Monday, 8 September 2008

British Comics part five - The Eagle, Dan Dare and Frank Hampson

The name Frank Hampson has become synonomous with not one character but also the comic that the famed character came from. Dan Dare and The Eagle are to fifties Britain what Superman was to forties USA. A landmark creation from the Golden age of British comics.

Frank Hampson was born in Manchester on 21st December 1918. Frank left school at fourteen to become a telegraph boy with the GPO. With his father's help he was admitted to life classes at the local art school, Victoria College of Arts and Science, where he later enrolled for a diploma in design course in 1938.

He enlisted in the army during World War Two and was amongst the soldiers who were evacuated from Dunkirk.

Although an army man, Frank always wanted to be in the RAF and fly as a pilot. A significant sign of his later intent?

Frank married in 1944 to Dorothy Mabel Jackson and in 1947 enrolled at The Southport School of Arts and Crafts. The course was to study and learn illustration.

One of his tutors at the School later said that 'Hampson was an outstanding draughtsman who was prepared to go to endless trouble to get a thing right'.

This desire for perfection would prove to be his signature on the Dan Dare series.

Frank's lucky break came when he met Marcus Morris, a local parson, who wanted Frank to draw and illustrate the local parish magazine. Morris felt that the christian message was not hard hitting enough nor was it reaching a wide enough audience and therefore he wanted to create a national magazine.
During this time American 'Horror' comics, primarily published by EC Comics, were flooding the British market. They certainly had an effect upon the good reverend Morris who was literally horrified by their content. Morris's vision was to publish a clean cut, with a christian bias, boys comic magazine. Together with Hampson they devised a character, originally to be a pastor, called Dan Dare. A futuristic 'Biggles' type space pilot.

The Original 'Pastor' Dare version.

The Eagle was launched on 14th April 1950 with Marcus Morris as editor and with Frank Hampson as its primary artist. It was very much of its time and captured the hearts and imaginations of its target audience; namely boys from about ten to fifteen. It contained no superheroes, no violence and absolutely no horror. It was pure, clean cut adventure strips with a christian undertone. It was also immaculately presented and quite easily knocked spots off of any of its UK competitors. In fact there were few other publications in the world at the time that could compare to its lush and exquiste drawings.

For eleven years the Eagle, with its household name hero, ruled the UK roost. There quite simply wasn't any thing out there to touch it. In 1961 however, Hampson left the strip and although it struggled on under many an accomplished artist, the strip no longer had the audience that it once did.

The comic was eventually incorporated into other publications but eventually disappeared entirely. Its main character, however, just wouldn't go away.

As with all great fictional characters be the set in works of literature or cinema or indeed comic books they all need a great supporting cast of heroes, villains and exotic landscapes. Dan Dare was surrounded by a varying cast of characters, which consisted of Col. Daniel McGregor Dare, chief pilot of the Interplanet Space Fleet. His lean-faced character was immediately recognizable by the outer tips of his eyebrows, which were always wavy. and by the square edged jaw that jutted proudly from his chin.
Digby (Albert Fitzwilliam Digby) was Dan's batman. Rotund and sometimes bumbling, he provided much of the comic relief. He was a fiercely loyal sidekick, and the only character apart from Dan to appear in every story.
Sir Hubert Guest, Controller of the Space Fleet, would send Dan on missions, and occasionally accompany him. He was a veteran space pilot, having been on the first mission to the Moon and led the first mission to Mars.
Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, the only major female character, was the brains behind many of the team's most inventive plans. (Nothing new there then).
Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette, an American and Frenchman respectively, were reknown as two of the Fleet's best space pilots.
Sondar was a Treen, an alien, reptilian inhabitant from northern Venus. Originally a bad guy and ex-servant of the Mekon, he turned traitot when Dan spared his life during a traumatic episode that also caused his first experience of strong emotion.

The Mekon, one of my all time favourite villains who was the super-intelligent ruler of the Treens, and also Dan Dare's arch-enemy.

It was a rich cast drawn by a master draughtsmen, and his team, that involved them in story's that were both multi layered and complex whilst still being fun to read.

Fashions come and go and with the passage of time, and the arrival of the Marvel way of doing things, Dan Dare and his series, along with the Eagle went the way of all loss making comics. But you cannot keep a good man, or character down, and Dan Dare has resurfaced again and again over the years. Most recently as a computer generated animated TV series.

For me though, as good as the modern TV stories may be they will never be a match for those halcyon fifties days.

Dan Dare and The Eagle are best described as the epitome of British comic creativity and even with the glory that has proven to be 2000AD, nothing quite matches those far flung fifties high times
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

1 comment:

Paul Revell said...

I was a Fan all through the years and glad of it. The Eagle Comic with Dan Dare,Jeff Arnold, and other Characters found within its pages, was a weekly Highlight of our youthful days back in the Nineteen Fifties to Sixties. Informative as well as Entertaining, and very well illustrated.

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