One aspect of Keith Watson’s tenure as Dan Dare artist that I’ve never seen highlighted is his flexibility. Frank Hampson, Frank Bellamy, Harley and Cornwell, all dealt with a series published in colour on the cover and page 2, with only the most minor of tweaks to account for a re-designed masthead and, in Harley/Cornwell’s case, the loss of cover space to Men of Action for about five months.
But Keith Watson’s art was continually being subjected to new demands, as format succeeded format, with little more than a year on each occasion to settle into Eagle‘s latest notion.
There was the Monochrome Year, of two internal black and white pages; the Hybrid Year, with a colour poster cover and one and a half black and white pages; and the recent years or so of two colour pages, on the front and back covers of the comic.
For a week, things seemed as normal for the new story, The Singing Scourge. But only for a week. Because the second episode was once more inside the comic, although still in full colour, and Dan Dare would never recover the cover for an original story again.
One could justifiably ask what the hell the editor was playing at? Introducing a major format change to his leading strip only a week into a new story, when the merest forethought would have got the two to coincide. But further sloppiness was to follow, rapidly.
Watson had obviously been instructed that Dan Dare was moving to Eagle‘s middle pages, so he drew the next two episodes as a two-page spread. Unfortunately, the story was being printed across two internal pages, because the centrespread was still Heros the Spartan‘s turf, so Watson reverted to two internal pages.
Then, for some reason, Watson missed three or four weeks (this and the following story are the only ones in the entire series that I do not have in collected form and I am missing a handful of episodes, here and there). Whether this was illness, or frustration, I have no idea, but Don Harley was called upon to fill-in for this period, the last of which was in the centre pages, Heros having been demoted to a single page. Watson returned a week later, to continue the strip in centrespread form.
Do you, like me, get the idea that nobody knew what they were doing?
The Singing Scourge re-unites the Tempus Frangit crew for another expedition in Wilf Banger’s ship, though in token to the times, this being 1965, Major Spence is left behind and his seat in the five-man crew goes to American Professor of Radio Astronomy John Fitzgerald (most people call me John F) Smith, who is the first person of colour to take a leading role in the series.
John F.’s an interesting case. The name is an obvious nod to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose assassination had rocked the world about eighteen months earlier. And in his first few weeks of appearance, he is portrayed with quite dark skin and clearly ethnic (but not exaggerated) features.
But once Watson returns, this distinctively black appearance is out of the window. John F. is rarely seen with the same clarity as on his debut, and when he can be seen, his features are much less distinct, and his colour far less pronounced. Indeed, as I’ll come to shortly, Watson’s entire artwork suffers a substantial change at this point.
However, to the story. We are given a brief mysterious introduction on the first page, to a spaceship blasted apart in space in the Vega system and a powerful, fatal radiation source falling to a planet, before Dan and Digby are summoned from leave, fell-walking in Lancashire, to pilot the refitted Tempus Frangit on an expedition to Vega for John F.
The (other) Professor has detected a strange, controlled, radiation in that system, a self-renewing power source that ‘sings’ in a rhythmic fashion. With Earth and the Solar System’s planets liable to run out of atomic power in due course, if this energy can be recovered, it can sustain Earth’s power needs almost infinitely.
Whereas previously the Tempus Frangit simply moved in time, there’s a different explanation now for its purpose. Effectively, the trip from Earth to Vega will take a year each way, but will be instantaneous to its crew. Already that statement makes me nervous: in what Earth craft could Spacefleet reach Vega in a year, given that it is 25 light years distant? And the statement that the journey would take a year is directly at odds with the near-simultaneous statement that the stars multimillion miles distant couldn’t be visited in a human lifetime.
This kind of sloppiness is all over the place. Later in the story, a single panel will state that the captured Earth team have been in prison for two months whilst Dan laments that he has been working on his metal cuff for three weeks without making a scratch.
Then there’s the Tempus Frangit‘s arrival. Almost immediately, it’s struck by a radiation blast that burns out certain of its circuits, primarily those that power the computer calculations of the reverse time-jump, so it’s got to land. The nearest land is an unusual variation of paired planets, this having orbits so close to one another that they have a shared atmosphere, permitting travel from one to the other without going into space.
I am no scientist, but even as a ten year old boy, it struck me as a dodgy set-up, since the gravities of the two near Earth-sized planets ought to have torn them both apart before they got close enough for the atmospheres to touch, let alone merge. And it’s more than convenient that these atmospheres are functionally identical, if two planets are using them.
