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.
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.
In memory, I always think of The Moonsleepers as completing a trilogy of successive Mekon stories, but though the Tyrant of Venus makes a second successive instant return, this adventure is not about him, and he is very much a background figure. Instead, The Moonsleepers sees the return, for the final time, of Xel.
Overall, this is a longer, better story than The Mushroom, though it’s marred by some inattention to detail and inconsistency. Nevertheless, it’s much improved, and in its extensive scenes on Triton, Moon of Neptune, Watson’s art is unsurpassed as he depicts a snow and ice world.
Or, since this is achieved almost solely through colour, with little or no line-work, perhaps that accolade should go to Eric Eden.
Whilst All Treens Must Die! Began with due process, with the Mekon going on trial, The Moonsleepers skips that part and goes straight to Xel’s punishment. He is an alien warlord, nasty and brutish, filled only with hate, beyond all hopes of integration into Earth’s society. He is also powerful beyond most restraint and an obvious threat so, after a presumed trial and conviction, he is sentenced to life imprisonment, on an isolated satellite, on a distant orbit, without the resources to escape. Xel is placed in completely solitary confinement, to be visited once every eleven months when further supplies will be dropped off.
It’s the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s also the only practical solution to Xel’s menace that there is. Digby, showing a touch of soft-heartenedness, wonders why they can’t use the Tempus Frangit to take him back where they found it, whilst Dan, showing a touch of hard-headedness, rules this out on the grounds that time travel is far too costly even for good deeds. And besides, they only know the way to Meit, and have no clue whatsoever as to where Stoll may be.
But everyone knows that prisons do not hold villains in fiction. For there is still the Mekon, who may have no love for Xel but who recognises him as a useful idiot… I mean ally. The Mekon frees Xel from his satellite, by kidnapping a Theron ship, killing its crew and delivering the ship to his ally. And Xel has one further advantage: the Mekon has preserved the ship’s passenger, Sir Hubert Guest, on tour presenting his memoirs, ‘The Parting Guest’.
About which Digby has disingenuously wondered whether Sir Hubert will mention him or Dan.
Under hypnotic control, Sir Hubert admits that Earth scientists have detected potential signs of life on the afore-mentioned Triton. So Xel, with Sir Hubert, heads for Triton, where he will discover a race of indolent, lazy, weak-willed folk, living in cities that provide them with heat, light and food, enabling them to lead a life of doing and thinking nothing.
Xel whips them into shape to create an army, an invading army in spaceships of his design. And whilst he attacks Earth, the Mekon will attack Venus, the two-pronged assault intended to stretch and divide the defences of the Inner Planets and give the attackers victory.
Sir Hubert is the latest, and almost the last of Keith Watson’s nods to the antecedents of the series. Though he is the victim of Xel’s domination at the beginning, he does play an active part in the story, unlike Hank Hogan: once Xel finds his powerbase, Sir Hubert is inessential but, despite his isolation so far away, he manages to cross an ice-desert and pilot an escape craft back to Earth, alone, with inadequate supplies, to warn Dan Dare.
Though it looks to have killed him, the old spaceman makes it, only to find his story doubted as the product of fatigue, dehydration, radiation exposure, space sickness: hallucination. Only Dan is prepared to believe his old chief, so he and Digby set off for Neptune in Anastasia.
What they discover is a well-advanced plot, and a ready-to-launch fleet, complete with trained-and-terrorised crew. The Tritons serve their new master out of a combination of the promise of a warm planet of their own (just like the Navs with the Mekon in The Wandering World), firmly-inculcated fear and the same kind of drugs Xel used on his Stollites in Operation Time Trap).
Though Dan and Digby cause some havoc by attacking Xel, he is too much for them with an army at his back. He steals Anastasia, co-ordinates his attack with the Mekon and, believing his hated earth foes dead from falling into an ice crevasse, launches his fleet. But the Earthmen have been saved by Triton’s weaker gravity and stow on board a ship whose crew have reverted to type and gone to sleep.
Digby accidentally sets off a missile that shoots down another of Xel’s fleet, which leads to some confusion and a deliberate attempt to cripple the fleet before it nears Earth. But automation overrules, and the ship the pair occupy is being drawn back into formation, to be shot down, when Digby once again uses his muscle to bend the pipe mixing Xel’s drug into the Tritons’ food. With a now docile crew at their behest, Dan is able to fly his ship on a shorter route to Earth (?!), so as to arrive first (crash-landing on a beach south of Cromer in Norfolk, with which I was familiar from a couple of family seaside holidays, when even younger).
