If you told me that this was the ten-thousandth interview with Grant Morrison to be published on the internet, I’d probably believe you. After all, over the span of their three-decade-long prominence in America, it’s easy to say that everyone has tried to box-in and label Morrison in one way or another and, more than that, everyone has tried to no end to unpack the worlds within worlds and multiverses within multiverses that have been produced and lovingly, passionately created from their iconically hairless pate.
But this interview isn’t really about that, honestly. As much as there will always be a clamoring for them to unveil their inner truth about the ways in which they create their worlds of supergods and humanist heroes, the sum of their work spans beyond so much of what comes to mind in the immediate.
This material we talk about here– St. Swithins Day, “New Adventures of Hitler”, and “Big Dave” – was all written by Morrison in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and all appears in British anthologies; most of which are completely unknown to most American readers. (None of this material is currently in print, and hasn’t seen print for nearly quarter of a century.)
For me, these are some of Morrison’s most interesting works – not simply because they are clearly and delightfully their post-punk enfant terrible years, but because they come from a place that is as personal as it is direct; harnessing a frustration that one can only really harness with youthful, politically-minded bravado; humor, anger, and a curiosity for how the broken system keeps ticking on.
So on a Friday afternoon I had the pleasure of sitting down over Zoom with Grant to talk about just that: the pieces that everyone’s managed to forget, the pieces that they haven’t spoken about for nearly thirty years, and the pieces that are so absurdly funny that we both can’t really keep it together for longer than a few seconds.
Grant, how have you been? How are things? You’re coming off of a whole tour for Luda. Are you able to take it easy for a bit?
Oh, I never get a rest [laughs] I’m always working and there’s always something new to do. But I like what I do, so really what more can I ask for?
At least you’ve got a good spirit about it.
Kevin O’Neill going this week though. That was a killer, wasn’t it.
Yeah, no kidding.That was just one of those shocking things, wasn’t it? You don’t think of the legends ever going. He was really something special in particular.
To me, he was one of the greatest. I mean really just someone who could draw from their own head and make a whole world. And so consistently! It was brilliant. He could draw anything and make it look amazing.
Well, it was one of those things, too, where if you ever read any interviews with him he was so impossibly humble. Didn’t want anyone making a fuss.
I think he was just a natural. He just loved to draw, and he just kept drawing, and it was great. That’s how he expressed himself. I look at those Marshal Law issues, and there’s these double-page spreads – he draws 300 superhero costumes, and all of them are better than the entirety of the New 52 redesigns. [laughs]
[laugh] Oh God, you’re not kidding either.
Here’s to Kev.
And how! Here’s to Kev.
[We each cheers with our respective Zoom drinks]
Oh jeez, we’ve just spent this whole time talking about O’Neill. I guess we could probably do that the whole time, huh? [laughs]
Probably, but it would just break our hearts I think.
Let’s move on then, yeah? I know that most interviews you’ve done in the past few decades have been about your DC Comics titles and Marvel work. Maybe some Heavy Metal here and there. But here, we’re kicking it really old school. I’d like to take this back to your work with in Crisis and Trident and some post-”Zenith” 2000AD –
What is it about that period that attracts you? I know from reading The [Gutter] Review that you like Toxic, Crisis, Revolver — that whole period. Where does that come from?
[laughs] That’s a good question, I guess. It sparks a curiosity in me more than anything. I guess I like that there was just some impetus to create chaos in ways that were beautiful and interesting. Those are some of the things that I like the best – anything where people are creating something that comes directly from their feelings or experiences that makes a reaction from somebody else. Ultimately, for my two cents, I think that’s what any art should do.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it was expressing a bunch of working class kids at a very specific time, and I think that’s what those titles were. For three decades we of the working class got to express ourselves, and then they shut us down again. But in those three decades, tons of really cool stuff happened. You got the Beatles, you got psychedelia, you got punk rock and it was all because of the working class drive to talk until we’re shut up again. I think a lot of those came out of that mentality.
