Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Comics Page #20: Dan Dare

Link to Dan Dare Oversized HC at Amazon
Many people reading this may not be familiar with Dan Dare; though the British space opera hero has been an iconic figure in UK comics for over half a century, for some reason he remains mostly unknown in the United States. Now, I’ve actually read some vintage Dan Dare material and may actually tackle that at some point, but recently I decided to take a look at a recent take on the character by writer Garth Ennis and artist Gary Erskine. When I first heard Ennis was tackling this project, I was not confident; thanks to titles like THE BOYS and PREACHER he’s earned a reputation as a shock artist who does cynical “mature” titles. I gave him too little credit, as he’s a devoted fan of Dan Dare and wrote the new series as a straightforward update, and it’s a damn fine job. The collection I bought, an oversized “collector’s edition”, may not have been the ideal purchase, but this series from the now-defunct Virgin Comics is something to seek out.

Dan Dare (yes, that’s his actual name) used to be the pilot of Earth’s space fleet, but now lives in retirement in a holographic England-that-was on a remote asteroid, while the modern world, led by a strong but strangely amnesiac United Kingdom, moves on around him. (The US and China blew each other up at some point in the past, though this doesn’t affect the plot much.) However, the UK government has figured out that Dan Dare’s old enemy, the alien mastermind known as the Mekon, is alive and well and planning an attack on civilized space, and the Prime Minister has no sooner contacted Dare than the unprepared fleet is attacked by the Mekon’s warships. Dare and a couple of old friends- scientist and PM advisor Jocelyn Peabody, and old soldier Digby- are quickly called upon to help battle the invasion and protect human and alien alike from the Mekon’s monstrous horde.

That’s as far as I got, since this collector’s edition only contains the first three issues of the six issue series. It keeps the price low, I’ll grant you, but it ends abruptly and since Virgin is no longer in the comics game (owing to a number of factors, but the name may not have helped) we’re not going to get a second such edition, so you’re better off looking for the Omnibus Hardcover. The secondary market can be such a pain sometimes.

Anyway, the comic. What struck me at first was that this is not actually a reboot. Dan (still with the bizarre eyebrows) had all of his old adventures, it’s just that the world has changed around him. Erskine pencils the book in a style that’s modern but still close enough to the old Eagle comics that when we get a splash page flashing back to the good old days, the juxtaposition doesn’t seem completely outrageous. The art’s pretty brilliant, and one thing I will say in favor of this prestige format is that it shows it off to fine advantage. The cover art is good, but for the fact that Dan appears to have more ammo pouches than a Rob Liefeld creation. Still not sure about that.

In addition to the fine art, we have a plot that moves at a good pace and throws out some surprises without going very far afield. There’s more to the invasion than just a bunch of aliens appearing out of nowhere, and Dare has to lead a military that hasn’t been prepared to do battle with giant green monsters roaming the Martian surface. There’s some attempt at social commentary here, with Dare representing the forgotten spirit of Great Britain, and at times Ennis goes a little overboard- the Prime Minister doesn’t even know about the Battle of Britain, which Dare’s grandfather fought in, and remember, this is a country where students are currently taught the importance of events that happened over 900 years ago as a major part of their history. In fact I’m not entirely clear why Britain is supposed to be suffering this identity crisis- as the book makes clear, they’re the survivor of a war that destroyed the two leading superpowers, so you’d imagine they’d be feeling particularly smug about themselves and trying to export their culture all over what’s left of the world. That said, there’s a nice panel showing the London skyline, with the old monuments still there but overshadowed by giant glass structures out of Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD.

Again, the whole thing cuts off early and I need to read the whole arc at some point, but it’s a good three issues. Virgin Comics may be done with, but hopefully this revival of the Dare franchise won’t fall by the wayside. It’s a good continuation point for the character, and a good jumping-on point for people unfamiliar with him. I’ll be putting the Omnibus link in the sidebar so you can get the full story, and unless the ending is spectacularly bad it’s worth the investment. It’s good to have Dan Dare back, even for those of us who didn’t know he was gone.

Grade: B+

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