Monday, 7 May 2012

The Optimism Of Colonel Daniel Dare (Part 2 of 2)

In which the blogger concludes the look back at the first few weeks of Dan Dare, begun here;

        
A starving world, its food-seeking spacemen perishing as their ships mysteriously explode in "the remote wastes" between Earth and Venus. A helpless, frustrated Earthbound cast without the slightest idea of what to do next. For its first three weeks, Frank Hampson's new Dan Dare strip played out a politely grim, funereal scenario, juxtaposing the technological wonders of a peaceful, affluent future with the struggles and sacrifices of its servicemen desperately attempting to forestall the world's destruction. Hampson's faith in the patience and intelligence of his audience of a million and more boys seems remarkable from the perspective of the all-too-often hyper-real, start-with-an-exceedingly-big-explosion storytelling lowlands of 2012.

          
Hampson released more than just a little of that accumulated despair and tension as Eagle moved into its second calender-month of publication.With a modest smile and the characteristic arcing of a considerable eyebrow,  Colonel Dare suddenly deduces the explanation for the loss of Space Fleet's ships. With  the strip's star finally shedding his scene-setting passivity, Dan Dare begins to generate less a looming air of anxiety, and more a spirit-raising sense of backs-against-the-wall defiance and purposeful optimism too.  A great measure of that, of course, lies in the fact that Dare and his colleagues have suddenly taken the lead in a tale where the action was previously disastrously occurring thousands upon thousands of miles out into space. Yet it's not just the fact that Hampson's kicked the story on into its second act, with his protagonist suddenly capable of changing rather than simply reacting to circumstances, which charges the strip with a gradually intensifying spirit of cheerfulness and enthusiasm.

       
Though Dan Dare is obviously a vision of the future in which Britain's dominant culture if not its state has substantially colonised the world, it's also an invigoratingly internationalist strip. As the last-chance mission to Venus begins to come together, Hampson fleshes out his cast with Major Pierre Lafayette and Captain Henry Hogan, a Frenchman and American whose national origins never threaten to cause the slightest friction. Dare's future is, as we discussed last time, one of a single world working together for the common interest under a single government, and although Space Fleet appears to be a predominantly British organisation, there's never a hint of anything other than the greatest of respect for the men of other nations who fight as part of it. Indeed, even Major Lafayette's name seems to deliberately underscore Hampson's belief that the Earth of the future simply had to be one in which old nationalistic rivalries were enthusiastically put aside. After all, it was the Marquis de Lafayette who'd led the French forces which helped the American rebels to overthrow the British during the War Of Independence. Now the sons of rebels and the nation's traditional enemy alike were both coming not just to Britain's add, but to work with Britain in the common interest to save the entire globe. Just as the idea of a united Earth and the Federation of Planets anchors Star Trek's utopianism, so too the World Government of Dan Dare creates a sense of a far more decent, far more principled tomorrow having arisen out of the Twentieth century's two World Wars to end all wars. In a Britain whose fictions had even rewritten the historical record of the Battle Of Britain and excised the memory of pretty much all of the R.A.F. who'd flown without a pip-pip public schoolboy accent, Hampson's Space Fleet felt like a radical vision of frictionless , inter-class and international cooperation.

       
It could be fairly argued that Dan Dare wasn't truly internationalist in spirit, but rather a vision of  Britain taking the leading place in a world which behaves exactly as Britain wants. But that would be to under-estimate the parochialism and xenophobia of the period. What looks both naive and partial now was in its time a considerable, deliberate, idealistic stand. Today, it's awkwardly notable that Dare's colleagues are very much white, and very much Western. The degree of difference in their ranks barely stretches from Rigby's comic Yorkshireman act to Pierre's little presumably-Gallic moustache. Yet that's not how it commonly would've been read in its day, and there were moments when a far more radically inclusive vision of when Earth's future emerged. The United Nations invasion force which arrive on Venus to save the day at the end of Dare's first adventure, for example, was shown to be led by a man of colour, a Commandant presented as the undoubted best choice for the situation. (*1) It was a remarkably daring statement for the day, and Dare is shown repeatedly taking orders while expressing the maximum of respect and admiration for his commanding officer. In the United Kingdom of 1950 and 1951, there would've been few who believed that a man of colour could possibly be the equal of a white citizen, let alone conceive of him being an appropriate model for the soldier best suited to lead a UN assault on another planet in order to save the Earth.

