Monday, 11 July 2016

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dan Dare?

For many British kids in the sixties, their first sight of Marvel Superheroes came in the pages of Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Fantastic and Terrific - The "Power" comics line of weeklies from Odham's comics.  Up until then Stan Lee's creations had been available only as unreliable imports in job lots from Thorpe and Porter - remember the old T&P stamp? - or reprinted almost at random by Alan Class in one of his multi-publisher anthology titles.

The Power Line published the strips in order, and in full, providing the continuity that was so big a part of Marvel's appeal.  For the first time it was possible to follow all of the adventures of Spider-Man in Pow! or Daredevil in Smash! or The Avengers and Dr Strange in Terrific. 

At the same time the grand old man of British comics was having a hard time.  The Eagle had been created in 1950 by an Anglican priest, Marcus Morris.  Morris had seen American comics during the forties and while he was sometimes impressed with the quality of the artwork, he had been appalled at the contents.  The Eagle was to be a comic that combined the high standards of art found in some American comics, with high moral standards.  At the time of a moral panic about the content of horror comics and their impact on children, Morris set about creating a comic that parents would be happy to buy for their children. 

It had been a huge success, selling 900,000 copies of the first edition and regularly hitting figures of 0.75 million through the fifties.  The biggest success was Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.  In their book "Flying with Eagles" Morris' daughters Sally Morris and Jan Hallwood include their fathers account of the development of the character from an idea for a strip called Lex Christian that he was working on with Frank Hampson.

"To begin with we turned Lex Christian into a flying padre, 'The Parson of the Flying Seventh',  Then one day, after re-reading C.S. Lewis' science fiction novel 'Perelandra', I said to Frank that I thought Lex Christian should leave London and go out into space.  I remember telling Frank to get him to Venus and I would take over from there.  Frank got him to Venus without much difficulty and I didn't take over.   Frank continued to work on the story and the characters".

Hampson changed the character's name and finally, very late in the day, amended his profession from Parson to pilot, indeed the first dummy of the Eagle had on its cover a strip entitled Chaplin Dan Dare of the Interplanet Patrol.
By 1968 things were looking very different.  Sales had almost halved and Morris was no longer involved with the Eagle, it was now owned by Odhams the publisher of the Power comics line.  Dan Dare had disappeared from the cover moving to the inside pages and then only as reprints of his very first adventures.  Gone were the bible stories, the historical adventures, indeed almost all of the factual strips,  Very few, if any, of the stalwarts of the Eagle from the Morris days were retained.

Instead there were the type of adventure strips that could be seen in any of the comics of the time, including a British super-hero strip of sorts called Iron Man and a decent science fiction strip, The Guinea-Pig, which would be reprinted in later 2000AD and Starlord annuals.

But this was not the Eagle of the peak years, the paper was of poor quality and the 'improving' ethos had gone.  It had ceased to be special and was now just another British weekly comic.  But hidden away for a few issues, and serving as the replacement for stories like Heros the Spartan or other tales of ancient times, was a strip by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, "Tales of Asgard" featuring Thor. 

These were the back-up strips from the Thor comic in the US, presumably published under the same agreement that allowed for the Marvel comics reprints in the Power line.  Nominally tales of norse mythology, I'm not convinced that the Rev. Marcus Morris would have approved of Stan Lee's hyperbolic dialogue appearing in his comic.  The strips may have been resized and pages merged, there some correction of American spellings and removal slang terms, but these were still American super-hero comics in the Eagle.   

It was a sign of the times, the Eagle would not survive the sixties, its last issue, just nine short of its thousandth, would be published in April 1969 before merging with the Lion.  The Power Comics line, for which the Marvel license that had brought Lee and Kirby to the iconic British comic of the fifties and sixties had been bought, had already disappeared in March of the same year with sale of Odham's to IPC.  Smash! would continue in a very different form. 

Marvel strips would pop up from time to time, I think look-In included Spider-Man and Silver Surfer strips for a short time (can anyone confirm that?), but it would be 1972, and the creation of Marvel UK, before there was any real attempt to bring the creations of Lee, Kirby and Ditko to the UK market.  But for just a very short time Dan dare and Thor shared a comic and Lee and Kirby appeared int he most celebrated British comic for many decades.

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