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Dan Dare is a British science fiction comic hero, created by illustrator Frank Hampson who also wrote the first stories, that is, the Venus and Red Moon stories, and a complete storyline for Operation Saturn. Dare appeared in the Eagle comic story Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in 1950, dramatised seven times a week on Radio Luxembourg.
The stories were set in the late 1990s but the dialogue and manner of the characters is reminiscent of British war films of the 1950s. Dan Dare has been described as "Biggles in Space" and as the British equivalent of Buck Rogers. Dan Dare was distinguished by its long, complex storylines, snappy dialogue and meticulously illustrated comic-strip artwork by Hampson and other artists, including Harold Johns, Don Harley, Bruce Cornwell, Greta Tomlinson, Frank Bellamyand Keith Watson.
The most recent mainstream story was a Dan Dare mini-series published by Virgin Comics. It was written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Gary Erskine and is a completely new and somewhat darker interpretation of Dan Dare. Since October 2003, however, Dare's adventures have also continued in Spaceship Away, a specialist magazine created by Rod Barzilay by agreement with the Dan Dare Corporation. Published three times a year, its mission statement is basically to continue the original Dare's adventures where the original Eagle left off, in a style as close to that of the classic strip as possible. To that end, Barzilay originally hired former Eagle artist Keith Watson, and following Watson's death Don Harley, both of whom had drawn Dare in the sixties, to work on the strips which are written very much in the style of the fifties stories. Despite a fairly small circulation (it is available only via mail order, through its own website or in a select few comic shops), Spaceship Away continues to appear.
Dan Dare appeared on the cover of the first issue of the weekly comic strip magazine, Eagle, on 14 April 1950. There were two large colour pages of his story per issue. The artwork was of a high quality, the product of artists in a studio called the Old Bakehouse in Churchtown,Southport, Lancashire. The Eagle's founder, the Rev Marcus Morris, was vicar of the Southport church of St James at the time. It had scale models of spaceships, and models in costume as reference for the artists. Occasionally, Eagle incorporated "centrefolds" of the fictional spaceships, such as Dan's ship the Anastasia, reminiscent of cutaway drawings of aircraft in aviation magazines or even Eagle itself. The storylines were long and complex, sometimes lasting more than a year. Later, artwork was produced at a studio in Hampson's house in Epsom, Surrey, where his production line techniques were continued.
Attention was paid to scientific plausibility, the science fiction luminary Arthur C. Clarke acting as science and plot adviser to the first strip. The stories were set mostly on planets of the solar system presumed to have extraterrestrial life and alien inhabitants, common in science fiction before space probes of the 1960s proved the most likely worlds were lifeless. The first story begins with Dan Dare as pilot of the first successful flight to Venus.
Hampson's working habits twice caused him to suffer serious breakdowns in health, leaving his assistants to continue the series. The first occurred after two episodes of "Marooned on Mercury" (1952), which was taken over by Harold Johns, from scripts by Rev. Chad Varah, a clergyman who had known Marcus Morris in Southport. Hampson returned to start the following story, "Operation Saturn" (1953), but suffered a relapse after 20 weeks. Principal art was taken over by new chief assistant Don Harley, who completed the story and its successor, "Prisoners of Space" (the only series to feature extensive work by an artist outside the studio, finishes being provided by Desmond Walduck.
Hampson returned full-time in 1955, starting "The Man from Nowhere" trilogy, which took Dan and his companions outside the Solar System for the first time.
The quality of the strip and its popularity remained high throughout the 1950s. In the late fifties Eagle's new owners objected to the cost of the studio and the complexity of the stories. The conflict caused Hampson to leave the strip in 1959, in the middle of a long plot that saw Dan searching an alien planet for his long-lost father. Production fell to Frank Bellamy, whose modern 3-dimensional style contrasted with Hampson's, despite efforts to smooth the transition by alternating the two pages of the weekly strip between Bellamy and the team of Don Harley and Keith Watson, and freelance artist Bruce Cornwell.
