I’ve often referred to the work of Sydney Jordan from Dundee, the creator of the world’s longest-running science fiction strip cartoon, Jeff Hawke. On 6th October 2023 a major exhibition of his work opened in the University Tower in Dundee, almost literally bringing it home because the Tower is built over the street where he was born.
The Jeff Hawke strip ran from 1954 to 1988, with 114 stories in 10,209 episodes, counting the alternative version which Scottish readers saw in the Daily Record as Lance McLane. Some caution is required in writing about it or using illustrations from it because, while Sydney Jordan holds copyright in the artwork, the Daily Express holds copyright in the title and characters of the original Jeff Hawke. Also, some of the images were inspired by the work of other space artists such as Chesley Bonestell and R.A. Smith, and copyright in Bonestell’s work is strongly protected – his estate successfully sued the US government after one of his images was used without permission in Pioneering the Space Frontier, the report of Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Space. So Bonestell images can’t be used for comparisons. Permission to do so was denied to Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, in which William Rudling has reproduced the entire Hawke canon between 2003 and 2020, even though proceeds were to go to the RAF Benevolent Fund. In these articles I shall be sticking almost entirely to vignettes of hardware or extraterrestrial life-forms, and excerpts from Lance McLane, to which Sydney owns full copyright.
As I said in ‘My SF’ (ON, 10th September 2023), the strip was my first point of contact with adult SF, and made a big impression on me, to the extent that I compiled a complete collection of it over the 34 years. When I showed the first of the Jeff Hawke Club books to Dr. Gregory Beekman, containing my critical notes on each story, he remarked that I was the best person to do that because of my broad range of general interests. But of course that’s just the point: I can hold forth about the aircraft types, the rocket propulsion and guidance, the alternative propulsion systems, the alien biology, the folklore, archaeology, mythology and the possibility of past Contact, the literary references, the visual allusions, the science fictional references, even the philosophical references and themes, of a comic strip that started when I was eight years old, because I grew up with Jeff Hawke and that was how I became interested in all these things in the first place.
The first four stories were untitled, but the Daily Express headlined and titled the first episode on 15th February 1954 ‘Space Rider’. (Fig. 1), and collectors have since used that for the first story, adding ‘The Martian Invasion’, ‘The Search for Asteron’ and ‘The Threat from the Past’ as descriptive of the next three. A giant UFO descends over southern England, and the USAF and RAF are unable to intercept it with conventional aircraft. Squadron-Leader Hawke goes up from Farnborough in an experimental jet-and-rocket fighter called the X.P.5. The US Navy had flown the similar Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak as a precursor to its all-rocket D-558-2 Skyrocket ( ON, 30th July and 6th August, 2023), and at the time, the UK had the Saunders-Roe SR-53 (Fig. 2) as a similar precursor to the intended supersonic SR-177.
Hawke turns on his rocket motors unexpectedly and the X.P.5 collides with the UFO, whose robotic crew save him as the aircraft goes down in flames. Healed of his injuries in lunar orbit, Hawke is given an offer by its masters, ‘energy beings’ called the Shining Ones, who give him the choice between return to Earth with his memory wiped, or becoming a trouble-shooter for them on worlds across the Galaxy. He chooses the latter, and is taken to Proxima Centauri to assist rebels there against a tyrannical ruler on a planet called Kalgar (Fig. 3).
Kalgar has a fascinating backstory of which we only have glimpses. Kalgar’s principal moon is relatively lightly cratered, suggesting the system has no asteroid belt and few outer planets, if any; but has suffered a close encounter with another star which has left the planet covered in desert and with an unstable sub-satellite (Fig. 4). The ‘Old Ones’ who created civilisation on Kalgar pulled out at that time, leaving the humanoid inhabitants with high technology but no real insight into it, only operating instructions. Fortunately, Hawke has been imbued with a deep understanding of astronautics by the Shining Ones, and is able to use it in the tyrant’s overthrow. Fascinatingly, the Old Ones’ rocket in Fig. 4 does not have conventional motors but a tail cone surrounded by nozzles – an early version of the ‘plug-nozzle’ design studied in depth by the British Aircraft Corporation in the 1960s. Plug-nozzle spacecraft featured in Frontiers of Space, Vol. 2 of Kenneth Gatland’s ‘Pocket Encyclopedia of Spaceflight in Colour’ (Fig. 5).
