Sufferin' satellites, The Comic is dead: Jonathan Glancey traces a mutant evolution

Dan Dare and the Eagle vanished in 1969 after a 991-week run. During almost 20 years of publication, the finest English comic art strip was drawn by several talented graphic artists, starting with Frank Hampson and working through Frank Bellamy, Don Harley and Keith Watson.

Each added to the stature of the legendary strip, yet by the end of the Sixties, Dan Dare was ready to fold his wings. Colonel Dare and the Eagle itself - a comic that had sold more than a million copies a week at its zenith in the mid-Fifties and rarely fewer than 750,000 at other times - were considered old hat by their publishers, IPC. The Second World War was definitely over, 25 years on from VJ Day, they said, and Dan Dare, with his self-deprecating, pipe- smoking 'up and at 'em, chaps' view of the world, was a dinosaur.

The Eagle and Dan Dare had been superseded by Dr Who, television and even more television. And as for those exploded drawings of trains, ships and planes - drawn by Leslie Ashwell Wood and John Batchelor - which had made the Eagle equally famous in the Fifties and Sixties, surely television could do much better?

Yet Dan Dare was by now more than a character from a boys' comic; he was the stuff of British mythology, providing much the same aura as Batman and Superman across the Atlantic. Could he be revived with a new uniform, up-to-date technology and a more aggressive television-era demeanour? He was, at first, in the comic 2000AD, where he was drawn by Dave Gibbons and penned by Alan Moore, only to be lost in space again when that television-influenced comic changed its format.

He re-emerged in an uninspired late-Eighties re-launch of the Eagle. This time, Dare was portrayed as an all-American super-hero: tough, no-nonsense and armed with a lethal space-gun that he obviously enjoyed using.

It was a formula that failed. This Dan Dare offered neither the quality of artwork of the Fifties original nor the literary subtlety of the new wave of adult comic books being produced in the United States.

While Dan Dare waits to be revived a fourth time, some of the artists who have drawn him have been participating in the boom in adult art comics and, for want of a better term, graphic novels, which have raised the comic strip to a self-conscious art form over the past decade and left a gap in comic publishing.

Today, young children are offered a range of banal television- inspired comics of the Postman Pat sort, and others designed to feed the latest fad, such as the World of Dinosaurs.

The launch issue of this comic concentrates on the unseemly feeding habits of these terrible reptiles, and includes a free packet of Jacob's Mini Dinosaurs ('bite-size toffee-flavoured biscuits') to encourage equally unseemly behaviour on the part of its readers.

Otherwise, some children still find the Beano funny (moving on to Viz at secondary school). But most have no time for the comics of yore. They prefer television, computer games and such magazines as those devoted to the arcane, armchair world of computer programming. The recent demise of Roy of the Rovers - a comic based on one of the stars of Tiger, a Fifties boys' title that once enjoyed a circulation of 300,000 - marked the end of an era. Where Roy of the Rovers used to flourish - it was selling just 25,000 when it folded - there now exists a huge publishing void.

The work of former Dan Dare illustrators and writers, such as Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, exists on another plane. Starting with Watchmen (Gibbons and Moore, DC Comics), published in book form in 1986, and Batman, The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller for DC Comics), published as a book the same year, the comic book became the stuff of adult reading.

Both these strips were magnificently illustrated, featured inventive and highly wrought scripts and revelled in a world that was dark, dangerous and pyschopathic. Batman had aged; he had become a sinister, but genuinely interesting figure. He was no longer nave nor squeaky clean. He had become the raw material of the psychiatrist's couch, of Alien and Bladerunner. It led to the recent crop of Batman movies, the stuff of adult entertainment and children's nightmares.

The influence of strips such as Watchmen and the apocalyptic Batman has been extraordinary. It has inspired a whole other world of unpleasant comic book characters, powerful story lines, excellent illustration and a celebration of violence the like of which television would never dare to show.

The most extreme example is Skin (Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, Tundra, 1992), the sickening story of a skinhead thalidomide victim who wreaks his vengeance on everyone, not least the chairman of the thalidomide drug company whose arms he hacks off with an axe and ties to his own body before leaping to his death.

Despite the violence, it is imaginatively illustrated and horribly compelling. It has a painterly style of illustration that is even more pronounced in The Yattering (Eclipse Graphic Novels, 1993), a horror comic novel written by Clive Barker and drawn by John Bolton. The manner in which Bolton merges images of surreal, invisible demons trying to drag a suburban man to hell with all-too-human humans trying to cook the Christmas turkey, is quite remarkable.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Signal to Noise (published in instalments in the Face and as a book by Victor Gollancz last year) puts the comic-book-as-fine-art on a high shelf, wholly inaccessible to children but gripping stuff for those generations weaned on the work of Frank Hampson and the Eagle artists. The use of so many graphic techniques in this story of a dying film producer dreaming his last, end-of-the-world movie is impressive rather than pretentious (which it could easily be), and the story is as moving as that found in many new novels, although told in much fewer words.

