Friday, 27 April 2012

Anxiety & Optimism In Frank Hampson's Dan Dare: (Part 1 of 2)

         
The first issue of Eagle appeared this month some 62 years ago;

1. Anxiety

There are very dark things going on here. From the perspective of 2012, it can be hard to grasp just how challengingly bleak the set-up of the first month of Frank Hampson's Dan Dare was. There's  little point in relying on the characters themselves to express what a terrible situation planet Earth's in, for these are men who've been mostly trained from birth not to express their thoughts and feelings in anything other than the most discrete and modest of ways. Even Digby, the strip's resident comic relief, can barely bring himself to utter anything more than blunt, pithy, largely impersonal comments in response to the calamities he finds himself in. But if we pay attention in the way that a curious child might to the lowered voices of unconvincingly calm parents, then the magnitude if not the precise nature of the disaster facing this Earth of "some years in the future" gradually becomes more and more clear.

      
Underneath the professional detachment and obvious competence of the men of the Interplanet Space Fleet lies a suppressed and yet all-too-obvious sense of emasculation and foreboding. When Sir Hubert graciously wishes the crew of the exploratory spaceship Kingfisher a final-sounding "Goodbye and the best of luck", Spaceman First Class Digby caps the comment with "They'll need it". Fatalism appears to grip all concerned, and the slight fractures which appear in their collectively stoic manner work to accentuate how anxious their mood is. Men like these don't tend to express their doubts in public in any fashion at all, and the boys who first read Eagle would have been well aware of how the stiff-upper lip was supposed to function; the slightest tremor of concern indicates a massive degree of worry, and there's certainly a few tremors appearing here. And so, as Colonel Dare quietly and yet conspicuously wonders whether his spacebound colleagues will "ever come back", and as Sir Hubert counsels that patience and keeping "our fingers crossed" is all that can be done, the weight of everything that's obviously not being expressed creates an air of brooding anxiety. 

      
But then, there's more than just a few moments in the first month or so of Dan Dare in which we're given that sense of men striving not to discuss the challenges before them."Hush!" Dare tells himself in the largest single word presented on either of the opening episode's pages, a comparatively large, bold, italicised reminder to himself that he mustn't openly express his frustrations. It's a tension between the apparently benign surface and the disturbingly threatening reality of Dare's future world which Hampson's work constantly stresses. And so, the reader's shown a tomorrow of obvious comfort and scientific achievement, and yet Dare longs for a simple breakfast of "bacon & eggs" when faced with nothing but a meal of clearly unappetising "vitamin blocks". The contradiction suggested by a technologically advanced society weighed down by material shortages was one which the boys of 1950 might well have on one level or another recognised. Theirs was a culture fetishically concerned with the promise of fantastical developments, and yet one that was also marked by a grey and grinding austerity. Sweets and sugar rationing wouldn't end for another three years, although the war itself had been over for half a decade, and yet the Eagle of the period often featured child-entrancing double-page cut-away spreads of mechanical marvels from fighter jets to prairie-flattening tractors. The terrible and nobly-fought past, an uncertain and yet beguilingly incredible future, a mono-chrome present very occasionally lit by bright flashes of innovation and promise; the unease and excitement, frustration and banality of the mid-century were in a strange way captured by chance and design in the very first appearances of Dan Dare.

       
In Dare's third chapter, we're finally presented with the reason why the Interplanet Space Fleet is struggling so desperately to reach the planet Venus; the Earth's soil is exhausted, its people are starving to death. It's tellingly Digby, the working-class Yorkshireman and comic sidekick, who's given the key, despairing lines to speak here. Of everyone who's present on the page in the strip's very earliest days, it's Digby whose role leaves him free to express himself with a touch more humour and a little less restraint;

"It all seems very ironical like to me, sir. We get a world government that ends wars, the doctors have nearly every disease taped, and nobody's really poor any more - in fact, everything in the garden's lovely - except there's nothing to eat."
       
            
It's a wonderfully written speech, delivering as it does the "ironical" nature of the situation with exactly the right sense of resignation, good humour and frustration. Hampson's artwork for the three panels which carry Digby's words is exquisitely judged too. (See scan below.) Nowhere are we shown the slightest sign of starvation, and yet, as the reader is pushed further and further away from Digby and the flying craft he's in, the sense of an empty, peaceful and yet doomed world is created simply through the absence of human activity. It's a subtle effect which Hampson doesn't dwell upon, but it captures an air of a peaceful and well-ordered globe which can't possibly survive, and in doing so, it suggests the disillusionment which for so many folks followed the end of the war. The War was over in the East as well as the West. The United Nations and the World Bank had been set up, the Welfare State created. So many impossible dreams had been achieved, and yet for all that sacrifice, Britain still seemed to exist as a nation afflicted by perpetual crises mixed equally with eternal hardship. What if we finally did everything right, asks those first few Dan Dare chapters, and it turned out that we were too late. What if a Malthusian end was waiting for us even when we'd all finally pulled together and done the very best that we could?

