Dan Dare – Mercury Revenant


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.

Dan Dare – Operation Tau Ceti


They're back!!!
They’re back!!!

Thanks to the ongoing endurance and excellence of Spaceship Away, two more complete Dan Dare adventures are now available to be read, and their worthiness to be incorporated in the canon be assessed.
The first of these is another prose novel from New Zealand fan Denis Steeper, whose Report of the Cryptos Commission, with its carefully devised chronology of Dan Dare’s career tends to be my bible for such things. This latest novel has been included with the last five issues of Spaceship Away, comprising five A5 booklets, each of twenty pages.
I was heavily critical of The Invaders of Ixx, which was set well after the Hampson/Watson continuity, for the aggravated cynicism and, to be frank, rampant interculture racism on display so far ahead. Operation Tau Ceti is not unmarked by such things, but is Steeper’s first extended story set within the Dare canon: our hero is still no more than Chief Pilot of Spacefleet, and though the story is set post the Treen Holocaust, with what that implies about the loss of the original Hampsonian innocence, we are still in a world easily recognisable as that we are most used to.
The story is set in 2015. Two years have passed since the return of the Terra Nova expedition, during which time Earth’s World Government (in which the Liberals are still clinging to post-Holocaust power) have been locked in mortal combat with Cosmic over the Halley Drive and every possible offshoot from its discovery. In Thork-space (i.e., Saturn’s sphere of influence) Red Tharl has finally won the Secession Wars and is in control of the Nine Moons.
Though it’s only three years since the end of the Holocaust, Earth is recovering faster than could have been expected. Saturn is still the dominant power in the Solar System, but the signs are already there that Earth will catch it up and surpass it in a decade, and Saturn will never catch up. Despite the legal stalemate with Cosmic, and with the benefit of the many discoveries made among the wrecked spaceships of the Sargasso Sea of Space, Earth has reverse-engineered the Halley Drive. The first starship has been named the William Dare, in honour of Dan’s father, the second will be the Copernicus, after his McHoo co-pilot on the original starship. And, at a secret asteroid base in the Belt, Cosmic have duplicated the Galactic Pioneer.
Unfortunately for all concerned,these developments are not as secret as they ought to be.
The action is precipitated by a clash of Spacefleet and Grand Union ships in the Asteroid Belt, Disputed Territory between the official boundaries of the Inner and Outer Planets. Given that the Thork culture is a richly feudal one, complicated by racial differences between the various colours, there is a certain degree of autonomy among Admirals, continually looking for advantage which, combined with the natural instinct to see the flatfaces as innately inferior, rapidly escalates towards war between Numidol and the Inner Planets.
Actually, it would usually be quite easy to defuse this situation: just get Dan Dare on the line to his old friend Tharl, who probably (and actually) knows nothing of this, and it would all be switched off. But Dan’s not here. At the same time as this skirmish has begun to escalate, a secret thork attack on Cosmic’s secret base has succeeded in space-lifting out of here the Galactic Pioneer II. And it’s gone out-system, towards Tau Ceti. And Dan is commanding the William Dare on immediate instructions to get out after it.
The absurd thing is that, after much thought and calculation, Spacefleet were about to launch on a survey mission to Tau Ceti, as the best of all the potential stars at a similar distance to Terra Nova, with the best prospect of an Earth-type planet. Now, the survey aspect is pushed way down the list: Dan’s top priority instructions are to recover or destroy the Galactic Pioneer II.
Thus the set-up. Steeper deploys his usual technique of multiple, multi-viewpoint scenes, each identified by date and place. He has two parallel strands in motion and flicks backwards and forwards between different elements of each story, which become further entwined when, after Cosmic are placated in order to retrieve Dan via the confiscated Galactic Galleon, Sir Hubert is forced to join the McHoo team. This brings Controller USA Wynard Spencer in as Acting CIC, due to it being Buggins’ turn, and Spencer is an absolute cretin whose completely wrong-headed tactics threaten to open the door to massive Thork victory.
Both stories are built up by confident detail and a careful assembled extrapolation of the real mechanics of Dan’s universe. Steeper is very good on this, and very good also in his imagination of the convoluted Thork personality, which keeps the home system story bubbling along nicely.
But we are here for Dan Dare and, not unincidentally, Earth’s first official interstellar adventure. For crew, he has the old gang, that is, Digby, Anastasia, Hank, Pierre and the Professor. There’s no Flamer Spry (too busy studying for exams) nor Lex O’Malley (too far underwater) and it’s no disrespect to either to say the story is better for not having their implausible presences along, even if much of the action takes place on a substantial moon, named Poseidon for the fact it’s primarily ocean.
Apart from the renegade thorks, who get wiped out eventually by Dan, along with the Galactic Pioneer II, there are two alien races in the Tau Ceti system. Both are colonists. One, the Krevvid, are insignificant in terms of this story, though Steeper takes time to intimate that they could be a problem if their race ever gets to hear of the Solar System. The other are the Pescods, and they’re a problem.
As if this weren’t enough, Steeper takes him to add a related subplot, in the form of a Treen attack on Formby aimed at capturing details of the Copernicus, which gets foiled thanks mainly to former Astral Senior Cadet and SF Resistance leader, Mark Straight. Apart from its illustration of Earth post-Holocaust, this slim subplot is of no great moment, except that it amply demonstrates the sheer panic at the thought of the Mekon getting hold of any information about building a starship.
And not just the Mekon, but any Mekon. The one we know has neither been seen nor heard of since seemingly committing suicide in the Silicon Mass as long ago as The Ship That Lived, but that still doesn’t mean he isn’t out there – or that somewhere, somehow, the Treen breeders have cloned a New Mekon (remember that, as far back as ‘The Venus Story’, twenty years previously in Steeper’s chronology, the next Mekon was fifty years away from coming to maturity.)
Overall, Operation Tau Ceti  was enjoyable, and sat well within the Dan Dare stories to which it is supposed to be contemporary. The post-Holocaust cynicism is there, as is the abrasion between the lifeforms of the Solar System, but it is at an entirely less well-developed stage: Hampson’s original utopianism is still the primary influence. I’d like to see how Steeper might tackle a pre-Holocaust story: there’s still room in the long gap between ‘The Venus Story’ and The Red Moon Mystery, even after allowing for Tim Booth’s The Gates of Eden.
And speaking of Tim Booth, his is the other new story completed in this past eight issues of Spaceship Away, which I’ll be considering next.

