The Optimism of Colonel Daniel Dare (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from earlier today.

Hampson released more than just a little of that accumulated despair and tension as Eagle moved into its second calender-month of publication.With a modest smile and the characteristic arcing of a considerable eyebrow,  Colonel Dare suddenly deduces the explanation for the loss of Space Fleet’s ships. With  the strip’s star finally shedding his scene-setting passivity, Dan Dare begins to generate less a looming air of anxiety, and more a spirit-raising sense of backs-against-the-wall defiance and purposeful optimism too.  A great measure of that, of course, lies in the fact that Dare and his colleagues have suddenly taken the lead in a tale where the action was previously disastrously occurring thousands upon thousands of miles out into space. Yet it’s not just the fact that Hampson’s kicked the story on into its second act, with his protagonist suddenly capable of changing rather than simply reacting to circumstances, which charges the strip with a gradually intensifying spirit of cheerfulness and enthusiasm.

A starving world, its food-seeking spacemen perishing as their ships mysteriously explode in “the remote wastes” between Earth and Venus. A helpless, frustrated Earthbound cast without the slightest idea of what to do next. For its first three weeks, Frank Hampson’s new Dan Dare strip played out a politely grim, funereal scenario, juxtaposing the technological wonders of a peaceful, affluent future with the struggles and sacrifices of its servicemen desperately attempting to forestall the world’s destruction. Hampson’s faith in the patience and intelligence of his audience of a million and more boys seems remarkable from the perspective of the all-too-often hyper-real, start-with-an-exceedingly-big-explosion storytelling lowlands of 2013.

Hampson released more than just a little of that accumulated despair and tension as Eagle moved into its second calender-month of publication. With a modest smile and the characteristic arcing of a considerable eyebrow,  Colonel Dare suddenly deduces the explanation for the loss of Space Fleet’s ships. With  the strip’s star finally shedding his scene-setting passivity, Dan Dare begins to generate less a looming air of anxiety, and more a spirit-raising sense of backs-against-the-wall defiance and purposeful optimism too.  A great measure of that, of course, lies in the fact that Dare and his colleagues have suddenly taken the lead in a tale where the action was previously disastrously occurring thousands upon thousands of miles out into space. Yet it’s not just the fact that Hampson’s kicked the story on into its second act, with his protagonist suddenly capable of changing rather than simply reacting to circumstances, which charges the strip with a gradually intensifying spirit of cheerfulness and enthusiasm.

Though Dan Dare is obviously a vision of the future in which Britain’s dominant culture if not its state has substantially colonised the world, it’s also an invigoratingly internationalist strip. As the last-chance mission to Venus begins to come together, Hampson fleshes out his cast with Major Pierre Lafayette and Captain Henry Hogan, a Frenchman and American whose national origins never threaten to cause the slightest friction. Dare’s future is, as we discussed last time, one of a single world working together for the common interest under a single government, and although Space Fleet appears to be a predominantly British organisation, there’s never a hint of anything other than the greatest of respect for the men of other nations who fight as part of it. Indeed, even Major Lafayette’s name seems to deliberately underscore Hampson’s belief that the Earth of the future simply had to be one in which old nationalistic rivalries were enthusiastically put aside. After all, it was the Marquis de Lafayette who’d led the French forces which helped the American rebels to overthrow the British during the War Of Independence. Now the sons of rebels and the nation’s traditional enemy alike were both coming not just to Britain’s add, but to work with Britain in the common interest to save the entire globe. Just as the idea of a united Earth and the Federation of Planets anchors Star Trek’s utopianism, so too the World Government of Dan Dare creates a sense of a far more decent, far more principled tomorrow having arisen out of the Twentieth century’s two World Wars to end all wars. In a Britain whose fictions had even rewritten the historical record of the Battle Of Britain and excised the memory of pretty much all of the R.A.F. who’d flown without a pip-pip public schoolboy accent, Hampson’s Space Fleet felt like a radical vision of frictionless , inter-class and international cooperation.

