The adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, were set around the year two thousand, but according to his creator Frank Hampson, they really began in Belgium in 1944 when, as a young army lieutenant, he watched the German V-2 rockets soaring into the sky. In 1953 he wrote, "On the quays of Antwerp you could watch the birth of Space Travel." By that time the popularity of his strip cartoon, Dan Dare, had rocketed the sales of the Eagle comic into the outer stratosphere, and every week a million boys waited with bated breath for the next episode of Dan Dare's great adventure.

The idea to produce a new sort of comic for boys was the brain child of Marcus Morris, an Oxford educated Vicar with a parish in Southport. Morris deplored the influx of cheaply produced American 'horror comics' with their crude and senseless violence, and he wanted to combat their influence with a high quality strip cartoon publication, promoting wholesome, Christian values. But that his great idea was ever realised - and with a brilliance that must surely have exceeded his wildest expectations - was due entirely to the creative genius of Frank Hampson. Reflecting on the birth of Eagle and his creation of the first dummy copy of the comic, Hampson wrote, "Title, story, drawings and inventions were all mine, and the paper, in a recognisable form and christened Eagle by my wife, was ready on my council house dining-room table.' But it was Morris who touted Hampson's work up and down Fleet Street until he found a taker, and Morris who found the money to keep things afloat, who dealt with publishers, forged deals and negotiated contracts. There can be no doubt that it took the combined talents of these two very different men, to turn the 'great idea', into reality.

Frank Hampson's origins could hardly have been more different to those of the privately educated southerner, Morris. The son of a policeman, Hampson was born in a small terraced house in Audenshaw, just outside Manchester, on 21 December 1918. Three months later the family moved to Southport, and it was here that he spent his early life. As a child, he loved to draw, and while still a pupil at George V Grammar school, he entered a drawing competition run by Meccano magazine. Not only did he win a prize for this entry, but the editor was sufficiently amused by his cartoon to ask for more. Thus, at the age of thirteen, he received his first commission, and for the next two years his work appeared regularly in the journal. With his School Certificate under his belt, he left school at the age of fourteen and found a job delivering telegrams for the Post Office. The irregular hours left him with plenty of time to pursue his passion for drawing, and the official G.P.O magazine, The Post, soon became a regular outlet for his work. His father, proud of his son's talent, gathered a few of his drawings together one day and showed them to the principle of the local art school. Between them they decided that - when he wasn't delivering telegrams - Hampson would attend the life-drawing classes there. But it was to be another two years before he took the final plunge and abandoned his safe 'job with prospects' at the G.P.O. to become a full-time art student at the Victoria College of Arts and Science, Southport.

He was nineteen years old and the year was 1938. The following year, shortly after the College had presented him with his National Diploma of Design (Intermediate), war broke out. Hampson immediately volunteered for service. He was sent to France with the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force and subsequently evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk. After D-Day, he saw action in France and Belgium, and lived through those experiences which would inform and influence much of his future creativity. It was wasn't until 1946 that he was finally discharged from the army and free to return to art college. By then, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant, and had married Dorothy Jackson, the daughter of a surveying engineer he'd met when taking an officer training course in Wales.

He enrolled on a three year course at the new Southport School of Arts and Crafts, and Harold Johns and Eric Eden, both of whom would later join his studio, were his contemporaries there. The birth of a son, Peter, in 1947, meant that Hampson had to find freelance work to supplement his grant. One of the jobs he took was to provide illustrations for Anvil, a Church of England magazine which had been turned from a 'Parish Mag' into a national publication through the entrepreneurial talents of a local parson, the Reverend Marcus Morris.

