Sunday Slugfest - Dan Dare #1 (of 7)

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy, Christopher Power, Jason Sacks, Thom Young
SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews discuss plot developments of the issue.

Kelvin Green

If you told me there would be a new Garth Ennis Dan Dare comic coming out in 2007, I would denounce you as a liar and have you and your family run out of town at dawn. Although Dan’s a comics legend, and part of the cultural language in his native land, since the demise of his original home, Eagle, his fortunes have been on the decline. There have been numerous attempts at an Eagle revival over the years, a punk-era revamp of the character in 2000AD, and even a dark political satire from Grant Morrison, but nothing has really stuck. The latest attempt comes from upstart new publisher Virgin Comics and Preacher scribe Garth Ennis. Now there are two ways I could imagine Ennis writing Dare: either a faithful tribute to both the character and the era of comics he belonged to, akin to his War Stories work at DC or the Superman issue of Hitman, or something darker and nastier like Morrison’s aforementioned Thatcher-baiting in Dare.

The final product is somewhere in between. This portrayal of Dare and his world is a clear continuation of the earlier Eagle adventures, using those more innocent and carefree days to generate a contrast with a darker, more adult, almost dystopian view of Dan’s world. This change in tone is somewhat predictable, but understandable given how Dan’s original audience of six year olds have long since moved on to manga, video games, and if you live in my area, violent crime and substance abuse; still, while all the hand-wringing over How Everything Has Gone Wrong is a bit obvious, Ennis does make good use of it and seems to be working up to some sort of Arthurian analogy, with the sorry state of the world implied to be a direct result of Dare’s retirement and exile. Or I could be reading too much into it.

Taking a cue from Grant Morrison, Ennis also throws in some political satire, complete with amoral government figures and an irresponsible and borderline idiotic Prime Minister; hardly subtle stuff, but it adds an extra dimension to the space opera, and Ennis is a strong enough writer that he can make good use of it in future issues. Less successful is the scripting, particularly a worrying tendency towards bouts of clunky exposition that bring the dialogue grinding to a halt, but on the whole this is the kind of solid writing one expects from Ennis.

Original Dan Dare artist Frank Hampson had an exquisite detailed style that made heavy use of photo referencing with none of the moribund storytelling often associated with the technique; Gary Erskine doesn’t attempt to ape that style, instead bringing a more gritty and organic edge to the linework. Aside from a slight overuse of static close-ups and one of the least threatening galactic invasion fleets I’ve seen, Erskine turns in some great work here; his Dare is a little puffy around the edges, as befits a man of advanced age, and yet he easily captures the stoic nobility (i.e. stiff upper lip) of the character, and the essential Englishness of his world. I can't wait to see his Mekon. Er...

I suspect that Eagle purists will probably not get on with this, but while the modernisation of the concept is definitely a bit uneven in places, there’s enough potential in the update for a strong writer like Garth Ennis to exploit. I would have hoped for a more stunning debut, but it’s a good start. Four tentative bullets.

Paul Brian McCoy:

There has been a lot of hubbub about how writer Garth Ennis would be interpreting the classic British science fiction hero, Dan Dare. Dare is a character that has gone through a wide variety of re-imaginings since his initial publication in Eagle in 1950, most notably 1977’s return from a cryogenic sleep in 2000AD, a storyline following Dare’s great-great-great-grandson in a re-launched Eagle in 1982, and 1990’s cynical and paranoid Dare, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes.

Ennis, of course, is best known for his wonderfully blasphemous Preacher, the cynical, anti-social hostility of Hellblazer, and most recently, the ultra violent, profanity-laden, adults-only storytelling of The Punisher and The Boys. Needless to say, fans of Dan Dare were a little concerned. My own concern came from the fact that Ennis isn’t really a science fiction writer – at least not since his early 90s Judge Dredd work.

Well, anyone worried about how Ennis would change or update the character can relax. He is immensely respectful to the legacy of the character (of all the characters, really) and the style of storytelling that Dare’s creator, Frank Hampson, established in his original run. In fact, this story takes place around 10 years after the original Hampson run on the strip in Eagle (1950 – 1959), and the only real concession to modernity that I see in this first issue is that the supporting character Digby, who originally provided much of the comic relief in the series, is now much more serious.

