Issue 49 (dated 26 Feb 1983) saw a slight, but significant, change in format for the Eagle. Photostrips were expensive to produce, and poor at representing action, so the number was reduced to allow the introduction of two new artwork stories. This saw the merciful (if temporary – both came back for short runs later on) conclusions of Sgt. Streetwise and The Invisible Boy, replaced by Crowe St Comp. and Gil Hazzard – Codename Scorpio.
The former was basically a soap, set in the titular Crowe St Comprehensive, with a large cast of characters taking part in an endless series of largely humourous adventures. Clearly ripped off from TV’s Grange Hill, the end result is pretty successful and must have been popular with readers, eventually running for 75 episodes, and sailing serenely through the major format changes still to come over the next year. It was written by Fred Baker (better known for Billy’s Boots) and drawn in a slightly cartoonish style by Rex Archer. It went on for so long, that the characters eventually grow up, and start looking for jobs when they finish school – a depressing prospect for a teenager in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Scorpio made a big splash, as it’s first 4 episodes were presented in 3D, requiring colour printing, and the free 3D specs given away with issue 49. The script was by Wagner and Grant (writing as Ian Holland) with superb art by Cam Kennedy, somewhat spoiled by the green and red 3D effect. Gil Hazzard (1 L, 2 Z’s as he must remind everyone he meets) is an ex-intelligence agent turned stunt man (of course), clearly created to take advantage of the 3D effect by presenting as much action as possible. As a result, dialogue is sidelined in favour of cars jumping off of bridges and exploding into caravans. By episode 5, the 3D was proving expensive to print, and most of the kids at home will have lost their free specs by this time, so Scorpio becomes a more standard strip with black and white artwork by Mike Dorey. The action continues with Hazard framed for a crime and forced to prove his innocence.
Also beginning in issue 49 was The Fifth Horseman, with art by Jose Ortiz, fresh from his work on The House of Daemon. Ortiz seems to have been used for many of the ‘horror’ strips, but although the artwork remains impressive, The Fifth Horseman is not in the same league as Daemon. For a start, the script this time around is by Alan Hebden, who I’m sorry to say, failed to impress with The Tower King. Curiously, every episode has a banner proclaiming that this is a ‘Thaddius Thorn Story’, despite us never having heard of Thaddius Thorn, who has never appeared in anything else, ever. Thorn is a multi-millionaire, with the funds to get private jets to anywhere in the world within minutes, something he very much takes advantage of. Travelling with him are his enormously strong (but not terribly clever) bodyguard Jeb, and his personal assistant Arlene, who follows in the Cassandra Aldrich tradition by wearing a very short skirt and thigh-high boots throughout. The characters are likeable, but the main problem with the story is the rather nebulous nature of the threat – Thorn is warned that the Fifth Horseman is coming, presaging the end of the world, but since the horseman never actually appears, it’s hard to be all that concerned. What we’re left with is Thorn and his chums travelling around the world, getting involved in various natural disasters and (eventually) some slightly bizarre robots.
The photostrip Doomlord III also returns in issue 49, with Vek still living with the Plumroses, waiting for Nox to send a ship to pick him up. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, and this time he is, when humanity returns to its bad old ways, and starts building nuclear weapons again. In response, Vek reveals his existence, and then just to show he means business (he does, after all, just look like some block in a joke shop mask) he wipes out the town of Prattlewell. Quite a lot of the story is taken up with him trying to get the humans to negotiate with him, while they betray him at every turn. Perhaps they don;t trust someone who just wiped out an entire town. They do finally see sense, but not before Nox has sent Servitor Zom to complete the sentence of death on all humankind. Even Vek thinks this is a bit extreme, but to stop him, he is forced to kill Zom and he knows that the Dread Council will be coming after him, next. Doomlord III is very much in the same vein as Doomlord II, and has the same strengths and weaknesses. The main let down is the final confrontation between Vek and Zom is over very quickly – something Alan Grant would rectify in the next story.
The other ongoing photostrip in this period is Manix, now working for “O”, the head of British Intelligence (see what they did there?). The similarities with Bond continue as he is matched against an enemy organisation called S.M.O.G. who want to take over the world or something. I dunno, I wasn’t really concentrating. The problem with Manix is that he’s a complete blank slate, with no personality of his own. He was obviously popular with readers, but it seems to have been difficult to think of new stories for him. The photostrip reaches its absolute nadir in ‘Manix Meets the Uglies’ (issues 68-77) in which a mad scientist wearing a magician’s hat (he appears to be played by the same actor who portrayed Mr Wright in the second Joe Soap story) invents a serum, and injects ordinary people with it, turning them into the ‘uglies’. These are played by (probably) the same actors, but now they’re wearing unconvincing ‘ugly’ comedy masks! Somehow, this gets stretched out to 10 episodes. Frankly, I’m not sure if writer Alan Grant was head-butting his typewriter, or laughing maniacally throughout.
The final two photostrips to appear in Eagle debuted in this period. First, in issue 64, was House of Correction. Zero-budget photostrips struggle to convey anything other than the present-day, as should have been clear by now, but the creators don’t seem to have learnt their lesson, as this on is set in October 1943 in Nazi-occupied France! Things start all right, but as the episodes wear on, the occasional Gestapo uniform is less and less able to convince us that we’re not looking at some 1980s guys in jeans. The script, written by Chris Lowder (as Jack Adrian), is pretty wacky stuff. I can hardly bring myself to attempt to describe the plot, but here goes: pilot Harry Beckett crashes his plane over France and is picked up by the resistance. There he finds out that his crew mates, and Lafarge, a local resistance leader, have all been taken to the Nazi ‘House of Correction’, which is running experiments in brainwashing. He has to break in, because Lafarge knows all about a secret conference of resistance leaders happening in a months time! If the Nazis get hold of the information, they could break the entire European Underground! Which is probably a good reason for not holding such a conference in the first place. I mean, whose name do you book the hotel under? Who does the catering? Anyway, describing this somehow fails to convey the full insanity of the next 12 episodes as Beckett variously breaks into and out of the house again, with resistance leaders turning into brainwashed murderous zombies, until everyone loses interest. Or was that just me?
Rather more serious, is Walk or Die, debuting in issue 65. Written by Scott Goodall, this story is narrated by Jill Webster, one of a group of school children stranded in Canada after a plane crash. When the last of the teachers dies, leadership is provided by Jim Hardy, whose dad was in the SAS, turning him into a kind of emotionless survivalist. With a personality somewhere between John McClane and Bear Grylls, Hardy is perhaps less-than-convincing as a 12 year old boy. Everyone hates him, but he’s the one who tells them they need to walk out of there – or die!
This time a photostrip attempts to convey the vast Canadian wilderness using just some stock photos and a group of child-actors hanging around some woods in Surrey. One episode sees them climbing over some snowbound mountains, which the photographer can only represent by showing the actors against some blank white backgrounds. More shocking now, is that some of the kids are really quite young, and partway through the story, one of them gets separated from the others and actually dies – he falls in a river and drowns. It’s the sort of slightly ‘callous’ story-telling that boys comics of the time seemed to get away with. Even more disturbing to modern eyes, is a later episode where Jill gets captured by a large heavily-bearded trapper who takes a shine to her. He insists on locking her up in his wooden shack, while the boys (who he’s not so keen on) are chained up outside. It’s hard to imagine any comics editor accepting that, now. Other parts of the comic also make curious reading at times. One issue has a ‘Star Scan’ of Jimmy Savile. Talking about his charity work, the by-line reads “Not only does Jimmy have a heart of gold, but also a golden suit!” Someone hold my sick bag.
A more generally worrying development came in issue 68, with the debut of artwork strip One-Eyed Jack. Worrying because this is a reprint from Valiant, first appearing on 20 December 1975. Filling the comic with reprints is a sign of attempts to save money, suggesting that sales were not as buoyant as a year earlier. Although the strip went uncredited in Eagle, it was written by John Wagner and drawn by John Cooper, and is now seen as a precedent for Judge Dredd. Jack McBane is a tough, no-nonsense New York cop, with a ‘shoot first, ask questions never’ policy – this is a habit he picks up in the first episode, when he loses an eye after failing to shoot a young criminal dead at his first opportunity. The story which follows is episodic (McBane wraps up the vast majority of his cases in a single episode, some of them only running to 2 pages) and incredibly violent in a way that IPC weren’t really doing anymore by the early 80s. It probably always looked a bit out-of-place in Eagle, even when the episodes didn’t feature characters in spectacular flares. Satisfyingly, after 44 episodes, McBane’s policy rebounds on him when he shoots and kills his own nephew. He then quits the force, a decision which must have seemed mysterious to Eagle readers, but actually coincided with the cancellation of Valiant in 1976, and the strip’s subsequent transfer to Battle, where McBane got a new job as a spy (which fortunately still allowed him to shoot people).
Issue 70 saw the debut of another artwork strip, The Hand by Gerry Finlay-Day with art by Vanyo. Best described as a ‘horror’ strip, this tale (bear with us) sees Luke Hackett have a car crash with Mafia man Luca Mancini. Mancini dies in the crash, and Hackett receives his hand in a transplant. So now Hackett has an EVIL HAND which seems to be able to take over at will, and force him to commit murders and travel across America seeking the rivals Mancini wants to take revenge on. The whole concept is daft as a brush, but the end result is surprisingly entertaining, with some clever twists, such as when Hackett marries a beautiful waitress to stop the hand from killing her (as wives can’t testify against their husbands in court). And who said romance had no place in a boys comic? Inexplicably, the story debuts in full colour, although it soon returns to black and white.
