Dan Dare
Dan Dare: Operation Saturn
Medium: comic
Year: 1953
Keywords: Dan Dare, SF
Writer: Frank Hampson, Don Reily
Artist: Frank Hampson, Bruce Cornwell, Desmond Walduck, Don Harley, Harold Johns, Greta Tomlinson
Country: UK
Format: 65 two-page episodes, The Eagle Vol.3 #47 to Vol.5 #21
Website category: Comics UK
Review date: 10 May 2021
dan dare
The first half's better than the second, but there's still plenty to like here.
As the title suggests, this time we're off to Saturn and its nine moons! (Ahem, 82 currently known.) What's more, we don't visit the big, famous one, Titan. Instead, Dan visits Phoebe, a satellite with an irregular retrograde orbit and a thick atmosphere. (This is true. It really does have one, although probably not with the properties shown here. It even had liquid water for tens of millions of years.)
Dan and Digby's splashdown is hard SF (with 1953 science) and pretty weird.
There are "Black Cats", i.e. UFOs that have been raiding Earth and killing people for no known reason.
We also have a magnificent villain, Dr Blasco. Good grief, the man's ghastly. Tall, beautiful, with the looks of a Greek god and the kind of ego that collaborates with aliens to enslave the Earth because that's just the natural order of things. He's superior to the rest of us peasants and we should know our place. His character design evokes this brilliantly and will make you loathe him.
There's accidental innuendo. The self-loving Blasco's servant is called Gaylord, but Dan's chasing pussy. (i.e. a Black Cat, and yes, he really does say that. "Come on, nice pussy.") He advises his men to "keep your peckers up, chaps", but when things get queer on Phoebe:
DIGBY: "I feel like a fairy!"
DAN: "Then get a tight grip on your wand."
This is also one of the better stories for Dan Dare himself. Something I love about Dan is that him being a space pilot isn't just a handwave for "hero". Pilots are first in line for a bunch of unpleasant, dangerous jobs, for which Dan stoically sticks his neck on the block. Here, this means test flying a monatomic hydrogen spaceship. This elicits colourful reactions. "Monatomic murder! That stuff's sudden death, with bells on! Sir Hubert made the fleet research wizards quit playing with it years ago! They lost too many research wizards."
In any other story, this would just be a handwave to make the hero look cool. Look how dangerous it is! Gasp! He takes off! The odds are a million to one... BUT HE'S SUCCEEDED!
Not here. Nope. Dan gets blown up. Then blown up again. Then blown up again.
"You mean they want us to fly hundreds of millions of miles to an unknown planet, in an untested ship, with half-tested fuel?"
"Yes, Dan."
"OK, let's get going."
He's not Superman. His courage and decisions mean something, because he doesn't have plot immunity. He's not guaranteed to win and he's capable of getting caught in a crossfire between two space fleets in a ship with no guns. He's also still getting good dialogue. He's rude to friends and enemies alike, for blokeish humour.
The story's good for a while on Phoebe too... but then things start drifting downhill. Events get big, impersonal and battley. Our heroes get sent into the arena to get eaten by a dinosaur. This includes Professor Peabody, which for a moment had looked like laudable sexual equality (female action hero!)... but she twists her ankle, then faints. Things pick up a little towards the end, but the baddies get defeated so casually that you'd think you'd turned over two pages at once.
Even the artwork deteriorates. The later episodes got farmed out to a freelance artist, Desmond Walduck, working from roughs from Hampson's studio.
Yes, the story loses it a bit... but the majority of it's good. The Vora is an admirably weird-looking supervillain. There's betrayal and double bluff. Dan's not afraid of making questionable decisions. I still like this series.
"If you want to speak to Earth slaves, there's a thing called Blasco crawlin' around on the floor there somewhere!"