The rest, as they say, is history. Morris had found his artist and Hampson - eventually - his direction. Initially though, Morris asked Hampson to draw a single strip about an East End vicar, 'Lex Christian'. This completely failed to get off the ground but, stirred on by defeat, they decided to go all out and produce an entire comic instead. Hampson suggested that outer space and science fiction would provide a wider and more enticing playing field than the East End of London, and he transformed Lex Christian into 'Chaplain Dan Dare of the Interplanet Patrol', complete with dog-collar and cape. Finally, he decided to drop the overt Christian message entirely and call him simply, Colonel Dan Dare. And so Dan Dare - the character whose adventures were to form the front page of the new comic and become '"the strip that sold the Eagle", was born. His religious origins may now be hidden - but they were still undeniably there; Dan was named after Hampson's mother's favourite hymn, Dare to be a Daniel, and the comic's title, Eagle, inspired by a large eagle-shaped lectern, wings outspread to support the bible, which Hampson's wife, Dorothy, had mused upon in church.

With Hampson's superbly drawn, brightly coloured dummy - full to the brim with imaginative adventures - in his hands, Morris now had something to show to potential publishers, and he began the long slog, up and down Fleet Street. Undeterred by numerous refusals, he persisted, and in September, 1949 received a telegram from Hulton Press, publishers of Picture Post. It said, "Definitely interested - do not approach any other publisher." And so, early in 1950, contracts were signed - and copyrights were forfeited. But this was a birth, and for now, at least, a cause for celebration. A studio was set up in a ramshackle old bakery in Churchtown, near Southport, and Hampson set about assembling a team of artists: Joan Porter, Greta Tomlinson, Harold Johns, Jocelyn Thomas and Bruce Cornwell. Hampson's father (soon known to everyone in the studio as 'pops'), now retired from the police force, became a willing general helper, as well as the very recognisable model for the Controller of the Space-Fleet, Sir Hubert Guest.

At this stage, Hampson not only carried overall responsibility for all the art work on Eagle, drew Dan Dare, The Great Adventurer, and various other strips and pages, he also wrote the stories. Many Dan Dare fans believe that the multidimensional magic of early Dan Dare stories, The Venus Story and The Red Moon Story, which communicated as powerfully at a written level as they did at a richly visual one, was lost to some degree when, through sheer pressure of work, Hampson was finally forced to stop writing all his own material. But in the early days, with the studio in its infancy and a work load described by the studio artists as 'horrendous', it was the excitement generated by Hampson's creative genius and energy that held them together. Artist, Greta Tomlinson, later said, 'He refused to spare himself, and we were inspired by his imagination and couldn't wait to see what he came up with next.' Each weekend, when the other artists had gone home, Hampson would work out the next episode, sketching each frame in pencil, then ink, and then colouring in. He drew in a completely new 'filmic' style, with vertiginous perspectives and close ups. A superb and precise draughtsman, studio artists described his preliminary drawings as so fine and so detailed that they could easily have been used as the final artwork - but for Hampson, they were just the beginning - and when the team came back on Monday, work began.

Hampson's phenomenal attention to detail permeated all of the work. He knew that boys of the target age range, 8-12, would love to pore over the drawings and see the minutiae of the technology - and if they were going to do that, then it was essential to get it right. He therefore produced reference boards for uniforms, badges of rank, spacesuits and such, to be used by all the artists, and he built a vast reference library of scientific facts, space travel and any odd details that might come in useful, so that meticulous research could be carried out. The characters in the strip, often based on real people, were completely believable human beings, and family members and studio artists alike were expected to model for the drawings and pose for photographs in order to ensure the complete accuracy of each action frame. His son Peter modelled for Cadet Flamer Spry, Greta Tomlinson for Miss Peabody, and his father was Sir Hubert Guest. The futuristic technology was thoroughly thought out and designed to look as though it would work. Hampson was a hard task master and as the team soon discovered, if he wasn't entirely happy with them, a whole series of frames might be scrapped completely, and the process begun again.

