A Southport Expedition


It’s been a while, since Derby in january in fact, since I went ahywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s goimg to mean breathing through a facemask.

Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Woorking Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.

It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me  it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.

Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.

Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time to steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.

There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus have to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.

As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.

It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, full down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.

I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was the first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast waking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Fronty had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?

But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.

The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.

There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is is far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.

But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day i was born!There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.

Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually,  Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.

But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.

There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.

It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th  Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.

After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shpopping estate dominated by Matalan.

This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side.Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that i finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.

I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of awander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in tho draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than  vague idea where it is: another time then, again.

So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time i come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.

I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resortand whilst I might be an old person myself now, i’m not that kind of old person. The one i seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.

So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a norwich train and off again in Southport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…

Eagle Volume 13 (1962)


The new look

There were only nine issues remaining of that version of Eagle that connected back to the leading boy’s comic of the Fifties. With issue 10, the new owners, Mirror Group, as Longacre Press, brought in their first revamp. Two more, less sweeping, would happen before the end of this Volume alone, but this was the one that severed the connection between what was and what would be.
The cover of issue 10 was a brutal shock. Dan Dare was gone, and so too was the red banner. Instead, the word Eagle was spelled out in red characters against a weak, white background, and instead of a cover feature there were three colour panels, each teasers for features inside.
One was, still, Dan Dare, but that was the only thing left. Gone, at long last and forever, were ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’. Gone were ‘Danger Unlimited’ and ‘Knights of the Road’. Gone was George Cansdale, whose long association with Eagle was severed at the beginning of the year. Gone were almost everything that appeared in issue 9, with the exception of the Pilot of the Future, the hapless ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and a new feature that had debuted at the start of Volume 12, ‘The Man from Eagle’, or ESI Resurrected in all but name, and MacDonald Hastings.
‘Fidosaurus’ was retained, and Reg Parlett also introduced the equally unfunny ‘XYZ Cars – Calling ‘U’ for Useless’, the very title of which representing the confusion. A few ‘Harris Tweed – Super Chump’s were leftover, and these half-pagers would pop up here and there, at random, along with a couple of unused ‘Mr Therm’s.
But a concerted effort was made to rid Eagle of everything that smacked of the Hulton days, of Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson (whose name was NOT to be whispered around the offices). It’s clear that Longacre would also have got rid of Dan Dare if they thought they could. As it was, the entire creative team were dropped (Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell were treated infamously, with no notice of their dismissal: the scripts just stopped turning up abruptly). David Motton took over scripting, with a brief to limit stories to no more than thirteen weeks, and no recurring characters except Dan and Digby, Keith Watson was re-hired on art (well aware that if the editorial staff had known he’d been part of Hampson’s studio, he would have been out on his ear) and the series was slid inside, and dropped into black and white.
Later in the Volume, it would be pushed into the back half of the comic, and split over non-facing pages. Watson refused to let it die, producing masterful greywash art and restoring the old Spacefleet uniforms, waving the flag.
‘Home of the Wanderers’ continued to rival ‘Knights of the Road’ for dullness. It changed title twice, to ‘Wanderers Away’ and ‘The New Wanderer’ for two more stories then reverted to its overall title, for an extremely silly story about the team’s right winger becoming a pop singer in addition to his footballing duties, which was notable only for being the first time in which ‘pop’ music, as opposed to jazz, was recognised in Eagle.
Before I go on to the wholly Longacre Eagle, I should briefly mention the short-lived ‘The Sword of Fate’, which replaced ‘Last of the Saxon Kings’ in the centrespread, was drawn by the same flat artist and, despite not being recorded as such in the publication I rely on, is clearly another leftover from Comet. It ended with the hero going into unjust exile, suggesting there may have been a sequel lurking around somewhere, but we were never to be honoured by that.
So, what was the new ‘new’ Eagle made up of?
First of all, it was full of adaptations. Martin Aitchison moved smoothly on into drawing an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’. Frank Humphris picked up ‘Vengeance Trail’, adapted from the story, ‘Flaming Irons’ by ‘famed Western author, Max Brand’ (this latter in black and white). Later in the year, Humphris would get yet another B&W Western series to draw, in the shape of ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’, though from issue 11 onwards, Eagle ceased to credit either writer or artist except where required to, i.e., the originators of these adaptations.

Dan Dare B&W

From ‘The Lost World’, Aitchison was then commissioned to draw a series of adaptations of C.S Forrester’s ‘Hornblower’ novels, initially as ‘Lieutenant Hornblower R.N.’ across the centrespread, where his art seemed somehow flat and lifeless, and then in single page format, as ‘Captain Hornblower R.N.’, at which point his art recaptures his old energy, subtly reinforcing Frank Hampson’s point about artists only drawing one page of full colour art per week.
But that is to deny the evidence of the other artist to work on Eagle’s centrespread, the great Frank Bellamy.
After his early success with Sir Winston Churchill, Bellamy returned to the war years with the life of the British General, Bernard Montgomery, drawn as a centrespread and drawn with vigour and detail that betrayed none of the early uncertainty due to dealing with a living figure. Bellamy was in fantastic form, linework, composition, colouring, and his battle scenes were masterpieces of detail and impression.
And towards the end of the year, as part of Eagle‘s third revamp, Bellamy was back with the series that he is most recognised for, ‘Heros the Spartan’.
I’ll come to that. Meanwhile, there were three further, very contrasting series introduced in issue 10. The first of these was a new Police Crime strip, ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D.’, which went through a variety of artists before settling on the long-term choice of Paul Trevillion, creator of ‘You are the Referee’.
This was a black and white two-pager, set in the Midlands industrial city of Manningham, and starred Londoner Detective Sergeant Dave Bruce and his realistically depicted crime-cracking efforts. The situation, which was never really played up to any serious degree, was that Bruce was resented for having beaten out local man Bill Prior for the Sergeant’s role. Prior was Bruce’s partner and the only man with no grudges, not like the burly Inspector Wade. Bruce was supposed to be slowly earning his colleague’s trust but this never played into the series except tangentially.
Secondly, there was a true-life story series, ‘Only the Brave’, recounting actions by ordinary people, sometimes but not exclusively members of official services or the Services, undertaking rescues at their own, frequently severe risk. First, these were winners of the George Medal, then the British Empire Medal. This series lasted twenty-seven episodes from various artists, including Richard E Jennings and a sequence of five fine pages from Frank Bellamy, and the stories themselves were several times very touching.

