I was squatting in the playground at New End Infants School in North London, contentedly reading the latest issue of the Beano when a friend produced a copy of a new comic called the Eagle. Even at the age of six, I could see at a glance that at all levels – artwork, story-line, quality of paper and colour, that it was rather superior to what I was reading. There were 20 big pages, eight in full colour.
“Swap?” said my playground chum. Although intrigued and impressed, I was reluctant to exchange the familiar story-lines of Korky the Cat – or was it Desperate Dan? – for a complete stranger called Dan Dare, even though at the launch price of threepence (soon to be four-pence halfpenny) it was a good deal. But I succumbed, and became a Dan Dare fanatic.
April 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Eagle, arguably the most brilliant comic of all time. It was Dan Dare, “Pilot of the Future” which spearheaded the comic’s success with thousands of impressionable youngsters – and their fathers – throughout Britain. Above all it was the quite stunning pictorial technique of Dare’s inventor, Frank Hampson, which made Dare’s truly magical adventures an essential part of our weekly reading. But it was not really reading, as such. It was looking. This was 1950s eye-candy, but it was space rather than sex that was being sold. Dare, as far as I can recall, had a totally platonic relationship with the only regular female in the strip, Professor Peabody, and there was never any sign of a wife. His chief side-kick Digby, on the other hand, was married with four children, although his long-suffering wife could have been forgiven for thinking he was virtually married to Dan.
On that summer’s day in 1950, I was a week or two too late to catch the very first issue, but I quickly acquired the relevant back-numbers and devoured them. I learned a new word – atmosphere – but insisted on pronouncing it, rather grandly, atomp-shere.
I watched in total awe as Professor Peabody and Sir Hubert Guest (drawn from Hampson’s father, Robert, a retired policeman, who wife Dorothy came up with the name Eagle) kept each others chins up while they were rescued from certain death in the all-consuming “silicone mass” on Venus by a helicopter piloted by a green “man” seven-foot three inches tall called Sondar, the only good Treen on the planet.
Over the years, Dan Dare, with his paralysing pistol and pistol flame projector, became my constant companion. When I was at boarding school near Montreux, the arrival of the comic, rolled up in brown-wrapping paper by my absentee parents, was the highlight if my week. Just the smell of the newsprint was sufficient to send a seven-year-old boy into a paroxysm of delight at the prospect of catching up with Dan’s latest adventure. On the Friday King George the Sixth died – February 15, 1952 – Dare and Digby are in the mini-spacecraft Anastasia, designed by Sondar, named after Digby’s ferocious aunt, built by Treens and Therons, the “good guys” from the other side of the Venusian flame-belt. The craft had been presented to Dan for bringing peace to Venus in 1996 (still 44 years in the future). Using Anastasia’s impulse wave motors, augmented by rocket fuel tanks containing Spacefleet “blended” liquid fuel, and an atmosphere data computer, Dare gave readers their first astonishing glimpse of the surface of the mysterious Asteroid 2345 in “The Red Moon Mystery”. A cut-away drawing of Anastasia used as a centre-spread of Eagle six years later promises that the interior of the spacecraft’s nose-cone – “not shown in detail for security reasons – will be “removed from the secret list” in a forthcoming Dan Dare story.
I felt some affection for the Eagle’s other characters, such as P.C. 49, Harris Tweed, Tommy Walls (also drawn by Hampson) Jeff Arnold and Luke in Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion et al, and like thousands of other schoolboys, I marvelled at the Eagles unique cut-away spreads showing the innards of battleships, railway locomotives and aircraft. but it was Daniel MacGregor Dare (Space Pilot Class 1) who stole the show every Friday. For me and many others, the magic lingers on.
In my 30s, having somehow lost my collection of Eagle comics, I purchased a replacement job lot from a collector in London, which I have still, along with my pride and joy – a page of original art work from 1952, with nine full-colour frames of Dare, Digby and Sir Hubert. Two panels are unfinished, with Don Harley’s drawings yet to be fully coloured in.
In my 30s, I shamelessly conned my way into the IPC magazines building in London under the pretence of researching a TV feature on Dan Dare when all I wanted to do was read back issues.
