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50 years of Dan the Man

Britain has never produced another hero like Dan Dare. In a landmark year for the lantern-jawed pilot, CHARLIE CONNELLY pays tribute to a figure who has shaped our art, literature, science, architecture and even musical theatre

2017 is a big year for Dan Dare. Born in 1967, he turns 50 while also marking 50 years since he retired as a pilot and disappeared from the pages of the Eagle comic.

If that’s not mind-bending enough, according to a headstone in Highgate Cemetery once visited by his arch-nemesis, the Mekon, Dare was killed in action in 1950, despite his interplanetary adventures taking place during a futuristic 1990s.

These days the ‘pilot of the future’ lurches confusingly around the past, but whether it’s his 50th birthday or 50 years since he hung up his wings, or neither, the influence of his eponymous comic strip that burst into the public consciousness in the pages of the Eagle in 1950 can still be seen today in the work of artists, writers, architects and scientists all inspired by the wholesome, shiny-faced British space pilot with the lantern jaw and pipe clenched between his teeth.

He’s been resurrected many times since taking leave of the Eagle in 1967 after 17 adventurous years in its pages, but the man from the future already belonged to the past even then.

He was a product of the Second World War, essentially an RAF Spitfire pilot transplanted into the solar system, and appeared at a time of upheaval, uncertainty, but above all, hope.

Britain had won the war but at a price. It was left with ruined cities, rationing and crippling austerity. Yet at the same time we had the jet engine and radar: remarkable technology forged in conflict that could now be put to use for peaceful, exploratory purposes.

It was barely four decades since the Wright Brothers had heaved briefly into the air at Kitty Hawk and now there was plausible talk of men climbing into aircraft and flying into space. Into that remarkable period of flux and possibility stepped Dan Dare, hands on hips, looking to the stars where he’d spread a message of decency, fair play and above all, peace.

Dare was the creation – and indeed a combination – of two extraordinary men. After the war the Reverend Marcus Morris arrived in the parish of St James in Birkdale, on the outskirts of Southport. As vicars go he was an unconventional one.

While studying at Oxford he was renowned as a snappy dresser and bon viveur who was popular with the ladies. He believed God had invented pleasure to be enjoyed and that included drinking and sex.

Indeed one of his first acts as an assistant curate during the war was to excise the prayer, ‘from fornication and drunkenness, at home or in the field, good Lord deliver us’ from a specially-devised wartime service litany, a policy he continued during a period as a wartime RAF chaplain.

He was engaged first to a model who left him for a naval officer, then married an actress named Jessica Dunning, a union during which neither attached great value to monogamy yet still enjoyed a largely happy if stormy marriage that produced four children.

Although his lifestyle was unconventional for a clergyman – in later years Private Eye would refer to him regularly as ‘the dirty vicar’ – Morris still retained a strong moral compass, especially when it came to children and their education.

He despaired of the garish American comics left behind by GIs and much sought after by the kids of post-war Britain, all bloodthirsty sensation, fantastical superpowers and blousy blondes.

They were, to Morris’s mind, ‘deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems’, while in a letter to the Times he once wrote, ‘There is all the difference in the world between the scientific fantasies of H.G. Wells and the scientific absurdities of Superman’.

In 1948 he founded a journal called the Anvil, essentially a vastly-amplified parish magazine for which he’d managed to secure the writing services of such heavyweights as Harold Macmillan, Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis, a remarkable achievement but one that almost bankrupted him.

Identifying the need for a comic with a little more moral fibre than the garish fare from the other side of the Atlantic, Morris teamed up with a hardworking, intense illustrator who had recently graduated from Southport Art College and provided images for the Anvil, called Frank Hampson.

Between them they came up with a tough, no-nonsense vicar in the East End of London named Lex Christian. From there emerged the character of an intergalactic chaplain to a space-age RAF, but realising that the commercial appeal of an overtly-religious character might be limited, Morris and Hampson came up with a pilot from the future.

Hampson’s wife suggested the name Dan Dare and the new character appeared on the front cover of a dummy edition of the Eagle that Morris hawked around the London publishers until Hulton’s, publisher of the Picture Post, took it on.

A total of 900,000 copies of the first edition of the Eagle hit the newsstands on April 14, 1950 and the entire run sold out. Dan Dare was a hit.

For a man of the future, Dare was a man of his creators’ times. ‘We were just back from the war and eager to go,’ recalled Hampson, who saw service in France and Belgium and lost a brother in the navy. ‘We wanted to change the world.’ In Dan Dare they shaped the man who could do it.

Born in Manchester in 1967, Daniel McGregor Dare as a boy enjoyed cricket, fencing, painting and model-making. He attended public school at Rossall, near Fleetwood in Lancashire, becoming school captain before progressing to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in Modern Science. He moved on to Harvard to undertake research into astrophysics before joining Interplanet Starfleet as a cadet in the early 1990s, clocking up his pilot hours on regular runs to the moon and back.

He progressed to co-piloting ships to Mars but his adventures truly began in 1996 when he led the first expedition to Venus and came into conflict with the Mekon, the hyper-intelligent being who led the warlike Venusian Treens and was hell-bent on conquering other planets, in the first of what would be many battles with the green-domed tyrant.

For all the leaps into the future, however, Dan Dare was resolutely old-fashioned. The uniform Hampson designed for him was essentially an RAF officer’s from the Second World War with a slightly different cap badge.

Dare had a batman, Digby, a tubby, accident-prone sidekick from Wigan, the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote with whom the pilot would banter about trips to Blackpool and Lancashire hotpot, while the introduction of woman scientist Dr Jocelyn Peabody, with her M.Phil from Magdalene College, Oxford, into the first Venus expedition brought cries of ‘Jumpin’ jets! A woman!’

