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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Eagle Annual: The Best of the 1960s Comic

EAGLE ANNUAL The Best of The 1960s Comic
Edited by Daniel Tatarsky

A review by Steve Winders

Daniel Tatarsky’s latest ‘Eagle Annual’ covers the period from 1960 until 1969 when Eagle was merged into Lion. Slightly larger in size than its predecessors, Eagle Annual of the 1950s and Eagle Annual of the Cutaways, the new book has a shiny picture cover in keeping with Eagle’s actual annuals of the mid and late sixties. The cover picture is of an astronaut on a space walk, an appropriate image from the sixties for a comic which showed such a strong interest in the exploration of space. The picture has been ‘doctored’ however, with the Spacefleet emblem from the ‘Dan Dare’ strip being added to the astronaut’s helmet and the ‘Eagle’ symbol itself appearing on his left arm!

As in Tatarsky’s previous efforts the new annual has been artificially distressed to look like an old annual and like his annual of the 1950s it contains single episodes from a range of strips mixed with a lot of text features and readers’ contributions. There are also a lot of advertisements from the sixties Eagle to capture the flavour and the interests of the period. Despite producing a book devoted to Eagle’s cutaway drawings last year, Tatarsky includes twenty two in this book. While no book about Eagle would be complete without its famous cutaways, three of those included were also in last year’s book and twenty two seems rather excessive when no room can be found for ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ or ‘The Iron Man’, two of the most popular strips in the sixties Eagle.

To be fair the Sixties Eagle did feature a lot of different strip stories as changes of editor and owners dictated changes in content. At the start of the decade the well established ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Harris Tweed’ and ‘Luck of the Legion’ were still running and all of these are represented by single episodes in the book. Sergeant Luck’s inclusion makes up for his absence from the Fifties volume. Of the later stories, Frank Bellamy’s ‘Fraser of Africa’ and ‘Heros the Spartan’ are featured, as is Martin Aichison’s ‘Danger Unlimited’ and ‘The Lost World’. The other fictional strips included are ‘Dan Dare’ of course, ‘Knights of The Road’, ‘Home of the Wanderers’, ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’, ‘The Guinea Pig’, ‘U.F.O. Agent’ and the humorous ‘XYZ Cars’. However there is no place for ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’, ‘Fidosaurus’, ‘Mickey Merlin’ or Johnny Frog’.

‘Dan Dare’ is represented by two pages by Frank Bellamy, one and a half pages from Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell, six pages by Keith Watson and a page by Desmond Walduck from ‘Prisoners of Space’, which originally appeared in Eagle in 1954 and was reprinted in 1967 when new ‘Dan Dare’ stories were discontinued. There are five small front pages featuring Keith Watson’s ‘Moonsleepers’ on a double page which includes a range of front covers. Despite Dan’s high representation there is only one complete episode of his adventures included and this is the single page final episode of the saga when he becomes Controller of the Spacefleet. Another single page instalment of ‘The Menace From Jupiter’ has its final frame obscured by one of Daniel Tatarsky’s commentary blocks, which are unfortunately more intrusive in this volume than in the previous books, covering several frames of artwork in the book.

Of the non fiction strips Frank Hampson’s ‘Road of Courage’ and Frank Bellamy’s ‘Montgomery of Alamein’ are represented by two page montages. There is also a page from Peter Jackson’s ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ and a page of ‘Stonewall Jackson’. ‘Last of the Saxon Kings’ is represented by a line of strip across a double page shared with the fictional historical stories ‘The Sword of Fate’ and ‘Captain Hornblower R.N.’.

In a volume which is really a scrapbook of the Sixties Eagle text features are potentially of more interest to the casual reader than extracts from strips because they are complete. However Eagle was first and foremost an adventure strip weekly and this should and could be better represented in a book which celebrates it. The strip serials in the Sixties Eagle tended to be much shorter than in the Fifties and it would have been possible to include several complete adventures alongside text features as the book runs for 194 pages.

The book reproduces extracts from Eagle in a roughly chronological order but, as in the previous publications, the only dating is where the date on the original page has been reproduced. Many pieces are undated and the book would certainly have benefited from much more dating of the material.

