New Dan Dare

This weekend I sat down with a mixture of excitement and trepidation to read the latest attempt to resurrect one of the most famous characters in British comics history (and also a lifelong favourite of both me and my dad, incidentally), Dan Dare. Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s first issue of the new Dan Dare from Virgin Comics just came out and I had to read it. Then I had to write a bit about it and ended up doing a review for the Forbidden Planet International blog, which I am also going to reproduce below:Dan Dare #1
Written by Garth Ennis, art by Gary Erskine

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As regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of the original Dan Dare; back in 1977 it was the then-new kid on the block, 2000 AD, which introduced me to the character (along with Massimo Belardinelli’s stunning artwork). My dad, reading my progs after me, mentioned reading the original Dan Dare when he was a boy and how much better it had been (he was right, it was). Original Dan Dare? What was this Eagle comic he spoke of to my young ears? What was this radio series of the Pilot of the Future he used to listen to? I didn’t know it then, but I was slowly becoming aware of a piece of British comics history and a character that would go on to be one of my favourites of all time, Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare (and getting to share it with my dad makes it more special). I remember buying the over-sized Hawk Books reprints in the 90s for my dad and I’ve got a shelf full of the handsome Titan Classic Dan Dare volumes myself (a great range, which I always recommend).

So you can imagine I’ve been suffering a mixture of excitement for the latest attempt to resurrect Dan Dare along with a nagging worry that it will fall flat on its face. Much as I want to see Dan brought back with new adventures there are always two main problems to be faced: if you make it too similar to the original then you are being faithful to the characters but you run the risk of offering reheated leftovers with nothing new. On the other hand if you offer something new and different then fans (like me) will ask why you put Dan’s name on it since it has very little to do with him. So with these ambivalent feelings I picked up the first issue of Virgin’s Dan Dare – naturally the fine Bryan Talbot cover version which uses elements of the classic, including Dan’s helmet (Greg Horn is an artist I like but his style is totally unsuited to Dan; my advice, avoid the variant cover). And here’s the thing: I liked it.

In fact I really, really liked it. I enjoyed it; I liked Ennis’ take on him, I like the way he has set it years after Dan and Digby’s ‘glory days’ as the prime minister refers to them so we can maintain links to the original but still have something new, I like the space opera set-up of old-fashioned space battle cruisers, the promise of a threat from the past and a call to an old Hero which comes right out of Joseph Campbell. And no matter how sophisticated and postmodern we like to think our tastes have become, at the end of the day pretty much everyone of us at some point just wants a Hero; we want someone who will stand up and do the Right Thing, not for personal gain, not for political gain, not for glory, but because it is the Right Thing. The more troubled our times, the more we yearn for such a Hero and Ennis handles this especially well in my opinion.

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(opening page of Garth Ennis new Dan Dare issue 1, art by Gary Erskine, published Virgin Comics)

We have the British prime minister visiting Dan in his retirement; prior to this the chaps’ old sidekick and their scientific advisor Professor Jocelyn Peabody is seen meeting a retired Digby in orbit at Space Fleet’s Gibraltar station, where we pick up a few details of the way the world has changed from the classic era and find that Britain is the leading power following a Chinese-American conflict (the panel showing modern America from orbit was simple but highly effective). We’re also clued in to the fact that the prime minister may not be the best man in the world; not actually malignant or evil, but a man who can make decisions he thinks are for the Greater Good regardless of actual morality. Something that sounds awfully familiar to anyone who follows contemporary British politics, as does references to him having been in power too long and never resigning despite often saying he plans to (gee, who could Garth be referring to?).

So by the time the meeting of the prime minister and Dan arrives we’ve already had some insights into his character and recent history (and in well-handled small bursts, no huge ‘info dump’ to bring us up to speed). And if we’re in any doubt then his interaction with Dan reinforces the earlier impressions – the prime minister admires the pictures on Dan’s wall and remarks on a particularly pretty aircraft.

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(the present meets the past; the prime minister calls on a retired Dan Dare)

A Spitfire,” replies Dan, “my grandfather flew one in the Battle of Britain.”

I wasn’t aware there’d been a battle of…”

Small matter of saving the country and Western civilisation along with it. Why don’t you have a seat?

Its one of those exchanges which conveys simply but effectively contempt for much of political ‘leadership’ and the way in which our leaders are happy to associate themselves with our Great History and our Heroic Armed Forces for media-friendly appearances, yet they often have a complete ignorance of our actual history and they end up committing similar mistakes to the past because of it. They represent spin and image, all surface, while Dan, for all his quietness, represents that which they pretend to. It isn’t as biting as Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ Thatcher-era Dan Dare (reproduced recently in the splendid Yesterday’s Tomorrows) and yet it clearly tips its hat to that tale while also serving to establish the current set-up of Dan’s world in this new version.

It isn’t all just a slightly melancholic, wistful longing for the Good Old Days when things were simpler and men were Real Men though, we’re treated to big space cruisers, gloriously old-fashioned, right down to gun turrets like an old naval warship and a crew who use terms like ‘fish in the water’ when they detect incoming fire. Cue a sudden attack and we’re treated to dirty, big spaceships blasting away at each other; it is wonderfully old-fashioned, pure space opera stuff and gods but its great! Older Digby, Jocelyn and Dan re-introduced, small but sufficient glimpses of the way the world has changed since Dan’s original day with the promise of more to come, a threat hinted at – could it be the Mekon, back again? – then sudden, awful confirmation with a spectacular space battle (Gary’s art is clear and unfussy throughout, quite suitable to Dan I thought) and Dan’s call back to action and that’s just the first issue. Will I be picking up the second issue now? Oh, hell, yes!

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(it isn’t just juxtaposing old values against the modern, we also get some cracking, old-fashioned space battles)

You can enjoy the allusions to our contemporary world, the parallels and comments on politics and national leaders, the seeming lack of a moral compass in modern society, the rose-tinted view of the Good Old Days and references to the original Frank Hampson work (who I am glad to see name-checked inside) and the Morrison-Hughes Dare, or you can laugh at the back page advert for Virgin Galactic. But mostly you can also just simply allow yourself to indulge in a really enjoyable read and look forward to the promise of good, old-fashioned, square-jawed British heroics, and god knows with all that’s going on in our troubled world it feels good to have that kind of real Hero again, even if he is fictional. it’s a form of heroism the prime minister clearly doesn’t get, even as he appeals to it, but the readers get it and they love Dan for it:

There’s one thing that puzzles me, Mister Dare.”

What’s that?

Well, not to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but you obviously want no part of what Britain is today or you wouldn’t be living all the way out here, would you? So I simply don’t understand why you’re still willing to fight for it…”

No, prime minister, I don’t imagine you do.

There’s the proper Dan Dare in a nutshell and that’s what I want; I’m looking forward to Ennis and Erskine building on this first issue.