To co-incide with the 65th anniversary of seminal British picture strip weekly, Eagle, the British Interplanetary Society held a one day conference on Tuesday 14th April 2015 entitled ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’. Richard Sheaf reports…
A packed programme introduced by the Society’s president, Alistair Scott (who revealed the Eagle had helped him learn English as boy) began with Gerry Webb and his talk, “Dan, His World and the Future I expected”. Gerry, the founder of Commercial Space Technologies, has been an active member of the BIS since 1957 and outlined how the science-fiction of the 1950s (with its vision of a dry, dead Mars and a wet, but alive Venus) had, in his opinion, combined to inspire a generation of engineers and scientists.
Gerry, who said he had fully expected to be skiing with Professor Peabody on Mars around 20 years ago (the Dan Dare of the Eagle was set in the 1990s), was part of this inspired generation and saw how the technical background of the 1940s and 50s, with the birth and development of radar, jet engines, supersonic flight, rocket planes and the like should have propelled us into the future that Dan’s adventures took place in.
“Science fiction is the only literature that defines the culture you are in,” he argued. He felt that after all the hopes for space stations in operation and landing on other planets that punctuated the 1950s, the illusion seemed to break in 1962, when the rosy future many hoped for seemed to dim for many and the Eagle began to lose its edge – and SF itself changed direction, facing up to the realities of how society as moving.
Despite this, Dan Dare still inspired Gerry – who was one of the first victims of ‘space war’ in 1944 when his house was hit by a V2 rocket. Although the fictional future he read of in the Eagle was delayed – arguably in part the result of the fall of the Soviet Union – it is now back on course, restarting thanks to European Union and government funding.
“Dan inspired me to strive for the future,” he said.
Alan Bond, another rocket engineer and one of the founders of Reaction Engines Ltd., then talked on “The Shaping of the Space Age”, examining three very different sci-fi stories of the 1950s.
First up was the Dan Dare story “Operation Saturn” from Eagle in 1953, which (unusually) features the development of a rocket testing programme – the problem is the highly volatile rocket fuel monatomic hydrogen and how it can be controlled by Dan and company. “No one knew what it was,” he commented. The fictional development work of Dan Dare was a reflection of the huge amount of research, development work and testing being undertaken by scientists at the time – and not without cost. Some 37 test pilots were killed in the five years that followed World War Two.
Next up was Journey into Space, Charles Chilton’s radio series from the 1950s. Alan confessed that he analysed the background science and technology of the series to see if it really was a sound as it seemed and he confirmed that it was, and that Charles must have given the series much thought it terms of how long it would take you to get to Mars.
Aiming the series at an adult audience also meant that the team dynamics of in Journey Into Space were more realistic, more fractious, than between Dan, Digby and the rest of the Eagle pals.
“Looking at old science fiction helps real scientists strive to meet public expectations about spaceflight,” he argued.
Finally he looked at a TV series from the 1950s, Quatermass and the Pit. Again, Alan looked at the quality of the science underpinning this series, which terrified a huge audience every week and highlighted the “alienness” of the alien creature as a key reason for this. It was not a just a humanoid from another planet but instead a tripedal arthropod with a hive mind capability. The human dynamics of the story again are very different to what has gone before with Quatermass a strong leader battling against an authority which was intellectually inferior to his.
So, three very different sci-fi stories, using different mediums but all with important messages about the role of leadership, teamwork, intelligence and determination.
“They were all cracking, good stories,” Alan enthused, “And every week your were waiting eagerly for the next episode.”
Will Grenham, of the Eagle Society, then gave a presentation entitled “Eagle, The Model for a Generation”. This gave an excellent grounding in the gestation, birth, life and death of Eagle. Splitting his talk into three parts, Will first looked at the 1945-50 period and the pre-Eagle work of Frank Hampson in Anvil magazine and on the dummy issues that were put together in the run-up to the launch of Eagle. He then looked in detail at issue one and some of familiar (Dan Dare) and not so familiar contents (Skippy the Kangaroo – no, not that Skippy).
The 1950s Eagle was then reviewed, showing how the early Eagle had slowly turned into the magazine that hit a high water mark in the 1956-62 period. After this it was, sadly, a story of decline. All in all, an excellent primer on the history of the comic.
Rob Barzilay then spoke on “Spaceship Away! Preserving the Dream” and how the magazine had been born out of a desire to do a ‘proper’ old school Dan Dare strip of the sort that didn’t happen when new Eagle was re-launched in 1990 with much fanfare about getting original Dare artist Keith Watson back on board. Sadly Keith wasn’t involved in new Eagle for very long but a story, “The Phoenix Mission”, was eventually conceived as an early form of crowd-funding with fans committing to buy original art for a new Dan Dare story.
