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  • Sydney Jordan: a journey in space on a search for humanity

    Sydney Jordan: a journey in space on a search for humanity
    An interview with the memorable author Sydney Jordan, creator of Jeff Hawke, a landmark of the classic sci-fi.

    220px-sydney-jordan-by-joe-zatterSydney Jordan comes into the world in Dundee, Scotland, in 1931. He studies aeronautical engineering at Miles Aircraft‘s experimental college, but in 1951 he returns to Dundee and works as an assistant to comics artist Bill McCail. In 1954 he creates Jeff Hawke, a character born to be a space adventurer gifted with a stunning humanity and a deep sense of justice. In 1956 William Patterson starts working side by side with him on the scripts. Together the two achieve a stunning success and the Jeff Hawke’s comic strips begin to be published all around Europe and Italy, where they are shown for the first time on the pages of the magazine Linus. After the conclusion of Jeff Hawke’s adventures in 1974,Sydney Jordan creates Lance McLane, a new character, published by the Daily Record between the years 1976 and 1988.
    Another memorable collaboration of his is when he worked on the realization of some of the adventures of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare in 1968. Lastly, in 1996, the UK Sunday published a Dan Dare’s adventure drawn by Jordan.

    What are the artistic origins of Jeff Hawke, and what are the reasons and the inspiration behind the birth of this character?
    As a school boy growing up during the war my fascination with storytelling was fed by the wonderfully literate tales which D C Thomson of Dundee Scotland published in their weekly comics,The Wizard, The Skipper, The Rover, The Hotspur which included aviation and early space flight themes. One such tale remains with me to this day. THE LAST ROCKET TO VENUS tells of a dying Earth and the great exodus of humankind to the imagined safety of Venus, a planet which in 1936 was still thought to be earth like. The drama of this story lay in the fact that the hero had to stay behind in order to monitor the launch of the final rocket! Oh how the poignancy and seemingly unfair nature of this ending struck at my childs sense of justice! This and other stories gave me an understanding of drama and involvement that carried me on to the science fiction tales of Ray Bradbury Arthue C Clarke and others of the “golden age” which blossomed in the 1950’s.

    How did a story originate? Was it linked to the social and political reality of that period?
    My time spent at Miles aircraft college in Southern England between 1945 and 1947 gave me an understanding of aircraft engineering which would later help to make Jeff Hawke’s hardware look authentic. The strip negan life as a kind of British version of “FLASH GORDON” whose creator, Alex Raymond had already moved on to Rip Kirby a masterly strip which combined adult stories with the kind of artwork that depicted the human figure with flawless accuracy and a faultless line. His work was to influence mine when I abandoned the rather dated storylines of the early Hawke adventures and set them in a near future time. Thus my hero could interact with the contemporary social and technological trends of the day but still have encounters with the extra terrestrials whose existence was now being hinted at by the spread of flying saucer reports.

    jeff-hawke-artSince you worked on a daily basis, were you able to check immediately what worked and what not? Could audience’s reactions influence and ultimately change your work in progress?
    As the strip began to attract a readership I had many letters telling me how much the stories and the futuristic hardware matched the readers’ understanding of how science and the human condition were changing. I didn’t feel the need to alter the general line of the stories but did try to vary them and was greatly helped in this by Willie Paterson’s input after 1960.

    Jeff Hawke is a real modern hero and he shows some of the best qualities of a human being, especially in his encounter with the aliens, the epitome of otherness. If you had to compare this man from the past future with people today, would you feel disappointed? Do you think that we would be happier and more serene if we were more like Jeff?
    I think this question goes to the heart of the ethos behind the strip. Hawke is indeed a man of action like all heroes must be and Mac Maclean his Canadian comrade, although not without a strong moral persona, is certainly all of that. But Hawke himself is an egalitarian of the post war kind, when in real life the sense of a new, more democratic world to come was envisaged after the defeat of fascism. During this period many of the SF films (with the laudable exception of “THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL”) depicted the aliens as unhuman and murderous but in the strip the E.T.’s are seen to exhibit many of the characteristics of us humans. Even Chalcedon, arch villain though he be falls in to the category of “lovable rogue” when compared to H G Wells Martians.Thus Hawke and company are saved from the charge of racism!! I think we would all like to see a world where we humans recognise that we are passengers on this incredible spaceship called Earth, journeying together to an unknown but intriguing destination where science and technology will help us to handle most of what the Universe can challenge us with…..

