I never expected to get to read this book, given that it is rare, in demand among Eagle fans and usually bloody expensive. But a copy in decent nick came up on eBay in the ruin-up to Xmas, with a cheap starting price and very little interest. Including the P&P, it cost me less than a tenner.
The book also doesn’t have a high reputation as either a Dan Dare adventure or an SF novel in general. Having read some of the criticisms, they are valid, but I did enjoy it and I have a better impression of it than the run of Eagle fans.
Basil Dawson was the real name of Don Riley, who received a one-week billing when he took over the writing of Dan Dare during ‘Operation Saturn’, when Frank Hampson’s second lengthy illness took him away from his artboard. Hampson had originally envisaged at anti-eugenics story, but all elements of that disappeared and the serial proceeded along more conventional lines.
Dan Dare on Mars was Dawson’s only novel. It’s set in 2002, after ‘Operation Saturn’ and before ‘Prisoners of Space’. That it didn’t come out until 19656, by which time Dan was on Cryptos, deeply involved with the Phant invasion, suggests to me that the book was held back for some time after its completion before being issued.
The book’s been described as basically a detective story (Dan paraphrases Sherlock Holmes’ most over-quoted line at one point) with a few, unimportant technical details added to make it appear SF. Whilst elements of that are true, I think it shortchanges the book to describe it thus.
The story starts with an utter disaster on Mars: all airtight domes are cracked open and the entire human population disappears, presumed dead. But there is a more serious problem over and above the colossal loss of life: apart from a few, decreasing sites on Earth, monopolised by the World Helenium Corporation, Earth’s major source of helenium are the mines on Mars. As Dan succinctly puts it, without helenium, there are no impulse waves, and without these, no fleets of ships bringing food from Venus daily.
Dan leads a task force to restore the mines and investigate the disaster. The civilian helenium experts are led by Torval, the senior engineer at the World Helenium Corporation. Right from the start, Torval rubs Dan the wrong way up, but only he suspects the man of active obstructions, despite a number of improbable events, including a messenger from Dan’s archaeologist Uncle, Ivor, still digging on Mars, being killed in the Chief Pilot’s office, nobody takes his concerns seriously.
Sir Hubert Guest is a background figure, and Professor Peabody (referred to only as Peabody throughout the narration) has a substantial supporting role as the liaison between the Spacefleet and civilian sides, but otherwise this is a two-hander for the Old Firm, Dan and Digby: there’s not even a passing reference to Hank or Pierre. And naturally, Dan turns out to be completely right about Torval’s motives: the man is out to render Mars helenium inaccessible permanently, in order to create an expensive monopoly and consequent overwhelming political power for his company.
The solution involves a decently clever insertion into Dan Dare’s continuity, albeit one that remains forever non-canon. There is a surviving race of Martians, the Pleons, who have been underground for the last 200,000 years. The Pleons were the smart Martians, the ones who saw the Red Moon coming and nipped underground to get out of the way.
Torval and co have been trying to whip the Pleons up into a war-like frenzy against the rapacious, militarised earthmen, coming to steal their planet and enslave them, and it takes all Dan’s efforts, aided by Uncle Ivor and the emollient Peabody to avert all-out planetary war, and reset things back to zero.
Not massively brilliant by any means, but better than a lot of the weaker Eagle serials (unlike Eric Eden, Dawson at least knew how to handle an ending). I liked Dawson’s handling of the military and planning aspect of Dan’s task force, and I thought his handling of the relationship between Dan and Dig to be on the mark. He’s obviously no great literary stylist, but I found him proficient.
And of course this is a novel aimed at Eagle‘s junior readership, written in the 1950s and shot through with the attitudes of the time, not to mention references to people like Gilbert Harding. The worst you can say of it is that, given its context, it’s no better than you’d expect, but even from my vastly different perspective, I found it pleasant and not insulting light reading, and I welcome it from more than the completist’s stance.
The first in the latest attempt to revive Dan Dare for the present day is now with us in it’s entirety and it’s time to assess its success. As with the generally successful 2007 Virgin Comics effort, it’s in standard American comic book format, this time from Titan Comics, and the first four-issue mini-series leads only to a sort of cliffhanger and a little ‘End of Book One’ box. More is therefore intended, subject to the commercial success of the four issues to date, and the inevitable collection already billed for April.
It’s hard to assess what is no more than an introduction: it’s a bit like trying to come to an opinion on Lord of the Rings after the end of Chapter Two of ‘The Fellowship of the Rings’. And I am one of those who are fiercely protective of Dan Dare, who will not at heart accept anything that is not directly based in Frank Hampson’s work, his world and its exceptional parameters.
I was surprised at myself for being willing to accept the Virgin Comics version, as a kind of left-handed, Earth-2 version of the character. That was the work of Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine, the latter enough of a photo-realist as an artist to make a worthy attempt. The Titan version echoes the last in selecting a writer, in Peter Milligan, who is also an iconoclast that you wouldn’t expect to see writing the Pilot of the Future, and drawn by Italian artist Alberto Foche, in a sketchy, cartoony style that pays no homage to Hampson’s world.
Nor does Milligan pay too much attention to the past. We have Dan, of course, and Digby, Professor Peabody and Sir Hubert and, of course, the Mekon, but this time we do not have a Prime Minister mocked up to represent Theresa May selling Earth out to the Treens. Instead, we start with the Mekon actually being elected President of Earth (via mind control, but not entirely mind control). Dan starts the series in flashback form as a terrorist, exposing electoral fraud and getting the Mekon sent to rehab on the Moon.
And, would you believe it, it takes!
Dan’s the only one who really believes it, despite the ever-mounting evidence that it’s real. Everyone else, including his two constant companions, Digby (reinvented as an engineering expert) and the Professor, and especially Sir Hubert believe that it’s nothing but a long con. But Dan is determined to believe, and events mount up that support his faith. He even makes a best friend and ever-helpful consultant out of the erstwhile green monster.
There’s just one drawback so far as Dan is concerned: the removal of the Mekon has turned Earth into a peaceful paradise for the first time ever, and Dan’s bored. Bored enough to pray for some kind of threat to Sol System, just so he can be ‘Dan Dare’ again.
Which of course he gets. In the form of an ancient, massive Treen ship, an Empress class, entering the System, en route for Earth, and pausing on the way to completely obliterate Triton, a moon of Neptune. Dan goes out to meet it with Digs (yeuch) and Peabody in a re-designed ‘Anastasia’ and ends up teeming up with Au Taween, a sexy blue-skinned alien with a mad-on for Treens and no respect for Earthmen, who gets right up Peabody’s nose.
With long-distance assistance from, yes, the Mekon, the Empress ship is brought back to Earth for examination. By the mind best equipped to understand it, namely, you got it, the Mekon. This triggers Au Taween’s see-a-Treen, kill-a-Treen reflex and when Dan tries to prevent her, she nonchalantly decides to shoot through him. Except that the Mekon buts him out of the way, takes the shot himself, and dies.
Straight up: laserbeam through the chest, cooked Greenie.
Dan’s the only one to seriously mourn, though being Dan he tries to save Au Taween from execution for her cold-blooded murder. At least it’s proved his point: the Mekon had reformed. The greatest force of evil in the Galaxy found good within himself and embraced it. The only thing that eventually saves Au Taween is that, despite everything, the Mekon isn’t actually dead, just in some form of self-induced cryogenic suspended animation whilst he repaired himself.
So, all’s well that ends well. Au Taween departs, leaving Dan wedded to his duty to Earth, but longing to go with her.