Dan Dare was surrounded by a varying cast, initially:
With the exception of Digby, all the supporting cast were dropped after 1961, although Guest, O'Malley, Hogan and Sondar made occasional reappearances. In 1963, Keith Watson and writer David Motton were allowed to introduce a new supporting cast, who remained with the series throughout the rest of its run.
Spacecraft of various designs were presented as the product of inhabitants of various planets. The vehicle most identified with Dan was the winged Anastasia. Designed by Sondar, it employed both Venusian and Earth space drives. Later, an alien ship was adopted and renamed the Zyl-bat. There was also an experimental time-travelling ship called Tempus Frangit (Latin: it breaks time or time breaks).
There were land and air vehicles – in the first stories, cars conform to styling of the time, while some flying machines were based on the design of helicopters of the mid-twentieth century. Also of note was Lex O'Malley's ship, the Poseidon, a versatile craft that could operate as a jetfoilas well as a submarine.
London Transport used overhead monorails and helibuses in early stories. Ground transport cars were also drawn with gyroscopes and single wheels. South of the Flamebelt the Therons had applied their technology to peaceful agricultural purposes including dedicated agricultural land and flying machines. North of the Flamebelt the Treens perfected low friction/ low energy consumption means of transport including vacuum tube transport (Electrosenders) for long distance travel.
All or most Dan Dare comic pictures were drawn from models or posed humans. As a result, the Spacefleet spacesuits in space hang in folds like the boilersuit in which the models posed and show no sign of gas pressure. After the first Venus war, Spacefleet spacesuits had propulsor backpacks copied from a Treen or Theron design.
Some other spacesuits such as Blasco's have life-support backpacks.
In 1960 artwork was taken over by Frank Bellamy, Don Harley, Keith Watson, Gerald Palmer, with Bruce Cornwell, and the look changed, with the colourful, rounded rocket ships replaced by angular silver craft, and changes to the space suits and insignia. The changes were never wholeheartedly taken up, however, and the look was erratic from then on. In 1962 the strip was removed from the front to the inside of the comic, in black and white, and was drawn by Keith Watson. Over the remaining years the strip varied in format and quality, eventually returning to the front page in colour, until it ended in 1967 with Dan retiring to become Space Fleet controller. Strips from the 1950s were reprinted until 1969, when Eagle merged with Lion. For a while the reprints continued in black and white in Lion.
In 1977, Dan Dare appeared again in the first issue of 2000 AD (26 February 1977). The first instalment, scripted by Ken Armstrong and Pat Mills, had the character revived from suspended animation after two hundred years to find himself in a different world. The Mekon had also survived but otherwise the cast was different, as was the tone of the strip (heavily influenced by the punk movement, as was much of 2000 AD) and the personality of the title character. Written by Kelvin Gosnell and then Steve Moore, the strip was initially illustrated by Massimo Bellardinelli, whose Dare owed nothing to the original apart from the wavy eyebrows. After 23 issues in this format the strip took a break for a month and then returned in a revamped format with a more realistic style, written by Gerry Finley-Day and Jack Adrian (Chris Lowder) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Dare was now launched on a deep space mission, much in the style of Star Trek but with technology designs very much influenced by Star Wars. In a series of episodic adventures, Dare encountered various threats, including an extended multi-episode adventure uniting slave races in opposition to the "Star Slayers" – the oppressive race controlling that region. The overall mission had a surprisingly down-beat ending, leaving a space-suited Dare the only survivor, adrift in space on wreckage.
The strip was rested for 14 issues, returning early in 1979 in 2000 AD's 100th issue. The amnesiac Dare is rescued from space by the Mekon and indoctrinated into the Mekon's army before eventually recovering his memory. Now penned by Tom Tully but still drawn by Dave Gibbons, this re-imagining of Dare casts him almost as a superhero with a colourful tight-fitting uniform provided by the Mekon. Dare escapes to a planet that is home to an amphibian-like race which claims he is their Chosen One. There he receives a semi-mystical glove that can shoot energy beams but is unable to prevent the Mekon from acquiring the mystical Crystal of Life. On his return to Earth, he and his Treen companion Sondar find themselves branded traitors and found guilty of helping the Mekon to steal the Crystal. This story arc concluded with the pair escaping the Earth authorities and going on the run to try to clear their names by tracking down the Mekon and recovering the Crystal, establishing the format for the next story arc. Despite promises that Dare and Sondar would be back, the 2000 AD Dan Dare strip ended here in prog 126 (18 August 1979).