Unfortunately a particularly weak aspect of the book is Daniel Tatarsky’s Introduction, which he shares with Colin Frewin and which contains several inaccuracies. He comments on the changing relationship between the editor and the readers, stating that Marcus Morris’ letters to readers were a ‘regular feature’ during his editorship and claims that his successor Clifford Makins did not take up this mantel. His own selections for the book then proceed to prove him wrong, for he includes many letters from Clifford Makins to the readership.

He proceeds to speculate about Eagle’s demise in 1969, concluding that the wide range of features included in the comic might have been responsible! He says “ … it seems that Eagle was trying to please everyone. Whilst you can do that some of the time it is … not possible to do that all of the time, and so like a star that burns too brightly the black hole that follows was inevitable.”

Although he briefly outlines the various takeovers in an earlier part of his introduction, Tatarsky never makes the connection between these and the declining sales which threatened Eagle’s continuation right from the major changes imposed by Leonard Matthews following the Mirror Group takeover in 1961. He makes no reference to Eagle’s mergers with Swift and Boys’ World and writes about certain features and strips running “alongside” each other when they were years apart. Eagle went through several significant developments during the Sixties and this book should explore them.

Tatarsky also makes a simple factual mistake regarding the creative development of ‘Dan Dare’, saying “Dan Dare … was passed like a baton … from … Frank Hampson to Frank Bellamy to Don Harley and Keith Watson, then to Bruce Cornwell.” Of course Cornwell worked alongside Harley and Watson was the final artist.

Not to be outdone, in his recollections about the 1960s Colin Frewin recalls listening to the repeat adventures of Dan Dare on Radio Luxembourg. This series ran on Luxembourg from 1951 until 1956 and was never repeated, so he didn’t hear them in the Sixties.

Despite inaccuracies and negative observations it is pleasing to see at last a book which celebrates the Sixties Eagle and Daniel Tatarsky has made some particularly good choices of features for inclusion. Of the text features I enjoyed several of the Readers’ Letters sections, especially those in which readers were invited to give their views on issues of the time. These included Comprehensive Schools and Pop Music. Their responses make for some interesting and sometimes unexpected responses. The Comprehensive Schools debate focused much more on mixed schools than equality of opportunity and standards, because for most children at the time established schools were single sex whereas new comprehensives were often mixed! Another interesting feature is an article by Frank Hampson about his trip to Palestine to research his ‘Road of Courage’ strip. There is also a fairly accurate ‘Futurescope’ article predicting the computer boom and another about how space technology could be utilised to help produce food for the growing population of Earth. Two ‘Man From Eagle’ articles examine aspects of the exploration of space and there are some detailed features from 1966 about the lead up to the World Cup. I wish the book had been closer to the size of the original Eagle though as some of the small writing is difficult to read in its reduced format.

4 comments:

Phil Rushton said...

>> "...Of course Cornwell worked alongside Harley and Watson was the final artist." <<

Actually Steve, Eric Kincaid was the final Dan Dare artist during Eagle's original run - though his contribution is probably best forgotten as it wasn't a patch on his earlier work for the 'Roving Reporter' feature, nor his later childrens' book illustrations. Maybe Tatarsky got him mixed up with Cornwell.

Apart from that, however, I agree with nearly everything else in your review (though I did prefer this book to the 50s one).

- Phil Rushton

Steve Winders said...

Thanks Phil. I know that Eric Kincaid was the last artist to work on Dan Dare but he only drew a four part filler in between the two fifties repeats and like the repeats his story was supposedly set in Dan's past, so to my mind Keith Watson was the last artist to work on the saga proper. You may be right in suggesting that Daniel Tatarsky could have confused Eric's work with Bruce Cornwell, but he should know better. He's supposed to be writing a biography of Dan Dare! I share your opinion that this book is better than the fifties one. Steve

John Freeman said...

Watson also drew some 'classic' Dan Dare adventures during the New Eagle's run in the 1980s (despairing, I'm told, of the scripting), as well as having work featured in early issues of Spaceship Away. Although of course Don Harley has also drawn strips for Spaceship Away which is a licensed title and therefore, surely, deserving of being canon, too?

Steve Winders said...

Yes John, certainly Don Harley's latest work and perhaps even Tim Booth's could be considered 'Canon', but my comments in the review concern only the orginal Eagle, which the book is about.