« It is not Frank Hampson’s original creation from the 1950’s Eagle, far from it. This is a different beast, featuring a harder man in a harsher world, a long way from the good-natured stoicism and stalwart, stiff upper lip of the original… »
(Garth Ennis in his introduction to Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years)
Dan Dare, sort of the British answer to Buck Rogers, took his earliest space flight in the pages of the very first issue of Eagle, a now legendary British children’s comics periodical. He was created by illustrator Frank Hampson. From the day of its inception, Eagle was meant to perch on a high moral ground. Its founder, reverend John Marcus Harston Morris, an Anglican vicar, devised the Eagle in collaboration with Hampson (one of his parishioners, and a budding artist seeking fulfilling work) with a specific purpose in mind: a magazine that would hold itself to high standards of art and printing, but would stay away from violence and depravity, instead offering children wholesome characters they could use as role models. Aligned with that vision, Hampson’s Dan Dare stories were meticulously researched, based on a wealth of models (space ships, suits, and even a complete space station) and reference materials, including the services of Arthur C. Clarke as a science and plot advisor in the early days of the strip. Dan Dare‘s complex plots, witty dialogue and full-colour art guarantee that British children who lived through the 50s cherish their memories of this character.
1959 was the year of change – Morris resigned from the editor’s seat after bitter disputes with the bean-counters from Hulton Press (Eagle’s publisher at the time). Shortly after, the Eagle was taken over by Odhams Press, with the new owners objecting to the complexity of Dan Dare stories as well as the cost of Hampson’s studio. Hampson could not compromise his lofty standards and pursuit of perfection, and left. Things were never the same after that, with Dan Dare strips varying in format and quality until the series ended in 1967.
Fast forward to 1976. « A punk who has always written outrageously violent, scabrous satirical and often hilariously funny attacks on authority and the establishment» – which is to say, Pat Mills, a British freelance writer and editor – set out to create a science-fiction themed weekly publication, 2000 AD. With the aid of John Wagner as script advisor, presided over by John Sanders, the publisher, he decided to 1. develop a horror strip, which later became Judge Dredd; 2. revive Dan Dare, so that at least something about 2000 AD would have immediate public recognition. Oh, there were plenty of other strips in there, too, but that’s a topic for another conversation.
« 1976. I realize that the science fiction comic I’m creating, 2000 AD, needs a space hero. I think about bringing back Dan Dare – the publisher, John Sanders, is agreeable, he tells me not to worry about the original fans. I study the bound Eagle volumes. Artist Belardinelli submits a wild version on spec. At least it’s exciting and eye-catching and – most important – helps us over the poor quality paper. 2000 AD appears, it’s a success and Dan Dare is popular – about 3rd or 4th in the popularity charts. I don’t recall any critical letters apart from things along the lines of « my dad doesn’t like it, but I do ». And, sometimes, « my dad likes it, too ». Lots of criticism in the press, however, but we don’t care about annoying them. In fact we quite like it. » (From an article by Pat Mills, published in Spaceship Away: the Dan Dare Fan Magazine)
Okay, now that we have the backstory over with, on with the tentacled show!
Dan Dare’s early 2000 AD adventures were drawn by Massimo Bellardinelli, who seems to take great delight in adding tentacles hither and thither. Are we expected to believe that every alien and every alien’s ship is be covered in them? Yes? Ah, okay. Please carry on.
This cutie from Hollow World also wished to say “tally-ho!”:
Belardinelli’s style is often described as “hallucinatory”. Despite Pat Mills’ portrayal of his art as “eye-catching” (although even Mills thought that he made “the hero look awful”), his work on Dan Dare was not very popular. It’s also possible that readers were still sore about Dare’s sacrilegious resuscitation. All I can state with certainty is that it’s not really *my* cup of tea – I prefer my cuppa strong and dark, without excessive flourishes or hallucinations, thank you kindly. For those of you who agree, more… grounded times were coming: with Programme 28, Belardinelli switching over to drawing Harlem Heroes while Dave Gibbons took over Dan Dare, with an occasional hand from Brian Bolland.
Oh Dan, where is your moral compass now? While I love the guys from 2000 AD to bits, I have to grudgingly admit that taking someone else’s character and modifying his raison d’être beyond all recognition is a tad uncouth (and certainly anti-authoritarian, which is, after all, Pat Mills’ leitmotif). Can you imagine how this trigger-happy Dan Dare apparition, some 25 years later, ruffled the feathers of readers who take their heroes seriously? (If we have any readers who have lived through this themselves, please chime in!)
« Indeed, the reader may be forgiven for thinking that the Lost Worlds sector is soon going to be a very quiet sector indeed, just because there’s not going to be much left of it. The frequency with each our heroes resort to violence – sudden, crushing, all-consuming, high-velocity violence that utterly obliterates whatever it’s unleashed upon – – is really quite spectacular. Unidentified species of dodgy appearance? Play safe, fry ’em. Giant-sized aquatic life form? Got to be worth a torpedo or two. Alien intruder? Give it loads. If things get sticky, just do the whole ecosystem. And you know those planet-busters we’ve got in the tail-fins…? »
The sprawling Servant of Evil (scripted by Tom Tully and drawn by Dave Gibbons, published in Programmes 100 to 126) was the last Dan Dare story, one that wasn’t even finished. Was it too complex or morally ambiguous for readers of 2000 AD, or simply too rambling? Dan Dare’s exit was probably caused by the confluence of several factors – Dave Gibbons was leaving the strip to work on UK Marvel’s Dr. Who Weekly; the failing comic Tornado needed a new home within an established title, so 2000 AD needed to make room for it by pushing something else out; and let’s face it, Servant of Evil was dragging on, even though fans still bemoan the lack of closure from having all those plotline threads severed so abruptly.
Do you have a couple of hours to spare? You can actually read the full collection of 2000 AD Dan Dare strips here.