Another new classic Dan Dare


                                          Who will they get to play her?

I’ve just learned of a new, forthcoming proposal to adapt the classic Dan Dare stories from the Frank Hampson era in a series of six ‘audio adventures’, i.e., radio versions, details here.

As you can see, the planned adaptations consist of the first five of Dan’s original adventures in the Eagle, plus ‘Reign of the Robots’ but without first traveling to Cryptos/Phantos.

The series looks as if it’s stripping the cast down to a core quartet of Dan, Digby, Professor Peabody and the Anastasia, which, if it’s going to be the craft that takes our intrepid heroes to Venus, right at the start, is not going to be the personal craft we all know and love.

The blurbs also make it plain that, whereas the audio series follows the Eagle chronology, excepting ‘Reign of the Robots’, there are going to be substantial changes to plots and settings. The piece speaks of ‘a great team that has respect but not reverence for the original comics’ which, whilst objectively probably the best thing you could have, nevertheless fills me with dread. As you may have noticed, I like my Dan Dare to be Dan Dare, so any variation is automatically troubling.

Besides, whilst the only reference to romance is to the ‘romance of space’, the fact that Dan and Jocelyn (will she still even be Jocelyn, since that’s such an old-fashioned name now: five’ll get you ten that the ‘Mabel’ gets dropped extremely silently) are trailing around together is like a red flag.

There doesn’t, in these brief descriptions, appear to be room for the likes of Sir Hubert, Hank or Pierre, though Sondar is name-checked and Flamer Spry’s role exists, but what we’ll get will be quite different to what we know.

B7 Media have been around since 2007 and have an impressive record. They were behind the most recent Sky adaptation of Terry Pratchett, in 2010, and are currently rebooting Blake’s 7 for TV, having already done so for Radio. They’ve also adapted The Martian Chronicles in that form, both series of which having been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra, so Dan Dare is likely to come out on that medium.

I will be listening (and commenting).

Dan Dare: Green Nemesis


Having lived the dream of practically every Dan Dare fan who’s ever lived in writing a new story that had been drawn by two ‘real’ Eagle artists, Rod Barzilay got what he’d originally wanted: the chance to write a true ‘epic’ adventures, a story that would last forty episodes, and of course feature the Mekon as the protagonist.
Green Nemesis follows directly on from The Phoenix Mission, as a reconstituted Marco Polo expedition returns to the Sargasso to resume the original expedition and, this time, investigate Professor Peabody’s theory that the whole thing has been created by the destruction of the Red Moon. Given that the Prof’s theory centres upon the Moon and the Sea having been powered by a small and manipulable Black Hole, it’s hardly a surprise that it attracts the attention of Earth’s most implacable enemy.
I have to be honest and say that, enjoyable as it is, Green Nemesis is nothing like as successful as its predecessor. In part this is, unavoidably, due to the inconsistency of the art. Don Harley had agreed to continue drawing the revival, but upon the same conditions as before: that it should be fitted in around his other, ‘professional’ commitments. For something that involved nineteen pages, and which had an indefinite deadline, that was perfectly workable.
But Green Nemesis not only demanded eighty pages of work, it had a real deadline. Spaceship Away was published three times a year and it set out to publish three episodes of the story each issue. That meant eighteen pages a year. Barzilay had temporised when Harley had not yet made up his mind, contacting latter-day Dan Dare artist David Pugh to produce a splendid first page, but that still left seventy-nine, and Harley is no longer young.
Inevitably, things had to give. Barzilay had already been contacted by artist/writer Tim Booth, whose own new Dan Dare story, The Gates of Eden (coming up next) had started appearing in Spaceship Away. Booth was a natural choice to assist Harley in completing one page, and frequency was reduced to two episodes per issues.
But even at this rate, Green Nemesis was proving too time-consuming. When it became clear Harley would not be able to fit enough pages into his schedule, Booth was the obvious replacement. For a time, the art would alternate between the pair, as Harley was considered the number one choice, but eventually Booth took over the story completely (in parallel to The Gates of Eden, which he was also writing) until the story was done.
This artistic muddle did not help Green Nemesis one little bit, but the story was in any event a much less coherent affair from the outset. I said about The Phoenix Mission that Barzilay had, understandably, tried to cram too much into too little space. But now he had the space to justify the extended cast he’d devised, he made the mistake of dividing the story into too many strands.
Whilst the majority of post-Hampson stories had focussed upon Dan and Digby only, with very few and brief tangents into what other characters might be doing, Dan’s creator had never been averse to maintaining parallel tracks, centred upon multiple characters. Barzilay attempts to extend this approach, but is too ambitious. Counting the Mekon himself, there are four separate, interweaving, principle tracks in the body of the story, only two of which (Dan and Dig, the Professor and Uncle Ivor) feature major characters.
There are simply too many things going on, featuring unknown or minor characters for smooth reading. At three (or two) episodes every four months, I found the story sprawling and confusing, and reading the whole thing in a concentrated Spaceship Away session was little better. Only when I deliberately set out to read Green Nemesis as a whole, ignoring everything else, could I get a grasp of its structure, and follow the individual threads with understanding.
Leaving aside the complicated structure of the story, Barzilay continues to be ambitious in filling in elements of a coherent Dan Dare universe. He ventures towards a slightly more feminist milieu by bringing in another woman scientist, in the form of the Theron Katoona Kalon, granddaughter of the Theron President. President Kalon is missing, presumed dead, since the Treen Holocaust, and the Mekon spends a great deal of time trying to capture Katoona, including trying to tempt her to surrender by revealing that her grandfather lives, in suspended animation, like Dan’s friends.
That the President’s whereabouts on Venus are discovered off-screen, relieving Katoona of her emotional struggle, is a bit of a cop-out.
Barzilay had already, in The Phoenix Mission, introduced Dennis Steeper’s conception of the Union Wars that keep Red Tharl and Saturn out of the way for many years, and in Green Nemesis he goes one better, off his own bat, introducing into the derelict ships of the Sargasso the craft on which the late dictator, Vora, entered the Solar System, itself powered by two balanced suns that, together with the Sargasso’s black hole, threatens to destroy everybody before the job is done.
I’d like to like Green Nemesis better than I do, and whilst I wouldn’t hesitate to criticise, say, Eric Eden over his writing of an adventure, I’m loathe to do the same with Rod Barzilay. He’s not a professional writer. He’s a fan like me, and, more importantly, he’s done something that I don’t believe I could have done, and written no less than two whole Dan Dare stories. And he was candid on more than one occasion in Spaceship Away about the very flaws I’ve identified and where he’d gone wrong. I’ve no doubt that, given the chance of a re-write, he’d have done a much better job.
But whilst I think that Green Nemesis was flawed, confused and difficult to follow, which is a failing of Barzilay’s plotting, on the other hand, except in minor respects, his actual scripting is solid, his dialogue not just believable but believable in the mouths of characters we tell ourselves we know as intimately as our own family, and when I read Green Nemesis, I believe that I am reading Dan Dare, the Pilot of the Future.
Being aware of The Phoenix Mission when writing The Report of the Cryptos Commission, Denis Steeper included both that and Green Nemesis in the index of Dan’s adventures. Indeed, he went further, completing a trilogy with Ghosts of the Sargasso, a story that remains to be told. Rod Barzilay has retired from Spaceship Away and writing Dan Dare stories, but I’ve still got a hankering to see what the final part contains: presumably, it would encompass examination of the spherical spaceship that is the progenitor of the Tempus Frangit
One point remains to be considered. Both these stories are what, in the American comics industry, would be called “retcons” (a contraction of retroactive continuity). The stories have been fitted in between The Ship That Lived and The Phantom Fleet, though they’ve been used in large part to colour in large swathes of the unknown background to stories up to that point.
There’s only one piece of blatant foreshadowing, near the end, when ‘Friday’ MacFarlane decides that all this racketing around in danger is too much for him and he’s going to put in for a transfer to the Moon Run – where we see him one final time in the first week of The Phantom Fleet.
But there’s a bigger issue to think of. In the official saga, there is no sign of the Mekon between The Ship That Lived (where everybody but Digby thinks he’s dead) and The Solid-space Mystery where Dan and Digby both react in shock to his appearance, exclaiming that he’s dead. Green Nemesis is at least consistent in leaving our heroes thinking that the Mekon to be dead again when the Spacelab blows up.
A foolish consistency is not always the hobgoblin of little minds.

