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Wednesday 28 February 2024


 Steve Winders analyses this unusual strip from the sixties EAGLE.

In the mid sixties, many of EAGLE's heroes had special powers beyond those of ordinary people and faced equally supernatural and powerful enemies. The 'Iron Man' looked human, but was actually an immensely strong steel robot with an advanced computer brain. Major Grant was given the ability to change into smoke by benevolent alien allies. Even the schoolboy heroes, Billy Binns and Mickey Merlin, had remarkable powers. There is no doubt that these stories proved popular with readers at the time. EAGLE's rival comics were full of such stories and American comics were even more dependent on heroes with super powers.

Into this culture of heroes and villains with extraordinary abilities came a new story, which began in January 1965, that took an ordinary person and placed him in a range of different situations, giving him different powers and different challenges for each one. This was 'The Guinea Pig', a strip about a man employed to test new discoveries at a Dartmoor Research  Centre. Unlike the stories of heroes with special powers, where the powers were invariably beneficial, those bestowed on Mike Lane as a human 'Guinea Pig' were usually the cause of the problems in the stories. The strip took the popular comic theme of super powers and explored their potential risks and it questioned the popular view that scientific exploration is necessarily good, by showing many of the experiments having catastrophic results. 

The Dartmoor Centre was run by Professor Cornelius Dee, the only other regular character in the stories and the inventor of almost all the discoveries that Mike Lane tests in the strip. The professor must have been a remarkable man as his work covered every area of Science. Mike Lane tested drugs, radiation treatments, weapons, armour and a whole range of transport vehicles for him. Perhaps if he had specialised more, there might have been fewer disasters! 

Professor Dee is a bald, bespectacled man who is confined to a wheelchair. His large cranium, coupled with the fact that he is permanently seated, invites comparison with the Mekon, but Dee is not a villain. However, he is not exactly a hero either. Indeed he is the most ambivalent regular character to appear in any series in EAGLE. Ruthless and uncompromising in his pursuit of scientific discovery, he nevertheless shows concern about Mike's safety during some of the experiments. Mike Lane is a much more traditional EAGLE hero. The introductory caption to the first episode says: "Mike had been many things in his time - fighter pilot, wrestler, even a revolutionary fighter in a South American war!" In appearance, he is again a typical EAGLE hero. Tall, athletically built, with short fair hair and no overtly prominent facial features, he resembles many other British comic heroes of the time. 

The real difference about 'The Guinea Pig' is in its often negative attitude to scientific discoveries. This was a new stance for EAGLE, which had consistently praised and supported science. Its most popular and endearing character 'Dan Dare' was a space pilot whose adventures took place in a brighter and better world of the future, enhanced by technological advances. EAGLE's famous cutaway drawings of technological marvels were a popular feature from its start to the end and the comic regularly ran other series about new innovations, which were always enthusiastic in tone. 

Originated by William Patterson, who wrote the famous 'Jeff Hawke' daily science fiction strip for the Daily Express, 'The Guinea Pig' began in EAGLE, Volume 16 No. 2, in January 1965 and finished in EAGLE'S penultimate issue, Volume 20 No. 16, dated April 19th, 1969. After appearing on two pages in black and white for the first four episodes, the strip then occupied one-an-a half black and white pages until September 1967, when it moved to the centre pages in colour. The first two episodes were drawn by Colin Andrew, who was replaced by Brian Lewis in early February and then by Gerald Haylock, who took over in the issue dated November 27th 1965 (Volume 16 No. 48). The early artwork by Colin Andrew, with its gloomy backgrounds, recalled his work on 'What is Exhibit X?' an eerie science fiction strip he drew for Boys' World. His style suited 'Exhibit X' very well, but was a little too dark for 'The Guinea Pig', which although often pessimistic about the success of science, was not as frightening or unsettling as the Boys' World story. Brian Lewis' style was more appropriate, with its sharper and more detailed backgrounds and effective depiction of action scenes. However, the artist who had the longest run on the strip was Gerald Haylock, who illustrated the strip for more than three years. Haylock had previously drawn almost the whole run of 'Knights of the Road' in the early sixties for EAGLE. His line work was much sketchier than Lewis', but his backgrounds were quite detailed and his depiction of movement and facial expression was good. In 'The Guinea Pig' he used sharply angled frames reminiscent of Frank Bellamy's work, to convey action and movement more dynamically. He was a reliable and consistent artist who served the strip well. Most stories ran for between four and eight episodes, with occasional shorter and longer ones.    

