Steve Winders reviews Virgin Comics’ new
series by Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine
series by Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine
Maybe it’s because it’s happened so many times before, but when Virgin announced that they were about to bring out a new series of comics featuring Frank Hampson’s legendary hero ‘Dan Dare’, I couldn’t summon my usual enthusiasm for the project. Since the original Eagle died in 1969 we’ve had the Belardinelli and Gibbons versions in 2000AD comic, several versions in the new Eagle, the Grant Morrison/Rian Hughes version in Revolver magazine, the short lived Sydney Jordan version in the Planet newspaper and the C.G.I. television series. All of these efforts made changes to the original concept, so they were all new interpretations rather than continuations of the adventures from the original Eagle. We’ve had those too of course. Keith Watson and others briefly resurrected something close to the original for the new Eagle, before David Pugh was instructed to make changes, and there’s Spaceship Away magazine, full of new stories that could fit almost seamlessly into the fifties Eagle. But Virgin’s Dan Dare is yet another new version.
This is not to suggest that I dislike all the new versions. All of them have strengths and I was particularly impressed by Grant Morrison’s work and enjoyed much of Dave Gibbons and Ian Kennedy’s interpretations, so after my initial coolness regarding the new project, I finally set about the quite difficult task of buying the first issue.
Despite good publicity before publication, distribution of the new comic was limited to internet, mail order or specialist comic shops, making it the least readily available of all the versions except possibly Spaceship Away, which despite its high quality is essentially a fan publication. However I have never had any problems getting copies of Spaceship Away, unlike Virgin’s Dan Dare. After a long wait following issue one, when I wondered whether the publishers had decided to cease publication, three copies arrived at once like the proverbial bad bus service. From then on I started to believe that I might actually succeed in obtaining the whole series and indeed I now have. I mention this to show that it is unlikely that casual browsers will have been able to see and subscribe to the publication. Virgin cannot have achieved the sales that they could have done in the United Kingdom, though it is possible that the story’s release as a graphic novel may help it reach a wider market.
As this is a review and not an analysis I do not propose to summarise the story, especially as there may be many readers who wish to read it when they get an opportunity. Essentially it is about a retired Dan Dare being persuaded to come out of retirement to lead the defence of Earth against the Mekon, who is threatening the solar system with a huge fleet of ships and a black hole! Dan is given command of the Royal Navy space fleet, who have replaced the Interplanet Spacefleet following a war between the U.S.A. and China, which has resulted in the destruction of both countries and the break up of the United Nations and Spacefleet. But it’s not all bad. Britain is now the only surviving world power!
Dan’s recall to action is reminiscent of the Grant Morrison version, although while he is disillusioned he is not the broken man of Morrison’s Dare. On the contrary he shows the dynamic confident leadership, courage and ingenuity that fans of the original would expect. Dan is aided by a bearded Digby, who shows less humour than in the original, but is just as loyal and dependable as he ever was and Professor Peabody, who is now Home Secretary. None of the characters look quite like they did in the original Eagle, even allowing for a significant passage of time. They bear strong similarities, but it is as though they are actors who look very much like the comic characters. If this was a live action film I would not be raising this issue, but it is not. Why for example does Dan now have blue eyes?
In the first episode we see a photograph of Dan with his old comrades, Sir Hubert Guest, Hank, Pierre, Digby, Professor Peabody and Lex O’Malley. All the men wear Spacefleet uniform, including Lex, who was of course in the Royal Navy, so why is he not depicted correctly? In this picture the uniforms are a poor fit and the officer’s hats have too large a diameter on top, making all the Spacefleet personnel look more a group of bus inspectors than Earth’s greatest space heroes.
Add to this the totally redesigned Earth spaceships, which look like a cross between naval battleships and submarines, the significantly altered Treen ships and the redesigned Treen uniforms and one is again left asking why? In previous versions changes were made to supposedly ‘update’ the stories. In 2000AD Dan was moved to the far future and in the new Eagle the stories were originally about his great great grandson, but this version adopts a retro look, with its ‘submarine’ spaceships and Royal Navy spacepersons, so why make these completely unnecessary changes?
