“Two Tickets for My Next Performance”:

Shameless? Part 32

Continued from last week.

So how did Morrison and Millar use the pages of Big Dave to express their contempt for homophobia? Starting from the premise that their readers were similarly liberal-minded, they studded the strip’s pages with stereotypes of homosexuals and predominantly working class homophobes. The message couldn’t have been more obvious; some people – particularly working class men and women – stupidly associate being gay with a camply effete stereotype. (*1) The suggestion that homophobia is predominantly a problem of the underclass aside, it’s an observation that would be impossible to fault. Yet Big Dave’s satire never moved beyond that obvious starting point. Homophobic clichés were paraded over and over again before the reader, who was then expected – it seems – to knowingly laugh at the undeniable perniciousness of it all. A dozen British soldiers were shown transformed into twirling, limp-wristed aesthetes by an alien “love ray”, while Prince Edward was portrayed as pathetically fey and suicidally man-hungry. All the time accompanied by a blizzard of ironically-intended homophobic hate-speak, Big Dave hammered home this single revelation with all the wearying perseverance of a smug and none-too-smart pre-pubescent who’s only just learned to swear.

In the one-dimensional sniggerthon that was Big Dave, campness often seems to have been portrayed as nothing other than a totally demeaning stereotype. That being camp might actually be one of a range of perfectly legitimate and entirely empowering choices was just one of the more obvious flaws in Morrison and Millar’s reasoning. In short, the two writers were often attempting to speak for communities to whom they don’t truly appear to have been listening. What were the battles that Morrison and Millar were attempting to fight in Big Dave? The gay stereotypes that they sought to illuminate had, for example, long become unacceptable on terrestrial radio and TV. They were of course undeniably ugly and dehumanising clichés that were still all-too-common in everyday life. (Regrettably, they still are.) But for all their undeniable malignancy, they were by no means the most objectionable products of the homophobic mind-set. Though the reader would never know it from Big Dave, the chauvinists of the first half of the Nineties were perpetuating far more hateful and harmful lies. Despite seeming to be exceedingly chuffed with their principled outspokenness, Morrison and Millar never reached out to engage with issues associated with HIV and AIDs, with the stereotypes of the naturally-paedophilic homosexual, with the fight for equal rights in employment, housing and inheritance, with the resistance to Clause 28, and so on. In short, they aimed for the easiest of targets, and even then they often fell short.

That lack of ambition and knowledge matched to the repetition of Morrison and Millar’s gags diluted whatever mildly satirical points they were making to a homeopathic level. Worse yet, it unintentionally added profoundly toxic elements to the resulting brew. Often, the result was far worse than simply seeming out-of-touch and ineffectual. The constant use of homophobic hate-speak meant that terms such as “poof” swiftly lost all power to shock and dismay. This was surely inevitable, given that Morrison and Millar never managed to invest them with the hateful force and baleful meaning that they almost inevitably carried in everyday, heterosexual-dominated life. Instead, hate-speak was repetitiously reduced to banal and over-familiar punch-lines that were nearly always accompanied by acts of absurd violence. Since neither Morrison or Millar could offer up anything new to justify their continued use of homophobic language, it swiftly slipped free of any satirical purpose. As such, the likes of “poof” and “shirt-lifter” quickly became nothing but blindingly repetitive catch-phrases.

Big Dave also featured such homophobic insults far, far more than it did any other form of hate-speak. This might have been because the strip’s writers regarded the struggles of the gay community as being the far more pressing concern. Yet it’s hard to believe that they were paying much attention to the question of who they were attempting to represent in relative terms. Without equal attention being given to, for example, racist slanders, the impression given was that homophobic language and behaviour was simply easier to get away with on the page, and by implication, more acceptable and amusing too. (*3) It was, it repeatedly seemed, the least shocking way of seeming shocking. No wonder then, that Morrison and Millar should have found themselves criticised by members of the gay community. How could it have been otherwise, given the ineptness of the two men’s methods? Rather than illuminating bigotry with any wit or depth, they’d often ended up appearing to connive with it.

