Why Dan's the supreme spaceman, although he never heard of the BIG BANG
Dan Dare took off - both in the sense he escaped planet Earth, and became talk of the playground - in April 1950. Nobody knew then that the Universe is 13.82 billion years old. It’s expanding. That we’ll never land on Venus because it’s swathed in sulphuric acid. Or on Mercury with its solid iron core, which fries (950°F) then freezes (-346°F) every sixty days. But what Hampson did know of cosmology (quite a bit) he built into his strip. It is one reason Dan will always be ahead of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Jeff Hawke, Captain Condor, Jet Morgan and Thunderbirds. There are at least five others.
First, no-one else could draw comic strips with the same skill and flair as Hampson. He has never been surpassed, and in his lifetime his peers declared him to be the best strip-cartoon storyteller in the world. At an international convention of writers and artists from America, Eastern Europe and Japan (strongholds of the strip cartoon) they called him prestigioso maestro and gave him a Yellow Kid award - the cartoonists’ equivalent to an Oscar.
Second, and this is the crucial reason, nobody else had Hampson’s power to invent. If, when Eagle first started, editor Marcus Morris had hired not Hampson, but another artist who could draw as well, and make human figures look quite natural as they sat, stood and went into action, we still would not have had Dan Dare. Dan is famous because of the hugely realistic future-world in which Hampson centred him.
Third, Hampson was a superb story-teller, eschewed cliché, and wrote tight and witty dialogue. True, on Saturn, Dan and his crew are thrown into an arena and fight a prehistoric beast (that breathes fire, God help us). Hampson didn’t write or draw that interlude.
Fourth, Hampson was always optimistic; he believed in science as saviour and the future as constant improvement. He could never have created the sort of dystopian Earth we see in Judge Dredd - he didn’t think that way. Dan was not a lean mean fighting machine. He never smashed aliens in the face, or razed their cities to the ground, and his crew didn’t foray on violent rampages.
Fifth, Hampson had a drive that kept him over an easel 18 hours a day, drawing in such painstakingly sharp, close detail he made himself ill. He and Leo Baxendale believed in their work with a passion and obsession that led to exhaustion, disorientation, depression and in Baxendale’s case, blindness. This is clearly a crazy way to work. But you wanted to know why Dan was so good.
Hampson not only made his characters look supremely natural whatever they were doing. He set them down on a fully-visualised 21st century Earth. And shot them across space to brilliantly imagined planets, populated by wholly conceived aliens who lived in daunting cities. If genius is ‘an infinite capacity for taking pains’ then Hampson was that man. He drew tomorrow and convinced us that was what it could be like. His new Earth and other planets were (to a 1950’s schoolboy) authentic in concept and believable in execution.
Hampson wasn’t dark. He didn’t live to see Blade Runner and after Ridley Scott’s movie and especially since global warming, comic-strip science fiction that presents a clean and hope-filled Earth is out of the question. We must also recognise that to create as Hampson did is so much harder than to destroy, as so many space-conquistadors do today.
Hampson’s Earth was utopian. When we walked beside Dan we walked through clean, shiny, futuristic cities, perfectly preserved villages, gleaming offices, techno-crammed studios, newspaper Editors’ suites, doctor's surgeries, panoramic cinemas, magic theatres, and all kinds of super-modern public transport. He took us to rain forests thick with lush undergrowth, teeming with wildlife and unscarred by logging and burning.
Dan Dare performed a double function. His first task, purely commercial, was to win, as quickly as possible, a schoolboy following which week-on-week would come back for more. His brave new world and gang of planet-hopping heroes, set a tone and standard which guaranteed Eagle would sell.
He also had to convey, in palatable form, a particular kind of philosophy. Frank Hampson was not, in his early days, a church goer, nor (I hazard a guess) even a believer. His influences were never as Christian as Marcus Morris’s. But the qualities he asked us to admire included courage, loyalty, trust and forbearance; forbearance because when Dan was faced with the unusual, it wasn’t his first instinct to smash it in the face, shoot it dead or raze it to the ground.
Of course DD was not conceived to help us schoolboys cope in any way with the business of living. That task was down to Eagle’s back page, and to Marcus Morris in his Editor’s column. But however far Dan sped through space, his decency, humanity and moral values went with him. He kept us hooked without mayhem, destruction or gratuitous violence.
I received the following letter from a sci-fi fan in the United States. He wrote: “Your FH book doesn’t talk about the animals and plants he invented. No-one ever came close to the way he draws alien landscapes, rock-formations, foliage, fronds and root systems. Other artists scribble down anything, Hampson looks like he holds close to botanic principles, his trunks, jungle roots, puff ball trees, giant timbers with angular boughs, fruits different from ours that looks good enough to eat, are all spot on for shape. He draws like it should be. Pages early in the Venus story show spongy leaves and swathes of rain-forest interlaced with rivers, waterfalls, lakes. The Technicolor water on which Mekonta floats is a great idea.”
It’s interesting to see how Hampson was galvanised once Eagle was bought by Hulton Press. Paint brush in hand, mind on fire, half mesmerised by the possibilities Eagle opens up for him, ideas pour from his head twenty times faster than he can set them on paper. He is engulfed by the act of creation. After 5.30pm most workers go home. Not Hampson, who often worked till midnight and sometimes till the dawn chorus chirruped through the studio roof.
Frank Hampson peopled the solar system and beyond. The Mekon is still recognised by name and shape today, and the Treen race of reptilian automatons were worthy enemies.
But of all his aliens I believe his Mercurians were best. Seven feet tall, plump-jowelled, purple skinned, wig-topped beanpoles, they mixed homo-sapiens with strangeness to just the right degree.
Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare ran for about nine years. It is my own (unshared) opinion that he was best in the world when he drew The Venus story, The Red Moon, and the first 20 episodes of Operation Saturn. When he launched The Man From Nowhere his art was as detailed as ever but he had already plundered his inventive imagination to the uttermost. The well was dry and we rarely saw futuristic ideas as good as those from the very early years.
After he walked away from his strip (partly he was bored, partly he was angry Hulton Press hadn’t taken more interest in helping him make an animated film) Dan Dare was taken over initially for one year by Frank Bellamy and afterwards other good artists, especially Keith Watson and Don Harley. Dan has been revived several times since his first demise in 1969 and if you’re interested in following his career there are several other internet sites that will help. For me Hampson as a strip cartoonist has never been surpassed, and a brief glance at the cartoon frames along side this text will give you more good reasons why.