Makes everything seem so miserable
Rereading Dare: The Future by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes.
How many years will it take for historians to produce an objective, sober assessment of what Margaret Thatcher did to Britain? How many decades? 22 years haven’t been enough. Her legacy, using that word neutrally, is as passionately disputed now as it was when she resigned. She still has her worshippers and she still has her haters, both burning as bright as ever, and her death will bring a battle back to the headlines that’s never truly ended.
I’m one of the haters, signed up for the parties when she dies. How could I not be? I’ve spent my life in places she destroyed. Manchester, which used to have industry and jobs but had become a grid of red-brick warehouse tombs by my teenage years. South Wales, where the clock of progress was stopped in the 1980s and generations have lived and died in a slough of stasis while the world moves on. And my current home in the Midlands, where the factories that provided work, money, a reason to be there were closed a quarter of a century ago and haven’t been replaced. Maggie’s fans talk about the way she transformed Britain. They choose not to understand how that worked geographically, that huge swathes of the UK were sold off and the money spent on a new South-East, Labour territory razed for the furtherance of Tory constituencies. When she dies, our 20th-century Cromwell, you could chart the reactions on a weather map; black armbands in blue counties, popping corks in red ones.
Dare, which must have been published around or after the miraculous regicide that disposed of her, stars Thatcher in the villain’s role. Renamed Gloria Monday, her hair finally the unearthly, radioactive green we knew it was all along, she’s the leader of the Unity Party which has been in power for a decade but fears losing the next election. It’s crashingly unsubtle, this comic, emphatically obvious. She enlists Dan Dare, erstwhile hero of the future, to sell the electorate a dream of the past. And he goes along with it because he wants to believe in that dream as well, to paper over the truths of being a space adventurer he’s struggling to write around in his memoir, to let a 48-sheet advertisement with his iconic spacesuit and his eyebrow and his chin cover up the murder of Treen children.
I described Alan Moore’s Marvelman, when I wrote about it last summer, as the ur-text of revisionism. It was the first to bring a childish childhood hero blinking into the cruel light of the modern day. Dare has always seemed a twin work to me, five years on; the end of revisionism’s rainbow. Another British icon brought low, forced to face a past very different than it seemed to be at the time, that it’s pretended to be in the golden glow of nostalgia. Our history of Empire, the grand moral crusade that’s now admitted to be a murderous land-grab, makes us uniquely suited to this kind of story. The US has yet to wholly face up to the atrocities you commit when you’re absolutely convinced of your own righteousness. Britain knows what it did.
Dan Dare as an old colonial, then, is entirely fitting. It’s easy. The placing of his world is a little more complicated. It looks like the 1950s, the Jet Age lines which Rian Hughes seems to let flow right out of the sizeable corner of his imagination dedicated to yesterday’s tomorrows. And the 50s was when Britain lost its Empire, finally began to understand that the rebellions against the Crown and Commonwealth had moral force. But it’s also the 1980s of Thatcher with crumbling public institutions, the unfettering of private enterprise, and all the social consequences that market forces impose; unemployment, drugs and the black economy, homelessness, brutal police and security. William Gibson’s Gernsback Continuum cross-bred with his cyberpunk dystopias. (Though the numbers are wrong. Britain didn’t start to consume itself until there was no Empire to exploit. If this is an interstellar Imperial Britain living off its colonies, it should be a shining jewel, not shabby and cracked.) And Dan is an anachronism, an icon left on a shelf until needed, just as he was in the Britain of the time.
Marvelman was forgotten when he was brought back to be deconstructed. Dan Dare, in contrast, had been published right through. He was one of 2000AD’s key characters for its first two years, drawn by Dave Gibbons, but was left behind when the comic began to find its through-line. Then he appeared in a revived Eagle, again as the headliner, but I remember Manix and Doomlord and The Thirteenth Floor much better than I remember Dan. The biggest mark he made on me, a comics reader who devoured any words-and-pictures put in front of him, was as the star of the ZX Spectrum game Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, a platformer with crisp graphics. But he had enough presence for this attack on him to have teeth and significance even if he’d never had a continuity worth anything.
There aren’t really any characters in this comic. Dan’s the hero brought out of retirement for one last job, and he doesn’t even really have to do anything. No shooting, no flying spaceships, no investigating Jocelyn Peabody’s murder. He’s the protagonist in name only, an observer as the plot is brought to him. Digby, whose character traits are Being a Yorkshireman and Socialism, does most of that work and gets a final shootout that reminded me of the last episode of Edge of Darkness. That’s the only action in the whole thing. Which is fine because Rian Hughes’s wonderful, design-led art isn’t particularly well-suited to action. It’s unassailable, every line in the right place, but it’s also static, flowing between panels but with none of the in-panel motion of Jack Kirby or his many followers. Every image is so elegantly composed that it’s frozen. Perhaps that’s also why there aren’t any characters; Dan’s all icon, hardly any human. It’s only in the penultimate episode, where he gets a little stubble, that the mask even cracks a little. When faces are designed, and hew to that design, they don’t have room for expressive manoeuvre.
