A life of daring;Book of the week

29th May 1998 at 01:00
LIVING WITH EAGLES: Marcus Morris, Priest and Publisher. By Sally Morris and Jan Hallwood. The Lutterworth Press pound;25.

Somewhere between editing the parish magazine and launching 'Cosmo' came a children's comic about a spaceman. But then the life of Marcus Morris, creator of 'Eagle', was full of surprises, writes Philip Pullman .

Eagle - "The New National Strip Cartoon Weekly" - appeared for the first time on April 14, 1950, and was an immediate success. Its influence on its rers lasted much longer than the comic itself, which faded and died peacefully in its second decade; but the founder and editor, Marcus Morris, was little more than a name to most of us. He well deserves a biography, and here it is, written by two of his daughters.

The only thing most readers of Eagle knew about Morris was that he was a clergyman. He was the son and grandson of parsons, and the continuation of the family tradition of broad-minded evangelicalism was assured when Marcus was ordained in 1939.

He had been doubtful about his vocation, and with good reason, for he had a strong taste for the physical pleasures of life: he drank and smoked prodigiously, he was a superb dancer until late in life, and he had several extra-marital affairs. The authors present this side of his character without censure or embarrassment, which is to their credit.

The life of a clergyman with a young family in the Forties was strenuous. As well as looking after his parish, at one point Morris had to take a job in a factory to make ends meet, and like many country parsons he grew vegetables and kept a cow.

He had the great quality for a priest of not being particularly interested in God. "Christianity has to be lived in society . . . Dances, a game of cards, a 'party', may be just as appropriate a part of church life as a meeting or a discussion group," he wrote.

In that spirit, he set up debating societies, musical groups, dramatic societies (with the aid of his beautiful actress wife, Jessica Dunning). From time to time we meet people like that - dynamic, magnetic, gifted. The unlucky ones never learn what they were born to do but, like Dorothea in Middlemarch, find the current of their lives in channels which have no great name on Earth. However, at the age of 30, Morris, now a vicar in Southport, decided to put together a parish magazine; he had discovered his gift.

The Anvil was no ordinary parish magazine. Morris was an editor of extraordinary gifts, with an eye for talent, the strength to nurture it, and the ambition to publish it as widely as possible. Before long, he had spotted a gap in the market, and begun to conceive a children's magazine, illustrated in the American style with comic strips. With the artist Frank Hampson he put together a dummy (including the adventures of Chaplain Dan Dare of the Interplanet Patrol) and managed, after the rejections and disappointments that are a part of every publishing myth, to interest Hulton Press in Eagle.

After a good deal of work, in the course of which Dan Dare lost his dog collar and acquired his famous eyebrows, 900,000 copies of the first issue were printed. It was a triumph, not least because it looked spectacular. We look back now at the exhausted post-war years and see them in murky monochrome, as if colour has been rationed along with food; the first children who saw the blazing colours of Eagle must have scarcely believed their eyes. But grown-ups approved too: after 10 issues had appeared, The Times Literary Supplement noted that "Eagle is turning into a source of furtive pleasure for adults".

Morris could not keep up both his editorial role and that of a village parson, and eventually gave up his parish to become a full-time publisher. (He did not, however, completely abandon his religious duties, becoming honorary chaplain of St Bride's church in Fleet Street.) He enjoyed the expense accounts, the restaurants, the champagne with which the toil of the editor is so lavishly rewarded, but he was always short of money. No one except Hulton Press made much out of Eagle, and Frank Hampson in particular became bitter about how little he had benefited from Dan Dare.

Morris left Hulton in 1959, and Eagle suffered change after change, before merging with Lion and closing in 1969. After Hulton, Morris was headhunted to become managing director of the National Magazine Company, whose portfolio included titles such as Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar and She.

His most spectacular achievement at his new home was probably the launch of Cosmopolitan in 1972, but his tenure at Nat Mag was an overall success, a fact recognised in 1983 when he was awarded the OBE for services to publishing. He retired in 1984 - during his quarter of a century at Nat Mag, turnover rose from pound;1.5 million to pound;50 million - and died five years later, aged 73.

This biography has all the merits and flaws of a close-up view of its subject. Sally Morris and Jan Hallwood are devoted chroniclers, but the book lacks the perspective of a more distant and critical observer; some of the content is of family interest only.

One day a life will be written that sets Morris's achievement with Eagle in the context of children's literature, graphic art, and the history of morals, which is where it belongs. But this will do very well until then.

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