Continued from last week.
Given the evidence, it would be hard to argue that much of Millar’s work for 2000AD wasn’t worryingly homophobic. The best that might be said of a number of his scripts is that they reflected a careless tendency to be grossly insensitive towards the concerns of the LGBT community. Only in Big Dave, which he co-wrote with Grant Morrison for 2000AD’s 1993 Summer Offensive, is there clear evidence that Millar was both strongly opposed to homophobia and consciously aware of how it could be propagated on the page.
The Summer Offensive saw the scripting responsibilities for 2000AD handed over to Young Turks Morrison, Millar and John Smith for an eight week period. The iconoclastic triumphate’s brief, from editor Alan McKenzie, was to swell the comic’s ever-greying audience with new and younger readers. (*1) In order to do so, an ambitiously confrontational and contemporary-minded approach was adopted, with four new features developed in order to stand with the perennial brand-leader Judge Dredd. Of these, Big Dave was by far the most controversial. Breaking with 16 years of 2000AD tradition, it was a feature that was largely free of the conventions of Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Instead, it was designed, as Morrison would describe it, to be a “shockingly offensive” and “satirical” tilt at a broad range of prejudices. (*2) Yet quite what these prejudices were, or what exactly the perspective was that Millar and Morrison were arguing from, is often difficult to be precise about.
Morrison has talked of wanting to take on “the journalistic shorthand of Sun headlines”, and yet at the same time has declared that Big Dave was aimed at “a decade of thoughtless, ignorant political correctness, anti-sex and girls in flat shoes”. (*3) It’s a remarkably disparate bundle of targets to be aiming at, being an idiosyncratic combination of reactionary and radical concerns. Had Millar and Morrison given the impression of sniping at the political extremes from the middle of the road, then Big Dave might have made more sense and created less disappointment and offense. Sadly, and as I’ll discuss next week, that wasn’t an option that they embraced. That lack of a clear ideological position on its writer’s part may help to explain why Big Dave so often seems to be both confusing and distasteful. At one moment “a satire on the hypocritical mentality of your average Sun reading lager lout”, at another a scornful lunge at left wing challenges to the same, Big Dave repeatedly appears to contradict and undermine itself. (*4) (In that, it has a great deal in common with two decades and more of Millar’s satires.) For no matter how clearcut Morrison and Millar’s world-view might have seemed to the two of them at the time, the result was a scattershot melange of occasional if undeniable brilliance mixed with a great deal of imprecision, bluster, mediocrity and crassness.
Parodying British comicbook comedy strongmen such as The Dandy’s salt-of-the-Earth Desperate Dan, the psychotically indomitable Big Dave was a despicably anti-social thug from Manchester’s media-imagined underclass. Clad in his costume of shell-suits and trainers, Big Dave’s invariably hyper-violent adventures would result in the triumph of traditionally reactionary values over effetely spineless liberal thinking. As he sallied out to restore yesterday’s social injustices in return for absurdly cheap consumer goods, Big Dave would unashamedly express his personal manifesto of unblinking bigotry. The very principles of his entirely unreconstructed chauvinism were the key to Dave’s inevitably body-mangling achievements. Just as with most comic-book protagonists, his successes relied upon his fealty to his beliefs. Ignorance and prejudice powered him up as spinach did Popeye, while the threat of internalising empathy and tolerance functioned as his own particular Kryptonite. For unlike many other satirical expressions of working class and underclass
prejudice - from Alf Garnett and Archie Bunker to Homer Simpson and beyond – Dave inhabited a world in which the likes of racism, sexism and homophobia were objectively correct stances. There would be no heart-melting learning experiences to temper Big Dave’s grotesque beliefs, and no truth-revealing role models to guide him towards the light. In his world, working class women really were feckless tarts, Black British families irredeemable thieves, the underclass a despicable breed of welfare state-draining crooks, and homosexuals a tribe of limp-wristed and artistically over-sensitive weaklings.