The story’s hardly compelling, either. Dan’s decision to sell out to Monday/Thatcher in the second chapter comes immediately after Peabody’s funeral, which uses angles that unavoidably bring Watchmen’s second chapter to mind. A plethora of hints are dropped at that funeral, making it insultingly clear that Peabody was murdered along with her colleagues because of sinister scientific research, but it takes us another four chapters to confirm it. The eventual revelation that Gloria Monday’s in league with the Treens, that army recruits are being fed to an alien supreme intelligence, that its sexual secretions are being fed back to us and will turn humanity into street-fucking beasts with blind babies, is a lurid bum note so parodic of 80s horror it could appear on Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
It’s famous, among the small audience who’ve heard of this comic, how Dan ends up. His feeble attempts to expose the plot easily thwarted, he’s taken to Downing Street to meet the plotters and the Mekon. Who indulges in a final flight of exposition before bending Dan over the Cabinet table and buggering him.
I remember telling that to a guy at university a year later and his hysterical laughter. I don’t think I knew how to deal with that, how I reconciled it with my belief that my comics deserved to be taken seriously. Now, looking back across a couple of decades, laughter seems the only rational response. With perhaps a pinch of regret, embarrassment and the need to explain that’s how it was at the time. Revisionism, the adolescence of comics, was about doing violence to the childhood of comics. Unironic space adventurer Dan Dare was ripe for the treatment. Stories about the British Empire for kids are British colonial narratives; good natives who’ve been Westernised, bad rebellious natives who don’t believe in Christianity. There’s no need to read for subtext; it’s right there in the text. Dan, who came along as the Empire was falling away, took those narratives into a fantasy future, black skin becoming green skin. But, all that said, there didn’t seem to be any pressing need to sodomise him. The relationship between Dan and the Mekon wasn’t, that I remember, one with unresolved sexual tension. It was a gratuitous act of degradation, the last assault on the clean-cut hero that hadn’t been performed.
To draw back from all this darkness and negativity for a moment: Dare is, on the whole, a good read. Hughes’s art may not be great at everything but he’s working in an area where he excels, retro-futurism, and the results are often spectacular. It’s so different from most everything else you see in comics, an artist thinking of the whole page first, then the backgrounds and the world, then the storytelling, then the characters, then last and least the action, that it’s almost like reading a comic from an alternate future, a different Earth. And Morrison, while never stretching himself and without anything really to say, enjoys himself playing out the standard tropes of revisionism with a genuine icon rather than a forgotten hero who has to begin by reminding his audience who he is. It’s got nice lines, and the anger at Thatcherism’s smirking devastation of half of Britain is passionately felt.
It finishes by breaking the fourth wall, that Morrisonian trademark first employed so absurdly and movingly in Animal Man the year before. Here, it’s done almost as a coda; Dan’s fusion bomb, unrevealed until the very end, is detonated and the page is white. Then we zoom backwards from a blank page in the studio of Frank Hampson, Dan Dare’s creator, and a quote about his exhaustion with the character. A character who, like all the other icons of comics, was owned by the publishers who eventually disposed of him. With this ending Morrison’s underlining and undercutting everything he’s done before, establishing a distance between the purity of the icon and the grubby exploitation of him, erasing the Dark Age of comics and calling an end to revisionism. Which might have sat better if that wasn’t two pages immediately preceded by 70 pages rubbing the hero’s face in the filth.
I watched and enjoyed Django Unchained the other week. It’s a fun movie, Christoph Waltz is great, and better a revenge romp through slavery than ignoring it as a topic completely. But I remember the 90s, when Tarantino was going to be the great filmmaker of our VCR generation, and now all he does is make movies about movies, revenge flicks homaging the genres he loves. Grant Morrison, who also seemed like he could be one of the greats in his chosen medium, has followed a similar path. More work produced, obviously, but post-Invisibles there’s precious little that isn’t a riff on someone’s previous work, thast isn’t comics about comics even if they’re his own. Dare marked the end of revisionism as a moment in comics, the exhaustion of it, but for its writer it now seems prescient of the career that was to come.
Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes was first printed in Revolver #1-#7 and Crisis #56. It was reprinted in the graphic novel Dare: The Future and Dare #1-#4, and is currently in print in the Rian Hughes collection Yesterday’s Tomorrows.