       
*1:- I've always assumed the Commandant was of South-East Asian origin, but this Dan-Dare site has a different and fascinating alternative reading. It seems compelling, and in doing so presents Hampson as a man determined to make his opposition to Apartheid clear, an endearing and inspiring thought.

But if Hampson's first Dare serial was, in the context of the comics of its time, notably idealistic  when it came to internationalism, and principled if rarely explicit on the matter of race, then it was eyebrow-raisingly confrontational for a lad's comic when it came to feminism. The introduction of Professor Jocelyn Peabody - Gosh! Jumping jets! A woman!" - in the strip's fifth episode is without any doubt a purposefully anti-sexist statement. Assigned to Space Fleet's mission because she's "a first-class geologist, botanist, agriculturist .. (who) ... the Cabinet agree .. (is) ... the best person to reconnoitre Venus as a source of food ..", Peabody caps her quietly stubborn introduction to a roomful of uniformed spacemen by adding "I'm a qualified space pilot too." Not everyone is happy to have her as part of the team. Dan's concerned that the mission is a "very dangerous project", but that's as nothing to the barely restrained fury of the no-longer-youthful Sir Hubert, who has to be issued "a direct order from the Cabinet" before bowing to the necessity presence. "Women! Pah!" he angrily responds, and that's hardly the end of the conflict between the two.

          
Peaboy's calm, professional, and entirely unhysterical manner didn't just represent a far more progressive model of gender. It was also a forceful comic-book statement about the virtues of youth in a nation that offered little opportunity, let alone freedom, to those who hadn't worked their way as best they could, and and as best as they were allowed, along the years and years-worth of struggling which constituted the proper channels. Peabody was an embodiment of Britain as a meritocracy where both gender and youth were concerned, and represented a nation which enabled ability and rewarded achievement in a way which the Britain of the Fifties very obviously didn't. Obviously Hampson didn't believe that the power elite was simply going to step out of the way of the coming generations. An so, when ordered by Sir Hubert to relinquish the controls of the rocket ship Ranger to him, Peabody respectfully but forcibly refuses;

"I'm sorry, Sir Hubert. But you're not as young as you used to be - - and we may need steady nerves on this job."

        
For a brief few years during the War, opportunities for advancement had opened up for younger Britons of all classes. The tragedy of necessity had left aspects of the system unable to function without a degree of recruitment from those traditionally excluded from upwards mobility. For most, the advantages gained were slight and, in the specific case of the vast majority of women, sadly temporary. By 1950, Britain was once again an obviously grey country ruled by obviously grey old men, and there were few more confrontational things that a well-mannered Peabody might accuse Sir Hubert of than the absence of "steady nerves". What made a man, after all, other than the very steadiness of nerve which women were presumed by their nature to lack? Just as men were always ultimately the betters of the female sex, so age by its very nature trumped youth, yet Peabody was having none of it. Sadly, her character was never again such a deliberately contentious proposition, and she soon took her place as a slightly more demure member of Dare's supporting cast. (We even find her occupying a panel early in 1951 where she's weeping with fear when faced with Treen captivity, a disappointing example of how two steps forward can be matched with almost the same back.) Even Sir Humphrey learned to respect her character as much as her undoubted steady-handed skills, and his insistence that she should "consider .. (herself) ... under arrest for insubordination" was laid aside. There was a place for both the old and the young in Hampson's future, for men and women alike, even if the mass of the daring-do and the social rewards which came with that still fell predominantly to the blokes.

           
Hampson's vision of a future Britain wasn't revolutionary, but it was progressive. Time and time again, the first Dare serial suggests a system which needs reform, which needs to draw off new resources and new ideas rather than simply following through with the old ways.If society isn't broken, and if most of its fundamental values are still worth cherishing, there's apparently a great deal of tinkering to do in order to make sure that everything worked as fairly and efficiently as it might. Even the technology which Space Fleet uses turns out not to be fit for purpose, its futuristic Impulse Wave engines being particularly vulnerable to the shield that's been placed menacingly around Venus. Capturing the war-time spirit of innovation and common endeavour, Dare's observations set in motion an incredible effort to develop new spaceships using antique rocket technology. This is spit'n'string innovation, all elbow grease and bright can-do thinking, and it results in the planet-hopping "The Ranger", which was "Three months from drawing board to finished ship and (it) half-killed the construction branch". Once again, and for all that the supporting cast of Dare is a remarkably small one, there's the suggestion of a great people's effort being invested into the fight to save all the Earth. (We can tell how tough the construction of The Ranger has been, since all the Space Fleet men present at her rolling-out are conspicuously jacket-less.) Dare leads an international effort rather than serving as a Randian space-hero expressing some individualistic heroic ideal. The world he's fighting to preserve is one of beautiful, ordered cities, sweeping highways and stately housing blocks set in great parks of green-space, as we're repeatedly shown in the strip's first few weeks. If the old order is still largely in charge, and Sir Humphrey's presence and power certainly suggests that that's so, then at least the rewards of society do appear to be being more widely circulated than might be found in either the United Kingdom of 1950 or indeed today.


