Tuesday, 24 April 2012

On Dan Dare by Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine

I've done my best to leave no evidence of my tearfulness, but tearfulness there most certainly was. Convincing expressions of decency are so rare in today's adventure fiction. Modesty, restraint, honour, honesty, respect, self-sacrifice; these are untypical qualities in our bad-ass obsessed media, and the simple fact of their presence can entirely defuse a body's cynical defences and well-up the tear-ducts with all the relief of a friendly smile at a moment of weariness. To feel that inarguable decency is being expressed in a way that's neither cloying nor regressive, embarrassing or cack-handedly manipulative, is an incredibly rare experience. To realise that such culturally verboten principles are suddenly being openly discussed is to be reminded that it's not a shameful business to believe in the most fundamental of values, no matter how unspohisticated, conditional, and supposedly naive they are.

And so, 2011's Captain America movie can always reduce me to snuffling when Steve Rogers quietly declares; "I don't want to kill anyone. I don't like bullies. I don't care where they're from". That's my political ideology right there, stripped of cant and the cold-hearted cleverness of spin. It's exactly the same with Ennis and Erskine's 21st century re-invention of Dare Dare, a little-discussed masterpiece of political idealism wrapped up in the big-budget trappings of top-notch  military sci-fi. It's a tale which always causes me to repeatedly choke up, and which always leaves me wishing that I didn't feel so fundamentally alienated from the self-serving popularity contest that so often seems to pass as the politics of my own culture. Isn't that what a polemical yarn is supposed to do? Of course, Utopias fit for heroes - let alone the rest of us - are conspicuously absent from human history, which means that any moment in time would most probably inspire the same sense of alienation. But it is inspiring to be reminded that we all could choose to do just a little bit better, at the very least.

Dare Dare by Ennis and Erskine is the subject of current The Year In Politics piece over at Sequart - here - and I hope you might consider popping over and taking a look. There's also something of a respectful if all-too-brief glance back at Dare-creator Frank Hampson's glorious achievements on the strip in the 50s too. I think I've kept the tearfulness out of things over there, but I suspect that there are still traces of eye-dabbing and snuffling to be found. Reader, beware.




  1. While I found Ennis' take on Dan a bit too middle English and in line with Grant Morrison's (erroneous) take on the character as a stiff upper-lipped officer-class cliche, I did prefer it over Morrison's own Dare, which is a mirror of Ennis' take if you view both as reactions to the dying political monoliths of their respective eras: Morrison's polemical rebuttal of Thatcherism's failures and Ennis' disillusionment of the latter Labor years.

    Of course, Ennis' Dare is arguably a story about the myths of Englishness, so perhaps I missed the point a little first time around. I also liked the 1980s Eagle version, so perhaps I'm just being all fanboyish or something that he didn't fight a Gobot or an animal army.

    1. Hello Brigonos:- Did you find GE's Dare a touch too English? I found it described a great deal of working/middle class Scots culture from the 60s and 70s too. I also recognised a great deal of the material from histories of the Second World War, which may led to my objectivity disappearing out of the back door. I certainly agree with your preference for it over the Morrison tale, which I thought was a woeful miscalculation. By that, I don't mean anything about GM's work as a whole; every artist with the will to experiment produces work which this reader or that might struggle with. I just struggled really badly with it. I can understand loathing Thatcher, but linking Dare to that seemed to missing the point that the Colonel was anything but a nationalist and an imperialist. As Ennis wrote in the forward to the collected Dan Dare edition in 2008, Hampson's Dare was first and foremost an idealist, an internationalist etc ect

      And as you imply, whatever version of Dare a body comes across and enjoys is a cool version of the character. There will be one or two kids today who'll forever love the horrible, torturing, stupid, thick, vicious take on Captain America as the definitive version.

      Which does rather disappoint me ...

    2. For what it's worth, I found that a great deal of the exasperation and disbelief that things had been fucked up yet again right in front of us despite all assurances to the contrary spoke to that part of me that used to vote religiously until the Stormont Assembly sold us down the river one piece at a time, though I'm not sure how long Ennis has departed these shores so I couldn't say if that was intentional.

      The disillusionment with political entities is just a universal experience, I suppose.

    3. Hello Brigonos:- It's the old Churchill line which keeps me going, and I don't often have reason to say that! The one about democracy being the worst of all systems except for every single one of the other ones. But, yes, that disillusionment in inevitable. I remember reader Rousseau at York - I don't think I ever learned to spell his name - and coming across the line in which he declared that democracy would be a perfect system for a race of Gods. I remember feeling all the righteous contenpt of a stupid 18 year old.

