Dan Dare belongs in the same "used to be huge" category as Tarzan, Zorro and the Lone Ranger. Tarzan probably has the best name recognition out of that bunch, but today it's hard to realise the impact they all once had. In contrast, I'd guess that Dare would fare the worst internationally, because he's British. (Tarzan's parents were British aristocrats, but Edgar Rice Burroughs was American.)
In the 1950s, though, Dan Dare ruled. Dave Gibbons has a fantastic essay about this as the introduction to the first Titan reprint volume of the original Eagle stories. It was only five years since WW2 ended. TVs were rubbish. Holidays were rubbish. Petrol, confectionary, sugar and meat were still rationed.
In April 1950, though, came The Eagle. It was founded by a vicar from Lancashire who was dissatisfied both with current children's literature and with the church's failure to put across its message. There was nothing else like it. It was so different to anything else on the market that they could hardly find the writers and artists they wanted. Frank Hampson ran an entire studio of assistants just to create Dan Dare's two painted colour pages every week, while the storylines were long, complex and demanding on the readers' attention spans. For the first six months, they hired Arthur C. Clarke as a science and plot adviser. (When Odhams Press took over The Eagle in 1960, they demanded a reduction in both the cost of producing Dan Dare and in the complexity of its scripts.)
Dan Dare's main comic strip appearances are:
- 1950-69 = The Eagle
- 1977-79 = 2000 AD
- 1982-94 = a relaunched Eagle
- 1990 = a Grant Morrison mini-series in Revolver
- 2003+ = Spaceship Away, a mail-order magazine that's still running today
- 2008 = a Garth Ennis mini-series from Virgin Comics
- 2017 = a Peter Milligan mini-series from Titan Comics
(Incidentally, there had already been a Dan Dare in American comics. He's a detective in twelve issues (1940-41) of Fawcett's Whiz Comics, better known for Captain Marvel.)
Anyway, what I've read here was the British Dan Dare's first serial. It's good.
It's about mankind's first flight to Venus. There's something up there. They lose ships. Eventually, Dan gets through and lands on the planet, but there finds blue-skinned Atlantines, green-skinned Treens and blond Therons. Venusian science is millennia in advance of Earth's, but not all of its users are friendly. There's international politics, a technologically maintained cold war stalemate, an entire race in slavery... and, of course, the Mekon.
The artwork didn't quite meet my expectations, but I'd been expecting the moon and stars. It's good, but not as stunning as the best of the 1960s and 1970s. What we can say, though, is that those serials happened because of the Eagle. Weekly comic strips in beautifully painted full colour are a crazy idea. They shouldn't make economic sense, especially when colour printing was so expensive... but because Dan Dare had turned the industry upside down in the 1950s, we got Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton, etc.
Also, in fairness, the art's both attractive and impressively thought through. Everything feels designed and real. The jet-propelled gyroscopic jeep, the life on Venus, even how the costumes tie into a culture... you can feel all the effort that went into scientific plausibility. Not only does the strip discuss artificial gravity on spaceships, but it even has a three-panel technical diagram to show how it works. The art's relative weakness is faces. Some characters look superb, because Hampson's studio had real models for them. Sir Hubert Guest is the most convincing and was based on Hampson's father. Other characters, e.g. Digby, look more cartoonish.
It's also cinematic. Hampson's happy to rely on visual storytelling, letting the characters speak only when it makes sense for them to do so. As a result, the dialogue reads naturally and feels modern.
As for the plotting, it's astonishing for the time. It's paced like a novel. This serial is one long story that ran from April 1950 to September 1951 and reads as if it was written for collected form. Comparatively speaking, the first year is a bit boring. The serial's perfectly capable of excitement and indeed is building up towards an interplanetary war that even I found cool, but it's also willing to have a twelve month build-up. This is incredible. It would be unimaginable from the cliffhanger-driven idiocy machine that is the UK adventure comics industry of the 1960s and early 1970s.
The characterisation isn't deep, but it's not negligible. Digby is the real star. "I don't think I'm going to like this planet. It's messy!" He's the comic relief, but in practice this makes him the most human, down-to-earth and rude. Professor Peabody is the only female regular, but she's not just a token inclusion because she'll smack into a massive sexist in Sir Hubert. He's the controller of the space fleet and a gentleman of the old school, i.e. a dick. Women should not be exposed to danger. Women should do as they're told.
"You reached us only just in time. Things were so bad, Sir Hubert had forgiven me for being a woman."
(She's capable of being defeatist, though, and I was taken aback by the panel where she suddenly turns exaggeratedly scared and weepy. In fairness, though, that's not unwarranted given the current situation.)
As for Dan himself, he's fine. He's a square-jawed action hero, etc. but also more human and relatable than I'd expected. His relationship with Digby is a big part of that. Besides, when things get bad, his satanic eyebrows are cool.
The story's science is... well, it's 1950. Other planets in the solar system are habitable, but that was in line with scientific thinking at the time. (The existence of Martian canals wasn't finally disproved until Mariner 4 in 1965, for instance.) There's a one-world government and all armies have been abolished in Dan Dare's unthinkably distant future (1996), but the world's biggest problem is a lack of food. The proposed solution is food exports from Venus. (I boggled at the economics. Yes, food is exported all over the world today, but that's very different from space travel. Would you buy a million-dollar hamburger? Well, maybe that's explained by their "impulse wave engines".)
Similarly, there's acknowledgement of the fact that Venus rotates more slowly than Earth, but they're using outdated 1950 numbers. For Dan Dare, a Venusian day lasts 50 Earth ones. The sentiment is good, but today we know that its length is actually 5,832 hours.
The strip has a realistic attitude to battle and war. One of the strip's main characters can get mortally wounded offscreen and everyone else just goes "oh well". It was a battle. People get shot. That's what happens. No one's happy about it, but it's definitely not being written as mere boys' adventure. Similarly, our heroes might be carrying paralysing pistols, but they're also willing to throw hand grenades into a room of Treens.
I like the Treens, who remind me slightly of TV21's Daleks. Both are races of dispassionate scientific conquerors who don't understand emotion and have a dome-headed leader. The Mekon is a design masterpiece, frankly. He's up there with the Daleks themselves. So simple, but instantly recognisable. The Treens are polite and hospitable at first, albeit full of themselves, and it takes time for us to see the full depths of their weirdness. For them, it's criminal to defeat the ends of science. They don't understand why Earthlings should resist invasion, slavery, dissection, etc. if their invaders are a superior race who are pursuing scientific research. The Mekon executes Treens who make stupid mistakes, not because he's a cliched Hollywood villain but because stupidity itself is the enemy.
Mind you, they can be a bit mental in their rejection of everything that's not logical. "There are no accidents in a scientific state. Nor is there failure."
I'm not in crazy love with this strip or anything. It's pretty good. I like it and I'm going to keep reading. It's astonishing for the time... but that doesn't mean it's my favourite or anything. I was flagging halfway through, although I recovered. For this to be genuinely special, I think you'd need richer characterisation and more character-driven storytelling. Nonetheless, it's a good deal better and more satisfying than most of what gets published today. It builds up to an ending that's pretty awesome (cavalry and archers!), while at the same time having a light touch that can occasionally be funny. Digby's fierce Aunt Anastasia is the greatest, while I laughed at the cricketers. "The bounders will ruin the pitch!"
"The sensation of 1996!" The Paul McGann TVM? No, sorry... "Treens on the Earth!"