Well, let’s focus this back to you, in that case. Honestly, with the exception of Luda – which I would still personally connect back to this early period of your work in spirit – everything that you’ve done in in the quote-unquote mainstream of comics has been very much a reaction to culture, politics, and those sorts of things in ways that are largely metaphorical. It seems like with titles like “The New Adventures of Hitler”, St. Swithin’s Day, “Big Dave”…those were all very direct and were also speaking to something direct. What was your impetus to create something like that? What was the root of wanting to strip back the metaphor and make the quiet part loud?
Well I’d grown up as an activist in a family of activists. My dad was a protestor, my mother was a protester. They were working class people who had political views and had educated themselves. So, I grew up on picket lines and on marches, and I think all through my teens and my twenties, that’s what we did. I find it slightly sad that we marched for all the same things. It was the environment, sexism, racism; we marched for all this stuff and they’re suddenly it’s fifty years later and –
It’s like a fucked up Groundhog Day sort of thing.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, people are still marching and there have been massive advances, but there’s still the sense that we still have to march. So for me, at that time, the comics became an extension of that. You can see that in Animal Man as well. It was a way of protesting, but on a bigger scale. I think there’s a lot of that in the work at the time before I decided that, no, let’s treat this in a more metaphorical, symbolic, allegorical way, which then gave me a new way to talk. But certainly at the end of the eighties and the nineties, it was still that sense of we were there to protest. We were the working class and we’d suddenly got a grasp of these means of expression. We’d got hold of comic books, we could make our own records. It was that punk rock DIY thing that came through the comics.
So, for me, I think it was an extension of that protest – the idea we were on protest marches, it was fucking marching all the time. Anti-Clause 28, anti-this, anti-that – we were constantly fighting against all the same forces that are still opposing us now. So yeah the comics at that time were very much extensions of that. You can see it in St. Swithin’s Day, you can see it in John Smith’s stuff, you can see it in Mark Millar’s stuff, Pat Mills’ stuff… it was all an extension of that working class fight.
So making these comics almost felt like a responsibility then?
No no no, not a responsibility. No, we don’t think like that when we’re young, do we? It just felt like this is what you do. As educated or as self educated working class people, we make protests. My dad constantly had a banner in his hand and it wasn’t even a conscious thing, it was just what we did. Now we have seized another means of expression, and so let’s use that to put forward these ideas, and the opposition that we have to the way things are.
In that case, for something that just felt inherent to your character and your upbringing, how did it feel for a lot of these early titles of yours to be labeled as “controversial”? Does having that word slapped across things that come from your core feel strange?
When you’re young, being controversial is really cool. It’s punk rock! So I was quite excited at the time to be controversial, while not really setting out to be controversial. With something like St. Swithin’s Day, I was trying to tell a story about how a 19 year old man felt, and if you’re doing a fiction, I tied it into something meaningful, which was what’s it like to live in Thatcher’s Britain? What does that feel like? What does she represent? But ultimately, we could have told that story at any time because it’s a story about a young man who doesn’t understand who he is, lashing out at a system that doesn’t work.
I think that there was just that ecstatic need to express how it felt to be young and working class, and so it became controversial. We weren’t trying to be controversial, but at the same time, it’s cool and sexy to be controversial, isn’t it? It was like being in the Sex Pistols! The record’s been banned! We’re in The Sun! People think we’re troublemakers! But I think it was just because we were up against what was happening in the world. That was it.
There was definitely a second wave of appeal in the late 80s and early 90s to being the bad boy rebel rouser.
But no one was even trying! I hated that bad boy thing. No, for me it was like Jilted John, and The Boy at the Bus Stop, and the loser kid. That’s who I identified with. And it was all about how this is a rebellion and – it wasn’t about sex, or whatever and it wasn’t about anything they’d ever understand! It’s about how much we hated the system. I think it was way more abstract but also way more sophisticated and focused than people imagined.
I feel like with everything happening in the UK now and… I mean, honestly happening anywhere if you look around for all of two seconds – there’s this very direct rise of fascism coming bubbling to the surface again. So stories like St. Swithin’s Day feel even more important now, because it’s something that’s continued. I mean the Neurotic Boy Outsider image that Grist does, which still genuinely stirs and shakes something in me on a visual level, seems something that would land so well to a larger rebellious sensibility now. With that in mind though, we don’t really see comics that are made with that kind of directness; instead opting to speak through metaphor. Do you think there’s a reason why we don’t get anger that is more pointed in that way when it comes to reactive fiction or protest comics?
