Eagle Volume 14 (1963)


Back up front again

The magic ingredient that made Volume 14 an improvement on its predecessor was the thing I criticised last time out: stability. After the chaos of 1962, Eagle‘s editorial staff pulled things together to establish long-running series that appeared faithfully, week after week, solidifying the comic’s latterday appeal.
As in the previous year, the first nine issues were essentially a continuation of the previous Volume. ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and ‘Hornblower’ played out their time. There were two episodes left of ‘Johnny Quick’ and then that short, seven part serial, ‘Runway 13’ which I’ve previously praised so highly, and which was a forerunner of the prose series that would then establish itself as an Eagle fixture.
Everything else ran its stories down, including a final short nine week B&W ‘Dan Dare’ adventure, to enable another internal revamp with issue 10.
These blogs have been concentrating upon Eagle, of course, but its success spawned a small stable of red-topped comics under Marcus Morris for other audiences. First, Girl, for readers’ sisters. Then Robin for their baby/brothers/sisters, 4-7 year olds. And Swift, for the intermediate audience, the 7 – 10 year olds. But Swift was now being cancelled, in the traditional British manner whereby a comic does not simply disappear but suffers death-by-merger, the strongest series of each of the two comics continuing under a single form. With Volume 14, issue 10, Eagle officially became Eagle and Swift, though I’m not going to use that title.
Only two of Swift‘s features survived the merger, according to a disgruntled Swift reader later in the year, but the only unequivocally new feature was the new Western series, ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, and that began its second life with the closest such things came to an ‘origin’ episode that I can only assume was for the benefit of Eagle readers.
For this initial story, ‘Blackbow’ ran in black and white across two pages, dominated by an overall grey tone that rendered the art ineffective and dull. The untitled story featured a seeming ghost Indian Chief, returned from the dead, inciting the local Commanche tribe, under Blackbow’s friend, Chickarro, to attack Powder Creek. As had been the case in at least one ‘Riders of the Range’ saga, and would be repeated more than once in ‘Blackbow’ itself, the villain turned out to be the local banker, trying to drive settlers off so he could buy their land cheap and make a killing.

It may not be Jeff Arnold, but it’s still Frank Humphris

As for the other Swift holdover, according to Wikipedia that must have been ‘Calling U for Useless’ which had already been appearing in Eagle for ages: surely it can’t have been published in both comics?
Dan Dare had had a year in monochrome, of short stories without recurring characters, and at first, ‘Operation Time-Trap’ looked like more of the same, albeit with a slightly expanded cast. But the revamp introduced an expanded Letter’s Page, and practically the first thing this featured was a couple of letters from readers wanting the Pilot of the Future back in colour. The editor (Bob Bartholomew, though unlike Morris and Makins, he would never name himself to the readers: professional comics publishers, remember) hinted at some change and, four weeks in to the revamp, Dan finally returned to Eagle‘s cover, and to full colour.
But only on the cover. For Heaven knows what reason, perhaps resentment at not being able to dump Dan Dare after all, Eagle saddled their lead character with the worst and most spatchcock of formats, one page full colour, done poster-style, and one-and-a-half pages of monochrome inside.
Add to that the fact Keith Watson was colourblind, and the earliest covers were horribly garish until the ever-reliable Eric Eden was brought back to colour these, and it was the most ridiculous way to treat the series.
However, in terms of scripting, the shackles were off. ‘Operation Time-Trap’ would run for 28 weeks, and then segue, in best Hampsonian manner, directly into its sequel, ‘The Wandering World’.
And those new characters who piloted the Tempus Frangit (Time-Breaker) alongside Dan and Digby, were to become a new supporting cast for much of the Watson era. These were the hot-headed Colonel Wilf Banger, engineer/designer, his assistant Technician ‘Nutter’ Cob, and the prim, fussy administrator, Major Shillitoe Spence, whose forename was only used twice (in captions) in the whole series.
And there was greater change in the air. Motton introduced a new recurring foe for Dan in ‘Operation Time-Trap’ in Xel, short, brutish, silver-skinned, the One in One Thousand Million, who stows away on the Tempus Frangit into ‘The Wandering World’ and beyond.
But the supreme moment came on the cover of issue 42. After three years, he was back, The Mekon, returning to his rightful role as the master villain, the mastermind. It might not be Frank Hampson, and there are those who still criticise Keith Watson’s art, especially when it came to Dan’s face (and they do have a point in certain close-up angles), but he had slaved to make the reduced ‘Dan Dare’ something that the fans could still relish, and he had beaten Longacre, because this was what we thought of when we imagined Dan Dare, and if it wasn’t Frank Hampson, it was a colourable imitation, and it would be good enough for a few years to come, and Keith Watson deserves every kudos going for making sure we could come back to a moment like this.
The page and a half of B&W art inside was completed by a new prose feature, ‘SportingTalk’ by Ex-Pro, the man who knows everybody in the business. From a distance of a half-century these are interesting for the confident features on people whose names are meaningless nowadays, except to specialists, and the confident but inaccurate predictions, like the one that ‘Sonny’ Liston was going to hold the World Heavyweight Boxing title for years and see off all contenders, the least of whom was Cassius Clay.

