Sunday, April 11, 2010

Eagle's 60th Anniversary


This week is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Eagle, probably the most fondly remembered of all British comics. I have to confess I didn't follow it when I was a kid in the Sixties. I had one issue in 1968 and although it whiled away a holiday train journey to Blackpool I wasn't enamored enough to buy it regularly. (Not really surprising, as Eagle was on the decline by then.)

Much has been written about Eagle over the past 60 years, and will no doubt continue to be written. I'll avoid covering the origins of the comic (created by Rev. Marcus Morris, with Dan Dare by Frank Hampson and his studio) as that's been extensively covered elsewhere. My knowledge and experience of the comic isn't sufficient enough to contribute anything too comprehensive but for a little tribute here's a whirlwind journey through its history. Hold on tight because we're going to be skimming across the 19 years of Eagle's timeline like a pebble on a lake...

At the top of this post: The cover to the first issue; bold, confident, and more mature than other comics of the period it's easy to see why it grabbed the attention of boys of 1950. Its contents were a busy mixture of strips and educational features - and a generous dollop of colour, - and it managed to sell a million copies from the kick off, even without having a single free gift. In yer face, plassy-bagged modern comics and your 11 free gifts!

Apart from Dan Dare on the cover, the early Eagle was also remembered for its marvelously detailed cutaways by Leslie Ashwell-Wood that graced the centre pages...


Eagle was very contemporary and pages such as this explained how the technology of 1950 worked. It really makes the reader feel part of the era...


Moving on to 1956 (told you to hang on tight) Eagle had really settled into its prime with spectacular covers such as this...


Below: 1960 and things had changed. Eagle was no longer published by Hulton Press and Odhams (Longacre Press) had taken the reins. But the comic was still going strong, and celebrated its 10th anniversary...


1962: Things changed even more as Dan Dare lost his cover spot to a layout of panels representing various interior strips...


Some Eagle purists look upon this era with dismay, but the content was still impressive. Frank Bellamy took over the centrespread with the story of Montgomery of Alamein, a highpoint for British comics...


The quality of other strips was also still high, with Jesus Blasco on The Vengeance Trail. (Although Blasco would soon leave to draw The Steel Claw for the new Valiant comic.)


However, it was Dan Dare's relegation to a black and white strip which angered many long time fans...


Perhaps the revamp hadn't proven good sales-wise, because later that year Eagle had another facelift, this time featuring fully painted covers of racing cars...


One of Eagle's finest characters debuted in that same issue (27th October 1962); Heros the Spartan, illustrated by Frank Bellamy...


1963 and another change, - Dan Dare was back on the cover and now drawn by Keith Watson. (The rest of the story inside was still in black and white though.) Inside, strips such as Heros and the features continued, and were joined by new strips such as Can You Catch A Crook and Reg Parlett's XYZ Cars but the general tone of the comic was that it was gradually being dumbed down, perhaps partly due to the merger with Swift...


Another merger came about in 1964 as Eagle absorbed Boys' World. By 1966, as shown below, Eagle had basically become another adventure weekly. The cover feature Did It Ever Happen (and in this case, yes it did) was the sort of thing that Valiant used, and new strips such as The Guinea Pig and The Iron Man (no, not the Marvel version) were the sort of material one would find in Lion.


Some nice Brian Lewis cartoon work on Blunderbirds though...


Worse was to come. The covers no longer featured Dan Dare...


...because by 1967 the strip had gone reprint. To add insult to injury, initially the reprints were reduced in size in order to cram in more features...


Eagle was initially created in part as a cerebral alternative to American comic imports, so it must have been particularly galling for some to find that in 1968 it began reprinting Tales of Asgard from Marvel's Thor...


And yet... compared to many comics Eagle was still a classy comic. Here it was, struggling to stay afloat and following the beat of the drum instead of leading the parade as it had once done (to coin a bunch of metaphors) but it was still quality stuff. No longer a glossy comic, but it had artists such as Gerry Haylock on The Guinea Pig and José Ortiz on Sky Buccaneers...

Frank Humphis was another Eagle regular, having been with the comic since the 1950s (on Riders of the Range) and drawing Blackbow the Cheyenne in the 1960s. (Incidentally this 1968 issue is the one solitary issue I had as a child)...


