Eagle Issue 1 - 14th April 1950 - SNIP

The Impossible Space Helmet: Why Frank Hampson’s “Dan Dare” drives engineers crazy, but delights us still

The cover of the first issue of Eagle, cover dated 14th April 1950.
The cover of the first issue of Eagle, cover dated 14th April 1950.

Commando artist Keith Page follows up his profile of French artist Hugo Pratt with a look at the work of “Dan Dare” creator Frank Hampson…

Anyone can see that Dan Dare’s space helmet just wouldn’t work. How could you possibly insert your head through the neck sealing ring and into that curved glass faceplate?

Similarly, take the jet-propelled gyroscopic jeep or “jepeet”. The huge gyrosphere which would protrude into the passenger compartment is never shown. Also, would following vehicles not be blasted by those rear jet exhausts?

Eagle - Dan Dare by Frank Hampson - SpaceshipAnd how about the “Junior – Helirig”? Can you imagine the spectacular accidents which would be inevitable if children were allowed to wear helicopter -rotor backpacks?

Not to mention Spacefleet rocket ships taking off right next to administration buildings…

But none of this matters, of course. In “Dan Dare” in the original Eagle, creator Frank Hampson’s world of the 1990s is somehow convincing once you are reading the stories. Which is more than can be said for the likes of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Captain Condor.

Frank was all for realism – but he never overlooked the fact that he was primarily telling stories.

I was fortunate enough to meet him on two or three occasions and he once explained to me that the somewhat flimsy-looking glazed front end of his spaceships were like that for a good reason. It often added to the story to be able to show something by looking into the cockpit or to show the crew looking out. Look at the view from the atom-bombing Spacefleet cruiser approaching the Red Moon.

Similarly, the space helmets allowed full facial expressions to be shown. And have you noticed that the characters end up wearing a variety of clothing in order that they may be identified from a distance.

Frank never drew an “adequate” frame. Each was from a different viewpoint to keep up interest and dynamism. Often, intriguing new details were included in the foreground or background which were certainly not required by the plot. Frames were given depth by various means.

Sometimes by including a dark figure or object in the foreground. In other instances, figures advanced into the frame in perspective towards a minutely detailed background.

Early examples of this may be found in Eagle Volume 2, Numbers 3, 4 and 5.

The left hand panel of this "Dan Dare" example (from Eagle Volume Two, no. 5), shows Hampson's use of depth
The left hand panel of this “Dan Dare” example (from Eagle Volume Two, no. 5), shows Hampson’s use of depth

Particular attention was paid to the light sources and shadows. Frank was always ready to take the apparent risk of very heavy use of black shadows. Tricky, maybe, but this boldness certainly added to the realism (Have a look at Volume 3, No 49).

There were often hints of complex detail where you could not make out exactly what was going on. Right from the start, on the first page of Issue One you can see this with the cockpit of Kingfisher. In fact, this technique could be particularly useful in portraying alien worlds.

Take Tharl’s Secret City (seen in Eagle Volume 4, No 22). What was the strange rotating ring? Water? Gas? It was never mentioned in the story,but Frank obviously had something in mind.

Tharl's Secret City,as revealed in seen in Eagle Volume 4, No 22
Tharl’s Secret City,as revealed in seen in Eagle Volume 4, No 22

Undoubtedly, Frank’s work on “Dan Dare” suffered from poor reproduction in the early days of the strip. He may well have started with watercolours, rather than inks, which would not have helped. Originals show far finer work with detail the reader unfortunately just could not get to appreciate.

Some are quite extraordinary. Page 2 of Eagle Volume 4 No. 16 is a complete patchwork quilt of alterations stuck on, frames carried up and even a coloured pencil used for lettering. The final frame was done on a piece of scraperboard. Not easy, given the surface texture of this material which was never intended for colour work.

Eagle - Dan Dare by Frank Hampson - Scraperboard
An example of Hampson’s scraperboard technique for Dan Dare

The levels of fine detail and colour -just went on improving until the final superb work on the “Terra Nova” story, most recently republished by Titan Books in their collection Safari in Space. The pages drawn at reproduction size are quite unbelievable in their quality. A lot has been made of the use of live models and photographs, but this is only part of the story.

A large proportion of Dan Dare was of course not done this way and came “straight out of Frank’s head”, as it were. Whilst his fine pen work became ever more intricate and his colour-moulding more subtle, his superb flowing line always distinguished his work from the other artists.

Like many creators, only he could draw the “authentic” version of his characters. Look at Don Harley‘s version of Dan and Digby, for example. While perfectly adequate, for me, they never had quite the same character.

I suspect Frank’s style was inspired in part by American artists such as Milton Caniff, who also used a great variety of viewpoints for frames and Indeed, a lot of bold shadow effects. Some of the brush/pen line work is similar as well.

