. Hampson never mentioned taking legal advice on that contract at any time before signing it: there is no evidence that Hulton Press suggested he do so in any way, shape or form. It’s doubtful that the thought ever seriously crossed his mind, and probable that he assumed he was free to do with his creation what he chose. After all, he had invented Dan Dare and his world: who could do it better?
For a long time it was not an actual issue. Hampson wrote and drew Dan Dare, he lived and breathed Dan Dare, he ran his studio and Hulton paid for his work and, in the context of the times, not ungenerously. At the same time, once Dan’s popularity was established, Hulton were bombarded with people wanting to market the hell out of the Pilot of the Future and, despite the boast that quality was assured, it was evident that Hulton’s only concern was in issuing licences that brought in money, and the quality of the item was not their business.
Of course, none of that money came to Hampson or his assistants, except, indirectly, in the form of their wages.
It didn’t bother Hampson at that time. He was working well for his employers, making them a profit, and he was full of ideas on how to extend the Dan Dare market in ways that would be creditable, and lucrative: into the American newspaper or comics market, into animation. His studio was the ideal set-up on which to build an expansion into these areas.
You’ll notice that Hampson’s ideas of expansion were always in regard of the story, the experience. He wasn’t thinking of more and better jigsaws, or playing cards, or toys. He was, after all, a creative person: these are the things that matter to them.
But Hulton weren’t at all responsive to Hampson’s ideas. They had no idea about the worlds of America cartooning, or film and animation, and even less interest in learning. They had no interest in anything that would require action, or attention, or thought on their part. Let the licensees take the strain, and Hulton the money. And their little publishing empire was starting to decline, Picture Post was no longer the all-conquering magazine it had been during the War.
As we’ve seen, a power struggle in Fleet Street amongst the five magazine publishing houses saw Hulton sell out to Odhams, who came in insistent on changes that would make Eagle and Dan Dare a cheaper, diminished prospect. Why did they do this? As I’ve previously said, it’s a combination between the natural human instinct to make changes and demonstrate why one is needed, and the universal inability of executives to understand, and therefore value, the creative mind.
As to Dan Dare, Odhams’ thinking was transparent. This strip is being produced by a studio of artists with extensive research materials. No other artist works this way, no other artist is this expensive. Where you and I immediately see the connection between the artistic approach and the head-and-shoulders superiority of the work, the executive cannot. All they see is the bottom line and the fact that it can be done more cheaply, like everybody else and that sells just as well, so what difference does it make?
After all, it’s Dan Dare that sells Dan Dare, not Frank Hampson.
Up to this point, Hampson had enjoyed almost a decade of work with minimal editorial influence. It was clear that, from the moment Odhams stepped in, this era was over. Change was demanded, change that Hampson could only see as being an insistence upon dumbing-down his work (the phrase was decades away from being invented, but Hampson would have recognised it in an instant).
That film rights had been granted, after all the years during which Hampson had pestered Hulton over such a progression, and that they had been granted away from him, and behind his back, was the final straw.
Once Frank Hampson left Dan Dare, he surrendered the only vestige of control that he enjoyed. The story at this point is ambiguous: did he leave intending a clean and final break, or did he take what amounted to a twelve-month sabbatical, intended to re-envision his approach to the series? Whatever the intention, Hampson’s departure was indeed final, and I am not aware of any stories of him attempting to return and being denied.
Had Hampson held the copyright in his creation, it would all have been a very different story. Copyright is ownership, and ownership is control. Frank Hampson surrendered this at the very outset, with no known word nor even apparent thought.
Could he have retained his copyright, or even a share in it? Legally, it was a free decision on his part. Morally, to someone such as I, it was an unassailable position. But practically? Given the structure of British publishing in that era, it is fair to say that there wasn’t a cat in Hell’s chance of Dan Dare or anything in Eagle appearing without that copyright being vested irrecoverably in Hulton Press’s hands.
There’s even an arguable practical case for saying that this was a correct approach. Eagle, like the entirety of boys’ and girl’s comics, was an anthology, a collection of varying strips and characters. How could you put together a viable title if you potentially had to negotiate with every single creator?
However, let us not overlook one salient fact, which is that, in its first year, Eagle would become the venue for the first ever English language publication of Tintin, the direct reproduction of weekly instalments of King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Hulton Press did not acquire any copyright from Herge, nor would they have even asked for the rights.
So if an accommodation could be made for Georges Remi, why could it not have been made for Frank Hampson?
Short and brutal answer: clout. Herge, a long-established continental artist-writer, massively popular, had it. A Southport Art College student didn’t. Dan Dare made Frank Hampson’s life what it was, for good and ill. It gave him an opportunity to realise his abilities to their full, and to earn a far greater living than his contemporaries could have enjoyed. That he didn’t own, or control his creation destroyed his life, shutting down his creative capability at a time when, in full command of his faculties, he could have gone on to create so many different characters, strips, series.
For an American reader, it was as if Jack Kirby, after burning his boats at DC in the late Fifties, had been driven out of comics altogether, instead of going to Martin Goodman’s ramshackle company consisting of Stan Lee, a desk and a couple of freelancers.
There is a new section in Tomorrow Revisited, which originally appeared on-line (and is still available here). After completing The Road of Courage, Hampson put together a variety of series proposals for Eagle. None emerged. But what impresses is the breadth and variety of these differing ideas, each with bags of potential.
I think that it is undeniable that if Frank Hampson had owned the rights to Dan Dare, and could have resisted Odhams’ demands in 1959, he would have had a considerably happier and more fulfilling life over the next quarter-century. And we, as an audience, would have been substantially better off for it.
Might Hampson have been able to challenge the loss of his creation legally, assuming he had access to the money needed to fund a legal action? Any such case would have to be founded upon the idea that Hampson did not have the contractual terms of Dan Dare’s acquisition explained to him, or perhaps that he was in some way denied proper legal advice before signing. Even then, given the tenor of the times, and the knowledge of the industry practice that publishers owned what they published, the chances of a successful action along these lines, without evidence of some form of corrupt practice that simply does not seem to exist, were minuscule, and would probably have been resolved in terms of damages, not copyright.
And in the event that Hampson might have been vindicated, the odds were that, as he had allowed Marcus Morris to negotiate on their behalf, any legal victory may well have been against his former friend, not Odhams.
And there is a counter-argument that, whilst being without moral authority, nevertheless has practical weight.
The one thing of which we can be certain is that, in the publishing world of Britain in 1949/50, to imagine that Frank Hampson – an art student backed by a Church of England Vicar – could have agreed a deal whereby he retained the copyright in an idea so different from anything else being published at that time, is a fantasy bigger than anything ever published.
The cruel truth is that Frank Hampson got a deal better than any he, with knowledge of the comics publishers of 1949, could ever have realistically expected. He was, in the industry’s terms, a complete amateur, yet he was made Art Director of a comic that operated outside all of the parameters of comics published up to that point. He was appointed by a company that, like him, were amateurs when it came to publishing comics, which meant that they were able to trust him and his radical ideas for improvement, and were prepared to support him with a budget far greater than any other publisher would have committed.
That doesn’t make the way he was treated any less forgiveable, though it should be admitted that Hultons, in the end, were guilty of nothing more than failing to live up to Hampson’s ambitions, and that it was the ‘professionals’, whom Hultons had kept Hampson from having to deal with, who destroyed him in the end.
I don’t go so far as Alistair Crompton in suggesting, in any way, that Hampson should have been grateful for the chance to discover his supreme talent, and to exercise himself to his furthest extent, but it is true that, but for Marcus Morris and Hulton, in that order, Hampson would have moved to London and become a supremely successful commercial artist. Dan Dare would never have been created, and with him the hundreds of characters that followed under his influence. The lives of thousands of readers would have taken different turns, even, perhaps to the extent that a young Stephen Hawking (if he wasn’t just joking) may have found a different interest for his intellect.
Can someone be truly happy never to discover the one thing he is supremely gifted at doing? How many of us are currently leading lives of that kind, not knowing ourselves? Dan Dare made Eagle, but Eagle also made Dan Dare. Without Hulton to publish an unlikely and unfamiliar project, so different from the comics industry, the creation of people who, whatever their level of genius, really were the amateurs Odhams accused them of being, was in itself a statement of faith. Hulton’s money gave Frank Hampson the opportunity to discover exactly what he was best at.
On grounds of sheer morality, as well as in the interests of aborting at source the many atrocities we’ve seen under Dan Dare’s name, I’d still go with Hampson holding the copyright. But it isn’t a simple black-or-white question.
In the end, it ruined a man’s life. That’s more important than the legacy he left, both in terms of what he achieved, and especially in what he might have achieved. The only person who can say whether Dan Dare was worth it had had no voice for thirty years. We can only mourn that so much grief came to him out of the talent he had.
