I could try to pretend I was a cool kid, so wild that the first comic I read was the ultra edgy, rebellious 2000AD. Yet the fact is I wasn’t a regular reader of the adventures of Judge Dredd until well into my teens. As a younger child it was another British Comic featuring it’s own iconic Sci-Fi hero that transitioned me from reading funnies such as Beano and Dandy to a more adventure orientated weekly. A comic that while never reaching the heights of it’s punk rock IPC stablemate, still managed a respectable twelve year run, outliving nearly every other weekly boys comic.
It was in 1982 while watching ITV children’s television that I saw the advertisements for a brand new comic called Eagle (ITV is the independent alternative to the BBC, which unlike it’s stuffy rival features television advertising), the first issue it excitedly proclaimed would feature the all new Dan Dare as well as the return of the green skinned villain The Mekon. I didn’t know who Dan Dare was, or his enemy the Mekon whose return I couldn’t get excited about as I didn’t realise he’d even been gone in the first place. Even so the ad worked it’s magic on me, the crude animation showing the Mekon bursting out of an asteroid looked cool as hell so yeah I was going to give this a try. Especially as the first issue came with an inspired free gift in the form of…..wait for it, a space spinner! Yep, another sodding space spinner! I wonder if someone in the IPC higher ups had part ownership in a sweatshop making space spinners? In any case I’m curious to know if anyone has ever raced the space spinner from the first issue of 2000AD against the one from Eagle no.1. If I win the lottery that’s on my to do list.
Unknown to me this was actually the second incarnation of Eagle. The first that ran in the 50’s and 60’s was designed to promote strong moral values amongst children and would also be educational. That’s not to mean it wasn’t also going to be fun and full of adventure. After all, it also created the iconic British character Dan Dare. An astronaut based on the typically English archetype of the RAF fighter pilot, embarking on Flash Gordon style adventures in some beautifully illustrated stories with a now vintage interpretation of space travel and alien worlds.
Dare became one of the top stars of British comics and though his inclusions in 2000AD may have been a misjudgement, those behind Eagle’s relaunch intended to build their new comic around a more back to basics Dan Dare that all the dads would remember from their own childhoods and would encourage their own children to read. However in order to avoid conflict with a Dan Dare television show (which never actually happened) creators decided to feature not the original Dare but his great, great grandson (also called Dan and himself a cadet in Earth’s space academy). The original Dare’s arch nemesis the Mekon returned in the first issue as promised where it was explained that he’d been found guilty for war crimes but since the Earth had no death penalty he’d been imprisoned in an asteroid and sent drifting into space for centuries. Because yeah that sounds way more humane.
The decision to replace the original Dare was controversial and writers have claimed with hindsight that it was a mistake. Personally I liked the new Dare as he was depicted as more hotheaded and rebellious than his stiff upper lipped ancestor. Certainly the first story arc where the young Dare returns from a training mission to find Earth had been invaded in his absence and mostly conquered by the Mekon’s forces was a long running saga that had me gripped.
When the 1st issue hit newstands it was a very different comic from any of it’s counterparts. For a start it was published on higher quality paper, rather than the pulp material that was the norm at the time. Though the focus was on the strips, Eagle also featured a large number articles, with interviews with children’s tv personalities, sport stars and musicians. Celebrities such as Olympian Daley Thompson and comedian Lenny Henry were given regular columns. Cutaway diagrams of vehicles a feature from the original Eagle made their way into the relaunched title as well as news stories aimed towards young males.
But it was the stories themselves that were the most striking difference, as most of the strips were illustrated not with drawings but with photographs. These Photostories featured more down to earth tales of detectives such as Sgt Streetwise, Joe Soap or the school drama Thunderbolt and Smokey (showing a little bit of 80’s political incorrectness) where two kids try to turn around the fortunes of their loser football team, while dealing with the usual school problems of bullys and pain in the arse teachers (the kids succeed in reaching the final of a schools tournament but lose the big match which left me really deflated).
The use of photos while different did have a stiff staged look to them and could be laughable in their awkwardness. However for one story in particular it helped to make the tone more horrific. Walk or Die was a story of a group of schoolchildren who survive a planecrash in the Canadian wilderness and are forced to make a dangerous journey back to civilization. The first episode sees the surviving teachers mauled to death by a grizzly bear and later one of the younger boys drowns when a self made raft capsizes. It’s not quite Lord of the Flies but it’s still a grim tale made all the more intense by being acted out by real children.