          
The spectacle of the Kingfisher's rockets powering her vertiginously skywards may have also brought with it a strange, disturbing collision of emotions and thoughts to the young readers of 1950. Rockets may have been the fictional marvels which carried the likes of the American pioneers of 1950's Destination Moon into the heavens, but they were also real-world weapons of mass destruction such as the V-weapons which had rained down upon London and its surroundings in their thousands and thousands just five years before. In their functionally convincing designs and regretable habit of becoming marooned and destroyed in deep space, Hampson's rockets were rarely the entirely safe and unchallenging genre conventions of either earlier or later pop sci-fi. Indeed, they often suggested that anywhere but their vicinity was the safest place to be. The very presence on the Eagle's cover of the Kingfisher's ominous departure might therefore inspire more complicated and contradictory responses than the plot of Dan Dare alone could provoke. Similarly, the culture of the time was saturated with tales of how desperately-needed weapons such as the Spitfire and the bouncing bomb had been developed under nerve-shredding conditions of urgency and jeopardy by brilliant back-room boys and stoic, courageous test pilots. The launch of the Kingfisher and her mysterious mission drew upon histories and fictions which suggested beleaguered nations and desperate, last ditch projects bolted together with super-science, sticking-plaster, and wing-and-a-prayer improvisations. These were imaqes which a Britain still struggling to recover psychically and physically from six years of total war might immediately recognise and identify with, meaning that no matter how futuristic Commander Dare's world might appear, it always felt recognisably 1950 too.

       
The horrors of Hampson's set-up become more obvious and explicit in the strip's second chapter, which shows the Kingfisher exploding in space in a scene which remains, for all its restraint, uncomfortably raw. Just before the expedition's catastrophic and impossibly lonely end, the reader's introduced to the ship's "Commander, Captain Crane, a space pilot of vast experience", a calm and benignly smiling officer whose very presence seems to promise the mission's success. Then we're shown four panels in which one disaster arrives hard on the heels of another; a terrible flash of light; immense heat radiating from the "impulse engines"; crewmen beaten back as they clamber for extinguishers; and then - "Too late!" - the Kingfisher's destroyed in an immense, structure-rendering explosion. It's a conspicuously all-ages and yet powerfully despairing portrayal of a spaceship's end, drawing as it does upon a broad variety of narrative traditions used to represent the destruction of technological marvels. The plight of the crewman in the second panel in the sequence suggests a stoker struggling far below decks with an out-of-control furnace.  The stumbling men seen from an angle which suggests the Kingfisher is diving out of control in the third frame summon up memories of Lancaster's and B-17s tumbling hopelessly from the skies above Germany. "Poor old Crane - I feel like a murderer." declares a sternly sorrowful Sir Hubert, his face displaying no more emotion than a tightened lip and a severe frown mitigated by his refusal to allow his eyes to close. Lost airmen, hopeless crashes, desperate wireless operators striving to communicate with comrades who are suddenly silent; this wasn't just the stuff of soldiering epics and disaster pulp fictions. It drew from the traumatic fabric of the nation's common experience of war too.

       
It's sixty-seven panels and three weeks worth of adventures until the first signficant sign appears that Dan Dare is going to be a strip more concerned with idealism and positivity than self-control in the face of a terrible end. But the optimism isn't allowed to arrive without just a touch more stage-setting despair being introduced into the piece. Just before the closing panel of the Dare strip in Eagle of April 28th 1950, we're shown a brief sequence of the Space Fleet craft flying high above the green fields, cliff-faces and shore-line of England. It's a backdrop which even now is associated with the Few and the Battle of Britain, and there's never been any doubt that Dare and his space officer fellows were obvious takes of World War II R.A.F. pilots thinly but touchingly transposed to a fantasy future. Yet in these few panels, Dare and the others are presented flying above the aerial battlefields of 1940 without the slightest sign of an enemy to dog-fight with. They're warriors with no war to fly off to, and that creates a compelling enigma at the heart of the tale; what's the point of even the bravest warriors when there's nobody to turn a gun towards? Part of what makes these first few chapters of Dan Dare so surreptitiously unsettling is the sense that the martial achievements of the past have been for nothing, and that everything which was sacrificed in the two great wars will ultimately fail to help carve out a better world.

