Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future is a classic British science fiction comic hero, created by Frank Hampson in 1950. Although the stories were set in the late 1990s, all the characters act and talk similarly to British films about World War II – it could be described as "Biggles in Space". It was distinguished by its long, complex story lines, snappy dialogue and meticulous animation-style artwork by Hampson and other artists including Frank Bellamy and Keith Watson.
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Dan Dare first appeared on the cover of the first issue of the weekly comic strip magazine The Eagle, on 14th April 1950. There were two large colour pages of this story per issue. The artwork was of a very high quality, being the product of a team of artists working in a studio system that included scale models of spaceships being made, and people posing in costume, as points of reference for the artists. Sometimes there were "centerfolds" of the fictional spaceships quite reminiscent of the cutaway drawings of aircraft in aviation magazines, or even Eagle itself. The storylines were long and complex, sometimes lasting for over a year.
Attention was paid to scientific plausibility, with the science fiction luminary Arthur C. Clarke acting as a science and plot adviser to the first strip. The stories were set mostly on planets of the solar system, which were presumed to have extraterrestrial life and alien inhabitants, as was common in science fiction of the era before the space probes of the 1960s proved that the most likely worlds were really lifeless. The first story, for example, begins with Dan Dare as pilot of the first successful flight to Venus.
The quality of the strip, along with its popularity, remained high throughout the 1950s. In the late fifties Eagle acquired a new editor who objected to the high cost of the studio system, and the conflict caused Frank Hampson to leave the strip in 1959, in the middle of a long plot arc that saw Dan searching an alien planet for his long-lost father.
Dan Dare was surrounded by a varying cast of characters, which initially consisted of:
- Dan Dare (Col. Daniel McGregor Dare) was chief pilot of the Interplanet Space Fleet, stated as having been born in Manchester, England in the year 1967. Although not a super-hero, he would sometimes pull off exceptional feats of piloting, and often proved to be extraordinarily lucky. He excelled at hand-to-hand combat using jiu jitsu, but he would most often find non-violent solutions to his predicaments. He was bound by a strong sense of honour to the extent that he never lied, and would rather die than break his word.
This lean-faced character was immediately recognizeable by the outer tips of his eyebrows, which were always wavy. His uniform looked like a typical British Army one (Frank Hampson used his own uniform as a model), though of a much lighter green colour. In place of British rank insignia it had coloured stripes and circles on the shoulderboards. His cap badge was a vertical, antique rocketship in a circle with one five-pointed star on either side. Initially, Dare was to be portrayed as a chaplain as opposed to an adventurer.
- Digby (Albert Fitzwilliam Digby) was Dan's Wigan-born batman. Rotund and sometimes bumbling, he provided much of the comic relief. He was a fiercely loyal sidekick, and the only character apart from Dan to appear in every story. His favourite recreation was sleeping.
- Sir Hubert Guest, Controller of the Space Fleet, would send Dan on missions, and occasionally accompany him. He was a veteran space pilot, having been on the first mission to the Moon and led the first mission to Mars.
- Professor Peabody (Prof. Jocelyn Mabel Peabody), the only major female character, was the brains behind many of the team's most inventive plans.
- Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette, stereotypically American and French respectively, were two of the Fleet's best space pilots and formed an inseparable double-act. Pierre was primarily a pilot; Hank would more often act as a mechanic.
- Sondar was a Treen, a reptilian inhabitant of northern Venus. Originally a servant of the Mekon, he reformed after Dan spared his life during a traumatic episode that also caused his first experience of strong emotion (which the Treens suppressed). He became governor of northern Venus when the planet was placed under UN rule at the end of the first story, but would nevertheless join Dan on some later adventures. He was also a talented spacecraft designer, and designed Dan's personal spaceship, the Anastasia, named after Digby's aunt.
- The Mekon, super-intelligent ruler of the Treens, was Dan Dare's arch-enemy. He would escape at the end of each story to return in a later one with an even more inventive scheme for the conquest of the Earth.
In 1960 the artwork was taken over by Frank Bellamy and Don Harley, and the look of the strip was changed significantly, with the colourful, rounded rocket ships replaced by angular silver craft, and changes to the space suits and insignia. The changes were never wholeheartedly taken up, however, and the look was erratic from then on. In 1962 the strip was removed from the front page to the inside of the comic, in black and white, and was drawn by Keith Watson. Over the remaining years the strip varied in format and quality, sometimes returning to the front page in colour, until it was brought to a conclusion in 1967 with Dan retiring as a pilot and becoming Space Fleet controller. Eagle merged with the magazine Lion, and strips from the 1950s were reprinted until it folded in 1969.
In 1977, Dan Dare appeared once again in the first issue of 2000 AD The first story had the character revived from suspended animation after two hundred years to find himself in a totally different world. The Mekon had also survived to return as Dan's arch-enemy, but otherwise the supporting cast was entirely different, as was the tone of the strip (heavily influenced by the punk movement, as was much of 2000 AD) and the personality of the title character. The strip was initially illustrated by Massimo Belardinelli, and later by Dave Gibbons. In the series Dare was launched on a deep space mission in the style of Star Trek. The Mekon then returned to frame Dare for murder. It proved popular for a couple of years, until it faded from view and was dropped by 2000 AD in 1981 with Dare still seeking a reprieve.
In 1982 Eagle was re-launched, with Dan Dare once again its flagship strip. The new character was the great-great-great-grandson of the original, and again the only surviving original character was the Mekon. Some changes in 1987 made the strip more like a space opera, with increasing levels of violence.
Dan Dare also starred in a series of three computer games, published in 1986, 1988, and 1990 for the Commodore 64, Sinclair, Amstrad and Atari computers. The first of these was a puzzle game whose look was based on the 1950s strip; the second and third were shoot-'em-ups.
In 1989, Dan Dare was re-launched in a deliberate return to the original character, with the first story drawn by Keith Watson and later ones by a variety of other artists. The strip initially kept to the look of the original, but was once again updated in 1990. It ran until the last issue of Eagle in January 1994.
In 1990, a strip titled Dare, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes was serialized in the comic magazine Revolver. It presented a very bleak and cynical reimagining of the characters, and was a not-too-subtle satire of 1980s British politics.
In 2002, Dan Dare became a computer-generated TV series produced by Foundation Imaging, running to 26 22-minute episodes. The series drew on several of the different comic book incarnations. (Two abortive attempts had been made to make a live-action series, in 1981 and 1991.)
In 2003, Dan Dare reappeared in a brand new adventure called The Phoenix Mission, in a new magazine called Spaceship Away. Initial work on the strip was done by Keith Watson, but after his death it was taken over by Don Harley. The strip is a deliberate imitation of the 1950s strips, even to the point of drawing each page is if it was the front page of the 1950s Eagle.
Although the Spacefleet uniform is the old one, its cap badge was changed for this presentation. The old rocket was replaced by the sideways-flying eagle logo of the defunct magazine. It is not of a design used in the US armed services or any other country.
- An Introduction to Dan Dare at www.dan-dare.org
- The Interactive Home of Dan Dare at www.dan-dare.net
- Meet Dan Dare and The Mekon at www.dandare.org.uk
- The Eagle and Dan Dare at www.dandare.org
- Dan Dare Around the World at www.dandare.info
- Category at ODP
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