According to Alastair Crompton in The Man Who Drew Tomorrow (which I still prefer to Tomorrow Revisited, though the latter is a more accurate volume), the downfall of Eagle and Frank Hampson began a long way away, in unrelated circumstances in Russia.
Magazine and periodical publication in Fleet Street was dominated by five houses at the start of 1958, of which Hulton Press was one. On the cryptic instructions of Mirror Group proprietor, Cecil King, Editorial Director Hugh Cudlipp approached the Berry family, who were on the spot, to buy out their controlling interest in Amalgamated Publishing, the largest of these houses.
The Berrys sold, thus changing the balance in Fleet Street publishing. Third place Odhams Press, anxious about their position, decided to fight back by going down the takeover route: their target was Hulton.
Only a short time before, it might have seen unthinkable. But Hultons had gone into a sharp decline, their magazine section losing sales across the board, only its comics division, headed by Marcus Morris, centred upon Eagle and its three red-top stable-mates, Girl, Swift and Robin showing consistent profits.
What had gone wrong? Sir Edward Hulton blamed it on television, on ITV’s arrival in 1956 to start an absorbing rivalry with the BBC that drew everybody away from magazines. His legendary Picture Post editor, Tom Hopkinson (the man who’d looked at Hampson’s home-created three dummy issues of Dragon and advised Hultons to sing up everyone involved and set them to work) argued it was bad editorial direction.
Either way, Sir Edward Hulton took the money, and Odhams Press took over Eagle.
They made it plain that they wanted changes, and moreover economies, and the first place where that should – and would – come from was Frank Hampson’s studio. It was large, it was expensive and no other artist needed anything that looked remotely like it. The fact that it produced Eagle‘s foremost series, and had done so for almost a decade, cut no ice with them.
Looked upon in retrospect, what happened was inevitable for so many reasons. Firstly, there was the sheer expense and, it has to be admitted, improbability of Hampson’s studio. Other artists didn’t need a fleet of assistants, nor reams of reference material to draw for Eagle, so why should Hampson be indulged? Especially, and we already know this to be a powerful motive, as more money was going into the Hampson studio every week than was going to the executives who ran Odhams.
It is a universal peculiarity of the Comics Industry in Britain and America that management just cannot understand the role of the artist and writer in creating a commercially successful product. It’s a blindness that can only stem from a massive sense of internalised inferiority, a jealousy of the presence of imagination in creative people, and a need to denigrate what they produce as being fanciful and unreliable, as opposed to the executive’s consistency and ‘practicality’. Like the Hulton Board in early 1957, when Frank Hampson had tendered his short-lived resignation, they genuinely could not see what made Dan Dare the success it was, and genuinely thought it could be done to the same effect by someone cheaper.
And this effect was exacerbated by Odhams status as ‘professional’ comics publishers. Hulton had had no comics division before the Reverend Marcus Morris turned up with Frank Hampson’s dummies, and neither Morris nor Hampson had any presence in the industry before coming out of nowhere. They were amateurs in Odhams’ eyes, and a decade of success was no corrective to that belief: Morris and Hampson had been lucky.
And they’d achieved this ‘lucky’ success by going against all the ‘correct’ ways to publish comics. Now Odhams were going to come in to show them how to do it right. Anyway, Eagle was dull and unconvincing, and Dan Dare was cardboard, and it was a good job they were there to save the day, before the kids spotted it for themselves (Morris and Hampson had been getting away with it to the tune of 750,000 copies a week for nine years, the readers were bound to twig any day now).
All of which is supplementary to the normal, human instinct to meddle, to change for the sake of change. After all, what point is there, and what use are you, if on taking over a successful venture, you don’t put your own stamp on it? Let it run as it was, and why are you there in the first place?
Let us now forget…
Frank Hampson had always run up against Hulton Press’s lack of ambition when it came to the ways that Dan Dare could have been exploited, both artistically and commercially. In this last year, believing that Eagle was secure in Hulton’s hands, Morris had agreed a number of points that would go some way to addressing Hampson’s concerns, chief amongst these three months paid leave, including a paid-for two month trip to America, to meet with his contemporaries and discuss approaches to that American market.
But these were not in writing, and they were the first things dispensed with by Odhams, who made it plain that they would not tolerate such things in the slightest. Not only Hampson suffered in that respect: Morris’s unlimited expense account vanished as well!
The Reverend would be alright. Within a few weeks of the takeover, already aware that he was not going to be left alone to edit his stable as he had been, Marcus Morris received and accepted another publishing post, one far more to his tastes, and one which would see him rise to the very top of publishing before taken a well-earned, highly-respected retirement.
Hampson still believed in the future of Dan Dare, but found Odhams no more receptive than Hultons had been before them. Change had been demanded of him, and he had lost his one great ally. Safari in Space had gone well, Terra Nova showed signs of continuing the high quality of his work. By dint of his ability, he might be able to hold off interference for some time, though it would mean stress and argument and even less time for his work.
But Odhams were less blind to the possibility of expansion than they seemed. Hultons had licensed Dan Dare to the hilt, and Odhams were very willing to let this continue, especially when they were approached for an option to turn the Pilot of the Future into a film. They signed away the rights and took the money, and said not a word to Frank Hampson. Who found out.
It was a devastating blow. Here was Dan Dare, Hampson’s creation, Britain’s most popular comic book hero, that he had tried, for exhausting years, to expand in so many different ways., and suddenly, in a back-handed manner, he learned that his employers had sold the right to one of those proposals to other people. There would be no money in it for him, no recognition for what he had done, but worst of all there would be no part for him to play.
The avenue of film had been cut off, and Frank Hampson would be barred from helping to shape what appeared. The Licensees could do what they liked with his creation and he could not stop it. They could twist it round in any respect they wanted to, make Peabody a sexy blonde with a cleavage, make the Mekon a muscleman or give Digby a Cockney accent, they could fix these ideas in the public mind, supplant the reality of Dan and his Universe, and he was powerless to stop it.
There is another factor that has not, to my knowledge, previously been put forward as contributory to this situation, and I have no knowledge as to whether or not this played the slightest part in Hampson’s thinking, but it was contemporaneous to this time and should be mentioned here, and this was the death of Alan Stranks, of a heart attack whilst holidaying in Spain, on June 18.
Though Hampson had always had the final say, and he had exercised that say numerous times in creating each week’s continuity, Stranks had been Dan Dare’s writer for the past half-decade: experienced, professional, reliable, Hampson’s longest lasting collaborator on that front. His death occurred just two days before the final issue of Eagle to see print before the printer’s strike and he would certainly have written those two in-house episodes that would represent Frank Hampson’s final pages.
I have no idea how Stranks’ death places in the chronology of those days, and it is pure speculation to wonder if his collaborator’s death, and the prospect of getting a new scripter imposed on him by Odhams affected his decision but, battered and bruised from his experiences, Hampson took the decision that if he could not control Dan Dare, he would rather have nothing to do with the character, he would resign completely from the series.
Odhams were fortunate that this took place during a hiatus in which Eagle was not appearing: they were not required to come up with a completely new creative team at the snap of a finger. The simple answer, the obvious and just one given that he was officially “the second best Dan Dare artist in the World” was Don Harley, but Don didn’t get the job. Hampson was consulted on the issue of his successor and, surprisingly, was in accord with Odhams’ wish that a new artist be cast.
Odhams were looking for changes and this was their golden opportunity. They wanted someone from the outside, not trained by Hampson, not steeped in the traditions of the series, who would make those changes freely and without argument. Harley would have resisted change, or at least Odhams expected him to do so, so he was out, though not completely. And Hampson? A little vaingloriously but, in the context of his experiences, completely understandably, if he was leaving, he wanted to be seen as having left, and Don Harley, his artistic shadow, would not make the visual difference that would emphasize that Dan Dare was no longer under his creator’s hands.
The choice fell on Northampton’s Frank Bellamy, perhaps the only choice that could have been made. Bellamy was an Eagle veteran, and before that a regular on the comic’s younger brother, Swift. His dynamic, hyper-realistic art, his mastery of colour, the sheer energy that poured out of his pages made him the only possible choice. He had specialised in real-life biographies, Eagle‘s back page, and he was the first Eagle artist to be anthologised when his 56 part The Happy Warrior, the career of Winston Churchill, was collected in a special edition.
But the influence of Frank Hampson could not be cast off that easily. Hampson’s maxim as Art Director of Eagle still held: no artist should be required to draw more that one page of colour art per week. Bellamy accepted a contract to draw Dan Dare for a year, with a promise that he would get to draw a strip based in Africa (his lifelong obsession) at the end of it. But he should not draw both pages every week.
For the other page, it was decided that a semblance of Hampson’s studio should be retained, Don Harley and Keith Watson. The reference materials were broken up and destroyed except what Harley and Watson could carry away with them on one trip. And their ‘studio’ was to be a disused canteen in Odhams’ main building.