    4. I think it's striking that someone who is as loathed by the superhero traditionalists as Ennis is can write such a great story about a character like Dare who's defining feature is his sense of fair play and decency.

    5. Hello Dina:- Somehow I managed to miss a great deal of the anti-Ennis campaign re: the superbook, and I've become aware of it long after the fact. My experience is exactly as you describe. His War Stories and Dan Dare are all about the most ethical of concerns. Even The Boys is rooted in Acon's Dictum, and for all that the books not to my taste exactly, what I've read seems perfectly justifiable. I'm sure there's material I should have read and haven't. But what I know seems to show Ennis as a writer concerned with the way in which individuals respond to power. The problem, I think, is far more in the super-books assumptions that a great many folks with a huge degree of power will simply line up to do good.

  2. Ah, Garth Ennis. Sometimes I can't tell whether he's the world's nastiest misanthrope or the world's biggest romantic... but those things do go hand in hand more than people want to admit, don't they?

    I only ever managed to read one issue of "Dan Dare;" after that my comic store either stopped carrying the issues or I just completely failed to notice that they were on the rack. Always meant to track the rest of it down.

    1. Hello Adam;- it may well be that the biggest romantics are the ones liable to suffer the greatest disappointments. It cheers me to think of GE as being anything other than his misanthropic public personna.

      I can - as must be obvious - only emphasise what a great read Dan Dare is. I keep hearing from folks who I'd never think of as potential fans of the series who tell me they loved it. And they're right :)

  3. As others have said, the fact Ennis is writing Dan Dare makes the sheer, unabashed decency and Englishness amazing. I guess it shouldn't be really. He's always got straightforward romantic bits in his comics - Jennifer Blood's true love for her children and her dorky husband, Jesse Custer helping a Grail man and the walk into the sunset in Preacher, Hughie and Annie in The Boys and Hughie's memories of his dad dropping pound coins in the sea so he could find 'treasure from the Spanish Armada', even Punisher Max and Frank telling us "if you have to ask, you'll never know" when he sees his daughter. Each time, it's hidden among violence, black humour, moral compromises, and shocking bleakness. This is Ennis leaving that out, for the most part.

    The real shocks are:

    a) he's presenting a Home Secretary as a hero and strongly implying she can run a major superpower with decency! That's definately not normal for him!

    b) This isn't just abnormal for Ennis - as you point out, it's abnormal for the industry (and not just comics). Outside of stories for children, you don't see this sort of thing very often. When the industry is dominated by superhero comics, that's quite bizarre; you'd expect the opposite. And yet many comics act like the heroes are inherently showing these Dare-esque values and should be lauded for it & respected even when they haven't shown it at all. (Wait, that's The Boys...)

    We need more Dares.

    - Charles RB

    1. Hello Charles:- You are, of course, absolutely right to emphasise that Ennis's politics on the page don't seem to either discount human decency or decent human behaviour. I haven't read everything of his, and I've been told that there's disturbing stuff out there in the GE pile, but what I've seen seems to always be concerned, as I've said, with Acton's dictum: power corrupts, it just does. That's what power does, and those that it doesn't - with the obvious exception of you and I, of course - are few and far between. I don't find this world-view cynical, as has been argued, but simple realism. That's how the species works. Denying it means rewriting history from day one.

      But that doesn't mean that human beings aren't also capable, in individual acts and general patterns of behaviour, capable of wonderful things. And you're right again, GE shows that in his work. With Peabody, he shows how she strays and how she returns to her principles. One of the thing which post-60s mainstream culture has tended to stray away from is the idea of a damn good example in a political sense. But we've enough distance and irony now to recognise the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the culture which Hampson expressed in his own unique way. Dan doesn't have to mean a repressive class system and imperialism, and doing the right thing doesn't have to "doing the wrong thing while feeling self-righteous".

      The super-book is so under-mined by the lack of attention to power in anything other than the sense of who's-hardest. Boy, but we need a few more good writers to join the small but wonderful cadre of good eggs who're currently doing a fine job in the sub-genre.

  4. Hello, Colin. I'm glad you liked Ennis' take on Dare. Sorry this reply wasn't prompter.

    Dan Dare was one of my first must-have comics. I've found much of the opus in reprints and, for a rarity, they lived up to the promise of memory. Garth Ennis has a fascinating reprise here which throws interesting lights on Frank Hampson's original.

