Eagle, the hugely popular children's comic, casts a very long shadow. In its original incarnation it ran from 1950 to 1969. Its golden age, however, was even shorter than that, for by the mid sixties the comic (which was always aimed squarely at boys) was struggling to find its place in a world of television, pop music and a new era of global sport.
Yet the reach of the magazine was huge, and there must be countless children who came to a knowledge of Eagle not through the comic itself, but through the durable hardback annuals, which would have belonged to our parents and relatives a decade or more earlier.
Such was the case for me, for my father's copy of Eagle Annual 3 soon passed into my possession:
The annual was published in 1953, when my father would have been ten. By the time it entered my consciousness, in the early seventies, it would have been the better part of twenty years old. Of course, it had something of an old fashioned feel to it but it was also a very attractive and colourful package, and I found much to enjoy in it. Not least, of course, the colour spread containing the adventure of Dan Dare and the Double-Headed Eagle:
This would have been my first encounter with Dare and of course I came to it without any establishing context, knowing nothing of the characters or their world. I remember looking at the pictures with some interest, long before I was able to work my way through the story and grasp the "plot", such as it is. But it has stayed with me ever since.
Eagle, though, was not just about the science fiction exploits of Dan Dare although he may well have been the comic's most iconic creation. The comic set out to be educational as well as entertaining, and it was stuffed with factual articles, as well as stories and comic strips documenting historical events. The comic took an optimistic view of technological and scientific progress - this, after all, was the time of the Festival of Britain, a period when the memory of the war was beginning to fade and a newly invigorated Britain was still a world class player in engineering, ranging from supersonic aircraft to record-breaking motor cars. Eagle championed all this and more. Known for its staggeringly detailed cutaway drawings of then contemporary technological marvels, Eagle had tapped into an audience warmly appreciative of such matters. A few years ago I was delighted to pick up this Eagle "spinoff":
Times were moving on, though, and there's no doubt that the appetite for such wholesome educational material could not be sustained. Eagle was gone by time of the Apollo landing, and yet magazines of the same general "improving" type must have taken a long time to fade away completely. Four years after the demise of Eagle, for instance, this was one of my Christmas presents in 1973:
Now, I have no idea whether or not "Tell Me Why" had an existence independent from this annual, but between the covers it's really just a slightly updated variation on the Eagle theme. There are factual articles - the book opens with a chapter on the wonders of modern Japan - but also cutaway drawings, historical comic strips and so on. It's a very similar formula.
For better or for worse, I don't think it's possible to understate the degree to which these annuals colonised my imagination. Here's an example: I know the story of Earnest Shackleton well enough as an adult - I have read about it, and seen television documentaries. But my sense of the internal narrative of the story is entirely predicated on this monochrome comic strip from the Tell Me Why annual:
It's actually quite a fantastically good piece of history as entertainment, and that choice of blue as the sole tinting is suitably chilly. Elsewhere in the annual, there are similar stories and articles which still form the bedrock for my understanding of the relevant subject. (There's one on early lighthouses, for instance, which will always flash through my mind whenever someone mentions lighthouses, and another on the sinking of a Japanese aircraft carrier).
Yes, there was something very dated, very paternal, in these magazines - especially in their assumed choices of content, for the middle class male readership they undoubtedly had in mind. But I cannot deny that they have played a part in shaping my view of things, and stimulating my interest in what, for want of a better word, one might call "progress". I accept their deficiencies but at the same time I am quietly pleased to have been born in the shadow of Eagle.