Stephen Whittle of The Atkinson Museum and Gallery in Southport introduces the world’s best public collection of Dan Dare artefacts and memorabilia and explores the working methods of his creator, the famous Eagle comic illustrator, Frank Hampson
Dan Dare was ‘conceived’ in Churchtown near Southport – that’s where Frank Hampson’s original studio was, and up until fairly recently there was a museum and art gallery there called the Botanic Garden Museum, which housed a Dan Dare collection.
The museum closed about four years ago and we now have the collection and our current display features loan material from the artist’s son Peter Hampson – including a lot of the original studio props that Frank Hampson worked from.
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We also have some later things like the bust commissioned by an Eagle Supporters Group that came together in 2000 by John Fowler who was a Dan Dare fan who worked directly from the original illustrations. There’s a bronze bust of Dan Dare and a painted plaster version.
We commissioned a flying model of Dan Dare’s evil adversary the Mekon on his hoverboard, and there’s an earlier green ceramic bust of the Mekon too. We also have a lot of early graphics and of course a complete run of the comics. But the most important items for us are the studio props because as well as being absolutely unique they reveal Frank Hampson’s working technique.
He had to have a prop in front of him or people who were dressed as various characters in the Dan Dare comic strip. Sometimes he would photograph them and work from the photographs but always in a very careful, meticulous way.
The props are all very much home-made; it’s real the Blue Peter stuff with cartons and bottles stuck together and then spray painted in silver – whether that was a spaceship, (we have three good prototypes of the space craft that appear in the various strips) a ray gun or the uniforms they wore.
A lot of the uniforms were created from army surplus – they would adapt everything they could lay their hands on and attach very carefully embroidered badges with the Space Corps insignia on them and so on.
“The Eagle was the first British comic to really latch on to the idea of creating merchandise”
They couldn’t pay for professionals to model these outfits so Frank Hampson’s father features quite a bit, he’s usually there as Sir Hubert Guest, the commander of the space fleet who appears in a lot of the Dan Dare strips. In fact he features in one of the first early images we have recently acquired from the Peter Hampson collection – a preparatory drawing from 1947.
We think the seated figure might be Frank Hampson himself. I know he used his own image initially as a prototype for Dan Dare, although I think he used a bit of artistic licence – as the jaw became a lot longer and squarer.
Most of the other three-dimensional things we’ve got in the collection tend to be merchandise because the other great thing about The Eagle was the way it was the first British comic to really latch on to the idea of creating merchandise that was very specific to the comic strips.
Even in the early runs of The Eagle comic in 1951 and 1952, there was a lot of merchandise available and they were very canny about it. The Reverend Marcus Morris, who was the man behind The Eagle comic, was very commercially astute and started to make incredible deals and tie-ins with major sponsors.
Morris was a vicar in Birkdale who had edited and produced a parish magazine called The Anvil, which he quickly developed into a magazine with a national reach. An intelligent man with a remarkable grasp of the workings of marketing and the publishing industry, after making a commercial success of The Anvil, he moved on to the idea of The Eagle, and it was an instant success. The first edition sold 900,000 copies, which is a staggering number.
At first Morris wanted Dan Dare to be a Christian antidote to what he saw as the pernicious effect of the shock-horror of the American comics that were coming over from the US at the time, so his lead character was going to be called Lex Christian. This wasn’t really going to work so he and Frank Hampson came up with the idea of Chaplain Dan Dare and the earlier incarnation of Dan Dare had a dog collar and a clerical looking cape.
“The earlier incarnation of Dan Dare had a dog collar and a clerical looking cape”
But when they started touting the idea around the publishing houses in London people found the religious message to be too strong so the character became Dan Dare, named after a hymn called ‘Dare to be a Daniel’, which was Frank Hampson’s mother’s favourite hymn.
It was the partnership that made it such a huge success; Frank Hampson was undoubtedly the creative genius, drawing the strips and writing the stories but Marcus Morris had that entrepreneurial drive and could cut deals. He wasn’t afraid to go to the major sponsors.
In 1951 in the first year of the comic he cut a deal with Radio Luxembourg and there was a radio version of the strip on the pirate station. The chap who played Dan Dare was the same actor who played Dick Barton, Special Agent, so it was hugely popular and obviously a great coup for the comic in terms of making kids aware of its availability.
One of the items we’ve got in the collection is a wonderful intergalactic stamp album; every kid got one of these and started collecting the stamps and filling in the stickers – it appealed to that collecting instinct of little boys. When you look at it, it’s so detailed and imaginative; the stamps are all intergalactic – from Mars and Venus and all around the cosmos.
