The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
DAN DARE AND THE FOOD CAPSULES
Captain, later Colonel, Daniel MacGregor Dare of the Interplanet Spacefleet was born in 1967 in Manchester, England. By the late 1990s he was one of their most resourceful, courageous, and I want to say daring pilots. Somehow Earth children managed to read his adventures starting in April 1950. Yes, he was Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future!
The good Captain and his crew of chums appeared in the very first issue of the Eagle, an English periodical halfway between an American comic book and comic strip. Twenty pages long, only eight of them in full color at first, Eagle readers got treated to a cornucopia of strips, with characters like Cavendish Brown, Harris Tweed, Jack O'Lantern, Storm Nelson and Luck of the Legion, plus educational features about news and sports, and glossy cutaway illustrations of big machines as the centerfold equivalent. In broad terms, it filled the same niche that Carl Barks' Disney adventures of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge did in America: impeccably wholesome tales of derring-do in far-off lands with a level of sophistication that allowed it to thrill older readers of all ages.
Marcus Morris, Eagle's founder, intended the comic to promote good Christian values. He had been vicar of St. James' Church in Birkdale and his original idea was a character named Lex Christian, "a tough, fighting parson in the slums of the East End of London." British comics were plagued, in his eyes, with the same disease that Fredric Wertham and others would attack in America. One disgusted description of a comic book in a British newspaper read: "It is a magazine with 175 flawlessly vivid drawings that start with gangsters shooting a girl in the stomach, having the heroine twice bound and gagged, finally dumped in a bath of cold water to drown ... Horror has crept into the British nursery. Morals of little girls in plaits and boys with marbles bulging their pockets are being corrupted by a torrent of indecent coloured magazines that are flooding bookstalls and newsagents." There'd be none of that in any Morris publication.
His formula worked from the start. He printed a million copies of the April 14, 1950 first issue, sold a phenomenal 900,000 of them, and went up from there. Dan Dare, drawn by former RAF pilot Frank Hampson, was the star. In his first adventure, told in two full color pages every week, he and his crew traveled to Venus to explore food supplies for an Earth apparently as short on food in 1996 as Britain was in 1950.
Dare's master villain, The Mekon, head of the Treens, appears in that first adventure, simply titled "Pilot of the Future." He'd return again and again, with Dan battling him or his Treens across the solar system.
That obsession with food would pop up again in the sixth and seventh stories, "The Man From Nowhere" and "Rogue Planet." Lero, a member of a peaceful alien race, journeys to Earth to pick up tips on their specialty - war. His planet, Cryptos, is periodically attacked by a neighboring planet, Phantos, and its war-god Orak. The Cryptons can't fight, literally. They don't even have the concept and physically can't make themselves do so. You'd think this would make them perfect Christians, but not so. They want to change.
In "Rogue Planet" Dan and company travel to Cryptos and endure an unending series of cliffhanger dooms until they figure out a solution. In a twist almost unique in f&sf history, the food capsules are the plot device and not merely a colorful detail. The food capsules that the Cryptons and Phants eat are almost identical. That one difference is crucial. It makes the Cryptons extremely pacifistic and Phants psychotically angry. So what if they switch the pills?
What does Crypt grub do to a Phant's tummy? Exactly what they wanted.
All they have to do is manufacture enough capsules for the entire population of Phantos, get it to the planet undetected, and then switch out the existing food supply for their replacement capsules. Impossible? As Dan says, "You use that word too often, Lero! We have an Earth proverb - 'where there's a will there's a way' - and we're going to find it."
They do - but at what cost?
He's fine. They're all fine. The Cryptos are fine. All that's left is another adage.
Except when they get back to Earth, London is deserted. The Mekon has taken over and it's The Reign of the Robots! See you next week, Dan.