And then, after multiple occasions on which he could have escaped, multiple actions aiding Earth, even saving his most hated enemy’s life (more than once), the Mekon hops it. He’d been fooling Dan all along. For explanations, see book two, whenever.
On the proviso that I’m going to treat this as something like the Earth-4 Dan Dare (Earth-3 was an Earth where everything was similar but opposite, meaning it’s Dan would have to be a villain), I shall continue into Book Two, assuming it ever appears. This isn’t Dan Dare, not as I know him, but it isn’t like those 2000AD and New Eagle versions that may possibly have been halfway decent SF adventure series if they hadn’t had the Dare name hung on them, but which had no relation or relevance to Dan Dare himself. This isn’t a story, not yet. It’s an Introduction, a Prelude. It’s too bloody short, nothing really happens and it hasn’t got anything remotely resembling an ending: it’s all set-up and no shoot-out (I actually had a different metaphor in mind then, but I’d rather not use that one).
As for Foche’s art, it’s inoffensive and that’s about all you can say about it. Dan’s got his eyebrows, Dig’s plump, Peabody’s a woman, Sir Hubert’s older than everyone else and the Mekon’s got a big head, but in no other respect does he try to draw anyone who looks like the original (Peabody’s blonde, for pete’s sake!)
So, a cautious C+ is all I’m giving it. Try it by all means. But set your expectations low. It’s better than the Grant Morrison one, but so’s mould on cheese.
It’s a decade now since the surprisingly successful Virgin Comics attempt to revive Dan Dare in a form acceptable to the contemporary age, and now Titan Comics have discarded the habit of a lifetime, of only publishing comics that have been successful for other people, and have hired Peter Milligan to write and Alberto Foche to draw a new series.
This time, we’re looking at four issues, so that if it’s a disaster, at least it will be brief. Today’s visit to Forbidden Planet included the first issue, so I want to record a few immediate impressions.
Garth Ennis, ten years ago, seemed an improbable writer for a traditionally ‘straight’ character who was born out of the desire to present a truly clean-cut cut, moral yet still quite human hero for young boys, yet he understood the ideals of the Pilot of the Future came from and respected Dan Dare, and his version was worthy of revival.
Milligan, on the other hand, has always been an iconoclast, an underminer of all things established, and a trickster of a writer. I’ve read very little of his work, it just not being to my taste, so I was doubtful of the choice from the moment I heard of this.
His set-up does, at first, promise a different approach. For one, there is no Prime Minister appearing as a veiled depiction of David Cameron or even, thanks all the ghosts of Spacefleet, Theresa May. On the other hand, we have the Mekon: of course we’ve got the Mekon, we always have the Mekon. It’s like only ever having Doctor Who face up to the Daleks.
Milligan’s included a lot of the old cast already: Dan, Digby, Peabody, Hank Hogan, Sir Hubert, Flamer Spry, though he’s jumbled some of them around. Digby, or ‘Digs’ is now an engineer and openly calls his Colonel ‘Dan’, Peabody’s a Special Science Advisor who walks around in uniform and carries big guns, and Dan only ever calls her Peabody. Hank’s had one line so far, and already sounds out of character.
Then there’s the Mekon. Milligan’s story, subtitled ‘He Who Dares’ actually starts five years ago, with the Mekon as the democratically elected President of Earth and Dan’s little band declared terrorists. That is, until they expose the hypnosis machine by which ol’ Greenbean has cooked the result.
He’s been in rehabilitation for five years, concentrating his supreme intelligence on growing food on the moon. Even when a Liberation Army comes to free him, he orders them to disband and hands them over to Dan for incarceration.
Can the Supreme Brain overcome the Genetic engineering that made him into a power-crazed overlord? Has he? Milligan’s certainly come at things from a previously unexplored angle (for what it’s worth, I’m going for No).
But the only problem is, if the Mekon is beaten for good, there are no enemies left. No obstacles to Galactic peace and harmony and progress. Nothing for Dan Dare to be Dan Dare for, and Dan’s actually praying for something for him to do, to get back into space for.
Which is when a dirty great spaceship appears out of nowhere, Crypt-like, and destroys one of Saturn’s moons, just like that. Dan’s prayers have been answered, or so it seems. No hint yet as to whether Tharl and his empire exist in this Future, though again I’m going for No.
Apart from this bit about Dan Dare wishing for violence and enemies, which is not, never has been and never will be any part of any legitimate version of the character, it’s reasonable enough so far. Certainly worth suspending judgement over until we see more.
As for Foche’s art, I’m always going to start off by looking askance at anything not authentically Hampsonian, and it’s fair to say that this art in no way draws from the master. Apart from a token effort with Digby, and an even more token one with Sir Hubert, oh, and of course Dan’s eyebrows (that’s all anyone ever cares about: get the eyebrows properly crinkled and it’s Dan Dare, no matter how wide of the mark everything else is), Foche makes no effort whatsoever to follow any existing design work.
And his Mekon, redesigned to make the big brain a bit more organic, has immediately become less frightening, less distinctive, less alien. Even at his most evil in the flashbacks, this guy just doesn’t look in the least bit evil: Hampson’s Mekon, indeed his Treens, were unnatural. It’s why they worked so bloody well in the first place.
But I won’t judge until the series is over, unless it takes an irreversible nosedive into the sludge to the point where it’s obviously a schtumer. There are two pages of Foche’s designs featuring half a dozen and more characters we’ve not yet met, none of whom thrill me with anticipation, but we’ll see. It won’t take long, at least.
Another issue of Spaceship Away and another new Dan Dare story, written and drawn by Tim Booth, comes to an end, temporarily at least.
‘Parsecular Tales’ made its debut as long ago as 2010, immediately following on from the completion of Booth’s ‘The Gates of Eden’. It’s taken over six years to reach this point, issues 22 to 41, a loose, sprawling story, full of rambling diversions that never really amounted to anything, and which ended up in the same place as ‘The Gates of Eden’. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this story, and I’m not immediately convinced about taking it as ‘canon’.
The story is set in 2034, and according to Booth, Dan Dare has only just taken over as Spacefleet controller, as opposed to merely Controller (UK). Digby has finally accepted a promotion to officer, and is now a Major, and still the Controller’s right hand man. Hank and Pierre have left the Service, cashing in on their back pay from their period in suspended animation, Hank to become a Fluffalo (?!) farmer on a Saturnian moon, Pierre as a trader (and sometime smuggler). Everyone’s gotten noticeably older except Sir Hubert Guest, who is now the Prime Minister and looks completely unchanged, even though he’s 91 years old in Frank Hampson’s chronology.
Dan looks haggard and Digby’s gone bald and grown an enormous great handlebar moustache to compensate.
The looseness of the story was reflected by the looseness of its format. ‘Parsecular Tales’ began as six-page episodes, lacking the traditional Spaceship Away format of the Eagle title box. This continued for thirteen episodes, until Booth began producing ‘Mercury Revenant’ contemporaneously, when it dropped back to four page episodes for two issues, and then wound up as traditionally designed two page episodes, with the logo, appearing two an issue until the recent final episode. This puts the whole story at 112 pages by my count.
Booth starts with Hank on his farm, receiving an unscheduled visit from his old copain, Pierre, who has a delivery for him: it is a Thork telesender which he has to switch on and then just watch until something happens. This is many weeks later, in which time Pierre, heading for Venus for a ceremony recognising the overthrow of the Mekon has only got as far as CONSDOCK, a secret Earth Research Station commanded by Colonel Dare, with his batman, Spaceman Digby
Intertwined with this is a Thork take-off from Spacefleet HQ with the Controller and Major Digby on board, already in suspacells to permit a fast getaway at the kind of speeds only Thorks can endure. Funnily enough, they are en route to CONSDOCK.
