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.

Storm Nelson and the Sea Leopard

There was more to the old Eagle than merely Dan Dare, though reading this blog you could be forgiven for not realising that. But as well as the Pilot of the Future, the Eagle throughout the mid-Fifties had one of the most reliable, consistent and highly entertaining line-ups of series that British comics has ever put together.

It sounds incredible to say this but, for the best part of about four years in the Fifties, Eagle‘s line-up of series did not change. It was the same, week-in, week-out, for years. And whilst that wouldn’t play in modern times, back then the strength of the comic’s features and the certainty that they brought to the week was overwhelmingly important to its 750,000 weekly purchasers. And not a small proportion of their parents too.

That line-up, in reading order from front cover to back, was Dan Dare, P.C. 49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Jack O’Lantern, The Three J’s of Northbrook, Storm Nelson and the Silver Fleet and the back page Lives of Great Men series, featuring luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Marco Polo and David, the Shepherd King (these last three with art from the blazingly brilliant Frank Bellamy.

The range of stories was inimitable. Dan Dare offered space travel and the wonders of the Universe, P. C. 49 a comedy drama, Riders of the Range a highly researched and impeccably accurate Wild Western, Luck of the Legion international pre-WW1 adventure with the French Foreign Legion, Jack O’Lantern the efforts of an orphan boy in Regency England to clear his father’s name and fortune, The Three J’s a prose school story and Storm Nelson globe-trotting naval adventures.

I love them all, and my pursuit of old Eagle‘s gives me greater joy for collecting instalments of these supposedly lesser strips’ stories. I’m looking forward to the point when I can write about each of these series with the authenticity of comprehensive knowledge of their contents.

In the meantime, I have enjoyed a minor coup. Whilst undertaking one of my frequent searches on eBay for Eagle comics, I happened on an unusual item. There were a handful of occasions in the Fifties when Eagle collaborated in the publication of original novels featuring their characters. The most famous (and expensive) of these is Basil Dawson’s ‘Dan Dare on Mars’ (currently available on Amazon for £195.00) but there were three Sergeant Luck novels by series writer Geoffrey Bond, and here I was looking at a very reasonably priced, dustjacketed copy of ‘Storm Nelson and the Sea Leopard’, written by Nelson’s creator, Edward Trice. I couldn’t resist.

The book arrived 48 hours later. It smells like a sixty year old book, but it’s complete, and with only a couple of scuffs to the dustjacket. Richard Jennings contributes a very small colour drawing to the cover, and one full-page black and white drawing prefacing the actual story.

The idea behind the Storm Nelson series is that Nelson, a former Royal Navy Officer, with a spell in Naval Intelligence behind him. After the War, Nelson couldn’t settle to an ordinary life and put together a small private navy for hire to deal with troublespots. The Silver Fleet is based on the ocean going yacht, the Silver Spray, plus the motorboat Silver Foam, submarine Silver Fish and helicopter Silver Hawk. Nelson’s team consists of Scots radio operator and electronics expert Jonah McCann, from Auchermuchty, the East End mechanic and scrapper, ‘Spanner’ Webb, Irish pilot ‘Bash’ Callaghan and their ten year old Australian mascot, ‘Kerfuffle’ Kidd.

Trice created the Silver Fleet series and wrote all except the last two adventures. With the exception of two mid-Fifties stories, art was by Richard Jennings, an early recruit to Eagle, who took over writing late on, when Trice was too ill to continue. Titles had a colour theme: ‘The Mystery of the Blue Pearl’, ‘…the Yellow Bird’, ‘… the Magenta Mark’ etc. Many of the Silver Fleet’s cases, including their first, came through Nelson’s former naval comrade Don Kenyon, now a high level fraud investigator for Lloyds of London.

The book is a good, solid, boys adventure story of its time, a thrilling adventure well-written, with well-defined characters. The story starts with the Silver Fleet at anchor at Cape Town, awaiting another job, which comes from the direction of an AngloNorwegian Whaling Company whose Directors include another of Nelson’s old naval comrades.

It appears that the company’s operation in the Antarctic are big interfered with. A whaling ship with all its crew were lost last year, and two more ships have disappeared this season, within a couple of days. The Silver Fleet heads south to investigate.

There’s a built-in deadline: once the Silver Fleet arrives, there is about nine days before the Antarctic freeze, which will make the waters far too dangerous for wooden vessels. The Fleet heads for the area in which the later of the two recent whaling ships has disappeared, hoping to pick up some kind of trail or, alternately, offer itself as bait.

Trice doesn’t over-complicate the plot. The Sea Leopard of the title, apart from being a dangerous animal, is the name of a ship which has been hijacking the whalers, not, it turns out, for their cargo but for their crew. There is an Antarctic volcano creating a kind of warm spot, and there is a remarkably pure diamond mine in its base, which the crews are being used as slaves to mine.

Storm recognises the ultimate villain, though, Pedro Barranquilla, former South American dictator, intent on raising a fortune to take back control of the country from which he was deposed. It’s clear that the Silver Fleet were involved in that, though I don’t have a sufficiently complete collection to check whether this took place in Eagle or is another adventure dreamed up by Trice for this story.

It’s interesting that, in overthrowing the dictator, the story doesn’t shirk from the death of several of the imprisoned crews, as well as that of Barranquilla and his ex-Nazi sidekick, the latter’s being by way of suicide.

But the outcome is imperiled by the early arrival of the ice, leading to a tense, drawn out escape with the whaling ships acting as ice-breakers for the Silver Fleet.

This was an entirely enjoyable book for what it is, and it holds up well for something almost sixty years old. If I had a criticism, it’s that the story is too Nelson-centric: of course he’s the hero, but the strip managed to spread events round the supporting cast very easily. Kerfuffle comes off really badly in this respect, pushed out of virtually every aspect of the plot.

I’m not aware of any other Storm Nelson novels, but I’d happily pick up any others, and I’ve certainly a mind to try the ‘Luck of the Legion’ books (I am almost certain that I did read one from the Library, a long time ago).

Of course, the Dan Dare one would be favourite, but it’s very much out of my present range.