Drawings were retained for the most outlandish strips such as Dan Dare and another fantasy story The Tower King set in a world where an accident causes the loss of electricity and society reverts back to a medieval existence. It’s an exciting tale (as a child I was freaked out by a tribe that resided in the tunnels of the London Underground called the Rats and by the return of the Plague to Britain’s shores), and had it had been in 2000AD we could probably be enjoying reprints of it to this day. The drawing style of strips allowed for more creative indulgence, but it was still a photo story that quickly became the comic’s breakout feature.
Doomlord featured a shape-shifting alien who kills and adopts the identity of various humans, as he follows his agenda to seemingly wipe out the human race. Tracking him is a reporter who no one will believe. It makes for a fairly standard monster story, but is still entertaining and the rubber mask worn by the actor is genuinely grotesque and creepy.
The story takes a more philosophical turn in the final episodes where Doomlord while making a virus that will wipe out mankind reveals he comes from a race that acts as judge, jury and executioner when investigating lifeforms and evaluating their right to existence. Humanity he’s deemed is destined for extinction and in a montage showing the evils and crimes that mankind has inflicted on the Earth and it’s inhabitants, it’s hard to argue with his conclusions. The reporter manages to turn the tables on Doomlord and both are killed by the virus, stating that humanity will die but it will be at it’s own hands and not Doomlords. This proclamation comes across as shallow when considering that the purpose of the virus was to destroy only humans and leave the rest of the lifeforms on Earth intact unlike the holocaust that mankind would likely have unleashed.
A sequel Doomlord II soon followed, with a second Doomlord being sent to find the missing first one and complete his mission if necessary. This series had a different tone from the first with comedy moments in the opening episode where Doomlord kills and takes the form of the first person he meets, who happens to be an unfortunate tramp. It’s an identity that causes him discomfort due to the flees in the rags he’s now wearing, and when he’s later accosted by two thugs Doomlord dryly asks them which one of them has the least bodymites to help decide which ones form he should adopt.
The new Doomlord is a more sympathetic figure and although he too finds humanity guilty, he believes the species shows the potential for redemption and so is given a year to change mankind’s ways. Doomlord succeeds in gaining a reprieve for the world by causing a nuclear scare that shocks the world into the disarmament of it’s nuclear weapons. However when Doomlord III comes around humanity has already reverted to type and the death sentence is ordered by Doomlord’s seniors. Doomlord rebels, instead revealing his existence to the world in an attempt to force humanity into changing his ways and later becomes Earth’s protector against the various agents that are sent to carry out humanities extinction.
Even though he became a hero, Doomlord stills resorts to dark methods to complete his goals such as brainwashing people and murdering innocents who’s identity he needs to use. He’s a challenging anti hero that became the comics second longest running strip and maligns the Eagle’s reputation as being a safe alternative to it’s edgier rivals.
Because of the photostory format, Doomlord was restricted from fully embracing the sci fi elements of his storyline. This changed after the first year of Eagle where to cut costs the comic was revamped, switching to traditional pulp quality paper and reverting photo stories to the traditional drawing style (the celebrity involvement was also dropped).
With this step writer’s were now free to do more outlandish and spectacular storylines, with Doomlord taking full advantage of the new freedoms now including more elaborate villains to face Doomlord. While a new strip that could not have existed in the photostory format was the Computer Warrior, where a boy finds a way to enter a dimension through his home computer, becomimg a physical part of his computer games where if he loses he’ll remain trapped there (one creepy moment is when he’s in a formula one game and finds the pit crews are made up of kids who are trapped in the world, begging the question why were these mass disappearances of gamers going unreported). As well as being a good story the strip also created the opportunity for merchandise tie ins as all the stories were based on actual games. Another cross promotion came when Eagle began running a strip adaptation of the budget clone of the Transformers toys known as the Robo Machines, which was pretty fun and a damn sight better than the God awful challenge of the Gobots cartoon.
Other notable strips were the dinosaur epic Bloodfang (which I dealt with in a previous article), the adventures of Newsteam who covered stories in various hotspots and warzones, House of Daemon a really disturbing haunted house story, Golden Boy a young athlete blackmailed into competing on a dangerous tv show called the suicide game, Death Wish a race driver who is disfigured when badly burnt in a race accident and embarks on a career as a stuntman and Manix another anti hero in the form of a robot secret agent.