The newer look

The last new feature was the new prose series, replacing ‘The Gay Corinthian’ (brought to an abrupt end with a half-page final instalment). We remained in Georgian times with ‘Beau Fortune’, author unknown but suspected to be Lee Mayne, though I incline more towards ‘Corinthian’s Ben Bolt, for the similarity of background.
Valentine ‘Beau’ Fortune is the leading Dandy of the day (which is usually between 1803 and 1805 but which skips to 1814 for one episode), a personal friend of George, Prince of Wales, the arbiter of High Fashion, an effete, unconcerned fop. Any resemblance to Sir Percy Blakeney is, of course, purely a coincidence, as is that of Fortune’s secret identity, The Masked Rider, a strong, confident adventurer, wanted to be hung as a highwayman and a thief but in secret a righter of wrongs.
For all its lack of originality, ‘Beau Fortune’ was nicely vigorous and enjoyable. The series, which only lasted as long as revamp no 3, mixed single episodes and two-parters, with one three-parter, and was good fun, and a highlight of this ill-thought out year.
And this Volume was ill-thought-out. The Hulton Eagle had had its series each in their places, but the Longacre Eagle never looked the same two weeks running, with series flipping pages. The certainty of two colour sheets and two black and white sheets was broken down, with what implications for the cost of printing I have no idea, but the colour-oriented cover would have the b&w Wanderers on page 2 and the colour ‘Lost World’ on page 3, backed by b&w on page 4.
What’s more, the drastic reduction in recurring series seriously weakened the overall effect of the paper. Where the reader had had a half dozen wide-ranging series to follow, having built up a consistent enthusiasm for Dan Dare, Jeff Arnold, Sergeant Luck et al., there were now few people to recognise and welcome back.
For example, ‘The Lost World’ was replaced by ‘Island of Fire’, in which two charter pilots, hired to fly an eccentric vulcanologist to a remote Pacific island that he believed would erupt and cause a chain reaction ripping the planet apart, found themselves caught up between an American gangster who’d stashed his bullion on the island, and a British warship. It lasted ten weeks, went nowhere, was just a one-off, and was notable only for giving Richard Jennings something to draw again, in colour for the first time since ‘Tommy Walls’.
But there were two more revamps to come. The first was only a partial revamp, starting in issue 35. This introduced ‘The Devil’s Henchman’, mentioned above, replacing ‘Only the Brave’, but more prominently was a new front cover look, ‘Kings of the Road’. These were superb, full-page poster paintings of vintage motor racing cars, in action, an open invitation to tear out and pin to bedroom walls, and were very much a change for the better.
However, the real revamp came with issue 43, and the introduction of three new ongoing series, stabilising Eagle‘s weekly content, and the replacement of ‘The Gay Corinthian’ with the first of three new prose serials.
It was a second substantial revamp in seven months, and if it was for the better, it was still a sign of the comic’s weakness that it had to be rescued so quickly. ‘Dan Dare’ moved into the back of the comic, it’s two pages split to appear on opposite sides of the same sheet, the first Eagle strip to be treated that way.
The first new series was ‘Mann of Battle’, a Second World War strip featuring Captain Pete Mann and his batman, ex-boxer Slogger Bates, on a secret mission in the Mediterranean. Drawn competently by Brian Lewis, beginning a long association with Eagle, this began a week early, with two pages, before being chopped down to one. Neither of the characters have much by way of personality and it just seems like it’s about killing Nazi soldiers, with no well-developed plotline.
Much better was ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’, which was a revamp of ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D’, on which Trevillion’s art was rapidly improving. Basically, the new format threw out the ‘resent-Dave-Bruce’ backstory, and introduced a challenge to the reader: two or three times during the episode, Bruce would make a deduction from something, and the reader was told to study the panel to spot the clue for themselves.

The Last Great Strip

In this form, the series would last for years, though once again it was jerked around by Longacre, like ‘Mann of Battle’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ started as an expansive three-pager, only to abruptly lose a page. Did you ever get the feeling that somebody didn’t know what they were doing?
‘The Man from Eagle’ bit the dust with this revamp, and was replaced by ‘Are you the… type?’ This was another non-fiction two-pager, combining biography and yet more reader-participation. Each week, a prominent figure, e.g., astronaut John Glenn, or Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev (the series was nothing if not eclectic) would be profiled before the reader was faced with half a dozen multiple choice questions: anyone who got all the answers ‘right’ was deemed to be the feature’s ‘type’, which must have been real fun for the Kruschev Kid.
The new prose serial, writer unknown, was ‘Johnny Quick’, which overlapped into Volume 14. This was a boxing story, and a well-written, authentic-seeming story, albeit very much a history piece now. The title character is an up-and-coming boxer bidding for a challenge for the British title. He’s a former hothead, an ex-tearaway from a tough area, who’s gotten himself under control and got himself out through boxing, but someone is trying to blacken his reputation, paint him as a jumped-up hoodlum, a picture his own suppressed temper isn’t helping to dispel. It’s clearly a frame, but it’s one that took some unravelling.
Ok, again, it was a one-off: we would never hear of Johnny Quick again. But its quality was of a singularly higher level than much of the work we’d seen this volume. It was not a renaissance, but it was a sign that not all was lost.
What was a renaissance, however, was ‘Heros the Spartan’, drawn in the centrespread by Frank Bellamy, with some of the most masterful art of his career. Heros was the orphaned son of a Spartan leader, adopted by a Roman General, and a dignified, honourable, loyal soldier of Rome. This initial story, written by Tom Tully, creator of the series, features Heros being given his first command and sent to a mysterious island where lurks sorcery, black magic, evil priests.
It was to set the tone for ‘Heros’s entire run. Wherever he was sent, whatever his fate, the supernatural in one form or another would put the Spartan through all manner of incredible adventures.
Thanks to Frank Bellamy, who made everything not just plausible but dynamic, exciting, active, expressive and horribly creepy at times, ‘Heros the Spartan’ would for years rank second only to ‘Dan Dare’. Longacre wanted to kill off the Pilot of the Future but Dan was too big for them. In ‘Heros’, they gave Eagle more than one good thing. It was The Last Great Strip, and it was the best thing to come out of 1962.

Eagle Volume 12 (1961)


The new front page

The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.

Gone

Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.

Paradoxically, the future…

Eagle Volume 10 (1959)


The year of the Fall. The lucky amateurs who had created Eagle and made it a stunning success for almost a full decade were replaced by the professionals, who knew what they were doing. Eagle would never be that good again. The control of the comic was handed over from people who respected and trusted their audience to people who thought their audience was basically stupid, and would respond only to simplification and sensation. Fifty years later, maybe forty or thirty, they would have been on the nail. In 1959, they were hideously wrong.
It’s tempting, but not wholly accurate, to think of Volume 10 as two different stories. This was the other ‘short’ Volume, reduced to 45 issues via a seven week long printers’ strike, from June to August, and it would be easy to call what came before it ‘Old’ Eagle and afterwards as ‘New’ Eagle. But real-life doesn’t offer such clear distinctions as that.
The three significant factors were, in order, Hultons selling out to Odhams Press, Frank Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’ and Marcus Morris stepping down as editor: the second and third of these events were a consequence of the first because Odhams made it clear from the start that in their eyes, Eagle was dull, stodgy, long-winded and stale. They were the ones who had produced comics all along, not these luck amateurs. Changes would be made.
For one thing, Hampson’s Studio, with its assistants and profusion of reference material, its expensiveness – Hampson’s expensiveness, being paid more than the Executives – was an instant target. It had to change, and Hampson, frustrated at the lack of backing he’d had from Hultons already, and realising that the protection Morris had afforded him would no longer shield him from attack, decided to leave his premier creation.
And Morris, with his unlimited expense account suddenly choked off, reconsidering his position, fell upwards onto his feet, leaving Eagle to progress in publishing at the National Magazine Company, writing his farewell Letter from the Editor in issue 37. For three weeks, this direct address to the readers was signed merely by ‘The Editor’, before Morris’s successor, Clifford Makins, allowed his name to go forward.
There was no indication at the start of the year of what was to follow. ‘Dan Dare’ started the new year with a new story, ‘Safari in Space’, opening up with Frank Hampson’s personal favourite piece of art, a near full-cover of Dan, Digby and Flamer starting a spell of leave under the sun in the Venusian jungle. It’s bright, intense, detailed, a sign that Hampson’s heart was very much in things again.
And the story bounded forward eagerly. From Venus, and several panels of Professor Peabody in a swimsuit, enjoying her leave with Sir Hubert and Lex O’Malley (hmmmm), to the Asteroid belt, and from there across trans-stellar space to Terra Nova, a near-Earth-like planet. But this was not a story of exploration: for Dan it was the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, long believed dead but not revealed to have gone on a long trip, and perhaps still alive.
There’s a panel that illustrates just how bloody brilliant an artist Frank Hampson was. It doesn’t look like much, it’s not spectacular, it’s on a page 2 so maybe the credit belongs to Don Harley, let’s be fair. Dan and Co have been kidnapped to go on this madcap, private mission to Terra Nova, and Dan’s ahead of the McHoo. He’s leaning back against a desk or something, apart from his friends, at the back, because he sees where this is going, and his hands are by his side, holding on to the desk and he’s tightly contained and by how he half-stands, half-leans, in that single drawing we see how much emotion he is feeling.
Hampson planned a cycle of stories, set in and across the Terra Nova system, as Dan followed his father’s trail from planet to planet, culminating in… what? I have always believed that it would have ended with Dan finding Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare alive. A man who had incarnated his own father so indelibly within his creation could not, I believe, have planned to frustrate that reunion.
But that wasn’t what happened. As well as the growing pressure from Odhams, there was a devastating loss. On June 18, whilst on holiday in Barcelona, Alan Stranks, the writer Hampson had come to trust best to write Dan Dare, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I don’t know how the timings worked out, behind the scenes. The last pre-strike issue of Eagle was no 25, dated 20 June. Two complete issues of Eagle were ready, and appeared without dates as soon as the strike ended. Both featured the work of Frank Hampson on ‘Dan Dare’, his last piece of art a uniquely silent first page, with Dan or any of his companions.