But what about the plot, you ask? In a nutshell, America and China “finished each other off” and if England hadn’t had shields in place (designed by Prof. Jocelyn Peabody, the brains behind many of the plans in the original stories, and now Home Secretary to a possibly corrupt Prime Minister), it would also be an empty, moon-like, nuclear landscape. Dan Dare has been retired for a number of years and is approached for help by the Prime Minister because there are rumors of something dangerous coming – an old threat that Dare is particularly experienced with. By the end of the issue, we get a glimpse of the nature and scale of the threat, and while it is a bit fantastic, it does hearken back to the sensibilities of ‘50s science fiction.

All in all, Ennis does a good job with the story, establishing, with very little effort, the current status of the characters and the world they inhabit. Dare’s life on his retirement asteroid provides a very clear insight into his passions and motivations. He is, as he was originally intended to be, all about honor, duty, and dedication to the ideals of England. It could come off as corny or clichéd, but instead, because Ennis doesn’t overdo it, Dare shines as an example of the heroic idealism that has been lost to more cynical, contemporary political and social pragmatism. And even though Dare doesn’t care for the contemporary England of the story or the politics of the Prime Minister, he doesn’t hesitate to accept the mission to defend the planet, because it’s just the right thing to do.

Gary Erskine is on art duties, and I always get him confused with Chris Weston (mainly because he has inked Weston on an issue of Ennis’ War Stories and Grant Morrison’s The Filth and both have similar styles). But that’s a good thing. I’ve really enjoyed each of the comics I’ve read where he handles all the art (Ellis’ City of Silence and Jack Cross, for example), and this is no exception. Like Weston, Erskine works in an extremely realistic style. There is no exaggeration or stylized representation here. What we get are believable characterizations and technologies. The starships are based on naval designs and look like flying battleships which, according to Erskine, are more in keeping with Hampson’s original approach. Much like Ellis’ and Weston’s Ministry of Space, this is a science fiction world that one could imagine seeing right outside the window.

If there is any criticism to be made of this issue, it’s that it seems a bit slow out of the gate. However, for the first chapter of a seven issue run, I think it still works, especially since by the end of the issue we have a fully established threat, and all the main characters and themes of the story have been introduced. From here on out I expect a story that moves more quickly and should satisfy both old-school Dan Dare fans and any new readers curious about the character. It’s not slow enough to knock it down to an “average” 3 bullet rating, but it’s not quite up to speed enough to give it the “superior” 4 bullet rating. Dan Dare #1 is a good introduction (or re-introduction) to the characters and their world that lays solid groundwork for an exciting, old-fashioned space adventure to come.

Christopher Power:

Okay, I am really not sure what to make of the newest entry in the “the world has gone to pot but we still have bigger problems” category of story. I’ve now read this issue three times, and there are some very good things about it, but there are enough items that either bother me or confuse me that I am left non-plussed.

What we do know is that after humanity made it to the stars, the world government managed to get its act together and put together a space fleet. It is unclear who ran the space fleet, but we do know that it explored the solar system, with none other than Dan Dare leading missions to each of the planets. Who is Dan Dare? I haven’t a clue. He was a space marine of some kind, a pilot, who now lives on an asteroid with a shield, with two dogs.

The details in the scenes with Dare are very good, with him living in a hologram British town on the asteroid, with his home actually being some kind of space dome, containing all those things that are important to Western civilization.

You see, the world isn’t in really good shape. Apparently, there was a great war, and a lot of damage was done. Britain survived because of a shield that had been raised around it. At least I think that was what happened.

Since the time of the great war, Britain has had poor leadership. There has now been a shift in power to a new Prime Minister. The new guy isn’t very good either, but he was the lesser of two evils, so people voted for him. This was some kind of subtle message I’m sure; when there are no other options, it is better for a change and hope for the best than continue down the same path. Oh … wait it wasn’t subtle at all. I’m sure he was talking about the Australian general election this week. (That’s sarcasm, folks.)

Then, even though the space fleet has fallen apart, Britain still has ships over the Earth, and exploring the galaxy. They run into a space fleet, belonging to the Treen who are there to bring the fight to Earth. It is very unclear to me why. I’m even a little confused over why there was a war on Earth if there were concerns over an alien menace. I suppose it is possible that they are a break-away human faction roaming the stars, but then, they showed up with a black hole. Yeah. Apparently they are moving a black hole.

I think that this story may actually be very good, but it is being written in such a way that it feels like it should not be in a monthly format. It should be a grand epic with the whole story being written and bound together. There is too little in this issue for the reader to understand what is going on.

