18th Feb 2011
We all know Dan Dare, Frank Hampson’s stiff-upper-lip space explorer, created in 1950 for the original Eagle. I have one of the collections, and it’s great fun, racing from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, with Hampson and his team’s beautifully crafted colour artwork and his iconic characters in a remarkably coherent, thought-through universe. It is, of course, very much of its time – Dan is basically a RAF ace in space, only five years after the war that made such characters popular heroes ended – and most of the attempts to revive the character since have been attenuated, out-of-time things struggling to make sense outside their natural habitat. The most successful was Grant Morrison’s Dare, which deliberately used Dan as a symbol of a Britain that no longer existed in a satire of Thatcher’s Britain. Garth Ennis has more recently tried to do something similar, with Dan symbolising something better about Britain than Blair meekly following his master Bush to war.
Hampson looked forward from the 1950s to an imagined 1990s, but since then, revivals of Dan Dare have represented a backward look, nostalgically gazing back to a lost golden age, with two exceptions. The first was a half-arsed attempt in 1959 to update the strip by freezing out Hampson and replacing him with Frank Bellamy, but lumbering him with a couple of Hampson’s old assistants so he couldn’t really make the strip his own. The other is even more reviled by fans of the original - 2000AD‘s revival of the character in 1977.
Pat Mills included Dan in the early lineup largely for name-recognition reasons. Problem is, Pat’s an instinctive anti-authoritarian iconoclast, he’s riding the success of his previous comics, the gritty and controversial Battle and Action, 2000AD‘s going to be more of the same, and an old-fashioned, paternalistic, imperialist, establishment figure like Dan Dare can’t possibly fit his vision, except maybe as a villain. The solution was obvious: throw out everything but the name.
Set further into the future by the expedient of suspended animation, the new Dan looked like David Bowie, swore (the futuristic expletive “drokk!”, now indelibly associated with Judge Dredd, was originally Dan’s catchphrase) and regularly defied authority. There’s no Sir Hubert, no Digby, no Professor Peabody. The Mekon didn’t make an appearance for three months. Instead, we had aliens like the Biogs, villains like the Two of Verath, and sidekicks like the dog-man Rok and the eccentric Captain O’Grady and his alien companion, the Polyp. So far, so heretical. If you judge this strip as a version of Hampson’s classic character, it can only be considered an abomination, and such is the received opinion.
But if you ignore the name and judge it as a brand-new (in 1977) space adventure comic strip, well…
That’s the opening double-page spread from the first episode in 2000AD prog 1, and it’s just spectacular.
It’s all down to Italian artist Massimo Belardinelli. David Bishop’s book Thrill-Power Overload, tracing the history of 2000AD, includes an earlier attempt at the same script by another artist, and it’s jaw-grindingly dull. But Belardinelli hit it right out of the park, following it up with more and more hallucinatory artwork, featuring some of the most alien-looking aliens, alien technology and alien landscapes ever seen in comics.
This is what space adventure comics should be about: a gifted cartoonist giving full reign to his visual imagination to create impossible things, not restricted by the practicalities that film and TV sci-fi has to put up with. For all the craft and research Frank Hampson put into his comics, his Treens were just film extras painted green, marching through a quarry. Belardinelli didn’t use models or photo-reference, but who the hell cares that his figure-drawing was a bit dodgy (and so were the scripts) when his imagination was this exciting?
Sadly, it didn’t last. Belardinelli was taken off the strip, replaced by Dave Gibbons, a fine but rather more traditional artist, without the spark of madness that animated his predecessor’s work. Military hierarchy was restored, with Dan commanding the crew of a space fortress. I guess they were trying to please the purists, but the result was stodgy and derivative, full of Star Wars technology and mostly humanoid aliens. Like the Bellamy experiment, it fell between two stools and pleased nobody, and was eventually abandoned mid-storyline, promising a return that never happened. Judge Dredd was 2000AD‘s flagship strip now, a solidly earthbound strip rooted, however exaggerated, in the world we know. It wasn’t til Kevin O’Neill’s creative flowering on Nemesis the Warlock that 2000AD would return to such a celebration of the gloriously, visually alien.
Imagine Nemesis drawn by Belardinelli!