A tribute by Jeremy Briggs and John Freeman
We’re sorry to report the passing of veteran comic artist Don Harley, one of the few remaining creators to have worked on the original “Dan Dare” strip for Eagle comic.
He was also highly regarded for his work on titles such as Countdown, drawing “Thunderbirds” and other strips, and for several contributions to the Dan Dare-inspired comic magazine Spaceship Away.
Born in London in 1927, Donald Eric Harley studied at the the Epsom School of Art from the age of 14, from January 1942 and passed the Board of Education Drawing certificate in 1944. From September 1944 to July 1945 he was employed at Grafton Arts, St. Brides Square, Fleet Street, London then he was called up for National Service in the Army aged 18. However, he still carried on with his art education whilst in the Army by attending Oxford and Salisbury Art Schools for evening classes in Life Drawing.
After completing National Service, he returned to Epsom School of Art and passed the National Diploma in Design in painting during 1949. In 1950, he was awarded a Surrey Art award to study illustration for one year.
It was while he was studying at Epsom College of Art, where Frank Hampson visited to give a talk about the Eagle and Dan Dare. Don soon applied for and got a job in Hampson’s studio, joining the team in October 1951.
Don fast became integral to the strip’s demanding production, especially during Hampson’s periods of illness, and worked with Hampson, Eric Eden and Joan Porter until the studio was disbanded in 1959 after Odhams Press took over the paper.
Harley remained on the strip for a time, continuing to draw the second page while Frank Bellamy did the first, from scripts by Eden. When Bellamy left the strip, Harley became the lead artist, assisted by Bruce Cornwell, until 1962 when a new team of writer David Motton and artist Keith Watson took over, working on the strip for eight years.
While Don may perhaps best known to many downthetubes readers for his “Dan Dare” work, in Eagle, and, later, the Dragon’s Dream collections (providing new art to mask the Eagle masthead) and Spaceship Away, his comic credits on other titles and for newspapers, were legion.
His newspaper strip credits include work on the newspaper strip “Tug Transom” for the Daily Sketch in 1963, ghosting regular artist Alfred Sindall on stories coded J and K in this three panel strip written by Modesty Blaise creator Peter O’Donnell, about the captain of the tramp steamer Dulcie May.
In comics, his initial post-Eagle credits include work on Treasure, the junior version of IPC’s Look And Learn magazine, providing “Observation Test: What Is Wrong With This Picture?” art, in which he would make changes to everyday scenes for the young readers to spot. These began with a full page painting of a kitchen scene of a mother washing dishes in Issue 1, cover dated 19th January 1963. Later, he took over and completed “The Water Babies” text and panel strip, when Philip Mendoza bowed out of it in 1965. He would continue to provide illustrations for the title for much of its long run.
He also contributed to advertising giveaway comics such as Signal, a promotional comic for the eponymous toothpaste brand, drawing the cover strip “Plotters On The Moor” for Issue 4 in 1963, “Steve and Susan” for issues of Ivory Castle Arrow, and worked on the weekly Tesco Fun ‘n Games comic, with credits for that title including the panel and text strip “Captain Birdseye’s Island” which featured in Issue 9, dated December 1969.
His work also appeared in the Boy’s World annuals, drawing the “Stand-by To Scramble” strip for the 1964 annual, and illustrating a “Mini-Mystery” for the 1965 edition and providing illustrations for “Mountain Rescue” and the comic strip “The Cruise of the Gay Gordon” for the 1970 annual.
For girls comics, he drew “Flying Nurse” for Princess in 1964, about Australian outback nurse Beth Lawson in black and white line and wash.
1964 marked a return to Dan Dare, drawing the seven panel black and white strip “Mission to the Stars” for the Sunday People, which ran for 29 weeks from April to October 1964, written by Willie Patterson, a writer best known for his work on the Daily Express SF adventure strip “Jeff Hawke”.
He also helped out Bruce Cornwell by covering for him in two issues of Wham’s “Danny Dare” humour strip in Issue 15, cover dated 26th September 1964, and Issue 33, dated 30th January 1965, illustrating both the Mekon and Anastasia. (He also provided the colour “Danny Dare” strip in the 1966 Wham annual).
Thunderbirds, and more
Post original Dan Dare, Don would become highly regarded for his work on strips based on various television series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in the 1960 and 1970s. For TV Century 21, he drew the non-television related strip “The Investigator”, which bore no relation to a later TV pilot, about Universal Engineering Incorporated’s problem solver Bob Develin in Issues 73 to 89 beginning in June 1966. He also helped out Frank Bellamy on the “Thunderbirds” strip in Issues 89 to 98, beginning in October 1966.