It could be fairly argued that Dan Dare wasn’t truly internationalist in spirit, but rather a vision of  Britain taking the leading place in a world which behaves exactly as Britain wants. But that would be to under-estimate the parochialism and xenophobia of the period. What looks both naive and partial now was in its time a considerable, deliberate, idealistic stand. Today, it’s awkwardly notable that Dare’s colleagues are very much white, and very much Western. The degree of difference in their ranks barely stretches from Rigby’s comic Yorkshireman act to Pierre’s little presumably-Gallic moustache. Yet that’s not how it commonly would’ve been read in its day, and there were moments when a far more radically inclusive vision of when Earth’s future emerged. The United Nations invasion force which arrive on Venus to save the day at the end of Dare’s first adventure, for example, was shown to be led by a man of colour, a Commandant presented as the undoubted best choice for the situation. (*1) It was a remarkably daring statement for the day, and Dare is shown repeatedly taking orders while expressing the maximum of respect and admiration for his commanding officer. In the United Kingdom of 1950 and 1951, there would’ve been few who believed that a man of colour could possibly be the equal of a white citizen, let alone conceive of him being an appropriate model for the soldier best suited to lead a UN assault on another planet in order to save the Earth.

*1:- I’ve always assumed the Commandant was of Southeast Asian origin, but this Dan-Dare site has a different and fascinating alternative reading. It seems compelling, and in doing so presents Hampson as a man determined to make his opposition to Apartheid clear, an endearing and inspiring thought.

But if Hampson’s first Dare serial was, in the context of the comics of its time, notably idealistic  when it came to internationalism, and principled if rarely explicit on the matter of race, then it was eyebrow-raisingly confrontational for a lad’s comic when it came to feminism. The introduction of Professor Jocelyn Peabody – “Gosh! Jumping jets! A woman!” – in the strip’s fifth episode is without any doubt a purposefully anti-sexist statement. Assigned to Space Fleet’s mission because she’s “a first-class geologist, botanist, agriculturist .. (who) … the Cabinet agree .. (is) … the best person to reconnoitre Venus as a source of food ..”, Peabody caps her quietly stubborn introduction to a roomful of uniformed spacemen by adding “I’m a qualified space pilot too.” Not everyone is happy to have her as part of the team. Dan’s concerned that the mission is a “very dangerous project”, but that’s as nothing to the barely restrained fury of the no-longer-youthful Sir Hubert, who has to be issued “a direct order from the Cabinet” before bowing to the necessity presence. “Women! Pah!” he angrily responds, and that’s hardly the end of the conflict between the two.

Peaboy’s calm, professional, and entirely unhysterical manner didn’t just represent a far more progressive model of gender. It was also a forceful comic-book statement about the virtues of youth in a nation that offered little opportunity, let alone freedom, to those who hadn’t worked their way as best they could, and and as best as they were allowed, along the years and years-worth of struggling which constituted the proper channels. Peabody was an embodiment of Britain as a meritocracy where both gender and youth were concerned, and represented a nation which enabled ability and rewarded achievement in a way which the Britain of the Fifties very obviously didn’t. Obviously Hampson didn’t believe that the power elite was simply going to step out of the way of the coming generations. An so, when ordered by Sir Hubert to relinquish the controls of the rocket ship Ranger to him, Peabody respectfully but forcibly refuses:

“I’m sorry, Sir Hubert. But you’re not as young as you used to be – - and we may need steady nerves on this job.”

For a brief few years during the War, opportunities for advancement had opened up for younger Britons of all classes. The tragedy of necessity had left aspects of the system unable to function without a degree of recruitment from those traditionally excluded from upwards mobility. For most, the advantages gained were slight and, in the specific case of the vast majority of women, sadly temporary. By 1950, Britain was once again an obviously grey country ruled by obviously grey old men, and there were few more confrontational things that a well-mannered Peabody might accuse Sir Hubert of than the absence of “steady nerves”. What made a man, after all, other than the very steadiness of nerve which women were presumed by their nature to lack? Just as men were always ultimately the betters of the female sex, so age by its very nature trumped youth, yet Peabody was having none of it. Sadly, her character was never again such a deliberately contentious proposition, and she soon took her place as a slightly more demure member of Dare’s supporting cast. (We even find her occupying a panel early in 1951 where she’s weeping with fear when faced with Treen captivity, a disappointing example of how two steps forward can be matched with almost the same back.) Even Sir Humphrey learned to respect her character as much as her undoubted steady-handed skills, and his insistence that she should “consider .. (herself) … under arrest for insubordination” was laid aside. There was a place for both the old and the young in Hampson’s future, for men and women alike, even if the mass of the daring-do and the social rewards which came with that still fell predominantly to the blokes.

Hampson’s vision of a future Britain wasn’t revolutionary, but it was progressive. Time and time again, the first Dare serial suggests a system which needs reform, which needs to draw off new resources and new ideas rather than simply following through with the old ways. If society isn’t broken, and if most of its fundamental values are still worth cherishing, there’s apparently a great deal of tinkering to do in order to make sure that everything worked as fairly and efficiently as it might. Even the technology which Space Fleet uses turns out not to be fit for purpose, its futuristic Impulse Wave engines being particularly vulnerable to the shield that’s been placed menacingly around Venus. Capturing the war-time spirit of innovation and common endeavour, Dare’s observations set in motion an incredible effort to develop new spaceships using antique rocket technology. This is spit’n'string innovation, all elbow grease and bright can-do thinking, and it results in the planet-hopping “The Ranger”, which was “Three months from drawing board to finished ship and (it) half-killed the construction branch”. Once again, and for all that the supporting cast of Dare is a remarkably small one, there’s the suggestion of a great people’s effort being invested into the fight to save all the Earth. (We can tell how tough the construction of The Ranger has been, since all the Space Fleet men present at her rolling-out are conspicuously jacket-less.) Dare leads an international effort rather than serving as a Randian space-hero expressing some individualistic heroic ideal. The world he’s fighting to preserve is one of beautiful, ordered cities, sweeping highways and stately housing blocks set in great parks of green-space, as we’re repeatedly shown in the strip’s first few weeks. If the old order is still largely in charge, and Sir Humphrey’s presence and power certainly suggests that that’s so, then at least the rewards of society do appear to be being more widely circulated than might be found in either the United Kingdom of 1950 or indeed today.

When Garth Ennis reworked the Dan Dare franchise for Dynamite Comics in 2003, he did what few others had thought to do when attempting to bring the character and his world back to life. Ennis focused on the idealism which Hampson invested in the character, and in doing so emphasised paid the strip’s original values and aspirations. In doing so, he found himself expressing a profound disappointment at how little of the decency of Dare’s fictional, hopeful world can be found in the public affairs of the 21st century. Ennis’s Colonel Dare was recast as one of the last representatives of a sadly lost and little-understood culture whose hard-headed and yet beneficent values had been corrupted by self-interest and spin. To return to Hampson’s original strips is to be surprised and, yes, similarly saddened at the optimism and decency which his work still so inspiringly expresses. That the first few chapters of Dan Dare also reflected an awareness of some of the problems which might stand in the way of a better world, from sexism to starvation to over-rigid thinking, only makes Hampson’s principles all the more inspiring; his were politics that clearly accepted that the road towards the promised land was a tough one. His Dan Dare wasn’t an idle-minded wander around a space-operatic confection of cliches, an indulgence in the science-fiction of it all for the sake of rocket ships and alien dictators. It was an expression of hope produced at a time which, it’s all too often forgotten, was at the very least as weighed down by Cold War, austerity, and social conflict as it was buoyed by modern technology and welfare-statism. It’s more than just a considerable shame to reflect that it would be exceptionally difficult to sell such a optimistic, such a progressively humane strip today, in this far-off once-future of 2013.

Reposted from TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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1 Comment

  1. Hmm. Thought I posted a comment but I don’t see it. Let me try again.
    Interesting article. I noticed two things. One, the date for the Ennis Dan Dare is listed here as 2003 and as 2008 in the related article; a quick Google suggests the Ennis run began in 2007. Which is correct. Two, neither this article nor the 2012 article on the Ennis/Erskine run mention the Grant Morrison “Dare” comic, which seems odd given Morrison’s prominence. Is there a reason for this omission?

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