Despite his professional obligation to giving the client what they want, Bellamy was unhappy about changing the look of Dan Dare, about trampling on a colleague’s work. Nor did he see the need for assistants. This was nothing personal: the three artists met once a week to hand in their two pages, receive and parcel out the next script and retire to the pub for a welcome conversation. Bellamy, as the senior artist, got to dole out the pages as he saw fit. Pages that introduced new characters were his responsibility, and sometimes he’d draw both pages himself, to be balanced out by a pair of pages from the assistants.
Watson didn’t last long. Sick and disgusted at what was being done to Dan Dare, he wrote to Hampson asking him to use his influence to get something done about it. But Hampson had neither influence nor the desire to use it if he had. Watson went to new editor Clifford Makins and tendered his resignation, only to be told that it was a good job as he would have been fired shortly, anyway.
Keith Watson doesn’t disappear from Dan Dare‘s story, unlike Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. Ironically enough, he was replaced by Bruce Cornwell, yet again, who undertook the technical art behind Don Harley’s figure work. And, to replace Alan Stranks, Eric Eden returned again – the only period he and Cornwell worked together instead of as alternatives! – taking over writing the strip.
So it’s now time to go back to Terra Nova, where Dan Dare, Digby and Sir Hubert have been kept in suspense, captured by a primitive tribe of Novad natives, and see what happens next…
It was evident from the opening weeks of The Phantom Fleet that Frank Hampson was devoting less time to drawing Dan Dare than he had in the past, periods of illness aside.
Hampson is clearly in place for the opening page: his personal style is still easy to distinguish from the members of his team. But thereafter, as evidence by the absence of his signature week after week, it is Don Harley and new recruits Keith Watson and Gerald Palmer who do most, if not all of the drawing.
From the outset of Eagle, Frank Hampson was ambitious for his creation. He had set up an unprecedented, and at times unwieldy studio system, to produce a Rolls Royce of a strip, driving through a junkyard of rusting bicycles, and it had been an unbelievable success.
But that was not enough. Much of what Hampson brought to Dan Dare, his approach to visual story-telling in a country that had never begun to think of what this meant, had been heavily influenced by American artists, the giants of the newspaper strips in the Thirties, who had developed the adventure serial to a height that is has rarely equaled since.
Hampson wanted to be part of that market. He wanted to meet his contemporaries, learn what governed their markets, develop a version of Dan Dare that would meet their requirements and appreciation. He also wanted to take Dan’s adventures off the page, to develop them into films, animations for which his existing studio system was the ideal basis, artists working under him who had learned his style, his philosophy, his approach.
To do this, Hampson would need time, time that would be denied him if he had to devote the hours he had to date on the day-to-day preparation of Dan’s two weekly pages. So he wanted to step back, to remove himself from the physical aspects of the strip, leave the work to the men (and women) he had trained, and whom he could trust to execute his vision. He wanted to develop that vision, devise better, bigger, more exciting stories for the Pilot of the Future. He needed time to think.
But in order to develop even a fraction of this, Hampson needed something even more crucial. He needed help. He needed allies. He needed people in positions of authority to recognise the possibilities inherent in his ambitions and who would be prepared to back him in the effort to achieve these.
He did not have allies. He did not have men of vision. Instead, he had men who were running a publishing empire that was in slow but steady decline, who were trying to manage that decline, who did not have ideas that might have reversed it. He had men who had no idea, no comprehension of the things that Hampson aspired to, and no interest in learning.
Eagle made good money, money that supported the loss of profits elsewhere at Hulton Press. The greatest factor in Eagle’s success was still Dan Dare. And it was a damned expensive strip to produce, thanks to Hampson’s absurd studio system, a studio that received more in salary than Hulton’s executives who, like almost every executive to work in the comics industry anywhere at any time, could not comprehend that it was the creative elements on whom such success was built, not them.
Hampson’s frustrations built, so much so that, in 1957, early in the production of Reign of the Robots, he tendered his resignation. And Hulton accepted it.
Seriously, they did. They took a cold hard look at the cost of Hampson’s studio, and decided that they could continue the series much more cheaply, and to much the same effect (or so they thought) without Hampson. Fortunately, in the time it took them to come to this decision, and before they could organise a letter accepting Hampson’s resignation, he wrote to withdraw it. So the series continued, but the first crack had appeared.
A second crack would come in the form of an offer by Mirror Group Publishing for Frank Hampson’s services, to develop a brand new comic, Bulldog, along lines to be devised by him, at a salary double that which he received from Hulton for Eagle. This would raise Hampson’s income to an astonishing £7,000@, an unbelievable figure for the Fifties, and one that was certainly far higher than the executives of Mirror Group Publishing.
Hampson thought long and hard but, in the end, declined the offer. Bulldog, which had been devised as a vehicle for Hampson, collapsed and never appeared. One of Hampson’s reasons for declining was a loyalty towards Eagle that seems unthinkable these days, but which was very much in keeping with the attitudes of the fifties, where jobs were meant to be jobs for life, and loyalty to one’s employers was deeply ingrained, along with a concern for ones pension rights.
But there was another, perhaps more fundamental difference. Hampson wanted to withdraw from drawing. He wanted to create, devise, direct and plan series. But at that price, Mirror Group wanted Frank Hampson’s pencils and inks. So the deal fell through.
But this development was yet to come, and would arise under very different circumstances to those in which Hampson found himself in early 1958. The timing is wrong to suggest that this lay behind Hampson’s distancing of himself from much of The Phantom Fleet‘s art in its first half. No doubt he was still working on plans destined never to see fruition, and it’s certainly arguable that the doubts about the story might not have risen had Hampson been giving his daily attention to the story: Stranks may have been scripter, but only within the limits of Hampson’s overall control.
All was not well between Frank Hampson and Hulton Press. And far off, unseen by the artist and his team, and indeed Eagle‘s editor, Marcus Morris, distant forces were gathering whose moves would soon impact on Eagle, Dan Dare and Frank Hampson.
And not for the better.
By now, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll have worked out that I’ve been into comics for a long time, and that I’ve got a fair few things collected. These include the complete 12 book Hawk Books ‘facsimile edition’ Dan Dare, but whilst Hawk Books were complete, their Dan Dare wasn’t, with several stories left out. By one means or another, I’ve got those covered too, don’t worry.
I’ve even been lucky enough to get my hands on a complete set of the Heros the Spartan stories drawn by the superb Frank Bellamy, not to mention other collections of Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art – including an original 1950s compilation of The Happy Warrior, the life story of Winston Churchill. And I wouldn’t do without these.
But sometimes there’s nothing to match the pure nostalgia of going back to the originals, to those massed piles of weekly comics that, once upon a time, were awaited eagerly, their publication day a touchstone of a small boy’s week: if it’s Wednesday, that means Eagle, and I’m going to be off in my own little world, or in reality several little worlds, as by a page, or two, half a dozen stories resolve cliffhangers, risks and dangers, half a page cartoon strips give me a giggle, and then it’s seven days of waiting and wondering over again over a new set of cliffhangers, risks and dangers.
The comics came in, and in the end they went out, off to the children’s hospital for boys and girls who were ill and in need of entertainment to have their turn. I never expected to read them again, but then I didn’t know I was going to be one of those who never lose their enthusiasm for words and pictures in combination, for the serialised adventure, for imagination and danger and the marvellous.
For various reasons, it’s been a long time, a very long time, since I last added to my collection of old Eagles. I did brilliantly in the Nineties, largely through The Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield, just outside Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s home, and I have a story about that very first visit that you can read here, but even before money became a premium issue, the source seemed to dry up.
On the other hand, there’s always eBay, and on impulse I did a search the other week and found a seller with seven lots to sell, each four or five issues, Volume 11, nos 1-34 in total, complete. With a starting price of 99p a time, and the prospect of combined postage, not to mention a decent bonus for once, this month, I entered the fray, winning four of the five I was after. The parcel arrived this afternoon, and I’ve spent the evening reading my nineteen purchases. As they were meant to be, one issue at a time.
Volume 11 was 1962. It’s an odd year in Eagle’s history, insofar as my personal recollections are concerned. The glory days of the Fifties were over, those long years of the unchanging Dan Dare/PC49/Riders of the Range/Luck of the Legion/Jack O’Lantern/Harris Tweed/Storm Nelson and the Silver Fleet/The Three J’s: the Hulton decade in all its glory. This I knew from months of research into the bound Eagles, Volumes 1 – 10, in Central Ref.
Nor is it the Eagle that was to be, that I discovered towards the end of 1963 and began getting weekly from New Year, the years of Dan Dare/Heros the Spartan/Blackbow the Cheyenne/Mann of Battle/Cornelius Dimworthy/Horizon Unlimited.
No, this was an inbetween year. Not only had Hultons gone, but so too had Odhams. Longacre Press were now the publishers, and they were determined to complete Odhams job of killing off the Eagle of the glory. They’d gone, all of them gone, the classics, even the still-hard-to-believe latecomer, Knights of the Road, about a pair of lorry-drivers. No, Longacre wanted so badly to stamp their authority on ‘their’ Eagle, that they had thrown-out almost everything on their takeover. And by everything, I mean everything.