Dan Dare: Keith Watson’s New Eagle Story


Long years passed after The Menace from Jupiter, long years with nothing but reprints to sustain the Dan Dare fan and, once Eagle had gone under, merged into Lion, even these were so poorly treated, they were an offence rather than a delight. Long years passed whilst Dan was no more than a memory, until his name was revived with the new 2000 A.D. comic, Eagle‘s only rival for the title of Britain’s best ever weekly comic.
But this was no Dan that we old fans remembered, a name attached to something that so deeply rejected everything that went with our hero’s name that the point of calling this new brawling, swearing, space monster killing Dan Dare was beyond understanding.
Long years passed, and the 2000 A.D. Dan disappeared himself, mid-story, and another Dan appeared, as part of a new Eagle, an Eagle that seemed ashamed of being a comic and tried to tell its stories in photographs, which have never, ever worked as a substitute for art. And this Dan, these Dans, at least tried to feed off the original, though not in ways that satisfied or convinced.
Then it was announced, to everyone’s delight and surprise, that the original Dan Dare would be coming back to the New Eagle, and what’s more, to prove it, he would once again be drawn by Keith Watson.
And Keith Watson came back to the character and the series that he had honoured, on 26 August 1989, and though his art had developed in the intervening twenty years, it was as it all had been. A single look at a single panel, and once more we were in that Universe in which Dan Dare had been the Pilot of the Future, a future once again as familiar to us as warm toast on a breakfast tray.
And not just Dan, but Digby too, and Sir Hubert, and an adult Flamer, and on board the Valiant II there’s a Theron, a Mercurian and a Phant, and the Mekon and his Treens were back, because who could think for even a second of writing a story that did not involve Earth’s Archenemy as its villain: sooner should we have the Sun rise in the West. And even Professor Peabody, on Moonbase, Greta Tomlinson restored to life and youth once more.
And three pages a week, not two, and all of them in full colour. What more could we want?
As it turned out, rather a lot.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this un-named story, but then again there’s not much that is intrinsically right with it, either, saving only Watson’s art, which shone. The story itself lasted only six weeks, which made eighteen pages, as many or as few as The Evil One, but this was not David Motton who was writing, nor Alan Stranks nor Frank Hampson himself, and it was 1989, but eighteen pages here contained considerably less story than had eighteen pages in 1962.
Dan is supervising the maiden flight of the Valiant II, though his role on the mission is hazy: Flamer Spry is doing the actual piloting, and Sir Hubert is along for the ride, supervising communications (what? No, Hank Hogan is Communications, and Pierre Lafayette pilot). And there’s an odd reference to plotting a course on ‘Annie’s systems, when there is no place in the story for the Anastasia.
It’s a flight packed with VIPs and visiting alien representatives, but it’s also a flight that’s taking highly-dangerous nuclear waste for disposal on the Moon, which is, well, implausible.
Disposing of nuclear waste that’s been buried on the Earth since the 1980s, when it was A Bad Idea, is a noble aim, because Nuclear Waste is A Bad Thing, and burying it on Earth was also A Bad Thing. This moralising is indeed as heavy-handed as I’ve made it sound, whilst being out of place in a Universe that had the advantage of Impulse Power superceding Nuclear Energy.
Nevertheless, the Waste is necessary to attract the Mekon, who decoys Dan and Digby away to a derelict spaceship that’s primed to blow up and kill them, whilst he jams the Valiant’s comms and steals the ship, with the intention of seeding Earth’s atmosphere with the afore-mentioned Waste, killing the population in a horrible, painful and Very Bad way.
By the time the villain’s plan is revealed, the story is already one-third over and with only four weeks left, Dan and Digby have to either come up with a clever plan to foil Ol’ Greenbean, or else a very simple one because the writer hasn’t much imagination and pages are already running short.
So basically, after an interlude for a spot of space golf (I am not making this up), Dan and Dig get into Moonbase, release the prisoners and everyone goes out guns blazing and drives the Mekon off again for next time. Cue further reminder that Nuclear Waste is, yes, I think we’ve got it by now, and it’s over.
It’s not even really Eric Eden, is it?
In terms of depicting our old friends after so much time, we are mainly concerned with Dan and Digby. Flamer and the Professor get barely a dozen words between them, and Sir Hubert’s role is not that much more detailed, so it is Dan and Digby, plus the Mekon, who have to carry the burden. In general, the characterisation focusses on Digby, and is decidedly mixed. The Lancashire dialect is laid on a bit too thickly and whilst everybody’s favourite Other Ranks pays the requisite homage to fish’n’chips, the research has been inadequate: it is genuinely jarring to hear him eager to get back to Rochdale.
On the other hand, Digby gets the best line of the whole piece, clouting a Treen guard in the face with an oxygen canister, and apologising for not taking the gas out of its wrapper!
If it weren’t for Watson’s art, this story would not be worth consideration, but this is Keith Watson one last time, and if we can shut our eyes to what’s actually happening, and our ears to what people are saying, we have eighteen more precious pages to treasure, when we thought there would never be one more. True, in a couple of sequences, Watson is hindered by his colourist taking the odd decision to basically mono-colour panels in a space-blue, but that aside, he is the Keith Watson of old, and we had no right to see that without access to the flight deck of the Tempus Frangit.
This story was reprinted in the same Dan Dare Dossier as Mission to the Stars and is a far worthier reason to search out the book. It is not, as far as I am aware, available anywhere else except in old copies of the half-dozen New Eagle‘s in which it first appeared.
That Keith Watson did not do more is explained away as being down to his schedule not allowing the time. But Watson did draw, or partially draw, one further story, a two-part adventure as perfunctory as its length suggests, the second part of which had to be finished by Andrew Skilleter. There was no doubt more to it, not that it matters now, not with what was too soon to ensue.