But the Colonel in command is Alastair Dare, nephew to the newly-elevated Controller and former Olympic Runner (looking good considering that that was the 2000 Olympics on Venus), and Spaceman Albert Digby, scion of the newly-balded Major.
Alastair Dare is overlooking the forthcoming test flight of Project Magellan, the latest attempt to come up with a Faster Than Light drive. Controller Sir Daniel is there to inspect it, Major Digby to inspect his son.
But that’s not all. Booth is tripping from scene to scene, laying a network of seemingly isolated incidents that, as the story develops, will come together to fit a so-far-unseen pattern. Admiral Lex O’Malley, crossing the South Martian Pole solo for what appears to be no more than a bet, discovers something that has him calling for Dan Dare before he’s knocked out in mid-transmission.
And Hank Hogan’s telesender finally delivers an unexpected visitor, all the way from Mekonta: the now somewhat mature but still attractive Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody.
The action is kick-started by the sudden failure of the Asteroid Belt Impulse Wave generators, sending the Solar System grid off-balance. This causes panic everywhere, and the immediate postponement of Project Magellan (to be more or less forgotten for the rest of the story) whilst Dan takes personal charge of the Asteroid situation. Thankfully, there’s a ship on hand at CONSDOCK that can get a hand-picked team to a) the Martian South Pole to rescue Lex and b) the Asteroids, and this is Pierre’s Le Chat Noir, which may be old and decrepit like everyone, but which has multiple motors including Monatomic hydrogen and an untested Halley Drive (to later be forgetfully called the Haley Drive: sloppy).
But let us not forget Hank and Jocelyn, who aren’t exactly shagging from the moment they are re-united but might as well be. Booth goes further than he did in ‘The Gates of Eden’ to pointing this pair at each other, and given that Dan Dare is basically an asexual figure, I suppose it’s only fair, but there’s a large part of me that cannot be reconciled to the idea of this pairing, and which has me struggling uphill for much of the story.
Besides, that the Prof still wanting to crawl into Hogan’s arms when he’s wearing a garish pink zoot suit that’s an offence to the eyes is an improbability no story could ever recover from.
Still: the telesender has bounced Jocelyn from Mekonta to Rhea, and now it bounces both of them back for dinner. The Professor is involved in a Treen project to replace the spaceship with inter-system telesending, and both she and Hank are to be surreptitiously arrested and taken to the base of a secret Treen Trans-Temporal Research station, set up under the behest of Governor Sondar, but headed by one Halcyon Scobal, Chief Scientist.
Scobal is tall and striking, dresses in archaic clothing, plasters a basilisk symbol over everything within reach and his surname practically screams anagram across the entire auditory spectrum, but even with all these clues for the terminally hard of thinking, not to mention that he’s the living spit of his uncle, it takes Hank and Jocelyn absolute ages to recognise him as being the nephew of Doctor Blasco of ‘Operation Saturn’.
One final story element to throw in: before Peabody and Hogan are picked up by the Project security force, they have a strange encounter via the telesender, as a broken and battered version of Syndar appears, seeking aid and mouthing cryptic utterances, before vanishing. Remember Syndar? He was the cyborg Treen of ‘The Gates of Eden’ who was the aid of Bob Dylan, aka John Wesley Hibbings. And according to him, their base, Shelter, has been destroyed and Hibbings is dead. Only one of these things is true.
The thing is that, despite everybody’s memories having been erased after ‘Eden’, and Hogan having no idea who Syndar is, Peabody remembers him instantly, as do most of the others later in the story. Why is this? I’m sorry, Booth doesn’t provide any explanations. In fact, he doesn’t provide much of anything relating to any answers.
I’ve described the set-up at some length so that you can see that a good job is done in providing a web of disparate strands, out of which a good, cohesive story can be forged, but the problem is that they are all little more than gossamer threads, to be abandoned in favour of Booth’s real interest in the story, which turns out to be bloody Bob Dylan again.
What was O’Malley doing in the Martian Antarctic and what did he find there? No idea, don’t care.
Will Project Magellan succeed? No idea, don’t care.
What is Scobal/Blasco’s plan? Hooking up with the Vashtilian Migration, which is coming through the Solar System and will destroy it en route. What’s his part in all this? Don’t know, don’t care, blast him to death off-panel and have the Professor tell us it happened.
What about the Asteroid Impulse Generator? It was blasted by the Vashtilian’s, one wave of which appears to have slipped through the Solar System without anyone noticing, except that it destroyed Cosmic and the McHugh’s (McHugh’s? McHoo’s: sloppy). Incidentally, they destroy CONSDOCK too, and Shelter, though in contrast to what Syndar said earlier, it seems that was because it was actually in the way of the beam they sent to destroy CONSDOCK.
What’s Dan Dare going to do to protect Earth from the Vashtilian menace? Fuck all, actually, don’t care.
No, seriously. We really are re-running ‘The Gates of Eden’ here. Dan and Co get whizzed off into some kind of hyper-space to board a massive space vessel that looks like a gigantic juke-box, where of course Hibbings has been alive all along and is offering a repeat of the explore-the-Multiverse deal. O’Malley’s too busy with the Navy, Hank wants to go back to his Fluffalo farm, Peabody to join him there and Pierre wants to keep on trading. But Dan the newly-promoted Controller is fed up with Admin and decides to have some fun for himself, and Digby has completely reversed his original opposition, so to Hell with the threat to the Solar System, let’s boogie.
Cue final episode. Dan has disappeared, all sorts of plans are being carried out in and out of Spacefleet, nobody’s talking about or concerned in the slightest about the implacable, invincible Vashtilians, who have vanished as completely as any sense of logic or structure or consistency to this ‘story’. And Digby’s hair has started growing again…
It’s not even an ending, just a coming to a stop. ‘Parsecular Tales’, named for a made-up word whose most plain association is the parsec, a measure of spacial distance approximating to 3.6 Light-years, is a meaningless title, befitting a meaningless story. The inference is that it will return at some future stage but frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that nobody else seems to be able to produce new Hampson-continuity Dan Dare stories, I’d counsel against agreeing to run any more episodes.
This does not count as extended canon as far as I’m concerned.
Tim Booth’s Mercury Revenant, written and drawn in eighteen parts in Spaceship Away 33 through 40 (whilst Booth continues to produce episodes of his longer-standing Parsecular Tales) is really no more than a short story, a lineal action tale whose main point of interest is that it brings Mercury back into the overall story, albeit as not much more than a background.
Once again, Booth is operating in the early years of the Dan Dare continuity. Given that this tale starts with the test run of a prototype MH-fuelled fighter ship (lockwave control having bounced right up to our-world-date with onboard computers doing the job automatically), it’s post-Operation Saturn, but the Xmas-based setting makes it hard to slot in before Prisoners of Space – and there’s no room after it.
Basically, Dan and Dig do a high-speed test run to Mercury, where a new Spacefleet satellite, the local equivalent of Mars 1, is anchored on the dark side of the planet, under the command of Major Tom (sic) D’Arcy, previously seen in Marooned on Mercury. There’s a fairly isolated research station on the surface, in the temperate zone, where one very familiar red-haired Professor is learning more of the Mercurian language and botany, aided by Urb ut-Urthos, another veteran of the rather ramshackle official Mercury story.