I don’t really get a chance to read as much anymore, so you probably know better than me, Chloe [laughs]
Certainly all I can talk about is, at the time, I think it wasn’t necessarily political. The political was the personal. If you look at say John Smith’s Straitgate, it’s political, but at the same time, it’s super personal. It’s about him talking about being a young gay man in Britain at that time and dark thoughts and an imagination that sometimes takes a turn. I honestly think the important thing was that the political was a part of the personal.
You can even look at something like V for Vendetta and the most brilliant chapter in that, at least to me, is the Valerie chapter, which is super personal. It was talking about what Britain felt like, but at the same time, I think what makes it enduring is the fact that it wasn’t specifically party political, but that it was in here’s the context in which these thoughts are being thought and somehow that all resonates because of course you feel this way in Thatcher’s Britain. Of course John [Smith] felt that way writing Straitgate, too. So I think it’s sensitive to its time and its moment, though people are surely responding to the times now too. .
Oh, definitely. There are tons of great, very personal, very political comics out there right now. But again, they’re very rooted in the metaphorical; in the fantastic and symbolism. You don’t get as much of the Straitgates or St Swithins where the story and the anger are rooted directly into a recognizable reality.
In British tradition, we have a big culture grounded kitchen sink storytelling. I think a lot of us who do comics in Britain, our kitchen sink is also rooted in strangeness; Nigel Kneale, and Alan Garner, and all those writers who took the every day and fused it to the occult and the strange and the uncanny. I think we inherently have that in us. Everything is quite rooted. And maybe there’s just a different way of approaching it in America. America right now is in such a bizarre position politically. There should be more works that are really addressing the mundanity of it, I think, if there aren’t yet.
Well, speaking to the mundanity of the everyday and personal with politics, “The New Adventures of Hitler” found itself as a piece of work that rooted itself into the more mundane aspects of evil as well. You made Adolf Hitler a very realistic, everyday, myopic, sad little man. There’s no buying into the mystique and image that he built for himself or that anyone else built around him and his atrocities. What do you feel about that didn’t land? By the time the second strip was published people were entirely up in arms.
Oh, I think that people being up in arms was a bit of a performance. The whole Pat Kane thing [laughs] — Pat Kane and I ended up being pretty good friends actually. I think his performative response was purely that: performative. But when he got upset I wrote back and I accused him of all kinds of things. Oh god, all sorts of things [laughs] But no, it was fun because we were engaging with these big ideas, you know? The Hitler idea came about because I had picked up a book by Alois Hitler’s wife – I’ve forgotten her name, it was so long ago. But I picked up this book in the library and she talked about how the young 16 year old Adolf had come and stayed with them and he’d hung out with her just before the war. I just thought this was a great idea for the story and, as it turned out, Beryl Bainbridge thought the same! [Laughs]
John Andrews did a play about the same thing, actually, and it was ultimately revealed that all of this and that was untrue. She’d made it up. But the whole idea of this Hitler in Britain – Lennon and the Smiths, and the boarding house and just the dullness, all at the same time. I mean the British, were the first people to invent concentration camps, during the Boer War, and there we were, living through Thatcher.
Well actually, I think it’s a hyperbole to suggest that Thatcher was anything like Hitler – that’s a false equivalence – but at the same time during that period, there was a real sense of oppression that I thought it was interesting to connect that with. But my sensibilities, again, are towards the absurd and the bizarre, rather than trying to deal with it in a concrete way. So, I think that’s what we did with that one, was to approach it as bizarre – the Morrisseys and the John Lennons, and John Bull. It’s Britain condensed.
John Bull personified as a proper character really is kind of horrifying to read.
Yeah, but he is England, right? And I’m Scottish, I’m not English. I love English people and all, but at the same time, he represents the negative. It was that, like “Big Dave”, that sense of The Sun reader, and The Sun Man that had been created at that time.