Frank Bellamy style

By the time this appeared, Hampson had left Dan Dare. In later life, he claimed he was only taking a year off, to refresh, renew, rethink, and his successor, who was not Don Harley (yet) was hired for a year, but Odhams certainly weren’t interested in having him back, his Studio was broken up, his reference materials destroyed, save for what could be carried by Harley and the only other assistant retained, Keith Watson, and I have never heard of any attempt by Hampson to take up Dan Dare’s reins again.
His replacement was Frank Bellamy, and he had been given a brief. More action, more dynamism, more excitement. Though Bellamy, naturally, drew superbly, there were many problems with the new ‘Dan Dare’. In no particular order, it’s principal artist had no real liking or feel for SF; he was working with Harley and Watson, two artists trained in Hampson’s style, who produced one page between them, resulting in months of unevenness as clashing styles; they had lost the series’ regular writer, who was replaced by Eric Eden, who at best could only produce a decent pastiche but who had no facility for satisfying endings; and with Bellamy dividing the script pages up each week, the series was hampered yet further by a flip-flopping of styles as Bellamy would assign page 1 or 2 to himself alternately.
The seven week absence during the paper strike had damaged Eagle‘s circulation. That its front page not only looked radically different, but was never in the same style two weeks in a row, could not repair the problem.
‘Terra Nova’ rapidly degenerated into a fight with giant ants, whilst its successor, ‘Trip to Trouble’ took only five weeks to undermine the whole point of Hampson’s vision. In Xmas week, the new Eagle revealed that Dan’s father had been killed, offscreen and ten years earlier. Heartless, and pointless.
Page 3 continued to go downhill. The personality-absence that was ‘Cavendish Brown, M.S.’ lasted only three more issues before vanishing, unregretted, after less than a year. He was replaced by ‘They Showed The Way’, for which Pat Williams was retained on art for a series of true-life stories of adventure and achievement: the Suez Canal, Charles Lindbergh, the discovery of anaesthetic, the conquest of Everest, submarines under the North Pole. Educational in their way, with rough-hewn art, this series might have been designed for the new masters, with none of the stories staying long enough to bore, or to interest for that matter.
MacDonald Hastings, ESI, remained confined to quarters throughout this Volume, continuing his ‘Men of Glory’ series, tales of heroism in War, for about three-quarters of the year, with sporadic interruptions.
With issue 16, Eagle expanded, ‘permanently’, to twenty pages, introducing two new series, and yet more advertising space.’Hobbies Corner’ got half a page, sometimes paired with George Cansdale’s excellent ongoing series about household pets, now drawn in black and white by George Bowe, but the other new feature was given two full pages almost ever week. This was ‘As the Scientist Sees It’, by Professor Steele, an educational series well in keeping with Eagle’s traditions. The Professor would take a different subject each week, breaking in down into half a dozen related points, which would be introduced with an enviably simple clarity. For those who regard Eagle as imperialistic and colonialist (which is not untrue), please note that one such entry poured scorn on racism as being completely unscientific and utter nonsense.
‘Riders of the Range’ continued to be steady. The Mexico adventure wended on for the first half of the year, though it suffered from a lack of cohesion as Chilton set up multiple opposing forces – bandits and Indians trying to take over an ill-manned cave-pueblo occupied by women and children, and a Mexican army patrol of limited strength, plus several kidnappings and releases associated with the appearance of a comet in the Sky.
From there, Chilton resumed historical stories with ‘Jeff Arnold and Sam Bass’, the latter being a notorious outlaw and train-robber. Sam’s inserted into the story by his ambition to learn gunfighting from Jeff, but circumstances contrive to put him on the wrong side of the Law, and Jeff has to try to bring him in. It turns out that Sam is an even faster gun than Jeff and, by the volume’s end, the latter is nursing a wound in his shoulder that prevents him using his gun in his right hand…
‘Luck of the Legion’ also maintained its course, without any stories standing out in particular: Bond and Aitchison simply provided good, quick action, and quirky humour from the Fat Man, Legionnaire Bimberg, in the desert and on a return trip to Indo-China, the serial ‘Dragon Patrol’ continuing on into Volume 11.
But Dan Dare was not the only series to lose its long-standing artist. Robert Ayton had drawn ‘Jack O’Lantern’ from its inception, and would continue to do so for the short stories in the Eagle Annuals, In Volume 10, he stayed to complete ‘The Brotherhood of the Key’, Jack’s longest ever adventure at 37 weeks, and to start its successor, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, but after a mere eleven weeks, he left the strip, to be replaced by C. L. Doughty.
The new story was a bit problematic to begin with: in ‘Brotherhood’, Jack had run away from home to sell his beloved horse, Black Dragon, for 80 guineas to assist his father to repay wicked Uncle Humphrey’s debts without selling their ancestral home. Instead, he returned for £1,000 in reward money, but by the next week, Jack and Captain Yorke were out of Brackens, and off to their new home in London anyway.
Unfortunately, they’re immediately attacked by a highwayman, Captain Yorke seriously wounded, their fortune stolen and Jack back in an orphanage, exactly like week 1. He would escape, discover the highwaymen and find himself pressed into becoming a junior tobyman himself.
Doughty’s style was very similar to Ayton, and the change in artist was not immediately apparent on a cursory glance. I did subconsciously recognise a slightly richer, more florid approach in drawing faces, and the contrast between styles was very much less pronounced than that between Hampson and Bellamy.
At this remove, I cannot find any information about why the change of artists came about, and as I said, Ayton was still drawing annual stories into 1961 (when he returned to Eagle for one last series). Perhaps stories for annuals were compiled well in advance, and kept in inventory. Certainly, Jack’s short adventures were still appearing two years after his series ended, which we shall see in the next volume.

