Yes, Doctor Who is all well and good, you may say. But he’s still a licensed character, albiet a brilliant one that lends himself to pretty much any story in any medium. How about a proper British comics character? How about somebody who is the very embodiment of the stiff upper lip Boys’ Own adventurer… how about Dan Dare?
Now, i know what you are thinking. Here is a character who has been cynically “updated” by men in suits who are only thinking of the money more times than you’ve had hot dinners. Each time getting more and more remote from the brilliance of the original version – a version started by a man in a dog collar and drawn by one of the greatest comic artists of his own or any era. Who was incidentally pouring his heart and soul into every panel (well, the ones he did!) as if each one was a miniature masterpiece destined for a gallery wall.
Well fear not, for THIS Dan Dare is exactly like the original! Created as a labour of love by a small group of determined fans with a vision. This is…
Spaceship Away issues 1-7
I had been aware of Spaceship Away for ages. I even had a look through a few issues at the Bristol convention in either 2005 or 6 (but couldn’t attract the attention of any of the overworked people behind the table to ask the price!). However it took me until 2010 to finally order the first 7 issues. They were well worth it!
Aaand here they are. For some reason my memory remembered them as being “US Comic” sized. Actually they are A4 sized.
The first issue is actually a bit sparse. It is basically the first pages of the story that started the whole thing (called The Pheonix Mission) and one long article about how the story was funded, drawn and gotten to press. This story is amazing in itself and deserving of some real recognition. And i don’t mean some afterthought “oh, yeah, and the best small press award goes to Spaceship Away, right, where’s the bar?” award either! The story took so long to get to press that it had actually been initially intended to be printed in New Eagle… a comic that ended in 1994! Issue 1 of Spaceship Away finally emerged in 2003. Sadly the artist who began the tale, Keith Watson, did not live to see it reach print.
They rounded up assorted artists who had worked in Frank Hampson’s studio during the days of the Eagle, and got members of the Eagle Society to “commission” artwork from the artists on a page by page basis to get the story paid for. The result looks amazing… and because it’s printed using modern techniques direct from the boards (modern DD reprint books mostly have to make do with scans of the old Eagles) looks it’s absolute best!
That was issue 1, one story (well also there’s the one-page strip Dan Bear on the back… which also has incredible artwork and it’s own interesting and cute story) and one article. However expansions and improvements were rapid. Lets jump up to the newest issue i have, number 7.
We now have six regular comic strips, as well as one-off funny strips. There is still articles but, with the story of Spaceship Away told, they are now either about Dans’ World, the history of the Eagle or the science behind the stories. Sadly i found several of these articles pretty dull or ‘fluffy’. But never mind them, we’re here for the comics!
Rocket Pilot – Britain leads the way to the moon in 1970!
The Pheonix Mission has now given way to it’s much-longer (at the time of writing it’s still going!) sequel Green Nemesis. This tale features the villains of the saga, the Treens – and their leader The Mekon! It’s crammed with all the stuff that made the original Dan Dare so great – resourcefulness, never-say-die attitudes and a stern sense of duty. Qualities any former officers would no doubt have recognised in their son’s Eagle only five years after the war.
We also have Rocket Pilot – originally a webcomic, this tells the story of Sir Hubert Guest, the commanding officer of Spacefleet in the first Eagle onwards. In this story he has not yet attained this high position and travels on the first trips to the moon (in 1970) and mars (in 1988). It even briefly jumps back to his schooldays, when he looked up in awe at the RAF’s new rocket interceptors, based on German designs and developed by captured scientists.
At the far end of the scale we have Project Pluto. Set in the 2020’s, this has Dan himself as the commander of Spacefleet. However he is not content to sit around in an office and pops back and forth between the moon and space stations. Mind you with the advanced space drives of the time that’s probably easier and safer. However in the background shady politicians are trying to manipulate a war between Earth and Saturn(‘s moons – even when Dan ‘originally’ went there they knew the planet wasn’t solid).
Ahh but did i not say yesterday that proper comics need some text stories too? Well here’s one! It’s set just before the Eagle story Project Nimbus which, i believe, was the first full story Frank Bellamy worked on, after Frank Hampson was unceremoniously given the boot. The story attempts to explain the various changes to costumes and spaceships seen when the artists changed. Apparently the government were angry at Spacefleet for wasting money, so they changed all their uniforms to look as if they were doing something! Looks like in the future (which is now the past) some things haven’t changed.
In addition to the ongoing Dan Bear and humour strips, issue 7 introduces something new – a non Dan Dare comic strip! This is Journey Into Space, based on a famous radio serial. This strip was actually originally produced in Express Weekly, a “high-minded” adventure comic with expensive printing that was actually started to directly rival Eagle. To predict that the flagship strips of both would one day appear in the same comic would be like, i don’t know, predicting that Sonic the Hedgehog would one day appear in Nintendo games! Utter madness.
Later issues of Spaceship Away introduced even more non-DD stories including a CGI one called Space Girls, some more classic sci-fi characters in the shape of Hal Starr and Nick Hazzard, and also Garth, from the long-running Daily Mirror strip. However i don’t own these later issues – yet!