Because you specifically mentioned the anachronism of Morrissey, and Lennon being present in the story, and of course John Bull…do you think that a recognizable and familiar connection to Britain and facism was something that made people uncomfortable? Like ‘oh, this is too close to home’.
It may well be. I mean obviously I had people phoning me up from the tabloids pretending to be from regional newspapers asking me about my interest in fascism.
[laughs] No kidding?
Yeah, and it was like… I think you guys are getting the wrong end of the stick. [laughs] And I’m talking about real things that are happening now, and I’m using these images. But no, people took it quite seriously. But I guess even St. Swithin’s Day was taken even more seriously because it was discussed in Parliament. But it was like you say Chloe, it’s that time where everything we did was seen as controversial in some way. And looking back, it’s not really shocking, is it?
At the same time, the guys at Savoy Books were doing Lord Horror, which I think is genuinely powerful and controversial and really hard to deal with, but beautifully done, so something like [“New Adventures of] Hitler” was like … it was a kids comic compared to Lord Horror, in the way that it was tackling similar issues at the same time. I feel as if there was a definite overreaction to what comics were capable of. But also, British comics died shortly after that and we lost that outlet. We all sort of dispersed to America or into the indie world or whatever we did. There was a moment where we were really willing to tackle things using comics in Britain.
It’s funny, too, because you can see that not just in the writing but in the art as well. There was a lot of wild and unique stuff happening in those sort of comics. I mean Steve Yeowell’s work on “New Adventures” –
Oh, it’s incredible.
Just shockingly beautiful.
Yeah and the guys who colored it in, Steve Whiticker and his team, but they were just doing it as a piss take. [laughs] They were really acting like total bastards. They were just like, “Oh, let’s fuck this thing up.”
Yes! And it looks amazing. I love what they did when they took it to color. All those weird backgrounds and Thatcher’s face and wallpaper patterns – it’s one of the greatest, most inventive coloring jobs in any story.
I was trying to figure out for ages what the patterning was and my partner brought up how it was wallpaper samples on transparencies. Just fucking genius.
They were doing transparencies of photographs and pictures of the Second World War or Thatcher closeups and it was brilliant. I haven’t seen anyone following that path since then. There’s a way of thinking about coloring there that no one’s developed.
Seems funny, right? You would think that we’d see a little bit more of that technique now that more people are working digitally. People have such easier means to do all of these groovy effects instead of having to go through a whole manual process like back in the day.
Oh, I think most people just aren’t aware of it. Once you think of it, you’re going, “oh my God, this stuff you could do with that transparency effect”. But I just don’t think people have seen it so they’re not doing it. [laughs] It all becomes too easy.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and get into talking about “Big Dave” which – I’ll be honest, I got my hands on every single “Big Dave” strip leading up to this call. It’s this grand horrible thing that has been talked up to me over and over by a bunch of British readers because people knew that I was a big fan of a) older British comics b) your work and c) satire and art that stirs things up. So “Big Dave” became this big thing that got talked up like “Oh, it’s going to blow your socks off! It’s so offensive and is truly horrible”.
But I got ahold of it eagerly and was like “alright let’s fucking do this!” ready to be in full pearl-clutching mode and…Grant… I spent an hour cackling. Just utterly doubled over. It was all so, so funny. I keep making the joke that either I’m a great satire critic or a terrible person because of that. [laughs]
I think it’s a little bit both, Chloe. [laughs] Because honestly I read it again and I was just in hysterics. Just cryin’. [laughs] I still think it’s really fucking funny.
My sides were hurting! But really I could not for the life of me understand what the hubbub was. I’ve been trying to think of it in the abstract and the closest thing that I can come up with is that no one gets quite as offended by satire as people to whom it doesn’t apply, if that makes sense. There’s a quickness to be defensive on behalf of others – which is a good thing ultimately – but it makes us miss so much of the plot with things like this.
I think a lot of the perception of it comes from just 2000 AD, fans and readers who were predisposed to not like it. There were a good deal of people at the time who did enjoy it though. And of course they did! We were given that comic to do for – whatever it was – like two months or whatever, and the notion was that it wasn’t selling very well at the time.