Sadly, Keith died in 1994 with only the first page of the story completed, Rod then got another veteran Dare artist, Don Harley, to step into the breach and complete the story. Following a commitment to Keith’s widow to get the story published somewhere, Rod had to eventually set up his own magazine to do just this, and thus Spaceship Away was born.
Another veteran Dan Dare artist was next up, as Greta Edwards, neé Tomlinson, spoke of her time working with Frank Hampson and his studio of artists at the very birth of Eagle. She joined the team in February 1950 as figure artist having just graduated from the Slade school of art.
Most well known for her work on the “Marooned on Mercury” story, Greta’s time with Eagle saw her work on a number of strips. She drew quite a number of the “Tommy Walls” advertising strip for the inside back page (at an extra £2 per week) and drew the “Rob Conway” strip in the very earliest issue of Eagle. This was, by her own admission, not her finest hour as a strip cartoonist as she and Harold Johns (her collaborator on “Marooned on Mercury”) had no ideas about scriptwriting and had a story which seemingly had no script!
Eventually she left the Dare studio and moved into commercial drawing and TV illustration before marrying and move to the Middle East. A fine painter in her own right (although restricted by failing eyesight these days) examples of Greta’s artwork can easily be found online.
“I Blame it all on Dan Dare! Twice” was professional illustrator Jim Burns’ review of his life and how Dan Dare had inspired both his career choices. Having a father who was RAF ground crew and an interest in aviation (inspired by the ‘RAF in space’ exploits of Dan Dare) Jim joined the RAF in 1966. Unfortunately, despite being able to fly a jet at 30,000 feet before he could even drive a car, Jim’s career in the RAF was short-lived so again he turned to Dan for inspiration and this time took up a career as an illustrator that he continues to this day – even though his tutors at college told him they could see no future in his SF art. Jim’s talk was accompanied by dozens of examples of his amazing artwork, including one of his backdrops for the aborted ATV Dan Dare show. Jim freely admitted how Frank Bellamy’s work on Dan Dare (among other strips) and inspired him every bit as much as Frank Hampson.
Art historian Eric Fernie’s presentation on “Dan and Co. and how they got on with the Solar System and Beyond” considered how the planets of our solar system were depicted as Dan and co. worked their way across (most of ) them. Eric, demonstrating his scholarly pedigree, considered how the architecture of Mekonta influenced a young Richard Rogers and how that influence would echo down the years on buildings such as the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyds building.
“Frank Hampson deserves a place in the history of modernist architecture in Britain,” he argued.
“Beyond the Pale – Dan Dare after The Eagle” was writer and convention organiser James Bacon’s effort to encourage a sceptical 1950s generation to re-consider the other versions of Dan Dare that have appeared over the years in 2000AD, new Eagle, Revolver and in Virgin Comics. James highlighted the “shared DNA” that all these titles have in common and, therefore, why they were worthy for re-consideration.
“How Things Turned Out – The Surprising Worlds that Dan Dare Didn’t Visit” by Doctor Bob Parkinson (who worked on Rocket Propulsion Establishment Westcott, Project Daedalus, and was co-originator of the HOTOL Spaceplane concept along with Alan Bond) concluded the day by considering that although there are no alien races in our solar systems, there are some very strange facets to our solar neighbours. Venus, for instance, has relatively few impact craters on its surface, which suggests that the whole surface of the planet is in some way periodically completely re-surfaced by volcanic activity. Did you know, too, that the surface of Mercury was black, that Uranus is nearly tipped over on its side or that the one of Saturn’s moons (Enceladus) ejects water into space? As Bob pointed out, the solar system has changed a lot from what we knew about it in the 1950s – but it hasn’t got any less interesting!
Bob’s talk proved a fascinating end to a really interesting day, a great range of speakers considering many and varied facets of Eagle’s context and influence. The BIS are to be congratulated on organising such a packed programme.
Our thanks to the team at the British Interplanetary Society, Britain’s leading think tank on space development for enabling our coverage of this symposium. Founded in 1933, the BIS is the world’s longest established organisation devoted solely to supporting and promoting the exploration of space and astronautics.
The British Interplanetary Society is devoted to initiating, promoting and disseminating new concepts and technical information about space flight and astronautics through meetings, symposia, publications, visits and exhibitions. Members of the BIS are available across the country to talk on a wide range of subjects at schools, colleges and universities
• For more information about the RAF’s research and development work at Farnborough down the decades visit the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust web site: www.airsciences.org.uk
• Eagle Society: http://eagle-times.blogspot.co.uk
• Spaceship Away: http://spaceshipaway.org.uk
• Jim Burns: www.alisoneldred.com/artistJimBurns.html
• The Guardian: Suffering Satellites! We’ve Built The Future
2008 article on Dan Dare-inspired architects
Additional reporting by John Freeman. All photographs © John Freeman except where indicated