Did you spot the clue?

This was followed by ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, in which Paul Trevillion’s art was at its crispest and cleanest, though every now and then he would be replaced by episodes drawn by Spanish artist Martin Salvador, who just about managed reasonable representations of Bruce and Prior (except that Bruce became inordinately fond of hats those weeks) but in every respect was about as unlike as possible.
And before the year was out the series – which had begun as a three-pager, remember – was cut back to one-and-a-half pages.
One last one-off series ran from issue 10, a Loch Ness Monster rip-off entitled ‘The Beast of Loch Craggan’. Fishermen from the remote village of Craggan disturb a sea monster that ‘escapes’ into the land-locked Loch and causes terror. Young Jamie Farr empathises with the monster, which he sees as an innocent. Everybody’s trying to kill the monster, or else capture, study and then kill it, but young Jamie wants to set it free, and eventually does. Apart from it being drawn by John McLuskey, who’d been the original artist on the Daily Express ‘James Bond’ strip, there was little to commend it.
There was a third short prose serial to accompany the merger/revamp, the eight part mountaineering ghost story, ‘High Quest’, of which I’ve spoken highly elsewhere, but when this finished, it was replaced by Eagle‘s first ongoing prose series since ‘The Three J’s’. Though uncredited, it’s obvious to anyone with half an eye that ‘Horizon Unlimited’ was written by the same guy as ‘Runway 13’. Apart from the knowledgeable love of aviation, there’s the same veteran/youngster combo upfront, in Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, with a penchant for seeing things from Theo’s viewpoint.
‘Horizon Unlimited’ was about a trio of misfits, joined by their love of adventure, new horizons and an old War-veteran Catalina flying boat. Sam’s a Director of a Southampton-based company, a veteran bomber pilot from the War and still unreconciled to ‘flying a desk’. He sees the Cat’ put down on Southampton Water and, on a whim, hires her to travel to Scotland to inspect a new and predictably useless device. There he meets Theo, more recently ‘bowler-hatted’ from the RAF, working for the insurers. They fly back together, relishing the old flying-boat.
But its misery of an owner is more interested in having the Cat’ wrecked for its insurance value, putting down at Great Orme in a storm. Sam and Theo rescue it, pool their resources to buy the Cat’ – and, effectively, its mechanic, a stocky Liverpudlian only known as Plugg – call themselves Horizons Unlimited and set up to charter round the world. Their first charter is to fly to Bermuda and deliver an attache case to a very private billionaire. If I tell you it has a bomb in it, you’ll understand what kind of series this was going to be…
‘Horizon Unlimited’ (not an original name, it having been Milton Caniff’s creation for the early, pre-Air Force days of Steve Canyon) was glorious fun. It moved in story arcs of anything from two to seven parts – there was even a one-parter – each rolling into another, and it was one of my favourite Eagle features of this period, second perhaps only to Dan Dare.
In the centre pages, Frank Bellamy continued to draw, colour and thrill on ‘Heros the Spartan’. The ‘Island of Death’ story had successfully concluded with issue 9, and now Heros returned to Rome, expecting recognition for the completion of his mission from Caesar, in the form of command of a Legion. This he would get, but writer Tom Tully had a reset in mind, as Heros was first forced to fight for his life, masked, in the Arena, and then given command of a Legion made-up of criminals and deserters. For things had changed: the old Caesar was dead and his heir was a corrupt, villainous man, who hated Heros and feared him as a symbol around which opposition to his rule might gather. Ironically, Heros was adamantly loyal, but this did not stop what would be continuous peril and the ever-present risk of engineered disgrace that would underpin the series from hereon in.
The ‘Eagle of the Fifth Legion’ story dominated the rest of the volume, but there was a surprise to come when the next serial, ‘The Man of Vyah’, saw a change of artist. Another Spanish artist, Luis Bermejo – Spaniards were cheap in comparison to English artists, rather like DC Comics discovering the Phillippines in the early Seventies – replaced him. Bermejo’s art was appropriately atmospheric, but never realistic. Nevertheless, once the shock was over, he was more than good enough, and the pair would basically alternate in future.