Pat Mills was mad at us because he thinks we come in to try to fuck the comic up and ruin it but, like, why would we be trying to destroy it? [laughs] We honestly tried to make it sell more copies by the way that we looked at it! I wanted to – me, specifically, because it was me and kind of Mark as my lieutenant and John [Smith] at the side, so I just thought, “well what’s selling well? What’s taking 2000 AD‘s place?” So I looked at a Viz comic, and out of studying Viz came “Well I guess let’s do something like Viz!” Turns out that was “Big Dave”. Let’s do something like Viz, but like Captain Hurricane, the jingoist with super strength somehow that’s never explained. And then, we were looking at Deadline and Deadline became “Really and Truly” which was us going “Okay but can we just do a whole comic strip about ecstasy?” [laughs]
Anyway, we were working it out very carefully and we did actually raise sales, which no one ever talks about or remembers. But that was the idea: can we modernize it? Can we just do this for a couple of months to do it very very gay and do it the way we want to do it? I also think we were very much in opposition to those older guys doing Toxic because at the time we just saw them as successful middle aged men trying to be punk [laughs]. And I get it, looking back now as an older person, I can understand where they came from, but they were playing at being punk rock –which was just terrible because punk was dead. I was a punk! This was 1990, 1991, 1992! By then everyone in Britain was taking ecstacy, everyone was dancing the hacienda with techno.
None of this was reflective in 2000 AD. They were still playing this, what to us, seemed at the time to be an outdated version of the counterculture, which was punk rock, chains, and Marshal Law. At the time it was like “No one’s into this anymore man. We’re all on E!”
“Get with the times folks, we are rolling hard right now”
Right! Me and Mark [Millar] and John [Smith] were all on E when we went to 2000 AD for the 20th anniversary or whatever that was. So, that was the difference between us and them. And yes, we did have an agenda, and we were trying to make it sell better, but it came from a completely different view of things which was much more aligned to whatever was going on in Manchester, whatever was going on in techno and with Creation Records. We felt that the older guys just weren’t on that wavelength, and that we had to do something to modernize the comic.
Were you just too subtle for the 1990s lad culture at the time, then?
We actually predated lad culture! Lad culture came along just a little later, but it was “Big Dave”. It was almost like we predicted it.
That’s almost kind of sad! [laughs]
Yeah it really is. But we really just did a Viz comic that was almost the prototype of the lad culture and that horrible, that whole TFI Friday attitude. Everything that we hated was very masculine. Our goal with things like “Big Dave” was– especially those first few weeks – was to gay it up a little. I just really wanted to it be gayer. I tried to do the same thing when I was with Heavy Metal for a brief period.
Gaying it up seems about right. I know as someone queer I’m supposed to be upset about it, but the Love Gun story with Saddam Hussein is now easily one of my favorite strips of all time. It’s just so absurd and high camp.
You probably don’t remember Terry Waite, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy, but we have him as Big Terry in it. One of my favorite films is this Hot Shots Part Deux, and it’s like that. It’s just crappy, stupid comedy. I love it. It’s absurd. I genuinely laugh at “Big Dave” every time I read it I laugh at it, and honestly I kind of like the fact that some people hate it. [laughs]
Big Terry was a scream. Getting hit with this ray gun and being all “oo hark at her!” I was just dying.
God, it really needed that. 2000 AD was so uptight. It’s like, they were really manly masculine guys with all of these masculine characters and people forget what it was like. We really thought we were satirists and we were poking fun at the racism and the sexism of 2000 AD as we actually genuinely saw it.
Well it’s kind of funny because the big warning I got from people was that this comic was wildly homophobic. After reading that I’m like…I want people to backtrack that a little bit. To me it felt almost like homophobia in drag.
Yeah, and honestly I believe we should still own that stuff. Like, I’m an old man. I’m not going to tell people what to think, certainly. But I also do think that it’s funny. It’s absurd, and it’s a way of looking at that kind of person that’s…I don’t know. I prefer things to be funny. I think that the absurdity of life is part of the experience.