    Criticisms first. Ennis' story is slow. Two whole issues to deal with the fight in the desert, where Hampson would cover a similar conflict from setup through main action to denouement in four, admittedly big, pages, with the moral and a Digbyism thrown in. Yes I understand, it's the Defense of Rorke's Drift, innocents behind them and a horde in front of them, now get on with it!

    This isn't just decompression. Ennis goes to great lengths to show, not just tell, that the common ruck may achieve tremendous feats of endurance and self-sacrifice if the leadership will truly step up to the crease. He's making that point because he thinks nobody else is making it.

    Hampson, in his day, could assume his readers had inherited a certain vocabulary of principle and valour as part of their British identity; they knew all about thin red lines and stiff upper lips, they could take that as read, so the action could proceed briskly when Dan and company went diving into mortal danger for the third time in a month. It's not that Hampson was especially profound about moral character, but he knew his readers had parents and teachers, etc, who had already said and done all the profound things on the story's behalf.

    Ennis writes as if that vocabulary is extinct and has to be spelt out from the beginning, for a generation with no idea there's any such thing as a genuine authority or a social compact. There's an analogy with science fiction writing here. Early writers used scholarly arguments and dramatic devices to make their exotic concepts plausible, but from the '40s the readers took the concepts as read and were prepared for brisk alusive narration, often about characters for whom the once-exotic was a matter of fact. But with Ennis we have the reverse: a common vocabulary of moral assumptions has come undone, so now he has to speak very slowly, with scholarly arguments and every dramatic device.

    So I think I understand why he paces it like that. But honestly, those assumptions aren't hard to comprehend, and if you recognize them from the start, oh lord, it's slow.

    1. Hello Jonathan:- No problem at all about promptness :) I'm grateful that you’ve come across the pieces and thought to respond. Thank you.

      As you are, I’m a huge Hampson fan. I’m just finishing off the second part of the recent post I did on the subject, and though I know that I’m well out of my depth on the subject, it’s impossible not to learn so much just from reading and re-reading those wonderful, wonderful pages.
      “Criticisms first. Ennis' story is slow.”

      I take your point, and I do sometimes feel that some of GE’s comics are a little on the decompressed side for me. It’s just that I don’t feel that way here. Now that’s not to suggest that you’re wrong. I often feel that I ought to feel that way, because GE’s Dare is in places, as you say, slow. Yet the passion of the politics is such that it carries me through. I think it’s a horses for courses situation, in which I respect your opinion, but I’ve little objectivity about the GE stories. They touch me in such a fundamental way that I love them, warts and all. I say this so that you can know that I’m not trying to project an objective air when I chat with you. I’m really not trying to.

      “He's making that point because he thinks nobody else is making it … Ennis writes as if that vocabulary is extinct and has to be spelt out from the beginning, for a generation with no idea there's any such thing as a genuine authority or a social compact.”

      You see, I do think that those particular aspects of the culture are largely lost. They exist only in the most stereotypical form. And so, everyone can recognise the upper-class, stiff-upper-lip officer when he appears in Dr Who, but he rarely carries with him the moral authority that Dare did. The type and the culture have become to a large degree separated one from the other. Or so it seems to me. I taught social sciences for almost 20 years and my experience in half a dozen schools across England was that that past is now a mystery. Now, your experience may contradict my own, and that would be cool. I’m really not point-scoring here. I see nothing at all wrong with our disagreeing on some points. I just think that GE’s version of Dan’s culture did need explaining and did need illustrating as he did.

      “My other disappointment is, Ennis' astronomy is crap. I just couldn't make sense of distances and times in this story.”

      I struggle with the science of the matter, and I tend to be happy as long as everything is self-consistent. And so, I lost patience with the latest Battlestar show when it just ignored its own rules, and had its producer say that he couldn’t care less on the show’s podcast. Fair enough, if you don’t care, I don’t, was my thought. Yet I didn’t get the impression that GE was doing that, and since the story relied on emotional truths, I was happy not to think about the details of the physics. Again, I feel remarkably uncritical here; I only object when the science throws me out of a story. (I write about superhero comics; science = magic for me in many ways; all I ask is that it's self-consistent.)

      “Speaking of the Navy, who else would assemble their battleships in one formation, a few ship-lengths apart, all oriented to a single horizontal plane?)”

      The conventions of space battles in pulp fictions are not to trusted, are they? I do enjoy reading the likes of Jack Campbell’s military SF when I’m in the mood. Again, I wasn’t distracted by the space opera aspects of GE’s work because I didn’t think that was central to the drama. But as I write that, I’m keenly aware that that’s a p.o.v. which could be easily demolished.


