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.
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.
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.
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.