Dan Dare and the Eagle
Written by Alex Walker
A look at the Eagle Comic and its main strip, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future
This year (2000) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Eagle, arguably the most influential adventure comic book in post-war Britain. First published 14th April 1950, the Eagle was the brainchild of the Reverend Marcus Morris, who wanted to create a British comic book that was an ‘antidote to American imports.’
The Eagle came into being at a time when British children had suffered the austerity of post-war ration books and a lot of pre-WWll comic books had been ‘killed off’ due to severe paper shortages.
The few comic books that remained, and the multitude of ‘one-off’ and short run comic books that were available tended to be very poorly printed and lacked full colour. British children were eager for something exciting and new. American ‘horror comic books’ were imported into Britain to exploit this gap in the market.
Comic books had rarely had any degree of parental approval. Previously, parents and teachers had paid little attention to comic books, disapproving, but dismissing them as insignificant and harmless. However, they sat up and took notice of the horror comic books. There were many campaigns (in America as well as Britain) to ‘save’ children from the influence of this type of comic book.
Noticing this outcry from parents and believing that children wanted to read ‘something different’, Marcus Morris, a young vicar, decided to produce a children’s comic book of his own. This comic book would have ‘moral ideals’ and would be a homegrown antidote to the depravity of the American comic books.
Morris initially produced a homemade edition with which he persuaded the publishers Hulton Press to publish his comic book. A massive publicity campaign was launched. This was hugely successful and nearly one million copies of the first issue were sold.
The quality of both content and production was high. Morris believed that only the best would attract Britain’s youth Dan Dare and the Eagle Written by Alex Walker A look at the Eagle Comic and its main strip, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future away from American comic books. Also with its strong moral and educational tone, the Eagle became the first comic book to be acceptable to parents and teachers.
The comic book was filled with adventure, and humourous comic strips as well as depictions of true life stories. The strips included Riders of the Range, P.C. 49, Harris Tweed: Extra Special Agent and Luck of the Legion. The true life strips covered the lives of historical figures including Winston Churchill, Marco Polo and St Paul. However, the Eagle’s most popular and influential strip was
Pilot of the Future.
Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future Dan was a wholesome, strong-jawed hero with ‘rather Satanic eyebrows’. He was, in effect, a futuristic version of the ideal Battle of Britain pilot. He served as a colonel in the Interplanetary Space Fleet, and with his ‘batman’ Digby, he had adventures on the planet Venus and further afield.
The spaceships and other futuristic machines, tools and buildings as well as alien landscapes and cities were superbly drawn by British artist Frank Hampson. He tried to make the world of Dan Dare as believable as possible with his depiction of the future.
The main characteristic that distinguished Dan Dare from other heroes was his ability to put himself in his adversaries position. He was compassionate and ready to give his enemies another chance or suggest peace proposals that left them with their dignity.
The Dan Dare strip also had a wonderful and enduring villain in the shape of the Mekon of Mekonta, whose utterly evil personality was in stark contrast to that of Dan Dare.
Frank Hampson closely supervised a team of artists for the first nine years of the strip. The ‘Studio’ as it was called was run on the lines of a film animation studio, with different artists being responsible for various stages of production. To ensure complete accuracy, hundreds of reference photographs were used and models were made of various aliens and futuristic hardware. This was a costly method of producing a weekly two-page strip but did result in unsurpassed quality.
Dan Dare proved immensely popular and his adventures were adapted for children’s books and for radio. Noel Johnson played Dan Dare on Radio Luxembourg from 1951 to 1956. According to John Slattery (from the Man from Nowhere) ‘everybody read Dan Dare — cabinet ministers along with
A whole range of associated products were available. The Hulton Press company secretary estimated in 1957 that the total value of the sales and merchandising royalties on the strip was about £1,000,000 a year.
In 1959, the Eagle was taken over by Odhams Press and the costly ‘Studio’ method of production was scrapped. Hampson decided that he could not work with the new publishers and left. Various artists followed such as Keith Watson and the legendary Frank Bellamy.
