Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years

Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Dave Gibbons & others
Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume one (2015)

In his introduction, Garth Ennis writes that while 2000AD's 1977 reinvention of Dan Dare as a generic action hero may have annoyed purists, we all loved him because we were too young to have read the original in Eagle and he was our Dan Dare - the we here equating to my generation. The thing is, I'm not sure this is strictly true. I was myself very much familiar with the earlier Dan Dare through a stack of Eagle annuals inherited from my dad who had read the comic when he was a kid; and even after it had been cancelled, Dan remained sufficiently popular as to warrant his own Fleetway annuals. I still have the one which came out in 1973 reprinting The Red Moon Mystery and Safari in Space; so most of us knew who he was, I would say.

That said, I'm probably just splitting hairs, because the return of Dan Dare was why I started buying 2000AD, and the main reason why I continued to buy it during those first couple of years. I've seen it argued that Dan Dare as Sid Vicious and then Joe Strummer has been somewhat relegated to the basement of comic book history simply because it wasn't very good. After all, this is the Dare who kicks your ass, hangs out with ne-er-do-wells, and says rude words such as stomm and possibly even drokk. In defence of our boy, I've also seen it argued that if you look closely you will notice that the Eagle version of the strip was also badly written juvenile piffle despite those lovely pictures.

Well, I have had a look and it simply isn't true. Rather this seems to be a case of someone being unable to tell the difference between something which is badly written and something which is simply aimed at a fairly young audience. The Hampson and Bellamy Dare may be a little stilted due to having been delivered in a million instalments of just one and three-quarter pages each; and old Dan was stylistically very much of its time, but it never pandered and should at least be credited with concessions made to yer actual proper science and a surprisingly progressive attitude towards persons other than the white, English, Christian, and male. Most notably it didn't seem to require that there be either an explosion or someone firing a gun every three panels.

Tharg's Dare is bewildering and inept by comparison. The stories are vehicular to massive implausible ideas such as the Biogs with their living spaceships, and in terms of plot the stories verge on Scooby Doo levels of thin. No less than two tales in this collection conclude with food gags punning whichever generic menace has been defeated in the preceding panels - one of Dan's crew remarks that he's built up quite a hunger following the team's escape from a desert planet of living sand, and so Bear jokes that he will happily eat anything except a sandwich; and I can even remember a third one of these - a no cauliflower cheese for me zinger which concluded a story presumably scheduled for reprint in the second volume.

Bear is the huge Russian ex-cosmonaut Dan hires as a general puncher of faces. He refers to himself in third person and, like many of the characters, often describes what he's doing for the benefit of the reader - 'Stava! Bear's astro-axe spikes the alien guns,' as we watch him swing the aforementioned nuclear-assisted axe into the mechanism of some alien weapon; in this case a weapon belonging to the Starslayers who live on a planet called Starslay and who are ruled over by their Dark Lord, who actually knows he's a bad guy. I have no idea how or why the axe is nuclear-assisted. It just is, okay?

It's not simply that new things are always rubbish. Tharg's Dan Dare really was a poor effort compared with the original, at least in terms of narrative relationship with its readers. Aside from the name and the fact of his being recognised by the Mekon, he may as well have been Dredger or Hellman or John Probe or any other generically grizzled action hero from a seventies comic; and yet knowing all of the above, I can't help but love this stuff in spite of itself.

The key is, I suppose, the art combined with those previously mentioned massive implausible ideas - the Biog's living technology, the Shepherds, the Two of Verath in his hollow planet, the Roman-style vampires and their heart-shaped spaceships. This stuff once blew my mind on a weekly basis in a way that not even Doctor Who could manage, and so much so that I never noticed how there was hardly a story underneath. Now that I'm fifty, the same tales have lost some of their initial impact, but the shortfall is made up with massive blasts of memory sherbert going off every few panels. Nostalgia alone shouldn't really be enough to save a strip, which is where the art comes in. Belardinelli's figures were often ropey, but you don't really notice here, and he was at his absolute weirdest drawing the Sid Vicious version of Dare in those early progs - bordering on the Hieronymous Bosch of the comic strip; and it looks so fucking amazing that it doesn't seem to matter that the dialogue - mostly bloody awful as it is - should be reduced to something like background music, a sort of word condiment sprinkled across the artwork for the sake of flavour. The same roughly applies to the Dave Gibbons version which, if not quite so visually arresting, has enough of a pleasantly chunky quality to compensate for crappy or even non-existent narrative.

A few years later, a version of Eagle returned and reclaimed Dan Dare for its own. I had a look at the thing, but despite the admittedly bed-wettingly gorgeous art of Ian Kennedy, it seemed like a boy band version of the character, a pointless exercise in recreating the original magic by following the same recipe which failed because the rest of the universe had long since moved on; and this was why Dan Dare worked so well in 2000AD, because I was twelve and it absolutely nailed the spirit of its time, for better or worse.

Having only just found out that Belardinelli is no longer with us, this also comes as a wonderful reminder of just how magnificently weird his art was at its best. I can't help feel that had somebody pushed him in the general direction of a life drawing class or two, he might have been remembered with the sort of reverent tone generally reserved for the likes of Kirby, Ditko and Moebius.

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