Dan Dare and the Seductive Myths of Englishness

In the very first Dan Dare adventure, which began to be serialised weekly in the Christian boy’s comic Eagle in 1950, we’re introduced to the ”Inter Planet Space Fleet some years in the future.” It’s an odd organization, in that it’s clearly meant to be Earth’s “Space Fleet,” but it’s clearly really just the Royal Air Force in orbit and beyond. The Fleet’s HQ is in England, and the Fleet’s pilots are predominantly English. It’s a strip proud of and haunted by England’s finest hour. The end is constantly nearing, and great sacrifices by good chaps are constantly required. Wonderfully conceptualized and executed by Frank Hampson and his team, it’s a rip-snorting adventure tale of upper-class, southern-English space pilots and their working class sidekicks.

1.

And then, some 17 months later, something extraordinary happens within this most splendid, and most splendidly, English of comic strips. In the Eagle of 7 September 1951, we are introduced to the Commander of the Earth’s invasion forces primed to blast off in the direction of Venus and the dread Mekon. The invasion force itself is international, but it’s a white invasion force. White Canadians, white Americans, white South African, white Scandinavians. The world is to be saved by England and her white allies again.

Until we see Dan saluting the invasion forces’ commander. And the Commander, whom Colonel Dan Dare treats with all due deference and a healthy measure of respect too, is a man of color. In his future-U.N. uniform, his head largely covered by his helmet and the huge yellow straps that keep it in place, the Commander could be a black man, or he may be of South-East Asian ancestry. (Perhaps the conspicuously large helmet covers a turban. Perhaps he is, for example, a Sikh.) Whatever, Dan Dare damn well calls him “sir” and means it!

And this is still shocking — and tremendously heartening — to read. I can think of no other example in all the comics I’ve ever read of a man of color occupying such a splendid office self-evidently through merit, not from the ’50s right through for a great many years. The Commander is supremely free of accent or affectation. He is precise in his speech, inspires loyalty and fondness from his men, and is capable of joking with his subordinates in that way that relaxes them without doing the same for their discipline. That the Commander doesn’t take center stage during the invasion of Venus, as Colonel Dan and his crew do, is regretful, but he still appears to direct the battlefield and to finally nominate Dan to receive the Treen surrender. And what’s so significant about the panel in which that nomination occurs is that we see Dan from the high-angle perspective of the Commander, who is mounted on a horse and towers over the injured hero. There can be no doubt who is the power here. It’s the man of color, not Dan Dare.

And I have always been proud of Dan, and his world, and Frank Hampson, for being more than merely supremely English.

The issue of race rarely pops its head up again in Dan Dare, except in that it’s soon largely conspicuous by its’ absence, but here we saw that Dan Dare’s England was more than white folks taking orders from white folks. There was something fundamentally different to this future that made England something more than just “England.” The same mythic potpourri of Arthur and Alfred and Agincourt was broadened with a sincere internationalism and a profound lack of the traditional English ethnocentrism that has always so blighted our culture.

But then, dig a little deeper and Dan Dare’s future isn’t a typical science-fiction adventure playground. His is an Earth which has faced disastrous wars and has seen all the nations of the world disband their standing armies. This is a world faced by catastrophic starvation. Perhaps you and I might speculate that faced with such terrors, nations might lay down their ploughshares and start making as many swords out of them as they could, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin. But the kindly Christian paternalists of The Eagle could imagine the nations of the world disarming and cooperating in the face of calamity, and whether it seems a feasible future from our cynical present, it’s a heartening world all the same. Like Gene Roddenberry’s later vision of how Star Trek‘s Earth drew back from the precipice of atomic war and combined together into a united Earth, and finally the Federation, it’s an inspiring future.

Except that Dan Dare’s Earth is really still England. England has less embraced the wider world than simply swallowed it. We see few people who aren’t white, English and upper-class. There are some charming exceptions, but those apart, this is an England that has somehow set the template for the globe, and done so seemingly without weapons. (Perhaps the British Empire really was an utterly benign force there.) It’s a world of stiff-upper lips and cheeky, stubborn other ranks, of a fair and decent order where everybody knows their place, and yet where each rank further up the hierarchy deserves its power and reward, and uses them for those lower down the scale. It’s an olde English paradise.