Frank Hampson’s style could be even more innovative. There is a striking scraperboard illustration to the story “Aunt Anastasia comes to stay” in the 1953 Dan Dare Spacebook. Almost cartoon-like and very stylish, it displays great enthusiasm for trying the new and unexpected.

"Aunt Anastasia comes to stay" in the 1953 Dan Dare Spacebook by Frank Hampson
“Aunt Anastasia comes to stay” in the 1953 Dan Dare Spacebook by Frank Hampson

It is unfortunate that most of Dan Dare had to be completed by other artists, competent but sometimes bland. His work at its best is still outstanding and still unequalled given that he had none of the modern electronic aids now thought necessary by most.

My fjrst attempts at drawing comics were to copy frames from Frank Hampson’s “Dan Dare”. He was always my favourite artist and no doubt a lot of his techniques had some influence. I probably got closest when I drew “Rocket Pilot”, a Dan Dare prequel for Spaceship Away magazine.

Rocket Pilot by Keith Page, published in Spaceship Away
Rocket Pilot by Keith Page, published in Spaceship Away

Keith Watson, particularly when he drew the revived “classic” Dan for Fleetway, did a really excellent job. He told me that he had to rewrite much of the script he was given in order to retain the necessary authenticity which he rightly thought was vital. His last-ever work was a “front page” for Spaceship Away.

Dan Dare by Keith Watson
Dan Dare by Keith Watson

Hampson, of course, continues to influence and inspire many artists, from the realism of Chris Weston to the retro work of Rian Hughes. Long may that continue.

Web Links

The Artwork of Dan Dare

The official web site dedicated to Frank Hampson, curated by his son, Peter. It includes a large number of articles, including a piece on the Birth of Dan Dare and Eagle, galleries and many other items of interest to Frank Hampson fans.

The Lost Characters of Frank Hampson

Frank Hampson is renowned as creator of Dan Dare and for his strip-cartoon rendition of the Life of Christ. But before he left Eagle, he created seven other comic-strip heroes, none of which were published.

Nothing was known about these ‘lost’ strips until after his death, and then it took serious detective work to find even copies of them. You can see them on this site.

The site also contains an appraisal of Dan Dare, an account of Hampson’s last days at Eagle, and how the ‘lost’ strips, intended for that comic, were (legally) whisked away from him.

Frank Hampson - 28th November 1975
Frank Hampson, November 1975 Image: BBC

Frank Hampson – 1975 Nationwide Interview

The BBC Archive has released a 1975 Nationwide feature and interview with Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson, recorded shortly after the artist and writer was voted Prestigioso Maestro at an international convention of strip cartoon and animated film artists held at Lucca, Tuscany.

The Atkinson, Southport

The Atkinson hosts a permanent exhibition dedicated to the work of Frank Hampson, in the Lancashire town where “Dan Dare” and the Eagle were originally “born”. There is a feature here on Museum Crush about the Atkinson collection, by curator Stephen Whittle

Comic Art Fans – Frank Hampson

Several owners of Frank Hampson’s art have posted images of their collection on this site

Original Dan Dare art for Eagle Volume 1 No.22 by Frank Hampson, offered by the Chris Beetles Gallery - for £5000
Original Dan Dare art for Eagle Volume 1 No.22 by Frank Hampson, offered by the Chris Beetles Gallery – for £5000

Chris Beetles Gallery – Frank Hampson Art for Sale

This London-based gallery has a number of Frank Hampson original “Dan Dare” artworks for sale but be warned – they’re not cheap!

The Dan Dare Corporation

The Dan Dare Corporation owns Dan Dare and many other original Eagle characters, and most of the characters and strips that featured in the Eagle revival published in the 1980s and 90s, including Doomlord.

Spaceship Away continues the Dan Dare’s “classic adventures. Part 45 is available now (details here on downthetubes) and back issues are available from http://spaceshipaway.org

Keith Page
Keith Page

About Keith Page

Inspired by the great British comics artists of the past such as Frank Hampson, Don Lawrence and Joe Colquhoun, Keith Page has worked full-time in comics and illustration for some 17 years. Subjects have ranged from television-related material such as Thunderbirds, science fiction, and his current war stories of all periods for Commando.

Along with many Charlotte Corday-related projects, recent works include The Casebook of Bryant May: The Soho Devil written by Christopher Fowler.

• A variety of Keith’s work can be seen on www.keithpageukcomicsartist.blogspot.com and Charlotte Corday has a dedicated web site at www.charlotte-corday.com

• Southport’s The Atkinson is hosting an exhibition to mark the centenary of Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson’s birth, which launches on 15th September 2018, and we have a some pictures of items that will be included here

Read Keith’s profile of artist Hugo Pratt

Dan Dare and Eagle comic © Dan Dare Corporation

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John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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