See German, kill German

But once we were past ‘Heros’ the quality, and the solidity of the new Eagle and Swift dropped off rapidly. ‘Mann of Battle’ found a home in the back half, it’s weekly single page drawn by Brian Lewis, according to most records. That may be so, but there are constant subtle changes to the art-style from week to week, and Lewis’s signature would only appear on those pages most clearly in his style. There were no drastic changes in line-work, though Slogger Bates’ features go up and down the age-range. Either Lewis was farming some of the work out to assistants/colleagues aping his style, or some weeks he just didn’t have the same amount of time to spare as others, but the look was constantly shifting back and forwards in a way that didn’t help the weak storylines and unconvincing dialogue.
Whether it be an island off the Libyan coast, Sicily or the Burmese Jungle, the formula was identical. Pete Mann and Slogger Bates would be sent on a secret mission against the Nazis, run into trouble, get shot at, shoot a lot of people, so on and so forth. I can’t remember my reaction to it then, when I was pretty undiscriminating, but it completely fails to convince me now.
I think that’s because this was a Second World War story, so close to the end of the actual wall itself. Less than twenty years had elapsed, enough that none of Eagle‘s readers had any experience of it, but still short enough that practically every one of them would have had someone – a father, an uncle, even a grandfather maybe – who had fought in the War. My father had been close to call-up age when the war ended, and was soon on National Service, his elder brother had been in the Pacific, in the Navy.
Eagle wasn’t like the DC Thomson papers, the Victor, the Hornet, with their endless jingoistic War series. In its way, ‘Mann of Battle’ was not much different to them, maybe slightly more sophisticated, but it was not at home here. It feels superficial, because it is superficial, on too important a subject. It didn’t work.
The revamp also introduced a new feature, a third go at the kind of factual feature that had been meat and drink to MacDonald Hastings. ‘Roving Reporter’ was the first time this had been tried in strip form, with the odd photo of the Roving Reporter himself, ‘Larry Line’ (really the writer, Roger Parry) accompanying a page of art from, primarily but not exclusively, Eric Kincaid. It never achieved any great depth, and it wasn’t immune to being messed around with, with random episodes in black and white and then, about the same time ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ lost half a page, being cut back to half a page itself.
The ‘Are you the… type?’ feature continued, but at this remove, the types being set up are of only remote interest, figures of a bygone age, whose life is summed up in so superficial a manner for the youngsters that they hold no interest even as a record of historical perceptions then. And there’s ‘Calling U for Useless’ and ‘Fidosaurus’, about which I plan to waste no more words.
Also introduced with issue 10 was a new, expanded Letters page, soon rebranded ‘It’s Your Opinion’, with the Editor soliciting letters on specific topics. This might pop up anywhere, and it’s amusing to read some of the opinions being expressed by kids aged 10 or thereabouts, many of which are inveterately stupid, and some of which explain a little about what our county’s been like for the past fifty years.
The overall effect was to give Eagle an imbalanced feel. Yes, it had settled into a secure format, where a standard line-up appeared in a regular order, but whilst ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, ‘Horizon Unlimited’ and ‘Heros the Spartan’ were all substantial features demanding concentrated reading, once you hit the back of the bus, so to speak, there was little to stop you skimming through the rest.
There was one magic feature to Eagle in Volume 14 however that I’ve not mentioned so far, but which you may have been able to guess for comments here and there, and that’s me. On a dark November Saturday afternoon, at the fag-end of a Church Bring-and-Buy sale, my Dad spent a couple of pennies on a bunch of Eagle‘s, maybe fifteen or so, from this year. I loved it from the start, which is why I’m maybe a little more forgiving of the later Dan Dare in particular, because this is my Dan Dare, and I would not read any Frank Hampson for years.
But from here to the end of the ride, I was one of those small boys who read Eagle every week. I remember the thrill so much.