I think that comes through in the Royal Family portion of the strip as well, don’t you? [laughs]
Oh my god, that stuff is still so hysterical. And we did, again, the Viz connection. We did Fergie and Diana as the Two Fat Slags! But honestly, it cracks me up when he can’t figure out which one’s the robot and which one’s Prince Charles. [laughs]
I genuinely love how tickled you are by all of this still. Even just talking about it!
So embarrassing, isn’t it? [laughs] I read it just for this interview and I was in hysterics. I was crying. [laughs]
One of the parts that lands it for me and drives that laugh home is how it’s never not subverting the joke that’s on the table. There’s a number of moments where you just assume that there’s going to be a horribly racist joke or stereotype and instead of there being a racist joke to intentionally offend and be hurtful, it gets flipped back on its head so that the joke is about how shitty or racist British culture is. There’s an amazing Ouroboros of terribleness that happens.
[laughs] Yeah, really. Mark and I – I think people misunderstand Mark as well. He comes from a very religious background and for all his edge-lordy tendencies, he’s actually quite moralistic. But we were at a time where out of the same matrix of ideas came things like The Day Today, which I’m sure you’ve got some familiarity with, and Chris Morris, and League of Gentleman later, which was very dark humor.
I think people didn’t quite understand that we were operating at three levels of irony. Ours was a satire on the media, and on the tabloids, and Maxwell newspapers, and the way they talked about things, and the way they talked about single mothers and politics and sex. But we were mad enough to just assume that cloak of horror and I think becoming what you hate in order to show off its grotesqueness is not as well understood today.
In the glare of its ‘Sun’ style provocative language, it’s easy to overlook that the big targets in Big Dave are not gay people, “colored lads” or single mums but representatives of the British Establishment! Dave himself takes aim at the Government, the Army, the Royals, corrupt Press Barons, English Football…and only on re-reading did I notice Mark and I were practically working through a checklist of revered British Institutions! Suddenly Big Dave seems like some negative world iteration of Siegel and Shuster’s original socialist crusader Superman!
But it’s largely assumed that if you do these things, it’s almost like you’re endorsing those views. Back in that day though, it felt more like we were operating on these super levels of irony in order to point out that 2000 AD has been incredibly racist and bigoted throughout its history. It felt like we were doing a moral duty or something I suppose. But in retrospect, I think it’s hard to understand that aspect of it. And “Big Dave” in the midst of it will say, “Don’t question my masculinity,” or there’ll be moments where it almost breaks the fourth wall where you have to actually think about what you’re reading.
It makes you a bit complicit, doesn’t it? Like you as the reader are now clued in not only on the joke, but the terrible thing that the joke is joking about. That’s probably a whole new level of discomfort for a bunch of demographics of self-conscious or self-serious readers.
Oh, absolutely. Especially in the sense of reading something like The Sun. There’s a caption that Mark wrote in that’s like ‘There’s two million readers cheering you on, Dave!”
Oh yeah it’s like “We’re rooting for you lad!”
But that’s just it! It’s that cheering on the most grotesque brutal aspect of the culture. And I think only at a time when we were all taking ecstasy and dancing could we have so confronted the monster that is England.
Okay then do you think something like “Big Dave” would be handled better or worse now than it was then?
No, I could do it now and it would really be something. I haven’t spoken to Mark for a long time, but I think that both me and Mark could do “Big Dave” right now and it would be perfectly poised. “Big Dave” is like Doctor Who. We could recreate it and he would fit in so well now I think in different, more extravagant and interesting ways. I think that we could really talk about where Britain is.
Holy shit, “Big Dave is like Doctor Who” is going to be everywhere now after this, you know that right? [laughs]
[laughs] Well he is! He’s a hero! A British hero – “a great British hero”. My god, it’s true.
Do you think that difficult subjects like the ones you handle in “Big Dave” are even more difficult because you’re just laying them out on the table like that? There’s somehow so much room for interpretation and yet –
They’re all tabloid subjects and they’re all a question on how tabloids treat things, right? How do the tabloids talk about gay people? How do the tabloids talk about Middle Eastern people? How do the tabloids talk about violence? Acting as if we were on their side worked in our favor when we were very much trying to comment on their stupidity and their narrow focus in the way they looked at the world and organized it.