When Garth Ennis reworked the Dan Dare franchise for Dynamite Comics in 2003, he did what few others had thought to do when attempting to bring the character and his world back to life. Ennis focused on the idealism which Hampson invested in the character, and in doing so emphasised paid the strip's original values and aspirations. In doing so, he found himself expressing a profound disappointment at how little of the decency of Dare's fictional, hopeful world can be found in the public affairs of the 21st century. Ennis's Colonel Dare was recast as one of the last representatives of a sadly lost and little-understood culture whose hard-headed and yet beneficent values had been corrupted by self-interest and spin. To return to Hampson's original strips is to be surprised and, yes, similarly saddened at the optimism and decency which his work still so inspiringly expresses. That the first few chapters of Dan Dare also reflected an awareness of some of the problems which might stand in the way of a better world, from sexism to starvation to over-rigid thinking, only makes Hampson's principles all the more inspiring; his were politics that clearly accepted that the road towards the promised land was a tough one. His Dan Dare wasn't an idle-minded wander around a space-operatic confection of cliches, an indulgence in the science-fiction of it all for the sake of rocket ships and alien dictators. It was an expression of hope produced at a time which, it's all too often forgotten, was at the very least as weighed down by Cold War, austerity, and social conflict as it was buoyed by modern technology and welfare-statism. It's more than just a considerable shame to reflect that it would be exceptionally difficult to sell such a optimistic, such a progressively humane strip, today, in this far-off once-future of 2012.

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16 comments:

  1. I hadn't seen Hampson's artwork before: wonderful stuff, and the coloring is to die for.

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    1. Hello Rob:- Then I must post material from his last Dare strip from some 9 years later. Hampson started off brilliant and became a master. I'm glad you've made his acquaintance, I know that he and Dare are in many ways a British phenomenon.

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  2. hi colin--

    i'm about to hijakck your thread but your conclusion brought to mind something i've been thinking a lot about lately while pondering the direction that superhero comics have taken--especially after a DC editorial discussion (geoff johns, i think) of heroes who kill and heroes who do not. there's a sense that Golden Age superhero comics were naive and products of a more innocent time, that superman and batman can no longer afford the luxury of their respective principles in our modern more dangerous world.

    but the creators of the 1930s and 1940s were part of hemingway's lost generation. these ideals, this sense that people could be better are an outgrowth of their experiences in a very dangerous world that included: mustard gas, trench warfare, the cynical use of opium in the "great game" of diplomacy, eugenics movements and the implementation of eugenics policy, lynching, the true horrors of world war I, the sino-japanese war and world war II.

    and many creators of this era were far more likely to have seen people killed and even to have killed someone in war than contemporary creators. so i can't help thinking that maybe we should pay attention to what they created. sure it is a diversion, but it is also a response to their time and i think we could learn something from it.

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    1. Hello Carol:- The thread is yours. I can't imagine that you'd abuse the privilage.

      I think the arguement that the times demand that heroes kill is an idiot child's argument. It shows somebody thinking not of character or politics, but of expediancy and cheap effect. There are some super-folks whose characters, including their politics, would led them to kill. There are others who wouldn't. This isn't, as I'm absolutely sure you'd agree, rocket science. Stories aren't about what creators think their audience want to the degree that all other issues simply go out of the window.

      The idea that today's world is more dangerous than that of the past is clearly a daft argument, as you say. What do we mean by dangerous? Who are we talking about? Is it the comic book super-verses we're talking about, because if so, the superverses have nothing to do with the "real" world and the excessive jeopardy they present doesn't reflect reality. The argument seems to come down to "We make our worlds so bleak and our characters so twisted that their killing people is logical".