Dan Dare at Titan Comics: He Who Dares


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.

 

Dan Dare: Pilot with Another Future


Perhaps if I’d got this cover…

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.

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: The Moonsleepers


…in One Thousand Million

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.

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.

Dan Dare: All Treens Must Die!


Favourites. There’s always one in every bunch, one that means more to you than any other, that arouses more excitement and intensity than any other, When it comes to Dan Dare, as The Stone Roses so eloquently put it, This Is The One.
All Treens Must Die! is my personal favourite, the story of my childhood that thrilled and awed me more than any other. It’s also, by general consensus among Dan Dare’s fans, the best, the most Hampson-esque story of the latter days of the series. And it represented another turning point in the history of the strip, in that this was the point at which Dan Dare returned to full colour, never to appear in monochrome again. Not in any format he had enjoyed before, but arguably even more prestigious, since Dan’s adventures now wrapped the Eagle around, appearing on both the front and back covers.
It’s beautifully drawn by Watson, and Eric Eden’s colours are gorgeously deployed to give perhaps the strongest post-Hampson art.
Yet the story has a very simple, linear line, and it is only 20 episodes in length (according to David Motton, it was originally planned to run for 22 weeks, though he could recall neither what had had to be cut, nor the reason for the truncation).
All Treens Must Die! is as much a follow on from The Wandering World as was The Big City Caper. We have dealt with Xel, now it is time to look to the other captive, who faces trial on Earth for his crimes around the Solar System.
Needless to say, the Mekon is surrounded by massive security, both in prison and in his daily transport to and from the Court buildings. Dan attends, watching proceedings, the application of proper Earth justice. It’s the demonstration that Earth’s system, Earth’s code, works.
Not all is well, however. Major Spence is also attending proceedings and is disturbed to receive an irate call from Banger, protesting against orders apparently emanating from Spence that are sending him and Cob to Venus. Banger has too much on to leave Earth at this point and he makes it plain that he has no intention of following these orders. On the other hand, there are Treens in his and Cob’s quarters…
Dan’s concerned enough to call Banger back, although there’s no answer. But he’s even more concerned when, checking Banger’s quarters, he finds them trashed and his two friends gone. The Police are not yet inclined to take it seriously, until a call comes in from the prison because, as we had all been expecting, the Mekon has escaped. And he has gotten off Earth and onto a Venus transport in the luggage of Banger and Cob, drugged and hypnotised into assisting.
There’s a full scale flap on about finding the Mekon, but the clue comes from Banger himself. Waking from his drugged state, he takes the typically aggressive step of forcing his way into the cabin and sending out a partial message, before he is clubbed down with brutal contempt from the Mekon. But he has succeeded in broadcasting both his personal call-sign and the letter M-E-K.
Dan and Digby head for Mekonta in the Anastasia, for our first reunion in years with President (no longer Governor) Sondar, who has not been seen since The Phantom Fleet. Sondar can provide some additional clues from seemingly unconnected incidents in recent months: a mutiny on three ships, the disappearance into the Flame-Belt of fifty Treens who have not been found.
This latter leads Dan and Dig to investigate the Flame-Belt, which is where the Mekon has made his base. The Earth passengers, including Banger and Cob, have been abandoned here to die, but the Anastasia finds them in time and, though too massively overloaded to fly, manages to get the hapless passengers far enough away for proper rescue.