Only two strips survived the transition. One of these was obviously Dan Dare, but Longacre wanted the strip dead: off the cover, out of colour, other things that I’ll go into more detail about when I get to the Dan Dare stories of that era. The only other survivor was The Wanderers, Eagle‘s first ever venture into a sports strip, the newest feature in the comic: it was never going to be one of the top notch football strips.
What then has been the order of my reading? With Dan banished inside, Longacre used the cover for teasers for what was inside, three panels hinting at three features. Suddenly, Eagle had gone big on adaptations: Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and the Lost World in colour, Max Brand’s Vengeance Trail, a Western, in black and white. A page of The Wanderers, two of Dan Dare, with Keith Watson newly hired. There was a surprisingly moving one page strip, Only theBrave, that each week presented a different hero, a real-life person who had acted bravely in one circumstance or another, winning themselves the George Cross. These were quiet, undramatic retellings of the ordinary, everyday, courage and dedication these people had shown in saving others lives, or confronting injury or death.
The centrespread was given over to Frank Bellamy’s magnificent Montgomery of Alamein, another real-life story, told with drama, dynamics and incredibly powerful art, and when that was done it was yet another adaptation, this time of the early Hornblower novels.
Dan’s big rival now was Sergeant Bruce, C.I.D., a police series. I was to know it well later on as Can you catch a Crook?, when the hook was that we were told Bruce had seen certain clues in certain panels, and challenged to spot what he had seen. The series was being drawn by Paul Trevillion by that point (though in the mid-Sixties, when the object was to do it even cheaper, Trevillion was alternated with a spanish artist whose clash of styles was quite unbelievable.)
Here, the peg was that Dave Bruce had been transferred up from London to the Midlands industrial city of Manningham, and been given the promotion to Detective Sergeant that had previously been ear-marked for local boy Detective Constable Bill Prior. Everybody on the force, including Inspector Wade, resented Bruce, except for Prior himself, so he was always under pressure.
And then there was Beau Fortune. By rights, this should have been a silly mess, the weekly prose story, but it works better than it deserves to from clichéd material. Beau Fortune is a pre-Regency dandy (the series is set mostly in 1805 but could drift around carelessly, episodes taking place in 1803 and 1814 for no apparent reason), an effete fop interested only in clothes. But, known only to his loyal valet Robinson, Fortune is also the mysterious Masked Rider, strong, brave, known throughout the underworld, wanted by the Bow Street Runners but, in reality, a writer of wrongs.
Then there was the half page stuff. Throughout my night’s reading there was Fidosaurus, the Prehistoric Poodle, not to mention the occasional XYZ Cars – Calling ‘U for Useless’, which I probably found funny when I was that age, though why I’ll never understand now. There were even a few left-over Harris Tweed half-pagers, some colour, some black and white, though the once-and-former ‘Extra Special Agent’ is now being demeaningly dubbed ‘Super Chump’.
I can’t let things go without mention of a couple of adverts. One was ‘Mr Therm’, a half-page ad for, well, it’s difficult to say. It’s all about different types of technology, with no linking theme, nor commercial aspect, and it’s done for the Gas Counsel to promote their services, but for this target audience? Sheesh.
But the final biscuit has to be taken by the debut of an advert series that would run for years: Bobbity, Babs & Buster, The Barrett’s Troubleshooters. These half-page cartoons starred a small boy, and even smaller girl and a dog of indeterminate breed who, every week, would start by watching a different type of TV programme only to discover that their favourite (insert blank here) was in trouble, Rapidly kitting themselves out in what gear was appropriate to this week’s genre, our intrepid trio would come through the TV screen to the rescue, which invariably involve Bobbity freeing the TV hero whilst Babs created a diversion by some imaginative use of a Barratt’s liquorice sweet, whilst Buster went ‘Woof!’, after which the TV hero would take them to the nearest sweet shop where they pigged themselves out on even more Barratt’s sweets.
How did I grow up to be both intelligent and sane?
Actually, it’s not the story, it’s the art, which is so awkward and clunky that I could produce something better, and given that Eagle invented the idea of making its adverts into cartoons to fit the comic, AND started off with Frank Hampson himself drawing the Tommy Walls page, this kind of stuff is terribly shabby.
So no, it’s not been one of Eagle‘s great years or even one of my years, but it’s been an evening somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore, and now I think I’ll go downstairs for a while and ask Mummy if I can have a cup of Jusoda before I go to bed, and sit on Daddy’s lap for five minutes, and maybe if the wind’s in the right direction I can hear him, faintly, call me ‘Champ’ one time again…
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.
For the first eight months of the series, Frank Hampson and his team produced Dan Dare in the constricted confines of the Bakehouse in Southport. Eagle’s editor, the Reverend Marcus Morris, continued to hold his living at Ainsdale, and to conduct services as often as his editorial duties made possible.
But Eagle‘s circulation, settling in at around three quarters of a million copies every week, made it of great importance to Hulton Press, and thus made its editor’s availability in London a thing of importance to them. And given that Dan Dare was the most important element of Eagle, and the amount of money being invested weekly into Frank Hampson and his unique studio, it was of equal importance to bring the whole studio much closer to home.
The destination was Epsom, in Surrey, home to the Derby and only twenty miles outside of London. The Morrises moved into a spacious house, The Firs, as a home, and the Hampson studio moved in right after them, bringing the entire team, and the already burgeoning reference materials that Hampson accumulated, fundamental to the consistency and realism of the art, into a private home.
It was not an easy mix. Remember too that Hampson’s approach to the strip involved two days a week of shooting and developing multiple photographs as each panel of the colour rough was staged, with multiple photos frequently required for a single scene, as each element of the same might need to be separately defined.
Add to this that the studio still consisted of half a dozen people, working the same extremely long, unsociable hours, and making cups of tea in the family kitchen all the time and it was a recipe for conflict. Hampson’s assistants did not live at the Firs, but they still spent far more time there than they did at their scattered lodgings.
And the move to Epsom brought in another member of the studio in Don Harley. Harley was at College locally, and had trained under Sir Stanley Spencer, but he had been immensely impressed by Hampson and his work, and when he qualified, he approached Hampson and was taken on board. Within a few years, Hampson would be describing him as ‘the second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, and would be co-signing Harley’s name, together with his own, to the Dan Dare series.
As one man entered, another departed (not literally). The pace was punishing, so much so that Hampson fell ill during the last month of ‘The Venus Story’ and was forced to take four weeks off. Everyone was exhausted. Don Harley would leave at tea-time to go home and eat, but rarely escaped without Hampson catching him and seeking reassurances that Harley would be back: not tomorrow, but later that evening. Sometimes there were telegrams, asking why he wasn’t back yet.
Everyone was unhappy, and Eric Eden voiced the team’s concerns to Hampson. Was this punishing schedule really necessary. Were the hours not too much? Hampson was angered. Eden was his friend from Southport Art College. He’d come aboard to replace Bruce Cornwell, had moved to the other end of the country. But this was unacceptable, was insurrection. Was he the ringleader for a mass rebellion? Eden was sacked, abruptly.
His replacement was, ironically, Bruce Cornwell. Cornwell lived nearby in Ruislip and was persuaded to return on promises that things had changed, that the workload wasn’t as insane as before. It was. Cornwell moved on again.
And there were other departures, but by then the studio had moved again. It really wasn’t a good fit in the Firs. Morris’s wife, the actress Jessica Fanning, was very unhappy at having all these artists hanging around her house. They were, after all, mere employees, underlings, lucky to have a job but insufficiently grateful to her husband for that.
Hultons bit the bullet. They bought Bayford Lodge, also in Epsom, as a home for the Hampsons and a studio for the strip and the team. Here the Hampson studio would stay for the emainder of Frank Hampson’s tenure on his creation. But it still would not be entirely peaceful.
The first Dan Dare story has no official name. In view of its subject, it’s usually referred to as ‘The Venus Story’ or ‘Voyage to Venus’, the title applied to the last round of reprint editions, published by Titan. It’s by a substantial margin the longest story, running to 77 weeks, a week short of eighteen months. The boy who started reading this story in the week of his seventh birthday was nearly halfway towards his ninth before he finished it, an almost incredible example of retaining attention.
The Venus Story has first to set-up Dan Dare and his cast of regular supporting characters and, more importantly, the world in which they lived. Though Hampson had no prior experience of building a story, or a world, he managed all of this with an instinctive skill, and an eye for building in exposition without ever nearing the shores of the miserable ‘As you know’.