In September 1967, during Haylock's tenure, EAGLE altered in size and the strip moved to the colour centre pages. It occupied these pages until the issue dated 10th August 1968, when 'The Circus Wanderers' took over the centre spread. 'The Guinea Pig' then continued on two black and white pages per week. However, the strip occupied the front page eight times during EAGLE's final year, as the comic introduced a policy of rotating the principal strips on the cover. On these occasions, the second page of the strip was printed in colour on the back page or in black and white on page two. 

Gerald Haylock stayed with the strip until the issue dated 4th January 1969. By this time the fateful decision to close EAGLE had been taken and the strip was drawn by several artists until the end of its run. These included Carlos Pino, whose work on the final story means that he is one of a handful of artists who have contributed to both versions of EAGLE. 

Although William Patterson wrote the first story and several others, many other writers worked on the strip at different times. This was unusual for EAGLE, even in the sixties, but 'The Guinea Pig' was an unusual story. With only two regular characters to write for, it was not difficult for new writers to take over and as the strip depended so heavily on their ability to devise new and interesting experiments, it benefitted from changing writers, because each one brought new ideas. Among the contributors to the strip were Robert Bartholomew, Tom Tully, David Motton, Frederick Smith and Alfred Wallace. 

The first story, drawn by Colin Andrew and Brian Lewis, shows Mike Lane testing a formula which enables him to pass through solid objects. Once the formula begins to take effect, he cannot hear sound as his ear drums are not solid, so sound waves cannot vibrate against them, which is scientifically correct. However, Professor Dee does not start to explain the risks that Mike faces until after he has taken the tablet and fails to warn him about the fact that he may start to become solid again at any time during the next half hour. If he becomes solid while passing through a concrete wall then he will die!

While the professor's late warning sets up the dramatic thrust of the story, it is ridiculous that he would not explain the potential effects and risks to Mike before he took the tablet. But Dee's irresponsible management is quickly matched by Mike's, who sets off on a tour of the research centre. Causing panic in the building, which he floats through like a ghost, Mike goes outside and explores the rocket launching area, just as a rocket is about to take off. Unaffected by heat, gases and the force of the missile, Mike examines the launch at a very close quarters. The rocket then explodes on the launch pad and a moment later, Mike begins to revert to solidity. Suffering from a few minor burns, he returns to the anxious professor, who sacks him for behaving irresponsibly! However, when he explains that he saw a fuel tank in the rocket spring a leak as it was taking off, he is immediately reinstated. His observation will save millions of pounds. 

The second experiment is really part of the first story, as there are strong links between the two. This time, Mike tests an anti-gravity suit. This resembles a space-suit in appearance, which is just as well, because it defies gravity to take him into space. It has a control panel on the chest, which allows Mike to direct it and he floats off to the Moon! On arrival, he explores a crater which turns out to be a large tentacled creature resembling a jelly fish, which has the power to transform itself into its surroundings. The creature engulfs Mike and he cannot break free from its clutches. Desperately he activates the anti-gravity suit and brings the creature all the way back to Earth with him. 

On this occasion, the professor has fortunately fitted Mike with a radio and so armed troops are ready when he and his strange passenger arrive back at base. The soldiers disable the creature with gas shells and it releases Mike from its grip. Professor Dee thinks it is dead, but the creature transforms itself into a building and begins to engulf people inside itself. If the professor uses explosives to destroy it, then the people inside it will be killed. 

Mike suggests that he takes another of the non-solid pills, so that he can pass into the creature and find its heart or a nerve centre that can then be attacked. The professor agrees and Mike manages to get inside the 'building' that the alien has become. He succeeds in finding the heart of the creature, but then begins to turn solid again. Some of the creature's 'walls' are transparent, so the professor can see Mike through a telescope from his cover position. Mike points in the direction of the creature's heart and the troops blast it with shells. This time the creature does die, but Mike has been injured by it. Fortunately, the blasting did not hit him and he recovers to be hailed a hero. The professor announces that he has another job lined up for him, but Mike declares that he has a headache and in a rare, but justifiable moment of rebellion, calls him a "slave driving old goat,". The professor accepts this with good grace, but tells Mike that his next job will be a tough one and not like the simple ones he's had so far! 