Earth’s defences are alerted and Dan leads the interceptor squadron. The Therons rush a fleet to assist, the arrival of which, like the Prussians at Waterloo, secures the day. Then they spin on their heels and shot off back towards Venus, where a mighty space fleet has been detected approaching, except that a gigantic white light flares in space, and the fleet vanishes, presumed vaporised.
As for Xel, the last action of the brief war is his being shot down over the Arctic by Dan and, on landing, a few steps leading to the deep icy waters, in which his electric whip floats… Like Vora, Xel is missing, believed dead. He will certainly not return again.
Overall, The Moonsleepers is a good, fast-paced story, told in a crisp, dramatic manner. It introduces a new and unusual race to the panoply of life in the Solar System, bringing Neptune into the range of planets Dan and Co have visited, furthest out from the Sun (discounting the Wandering World as neither a real planet nor properly in our Sun’s orbit). The art’s excellent, whether it be deep space, the ice-deserts of Triton or Cromer Beach.
But there are a number of inconsistencies that nag at the reader’s mind as the story progresses. Primarily, these relate to just how long it takes to get to or from Triton. Xel, in the Theron ship, takes ‘weeks’. Sir Hubert makes the return journey in a mere escape capsule, whose journey coincides with the ‘many weeks’ and indeed ‘months’ that Xel takes to forget the Tritons into fighters.
Almost immediately, this becomes ‘a month’s’ travel, and then ‘several weeks’ and if this were not already confusing enough, Sir Hubert’s journey is analysed as being up to three-quarters of the time since the Theron ship disappeared – time during which an extensive space search was made, leading to the former Controller being presumed dead, coinciding with the moment he is struck by an electric bolt on Triton as Xel discovers the Moonsleepers’ city.
Related to this is the fact that Anastasia – a two-seater personal ship – is presented as the only ship on Earth capable of travelling as far as Triton (because it has Theron magnetic motors) and the time factor goes out of all control.
Then there is Xel’s fleet. I’ve already alluded to Dan racing the fleet to Earth by taking a ‘shorter course’. Obviously, that is complete nonsense. Xel isn’t going to rendezvous with the Mekon’s fleet, he’s heading for the planet and there is no believable reason why he is not taking the direct route down the gravity well. And perhaps we should mention that, Neptune being the eighth planet from the Sun, there’s the small matter of the Empire of the moons of the sixth planet, whose spacelanes, Xel’s armada will have to cross.
But, as better folk before me have long since pointed out, Red Tharl’s disappearance is the great mystery of the series. Once Dan and Digby get outside the orbit of Saturn, it becomes an unavoidable one.
I began this essay by referring to my automatic memories of The Moonsleepers being the final part of a Mekon trilogy, but whilst Ol’ Greenbean is an established threat in the background of this story, his direct role is perfunctory. He actually only appears in two, widely-separated panels, and in one of those a long way from ‘camera’.
And the story’s ending, the menace of his fleet approaching Venus being wiped out in a single, unforeshadowed panel, is a complete puzzle. It’s probably the most care-less moment in the entire series, an abrupt closing off off a plot in the most casual of manners, not much of a step up from ‘…and then they all woke up.’
It smacks of a desperation to end the story, somehow, anyhow, because it had to end, and yet the Mekon was literally the most peripheral element of the story, which belongs to Xel, and there’s not the remotest suggestion that the battle against the Mekon was ever meant to be a significant strand, let alone a segue into another story. Dan Dare isn’t even there to face-down his archenemy.
It’s a complete mystery and I’d dearly love to know the background to this. I have a half-formed suspicion that will require a close re-reading of the next story to see if there is any justification, but even in its half-formed state it’s based on no confirmed information. We’ll see.
Because, yet again, change was on the way.
So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.
It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.
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.
Where The Man from Nowhere had imbalanced itself by stretching the journey from Earth out to fully half the length of the story, by 1959, Frank Hampson had learned better. Terra Nova started immediately after the blast-off from the McHoo Asteroid Belt base, and it took a mere four weeks to get into orbit around Earth’s twin planet, four weeks that were occupied mainly by a near disastrous extra-vehicular expedition for the male members of the team, and the incidental discovery of a micro-galaxy through which the Galactic Galleon ploughed en route.
This was a far better approach, keeping the main purpose of the story well to the forefront of the readers’ attention. For on arrival at Terra Nova, the expedition discovered the shell of the Galactic Pioneer, intact but abandoned, in orbit about the planet. Dan Dare insisted on being the first to explore the stranded ship.
Frank Hampson had planned a whole cycle of stories. Dan Dare would pursue the trail of his missing father from planet to planet across the Novad system: new adventures, new environments and, what? What would Dan find? Surely, ultimately, he would be reunited with the father had had missed for most of his life. Given his primary audience, given that his own father had been an integral part of the story, as Sir Hubert Guest, from the very outset, Hampson could not have intended to end his saga with disappointment and death. Surely parental loss could not be the ultimate end of a story told to children in an optimist’s universe?
So Dan entered the derelict spaceship and makes his way to the pilot’s cabin where he finds a body. But the following week, he confirmed that it was Copernicus McHoo. Captain Dare has escaped the ship and descended to Terra Nova, but where? A tour of the planet at night, in Anastasia, identifies concentrations of light, and therefore settlements, so Dan, Dig and Sir Hubert descend to investigate further.
At this point, seven weeks into the story, events in the outside world intervened. A nationwide printer’s strike took Eagle off the street for ten long weeks. Two issues stood in hand, numbered but not dated, ready to go to print when the strike was lifted. The end was sudden, no time to add dates to these unnumbered issues, just the rush to get them out, resume circulation. The second of these featured a fine, silent front page from Hampson as a race of primitive tribesmen prepare their forces to capture the intruders, Dan, Dig and Sir Hubert. The date returned to the cover the week after but there was an even greater shock. Frank Hampson had gone. He would never return.
Whatever the truth of the final weeks of The Phantom Fleet, Frank Hampson had used the time well to plan the next phase of Dan Dare’s adventures. In keeping with the broad, sweeping themes of the Man from Nowhere trilogy, Hampson planned an extensive sequence, a series of adventures across a strange planetary system, as Dan pursued an important psychological goal. It was going to be glorious, majestic even. It never happened.
As a prelude to this cycle, Hampson devised Safari in Space. At eighteen weeks in length, it was second only to The Ship That Lived in its brevity, but whereas the latter was a coda-within-a-coda, Safari‘s position as a scene-setter, a gateway to greater things, made its modest length entirely appropriate.
For nobody was to know that it was to be the last full Dan Dare story that Frank Hampson would devise and draw. But that’s not for now.
It’s noticeable that, after a period spent trying to escape from the daily grind of drawing into a directorial role, Hampson had returned in full force. If Rogue Planet had demonstrated the mature Hampson at his peak, then Safari in Space would surpass that work for images that were some of the most glowing, enthralling, highly-detailed and plain superb of his career.
Indeed, the opening page would turn out to be Frank Hampson’s favourite among all the Dan Dare pages he drew, as he later admitted. And it’s a worthy favourite, a single, full-page scene, simultaneously cinematic and near three-dimensional, and featuring some of the most vibrant and astounding colouring the series ever enjoyed,
Dan and Digby are on leave, which they’ve chosen to spend in the Venusian southern hemisphere, on the unexplored island of Maraku. Unsurprisingly, they’ve once again included Flamer Spry in their expedition, although there is no sign of Stripey (nor will there be again, nor any regret from Digby for the loss of his pet). Whilst Digby sets out to cook, Dan and Flamer are led by their Atlantean guides to the Black Lake, where Flamer arouses a stereotypical sea-serpent by throwing a stone. But whilst this is going on, Digby is shot in the back at camp by an electro-stunner. His assailant takes off in Anastasia.
This is just the start. When Dan and Flamer return to camp, they are swept up in a flying net and taken prisoner. Nor does it end there for, in the northern hemisphere, a slightly unlikely trio are on leave in Mekonta, these being Sir Hubert Guest, Lex O’Malley and, in a rather fetching yellow one-piece bathing costume, Professor Jocelyn Peabody (Peabody and O’Malley? Hmmm).
Peabody sees the mysterious ship surface in the Mekontan lagoon, but her sighting is dismissed with casual misogyny by her two male co-vacationers, as typical female hysteria brought on by the Venusian sun. However, once they think to turn their heads, on hearing Peabody scream at being dragged into the water, they both leap gallantly, but ineffectually to the rescue.
