Dan Dare is ancient comics history now. His decade was the Fifties. First appearing as the cover star of the inaugural edition of the weekly Eagle comic on 14th April of 1950, Dare’s heyday was over just nine years later, when Frank Hampson acrimoniously resigned from the strip he’d created.
Lesser, if often notably able, talents saw the character through most of the 60s, but Dare’s adventures were without a home by the turn of the following decade, and the various takes which have since followed have consistently failed to find an audience, let alone reignite his once-iconic status. As the survivors of the generation of boys who first encountered Dare in the character’s earliest days are now in their seventh and eighth decades, even the personal memories of why Frank Hampton’s masterpiece should ever once have mattered are sadly and swiftly disappearing.
To even attempt to explain Dare’s original appeal is to sum up why it’s proven so difficult to keep the property alive. What modern strip would ever be launched today with such an unflappable, undemonstrative and fundamentally well-balanced lead? Where’s the potential for snark and angst, despair and endless conflict? That Dare was in his time exactly what was expected of a hero means nothing now, as does the fact that Hampson’s space opera drew from both the public’s understanding of the role of the Royal Air Force in World War Two and the British tradition of fictional aerial heroes such as the once-ubiquitous Biggles. So much of what helped the young, and sometimes not-so-young, readers of the Fifties to associate with Dare is now not only obscure, but essentially absent from our culture. Similarly, where the consistently magnificent work of Hampson and his team was once striking in its freshness and originality, now it can seem, when considered out of its original context, inevitably over-polite and slow-moving. No matter how fine Hampson’s Dan Dare was, and it remains one of the very finest adventure strips ever created, the good Colonel’s adventures in space now speak to and about the world of quite literally a lifetime ago. Though it’s sometimes assumed that any character who was once massively popular should still be able to find a significant audience, why should Dan Dare matter now?
Previous reboots of the Dare character either kept the name but substantially ignored Hampson’s work, or retained much of the surface of his accomplishments without adding to much that carried any contemporary resonance. By contrast, Garth Ennis’s approach to the problem of how to bring Colonel Dare back to life and prominence was one which smartly avoided all the usual pitfalls of such an endeavour. He didn’t decide to present a younger version of Dare or a teenage successor to the family name in the hope of appealing to a summer-blockbuster audience. He neither jettisoned nor conspicuously rewrote Dare’s backstory, while he resisted any urge that there might have been to make someone more outgoing and 21st-century edgy out of the distinctly old-school, self-contained Dare. Everything we once knew turned out very much not to be wrong, everyone we’d once encountered remained if not conspicuously the same, then at least feasibly related to their original incarnation.
Ennis’s solution, and it was an inspired one, was to substantially avoid altering the character in order to accommodate the tastes of the present day, a strategy which most of those who attempt to reinvigorate antique properties would surely regard as counter-intuitive and doomed to failure. Instead, Ennis decided to use Dare to comment on the politics of 2008 from a perspective suggested by the ethics expressed in Hampson’s tales of 70 years ago. Focusing on Dare’s idealism and using it as a way to express a loathing and contempt for the real-politik of today’s West lent the character’s new adventures a remarkable edge and poignancy. Hampson’s work could be far darker than hindsight might at first reveal, and his future Earth often faced catastrophes which seemed to reference the terrible challenges faced by Britain during the Second World War. Dare’s very first mission involved a desperate attempt to acquire food from Venus in order to relieve the imminent threat of starvation on Earth, while the Reign Of The Robots storyline drew off memories of Britain’s ruined cities during the Blitz to create a picture of a world which had fallen under the control of the Nazi-evoking forces of the profoundly evil Mekon. In contrast with this apparently endless sequence of dynamically if politely depicted horrors, the phlegmatic nature of Dare and his colleagues suggested the way in which much of Britain had coped, and eventually triumphed, during the war against Fascism. Stoicism, bravery, fellowship, tolerance, a remarkable capacity for bodging together solutions under the worst of conditions; the liberal Christian ideals which served as the Eagle’s ideology found their most inspiring expression in the pages of Dan Dare. Believing that the same values were distressingly absent in the conduct of the Allied governments during The War On Terror, Ennis decided to use Dare to express a loathing for much of what had become of the nations who had once triumphed against the Axis.
The Dan Dare we’re presented with in the pages of Ennis’s Under An English Heaven is a older, sadder and yet equally principled and determined character. In that, he’s Hampson’s character as if seen from outside of the constraints of the good manners and the self-censorship of the Eagle, where the Colonel could never be shown deliberately stabbing a Treen as he is in Ennis’s story. Living by choice in exile far away from an Earth corrupted by the self-interest, cowardice and media-spinning double-speak of a world-dominating British state, he’s obliged to involve himself once more in the defence of his homeworld when the lost warships of the Treens begin to appear again. In amongst the scenes of the last stands of out-gunned space fleets and the government conspiracies of a terribly complacent Earth, Ennis’s Dare functions as the still, sure, morally-uncompromised centre of a narrative in which most if not all the other characters are corrupted by expediency, self-interest and cowardice. The very anachronistic aspects of the character which others might well have been desperate to eradicate are here used to create a distinctive, moving, and, it should be admitted, inspiring comic presented in the very best fight-them-on-the-beaches fashion. Few others would have had the perspicacity to grasp that the way to make Colonel Dan Dare relevant for the opening decade of the 21st century was to emphasise how little he had in common with the present day.
Our century’s pop fiction is full to bursting with such wonderful and yet fundamentally over-familiar conceits as widescreen space battles and stampeding mobs of aliens. In themselves, they’re simply more of the same, though it must be said that Ennis and Erskine carry their like off supremely well. But the values of the character of Dan Dare himself, space pilot and all round good chap from a long-lost future as once seen from the perspective of 1950, are qualities far less likely to be encountered in the pop sci-fi of today, and we’re poorer for their absence.