  5. My other disappointment is, Ennis' astronomy is crap. I just couldn't make sense of distances and times in this story. If the Mekon's fleet can tow this black hole along at thousands of lightspeeds then the thing is practically on Earth's doorstep; there's just no rationale for how it creeps closer, and closer, while the Navy waits for it to loom into range. I wonder where this well-lit mining planet is, that's halfway along the route of attack. Ennis doesn't care, as long as he can have Dan taking the fight out to the enemy, then swerving aside to defend civilians, while the Navy sits paralyzed by hidebound procedures. (Speaking of the Navy, who else would assemble their battleships in one formation, a few ship-lengths apart, all oriented to a single horizontal plane?)

    Hampson is very aware of how far apart things are in space, makes consistent assumptions about how fast things move, and cleverly puts these to storytelling use. Reading Dan Dare in Hampson's time, you could compare it with schoolbook astronomy and feel it was going on in something like the actual Solar System. Reading the stories, you were looking forward to the Space Age. By contrast, Ennis needs you to forget eveything you actually know about astronomical scale, as well as everything you know about black holes.

    But that aside. Ennis's Dare and Digby and Peabody are very convincing reprises of the original characters. As they put forward their positions I have no trouble believing that these are how Hampson's characters could have turned out given a world war and ten years of a corrupt Pax Britannia.

    Here they are saying outright what the old characters, plausibly, implicitly believed; giving utterance to that British post-war civic vocabulary. What makes it impressive is that Ennis sketches backstories which allow them to be in the present situation saying those things just now. Very light sketches, he doesn't say much. But he says just enough that I wish he'd given Digby a miracle escape and found a publisher to continue the series. Because I want to see Digby shrewdly co-opting those disaffected street kids, and Peabody playing hardball with the continental defense shields.

    But I think the most impressive thing is that Ennis, very nearly, makes Dan and Digby and Jocelyn sound like Frank Hampson's authorial mouthpieces, instead of his own.

    1. Cont;

      “But that aside. Ennis's Dare and Digby and Peabody are very convincing reprises of the original characters. As they put forward their positions I have no trouble believing that these are how Hampson's characters could have turned out given a world war and ten years of a corrupt Pax Britannia.”

      I’m not sure about Peabody, to tell you the truth. It was “A” convincing Peabody, but not “THE” Peabody, in my book. There’s an irony, that I’d suddenly switch sides in our discussion :) I thought Dare and Digby’s relationship was, however, peerless. Yes, I’m with you. And though I’m usually incandescent about writers killing classic characters, I find that I can make no complaints about Digby’s end. It was a good end.

      “ Because I want to see Digby shrewdly co-opting those disaffected street kids, and Peabody playing hardball with the continental defense shields.”

      I agree that I would’ve loved to see the series continue. And yet, ends such as Digby’s are SO rare in fiction for long-running, well-loved serial characters. It seems that this book sees me breaking with so many of my usual preferences. I would normally mind Digby’s end, the science problems and so on.

      “But I think the most impressive thing is that Ennis, very nearly, makes Dan and Digby and Jocelyn sound like Frank Hampson's authorial mouthpieces, instead of his own.”
      You put your finger on it when you say that these are versions of FH’s characters as they might have developed against a backdrop of specific events. This Dan is a much harder, sadder man, but I never felt he’d been anti-heroed-up for the sake of the grimness of it. As with you, I believed in him, and all and all, I felt that GE’s respect for FH’s work was always present.

      No matter where we differ, I think we might both raise a glass to both men in the light of that :)

  6. For all his dislike of superheroes, Ennis is also responsible for some of the best Superman moments ever in Hitman. You've read those, right Colin?

    Also, I sent you an e-mail a week ago on Identity Crisis but haven't heard back.

    1. Hello Andrew:- I've read many, if not all, of the Hitman issues. I was fond of a great number of them, though at the time I'm not sure I quite "got" what was going on. If I could afford the reprint volumes at this very moment of time, I'd be investing in them.

      My apologies about the e-mail. I fear I can no trace. Would you mind nipping across to your sent log and resenting?

  7. Hi Colin

    Just wanted to say that I picked this up the other day (purely on your recommendation which I have come to trust greatly), and I VERY much enjoyed it!!!

    Thanks heaps
    Dave Hinch

    1. Hello Dave:- Thank you for letting me know, and for your generous words! I'm really glad that Dan Dare wasn't a disappointment inspired by some serious mis-selling on my part.

      Huzzah :)