He also illustrated an untitled Thunderbirds strip in the Thunderbirds Extra for 1966, most of the Thunderbirds strip “Waves Of Disaster” strip in TV Century 21 Summer Extra 1966 (finished by Michael Strand), and another untitled Thunderbirds strip in the Thunderbirds Spring Extra 1967.
For TV21‘s “sister paper” he drew the Lady Penelope strip “Undercover Secretary” for the Lady Penelope annual copyright dated 1966 as well as illustrations for the story “Active Pharaoh” in the annual copyright dated 1967.
For City Editions companion comic to TV21, the relatively short-lived Solo, Don drew the Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons-inspired “Mark of The Mysterons” from Issues 19 to 30 beginning in July 1967, and the TV show’s prequel strip “Mysterons” in TV Tornado in Issues 36 to 47, beginning in June 1967 and again in 50 to 58 ending in February 1968, all of which were in black and white. He also did two short colour Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons strips in TV21 Issues 170 and 171 as well as 185 and 186 in April and August 1968, and provided a factual strip about speed ace Donald Campbell to the 1969 Joe 90 annual.
Launched in 1971, Countdown featured several Gerry Anderson show-based strips, and Don drew six Thunderbirds strip stories between Issues 1 to 23 beginning in February 1971 and a further two stories in Issues 45 to 61 ending in April 1972.
Countdown also ran a number of one-off stories unrelated to the Anderson shows and Don drew the “Countdown Complete” one-off strip “Operation Disintegrator” in Issue 30.
For 1970s Anderson-related annuals, he provided the Thunderbirds strip “Terror At Toreba” in the 1972 Countdown Annual and drew “The Missing Container” for the The Protectors annual dated 1974, based on the live action private investigators series, his final Anderson related strip.
Book and Nursery title work
By the 1970s, like Keith Watson, Don had become a regular freelance artist for DC Thomson for whom he began a long association with their nursery comics. He had already established his talent for such work, having previously provided spot illustrations for IPC’s 1967 Teddy Bear Annual and illustrations for “Playing Indians” and “The Boat Race” in the 1974 and 1976 Hey Diddle Diddle annuals, and his work on “Michael and May Of Seashell Bay” in the weekly Bimbo in 1969, in its 1970 annual. With the weekly strip being reprinted in Magic in 1979 and 1980, Don moved onto various weekly Twinkle stories, including “The Three Pennys”, the modern day friends Penny Smith, Penny Wilson and Penny Henry between 1974 and 1976, and two historical strips “Princess Penelope” and “Debby and the Drummer Boy” in both the weekly comic in 1977 and its annuals around the same time. In addition, he also illustrated Twinkle’s back page feature “Norma Nature’s Notebook” in 1971 as well as the back page features in Magic in 1977 and 1978.
Other DC Thomson nursery strips included “Ricky to the Rescue” in Little Star Annual 1976, and “Dipper The Dolphin” and “Onya The Sea Otter” in the 1977 and 1982 Bimbo Annuals while “Night and Day” was a two page split spread of a selection of country animals in the 1978 Twinkle Annual.
Don’s association with Twinkle’s canines appears to start with “The Sheepdog Trials” strip in the 1970 Twinkle Summer Special, while spot illustrations for “Peggy and her Puppies” text stories appear in the 1974, 1975 and 1977 Twinkle annuals. However his longest run was in Twinkle on stories featuring the character of Sam the Sheepdog, basically Twinkle’s equivalent of The Dandy’s Black Bob. The initially single page, and later two page, colour Sam strip began life as “Shona’s Sheepdog” in Issue 437 dated 5th June 1976 when Scottish shepherd’s daughter Shona MacGregor is allowed to keep one of the litter of her father’s dog Bess. In Issue 451, dated 11th September 1976, with the pup now grown, the strip was renamed simply as “Sam” and featured Don’s only Twinkle cover painting of Twinkle herself together with Shona and Sam.
Despite never owning a dog, let alone a sheepdog, Don would continue Sam’s adventures in the weekly Twinkle and its summer specials and annuals through the 1970s, into the 1980s when the strip had become an illustrated text story, and on to at least 1993, while the character even appeared in two of the Twinkle softcover storybooks in 1980 and 1981, Sam and Sam And The Circus.
In addition to DC Thomson’s nursery comics, Don continued to work on adventure stories for older children, drawing “Dirk Of Honour” in Issues 832 to 846 of Wizard around the end of 1975, as well as “The Band Rat” in Hotspur Issues 866 to 880 during the first half of 1976 and “Jodie And The Otter” from February to July 1978 and “Red Fur” from March to May 1979 in Emma.
