Dan Dare’s 1970s resurrection in 2000 AD may not have been a complete success but, says Stephen Jewell, it’s definitely worth another look
Looking back at the forwardlooking Dan Dare in his 1970s 2000 AD incarnation.
There are many elements of story and art that could feature today, but not that bloody power- hand!” Veteran comics writer Pat Mills is reflecting on the much- maligned Dan Dare revival of the late ’ 70s. Mostly drawn by the late Massimo Belardinelli and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, the frequently lacklustre scripts often didn’t do justice to the striking illustrations. Now, after an agreement has finally been reached with rights- holders The Dan Dare Corporation, the Pilot of the Future is set to soar the spaceways once again in a new, two- volume hardback collection, the last of 2000 AD’s vintage strips to be reprinted.
“I think the art’s red hot,” Mills tells SFX. “It stands up as being of its time, and is what the French call ‘ classic’.”
Described as “Biggles in Space”, Dan Dare was created by Frank Hampson in 1950 as Britain’s answer to Buck Rogers and his adventures were serialised in Eagle comic until its cancellation in 1967. In need of a space hero to headline the new science fiction comic he was developing for IPC in 1976, Mills concluded that Dan Dare was ripe for a reboot. Determined to produce a strip that would better fit 2000 AD’s punk rock- inspired rebellious spirit, he was told to ignore the old fans by publisher John Sanders.
After unsuccessfully auditioning some Argentinian and Italian artists, Mills eventually settled on Belardinelli, who had submitted some speculative art samples. Known for his far- out compositions and phantasmagoric designs, the Dan Dare that took prime position in the centrespread of 2000 AD Prog # 1 in February 1977 bore little resemblance to Frank Hampson’s original, clean- cut, square- jawed Space Fleet Colonel.
“Commercially, it was the right thing to do because I had to desperately compensate for our poor quality paper, as science fiction had always previously appeared on glossy paper,” says Mills, who originally planned for web offset printing but had to settle for the more rudimentary pulp letterpress. “But Belardinelli achieved the impossible, he made it look almost luxuriant.”
While ’ 70s Dare was very different visually to his ’ 50s forebear, opening storyline “The Biogs” – which Mills co- wrote with Kelvin Gosnell – actually emulated his first Eagle adventure. “In the original Hampson story, Dare goes to Venus to solve a mystery, and in our story, he goes to Jupiter to solve a mystery,” says Mills, who came up with the grisly Biogs after reading an article in National
Geographic. “There were some revolting bed bugs featured in there and I thought ‘ yes, these are the aliens for Dan Dare!’” Promoted as the lead strip, Dan Dare never quite reached those giddy heights, beaten first by Six Million Dollar Man clone MACH 1 and eventually Judge Dredd in the weekly readers’ polls. However, Mills stresses that it was far from a flop, often coming third or fourth in the rankings.
“People did know back then that Dan Dare was popular,” says Mills. “You have to bear in mind that the first 12 weeks of a publication’s life are crucial, and during that period, Dare was at about the same level of popularity as Dredd. At the launch of 2000 AD, I had to try every trick in the book to get publicity. I was spurred on because the publishing establishment both inside and outside IPC wanted it to fail. Arguably, looking back, we may not have needed an establishing character to help with the launch but, on balance, it was still the right thing commercially.”
Following “The Biogs” with “Hollow World”, scripted by the late Steve Moore, Mills concluded that Belardinelli’s ornate style wasn’t finding favour with the readers. The idiosyncratic artist was replaced by Dave Gibbons, who delivered a less radical Dare more in keeping with Hampson’s original vision. “Belardinelli’s art was quite sophisticated,” Gibbons tells SFX. “I really liked its gnarly, hallucinatory quality. But when you’ve got a very strong drawing style like that, it’s sometimes hard to break through to the story. I always make the story very clear. Perhaps people sometimes want me to put more detail in but all I’ve ever wanted to do with my art is to tell the story well. Maybe with an artist like Belardinelli, it’s more his rendering style that people find attractive than the actual storytelling, which is what they found in the early days of 2000 AD. Although on the face of it, Dan Dare should have been a huge hit, a lot of people couldn’t get into the story because they got put off by the surface of it.”
As a child growing up in London, Gibbons was an avid fan of Eagle and couldn’t wait to catch up with his weekly dose of Dan Dare. “It was my favourite thing,” he recalls. “I have happy memories of going to the newsagent, buying the latest copy of Eagle and just sitting there in the sunshine, reading Dan Dare over and over again.”
