On our coastal walks C and I have discussed most things under the sun. One of them, on a Gower trip in early September, was the Eagle comic, which we both read as young lads. Now C has lent me his battered and beloved copy of the Eagle Annual Number One to read over Christmas in case Middlemarch became too much for me.
C was an Eagle addict long before I started reading it. My first comic was Swift, which became incorporated into Eagle only in 1963. It turns out that both titles were launched by an Anglican vicar from Southport, Marcus Morris, concerned that Christian values were losing ground to secularism and immorality, and worried about the dubious content of the new US comics. Maybe my parents did their market research and chose Swift for me as the most innocuous comic, but if so I was unaware of a moral conspiracy, or of any designs on my impressionable mind. I looked forward impatiently to each week’s issue. My favourite strip was Blackbow the Cheyenne, which must have appealed to my nascent sense of rebellion, since most 1950s stories treated native Americans as cannon fodder for gun-toting cowboys. Blackbow was one of the few characters to survive into Eagle when Swift folded.
The first Eagle Annual seems to have been published in 1951, though there’s no date mentioned. It seems very text-heavy compared with what I remember of the later weekly Eagle, which relied mainly on strip cartoons. The only strip that looks familiar is Dan Dare, pilot of the future, the secret weapon of Marcus Morris and his artist-designer Frank Hampson. This one begins on Mars in the year 1997. The ‘Astral Queen’, the new luxury flagship of the interplanetary fleet – it looks like a cross between a Virgin train and a jumbo jet – is ready for its return to Earth. The crew pick up a weak morse signal from two spacemen who are stranded in their ship, caught in the gravitational fields of an asteroid belt. Eventually the two of them, named Hank and Pierre (Americans and Frenchmen still need rescuing from themselves by stiff upper lip types from Britain) are retrieved by the Astral Queen. Success is assured not by Dan Dare but by one of the passengers, Professor Peabody. Remarkably, Professor Peabody is a woman – how many university professors were women in 1951? – who sets the coordinates towards the stricken craft and suggests how they should tow it home. Alas, the great green-headed enemy of Dan Dare, The Mekon, leader of the Treens, does not make an appearance in the story.
Fast machines were an obsession in the early 50s. One of the many science features in the Annual describes the ‘George Bennie Airspeed Railway’, ‘which goes above the ground and which is capable of travelling several times as fast as any train on the ground’. George Bennie, an early version of Richard Branson, built a prototype track at Milngavie, Glasgow, in 1929-30. ‘As a result it was the subject of a Government Blue Book, recommending it as the ideal solution for linking London with its airport at Heathrow’. An accompanying drawing shows how Oxford Street in London would look with one of Mr Bennie’s railplanes racing along it above the cars and pedestrians. A Pathé newsreel preserves one of the test journeys at Milngavie, with a single-carriage train, proudly labelled ‘G.B.R.’, suspended from its track and powered by a two-blade propellor, edging along at rather less than the claimed top speed of 150mph. Bennie clearly lacked the PR skills and gross effrontery of Branson, and ended his career in a herbalist’s shop in Glasgow.
Bennie’s pre-war invention was propellor-driven. The new post-war age, though, was jet-powered, and jets were the future (the world’s first gas turbine car, the Rover 1, was on display on London’s South Bank during the Festival of Britain in 1951). One article in the Annual instructs the reader through diagrams how to build a ‘jet propelled model racing car’ from balsa wood, and another how to build a ‘jet-powered dart’ from paper (‘some of the very latest British and American aircraft bear a striking likeness to the ever popular schoolroom paper dart’). A long and technical feature explains with the aid of detailed cut-away diagrams how jet-propulsion and gas turbines work. The fuel of the future was obviously oil, and a long article tells the story of this ‘treasure of the earth’.
The Eagle Annual caters for most traditional boys’ interests: sport, including football (‘poor ball control and its cause’, ‘how to gather the ball’), cars and model railways, fishing, lost treasure and the world of nature (‘rearing silkworms’), and there are plenty of thrilling adventure stories. Morris knew how to sign up writers and artists of talent – not only Dan Dare’s Frank Hampson but also Chad Varah, who a little later founded the Samaritans, Macdonald Hastings, the racing driver Raymond Mays and John Ryan, best known for Captain Pugwash, who first appeared, prematurely, in Eagle in 1950. Several exciting stories are contributed by Ronald Syme – presumably not the Ronald Syme who was the expert on Tacitus and the author of The Roman revolution, the turgid textbook I waded through as an undergraduate?
It takes only a few frames of Dan Dare to transport me back to a time, long before student days, when tradition and modernity mingled so innocently.
Some time later- in the lounge.
Digby: Nice easy take off, Miss – these new shock absorbers are wizard.
Prof. Peabody: Don’t hold out on me, Dig – why did everybody look like mourners when I mentioned Hank & Pierre?
Digby: Well, Miss, they went on an exploration trip three months ago – out beyond Mars towards the asterisks.
Prof Peabody: Asterisks? Asteroids, you mean.