Jocelyn’s delighted at the prospect of having Dan for Xmas (rather a contrast to her obvious preference for Hank Hogan in Booth’s other stories) but the kybosh is put on that planet when a menace turns up. Something is on a collision course with Mercury 1, impact time approximately twenty-four hours away.
Booth makes good use of the original Venus story here. At first, the object appears to be the derelict Kingfisher, but D’Arcy identifies it as its sister ship, the Kookaburra. He goes on to relate how the Kookaburra, and its other sister-ship, Kittiwake, was part of the reserve fleet for the 1996 Earth Invasion of Venus, but was badly hit by a Treen squadron, evacuated and forced out into space.
It appears that Kookaburra has actually drifted, comet-like, out as far as the Kuiper Belt before sling-shotting back towards the sun, on a course that takes it plumb through the space occupied by Mercury 1.
It’s an ingenious set-up but unfortunately, Booth is trying to be too clever by half here. Firstly, the whole point of D’Arcy in Marooned on Mercury was that he had been taken from Kingfisher when it was destroyed, months before Dan Dare ever got to Venus, and that he was the Mekon’s captive all the way from then until Mercury, four years later, so how the hell does he know the minutiae of the battle?
And whilst Dan’s universe is one in which interplanetary travel can be achieved at speeds far greater than those of our universe, for Kookaburra to travel from Venus orbit to the Kuiper Belt and back to Mercury orbit on nothing better than Impulse Power (which isn’t generated beyond the Asteroid Belt), in only five years, is stretching the boundaries of scientific plausibility more than somewhat.
Still, we have a menace, and we have Dan and Digby in a spacecraft, with Jocelyn Peabody advising them on scientific matters. This is going to be fun!
And Booth has one more complicating factor up his sleeve. Over Sir Hubert’s objections, Kookaburra was carrying a highly-illegal, utterly secret weapon, an only-in-the-case-of-utter-defeat Doomsday Weapon, set to wipe out all life north of the Equitorial Flame Barrier on Venus, so we”re talking a real Mercury-buster here. Sort of ups the stakes, really.
After that, though, the story is pretty much Saturday morning serial fun. On Peabody’s advice, Dan boards Kookaburra to set off all its port missiles, with Digby on watch to shoot them out of the, uh, sky. The kick of this one-sided boost throws the stricken ship off-course and away from Mercury 1, but unfortunately all this does is throw it onto a collision course with Ray-Law, the Mercurian capital city.
So Dan has to go back, to divert the ship to land, safely, by parachute power (another aspect of the Venus invasion) in the temperate zone, only that doesn’t work and Dan gets dropped on the hot side, in a lava lake, sinking and burning in molten lead! It’s wonderfully reminiscent of Sir Hubert and the Professor having to be rescued from the Flamebelt in the original story, with everybody galloping to the rescue, and Booth’s final touch is both a steal from, and a foreshadowing of The Ship That Lived, when our old pals Hank and Pierre do a deus ex machina rescue, having been on leave, lava rafting.
There’s just time for a grand old slap-up Xmas feast, complete with Digby’s traditional concern for just how soon they’ll be mixed up in summat dangerous again (it’s got to be Prisoners of Space, though after a successful trial like this, how come these MH powered ships disappear without trace in favour of the ‘Performing Flea’?)
A fun, but light tale, of a kind that would have fitted in fairly neatly in scope with the monochrome shorts of Keith Watson’s first year.
So that’s two more unofficial tales that are good enough to swell out the continuity. There are signs that Tim Booth’s Persecular Tales may be nearing an end, of some sort at any rate, so I’ll probably be back next year at some point, to comment upon that as a whole. And at least one new Dan Dare adventure will have started by then, which looks like it will be from a fresh creator.
It goes on.
Thanks to the ongoing endurance and excellence of Spaceship Away, two more complete Dan Dare adventures are now available to be read, and their worthiness to be incorporated in the canon be assessed.
The first of these is another prose novel from New Zealand fan Denis Steeper, whose Report of the Cryptos Commission, with its carefully devised chronology of Dan Dare’s career tends to be my bible for such things. This latest novel has been included with the last five issues of Spaceship Away, comprising five A5 booklets, each of twenty pages.
I was heavily critical of The Invaders of Ixx, which was set well after the Hampson/Watson continuity, for the aggravated cynicism and, to be frank, rampant interculture racism on display so far ahead. Operation Tau Ceti is not unmarked by such things, but is Steeper’s first extended story set within the Dare canon: our hero is still no more than Chief Pilot of Spacefleet, and though the story is set post the Treen Holocaust, with what that implies about the loss of the original Hampsonian innocence, we are still in a world easily recognisable as that we are most used to.
The story is set in 2015. Two years have passed since the return of the Terra Nova expedition, during which time Earth’s World Government (in which the Liberals are still clinging to post-Holocaust power) have been locked in mortal combat with Cosmic over the Halley Drive and every possible offshoot from its discovery. In Thork-space (i.e., Saturn’s sphere of influence) Red Tharl has finally won the Secession Wars and is in control of the Nine Moons.
Though it’s only three years since the end of the Holocaust, Earth is recovering faster than could have been expected. Saturn is still the dominant power in the Solar System, but the signs are already there that Earth will catch it up and surpass it in a decade, and Saturn will never catch up. Despite the legal stalemate with Cosmic, and with the benefit of the many discoveries made among the wrecked spaceships of the Sargasso Sea of Space, Earth has reverse-engineered the Halley Drive. The first starship has been named the William Dare, in honour of Dan’s father, the second will be the Copernicus, after his McHoo co-pilot on the original starship. And, at a secret asteroid base in the Belt, Cosmic have duplicated the Galactic Pioneer.
Unfortunately for all concerned,these developments are not as secret as they ought to be.
The action is precipitated by a clash of Spacefleet and Grand Union ships in the Asteroid Belt, Disputed Territory between the official boundaries of the Inner and Outer Planets. Given that the Thork culture is a richly feudal one, complicated by racial differences between the various colours, there is a certain degree of autonomy among Admirals, continually looking for advantage which, combined with the natural instinct to see the flatfaces as innately inferior, rapidly escalates towards war between Numidol and the Inner Planets.
Actually, it would usually be quite easy to defuse this situation: just get Dan Dare on the line to his old friend Tharl, who probably (and actually) knows nothing of this, and it would all be switched off. But Dan’s not here. At the same time as this skirmish has begun to escalate, a secret thork attack on Cosmic’s secret base has succeeded in space-lifting out of here the Galactic Pioneer II. And it’s gone out-system, towards Tau Ceti. And Dan is commanding the William Dare on immediate instructions to get out after it.
The absurd thing is that, after much thought and calculation, Spacefleet were about to launch on a survey mission to Tau Ceti, as the best of all the potential stars at a similar distance to Terra Nova, with the best prospect of an Earth-type planet. Now, the survey aspect is pushed way down the list: Dan’s top priority instructions are to recover or destroy the Galactic Pioneer II.
Thus the set-up. Steeper deploys his usual technique of multiple, multi-viewpoint scenes, each identified by date and place. He has two parallel strands in motion and flicks backwards and forwards between different elements of each story, which become further entwined when, after Cosmic are placated in order to retrieve Dan via the confiscated Galactic Galleon, Sir Hubert is forced to join the McHoo team. This brings Controller USA Wynard Spencer in as Acting CIC, due to it being Buggins’ turn, and Spencer is an absolute cretin whose completely wrong-headed tactics threaten to open the door to massive Thork victory.
