Thanks to Dan Dare, the 'Eagle' show has landed

Fifty years ago, to the day, Dan Dare simultaneously hit space and the news stands, but devotees of The Eagle's space pilot might just quibble with the timing of an exhibition in his name that opened in Southport, Merseyside, yesterday evening.

Every schoolboy of a certain age knows that Wednesday was Dan day. That was when The Eagle hit doormats and its hero was thrust again into mortal combat with the Treens.

At least the celebrations put the Mekon (Treen leader and custodian of a large green head) in the shade. He will skulk at the back of the exhibition in the Atkinson Art Gallery today while a Dan bust is unveiled and a commemorative church service is held for him in Southport, home of his creators, the Rev Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson.

A better showing is naturally afforded to Dan's faithful companions, Digby, Sir Hubert Guest (also known as "'Orrible 'Ubert") and the delectable Professor Jocelyn Peabody.

All of them ensured that The Eagle's sales topped 900,000 in the 1950s. Thousands more knew the characters, as many copies were borrowed.

"I was a latecomer to them all," confessed Roy French, 62, of the Eagle Times Society, as he examined a rare 1950s Dan spacesuit yesterday. "Dan and The Eagle were aimed at 13-year-olds, but I was ill at the time. It was ahead of its time. Its Christian ethic combated the American trash which was flooding the market, but we all loved it."

Dan, originally created as intergalactic vicar Chaplain Dan Dare by Hampson for a magazine Rev Morris wanted Christian children to read, also broke the merchandising mould.

Dan toothbrushes, jigsaws, stamp albums and other paraphernalia share the gallery with Eagle editions from Scandinavia, where our hero was the inimitable Dan Djerv.

"The merchandising is the seamy bit," said Mr French, referring to the story that Morris and Hampson did not benefit from the merchandising profits. So eager were they to sell their idea of a "cartoon paper" that they signed the first contract offered and waived all such rights. "It meant that Frank died an unhappy man," said Mr French. "The society aims to restore the credit he deserves."

The favourite item among the connoisseurs, unearthed only two years ago, is the original artwork of the Nature Detective series, dreamt up by the chocolate maker Rowntree, which knew better than to take up precious Eagle editorial space. Instead it asked Hampson to create the detective - who introduces children to tree bark, fish and birds - for half-page advertisements on which its own "longer last fruit gums" were branded.

Dan, whose adventures are no longer published, may also prove longer lasting, according to 22-year-old art student Martin Baines. He discovered some of his father's old copies of The Eagle, found "the artwork and the tone top rate", and has produced 10 pages of drawings for a Dan website adventure, Project Pluto. "I've introduced some George Lucas lighting and there's an element of conspiracy," he said. "The prime minister is in league with the Mekon. Dan obviously doesn't like it."