Hero Dan Dare was a knight of the skies operating in outer space
First published on April 14, 1950, the Eagle was conceived as a British response to the science-fiction themed comics from the USA, featuring space travelling heroes like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. And its unlikely creator was an Anglican vicar from Southport by the name of Marcus Morris, who was not only disillusioned with contemporary children’s literature in Britain but also truly appalled by the influx of horror and crime comics from America. Worried about their malign influence, he wrote an article for the Sunday Dispatch newspaper in February 1949 entitled, “Comics that bring Horror into the Nursery”.
In it, he denounced the violence and sensationalism of American comics and the adverse effect they were having on British children: “Many American comics were most skilfully and vividly drawn, but often their content was deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems.”
Morris’s article provoked a strong reaction from those who read it.
Within days, thousands of letters of support from parents dropped through his letterbox, inspiring his idea for an alternative comic strip that would be optimistic, non-violent and Lord imbued with Christian ethics.
He had already been publishing a parish magazine called the Anvil, which included articles and comic strips. Despite attracting a nationwide circulation, it continued subscription one to it to lose money.
To devise his new strip, he recruited fellow churchman Chad Varah (who founded the Samaritans in 1953) as a scriptwriter and, most importantly of all, Anvil artist Frank Hampson to draw it.
Morris had discovered Hampson at the local art school in Southport and found out, much to his delight, that the artist was one of his regular parishioners.
The Eagle’s first edition and other eye-catching covers from the 1950s
At the start, Morris floated the idea of creating a strip about a flying padre called Lex Christian, who was “a tough, fighting parson in the slums of the East End of London”.
However, this was discarded as being too overtly religious. Hampson suggested something more on the lines of a character set in a world of science fiction. The result was Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. Morris loved the concept and immediately touted the idea to numerous newspapers. However, things didn’t turn out quite as Morris had intended.
“I thought we might sell the idea to a Sunday newspaper and very soon we had the interest of the editor of the Sunday Empire News, Terence Horsley,” he recalled. “But not for long: he was tragically killed in a gliding accident.”
Morris suggested they give up seeking a publication to run a single strip, concentrating their energies instead on creating an entirely original children’s comic. He believed a market existed for a comic able to communicate the standards and Christian morals he was advocating in the form of action strips.
Alongside Dan Dare, they developed other popular stories based on good, wholesome characters. Cowboy Jeff Arnold and a police constable by the name of Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby, AKA PC 49, would both run successfully alongside Dan Dare.
Added to the comic strips was a news and sport section, as well as highly-detailed cutaway illustrations of sophisticated modern machinery such as steam turbines, locomotive engines, tanks and aircraft carriers.
Dan Dare illustrator Frank Hampson drew the icon
Dan Dare would be unique to British comics in the way that meticulous attention was paid to both graphic realism and feasible plots. Hampson, for example, had staff act out the storyline before any drawing took place. Science fiction, whether in literature or film, has, in reality, always had more to do with the present rather than the future.
The TV series Star Trek, for instance, is set in the 24th century, but was really more about the rapid changes taking place in American society during the 1960s.
Those who try to predict the future tend to fail miserably; computers and robots look and function completely differently to how our predecessors perceived them, whilst advances in transport also remain far from what was predicted by the Eagle.
Apart from reaching the Moon, and sending probes to Mars, we are still technologically incapable of travelling to other planets or solar systems.
Dan Dare, which was set around the year 2000, proves that point. It was more about the post-war world Hampson and Morris inhabited. Both had unfulfilled dreams of being fighter pilots; Morris had been a chaplain in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during the war, whilst Hampson had been conscripted into the army. So Dan Dare, in essence, was an RAF fighter pilot: courageous, quick thinking, honourable, a knight of the skies operating in outer space.
The late 1940s and 50s was the new atomic age where America and the Soviets were developing rockets and missiles to threaten each other. As an officer in Belgium in 1944, Hampson had witnessed German V-2 rockets being fired towards England. In 1953 he wrote, “On the quays of Antwerp you could watch the birth of space travel.”
The watch shows Dan Dare holding a ray gun as a monster approaches
By creating Dan Dare, Hampson showed that rockets and science could reveal new worlds and new opportunities for the human race and that one day, he believed, it would become a reality.
Religious overtones were never that far away. Dare was named after Hampson’s mother’s favourite hymn, Dare to be a Daniel and the comic’s title was inspired by Hampson’s wife, Dorothy, who came up with the idea after spotting a large eagle-shaped lectern, “wings outspread to support the bible”, in church.
Morris then came up with the exact design for the logo, based on a brass eagle which stood on top of a glass inkwell he had bought at a vicarage garden party.
To show how science fiction mirrored life, the first issue of the Eagle featuring Dan Dare found Earth in the middle of a food crisis, with the launch of a desperate mission to reach Venus. This was a storyline which spoke to readers still living on post-war rations.
“Everything was very bare, everything was utility, everything was right down to rock bottom. So the fantasy of it had a great appeal,” said Hampson.
Following a huge publicity campaign, the Eagle comic was released on April 14, 1950, and proved an instant hit, the first issue selling around 900,000 copies. A members club was soon created, and a wide range of related merchandise was licensed.
Commercially, Dan Dare became the Star Wars of his day. Products included toothpaste, pyjamas, toy ray guns, slideshow projectors and countless other spin-offs.
The Eagle became immensely popular with people of all ages. Schoolchildren across Britain smuggled copies into school. The Lancet even reported on a doctor who read the Eagle on his ward rounds.
Lord Louis Mountbatten placed a subscription order for his nephew, Prince Charles, and on one occasion rang to complain the comic had not arrived. Years later, Morris sent the prince a copy of The Best of Eagle (1977), to which Charles replied and thanked him for the “fond memories”.
Queen guitarist and astronomer, Brian May, put his enthusiasm and fascination for astronomy down to Dan Dare. He fondly remembered the Dan Dare strip as “incredible, these are like real photographs of real things happening in space”.
When asked about the influence of Dan Dare, the late Professor Stephen Hawking replied: “Why am I in cosmology?”
The Eagle also did much to overcome parental attitudes towards the value of comics. Monty Python star and film director, the late Terry Jones, recalled: “I remember Eagle being launched and my brother went and bought a copy and my mother hid it in a drawer because she said, ‘You mustn’t tell your father you’ve got a comic in the house!’ And then she had to speak to my father and tell him that the editor of ta the Eagle is a clergyman, so it should be all right.”
Dan Dare changed attitudes towards the value of comics
Sadly the success was not to last. After a long-running dispute with the publishers, Marcus Morris stepped down as editor in 1959. Within a year of him leaving, Hulton sold out to Odhams Press who felt the Eagle needed a revamp. A year later, Odhams were themselves taken over by the Daily Mirror Group, before being eventually sold on.
Morris, who died aged 73 in March 1989, later reflected: “Eagle died slowly and, it seemed to me, painfully, and so my choice of the best of Eagle is confined to the years 1950 to 1962. Those were exciting times, hard work but fun.”
To make matters worse, Frank Hampson resigned in 1961 after creative differences with the new owners. Without Hampson, Dan Dare lost his lustre and was dropped in 1967, replaced by reprints from earlier editions. Two years later, due to declining sales, the Eagle merged with its rival, Lion.
In 1982, the Eagle was relaunched as a weekly comic. Like its predecessor, its lead strip was once again Dan Dare but this time he was the great-great-grandson of the original.
The new Eagle ran for more than 500 issues before being finally dropped by its publisher in 1994. Yet 71 years after its original flight, the Eagle remains a glorious memory of many British childhoods to this day.