Friday, May 08, 2009

The Comics Page #22: Dan Dare: Prisoners of Space

Prisoners of Space cover and Amazon link
I actually picked up DAN DARE: PRISONERS OF SPACE thinking it was the immediate follow-up to THE RED MOON MYSTERY, which ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Hey, these things aren’t numbered. Instead we end up jumping ahead a few years for a return engagement by Dare’s favored enemy the Mekon, in a story that is conceptually bog-standard but executed tightly enough to be a fun read. Not every story arc could involve ancient mysteries from the depths of space, after all.

The action starts at Space HQ’s Astral Training College, where promising cadets Steve Valiant and “Flamer” Spry (don’t say anything) are taken on a tour of Dan Dare’s new experimental rocket, the “Performing Flea”. Through normal boys’ adventure shenanigans they accidentally launch the rocket (with a curmudgeonly Scotsman named “Groupie” on board), and are forced to dock with a nearby space station while Dan prepares to pick them up. Unfortunately, said station has been commandeered by the reptilian genius known as the Mekon, along with his loyal Treen soldiers, and the cadets and Groupie are quickly captured. The Mekon promises he’ll let the prisoners go in exchange for Dare’s surrender, and Dare solemnly agrees. However, Digby stows away on Dare’s ship, and they quickly discover that the alien mastermind has designs on reconquering his old Venusian stomping grounds.

This is pretty much pure cliffhanger stuff as soon as the plot gets moving; it’s a simple set-up, so writers Frank Hampson and Allan Stranks don’t have to dwell on any potentially boring exposition. Nothing really strange or exotic pops up, we’re just watching the good guys face off against the established bad guys for what was then the third time.

Most of the drama this time comes from Dan Dare’s very heroic and very properly British integrity- once promising the Mekon that he’ll give himself up to save the boys’ lives, he’s pretty thoroughly committed to that course of action even when an opportunity to save them and himself arises. It’s up to the others to help him and to the Mekon to be so predictably underhanded as to force the hero to act. We know that one or both of these things must inevitably happen, so the fun is in seeing how. Codes of honor and such also come into play regarding the boys trapped on board- Steve Valiant is forced to play along as the Mekon’s willing servant to prevent the others being killed, which causes Flamer to see him as a dirty deceitful rat. Such are the sacrifices one must make for the greater good (the greater good).

That heady business aside, most of the strips are just about twisting the story enough to keep the reader hooked for next week, and on that level the writers do their job. There’s never the sense that the plot is being unnecessarily dragged out or that the pacing is off; overall this particular arc lasted for almost a year, but despite its simplicity it never outstays its welcome.

The art here- by Hampson, Desmond Walduck, and Don Harley- is a bit more polished than on RED MOON, though this may just be a sign that Titan Books improved their printing process. The colors are bright and candylike, and though this story doesn’t offer as many opportunities for visual spectacle as the other I’ve reviewed we get some nice spacefights and the like.

Reading a big collection of work that was meant to be taken two pages at a time by bored British schoolchildren is an unusual experience, but PRISONERS OF SPACE holds up surprisingly well for something that was obviously never meant to be read all in one go. There’s nothing that makes it a real must read, but for someone already hooked on Dan Dare there’s nothing that disappoints either. Hampson and company deliver what they promise, with as much style as ever.

Grade: B+

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