These first two experiments contain some highly dubious science. When Mike becomes ethereal he loses the ability to speak and hear, but surely he would also lose the power to move himself around. The anti-gravity suit has a 'control panel' but no propulsion unit, yet Mike is able to control his movement through space and presumably at considerable speed, because he manages to propel himself all the way to the Moon and back in very little time. The Moon is 238,855 miles away from Earth. The issue of propulsion is briefly explained by saying that Mike can direct his movement by moving his arms about, but this is not a satisfactory explanation as there is nothing for him to push against in space. While a comic story cannot be expected to get bogged down with scientific explanation, the issues could have been better explored. 'The Guinea Pig' provided an excellent opportunity for a little science education 'without force'. Nevertheless, the story was well received and thanks to a wide variety of themes in the following stories, 'The Guinea Pig' quickly established itself as a popular strip. 

Prominent in the early stories was one where Mike travels fifty miles beneath the Earth in 'The Braxby Mole', a craft which drills through rock. There, in a huge subterranean cavern he and his companions encounter the descendants of English and Spanish sailors from Elizabethan times, who still dress and speak as their ancestors did. The Spaniards live on a galleon which somehow made its way into an underground river four hundred years ago and became grounded in the cave. The two groups are still at war with each other, so Mike and his team from the Mole try to negotiate. However, this fails and the Mole undermines the galleon, which collapses. Mike and his team find a treasure hoard on the now wrecked ship and take it back to the surface along with a friendly Elizabethan called Trelawny, who has helped them. 

Drawn by Brian Lewis, this exciting and memorable story ran for thirteen episodes, between March and June 1965. Unfortunately, once again adequate explanations for several important aspects of the story are not forthcoming. Mike speculates as to how exactly the Spanish galleon got into a cavern fifty miles below the Earth's surface. He suggests that the river, which is now fed by an immense waterfall, may "once have been navigable all the way to the Earth's surface..." and that "there must have been a huge rock fall." But this does not make much sense. It lacks any detail or logic and recalls the unsatisfactory lack of scientific explanation in the first stories. Perhaps a massive localised collapse of the river bed has created the waterfall and caused the river to now flow underground, but this is not what is suggested. Also, no explanation is proffered for the presence of the English people in the caves, except the lure of treasure aboard the galleon, but how did they get there? 

When Mike and his friends return to the surface, neither Professor Dee, nor Trelawny, offer any further explanation. The professor is just delighted to get the treasure, which will pay for the whole cost of the Mole. Despite his intriguing background, the rescued Trelawny makes no further appearance in the strip after the story ends and we are never told why the Mole is called 'The Braxby Mole'.

These entertaining but flawed early stories do not speculate too much on the potential hazards of scientific enquiry and experimentation. They simply use the tests and experiments which Mike undergoes to tell exciting stories. However, as the strip progressed, the writers seized on the opportunity to encourage readers to reflect on more challenging issues. In a later adventure in the black and white era, Mike travels to the year 2070 in a prism shaped time machine. Here he finds that Dartmoor houses a city, in a crowded world where everyone's life is ordered and rigidly timetabled. He is forced to undergo 'citizenship' training, but he escapes and meets another fugitive who has rejected the discipline and rules of the society and this man helps him to return to his own time. An interesting feature of this story is its depiction of the future world. There were many speculative stories of the future produced in the twentieth century and many predicted an overcrowded world. However, other stories that predicted order and over population took a clear pessimistic tone, whereas 'The Guinea Pig' is more ambiguous. The major tension of the story is created by Mike's attempts to return to his own time and not by the horrors of the future society. Consequently it is able to show people happy with their ordered lives. It shows that there are reasons for the excessive control exercised by the authorities and that this order produces many benefits. 'The Guinea Pig' in no way advocates such a system, but it does not show the future world in simple terms of good and bad. For this reflective approach it must be applauded. 

One of the best stories to convey the limitations of science was a relatively simple two part story, in which Mike, exhausted after yet another experiment, is sent to a totally computer operated hotel to rest and recuperate. Unfortunately the hotel is the brainchild of Professor Dee and no human staff are employed there. When thieves break in during Mike's stay, they cause some wires to short circuit and everything starts working at once. Mike is forced to break out to avoid being killed in the mechanical mayhem which ensues. The message of the story seems clear: Without human management, machines cannot be trusted to function properly. But again the message is not so simple. The mayhem was really initiated by human thieves breaking in and ultimately the real blame for the disaster lies as usual with Professor Dee. He could easily have incorporated adequate security measures in his hotel to prevent the break in. 

In one of the later stories, when Mike's skin becomes as tough as steel following an accident, the professor outlines his philosophy to a new assistant.

"Let's hope there's no mistake this time, professor!" says the assistant. 