      Are their situations where killing is a necessary business? Well, that's the story. Not the fact of the death, but the moral principles that're used to discuss theb matter and the consequences that debate's outcome has for all concerned. There may even be heroes who kill sometimes and not at others, who change their minds and so on.The argument that "times are dangerous, our heroes kill" is so impossibly thick that it's actually hard to argue with, because debating with anyone making such a statement is already beyond the event horizon of informed discussion.

      But oh for a big-name superhero who kills and is sent to jail for years and years and years and learns to regret their actions.

      I agree entirely with your arguement that many of the creators of the past were far more familiar with violence, war, death etc than our current generation. (The mind goes back to Frank Miller writing how he longed to serve, but couldn't, so he had to write Holy Terror in order to do his bit. I'd be more impressed if there'd been any sign of FM signing up when he did have a choice.) Though the mainstream creators of the years prior to the direct market had little if any chance to show characters taking life, it's notable how relatively sophisticated and thought-provoking many of their tales were. The moral issues discussed, for example, in DC's war books were often far more revealing and smart-minded than today's vigilante-fests. The problem isn't just that some of today's creators seem happy to produce stories with little of morality beyond that of the hang-them-high brigade. It seems to be that many of them have little grasp/interest of the relevant ethical issues at all. Perhaps folks who fought in past and/or lived through times in which civil liberties were even more problematical than today knew more about the matters they were writing of. For every Simone or Cornell today, there's ... well, best not to mention names.

      One of the reasons I wanted to try to talk about Dare was because the strip DID unpretentiously reflect social and moral issues, and the fact that it was a boy's comic didn't prevent it from being smart and inspiring. So many of today's comics are supposed to be for adults and there's nothing smart or inspiring about them at all. Frank Hampson's work in the first Dare strip is well worth learning from, as are a great many other strips currently defined as "old"/"irrelevant"/"for kids".

      Or to put it another way, "I agree" and "urgh!"

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  3. i'm glad i hijacked the thread now, if only for your excellent and thoughtful response.

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    1. Hello Carol:- Thank you. I'm grateful to you for your percipient point about the possible correlation between experiences of violence on the part of creators and the manner in which it's discussed. Of course, there are - as I know you'd be the very first to argue - a great many creators who've never lifted a rifle for anything more deadly than paint-balling whose work is laudably ethical. But still, there's alot of fan-boy-creators not fit to change Robert Kanighers' typewriter ribbons, if they even know that he existed.

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  4. The first essay made me actually spend a worrying amount of money getting the first two DAN DARE collections. Nice work here.

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    1. Hello Kieron:- Thank you. Hampson's Dan Dare must be in many ways the easiest of sells; just put those scans up and it's impossible - I'd like to believe, wishfully - not to be reminded once again of how beguiling a prospect his work remains.

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  5. Its always shocking to find the old pulp pop art being more progressive than the modern homages to it. Shocking and sad.

    --Sgaile-beairt

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    1. Hello Sgaile-beairt:- You're quite right, of course: Hampson's work is shockingly good, and the absence of his influence in so much of today's work is ... a great regret. And if you were impressed by above scans from the first five or so weeks of his work on Dan Dare, I can assure you, it just gets better, until Terra Nova part 1 - his last contribution to the strip from 1959 - which is simply breath-taking. It is SO good. Indeed, it's probably the finest space adventure in comics-form I've ever read, and yes, I know how stiff some of the competition is.

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  6. I love that "WOMEN! PAH!" scene. All she's doing is calmly sitting down, looking very 1950s, list her qualifications and being part of the group - she's drawn with people facing her and interacting, whereas Hubert stands apart, scowling, only able to respond with "BAH!". Even if you didn't get to him responding "WOMEN! PAH!" like she won't get off his lawn and you stuck with that panel, it's clear who's being professional and who we're meant to be on the side of.

    Someone is clearly shown as not being professional and it ain't Joyce.

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles:- Yep, there's no doubting where Mr Hampson was standing on this one, is there! Poor old Sir Humphrey comes across as right chauvinistic, though of course he quickly decides to practically adopt Ms Peabody, which says a great deal for her capabilities and his capacity to rethink his prejudices.

      It's a shame that Peabody was rarely again allowed to shine like this. (I can't recall a time, although it has been a good while since I read through all 9 years worth of strips!) It would beasy to attack the character for being very white, very upper middle class, and so on. In the context of the age she was a star. What's shocking is how few characters can match her new, let along stand as unimpeachably more radical good examples.

