Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future, was a science fiction cartoon strip that ran in the famous British boy's comic Eagle from its launch in 1950 through to its closure in 1969. The strip's eponymous star was a thoroughly English sort of hero, refusing ever to lie or break his word. As Chief Pilot of Earth's Space Fleet he travelled around the reaches of Space, spreading the word of his noble code. He was no wimp, however, and was always more than ready to engage in a spot of fist fighting. His favourite weapon was his paralyzer pistol, which froze enemies rather than killed them, and would only shoot to kill if he truly felt he had no other choice.
Of course, Dan could not work alone, and had a number of loyal friends to help him out. Albert Fitzwilliam Digby, Spaceman Class One, was his batman1, and accompanied him wherever he went. Portly Digby was known for his loyalty and toughness, though not for his brains. He could recognise Dan by sight, sound, sense, and by his eyebrows2.
Dan's main superior was Sir Hubert Guest, Controller of Space Fleet. Sir Hubert had a filthy temper3, but was seen by Space Fleet almost as a father or brother. Any tricky scientific matters could be entrusted to Professor Jocelyn Peabody, a botany specialist, but a true polymath who was even a qualified space pilot4. Two other space pilots accompanied Dan on a number of adventures. The Frenchman Major Pierre Lafayette, a quiet chess enthusiast who often went on adventures rather reluctantly, and the Texan Captain Hank Hogan, a slightly rebellious pilot with a loathing of red tape. Dan had a very loyal alien friend as well, in Sondar, the Governor of North Venus after the first story. Having overthrown his Treen conditioning (see below), Sondar developed many human-like characteristics, including a strange, mechanical laugh. Through his adventures though, Dan made many more friends.
Dan also had an arch enemy, who he faced in nine stories. This was the Mekon, the evil being who ruled the North of Venus before Dan first visited, and was thereafter a spatial outlaw, never bending in his dream of conquering the entire universe for his ruthless science. The Mekon, like all his followers, was a creature of pure logic, whose only emotion, held for what he considered logical reasons, was vengefulness.
Dan's origins can be traced back to the journalistic ambitions of a young Anglican vicar called Marcus Morris. Morris had been less than impressed with parish newsletters when he took over his parish, and changed his into a proper magazine called The Anvil. This proved a huge success, ultimately going national, and encouraged him to pursue other concerns.
Morris was very concerned about the recent influx of American horror comics into the British market, which he believed were a bad influence on those who read them. He wanted to offer boys a wholesome, but still action-packed, alternative. To pursue this end, he teamed up with an Anvil artist, Frank Hampson, and together they created a character called Lex Christian, a tough young vicar of the London slums. They tried to syndicate the strip to a national paper.
When this failed, Morris simply became bolder. He decided to create a whole comic for Lex to star in. Recruiting other artists and characters, he managed to find a publisher, Hulton's, who would print his new comic, Eagle. But this took time. Frank Hampson had been developing his strip. Lex Christian left the slums to become a chaplain in the RAF, and ultimately left the church, took up space travel, and changed his name. By the launch of Eagle, Dan Dare had arrived.
Frank Hampson had also set about an unusual way of creating the strip. He worked with an entire studio of artists, who would all study scale models and even human models, to create the initial drawings. These led to 'roughs', blueprints for the strip, from which one of the team, usually Hampson himself, would draw the published result. Though a costly and cumbersome process, it was undeniably successful.
The Early Years
The Dan Dare saga commenced with an unnamed story set on the planet Venus, which Dan and his friends had to visit to find food for the Earth. This mission was complicated by the Mekon and his Treens, reptilian scientists who wanted to conquer Earth. They ruled the north of the planet, dominating the slave race of the Atlantines, the blue-skinned descendants of humans kidnapped from Earth aeons ago. Dan was helped against the Treens by the Therons, a peaceful, brown-skinned race who lived south of the inferno that was Venus' equator. The story ended with a new, peaceful regime on North Venus, and the Mekon missing.
Frank Hampson turned his attention to Mars for Dan's second story, The Red Moon Mystery. Even in Hampson's time, Mars was known to be a lifeless desert, so the story concerned the wandering world that killed it, and the strange bee-like creatures that lived there. The story linked straight into the third story, Marooned on Mercury, with Dan and Co. getting caught up in the destruction of the Red Moon and crashing on the last inner planet. Not for the last time, Hampson had worked himself into ill health, so the story was drawn by his assistant Harold Johns. Johns created the spindly Mercurians, who were being forced into helping rebel Treens led by the Mekon in a plan to destroy all life on Earth and Venus. In the end, they helped Dan defeat him again.
Frank Hampson returned for Operation Saturn, the first story to involve a human enemy. Dr Blasco was helping the evil Saturnian rulers to attack Earth, but with the help of Saturnian5 rebels, Dan was one again able to triumph.
Frank Hampson fell ill again, and this time, the studio's roughs were farmed out to a freelance artist, Desmond Walduck, for Prisoners of Space, another Mekon story. This taughtly written thriller introduced new regular to Dan's team. 'Flamer' Spry was a high-spirited cadet at the Space Fleet training college, Astral, and particularly gifted in telecommunications. He was aged anywhere between eight and fifteen, it was never made clear. At the end of this story, the Mekon was finally taken prisoner.
The Golden Age
Frank Hampson now returned once more, with help on the final work from Don Harley. He embarked on a huge new narrative that ran for over two years, and is usually seen as the high point of the entire saga. The first part of the narrative was The Man From Nowhere. This story introduced Lero, a native of the planet Cryptos, ten light years from Earth, who had travelled to Earth for help as his people were being threatened by a terrible enemy. Dan offered to help, and took a crew, Digby, Flamer, and a new character, Lex O'Malley, an extremely tough Irish sailor with a broken nose and a slightly reckless streak, to Cryptos. Rogue Planet told of what happened on Cryptos, and on Phantos, home of the Phants, the Crypts' deadly enemies. After pacifying the Phants6, Dan headed for home. Just before doing this, he learned that instead of the single month they had been led to believe, it would be ten years before he and his friends got back to Earth.
So, what had happened back home in Dan's absence? The Mekon had conquered Earth. Reign of the Robots told of the struggle to free Earth and Venus from his robot servants, which proved a success thanks to Flamer's voice and a Theron missile. The narrative ended with The Ship That Lived, a short story about an attempt to rescue Dan's personal ship, Anastasia (named after Digby's formidable Aunt), from the Silicon Mass that lived in the Venusian flame lands. At the end of this story, the Mekon escaped.
The Last Hampson Stories
Frank Hampson now started on The Phantom Fleet, a tale of two aquatic alien races. One was air-breathing, tiny and needed help, the other man-sized, gill-breathing, and hostile. It was a nice idea, and drawn well, but the story was weak. Its abrupt ending lends plausibility to the story that Marcus Morris ordered its abandonment.
Hampson had a better idea now, anyway. We knew nothing of Dan's family, so why not send Dan on a personal mission to find his missing father? The idea was for a series of short stories on many planets, telling a complete long story. Safari In Space introduced the concept, Dan and his friends being benignly kidnapped by a Scottish Scientist, Galileo McHoo, and taken to a distant world, which gave its name to the next story, Terra Nova.
But by this time, changes were taking place above Hampson's, and even Marcus Morris', head. Hulton's had been bought by Oldham's, who viewed the strip as old-fashioned, and wanted style changes and short, complete, stories. They also wanted rid of the studio system, which they saw as a needless extravagance. Hampson hated this, and began suffering from depression. Having given the legal rights to Hulton's when Eagle was launched, he had no legal position to object from. Halfway through Terra Nova, he resigned from the strip, never to return.
The Frank Bellamy Stories
Oldham's might not have understood the value of the Hampson approach, but they understood the importance of the strip. To introduce the changes they wanted, they brought in Frank Bellamy, a distinguished comic artist. Bellamy believed, against all evidence, that his style was not suited to science fiction, and was almost as unhappy to join as Hampson had been to leave. He insisted it be for only one year. He was assisted by Don Harley, and another of the Hampson studio, Keith Watson, whose styles clashed awkwardly with his own.
Bellamy completed Terra Nova, and, using scripts from another former Hampson team-member, Eric Eden, went on to draw Trip To Trouble. It was clear from the new style that Dan Dare now, more than ever, meant action. Trip To Trouble ended the search for Dan's father very differently to what Hampson had intended, and was something of an anticlimax.
Bellamy completed his brief in Project Nimbus, redesigning Space Fleet uniforms and hardware. This story is a curiosity. It starts like a good Hampson story, and ends quite suddenly. It seems that Eden started off writing a story in the style he knew, and then remembered the new style that was required.
