The adventures of ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’ were set around the year two thousand but, according to his creator, Frank Hampson, they really began in Belgium in 1944 when, as a young army lieutenant, he watched the German V-2 rockets soaring into the sky. In 1953, he wrote, ‘On the quays of Antwerp you could watch the birth of Space Travel’. By that time the popularity of his strip cartoon, Dan Dare, had rocketed the sales of the Eagle comic into the outer stratosphere, and every week a million boys waited with bated breath for the next episode.
The son of a policeman, Frank Hampson was born in a small terraced house in Audenshaw, near Manchester, on 21 December 1918. Three months later he moved with his family to Southport, and it was there that he spent his early life. Revealing a talent for drawing while a pupil at George V Grammar School, he attended life classes at the local school of art when he began to work for the Post Office.
Then, in 1938, at the age of 19, he became a full-time art student at the Victoria Science and Art Schools. The following year, he gained an immediate National Diploma of Design but, with the outbreak of the Second World War, volunteered for the army, in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant. During the next six years he saw action in France and Belgium, and lived through the experiences that would inform and influence much of his future creativity. Following his discharge, he spent three years at Southport School of Arts and Crafts; Harold Johns and Eric Eden, who both later joined his studio, were among his contemporaries.
As Hampson was married with a son, he had to find freelance work to supplement his grant. He provided illustrations to Anvil, a Church of England magazine which had been turned from a ‘Parish Mag’ into a national publication through the entrepreneurial talents of a local parson, the Reverend Marcus Morris. But Morris had his eye on wider horizons. He wanted to produce a comic strip for boys that would combat the influx of American horror comics with their crude and senseless violence, and promote Christian values. Initially, he asked Hampson to draw a single strip about an East End vicar ‘Lex Christian’. This completely failed to get off the ground but, stirred on by the defeat, they decided to go all out and produce an entire comic instead.
Hampson suggested that outer space and science fiction would provide a wider and more enticing playing field than the East End of London, and he transformed Lex Christian into ‘Chaplain Dan Dare of the Interplanet Patrol’, complete with dog-collar and cape. Finally, he decided to drop the overt Christian message entirely and call him simply, Colonel Dan Dare. And so Dan Dare – the front page strip ‘that sold the Eagle’ – was born. His religious origins may now be hidden – but they were still undeniably there; Dan was named after Hampson’s mother’s favourite hymn, Dare to be Daniel, and the comic’s title, Eagle, inspired by a large eagle-shaped lectern, which Hampson’s wife, Dorothy, had mused upon in church.
With Hampson’s superbly drawn, brightly coloured dummy in his hands – full to the brim with imaginative adventures – Morris now had something to show potential publishers, and he began the long slog up and down Fleet Street. Then, in September 1949, he received a telegram from Hulton Press, publishers of Picture Post, which read ‘Definitely interested – do not approach any other publisher’. And so, early in 1950, contracts were signed – and copyrights were forfeited. But this was a birth, and for now at least, a cause for celebration. A studio was set up in a ramshackle old bakery in Churchtown, near Southport, and Hampson set about assembling a team of artists: Joan Porter, Greta Tomlinson, Harold Johns, Jocelyn Thomas and Bruce Cornwall. (At various times Eric Eden, Max Dunlop, Don Harley, Keith Watson and Gerry Palmer would also work for the studio.)
Hampson’s father, now retired from the police force, became a willing general helper, as well as the very recognisable model for the Controller of the Space-Fleet, Sir Hubert Guest. Indeed, the characters in the strip, often based on real people, were completely believable human beings, and family members and studio artists alike were expected to model for the drawings and pose for photographs, in order to ensure the accuracy of each frame. Similarly, the futuristic technology was thoroughly thought out and designed to look as though it would not work. Intense research, model making, and a vast reference library, were all employed to this end.
At this stage, Hampson not only carried overall responsibility for all the art work on Eagle, drew ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Great Adventurer’, and various other strips and pages; he also wrote the stories. Many Dan Dare fans believe that the multi-dimensional magic of early Dan Dare stories, The Venus Story and The Red Moon Story, communicated as powerfully at a written level as they did at a richly visual one; and that this quality was lost to some degree when, through sheer pressure of work, Hampson was finally forced to stop writing all his own material.
Eagle flourished, and the first print run sold every one of its 900,000 copies. Unsurprising perhaps – because Britain had never seen anything like this before. In a decade of technological pessimism (the bomb, the cold war, etcetera), here was a comic with stories that were optimistic, intensely colourful and richly detailed, both visually and in their story line. And with the possibility of space travel fast becoming a reality, they contained the irresistible combination of realistic contemporary heroes fighting evil and tyranny in an exciting, imaginative and entirely believable parallel world.
Before long it became clear that larger premises were essential, and it was decided to move the whole studio closer to Hultons in London. And so, early in 1950, the Morrises, the Hampsons (including Frank’s parents) and the entire studio team, moved south to Epsom, in Surrey. However, in 1959, things began to go wrong, Hultons having been taken over by Odhams, a rival publisher. While recognising the success of Dan Dare as vital to Eagle, the executives at Odhams did not understand that such high quality work could only be maintained through the working system evolved by Hampson and his team. They viewed this as hugely expensive and wasteful and, amidst great personal turmoil for Hampson, the studio was disbanded. The golden age of Dan Dare was at an end and, powerless without a copyright, Hampson could only disassociate himself from the changes, which he knew would lead to the diminution of his creation.
For many years, the very name Dan Dare remained anathema to Frank Hampson, never to be mentioned in his presence. But the space hero had an international band of followers dedicated to his creator. Attempts to contact him were usually firm ignored, but then, unaccountably, towards the end of 1973 he began, just occasionally, to respond. In 1975, he was invited by Denis Gifford to attend the major biennial awards festival in Lucca, Italy, the ‘Mecca’ for devotees of strip cartoons. With some misgivings, he decided to go, taking a selection of the original artwork with him. He has no expectation of anything special, he was feted and presented with the Yellow Kid Award, the only English artist to have achieved this; and was honoured with a further award, which had been created especially for him, acknowledging him as ‘Prestigioso Maestro’, ‘The best writer and illustrator of strip cartoons since the end of World War Two’. The Ally Sloper Award soon followed and, suddenly, Dan Dare was big news again. Reprints of the stories were produced, articles appeared in the national press, Eagle comic was relaunched (if briefly), and there were interviews on television.
Hampson died on 8 July 1985 but, as he had predicted, Dan Dare lived on. The character that influenced a whole generation of boys had entered the English language and been recognised, in the words of Terry Jones, as ‘One of the great creations of Twentieth Century imaginative literature’. The reason for this is not difficult to find. Look at the best of the strips of the 1950s, and you will see technology that still appears fresh, futuristic and workable. Look at the trouble taken to draw the reflections on the surface of a helmet, and you will get some idea of the care and dedication that went into a product that respected its readers, and was determined to give them the best. Look at the vision of a world united as a force for good under the United Nations and see the post-war optimism that typified the decade, and still has huge resonance and relevance today. There is no doubt that Hampson was a genius of the genre. As Professor Wolf Mankovitz said of him, ‘Frank is, without doubt, the creator of a new 21st Century mythology – a great artist in this extraordinary medium’.