Does it make it more frustrating for you then that it didn’t parse to a lot of people in hindsight? That it was like, “Oh, Grant and Mark are complicit in being homophobic, or racist, or….?”
We confronted it pretty hard if you read the interviews at the time. We assumed these personas where I was calling him a poof and he was calling me a poof. The whole thing was a massive performance and I see people misunderstanding that or seeing it from a different framework and I absolutely get that. But I think to understand it is to really get to the heart of what we were trying to do, and maybe see it in its real, historical context.
Do you think there’s something to say, too about… hmmm..What’s a good word for it? Reclaiming a certain language with ourselves and our peers, I guess? People have sort slapped the label of genderqueer on you from what I understand
“Scottish” fits, “man” fits, “10 fingered thing” fits, but it doesn’t describe me entirely, really, no. So, that — I mean it all just works. All of it. But yeah, I’m sorry. Go on and finish that question.
No, no, not at all. I very much connect with that on a personal level and appreciate your way of talking about it actually. Just…do you think that the claims of homophobia and stuff– do you think that would parse differently to people now – I don’t want to say ‘since you came out’ because you didn’t come out per se. Now that people have… put you out? [laughs]
[laughs] Right, yeah. Exactly. I had profiles in 2000 AD at the time and if you look back at the profile, it’s me and this leather beanie hat and a frilled shirt wide open. I’d been totally gay as fuck in these things. So there was no… I don’t know. People forget. But it was always happening that whole time and we were always doing that. Just trying to make it gayer. And I just think to see it – and like I say, it’s in context – was very much designed to be satirical. It was very much to tackle the media. It wasn’t strictly about 2000 AD or about comics, it was about media and how media presented certain ideas to us in the 1990s.
That makes sense!
I forgot the question! I just kind of started rambling there. Ugh. I had a big idea that I was going to expound upon and everything!
That’s always how these things go, isn’t it? No, it was about the idea of reclaiming homophobic rhetoric and language when you use it yourself for the personal laugh and –
Oh, right! Yeah, the language is different now, and I love the fact that the language is expanded. But the fact is that this is how we tackled things then. We dealt with it in a very different way because it’s what we had. It felt very different. Back then, people were dying of AIDS. Back then, the whole attitude towards gayness – the whole attitude towards queerness as a whole – was way more militant and aggressive then people who are young nowadays can imagine. We had just come out of a time of being gay was completely illegal, never mind anything else.
But the eighties was so much – we had the rise of Nazis, we had the rise of nationalism, we had the Anti-Nazi League rising to fight them; we had right wing presidents, we had right wing prime minister, we had genderqueer people coming up out of nowhere into prominence like Boy George and Marilyn to challenging all these things. And it was the same time where the whole generation of comedians appeared and wiped out the previous generation by accusing them of sexism and homophobia, and in a way destroying them. We went through the exact same purging and audit of culture in the eighties that we went through in the last 10 years.
So what I’m seeing now – and I guess it’s what I’m going back to – where we were then. I’ve been talking to a lot of younger kids and teenage kids and kids in their twenties who are much more like we were in the nineties. They’ve had enough of the labels, they’ve had enough of the language, and the policing of language, and suddenly they want to explore those painful little spots in your tooth – the little cavity – but they’re doing it with that levels of irony that again. If you can’t explain your levels of irony, no one will understand where you’re coming from.
I’m seeing again a restructuring of the way people are looking at things, and it is slightly more open and out. But beyond that comes the explosion of, “I want to talk about this, I want to use language, I want to use any language I choose in order to create the effects that I choose,” and I think that’s best left to young people. Because old people, we’ve had our chance. Old people you can cancel, you can’t cancel young people. And I’m interested to see that shift. Millennials are old people to them and they have a totally different view as far as I can see.
You’re preaching to the old-young choir.