Apart from his astonishing attention to detail, which made words almost superfluous, Hampson had a genius for using a film-like technique, “cutting” effortlessly from wide shot to close up. His treatment of Colonel Dare and his sidekicks was compelling enough. Sir Hubert Gascoigne Guest (Controller of the Interplanetary Spacefleet), Hank Hogan, Pierre La Fayette, Jocelyn Mabel Peabody (Professor of plant biochemistry) and the loyalist of batmen, Spaceman Class 1 Albert Fitzwilliam Digby (perhaps the only who remained a cartoon character) were the regulars. So, of course, was the prevailing bad guy, The Mekon (born circa 1750) – the “totally evil Mekon of Mekonta, absolute ruler of the Northern Hemisphere of Venus. “
“Dan was the man I always wanted to be” said Hampson. “Digby, his batman, was the man I saw myself as.”
It was Hampson’s breathtaking attention to scientific detail – both contemporary and futuristic – which provided such a stunning backdrop to the series. He was employed by Marcus Morris, a vicar who first used him to draw for a parish magazine called the Anvil. Morris, who went on to produce the Eagle’s companion comics, Girl, Swift and Robin, was concerned about the plethora of American “horror” comics flooding across the Atlantic, and anxious to produce a comic strip about a good guy. Hampson produced two – one, about the journeys of St Paul, was from the past. The other, the journeys of Colonel Dan, was based firmly in the future. Dan Dare 4
When the idea was sold to Hulton Press, St Paul was on the back page of the dummy while St Dan (who was indeed almost saintly, and “never lied”) dominated the front page and the “turn” in full-colour gravure. Morris duly received a telegram which said: “Definitely interested do not approach any other publisher….” And on April 14, 1950, the Eagle was launched.
Hampson was an admirer of American artists like Hal Foster, who created the prince Valiant comic strips and Burne Hogarth whose Tarzan strips were popular, but refined and revolutionised the art form so much that later it was Hampson himself who was copied by a host of illustrators. One of his talents was a skill for blending the “fantastic with the commonplace”. Painstakingly he set up something of a film animation studio in an old bakery in Southport, Lancashire where he photographed space-suited human models and models of rockets, weapons, buildings and even plaster busts of the main characters to set up a scene for his panels. Hampson even used himself as a model. Eventually the team moved to larger premises much closer to London– the Dan Dare studio at Epsom. Hampson became so busy that a young artist called Don Harley started to share the Dan Dare operation with him. They formed a magnificent team. Harley became known as the “second best Dan Dare artist in the world”.
In the early days, the strip was sent to Arthur C.Clark, of 2001 fame, to check for authenticity. Eventually Clark’s brother Fred sent a letter saying: “I don’t think he ever found a mistake in it. In the end he suggested to Frank Hampson that as the standard of the work and research was so high, they were wasting their money getting him to check it. From then on, Arthur had to buy Eagle for himself to keep up with what was happening.”
In 1975, at the Eleventh Salon of Comics, Animation and Illustration in Tuscany, Hampson’s superb artistry was recognised internationally when he was named “prestigioso maestro” – best writer and illustrator of strip cartoons since the 2nd war.
But unlike each episode of Dan Dare, it did not end happily for Hampson. As ill health caused by pressure of work took its toll on Hampson, other artists followed. Not all of them were in Hampson’s mould, which vexed him sorely. Hampson was a perfectionist with a “horrendous workload.”
According to Alastair Crompton’s profile of Hampson, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, “Frank Hampson destroyed his own health. He worked under an impossible strain, and with such ferocity that, after 1961, he was never able to create at the same level again.” Odham’s took over Hulton. And were themselves swallowed up by the Mirror Group. Hampson and Dare parted company. The Eagle died on April 26, 1969, after 991 issues.
In 1982 a stroke deprived Hampson of the use of his hands and lower limbs. Hampson said: “Although I often wishes he would, Dan Dare refuses to lie down and die. But that’s what I intend to do now.” Hampson died in 1985, aged 66. Dan Dare lives on, resurfacing from time to time in other comics. No doubt we shall see him again in the new millennium. Where he truly belongs.