Continued from last week.
It’s not that Big Dave is without its pleasures, although the vast majority of them are to be found in Steve Parkhouse’s boisterously dynamic artwork. Though even he couldn’t compensate for the smug insensitivity and scattershot indiscipline of much of Morrison and Millar’s scripts, Parkhouse did at moments succeed in almost single-handedly creating moments of wonderfully Rabelaisian excess. Even today, the splash page of Monarchy In The UK – from the second Big Dave serial – retains its power to inspire an inseparable fusion of instinctual disgust and uncontrollable guffawing. Shell suit trousers and boxer shorts hanging around his ankles, Big Dave is shown attending to his morning excretions while perusing a copy of The Sun. Every detail of the appalling scene is wonderfully, disgustingly judged. On the floor to his left waits his partially eaten breakfast of milk-sodden corn-flakes, and to the right of that sits a partially unraveled toilet roll, its sheets facing disastrously away from its owner’s reach. To his left, the sickeningly evocative sound-effect of Gloob hovers, while beneath that, a savage bulldog uncaringly urinates on the floor. Under the gaze of the Union Jack flag that Dave’s attached to the wall, the likes of beer cans, cigarettes and piles of appalling filth stud the frame. As an expression of contempt for both nationalist thuggery and the culture which encourages the same, it’s a brilliantly designed and executed scene.
Sadly, it’s one that’s been sandwiched into a typically Millar-esque indulgence in which the cat belonging to children’s TV icon Postman Pat is murdered by Dave’s far less family-friendly pet. (*1) It does, of course, make sense that the writers would have played out the contradiction between Dave’s rightist contempt for public service workers and his own sense of aggressive entitlement as regards his dole cheques. But the overlong and over-obvious sequence sinks beneath a clash of tones – Pat never convincingly belongs in Dave’s world – and a sense that the then-ubiquitous Postman was an all too easy target. Yet most debilitating of all, the scene is holed by its satirical contradictions. In that, it’s typical of the strip as a whole. At moments, Big Dave is clearly meant to represent the insidiously chauvinistic values of the period’s right-wing tabloids. As such, a great deal of the laughter that’s inspired by his outrageously heartless behavior seems deliberately designed to highlight the most reactionary aspects of the media. In that, Dave’s neo-fascist jingoism in Wotta Lotta Balls appears to have been a swipe at the bellicism that’s underscored so much of the gutter press’s sports coverage, while his xenophobia in Costa Del Chaos similarly reflects the way in which the tabloids have traditionally reinforced negative national stereotypes.
But Big Dave also, and often simultaneously, embodies qualities which the Murdoch press and its fellow travellers would abhor and oppose. How to make sense of a satire that expects its lead character to be capable of being both a symbol of press values and of those that the same press utterly despises? When Morrison and Millar mocked the mindless extremes of their character’s uber-patriotism, they were inarguably preaching from an obviously liberal pulpit, and their loathing for the scandal-sheets was clear. But what can we make of the fact that Dave is also exactly the kind of welfare-scrounging lower-class thug that The Sun would enthusiastically campaign to see hung? As such, he’s a stereotype of the urban poor that’s indistinguishable from the one that’s been regularly peddled by both the tabloids and the broadsheets of the right. It might be expected that a satire which in part works by having Dave express the consequences of right wing prejudices would also challenge the stereotype of the undeserving poor. Yet Big Dave’s message on the matter is at best confusing, and at worst cruelly regressive. Is Manchester’s Hardest Man a satirical tool that playfully expresses many of the right-wing tabloid’s most extreme and repugnant opinions? Or is he a device that scores political points by embodying the same papers’ worst nightmares? And how can either of those options be squared with the fact that Dave is in some ways an expression of the same classist prejudices that The Sun and The Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Times, have so often and so deliberately perpetuated? Since all of those approaches appear to have been
taken by Morrison and Millar in Big Dave, and since they’re often being used all at the same time, it’s almost impossible to be sure about the writer’s intentions. Who is it that we’re supposed to disapprove of, and why is it that we’re supposed to be chuckling? All the reader can be sure of is that somebody is getting laughed it, even as the grounds for that sneerful sniggering appear to shift even within the same panel. The result is that the strip often seems to be in agreement with the gutter press about the perils posed by the supposed existence of a society-destroying Underclass. Far from always being in opposition to the conservative-minded gutter press, Big Dave frequently seems to be lining up behind it. With so much panel-space spent mocking Dave and his fellow welfare-cheats, and so little invested in relating such jokes to the broader political context of folk devils and moral panics, the strip really can often seem indistinguishable from one designed in support of Charles Murray’s baleful theories.