Super Sleuth

For the ‘Three J’s’, this was to be the end of the line. The current, Christmas holiday story, which involved them breaking the ankle of Sixth Former and Prefect Noel Hardy, introduced the notion of forged fivers circulating in Northbrook. This segued into one final term-time story, which dealt with the forgeries at greater length, but once the villain was captured by the Police, and the good guys – including Hardy’s girlfriend, Linda, even though she was never acknowledged as more than a childhood friend – exonerated, the series ended.
Peter Ling would henceforth concentrate on writing for TV, including a Doctor Who serial and its novel. In 1964, he would reach a nadir, by co-creating Crossroads
The ‘Three J’s’ were immediately followed by ‘Jim Starling and the Colonel’, a ten part adaptation of E. W. Hildick’s third novel, in his Last Apple Gang series, but once this had run its course, the prose serial disappeared, and Odhams sold more advertising space in its place.
That was two of the classic line-up gone, a third near its end and the leading serial having undergone a seismic shock. In contrast, ‘Harris Tweed’ started the new volume in colour, for most of the first six months. Even then, his adventures would switch backwards and forwards between colour and the traditional black-and-white and this continued throughout the entire volume, with no apparent pattern, but a crude balance between the two kinds of episodes. The contents were never affected, of course. It was interesting to note that John Ryan’s artistic approach did not vary. In American comics, there is usually a perceptible difference between art drawn for colour and for black-and-white reproduction, but Ryan’s flat, cartoon style, using clearly defined figures with no sense of shading or greying, was ideal for a strip that now flipped back and forth. Whether Ryan himself was responsible for the colour, or whether this was the work of an occasional artist, I have no idea.
Like ‘Luck of the Legion’, ‘Storm Nelson’ survived the volume unaffected by the winds of change (apart from a brief promotion from page 14 to page 13 in issue 1, and very strange it looked to meet the Silver Fleet even a page before they were usually expected.
With the exception of a single, remaining ‘He wants to be…’ Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ had the inside back page to itself all through the volume, and it still continued to be the most baffling thing Eagle had featured to date. Unless there was evidence of a rising tide of youngsters badgering their parents to install Gas central heating I can only think that it was aimed deliberately at Eagle’s adult readership (figures undefined), though if that were the case, surely Mallet’s twee cartoon figures were not the best promotion. How bizarre.
Eagle‘s back page continued to be the province of the ‘Great Adventurers’ series. We began still in the midst of the story of ‘David, The Shepherd King’, drawn stunningly by Frank Bellamy, and told in a determinedly secular manner, with God’s influence never rising beyond David acting upon Christian principles.
Bellamy was retained for the next subject, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, but his transfer to Dan Dare necessitated his giving this up to the reliable Peter Jackson. Here the timeline again becomes confused: Bellamy’s last instalment of ‘Marco Polo’ is in issue 23, two issues before the printer’s strike struck, and four before Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’. Clearly, Bellamy’s take-over could not have been a precipitate affair, especially as a total of eleven weeks elapsed between the two assignments.
How it went, exactly, is something I don’t expect ever to learn, though these are the details I find so fascinating.

Eagle Volume 9 (1958)


Not the best regarded…

There’s a good case for arguing that Volume 9 is the Last Good Year. Most of Eagle‘s classic features were still in place, though the Dan Dare adventure that dominates the volume does not have the best reputation, and there was unrest behind the scenes, and there was a dodgy turn of events in one of the others.
But still they were there. The only change was the end of Mark Question and its replacement by something even blander and duller. And when all was said and done, this was the last year before The Fall, so let’s look for the good in things.
After almost two full years, ‘The Man from Nowhere’ trilogy came to an end, with initially a small handful of remaining episodes of ‘Reign of the Robots’, destroying the Mekon’s Selektrobot control at the seeming price of Dan’s life. This was followed by the brief, usually overlooked coda, ‘The Ship That Lived’, in which the rediscovered Anastasia is preserved, Dan makes a miraculous, non-medical recovery and the Mekon escapes into the swamp with the aid of the ‘Last Three’, a thread that would take six years to be realised.
The new story, ‘The Phantom Fleet’, has excellent art for the first two-thirds of its length although, despite Hampson signing his name to much of it, a sharp eye shows it to be more the work of his very efficient studio, and Don Harley, than Hampson himself.
Behind the scenes, Hampson was unhappy. Hultons would not support his efforts to market Dan to the American market, or to animated films, nor his desire to withdraw from art and direct his more than capable studio. At one point, he submitted his resignation, and Hultons decided to accept it! But before they could send a reply, Hampson withdrew his resignation.
There are clear and jerky changes in direction in ‘The Phantom Fleet’, and the overall opinion is that it was not going down well. Editorial was unhappy with a second successive story based on Earth and concerning an invasion. Alan Stranks proposed to change the title on the story after episode 28, signalling an extension of some kind, and Hampson himself was not unaverse to getting back among alien scenes.
In the end, ‘The Phantom Fleet’ turns into an inarguable mess. Desmond Walduck takes over the art with thirteen episodes left, the storyline turns into a disaster. Inexplicably, in the middle of this muddle, Hampson returns for three weeks of superior art, but leaves just before the eventual villains appear on the page, and the eventual resolution is a pure accident to which Dan Dare contributes nothing.
Mark Question’s adventures in Comorra speedily reach their predictable end: Mark’s courage inspires Max to discover his own, the twin boy sword-experts defeat Black Franz and his cohorts and the day is won. Unfortunately, King Gustavo dies without revealing what he knows about Mark’s background, and he’s back to London still no further forward. Retrospectively, this adventure is named ‘The Black Valley’.
It’s succeeded by ‘The Lost Clan’, which actually becomes an official title. A faded Highland Games medal sends Mark on his bike to Braeloch in Scotland, in pursuit of the survivors of Clan McDhu. En route, he intercepts a canister of microfilm intended for international spy and master of disguise, Babel, who pursues Mark to Scotland with the intention of killing him.
It’s a simple, but unconvincing plot, which ends with an elderly Laird, a caber-tosser, a poacher and two early-teens (if that) capturing the aforementioned international spy, and the revelation, which falls very flat indeed, that Mark is actually Alistair Colin McDhu, grandson of Murdo McDhu, and that he was born and raised in Australia. Funny how nobody remarked on his Aussie accent before now?
Mark would return in the back half of the Sixties, his adventures reprinted as Mark Mystery – the boy with etc. For now, his slot on page 3 went to Cavendish Brown, M.S., written by Bill Welling and drawn by Pat Williams.
Cavendish Brown is a brilliant surgeon and detective: what? how? why? Don’t ask such questions because no background is ever given. He’s just an effortlessly superior toff, with a butler/valet/chauffeur and he tells the Police, in the shape of Inspector Jason, what to do. Come back, Mark Question, all is forgiven.
‘Eagle Special Investigator’ McDonald Hastings spent the year at home, telling war stories under the overall heading of ‘The Bravest Men in the War’. This was interrupted twice for three part series. The first of these, ‘The Way into Space’ looked at scientific developments along the road of launching a man into space, with particular reference to how many of them had been anticipated by Frank Hampson. The second of these got Hastings to Kenya, but only in the context of a film being made for his regular television spot on ITV’s Tonight, and how the raw footage and commentary was shaped for broadcast.
Increasingly, most issues of Eagle in this volume ran to 20pp instead of the usual 16pp. This consisted of an additional B&W sheet, inserted as pp7-8 and 13-14. Most of these were mainly additional advertising with one, sometimes two pages of content, none of which was especially impressive.
Riders of the Range saw ‘The War with the Sioux’ through to its historic conclusion, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the death of General Custer. It’s an impressive story, drawn with Frank Humphris’s customary attention to detail, and with true likenesses of the real-life characters.


After two lengthy historical stories, Charles Chilton steered the series back to adventures in which Jeff and Luke could be the centre. ‘The Penny-Farthing Dude’ brought Jim Forsyth back into the series, which segued into ‘Down Mexico Way’, leading our heroes to defend a second Christian Mission, this time south of the border.
In Luck of the Legion, Luck, Trenet and Bimberg continued their balloon journey with the ‘flying Dutchman’, Professor Vanderdecker, who was not all he seemed. Their quest became one for eternal life, as revealed when they discovered the titular Eyes of Horus, but the eternal life turned out to be a source of water: eternal life for the village and the tribe, not any individual.
Then it was back to the Sahara for the relatively routine ‘Scourge of the Sands’, another story about a leader attempting to raise rebellion against the Legion.
Jack O’Lantern ran through the remaining weeks of ‘The Assassins’, a glorious riot of Bow Street runners and thieves’ cant, although the story’s abrupt ending, with the leader of The Assassins falling on his own pistol and shooting himself through the heart wasn’t up to the standard set.
George Beardmore then resorted to another cheap device in ‘Race for Life’, by resurrecting Jack’s evil Uncle Humphrey from the dead and reinstating him at the family home of Brackens. Humphrey’s up to his cheating and conniving self, robbing young Dick Lawless of his prize racer, Diabolus, Jack ends up racing in the steeplechase and winning it, sending Humphrey overseas to escape his debts, but leaving Captain Yorke faced with selling their home of Brackens in order to pay off those for which he has become responsible.
Jack tries to postpone the evil moment by selling his horse, Black Dragon, which gets him involved in the circus in ‘Brotherhood of the Key’, and a story involving treasure and the evil circus clown, Little Caesar.
Now that I’m having the chance to read Jack O’Lantern as a continuous story, I’ve come to respect it as a better tale than I’d previously realised, but those cheap devices referred to above rather devalued it in this volume.


