2012 is the thirtieth anniversary of the relaunched Eagle. Back in 1982, the excited schoolchildren of Britain were gasping at the adventures of Dan Dare and his nemesis, the Mekon. This Dan Dare was the great-great-great grandson of one of British comics’ true legends, the 1950s “pilot of the future”.
The Mekon led the Treens, a green-skinned race of Venusians. With his huge head and tiny body, the Mekon was their super-intelligent leader. In the 1980s revamp, he had just spent decades locked inside an artificial meteorite, doomed to drift through space. Released by some hapless miners, the Mekon discovers his people have become peace-loving farmers. Without pausing for a cucumber sandwich or a refreshing cup of tea after his years of incarceration, the Mekon immediately sets about returning his people to their warmongering ways. Alien megalomaniacs were clearly cut from a different cloth in those days.
Had we been older than ten, we 1980s readers might have realised that Dan Dare had never been away at all. In the 1970s, he had a rather unsuccessful run in 2000AD. Despite the pencils of Dave Gibbons, future artist on Watchmen, the strip never really caught on. This is possibly because in revamping the character, Dan Dare had become just another space hero, rather like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. His only unique features were his crinkly eyebrows:
The real joy of the original Dan Dare was that the so-called pilot of the future was actually a figure from the past. In the first Eagle comic, Dan Dare and space fleet were effectively the wartime RAF in space.
Eagle began on 14 April 1950, the brainchild of clergyman Marcus Morris. One of its earliest writers was another man of the cloth, Reverend Chad Varah, also founder of the Samaritans. At that time, Britain faced an influx of violent horror comics from the United States. Today there are more zombies and vampires around than you can shake a stake at, but back then, the undead were not a common sight on the High Street. These priests decided to fight fire with fire by producing a boys’ paper that was exciting and educational, and included wholesome content too.
The result was the Eagle, and its success grew on the adventures of Dan Dare, who appeared in the very first issue and continued throughout the entire nineteen-year run. The strip was written and drawn by Frank Hampson and a succession of other talented artists. Their attention to detail was phenomenal. They used photos to pose the scenes that they would draw, and the comic was also famed for its cutaway images of steam trains and ships, displaying incredible draughtsmanship. Just to further the comic’s Christian credentials, Hampson would later go on to draw The Life of Christ for his young readers.
Without Dare and especially his enemy, the Mekon, the comic would not have survived. Readers thrilled to beautifully illustrated adventures on alien worlds, authentic-looking rocket ships, and a Wellsian solar system where aliens menaced the earth from the as-yet-unknown surface of Venus and Mars. One of the best locations was the Mekon’s capital Mekonta, a wry reflection on contemporary Soviet cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad: http://www.dandare.org/dan/aliens/mekonta.html.
This success was not lost on Hampson, who saw the value of the character. “I wanted the studio set-up to be the basis of something really big, in the way Walt Disney studios grew on the success of Mickey Mouse,” he once said.
Alas, it never happened. The original Eagle folded as did its 1980s successor. Ironically, the 1980s Eagle once merged with a horror comic, Scream, somewhat contrary to the ambitions of the original founders.
In 2002, there was a computer generated cartoon but that came and went. There has never been a feature film. Yet Dare’s battles with the Mekon would make a superb film franchise. As Doctor Who was ten years ago, Dan Dare is now British Sci-Fi’s sleeping giant. There is a world of story-telling potential in a futuristic RAF in space, and all that’s needed is a great script and a Hugh Grant-esque leading man. Benedict Cumberbatch, your solar system needs you!