The Eagle In Retrospective: Part 1 – Issue 1

Nostalgia isn’t what it is cracked up to be. We often talk about things that we remember from our childhood fondly and wish that we could revisit them often reminiscing about how they are better than their modern counterparts, whether they are movies, television shows, video games, comics or anything else geek related. Certainly the comics industry seems to show strong indications that this may actually be the case. Sales of books are no where near the levels that they were decades ago and titles that may have sold in the hundreds of thousands when they were originally released now struggle to sell tens of thousands today, even for major series like Batman, Spider-Man and other classics.

Back in the UK, what many would think of as “traditional” comics have changed dramatically as well. While there are a large number of titles being produced in the single story format (that we are familiar with from DC and Marvel), the comic format we remember from our youth seen by the likes of Battle, Scream, 2000AD, Eagle and many more has long gone. The mix of serialised stories, features, and occasional gifts that were looked forward to as a bonus have instead been replaced with more child-friendly commercial and market driven comics. The strips themselves are often more simplistic and shorter in nature, often self contained with one or two short stories per issue, puzzles and games and “free” gifts with each issue, bagged so the comics themselves can’t be browsed prior to purchase.

It’s a retail-driven approach – stores have demanded an increased level of cover mounted gifts for some time, believing that these are what sell to children and that’s what they are willing to market and promote and – to a degree – they’re right. Some years ago we took our daughter to a supermarket on a shopping trip and asked if she wanted a comic. We said she could have any that she wanted and her immediate focus was to look at all of the gifts and she made her decision based on that. Upon returning home she spent a few minutes on the gift, about the same looking at the comic and within a few days the gift was in the bin and the comic headed to the recycling having never been read.

But I digress. This isn’t about comics generally but about one in particular… The Eagle. Originally launched in 1950 and running until 1969 it was marketed as an adventure paper for boys featuring comic strips (headlined by Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future), articles, technical features and cutaway diagrams on modern vehicles (offering an educational aspect to the comic) in a contrast to what the creator felt were violent and aggressive comics at the time. It was a huge success with the first issue selling almost a million copies but as it neared the end of its run sales dwindled and it closed down.

My own experience with the comic – and the focus of this series – came several decades later. It was 1982 and IPC Magazines obtained the rights to the comic and characters and relaunched it for a brand new audience. With a cover dated 27th March 1982 the new Eagle was launched. Now, I actually missed this initially and didn’t get the comic until a few weeks later… Every year as a family we went on holiday to North Wales. As it was quite a lengthy car journey it became something of a family tradition that my parents bought me a couple of comics to read on the way. My choice that year? Whizzer And Chips (if I remember correctly) and Issue 10 of Eagle. I was drawn in immediately by the storylines, mix of artwork and photo stories (sometimes referred to as fumetti). What I found refreshing was that it was a comic always had something for me in every issue even if I didn’t enjoy every story. With each strip only spanning 3-4 pages there was plenty of variety in each issue and astonishingly tight scripting to keep each story engaging from start to finish.

I carried on reading for the next 300 issues, even picking up the earlier ones as back issues, stopping only when I started work before the comic ended after 500 issues. Now I’m going back and collecting the entire run again from the beginning and reading them all from the start and want to share that journey of rediscovery with all of you…

Issue 1 – 27th March 1982

As with any first issue of a comic, IPC wanted to let potential readers know that Eagle was new and exciting so the front cover was intended to be eye-catching and dynamic. At that time in the UK comics market free gifts were few and far between and were something to look forward to so having a cover-mounted gift was a great launch gimmick and in the case of this first issue, the comic gave away a free “Space Spinner” or effectively a mini frisbee. The focus of the cover art was Dan Dare, specifically the Mekon and pushing that as the focus of the comic hoping that it would be the same lead story as it was back in the 50s and 60s. The bottom highlighted some of the other strips present which a side panel then covered the celebrity interviews and features and certainly boasted an impressive line-up for the time including two major sports personalities and the current Doctor Who, Peter Davison. Already a promising start for any kid looking for a new comic…

Before delving into the stories themselves, the opening editorial page was something fresh and original. As well as offering a brief nod to the original comic there were well-wishing messages from different celebrities and an introduction to some of the photographers behind the photo stories. While this was only a brief element of the page and something that most kids would have ignored, looking back as an adult it was quite an impressive thing from the start to see the creative talent get the recognition that they deserve right from the beginning. But what of the rest of the comic…?

