Article First Published: November 2007 | Updated to add Collection March 2015
Yesterday’s hero is back. Everyone’s favourite space adventurer, Dan Dare, returns this month in a new action-packed series from Virgin Comics and top creative team Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine. Matthew Badham caught up with the Ennis and Erskine to find out how they’ve interpreted Dare for the new millennium and what this very British hero means to them…
Any writer or artist who revives Dan Dare is standing on the shoulders of giants. The original comic strips, beautifully realised by industry legends such as Dare creator Frank Hampson, have stood the test of time and been regularly reprinted since their initial run in classic boys’ comic The Eagle. Not only that, but the character has been subsequently revived in incarnations realised by some of the best and the brightest creators that British comics have to offer, including Dave Gibbons, Ian Kennedy and Grant Morrison.
What then persuaded writer Garth Ennis and artist Gary Erskine to step up to the plate when it came to taking the Dare legend forward?
“The attraction of working on this new Dare comic is to be part of the Dare Legacy and bring something different to the game while still being respectful to previous versions,” says series artist Gary Erskine, whose previous credits range from Knights of Pendragon to 2000AD, Hellblazer and the recent Vertigo series, Army@Love.
Erskine is aware however that with so many different interpretations of the character floating around, in the original Eagle, in 2000AD, in the 1980s New Eagle and in Revolver and Crisis, it is unlikely that he and Ennis will please every Dare fan who picks up the new series. “There are a lot of people out there already with their own interpretation of Dare,” he feels, hoping however that this new version of the character will complement rather than supersede any of the previous incarnations.
“This new Dare will hopefully please all the fans and readers, whichever incarnation they grew up with.”
Preacher and Judge Dredd writer Garth Ennis meanwhile has been dwelling less on potential reader reaction and more on the nuts and bolts of narrative.
That isn’t to say, however, that the writer is completely unaware of Dare’s legacy.
“I read the 2000AD version as a kid, and have fond memories of it; great artwork by Gibbons and Belardinelli, cool spaceships, freaky monsters. But on reading the Frank Hampson stuff now, as an adult, it’s obvious that the two incarnations have very little in common. The 2000AD Dare was a violent man in a brutal world, light years away from the optimism of his predecessor’s adventures.”
For this new comic, Ennis has chosen to go back to the original strip for inspiration.
“I’ve pretty much ignored all subsequent incarnations. The one exception would be the Irvine jacket Dare wore in the 2000AD strips, which is a British aviation icon we just couldn’t do without.”
Readers can be assured that it’s not just Dare’s jacket that will be returning. Many familiar faces will be appearing in the new Dare, as well as some new characters invented especially for the series.
“Digby and Peabody, the Mekon, the Treens, they all show up,” says Ennis. “New characters include the Prime Minister of Great Britain and its galactic colonies, a very smooth piece of work indeed, and a young naval officer by the name of Christian, who gets thrown in at the deep end and no mistake. She becomes a kind of protégé to Dare, although whether or not she can keep her head above water is another matter.”
Of course, a large part of Dare’s lasting appeal is down to each version’s memorable visuals. The original Dare was all sleek spaceships and retro-future-tech, the 1950s re-imagined as an idealised tomorrow. The 2000AD version meanwhile dropped Dare, courtesy of some gorgeous artwork from Dave Gibbons and Massimo Belardinelli, into a weird punk future full of warped visuals and leather and violence. Fast forward to the 1980s and readers were treated to two Dares, one, in the new Eagle, conventional and conservative, and another, written by Grant Morrison, whose themes of urban decay, a forgotten Britain and class war were beautifully realised by artist Rian Hughes in a popcentric bubblegum style that remained wonderfully unique while somehow still seeming to evoke the original strip’s art style (and recently reprinted in Knockabout’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows). How then has Erskine chosen to approach the new strip’s visuals?
“Frank Hampson and the Dan Dare Legacy are a hard act to follow,” says Gary. “The books are responsible for a lot of my fellow colleagues being drawn into this industry and The Man From Nowhere Trilogy (the 1980s reprint!) was a big inspiration to me when I was young. The attention to detail and characters were great and the adventures were out of this world. The books made me realize that there were opportunities to create new believable worlds and work with characters who could live and breathe. In our new Dan Dare, Garth and I have tried to keep that love for the characters and realized, believable world while making it more accessible to a contemporary audience.
“The Human ships are deliberately functional and a bit clunky like flying battleships, with lots of panels and bolts, and as such are firmly rooted in reality,” he reveals. “Star Fleet is influenced by the navy rather than the air force in our story and the uniform designs reflect that, which is a particularly clever touch from Garth.
“The Treen fleet however had a major overhaul to contrast the difference between the two species,” the artist continues. “Their craft are distinctly alien looking. This carries through to the Treen soldiers who have a more practical body armour than the original brass rings and t-shirt look. This was the only real concession to a modern audience, but readers can be assured that the Mekon himself and the Treens still resemble the Hampson originals. No changes there. Great designs!”
Erskine has no doubt that the new Dare can strike a chord with readers if they give him a chance.
“I think the theme of a heroic character fighting against the odds is a universal one,” he enthuses. “Dare does not have super powers or gadgets but instead relies on his own wits and that is an appealing quality. He’s very much the new James Bond or John McLane for the sci-fi genre.”
“All [the previous Dan Dare incarnations] succeeded, in that each one survived for several years,” feels Ennis. “The 1950s Eagle Dare had an idealism about it that readers at the time clearly responded to, to say nothing of the incredible originality on display in the art and scripts. 2000AD‘s version also fits nicely into its era, with all that 1970s-style carnage and straightforward storytelling — again, good writing and brilliant art will take you a long way. I never really read the 1980s’ Eagle, but I recall they had Ian Kennedy drawing Dare, and that never hurts.”
However the comic is received by both old and new potential fans, both creators have clearly enjoyed the task of re-imagining one of the most affectionately remembered British icons of all time.
“Working with Garth Ennis again on Dare is a dream come true,” feels Erskine. “Nearly 25 years after seeing the reprints of the original Eagle editions I now find myself part of the Dan Dare Legacy and it is a particularly wonderful feeling.
“I hope the audience looks on our contribution fairly and realize that we are all fans of what Hampson created and the people who followed.”
“Seeing Gary Erskine’s pages as they come in has been a real treat,” says Ennis. “It’s also a pleasure to be writing a British hero at a time when there don’t seem to be too many of them around, in comics or in any other kind of fiction. That it’s Dan Dare, pretty much the original and best, is really the icing on the cake.”
• The first issue of Virgin Comics Dan Dare is on sale in the US 28th November and the UK on 5th December 2007 in all good specialist shops (and even some run by Treens)
Meet The Cast
Gary Erskine talks about the look of the new versions of familiar characters…
“[Deciding on] Dan Dare’s face was tricky,” Gary reveals. “We all had a lot of ideas of how he should look and the expectations were high. The fans also have a particular idea of what Dare should look like! The story is set ten years after the Frank Hampson era (although comic story timelines are notoriously vague) so we had an older Dare to contend with too.
“After various sketches and actor influences (George Clooney to Gregory Peck) we settled on a stylized hero face indirectly referencing all the previous suggestions. The zig zag eyebrows are still there, as is the slicked back hair and chiseled features.
“And the strong jaw! It wouldn’t be Dare without that strong chin and British resolve?”
“Digby was easier. He grew into himself a little more as a character. Stockier and less the fool of the original series, he’s now sporting a close beard. He was based on my partner Mhairi’s father, himself a Dan Dare fan. It was quite a surprise for him to be part of a book he once read as a child!”
Professor Jocelyn Peabody
“Professor Jocelyn Peabody was an indirect nod to Joan Allen and her character Pamela Landy in film The Bourne Ultimatum. A great actress and an amazing character, she embodied the qualities, both visually and for the story, that we needed for Peabody.”
The Prime Minister
“Our Prime Minister has a flavour of Tony Blair about him (the suit) but was inspired by Paul Bettany more than anyone. Garth had a particular age for the character and look. Paul fitted that part. There really isn’t anything more to the choice than that.”
“The Mekon is over three hundred years old and as such would age slower than a human (and Dare) I kept very much with the original Hampson and Keith Watson design out of respect and admiration for the character. The only changes made were in his outfit (and that of the Treen guards) The original designs were very dated and needed to be updated for a contemporary audience.”