Following Bellamy's departure, Don Harley took over, with another ex-Hampson team member, Bruce Cornwell. Their first outing was Mission Of The Earthmen, with Dan and Digby7 trying to pacify a warlike, medieval world. The Solid Space Mystery featured the return of the Mekon. It was the by-now standard Mekon fare, with the enemy once more escaping. The Platinum Planet saw the pair liberating a world ruled by mind-control. Partway through this story, the strip began to have to share the cover with a sports column called Men of Action. The Earth Stealers featured a mad scientist trying to become dictator of Earth.8
By now, the decline was going into free-fall. Oldham's made a major decision. The comic had changed hugely by now, and was nothing like how Morris had originally wanted it, full of mysticism. Dan was moved from the cover he had occupied since issue one. From now on, his stories would be told inside the comic, in black-and-white.
The epics of the Hampson years were a distant memory. The next year saw five complete monochrome stories come and go. These were Operation Earthsavers, The Evil One, Operation Fireball, The Web Of Fear9, and Operation Dark Star. During this time, the Harley and Cornwell team lost their commission, and Keith Watson returned to draw the strip single-handedly.
Further boardroom changes led to a management for Eagle that recognised the strip's true importance. Longer stories became the policy (though not as long as in the Hampson years), and, during Operation Time Trap, Watson was able to bring the strip back to the cover. Oddly, though, the rest of the strip was now one and a half pages, which were still in black and white. Time Trap introduced a new returning villain, Xel, an evil loner. The new story length also allowed for the re-expansion of the team with a new character, Colonel Wilf Banger, an English public-school type, skilled in explosives.
Time Trap also started a trilogy about Xel, which continued in The Wandering World, which saw Xel team up with the Mekon. This ended with the Mekon being captured, but Xel was not apprehended until the end of The Big City Caper. Now the strip was returned to a format of two colour pages, albeit with the back cover rather than a colour inside page.
The Mekon escaped in All Treens Must Die, and set about exterminating his own people, so as to replace them with new Treens created by some mysterious Treen-like creatures called The Last Three. Both he and they were apparently killed at the end of it, so the writers must have thought the readers had very short memories when the Mekon immediately re-appeared in The Mushroom. Xel also put in a re-appearance in The Moonsleepers.
Now Dan was again removed from the cover and despatched to the colour centre pages. This format lasted for two stories, The Singing Scourge, and Give Me The Moon, an unusual terrorist story. After these stories, Dan lost a page (though he remained in colour), for The Menace From Jupiter10. At the end of this story, Sir Hubert finally retired, and Dan was promoted to replace him, a plot device to enable the reprint of his old adventures.
Dan saw out the life of Eagle in reprints of Prisoners of Space, The Man From Nowhere, and Rogue Planet, plus an odd four-part story called Underwater Attack. Now Eagle itself came to an end. Dan moved to Lion in mutilated monochrome reruns of Reign of the Robots and The Phantom Fleet. And then, it was all over.
British comics traditionally offer a hardback book of new stories once a year around Christmas time, with the hope that the readers' parents will buy it as a present. This has been the case for a long time, and was established when Eagle was launched. Given the comic's success, there was a clear demand for an Eagle annual, which Marcus Morris was happy to meet. The first Eagle Annual appeared for Christmas 1951.
Obviously, a Dan Dare strip had to appear in the Annual, which gave Frank Hampson's studio a little extra work. It was very different to what the team was used to, a complete story in eight pages. Still, the Annual was as great a success as Eagle itself, and the extra short story became a yearly tradition for the studio, often featuring human villains, notably two rather stereotyped crooks, Starbuck (thin, pencil-'tached and weasely) and Vulcani (big, heavy and dim). The Mekon often appeared, too, usually in plots solely concerned with his attempts to get rid of Dan. The strips went on for the life of the annual, which was last published in 1975, by that time drawn by artists who had had nothing to do with the strip in the comic at all. Given the brevity of the plots, there is little to say about the individual strips, other than a straightforward list.