The opening story was one that rapidly became a fan favourite – Doomlord. The tale followed an alien sent to earth from a race who had been observing Earth and had judged the human race as being unfit to continue living on the planet after continually abusing and mistreating the planet. Our entire species had been sentenced to death and Doomlord had been sent to carry that out. However, his arrival on Earth hadn’t gone unnoticed and just one reporter, Howard Harvey was left to stop him.

Alan Grant worked wonders with the script for what quickly became one of my favourite stories to appear in the comic. In just four pages we not only saw the introduction of the character, but learned of his mission, his shape-changing abilities and Harvey’s burning desire to uncover the truth in an incredibly well paced script. With so many stories in each issue, they needed to be well written especially those that had cliffhanger endings and this was no exception and it holds up remarkably today and is just as gripping.

The celebrity aspect of the comic followed (keeping in line with the “adventure paper” theme) with two interviews. A brief but relatively informative piece with Peter Davison and a full page profile on footballer Bryan Robson. While the profile was quite brief, it was more intended to be a pin-up page than anything else but these profiles also served a dual purpose to also run a reader’s competition.

Back to the strips and next was the first four pages of Thunderbolt and Smokey. This was a story I generally avoided when I was younger purely because of the subject matter – football! I’m not a great sports fan so seeing a weekly story dedicated to football left me cold but this was actually a lot more than that. Set at the fictional Dedfield School, Colin “Thunderbolt” Dexter was the school’s best football player… sadly the rest of the team weren’t up to par and had no passion for playing, neither did the coach leading to a dismal performance and school team record. In contrast, “Smokey” Beckles was the best player for one of the rival schools teams but ended up being moved to Dedfield by his parents because of the better academic results from the school. Seeing an opportunity to improve the school team, Dexter tries to approach Beckles and persuade him to join the team and work together…

For a lot of readers, this strip really ticked all of the boxes. It captured all of the elements of the typical buddy-movies of the era, football (which was always going to be a winner amongst a large portion of the readers) and the fight against adversity which would hopefully strike a chord with a lot of kids in similar situations in their lives (not necessarily on a sporting level but in some way. It certainly worked. In all honesty, this is really the first time I’ve given the story a chance and it’s better than I had expected it to be. By no means a classic and I am expecting a lot of clichés in the coming issues but I think there will be some solid storytelling along the way.

Sgt Streetwise follows immediately on from this. As if the title doesn’t give it away, this four page strip follows the cases of a (relatively) young undercover cop in London. The stories in general vary from one-shots (as in the case with this issue which acts more as an introduction to the character) to smaller story arcs. This one sees Sgt Wise foiling an attempted robbery on a jewelry story while disguised as a homeless person sleeping rough on the streets. While the premise is sound, the execution here really lets the story down and the dialogue is absolutely terrible. Imagine the most cliché-ridden dialogue from the worst possible police show from the 60s or 70s and that’s what you’ll find here. It really is that bad. At one point I was almost expecting one of the crooks to shout out “You’ll never take me alive copper” or something just as absurd.

Next four pager is another one I really had no interest in as a child but again one I have since grown to appreciate now… The Tower King. Set in the not-too-distant future (well, it was back then), a new technology had been introduced to develop a cleaner, safer form of generating electricity, linking a network of solar powered satellites, transmitting microwave energy to receiving stations on Earth. Everything was ready to go live when there was an accident at one of the receiving stations destroying it, causing a chain reaction. The Earth’s atmosphere was charged from the explosion (yes, scientifically absurd but it worked from a storytelling point of view) so it made generation of electricity impossible. Nothing at all work work and it triggered a global meltdown and society quickly turned to chaos. One man, Mick Tempest, tried to lead a group of survivors to safety within the remains of the Tower of London while fighting off those who would try to usurp him.

