Dan Whitehead visited The Atkinson in Southport, Merseyside – the town where Eagle comic was first created by Frank Hampson and Marcus Morris – and offers his take on the permanent Dan Dare exhibition there…
I have an almost lifelong affection for Dan Dare and Eagle. The comic was relaunched in the 1980s, just as I was ready to graduate from The Beano and I became an avid reader. I didn’t know it at the time, but not only did I share my birthplace in the North West seaside town Southport with the comic but also my birthday: Eagle was first published on 14th April in 1950, I followed along almost a quarter century later to the day.
Throw in my shared first name with its space-faring figurehead and it seems my fandom was predestined.
I knew that a bust of Dan Dare had been unveiled in the town to mark Eagle’s 50th anniversary, but I’m ashamed to say that despite years of returning to visit family, I never got round to making the trip into the town centre itself to see it in person.
With a family trip planned for Father’s Day this year, I resolved to rectify that oversight.
The bust is now resident in The Atkinson museum and gallery, situated smack bang in the centre of Southport on the main tourist and shopping thoroughfare of Lord Street. Entry is free, and as well as the bust there’s a small but delightful exhibition of Eagle and Dan Dare memorabilia to go with it, part of “Between Land and Sea – 10,000 years of Sefton’s Coast” exhibit that also pays tribute to other famous Southport citizens such as Frank Hornby, the inventor of Meccano and Dinky Toys.
Everything relates to the original 1950s comic, and creator Frank Hampson and the original team that worked on the “Dan Dare” strip, since that was what was produced in Southport, in the Old Bakehouse studio in Churchtown. It’s doubtful that any devoted fans will discover anything new from the display, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t items to cherish.
An imposing life-sized Mekon figure is suspended over the display case, but your attention is drawn to what’s inside. The truly nostalgic will enjoy the range of Dan Dare toys and games, with lots of charming metal rayguns, plastic radio sets and even a vintage card game. There are books and comics, of course, including some French versions – quite a twist for anyone who thought Dare was a uniquely old school British celebrity.
Original pages of Dan Dare art are an obvious attraction, and being able to the gorgeous line work and airbrushed painting up close justified the entire trip as far as I was concerned. Even more thrilling is the inclusion of the spaceship models used to create the original strip, as well as masks and costumes that Frank Hampson’s family and friends used to wear while modelling for the strip. (A small video screen on the wall features scenes from a British Pathe newsreel showing them actually being used).
It’s only one display case, but the collection has clearly been put together with real passion and affection for Eagle, Dan Dare and Hampson himself.
Best of all, there’s a dressing up area nearby featuring a variety of costumes related to the museum’s exhibits. In among the Victorian clothes are two wonderfully accurate Dan Dare helmets and orange flight suits. A pull-out space scene backdrop completes the picture. It’s the sort of extra touch that really puts the cherry on top, and will definitely help parents to get their kids invested in the character.
Making a pilgrimage from the other side of the country just to see this collection probably isn’t terribly cost effective – even with free entry – but if you love classic British comics and happen to be in the Southport area, it is most definitely worth paying a visit.
• The Atkinson is at Lord Street, Southport PR8 1DB. The Museum and galleries are open Monday – Saturday 10.00am – 4.00pm, Sunday 11.00am – 4.00pm | Check all opening times here | Web: www.theatkinson.co.uk | Find The Atkinson on Facebook: TheAtkinson | Follow The Atkinson on Twitter @AtkinsonThe | Watch The Atkinson video channel on Youtube: AtkinsonThe
• There’s more about the original creation of the Dan Dare bust by John Fowler here on DanDare.org and the fiftieth anniversary art here on the official Frank Hampson web site, which also has a feature on the birth of Dan Dare and Eagle here
• The Old Bakehouse in Botanic Road, Churchtown, Southport – the original studio used by Frank Hampson and his team to produce the 1950’s Dan Dare strips – is not open to the public but has been recently restored