I found The Three J’s rather pedestrian this year, with the various stories adding very little that was new. The same old tropes – especially those of the increasingly tiresome Jacko – were on display in each story, nor did Peter Ling’s imagination run quite so freely when creating the various new boy that give the J’s something to resolve. Willi Jarmann, the semi-sick boy from last year, joins Northbrook only to be renamed Bill, so that has foreign background can be quickly forgotten.
He makes up the numbers for a Northbrook team in a proto-‘Top of the Form’ TV quiz that, despite Ling’s background in television, is not in the least convincing (not least in its scores), is threatened with removal because his Aunt needs cheaper accommodation and then blots his copybook in a somewhat foolish story about ‘Faraway’ Hill inventing some valuable formula by falling in with Fifth Form bully, Bradbury, and becoming a smoker.
Nor is his replacement, jazz-trumpet loving cool kat, daddio, Raymond Key anything to write home about. This is clearly a story written by an adult with no real understanding of teenagers and their growing musical passions (you’ll note it’s jazz, and not rock’n’roll…). I’m afraid the year smacked of a series that was running out of steam, having used up all its ideas. As a prose serial, and not a comic, the lack of innovation is far easier to perceive.
Pretty much the same could be said of Harris Tweed: in fact, little else can be said about it. John Ryan goes back to one-off gags instead of semi-serialised stories, but Tweed also has nothing new to it. On the other hand, Ryan does maintain a level of interest that ‘Simon Simple’ never reached and which it declined yet further from, week by week.
Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer continued to go strong, thanks to Guy Morgan’s willingness to sail the Silver Fleet to new seas every story and, in the weekly term, Richard Jennings’ vigorous and energetic art. There’s a running theme to the stories in this volume, the ‘Black Box’ giving way to the ‘Yellow Bird’ (a budgerigar, actually) set in the West Indies and seguing into the ‘Magenta Mark’, courtesy of the mastermind behind both threats, the anonymous Nemo.
The ‘He wants to be a…’ series was all but finished now, with only three appearances all year. The George Cansdale/Tom Adams half-page spent most of the year continuing the development of Prehistoric Animals towards their modern day form, but several months in, this became sporadic, alternating with a different series by the same pair, featuring Insects, which was in black and white. There seemed to be no pattern as to which would appear and in some weeks, neither was represented. Ultimately, both series were replaced by a black and white half page featuring dogs, with a variety of artists replacing Adams, whose unsung art was some of the finest ever to appear in Eagle.
What we got instead, inside the back page, was a seriously odd return to Eagle‘s practice of offering advertisers comic strips for their advert. These had been a feature throughout, in corners or one-tier strips, never attracting much attention, unlike the old Tommy Walls’ pages. Now, under the white-on-black banner of an Advertiser’s Announcement, we got a weekly series promoting Gas Central Heating, under the aegis of Mr Therm, a cartoon figure.
It’s one of the most puzzling advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Much of the Volume was taken up by ‘It’s time to learn with…’ which is, and I kid you not, all about redesigning a kitchen, its white goods, cupboards and even a gas-heated airing cupboard, to improve Mum’s daily lot. Unless Eagle’s adult audience was considerably more extensive than suspected, I cannot see the appeal of any of this to an audience of 7 – 12 year olds.
Nor were things much improved, target-wise, by its replacement, late in the year, by ‘Magic in Meter with…’, written and drawn in a quasi-realistic cartoon form by Dennis Mallet, extolling he virtues of gas each week by means of jingly rhyme.
But each week of Volume 9 was decorated on the back page of Eagle by Frank Bellamy’s stunningly gorgeous art, pristinely realistic, highly detailed and yet imaginatively impressionistic. Once Bellamy got into his swing, without going overboard on lay-outs, he began to vary his pages. He was never less than respectfully accurate to Churchill or any of the many figures who appeared in the story, but once Churchill’s tale reached the First World War, Bellamy never looked back. His battles scenes, in both wars, be they on land, sea or in the air, were breathtaking, his control immaculate and his colours superb.
Once ‘The Happy Warrior’ was complete, at 53 episodes, it was collected as a book, an honour given previously only to the Baden Powell story, and not as quickly. Bellamy stayed on, drawing ‘The Shepherd King’, the story of King David, with rich and flowing colours, stimulated by the Middle East sunlight.
Three Franks, three brilliant artists. It was still a Good Year. But it was the last one.

Eagle Volume 8 (1957)


Issue 3 original art

If Volume 7 was a year in which Eagle needed no more than the lightest-touch editing, Volume 8 was, by definition, the beginning of the end. The line-up that had taken almost six years to develop would, in the end, last just over two years, from Volume 6 no 4 to Volume 8 no 10. Change was on its way.
And change came, rapidly, within the first eleven issues of Volume 8, with new stories starting for Dan Dare, Luck of the Legion and Storm Nelson, together with the end of ‘The Great Sailor’, telling the life-story of Sir Horatio Nelson.
For Dan Dare, the rest of the year was taken up by ‘Reign of the Robots’, with the Cryptos Expedition returning to Earth after ten years’ absence, and finding the planet under the thumb of the Mekon. When the artwork was in the hands of Frank Hampson, it continued to be superb, and those weeks when it was more clearly the work of the studio – frequently credited to ‘Frank Hampson Production’ – was still good, although somewhat variable, but there were weeks when the art looked rough, unfinished, lacking any kind of detailed background, that suggested it had neither seen the inside of Bayford Lodge nor yet been turned over to Desmond Walduck.
There were no such signs of concern for Sergeant Luck or the Silver Fleet, with the former winding up their battle again at the Legion traitor before traveling south to defeat a mysterious slave-trader mastermind dressed as a Templar Knight. At the end of the year, the Legion’s most successful trouble-shooting team found itself in fin-de-siecle Paris, being sent on a mission on a balloon!
The Silver Fleet’s adventures took them from Canada into America, to the West African coast and into the Mediterranean, their colourful adventures involving Blue Beavers, Red Diamonds and Black Boxes.
But this was just the natural shift of story to story within series still maintaining their way, albeit with several such concluding in a short space of time. The changes to which I refer were of a different order.
Excluding a single story drawn by Giorgio Bellavitis, Norman Williams had been the artist in residence on The Great Adventurers for the past five years, but with a single week of Lord Nelson’s story remaining, Williams passed away. Jack O’Lantern‘s artist, Robert Ayton, pitched in to draw the final page, and when the series resumed the following week, with the life of David Livingstone, it was now Peter Jackson who took over Eagle‘s back page.
At the same time, David Langford’s ‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ came to an end after 188 episodes, with neither fanfare nor any sense of loss. To replace it, Langford turned to ‘Simon Simple’, drawn with a much darker, heavier line. This was simple, gag-a-week stuff, about a small schoolboy wearing a cap, round glasses and an imbecilic smile. The new series was silent for the first seven weeks, until the inherent weakness of this approach became obvious: Eagle still had ‘Chicko’ covering the same territory, and doing it better and more imaginatively with three panels to Langford’s six. Even with dialogue, the series was rarely funny.
But the biggest change of all, the true break-up, was on page 3. ‘The Case of the TV Terror’ too a further ten weeks to wrap-up, with the Boy’s Club and PC49 as usual foiling the bad guys. But that was the end for the only other remaining feature from Eagle‘s first week. PC49 had long since disappeared from its original home of the Light Programme, and now, with a farewell in verse, in a story in which he’d at long last given his full name, Police Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby retired.
It was the end of John Worsley’s association with Eagle but not that of Alan Stranks. Apart from his continued association with Dan Dare, which would keep him at Eagle until his death in 1959, Stranks had not done with page 3, and was back the following week with Mark Question – The Boy with a Future but no Past.
There was no comedy in this series, just a straight drama. A neatly-dressed boy aged about fourteen arrives at a London railway station. He has his wallet stolen. The crooks recognise him as someone who can be exploited. But, as he realises he’s lost his wallet, he’s hit by a truck. When he wakes up, he’s lost all memory of who he is and where he’s from. So he gives himself the name ‘Mark Question’ (think about it) and sets off to find out who he is.