Further changes occurred to the comic book in 1960 when it was taken over by the Daily Mirror Group. Long running characters such as Luck of the Legion were scrapped and Dan Dare was no longer given ‘pride of place’ on the front pages. Reprints from other comic books were used and the Eagle lost most of its prestige.
Towards the end of the comic book’s life some of the early Frank Hampson Dan Dare strips were reprinted, but it was too little too late. In April 1969, and just a few issues short of its thousandth number, the Eagle was incorporated with another comic book, the Lion. Dan Dare was to struggle on for a while, but only in reprints. During the 1970s, some new Dan Dare stories were forthcoming, published in the Eagle Annuals until 1975. The Lion Annuals for 1971 and 1972 each contained a new Dan Dare text story. It was in 1977 however that a new chapter began in the Dan Dare story.
1977 saw the launch of a new comic book, a fast paced comic book whose strips owed much to Hollywood action films. The comic book was 2000AD, and it featured a brand new Dan Dare strip. This Dan, drawn by Dave Gibbons was a far cry from the Dan of the Eagle. This transformation was explained in the 1979 Dan Dare Annual. Dan Dare had been in a near fatal space explosion and put into suspended animation until such time that medicine had advanced to the stage where his life could be saved. The Dan Dare that emerged from this, over a hundred years later, was much changed, both in appearance and character. Teamed up with a bunch of gun toting heavies, Dan became a far rougher, tougher type of hero. The Dan Dare strip continued to run in 2000AD until 1979.
In 1982, after a gap of over a decade, the Eagle was back in the shops. The new Eagle, like it's predecessor, was a new departure in comic books. Printed on glossy paper and including much in full colour, the new Eagle heavily featured interviews and articles, including a sports column written by Daley Thompson, the olympic decathlete, and letters answered by comedian Lenny Henry. The most unusual feature of the comic book, though, was the inclusion of a number of photo-strips, the first time these had been used in a ‘boy’s’ comic book.
Pride of place was given to the Dan Dare strip. Initially written by Pat Mills and John Wagner and drawn by Gerry Embleton, who was quickly succeeded by Ian Kennedy. This new Dan Dare was the great, great, grandson of the original. Although set 200 years after the original adventures, care was taken to echo the original strip, with the uniforms and structure of space fleet familiar to readers of the original comic book.
Sadly, Dan Dare was not to last in this original style. In a 1987 story he met his death in a fight with the alien Dargath. Promptly resurrected by the mysterious Mytherons, he became Dan Dare, Space Marshall, with a mission to cruise the galaxy blowing up aliens with his Peacemaker!
The 1980s also saw the publication of a Dan Dare strip in the politically aware, drug inspired comic book, Revolver. In the Revolver, Grant Morrison’s interpretation of the original Dan has him coming out of retirement in a highly politicised story which pits Dan and Digby against the ‘Thatcherite’ government of Earth!
The 26th August 1989 issue of the new Eagle saw the return of the original Dan Dare, in a new story, illustrated by one of the artists from the 1960's, Keith Watson. Although this story was true to the original, certainly visually, it was short, only six issues in length. It was followed by more short serials featuring the original Dan. Radical changes were made in these stories. Dan gained a ‘Ram Gun’ and his uniform began to borrow heavily from punk style. Before long Dan Dare had once more degenerated into ‘blast the alien’ fare.
In the early 1990's the Eagle again waned. The Eagle weekly became the Eagle monthly and eventually consisted almost entirely of reprints. The final copy of the Eagle was printed for Christmas 1993, circulation having dropped from a peak of 750,000 to 20,000.
There are a large number of Eagle fans and collectors in Britain with a thriving fan club, ‘the Eagle Society’. The comic book may be dead but Dan Dare and other memorable Eagle characters are destined to live on.
Images from top to bottom:
The first issue of the Eagle, produced 14th April 1950
Dan Dare and Digby
The Mekon of Mekonta (original owned by Terry Doyle)
without permission from: Dan
Dare and the Eagle
A look at the Eagle Comic and its main strip, Dan Dare, Pilot of the future (ThrillerUK #2 August 2000)
Last Revised: June 14, 2002
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Eagle, Dan Dare and all images by kind permission of the Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.
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