Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part Three: Dan Dare: “We always fight squalid little men like you.”

Posted by on January 21st, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two.

Given the cruel satire of The Phantom Eagle, and the sober drama of “Condors,” it may be surprising to find Ennis idealizing, well, anything.

But he is nevertheless willing to engage in some myth-making of his own.  Dan Dare (another resuscitated old-school comics hero) practically embodies the notions of courage, decency, fairness, mercy, moral resolve and good sense — fortuitously unified with natural leadership, personal charisma, fighting skill and rugged good looks.  Plus, he’s an astronaut — and an Englishman.  “He’s a British hero,” Ennis writes, “An English hero, by God, in a time when such characters are few and far between.”

Here Ennis plays it straight.  He doesn’t give in to the temptations of irony, parody, or over-the-top violence and gore.  And this earnest approach, as he explains in his introduction to the Dan Dare Omnibus, was a conscious choice.  Ennis deliberately decided to return Dare to something like his original 1950’s wholesomeness — “the stalwart defender of decency whose adventures thrilled child and adult alike” — not the 2000 AD version who “blasted anyone and everything that gave him trouble to atoms.”
Ennis writes:

It’s worth remembering that the British have one or two bright moments in their long, dark, history. . . .  Hanging on alone against the vastly superior Third Reich. . . . that’s the kind of thing that can and should define a nation, particularly as it happened within living memory.  It certainly gave rise to enough real-life counterparts to Dan Dare.

Of course, he has a point.  One of the most terrifying things I have ever seen with my own eyes was a banged-up V-1 rocket, hanging just inside the door of the Imperial War Museum.  It looked exactly like the flying torpedo it was; and it also looked like a sightless mechanical monster, something out of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I can’t imagine how I would have felt with a hundred of the things, loaded with explosives, falling out of the sky every night to randomly destroy the houses of my neighbors.  It surely says something about the British culture — what would have once been called their “national character” — that they looked at this horrifying weapon, which was killing their compatriots in considerable numbers, and nicknamed it the “doodlebug.”

Likewise, I sometimes get a little misty-eyed when I talk about the Dunkirk evacuation:  Hundreds of civilians — mostly fishermen and pleasure boaters — repeatedly crossed the freezing, U-boat infested Channel to rescue stranded soldiers. The defeat at Dunkirk was, in Churchill’s words “a colossal military disaster” — but the evacuation represented a political victory, bordering on a miracle.  The utter routing of their army rallied the British public behind the war effort, and set the stage for the Battle of Britain — “small matter of saving the country, and western civilization along with it,” in Dan Dare’s words.

Dare doesn’t live in the mid-20th century, and he doesn’t technically fly a plane.  He lives sometime in the future, and he pilots a space ship.  But the Venutian tyrant The Mekon is little other than a Hitler stand-in, and Dare’s Starfire fighter is simply a sci-fi’d Spitfire.  When Dare finally faces The Mekon, the tyrant begins, “You have seen my fleet.  You know the odds.  And you still —”

Dare interrupts:  “We always fight squalid little men like you.”

So, yes, the English had plenty to be proud of in their finest hour.

And yet — I get a little tired of hearing the “brave little England, all alone against the Nazis” story line.  If the English didn’t want to fight fascism alone, maybe they should have helped Spain in ’36. (And one has to wonder how all this Union Jack business plays in Ennis’s home town, Belfast.)

But the foray into idealized Englishness is palatable for two reasons.

The first is that Ennis’s idealized picture is not a perfect picture.  He doesn’t pretend that all is well in the kingdom.  It’s not the country that is idealized, it’s the hero.  True, he stands for what is best about his country, but he is needed precisely because things are at their worst.  The world is facing an alien invasion, and the Prime Minister is colluding with the enemy.  Dare has to confront these circumstances relying on little aside from his own moral strength.

The second reason is Dare’s relationship to the fantasy.  Dan Dare lives in an imaginary world, and not only because he isn’t real.  At the beginning of the story, Dare is retired; he lives in a perfect, mid-century English town — except that really, he lives on a remote asteroid, and the town, the countryside, and the population are all computer-generated holograms.   Dan Dare’s England doesn’t exist, even in the Dan Dare story — and when the time comes, he leaves the illusion behind to confront the real problems facing his world.

As Ennis puts it: “He’s an idealist.  He wants something better for the world he comes from and all the worlds he visits — be it international cooperation or freedom from tyranny.  I can’t help but think that we could all use a little idealism right now.”

We can see in Dare what’s best about not just the English, but humanity.  He serves to remind us of those ideals, of our best selves.  He’s only a made-up person in a silly science-fiction picture book, but he challenges us to be better than we are.  He’s trying so hard to make the world a better place; oughtn’t we?

Next:  John Constantine and the RAF

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One Response to “Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part Three: Dan Dare: “We always fight squalid little men like you.””

  1. Ian Scott says:

    “And one has to wonder how all this Union Jack business plays in Ennis’s home town, Belfast.”

    I suspect that rather depends on which part of Belfast you’re standing in. There’s not exactly a shortage of Union Jacks in the Loyalist half of the city.