“Dare to look to the future”. Because we remember the past and we live in the present, we hold dear the future. We never know what tomorrow might bring and we love dreaming about adventures and space ships and brave heroes fighting against evil aliens. That was the origin of characters such as Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers back in the 30s, back then the public wanted to read about courageous men proving their mettle in a science fiction context. In 1950, Frank Hampson created his own version of Buck Rogers for England. The new character, named Dan Dare, appeared in the pages of Eagle, Britain’s most famous comic book at the time.
The daring exploits of Dan Dare, pilot of the future, were published throughout several decades. I was lucky enough to read some stories from 2000AD old progs (late 70s and early 80s). Although I was more familiar with the new version of the character as written by Gerry Finlay-Day and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, I was also made privy to some of the earliest quests of the space hero. In those classic tales, Dan Dare would be accompanied by Digby, his loyal sidekick.
In the same way that the honorable Flash Gordon would defeat the ruthless Emperor Ming or the bold Buck Rogers would annihilate menacing aliens, Dan Dare would face the evil Mekon, ruler of Venus and lord of the Treens, a skeletal green figure with a humongous head. Aimed at children in the 50s, these Dan Dare stories portrayed a clear difference between good and evil, in this tautological dichotomy Dan Dare would be honest, good and forgiving, while the Mekon would be deceitful, evil and merciless.
Sometimes it can be comforting to think of the world in black and white terms: there is good and there is evil, and nothing else. Surely it would be naïve to think that the world can be reduced to two opposing terms, but 70 years ago it seemed to work alright. However, in 1991, Grant Morrison decided to demonstrate that Dan Dare should no longer be deemed as a childish and one-dimensional space adventurer. And thus, DARE was born.
In the opening pages of “The Controversial Memoirs of Dan Dare”, we see that time has caught up with the pilot of the future. Back in 1950, sci-fi writers really enjoyed referencing ‘distant’ dates such as 1999, 2000 and so on. Consequently, Dan Dare was living in the 90s, and all the classic imagery from the 50s -space rockets, green men from Mars, ray guns and computers big as buildings- were introduced in these early stories as an example of a technology so advanced that it could only belong to the future.
In Morrison’s Dare, the future is the present. Dan Dare lives in the 90s, and all those golden dreams about the space conquest or a brighter future for humankind seem forever lost. Once Britain’s most acclaimed hero, Dan Dare is now an exhausted man scraping on his military pension, trying to write his memoirs to get some money out of it. But he can’t make heads or tails about the relevance of his past deeds. Did his victory against the wicked Treens secure life on Earth? After countless battles against the Mekon, did the come to an end? Was it all worth it?
It is in this context in which the former colonel of the Space Fleet finds out that a colleague from his past has committed suicide. Overwhelmed by grief, Dan Dare assists to the funeral and runs into his old friend, Digby, now a bitter old man who refuses to talk with him.
In a state of despair, the pilot of the future will be an easy prey for Gloria Monday, a cruel and manipulative prime minister that is an identical replica of Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, Morrison (just like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and many other legendary British authors) had publicly expressed his repudiation toward Margaret Thatcher (the Scottish creator even wrote a story about a teenager bent on assassinating the Iron Lady in “St. Swithin’s Day”). Gloria Monday has been in power for several years, and election time is coming. London is in chaos, her credibility is diminishing, people in the North are starving, constant strikes threaten to cripple the entire nation, and Monday insists that she must be reelected once again.
Gloria Monday reminds Dan of his current financial problems, and emphasizes that an old war hero deserves so much more than a meager pension. Should Dan Dare decide to endorse her candidacy and be her new publicity stunt, he would be generously compensated. Unbeknownst to the colonel, without him, the woman has no chance of getting reelected. Nonetheless, the possibility of a large check is sufficient in the end. The hero of yesterday turns into the lackey of the present.
For anyone who has read the thrilling feats of the Pilot of the Future, it’s heartbreaking to observe the shortcomings of the hero. Unable to stand on his own, both figuratively (he is a man that can’t support himself economically) and literarily (due to war lesions, he can’t walk without a cane), Dan Dare will submit himself to the ploys of a huge marketing campaign. He is an unwilling accomplice to the government, and although he pretends to remain politically neutral the truth is that his heroic nature has long succumbed to the weight of age.
The Great Britain Dan Dare used to defend and fight for no longer exists. All that remains is a wounded and hopeless country. Dan sees the derelict facilities of the Space Fleet before it was privatized and remembers the golden days of the space conquest. He visits the cabin of Anastasia, his old spaceship, and confirms that this is a fight he can’t win with laser rays. As Digby takes Dan to the North, he realizes that the defeated Treens are now coexisting with humans in the most miserable and wretched urban areas. This is a bleak and depressing future, and for all his cunning and altruism, Dan Dare has finally found a trouble that he can’t solve.
One of the things I love the most about Morrison’s approach is how he defies the reader, in the same way that he defies the people who voted for Margaret Thatcher. Whenever we elect a leader, aren’t we at least partially responsible for the atrocities committed during his or her government? We may deem certain actions as despicable, but aren’t we just as guilty by simply standing by and being witnesses without ever interfering?
“What went wrong? What’s going wrong? We were going to build Utopia. A golden future for everyone” asks the pilot of the future, and his former sidekick, without hesitation replies “We built on shite, that’s what went wrong. It’s no foundation. Sooner or later you sink in it”. When Dan Dare and Digby are surrounded by a group of soldiers, the last trace of swashbuckling sci-fi adventure is gone. Dan, with his limp, can barely escape. The only one brave or fool enough to stay behind is Digby, who manages to gun down three soldiers before the others put a bullet in his head. It’s a cold and harsh ending for a hero that had survived in so many crazy adventures, against a myriad of aliens and space menaces. He meets his end on his own country, trying to defend his ideals.
Up to this point, in every decade (the 50s or the 80s), the success of Dan Dare was guaranteed. That’s not the case here. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Gloria Monday knows this; for her, the pursuit of power is almost as rewarding as power itself. She sends guards to retrieve Dan Dare and as the former space explorer is forced to attend the celebration of her victory, he understands that without him, the woman would have lost the elections. The figure of a noble hero was enough for the prime minister’s marketing department to insufflate new life into an already waning political figure.
And then comes the last moment of damnation: the arrival of the Mekon. For years, considered humankind’s greatest enemy, he’s now one of Monday’s closest allies. In one ambitious arc, Morrison combines politics, power and Thatcherism. If there is a lesson to be learned it could be this: to stand idly by and watch how our country goes to hell makes us guilty by association. Dan Dare understands this too late: his life is already forfeit. I understand that DARE was very polemic when it originally came out. I guess it was hard for everyone to watch their childhood hero losing the one battle that counted the most. But then again, isn’t that how things usually work out in our world?