Part of Hampson’s success was in his canny construction of a story that, whilst set in a future that was close enough for each reader to imagine himself growing into, was also keyed to their current experience. Dan is the Pilot of the Future, immediately linking him to the dashing RAF pilots of the recent War, heroes to small boys. And his task is to eliminate Food rationing, an issue that still plagued Britain five years after the end of the War, not being abolished until 1951. The theme joined dismal present to colourful future, a future that Hampson crammed dozens of fantastic futuristic devices into: fantastic but utterly plausible and realistic.
I’ve already described the first week’s set-up. In addition to that, Hampson announced that ‘Kingfisher’s flight to Venus, via this future’s dominant technology, Impulse Wave Engines, would take seven days, automatically drawing its audience back for week 2 when, that dull and mundane week of waiting done, they could find out what happened when Kingfisher reached the clouded planet.
What happened was another disaster. To the frustration of a control tower that could do nothing, Kingfisher is consumed in a space explosion exactly as its predecessors were, and Sir Hubert and Colonel Dare must fly immediately to a World Cabinet meeting, at which the Controller will report, and the Chief Pilot will give his quick-witted (and of course correct) theory of what is happening and how it can be overcome.
Which is that Venus is shielded by a barrier that causes explosions in Impulse Wave Engines, which can be by-passed by approaching in old style Chemical Motor Rockets (i.e., our own technology).
Dan’s theory is accepted, a fourth expedition is ordered, and this time Dan Dare has his way: it will be under his command. He won’t be left out any longer.
This, after three weeks continuity, will give Hampson the chance to introduce the rest of his cast, as they assemble to crew under Colonel Dare, but before we meet the men (and woman) who will be regulars in the strip for the next decade, we must pause to examine that one essential cast member, the other ranks Spaceman who will be the most loyal and most consistent member of the team for the entirety of the run, Spaceman First Class Albert Fitzwilliam Digby, of Wigan.
The faithful Digby, Dan’s batman (i.e., personal servant). Short where Dan is tall, prematurely white-haired (with a quiff) where Dan has smooth, well-brushed brown hair, tubby where Dan is slim, Dig is the physical opposite of his Colonel just as he is the other pole in the series.
Before long, Hampson would break down his two principal characters into an easy, aphoristic line: “Dan Dare was the man I dreamed of being, Digby the man I was afraid I was.”
It’s easy to take such a jokey approach to Digby: after all, he was the comic relief character, the constant companion to whom everything had to be explained, benefiting the audience. He was Other Ranks, he came from Wigan, with the appropriate accent and language, he was concerned with his comfort, he was rotund (almost to the extent that you wondered about the Health Requirements for Spacefleet). But Digby was brave, and he was loyal, and he never let anyone, especially ‘his’ Colonel down.
Well, perhaps that’s not wholly true. Digby was married, and the father of four, with his wife and children back at home in Wigan, but despite his longing for familiar surroundings (only slightly less pronounced than his desire for a plate of fish’n’chips), the one place we would never see Albert Fitzwilliam was Wigan, with his family. Whether or not he took leave was never revealed: certainly, every time Dan is on leave, Dig is by his side, brewing up and looking after his clothes. And on those rare occasions that Digby received awards for his bravery, it would not be his wife who came to the ceremony but his spinster Aunt Anastasia, who had brought up the orphaned Albert from a very early age and retained no high opinion of him.
As adults, we can perhaps wonder about this: even if Hampson would have been minded to address the Digby marriage in the series, Morris as Editor and Vicar would certainly not have allowed any reference to marital discord, so perhaps we are on safest ground in assuming that the Digbys’ relationship was like that of so many happy marriages of the Twentieth Century and before, and founded on never seeing each other! We can at least be sure that Digby made over enough of his pay for Housekeeping!
But the next member of the cast that would dominate the early years of the series had already been introduced before Dig. Sir Hubert Gascoigne Guest, Controller of Spacefleet, was a veteran of space travel (Guest had been part of the expedition that made the first Moon landing in 1965, and was the third man to walk on the Moon). A crusty, old-fashioned Commander, Sir Hubert was a father figure to Dan, a man he clearly regarded with a paternal eye, though not one unfocused in its adherence to rank and order. It would be many years before we heard about Dan’s actual father, though Hampson had composed a biography of his hero – of each of his characters – that underpinned their on-panel solidarity whether such details were ever mentioned or not.
Sir Hubert may have been as a stern, strict father to Dan Dare but to the boys who read Dan’s adventures, he would have been seen as a grandfatherly presence. As I’ve already mentioned, given that he was born the same year as the first generation of Eagle readers, Sir Hubert was their promise of an exciting future.
He also stood more firmly on the ground than any other character, for Frank Hampson sought the only father figure he knew, former Detective Inspector Robert Hampson of the Southport Police, and tremendously popular and supportive figure in the Dan Dare Studio (or the Bakery, as it was in real life). Frank simply drew his own father, to a level that is almost frightening in its accuracy. I was fortunate enough to see a Granada TV documentary on Dan Dare that included film of an interview with Hampson in the Fifties, seen drawing at his table with Robert, in his Hubert Guest uniform, overlooking his shoulder. It is disturbing to see Sir Hubert walking around, off the page: very disturbing.
Hampson completed his cast in the fourth week of the story, jumping ahead three months. Spacefleet Construction Branch had knocked itself out, completing three two-seater scout ships with old-fashioned chemical rocket motors. These would be transported to Venus orbit, outside the presumed Barrier zone, where Dare’s expedition would then launch and try to penetrate the Barrier.
Three times two made six: Dan and Digby counted as two of these, and Sir Hubert, despite being over the age for active service, insisted on forming a member of the party: as a veteran of the early days of spaceflight, he wasn’t going to miss this nostalgic chance.
This still left three. Two were accounted for quickly. Dan had arranged for two of Spacefleet’s most-accomplished pilots, and his two closest service friends, to be assigned to the mission. Pilot Captains Pierre Lafayette and Henry Brennan “Hank” Hogan emphasised the international element of the future, of the World Government. Borders may have been abolished, but Pierre and Hank were as distinctively French and American as their names suggested, the one with his slightly tubby appearance and his little Gallic moustache, the other a Texan with an exuberant disdain for authority, and little wire-rimmed glasses: features that would easily identify who was who in the plentiful scenes in spacesuits.
Hank and Pierre would be mainstays of the series for the first five years, missing only from Marooned on Mercury. They were easy-going, reliable lieutenants, cheerfully insulting each other along the way, and occasionally causing accidents. But Hank and Pierre’s main weakness was that they were only lieutenants: they lacked the initiative to take independent action when they were removed from their commander, as we would see later in The Venus Story.
But Hank and Pierre would be overlooked for the first two parts of the classic Man from Nowhere trilogy, only to disappear again immediately after its conclusion, appearing only in one final adventure together in the early Sixties.
There was one more almost indispensable member of the series, the last to be introduced in those early weeks, and the most usual of all in the context of a boy’s comic. Professor Peabody was a Botanist, directed to the mission by the World Government to carry out the necessary tests to determine if food for Earth could be grown in Venusian soils.
But the Professor was not the ancient greybeard that the team expected. The Professor turned out to be a capable, cool, slim red-headed young woman in her late twenties, Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody. And she was an attractive young woman to boot, though not portrayed as a knock-out of any kind (as Robert Hampson modelled Sir Hubert, the Professor’s template was the studio’s youngest member, Greta Tomlinson).
A woman in a boy’s comic! And not just a woman but an independent highly-qualified woman who was determined to look out for herself and perfectly capable of so doing. In all the ways Dan Dare and Eagle broke with convention, in the early Fifties, Miss Peabody was probably the most radical. Jocelyn was a feminist almost twenty years before feminism began.
Of course she would still need rescuing, from time to time. And once, but only once, she was left crying. But the Professor, despite the chauvinistic response of Sir Hubert, was part of the team, and she would be so for most of the rest of the decade.
There was one team member that Hampson was not allowed to introduce. To emphasise the utopian nature of the series, that the recent War had led towards the inexorable development of a United Planet under a World Government, Hampson wanted to include Boris, a Russian, among Dan’s team. Sadly, with Germany partitioned, with Stalin still in charge, with the Iron Curtain settling across Europe, that was a step Hultons were not prepared to accept, not in a comic directed primarily at seven year old boys, who might think the Russians and the Communists were not dire enemies forever.
And so the adventure begins. ‘Ranger’ conveys the team to Venus orbit, and the expedition prepares for Venus-fall.
The team split themselves up naturally: Dan and Dig in ship 1, Hank and Pierre in ship 2 and the odd couple, Sir Hubert and the Professor in ship 3. How else it could have been done was irrelevant: Sir Hubert insisted on accompanying the Professor, in order to keep an eye on the clearly unreliable female.
So Dan and Dig made the first approach, proving Dan’s theory. However, by a clearly understandable design oversight, the ships had been provided with standard issue Impulse wave radios. This blew, cutting off communications and forcing a crash-landing on Venus, in a tropical belt of strange and wonderful vegetation, waters and fauna.