The most chilling of the new comic books must be Frank Miller's Sin City (Titan Books, 1992). Here the anti-hero, Marv, gradually disintegrates as he hacks, saws, blasts and rips his way through a world of filth and corruption that finally kills him, too. This monochrome book is truly shocking. It is not something you would want your child to see.

And there lies the true end of comic-book art. It has become the province of adults. Dan Dare is long dead, and with him goes the comic-book hero who was bluff and decent, and good enough to be the stuff of auction rooms 40 years on. Yet he was drawn for boys and tomboys.

How many future designers, illustrators and architects were inspired by Frank Hampson, Dan Dare and the Eagle? Many. How many will be inspired by Postman Pat and The World of Dinosaurs?

But Dan Dare is an impossible figure for children weaned on violence and adults for whom sickening sex and perversion is a part of their daily diet.

Taken by surprise, Dan exclaims: 'Sufferin' satellites]'; Frank Miller's Marv responds with a gutteral: 'Hnh . . .' Dare gave his enemies, the Treens, the old one-two, teaching them a lesson they wouldn't forget; Marv meets his enemies with a chiaroscuro swirl of punches, razor cuts and body-ripping bullets. He saws off their limbs and has them fed to the dogs.

At which point you realise that the modern comic book may be art, but it is very hard to like.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Up and away: rates will rise but your mortgage won't escape its moorings with a long-term fix

Is a 10 year mortgage deal a fix too far?

A cut-price deal for a decade-long home loan - where's the problem? Only, says Simon Read, that circumstances can change and it won't be easy to get out
In a surprise move the Tories have decided against putting a career politician into the job. Instead they’ve handed the responsibility to campaigner Ros Altmann

New pensions minister has massive job on her hands

The Tories have appointed campaigner Ros Altmann to the post

Promises, promises: David Cameron talks to staff at Asda's head office in Leeds today

General Election 2015: How you vote next week could affect your finances

Rival party pledges could shrink your savings or grow your nest egg
Logos for the 'Big Six'; energy companies (top row from left) British Gas, EDF, RWE npower, (bottom row from left) SSE, E.ON and ScottishPower

Winter heating underpayment brings summer pain

One reader’s monthly direct debit charge has been increased by 62 per cent

Almost 15,000 people died last winter through living in cold homes that they couldn’t afford to heat

Social tenants locked into energy tariff for 40 years

Many Londoners who live in social housing estates are not allowed to switch because their landlord has ‘locked’ them in to buying from one supplier

Will your credit card rewards be scrapped following new EU rules on charges?

Providers are unhappy with new EU rules - but ultimately it is customers who will have to foot the bill
There remain more than a million unclaimed Premium Bond prizes worth collectively around £48m

Have you won £1m in the May Premium Bonds draw?

More than £60m was paid out to more than 2 million prizewinners this month

The 0 per cent introductory deals that credit cards offer are one of the most odious tricks

Beware credit card firms’ odious tricks

Why can’t we just have open and honest charges, without all the cross-subsiding?

The pound’s recent strength against the euro could be hit by economic uncertainty under a new government

How planning can make your travel cash go further

With the pound at a high against the euro, it pays to buy now before uncertainty post-election

Put the phone down on the coldcallers who see pension liberation as an opportunity to liberate your pension from you

Pension freedoms: How to deal with cold calls from scammers

Sean O'Grady offers advice on keeping your money safe
Switching to a better bank account is much easier than it used to be

More people are switching current accounts – but what do the figures mean?

Experts disagree about the 7% increase over the past year

The chance of getting what appears to be free money can be hugely attractive, especially to first-time buyers who can be fooled into thinking it’s extra cash to buy the essential new items they need for their dream home.

Beware the boom in cashback mortgage deals

Too many mortgages are being sold with misleading gimmicks

The firm’s revenues slumped by a third to £217 million in a disastrous 2014

Wonga results could get even worse this year, chief admits

The firm’s revenues slumped by a third to £217 million in 2014

The cost of a buildings policy has dropped by 10.1 per cent over the year, with the cost of a contents policy falling by 8.2 per cent

Simon Read: Mild winter cuts the cost of home insurance

The average quote for a buildings and contents policy has fallen by 3.6 per cent

Don't count your retirement money yet: employers will stop receiving a pension rebate next year and their staff may lose out

Defined-benefit pension schemes: Rebate change in 2016 may leave you out of pocket

Employees in defined-benefit schemes are held up as the lucky ones, but the state pension scheme will be overhauled in April 2016
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

    £45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

    Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

    £45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

    Laura Norton: Project Accountant

    £50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

    Day In a Page

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable