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Graphic Novel Review: Dan Dare: The Phantom Fleet by Frank Hampson and Don Harley

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For many of us outside the United Kingdom, the comic series "Dan Dare" is mainly known for its influences on British rock. Pink Floyd, Bowie and Elton John have all included lyrical refs to the character, while the punk band Mekons memorably took their name from the sci-fi series' primary villain. Yet for many young UK readers in the fifties and sixties, Frank Hampson's "Dan Dare" was a major gateway into science fiction. Serialized in the weekly comic Eagle from 1950 to '67, the series recounts the adventures of the "Pilot of the Future" and his friends, most notably his rotund batman Digby and the inevitable nosy boy tagalong (Flamer, so named for his red hair, not any theatrical behaviors).

Dare's gosh-wow adventures, set in the far-off world of 1997, were serialized in two-page chunks in Eagle, with storylines lasting up to a year. While Hampson's strips were clearly aimed at a kid audience ("Golly!" and "Crumbs!" are the most intense interjections uttered in the strip), they were complex enough to engage older readers, while the art (courtesy of Hampson and a studio known as the Old Bakehouse) was meticulously detailed in its renderings of a futuristic Britain. (Hampson reportedly had scale models of many of the ships and cities built so they could be used as references in the actual artwork.) Beautifully realized and colored, the Dare strips are a pleasure just to pore over by themselves.

Titan Books has been reprinting these classic strips in handsome hardbound editions over the last few years, and their latest reissue, The Phantom Fleet, captures Hampson's penultimate Dan Dare adventure. (He left the series in 1959.) The story centers on two aquatic alien races, the Cosmodes and the Pescods, who come to Earth from a "system beyond Earth's scientific knowledge" after their own planet I-Cos starts drying out. The Cosmodes, who are shrimpy enough to stand on an adult human's hand, appear to be friendly, while the larger-sized Pescods are right bastards from the get-go. Utilizing a vaporized acid called the Crimson Death, they plan to conquer Earth and make its oceans their home.

The Cosmodes regularly reiterate that their intentions are honorable, though even our hero has his moments of niggling doubt about this — while some of the more bombastic members of the governing Space Ministry want to Kill 'Em All And Let God Sort It Out. Once the nasty Pescods actually begin their invasion, though, we quickly learn where the Cosmodes' sympathies lie.

"Phantom Fleet" is designed to follow its weekly two-page structure, with many of each week's concluding panels breathlessly telling readers that they sure don't wanna miss next week's "terrific thrills." At times, Hampson oversells the excitement to come, though the story does contain its share of neat moments, particularly in a sequence when our heroes come aboard the aliens' ships for the first time. Young Flamer demonstrates a remarkable facility for sneaking on board just before the big battles, natch: a transparent kid ploy that never would've worked for this reader even back in 1958. As an eight-year-old, I never was much invested in kid sidekicks; I'd much rather focus on the grown-up comic relief like Digby.

As a bonus, an eight-page Christmas trifle, "Operation Plum-Pudding," is included in the volume. Centering on Digby's thwarted desires for a big ol' holiday feast, it's pretty slight, though, again, young Flamer sneaks aboard Dan's space ship Swiftstar, this time with Digby's aid. The kid was incorrigible.

As for our stalwart lead, he's straightlaced and upright in the classic boy's adventure mode, though the "satanic" squiggle in his eyebrows hints at something darker. As a well-known pop culture figure in Britain, Dan Dare has inspired more than his share of satiric piss-takes (one written by Grant Morrison), though the version we get here is the real straight arrow. This is as it should be: you're gonna name your hero Dan Dare, then he'd better be as forthright and true as they come. Though later attempts to revive the character would foolishly try to make him edgier, Hampson's Dare is the model that deservedly endures.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.