Both stories are built up by confident detail and a careful assembled extrapolation of the real mechanics of Dan’s universe. Steeper is very good on this, and very good also in his imagination of the convoluted Thork personality, which keeps the home system story bubbling along nicely.
But we are here for Dan Dare and, not unincidentally, Earth’s first official interstellar adventure. For crew, he has the old gang, that is, Digby, Anastasia, Hank, Pierre and the Professor. There’s no Flamer Spry (too busy studying for exams) nor Lex O’Malley (too far underwater) and it’s no disrespect to either to say the story is better for not having their implausible presences along, even if much of the action takes place on a substantial moon, named Poseidon for the fact it’s primarily ocean.
Apart from the renegade thorks, who get wiped out eventually by Dan, along with the Galactic Pioneer II, there are two alien races in the Tau Ceti system. Both are colonists. One, the Krevvid, are insignificant in terms of this story, though Steeper takes time to intimate that they could be a problem if their race ever gets to hear of the Solar System. The other are the Pescods, and they’re a problem.
As if this weren’t enough, Steeper takes him to add a related subplot, in the form of a Treen attack on Formby aimed at capturing details of the Copernicus, which gets foiled thanks mainly to former Astral Senior Cadet and SF Resistance leader, Mark Straight. Apart from its illustration of Earth post-Holocaust, this slim subplot is of no great moment, except that it amply demonstrates the sheer panic at the thought of the Mekon getting hold of any information about building a starship.
And not just the Mekon, but any Mekon. The one we know has neither been seen nor heard of since seemingly committing suicide in the Silicon Mass as long ago as The Ship That Lived, but that still doesn’t mean he isn’t out there – or that somewhere, somehow, the Treen breeders have cloned a New Mekon (remember that, as far back as ‘The Venus Story’, twenty years previously in Steeper’s chronology, the next Mekon was fifty years away from coming to maturity.)
Overall, Operation Tau Ceti was enjoyable, and sat well within the Dan Dare stories to which it is supposed to be contemporary. The post-Holocaust cynicism is there, as is the abrasion between the lifeforms of the Solar System, but it is at an entirely less well-developed stage: Hampson’s original utopianism is still the primary influence. I’d like to see how Steeper might tackle a pre-Holocaust story: there’s still room in the long gap between ‘The Venus Story’ and The Red Moon Mystery, even after allowing for Tim Booth’s The Gates of Eden.
And speaking of Tim Booth, his is the other new story completed in this past eight issues of Spaceship Away, which I’ll be considering next.
I’ve just learned of a new, forthcoming proposal to adapt the classic Dan Dare stories from the Frank Hampson era in a series of six ‘audio adventures’, i.e., radio versions, details here.
As you can see, the planned adaptations consist of the first five of Dan’s original adventures in the Eagle, plus ‘Reign of the Robots’ but without first traveling to Cryptos/Phantos.
The series looks as if it’s stripping the cast down to a core quartet of Dan, Digby, Professor Peabody and the Anastasia, which, if it’s going to be the craft that takes our intrepid heroes to Venus, right at the start, is not going to be the personal craft we all know and love.
The blurbs also make it plain that, whereas the audio series follows the Eagle chronology, excepting ‘Reign of the Robots’, there are going to be substantial changes to plots and settings. The piece speaks of ‘a great team that has respect but not reverence for the original comics’ which, whilst objectively probably the best thing you could have, nevertheless fills me with dread. As you may have noticed, I like my Dan Dare to be Dan Dare, so any variation is automatically troubling.
Besides, whilst the only reference to romance is to the ‘romance of space’, the fact that Dan and Jocelyn (will she still even be Jocelyn, since that’s such an old-fashioned name now: five’ll get you ten that the ‘Mabel’ gets dropped extremely silently) are trailing around together is like a red flag.
There doesn’t, in these brief descriptions, appear to be room for the likes of Sir Hubert, Hank or Pierre, though Sondar is name-checked and Flamer Spry’s role exists, but what we’ll get will be quite different to what we know.
B7 Media have been around since 2007 and have an impressive record. They were behind the most recent Sky adaptation of Terry Pratchett, in 2010, and are currently rebooting Blake’s 7 for TV, having already done so for Radio. They’ve also adapted The Martian Chronicles in that form, both series of which having been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra, so Dan Dare is likely to come out on that medium.
The advent of Spaceship Away was a godsend to many, not least those who had dreamed of working on their own Dan Dare stories. One who was far more advanced than most, and far more qualified, was Tim Booth, writer, artist and musician, who approached Rod Barzilay with a story he was writing and drawing. Barzilay approved of it, and Booth’s The Gates of Eden debuted in issue 9, running for 39 episodes.
I love it. There are reasons why I shouldn’t, and I’ll explain these, and it’s something Frank Hampson would never have countenanced, for many reasons, and it’s not as if it has a proper ending, except in the closing of a door to something way beyond the Dan Dare series. But I still love it: for the imagination it displays, for the long periods in which it focuses on Hank and Pierre and their continual banter, and for its art.
I didn’t really care for Booth’s contributions to Green Nemesis. He’s not as precise an artist as any of the ‘professional’ stable, his work is frequently fussy and over-detailed, and his colouring is far too Sixties psychedelic to be wholly suited to Dan Dare.
But for The Gates of Eden, Booth adopted, and primarily hewed to a simpler, more direct style, with more naturalistic colouring. In some ways, it’s like a cartoon version of Hampson’s style, and the early style at that, which befits a story that slips into continuity between The Venus Story and The Red Moon Mystery.
And Booth is to be congratulated lavishly in one tiny aspect at least: he is the first and only Dan Dare writer or artist to show Albert Fitzwilliam Digby speaking to his wife!
Booth takes his time over the first half of the story. He’s not just preparing for the dramatic aspect of his tale, he’s enjoying himself filling in details of Hampson”s world that were left to our assumption. I do have to criticise one immediate detail, which is that The Gates of Eden begins in 1998, and one of its preliminary details is Dan being taken off a mission to the Asteroid Belt to supervise the first full Venus Food Run: given that the Venus Story ended in 1996, that’s an awfully large gap for a planet so desperate to escape from reliance on food blocks.
But Dan, and of course Digby, have to go to Venus, leaving Hank and Pierre, that pair of puzzled pilots, to go it alone in the old-fashioned Nimrod. Their mission is to identify suitable asteroids for Impulse Wave Relay stations to be built upon, extending Earth’s space-shipping range. En route, picking up newly-designed spacesuits, they bump into the designer, Professor Peabody, with Tystar, the young son of the Theron Volstar. These two will also have a part to play, when things hot up. Take note that the ship they are travelling on is the Milton Caniff.
Meanwhile, the ‘Frogboy’ and the ‘Yankee Palooka’ fly on to the Asteroids, the latter toting a ukelele/mandolin on which he sings, badly and, if the picture in his cabin is any evidence, a bit of a torch for the fair Jocelyn. And the two ‘copains’ go about their mission, but Pierre the more sensitive of the two, has the feeling that they are being watched, and he is, of course, right.
On Venus, the urgent reason for Dan to supervise this Food Run is carefully revealed, and it is a genuinely touching moment. There is a symbol of Treen/Theron co-operation, designed and constructed in secret: nostalgia overwhelms as Sondar and Volstar present the Pilot of the Future with his personal spacecraft, the Anastasia.