In 1997, to celebrate their 20th anniversary, 2000 AD published two issues with additional free comics, the first a reprint of the first issue of 2000 AD, which starred Dan Dare. The second free comic was a speculative issue called 3000 AD which contained strips partially based on the first issue of 2000 AD. One strip was entitled "The Return of Dan Dare", which also featured the return of the Mekon.
In 1982 Eagle was re-launched, with Dan Dare again its flagship strip. The new character was the great-great-great-grandson of the original hero—the only surviving character from the original strip being the Mekon. The initial artist was Gerry Embleton, who drew Dan to resemble the original exactly, but he was quickly replaced by Ian Kennedy, who gave the hero a younger look and blond hair.
The opening Dan Dare story was an epic, lasting 18 months, written by Pat Mills and John Wagner. It opened with a flashback to the unseen final defeat of the Mekon by the original Dan, after which he was sealed inside an artificial asteroid and exiled into space. Centuries later he was accidentally freed and returned to conquer Earth. A few years later the descendant of his sworn enemy returned from space to find Earth under Treen rule and set out to free the planet. His new cast included Lt Helen Scott, leader of the Earth Resistance, and Valdon, a renegade Treen similar to the earlier Sondar. One controversial aspect of the strip was a lengthy flashback which retconned the original Dan to be a veteran of the Second World War and to have travelled through time to the era in which his adventures in the original Eagle took place—an attempt to explain why a hero in the age of space travel had a 1950's outlook on life.
After this initial storyline other writers were used and different supporting characters came and went, including Professor Pinkerton, a female scientist similar to Professor Peabody, and a new Digby (again, a descendant of the original). The Mekon was generally the foe in alternate stories.
In 1987 the strip became more like a space opera, with increasing violence. Now drawn by John Gillatt, Dan took on a tough-guy look. He led space commandos and packed a hi-tech gun reminiscent of that carried by Judge Dredd.
The new Eagle ended in 1994.
In 1990, a strip entitled Dare, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes, was serialised in Revolver. It presented bleak and cynical characters and was a not-too-subtle satire of 1980s British politics. Spacefleet had been privatised, the Treens were subjected to racist abuse in urban ghettos, Digby was unemployed, Professor Peabody committed suicide, and Dare's mentor Sir Hubert Guest betrayed Dare to the Mekon and his quisling British Prime Minister, Gloria Munday (whose appearance and demeanour appear modelled on Margaret Thatcher.) Ultimately, Dare destroys London, the Mekon and himself through a smuggled nuclear weapon.
In 1996, The Planet published its first and only issue. Inside was a new and unfinished Dan Dare story, "Remembrance", drawn by Sydney Jordan featuring a slightly older Dare and apparently set some years after the original Eagle strips.
In 2008 Virgin Comics published a 7 issue Dan Dare mini-series written by Garth Ennis, with art by Gary Erskine. Virgin's Richard Branson is a fan of the character. The series is set several years after the original strips. Space Fleet has collapsed along with the UN due to nuclear war between China and America; Britain survived due to defensive shields made by Professor Peabody, and has become a world power again as a result with the Royal Navy taking Space Fleet's role. Peabody is the Home Secretary to a Prime Minister modelled on Tony Blair, who has sold Earth's defence out to The Mekon out of fear of overwhelming odds. Dare, assisted by Digby (who sacrifices himself in battle) leads a spirited defence of both Earth and his honourable principles.
Launched in October 2003, Spaceship Away magazine was originally created in order to get 'The Phoenix Mission' (a 1950s style story by Rod Barzilay with art by Keith Watson and Don Harley) into publication. Response was good enough, though, to warrant the magazine's continuation following that strip's conclusion, initially with 'Green nemesis' (again by Barzilay and Don Harley, with later chapters drawn by David Pugh and Tim Booth. Other stories have since followed.
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