Later today, Radio 4 Extra will broadcast a 21st century audio drama inspired by what might well be my favourite Dan Dare comic adventure. It’s the second epic and dates back to Eagle comics published around the end of September 1951 running to July 1952. Set around October 1999, it’s got thrills, mystery, danger, some cracking dialogue, and the fate of the world is at stake. There is no master villain, something that confounds Sir Hubert Guest. The Red Moon Mystery is a space-faring disaster movie with mankind at the mercy of a force of nature. That’s the comic anyway. Spoilers follow on a 67 year old story.
I’m not entirely sure when I first encountered Dan Dare. The best years of the Eagle fell before I was born and although it was still around in my early years, my main fixation was on TV Century 21 which handily collected Stingray, XL5, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and other stuff into its pages. But here and there I encountered old Eagle comics, some my uncle had hung on to, old annuals (thank you to the gentleman who lived the other side of the Tesco car park), reprints in Eagle and then Lion. All out of order and in no particular sequence. Something about Dan Dare stuck in my head though. Luck of the Legion, Heros the Spartan (ripped off something rotten by Frank Miller) and Fraser of Africa as well for that matter.
The final years of Eagle were tortured by corporate changes. Dan Dare had been a reprint feature for sometime when Eagle shuttered its doors in 1969 and merged with Lion. The reprints continued in black and white until 1970. That was it, Dan Dare was dead. Except talks of revival, tv shows and movies still rumbled in Southwark. And of course, nobody really dies in comics.
The tail end of 1973 brought a wonderful Christmas gift, Dan Dare Annual 1974 which featured two classic sagas recut to test the waters for a new generation. Yes, somebody at Fleetway sliced up the original artwork to repaste it for the new format. The first story in the annual was The Red Moon Mystery, the second Safari in Space which is a prelude to Dare’s second interstellar expedition and a hunt for his lost father. They offer a comparison between early Dare strips and how it had evolved by the time Frank Hampson left the character in other hands. It’s possible to find this annual at reasonable prices on eBay (and unreasonable prices).
Since then, The Red Moon Mystery has been reprinted in full-size facsimile fashion by Hawk Books and a scaled reprint by Titan Books (which has a foreword by Chris Claremont and an interview with Frank Hampson). Titan also have an omnibus edition scheduled, packaging The Red Moon Mystery with The Voyage to Venus. It’s due in November and cheaper than that Prisoner book. Of course, if you are feeling flush, collecting the original comics is an option.
Written by Frank Hampson and George Beardsmore (who came up with concept), The Red Moon Mystery features artwork by Hampson, Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson. It starts in a ski resort on Mars with a nice bit of exposition.
A ski resort receptionist tells somebody on the phone that Colonel Dare is staying there, but he’s popped off to visit his uncle Ivor, the archaeologist. The resort is on Mars. There is a sign warning visitors to be careful in the lower gravity and a boy is putting that to the test, jumping higher than he might expect on Earth.
Cut to Dan, Digby and Uncle Ivor flying round Martian ruins, all that remains of a once proud civilisation. Uncle Ivor declares that he now knows what killed life on Mars. The last King of Mars, Dortan-Uth-Algar, has left a warning to beware the Red Moon. What’s that? No idea, says Uncle Ivor. He is looking for one last record of the final days of this civilisation, wiped out in a matter of weeks.
Coincidence overdrive comes into play. Space Fleet Controller Sr Hubert Guest is on the blower. There is an alert over a strange object, Asteroid 2345, entering the solar system and it is being called The Red Moon.
Initially, they treat it as coincidence but a big chunk of rock hurtling through the solar system isn’t to be sneezed at. Dan and Dig cut short their holiday and head to a space station orbiting Mars. They meet the other members of the Venus Expedition, Hank, Pierre and Peabody and get ready for an up close investigation of this strange object.
This first attempt to probe the Red Moon goes awry. They barely escape with their lives, skimming a dusty atmosphere. A strange throbbing sound knocks them out. Back to the space station where they learn that 2345 is now heading for Mars. An evacuation is ordered, but they don’t have sufficient ships for the exercise.
