History is full of stories of men who went from rags to riches and then back to rags, but few stories are sadder and more heart-wrenching than Frank Hampson’s story. Hampson was a brilliant artist–perhaps the greatest in his country of his generation–but for all his brilliance, he was crushed underfoot by an indifferent and uncaring corporation.
His signature character was Dan Dare, whose adventures Hampson drew and oversaw on a weekly basis for the very popular British magazine Eagle. Hampson pretty much lucked into his success with Dan Dare on Eagle–but it was a success well earned.
Discharged from the Territorial Army after World War II, and with an education in art, Hampson was lucky enough to attend a church run by a very ambitious vicar named Marcus Morris. As the story goes, Morris took Hampson aside one day after a service and asked the young illustrator if he’d like to do some artwork for Morris’s church newsletter, Anvil. The newsletter turned into a newsstand magazine, and the success of the magazine inspired Morris to think bigger.
In England, just as is true in the United States, comics were looked upon with great horror by clergymen and other concerned adults. That concern seems a bit naïve and inappropriate to many of us in 2011 (didn’t they have more important things to worry about?), but the comics of that era were genuinely horrifying to most adults. Men who survived the horrors of the Second World War didn’t want to read downbeat and horrifying depictions of sadistic acts.
Into that world stepped Marcus Morris, who dreamed of publishing a much cleaner comics magazine. As Morris wrote in 1949:
I shall not feel I have done my duty . . . until I have seen on the market a genuinely popular children’s comic, where adventure is, once more, the clean and exciting business I remember in my school days.
From this idealistic viewpoint, Morris and Hampson came together slowly. First they built a charter for the comics magazine–no stereotypes were allowed, readers were treated as intelligent, all art had to be of sterling quality–and then they built the magazine.
When the first issue of Eagle was published in April 1950, a million copies were snapped up nationwide by children who were enticed by the gorgeous and compelling art that appeared on the front page story of “Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future”–art produced by the one and only Frank Hampson.
The sales of the magazine only went up from there, with it becoming a must-buy for British children in the 1950s. The gorgeous artwork of the Hampson Studio on “Dan Dare” would stare out from the pages on every British newsstand of that era–drawing kids to the comic like those metaphorical moths to a flame. The artwork was impossible to resist, and the wonderful stories pleased both kids and parents.
This book prints page after page of original artwork by Hampson and, frankly, every page is as stunning now as it obviously seemed during the ‘50s. Soon aided by a large staff that worked very long hours, Hampson created an extremely huge body of work that was unfailingly spectacular. In its tales of rogue planets and evil Mekons, every panel of art from “Dan Dare” reveals an absolutely meticulous attention to even the most minor details.
The folds on Dan’s leather jacket were always perfect. Alien worlds were full of mysterious and enticing details. Backgrounds were seldom skimped, and spaceships always made sense. Lighting was always carefully studied, and characters’ interrelationships were always maintained.
What makes Hampson’s art so compelling is, strangely enough, its realism. Each strip is grounded just enough in reality that unreality also seems real. The effect of lighting and shadow is tremendously powerful in creating that sense of naturalism.
Any fan of comics art will want to study Hampson’s illustrations and revel in their wonderful power. The reproduction in this book is absolutely meticulous. Every image is printed to its best advantage and, though I’ve studied the art closely, I could find no flaws in it. I often found myself sinking into the panels that are printed here–drawn in by the perfectly reproduced images.
For nearly a dozen years, Eagle and Hampson flew high as the most popular children’s magazine and cartoonist in the UK. Until 1961, that is, when “The Gangsters of Fleet Street,” the Mirror Group, bought Eagle and its sister titles.
For whatever reasons (and writer Alistair Crompton offers a few), the Mirror Group never liked Hampson much. They quickly pushed him out of the company–forcing him to leave the company for whom he had devoted his whole professional life. Suddenly, for the most capricious of reasons and with his art at its highest point, Frank Hampson was forced away from the company that he had built with his own two hands.
After protracted and vicious legal battles, and nasty illnesses brought on by the turmoil, Hampson was forced away from comics. He was forbidden even from drawing more than a head sketch of Dan Dare for fans. This sensitive, talented man was forced away from the character and work he loved. For the rest of his life, Hampson would suffer horrible depression, panic attacks, and vicious illnesses. He would only draw comics occasionally, and then only as a guest artist. Though there were some false starts from people looking to create a new version of Eagle, nothing ever took flight. The legendary Eagle would never fly again.
Crompton never backs down from telling both the good and the bad of Hampson’s life. He had access to Hampson during the artist’s final days–a decidedly mixed experience–and he heard unstinting stories about the artist’s bitterness about the way he was treated. Hampson never got over the abusive experiences he lived through–carrying his anger for the rest of his life.
However, Crompton also celebrates the good years of Hampson’s life–sharing wonderful stories and even more wonderful artwork from those years. Even better, the writer prints a whole slew of rare and seldom-seen artwork–including a set of “lost” characters that Hampson created shortly before Mirror fired him. What emerges from this wonderful book is a real celebration of the life and work of a man who had a thoroughly complicated life.
Frank Hampson’s life is sad, but it’s compelling. He flew high and then was forced to crash to the ground. He only had a dozen years of greatness, but those 12 years were as great as those of any artist in history. This book is a worthy celebration of the life and work of perhaps the greatest artist of his era.