What is there is beautifully rendered with great detail. Dan recreated a small British town that has all of the qualities of somewhere like Sheriff Hutton in North Yorkshire. The local pub, the low walls, the brick houses. He even lives with two British breeds, a Cavalier King Charles and a British Bulldog. Even the facial features on Dan were rendered to look like someone from the north of Britain. In the realm of the fantastic, there was great distinction between the Earth and Treen vessels. The Earth platform looks like it could very well have been designed by someone from this planet.

I think I will wait for the trade on this one. It just didn’t keep my interest.

Jason Sacks:

Can you say “waiting for the trade“? This comic is just about the epitome of the sort of comic that will read great as a TPB. There’s a great deal of scene setting in this issue, a lot of character introductions and creating of a menace. But of course none of it pays off in this issue.

Which is not at all a bad thing, of course. I very much enjoyed the sense of place that Ennis creates in this issue. It seems that World War III happened on Earth, between the United States and China, with the result that both countries successfully wiped each other out. The biggest survivor of the War is England, now scatted hither and yon in space. One of England’s greatest heroes is Dan Dare, who led a separate war against a group of aliens called the Mekons. Dan seems to be a power broker in some internecine political battles in the Government. But there’s a larger threat on the horizon than mere politics: the Mekons are back, and they look extremely dangerous.

This is a wonderfully rich setup for this new Virgin Comics mini-series. In this comic, Ennis does a nice job of showing Dan Dare as both a dashing former hero and a man tired of life. Dare is an outsider with tremendous power, simply because of who he was in the past. This outsider status allows Dan to have insights into his world that few others have. It’s interesting to think that Dan Dare might end up being a hero not because of his ability to act, but because of his ability to think and to successfully navigate political waters. He’s a man who really knows people and the way they act, and who also knows himself supremely well. Such a man can be powerful in a time of crisis.

Gary Erskine’s artwork is a nice fit for this comic. He does a nice job of presenting both space battles and boardroom conflicts. I especially enjoyed the understated and British feel he has with his art. Erskine’s depictions of a small English country village are especially evocative of time and place.

It’s hard to judge the quality of this issue as a discrete comic because it so clearly is setting up future issues. But there’s a lot of promise in this comic. When it all gets collected together, Dan Dare could be a real winner.

Thom Young:

Not much happened in this first issue of Dan Dare, but I enjoyed Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s latest incarnation of this classic comic book character who began publication in 1950.

However, Ennis’s thematic approach to Dan Dare reminded me a bit of his recent revival of Battler Britton, another classic British comic book character from the early 1950s that Ennis recently wrote for DC Comics/Wildstorm. In both of these revivals, the thematic focus is a re-creation of the sense of honor, decency, and acumen that British comic book heroes in the 1950s embodied.

Of course, American comic book heroes from the early 1950s possessed those qualities as well. However, Ennis presents these traits in Battler Britton and Dan Dare as aspects of a “golden age” of British culture in contrast to an apparent lack of such qualities in American culture.

In Battler Britton, Ennis created this sense by presenting the title character as the moral compass and clear-headed hero whose honor and acumen allowed him to both come to the rescue of and teach the hapless Americans with whom he was stationed in Northern Africa during part of World War II.

In contrast to the mostly inept Americans who came from a young culture and society that is ruled by the emotions of its citizenry, Battler Britton exemplified all that was “best” in the mature culture and society of England that could then help direct the soldiers from the UK’s impassioned offspring nation.

This first issue of Dan Dare touches upon a similar theme. However, in the future in which the story is set, North America has been destroyed during a nuclear conflict with China—leaving the UK as the supreme power on Earth, and the world’s defender from extraterrestrial threats (as it had been, obviously, when Colonel Dan Dare was on active duty several years earlier).

I have nothing against these types of Anglo-centric stories in which the United Kingdom is the center of the universe (as it were). After all, it’s rare to find a work of fiction that arises from a culture in which that culture is not made the central social model in some way—either for better or worse.

Thus we get George Orwell’s 1984 in which the Anglicanized countries in the world (Oceania) are led by England, a Star Trek universe in which the United Federation of Planets is a futuristic analog of the United States of America, a Doctor Who universe in which almost all extraterrestrial activity is centered in the United Kingdom, et cetera, et cetera.

I’m sure the fiction (science fiction and other) of every country tends to center the social model in the stories on the indigenous culture, so it came as no surprise that England is leading the Earth in Ennis’s story. After all, Dan Dare is a British comic book hero.

