I don’t know whether the Sunday papers still produce magazines (I’m not entirely sure that the Sunday papers still produce Sunday papers), but Eagle-eyed readers of the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, number 49, dated August 21 1977, will have spotted that that cover of that issue bears a remarkable resemblance to the cover of the first issue of Eagle, originally printed twenty-seven years and a couple of months previously…
Inside the thirty-six page magazine — nestled among the ads for cameras, book clubs and cigarettes — is a three-and-a-good-bit-page feature on Eagle comic that by an unbelievable aligning of the planets happens to coincide with the publication of The Best of Eagle, edited by Marcus Morris, the comic’s founder.
To save you some considerable squinting (or right-clicking on the images to view them full-size, should your viewing device possess such a facility), here’s the full text of the article, reproduced without permission, but then it’s been forty-two and a half years: I’m not expecting any repercussions…
On The Trail of Adventure—Eagle’s Flight
WHERE EAGLES DARED
Dan Dare, the Mekon, Digby and Harris Tweed—Eagle is remembered with affection and awe as the best comic for decades, perhaps ever. The brainchild of a far-sighted clergyman, it sold a million copies in the first issue and shaped the fantasies of a whole generation of schoolboys until its demise in 1970. Now it is a collectors’ item and even the subject of a book. BYRON ROGERS chronicles the comic’s rise and fall
It existed for only 20 years, and for half that time was past its best. But the man who finally killed it is still, seven years later, defensive about his action. A sense of outrage persists in men in their middle 30s: it was simply that in their childhood in the Fifties there was the finest comic ever produced, and there passed away a small glory from the earth.
It is just before nine o’clock in the morning on Friday April 14, 1950. In Lammas Street, Carmarthen, two boys are waiting for a newsagent to open.
Each has a small card in his hand and has been waiting half an hour. In that time they have punched each other, tried not to walk on the cracks of pavements and been twice to the municipal lavatories. But mostly they have read their cards.
They have had them a week now, taking them to school, hiding them under their pillows, reading them over and over with a mixture of incredulity and joy. For this is 1950, and in 1950 nobody gives anything away. But there it is, in crumpled print : on production of this card the bearer will be given the first copy of a new comic. There occurred in Carmarthen on April 14, 1950, the longest half hour in the history of the world.
It is difficult to explain to anyone older or younger the effect Eagle had that first Friday. There were comics enough — the D. C. Thompson circus was in full cry, all slapstick and jokes about food. There were even the last of the old American horror comics, which a solicitous Government was to twitch away from our rock-steady hands. Things crept out of sewers; Desperate Dan ate his cow-pie; the Germans were endlessly defeated. It was a predictable little world.
Then came Eagle.
It was the quality of it which was so staggering. Of something like 16 pages half were in full colour. Even the paper was better, and bigger. But the drawings were like nothing we had ever seen. When the great Frank Hampton, creator of Dan Dare, drew the Venusian city of Mekonta across the entire front page, the image of it was so vivid that seeing it again after 27 years you can immediately pick out familiar features.
When Hampson again, on the back page this time, drew the light streaming out of the night on Saul making his way to Damascus, you realised that the morning texts that had been mumbled at you were astonishing reading.
But at no time did you feel you were being got at, as you did with Arthur Mee’s Children’s Newspaper, where they were always slipping in facts about frog-spawn and volcanoes and seeds in blotting paper. You were taught useful things, like how to bowl googlies. You even had an Eagle Special Investigator who did practical everyday things, like crossing deserts or being a knife-thrower’s target.
But mainly Eagle was Dan Dare; and with Hampson Dan Dare was pointed at infinite space, and you with him. You braved the terrible silicon swamps and flame belts, saw the skies darken with space fleets, and looked on the evil green brain who went about on a kind of flying commode because his body had withered. You were told of Atlantis, and dark moons, and a sort of Welwyn Garden City which floated in the balmy southern airs of a Venus peopled by golden-haired men.
After Korky the Cat and Biffo and Lord Snooty, it was as though the horizons had rolled back. But today Korky and Biffo and Snooty are still in The Dandy and Beano, and Eagle is to be found only in the British Library and collectors’ shops — at £1 a copy. A new generation has arisen that knows not Dan Dare or Digby or Harris Tweed or the Mekon, or the astonish-ingly detailed drawings of nuclear subs and jets that once brought the Ministry of Defence scurrying to the Eagle offices. The late L. Ashwell Woods had done a drawing of a new military air-craft so detailed that the men at the Ministry thought it violated D Notices. The drawing sprang from Woods’ own imagination.
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
In an office in a skyscraper in London Marcus Morris, Managing Director of the National Magazine Company, stubbed out a cigarette and lit another. The room was full of leather chairs and antique furniture: from here Morris directs the fortunes of Cosmopolitan and She, magazines in which women exhort other women towards orgasm with the energy of cattle drovers. But in 1950, aged 35, his only experience of journalism was his own parish magazine.
A clergyman in a smart Stockport parish who wanted to edit a national magazine, he had, without financial backing of any kind, found Frank Hampson in the local art school and was paying him a regular salary out of his own stipend of £10 a week. They had produced a dummy of Eagle which Morris hawked around Fleet Street for over a year before Hulton Press bought it. His debts were Dickensian.
