Fly the flag proudly, son!
Rereading Big Dave by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Steve Parkhouse, Anthony Williams and Gina Hart.
Superheroes came too late for Britain. In the Golden Age, the 1930s, we were going through an undeclared civil war between the haves and the have-nots, no longer certain of our identity. In the Silver Age, the 1960s, we were revelling in our abandoned responsibilities, Britannia free to drop out and jeer at the bosses because we no longer ruled the waves. And by the Dark Age of the 1980s superheroes were ineluctably identified with the USA so our talent did its superhero shift over the Atlantic.
Our time for superheroes was the 19th century, when the British Empire still had pink stamped across half the globe and we were absolutely certain of our moral authority. That’s why the original, end-of-the-century setting for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen works so effectively; this was our time of unwavering righteousness, when a being powerful enough to crack the planet would naturally be British and would unquestioningly inform our way of life. If the rocketship from Krypton had landed in Woking instead of the Martians… but that’s just an Elseworlds. By the time superheroes came along we were too confused, an empire of rebellions and coalitions and the General Strike.
Perhaps that’s why British superheroes haven’t had much to say. Unlike their American counterparts, they don’t have a statement to make about the society they spring from. Superman is transparently a fable about US supremacy, of the benevolence and conviction of it. Batman is about the dehumanising landscape of skyscrapers and the unfettered capitalism of crime that first appeared over there. America is where, to quote Saul Bellow, “the real modern action” happens and superheroes are a part of that.
So British superheroes are problematic by design. Marvelman wasn’t really British; Mike Moran was, but he was pushed to the margins and to suicide by the superhuman cuckoo in the nest. Zenith was a Thatcherite superhero, out for himself and fuck everyone else, but that was an imported American attitude and it’s hard to make a case for it as an anti-Tory story when it ends the way it does. Burgess, the English New Statesman, was just a confused mess of a man in a story about American, reflecting British feelings about being a junior partner in the world project. Paradax was nominally American, the creators’ imaginations running riot but unable to conceive of anything exciting taking place in our country, transplanted to the fertile soil of New York. And Captain Britain was an American hero in all but name.
Big Dave is definitively, ineluctably, British. Or English, I should say, because he represents nothing of the Union. Nominally from Manchester, never out of his shellsuit, dwelling in a towerblock on a 1960s council estate, bulldogs with spiked collars straining at their leads, reconciled to a future of joblessness and poverty where the most important thing in the world is the fortnightly Giro. The cash that changes hands in this comic is pitiful; a fiver for Dave’s dad to kick him to death, thirty-six quid from the Queen to stomp down a secession plot, fifty quid to be Robert Maxwell’s bodyguard for life, and to stop an alien invasion a lifetime’s supply of shellsuits, a holiday in Tenerife and a boy racer’s car. It’s pitiful, but it’s how things were in Britain in the early 1990s when the Thatcherite equality of opportunity had sent all the banknotes in the country flapping down to the hurricane of the City. The black economy became the only economy anyone knew, and almost two decades later that’s not changed.
I’m from Manchester or near enough, so I’ve always been slightly irritated at Dave being a Mancunian written by a pair of Scots. There’s nothing definitively Mancunian about him; he could be from any London council estate. In reality he’s from the underclass archipelago that spans the country, indifferent to its surroundings. But there were, and are, plenty like him in Manchester and I wouldn’t want to undermine our reputation as a hard city or take away our only hero. We’ll have Dave, or we’ve got nothing.
Putting the offensive in 2000AD’s Summer Offensive of 1993, Big Dave was like little published in the comic before or since but was the only unqualified success. Morrison’s Really and Truly was a whimsical piece of fluff that didn’t quite deserve the exquisite, timeless cool of its Rian Hughes art, Millar’s Maniac 5 showed his tendency to write the explosions first and the bridging bits later, John Smith’s Slaughterbowl felt like he was trying to write like Millar, and the Dredd story Inferno by Morrison and Millar was lazy fan-fiction. Dave was black-and-white for most of its run, had none of the sci-fi that defines the comic, and was naked satire where 2000AD is normally oblique. It strode forward onto new ground with a confidence that was entirely justified.
