Dan Dare, the quintessential British spaceman, was created by Frank Hampson and first appeared in the Eagle in 1950. Enormously popular and influential and very much of its time, later attempts to revive the character have generally fallen flat.
Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future was the lead strip of the Eagle from its first issue on 14 April 1950. The strip was set in the late 1990s, but the style is very much 1950s, Dan - Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare, to give him his full name - being basically a second world war RAF pilot transplanted into outer space. He was supported by his comic relief northern batman, Digby, his boss, Sir Hubert Guest, the pipe-smoking Controller of the Space Fleet, and the glamorous scientist Professor Jocelyn Peabody. In the first serial Dan leads the first successful expedition to Venus on his spaceship, the Anastasia, and discovers the native Treens are being oppressed by the evil Mekon, a modified Treen with a shrivelled body and correspondingly overdeveloped brain, who travels around on a little floating chair. The Mekon was overthrown with the aid of Sondar, a good Treen who resisted his people's conditioning to suppress their emotions.
Frank Hampson initially wrote, drew and coloured the strip alone, building models of spaceships and plaster heads of characters and taking posed photographs of friends and colleages for reference. Over time he assembled a studio of artists, as many as four at any one time to assist him, working at his home in Epsom, Surrey. Artists who worked for Hampson's studio at various times included Joan Porter, Harold Johns, Jocelyn Thomas, Don Harley and Keith Watson. On two occasions the studio took over to create the strip when Hampson was taken ill: once in 1952, after two episodes of "Marooned on Mercury", when the remainder of the storyline was written by Chad Varah and mainly drawn by Harold Johns, and again in 1953, during the "Operation Saturn" storyline, when Don Harley took over as the principal artist for the rest of that story and whole of the next one, "Prisoners of Space", assisted by Desmond Waldeck. Hampson returned in 1955 for "The Man From Nowhere".
The strip was enormously popular through the 1950s. However, in 1959 Hulton Press, publisher of the Eagle, was sold to Odhams Press, who made changes to the comic. Marcus Morris left as editor, and soon afterwards Hampson left "Dan Dare" and his studio was disbanded. While Hampson, with assistant Joan Porter, was reassigned to "The Road of Courage", a retelling of the life of Christ, "Dan Dare" was entrusted to writer Eric Eden and artist Frank Bellamy, whose more modern style was radically different. To ease the transition Bellamy was assisted by Hampson's former assistants Don Harley and Keith Watson, and freelance artist Bruce Cornwell. Hampson's rounded, colourful rocketships were replaced by Bellamy's sleek, silver spacecraft. In 1962 the strip was relegated to the inside pages, in black and white, written by David Motton drawn by Watson. Eventually it returned to the colour pages, and finally ended in 1967 with Dan retiring from flying and becoming Controller of Space Fleet. For the next couple of years the Eagle ran reprints of 1950s strips, until the Eagle merged into Lion in 1969, where the reprints continued in black and white for a while.
When 2000 AD was launched in 1977, originating editor Pat Mills decided to revive "Dan Dare", figuring the character's name recognition would be good publicity. But the original strip's stiff-upper-lip paternalism was incompatible with the violent, anti-authoritarian tone of his comics, so he made drastic changes to the character. He had Dan seriously wounded and placed in suspended animation, and waking up two hundred years later in a very different world. He looked different - it was decided editorially to base his appearance on David Bowie - and acted different - harsher, more rebellious, more American. Initially written by Ken Armstrong, then Kelvin Gosnell and Steve Moore, the stories gave artist Massimo Belardinelli plenty of opportunity to draw grotesque aliens and hallucinatory planetscapes, but was unrecognisable as "Dan Dare": all that remained of the original was the Mekon, who had survived the centuries, and the hero's odd eyebrows.
After 23 issues the strip took a break and was revamped again, writers Gerry Finley-Day and Chris Lowder and artists Dave Gibbons and Brian Lewis retooled the series as a deep-space military adventure, inspired by Star Trek and Star Wars, with Dare commanding the crew of a Space Fortress. After a battle in which his ship and crew were wiped out, Tom Tully came aboard as writer and made an amnesiac Dan a servant of the Mekon, then branded a traitor on Earth and having to go on the run. Despite promising the series would return, that was the last 2000 AD would see of Dan Dare.
The new Eagle
IPC relaunched the Eagle in 1982, and once again "Dan Dare" was its lead strip. This was a new Dan, however, the great great great grandson of the original. The first storyline, lasting 18 months, was written by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Barrie Tomlinson with full colour art by Gerry Embleton, Ian Kennedy and Oliver Frey, and featured the return of the Mekon, who had been sealed in an asteroid by the original Dan and exiled into space, to conquer earth. Young Dan fought to throw off the Mekon's occupation of earth, allied with Lieutenant Helen Scott, leader of the Earth Resistance, and a Treen called Valdon. Later stories introduced a new Digby, a descendant of the original, and the beautiful Professor Pinkerton.
In 1987 the strip, now drawn by John Gillatt, became a violent space opera, with Dan leading space commandos with high-tech weaponry, but this direction was not popular, and beginning in 1989 the Eagle began running new adventures of the original Dan Dare, initially drawn by original Dan Dare artist Keith Watson, later written by Tom Tully and drawn by David Pugh, until the comic was cancelled in 1994.
In 1990, Fleetway's attempt at a hip adult comic, Revolver, ran a strip called "Dare: The Future" by writer Grant Morrison and artist Rian Hughes, using the characters of the original "Dan Dare" strip to create a pessimistic satire of contemporary politics. Revolver closed before the story finished, so the last couple of episodes appeared in Crisis. Set some times after the original series, Dan was unhappily retired, Digby was unemployed, Space Fleet had been privatised, a Treen minority lived in urban ghettos, and Britain was ruled by the Margaret Thatcher-esque Gloria Munday. When it was revealed that the country's economy depended on atrocities committed by the Mekon, Dan brought down the government, at the cost of his own life, in a nuclear explosion.
In 2008 Virgin Comics published a 7-part Dan Dare miniseries written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Gary Erskine. Another satire of contempory politics, it had Dan coming out of retirement after a weak, Tony Blair-esque prime minister had allied himself to the Mekon, who had double-crossed him. This version retained Dare's old fashioned stoicism and sense of honour, and transplanted him from an Air Force idiom to a naval one, as he led a space fleet to counter the Mekon's invasion force.
Since 2003, new adventures of the original Dan Dare have been published in Spaceship Away, a three-times-a-year magazine, launched by artist Don Harley and writer/editor Rod Barzilay. It includes new strips by Barzilay, Harley, Keith Watson, Ray Aspden, Ron Tiner, Andy Boyce, David Pugh, Keith Page and Martin Baines, reprints of old science fiction strips, prose stories, and articles and pictorials about the original comics, their creators, and other related subjects.
Initially published by the Ian Hering Cartoon Workshop in Liverpool Sufferin' Satellites featured new strips, stories and archive articles centered around Frank Hampson's Dan Dare and the Eagle magazine. Later issues featured cover artwork by Bryan Talbot and Frank Bellamy.
- Spacefleet fansite
- DanDare.info fansite
- Dan Dare and the Eagle fansite
- Dan-Dare.net fansite
- Dan-Dare.org fansite
- DanDare.org.uk fansite
- Eagle Times blog
- Spaceship Away
- Dan Dare at Barney's Thrill Zone
- Chad Varah, ‘Hampson, Frank (1918–1985)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 9 Sept 2010
- The Massimo Belardinelli interview