This, as much as the story itself, is what Frank Hampson excelled at, and was what made Dan Dare so memorable over so many years. Hampson imagined into being, in an utterly convincing manner, the surface of an alien planet. Not so alien that it was utterly unrecognisable, without logic, but coherent: a wonderland for the reader’s imagination, which after reading the story would return to sink into the landscape and explore, in their mind, what lay out of sight in the panel.
Meanwhile, Dan and Digby were marooned, unable to escape or even earn their team-mates about the risk. All they could do was set off towards the planned rendezvous point at the equator.
Back in space, it is the logical Pierre who divines the reason behind Dan’s radio silence and, after the radios are removed back on ‘Ranger’, he and Hank set off from the second attempt. But when Sir Hubert announces his intention, should they fail, to return the Professor to the ship and proceed alone, Miss Peabody, who is a fully qualified space pilot and is at the controls, defies orders and sends no 3 ship in pursuit.
We leave them for now and return to Dan and Dig on the Venus surface. The air, it appears, is breathable, though their suits’ atmosphere testers don’t agree. But their first encounters with Venusian life are imminent.
First they are captured by blue-skinned primitives, human in shape save for their thick red hair and a pronounced bump on their forehead. These primitives take then to a base controlled by a technologically superior race, green-skinned, hairless, seven foot tall dressed in near identical costumes.
These are the Treens, the dominant life-form of the northern hemisphere of Venus, cold, calculating, scientific, of lizard-like descent. In due course, the Treens will be found to be led by their Chief Scientist, the Mekon.
The ever-present threat
The blue-skinned people are the Treens’ slaves. They are Atlanteans, descendents of slaves stolen from Earth a millennium ago, by the Treens, whose depredations led to the destruction of the great land barrier that preserved the vast inland valley where Atlantis lay, and which is now the Mediterranean Sea. There is a third race on Venus, but we are not destined to meet them just yet.
Dan and Dig are taken to the Treen capital, Mekonta, the first chance Hampson had to draw a full-page spread, sixteen weeks into Eagle and the series’ life. It is Mekonta, a fantastic yet logical creation, set in an artificial lagoon of multi-coloured water. It is a page that can be studied forever.
In the city, they learn that they will be subjected to scientific experiment. The Treens apparently know a great deal about Earth, and have plans to invade and take over the planet in order to scientifically rationalise it and its population. Furthermore, Dan and Dig are shown a broadcast of the other two ships of their expedition.
This is where the one significant failing of this story first appears. It’s at least heavily implied that what Dan and Dig see is happening live, yet their own experiences and journeys have taken the equivalent of a couple of Earth days, and no such lapse in time could possibly have happened to the other four members of the team. It could be that the Treen scientist is only showing a recording of what has already happened, but if this is so, it’s certainly not made in any way clear, and as the issue of time on the Venusian surface against time in space and on Earth will continue to be completely at odds, this is not an explanation I am prepared to accept.
It appears that Venus’s Equator is surrounded by a ferocious flame-belt, separating the hemispheres completely, and the expedition’s rendezvous point is right in the flamebelt. Pierre and Hank manage to force their craft out of its dive and soar away, trailing smoke, into the southern hemisphere – which the Treens dismiss as lost – which the Professor’s piloting gets her and Sir Hubert down in one piece, but with no hope of lift-off or escape.
Dan’s pleas to be allowed to go to his friends’ help fall on deaf ears until he cleverly intimates that more experimentation – including vivisection – would be possible with four subjects, one of them female. He and Digby are sent out with a Treen pilot to rescue Sir Hubert and Miss Peabody.
That they are sent with a single Treen is either a subtle expression of a Treen overwhelming superiority complex, or else a convenient device for ensuring Dan and Dig don’t have to do anything improbable to take over the craft – or indeed, possibly both. The Treen is Sondar, who is to become the first ‘good’ Treen, though no explanation will really ever be given for his turning out to believe in Earth’s democratic ideals.
It’s an interesting defection. There is nothing – physically or intellectually – to distinguish Sondar from any other Treen. The only thing that seems to differentiate Sondar from his fellows is that he reacts with anger to being attacked by Dan, and fear when the craft is threatened with the Silicon mass that inhabits the Flamebelt. Once he’s beaten, he is glumly resigned to the knowledge that he will now be wanted back in Mekonta just as much as the Earthmen, because he showed an emotion.
Sondar throws in with Dan’s expedition on the purely pragmatic grounds of survival, and his later absorption of human principles seems to take place by osmosis.
So the trio rescue Sir Hubert and the Professor from the menace of the semi-sentient Silicon mass that threatens to sweep over them and, with a Treen military party in hot pursuit, they set off into the interior, trying to escape. Their flight is ended at the top of high cliffs: a brief battle reaches a horrifying moment as a blast from Sit Hubert’s para-gas pistol inadvertently hits Dan who, paralysed but unstable, falls from the edge. The others are captured and returned to Mekonta.
Thus, and surprisingly, the first meeting with the ultimate enemy, the threat to peace in the Solar System, the mighty Mekon, takes place without his inveterate enemy, Dan Dare, missing presumed dead.
The Mekon. Though Hampson would go on to say that he kept bringing the Mekon back because he couldn’t think of anything better to do, there’s no doubt that he had created something that resonated acutely with his readership.
Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who, has been sneered at and satirised for decades for the supposedly amateurish, cheap and unconvincing design of the Doctor’s oldest enemies. Not one of these ignoramuses has given a moment’s thought to what Nation did. He conceived of an alien race that was simultaneously clean, sharp and comprehensible, and utterly, disturbingly alien. Why do you think the Daleks have lasted almost as long as the Doctor, and with fewer essential changes? Because we see them, we interpret them and yet they are wholly unlike us.
A decade earlier, Frank Hampson did exactly the same with the Mekon. He had already introduced the Treens: humanoid in shape, hairless, with heavy-lidded eyes and a wide, flat mouth, just above a wide, flatter jaw. The Treens are descended of some lizard-like genus, but they are still shaped like us. They’re functionally identical, which many commentators – having regard to the superb Sixties story, All Treens must Die!, in support – have interpreted as being a race that does not reproduce sexually, but rather by some biomechanical process: what SF would later term as ‘cloning’.
But the Mekon, like the Daleks, was disturbing and ‘wrong’ to look at, yet instantly comprehensible. It is his head that disturbs, that great, circular, globe-like formation, with the compressed, cruel face beneath it, Treen in structure but closer to human in its inner configuration. And the globe, which houses a brain that is not born, but bred and developed by sophisticated and lengthy procedures, dominates not just the face but the body: thin, spindly arms and legs, incapable of supporting themselves, a shrivelled trunk, the whole balanced upon a flying boat that places the Mekon, literally, above everyone he surrounds himself with. As they look up to him politically, so must they all look up to him physically.
The form is human, in that it was resembled human, but the dictates of the brain have thrown the body into terminal imbalance that we recognise but shrink from, sensing instantly that t is unhealthy. As is the mind it bears.
What many forget is that the Mekon is not a name but a title: Il Duce without the presence of Benito Mussolini. If the Mekon ever had a name, a Treen name, it is never spoken, and it probably never existed. Mekons are not natural: they have to be bred from a special strain of Treen, developed over a course of injections and treatments that take decades.
The Treens fear the loss of their leader: the ‘next’ Mekon, we are told, is fifty years away from being ready to assume power. That is the only word we ever have about the New Mekon: he is not mentioned again, not found on Venus when the Mekon is beaten and escapes, not taken with him. The most logical assumption is that he was concealed in the Mekon’s undiscovered base in the equatorial flamebelt, under the supervision of the ‘Last Three’. But that is a story for a much later time.
So it is Digby, Sir Hubert and Professor Peabody who first encounter the Mekon of Mekonta, the most advanced scientific brain on the planet Venus. Like any villain, he cannot resist relating his plans to them, the long-developed plan for the Treens to invade and take over Earth, and rationalise it to run on scientific principles.
It’s a Saturday Morning Serial Villain ploy but none the worse here, as the Mekon plans to use the puny humans to assist his plan. The Treens will soften Earth up first, into allowing them to place a base on the Moon, by pretending that the Dare expedition has been a disaster, that Dare is dead, and that the Treens have nursed and succoured the three badly-injured survivors. They will provide messages for Earth to this effect.
It’s time to return to Dan Dare. He hasn’t of course, died. He may have fallen from a cliff, been swept into an underground river and spent nearly twenty-four hours underground, under water, being swirled along, but the influence of the paragas shot has placed him in a form of suspended animation: he wakes, south of the Flamebelt, alive and unharmed.
The Southern Hemisphere seems to be an idyllic place, agrarian, beautiful, unspoiled, and yet somehow tended, unlike the Atlantean lands where Dan and Digby first landed. It also seems unpopulated: the only city Dan finds is robotic: clean, elegant, efficient, non-polluting. It’s a complete puzzle. Until Dan encounters his first Theron, a young boy, about the age of the reader, who addresses him with the immortal words, “Got any gum, chum?”