Eagle flourished, and the first print run sold every one of its 900,000 copies. Unsurprising perhaps - because Britain had never seen anything like this before. In a decade of technological pessimism (the bomb, the cold war, etc) here was a comic with stories that were optimistic, intensely colourful and richly detailed, both visually and in their story line. And with the possibility of space travel fast becoming a reality, they contained the irresistible combination of realistic contemporary heroes fighting evil and tyranny in an exciting, imaginative and entirely believable parallel world.

Before long it became clear that larger premises were essential, and it was decided to move the whole studio closer to Hultons in London. And so, early in 1951 the Morris’s, the Hampsons (including his parents) and the entire studio team, moved south to Epsom, in Surrey. At first the studio was spread around different locations, but it eventually came together in Bayford Lodge, a large white house set in a leafy road near Epsom Downs. This was to become the Hampson family home (on the first floor) as well as the Dan Dare studio (on the ground floor). The contrast with life in Southport must have been remarkable, but everyone soon adapted, and in this spacious new setting the studio flourished. More and more detail was added, and weapons, rocket ships and cities modelled, to ensure continuity in the story. An entire ceiling was removed from one room so that Joan Porter could take photos from the required perspective angles. The work rate became even more intense, and Hampson would often stay on alone in the studio throughout the night, sustained by coffee and 'Rennies', in an effort to meet impossible deadlines - and his own impossibly high demands upon himself. Under this pressure, his health began to suffer, but life in the studio went on. In the nine years that followed, artists came and went. Of the original team, Bruce Cornwell, Harold Johns, Greta Tomlinson and Jocelyn Thomas all left, Joan Porter, his 'right hand woman', stayed, and Eric Eden, Max Dunlop, Don Harley, Keith Watson and Gerry Palmer arrived to work for the studio at various times.

But in 1959, things began to go wrong. Hultons were taken over by their rival publishers, Odhams. While recognising the success of Dan Dare as vital to the Eagle, Odhams did not understand that such high quality work could only be maintained through the working system evolved by Hampson and his team. They viewed this as hugely expensive and wasteful, and in 1959, amidst great personal turmoil for Hampson, the studio was disbanded.

The golden age of Dan Dare was at an end, and powerless without a copyright, Hampson could only disassociate himself from the changes, which he knew would lead to a diminution of his rigorously high standards. Ironically therefore, at the very height of his powers, he chose to abandon his greatest creation. He continued to live and work in Bayford Lodge and with the assistance of just one remaining helper, Joan Porter, produced his final strip for Eagle, The Road of Courage. This was a story based on the life of Jesus, and in his usual search for perfection, vast amounts of research were carried out by Hampson, including a journey to the Holy Land in order to take location photographs and films. Although the work he did for this strip cannot compare in creative terms to that of Dan Dare, it nevertheless produced some of the finest examples of his draughtsmanship.

Towards the end of drawing The Road of Courage, more bloody infighting broke out in the publishing world, and Odhams were taken over by the Mirror group. Hampson's ideas for future strips were now all rejected, and in 1962, after protracted and merciless contractual wrangles, which failed to gain Hampson any financial interest in, or control over, Dan Dare, he was finally forced to resign, bitter and deeply disillusioned.

Watching the inevitable, lingering death of his creation caused him much pain, but he had little choice. He returned to the life of a freelance illustrator. got himself an agent, and did work for, amongst others, Reveille, the National Coal Board, Quaker Oats Cereals, for whom he drew The Lone Ranger, and the Daily Express, drawing Gun Law for a time. In 1964 he took up with Ladybird books and stayed with them for several years illustrating amongst others, books of Nursery Rhymes and the Kings and Queens of England. Whatever the commission, the same meticulous research was always carried out, and family and friends - even the milkman - dragged in to pose as models for his characters. He struck up an excellent working relationship with Douglas Keen, his editor at Ladybird, and they became good friends. He may have mourned the loss of his creation but he certainly didn’t miss the pressure of impossible deadlines and intractable management, and there is no doubt that in many ways Frank Hampson achieved a degree of contentment and creative satisfaction in the years following Eagle.