The Controller of the International Space Fleet Sir Hubert Guest even complained about her appointment to the Cabinet, leaving Peabody to explain wearily, ‘I don’t see what the fuss is about. I am a first-class geologist, botanist and agriculturalist and the Cabinet agrees I’m the best person to reconnoitre Venus as a source of food. I’m a qualified space pilot as well’.

It would be eight years before a non-white human character would be seen – a Sikh negotiator – while the shadow of the Second World War was clearly present at all times.

‘There is a tremendous rebuilding task ahead of us, men,’ said Sir Hubert at the end of The Ship That Lived storyline, ‘but at last thank goodness we are free to do it. Free from fear. Free from tyranny.’

While not a pacifist it was notable that Dare always preferred to talk his way out of situations, outwitting rather than battling adversaries wherever possible. His weapon of choice was a gun that emitted a paralysis ray, rendering enemies immobile rather than dead.

‘I tried to show a clear difference between good and evil,’ Hampson said. ‘I preferred Dan to prevail through intelligence, common sense and determination.’

Having produced the early strips from his kitchen table, Hampson led a small team of artists and storyliners from a studio first in an old bakehouse in Southport and then in a large house in Epsom where he also lived with his family. Hampson worked incredibly hard for long hours, something that frequently made him ill, such was his drive for accuracy and plausibility.

For Hampson the stories had to be as scientifically accurate as possible, to which end a young Arthur C. Clarke was brought in as a consultant in the comic’s early days.

The futuristic landscapes and machinery were not just plucked out of the air either, they had to be as real as possible. He would construct models (and pose dummies or even other artists to make sure his illustrations were correct as far as possible) and create machines so credible that when Eagle published an imagined cutaway diagram of the Polaris missile it was so close to the real, top secret thing the Ministry of Defence almost had the issue withdrawn lest the Russians learn from it.

Thanks to Hampson’s meticulous nature, Dan Dare would inspire a range of young boys of the early post-war generations to achieve remarkable things. When Stephen Hawking was asked how much of an influence the Dan Dare stories had been, he replied, ‘Why do you think I’m in cosmology?’ Professor Colin Pillinger, the mutton-chopped brains behind the Beagle 2 Mars lander was a fan. One Eagle art competition saw a 15-year-old David Hockney finish as runner-up: the winner, a year older, was Gerald Scarfe.

Douglas Adams’ first published words were a letter to the Eagle he wrote when he was 12, while Sir Tim Rice keeps a complete set of Eagle comics bound in his office.

‘I still read them and am often struck by their sophistication,’ he said. ‘You’d often find the characters having conversations which were reflective rather than merely there to advance the story. And there are some great lines. One of my favourites was the Mekon’s ‘Fools! You have no perception!’ which I put straight into Jesus Christ Superstar.’

The influence of Hampson’s work even reached the world of architecture. Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin in London, for example, could have come straight out of Dan Dare – he was another childhood devotee.

When Hulton’s were taken over by rival publisher Odham’s in 1959 they almost immediately put an end to Hampson’s studio system, seeing it as unwieldy and not cost-effective, despite the fact Eagle was selling three-quarters-of-a-million copies every week.

Hampson hung on for two years but, having assigned copyright of his creation to Hulton at the launch of the Eagle, he was powerless, stymied and eventually resigned.

Other artists took over the strip but Dan Dare would never reach the giddy heights of the 1950s again. In 1962, the story was removed from the front page of the comic, went black and white rather than full colour and finally, in 1967, was withdrawn altogether with Dare’s retirement as a pilot. Eagle itself only lasted two more years, closing in 1969, the year man first walked on the moon.

There have been revivals and reboots. Dan Dare appeared in the first edition of 2000AD in 1977, but was barely recognisable: he’d been in suspended animation for 200 years and emerged a figure more Bowie than Biggles, in a dystopian world with the punkish attitude of the times. He didn’t last.

Eagle was resurrected in 1982 with a Dan Dare story on the front page, but this was the great-great-great-grandson of Hampson’s creation, and it was in the first edition that the Mekon flew down to Highgate Cemetery to find a stone Celtic cross bearing the name of his arch enemy, revealing implausibly that he’d died in 1950.

Radio Luxembourg produced a hugely popular adaptation that ran for five years in the early 1950s, sponsored by Horlicks and with Noel Johnson as Dare, an actor who had played the legendary Dick Barton and went on to play the drunken ex-military pub landlord in Withnail and I, while Radio 4 broadcast a short-lived dramatisation in 1991.

Nothing has come close to capturing the optimism, heroism and sheer adventure of the early Dan Dare Eagle stories, when Hampson was at his creative peak, Morris was proving an excellent editor and a generation of children emerged from the war with a sense of hope that the technology of conflict could bring peaceful adventures and extraordinary achievement.

No other British strip cartoon figure enjoys such a remarkable tangible legacy. He’s there in our buildings, our laboratories, our art, our literature and even our musical theatre.

Dan Dare may turn 50 this year, he may have been dead for 67 years, he may yet be living quietly in retirement somewhere in the northwest of England, reliving tussles with the Mekon with Digby over a pint and a hotpot in front of a roaring pub fire. Who knows, there might even be a shadowy pipe-smoking figure that stands late at night in front of the bust of Dan Dare on Southport’s main shopping street before walking to the seashore and looking wistfully out into the darkness, where the spaceport that launched his missions stood on an artificial island off Formby, before turning his lantern jaw upwards to look at the stars.

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