It’s pure Hank Hogan, and Dan quickly discovers his two lieutenants lazing in the sun, idly discussing repair plans for the crashed spacecraft with their Theron host, Volstar. So much for the Treen claims that the Southern Hemisphere is a vile and barbarous place.
The Therons – golden brown of skin, given to long, immaculately coiffed hair – can be seen as humanity tuned up. They are scientifically advanced but, unlike the Treens, they have retained their emotions. They have achieved peace. They care for their half of the planet, confining industry to clean, efficient robot cities, and avoiding living off the ground. They occupy flying houses that ride Venus’s Gulfstream. Environmentalist: in 1950!
President Kalon outlines the history of the Therons, the Treens and the Atlanteans, attributing their blue pigment to the different effects of the sun’s rays filtering through Venus’s clouds, and the forehead bump as being an evolutionary development, forced by Venus’s long days: it contains extra tear-ducts to keep eyes moistened.
The Therons are even responsible for awakening the intelligence of the Treens and setting them, inadvertently, on their path to their particular breed of arrogance and science. Since the disaster on Earth, the two races have maintained a closeted neutrality, using the physical impassability of the equatorial Flamebelt as an excuse for avoiding contact. Nevertheless, the Therons do do some judicious spying from time to time, just in case.
This is all very well, but in their commitment to peace, the Therons have forgotten something, until Dan issues a stirring lecture upon good people’s relationship with the bad. Peace is all very well, but men must take up arms against evil and not simply allow it to propagate. Not for the last time, Earth’s shining example shames more advanced races into recognising their responsibility to fight for what is right.
With Hank and Pierre safe and trying to return to Ranger, Dan’s main concern is to get back to the north and rescue the rest of the gang. To aid him, the Therons arrange to disguise him as an Atlantean. This involves a change in pigmentation to turn Dan blue, and the provision of a wig incorporating an artificial lump: the wig does dual-service as a translator.
So Dan heads back to the Treen hemisphere. Hank and Pierre head back into space, only to discover that ‘Ranger’ is no longer there, having stayed to the utmost limits of its power and rations before returning to Earth. This latter is another of the few loose holes in the plot: if the Therons are as technologically advanced as they are, to the extent of maintaining covert surveillance on the Treens every fifty years or so, why have they not detected Ranger’s departure beforehand?
But Hampson needs this craft to take off and become apparent to the Treens. This evidence of interference from their Southern neighbours outrages the Mekon into starting military action against the Therons. This means that able-bodied Atlanteans are conscripted into armies. And that means Dan will be swept up in that war.
Though his disguise is perfect, Dan’s blown his cover at the first encounter, being unaware of Atlantean ritual. He’s in danger of being speared when his wig is knocked off, revealing his smooth forehead: the Atlanteans immediately equate him with their legendary rebel, Kargaz, who is prophesied will return to lead them to freedom. They keep his secret from the Treens, but it is a narrow thing before the Treens arrived to conscript villagers into an army.
Dan is therefore sent to Mekonta. Unfortunately, his familiarity with straps and buckles alerts the suspicions of the Dapon-in-Chief (a Sergeant Major to his Atlantine socks). Thankfully, the Dapon is a believer in the old ways and as soon as Dan reveals his smooth forehead, he is recognised as Kargaz, and the Dapon immediately surrounds him with a squad of trusted men.
Having arrived undiscovered in Mekonta, Dan is lucky enough that the Dapon’s squad is summoned to act as a guard to the Mekon as he advises the captive humans that their usefulness has now been outlasted and they are to be escorted to scientific enquiry and dissection. Sir Hubert leads the protests, mainly about Professor Peabody, but it is Digby (of course) who sees through the blue camouflage to his Colonel and who is the first to react when Dan decides to take a hand and bundle the Mekon off his flying chair.
The Earthmen try to get away with the Mekon as a prisoner, using the Treen flying chairs, but the Mekon’s superior brain power overrides the controls and dumps them all in the lagoon. He escapes, but Dan and Co get away with one of the Telezero Reflector ships, taking off for Theronland, under pursuit and fire.
And that is the whole of Dan Dare’s interaction with his arch-enemy in their very first encounter: fifteen minutes, maybe twenty tops. It’s a surprise to realise that all those years and hatred turn upon so short, and indeed tangential a meeting, but from this point onwards Dare and the Mekon are eternal foes.
The raid is succesful in freeing the prisoners and escaping. Though the Reflector ship is shot to pieces, it lasts as far as the Theron border, where the escapees are rescued and enough of the plate hull of the Reflector ship stripped by the Therons to enable them to proof themselves against the Telezero ray in future. And there is a moment of sadness and gallantry, as the wounded Dapon, symbol of a race that has been enslaved for thousands of years, pilots the doomed ship back to Mekonta to destroy its base, sacrificing himself in the process.
Dan’s rescue brings the story to an interesting point. In Mekonta, the enraged Mekon opens war upon the Therons for their interference, and advances his plans to establish a base on the Moon. The materials have been prepared, though the Earth prisoners refused to record personal messages, except for Digby.
But Dig is only playing on his image as a bumbling coward, concerned only for his comforts: he volunteers a personal message to his Aunt Anastasia in Wigan, comparing his conditions on Venus to that week on holiday in Sunnymouth.
The Treens land on Earth, disrupting a village cricket match, and are advancing negotiations for the base they want for a spearhead, when Digby’s message get to his Aunt Anastasia: ‘Just like Sunnymouth’. Which brings Miss Digby marching into Spacefleet HQ at Formby, ‘to speak to the manager’ and tell him that Albert Fitzwilliam Digby’s only experience with Sunnymouth, when he was mistaken for an escaped murdered and kept in prison all week. The Moon-bound Treens are intercepted and imprisoned and the day saved.
Back on Venus, the War takes an unexpected turn. The Venus Story has been adapted twice, for a 1977 paperback written by comics scripter Angus Allen and a 1980 four-part BBC Radio 4 serial starring Mick Ford as Dan. Both adaptations abandon the story at this point, preferring flashbang endings to the actually completion of the story as devised by Hampson.
Admittedly, on the surface, it’s a bit of an absurd resolution, but as explained in the story it’s not only completely logical but also the only practical approach.
With both sides earnestly jamming the other, electronics on Venus start to fail. Whilst they can, Dan’s party head back to Earth, with Sondar for the Treens, and representatives of the Therons and Atlantines, to seek aid from Earth, despite its gaping technological inferiority.
But that’s where Earth’s strengths lie. Remove electronics from the equation and all that is left is force of arms. And whilst the Treens have rationalised itself, eliminating animal life as useless, Earth’s sentimentality and love of ritual has led them to preserve their horses. And everybody knows that in a fight, cavalry beats infantry hands down.
So, strange as it may seem, Earth can tip the balance by transporting mounted troop: ceremonial army units, mounted Police, cattle herders (cowboys to you and I). It’s an unlikely and motley army, but it does the job: under cover of their attacks, Dan leads a sabotage team into Mekonta that switches off the Treen jamming, and ends the war. The Mekon, not for the last time, beats a strategic retreat.
Earth wins the War, but the only reparation it demands is complete disarmament. The food it has needed all along is a matter of request.
And with this demonstration of the moral principles that Marcus Morris as a Reverend of the Church of England, and Frank Hampson as simply a decent human being were out to propagate through Eagle, the first and longest Dan Dare story came to a satisfying end with that most apt of comics conclusions: a feast!
It was the spring of 1950, and it was the spring of 1995. At a Spacefleet Base on Formby Sands, not far from Southport, the launching of a rocket, Kingfisher, was reaching its final stages. In the Command centre, Sir Hubert Guest, Controller of Spacefleet, conferred with Chief Pilot Colonel Dan Dare. Kingfisher‘s launch was crucial for two reasons: firstly, a planet that had united under a single World Government, that had eliminated War and Disease, faced the onset of Famine for an expanding population on exhausted soil. Kingfisher was launching for Venus which, under its impenetrable clouds, was believed to be an Earth-like planet, capable of growing the food that could sustain the human race. Kingfisher had to succeed. But two previous expeditions had failed, succumbing to explosions in space in the vicinity of the planet. If this expedition were to meet a similar fate, Sir Hubert would resign rather than order more men be sacrificed in a fourth.
Dan Dare was fretting because, as Chief Pilot, at the young age of 27, he had been passed over for command of this mission. His Chief, Sir Hubert, was a rocket flight veteran, part of the first landing on the Moon, the second man to walk on a surface not of Earth.
Sir Hubert Guest was born in 1943. The boys who flocked in their almost-a-million to buy the first issue of the new, glorious, colourful comic, Eagle, were also mostly born in 1943. Not only were they being offered a vision of a future, but the future held a similar problem to that which Britain still faced, five years after the Second World War: food rationing.