So the comic began not in a board-room or as the result of elaborate readership surveys, but because of one man completely outside the world of publishing. “I suppose it does sound a bit astonishing now,” Morris said quietly. He talks so softly the syllables disappear into the leather desk. Imagine a highly-strung racing greyhound with a penchant for pin-stripes and chain smoking, and you have an idea of his build. He looks mild, shy, worried. But the appearance is deceptive. Morris, said one of his colleagues, is the only man he has ever met who can shout without raising his voice.
If you talk to people who worked on Eagle the conversation always comes back to Morris. Eagle was Morris. Clifford Makins succeeded him as editor in 1960. “He was always a bit of an enigma. We’d have conferences and Marcus would say ‘Hmmm’, then ‘Hmmm’, and then again ‘Hmmm’, and you’d come out not knowing what he thought. But he always knew exactly what he wanted, and you didn’t argue.”
“I’d always been interested in the strip-cartoon technique, especially in the way it could be used to put over the Christian faith.” The Rev. Marcus Morris smiled. “In the beginning even Dan Dare was envisaged as a flying padre, but that faded out. I just wanted to create a good comic. To preach to children would be fatal.
“We wanted to put across certain values and standards. Some of the stories were rough and tough, but children like that. What we wanted to avoid most of all was the Superman type story —that there could be some magic way of coping with life. There was a need for something of good quality. Children’s comics were such poor things that there was a gap in the market.”
It was then that the fun started. The hard-eyed men at Hulton Press recognised that such a gap existed. John Pearce was then General Manager. He .grinned wickedly. “It would be wrong to say that we didn’t capitalise on the fact that Marcus was a clergyman. In our promotion in the national press aimed at parents we called it ‘A Children’s Magazine edited by the Reverend Marcus Morris’.”
He took another sip of gin. “But in those days do-goody children’s papers were bad sellers. To the trade we called it ‘Eagle, Hulton’s great comic‘.”
That was just the beginning. At the same time the Daily Express was planning to bring out a children’s magazine of its own, and the race was on. Then Hulton announced to the trade that, because of production difficulties, the launch of Eagle had to be put back two weeks. The Express relaxed. But secretly Hulton had brought their launch date forward by two weeks. “We broke them,” said John Pearce slowly.
Ironically it was the beginning of Hulton’s difficulties. They had been thinking in terms of 250,000 copies an issue. But from the provinces came demands for more and more. The first copy of Eagle sold a million, and Hulton were in trouble. “If a magazine runs away with itself like this you run it at a loss,” said John Pearce. “You can’t put your advertising rates up fast enough.
“So I went away for a few days and thought about it. When I came back I took the decision to put the price up to fourpence. Now you must remember that in 1950 it was virtually unthink-able to put your prices up. It’s a daily thing now. Then everyone was very worried. But do you know, we didn’t lose a single copy… and we got a million more pennies a week.” Even after 30 years Pearce recalled the marvel of it.
Morris was installed as editor. Hulton paid off his debts and he began an astonishing regimen of editing all week then catching the Friday night train back to his parish. On Sunday he boarded the night train back to London. A few months later he resigned his parish and moved south, where he became something of a nine-day wonder in Fleet Street. Newspaper profiles were written about this strange clergyman who looked like an actor, wore camel-hair coats and, as a student, had given exhibi-tions of ballroom dancing at the Randolph in Oxford.
Hulton had a winner. (Morris, in his relief and naivety, had neglected to negotiate a royalty.) Eagle was the first comic to have advertisements (something like two and a half pages out of the 16). It was also the first comic to have its own reporter.
MacDonald Hastings, an experienced Fleet Street writer who had shared in the general amusement about Morris’s appointment, became Eagle Special Investigator. “I think they wanted someone to emulate Dan Dare. In his heart of hearts I think Marcus Morris was always sorry that I didn’t kill myself.”
In the next ten years his tall, owlish figure (as boys we could never quite accept the spectacles) went to the Yukon, to the bottom of the sea, crossed the Kalahari, and became (in an asbestos suit) a living firework. He drove a dog-team (and omitted to tell his young readers that the dogs farted all the time), charmed snakes in India, mined for gold, and became a lumberjack.
“No, nobody I knew thought it was odd working for a comic. You forget that there was a great respect for Eagle. Nothing had come anywhere near it. It was on a completely new level. They got the top people to work for them, and paid them the top.”
Among artists were Hampson, the late Frank Bellamy, Thelwell, and David Langdon. Even the 16-year-old Gerald Scarfe had a cartoon printed in the paper.
Clifford Makins, who was Morris’s deputy, remembers the feeling of superiority they had over all rivals. “I think we ignored them. I can’t recall even reading any of them. They were lurching along somewhere in the background, but there was nothing we could have learnt from them.”
A whole Eagle world grew up. There was an Eagle Club (“with 60,000 applications to join after the first two issues”). Morris added a sort of bar to the badge, which people obtained through some deed of social usefulness. In Christian paradox such graduates were to be known as Mugs. I remember not being able to follow his reasoning there, and did not qualify. There were crowded Eagle carol services in St Paul’s Cathedral (where most of his editorial staff saw Morris for the first time in a clerical collar).