Perhaps the most ill-judged of Morrison and Millar’s attempts to appropriate homophobic material came with their depiction of Prince Edward. (*4) Then as today, Edward Windsor was subject to a considerable whispering campaign about his sexuality. Most famously, Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster had strongly implied in print that Windsor was at the very least romantically involved with a close male friend. (*5) Coming just 3 years after Dempster’s quite deliberate attempt at outing came the second Big Dave serial, in which the Prince was portrayed as an extravagantly sex-obsessed and flamingly theatrical homosexual. It’s a scene in which all of the major limitations of Morrison and Millar’s approach can be seen coalescing into a great toxic slick of self-conceit and cruelty. Since, as we’ve discussed, the focus of the strip’s ire and contempt is ill-defined and ever-shifting, it’s impossible to work out what the point of this seemingly homophobic caricature was. There’s no coherent satire of the Royal Family on show, or even of the tabloid’s opinions of them. Were Morrison and Millar somehow attacking the gutter press for spreading the rumours about the sexuality of the youngest Windsor? Were they mocking the Prince for his counter-productively appalled denials of the Dempster-amplified rumours? Were they convinced that Edward was both gay and obliged to come out, and therefore mocking not his sexuality but his presumed cowardice? Or were they simply relishing the chance to ridicule a Windsor, and reaching for whatever supposed mud they might sling? (*6)

All that sits clearly on the page is a puerile sense that the Windsors deserved to be sniggered at as people. The result was incredibly thin comedic material which doubled as embarrassingly poor satire. Relying upon a burlesque of personality rather than any form of political critique, Morrison and Millar’s caricatures serve as little but vehicles for schoolboyish insults. To present a seemingly bigoted caricature of a man who – gay or not – had been subject to homophobia in order to berate his persecutors is one thing. But to create a lampoon that so exactly matches the prejudice that an individual has suffered without a clear satirical cause to justify doing so is to line up with the enemy. If Morrison and Millar’s point was that the tabloid press reproduces homophobia – and that’s in no way clear in the work at all – then it was that they’d repeatedly made before. One such clearly-targeted joke might have underscored the press’s complicity in reinforcing sexual prejudice. But to make a series of such hammered-into-the-ground gags at the expense of an individual’s private life is to cut the laughter away from any ethical purpose. Because of that, the scene appears to be nothing other than the mockery of a supposedly closeted gay man for the presumed sin of not just being gay, but entirely lacking in machismo. That the sequence features a supposedly hilarious frame in which Big Dave ferociously rams his knee into the instantaneously besotted Windsor’s testicles merely underscores what a brutal and unpleasant miscalculation it was. (*7) Regrettably, there’s nothing in the chapter to stop homophobes from guffawing at Windsor’s portrayal and fate. The joke as it comes across isn’t about a Prince as a representative of a system, or even Edward as an individual. Instead, it’s all about how amusingly contemptible it is to be camp and gay.

Next, back to the super-heroes, beginning with 1993’s Canon Fodder.


*1:- I’ve discussed the problems that led to “Big Dave” appearing critical of the “Underclass” in earlier instalments of Shameless?

*2:- Though, as we’ve discussed, such stereotypes did appear in several of Millar’s 1992 scripts for Robo-Hunter.

*3:- Big Dave treds very carefully on matters of race, if not nationality. Casual xenophobia towards Britain’s European allies is clearly present – to say the least – but race in its British context is only mentioned directly in a single panel. However, Morrison has said that his final Big Dave script was rejected for being racist, so perhaps the boat was to have been eventually pushed out there too (It was to apparently feature a parody of Salman Rushdie – https://sites.google.com/site/deepspacetransmissions/interviews-1/1990-s/comic-world-31—september-1994)

*4:- Being a dedicated republican, it’s a disorientating thing to find myself defending Edward Windsor against Morrison and Millar.

*5:- Unfortunately, Edward expressed the conviction that homosexuality was a terrible thing to be accused off. It was a stance that hardly endeared him to a great many who might otherwise have sympathised with him over the constant invasion of his privacy.

*6:- Given that the Prince would never sue, it was hardly a brave stance to take. In truth, the scene comes across as bullying someone who can never punch back. But then, Big Dave was hardly brave in its satire, as we’ve discussed, or rather, it was only brave where the more conservative-minded, change-adverse readers of 2000AD were concerned. Robert Maxwell was insulted in “Costa Del Chaos”, but then, he was long-dead by then.

It’s worth mentioning that Viz, so obviously a reference point for Big Dave, tended to stay well away from real-world figures in its parodies.

Though a case could be made for it being a critique of the way in which Edward responded to being labelled as gay, there’s absolutely nothing on the page to suggest that.

*7:- Edward had chosen to leave the Marines before completing his training in 1987. This, along with his fondness for the performing arts, had resulted in him being labelled seriously lacking in machismo as well as gay.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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