Sufferin' satellites, The Comic is dead: Where the 'Eagle' once dared, in its inimitable Boy's Own style, there is now a void filled only by TV spin-offs and bleak, post-apocalyptic imagery. John Windsor discovers an afterlife at auction

There is a price on the head of Dan Dare, the clean-living space-age hero of the Eagle, the best-selling boys' paper of the Fifties and Sixties. Once discarded as junk, pages of original artwork of the Dan Dare strip - especially those by its creator, Frank Hampson - are worth up to pounds 500 each to collectors. At Christie's South Kensington on 18 March (2pm), a cache of 18 pages of this artwork, including five by Mr Hampson, are reckoned to fetch pounds 350- pounds 400 each.

Christie's hopes to hold the first Eagle-dedicated artwork sale later this year, and is sending free catalogues of next month's sale to all 171 members of the Eagle Society, some living in Canada, Australia and Europe.

Six years ago a collector visiting the Eagle archive in Southwark, London, was offered for nothing as many of the paper's famous centre-spread cut-aways of trains, boats and planes (now worth pounds 100- pounds 200 each) as he wanted. That was after of Robert Maxwell's takeover of the Eagle's then publisher, IPC. Gil Page, the managing editor of its latest publisher, Fleetway Editions, said: 'We now hold a surpisingly small amount of Eagle artwork. Most seems to have been taken in the Sixties, during the merger.'

All Dan Dare originals - which, a 1972 legal ruling implies, belong to the artists - appear to have gone 'out the back door' before 1975 when Mr Hampson, in poor health and forbidden to draw the character he created because of copyright restrictions, received a letter from IPC telling him that no Dan Dare artwork 'boards' remained in its possession.

Money and prestige eluded Mr Hampson. A driven man, he would fall asleep at the drawing board. He drew Dan Dare for nine years, then had a row with new management. Later he said: 'Dare has been, for me, a long and bitter personal tragedy.'

The current vogue for Eagle originals is riding on a small boom in auction prices for the original cover illustrations of lurid Fifties pulp books. Bonhams pioneered the genre with a sale of 149 Corgi covers in 1990, and offered 199 Pan covers the following year. Last July, Christie's South Kensington pitched in with its first such sale in which the cover for Too Many Lovers, estimated at pounds 200- pounds 300, fetched pounds 1,210.

Soho Street Girl, another cover's title, may sound a far cry from the Dare strip's prim but attractive Professor Jocelyn Peabody and the paper's other characters, all conceived under the spiritual guidance of the Eagle's founding editor, the Rev Marcus Morris. However, Jane Hay of Christie's South Kensington reckons that the the reason for the popularity of both is nostalgia for the traditional roles of the sexes: men were men and women were women.

She points out that, previously, 'comic' illustration had no clearly defined market: it was not at home in literature sales, nor comfortable rubbing shoulders with established artists, such as Arthur Rackham and E H Shepard in sales of children's book illustrations. But in brighter markets it has done better: two pages of Dare artwork made pounds 260 each when exposed to the razzamatazz of a pop memorabilia sale in 1990.

In the past three years, whole archives of book-cover illustrations have been tipped into auction or sold privately by publishers in need of cash, provoking a storm of protest from artists claiming ownership. The sale of Eagle artwork is unlikely to create such a row. Most of the early artists, too timid to take their artwork home with them, are dead. As for Fleetway, Mr Page says there is 'no chance whatever' that the few pages it still holds will be sold.

Nor is Fleetway likely to prosecute vendors. Mr Page has assured Mr Hampson's widow, Dorothy, that while Fleetway retained copyright, the artist owned the artwork, so she had good title to it. Frank, who died in 1985, aged 66, lived in fear that IPC would knock on his door and ask for it back.

As a result, auction rooms are likely to fill up with Eagle artwork 'lost' while its publishers, the original Hulton, Odhams and IPC, were gobbled up by takeovers. The Eagle archive was shunted from Southwark to Deptford, and most recently was split between Birmingham and Tavistock Place, London, home of Fleetway Editions, now owned by Egmont, a Dutch multinational.

Somewhere, tucked away by collectors, are 300 Dan Dare artwork boards, lost from IPC's vaults in Southwark, that found their way into the hands of a dealer in comics and ephemera in Crystal Palace, the late Norman Shaw. From about 1976, Mr Shaw was selling them for pounds 20 each to collectors, including Alan Vince of Chatham, Kent, Britain's foremost Eagle aficionado.

Mr Vince still has about 50 Dan Dare boards. One is Mr Hampson's first instalment of 'Marooned on Mercury' from June 1952, not long after the Eagle's launch in 1950. He found it abandoned at IPC, Southwark, while researching a Dan Dare tribute to appear in the new Eagle, relaunched in 1982. Nearby, trampled underfoot, was a frame from the same board showing a bomber flown by the Treens, Dan Dare's inter-galactic enemies. Many of the two-page weekly episodes were condensed for re-runs in the late Sixties, and artboards were cannibalised for Eagle annuals.

Dorothy Hampson is said to be bitter about the way her husband's artwork has been abused. In the Fifties, the Eagle yielded profits of up to pounds 1m a year, including merchandising licence payments, while the artists, denied copyright, were paid fixed salaries.

This cut and thrust of the publishing world - the company takeovers, intolerable hours, sackings, personality clashes - are grist to the mill of every Eagle buff. It is a true-life soap, almost as exciting as Dan Dare's battles with the evil Mekon.

Mr Hampson, an authoritarian figure, built up a studio of young artists - including Don Harley, Eric Eden and the youngster Keith Watson - in the hope of producing animated films. It was an inflated notion in view of his lack of copyright. The Eagle's original publisher, Hulton, having set up the studio in Epsom, Surrey, indulged Mr Hampson's old- fashiond team concept.

Mr Hampson demanded the utmost loyalty. His artists had to pose for photographs to copy into the artwork. Drawing would not begin until mid-week, then a scramble for the Friday deadline would ensue. He once ordered Greta Tomlinson, the model for Professor Peabody, to redraw the wake of a water-skier four times; he accepted her fifth version, but covered it with a speech balloon. Those he suspected of freelancing were sacked.

The blow from which Mr Hampson never recovered came in 1958 when Odhams took over Hulton, dismantled his studio, and opened its own talks about the scheme he had cherished: a Dan Dare film. Stripped of his authority, Mr Hampson resigned. The film has yet to be made.

Frank Bellamy, his successor, did not need a team of artists, preliminary photography or elaborate studio mock-ups. He could draw 'straight into the frame', producing 'good clean artwork' instead of Mr Hampson's cut-and-paste. Some collectors prefer his work.

Mr Hampson's career was crowned in 1975 after 15 years of obscurity. In poor health, he was lured to Lucca, Italy, where he was voted best post-war comic illustrator in the world by the International Exhibition of Comics and Animated Films. On the same trip, he was stunned at being presented with 50 boards of his artwork which had been syndicated in Italy. IPC eventually paid him two sums, pounds 199 and pounds 30.

Even his own life story has had a faulty circulation. Alastair Crompton's book about him, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow (Who Dares Publishing, 1985), was incompetently promoted and is now sought after by collectors.

'Eagle Monthly' is available from bookstalls ( pounds 1). The annual pounds 15.50 subscription to the Eagle Society (24 Standfield Road, Duston, Northampton NN5 6EZ) includes four issues of 'Eagle Times'.

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