And there’s a perfect excuse for a first mission, as radio contact is lost with Hank and Pierre in the Asteroids. Dan and Digby take their new craft (about which Dig has doubts, given the number of windows that will have to be polished) and set a course.
En route, two things happen: first, the Milton Caniff goes missing, with young Tystar and Earth’s premier food expert, Jocelyn Peabody aboard, and the Anastasia is overtaken, swept up and given a lift by an American crewed Rescue Fleet commanded by Colonel Estev Cyonna.
Yer what? Estev who?
This is a moment to step away from the story and address some of the issues that ought to disqualify The Gates of Eden from consideration.
Those whose knowledge of comics, strips and cartoonists stretch beyond the purely British world of the Eagle ought to have recognised the name Milton Caniff as being the highly influential master of the adventure strip, the writer and artist of the legendary and rip-roaring Terry and the Pirates. Caniff was a master of chiaroscuro, an artist dedicated to realism and accuracy, one of the most influential American strip artists of the Twentieth Century.
Personally, like many, I prefer the dozen years Caniff put in on Terry to the near fifty he spent on his second great strip, the one he left Terry to create and, more importantly, own. That was Steve Canyon, and if you jumble the letters of the improbable Estev Cyonna… And within Booth’s style, he is drawn to be Canyon.
I’ve not the least objection to that, but I feel that, as a matter of consistency, I ought to. It’s not just Caniff and Canyon, but there are spaceships of all sizes and dimensions, such as the rock-crusher Bo Diddley, the Little Eva, Miss Liberty, Crazy Horse, Dixie Darlin’, the Thomas Pynchon. Admittedly, the list of ship names also includes the Lancastrian but that’s very much an exception. Booth peppers his strip with American names and icons, all of which should be thought of as inimical to the atmosphere of so British – so English – a character and series, as Dan Dare.
That’s not all, but we’ll return to that subject after another section of the plot, this time the ongoing mystery of what is happening to Hank and Pierre.
They are being watched and, what’s worse, whilst investigating one asteroid’s possibilities, their ship is taken, leaving them in desperate straits with only a few hours of oxygen each before inevitable death, long before Anastasia could possibly reach them.
Only death is not inevitable. Hank and Pierre have been led, and where they have been led is into the interior of the asteroid, where they find a strange, unmanned base. It’s accessed through a mysterious, yet familiar to Pierre, set of numbers: 21 – 12 – 1918, it’s got breathable air and it’s got a doorway out into the open. It leads to Eden, a planet of natural goodness and beauty, an idyllic yet empty world that proves to be populated by robots fighting an automatic war.
Just what the heck is going on?
What’s going on is a cyborg-Treen, Syndar by name, vat-brother to Sondar and so valued by the Mekon that, when involved in a bad crash, he was rebuilt with robotic parts. Let’s be honest, if it was hovering near the margins of an authentic Dan Dare story, at this point Booth takes it outside the line and keeps it over for almost everything that follows. The Mekon repair a damaged Treen? No, he wouldn’t, under any circumstances.
Syndar conducts Hank and Pierre from Eden to Isshka, a primarily water planet, via some form of telesender. They are greeted by a mermaid, or rather Professor Peabody, with Tystar. Forget Tystar, the Prof looks like she’s never done before, with a grin on her face far more sexy than any look managed during Eagle‘s run, and she changes out of her wet-suit on-stage, revealing a fetching pink slip. No wonder Hank closes in for a hug. And good old Jocelyn is definitely on-side with what’s going on.
Then, with Dan and Digby being led carefully to a rendezvous at Shelter, a secret asteroid base constructed and run by the man behind all of this, we get the great revelation. And it’s Bob Dylan.
No, it’s actually former Earth scientist and spacepilot John Henry Hibbings, who prefers to be known as Mr Jones (as in you don’t know what’s going on, do you?) and in both the visuals and the dialogue, the Dylan references pile up so thickly you could pick them up in lumps. And is not the title of the very story a not-in-the-least coded reference to the man?
Let’s cut quickly to the chase. Dylan/Hibbings has bummed around in space since the Sixties. Early on, he found some crystals with power over space, time and dimension. He has learned how to master them. But the longer time has gone on, the more he has sensed something dark, dense, distant, a threat of immense proportion. That’s why he’s gathered the Venus team, minus Sir Hubert, together. It’s a repeat of what the McHoo will do in Dan’s future, collecting an unparalleled Space Exploration Team. Will they help him?
Unlike McHoo, Hibbings/Jonesy will not force a decision. Should Dan and Co refuse, they will be returned to those places in space and time where Hibbings first interfered, without memory, to live out their lives as they choose. With Tystar absenting himself from decision-making, it becomes a matter of democracy.
There are two in favour – the Professor, already enthralled with the possibilities of discovery, and the ever-adventurous Hank – and two dead-set against – the disbelieving Pierre and Digby, who has taken against this ‘snake-oil salesman’ on sight. The final decision falls to Dan. As it must always have been, and by this I don’t mean the future we already know of, he turns it down. He’s younger, less convinced, lacks the personal elements of his lost father and McHoo’s fait accompli, but it’s down to his duty, to his Controller, to Spacefleet, to the people of Earth.
So Hibbings keeps his word, and everyone goes back, without memory, without trace (save for Hibbings’ compulsion to re-string Hank’s rackety old mandolin). What remains is the successful conclusion to the Venus Food Run and a soiree hosted by Jocelyn, at which Pierre re-finds the mysterious numbers, that mean nothing to anyone save Digby who, metafictionally identifies them as Frank Hampson’s birthday.
Where do we start with all the ways in which this is absolutely wrong for a Dan Dare story that seeks to ground itself in the authentic canon? I’ve already alluded to the overt Americanisation of things, the worship of Caniff and the utter wrongness of Syndar, but the biggie is of course the presence and tutelary spirit of Mr Robert Allan Zimmerman.
Booth’s fixation with Bob Dylan practically takes over the strip. This buttresses the Americanised aspect of the tale but also gives it a distinct leaning towards the Sixties, when Dan’s proper metier is the Fifties.
Then there’s Eden, and the opening of the gates to a wider world, to more universes that Dan’s own. Booth even uses the word Multiverse to describe what lies beyond, a word that I at least cannot hear or read without instantly thinking of the Justice Society of America and DC Comics. It’s wrong, completely wrong, and it has the unintended effect of diminishing Dan Dare by making his Universe one among, well, a Multitude.
None of this is appropriate to a series whose basis lay in hard science, in plausibility and realism. So far as what Booth introduces here, it is advanced science of a kind indistinguishable, in Arthur C. Clarke’s saying, to magic, and so in Dan Dare terms it is magic, by virtue of not having any rational explanation, such as Impulse Waves, or Nimbus Drives.
Of course, there is another interpretation of this final phase of the story. It can be cast into symbolic terms and read as a metaphor for Frank Hampson’s desire to extend Dan Dare’s reach, into American newspapers, into animated films, to take Dan into a world wider than that occupied by Hulton Press, where stories may well have had to be retold in a different manner to his art boards. Though the analogy is weakened by it being Dan himself, supported by the solid, stolid Digby, who rejects such an expansion.
As for that metafictional ending in which the characters themselves disclaim any knowledge of their creator, let’s adopt Dan’s final verdict and not go there, just not go there.
Yet for all that I said I loved The Gates of Eden, and I still do. That’s why it appears here in this series, on an equal par with the official canon. The only part of it that makes me truly flinch is Peabody’s overt sexuality, because it’s just wrong for Dan Dare’s world (and besides, forget this anonymous Jack Gurk – Professor Jocelyn Mabel Gurk? No way – if there’s any marrying to be done, it should be with Dan, there’s definitely a story there in getting him to come down off his Confirmed Bachelor perch and recognise what good things could ensue).
As I said before, I recognise the people. Booth’s story and setting may be wrong, but I believe it’s Dan and Co who take part in it. And I will forgive much for Booth bringing Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and his wife and four-times mother to his children together at long last, even if it’s over distances counted in the millions of miles, via a viewscreen, Earth to Anastasia. “’Ullo monkey, how’s tricks?” she says, getting a word in edgeways before Aunt Anastasia starts hassling Digby about wrapping up warm in space.
There’s a long overdue world in that greeting, and enough to let us all know just how the Digbys keep their marriage on track when he’s never home. That’s the real Gates of Eden.
When Comics Journal columnist R. Fiore reviewed the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he began with the line: ‘When you see a man walk on water, you don’t complain that he’s got his (trouser) cuffs wet’. That line applies equally aptly to The Phoenix Mission, a ten-part Dan Dare story, written by long-term Dare fan Rod Barzilay, drawn by Keith Watson and Don Harley, and published in issues 1-4 of Spaceship Away, a magazine created by Barzilay as, ultimately, somewhere to publish this story. The Phoenix Mission was published under licence from the Dan Dare Corporation Ltd, which now owns the world-wide rights to Dan Dare and his fellow characters. Spaceship Away‘s licence is to publish new stories of Dan Dare within the original Fifties continuity. This first, impossible to imagine story was published between 2003-4, a new, unashamedly Hampson-esque adventure, thirty-six years after Dan’s adventures in Eagle.
That I should live so long, and be so well rewarded.
The history of The Phoenix Mission, and how it took a dozen years to pass from conception to the printed page, is set out in detail in Spaceship Away 1-3 (indeed, it’s practically the only other thing in those issues!). But a quick summary is in order.
The original spark came from Dare fan Dave Westaway. Keith Watson was doing private commissions for fans and Westaway suggested that a group could jointly commission enough boards for a full-scale adventure. Barzilay took up responsibility for the project, contacting Watson and getting agreement from him. Indeed, Watson – who insisted on editorial control – was enthusiastic, although Barzilay’s initial dream of another epic was cut down to a more practical ten episodes. In the absence of a suitable writer with suitable ideas, Barzilay began jotting down thoughts himself, and became the writer, almost by default.
The story was to be set between The Ship That Lived and The Phantom Fleet, and would centre upon the most fruitful gap in the original saga, a return to the Sargasso Sea of Space, justifying the title on multiple levels.
Tragically, after completing the first page to his satisfaction, Watson was diagnosed with a far-too-virulently spread cancer, and died in 1994, at the age of 54, mourned by the entirety of fandom.
The project was rescued when Don Harley agreed to take over, though given his existing commitments, years passed before the story could be completed.
Publication was an equally tricky hurdle. Watson’s death had severed all connection to contemporary Fleetway publications, and whilst Hawk Books would have happily added The Phoenix Mission to their roster, loss of the licence to Titan Books (who will never knowingly print anything that hasn’t been published before) stymied that approach.
Hence the need to create Spaceship Away, with unexpectedly fecund results…
I found the first two issues together in Forbidden Planet in Manchester, and fell upon them like the Assyrian sweeping down upon the fold. My first reaction, on reading what amounted to six episodes in one sitting was that I had died and gone back to the Fifties, not a sensation that I would welcome in any other context. My second reaction was immense jealousy towards Rod Barzilay, even as I recognised that I could not have done what he had done.
The story is fairly tight and clipped, in view of its limitations on length. It’s preceded by a homage to Frank Hampson’s World Daily Post ‘cover’ in ‘The Venus Story’, cramming in tons of exposition in a painless manner. The Mission of the title, which is commanded by Major Steve Valiant, is set against the background of Earth’s slow, painful recovery from the Treen Holocaust: Valiant’s orders are to retrieve King and MacFarlane’s damaged but basically intact craft, together with any other Earth-craft in usable condition. Spacefleet is still desperately undermanned for effective vessels.
As an adjunct to the main mission, our dear old friend Jocelyn Peabody is along to study ‘Crusoe’ and ‘Friday’s hydroponic arrangements, though she’s deeply interested in a ship that, despite her having seen it destroyed, appears to be in perfect condition in the Sargasso.
The first problem in that the Sargasso appears to be a dead radio zone. The lack of communication from the Marco Polo, leads to Dan being sent out, with Digby, in Anastasia, to find out what’s up. En route, he picks up two passengers, one official, one highly irregular. The first is Tharl’s Ambassador to Earth, little Nikki, from Operation Saturn, travelling to view Tharl’s newly-discovered duplicate flagship, and search for his long-missing ally, Captain Nerkut. The second is Uncle Ivor, pragmatically taking the long route back to his Martian diggings, on the only ship that will have him.
Dan’s arrival in the Sargasso is the prelude to chaos. Valiant has taken the Marco Polo outside the dead zone to communicate with Earth, and his team have taken up residence on the damaged Space Clipper, the Delaware, whilst explorations continue. Dan, Dig and Nikki search Tharl’s craft, Uncle Ivor jets off to investigate ancient star writings on another of the mysterious ships, and disaster strikes.
Captain Bud Johnson explores an old ship, unaware that it’s powered by pre-Blasco MH fuel. It explodes in righteous fury, causing ripples of damage across the whole area, the worst being that it activates remote drone-ship defences on the dormant mysterious Red Ship, which threaten to destroy the whole Earth expedition.
Total defeat is held back by the adroit use of Black Cats, but ultimately, it is Valiant, in the returning Marco Polo who gets everyone the hell out of there, to regroup, re-think and, in the case of Professor Peabody, adopt Denis Steeper’s ingenious idea by identifying the Sargasso with the destroyed Red Moon.
End of story, set-up for sequel, and phew!
If I’ve a criticism of this story, it’s a fond one, and entirely understandable, and it’s that Barzilay tries to cram too much into so short a piece. Aside from the characters already mentioned, not to mention the previous stories referenced, there are cameos for Sir Hubert, Flamer, Stripey, Hank and Pierre, whilst the Mission crew I haven’t mentioned also includes Mark Straight, Tony Albright and Tubby Potts.
Indeed, this flaw is foreshadowed in the World Daily Post edition, which lists no fewer than 31 members of the Mission team.
As a consequence of wanting to feature too much – as I said wholly understandably in a story that was originally a one-off – Barzilay corners himself with his one error of pacing, which is the off-hand, and very rushed squeezing-in of Peabody’s theory about the Red Moon in the dwindling number of panels of the last page, which makes for a very weak ending.
Other than that well, as Fiore said, you don’t complain about getting the bottoms of your trousers damp! This is superb, and the art is brilliant. Keith Watson’s final page is heart-breaking, in the thought of what would, in a fairer world, have followed. But Don Harley’s work is easily of the standard of the days when he was ‘the second best Dan Dare artist in the world’.
It is far superior to his work on the series between 1960 and 1962, even without Bruce Cornwell. Though it took literal years to complete, in between other jobs, Harley has still been able to devote more time to each page than in the days when he was on a deadline, and the quality is unmistakeable.
So, there was one more Dan Dare story, and Don Harley, after a certain ambivalence, decided that he could continue the agreement. There would be a second, a direct sequel, the epic that Barzilay had dreamed of, to be called Green Nemesis (and what does that title lead us to expect?)
