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Britain’s Greatest-Ever Comic Strip

Frank Hampson and the enduring wonder of Dan Dare

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Each of us thinks, as age creeps up: Pop music is getting worse. My mother loved Glenn Miller. Elvis merely bemused her. David Bowie left her cold. We all go through this: only the names are changed. Is pop music worse? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But our capacity to enjoy it grows less. This is natural, even desirable. Perhaps it’s the fading of the ephemeral. Junk entertainment doesn’t hold its value. Give it a generation, and it will have none at all.

But all pop stuff (of whatever kind) isn’t junk. You can tell the stuff that isn’t because it still seems great no matter how old it gets. Sherlock Holmes is a case in point. So, for that matter, is Glenn Miller. So are Elvis and David Bowie. And so is one of the greatest of all comic strip creations: Dan Dare. How do I know this? I won’t pretend the stories thrill me, today, quite in the way that they thrilled me as a child. But as I read Dan’s adventures over and over (and I do), I see more deeply how marvellous they are.

Dan Dare began life on two vividly coloured pages featured in every issue of Eagle, the celebrated British “boys’ weekly” published between 1950 and 1969. Edited, in the beginning, by clergyman Marcus Morris (1915-89), Eagle was designed as a “quality” children’s magazine to counter the tide of violent and allegedly corrupting American comics then invading Britain, and causing much alarm among parents, teachers, and moralists. By rights, Eagle should have been sanctimonious trash. But it wasn’t. It was brilliant. And much of that brilliance was owing to the paper’s star feature. Devised and drawn, in its glory days, by artist Frank Hampson (1918-1985), Dan Dare is one of the masterworks of English popular culture. Latterly, several publishers have reprinted the strips, although the set of twelve large-format volumes from Hawk Books (1987-95) remains by far the best.

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RAF poster from World War II

The sequence begins almost fifty years in the future: the late 1990s. Colonel Dan Dare, “Pilot of the Future,” works for the British-based “Interplanet [sic] Space Fleet.” I have heard it said that Dare is an imperialistic character; that his adventures show “the British Empire in space.” Such a view is possible only to trendy ideologues of the sort whose reading comprehension level has never been high. Dare never conquers anyone. Space Fleet doesn’t attack; it defends. In essence, Dare is an RAF pilot translated into the future, at a time when wartime pilots could credibly be presented as heroes and saviours. Frank Hampson had been in the RAF; when Dare began, the war had been over for less than five years. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” said Winston Churchill, speaking of the Battle of Britain pilots. Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – a political leader says something that is, quite simply, true.

Dan Dare is that sort of hero. Unlike popular American comic heroes, Dan was neither a space alien nor the possessor of “super powers”: born, as readers would learn, in Manchester in 1967, he was, simply, an ordinary man who was good, brave, resourceful, and blessed with loyal companions. Eagle readers could, in some measure, aspire to grow up and be just like him. They probably didn’t, and, in any case, Coronation-era Britain would soon give way to a very different world. Eagle readers will always wish it had become, instead, the world of Dan Dare.

In successive adventures, Dan fights against the dangers and evils which threaten the Earth, most famously in the form of the Mekon, the green, swollen-headed, shrivel-bodied Venusian dictator who hovers above his minions hunched on a sort of personal flying saucer. I know it sounds silly: but the Dare strip, in the Hampson period, is a work of genius, and I don’t use the word lightly. The stories (which took months to unfold in the original weekly episodes) are rich and detailed, the characters vividly memorable, and the standard of illustration exceptionally high. No one did spaceships, futuristic cities or alien planets better than Frank Hampson. At its height, in the mid-fifties trilogy “The Man from Nowhere,” “Rogue Planet,” and “Reign of the Robots” (Volumes 5, 6 and 7 in the Hawk Books series), Dan Dare combined compelling science fiction narrative with a sheer visual beauty which is breathtaking.

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The Mekon, Dan Dare’s greatest enemy

Not the least of its attractions is the sense of character and community that the stories convey. I think of Dan Dare and think not of spaceships and explosions but of Dan and Digby (Dan, said Hampson, was what he had wanted to be in his RAF days; Digby, fat and lazy, was what he feared he was); Spacefleet Controller, Sir Hubert Guest (an illustration of Hampson’s father, who literally modelled for the part); of black-bearded naval commander Lex O’Malley; of red-haired teenage space cadet, “Flamer” Spry; of feisty feminist scientist, Professor Jocelyn Peabody; of the Venusian, Sondar; of Lero the Crypt, the “man from nowhere.” Even now, to say over the litany “Dan, Digby, Lex and Flamer …” (repeated endlessly in the continuity recaps for “Rogue Planet,” the first Dare story I ever read, years after it had originally appeared) fills me with excited anticipation.

There is a sadness now in looking back at the old Dare stories, and it’s not just the sadness of nostalgia. Since Dare’s 1960s demise there have been many attempts to revive him, including an animated television series. (In the 1990s a live-action series was announced, with Australian singer-actor Jason Donovan in the lead; this never materialised.) Nothing has worked. New versions of Dare don’t take off in the way that new versions of Superman or Batman seem to do. Hampson was Dare, and Dare was Hampson. But that was the trouble. After the publisher of Eagle, Hulton Press, was taken over at the end of the fifties, Hampson’s expensive and admittedly obsessive methods of production, involving teams of studio assistants, elaborate scale models, and an arsenal of reference materials to produce two pages of comic-strip art a week, were decreed too expensive.

The axe fell. Forced out of the comics industry, with no share in the Dan Dare copyright, Hampson ended his days as an art teacher in a further education college. The former Reverend Marcus Morris, meanwhile, became one of the most powerful figures in British magazine publishing. The story of these two men, the brilliant product they created together, and their very different subsequent trajectories is one of those classic and disturbing real-life sagas with which popular culture frequently presents us.

In Hampson, we see a cautionary tale of the battle between art and commerce, played out against the unlikely world of the British boys’ weekly. Reading about Hampson’s life, it’s impossible not to feel that he made bad decisions. At times, no doubt, he was his own worst enemy; it may be, indeed, that he was a bit crazy, as supremely talented people so often are. But art, in the end, is never really defeated. Devotees all over the world remember Frank Hampson. His greatest creation remains a monument to a gifted man who opened the minds of generations of children, everywhere Eagle was read, to adventure, imagination, enchantment. Dan Dare lives.

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The trackless wastes of interstellar space: frame from “The Man From Nowhere”

Hampson’s story is recounted in detail in Alistair Crompton’s biography, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow (1985) and its later update, Frank Hampson: Tomorrow Revisited (2010). Daniel Tartasky’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future: A Biography (2010) provides a good introduction to Eagle and Dan Dare; Tartasky has also edited three attractive volumes compiling material from Eagle in the 1950s and 1960s.