Frankly, it’s not very interesting. The art, by Harry Lindfield, is bland, and so too is Mark, who has no personality except for his obsession with discovering his identity. And the plotting is dreadful. The two thieves, Conger and Snuffle, work for Professor Carracul at the British Museum. The Professor, an expert in Natural History, is a criminal mastermind who uses Conger and Snuffle (the names don’t get any better the more you use them) to rob jewellery etc., which he then smuggles out of the country stuffed into stuffed animals bound for foreign museums. The taxidermy is done by Mr Feathers, who owns a pet shop. Where Mark takes a job as a shop assistant.
Oh please, as plots go that has to be the worst contrivance in Eagle to date. Conger and Snuffle keep Mark’s secret to themselves, not telling Carracul, which means that, when the Professor orders them to dispose of Mark, they don’t tell him that the boy might be worth more alive than dead. So, when their speeding car crashes into the river, and only Mark gets out, his identity dies with them.
The series had no formal stories to it, but once Professor Carracul is defeated, when Mark turns out to be an Olympic level fencer, we switch to another, longer story. A Spaniard calling himself Don Scorpio tries to kill Mark by sending him, what else, a Scorpion. This sends Mark and his unofficial guardian Doctor ‘Doc’ Steele (who only has one arm yet can drive a car for twenty hours straight) off to Europe, where they eventually come to the tiny Pyreneean kingdom of Comorra which, despite its Irish-sounding name, is as Ruritanian as you can get, and where Mark appears to be ‘the Boy King’.
No, the story doesn’t quite sink to that level of cliché, but it does directly rip-off Anthony Hope by having Mark be the spitting image of Maximillian, the real Boy King, about to inherit from his grandfather, Gustavo, except that Max is a screaming coward who wants to run away… And Mark is impersonating Max for the King, who knows who he really is but who’s so far gone…
No, Mark Question is no fit substitute from PC49. But he is a foretaste of what is to come as Eagle moves forward.
I’d like to make mention of Jack O’Lantern at this point. His fourth story, ‘Man-Hunt’, took our young shaver, and his faithful dog, Turnspit, across the Channel to France, where Bonaparte was Master. Jack was determined to track down his kidnapped and disgraced cousin Rufus, free him from the captivity of the turncoat Captain Zero, and frustrate Zero’s plan to impersonate Lieutenant Yorke and enable a mass escape of French prisoners from the new Prison on Dartmoor.
Of course, Jack and Rufus succeeded, and the latter cleared his name and resumed his commission, but before that there were several superb weeks of art by Robert Ayton, depicting the English prisoners escaping downriver and out into the Channel, where Ayton’s staging and depiction of the geography was a highlight of each issue, even when set against Frank Hampson!


Riders of the Range spent most of the year on the story of Billy the Kid, with Frank Humphris’s passion for accuracy showing through at every turn. From there, he and Charles Chilton went on to an even bigger story, ‘The War against the Sioux’, that would lead, in the next Volume, to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
MacDonald Hastings was represented in about two-thirds of the issues in this Volume but, apart from a final round-up of photos from Norway in issue 1, there were no further adventures. Instead, E.S.I.’s accounts remained very ‘studio-bound’. At first, there was a series on unexplained events and ghosts, which included a superb two-part take-down of the Mystery of the Mary Celeste that I’ve never read elsewhere and which explodes the myth quite thoroughly. It also included a piece on the then-relatively fresh mystery of the Loch Ness Monster.
Later in the year, Mac devoted his time to a series of reports on acts of wartime bravery that resulted in the award of medals for high courage in both World Wars. All very entertaining stuff, and no doubt exciting, but a far cry from actually going out and participating in adventures on behalf of the readers.
And cheaper too, I imagine. Though we are as yet some distance from the fateful decision by Hulton Press to sell up, that was to have such devastating effects on Eagle, the timescale that led up to that moment had more than likely already started to roll out. Hulton’s empire was past its peak. Picture Post‘s heyday was gone, its circulation declining, the profits from the redtop comics becoming increasingly central to the group’s income.
As the year declined, there was another round of new stories starting together, this time in issue 40, with Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson and Jack O’Lantern all starting fresh tales. There was another new Great Adventurers story on the back page, but this was very different, and astonishingly prestigious.
The Happy Warrior was not only the first, and one of only two serials to feature a living subject, but this was none other than the hero of Wartime, Sir Winston Churchill, and for this feature, Marcus Morris brought over the legendary Frank Bellamy from Swift to make his debut in Eagle.
The story is almost stultifyingly respectful, as it would have had to be, and as it would have been even if there had been no pressure. This was Churchill, and this was long before the merest hint of revisionism was tolerable. Certainly, in the dozen episodes published in this volume, Bellamy is so respectful as to be stiff, his art notable for its realism, and his use of a limited but effective colour palette, but this is not the Bellamy we are used to. There are no dynamic layouts, no expressive colours, no freedom.
But it was nevertheless a landmark. And once Bellamy hit Eagle he stayed, and we were all better for it.
Of The Three J’s, and Harris Tweed, there is not much to say. Apart from the cleverness of running a term-story into a holiday story to create an eighteen part marathon, there was little new in The Three J’s. Two more new Fourth Formers became the focus of two more stories, whilst John Ryan introduced no new themes, motifs or story structures into the Extra Special Agent.
Overall, a number strong year. But the loss of PC49 upset a subtle balance, and that all important page 3 slot was diminished. Eagle would never get so distinctive a strip for that position ever again. Mark Question was its first fumble for a long time, but it was the sign of the future arriving.

Eagle Volume 7 (1956)


Original art

It must have been a breeze to have been editor of Eagle in 1956. The classic line-up was in place, and stayed throughout Volume 7. The comic was cruising or, given the nature of the bird, soaring on the wing.
There was a year of Frank Hampson, and his slimmed-down and highly-functioning studio working at their peak on ‘Rogue Planet’, the middle part of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy. The story ran the enrtire year, leaving only its surprising coda to come in the next Volume, as a lead-in to the final part of the Trilogy. After a six month absence, Flamer Spry returned from the dead. There were rich planet-scapes and glorious alien cities, and seascapes and cultures, and Hampson signing principal assistant Don Harley’s name alongside his, recognising the contribution of the Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’.
On page 3, Alan Stranks and John Worsley took PC49 and the Boy’s Club, with its core membership of Toby Moore, Giglamps, the Mulligan Twins, Tiki and little Bunny Cotton through the end of ‘The Case of the New Member’, the tightly-run thirteen round of ‘The Case of the Square Ring’ and into danger at sea for a holiday in ‘The Case of the Crazy Cruise’. The year ended with the start of ‘The Case of the TV terror’ and Archie’s only in-strip confession of his radio name, Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby. But PC49 the radio series was dead three years by now, and 49 lived on only in this one weekly page.
After a five week underwater exploration with famed diver Hans Hass, McDonald Hastings, ESI, returned for a long trip to India, several weeks of which being dedicated to photos rather than accounts. He then followed up on one reader’s request with a four part consideration of UFOs, providing an even-handed account of what was then known about the subject, and coming to no other conclusion than that to imagine that we were the only form of life in the Universe was ridiculous. In a comic edited by a Church of England Vicar, who still took services once a week, this was a remarkably open conclusion to be permitted.