Dan’s presence, and his interference, spurs the Mekon into advancing his attack. A submarine craft enters the Mekontan lagoon, and the Mekon launches a vicious assault on the main island. His merest appearance sees Treens en masse deserting to his colours, but the truly shocking thing is that they are gunned down, mercilessly, in those self-same masses. As the title proclaims: All Treens Must Die.
What lies behind this is a mystery. The Mekon’s plan appears to be, indeed is no less than the complete genocide of the Treen race, despite its willingness to support him. The stakes are raised high, far higher than an eight year old boy had ever encountered in his fiction previously.
Yet it is not this aspect that lifted the story for me. I have yet to come to that.
The Mekon is incredibly well-prepared. Indeed, too well-prepared, with equipment and soldiers, especially for someone who has not only just escaped from Earth custody, but who was absent in space on The Wandering World for most if not all the past three years. He has to have allies, but who on Earth, or Venus, could they be?
It is at this point that Sondar pulls the veritable rabbit out of the hat. It would be years, decades, before I would read The Ship That Lived so that I was not aware that they had been referenced at any previous time, but Motton takes this moment to go back almost the whole of my life, to ‘The Last Three’.
They are, apparently, a legend of Venus’s early times, ‘The Immortal Last Three of Venus’, and it’s significant that every piece of data regarding them has been wiped from Mekontan records. But they are a clue, and so too is an innocuous looking device left behind by the Mekon’s forces, a translucent ball in a metal frame.
This is Cob’s territory, and his tinkering soon establishes that it is giving off a weak signal to somewhere in the Flame-Belt.
This is enough to decide Dan. Leaving Banger behind to assist Sondar in a defence against another attack, he takes Digby and Cob back to the Flame-Belt in Anastasia, just in time to locate the Mekon’s base as a new wave of ships are sent out to support the Mekon in another murderous attack on Mekonta, another slaughter of the Treens.
Dan gains access to the base with Cob, Digby having sensibly but reluctantly been sent on to the south to enlist Theron aid: after all, they know him. Inside the base, Dan and Cob are quickly separated, and the former captured. The latter, finding himself blocked off from escape, starts to strip down machinery, bringing his technical skills to bear. Dan, meanwhile, is dragged by robots through a super-automated factory until he is brought in from of a gigantic Treen eye. And for Martin Crookall of Openshaw, Manchester, age eight, the story exploded.
There were only four weeks to go, and four banner front pages which built one upon another to elevate this story out of all rational attempts to analyse it.
A front page banner drawing reveals to us a Treen of ancient face, no longer wholly organic. His arms and legs have been replaced by metallic limbs. He is the first of the Last Three, the master of mechanism. Dan Dare is dismissed as mechanically insignificant, of no interest, to be dismissed. All the while that this fantastic figure – a Treen cyborg, long before I was ever to encounter that word – continues the task of administering this vast manufactory, uninterrupted.
If the Mekon was a superbrain, how far beyond him was this creature, this part-machine,showing even less emotion?
Dismissed, Dan was flung away, literally, into a cloud of swirling mists in which his every thought and feeling was pored through  and he was escorted through his own life. This was represented by a glorious panel in which everyone – everyone – who had ever been of importance to the Dan Dare series, appeared. Faces and figures, human and otherwise, a bare handful of which meant something to me then. It was an awe-inspiring moment, a kaleidoscope of stories, tales and adventures unknown to me, strangers who were yet of significance and I wanted to know who each of these were, what they were called, what they meant.