[laughs] That’s how it felt in the nineties. That’s it breaking out. And we can use the language now. We can say bad words, and we can do it for a reason. We weren’t doing it to be edgy and it wasn’t just because. It was to claim territory back, as you say – to claim conceptual territory back, and to claim language back, and to say that language isn’t that important, names aren’t that important ultimately. And that’s what we learned again in the nineties and I think we might be learning again now in a new way.
Well now bringing that sentiment back to “Big Dave”…since that was you and Mark working together, do you think that was you bringing Mark along on the journey with that, so to speak?
Oh, “Big Dave” was just me and him in the pub. Just goading each other on to laugh. And all I remember about it as being hysterical. Nothing else really mattered. We used to go to this thing, the body club, which was a weights and lifting club. We’d go there and do a sauna, and then we’d write “Big Dave” in the pub and just drink vodka and orange. So to me it was that. It was very much the two of us on the same level, just making each other laugh and writing it down.
Enjoying a sauna and writing “Big Dave” over mixed drinks really adds to the “let’s make it gayer” thing you were talking about, I gotta tell you.
Absolutely. Of course it was absolutely like that! We couldn’t have done it without it because we needed the layers of irony. Like I say, we weren’t in the same position as The Sun readers who would use that language as a weapon. But yeah, it was definitely the sauna, the gym club, the weights, the sweating-
So manly! [laughs]
Right?! And then we’d go and write “Big Dave” and just make each other laugh! And I think that’s what makes it brilliant.It’s very of this moment and very like the nineties. It was that sense of breaking free and finding ways to say stuff that we’ve been stopped from saying for a while.
One thing that I did while researching for this was I ran across this wonderful blog where somebody from Manchester was writing about “Big Dave”, and was upset that two Scottish guys had been writing about Manchester’s Hardest Man. And the blog wasn’t even that old!
Oh god, I’m so glad it’s still stirring emotions [laughs]. We only did it because no English guy would do it and really a Scottish “Big Dave” wouldn’t have worked. It had to be the English, it had to be like the tabloids and it had to be like 2000 AD – and I always felt 2000 AD was this super English, Douglas Adams, sci-fi, middle class thing– even if I was probably wrong about that in the end. But that’s how I felt! I was never into it as a kid or I was too old for it basically. So for me it had to be English. That was our take on that.
I think we’ve gone through everything at this point, Grant. Thanks again for being into talking to me about this, really. I know it’s not a subject that really comes up often in your laundry list of interviews over the past few decades.
No one talks about it, so we never get to explain what we were actually thinking at the time!
Oh I know! I tried looking for interviews about it and it’s been literal decades.
Well, and all the interviews then were part of the performance, and we just put on these characters and be outrageous and say ridiculous things. And it just made us laugh. It was me and Mark laughing, but it was very much us being 100% sure that we were the cutting edge of satire [laughs]
Well here’s your time to reckon with that, 30 years later! [laughs]
Yeah. When people assume that, well, what you wrote must be what you thought and that’s just not the case. It’s hard to understand for some, I think.
Well I personally can’t thank you enough for the laugh. I think all three of the works we’ve talked about are spectacular but “Big Dave” is just a comedy masterpiece.
I consider that the highest of tastes! I see people just not getting it and it’s ridiculous because it’s really funny. So fucking stupid. [laughs]
Particularly because we have a number of British followers, and they’re all generally men, and they all were like, “oh, you’re going to be really upset when you read these”. And I read it and got back to them and I was like, I have no idea what you’re upset about right now. This is a dumb joke!
It’s like when people say Seaguy is unreadable, and then you read it and it’s just really straight, isn’t it? [laughs]
I just find it really difficult to take it seriously as a piece of homophobic literature when Saddam Hussein’s riding an ostrich.
That was the very first image we made!
Was it really? [laughs]
Yes, and it’s just absurd. It’s absurd! I remember because I was like, ‘We must have Saddam riding an ostrich. Of course.’
Of course. That might have been the ecstasy though, let’s be real.
[laughs] We didn’t need ecstasy for that one! No, all of that absurdity and all those jokes…that was just the power of the weights! That was the joke on masculinity! That was the sweat and the sauna and the vodka orange! Honestly it was just us having a really really good time.