They start ferrying people up to the space station and where possible transfer women and children to ships that will return them to Earth. Their effort is skewed when a group of guys try to jump the queue though they are foiled by Peabody shutting off the artificial gravity. That’s a point to remember.
There is a nice sequence where a lightening storm sparks up around the station as the Red Moon comes near. How do you get lightening in the vacuum of space? It’s not a vacuum. Air has been leaking from the station which now has a vestigial atmosphere around it. This being stimulated by magnetic forces.
Hank and Pierre make a second attempt to land on the Red Moon but are driven back by the throbbing sound. Something is alive down there.
Dan and Digby pick up an abandoned spaniel during the evacuation. His owners have pushed off. Still Dare is faced with the problem of too many people and not enough ships. Can he shift the space station? Not in time? But if he moves everyone to the top section then other ships can tow that part away if it is separated from the bulk of the station. Instant lifeboat.
The quick way to do this is to shoot away the connecting tower. But this module is now surrounded by a tangle of cables. Dan tries to take aim but is worried as he realises he can’t take the shot. This is the cue for a spot of divine intervention. An act of dog for sure. Towser jumps on Dare’s lap, triggering the blast which severs the station. The lifeboat is away. The abandoned part of the space station crashes on the Red Moon. Everyone is safe. Aren’t they?
Uncle Ivor is still on Mars and the approaching Red Moon causes metallic objects to fly into the air and a strange knocking alerts him to a hidden chamber beneath Dortan’s throne. Ivor has Dortan’s box but hasn’t been able to open it by the time Dan and Digby pick him up. The strange object orbits Mars and then resumes course for Earth.
Dan, Dig and Ivor head to the Red Moon and this time they are able to fly in. Whatever made the sound before is now dormant and they land on an artificial structure. On Earth, Sir Hubert Guest has decided to atom bomb the Red Moon. He also gets word that Peabody was on the space station when it crashed but doesn’t relay this information to Dan when they talk on the radio.
They open Dortan’s box only to find blank stone tablets. Ivor is disappointed and goes outside with Dan. A little later Digby runs after them. Exposed to infra red light the tablets are revealed as photographs detailing an attack from “space bees”, a locust like creature that swarmed over Mars eating all vegetation. They decided to obtain a sample but they are distracted by a distant explosion.
Luckily, Dare finds Peabody but the bombardment has begun. It doesn’t have any effect on the progress of the Red Moon but makes life hairy for Dan and Co. They decide to leave but the Anastasia is damaged as they depart. Their mission seems a bust. They didn’t get their space bee sample and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop the Red Moon.
Peabody wakes up and she has an idea. All they need to do is get back to Earth and come up with a plan that will save the world. Dan makes repairs and they race back as weather patterns at home are disrupted by gravitational and magnetic forces.
They make a crash landing. Which is a good one because they walk away from it. One of my favourite sequences occurs soon after. Dan and Sir Hubert are taking stock, but the focus is behind them as a salvage crew move in to lift Anastasia out of the crash site and carry it off for repair.
Peabody theorises that the space bees target chlorophyll. They had fed on Mars in the distant past and on their initial approach this time picks on human attempts to farm Mars in the Nineties. Having got closer, Earth is clearly a better target. All they need to do to avoid disaster is show them a tastier planet.
That raises a few eyebrows. What does she expect them to do? Drag a planet in front of the Red Moon. Dan chips in, all they need is something that emits sufficient light to mask the Earth and draw the bees away. A giant lamp perhaps? Something that emits a significantly powerful light with a chlorophyll frequency.
That forms the basis of a plan and they launch parts for a giant lantern (hmm, it’s a greens lantern) to be assembled in space. Just for fun Peabody stows away. They have been in contact with the Treens who intend to rendezvous with the repaired Anastasia. They have a ray gun they think will stun the bees and allow them to discover how they influence the movement of the Red Moon. Luring the Red Moon away from Earth works but the Treen ray doesn’t.
The Red Moon suddenly makes a move on Mercury. That can’t be right? Can it? Luckily they have a Plan B which ends the Red Moon and sets up the next serial. but that’s another story.
Coincidentally, Earth had a near encounter with at least one object around October 1999. The asteroid 237442 from the Amor Group, otherwise known as 1999 TA10 came within 0.39 AU of our world. It comes our way again in 2023.