Even earlier than the mind-expanding effects of the incredible sequence in Justice League of America 37, in which the Thunderbolt ranges up and down time, obliterating origins, in this panel I was looking across Time itself.
Then the final panel and those words: “Dan Dare, you are living the last hour of your life!”
And a week passed, revealing the second of the last three: a gloating, floating Supertreen, poised yogicly in thin air, without arms, or so it seemed, for these have merged into the gigantic globic head, bigger even by far than the Mekon himself, impossibly so, even more inhuman. Dan Dare has caused the Mekon’s failures, and so he must die.
And the plan is unfolded, made explicit. The Treen race has failed. It has failed the Mekon, and so All Treens Must Die. The present race has been condemned, and a new Treen race, pure, unsullied, will be born to take up its proper place in the Universe, as conquerors in the Mekon’s name.
Frank Hampson, in devising the Treens and the Mekon at the beginning, had the coldness of the Nazis in his mind. Motton makes that connection flesh, in this story.
And Dan is flung away, to fall again. Meanwhile, in Mekonta, the Mekon has all but taken the city. But there is a message, Cob playing a distant but significant part, transmitting over and over the letter ‘D’. And at the thought of Dare among his allies, the Mekon panics. It’s a foreshadowing moment. The Mekon cracks, giving way to emotion, and in a very short time, this will prove his downfall.
Dan lands on a slab and lies there stunned. Asking where he is, he receives the answer, “This is the place called Life – the place of your extermination and Death.”
Thus the final part of the tryptich, the Last of the Three. Unlike the others, we do not see him clearly, from above, but from below, always at an angle. For he has the form of a normal Treen, albeit much taller, and he lacks the excessive brain-pan. But the Third of the Three is red-skinned, and he is served by Red Treens whose skin colour is even deeper in tone.
He has two questions to ask: “Would you die to save a broken machine?” and “Is dying to save a useless object called ‘Courage?’” For this ultimately what Treens are to Mekons: machines. He is the Breeder, and behind him in vats lie the new Treens, the Pure Treens, who will not be released until the least possible chance is gone that they may be afflicted by Sondar’s condition. They are why All Treens Must Die.
And why Dan must fight now, for himself, for Venus and the Solar System.
Then it’s on into the final episode, and those three portraits of the Last Three are completed by the Mekon, arriving at the head of his troops, to the sudden destruction of his plans. For the Third of the Three is dead, his neck broken by Dan, the stakes so high that our hero must kill. Then, as he climbs back to the halls of the First, he is confronted by the Mekon, who strikes with a tongue of flame, but too hasty, for Dan evades, the First dies and the factory, deprived of its mind, erupts into chaos. And the Mekon reacts in anger, anger towards the Second, the planner whose plans have failed, have ended in success by Dan Dare, yet again, and the supposedly-emotion free Mekon kills, and the Last Three are Immortal no longer.
But before the Mekon can attack Dan, the roof falls in on top of him, a hole blown in the mountain by Digby arriving in proper deus ex machina fashion with the Treens. And it’s over.
I know I’ve gone on too much about those four last episodes, but they’re why I can’t be objective about All Treens Must Die! I know that I can say that the end, in its final tier of panels, is too abrupt, that those two extra episodes should have been expended. I know that I can say that the penultimate episode, and the panel devoted to the Third, would have looked better without the top-of-the-page ballyhoo about the jointure of Eagle with the failed Boy’s World (bringing over the tedious British version of Iron Man).
But this one’s my story, my favourite. And I’m ready to read it again.