The artist Gary Erskine has produced some impressive work on the strip and he shows much more technical ability than many working in comics today. He is undoubtedly aided by the quality of the colour work by Parasuraman A. and others and the quality of the printing. He conveys facial expressions well and his backgrounds contain a lot of detail, although he has missed opportunities to create interesting and imaginative spaceship interiors. Clearly this is deliberate in his dull functional interiors for the navy ships, but it is a pity that he did not contrast this with more imaginative interiors for the Treen ships. His London cityscape is not much different from the present day city, which is very different from the splendid city created by Frank Hampson. His depictions of space battles are quite impressive, but they are cluttered with too many ships, impossibly close together!
Many of his drawings of the Mekon are excellent. In fact he has based several studies on Keith Watson’s best picture of the character. He has redesigned the Mekon’s anti gravity boat, creating a more substantial vehicle which stays true to the spirit of the original. He also draws Treens well, which is the acid test for ‘Dan Dare’ artists. His new designs for Treen soldiers recall those of David Pugh, but his Treen scientists wear long and quite ornate robes which suggest an artistic race, which obviously they are not.
Garth Ennis’ story follows quite a simple pattern, but within this we encounter a range of interesting characters and situations. The characters include Admiral Carter who appears to believe that Dan’s appointment is a publicity exercise, but learns to his cost that this is most certainly not the case. There is the young Lieutenant Christian, who becomes Dan’s protégé and the cynical and arrogant Captain Finley who proves to be a coward. Dan’s own personality is explored through his dealings with all these characters as well as in the perilous situations that the story provides. He puts his life at risk for the cause of right, but expects others to do the same. He has no qualms about humiliating Captain Finley and Admiral Carter when they fail to follow his lead, or promoting the nineteen year old Lieutenant Christian to the command of the fleet’s flagship. He lives on an asteroid because he is unhappy about the way that Britain has changed following the Sino American war. Thanks to a force shield created by Professor Peabody, Britain was spared the devastation that the war caused, but instead of helping other countries to recover, Britain took advantage of the situation to become the dominant world power, only helping others at a price.
Like Grant Morrison’s Dare, this is an adult story. Comics are no longer aimed at the children’s market. Clearly it does not portray the bright optimistic future of Hampson’s stories and success is only achieved through great sacrifice. Unlike some contemporary comics the borders between right and wrong are clearly drawn. Britain’s Prime Minister does not really provide a valid alternative to Dan’s way and while the reader might feel a little sympathy for Admiral Carter, he demonstrates his inadequacy for command when he fails to stay calm in a crisis and when he persists in trying to follow a safe logical course when the situation demands risk. He and the self serving Captain Finley personify what self-centred Britain has become. Fortunately there are many others who do not follow their Government’s lead.
The story invites many comparisons with Grant Morrison’s version, but it is not nearly so dark in its vision. Morrison’s Dan was a broken man who had himself committed atrocities. He was recruited by the Government to support their election campaign, not to save the world and he was himself only saved by a last drastic and desperate act. In comparison to that, Ennis’ version seems positively lighthearted, but it is not and it could have benefited from some humour, which need not have detracted from the serious story. Nevertheless, despite some negative observations this is an interesting new interpretation with much to commend it. The release of a graphic novel edition should open it up to the wider audience it deserves.
Dan Dare. Virgin Comics (ISBN 978-0981480831, 1 October 2008). Hardcover collection of all seven issues.
Further information: Dare by Grant Morrison & Rian Hughes is out of print but available in full in Hughes' Yesterday's Tomorrows (Knockabout Comics, ISBN 978-0861661541, July 2007). The original Dan is being reprinted in a series by Titan Books, a list of which can be found in the Titan section of Bear Alley's Comics Bibliography. New adventures of the old Dan can be found in Spaceship Away! (visit their website for subscription rates).