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Frank Hampson:

The Man Who Drew Tomorrow

“Where’s my jetpack?” Science fiction may not always accurately predict the future, but it does reflect the dreams of its times. Here we are in 2010, the 21st century, and we do have many technical marvels anticipated decades earlier by the worlds of wonder envisioned in speculative media like comics. Sixty years ago, on April 14th 1950, the first issue of Eagle with cover star Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, took to the skies and launched a new forward-looking era, not only in British comics but in world comics, with its spectacular fully-painted colour artwork printed in luxurious photogravure. Nothing anywhere else in the world at that time came close to Frank Hampson’s utterly convincing, photo-realistic visions of a tangible future.

As the Pilot of the Future approaches his 60th anniversary, Dan Dare may well finally be making it to the big screen, as Sam Worthington has reportedly signed on to the role, with Time Out suggesting Johnny Vegas as Dare’s batman Digby and Ben Kingsley as supervillain The Mekon. After the deluxe, oversized Hawk Books reprints, Hampson’s original comics live on today courtesy of Titan’s smaller, thinner hardback series, as well as a recent re-edition of his story of Jesus, The Road of Courage. Another key book is Alastair Crompton‘s 1985 illustrated biography of Hampson, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow. Crompton’s project to revamp and revise this as Tomorrow Revisited in a deluxe package is well underway from PS Publishing, subject, hopefully, to concluding negotiations with copyright owners, The Dan Dare Corporation. If it all goes ahead, the prospective launch will be at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London, who have a wide range of original pages for sale.

So six decades on, what is the legacy of Eagle and in particular the extraordinary draughtsmanship of Hampson on comics today? Although Eagle may not have been exported to the United States, Hampson has had an indirect but significant influence on British-born artists working in American comics. Notably John Byrne, who was born in Walsall, grew up reading Eagle before moving to Canada and then America. Byrne incorporated his admiration for Hampson’s artwork when he broke into superhero comics, famously on his best-selling version of Marvel’s revival of the X-Men. Only on March 16th 2010, Byrne posted about buying a page of original Eagle artwork: “Most recently I acquired a page of Dan Dare art by Don Harley and Bruce Cornwall, circa 1960.”

The hugely popular scriptwriter on the X-Men series, Chris Claremont, was also born in Britain, son of two RAF officers, and although he moved to the USA when he was three, he too grew up on Hampson’s work. He told The Times: “My grandmother took out an annual subscription to Eagle all through my youth and I grew up reading Dan Dare. It was a total refuge for someone living in Long Island. The Superman and Batman stories that were running in the Fifties and very early Sixties were as antithetical to the Eagle as you can imagine. The Eagle was much more exciting. I still remember easily an episode where the Earth sailed through a space cloud. There’s a shot of giant rectangular clouds sort of descending on London and from them springs this hoard of noxious bugs that start eating everything. Dan Dare mingled space adventure with some very real fiction and exploited the fact that with pictures you can do anything without having to pay a billion pounds in special effects.”

Illustrator and co-creator of Watchmen, artist on Doctor Who, Rogue Trooper and a later Dare revamp for 2000AD,  and author of The Originals, Dave Gibbons hails Hampson as “a huge influence on me” and recalls meeting Frank Hampson. “I was introduced to Frank by [British comics historian] Denis Gifford, somewhat mischieviously, as the man who was now drawing Dare for 2000AD, an incarnation of the character which neither Frank nor Denis liked. I apologised that I couldn’t hope to emulate what he and his team had done. He graciously absolved me, saying that we all had to make a living.

“I think what most impressed me was his ability to have consistent, three-dimensional backgrounds, machines and characters. It gave the strong impression that these flights of fantasy actually existed somewhere. Of course, later I learnt that they did, in the form of scale models and members of the art team posing as characters. That consistency and believability is certainly something I try to bring to my own work, although I’ve never had those kinds of resources.His approach is perhaps a little easier now with the advent of desktop 3D modelling and readily available photo-reference, but I doubt anyone will ever approach the Hampson studio’s excellence and impact.”

Award-winning graphic novelist Bryan Talbot, author of Alice in Sunderland and Grandville, was born and raised in Wigan, not 20 miles from where Hampson and his team were producing Dan Dare. “The Eagle was a very middle-class publication and I think that’s why I never read it while I was growing up. In fact, I only read the more ‘serious’ comics like the Valiant and the Lion occasionally, at friend’s houses. I preferred the DC Thomson funny comics. But once, when I was about seven or eight, we drove what seemed to me a vast distance (about 100 miles), to visit one of my Dad’s brother’s family for the weekend and my cousins had an Eagle annual. I vividly remember reading Dan Dare there for the first time there and marvelling at the wonderful artwork. When the reprints started to appear in the 1970s from Dragon’s Dream I started collecting them. The artwork, with its extensive use of photographic reference, was one of the influences on my choice of artwork style for The Tale of One Bad Rat. I’ve done cover illustrations of Dan Dare twice, most recently for first cover of the Garth Ennis Virgin series. Of course, Digby also came from Wigan!”

