demonstrating the eagle was in an american tradition

this ought to be possible simply by disentangling statements made in ‘the man who drew tomorrow‘ by alastair crompton (who probably ought to have realised it himself while he was writing the book) in which what must surely be a media myth about the eagle being produced as a reaction to US horror comics is left  unchallenged during the otherwise meticulously accurate (if overly hero worshipping) tale of the career of frank hampson.  the other major issue which gets in the way is the fact that alastair crompton adores the eagle to the exclusion of all other comics, + hampson’s art above all other artists: he fails to (or more likely elects not to) see the comic, dan dare or frank hampson in their correct contexts, which are as part of various traditions most of which are american.  note the experience of reading crompton’s views on comics, strips + artists isn’t far off that of asking someone who only listens to the clash a question about rock music

1    briefly: although in the UK it has passed into folk wisdom that the eagle was published to provide a wholesome alternative to US horror comics in fact it predates EC’s horror titles + most of the debate about what comics ought to contain which ended in the adoption in the US of the comics code

according to crompton eagle was in pre production in one form or another from dec 1948 (as comic strips perhaps within another publication) + feb 1949 (as a whole new comic) [see the man who drew tomorrow p40 + 45].  the cover date on number one is 14 apr 1950: the earliest issues of vault of horror, haunt of fear + tales from the crypt were dated apr/may 1950 + will have been on the news stands a matter of weeks earlier

of the handful of US horror titles which predate EC’s ones, eerie 1 (dated jan 1947 + presumably on sale in late 1946) was only a one shot, ACG + atlas titles (adventures into the unknown, marvel tales, etc) were comparatively tame

just from looking at the dates the obvious conclusion is that the eagle was extremely unlikely to have been sparked up as reaction to the US horror genre as virtually no horror books had even been published let alone widely distributed among UK children at the time

this myth (QED now: prove it wrong + post a reply) of the genesis of the eagle presumably dates from some now obscure journalist fitting a quotation from its editor (marcus morris) to a scare story about what children were reading in the early 1950s + the article being accepted as fact – possibly even by morris himself: from memory he mentions horror comics in the introduction to the best of the eagle in 1977.  even if he did say it himself in the 70s he must surely have been remembering the genre of the comics he researched in the 40s incorrectly

in fact the eagle was initially devised as an alternative to the low standard of comics available in general, UK comics included, which either had no obvious christian values – morris held down two jobs, the other as a clergyman – or which appeared to hold up examples of moral standards below those to which he believed their readership ought to be exposed

the following quotation from marcus morris [quoted in the man who drew tomorrow p33] appears to refer to events depicted in US crime comics –

‘a character murders a group of six policemen with a machine gun, chortling “dis is fun” … two little boys brandish pistols through seven drawings to end with “now yer know who’s the toughest guy around here” ‘

+ this refers to the alternative

‘I shall not feel I have done my duty … until I have seen on the market a genuinely popular childrens’ comic where adventure is once more the clean and exiting business I remember in my own schooldays … [and] there is a healthy humour that does not involve a bang on the head with a blunt instrument.  children are born hero worshippers … they will admire what they are given to admire.  it is up to us … to see they get a glimpse of what realy brave men have done in this world, and share laughter that comes from the heart, not from the gutter’ [ibid]

the original article from which this extract is drawn – ‘comics that bring horror to the nursery’ – was published in feb 1949 in the sunday despatch + presumably indicates morris’s own research, as well as sampling actual comics on sale, entailed reading ‘horror in the nursery’ by judith crist, published in the states in an issue of collier’s weekly from march the previous year, itself based on a now famous talk by fredric wertham claiming a link between representations of crime + criminal acts

this may be where the genres begin to get switched: everyone so far (late 40s) has been discussing crime but using the word horror (again if anyone reading this has evidence to the contrary could they post it up below this article)

2    moving on

having identified the potential of comics to have a negative influence on young children: the difference between the american response (creating a censor – the comics code authority – in 1954) + the british one (publishing the genuinely popular alternative referred to above in 1950 + knocking the opposition off the news stands) may be part of what makes comics readers in the UK as patriotic (if that’s the right word) as they are about the eagle, + as keen to understand it as being positioned against an american tradition

in fact it was designed by frank hampson explicitly to continue an american tradition, that of the 30s + 40s newspaper strip, + ought perhaps to be understood as a flowering of that format overseas

as noted in ‘the man who drew tomorrow’ frank hampson’s early influences (roots?) were in north america [quotations from p17 +] –