But the thing about paired planets is that we know what will happen on them. Dan and Co have landed on Lapri, the more fertile planet of the pair, home to the native Trons, but controlled by the brutal, four-armed Vendals, who have moved from the desolate Volk to take over, thanks to the destructive power of The Singing Scourge. This is John F.’s radiation source, fallen to Volk some indeterminate time ago, where it was discovered by the brothers Koo, Koob and Koom.
The Scourge was being forged into weapons by the Koos when it was accidentally broken in two, killing Koom and crippling Koob, who thus broke the law that Vendals are not allowed to be sick, ill, infirm or injured. This ousted Koob and the Scourge was taken over by the villainous Reshnek (or The Reshnek: the story can’t make up its mind), who uses it to devastate Volk in the process of killing off all its non-Vendal races, before going to take over Lapri.
(The scourge having been split into two, there are two Scourges but one gets shot down on the flight to Lapri, vanishing into its ocean, for no apparent reason or point for the story).
All this comes out at various times over the long story. Dan and Co start off by appearing as saviours to the Trons, but being captured and imprisoned by the Vendals as I mentioned above. At long last, they’re taken out to be executed via The Singing Scourge, but their spacesuits happen to be radiation-proof so, after the Tron crowd gets wiped out, the Earthmen are shunted to Volk to forage in its deserts.
Naturally, Dan and Co raise a revolution which proves to be very successful, and takes control of Volk.
Before they were lifted off Lapri, the crew did succeed in inflicting radiation burns on (The) Reshnek which, eventually, force him to return to Volk himself, in accordance with the law, to deal with the revolt. It all gets a little tedious by this point, the story having become primarily one of blood, thunder and cliff-hanging peril that gets overcome thanks to surprise information withheld from the reader until next week, a constant ‘with one mighty bound he was free’.
Ultimately, the defeated Reshnek heads back to Lapri with the Scourge, only for the treacherous stowaway, Koob, to use it to kill him. Koob, planning on taking over and killing everyone in his way, gets shot down trying to land on Lapri, and a final assault by a hastily-built fleet completes the overthrow of the Vendals and the restoration of Tron rule. Since nobody particularly wants the Scourge, Dan and Co are allowed to take it back to Earth, once they’ve repaired the Tempus Frangit.
No, I don’t have a very high opinion of this story. It’s sloppiness and its scientific implausibility, together with the crash-bang nature of the all-action story and its general choppiness lead me towards that half-formed suspicion I mentioned when discussing the ultra-rapid ending of The Moonsleepers. I think that The Singing Scourge marks a change in scripter for Dan Dare, that David Motton’s services had been dispensed with, whether at his choice or not I don’t know.
At different times, I’ve read of different names as writers for the original Dan Dare run. Amongst those is Frank Pepper, a very successful writer of comics series for British comics and, amongst many others, creator of Dan Dare’s hastily-conjured rival in Lion, Captain Condor. There’s a delightful mini-interview with Mr Pepper in Alistair Crompton’s The Man who drew Tomorrow (not retained in Tomorrow Revisited) about Pepper’s approach and attitude to his work that couldn’t be a greater contrast to Frank Hampson if it tried. Pepper is credited in Wikipedia as having written Dan Dare, and this story and its successor do read like the work of someone who was writing an entertainment for small boys that was meant to last for five minutes and then be forgotten.
Finally, I do have to comment on Keith Watson’s art for the majority of this story, and after his return from his brief sabbatical. I’ve been very complimentary about Watson’s art, but I cannot praise this later work in The Singing Scourge. For one thing, the art is very badly served by the colouring, which is some of the flattest, least detailed, and abstract the series has ever seen.
Watson had hired Eric Eden to colour his art once Dan Dare returned to Eagle‘s cover, Watson being colour-blind, and Eden had produced fantastic work, but this is horrible and amateurish. Eden, by this point, was drawing the adventures of Lady Penelope for the new, Gerry Anderson-oriented TV21 and his replacement was simply not good enough. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets, with whole panels coloured in a single shade lacking any relation to the actual setting.
And beneath the colour, and all too often screened by it, Watson’s actual artwork is crude and blocky. His figures are stiff, detail is lacking, and backgrounds are far too often completely absent. I’ve already mentioned the change in John F., but the overall effect is of haste, and skimpiness. All the sterling work in rebuilding the series from the Odhams’ nadir is undermined. I can only assume that Longacre, with Eagle‘s sales steadily sliding, had drastically undercut Watson’s page rates, creating the very situation that Frank Hampson, fifteen years previously, had determined should not be allowed.
Great days, far gone.