    The importance of technology in Jeff Hawke was clearly influenced by the years when the comics was created. What hopes and fear were you trying to tell? What do you think about the role of technology in today’s world, where reality seems closer to science fiction than one could have ever imagined?
    The strip “grew up” over the years when America and Russia were each working to be the first to put  a man in to space and then reach for the moon. As the “Space Race” developed, Jeff Hawke’s adventures reflected the day-to-day advance in astronautics which fed back in to the market for new materials, electronics and eventually the world of the micro chip. When we realised that todays children carry cell phones many times more sophisticated than the instruments on the Apollo missions then we see,that the future will prove as startling to us as our present day would seem to someone from the Middle Ages. But the most extraordinary aspect of this reality of ours is the way in which our children accept it all as natural and already take it for granted. When in 1904 the editor of the local Dayton newspaper was told by his office boy that the Wright brothers had just flown a circuit for the first time, his reply was”Well son if they ever do anything unusual, be sure to let me know!” No, I think Mankind will survive everything short of an asteroid strike or an invasion of murderous martians!

    cover_h6414_h6865Since today’s science-fiction films employ computer graphic, it has become easier to create stories so profoundly linked to the physical laws of the Universe, like Jeff Hawke’s are, while you had to rely only on your drawings. In your opinion, why do sci-fi movies only consider the fantastic side of the genre – I am thinking of the last Star Wars – and do not explore those narrative means you investigated so well?
    The daily comic strip allowed a hero like Jeff Hawke to meet the challenge of space travel, other worlds and alien creatures at a pace which gave time for a reflective view of man and the stars, a moment to read and absorb the ideas put forward. This more contemplative structure was paralleled in the films of that era, Silent running, Solaris, and of course 2001 A Space Odesy to name some of the more thought provoking movies. Even Star Trek had a high moral tone and a commendable lack of real violence. But film goers brought up on the cult of Star  Wars and the X Box video games are the new audience and fantasy epics are the best sellers now as they have to be in order to recoup the enormous budgets necessary to bring them to the screen.

    What was the inspiration behind the several different alien races that Jeff encounters?
    CHALCEDON was created an arch villain to contrast with Jeff Hawke’s honorable character but in the event he turned out to be more like a demon king in pantomime, eerie and frightening at first sight but at heart a bit of a pussy cat whose wickedness doesn’t go much further than teasing and humiliating Kolvorok!
    KOLVOROK represents the kind of bureaucratic individual found in all civilisations which have settled in to a stable state. Pompous, cowardly, masking his inadequacies with a show of authority he plays a kind of fool to His Excellency’s patrician presence.HIS EXELLENCY. Scion of a noble family, this lizard like creature tries to serve the decrees of the Galactic Federation and is all too aware fighting a losing battle! From the HIGH COURT JUDGE to the caterpillar -like guards, the aliens are seen as grotesque by human standards but having one thing in common they all suffer from those ills which Hamlet deplores in Shakespeare’s masterly ” To be or not to be” soliloquy.Overall the diversity of the aliens was meant to indicate that in a Galaxy-wide scenario, Nature would have diversified producing a variety of life forms just as they are here on Earth.


    What were the practical and structural problems in dividing the plot in daily strips?
    Although at first glance the narrow strip of space given over to a newspaper comic feature would seem inhibiting there is one great advantage to it. It is that the reader is obliged to retain the previous images if only for a few hours in order to pick up the later episodes and so I always tried to end each week on a “cliffhanger”.Serialised stories were hugely popular in Charles Dickens’ day and it was his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins who summed up the spirit of this kind of story telling when he said “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait”! It’s a formula still successfully employed on television soaps to this day.