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    2. Surely, though, this was just Hampson reading his audience correctly. Eagle's readers would largely have been young boys, whose response might equally have been "Girls! Yuk!"

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    3. Hello B Smith:- I'm sorry, my old brain isn't following your argument. I never had any doubt that the sexism which Hampson was challenging had also been passed down to his readers. All the more reason to admire the man, I think you'll agree. Directly challenging an audience's prejudices - and an audience of boys at that - is a pretty impressive thing to do.

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  7. Hi Colin,
    Funnily enough, I was reading this post and the comments above, and they coincide very nicely with the conclusions of the book I've just finished reading: Steven Pinker's "the Better Angels of our Nature - the Decline in Violence" (http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature . Pinker demostrates, pretty conclusively I think, that there has been a massive decline in violence in human society, and that has combined with what he calls the "rights revolutions" of human rights in the 1960s, women's rights in the 1970s, gay rights, children's rights, animal rights etc to give rise to a generally much more peaceful and civilised society than ever. In these respects, Hampson's optimism has been rewarded. In regards to superhero comics then,I wonder if the upping of the level of shock and really ugly violence (as opposed to, ironically, the very "comicbook violence" seen in Marvel's current 'Avengers' movie)is partly a response to the fact that since society is more peaceful, then it is the really shocking violent crimes that still get a societal/reader reaction...

    My above comment not withstanding, I still think that Bendis and Johns' writing mostly stinks...

    Back to Dan Dare - I never had much interest in reading Dan Dare (although I enjoyed Belardinelli's Dan Dare in the early 2000AD issues) and I thought that the New Eagle Dan Dare in the 80s was rather tedious. Recently though, I read the Titan collection of Rogue Planet and also Garth Ennis' Dan Dare and enjoyed them both immensely. I think that your post hits the nail on the head as regards the appeal of both titles - i.e. the throughly decent character of the hero - who, with only a little imagination, could be "anyone", just like the heroes of the 1940s RAF were also mostly "everymen". Dan Dare suggests to me that good people can achieve power and influence and stay good and effect good.
    Which brings me to another point :-) the old saw about 'power corrupts'? Well apparently power doesn't so much 'corrupt' one's personality as 'magnify' it: i.e. that greedy people become more greedy, whilst generous people become more generous.
    I think that as a whole, whilst the world has many problems, the human race is capable of resolving many of them, if the decent people stand up and stop the greedy few and those who would literally like to turn back the clock to some mythical era where everyone knew their place. Human society HAS gotten better in our lifetimes, and I think we all need to acknowledge that.

    kiwijohn

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    1. Hello Kiwijohn:- I've got a bit into Pinker's book myself, although I fear that it's joined the I-really-WILL-finish-soon-pile. I can think of great many objections to Pinker's thesis, but then, I should be able, or all those years of social science whether as teacher or student have gone to waste. Also, as I say, I've not finished the book, and it's rude to pick a fight before the other chap has had his say. Yet I suspect that he's generally right, in that there's certainly no doubt that society is fantastically less violent for most people most of the time. The problem, of course, is that still leaves a great many folks living in terrible conditions. I'm not sure the West has the will to take on the huge social problems which remain.

      I've stood up for the writing of Bendis and Johns on this site before and got some considerable stick for it too. But particularly where the past 18 months are concerned, I quite agree with you. Standards have fallen, though I bet returns haven't ...

      How terrific to hear that you've not only be reading Dan's adventures recently, but that you've been won over! How splendid. Seriously, I have a strange sense that every convert to Dan is a convert to a better world, although my head knows of course that any correlation would work the other way even if it did exist. Folks sympathetic to the values of those stories would need their beliefs first. Still, it's a nice conceit, isn't it? World peace through exposure to Dan Dare comics.

      I'm with you that power won't affect everyone in the same way. But the fact that the degree of corruption is different doesn't change the fact that, one way or another, power corrupts. Yet with all the proper investment and care being taken over the law and education, for example, there's no reason why a great deal of that can't be, as you say, dealt with. It's just that it'll be an uphill battle between human nature and human culture, and each new generation has to learn that for themselves, meaning that each step forward can often be followed by several steps back. Still, that also means that good times can be on the way too.

      It's been a long day. I'll just opt for choosing to believe that the better may happen until I've had a good night's sleep. And I wish the same for you too.

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