- ANNUAL No. 1: Mars 1997
- ANNUAL No. 2: Mars 1988
- ANNUAL No. 3: The Double Headed Eagle
- ANNUAL No. 4: Operation Triceratops
- ANNUAL No. 5: Operation Plum Pudding
- ANNUAL No. 6: Operation Silence
- ANNUAL No. 7: Space Race
- ANNUAL No. 8: Operation Moss
- ANNUAL No. 9: The Vanished Scientists
- ANNUAL for 1961: Moonrun
- ANNUAL for 1962: The Solid Gold Asteroid
- ANNUAL for 1963: The Robocrabs
- ANNUAL for 1964: Operation Crusoe
- ANNUAL for 1965: March of the Ants and Fire in the Sky
- ANNUAL for 1966: Space Rocks
- ANNUAL for 1967: The Men from S.T.E.A.L
- ANNUAL for 1968: The Unseen Enemy
- ANNUAL for 1969: The Moon Eaters
- ANNUAL for 1970: The World of Thought
- ANNUAL for 1971: Funfair of Death11
- ANNUAL for 1972: The Mekon Menace
- ANNUAL for 1973: The Planet of Peril
- ANNUAL for 1974: The Space Poachers
- ANNUAL for 1975: Untitled
Dan Dare Books
In 1953 Dan Dare's Space Book was published. This contained a mixture of stories in both strip and text format, including Dan and Donanza, Digby - The Guinea Pig, and Aunt Anastasia Comes to Stay. The last two stories were comic entries, which the nature of the book allowed.
The idea of a book of new Dan stories was not taken up again until 1963. The Dan Dare Space Annual was published in 1963. More colourful than its predecessor, it included The Planulid, and The Planet of Shadows, which showed Dan displaying a worryingly colonialist attitude to outer space.
Dan appeared twice in Lion Annual, both time in text stories. These were called Games of Doom and Planet of the Bee Creatures. Other text stories included an untitled story in Lion Summer Special for 1969, and Pipsqueak and the Anastasia in Wallis Rigby 'Presso Book' of Anastasia. A longer text story was the only original Dan Dare novel ever to be published, Basil Dawson's Dan Dare on Mars.
Finally, two other strips do not fit into any of the above categories. There was only one Eagle summer special ever published, which contained a strip called Peril from Outer Space. The other is rather unusual. In 1964, Don Harley contributed to The People newspaper a strip about Dan, Digby and Wilf Banger, called Mission to the Stars. It is somehow fitting that, after all the time Marcus Morris spent trying to get Lex Christian serialised in a British newspaper, the character he turned into was serialised after all, and at the paper's request.
2000 AD was launched in 1977, with the intention of starring a revived Dan. It was, the artwork aside, terrible. The Dan in 2000 AD was a thug whose first reaction was 'shoot to kill', and he was accompanied by a bunch of boneheaded heavies. Neither Dan's old fans, nor the 2000 AD readers, who preferred Judge Dread, liked it much, and it is largely forgotten.
In 1982, Eagle was relaunched. A superbly drawn Dan Dare strip appeared featuring not Dan, but his namesake Great-Great-Grandson12. This was necessary, the old Dan was now almost Pilot of the Present, but the strip disappointed the old fans. The blonde new Dan was not the thug of 2000 AD, but had clearly been designed, rightly, for the Star Wars generation. But it found a generation of new fans, those for whom it was made.
Dan Jr. also served the purpose of reviving interest in his ancestor. In 1989, Keith Watson returned to revive Dan Sr. in a new eight-part story. From then on, the two Dans took it in turns to star in Eagle until the comic's second demise in the mid-1990s. Dan continues to this day in fan fiction, much of which is Internet based. Sadly, Hampson, Bellamy, Johns, Eden, and Watson are no longer with us, but dedicated fans keep the spaceman alive.
The TV Series
In 2001, it was announced that Dan would be returning in a new, computer-animated TV series. This series featured another updated Dan for the real 21st Century, which caused some complaint among fans of the original strip. In fact, Dan's character in the series, which was broadcast on Channel 5, was a fair compromise between the original, and what children of the 21st century wanted.
Dan was voiced by voice-over artist Greg Ellis, and looked quite different to his first incarnation, though the eyebrows of course survived. Villains were played by Robbie Coltraine, Tim Curry and Charles Dance, with Rob Paulson as the Mekon. It had a format of 12 two-part stories and was screened in 2002. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether anything will lead on from it, though the ultimate dream of the series' creators is for a live-action film. The future for the spaceman is looking rosier than it has done for a long time.