Ideal for landings on unprepared surfaces, they were painted by Ed Buckley (Obituary, ON, May 15th 2022) for my Man and the Stars (Souvenir Press, 1974, Fig. 6), and for Man and the Planets (Ashgrove Press, 1983). Ed designed a plug-nozzle ‘Multi-Environment Lander’ (Fig. 7), which could land and take off on any solid body in the Solar System except Earth and Venus, but including Mercury and Mars, with extra fuel tankage (Fig. 8). The rocket’s manoeuvres around the Proxima Centauri system looked impossible at the time, but turned out to be feasible once the dimensions of the actual system were known. (See ‘Howlers that Weren’t’, ON, 2nd April, 2023.) This kind of attention to detail, not always conscious or intentional, was to be characteristic of the strip throughout.
Nevertheless, the aspect of it which most appealed to readers was the RAF setting at the beginning. Sydney Jordan had originally offered the strip to the paper in a more futuristic version in which the hero was called ‘Orion’, but the paper had requested a more contemporary name and setting. Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook’s nephew and himself a World War 2 fighter pilot, strongly agreed. There actually was a real John Hawke, an ex-RAF stunt pilot, who was nicknamed ‘Jeff’ because of his exploits. So at the end of his Kalgar assignment, Hawke was told he was returning to Earth to help fend off an invasion from Mars. The Shining Ones still wiped his memory, which seemed a bit of overkill, because he couldn’t account for his four months’ absence and was suspected of having defected to Russia as a spy. He was saved from court-martial, and regained his memory of the threat, only because Britain secretly launched a moonprobe which the Martians destroyed (Fig. 9).
It then emerged that Britain, the USA and the USSR all had secret space programmes, which joined forces, with Hawke suddenly elevated to chief astronaut. He remained in the RAF from then on, eventually rising to Wing Commander, except for two stories in 1958-59, where he was an astronaut for the United Nations. Max Aitken wasn’t having that, and gave orders from Canada that Hawke should rejoin the RAF or the strip would be terminated. The RAF was more than happy, and continued to give Sydney Jordan technical advice and assistance, because they had learned that the strip was often cited by prospective recruits when asked why they had chosen the service.
In the same year, 1954, the late Martin Caidin discussed unmanned moonprobes in his book Worlds in Space (Fig. 10), and although including a dramatic painting of one by Fred L. Wolff (Fig. 11), he concluded that they wouldn’t be worth the effort. Just four years later he was heavily involved in the race to achieve the first lunar probe before the Soviets, described in his book Race for the Moon (William Kimber, 1959). By then Jeff Hawke had long since been a controller of an unmanned mission to Venus in ‘Sanctuary’, 1956.
‘The Martian Invasion’ was the longest story ever in the strip, with 248 episodes. Again there was a lot of unstated backstory. For example, the secret space programmes were military operations and had apparently been formulated to take the cold war into orbit and beyond. Britain had decided to build a US-style space wheel rather than R.A. Smith’s smaller British design, because it had room to house missile defences, space fighters and moonships. The Vengeance, in which Hawke eventually went to Mars (Fig. 12), had more than a passing resemblance to Chesley Bonestell’s single-stage nuclear powered moonship in The Conquest of Space (by Willy Ley, UK 1950), but it had ‘atmosphere jets’ and was armed with ground-attack missiles, presumably to use against Soviet launch sites on Earth.
The Martians’ background was equally interesting. Descendants of interstellar warriors, they had brought their conflicts with them to Mars and made the planet uninhabitable with internal warfare. Earth wasn’t really suitable for them, so most of their invasion force had been genetically engineered to a new humanoid form, who had found on awakening from deep-freeze that they now had more in common with us than with their makers. The invasion fleet was powered by microwaves beamed from a huge nuclear reactor on Mars (actually it would have taken three, spaced around the planet, but for dramatic reasons there was only one), which was defended only against nuclear or microwave powered ships and nuclear weapons. Chemically fuelled and with missiles armed with conventional warheads, the Vengeance was taken to Mars by the friendlies and Hawke launched his attack against the Cone while Earth’s cities burned behind him. Antennae the same shape as the Cone were used on early Soviet communications and weather satellites, for precisely the same design reasons, but this one was a mile in height. The intakes of its air-cooled nuclear reactor (like the first ones at Windscale) were so large that he had to fly right inside to launch the missiles (Fig. 13). As he began his Dam-Busters style attack run, with Paris in flames on Earth and the invasion descending on London, the Daily Express went off the news-stands due to industrial action, and after a few days Buckingham Palace put out a statement that the Duke of Edinburgh would be just as well pleased if they settled it, because he wanted to know whether Jeff Hawke saved the world.