And each and every one of them might well grow up to be Sir Hubert Guest, and take part in adventures such as those which were to come.
Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future was to become one of the most popular and enduring characters ever to appear in British comics, and the only series to appear in every issue of Eagle from its debut in the colour and excitement-starved 1950 and its dismal fade into oblivion and merger with Lion in 1969. Though the series had been in reprint for over two years by that point, Dan Dare still appeared in every single issue. He’d survived a long attempt by new owners, in 1962, to diminish his glory and diminish his audience, and had returned to the front cover solely through readers’ demands. Nearly fifty years after his original demise, Dan Dare has been revived countless times, with differing degrees of success (mostly not). For the last ten years, a three-times a year magazine, licenced to produce new stories set in the classical Fifties era, has added to the mythos, some of which has been drawn by artists who worked on the original series. Despite the wish once expressed by his creator, Frank Hampson, in a very low state, Dan Dare will never lay down and die.
Hampson, born in Audenshaw, Manchester six weeks after the end of the Great War, was brought up in Southport, where he discovered not only a talent for art, but also an overwhelming enthusiasm to it, and a commitment to continual improvement.
After serving in the Second World War, during which he got married and fathered a son, Hampson returned to Southport and Art College. His passion for detail, and the research that would support it, brought him to the attention of the Reverend Marcus Morris, Vicar of the Parish of Ainsdale, a man who believed passionately in the necessity of the Church adopting all methods possible to spread the Christian message. Morris had already turned his Parish newsletter into a nationally distributed Christian magazine named The Anvil and, in an era when the front page of The Times still featured only classified ads, wanted to make The Anvil more appealing through illustrations.
Though he’d anticipated a career in advertising and commercial art, Hampson agreed to hold off the necessary move to London for twelve months, in order to assist Morris. During that year, one of Morris and Hampson (both would later claim credit) urged the creation of a national boys comic with good, clean, exciting action underpinned by a clear, though not overt, Christian morality. This would, after almost a year of hard work, be realised as the Eagle.
Whoever first pressed the idea of a full-scale comic on the other, there has never been the slightest doubt as to Hampson’s sole responsibility for the creation of Dan Dare. The character’s roots are confused: Hampson and Morris had originally planned to collaborate on a weekly newspaper strip, Lex Christian, about a fighting young priest in a touch East End slum parish. Via a brief idea about Girl Detective Dorothy Dare, Lex became Dan Dare, Chaplain to Spacefleet, and appeared as such in the dummy issues written and drawn by Hampson, and hand-coloured by his closest friends from the Art College, contemporary Harold Johns, and the younger Eric Eden. We don’t know exactly why Dan switched from being a Parson to a Pilot – ‘Bulldog‘, as the nascent project was originally styled, was sold to Hulton Press and we can only assume that they gently (or not) insisted that they wanted a pilot, not a Sky Pilot!
The choice was inspired. Hampson wanted something colourful and exciting for the cover, which to him meant a choice between SF and westerns: and, he dryly observed, he couldn’t draw horses (of course he could: they would feature as a vital part of the plot before the original story finished). Besides, young boys looked up in awe to the RAF pilots, the young, glamorous, dashing heroes of the air.
It sounds as if the choices being made in putting Eagle together were cynical and calculated. Not so: Hampson had the priceless gift of being able to bend his own fertile intelligence to what a seven year old boy loved to see – he was aided by having one under his feet – and in SF he saw not just endless possibilities for the creative artist, but also the chance to paint a vision of the future that worked. Against the dystopic trend in contemporary SF, Hampson wanted to give hope that the future would not only be good, but fulfilling, and exciting: exactly what his intended audience wanted.
And it was going to be infinitely better than anything the ‘professional’ comics companies were currently doing. Hampson looked around at static, unexciting, black-and-white-and-one-colour-if-you’re-lucky strips on poor quality newsprint, and knew he could do far better.
In this, he was lucky. Marcus Morris’s attempts to sell ‘Bulldog‘ had been haphazard, random and improbable, but they had brought him to Hulton. Hulton didn’t publish comics, they published magazines: most famously the war-time legend, Picture Post (not to mention the men’s magazine Lilliput, on whose design Morris had based The Anvil). Hulton’s showed Picture Post‘s editor, Tom Hopkinson the samples Morris left: Hopkinson said that for the first time ever, his advice was to sign up everybody involved and set them to producing the comic without delay.
But the point of Hampson’s luck was that Hulton may have given Morris only a small budget to create Eagle, but it was a small magazine budget and, as such, considerably better than even the most generous comics budget to be offered at any of the ‘professional’ publishers. It was enough for a higher quality grade of paper, for eight pages per week of full colour, for lithographic printing, the presses of which had to be especially installed in the chosen printers, Eric Bemrose & Co, in Liverpool. And it was also big enough to enable Frank Hampson to create his (in)famous Studio.
As Art Director, Hampson had very strict standards. No artist should be required to complete more than one full-colour page each week, and would be paid to enable him to concentrate on that work without having to take on extra work to survive. The artist also had to take responsibility for the quality of their work by signing it: no hack work hidden by anonimity. But Hulton wanted two pages of Dan Dare each week. Ten weeks of continuity had been written and drawn by Hampson on his own, but after that he could and would only tackle the two page requirement by creating a studio of young, enthusiastic artists, working under his direction and supervision. What evolved was one of the most astonishing ways of drawing a comics story ever devised. Hampson was drawing things that were, literally, incredible: alien planets with alien flora, fauna, seas, geology, races, customs, architecture. To make what he devised believable, Hampson insisted upon the highest degree of realism achievable in the art. What this mean was that, working alone, he would write, layout, pencil, ink, colour and letter two pages of rough art (rough art: more than one of his assistants, including the man Hampson would later call ‘the second best Dan Dare artist alive’ believed that with a little finishing, Hampson’s roughs would have made better pages than those eventually produced).
But when the roughs were done, Hampson and his team would pose and photo every panel. Hampson’s father Robert was Sir Hubert Guest (I have seen TV footage of Robert Hampson and that is a frighteningly literal statement), and later son Peter would model facially for ‘Flamer’ Spry. Once the reference photos were taken, the work would be divided among the team, with Hampson usually taking the cover and his assistants parcelling out panels (and sometimes parts of panels) between them to redraw, to combine the best elements of the roughs with the reality of light sources, folds in clothing, etc.
It was a seriously weird way of working, but it got incredible results.
Though they did not feature on any of the first ten weeks, Harold Johns and Eric Eden were the first assistants to join Hampson’s studio. They were quickly followed by young, promising artists such as Joan Porter (who became studio manageress and researcher), Greta Tomlinson (who would work very well with Harold Johns) and, briefly, experienced Canadian Bruce Sterling, the first to react to Hampson’s punishing schedule.
All Hampson’s assistants suffered from his demands upon their time, his insistence on excellence and, worse of all, the additional pressure of catching up when Hampson would get a new and better idea and scrap most or all of that week’s works. The studio worked morning, afternoon, evening and night, the only saving grace of what was frequently a dictatorial situation being, as everyone acknowledged, that for all they did, Hampson did more.
In time, it would lead to two long periods of absence from the series, as Hampson drove himself into debilitating illness.
But it all stemmed from Hampson’s obsession with perfection, in the face of all the demands of reality: on at least one occasion, the two pages were finished so late, Greta Tomlinson was sent by taxi from Southport to the printers in Liverpool to meet the deadline, holding the pages firmly apart whilst the ink continued to dry!
Writers were very rarely credited on Dan Dare, and that was mainly because few writers could keep up with Hampson’s prodigious, and original imagination. He had written as well as drawn the first en weeks’ continuity, and part of the Hulton deal was that he would be provided with a writer. This gentleman continued the story for six weeks before taking Hampson out to dinner to, charmingly, announce that he had no idea what do do next: as he was classically educated, he could not be responsible for this failure!
So Hampson took back writing the strip, as well as its art. Sometimes, he would employ others, paying them out of his own pocket as an experiment, but always, inevitably, having to come back to the job himself. Naturally, when he was ill, other writers filled in – one in particular is a name the world would not expect – but it would be years before a stable, experienced, solid writer would come along, in the form of Alan Stranks, an Eagle and BBC Radio veteran already. And even then, Hampson was the last word, freely changing the story as his imagination was sparked.
Sixty and more years ago. What other comics series from so back was ever so influential, so loved, so commemorated? What other series of that age is perpetuated as more than often cloudy memories of something seen and now gone? What other series has aged so little? For despite the different directions our technology has taken, despite the dystopic future that we have made for ourselves, instead of the collective joy and progress of which Hampson dreamed, Dan Dare convinces. Immediately and utterly.
So, over the next few weeks and months I’m going to be taking a look into those original stories, that near twenty years: the Hampson years, with its two long interruptions, the Bellamy year, the Harley/Sterling interlude and the Watson revival. This could take a long time: I’m looking forward to it.