Continued from last week.
The urge to stereotype Millar’s beliefs in the light of his least liberal scripts is an understandable one. Yet his work is anything but consistent on matters of social justice. As I’ve been discussing, the homophobia that seems to radiate from several of his Robo-Hunter serials is directly contradicted by his unmistakable denunciation of the same in Swamp Thing. Nor is it easy to divide Millar’s career into more and less liberal periods, although the two examples in the previous sentence suggest that might be possible. A graph that attempted to express the apparent attitudes towards homosexuality in Millar’s work over the past quarter century would be marked by a considerable and regularly occurring number of peaks and troughs. Much of the most contentious aspects of his work in this area would arrive before the end of 1993, and yet there’d be cause for serious concern and debate throughout the subsequent decades too. On occasion, both liberalism and illiberalism would need to be represented on the graph at exactly the same point in time, as is surely true for his work on Big Dave. For where homosexuality and homophobia are concerned, the strip seems to clearly display both the decent-hearted intentions of its creators and the unfortunate consequences of their conspicuously ill-judged methods. It’s a conflict between a well-intentioned and inclusive purpose and some seriously misguided storytelling that would later manifest itself in projects such as Millar’s take on The Authority.
There’s no doubt that Big Dave can appear to be far more a product of Millar’s sensibilities than Morrison’s. For while there’s nothing quite like it in any other part of the latter’s bibliography, Big Dave’s contents have a huge amount in common with Millar’s early Nineties work for Fleetway. That’s particularly true where the influence of the scatologically incendiary alt-comic Viz was concerned. Widely lauded, frequently criticized and immensely popular, with over a million sales registering for every issue published, its deliberately contentious brew of puerile gagsterism and pomposity-lancing satire had seemingly entranced Millar. Nowhere was this as obvious as in his scripts for Robo-Hunter, where he’d unfortunately displayed a crassly limited grasp of how the comic’s scabrous parodies tended to function. Where Viz’s various strips would typically express a clear sense of who and what was being satirized, Millar’s work had tended to sidestep such precision for the pleasure of seeming to be daring and excessive. (*1) Hardly for the first or last time, spectacle would trump content.
That was just one of the distinguishing characteristics of Millar’s then-style that studded Big Dave’s pages. In addition, TV characters such as Postman Pat were asininely parodied, while the repetition of stereotypes and stereotypical behavior was passed off as satirical in itself. Plots could be tiresomely strung together from facile if undeniably eye-catching beats, as if the project had been produced at an incredible speed, while a strange conception of political correctness appears to have been being consistently baited. Perhaps most distinctive of all was the strip’s capacity to offend a broad range of fan and political opinion while passing largely beneath the radar of any reactionary targets in what passes for the “real” world. Yet whether on mainstream properties such as Doom Patrol, Animal Man and Zenith, or independent projects such as Saint Swithin’s Day or The New Adventures of Hitler, Morrison’s scripts were by contrast richly textured, emotionally engaging and esoterically sourced. These weren’t qualities that could as yet be used to positively characterise Millar’s work.