After he had, the friendly Martians offered to build a new Cone for us, to make space-travel much easier. The ‘beaming grids’ for the transmitter required a material found only in the Asteroid Belt, and in remarkably short time the Earth managed to assemble a huge ship in orbit, like the von Braun moonships which Chesley Bonestell had painted for Man on the Moon, edited by Cornelius Ryan in 1953, but large enough to carry the task force and bring back an industrial amount of ‘asteron’, while also carrying a winged atmosphere lander just in case it might be needed (Fig. 14) . It was – what they found out there is fascinating, but for another article because it’s not hardware-related.
But even before the Argosy returned to Earth, the reactor housing for the new Cone was destroyed in a suicide attack by a ‘person unknown’. The inbound Argosy had seen a mystery spacecraft leaving the Moon, but the two events weren’t immediately connected. There followed a series of devastating attacks on nuclear installations on Earth, including an all-too-prescient one in which an airliner was crashed into a conference building in New York. Ultimately Hawke and the friendly Martians managed to immobilise one of the ‘terrorists’ attacking a missile test launch at White Sands, and it turned out to be a robot, controlled by a giant computer on the Moon, a relic of an even older interstellar war. The Argosy was used to ferry a task force to counter the threat, and was abandoned in lunar orbit at the end.
All these stories had serious underlying points, and were very good stuff, but Sydney Jordan realised he was painting himself into a corner. A future in which all the stories contained the friendly Martians, and all the ships ran on broadcast power like the ones in Dan Dare, was not where he wanted the strip to go. ‘Coming events cast their shadows before’ with the next story, ‘The Opposite Power’ (Fig. 15), which was the first to have a title episode, and in which the Martians played a relatively minor role, in Antarctica to find solutions to reclaiming Mars. The next story was ‘Sanctuary’, with the unmanned but rocket-powered Venus missions, and the Martians were nowhere to be seen.
Even so, the strip was running into problems with continuity. In 1954 it wasn’t too hard to believe that the UK, USA and USSR all had secret space programmes, about to become public knowledge – likewise China, whose heavy-lift booster made a one-image appearance in ‘The Threat from the Past’ and was never seen again. It was even possible to imagine that by 1956 Britain could have an experimental nuclear-powered rocket, under test at South Uist, and that other nations might be after it, including imaginary states of the USSR (‘Unquiet island’ – see ‘Visitor at Uist’, ON 10th July 2022.) But it was a lot harder to accept, in the same year, that Canada had its own space shuttles making training flights to the British space station (Fig. 16), when BOAC was still flying Boeing Stratocruisers at the beginning of the story, and the RCAF was still flying CF-102s, which came into Prestwick from Germany for maintenance at the time (Fig. 17).
In ‘Time Out of Mind’, 1959, Hawke was flying a Handley Page Victor, trialling Automatic Landing Systems which were still at a very early stage (Fig. 18), while the USA was mounting its third large expedition to the Moon. Something had to be done – and now that Willie Patterson, an old school friend of Sydney Jordan’s, had begun contributing to the stories with ‘Sanctuary’, and writing ‘Unquiet Island’, the strip was about to undertake a massive change in format which would carry it through to the mid-1970s.
(To be continued)
‘The Art of Sydney Jordan, Dream Pedlar’ exhibition is on show in the Tower Foyer Gallery, Tower Building, University of Dundee, Dundee DD1 4HN, from 6th October 2023 to 22nd December (closed 14th October due to electrical work in the Tower), from 11.00 a.m. to 16.00 p.m. BST and from 09.30 a.m. from November on, closed from 23rd December to 2nd January, and open again until 6th January.
‘Space Rider’, the first Jeff Hawke story, was reprinted in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, Vol. 1 Nos. 1-2, 2003, with ‘Hawke’s Notes’ by Duncan Lunan in JHC Supplement, August 2006.
‘The Martian Invasion’, ‘The Search for Asteron’, ‘The Threat from the Past’ and ‘The Opposite Power’ were reprinted with ‘Hawke’s Notes’ by Duncan Lunan, in William Rudling, ed., The Martian Quartet, Jeff Hawke Club, 2004, 2nd revised edition 2009, reprinted 2005.
All the Jeff Hawke stories have been reprinted by the Jeff Hawke Club – for details see their website, www.jeffhawkeclub.co.uk.