There’s a number of iconic British comics characters: Judge Dredd, Charley Bourne from the classic Charley’s War, Roy of the Rovers, Tank Girl, The Broons and dozens more, but for many people of a certain age there’s only Dan Dare.
Created by Frank Hampson for the first issue of the legendary Eagle back in 1950, Dan was a mix between American space heroes like Buck Rogers and British heroes like Biggles, but Dare was firmly rooted in post-war British imperialism and the ending of the days of Empire. Dan would appear in lengthy, long stories where he and his friends (Digby, his Batman. Professor Peabody, the only woman of any sort of importance in any of the Eagle Dan Dare stories and Sir Hubert Guest, Dan’s boss) fought strange aliens across the solar system, but mainly The Mekon and his Treens; strange aliens from Venus.
Dan was a British hero. Proud and honourable, but these strips to a 21st eye do drip with a 1950’s mindset which is archaic to say the least. However, it’s Hampson’s stunning art which elevate these scripts to create something wonderful and even unique in places. Later artists such as the equally talented Frank Bellamy carried on Dan Dare well into the 1960’s when modern British SF heroes like Doctor Who gave children more options; hence why in 1967 the Dan Dare strip ended after 17 years of publication. Older strips were reprinted in the late 60’s in Lion, another weekly boy’s adventure strip which had swallowed the Eagle up upon its cancellation.
By the start of the 1970’s, Dan Dare was consigned to the past with British imperialism. Still fondly loved by an older generation, ignored or disregarded by a younger generation more interested in more complex, even flawed heroes which Dan Dare most certainly wasn’t. Then in 1977, 2000AD was launched and Dan Dare was back thanks to Pat Mills who had the character dragged far into the future into a strange new world.
Dan was now a more straightforward space adventure hero stripped of the trappings of the past, and although he didn’t end up being 2000AD’s main draw (that ended up being Judge Dredd), he was popular enough even if artist Massimo Bellardinelli’s art split reader opinion with his unconventional portrayal of the character. Things changed when art duties fell to Dave Gibbons, whose take on it was more traditional, even if somewhat influenced by Star Wars, which most things were in the late 1970’s.
The Dare strip carried on in 2000AD with The Mekon returning, as well as Dan inheriting a mystic power glove that effectively turned him into a superhero, which didn’t last too long as Dan Dare ended in 2000AD in 1979 with the promise he’d return. He never did. He next turned up with a relaunched Eagle in 1982 that wiped the 2000AD stories from continuity, and tried to follow the original stories closer. Initially these stories by Pat Mills and John Wagner were well received but after Mills and Wagner left, Dan Dare again found himself, and Eagle, cancelled in 1994.
In 1990 there was a Dan Dare strip, Dare, which also appeared in Revolver, the more adult companion title of 2000AD, which this time saw writer Grant Morrison and artist Rian Hughes take on the imperial connotations of Dan Dare’s history head on, as well as being an attack on Margaret Thatcher, and the UK socio-political climate of the 1980’s. This is one of Morrison’s lost classics and should be sought out.
After 1994, Dan Dare yet again entered comics limbo barring one appearance in the only issue of a newspaper called The Planet on Sunday, this time by classic Jeff Hawke artist, Sydney Jordan. Only one instalment was published before Dan popped back into limbo til 2003 when Spaceship Away, a fan publication, started publishing new stories. 2007 saw Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine produce Dan Dare, a seven-issue series for Richard Branson’s Virgin Comics line.
Branson himself was a fan, so this was a more faithful, is still somewhat contemporary version. But now Dan’s adventures only continued with Spaceship Away after the Virgin Comics series failed to spawn any more adventures. Over the years Dan’s been the subject of radio adaptations, animated TV series’, video games, proposed films and most tantalising, a series which would have starred James Fox as Dan and John Lydon as The Mekon.
As for Dan Dare, he’s still a classic character for all those archaic flaws. A reminder of Britain’s past. Of better times. Will he ever return outwith of the adventures in Spaceship Away? Of course he will, he’s Dan Dare!