Of course, Millar’s solo work had constantly generated the same problems. As we’ve frequently discussed, his scripts had a tendency to seem radical and yet, on closer inspection, to be often anything but. Big Dave is no different. What at first seemed intended as a mocking indictment of rightwing tabloid values would prove to be peppered with disappointingly limp and mild criticisms of the likes of the Royal Family or Prime Minister John Major. When it came to the great powers of the right, Big Dave was ultimately so toothless that a committed reactionary could mistake it for a fond – if confused – celebration of chauvinistic traditions. Only the powerless would have cause to feel at all aggrieved, because only the powerless were to be consistently insulted in ever-more determined and derogatory ways. Though its creators imagined that their satirical intentions were always obvious and defensible, the fact is that it was groups such as the urban poor and homosexuals who were continually being represented in a negative light. No matter how transparent and often amusing each individual panel could be in its own right, the cumulative effect of chapter upon chapter of the same material could result in a diametrically opposite effect. To point out that the mass media dealt in insulting stereotypes through the constant repetition of the same soon left the process feeling belabored, burned-out and, ultimately, cruel.
Though nothing new was added to the satire’s analysis by each subsequent scene, the sense of being assailed by unhelpfully unpleasant representations quickly intensified. Whatever Morrison and Millar had to say was pretty much exhausted within one or two episodes, and yet on and on they went. Rather than illuminating the source of prejudice, Big Dave could often seem to be just one more predictable part of it. As a result, the series would inevitably leave some readers feeling that they’d been consistently misrepresented and insulted. And for what? Hadn’t the basic point already been made, and made again, and again? That being so, what was the excuse for the endless replication of dehumanizing stereotypes? As I’ll discuss next week, this was particularly and understandably so when it came to Morrison and Millar’s repeated if well-intentioned use of homophobic hate-speak.
As was typical for Millar, satire in Big Dave was all about the reproduction of an existing prejudice and little to do with its smart-minded framing within a carefully worked narrative. Just to parade an example of bigotry in plain sight, and to often do so over and over again, hardly ensures that the bigotry itself is being clearly and helpfully illuminated. Only in the context of 2000AD’s then-protracted period of underachievement could Big Dave have managed to seem so spirited and so controversial. Yet the truth is that its contents regularly failed to even equal the lampooning of the powerful that was dished out on primetime, mainstream TV. Compared to the vicious and hyper-inventive vitriol of Steve Bell’s brilliant newspaper strip If …, or even the bi-weekly parodies to be found in then as-yet unrejuvenated Private Eye, Big Dave was intellectually under-powered and politically banal. Indeed, the very best Morrison and Millar’s scripts for the feature tended not to have anything much to do with politics at all. The funniest scene in all five of the published stories in the series concerned the intellectually befuddled Dave’s inability to tell the Royal Family apart from their crudely constructed robot doubles. A little gem of invention and timing, it showed what the two writers could achieve when they weren’t transfixed by the chimera of laddish transgressions.
To be continued.
*1:- It would be something of a surprise if the scene didn’t originate with Millar. As we’ve seen, he constantly loved to appropriate mass-market pop culture for his scripts during the period, and he characteristically did so at the expense of the quality of his own work.
*2:- Not that I’m implying that the right-wing press of 2013 is overall any more liberal than it was.