Having started out as a professional artist at DC Thomson and IPC in the early 1970s, Gibbons hoped that he would land the coveted assignment of Dan Dare when 2000 AD first launched. Instead he was offered future- sport story Harlem Heroes.
“When I heard that Dan Dare was coming back to 2000 AD, I thought, ‘ Ooh, I wonder if I could have something to do with that,’ but I couldn’t because they’d already given it to Belardinelli. But after Belardinelli’s version turned out to be a bit too far out for people, they decided that they were going to do a much more down to earth Dan Dare. They then offered it to me, and I was thrilled. So I went away and drew loads of sketches and came up with some storylines that involved the Mekon and the Treens, only for them to say, ‘ Sorry, the Dare scripts have already been written.’”
Scripted by Gerry Finley Day and Jack Adrian ( aka Chris Lowder), “The Lost Worlds” began in September 1977’ s Prog # 28. It started out emulating Star Trek as Dare and his shipmates embarked upon a seemingly open- ended deep space mission. “There was a space fort, and Dare was like the leader of the Dirty Dozen,” recalls Gibbons, who had a lot of fun drawing his more rough and ready crewmates. “You had Dan, who was super smooth with slicked back hair, and then you had Hitman, who Belardinelli would have made a good job of with his gnarly hand with a gun fused to it, while Bear was a very stolid Russian soldier.”
With the release of Star Wars that same year proving to be such a defining moment in cinema history ( although it didn’t open in Britain till the very end of the year), “The Lost Worlds” abruptly changed tack with Prog # 36’ s “Star Slayer”, as Dare and his shipmates suddenly became freedom fighters as they confronted the evil Star Slayer Empire. “I was there for the Star Wars explosion, which meant that people got very interested in Dan Dare,” says Gibbons. “We were able to hit on similar themes, which I suppose felt current at the time.”
After “The Lost Worlds” concluded with Prog # 85, Dan Dare was rested for three months before making another comeback in the landmark 2000 AD Prog # 100. Now written by Tom Tully, “Servant Of Evil” saw the long- awaited return of the Mekon and the Treens. Given a superhero- style costume and lumbered with that dreaded power- hand, an amnesiac Dare is brainwashed into becoming a stooge for his old enemy. “Tom knew how to do a cliffhanger, and I used to find his scripts a little more polished than Gerry’s,” says Gibbons. “But even though it had a lot of elements that I quite liked, it really didn’t set me on fire. I was so loyal to Dan Dare that I kept trying to get it right, but I don’t think we actually did that with 2000 AD.”
Desperate to clear his name, Dan Dare came to an abrupt end with Prog # 126’ s ominously titled “Traitor” in August 1979. “It was one of those potboiling stories that we could have ended in an episode or two,” recalls Gibbons. “But I
The Star Wars explosion meant that people got interested in Dan Dare
think they just decided to completely change the comic. Dan Dare basically wanders around space, so they let him wander around space some more.”
But while his last 2000 AD story remains unresolved, Dan Dare found himself more at home three years later in the newly relaunched Eagle. Initially written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, and drawn by Gerry Embleton and Ian Kennedy, it cleaved much more closely to the traditional Dare. Since then, Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ radically revisionist Dare was published in Revolver in 1990 before Virgin Comics hired Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine to helm a seven- issue miniseries in 2007, for which Gibbons was persuaded to provide a cover.
Describing it as “the missing piece from 2000 AD”, Gibbons is pleased that Dan Dare is finally being collected, even if he does have mixed feelings about the whole experience. “I don’t have the happiest memories of doing it as far as the content is concerned, but it was a time in my career when I had a lot of energy,” he says. “I would take on anything, and even if I had what I thought was a bad script, I’d try and draw the hell out of it.”
Much to his surprise, Gibbons has even provided a brand new cover. “I really enjoyed getting to draw Dan Dare again and also the space fort, and I’ve put a few Belardinelli elements in there as well,” he says. “It’s nice because in the past, a comic was in the newsagent’s for a week and then it was gone forever. So the fact that Dan Dare is going to be a book on one of my already broken shelves is great!”
Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years, Vol 1 is published on Thursday 5 November.
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Dan hadn’t aged a bit in his ten- year “sabbatical”.
Well, Monday always is a bastard.
This Dan Dare was apparently inspired by Ziggy Stardust.
Like every hero, Dan is about to go bad!
The first glimpse of Gibbons’s Dare. Dan’s so befuddled he’s forgotten to shave. Eight pence, eh… eight pence…
The notorious powerhand, aka the cosmic claw.