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The Eagle and Dan Dare had been superseded by Dr Who, television and even more television.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.

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