As a myth, it’s doesn’t feel quite feasible. The Englishness is familiar and comforting. But it doesn’t quite seem likely. Even the England of Dan Dare and The Eagle couldn’t swallow the entire world so completely that nothing remained but England.

2.

Every time the comforting myth of Englishness seduces me, I find some quality of it throws me out of the spell. Even in Dan Dare, even in The Eagle, that most progressive and liberal children’s comic of the 1950s and long beyond, there is a moment where an uglier truth breaks through. It happens quite against, I am absolutely convinced, Frank Hampson’s conscious humane beliefs, but it happens all the same.

In “The Red Moon Mystery”, from 1951/2, a murderous alien war machine approaches Earth, the sound of drumming projecting from it terrifying everyone on the globe. Dan Dare’s immediate superior, Sir Hubert, speaks to the United Nations Police Commissioner about how the people of the planet are coping with the Red Planet drawing near. (Both men are very obviously very English.) The Commissioner states that he is

worried about the tropics. We’ve never really got rid of the superstition there. A tale of the new red god in the sky is spreading like wildfire. They think it means a return to the old days of devils and bloodshed. Last night we had reports of drums beating — too many drums!

And accompanying this text is a picture a black man, clad in loin-cloth and lion-mane-head-gear, naked but for an arm-bracelet, fluffy ankle-warmers, and a loin-cloth, dancing while holding a spear and shield. Other black hands beat on tom-tom drums.

It’s enough to make a man weep. It’s not that the English — and the British — are any more racist or unfair than most if not all of the nations in the modern world. But it’s that the comforting myths say that she isn’t, and that smothers the need for debate in the minds of believers. It’s that pretence at perfection, at superiority, at being Shakespeare’s ”other Eden, demi-paradise,” that is so seductive.

Those of us who are touched by the myth, yet suspicious of it, might search for any corner for where the myth runs absolutely true, where Englishness doesn’t mean something ugly as well as something wonderful. A corner such as the world of Dan Dare, for example. And then, when even good and decent people such as the men and women behind The Eagle, who believed whole-heartedly in “England,” fail to notice that the seductive myth carries with it attitudes of “us” being better than “them,” it hurts.

The capacity to believe that the “tropics” in Dan Dare’s mythical future might contain dangerously irrational, fiercely superstitious black men, quick to throw away their clothes and pick up the jungle drums, is part of the Myth of Englishness. Englishness has for many centuries been about us being better than them.

And no matter how kind-hearted and progressive-thinking Frank Hampson and his people were, they missed this obvious example of what should never have drawn or published. But there the panels sat in the Eagle of 1952, and here they now sit in the lovely Titan Books reprints.

It’s not that people can’t be imperfect. Of course they can be. We’re all imperfect, fundamentally flawed. It isn’t that Frank Hampson’s massive achievements are negated by one mistake. They are most certainly not. But it is a sign that the myths of Christian Englishness, that in this case The Eagle propagated, didn’t at the very least contain a strong enough component of anti-superiority, if I may call it that, that would have marked these panels out as wrong.

Instead, here we have Englishmen threatened by black men, and the Englishmen will have to use their superior knowledge and culture and power to sort out the problems the black men are causing. Yes, the myths, the story-meshes of values and knowledge and beliefs that influence us, are just odd, old, malleable collections of cultural odds and sods, often sitting in contradiction to each other. But a myth, to be useful and good for us, has to warn us when something is wrong. It has to guide us from bad to good, rather than making us feel that we’re synonymous with the good most, if not all, of the time. And the myth of Englishness still contained enough of the myth of English superiority, of a racial and cultural superiority, that these panels got through.

The myth of Englishness must either be an inspiring guide to a decent and workable reality, or it’s nothing but a dangerous and shoddy mythology, as likely to lead the believer astray as towards an Avalon. At the very least, those myths need reformulating, re-polishing, retelling. The ancient Greeks, for example, never thought a myth was set in stone. On and on they retold their myths, prisms in which to view their todays and challenge their yesterdays. Their living, changing, consciously-considered, constantly-reworked myths.

3.

When Garth Ennis wrote his updating of Dan Dare in 2008, he obviously set out deliberately to make a statement about what was great about England and Great Britain. That’s quite appropriate, given that the original strip was in its own way doing the same thing. The six chapters by Mr. Ennis and artist Gary Erskine constitue, however, a far far more fiercely political book than anything Frank Hampton would ever have considered.

This new approach to the Dan Dare mythos is such a bravely individual take on what is and what isn’t a laudable characteristic of nationhood, that it took some readers unaware. Perhaps they’d never noticed that Dan Dare’s Englishness was nearly always a different beast from that which has passed as English too often in the past. Perhaps they never saw the politics implicit in Dan’s world being so similar, and yet sometimes subtly different, from the culture around him.

Mr. Ennis is a well-known student of World War II, and I suspect that his studies might have led him to formulate his views on what was admirable about the British character in the era before Dan Dare’s creation. His is a passionate respect for the bravery and skill of so many of the British soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians who came under under fire in the past. And to Mr. Ennis, as is obvious from his war-story work, that means a common respect for English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish men and women. Though he recognizes national differences in his work, such as between, say, a man of Northern Ireland and a man of England, Ennis is entirely focused on respecting the common struggle that the peoples of Britain undertook, and the common virtues and values which carried them through. In particular, he seems to recognise and respect a now-untypical willingness to sacrifice on their part, to sacrifice their well-being, their health, their liberty, and if necessary their lives.

This is in no way a simple reflection of the old English mythology, of the myths of sturdy yeoman and obedient, if lippy, Jolly Jack Tarrs, because Mr. Ennis is swift to show how often those not in positions of power are betrayed by some of those who are, betrayed by stupidity, snobbery, corruption, and indolence. But it is, for comic books, a new way of coming to grips to what we were and what we are now. The past is to him in no way an entirely wretched state of patriarchal economic, gender, and social subjugation. And neither is a world of established order and privilege deservedly ruling the lower orders.

And it’s Dan Dare, good old Dan, of course, who lends his stoical and friendly example in Mr. Ennis and Mr. Erskine’s work to illustrate a way forwards, taking behavior once typical, in the often despised past, and using it to throw our present into a much less credible light than it’s usually cast. If Paul Cornell’s Britain, in Captain Britain and MI:13, is a place of some promise, Mr. Ennis’s future Britain is a moral wreck thundering downwards, despite economic prosperity, from moral to actual collapse. There is such a loathing, simultaneously visceral and intellectual, for contemporary political cowardice, for spin, for bureaucratic self-advantage, for plain and simple lies, on show here that the pages fairly shiver and crack with anger. And one thing that contributes to making Ennis’s anger so moving as well as righteous is that it is actually an old anger too, an anger which both Orwell and Churchill, Low and Waugh, might to one degree or another share with him. The anger of good men and women being betrayed by a state cloaked in its own declared virtuousness.

But if there’s anger underlying every word of this story, there’s also a refusal to countenance defeatism and apathy. As Mr. Ennis’s has Professor Peasbody say:

God knows we’ve enough in our history to be ashamed of. But it doesn’t matter if you lie about like the right, or wallow in the guilt of it like the left. Eventually you make the past a place that people can’t be bothered with. And then the nation’s heart rots out, because the good we’ve done evaporates with the bad.

Or: it’s time to take the best of the past, dump the worst of the present, and use whatever’s left to get stuck into the future.

Professor Peabody’s manifesto, in Ennis’s Dan Dare, is a simple one. Once a member of the government that led the nation straight into war with the Mekon, she’s going to turn away from political “realism” and spin. She’s going to stand for: ”The Truth. Honour. Simple decency. All the things we’ve learned to sneer at. I’m going to be honest with people.”

And I think of Dan Dare in this story, and of the fatal sacrifices willingly embraced by his old comrade Digsby and his new protegee Sub-Lieutenant Christian. I think of Captain Britain, and Frank Hampson’s Interplanet Space Fleet, among so many other examples from the world of comic-books.

And I find, despite my well-practiced and perhaps rather cowardly cynicism, something distinctly hopeful there. It’s hard to admit, given the wretched condition of so much of the nation (and of so much of the state for as long as I can recall), but the very presence of a debate carries with it a possibility of change for the better. A very slight hope, I’ll admit, but hope all the same. These tales of other Britains carry with them, under all the laser beams and space battles, challenges to traditional ways of seeing the world, whether they mean to or not. In that, they capture and inspire the reader in ways that the politicians and theoreticians so very rarely do. There is another Britain, they say, a better one. We could be better than we are.

Well, we could be. And we should be too.

This article and its companion, “Captain Britain and the Comforting Myths of Englishness,” together constitute a remixed version of a single article that first appeared on the author’s blog, Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. For the occasion, the author has modified the ending to reflect the fact that he’s cheered up a bit since writing the original.

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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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3 Comments

  1. David Balan says:

    On creating places and stories with more than just a dominant white presence:

    Though I don’t consider myself prejudiced or racist, I also find myself always ‘defaulting’ to making characters white when I write – as that’s how I am. I’m going to say something that’s not terribly popular, but here it is: I have a problem, whether imagined or real (probably the former), with getting inside the head of a person of another race, as a character. I know plenty of people from all around the globe, they act normally and just the same as I do (generally) and yet I still have issues with it.

    I’d like to NOT have issues with it. I’m still trying to figure out why I do – one of my friends has postulated that all people are at least somewhat inherently racist. I’m not sure I really would like to believe that. Another possibility is that I see so much people of what in America constitute “minorities” rightly decrying prejudice against them, and then turning around and saying “You don’t understand me and my culture!” when you attempt to be friendly. But surely, these unreasonable folks shouldn’t somehow “ruin the whole” of all the wonderful people of color that I have met and conversed with.

    But for my part, I don’t think either of these reasons are true. I think it’s because of culture shock. The fact is, people of a different race from halfway around the globe ARE different – not in any fundamental way, because we are all human, but they different practices, different though processes, maybe even different morals. Though it remains unlikely in the future and the way they stuck it in the Dan Dare story was a demeaning, there ARE African tribes that still act in a ‘primitive’ manner – that doesn’t mean they’re somehow sub-human, just vastly different. The trick, I believe, is to spend time there, whether in person or in study, the former being preferable, in order to try and understand all the differences and how they ultimately lead to the same truth. It’s all well and good to say that, and we’re told that we can all work together from a young age now, but to really go and listen, that is something else altogether.

    Hey, I gave myself another excuse to travel!

    • David, this is a bit of a rambling reply, but this topic does matter to me, and I was inspired to write it, so here goes…

      I understand your point about difference. Personally, I think pretending everyone is the same, or consistently writing other ethnicities or genders as only colored white men, is almost as racist as a stereotype.

      There’s always a need to balance inclusion, in a way that shows everyone is human and cares for their loved ones, with acknowledgement of real difference. And yeah, portraying rural Africa as some sort of Western suburbia would be pretty ignorant to the real problems in much of Africa.

      But you admit that the way the Dan Dare story portrayed this was demeaning. And you’re right.

      I think you might come off as missing the point that this isn’t a “hey, look, racism!” article. It’s about the myth of British superiority that is a part of British identity, and the racist passage in the article was a clear representation of this — of the “white man’s burden” trope. The underlying message of the Dan Dare depiction wasn’t simply that these Africans are primitive, but that they require British subjection — the old white man’s burden — not so much to help these “primitives” but to lend some mythic sense of cosmic order to the globe. And Colin’s point was that this represents the seductive superiority implicit in British identity, which I think was a very fine point — and one quite interesting to me, especially as someone who struggles in a different, perhaps less heart-wrenching way, with my own American identity.

      I think what you’re really reacting to isn’t Colin’s piece so much as it is your own struggles and experience as a writer. As a fiction writer myself, I too tend to default to white characters, and I don’t personally think that’s racist — it is, as you imply, based on the writer projecting out his or her own experience. It’s the same way I might write Midwestern characters, partially based on my own upbringing. Writers of other backgrounds do this too. But I do write female characters and non-white characters. And I think more importantly, I do populate my stories with non-white characters — if I’m coming up with details for person X, who has to do Y, I don’t always make that person white or male.