The early giveaways with the comic were an innovation because there wasn’t a lot of that happening in the British comic world – and there were lots of things that you could save up your tokens for and acquire.
We take it for granted now with Star Wars that there’s going to be sophisticated merchandise to go along with the films but it all stems from Dan Dare and Marcus Morris’s entrepreneurial spirit really.
Frank Hampson would have been involved in designing all of these things. He was absolutely focused and meticulous about the detail of everything, it had to be absolutely right, and everything was studied to the final degree. In the later comics you get these exploding diagrams of the spacecraft and so on, so there’s a completely clear understanding of how the technology works and what it does and what has gone into it.
In the 1950s it was a complete revelation. There wasn’t a really good British boys’ comic and they just spotted an enormous gap in the market for a comic with a science fiction angle. It was very much a boys’ comic, although there’s a good strong female character in there – Professor Peabody, who’s the brains of the outfit, it’s a Boys’ Own adventure in technicolour. At the time there weren’t comics around with that strength of colour and that sense of excitement dealing with the exploration of space.
I think Frank Hampson’s inspiration for Dan Dare came when he was in the army during World War Two. He was in Belgium and saw the V2 rockets flying overhead when he landed at Antwerp and he said at the time “this is the beginnings of space travel”.
He was absolutely amazed by what he saw – terrified as well I would imagine with these things flying overhead – but he translated that sense of futuristic space exploration into something that would appeal to young boys, and he went on that journey as well.
I think it was the way in which he did it that was important, his style of drawing the strip was absolutely key; you get these really vertiginous angles and strange points of view that give you a sense of being right there in amongst the action so that you feel like you’re a part of it.
Initially, his ‘Bakehouse Studio’ was in Churchtown in Southport, but in 1952 they moved to Epsom because they needed to expand production. In the new studio, to get the angles that he wanted, he had a floor taken out to allow him to get way above where his colleagues were posing in uniform and to take snaps of them from the most acute, high angles. He wanted to give himself a lot of space to work and think about how these angles would work in terms of a comic strip. He was obsessive in how he wanted to create that sort of filmic approach to a comic.
He was so precise and meticulous that in the first nine years he was almost working himself and the people around him to death and he wasn’t willing to compromise. You can see that with every detail of the comic, it had to be absolutely right and coherent with no inconsistencies.
And in a way I think that was the downfall of The Eagle, it had a good long run for nine years or so but when it got to the early sixties when the comic was taken over by another agency, they wanted something much quicker and faster – and cheaper – and Frank Hampson couldn’t and wouldn’t work like that.
The new owners realised they could make much more profit if they scaled the production back. That’s where The Eagle really started to lose its cutting edge in terms of the way in which it was created and the way in which it looked. Frank Hampson became disillusioned with the whole thing, divorced himself from the process and eventually stopped working for The Eagle altogether. A whole stable of artists worked on Dan Dare in the 1960s but it lost a bit of traction from there on in.
If you look at the original artworks in our collection, the interesting thing about them is how bright and strong the colours are. I think Frank Hampson was a bit disappointed when he saw the comics because the technology wasn’t up to producing the strength and saturation of colour of his original illustrations. People sometimes think they’ve faded over time, but in practice they weren’t printed quite as strongly and brightly as he would have liked.
When we opened the museum here in 2013, we put on display what we already had and then we had this enormous influx of gifts – everything from Dan Dare braces to cosmic ray guns – and lots more back copies and annuals and several copies of the stamp albums. Everybody of a certain age, particularly chaps, seemed to have attics full of Dan Dare memorabilia and it was evident they still felt a very strong personal attachment to Dan Dare – he is part of their childhood.
They seemed really proud of the display and wanted to add to it, so we were inundated and we still get a steady trickle of items given, but it’s usually the merchandise that people have kept all these years.
But Dan Dare is a good way for us to connect to younger audiences too. We’re putting together an exhibition for the September 2018 centenary of Frank Hampson’s birth but we have also done quite a few outreach and exhibition projects exploring the themes of space travel, comics and graphic novels for younger kids.
In 2016 we did an exhibition of Japanese comics for girls – shōjo manga – and that was one of the most popular exhibitions we’ve ever had – and it’s Dan Dare and The Eagle that gave us the springboard to do it.
Stephen Whittle was speaking to Richard Moss
The Dan Dare collection is on permanent display at the Atkinson Museum and Art Gallery. Admission is free.
The Atkinson is Southport’s beautiful home for music, theatre, art, poetry, literature and history, right in the middle of Lord Street in Southport. Significant investment has been made in refurbishing the stunning 19th century buildings, to create a really welcoming multi art-form venue with a strong contemporary feel.