         
Of course, a recognisably fiendish fascist enemy to dog-fight the hours away with was waiting for the men - and soon women - of the Interplanet Space Fleet some 26 million or so miles away closer to the Sun. And with the imminent arrival of a series of improbable challenges which actually could be successfully grappled with rather than merely endured, Dan Dare swiftly became a comic strip characterised by a particularly British, Fifties form of optimism, as I hope to discuss next time here at TooBusyThinking.

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4 comments:

  1. Thanks for another insightful piece Colin. Old British comics like Eagle hold a certain mystique for me, perhaps because we are all so aware of American comicbook history that it is easy to forget how innovative and palpably exciting our own "canon" is.

    That I have never found the time to explore the 'origin story' of such an iconic character as Dan Dare is a source of angst to me (as one who likes to think of himself as being relatively well grounded in the medium). While I was aware of his obvious link to WW2 pilots and knew that the setting was infused with a kind of post-war optimism I had no idea about how these early issues reflected the social anxieties you described in your piece.

    Have you seen Warren Ellis's graphic novel 'Ministry of Space'? It is a deconstruction of the Dan Dare world in much the same way that superheroes have often been (but without the ultra-violence which typifies such works). The art is remarkably faithful to the DD comics and I thought it was worth mentioning because of how the influence of Von Braun's rocket designs were shown to be linked to the design of DD rockets like the Kingfisher.

    On a side note: I actually managed to acquire (for the paltry sum of £4) two Eagle issues from 1960, both with Dan Dare as the front-page/leading story and they have pride of place in my collection. The quality of the artwork is particularly striking, one begins with an opening shot of a positively eerie green-washed 'modernist architect meets alien race'-looking space station. Reading the rest of those Eagle issues is like opening a window to the childhood I might have had were I boy at that time. Quite the treat!

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    1. Hello Ed:- Thanks for the generous words. I think you're absolutely right that the British canon is far too often ignored. Although I perfectly understand why that would be so, I'm well aware that I'll only get between one-twentieth to one-thirtieth of the usual visitors if I do a piece about Dan Dare or Johnny Red. Even 2000AD rarely inspires the visitors. It's a shame, but luckily my blog's not run for commercial profit and there's a lot I've got to learn from the likes of Mr Hampson, to say the very least. I keep trying to think of how to make the material more interesting, though the thought strikes me as I write that maybe if I compared Bit and American characters, that might help.

      I'm going to write about the "optimism" aspect of those early Dares - as best I can, as best I grasp it - on this coming Friday. It's usually the optimism of Dare which is discussed, and I do often wonder why the markers of far less cheery fare are pretty much ignored. Those post-war years were so tough for most people. Even the Festival Of Britain was a year away from the first appearance of The Eagle. Whenever I read histories and memoirs of the period, I'm always struck by how little there was in the mainstream culture which we'd now recognise as invigorating and radical. Of course, how we might perceive that and how the folks of the period did are two different things. (And any culture with the Goons, Ealing comedies and the Eagle alone is providing a far measure of energy.) But the culture seems to have been a far more complex, far more contradictory and troubling one than the shorthand of history sometimes seems to reduce it to. And I suspect that part of the reason why Dare's optimism came to count for so much was that it wasn't in some key aspects typical. Britain had moved to the right by the turn of the decade, but Dare, for all that it was never a confrontational strip, remained in some ways quite a progressive and idealistic strip. It reflected the strange faith in technology and the future which much of the culture carried, but it also put an oddly radical spin on that too.

      I really must go back and re-read Ministry Of Space. I loved the Weston art, I enjoyed the premise, but I felt at the time that the story was somewhat flat. I've gained much more of a taste for WE's work since then, so I should go back.

      Those old Eagles are wonderful things, they really are. I have a few tattered copies from the early 50s, which is a period I prefer where the comic's concerned. But that might be because I can vaguely remember the 60s issues, which means the early 50s stuff now feels more mysterious to me.

      By the time I was able to read, the Eagle's mantle had passed - for just a few glorious years - to TV21. I don't know if you know the comic. But anything from the first 120 or so of its issues really is worth reading. Just think, there was a period when jumble sales were knee-deep in both the Eagle and TV21 back issues :)

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  2. I'd heard mention of the food shortages in Dan Dare before, but I hadn't thought of it this way before: that this is something understatedly grim for the original audience. We get too used to thinking of Dare as purely bright and boys-own.

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles:- It's been a good while since I read all the Dare books back-to-back, but I did always prefer the first and last Hampson stories, because they seemed to me to be the most real, in that the first had these social issues bubbling up all over the place and last was driven by Dare's family and ultimately the promise of seeing his father again.

      Yes, there's more to our Dan than pip-pip-pipping.

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