There was also a Boys and Girls Exhibition at Olympia, at which they encountered their hero MacDonald Hastings bemusedly signing autographs, his words ringing in their ears: “Without wasting any precious time I asked the knife-thrower if he ever missed. The man replied that no man was infallible.”
Oh, there was no messing about on Eagle: I remember those words now.
But children grow up. At 15 you were too old for Eagle. Yet, however much it might dwindle into a background, it was unthinkable that at some future date it should not be there.
In 1960 Morris was offered a job by the National Magazine Company and left. Hulton had already been taken over by Odhams. Morris was succeeded by Clifford Makins, who left a year later when Odhams in its turn was taken over by the Daily Mirror group. In 1970 IPC merged Eagle with one of its own comics, Lion.
“Eagle was a freak, an individual thing, and I think Marcus really did have inspiration. When he went, the thing faded with him.” Makins started to laugh: “I should know because I succeeded him.”
Why did Eagle fail? The people associated with it say it was because IPC kept introducing economies.
John Sanders, Editorial Director of the IPC Juvenile Group, was the man who killed Eagle. “We’ve come in for an awful lot of stick from Eagle buffs. Most of it is absolute twaddle. We close magazines when they don’t make money. When it started there were possibly 15 other weeklies. When it closed there were 50. I think it ran out of steam.”
It is significant that whereas most copies of Eagle now fetch £1 apiece, those from 1965 on cost only 25p.
But could it be launched again? John Pearce thinks it could, with the right kind of editorship (“Marcus, you must remember, was a kind of mad genius in his way”). John Sanders is adamant that it could not.
“I don’t think it would sell 10,000 copies. People who venerate old copies should remember that today’s comics are for today’s children. It would be like reprinting a 1947 Daily Telegraph.”
Two years ago Marcus Morris contacted Makins with the idea of launching a second Eagle. “I think we even got to the stage of a rough dummy. But I found myself thinking in the old ways.” Makins stopped for a moment. “And I remember saying to Marcus, ‘We’re too old.’”
So the war stories lurch on, and the sport serials, and the boys with magic powers: the comics of 1977 are little different from the comics of 1950. But I no longer see small boys waiting for newsagents to open in Carmarthen. The Best of Eagle speaks, to quote Wordsworth, of something that is gone.
The Best of Eagle, edited by Marcus Morris, will be published tomorrow by Michael Joseph in association with Ebury Press at £5.95.
And the article wasn’t lying: The Best of Eagle, edited by Marcus Morris, was indeed published. It’s packed with pages from the comic — strips as well as features — but those looking for behind-the-scenes info were left a little short: there’s an introduction from Marcus Morris which includes some photos of events and such, and that’s about it. The book really should have featured a list of all the strips and their creators, plus a look at the comic’s impact and legacy.
Bonus feature! Just for fun, and because I know that many of the readers of Rusty Staples don’t remember the seventies because they’re too young or because they’re too old, here’s the contents of that entire issue of the Telegraph Sunday Magazine…
01 – Front cover
02 – Ad: Crimplene furniture fabrics
03 – Ad: The Arts Guild book club
04-05 – Ad: Benson & Hedges cigarettes
06 – Ad: Sankyo cine camera
07 – Editorial: “Where are the Workers?” by A. R. Rowse / Ad: Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade
08 – Ad: Martini
09-10 – Feature: Judge’s Daughter – Owlish Beauty
10 – Ad: Heather Valley clothes / puzzle
11 – Ad: John Player King Size cigarettes
12-15, 17 – Feature: Diary of a World Encompassed
16 – Ad: Henri Wintermans cigars
17 – Feature: Thought for Food (recipe for “A bachelor’s three-course meal for four”)
18-19, 21-22 – Feature: Where Eagles Dared
20 – Ad: Fribourg & Treyer cigarettes
22 – Ad: Blaupunkt car stereo / Paperback review: Memoirs by Tennessee Williams
23 – Ad: Antartex sheepskin coats
24-25 – Ad: Barclay’s Bank
26 – Ad: Save as You Earn – Department of National Savings
26-27 – Feature: New Ideas from Paris (fashion)
28 – Ad: Minolta cameras
29, 32 – Feature: Music for the Space People
30 – Ad: Mira showers
31 – Ad: A Special Commemorative Plate Benefiting the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Appeal
32 – Feature: Ultrasonic tags help Atlantic salmon to survive
33 – Ad: Beefeater gin
34 – Ad: Morris Marina car
35 – Feature: Germinate seeds and plant them like icing a cake / Ad: Shloer fizzy drink
36 – Ad: Readers Union book club
A minor quibble: neither Morris’s book nor the Telegraph Sunday Magazine article make any mention of 2000AD, which had been out for just about six months at that stage, was massively successful, and which was still running its own incarnation of Dan Dare. Tch. Admittedly, during the week of 21 August 1977 the comic was on issue #26, right in the middle of a four-week Dan Dare hiatus, but even so: he was still 2000AD‘s flagship character!