Dan Dare: Mission to the Stars


Except…
The Menace from Jupiter was the last Dan Dare story to appear in Eagle, but before we end this sequence, there’s an oddity to consider. Not a story from one of the Annuals, nor any of the other Eagle-related publications that came out from Hulton, or Odhams, or Longacre. But a genuine, little-considered but authentic Sixties adventure.
Mission to the Stars was the only Dan Dare adventure to appear outside Eagle. From 20 April to 4 October 1964, 29 weeks in b&w, three tiers a week, Dan’s extraneous adventure appeared in the Sunday People, drawn by Don Harley and written by William Patterson, best known as the scripter for Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke strip in the Daily Express.
As far as I am aware, the only place in which this story can be read, outside of those who carefully clipped each instalment out of the People, every week, and preserved them carefully in their collections, is in The Dan Dare Dossier, a wonderfully informative book published by Hawk Books as a companion to their Facsimile Reprint Series. At the time of writing (July 23rd), there were three copies available on eBay, starting from £16.00.
I’d recommend getting the Dossier for itself, but not if all you want is Mission to the Stars. Reproduction is not consistent: approximately two-thirds of the story is printed neatly, with good, clean line-work, from the original art or at least first generation negatives, but the rest of the episodes, at random, look to have been shot from photocopies of very different standards.
Even if the entire story was printed from the highest quality originals, I still can’t say much in favour of this story. It features Dan, Digby and Wilf Banger on a hyperspace mission in Copernicus II, on a mission to track down the Copernicus I, lost on a mission to Alpha Centaurus five years earlier. There, the trio discover a machine civilisation, robots out to steal the Copernicus II’s overdrive, in order to spread their metal rule throughout the Universe.
These robots have the power to teleport things, and also to duplicate the ‘fleshmen’, which they start by impersonating Digby, except that they haven’t noticed that they duplicate things the wrong way round, making Digby left-handed.
To be honest, it’s a dull and uninspired story, unable to rise above the central improbability of robots, with no apparent creator but themselves, turning out to be identical to cheap, dictator obsessed human villains. Given the timing, and assuming a short lead-in to the serial, it’s possible that Patterson may have been ‘inspired’ by the very recent debut of the Daleks in the fledgling Dr Who Saturday early evening children’s serial.
But Patterson brings nothing to the idea. His Dan and Banger are mere cyphers, and though Digby has the glimmerings of the ‘other ranks’ personality, he’s nowhere near the Lancashire lad we are so familiar with.
This is doubly disappointing. Patterson was so witty and subtle on Jeff Hawke that his era on the series is universally recognised as definitive. He was so much better than this effort, which is just phoned in. And given that this series appeared in a Sunday newspaper directed at an audience of adults, it is a cruel irony that Mission to the Stars turned out to be so much simpler and unimaginative than the stories still being aimed at 7 – 12 year olds.
I’m going to exempt Don Harley from most criticism, given that he was trapped by both the limited range of the story and the restricted space of the format. What he does is perfectly good, though he is far from convincing on Banger’s moustache, and he is as always neat and precise. Though used to drawing for colour on Eagle, he understands the differing demands of black and white
But I can’t help but be disappointed with his Alpha Centaurus robots, who are weedy collations of cones, circles and tubes with little logic to their design, who look like they could be pushed over by a six year old.
Overall, for completists only and they should approach it with large amounts of salt. It has no bearing upon the main Dan Dare sequence, though Denis Steeper will fit it into his Chronology where he boggled (rightly) at trying to incorporate The Menace from Jupiter.
An anomaly, in all respects, a sidebar before the true end.

Dan Dare: The Menace from Jupiter


And then there was one. And the Dan Dare series came to its final story and its final format change, following in the footsteps of Heros the Spartan in being reduced to a single page.
Nothing about this story relates to any other part of the Dan Dare mythos. No characters, no spaceship designs, no element of the story is consistent with what has gone before. Just Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare and Spaceman First Class Albert Fitzwilliam Digby for a final ride, and even Digby doesn’t say anything that sounds like Digby until the penultimate episode. It’s the third of the stories that New Zealand fan Dennis Steeper left out when bringing Dan’s adventures into a coherent chronology in his Report of the Cryptos Commission, and there can be no complaints. Nothing, save the final page, fits.
The plot is very simple. In fact, it’s a straight-up, drastically shortened repeat of The Man from Nowhere/Rogue Planet. Stranger from space crashes from Earth and has to be rescued from the Ocean by Dan Dare. He comes to ask for aid for his people, who are being invaded by an alien race. Dan heads out there and saves the day, not militarily but biologically. Simples.
The stranger from space is Bro (no, he does not come from Harlem in the Nineties), his people are the Verans and they come from Jupiter. Yes, Jupiter, you must have noticed it, largest planet in the Solar System, big place, gas giant, which means it doesn’t actually have any solid ground, but who cares, eh? We are not Frank Hampson, we are not David Motton, the kids don’t know any better, fuck ’em.
The aliens are the Pittars, and they are giants. One head, two arms, two legs, about thirty times taller than Earthmen, nasty bunch, shoot first in order to avoid having to ask questions later.
And, actually, it’s not Dan who saves the day, it’s Digby. Digby who has hung around in the background all story, mostly doing absolutely nothing, and saying the odd perfunctory, purely functional line, turns out to have had a sniffle all along (completely unforeshadowed). In a blatant rip-off of H. G. Wells, Digby’s cold transfers itself to the leading Pittar (despite Digby having spent every second of contact with the Pittars with his spacesuit helmet firmly on: bloody clever germs these are.)
And it may be a cold to Digby but it’s horrendous death to the Pittars who, within the hour, have packed everybody off the planet, in close formation, and – knowing that they can never, ever, not even after scientific research and a couple of Beecham’s Powders taken with honey and lemon, defeat this plague – hightail it out of the System, never to return. Job done.
The art’s an improvement and, mostly, the colouring is excellent, though at this very late stage Watson undertakes a full redesign of spacesuits and space craft, presumably under editorial instruction, which makes this poor effort stand out even further. His Verans, Bro and his people, are very distinctive as aliens, almost Dalek-esque in their design, by which I mean they are a simple, duplicated form, recognisable in shape but looking completely inhuman.
We never actually see a Veran in the flash, as it were. They are squat, bulky, short-armed creatures, clad in heavy body armour, with flipper-like feet, beings that have been crunched down by Jupiter’s gravity that even they can only withstand due to body repulsors that negate gravity.
But, like the Daleks, they are unbelievable as a race that presumably have to eat, and drink, and undertake some form of gender oriented reproduction methods.
The whole story is like that, full of implausibilities that actively cross over into impossibilities. At one point, Dan and Digby are exposed to the full Jovian gravity, until the Verans can get them some body repulsors. Instead of being crushed flat, literally, they live through pressure equal to ten ton of bricks. Show me a human with ten ton of bricks piled on him, and I’ll show you a corpse, but, no.
This is the series that began by employing Arthur C. Clarke as Scientific Advisor until he gave up because he never had anything to correct. The Venus of Dan’s universe may well be as much a fantasy as this solid, inhabited Jupiter, but at the time Frank Hampson devised it, it was completely plausible by the scientific knowledge of the era.
But none of this matters. It was the end, and few would have wanted more stories if this was going to be the sort of thing we would get. The story of The Menace from Jupiter ended in conventional fashion in the last Eagle of 1966. In a final episode in the first issue of 1967, with an enormous sense of disconnection, there stood one final, giant panel. A caption announced that, a fortnight after his return from Jupiter, Dan Dare was invited to the Prime Minister’s Office and promoted to Controller of the Spacefleet.
His active days were over. What we would henceforth see of the Pilot of the Future would be his memoirs, or to put it another way, reprints. Which would still be new stories to eleven year old boys like me, but would mean not having to pay for artists and writers each week.
For one last time, everyone was there, to celebrate Dan’s promotion. There was the old Venus Expedition team, plus O’Malley and a grown-up Flamer Spry, looking extremely odd in Spacefleet green as opposed to Astral blue. No room for Spence or Cobb, but Wilf Banger and Uncle Ivor made it onto the podium whilst in the crowd were Therons and Atlantines, Thorks, Mercurians and Cosmobes, Crypts and Phants, a Treen who ought surely to have been Sondar and sharing that podium, Stripey, the bloody pooch Sir William Tell, Old Groupie, Kettle the wonky electrobot and a couple of others that might have been distinguishable if the colourist hadn’t chosen to blanket so many with some dingy brown shade.
But that was it. It was all over. It was the end.

Dan Dare: “Give me the Moon!”


Frank Hampson, being watched closely by his masters

At least Watson’s artwork, for the most part, was back up to its usual standard, and the colouring was once again meticulous, but in all other respects, “Give Me The Moon!”, Dan Dare’s penultimate story, was a crock.
It starts off adequately, with the Tempus Frangit‘s landing after two and a half years in space, on the Vega expedition (a veil had better be drawn over the length of time Dan and Co have been away). The crew are met by Major Spence who, as we shall see in this story, has very much gone up in this world, if not in rank. Spence, who has transformed from the fussy, prim, nervous administrator of before into a hyper-competent, extremely confident controller (different writer, I’ll swear to it) dedicates himself to briefing the crew over the changes the world has seen in their absence, which primarily consist of new, automated, crew-free, faster, bigger load-bearing food transports from Venus.
It’s an odd return to the theme of the very first Dan Dare story, and in all the years between, not only is Earth still dependant upon food shipments from the planet of the Treens and Therons, it is still desperately close to famine and disaster if they are in the least disrupted.
And disrupted they are, by a mysterious terrorist organisation going under the name of Fist. And Fist has a demand in return for giving up its campaign of terror, destruction and world-wide starvation: it wants the Moon.
Fist: we are so in the James Bond Sixties, aren’t we?
A story like this stands or falls on its basic premise, and even as a ten-year-old boy, I knew that there was something fundamentally dodgy about the idea of Fist demanding the Moon. What was it going to do with it? Especially when the Government still had the Earth. It was just a flashy, big, dumb, daft idea, and it’s lack of plausibility was made explicit in mid-story when, with the terrorist organisation at the height of its campaign, someone actually asks what they want with the Moon when they’ve practically got the Earth?
That’s a case of being too clever by half. Fist – which has appeared out of nowhere, with World Security completely unprepared – is too big and too strong. It has resources everywhere, men and machines setting up attacks all over the globe, it can vanish at a moment’s notice, abandoning the organisation’s entire superstructure and not be weakened, it can create a projection of solid light cones that enables an entire spacefleet invade the moon, and this monstrously overwhelming, secret organisation is controlled by a single mind, and a mind with a day job: he’s doing all this in his spare time!
It’s beyond the least bit of credibility, and even the boy I was could see this.
That criminal mastermind spends most of his time in the story flitting around Spacefleet HQ, where he holds the important post of Commissionaire. Dan looks at him with curiosity on his return from Vega, and Spence names him as ex-spaceman Benny Clark, injured in the battle with Xel and the Tritons, restored by plastic surgery and given heavyweight, coloured lens glasses that compensate for his enforced blindness.
But he’s really Laszlo Romanov, the supposedly-dead head of ‘Big M’, an engineering empire inherited from Magnus Romanov’s ‘Magnus Group’. Laszlo, who was born blind, is supposed to have died in a Mars spacecraft accident, after which ‘Big M’ was broken up. Funnily, almost every piece of equipment recovered from Fist is derived from ‘Big M’.
In a way, the notion of Fist’s commander hiding out in so humble a role is very clever: a lowly official, forever on the scene in his menial role, his presence taken for granted, he is ideally placed to eavesdrop. But, like Fist itself, the amount of information – truly sensitive information – he picks up is far too great for plausibility.
And to have his headquarters disguised as a water tanker on the roof of the apartment block in which he lives stretches credulity to the point where it just goes twang!
As for the telling of the story, it’s in much the same mode as The Singing Scourge, all disasters and cliffhangers and colossal bangs. Watson is given a final shot at calling up past characters as Lex O’Malley – still captaining Poseidon – is found in charge of food supplies in the South Indian Ocean and becomes, for a time, part of a triumvirate of chiefs responsible for combating the threat of Fist to the world’s food.
I say for a time for, about two-thirds of the way through, O’Malley drops out of the story, completely forgotten, as Banger and John F. become the troubleshooters who finally track down Clark/Romanov and his secret HQ.
That’s not the only sloppiness about this story. At one point, a list of possible intelligence leaks from Spacefleet HQ is produced, with Clark’s name at the very top. But Dan, who has seen the Commissionaire gun down two unimportant Fist hirelings, swears faith in Clark, insistently so, heading off any actual investigation. Then, several weeks later, when Fist is starting to look more and more like a Laszlo Romanov operation, suddenly Dan’s staking his whole belief on Benny actually being Laszlo, without a word to prepare us for such a volte-face.
The worst moment of all relates to Digby, however. He and Dan, in Anastasia, go out to investigate the Fist satellite, only to be paralysed, like the ship, by electrical defences. Digby is captured and taken on board the satellite to be put to death: his spacesuit is ejected from an airlock.
There’s no two ways about it, Digby has been done for, and here are stiff expressions of regret from Lex, but not Dan. And the Wigan Wonder is out of the story for weeks until, Dan having decided to trick Fist into coming out into the open by actually giving it the Moon, there’s an off-hand reference to Fist, as a goodwill gesture, giving Digby back, alive.
It’s nonsense, utter nonsense, being written by someone who can’t be bothered to give the story the remotest element of consistency or plausibility. If this is indeed the work of Frank Pepper, then it’s negligible: less meant to last for five minutes and then be forgotten, than written in half that time and forgotten twice as fast. The Earth-Stealers was dire, but that was simply bad: it wasn’t done with anything like this level of underlying contempt for the intelligence of its readership.
I’ve already said that Watson’s art, and the colour palette both improve distinctly from the longer part of The Singing Scourge and it’s necessary to point out that John F.’s skin colour and his features go back to their original distinctiveness, though Watson – due to editorial direction? – does to his best to avoid showing the American’s face too clearly most of the time.
But really, “Give Me The Moon!” demonstrates just how rapidly downhill things were going. And then there was only one left.