E.S.I. and Indian friend

Mac would go on from his investigation of the stars to a rather more hands on visit to northern Norway, meeting the Lapps and visiting the most northerly town in the world, inside the Arctic Circle, where the day last six months, and so does the night.
‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ occupied the lower part of the sports page for another year, with their curiously anodyne version of children’s fantasy and unhumorous settings, whilst directly opposite, Riders of the Range had another strong year.
‘The Terror of the Pecos’, continuing the long story begun with ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’ ended with Jeff Arnold successfully keeping the Army and the Indians from war, and with young Matt returning voluntarily from life with the Indians, bringing with him his friend Pinaro, son of the Chief, who is to return with Matt to Scotland and enjoy an education there.
Frank Humphris took a nine-week sabbatical for ‘The Wreckers’, drawn in a more brightly coloured style by an uncredited Giorgio Bellavitis, before returning for ‘The Hooded Menace’, during which Jeff’s shirt got burned and he changed it again, albeit not drastically. There was just time before the end of the Volume to start ‘Jeff Arnold and Billy the Kid’. This marked a change in the series as, from this point onwards, Chilton’s stories would relate to real life characters and events, and would keep as closely as possible to the historical reality of such stories.
Luck of the Legion completed its adventure ‘South of Senegal’ and returned to the desert for ‘Shadow of the Scimitar’, featuring a renegade Legion Captain commanding a Toureg tribe, in which our intrepid trio found themselves taking an early motor car across the sands to a friendly chief.

The latterday Tweed

Things started to look up for Jack O’Lantern, with ‘The Prisoner of Newgate’ ending for victory for bare-knuckle fighter Jem Slammer, the exposure of Uncle Humphrey as a French spy and his death at his own side’s hands, the vindication and pardon of Captain Yorke and Jem and the restoration to the Yorke’s of family home, Brackens.
Not that it lasted. The Captain was sent back to war, along with faithful Corporal Kettle, leaving Jack to travel to the South West, in ‘The Moonshiners’ to reside with his cousin Rufus, an effete, lisping fop. At the same time, English-born French spy, Captain Zero, is springing French prisoners from local prisons and getting them back to France with the aid of the local smuggling network.
Rufus turned out to be a Naval Intelligence Officer operating under his wisping, sorry, lisping cover, but the story ended in disaster, with Rufus captured and taken to France. Jack swore to rescue him, which is where the next story, ‘Man Hunt’ began, shortly before Xmas.
Now it was established, the ‘Eagle Club’ was confined mainly to the editor’s page, after which The Three J’s went through their usual routine of school and holiday adventures. a slapstick story about Jacko inheriting a potentially valuable stamp segued into a holiday adventure in Spain, during which Specs’ resemblance to the boy-King of a small European country led to a) trouble and b) the Prince coming to Northbrook, that is, until Specs was kidnapped in his place, as a means of forcing the Prince back to the throne under the Regency of his evil uncle. Business as usual.
And the same for ‘Harris Tweed’ as John Ryan continued his new practice of ‘serial’ stories lasting about six weeks each, with a vague link to the next one.
Storm Nelson – Sea Adventurer concluded ‘The Quest of the Southern Cross’ successfully, of course, with a double dose of disguise: Storm fixes himself with a fake beard to pose as a Swedish captain, and Jonah McCann, infiltrating the bad guy’s crew, shaved off his own to evade detection.

Nelson by Bellavitis

Richard E Jennings was back in place for ‘The Quest of the Blazing Boomerang’, still set in Australian waters, but from there the Silver Fleet transferred to Canada and the Great Lakes, with the crew becoming temporary members of the Mounties in order to operate on Canadian territory for ‘The Blue Beaver Mystery’.
Inside the back page, George Cansdale’s half-page nature series about various animals continued to impress, with awesome nature art throughout the year from Tom Adams. The other half of the page saw the introduction of a new feature, again at reader’s request, ‘He wants to be a…’ Most weeks, there would be a short account of various professions different types of boys wished to follow: the qualities required for it, the course of training, the constant reference to the (deferred) National Service that dates this series even more than the massive salaries the boys could earn when they are successful: £365 per annum! It’s terribly dated but it’s a social picture of the times since the roles involved vary between intellectual professions such as Doctors, Dentists and Solicitors, and skilled manual trades like Plumbers and Plasterers.
On the back page, Norman Williams continued to preside over The Great Adventurers. The first half of the year was devoted to Charlemagne, ending not with his death but his elevation to Emperor, after which the scene shifted to ‘The Great Sailor’, Horatio Nelson (down to one eye and one arm by year’s end, but still a way away from Trafalgar.
Thus was Eagle in 1956, it’s peak year. In the next volume, changes would begin. It would never be such a classic comic again. There was a lot of good stuff to come, and the decline would, at first, be slow and difficult to see. But from such a line-up as this, such a set of writers and artists working in such complete command of their skills, any change could only be for the worst.

Eagle Volume 6 (1955)


The Man from Nowhere

And so it came to pass. The classic Eagle, the mid-Fifties version of the paper that is the height of excellence and stability finally came together in Volume 6. You may date that to issue 4, when the last of the classic line-up finally made it’s appearance, George Beardmore and Robert Ayton’s Jack O’Lantern, a wonderfully atmospheric Napoleonic Wars-set series centred upon ten year old Jack York, son of a supposed traitor fighting to clear his father’s name, or if you want to be really pernickety about it, you could postpone that moment to issue 18, when Frank Hampson returned to Dan Dare with the first instalment of the ‘Man from Nowhere’ Trilogy, displaying a quantum leap in his art, not just from ‘Prisoners of Space’ but from Hampson’s own best work.
The difference between stories, replacing ‘Prisoners’ undetailed outlines, two-dimensional art and pallid, flat, primarily pastel colouring in which even the space scenes appear to be brightly lit, to Hampson’s rich, detailed art, its ranger and depth of colouring and, most of all, the subtle use of light and shadow to give everything a three dimensional aspect, is immediate. The difference in story quality is also immediate: I’ve seen Alan Stranks credited as starting his Dan Dare run with both ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Man from Nowhere’, but taking into account the latter’s bitty and inconsistent storyline, I can only believe that he makes his debut with Hampson’s return.
‘The Man from Nowhere’ ran for twenty-eight weeks, including the issue of Eagle published the day I was born, for which I have an obvious special affection. It segued into ‘Rogue Planet’: indeed, the entire series still had more than two full Volumes to go before it’s end and it was superb its whole length.
Stranks’ accession to ‘Dan Dare’ doubled his work for Eagle, with ‘PC49’ going strong on page 3. ‘The Case of the Golden Knight’ took until issue 21 to complete, and ‘The Case of the New Member’, introduced a new, stereotyped, self-important and prank-playing new character in Elmer Cheeseborough Nutt, not to mention his over-protective mother was still in action when the volume ended. This last, at an eventual 37 weeks, was the longest ‘PC49’ adventure to appear.
By this time, 49 was only appearing in Eagle, with the BBC Radio series having been discontinued in 1953, by which time Archie had not only married Joan but had been turned into a father, a continuity a world away from that enjoyed by Eagle’s readers.
‘ESI’s third series, consisting of two very long foreign journeys, to the Kalahari and the Middle East, only came to and end the week before Xmas. Professor Puff’ forged on, inexorably, though instead of travelling to far off and foreign lands, the Professor and his little Dog spent most of this year travelling to far off and implausible times.
‘Riders of the Range’ completed ‘The Heir of Duncrieff’, writing out the monocled Jim Forsyth by finally guiding him to his ancestral home and lairdship in Scotland before segueing into ‘The Terror of the Pecos’, as Jeff and Luke set off back to Texas with Jim’s young cousin, Matt, who’s coming to Texas to learn how to be a man. Unfortunately, he’s going to learn it from the Indians, and Matt, having given his word, is determined not to be rescued.
‘Luck of the Legion’ was dominated by ‘Earthquake Island’, in which a shipwreck distracts our familiar trio from a secret mission in the Far East by stranding them in India where they restore a young boy to the Rajahship usurped by his tyrannical uncle. Then it was off ‘South of Senegal’ for the next adventure, still getting up steam.