The truth was, there wasn’t that much that was radically different about Frank Bellamy’s first Dan Dare page, on the cover of Eagle Volume 10 no 28. But then again we were not privy to Bellamy’s original art which, legendarily, featured a close-up on Dan which was not recognisable as the Pilot of the Future. To Bellamy’s (private) mortification, Don Harley was brought in to redraw Dan’s face for consistency – a move that distinctly pre-dates the similar treatment handed out to Jack Kirby when he first drew Superman.
Artistically, the remainder of Terra Nova is something of a mish-mash. Bellamy clearly decided not to launch immediately into wholesale artistic changes, but to tone his naturally dynamic style down in the first few weeks, so as not to rattle the audience. And there was also the matter of Harley/Watson’s page. It’s no disrespect to either man to say that they couldn’t draw like Frank Bellamy, but they were also steeped in Frank Hampson’s style and there was a contrast.
Nor was Bellamy favoured by the point of the story where he took over, which was not conducive to dramatic action and exciting perspectives – and he was frustrated from making the major changes Odhams wanted by being in the middle of an ongoing story, millions of miles from Earth: there could be no abrupt changes in uniform or spaceship design for a long time.
Whilst I’m by no means qualified as an art critic, the fundamental differences between Messrs Hampson and Bellamy that I see can be broken down thus: Stylism vs Realism, Interpretative vs Dramatic art, Line vs Dot.
The first of these is in some respects a false dichotomy. Hampson strove at all times for realistic, convincing art, art that depicted the fantastic in such depth that it would be automatically accepted as real, as Truthful. Three of the characters appearing in Terra Nova were based directly upon real people, Robert Hampson, Peter Hampson and Greta Tomlinson. But neither Dan nor Digby had been based in any comparable degree on models. To that extent, they were abstractions, stylised figures, still reflecting a touch of the symbolic: Dan’s long face, lantern jaw and his eyebrow quirk, Digby’s rotundity, his quiff and those decidedly cartoon eyes. They were stylisms designed by Hampson to facilitate the instant recognisability of characters who would be spending large periods of time in generally identikit spacesuits: think of Hank Hogan’s glasses, Pierre Lafayette’s moustaches.
Bellamy, in contrast, was always far more of a photorealist in his approach. He’d cut his teeth at Eagle on real-life histories and he’d been entrusted with drawing Winston Churchill – Churchill, the Greatest Living Englishman, as the period saw him – and that was down to the realism inherent in every brush-stroke. Physically, Dan and Digby become ‘real’ figures in a way very different to that established by Hampson. The underlying cartoon is stripped out. Digby’s eyes develop irises and pupils. Dan’s eyebrows start to look improbable, freakish. And there’s a close-up panel of Jocelyn Peabody that would make you start to think a bit differently about Greta Tomlinson.
No wonder Don Harley had to re-draw that first panel.
The second difference is easier to define. Hampson, from the first, was concerned with what he called the ‘pictorial sub-plot’. This was the second reading, where the boy, having satisfied himself as to the latest development of the plot, would return to study each panel, to read himself into those panels, to ‘walk around’ the consistent, convincing, strange-yet-understandable world in which Dan & Co existed.
Bellamy simply didn’t think that way. His images were concerned with immediacy, with the exiting effect each instant had, not with any longer term attempt to convince people that here was a real, alien world that had functioned before Dan & Co came to this spot, and which would continue to function thereafter. All that mattered was this instant.
Hampson focussed on showing his readers exactly what happened, in imaging an entire world into being for them. Bellamy thrilled them, made them gasp in awe, scared them, but did not even attempt to address what kind of world lay behind the image.
The third difference is a purely artistic distinction. Both Hampson and Bellamy pursued realistic art in terms of the panels they drew. But for Hampson, detail, shade, contrast, these were all achieved by consistent line-work. Short, straight lines, hatching, meticulously laid into place. This detail of work is what so consistently set Hampson’s work apart from his assistants. But it sets it apart from Bellamy, because the latter’s artistic style was built around a form of pointillism. Bellamy used dots as opposed to lines, intense and detailed and as distinctive as Hampson, but also better suited to his dynamism, since pointillism was always associated with the Impressionist approach. It can be much more conducive to impressing an image, where hatching imposes a greater solidity. It’s a fluid approach, and one that, in Bellamy’s hands, was glorious to read.
But it did not help Harley/Watson one little bit in producing work that would complement Bellamy as opposed to jar wildly against his look. And, once Bellamy had relaxed into his own style of lay-out, the intensity and photorealism of his best work, the contrast with the other page is indeed jarring. Which could not be anything but bad for the story.
Ah, the story. The poor story. Terra Nova‘s back was broken when Frank Hampson left. The grand story cycle was dead in the water. Alan Stranks was no longer there to guide the story as he had done for the past half-decade, half Dan Dare’s life. To replace him, Eric Eden returned once more, this time as scripter. His brief was obviously to get this thing over with as soon as he could (though that would take six months and another story before he could do that: Odhams may well have fumed at the delay but they would not take it out on Eden, who would script the series for another two years after that).
I’ll have more to say about Eden in later posts. He came in on a hiding to nothing and I won’t blame him for what follows. Dan, Dig and Sir Hubert are taken to the Novad city, in the jungle, on an isolated peak, where they discover that Captain Dare not only passed that way but stayed many years, naming the city Pax (latin for Peace), helping the villagers and even teaching one perfect English that he recalls on the spot despite having not practiced speaking it for ten years.
That’s right, Dan’s Dad stayed for what must have logically been twenty years and then moved on, across the ocean, about ten years ago, in search of other Novad civilisations with scientific achievements that might get him back home to his son. So basically he sat around for twenty years before starting to work on a return?
(And we’ve still not considered the point that, in the thirty years Captain Dare has gone, his son – and all his friends around him – have had ten years taken out of their lives courtesy of suspended animation, so is that thirty years real or subjective? Has Captain Dare been away for forty years?).
That established, Terra Nova relapses. The Novads are continually threatened by the Nagrebs: not another tribe but a colony of giant ants (and people thought Stranks prone to cliché). Flamer, Lex and the Prof come planet-side in search of their friends and are attacked by the Nagrebs. Dan goes off to rescue Lex and Peabody, then uses Anastasia to bomb the living shit out of the ant’s nest: bye bye menace.
All of which may have been based upon Stranks’ original synopsis for this part of the cycle but somehow I can’t see Hampson tolerating such a dull idea for anything greater than an Annual. Terra Nova ends with Dan still in pursuit of his father, and having Digby and Lex detached to assist him. Sir Hubert stays behind to help McHoo map the heavens on the Galactic Galleon, the Professor and Cadet Spry to help improve the biochemistry of the food available to the Novads of Pax.
Take a long look at Jocelyn and Flamer for this is their departure point. From here, they are declared redundant to the Dan Dare series. There are more adventures to come for other’s of Dan’s supporting cast, even in the fast-approaching Sixties when Keith Watson would be the Dan Dare artist, fighting at all turns to reflect and restore the glory days.
There is literally one last appearance for them at the wrap-up of this cycle. Each will appear in a glorious montage panel that features literally everyone of any importance to the series, in 1964. The ‘ultimate’ fates of everyone bar Flamer will be revealed a year after, and at the very end they will gather on a stage to celebrate the end of the series.
But this is where they leave, quietly, unwanted by Eagle‘s new masters. Despite my reservations about the Astral College Junior Cadet, it is sad to see them go.