Other major talents from this “Brit Pack” generation, such as Brian Bolland, David Lloyd and Garry Leach, have hailed Hampson as a vital formative inspiration. They have also helped to spread his work to the current wave of younger illustrators such as Steve Pugh, artist on Shark-Man and Hotwire: Detective Exorcist, Gary Erskine, who drew the 2007 Virgin version of the space commander written by Garth Ennis, and Chris Weston currently working on superheroes The Twelve for Marvel Comics.

Weston explains: ” I’ve always felt myself attracted towards realistic styles in British comic art, by Brian Bolland, Garry Leach, Don Lawrence, Reg Bunn, Jesus Blasco… and after I discovered the Dragon’s Dream collection of Dan Dare: The Man From Nowhere in 1979, Frank Hampson became an important addition to that list. While I don’t try to copy his style, I do try to recreate the working practices that produced his art (unfortunately on a vastly reduced rate). Subsequently, like Hampson I do use photographic reference material. But more important than his use of photo reference, the ingredient that makes Hampson’s work so realistic is his ability to build an authentic world for his characters to inhabit. Every element, from costume to environment, has been carefully thought out. Even incidental and minor background details are thoroughly and three-dimensionally developed. I would liken the creative process of his comic strips to the concept design that goes into the making of science-fiction films; it is incredibly realised. I tend to forget I’m looking at a two-dimensional drawing when I look at his work; in my mind it blossoms into a widescreen motion picture filmed on the biggest and best sets ever made in the 1950s!”

Chris Weston is not alone in advancing a renewed hyperrealism to American superheroes, as evidenced by the celebrated American illustrator Alex Ross, famed for Marvels, Kingdom Come, Uncle Sam and many others, and British artist Doug Braithwaite, who collaborated with Ross on the DC series Justice. For Braithwaite, it was Crompton’s outstanding biography that opened his eyes. “I was vaguely aware of his name and his connection to Eagle growing up but it wasn’t until I picked up that fantastic book, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, that I fully appreciated what a wonderful creator he was. It gave great insight into his production processes and the people involved in his career. Then, through the London Cartoon Centre, taught by David Lloyd, co-creator of V for Vendetta, I gained more access to his wonderful strip work which allowed me to fully appreciate his influence on illustration and generations of British comic strip creators in this country. His observations of people, his level of draughtsmanship and his attention to meticulous detail has not been bettered, consistently, on any strip since. But the most endearing thing of all, shining through the high level of craft, was the sense of optimism and community, all cut with a great sense of humour. His personality shining through his work. This, more than anything, probably made it more accessible to to the general public and made it more than just another boy’s adventure comic. All the things I feel that are seriously lacking in today’s ‘realistic’ comics.”

Adam Brockbank has impressed not only in the field of comics illustrating Ben Heggarty’s mythic MeZolith serial in The DFC, now collected into a sturdy hardcover album, but also in the film world with his striking concept designs and storyboards for Harry Potter, Spider-Man, X-Men and other spectaculars. “I certainly do appreciate Hampson’s work, although I wasn’t properly aware of it until Dragon’s Dream reprinted The Man From Nowhere as a graphic album. I have a very dog-eared and ragged copy which at one time I studied very intensely. One of the remarkable things about his approach is how much it resembles the approach of a Production Designer. Every prop, vehicle, costume and new technology has been carefully considered and integrated, and that, combined with excellent storytelling and masterful drawing results in a very rich experience. I would argue that Katsuhiro Otomo on Akira picked up where Hampson left off, in a way!”

Across the Channel in Europe, thanks to the many translations of Dan Dare, Hampson was also instrumental in several continental artists’ careers, for example the Croatian Igor Kordey, now based in Canada who draws for both the French and American markets. To this day, and not only in Britain, wherever illustrators strive to create a vivid, convincing realism in their comics, they will sooner or later discover the genius of Hampson and take inspiration and encouragement to follow in his trailblazing trajectory. You can’t miss, for example, the painterly photo-realist portrayals of Marvel and DC superheroes gracing so many of their front covers every month, close to their glossy re-stylings in Hollywood blockbuster movies. Who would have thought that one of the futures predicted by Hampson which did come true was the future of comics themselves? He was The Man Who Drew Tomorrow’s Comics!

Posted: April 4, 2010


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