All this, and I’ve still failed to mention Dan Dare. By issue 49, this had also been through a recent format-change. Originally, Dare had filled the two-page centrefold, which perhaps contributed to the story moving achingly slowly. Since then, it had gained a third page, which initially readers would need to search through the comic to find where it had randomly been hidden this week. Eventually, the third page was moved to be the front cover, and the comic entered it’s ‘best-looking’ phase as Ian Kennedy provided beautiful fully-painted covers week-in and week-out. His artwork inside was also stunning, despite a short-lived and ill-advised experiment to illustrate the ‘spaceship’ panels using models. I have clear childhood memories of these. I still was not a subscriber, but would see random issues at my dentists, where I would seek them out, and try and work out what was going on in stories I was reading out-of-order.
The scripting was also going through a particularly strong period. Dan Dare stopped carrying individual story titles about 4 episodes into ‘Fireflight’, but by issue 55, he had finally reached Earth Fort and we start a new story referred to by fans as ‘Young Dare’. A continuation of the Return of the Mekon saga, this saw the human authorities investigating Dare’s past after the Mekon has faked a video showing Dare supporting him. This is an excuse to give a lengthy flashback (19 episodes) showing Dare’s early training period and eventual mission in deep space leading up to the events of episode 1. The story finds a rich vein here, as we explore the young Dare’s vulnerability – his reluctance to face up to command and the reputation of his great-great-grandfather. Writer Pat Mills’ admirable ability to get angry about stuff demonstrates itself here, when the deep space programme sends chimpanzees on the first sleeper missions. We’re left in no doubt that this is a Bad Thing, and it comes from Mills’ research into the early American space programme from the 1960s, which did indeed send chimps into orbit before men. Kennedy also demonstrates his love of hardware, with detailed depictions of space rockets, solar yachts and sleeper ships which have also been well-researched. This will sound like heresy in some quarters, but I’m going to say it: for my money, this is the best Dare strip of all time. That’s right, even better than the Hampson originals (which after a good start, quickly degenerated into a ‘capture and escape’ runaround featuring unsophisticated characters). This version is criminally forgotten, and deserves a re-print.
Return of the Mekon was finally coming to a close. Issue 74 saw the beginning of a storyline fans call ‘The Battle for Earth’ which would finally wrap things up, perhaps even a little hurriedly. But things were about to change for Eagle, and Dan Dare would be one of the main victims.
THE EAGLE STORY INDEX!
PART 3, ISSUES 49-78
DAN DARE, PILOT OF THE FUTURE Return of the Mekon: Young Dare, 19 episodes, issues 55-73 (Apr. to Aug. 1983) Story by Pat Mills, art by Ian Kennedy, models by J. Baum (eps 4-8) Return of the Mekon: The Battle for Earth, 10 episodes, issues 74-83 (Aug. to Oct. 1983) Story by Pat Mills, art by Ian Kennedy DOOMLORD Doomlord III, 19 episodes, issues 49-67 (Feb. to July 1983) Story by Alan Grant & John Wagner, photography by Gary Compton GIL HAZZARD - CODENAME SCORPIO 3D story, 4 episodes, issues 49-52, (Feb. to Mar. 1983) Story by Ian Holland (Wagner & Grant), art by Cam Kennedy untitled (“The Web”), 15 episodes, issues 53-67, (Mar. to July 1983) Story by Ian Holland (Wagner & Grant), art by Mike Dorey THE FIFTH HORSEMAN The Fifth Horseman, 21 episodes, issues 49-69 (Feb. to July 1983) Story by Alan Hebden, art by Ortiz CROWE STREET COMP. Crowe Street Comp., 75 episodes, issues 49-123 (Feb. 1983 to July 1984) Story by Fred Baker, art by Rex Archer MANIX The Hostage, 4 episodes, issues 53-56 (Mar. to Apr. 1983) Story by Keith Law (Alan Grant), photography by Sven Arnstein S.M.O.G. Over Britain, 8 episodes, issues 57-64 (Apr. to June 1983) Story by Keith Law (Alan Grant), photography by Sven Arnstein Manix Meets the Uglies, 10 episodes, issues 68-77 (July to Sep. 1983) Story by Keith Law (Alan Grant), photography by Sven Arnstein THE INVISIBLE BOY untitled (“DJ in Trouble'”), 6 episodes, issues 58-63, (Apr. to June 1983) Story by Scott Goodall, photography by John Powell HOUSE OF CORRECTION House of Correction, 12 episodes, issues 64-75, (June to Aug. 1983) Story by Jack Adrian (Chris Lowder), photography by Mike Prior WALK OR DIE photographic story, 15 episodes, issues 65-78, (June to Sep. 1983) Story by Scott Goodall, photography by Howard Payton (2 episodes in issue 78) ONE-EYED JACK One-Eyed Jack, 75 episodes, issues 68-131, 133-143, (July 1983 to Dec. 1984) Story by John Wagner, art by John Cooper (re-printed from Valiant & Battle, originally ran to 133 eps) THE HAND The Hand, 30 episodes, issues 70-99, (July 1983 to Feb. 1984) Story by Gerry Finlay-Day, art by Vanyo SGT. STREETWISE untitled, 3 episodes, issues 76-78, (Sep. 1983) Story by Gerry Finlay-Day, photography by Dave Watts