Writing an unintelligent protagonist – and Dave is as thick as pigshit and proud of it – is difficult because they don’t observe, they don’t understand. To quote Martin Amis in Money, “they’re given comedy and miss all the jokes.” Here, that’s compounded with an equally ignorant narrator who turns 2000AD into a British red-top and its army of readers into a horde of plain-speaking, patriotic, xenophobic, homophobic morons who want nothing more than to see anyone who thinks they’re better than them get a good, solid knee in the balls. (Saddam Hussein and Prince Edward take knees to the nads in the first two stories, and the Prime Minister is threatened with the same.) The tabloid voice captures not just the stubbornly cherished ignorance of the Sun but also its sly intelligence, the weaselly way it turns lies into truths. And by inviting the reader in on the racism and sexism and mindless violence, by cheering Dave every repellent inch of the way, it makes us absolutely complicit with the jokes. It’s funny because its wrong; not just wrong, the polar opposite of right, but it’s what people actually believe. Alan Moore created Rorschach to show people what a loner obsessed with fighting crime would actually be like. Big Dave shows us what a true English patriot would actually be like.
When you reread something you found to be funny, you reread with fear. What if it’s not funny anymore? What if the humour’s ossified, a relic frozen in time? Happily, that wasn’t the case with Big Dave. From the first episode, from the helpless translation of a soldier’s dying screams, from the introduction of the Archbishop’s special envoy Big Tel, it remains hilarious. Remodelling the whole world through White Van Man’s windscreen makes it recognisable but alien, makes every moment inevitable and surprising. Of course Saddam Hussain’s Iraq is a place of casually murdered orphans and ostrich-riding; it’s abroad, innit? Of course Princess Di was out on the town like a tart; she was common as muck, that one. Of course the Germans only win at the football because they’re Nazis; two World Wars and one World Cup, eh lads? Every base instinct is pandered to, every stereotype ruthlessly indulged, and doesn’t it feel good? Didn’t you know it was like this really, that Britain was only deprived of its rightful place at the top by cheats? This is what it must be like, being right-wing. Like settling into a hot bath of lies. Everything everybody else’s fault, and a kick in the bollocks the universal panacea.
There are five adventures of Big Dave in total, four of approximately equal length and one short from the 2000AD Yearbook. The first two, in monochrome from the Summer Offensive of 1993, see Dave take on the Butcher of Baghdad and a robotic Royal Family. The reinvasion of the Gulf is a joy from start to finish; particular highlights are the aforementioned Big Tel, the simpering, limp-wristed gay stereotype soldiers, Dave’s muscle-brained confusion on being hit with the love ray, thinking about sunsets and men kissing at football. The second story’s less successful because the Royals have proved impervious to satire or fiction. They’re a part of British life that Britons can’t entirely explain. What do they do? Are they good or bad? Could we actually get rid of them? Could we manage without them? Di and Fergie are beautifully drawn, the manipulative golddigger and the hungry slag, both out for what they can get. Steve Parkhouse, a stalwart of British comics, brings the eye of a political caricaturist to the art, capturing people beautifully. There’s no reason for Prince Andrew to be dressed as a Boy Scout but it expresses something about his entitled striving, the vacuum of his achievements, that makes it unforgettable.
Millar’s declamatory satire, in which every character states their exact intentions clearly, stiffly and almost to character, finds its perfect subject here. Dave lives from the first page he appears, ready for any challenge and willing to betray anyone for a fistful of fivers. Lionel Asbo, the eponymous hero of Martin Amis’s recent novel, is Big Dave in literature; terrifying because violence is the first, not the last, resort. Violence, hurting other people casually and ferociously, is the whole point. Life just provides excuses for it.
The Yearbook story slots in after the first two stories, an origin story that introduces Dave’s two arch-enemies: his father and the school queer, Pansy. The only story not drawn by Parkhouse, Anthony Williams and Gina Hart filling in for Costa Del Chaos, probably the weakest of them all. Partly that’s because of the art. It’s decent enough and carries the best lines but doesn’t have the grounding in newsprint realism that Parkhouse has, and there’s no tension; putting Dave up against his own repressed homosexuality, the British Army or the unstoppable force of the German football team you don’t know who’ll win. Putting him up against some mouthy Geordie? The plot does all it can not to finish in the second episode. Finally, and the best of the run, is Wotta Lotta Balls, which takes Dave and his mates to the 1994 World Cup to win it for England. I could list almost every line in this one as a favourite, especially in Jimmy Hill’s commentary which describes open warfare, a surprise appearance by Satan, the settling of family scores and a footballing miracle courtesy of the Variety Club in the same breathless-but-erudite tones, never content to use “Nazis” when “Butchers of Belsen” is alliterative and available. Nelson Mandela as a voodoo witchdoctor raising the red-shirted corpse of English football from the grave to play the Germans again? Goals scored by Panzer tanks? Oh yes. This is the hero Britain wants, Britain needs. Britain deserves.
Big Dave by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Steve Parkhouse, Anthony Williams and Gina Hart appeared in 2000AD progs #842-#849, #869-#872, #904-#907 and 2000AD Yearbook 1994. It has not been reprinted. Download it here.