Then in 1970, Hampson was diagnosed with throat cancer; a lifelong smoker, he was seldom seen without a pipe clamped between his teeth. Believing himself to be terminally ill, he drew out an insurance policy and fulfilled a long time ambition to travel to Russia. In the event, he recovered, but was no longer fit enough to carry on working for Ladybird. Instead, he took a part-time job as a graphics technician at Ewell Technical College, embarked on an Open University degree, and for a period, taught life drawing at Epsom School of Art. He was well liked by the students he taught, enjoyed the challenge of his OU course and revelled in the social and intellectual life it brought.

But for many years, the very name Dan Dare remained an anathema to Frank Hampson, never to be mentioned in his presence. However, the space hero had a band of followers who were dedicated to his creator. Attempts to contact him were usually firmly ignored, but then, unaccountably, towards the end of 1973 he began, just occasionally, to respond. At about this time his work on Dan Dare was beginning to be appreciated by a whole new generation of strip cartoon artists, particularly in Europe, which was undergoing something of a renaissance in the genre.

In 1975, Hampson was invited by Denis Gifford to attend the major bi-annual awards festival in Lucca, Italy, the 'Mecca' for devotees of strip cartoons. With some misgivings, he decided to go, taking a selection of original artwork with him. He had no expectation of anything special, and so was amazed when on his arrival he was feted and presented with the Yellow Kid Award, (the only English artist to have achieved this) and honoured with a further award which had been created especially for him, acknowledging him as 'Prestigioso Maestro', "The best writer and illustrator of strip cartoons since the end of World War Two." Another award, the Ally Sloper, soon followed and suddenly, Dan Dare was big news again. Reprints of the stories were produced, film projects came (and went), articles appeared in the national press, Eagle comic was (briefly) relaunched, and there were interviews on television. The Science Museum in Kensington commissioned two large wall panels of Dan Dare.

For Hampson though - although he was gratified by the recognition - it was all too late, and in a way, these were just painful reminders of what could have been but never was. In 1981 he said, "Although I often wish he would, Dan Dare refuses to die."

In 1982 Hampson suffered a stroke and lost his speech and the use of his right hand - his drawing hand. His speech returned, but the use of his hand did not. Confined to a chair at home, he continued with his Open University studies, hoping to gain an MA (he had been awarded a BA in 1979), but in 1985 his strength finally gave out and he died of a heart attack. He was 66 years old. His widow moved from Bayford Lodge to a small flat up the road, and the old house, parts of which had already been sold off, piecemeal, over the lean years, was now sold-up completely. Piles of reference photographs were burned and mountains of studio materials piled into a skip and dumped.

But as Frank Hampson predicted, Dan Dare did not die. The name of the character that influenced a whole generation of boys (Professor Steven Hawking, an avid Eagle reader as a child, asked what influence Dan Dare had had on him, replied, "Why am I in cosmology?") had entered the English language and Dan Dare been recognised as "One of the great creations of Twentieth Century imaginative literature."(Terry Jones, Film director, writer and Python). The reason for this is not difficult to find. Look at the best of the 1950's strips, and you will see technology that still appears fresh, futuristic and workable. Look at the trouble taken to draw the reflections on the surface of a helmet, and you will get some idea of the care and dedication that went into a product that respected its readers, and was determined to give them the best. Look at the vision of a world united as a force for good under the United Nations and see the post-war optimism that typified that decade, and still has huge resonance and relevance today. There is no doubt that Frank Hampson was a genius of the genre. Professor Wolf Mankovitz said of him, "Frank is, without doubt, the creator of a new 21st Century mythology - a great artist in his extraordinary medium." Prophetically, Mankovitz also said that Frank Hampson had created something "bigger than himself" - which is surely the ultimate measure of an artist's success.

© S.J.Hampson

about F.H.
original. artwork for sale
birth of Dan Dare