Dan Dare: The Singing Scourge


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.

Dan Dare: The Mushroom


The baddy who always comes back

Those who feared for the Mekon’s safety in All Treens Must Die! did not have long to wait, for Ol’ Greenbean was back as dastardly mastermind on the opening page of the succeeding story, The Mushroom.
It seems an odd thing to do, and featuring Dan Dare’s arch-enemy in successive stories had never been tried before. Shoving the Mekon up front, when he’s not actually active in the story, is a dramatic waste of that revelatory moment. On the other hand, that bit’s been done, over and again, and as memory of the Tyrant of Venus hasn’t had time to fade – there is a hiatus of eight panels – you could say that this kind of classic scene is redundant on this occasion.
And given that treens are introduced on the cover of the next issue, it is rather pointless to propound mysteries. Especially in a story that will only run sixteen weeks, all told.
The plot of The Mushroom is very simple. The Mekon begins a terrorist campaign, using a satellite to project a fiery ‘seed’ into the heart of London. This ‘grows’ into a thrusting, metallic mushroom-shaped tower that sucks the life and the heat out of all the surrounding ground and area. Londoners are forced to flee their homes. The Mekon gives an ultimatum, that he be restored to rule on Venus, or his Mushroom will destroy London and others will be used against other capital cities.
By taking his attack directly to the people, the Mekon expects their panicky, narrow-visioned response to force the Earth Government to act in his favour. He’s wrong, of course, because nobody in Government is stupid enough to think for one second that Appeasement will work (shades of Hampson’s original identification of the Treens with the Nazis again), but this is still early days, and one city only. If the situation escalates, and the public’s fears along with it, who knows where this might go?
(Let me point out the continuity disjunction between this story and Reign of the Robots and the Treen Holocaust. I make no comment. At the time, boys not that much younger than me had not been alive to read Reign of the Robots and we were none of us aware of it. Just mentioning it, that’s all).
That the situation doesn’t escalate is, naturally, down to Dan and Co. He and Digby, in Anastasia,  trace the radiation beam that feeds energy to the Mushroom back to the satellite and confront the Mekon and impossible odds. But it’s Wilf Banger who saves the day, on Earth. Brought in as the scientific specialist, good old Wilf has only one scientific thought in his head from the moment he appears, and that is to blow the Mushroom into pieces small enough to be fried with bacon and eggs, and perform scientific tests on what’s left on the side of the plate.
The Mushroom is impervious to every assault, that is, until Banger has his men tunnel underground, pack explosives round the Mushroom’s base, and knock the whole thing over. With no focus any longer, the energy of the Mekon’s beam reverses back to the Satellite and blows it up. Dan and Digby are rescued, and for once there’s no particular attempt to suggest that the Mekon might have gone down with his ship: a green ‘meteorite’ streaks away in a controlled fashion, making it pretty damned clear that it’ll all happen all over again.
Indeed, the Mekon would again be back in the very next story, The Moonsleepers, though not as the principal villain.
In short, its not a complex story. Indeed, it comes close to a couple of the longer stories of Motton and Watson’s Monochrome Year, though it’s more compact and pursues a tighter plot-line. The sixteen week length is awkward: too short for substance, too long for flimsiness, but it’s real failure lies in coming directly after All Treens Must Die! The fall in scope, in ambition on the Mekon’s plans is bathetic, and The Mushroom just cannot get over that hurdle.
Again, it’s beautifully drawn and glowingly coloured, though I do want to take a little time to expand on that claim, because I’m very much aware that there are many Dan Dare fans who deride certain aspects of Keith Watson’s work.
I’m not an artist, and I lack an artist’s vocabulary to either criticise or commend. I’m biassed in favour of Watson because his is the Dan Dare I grew up on, but I still find his art immensely satisfying as an adult. His version of the Hampson style lacks some of the detail, the lushness that Hampson pioneered, but there’s a reassuring solidity to it, and something of a cragginess to his figures. He’s not as graceful as Hampson, and his figurework can sometimes be stiff, and static, but his technical art is superb. His work carries an extra degree of stylisation over Hampson’s resolutely naturalistic approach, but there’s a more modern, appealingly workaday aspect to it that befits the fact that the series, and Dan, has been at this for a long time. The lack of idealisation is much more appropriate to the times.
That said, I am aware that most criticism of Watson lies around his ability to draw faces, or rather Dan Dare’s face in particular. Given Hampson’s original design, it’s a difficult face to draw, especially the lantern jaw, and there have been several instances in past stories where head-shots of Colonel Dan from the wrong angle have looked disproportionate and clunky.
But the biggest difficulty is the head-on, full-face shot and there are a couple of real stinkers in The Mushroom. Watson cannot make Dan’s face look convincing (and there’s another example with Wilf Banger in there). Head-on, Watson’s faces flatten out and drop towards the cartoonish. Deprived of assistance by the colouring, he has to go to excess on closely inked lines, attempting to set up shadow and form, but these fail to cohere. He also makes an awful mess of Banger’s mouth in his close-up.
It’s a weakness, yet he can draw convincing faces from other angles, so the flaw is in allowing himself to be cornered into that particular composition, and not finding another method of presenting the shot that doesn’t betray him to his worst flaw.
Which pre-supposes that he had that kind of freedom to depart from David Motton’s scripts, about which subject I know nothing whatsoever, save that the two only rarely met, and that this was a scripter’s world in the post-Hampson mid-Sixties.
Those who are familiar with The Mushroom will have been wondering why I’ve not yet spoken of the story’s most famous aspect. I’ve chosen to leave that till last.
Watson had done a magnificent job of shoring up Dan Dare. He’d seen the series back into colour, to extended story-lines, supporting cast, the return of the Mekon, Anastasia and, in the previous story, Sondar. Now, on the second page of the opening episode, a lanky, bespectacled Texan Pilot-Captain, swinging a baseball bat, sends a home run through a window. Venturing inside to retrieve his ball, he becomes the first person on Earth to see the nascent Mushroom and its Treen attendants. It’s Hank Hogan, seen for the first time since The Solid-space Mystery, but to all Dan’s oldest fans a symbol of the truly early days, at the beginning.
So Dan and Digby go to meet Hank, and it’s a proper reunion of friends, none of this business call on O’Malley stuff. And, in a supercharge of nostalgia, Hank has a scrapbook, and it’s got everyone in it, all the old gang.
Pierre Lafayette – Principal of the Lake Chad Rockery College, enjoying piloting, fishing and French food. Lex O’Malley – supervising a Sea-Harvesting Project in the Indian Ocean. Sir Hubert Guest – retired and about to publish his memoirs.
There’s a glaring omission, for there is no mention of former Astral College Cadet Spry, though the young Flamer was seen in All Treens Must Die!‘s montage, capering as he did when Sir Hubert authorised his presence on the Cryptos Mission. But the question all the old fans want answered is “And Miss Peabody – the Professor I mean,?”
Oh, my. What emotions might underlie that enquiry? Are there regrets, expectations, hopes? But Hank, with blythe cheerfulness, pronounces the doom: “You mean Mrs Jack Gurk?” (in the Sixties, though thankfully for not too much longer, a woman’s married name submerged her not only underneath her Lord and master’s surname, but also his first name). Jocelyn has married a Mining Engineer, and moved with him to Mars.
How does Dan react to that news? It’s what everyone wants to know, and upon which everyone projects their own pet hopes. But it’s not even Dan who asks, but Digby. Does Dan care at all? The romantics want him to, but the truth is that, since their return from the Terra Nova Mission, he has apparently neither spoken to or of our favourite redhead. Given his seeming penchant for taking burly sailors and fourteen year old boys off into space, perhaps we should not get our hopes up too high.
But at least Hank is back, and a door opened, although once he’s produced his scrapbook, though he hangs around for the rest of the story, he plays no active part in it. But his little half-page steals all the glory in The Mushroom: it’s the only thing the fans ever remember.