Today is (I am reminded thanks to Nigel Molesworth) the 65th anniversary of the launch of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, on 14 April 1950.
Unusually for someone of my generation (the 65th anniversary means I am almost exactly half as old as Dan Dare), I grew up reading the Dan Dare comics. At the time the original strips were being reprinted by Hawk Books, and as each one came out my dad would buy it and my brother and I would devour it.
The original strip ran through the 1950s and early 60s in the Eagle comic. The art was of exceptional quality, both for its time and today; it was produced in full colour using an elaborate studio system involving photo and model references. It was vibrant, cinematic, and three-dimensional. The space hardware, in particular, looked real; you could see rivets where spaceships’ hull plates were joined together.
The writing managed to satisfactorily spin year-long stories out of two-page weekly episodes, with a cliffhanger every week. There was a fascination with science, which the target audience of young boys was assumed to be interested in or at least not put off by. The strip was, for the most part, scientifically accurate by the standards of its day, although there were errors such as space ships manoeuvring in a vacuum like aeroplanes. Where it introduced fantastic technology it also worked out the implications of that technology: spaceships had artificial gravity, but they also had “gravity locks” to transition between planetary and shipboard gravity when the rocket ship was standing vertically. Arthur C. Clarke was a scientific consultant for the first story, and I think his hand can be detected in the “telezero reflector ships” that reflect a destructive beam from one point on a planet’s surface to another. The main recurring villain, on the other hand, is a parable of the destructiveness of science without soul.
Dan Dare‘s vision of the future was optimistic and multicultural, albeit for 1950s British values of multicultural. There is a world government, implied to be a political descendent of the United Nations, which has ushered in a new age of peace. Dare himself is British, and the Space Fleet is headquartered in the UK, but the impression is not that Britain naturally leads the world of the future but that the British audience wants to see one of their own being the hero (especially since they were probably used to Americans doing it!). The cast includes characters from such far-flung places as America and France (as I said, 1950s values of multicultural), and, outside of the core cast, people of colour appear in important background roles. There was even a woman scientist. The strip’s most interesting character arc is the grumpily patriarchal senior officer who starts out believing that women shouldn’t go into space, but comes to respect (and apologise to) the scientist after shared adversity.
(A digression on Prof. Peabody. Some summaries I’ve seen of the strip dismiss her role as only being there to be rescued, but that wasn’t my impression from reading the strip. Rather, everyone gets rescued at some point or another–a typical story involves half the cast getting into trouble and the other half having to rescue them–and I don’t think Prof. Peabody got rescued more than the others. I haven’t gone through the stories counting rescues so I may be wrong, but that was my impression. On the other hand she did have a clearly useful role, as the only character who was an expert on whatever science the plot required.)
The Eagle comic was invented by an English vicar, as a response to what he saw as the negative influence of Americal horror comics. The original concept was for Dare to be a military chaplain, but he was wisely changed to an ace pilot before the strip actually appeared. It is wholesome fun, with unambiguous good and evil sides, a hero who avoids using lethal force unless necessary, in which working together is always the answer and victory can always be achieved without compromising one’s principles.
Dan Dare was revived a number of times after the original run, never with the success of the original. I’ve never read the 1970s 2000AD version but my impression is that it was a very different beast, which suffers by comparison to its predecessor but is a perfectly good space opera if considered as its own thing. (While researching this post I was delighted to learn that the 2000AD Dan Dare will be reprinted later this year, so I will get a chance to read it soon.) The 1980s-90s New Eagle made its own attempt to update the character; I caught the last few years of the comic, whose Dan Dare felt torn between a genuine respect for the original and a desire to update it with punk trappings. Garth Ennis’s recent miniseries is a great reexamining of the character for an adult audience and the modern day, and I enjoyed it immensely, with a couple of objections (the visual design of the spaceships, and the negating of the original strip’s internationalism in order to make Dare into a specifically British hero). Also of note is Warren Ellis’s Ministry of Space, which reexamines the sort of future the Dan Dare strip was predicting.
The 1950s Dan Dare reprints were an immense influence on me as a developing writer. My juvenile space operas were probably as much influenced by Dan Dare as they were by Star Wars and Star Trek, but Dan Dare was the influence that was uniquely mine–at least no one else at school seemed to have heard of it. I’ve been thinking lately about how I can take influences and life experiences that I don’t share with most people, and channel them into my writing in order to make something only I can write. Perhaps looking back on being a 1980s kid growing up on 1950s comics is a good place to start.