"Burton, you have not been in my employment very long, so I will ignore that remark. I do not make mistakes! I delve into the unknown - and the answers are not always predictable!" replies the professor testily. 

When Dee delves into the unknown , the answers are never predictable, except when disasters are expected. In one adventure, the professor tries to transfer mike's law abiding thought patterns into the mind of a criminal, recruited from the nearby prison. At the start of the experiment, Mike comments "It sounds fine - so long as it doesn't work the other way round on me!" which anticipates exactly what is going to happen in the story. 

Like the other popular sixties characters, 'Blackbow the Cheyenne' and 'The Iron Man', 'The Guinea Pig' only ended to make way for EAGLE's merger with Lion in April 1969. The final adventure, which was written by Alfred Wallace, ended with Professor Dee gaining new funding for his experiments from a rich Arab sheik. Whether the British Government has withdrawn its support is not made clear, but if it has, then in my view it has acted wisely! Quite apart from the chaos that Dee's experiments cause in the towns and villages of Dartmoor, in one story, the evil side of Mike's nature is physically separated from his good side and the evil Mike kidnaps the prime minister and uses a shrinking ray to reduce him to toy soldier size! This adventure takes place just a few weeks before the one where Professor Dee is seeking new funding and it seems reasonable to assume that the two are connected. 

Professor Dee may have been a genius, but he was also a liability. His surname surely comes from Doctor John Dee, the famous Elizabethan astrologer and alchemist, for like the alchemists of old, Professor Dee also tried to turn base metal into gold on several occasions and was always ultimately disappointed. His first name may come from the German alchemist, Heinrich Cornelius, who was a contemporary of John Dee. If the professor was named by William Patterson, who wrote the first story, then this is quite likely. In his 'Jeff Hawke' stories for the Daily Express, Patterson often linked events in the story with events and discoveries from the past. 

Writing in Speakeasy magazine in 1990, in his introduction to an interview with Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes about their version of 'Dan Dare', Nigel Curzon recalled 'The Guinea Pig' as an anti-authoritarian story. Presumably he saw Professor Dee as the unreasonable authority figure and Mike as the suffering victim. Dee certainly makes unreasonable demands of his employee and most of the drugs and treatments that Mike is subjected to would never be sanctioned in real life. However, on several occasions, Dee shows sympathy and concern for Mike. In a levitation experiment he ruins valuable equipment when he switches on the levitation ray to save Mike, who is falling from the top of a high ladder. He does this knowing that the machine will overload and his work will be wrecked. 

Likewise, Mike is certainly not a rebellious anti-authoritarian figure, although he does justifiably complain about the professor's unreasonable demands at times. One story which demonstrates Mike's willingness to take part in the experiments is when the professor puts an obedience drug in his tea. Mike is then ordered to undergo a series of extreme endurance tests, including a fight with a local boxing champion, to test the drug. He obeys all the orders enthusiastically and the professor declares the drug a success, only to find that Mike didn't drink the tea and hasn't taken the drug! 

The fact that Mike is often an enthusiastic participant in the professor's experiments does not mean that he is not the victim, but if the writers had intended the strip to be anti-authoritarian, I believe they would have made Professor Dee much worse and Mike much more complaining. One of the best aspects of 'The Guinea Pig' is that it avoids taking a clear position on the issues it covers, preferring to present stories in such a way that readers can draw their own conclusions. The idea that the strip is anti-authoritarian possibly comes from the reprint of the first and the linked second stories in 2000 A.D. Annual 1979 where a new opening text box removes references to Mike having been a pilot and a revolutionary in South America and describes him simply as out of work because of his hot temper and a habit of telling his boss that he's wrong. It is likely that this change was made to make the character more like other heroes in 2000 A.D. and to be fair, this story does feature the incident where Mike calls the professor an "old goat". 'Guinea Pig' strips were reprinted in the 1980 and 1981 2000 A.D. annuals and another appeared in the 1981 Starlord Annual

Although unique in so many ways, 'The Guinea Pig' was very much a child of the sixties EAGLE . Marcus Morris would never have entertained the idea of such a story when he was editing the paper. Quite apart from its flawed science, the idea of the 'hero' character being used for dangerous experiments which sometimes change his personality, making him the problem and not the solution, would have appalled EAGLE'S creator. Nevertheless, 'The Guinea Pig' was an imaginative and thought provoking series, with a clever premise and and two strong central characters, which challenged the simplistic view of the world presented by most comic stories and more importantly , challenged the equally simplistic notion that science has all the answers.

I am grateful to David Gould for confirming and clarifying some information for this article.

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