My personal favourite and the one that I always read first was The Fists of Danny Pike a boxing drama where a troubled kid from the streets of Liverpool becomes a successful heavyweight boxer. It’s obviously draws heavy on the Rocky films but as a boxing fan I was gripped in his hunt for the world title held by Alvin Sharkley. Pike gains a shot at the title early on, and goes against the advice of his trainers who feel he isn’t ready, accepting the shot due to his desire for his dying grandmother to see him as champion before she dies. He loses the fight on a cut eye and has to climb his way to contention once again.
When he finally gets a return shot at Sharkly I can still vividly remember a panel where Pike is knocked down and seemingly out in a shocking cliffhanger (what made the scene special to me was the shot of a family back in England watching the fight in dressing gowns in the early hours of the morning, just like how my own family used to watch the big fights.) The following episode sees Pike cut again and given one more round to knock out Sharkly and achieve his dreams. Unfortunately Pike fails and descends into a state of depression and after drugs and alcohol abuse is left homeless and destitute…..oh course I’m lying he knocks out Sharkley in one of my all time favourite feel good moments of reading comics.
One of the things I liked about is Eagle is the diverse stories that covered all genres such as detective, war, sci fi, horror and even sport and school drama. This is due in part to the trend of merges between comics. In those days when a comic’s sales fell to a significant level the comic would be merged with a stronger comic, or in reality be absorbed. The new combined comic would feature the best stories from each title and the two would supposedly be given even billing although as time went on the lesser comic’s title would diminish until finally it would disappear altogether. Eagle in it’s position as a strong comic was the one that always absorbed the failing comics, with titles such as Tiger, Scream, Wildcat and Battle seeing their last days within it’s pages. (2000AD was also part of one such merger with it’s sister comic Starlord. Starlord was actually the better selling comic but was more expensive to produce and thinking that there was more potential in 2000AD, it was Starlord that was the one that ultimately dissolved).
Eventually though Eagle was the one that came to the end of the line and sadly as the UK comic industry was in a heavy decline there was no comic left to merge into. In 1994 Eagle became a monthly comic and shortly after disappeared forever. I’d long been gone as a reader by this time, having grown out of the comic and moved onto a life of Marvel fandom. Before I cancelled my own subscription I could see the signs of the comics decline, with costcutting reprints of early 2000AD creeping in. The appearance of the great, great grandson of original Dare’s partner Digby joining Dan Dare as his new sidekick seemed a desperate gimmick too and even as a youngster I groaned at his appearance.
Eagle is often seen as a tame, safer comic and true it’s nowhere near as gritty as 2000AD. However Eagle wasn’t without it’s edging moments, many characters were killed off, stories would have downbeat endings and it had a fair share of horror strips that didn’t hold back on the gore. One story that caused controversy in particular was the Hand about a photographer who has a hand transplant from a murdered gangster and as a result becomes possessed with his ghost and is forced on a revenge crusade against the mob that killed him. The strip was featured on a breakfast TV show (ITV’s TV-AM) for it’s violence, citing how a scene showing the lead fashioning a firebomb out of a bottle of wine could lead to children copycatting and making their own homemade devices. Eagle responded with a well reasoned editorial, that was enlightening to my young self on how the media really worked.
I have very fond memories of Eagle. In many ways it paved the way for my later obsession with comics, and at the times it made Monday mornings bearable as that’s when my copy would get delivered with the morning papers (one of the paperlads admitted to me that he used to read my copy on his daily rounds and would sometimes do my street’s deliveries last so he had time to read it, the cheeky sod). The end of Eagle to me signified the death of a style of adventure comics that delighted young readers for many decades. Styles and interests change and go out of fashion, it’s an inevitable fact of live. Yet when looking back at the comics that thrilled me as a child, I can’t help but feel a sadness at their passing and that aside from the more mature 2000AD there are no 21st century equivalent for today’s children.
And before I start going on about how much I miss Vinyl and betamax video tapes I’ll wish you all adieu
One final Eagle story. Like most comics Eagle would run whacky competitions for it’s readers, stuff like winning an all you can grab spree in a toyshop or win your weight in chocolate.
However one competition stuck in my mind for it’s sheer bizzare concept. The winner of this contest would get to swim in a swimming pool filled with lemonade. Photographs of the winning boy, smiling as he swam in his lemonade appeared in Eagle which even as a kid I thought looked, well creepy.
I’m sure that this page from the comic exists somewhere on the internet, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be using the keywords necessary to find it.