Reviews: the Pilot of the Future returns – Dan Dare #1
Dan Dare #1,
Peter Milligan, Alberto Foche, Jordi Escuin Liorach, Simon Bowland
(cover artwork by Chris Weston; Dan Dare created by Frank Hampson et al)
It’s no secret to long-time readers that I’m pretty much a lifelong fan of the Pilot of the Future; the then-modern Dan Dare in early 2000 AD introduced me to the original (thanks to my dad, who grew up with the 50s version in comics and radio), and I’ve been a fan ever since. In troubled times, in an age where most heroes are re-imagined as being full of dark secrets and inner demons, there is something comforting in the old-fashioned, square-jawed hero who does the right thing simply because, well, it is the right thing to do.
Of course that old-fashioned kind of depiction of the hero is also why creators have had so much trouble trying to bring Dan back for a modern, more cynical age. How do you make this character, very much of his time and place, work for a modern audience? And how to do that without sacrificing the essential nature of Dan Dare? Much as I loved the early 2000 AD strips, really they had little to do with the original Dare other than the name (and that eyebrow). Ennis and Erskine managed it with their mini-series a few years ago, rather nicely, I thought, modern edge but still Dan at heart, still the special hero. Peter Milligan is one of Blighty’s better comics scribes, with a fine and diverse body of work to his name, so I was quite happy to hear he was writing this new stab at bringing DD back.
So how did he and Alberto Foche do? Well, it is difficult to say from a single issue, in all fairness. I certainly enjoyed it, although I wouldn’t say I was totally hooked quite yet, but I suspect the next few issues may well do that job. I was a little ambivelant on the art; for the most part it worked okay, but sometimes it seemed a little too glossy and modern for Dare. But then again, Foche can’t simply recreate that 50s style, not for a new story, and nor would I wish him to – I suspect this ambivelance had more to do with my own copious reading of classic Dare than his art, to be honest. And some pieces worked – an especially effective panel showed theMekon happily smiling, and that one image was so powerful and downright creepy to any old-school DD fan, it packed quite a visual and emotional punch.
I can say that Milligan and Foche took this new story in a direction I wasn’t expecting, and I very much appreciated that avoidance of the comfortably predictable. This is a world – a solar system, in fact – where Space Command has held the peace for years after the defeat of the evil Mekon. It’s a future Earth that has also suffered a slip backwards from its seemnigly upwards progress (both socially and scientifically) – a freed Mekon uses technology to persuade people to vote for him and wins the presidential election, straight away decreeing Dan and his like to be subversives, enemies of the state. Naturally our heroes expose the subterfuge and the Mekon is taken into custody once again.
Except, it isn’t that simple. Dan, ever the hero, cannot countenance a death sentence on a prisoner, no matter how despicable, and successfully argues for imprisonment and therapy instead. The Mekon is exiled to the most secure jail in the solar system, on Earth’s moon, there to undergo years of rehabilitation therapy. He tells Dare himself that he is a fool, this will not work, one day he will escape and Dare will die. But as the years pass it seems the Mekon is actually reforming, or at least trying to. Genetically engineered to be a ruthless leader, is he even capable of taking this chance to change his life, his morality, his outlook? Or is he just pretending to lull his guards into a false sense of security? Can a person who has committed so much evil really try to reform, if given the means and the opportunity?
Milligan, being a damned good writer, doesn’t just offer us up a tale of possible redemption – with its potential implications – he opens up some fascinating moral questions. Can we ever accept a rehabilitated person or will we always judge them by their former actions? Our entire judicial system is predicated on the notion that those who have wronged society are punished but also rehabilitated, to return to that society with a new chance. But many of us also harbour judgement, even hatred for what they may have done before, no matter how hard they try to become a better person; it isn’t easy to disentangle our emotions from our morality, one reason why we try to codify law as cold, logical, driven by rules, not our swinging emotions. And of course if we can’t forgive genuine repentance and attempts to reform, what does it say about our own souls? Do we trap ourselves with our own unforgiving hatred and judgement on others as much as we do them? Or are we just protecting ourselves because we suspect deep down this is a sham, an attempt to fool us, to take advantage of good nature.
It isn’t just the Mekon though -, the tech he used to persuade voters to elect him, it is discovered, only affects so many people, and even then it is more a persuader than an actual mind-changer. The implication being that in many people it brought out a wretched, hate-filled side of themselves that was always in there before, just waiting for the chance to get out. It didn’t create the hate, the xenophobia, the willingness to go along with a powerful but corrupt, immoral leader, it simply fed on that latent well of darkness that was already there. It’s a compelling moral study on the dualistic nature of humans, our capacity for goodness matched by a drive to also commit quite horrendous acts of violence and hatred. And the analogy between this and the frequent and sickening events of recent years where people are being shouted at openly in the street by racist thugs, or fascists give Hitler salutes at public gatherings in supposedly peaceful democratic nations, may be obvious, but it is no less interesting for that.
Yes, this world is back at peace, science being used to ensure each person has their lot (just as those optimistic 50s Dan Dare creators hoped), but like the peaceful, utopian Federation of Trek or Banks’ Culture, human nature is human nature, and darkness still exists, and that means the dark, vicious side as well as the light, which we ignore at our peril (think of what happened to the Krell in Forbidden Planet). What happens if we do happily ignore that darkness? How easily can it return if we do not acknowledge it, let alone watch for it, strive to overcome it? And there are other dangers to such a peaceful society – what does the hero and his comrades do in a universe where all is quiet and settled? Even Dare feels pangs for the old days of dangerous adventure. And you know what they say about being careful about what you wish for…