In that, everything that Big Dave expressed and fought for was clearly intended to be read as a social evil, and, as artist Steve Parkhouse explained when asked by Ed Berridge about the “controversy” that had been generated by the strip;
“Anybody who didn’t get the joke in Big Dave must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I mean – it ain’t rocket science.” (*5)
Millar’s opinion of the objections to Big Dave appear to have been similarly unsympathetic , as suggested by Martin Connaghan in his ersatz-interview in 1993’s Comics World #18 (*6);
CW: “I mean, Dave is supposed to be an over the top racist, sexist, homophobic character, but don’t you think that by using words like “poof” you’re asking for trouble? Some sections of the gay press don’t seem to find it amusing.”
Millar:- “Big F***ing deal.” (*7)
Of course, we can’t know if Millar ever actually said those precise words. But they are remarkably similar to his response some 14 years later to Perry Moore’s critique of his killing off of the gay superhero Northstar in Wolverine #25. When informed that Moore was seriously disappointed by the slaughter of one of the few openly homosexual super-men in the Marvel Universe, Millar responded with a hearty;
“Oh, tell him to f**k off. He (Northstar) didn’t die because he was gay. He died because he’d been brainwashed by The Hand.” (*8)
Just as Millar would fail to grasp why Northstar’s death might seem at best insensitive to a LGBT and/or liberal-minded reader, so too would Morrison fail to grasp why Big Dave’s contents could often seem to be highly objectionable;
“I was shocked by the number of readers who couldn’t grasp the satirical aspects of Big Dave at all, in spite of the fact they were nailed to every page.” (*9/10)
Yet Morrison, Millar and Parkhouse appear to have often confused an opposition to their methods with a misunderstanding of their intentions. Big Dave was undoubtedly a strip that tried to target iniquitous cultural stereotypes from both the politically-correct left and the rapaciously self-interested right. But the manically ill-focused and rapturously self-indulgent way in which the strip was written both invited and justified criticism. The problem wasn’t with either the principles or intentions of Big Dave’s creators, but with the obtuse and tactless manner in which those sincere beliefs and honorable intentions were repeatedly expressed.
To be continued.
*1:- As explained in David Bishop’s Thrill Powered Overload, 2000AD editor Richard Burton was only nominally in charge of the comic during the period. Pg 162.
*2:- “shockingly offensive” – pg 163, Thrill Powered Overload, David Bishop, Rebellion, 2007 : “satirical” pg 318, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape, 2011
*3:- pg 163, Thrill Powered Overload, David Bishop, Rebellion, 2007
*4:- “A satire on”: from the words of the uncredited writer who interviewed Grant Morrison in 1994’s Comic World #31.
*5:- originally from Steve Parkhouse’s interview with Ed Berridge at 2000ADreview.co.uk – http://www.2000adreview.co.uk/features/interviews/2004/parkhouse/parkhouse.shtml I learned of the interview’s existence from the quote being used in “Thrill-Powered Overload”, pg 163. Mr Parkhouse is an unfairly under-recognised creator and the interview as a whole makes for fascinating reading too.
*6:- Please see the notes to the past few sections of Shameless? for the matter of why this “interview” might be regarded as “ersatz”.
*7:- We Are Now Better Than Ever, Interview With Martin Connaghan, Comics World #18, August 1993.
*8:- The interview with Perry Moore can be found online at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/03/books/03moor.html?_r=0 Millar’s response at Millarworld has been deleted, but it remains at sites such as http://www.thebacklot.com/mark-millar-comic-book-writers-dont-kill-off-gay-superheroes-supervillains-do/09/2007/
*9:- pg 162, Thrill Powered Overload, David Bishop, Rebellion Press, 2007
*10:- I can find nothing of these objections from the period, though references to them abound in Thrill Powered Overload, Connaghan’s second pseudo-interview and the uncredited interview with Morrison in 1994’s Comic World #31.