The spaceship leaves Mekonta for space, bound for an unknown base, with its five prisoners. Dan has a pocket-tracker that indicates they are bound for the Asteroid Belt, but there is no major space-port there. (This in a Universe post-the Treen Holocaust on Reign of the Robots). Their only clue is that their kidnappers speak in, of all things, a Scottish accent. This seems to give the game away to Sir Hubert, though he doesn’t share his suspicions with anyone else, least of all the readers.
Explanations are given once the mysterious ship lands at a magnificently equipped base in the Belt (complete with cows to provide fresh milk). Digby, and Anastasia, are already there, as are correct uniforms, and some decent threads for the Professor. And it’s all so impeccably, implacably Scottish, even down to the fact that the kidnappers only refer to Dan – who is half-Scottish himself on his mother’s side – as ‘McGregor Dare’.
Sir Hubert’s suspicions are proved correct when the sextet are brought before the Chieftain, Galileo McHoo, Laird of Clan McHoo, who own and operate Cosmic Shipping, Earth’s largest and most successful commercial spaceflight providers. Galileo is nephew to Copernicus McHoo, Cosmic’s founder, and son to Halley McHoo, a brilliant scientist whose work was scorned on Earth, hence the construction of this base where he could pursue his theories.
Dan and Co are here because of events thirty years earlier. Copernicus had discovered a distant planet whose temperature and atmosphere were so close in composition to Earth that he had named it Terra Nova. And Halley had developed an incredible space hyperdrive that could cross the distance to the new planet.
Between them, with Cosmic’s resources, the McHoo brothers had designed and built the Galactic Pioneer, and Copernicus, accompanied by his best friend, and Cosmic’s test pilot, had taken off for Terra Nova. But something went tragically wrong on take-off: there was an explosion that destroyed New Caledonia, killing Halley McHoo. But a final radio message confirmed that the Pioneer had lifted off safely, and begun its voyage
Galileo McHoo has spent the past thirty years rebuilding Cosmic, New Caledonia and, finally the Galactic Galleon, a sister ship complete with his own improvements, now ready to take-off for Terra Nova, to discover the fate of Copernicus McHoo and his co-pilot – who may still be alive.
And the McHoos have kidnapped Daniel McGregor Dare, Sir Hubert Guest, Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, a team of space explorers without equal, to go on this flight. (O’Malley and Spry are mere unwanted obstructions, though O’Malley’s reaction is priceless, telling McHoo that he’ll never get anywhere without at least one Irishman on board!)
The team’s reaction is mixed. Sir Hubert is sceptical, Digby his usual reluctant self, Peabody, O’Malley and Spry are all intrigued and enthused. But it is to Dan that everyone looks, and for Dan there is simply no question. Thirty years ago, he was told that his father, Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare, had died in a test flight. Now he has learned otherwise. For Cosmic’s test pilot, and Copernicus’s best friend and co-pilot was Mad Billy Dare.
Dan’s father is out there, somewhere, and maybe he’s still alive. There isn’t an atom of Dan Dare’s body that can not want to go.
Everyone, including Sir Hubert, agrees to join the expedition, though the Controller is merely biding his time, a time that doesn’t need biding for long as a Spacefleet Squadron is hot on their trail and in pretty short order surrounds the base. The plot appears to have been nipped in the bud, but Sir Hubert hasn’t reckoned with the fanaticism of Galileo McHoo, who is prepared to detonate an explosion that will wipe out everyone – the entire base and Sir Hubert’s men in their pursuing ships – if they do not immediately agree to join him on board the Galactic Galleon. Given the circumstances, the sailor and the boy will have to go too (as if there was ever any real risk of their being left behind).
This leads directly to a page of such stunning detail and colour that I have no hesitation in declaring it my favourite Hampson page ever. It’s a single image of the Galactic Galleon in its launch chamber, with Flamer and Digby to the foreground, and if I could ever afford even one page of Dan Dare original art, this would be it.
So everyone, including McHoo, boards. The Galleon rises slowly on launch jets until it exits the dome. And then it blows free, a spaceship bigger and bulkier than any seen before, dwarfing the Spacefleet squadron and barrelling through them and away. And that’s before the Halley drive is employed, and the ship just runs away from all pursuit and all surveillance.
En route to Terra Nova. En route to, perhaps, Dan’s reunion with his long lost father. En route to the greatest Dan Dare story of all time.