This is probably one of the most tightly written stories to feature in Eagle. Each instalment expertly written by Alan Hebden managed to move the story along at an incredible pace, a vast amount was packed in yet never felt rushed, the characters are multi-layered and the icing on the cake is the superb artwork from Ortiz. I think I probably appreciated this more after watching the series Revolution from NBC in 2012 which then reminded me of the comic strip and how close the series was to it. Certainly re-reading it now, despite the flaws it holds on a scientific level, it stands up remarkably as a solid piece of science fiction and is far more mature than the age range it was written for. Fabulous stuff and one of the best strips the comic had to offer.

Eagle went back to its roots after this strip for the first in an ongoing series. The original was famous for its cutaway diagrams of vehicles and mechanical things of note, and this new series recreated that. The Eagle Eye series looked at different ships, planes and vehicles in closer detail providing technical information, artwork, a cutaway diagram and then a small box for readers to fill in if they ever saw one in real life. Next, and returning to the sporting theme, was Daley’s Diary. Written by Olympic athlete Daley Thompson, it was a single page weekly sports round-up covering a diverse range of sports including – as the title implied – a mini diary highlighting the major sporting events of that week.

The penultimate strip for the issue followed – The Collector – and it’s a four page one-shot story. The format of the strip revolved around a collector (as the title implies) of curiosities, each one having a story behind it leading to the Collector recounting a tale to the readers. The strips essentially become a pictorial Twilight Zone with each story differing wildly from one week to the next. It kept the series incredibly fresh with it ranging from historical to contemporary tales to tales of fantasy and the realms of science fiction. In this debut story it tells the tale of a father and son who go on a fishing trip who get more than they bargain for when they venture into a prohibited area… For Eagle trivia fans, one thing to watch here is the model playing the role of the father here makes a return to the comic some months later as a regular in the strip MANIX.

You’ll have noticed that I’ve left one story until last… Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future. This is the only full-colour strip in the issue and was limited to just three pages – the centre spread and back cover but the team of B Tomlinson on the script and Gerry Embleton on the artwork certainly made the most of it. Rather than being a new interpretation of the classic character from the original Eagle, the decision was taken to retcon things slightly but I’ll come onto this at a later date… The Mekon has been defeated by his long-time enemy and has been imprisoned in an artificial meteor which has been launched into space.

Discovered by a space mining craft hundreds of years later, he takes control of the timid crew and demands to be taken to Earth to find his foe, Dan Dare. He arrives only to find a grave but with a headstone from the 1950, stating that Dare was lost in action… years before his first encounter with the Mekon leaving the Venusian bewildered. Believing his lifelong foe dead, he instead vows to take revenge on the entire human race and sets out to rebuild his Treen army. At this point it’s not just the Mekon that’s left confused as to the real nature of Dan Dare and who he really was in the original comic or what his role will actually be in the strip if he is actually dead as the grave would lead us to believe. Obviously it would be a short Dan Dare story if that in fact were the case but it’s interesting to see that the star of the strip doesn’t actually make an appearance which is all the more tantalising for the second part. Certainly a great start for the story and another excellent cliff-hanger.

It’s no wonder looking back why I loved the Eagle so much growing up. It was great value for money for the 20p cover price. It offered a generous 32 pages, 23 of those were taken up with no fewer than six comic strips offering a wide range of content and depth of storytelling almost all of which holds up well today some 35 years on. While many of the features have dated, they’re still an interesting look back into the past, just as are all of the adverts and celebrity profiles gaining a glimpse at pop culture of the 80s (and as the comic progressed the 90s).

Next time, I’ll move on to looking at Issues 2-4…

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