None of this is to suggest that Millar was the dominant partner where Big Dave was concerned. Nor does it propose that he was simply a sounding board and coffee boy, although Millar’s detractors have often cast him as that where his collaborations with Morrison are concerned. Knowing just how each man divided up the responsibilities for their various projects is often impossible to determine, but Big Dave is to a degree an exception. It’s deceptively easy to presume that a creator’s contribution to a partnership will reflect the content of their solo endeavours. But as Morrison has described the earliest years of his friendship with Millar, the two shared “a surreal and gruesome sense of humour”, and it surely makes sense that Big Dave’s content might reflect that conspiratorial brew of the laughable and the appalling. (*2)
Morrison has nearly always been the more forthcoming about the details of the two men’s partnership, and many of his statements have accentuated his creative dominance of the relationship. (*3) Yet where Big Dave is concerned, and despite all of the bad blood between he and Millar, Morrison has been consistently keen to emphasise how closely and successfully the two worked together. From his perspective at least, Big Dave was the most equal and enjoyable collaboration that the two ever undertook. In his 2011 memoir Supergods, Morrison rather wistfully described the process of their writing Big Dave as being that of “two like-minded friends having a laugh”. (*4) In that, Morrison clearly feels a sense of deserved ownership over the strip, while considering it the product of both men’s efforts. Talking with Leonard Pierce in 2009, he even declared that the “… Big Dave strips I did with Mark Millar for 2000AD are some of my favourites and would make a good, daft book.” (*5)
“Good” is of course an entirely subjective business, although “daft” might be a far easier judgement to sustain. Less complimentary would be, to take but a single problem, the judgements of those who’ve labelled Big Dave as a fundamentally homophobic text. It’s not a criticism that’s tended in any way to be made of Morrison’s work during his long career, although it is – as we’ve seen – a prejudice that Millar’s been frequently been accused of. Indeed, Morrison’s comics have typically been more associated with a forceful, compassionate and unambiguous espousement of LGBT causes. Even as his final proposal for a Big Dave story was being rejected in 1994 by Fleetway, Morrison was determinedly presenting a daring and compassionate advocacy of non-traditional definitions of gender and sexuality in his occult conspiracy thriller, The Invisibles. (*6) As such, it’s surely impossible to believe that he’d have concurrently embarked upon a project with Millar that was to deliberately express quite contrary opinions about the very same social issues. Though Morrison had undoubtedly been as indiscrete and cutting as Millar often had in interviews, his work itself had contained little if anything that could be convincingly construed as reactionary. (*7) The conclusion surely has to be that neither Morrison or Millar had any intention at all of propagating the slightest trace of homophobia in Big Dave. After all, why would Morrison be working with a friend and colleague who he regarded as bigoted in order to lambast bigotry? Quite the opposite is the only feasible conclusion.
Of course, it seems too obvious a point to even stop to argue. Yet there’s any number of critical voices who’d use the evidence of the likes of Big Dave to condemn Millar – if not often Morrison – for his supposed beliefs as well as his methods. In that, the rule for one is often very much not applied to the other. The strengths of the Morrison/Millar collaboration tend to be ascribed to the efforts of the former, while any perceived problems are repeatedly associated with Millar. Yet with Big Dave at least, there’s the evidence that things are far more complicated than that.
No-one in their right mind would ever want to diminish the brilliance of so much of Morrison’s work. Yet an understanding of his career is done few favours by the assumption that his working relationship with Millar was never anything but that of master craftsman and apprentice. Both men are far too interesting and – after their own gifts – talented for that to be anything other than a blunt-edged analysis.
To be continued.
*1:- Millar’s meaning-reversing appropriation of The Fat Slags from Viz was discussed in part 20 of Shameless? http://sequart.org/magazine/27774/that-slightly-dodgy-anarchic-material-shameless-part-20/ There’s a hefty chapter to be written by someone about the differences between Viz’s often-effective parodies and the problems created by Big Dave’s form and content. Sadly for my own fascination with the subject, it’s not something to discuss any further here.
*2:- pg 317, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape 2011
*3.:- Starting, as far as my own research is concerned, with an interview in 1994’s Comic World #31, to which we’ll soon return.
*4:- pg 318, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape 2011
*5:- From a 2009 interview with Leonard Pierce at http://www.avclub.com/articles/grant-morrison,30678/ Sadly for admirers of the strip, and for those who’d like a chance to read it, the two men’s long and hardly-amicable estrangement would seem to render a collected edition unlikely, for rumor has it that they rather than Rebellion share Big Dave’s copyright.
*6: The matter of Morrison’s last Big Dave proposal being turned down will also be returned to. It too comes from the interview in 1994’s Comic World #31, the writer of which was sadly uncredited.
*7:- Morrison’s Judge Dredd strips from 1993/4 might at moments be accused of such, although there are mostly beyond the range of Shameless? The statement about the lack of reactionary content in Morrison’s work is of course one that could be tilted at. (What generalisation about a three-decade old career couldn’t be?) Yet as a general point, I think it holds.