Dan Dare: The Wandering World


The One Who Is Obeyed

In a manner that hadn’t been seen since Trip to Trouble, or perhaps even the transition from The Man from Nowhere into Rogue Planet, The Wandering World ran directly on from the last page of Operation Time Trap. Like its predecessor, this was a story that I knew only partially for half a century. There were pages from this story in the bundle bought at that Bring and Buy sale, though from the first week of 1964, I had Eagle on weekly order. The only gaps in the story throughout all that time came near its beginning.
But ultimately I got the complete story, which contained the last pages of the original Dan Dare run that I had never before seen. It’s a fine and private irony that my first and last Dan Dare pages should have been so close together in publication.
The new adventure starts with a dramatic aerial shot of the Tempus Frangit blasting off from Meit’s North Pole. They were indeed close enough to the exact Pole and escape into space, beyond two suns. There, Banger executes the Time Jump to take them home. His calculations have been thorough and precise, he has allowed for every pound of weight, and the removal of every ‘gift’ donated to the Meitians, the Jump will be to an exact position within Earth space. Except that he hasn’t accounted for the stowaway, Xel, and his weight.
And the Tempus Frangit arrives in the Solar System at the right time. Or rather, just outside of it. Beyond the orbit of Pluto (this was before the Kuiper Belt was discovered, indeed before Pluto’s main moon, Charon). They do not have enough fuel to return to Earth down the entire length of the Solar System.
Xel immediately makes his presence known – and felt – attempting to take over the ship. But he quickly realises this is a waste of time if it effectively cannot go anywhere. The impasse is quickly forgotten as sensors pick up a nearby object, what appears to be an artificial world, of immense clustered bubbles broken up by gaping pits that emit blazing radiation. Xel abandons ship to search for something more promising on this satellite/moon/world, with Dan and Dig closely behind, hoping to get to the native people – assuming there are any – before Xel creates a terminally bad example.
What they find on the Wandering World is something completely unexpected: the Mekon.
Whereas, on his last reappearance, Dan and Digby greeted the Mekon with nothing more than the generic “You’re supposed to be dead”, I’m impressed by the fact that David Motton has them reference The Solid-space Mystery.
Indeed, there’s a definitely understated continuity between the two adventures. It puzzled me for years why the Mekon is alone, with a perfectly constructed Treen spaceship, but without any Treens to carry out his bidding. But then when we last saw him, he was ejecting – alone – in an escape capsule from the Solid-space satellite, which was then promptly destroyed with no survivors.
It still begs the question of how he’s gotten from a satellite between the orbits on Mercury and Venus to the far side of Pluto, unaided, though he’s done a world class job on getting the native Navs to duplicate Treen construction.
What is most important is that the Mekon not only has a functioning spaceship, he has fuel for it, and enough to fill the Tempus Frangit‘s tanks as well. Unfortunately for the latter’s crew, he has the local population, the Navs – spindly, blue-skinned, hairless humanoids – under his complete control, and now he has an uneasy ally in the form of Xel.
As a newly introduced reader, completely lacking any knowledge of the series’ history, I spent my formative years thinking of Xel as Dan Dare’s primary adversary. He’s a constant presence throughout the trilogy of stories of which The Wandering World is the middle part, and he has a further role to play as villain in the future. But even at my young age, the contrast between Xel and the Mekon, their alliance a triumph of circumstance above nature, was fascinating to contemplate. Brutishness versus brain. Strength against feebleness. Bull-headed attack against thought and planning.
The Mekon was always the more deadly of the two, and where the Earthmen are incapable, ultimately, of overcoming the Stollite Emperor (though Dan does, incredibly, succeed in knocking him out, temporarily), it takes the greater villain to put Xel out of action with sufficient permanence to permit the story to proceed to a denouement.
The Wandering World is an intriguing conception. The Navs are survivors of an unspecified civilisation (from within the Solar System? From without?) that destroyed itself, leaving only those who were aboard a fantastic sky city, a metal construct powered by great nuclear engines. Over an unspecified period of time, the city has both wandered and developed its surface of bubbles, initially a kind of detritus generated by the engine, but now home to the Nav civilisation and its curious flora and fauna.
Dan and Digby, with Banger, explore the Wandering World until they reach the bubble where the Mekon has taken control. He has enlisted the Navs on a basis of lies about his role in the Solar System, and promises of giving them a planet of their own one he is ‘restored’, but they are quick to turn to Dan’s assistance when he puts them right.
But they are even quicker to turn against everyone when the matter becomes a three-way argument between the Earthmen and the two villains. “A plague upon both your houses!”, they cry, expelling the massive bubble from their world, leaving a massive hole, but dispensing with the threat for (their) good.
This is just what Dan and Co needed. The last few seconds of the Tempus Frangit‘s fuel is used to close in on the Mekon ship and its spare fuel. The Mekon is captured, Xel is incapacitated and the voyage home to Earth is before them.
Going by my personal impressions, The Wandering World is not as good a story as Operation Time Trap. It’s a less active adventure, with a stronger element of exploration: Dan and Dig see several of the bubbles and face various perils that have no direct bearing on the spine of the story, where all the actions of Operation Time Trap are focused upon the menace of Xel and the need for escape from Meit.
But it’s a strong, solid story, and if not up to the level of prime Hampson, it’s a far more worthy substitute than the pallid efforts of Eric Eden’s period as writer. Though it does have advantages that were denied to him, in that the overall story, from the Tempus Frangit‘s blast-off from Earth until it finally turns for home spans almost a full year of story. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen something with that scope.
And there’s still a direct follow-up to come.

Dan Dare: The Solid-space Mystery


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.

                                                                                Recognise him?
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.

Dan Dare: Reign of the Robots


Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.

The Elektrobots strike! (original art)

Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.

Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in  Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.