In 1979, he worked on the first of the Dragon’s Dream Dan Dare books, The Man From Nowhere, creating new art, which gave the collections a strong sense of being a single adventure. He repainted the opening panels, repositioned the images and extended them to fill the space taken by the Eagle logo and the “Dan Dare” title. On some pages, Don even drew an entirely new extra panel.
He also provided a single strip for the 1989 Dan Dare annual, and around the same time he did illustrations for the 1979 Blake’s 7 Annual from World Distributors. His association with Frank Hampson continued when he contributed a single uncredited illustration of a trawler in the 1968 Ladybird book Through The Ages: Food, a book otherwise credited to Hampson. In 1972 he did the illustrations for the Collins origami book Thunderbird: An American-Indian Legend by Edward Thorneycroft (one in a series of books, with illustrations on other titles by other artists).
He was one of a number of illustrators, including New Eagle “Dan Dare” artist Gerry Embleton, in Purnell’s Treasury of Enchanted Tales retold by Jane Carruth and published in 1978, which was then followed by two non-fiction Knight Books by Gordon Hill, 1979’s Secrets Of The Unknown and 1980’s Secrets of Wartime Adventure. Of all these books Don was most proud of his version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, published in 1981 for St Michael Illustrated Classics.
1980 saw him working on the short-lived title World of Knowledge, contributing a number of double-spread illustrations, for features with factual historical themes. The title itself was rather short-lived and merged with Look and Learn.
The 1980s also saw the beginning of a long run of illustration commissions for educational books, both junior non-fiction and readers, for a variety of publishers, including the non-fiction books Fire! Fire!: The Great Fire of London by Redvers Brandling, published by Blackwell in 1988, and Time Tours: Roman Arena by Andrew Langley. Junior fiction reading books included the internal black and white line and wash illustrations for the 1995 Macmillan intermediate level reader version of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park as retold by FH Cornish, and titles in the Ready/Go series for Caribbean primary schools by Barbara Applin from Macmillan Education Caribbean including 2001’s The Island-Hopping Game and 2002’s The Toy Town Game. One of the last of these educational books was Jillian Powell’s Literacy Land reader To Let: Modern Victorian Home published by Pearson Longman in 2003.
2003 was also the same year that the first issue of the comic magazine Spaceship Away was published by Rod Barzilay, publishing new original Dan Dare strips under license from the Dan Dare Corporation, which continues to this day. As the title’s first editor Rod asked Don to step into the shoes of Keith Watson after his untimely death and continue the artwork for his new ongoing story, “The Phoenix Mission“.
Rod tells us Don’s part in the magazine’s success was pure luck, as Don was well aware just how much work would be involved in creating a strip true to the original style of the original Eagle look. He admits there was certain amount of skullduggery involved, getting Don to draw a couple of pages between his other work, without the dedicated artist realising he was in the process of drawing the entire strip! In all, that early strip cost some £25,000 to produce, part paid by dedicated Dan Dare fans who bought the strip’s original boards, but much from Rod’s own pocket. But the results were more than worthwhile, the strip earning much praise.
“I think it was the best of his Dan Dare career,” feels artist Martin Baines, who has also been a regular contributor to Spaceship Away. “…Visually, it looks stunning. It’s just a shame the story did not allow him to show other parts of the Dan Dare world.”
Don painted the first “The Phoenix Mission” strip and then “Green Nemesis” from Issue 1 dated Autumn 2003 to Issue 15 dated Summer 2008 and, when no longer able to provide the regular comic strip pages, he did do a selection of special two page shorts in Issues 25, 28 and 31 as well as moving over to painting a diverse range of front and back cover and centrespread illustrations featuring Dan and his world.
In addition to providing recollections of his time working on Eagle for the magazine, Don also helped Rod and artist Graham Bleathman with the creation of various artwork features for the title, including the ‘mechanics’ of the Mekon’s hover chair, for which Don and artist collaborated on the cutaway that resulted.
“He painted the Mekon and the background on an A3 sheet of illustration board, leaving a gap for me to do the cutaway of the chair itself, based on his notes,” Graham recalls. “He also provided new art for the Haynes Dan Dare: Spacefleet Operations Manual cover.”
Sadly, as he became frailer, he had to step away from illustration work, but his legacy as an extraordinarily talented and dedicated artist lives on – and will be long and fondly remembered by Eagle, Dan Dare and Gerry Anderson fans.