‘into the hampson home … came a steady flow of canadian + american newspapers’ including comic strips: ‘three artists in particular caught frank’s attention + fired his imagination’ the first two, hal foster (tarzan) + milton caniff (terry + the pirates) ‘inspired him with the wish to draw strip cartoons.  caniff’s work, a marriage between dialogue + plot, narrative + illustration was fore runner to dan dare … frank also enjoyed the spirit of chivalry hal foster brought to … prince valiant … [who] was good looking, fearless + resourceful + frank admired these characteristics + was later to build them into dare’

ie hampson learned his method of story telling from terry + the pirates + based dan dare himself partly on prince valiant

the third influence ‘was alex raymond … [whose] pictures were precise, clear + incisive … and [who] became brilliant at leaving his readers on a cliff hanger every three frames … with rip kirby’

the following three consecutive daily strips each consisting of three or four panels, reproduced in will eisner’s graphic storytelling and visual narrative (2008) – every home should (still) have one – neatly exemplify various aspects of the topics under discussion above

milton caniff - 3 x steve canyon

copyright milton caniff estate

these strips are by one of the artists mentioned by hampson: milton caniff.  note the economy + clarity of his story telling: packing visual + verbal information about the characters, their environment + where they fit in the story into only three or four panels.

on the subject of where the panels fit: note caniff’s ability to tell a larger story built from a series of scenes (units of 4 panels) depicting events that increment a linear plot.  each unit needs to be remembered by the reader when he or she reads the next installment the following day: over time the information absorbed by the reader has a cumulative effect, deepening his or her appreciation of the story.  caniff does not make the error of underestimating his audience + assuming a story told in this way needs to be simple – it can be as complex as he chooses to make it as long as the units from which it is constructed signify what they are intended to unambiguously + slot together in a coherent sequence

3    an aside about using a toothbrush

on the subject of packing visual + verbal information into a few panels the device of the toothbrush on its own in the middle unit speaks volumes:

it continues the action shown in the previous episode + sews this one seamlessly to it, and / or in case anyone missed the last installment it recaps the text where canyon states he is tired out + about to go to sleep by implying that visually

when the whereabouts of the money springs into canyon’s mind: to emphasise the sudden change caniff varies the camera angle, draws canyon in silhouette + switches his balloon from thought to speech.  the change in the action being depicted is shown by the position of the toothbrush

in the last panel, the distance travelled by canyon’s jaw during the punch is shown amongst other things by the position of the toothbrush again

also note this toothbrush is a small part of a larger picture caniff is drawing: opposing the events of a routine domestic task (brushing your teeth) with a violent act (knocking someone out) gives the reader information about the world caniff’s characters inhabit (a volatile unsafe one) + how they make their way through it (by going off on various tangents after things happen when they least expect them to)

2    moving on [continued]

getting off the subject of toothbrushes also note the use of camera angles in these strips (strip 2 panel 2 is hogan’s POV framed by the bathroom door, panel 3 is the reverse angle), naturalistic drawing style, etc – all examples of the positive influences on frank hampson of US newspaper strips

on the other hand these strips also work as examples of the negative influence identified above – they represent a typical mid 50s crime comic + depict the sort of violence morris + hampson did not want to think of falling into the hands of children.  steve canyon isn’t really the problem: hogan is – he appears to be an army veteran with psychological issues, he looks nasty + gets violent.  in the text he is described as ‘the sort of tough joker who wins hero medals’ + has canyon’s (+ presumably the readers’) sympathy, ie hogan may be read as a very complex (anti?) hero character

heroes in marcus morris + frank hampson’s view ought to be seen acting as they are in the extract from dan dare (reign of the robots) below

reign of the robots 01

copyright (still is?) IPC 1957, this edition by dragon’s dream 1981

note cinematic camera angles selected, naturalistic drawing style, detailed panels arranged in tight rows of three (especially note detail in panel 6: hulton gallery – eagle’s publisher was hulton press – ‘klee collection’ advertised on the dome) as per hampson’s US art influences in general + the steve canyon example above in particular, but with the attitude to violence completely replaced: paralysing pistols are used for comedic effect on digby + stripey

also flamer has worked out a way of communicating secretly without being overheard which any schoolboy could have come up with (the supernatural is normally an option for this sort of thing in SF but it’s avoided as far as possible in dan dare) giving us the line ‘the pen is mightier than the mekon’ – an excellent example of how eagle characters tend to respond to violence: working out how to overcome it by keeping their sense of humour + sending secret messages to each other

also on the subject of how the eagle depicted heroes the sequence reproduced below is explicitly about the values they uphold

reign of the robots 02

(c) as above, same edition

death before dishonour – colonel dare’s word means something because we know he will keep it.  this is the editorial policy outlined earlier in this article seen in action: giving their readers something to admire in the hope they will aspire to the same ideals.  it’s a little daft to compare this with steve canyon because they are clearly aimed at different audiences (even if in reality those audiences overlap) but it’s still an interesting exercise + hopefully demonstrates what the eagle imported from the US + what got turned back at the border

4    flash gordon + buck rogers

‘the man who drew tomorrow’ prints some of frank hampson’s correspondence with his readers.  the following extract from hampson’s 1973 letter to alan vince spells out the US influence again:

‘early on we were feeling our way.  but as we got the experience and saw how things reproduced we were able to develop away from the american cartoon style’ [quoted on p157] – ie he and his studio were consciously drawing in an american style + developing it into their own version

also, from the same letter:

‘at the time we launched eagle I was confident we could sell an american version, tailored for script + technique to the american sunday supplements.  buck rogers + flash gordon had gone out but there was surely an upsurge of interest in space to come.  we would use our expertise and inventions, together with the space fleet set up, our team method of working + our central filing and records system but … it would have to be scripted very differently’ [ibid p158]

it was about time he mentioned buck rogers + flash gordon, with dan dare as their heir occupying the gap they left in comics after they ‘had gone out’.  they had not in fact ceased publication + were being published continually up to at least the late 60s: hampson presumably means their popularity had waned (eg movie serial adaptations had ceased) + perhaps in his view (that of a fan who remembers them from his youth) the standard had dropped by 1950

the similarities between these strips (rogers, gordon + dare) are obvious – anyone reading this can compare them for themselves, although caution should be taken that any comparison with dare’s predecessors should not be reductive.  dan dare is not simply ripped off a 1930s american original any more than the rolling stones etc ripped off american music from the 50s + sold it back to them ten years later – they gave it a shot in the arm + introduced it to a different, younger audience

5    eagle v UK comics

as mentioned briefly above, the eagle was as different from the UK comics of the time as it was from those of the US

a scan of a 1940s UK weekly ought to go here: unfortunately they were so crap the inevitable decision that the internet would be better off without them prevailed

the problem with this issue is dennis gifford.  without him making his life’s work promoting discussion of UK comics in the media + putting together an archive of them the UK comic industry would look different (in a bad way) to this day.  on the other hand he had terrible taste in comics + would have preferred to read about someone slipping on a banana skin for the millionth time than pick up a 2000ad

take this on faith: number one of the eagle was like a nuclear bomb going off for anyone lucky enough to come across it the week it was on sale.  the history of comics in the UK starts in april 1950

6    in summary

with the eagle there was an american comic strip genre thriving in the UK parallel to the horror comics + silver age superheroes of the 50s, about which the general public in the states knew nothing + still won’t want to know anything if journalists in the UK keep repeating inaccurate statements about the genesis of the comic + misrepresenting its agenda as anti american

7    afterword

lastly note alastair crompton has in fact issued (2010) an updated + expanded version of the man who drew tomorrow – because it’s £25 + only available in hardback it hasn’t been consulted for this article.  obviously he may have disentangled some of the statements in the original edition himself by now, but even if he has, at the time of publication [jun 2016] wikipedia is still referencing sources which can’t be right:

‘… some British boys were buying American horror comics produced for G.I.s.  Morris was impressed by the high standard of artwork in the US magazines, but disgusted by their content, which he described as “deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems.”‘

which horror comics were these?  superheroes are supernatural and magical + go around solving problems – is this another genre misidentified as horror?  you cannot argue with the publication dates on the actual horror comics + those of the magazine articles by frederick wertham etc.  they are fixed, our interpretation of marcus morris’s statements needs to alter: he must be discussing crime, science fiction or superhero books – genres whose plots are actually based on problem solving.

‘problem solving’ if you can call it that in horror is where the writers establish there could be no real life solution eg where a murderer has escaped justice because of his wealth + influence, so justice is done by the ghost of the victim haunting the murderer into taking his own life.  if morris has been quoted correctly + is referring to this plot element of the horror genre he must have been amazingly lucky to find enough different issues of the subset of the handful of US horror books that had been published that made it to the UK to be able to derive a pattern from the stories

if you assume that did happen, any horror books found would have been completely unrepresentative of the US comics appearing in the UK + the whole eagle project kicked off because of a sampling error

although technically not impossible this is harder to believe than the fact that the media has been misinterpreting the genre under discussion

8    afterimage

hampson photo reference

(c) who dares 1985

frank hampson himself is on the right modelling as photo reference for one of his characters (both images reproduced in the man who drew tomorrow)

after close examination of this pose it should be possible to state without fear of contradiction that, whatever the relative merits of their finished artwork, from the evidence of his expression alone in the field of photo reference modelling frank hampson beats alex raymond, hal foster + milton caniff by a long distance

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One Response to demonstrating the eagle was in an american tradition

  1. Paul Gravett says:

    Hi Alec, fair points here. Morris used the more commonly used generic term ‘horror comics’ which became the shorthand phrase to vilify the worst American imports or reprints. But early on, as we discussed at the Mart today, it would have been crime comics that Eagle was in part responding to. I am interviewing Frank Hampson’s son Peter btw at The Lightbox exhibition on Sat Oct 8: do hope you can come to Woking.

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