However, Ennis adds a twist in this story that wasn’t part of his Battler Britton series—Dare is asked to come out of retirement by a British Prime Minister who is presented as an ineffective leader whose policies have resulted in the deterioration of the moral fiber of the British people. In other words, while England is still the bastion of honor, decency, and acumen, those qualities lie in the old ways that Col. Dare represents.

To request Dare’s help, the Prime Minister must travel to the private asteroid that the “Pilot of the Future” now calls home—and on which he has constructed a holographic society that depicts an idealized England of the late 1940s or early 1950s (the era in which the character first appeared in publication).

In discussing the current trouble with Dare (which involves Dare’s arch nemesis The Mekon and the extraterrestrial race the Treens that he leads), the Prime Minister says, “you obviously want no part of what Britain is today—or you wouldn’t be living all the way out here, would you? So I simply don’t understand why you’re still so willing to fight for it. . . .”

Dare replies, “No, Prime Minister, I don’t imagine you do.”

Dare’s response is undoubtedly intended to speak volumes as we come to realize that the promise of a utopian future after World War II (the holographic world that Dare has constructed) has failed to materialize in reality.

Of course, the notion of the late 1940s and early 1950s as a Golden Age of either British or American culture is a fictional view of society immediately following World War II. This notion was presented by the governments and the mainstream media in those countries at that time, but it was a view that was countered in the literary works of England’s “Angry Young Men” and America’s “Beat Generation.”

From his work in Battler Britton and this one issue of Dan Dare, though, it’s not clear whether Ennis realizes that things weren’t actually better in the late 1940s and 1950s. Still, regardless of whether he agrees with it or not, Ennis is obviously using the idyllic presentation of society seen in the adolescent fiction of the 1950s.

Immediately following World War II, the comic books in the UK and the US were published exclusively by mainstream publishers who promoted the idealized society of Winston Churchill’s third term (1951-55) and Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency (1953-61), and it is this “Golden Age” of which Ennis has made Dan Dare the representative.

I’ll happily follow this story into the second issue (and probably beyond) because I’m fascinated by these sociocultural conflicts in fiction. However, I doubt this series will be a commercial success that leads to the resurrection of Dan Dare as a popular icon in contemporary England.

Such classic pop-culture characters as The Shadow, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Dan Dare seem to be brought out of mothballs every few years in order to see if these iconic concepts can be made to appeal to a contemporary audience. Sometimes these efforts are met with critical success—as with Denny O’Neil and Mike Kaluta’s The Shadow for DC Comics in the 1970s.

At other times, the efforts to bring classic pulp and comic book characters out of mothballs are met with critical failures—such as the Buck Rogers television series of the 1970s or the current Flash Gordon television series. However, regardless of the critical reaction, none of these resurrections of classic characters have caused the icons of our grandparents and great grandparents to re-emerge in our contemporary society as important cultural myths.

In contemplating these out-of-mothball efforts over the years, I’ve considered two questions:
  1. Why don’t the revivals meet with greater commercial success? After all, they were huge successes when they first appeared.

  2. Since they keep failing to become contemporary commercial successes, why do people keep bringing these characters out of mothballs?
The answer to the second question is obvious. People keep trying to resurrect these characters because they were once hugely successful, and because they’re still beloved by the contemporary creators who remain diehard fans of them. These characters appeal to an ever-shrinking niche audience. However, the majority of the members of that small audience are more likely to embrace icons that embody the spirit of the 21st century rather than the early to mid 20th century—which brings us back to my first question.

Actually, the answer to that first question is also obvious, but it’s not necessarily an answer that is easy for fans of the classic characters to accept: Times change, and concepts that once exemplified the concerns and attitudes of our culture decades ago no longer exemplify our current culture. Those characters ceased to be published at some point due to the cultural shifts that caused them to no longer act as mythic icons of the society from which they originated.

Some characters from the first half of the 20th century, such as Superman and Batman, have continued to the present. The reason for this longevity is two-fold. First, perhaps they originated from a fundamental aspect of the culture that has not drastically changed in almost 80 years. Second, even these longer lasting characters have changed over the decades—adapting to the changes in society but still slipping in their mass popularity.

As I said, Ennis probably has me hooked on this series, but my interest is almost more academic than visceral—and that can’t be a good thing for either Dan Dare specifically or pulp heroes in general.

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