    The most popular format in the early days of the medium, the comic strip, is almost neglected now except for gag cartoons. What was the strength of comic strips and, in your opinion, what is the reason why they are less used than before?
    When the moving images of the cinema were brought in to the sitting room of the man in the street, in more and more sophisticated forms with colour, sound and the seamless flow of action the static imagery of the comic strip became less and less of a novelty. The humourus features survived because they could deal with the immediate political and social events of any given day or week.

    jeffhawke020What was your working relationship with William Patterson like? What did he add to your fictional character?
    Willie Patterson and I were school boy friends and our love of  literature was fed and widened when we attended the Academy in  our Scottish home town of Perth. An inspired literary education led us to explore the classics as well as the works of Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood, HP Lovecraft etcetera. Soon after I had gone to work in London Willie followed taking up an editorial job with the childrens’ encyclopedia for Amalgamated press( now Fleetway).We soon collaborated on the writing side of the strip and the first Chalcedon story was born.Willie revelled in London life and his aquaintance with the writing and legal elements around Fleet Street at that time led to us creating a kind of parallel social world for the aliens who began to appear in the stories. Our early schooling in literature and politics gave the strip a completely different focus when compared to the many brilliant comic features that were appearing in British newspapers at this time. He was the perfect working partner and we seldom disagreed. Creatively he was my other half and I miss him still.

    Being a comics creator was a very different job back then. Could you tell us how your profession was considered?
    It would be true to say that between 1950 and 1980 the popular newspapers competed with one another to host the best strips and the result was a flowering of talent in this narrow field of comic art. Our own little studio boasted no fewer than five artists whose strips were being printed in the National Dailies.

    There was a club, the society of strip illustrators and readers letters indicated how well the various strips were being received. These were heady days!

    After twenty years of Jeff Hawke, what did the publication of your last strip in 1974 mean to you?
    It was an indication of the coming decline in newspaper strips when the Daily Express, now no longer under the patriarchal control of Lord Beaverbrook asked me to terminate the strip on a months notice. No time to plan a graceful end to the current story, no concern of the continuity of the storyline. As it happened I was nearing the end of this particular adventure and was able to link Hawke’s swansong back to his origins in a second encounter with the Shining Ones of the first story. For me it was the end of an exciting era and eventually the paper dropped all of its serial strips-but already Lance McLane was beckoning!

    jhcoverbIn Italy Jeff Hawke was firstly published by the magazine Linus and then collected into a hardcover edition in twenty volumes by Milano Libri– today almost inaccessible. Recently, Rosellini foundation has published unpublished material and the publishing house 001 has announced the re-edition in four volumes of all Jeff Hawke’s adventures. Does the affection of Italian reader for your character amaze you?
    Up until the year 1995 I was unaware of just how popular Jeff Hawke had become in Italy. Never having been paid syndication I was distanced from its success abroad. Only the occasional prize from European fan clubs hinted at its popularity but when in 1995 Silvano and Gabriella Scotto invited me to the Cartoomics convention in Milan I was astonished to find I was famous in the Italian comic world! Since then I have enjoyed a number of visits to Italian conventions with the latest being in Lucca . I have been touched and I may say somewhat humbled by the wave of admiration, genuine affection and appreciation which the fans and publishers have shown me.

    Are you still into the world of comics? If you had to choose one or more comics authors for an hypothetical remake of Jeff Hawke, who would you name?
    I am still very interested in the art of the comic strip but will be more likely to work on a graphic novel along the lines of Hal Starr which is now being promoted by Per Allagalla in Italy. I think this is the way to keep storytelling in comic form alive and saleable. As for who might help me to realise a new run of Jeff Hawke I can only say that with the talent on show throughout the comic world I would be spoilt for choice as we say in English.

    What is your overall opinion about today’s comics, what similarities or differences do you see between it and today’s products?
    The advent of the graphic novel has marked the end of most serious newspaper strips and it clearly has its beginnings in the Funnies of the American weeklies, the D C Thompson and Fleetway publications in Britain. The comic page gives such a wide choice of layout that it will always score with a generation that is now used to the high quality art of the X Box video games and the live action films on cinema and television screens.The graphic novels of today range from whimsy to fantasy, from political comment to ground breaking satire and represent much of the ethos of our space age generation.

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