Page 1

And so to ‘Jack O’Lantern’ on page 10. This was the last, and in some ways the least of Eagle‘s great line-up, though most of that status derives from it running the shortest time: only nine serials, several of which, in the great Hampson manner, ran into one another, like phases of a greater novel. Jack York is the son of an accused traitor, Captain Yorke, and is being bullied in an orphanage when he is assisted to escape by Corporal Kettle. Though delighted to find his father alive, he is shocked that the Captain has become a Tobyman, or Highwayman.
But the Captain has been framed by his rascally brother Humphry, who has taken their ancestral home. And Humphry is the actual French spy, and the Captain’s new profession a means of searching guests to the house to find who is Humphry’s contact.
But ‘Stand and Deliver!’ ends with Captain Yorke trapped, wounded, arrested and thrown into Newgate Prison. Jack, who knows the truth, battles on alone to right the wrong.
Ayton’s art, in full colour on page 10, is firmly in the Eagle tradition of photo-realism. He is strong on period detail, just as Beardmore is full of the times. Jack is befriended by gypsies, who talk in the Romany manner, and by the thieves culture of London under the Bow Street Runners, who are full of their thieves cant. It’s bright, colourful and atmospheric, and if sometimes Jack’s actions exceed the plausibility required of his age, it never extends too far into the fantastic.
‘The Three J’s’ continued in their established manner, though matters were enlivened in the holiday story ‘Vive Le Northbrook’, which saw the boys travelling to France with a slightly older companion in a decrepit car, striving to keep a rendezvous with ‘Goosey’ Gander and his father, who are to transport them back to England. It’s a predictable but enjoyable deadline-story, up-against-the-odds stuff enlivened by the unusual decision to have the J’s driver meet and fall in love with a French Mademoiselle in the last chapter.
The half page format was not really working for ‘Harris Tweed’, there being insufficient space to engineer anything but cheap and obvious gags, so John Ryan decided to change to a serialised format himself, extending stories over six weeks or so, to much greater effect. There’s further evidence throughout this volume of his art gradually softening and rounding, to the point where it’s possible to see the connection to the animated ‘Captain Pugwash’ style that was so successful for so long on BBC TV.
After the conclusion of ‘The Silver Sampan’, Richard E. Jennings took a nine-month sabbatical from ‘Storm Nelson’, with Giorgio Bellavitis taking over the art duties for the next two stories, overlapping into the next volume. Bellavitis was a much less distinctive artist, with far less vigour and a less bold use of black-and-white, though visually the most obvious change was to stick a leather pilot’s helmet onto Bash Callaghan almost permanently. Jennings’s controlled exaggeration was definitely missed!

A Bellavitis page

Bellavitis came off the back-page Real-Life Adventures story, ‘Mark, the Youngest Disciple’, written by Chad Varah, to take over ‘Storm Nelson’, which saw Norman Williams return to draw the life of Abraham Lincoln, as written by Alan Jason, a pen-name for Sergeant Luck’s Geoffrey Bond.
Among the minor features, the excellent George Cansdale half-page, with Backhouse’s superb art, gave way to the writer’s ‘Insect World’, with similarly excellent colour art but slightly less appeal for one adult reader.
The other big thing of 1955, was the big promotion given to the Eagle Club, which got several full-page features on p15 when it was introduced, before rather dwindling away to a calmer position on page 6, alongside the sport, when more art was required.
So now Eagle had achieved a settled line-up of excellence and vivid quality as it hit the middle of the decade. How long would this last?

 

Eagle – Volume 3 (1952/53)


A Harold Johns Dan Dare

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

Trenet and Luck: an annual story

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

A future Eagle novel

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

Frank Humphris and Jeff Arnold

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

PC 49 on film: Brian Perks

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


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

Martin Aitchison: Luck runs out


To the already overlong list of those we have lost this terrible year, yet another name has to be added. Artist and illustrator Martin Aitchison died on 21 October, a month before his 97th birthday, but I have only learned of this today from his belated obituary in the Guardian.

Aitchison worked for Ladybird Books as one of their most popular and reliable artists between 1963 and 1987, and was one of the two key artists on their Key Reading scheme series (also known as ‘Peter and Jane’) which helped teach so many children the fundamentals of reading.

But to me and those like me, we hold Martin Aitchison in esteem for the years he spent, from 1962 to 1963, as one of Eagle‘s regular and magnificent artists, primarily for the series that ran second only to Dan Dare in the readers’ estimation, ‘Luck’ of the Legion.

Aitchison, who had already contributed to Eagle‘s sister paper, Girl, was hired to draw the series from scripts by its creator, Geoffrey Bond. The new strip was originally intended as a 12-part fill-in, but instead the initial story ran twice that length and Sergeant Luck and his close comrades ran for over nine and a half years.

The series – a French Foreign Legion tale, set in an amorphous pre-First World war era – began with the elevation of the blue-eyed, fair-haired Englishman Corporal ‘Tough’ Luck to Sergeant, and his immediately being handed a mission to take a platoon to a remote and supposedly haunted Saharan fort. Immediately, he selects the fresh-faced Belgian, Corporal Trenet, as his second-in-command, and though Trenet is seemingly killed partway, he appears, deus ex machina-like at the end, sporting a small black moustache (covering a facial scar from his shooting) that changes his aspect completely, to become just as much a stalwart as Luck himself.

The team was soon increased to a trip by the addition of the Italian Legionnaire 12345, Aloysius Bimberg: fat, scruffy, hungry, decorated with curly moustaches and a permanently battered kepi. Bimberg was comic relief, but he was an essential part of the team, mostly brave, and frequently essential to missions that spanned every part of the globe to which the French Empire extended.

Like his fellow Eagle artists, Aitchison’s work was brisk, clear and detailed, sensational without being sensationalised. Though his research was not as comprehensively accurate as others – his tribesman apparently wear Saudi Arabian robes rather than the Algerian or Moroccan robes that would be appropriate – his imagination conjured forth exotic settings that nevertheless convinced the reader to the same extent as Frank Hampson regularly achieved on Luck‘s only better.

Needless to say, given the era, the strip is imperial in tone, though not directly racist. unsurprisingly, after ending his connection with Eagle, writer Bond emigrated to Rhodesia, a year before the white Government declared UDI, and became involved in Government broadcasting. Bond himself survived to a good long age, dying in 2009 aged 90.

Whatever we may think of the politics of Luck of the Legion now, it was undeniably popular, enough so that Bond wrote as many as six Sergeant Luck novels (two illustrated by Aitchison) which fetch pretty prices today. As much of that success is down to Aitchison’s art as Bond’s writing, especially as Aitchison had to work in a format no other Eagle artist had to cope with: instead of a vertical full or half-page, Aitchison’s work was stripped in two rows across the centre-spread, sharing the spread with, and sitting beneath the famous ‘Cutaways’, and not even getting a full half-page depth!

When Luck was cancelled in 1961, Aitchison remained with Eagle, drawing the short-lived Danger Unlimited, a contemporary thriller set in Jamaica, starring two young Queen’s Messengers recovering diplomatic papers stolen from them by force. When that ceased, Aitchison, who had also worked for Eagle‘s junior brother paper, Swift, moved on to Ladybird, a trail followed by Frank Hampson himself, and later Frank Humphris, artist on Riders of the Range and Blackbow the Cheyenne.

Truth to tell, I had no idea Aitchison was alive, but seeing his name, and seeing one of his Ladybird paintings, in today’s paper fills me with sadness. Though he lived to a great age, we who loved Eagle, who thrilled to Luck, Trenet and Bimberg, not to mention the unending stream of pets accumulated by the little fat man, mourn his passing.

We will not forget his like, though they are no more.