Sadly even quality artists couldn't save Eagle in the end. It didn't help that it began to feature a 12 page football section in 1968. Why did publishers of the Sixties think football would boost sales? (I always found when I was at school that kids who enjoyed football the most were never comic readers.) It didn't work for Eagle and it didn't work for TV21. By 1969 Eagle was being matched for a dispatch under IPC's new broom. Dan Dare was back on the cover to see the comic out but the content was just like any other adventure weekly of the time. Here's the cover to the penultimate issue, dated April 19th 1969...


Even the features had disappeared, replaced by reprints from other comics. Some new strips emerged but they were tailored to carry on over to Eagle's new home, such as The Waxer, drawn by Spider artist Reg Bunn...


In the end, a tired and worn out Eagle merged into one of its imitators, Lion. The announcement in their companion comics even used the cliché "Great News Pals"...


The merged Lion and Eagle wasn't a bad comic by any means, but the glory days were definitely over. Dan Dare survived as reprints but they were heavily re-inked to compensate for the lack of colour. Eagle was dead.

However the comic would live on in the hearts of its fans, who would ensure it would never be forgotten. Dan Dare has been reprinted in luxurious hardbacks, first by Mike Higgs (for Hawk Books) and now by Titan Books. Other Eagle strips such as Bellamy's historical material would be reprinted, and the thrice-a-year comic Spaceship Away features brand new Dan Dare strips. The Eagle Society publishes its magazine Eagle Times, and recently Titan published Classic Bible Stories, collecting some of the Christian strips by Frank Hampson.

In 1977 IPC 2000AD revived Dan Dare for a controversial new direction and in 1982 IPC revived Eagle as a brand new comic. Although the new Eagle is fondly remembered by fans who were children at the time it never had the impact of the original. Sixty years on, it doesn't look as though the original Eagle will ever be forgotten.

Comics UK feature on Eagle:
http://www.comicsuk.co.uk/ComicInformationPages/Eagle1Pages/Eagle1HomePage2.asp


8 comments:

Peter Gray said...

It still looked like a top comic even in the 60's.....I'm amazed Dan Dare wasn't always on the cover!! Also Thor on the cover...!!!!!!!!

Did like the bus on tower bridge so still had the wow factor..

My Dad was a huge Eagle fan of the 50's...he even created his own comic called Meteor with characters similar to Eagle like Henry Bend Brain the detective and a space theme cover...
Eagle really brought in the silver age to this country...this is when it started..

James Spiring said...

Didn't know Eagle had reprinted Marvel material. And on the cover too. I thought Odhams only used those in the various Power Comics such as Smash and Fantastic.

spleenal said...

Dan Dare always was in a class all of it's own.
The art still looks great now, so I guess it always will.
It refuses to look dated too. Going straight from futuristic back then to past futures now (much more interesting)
But more than anything it's design still impresses, and I've seen stuff like the ipad

Anonymous said...

Power fan says: Note to James Spirng: That was the only issue of Eagle with the cover fully devoted to a Marvel reprint (and better colour than the original would have had!) I think that they can be forgiven because the early episodes of Tales Of Asgard were very educational about Norse mythology, and none of the episodes had Thor's human alter-ego nonsense. Note to Lew: As you may remember I am an apostrophe pedant - it's Boys' World - (although their readership was low, it was more than one!)

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks Power Fan. I'll correct that slip.

Anonymous said...

With all the reprinting of quality strips in decent volumes, why hasn't anyone reprinted Heros The Spartan yet?


B Smith

Lew Stringer said...

Heros has been reprinted, along with several other Eagle classics (and Lion's Captain Condor) in several books available via mail order. The publisher advertises them in the loose-leaf inserts in Spaceship Away. I don't know what the quality of reproduction is like though.

Rafiq Raja said...

The British magazines, I was more subjected to in my part of the world, were Valiant, and Lion. Eagle was a unknown source, until I chanced upon some of the Dan Dare stories and started to explore the origins.

To say the least, Eagle's lavishing drawn art panels for Dan Dare and other series is unmatachable. And it's good to know even after these many year since it's closure, people remember their old reading buddy.

Thanks for bringing the history of Eagle, with rare pics, Lew.

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