      But it’s really this that you’re talking about, rather than Colin’s piece. Because there, Dan Dare’s is supposed to be a global space fleet, and it’s quite disturbing that, while it’s progressive enough to recognize this means the fleet shouldn’t be all white, it does contain this depiction that is, as you say, demeaning.

      I would strongly agree with your friend that all of us (regardless of race) have lingering racist notions, if only based on our exposure to media images, as well as generalized from our own idiosyncratic encounters. That doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It means we’re human. It’s how the brain operates.

      How many white people do you know who will cross the street a little faster, knowing black men are up ahead? Most of my white friends, in my experience. This doesn’t make them stone-cold racists. It means they watch Cops. It means they’re afraid of black men disproportionately to the real threat. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t hire a black man for a job, or help one in danger, or support racist legislation — but it’s racist nonetheless. Of course, discussing this means discussing media representation, as well as how blacks are incarcerated in disproportionate numbers in the U.S., which itself gets into selective policing, selective prosecution, poverty as a huge factor, and — yes — American black culture (which is thankfully being discussed at least a bit more openly on the left now, thanks to Cosby and Obama, as well as by the old racists on the right). All of these are part of the mix and part of the discussion, and we’re allowed to disagree.

      But the very fact that you or I am asking these questions means that, however further we have to go, we’re at least thinking critically and seriously about these matters.

      To me, the least racist person isn’t the one who affirms how much he loves black people or doesn’t see race — which is actually quite insecure and thus suggests racism. The least racist person is probably the one who admits that he struggles with his own inherited racist notions, or with abstracting from some bad experiences to a whole race or ethnicity, yet can confess that he still does so. That’s very courageous to me, and it is what you’ve done, through discussing your own struggles with this as a writer.

      I do so wish we had a culture in which we could discuss race more honestly and openly. The politically correct or those saying “gotcha” haven’t helped this. I know Colin is not in that crowd. I personally know he’s just passionate and thoughtful. But I have been in very interracial places, especially Hawaii, that do talk openly about race, where racist statements are acceptable to say and don’t lead to fights or anything — and the result has been, at least with me, some beautifully honest conversations and some real learning. After all, how are we going to dispel myths or qualify others if we can’t talk about them?

      I’ve been asked (by multiple ethnicities, actually) why white people are dirty and don’t wash their hands. Which is, I think, such a refreshing thing to be asked! And it’s always sparked brilliant discussion. I’m so thankful that these friends knew me well enough to be comfortable asking that. And I’ve known plenty of people of different ethnicities with whom I had such wonderful conversations about mutual stereotypes, which were both confirmed and dispelled, in different ways, while we drank and laughed. That dialogue means a great deal to me, in part because all of us do struggle with race and in part because it’s so rare.

      But given that this is my experience, the only thing I really don’t get about your reply is that I’ve personally never known someone of any race who responded to an attempt to be friendly with “You don’t understand me or my culture!” Isn’t that kind of reaction mostly reserved for talking heads on cable? Has that really been your experience? What’s “friendly” here? Peppering one’s dialogue with ethnic references the other person is supposed to get? I’m just not sure I’m taking your meaning.

      But anyway, perhaps if we can’t always travel, we can at least talk openly, at least commit to examining this honestly and seriously, as I think both Colin and you are trying to do.

      And if this subject interests you, just wait until my two-part interview with Colin, on these and other matters, on Monday and Tuesday!

      • David Balan says:

        Hey, you’re absolutely right, I was responding with my own experiences out of a portion of the article that I found interesting – the article itself was also interesting, but I felt that part was something I had to contribute. I don’t at all think that Colin was trying to “Ha, you’re racist!” anyone, rather simply trying to discuss what was occurring.

        As for your question, I wouldn’t say that it’s so much ever occurred in an actual conversation I’ve had with someone (Cause I’ve met plenty of people of different races, some I’ve liked, some I’ve not, like any other person), so much as I have observed an attitude that both demands equality and becomes angry when ‘lumped in’, sometimes to an irrational degree. I’m afraid I can’t actually cite any sources, you’re right that it’s probably fed by the ‘talking heads on cable’ aspect, and that it’s simply part of the way my preconceptions have been shaped.

        And I’m with you on the open discussion thing – we won’t get anywhere if we don’t. Looking forward to the interview!

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