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From Southport to Space Fleet Words: Bren O'Callaghan
Dan Dare
© Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

Southport is a seaside town in the North West of England.

There's a beach, scores of guest houses and a fairground if you like that sort of thing.

 

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It's also responsible for the growth of billion-dollar merchandising, a pivotal cog in the fashion world and cradle to Britain's first space hero... beating Yuri Gagarin by 11 years.

Sound familiar? No? Then look again.

Behind the façade of faded Victoriana and tourist attractions is a story involving a clergyman and an artist, who together created a boy's comic that became both massively influential and unnervingly prophetic.

Dan Dare
© Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

That comic was called The Eagle.

Marcus Morris was ordained at Liverpool Cathedral in 1939 and soon after accepted a post as vicar of St James in Birkdale, a suburb of Southport.

Morris was not content to accept the role of an unassuming preacher; instead marrying a successful actress and transforming the parish magazine from a small pamphlet detailing local jumble sales to something altogether more ambitious.

The Anvil contained interviews with leading stars of stage and screen, including the famous actor Laurence Oliver, alongside more traditional religious fare from the likes of theologian CS Lewis (author of children's favourite the Narnia chronicles).

Eagle comic
Eagle comic artwork: © Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

Yet Morris was soon out of his depth, and in pushing parish funds toward bankruptcy had become dependent upon exceptional artwork provided by a local man called Frank Hampson.

Something had to change.

It was all or nothing, so Morris and Hampson decided to push forward with a shared vision for a British strip comic with a sense of moral decency now that The Anvil was no longer able to continue.

Many pre-war children's newspapers had been killed off as a result of a national paper shortage, and a flood of cheap American horror comics - the equivalent of today's 'video nasties' - were causing concern among moral guardians.

The Mekon of Mekontia
© Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

At first, it seemed as if no publisher would take it. Morris talked his way into every leading editor's office, but to no avail. Finally, just as it seemed destined to lie on the shelf, The Eagle was accepted by the Hulton Press.

With an initial run of a near-unheard quantity of one million copies, Liverpool printer Eric Bemrose accepted the Herculean task of creating a new engineering process. This was to enable the startling colour spreads and finely detailed illustrations of The Eagle; something which no technology at that time was capable of reproducing.

On the 14th April 1950, the first edition of The Eagle was released. Over 900,000 copies were sold, read by young boys in the school yard to politicians in the Houses of Parliament . It was an enormous success, not least thanks to the adventures of the cover star and lead hero - Captain Dan Dare.

Eagle comic
Eagle comic artwork: © Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

Dare's adventures in outer space prefigured the actual space missions of America and the Soviet Union. Frank Hampson himself presided over every aspect of Dare's creation, gadgets and alien worlds.

In an astonishing feat of the imagination, Hampson actually foretold the design of a space suit, the use of swing wing technology in modern spacecraft and the prediction of 'telesending' or teleporting. Where would Scotty be without it?

Aided by his faithful sidekick Digby and Professor Jocelyn Peabody, perhaps the first empowered female character in sci-fi, Dan Dare bravely and believably fought the evil schemes of his arch nemesis, the Mekon of Mekontia.

"Merchandising revenue by 1957 was estimated at £1m per year - long before Luke Skywalker and pals adorned y-fronts and wallpaper."

The Eagle was to last for almost 50 years despite management buy-outs, replacement artists, early retirement and incorporation into other comic books: first the Lion, then 2000AD - which grasped the baton of innovation for a new generation. Morris left for other publishing projects in 1959, and Hampson in 1964.

Finally, after an impressive stint as intergalactic guardian, the arrival of new trends and heroes including the lantern-jawed lawman Judge Dredd meant that it was time for Dare to retire. The last Eagle annual bade farewell in 1995.

For Morris, The Eagle was only the start of a colourful career, resulting in his retirement from church duties in favour of the role of Director at the National Magazine Company.

Dan Dare
© Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

Responsible for such titles as Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair, the vicar from Southport now clinched exclusives from exotic destinations and glamorous fashion houses, promoting a sexual frankness at that point unheard of in mainstream print.

Frank Hampson went on to work for Ladybird books, and later became a resident expert at a technical college. But it was his adoption of a cinematic technique that mirrored the storyboard process used in plotting movies that still continue to represent the industry standard.

"Designers and comic artists owe a debt of gratitude to Hampson for elevating the craft to that of an art form in its own right."

Today, Dan Dare and The Eagle represent a stuffy sort of boyhood, belonging to a world before videogames and DVDs ousted hopscotch and radio serials. Recognisable, but no longer within reach for the now-generation for whom scientific advancement no longer elicits the same sense of wonder.

That has more to do with the era of his birth than his adventures, which have lost little of their appeal. Dare was recently resurrected once again, albeit almost unrecognisable, in a multi-million pound cartoon series that was screened on Channel 5 in the UK.

Comic workhorse Marvel UK went on to produce overtly homegrown superheroes including Captain Britain, Captain England and Captain Albion, but none have proved as memorable or as loved as the humane space ace from Southport.

Images used by kind permission of the Dan Dare Corporation Ltd.

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