Tributes to Don Harley
“I was very sad to hear of Don’s death,” says Frank Hampson‘s son, Peter, who was one of the models for characters in the “Dan Dare” strip in its early days and maintains a web site in his father’s honour. “My memories of him are of a quiet, gently spoken smiling man who occupied the front room studio downstairs at Bayford Lodge.
“As I’ve said in the past, I’m sure I was a bit of a nuisance during my forays downstairs in the house, but he was always smiley and welcoming when I invaded his studio. I also remember – I think I’m right – that he had a very smart sports car at some point. A Jowett Jupiter?
“In terms of his place in the Dan Dare team, for years he was my father’s ‘right hand man’, on occasion co-signing the artwork with my father. Along with his other wonderful work. I hope he will be remembered for that, and for the huge contribution he made to the Dan Dare universe.”
“I am very sad to hear the news about Don,” says Greta Edwards (neé Tomlinson), who was also an integral part of the team who worked on “Dan Dare” for Eagle. “He was a very shy man, but a very fine artist and I have always admired his work. We only worked together for a short while and even though we were the same age, he looked so young to me, so I used to refer to him as ‘The Boy’.”
“It was in 1965 when Donald Harley came to our offices and asked my father whether he would be happy to act as his agent,” recalls, the artist’s longtime agent, Claude Kearley. of B. L. Kearley Ltd (now B. L. Kearley Art & Antiques). “At that time we acted for 60 artists and were doing a great deal of work for titles that were published by IPC Magazines and DCThomson.
“His artistic style and type of work suited perfectly, so much so that we were able to completely keep him busy for the next 40 years, a long and mutually beneficial relationship.In his latter years he preferred to limit the work he wished to accept. He would always try and deliver his work to us personally in London, never complaining if there were some client alterations, often carrying out the work in our offices.
“He was a shy and reserved person and it was our pleasure to represent such a talented, easy going artist and lovely man.”
“I know that there will be many people who will want to express their admiration, thanks, condolences and personal memories for the loss of such a fine artist and man,” notes David Britton of Don’s passing, on behalf of the Eagle Society. “For those of us in the Eagle Society, it is an irreplaceable loss.”
“Very sad news in these difficult times,” Colin Frewin, of the Dan Dare Corporation, commented. “What a wonderful talent, a remarkable Illustrator and Super Talented Artist. I am sure he will bring great colour and imagination to that ‘Universe in the Sky’.”
“Don was Frank Hampson’s right hand man on Dan Dare and did such a good job with the artwork that many collectors confuse Don’s work with that of Hampson,” notes art collector and writer Terry Doyle.
“I knew Don quite well and my sympathies go to his family at this time,” notes fan and friend Steven Taylor. “He was a very kind man whose real love in life was collecting fossils – which he seemed to find in unusual places, such as car parks, after new gravel had been poured.”
Of his work for TV Century 21, artist Graham Bleathman feels Don had drawn something of a short straw when he took over the “Thunderbirds” strip. “How on Earth could one follow an act like Frank Bellamy, halfway through a story, too?” he ponders. “Having said that, I enjoyed Don’s black and white work for Countdown, and looking back, his style seemed to suit ‘The Investigator’ in TV21, too. In recent years, I have seen his originals on occasion, and I have to say that the later work he did on ‘Dan Dare’ for Spaceship Away was stunning.
“I only ever met Don once or twice, the first time at the touring Dan Dare exhibition which had reached the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, where a Dan Dare Day was being held (and where I first met Rod Barzilay, who commissioned the Marco Polo cutaway for Spaceship Away on the spot). Rather like Mike Noble, he was a gentle, unassuming man, and extremely helpful in following years in providing Rod and myself with handwritten notes (and photos) for a few of the cutaways that appeared in Spaceship Away.”
“I’m saddened to hear of the death of the great Don Harley,” says artist Tim Booth, a longtime fellow contributor to Spaceship Away. “He was the final link in a chain of illustrative causality that leads back to my childhood and the wonders of the Dan Dare universe as created by the late Frank Hampson, to whom Don was side-kick in chief and the best of the secondary artists who worked so hard on the strips. I never met him, but owe him a vast debt. He illuminated my youth. May he rest easy.”
“Had Eagle and Frank Hampson never happened, surely Don would still have developed into a top illustrator,” notes fellow GIRL comic artist and comics archivist David Slinn, “in whatever direction British publishing had taken.”
“I only met Don Harley once, it was at the second relaunch of the New Eagle at the Science Museum, London,” recalls Dan Dare and 2000AD artist David Pugh of Eaglecon in 1980. “Barrie Tomlinson was up in a recording box, playing the role of Dan Dare and taking questions from the press. Don, Keith Watson, Greta Tomlinson, the model for Professor Peabody along with me and Tom Tully were there. Both Don and Keith wore blue black blazers, very much the 1950s look. I’d already given up on my 70s hippie hair, looking the bald-headed hard man and Tom Tully was dressed like Captain Haddock, complete with a white roll neck wool sweater. I was still in my thirties and very much in awe of the legendary company I was in.
“Don and Keith found drawing so natural to them,” he continues, “whereas I struggled to bring my two-inch thumbnail to life three times week. All my creativity was in that first quick sketch, it then took me two days of craftsmanship to produce the finished page. Like Ian Kennedy, Don and Keith effortlessly sailed through the process of producing beautiful full colour art.
“I was lucky enough to see some of Don Harley’s original art when I visited Rod Brazilay, who had commissioned me to produce an original page for Spaceship Away. Don’s art was superb, it looked so effortless, while I struggled to get that Frank Hampson realism.
“Both Don and Keith have left us to pursue their next life in the cycle of the Samsara. I’m on my own second life as a novelist, exploring the continuation of the creative ego in the afterlife. There are many who have been blessed with such talent, that they won’t let a little thing like death prevent them from continuing to produce great art.”
“I met Don once and he was talking in a lively manner about cars he’d owned over the years,” recalls fellow Dan Dare artist Keith Page, who worked on the character for New Eagle. “As you may surmise, I was very interested!
“I well remember as a child seeing the magical names, Frank Hampson and Don Harley, in Eagle. He was a superb colourist and added new depths to the Dan Dare stories from “The Man from Nowhere” onwards.
“I have a page of artwork he did for the original Dan Dare story of Spaceship Away. Having used coloured inks myself I know how difficult this is but Don was able to handle them in a uniquely accomplished manner.
“Another artist of the old school lost to us.”
“Back in the later 1960s, I wrote to Don Harley asking about any Eagle comics he had spare, having somehow been given his address and the information that they were going wanting,” artist Andrew Skilleter, both a fan of Eagle and “Dan Dare”, and publisher of Alistair Crompton’s the Frank Hampson biography, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow. “I received a long letter in excellent handwriting, saying he was moving but sadly I was just too late as had earlier put a pile of Eagles out for the dustmen!
“Bothering to reply to me demonstrates his helpful nature and the disposal of his Eagle comics, presumably with his work in it, a perhaps unsentimental attitude to his years on Dan Dare as Frank Hampson’s righthand man. That era was all over and he was now a busy freelancer.
“Don’s ability to work in harmony with Hampson’s style from the “The Man from Nowhere” onwards was crucial to the high standard of those golden years of the Dan Dare strip,” Andrew feels. “He was the glue that held it together.
“I must have next encountered Don at Eaglecon in 1980, but I became better acquainted with him, thanks to Alan Vince, during the process of visual referencing for the then upcoming Frank Hampson biography by Alastair Crompton which we were to publish. Don had inherited a large collection of the Hampson Dan Dare photographic archive when he and Bruce Cornwell left the Dan Dare studio to draw the strip on their own.
“Miraculously, he had kept it all and was willing to let us use it. It provided the unique pictorial subplot to Alastair’s text and made the book very special giving a unique insight into how the studio system worked, based as it was on posed photographic figure reference.
“Don struck me as a likeable, modest, down to earth kind of guy, with simple tastes, who was full of stories, and not just about the comics world. I recall how he was in demand for educational book work for Africa as he had a rare skill at being able to draw believable ethnic groups.
“The technique he displayed in his later work for Spaceship Away at a ripe old age was a tribute to his stamina and abilities. It was ambitious and detailed and is an example of how a few illustrators can maintain their skills well into their eighties.”
Our sympathies to Don’s family and friends at this time.
Don Harley, born 1927, died January 2021
Don Harley’s long career in comics is charted in Spaceship Away Issues 48 and 49 across two articles, the first by Alan Vince, the second by Jeremy Briggs
Don Harley redrew a page featuring this “lost” character in 2007, utilising surviving photostats of Frank Hampson’s original pages
With thanks to Jeremy Briggs, Rod Barzilay, Peter Hampson and David Slinn, and all those who kindly shared their memories of Don or his work for this item
Dan Dare and Eagle © Dan Dare Corporation. Twinkle © DC Thomson Media. “The Investigator” © Anderson Entertainment. TV Century 21 brand © Rebellion Publishing Ltd. Countdown © REACH