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BIG DAVE: TACKLING THE TABLOIDS WITH 2000AD'S MOST CONTROVERSIAL CHARACTER

Updated: Feb 10


Big Dave from 2000ad Prog 846. Monarchy in the UK. Art by Steve Parkhouse.
My fist your face: Steve Parkhouse's artwork captures Big Dave's surly nature.

IT’S easy forget in the digital age, where any misanthrope with a smartphone and strong views can set up a news service, just how powerful the British tabloid press were in the 1990s. At their peak, these poisonous publications pedaled a gleefully over the top and often toxic view of the UK, boasted millions of readers and bragged about their power to make or break governments. This is the tale of how 2000ad's attempt to satirise these all-powerful newspapers nearly backfired and also introduced one of the British comic's most controversial characters: Big Dave.


Who is Big Dave in 2000ad?


Big Dave was created by future comic megastars Grant Morrison and Mark Millar and was stunningly realised by artist Steve Parkhouse. Dave was the ‘hardest man in Manchester’ a shell-suit wearing racist, sexist, homophobic hooligan who doled out ultra-violence. He was part of the comic’s now infamous ‘The Summer Offensive’ promotional push, where Morrison and Millar were joined by fellow writer John Smith and given complete editorial control. With sales dropping, this was an attempt to attract new readers but resulted in alienating many of the readership. Only Big Dave truly injected ‘offensive’ into the ‘The Summer Offensive'.


Big Dave was an attempt to satirise The Sun newspaper and its ilk by adopting their persuasive and forthright editorial language and implanting it into caption boxes and character dialogue. Like the papers the strip lampooned, it went to extreme lengths to mock those in power and British institutions. The end product was a gloriously offensive and heavy-handed affair set in early 90s Britain, which stripped away most sci-fi elements and had more in common with Spitting Image than 2000ad.


The Sun Rises


By the time the first story, Target Baghdad, crashed into Prog 842 in 1993, tabloids were in the ascendancy with the biggest selling paper, The Sun, already a cultural and political phenomenon. The paper vainly boasted it had swung the 1992 general election for the Conservative Party (‘It’s The Sun Wot Won it’) when it portrayed Labour leader Neil Kinnock in a lightbulb with the headline: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain, please turn out the lights’. The Sun’s popularity peaked when sales surged to 4,889,118 on November 18th, 1995 (Wikipedia). How did it achieve such massive appeal? By the late 80s, The Sun had caught the mood of aspirational working classes (Moran), who were spurred on by the Thatcherite creed of individual success. What does working class mean? According to Mori, in 2004 70% of the paper’s readers were skilled/unskilled workers and the unemployed. The use of playful but understandable language ensured the paper could communicate its politics effectively to its readers. Such was its success, The Sun often claimed it spoke for them.


However, underneath the puns and silliness there was a much darker vision. Tabloid papers defined their readers against sections of society who didn’t fit their worldview. As a result, parts of the working class were demonised. For example: describing those on benefits as scroungers (Ullman), spreading misinformation about gay people during the Aids/HIV pandemic (Buzzfeed) and most infamously, blaming Liverpool FC fans for the Hillsborough disaster. Meanwhile, misogyny abounded in the shape of the topless page 3 models. Considering a large chunk of The Sun’s readership fell into the underclass it attacked, the relationship between tabloid and reader was more complicated than at first glance.


Big Dave Goes to War


2000ad Prog 845: Big Dave ' Target Baghdad. Picture by Steve Parkhouse.
The fear: Big Terry loses his mind over a kiss. Picture by Steve Parkhouse

Big Dave’s creators reached deep into The Sun’s soul, ripped out the black coal in its heart, moulded it into a 6ft 5in tall brute in a tracksuit and slapped it onto the pages of 2000ad. The tone was set from the start in Target Baghdad, when Dave’s pit bulls savaged a luckless British squaddie sent by the government to ask for his help in the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had enlisted two naïve aliens, who created a ‘love gun’ which turned British soldiers gay. Considering that the tabloid press is obsessed with World War II and frequently uses war-like language, particularly in its sports coverage (SIRC), it’s fitting that Morrison and Millar sent their personification of the tabloid press into battle. But the attempt to satirise the papers' attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community was hit and miss. The camp soldiers who were unwilling to fight were meant to be absurd depictions but fitted into an old, and mistaken, idea that gay and lesbian people were not fit to be members of the army (the ban on them serving in the UK armed forces only ended in 2000). However, the hysterical fear experienced by Dave and his mate Big Terry (a funny action hero version of Terry Waite) in the presence of gay soldiers did highlight the insecurity of macho action men.

Naturally, the strip divided opinion. Some readers enjoyed it, while others did not see the funny side and identified Dave as an unwelcome tabloid intrusion, which sparked a boisterous letters page debate. This raises the question of just who was Big Dave for? Morrison admitted he was ‘shocked by the numbers of readers who couldn’t grasp the satirical aspects of Big Dave at all’ (Thrill Power Overload). Presciently, the final page of Target Baghdad predicted the UK’s and US’s doomed attempt to introduce western-style capitalism into Iraq a decade later: with Saddam defeated, Dave proclaims Iraqis can be just ‘like us’ while the next panel depicts posters of well-known British products appearing on the streets of Baghdad.


2000ad Prog 845: Big Dave, 'Target Baghdad. Artwork by Steve Parkhouse. Writers: Grant Morrison and Mark Millar.
Prescient: The final panel of 'Target Baghdad' feels more important as it predicts western democracies' attempt to impose its own values on Iraq a decade later. Picture: Steve Parkhouse
Puncturing The Tabloid Press

Despite some reader scepticism, they were definitely moments when Big Dave’s satire punctured the papers’ pomposity. Dave’s second outrageous outing, Monarchy in the UK, saw the hooligan embroiled in a plot by Princesses Diana and Sarah Ferguson (controversially similar to Viz’s Fat Slags) to replace the Royal Family with robot replicas while trying to retrieve his giro money. Despite being enlisted by the real royals to dispatch the blue-blooded imposters, which are comically bad machine versions (the Queen Mother as a dustbin on wheels), dense Dave mistakenly murders the flesh and blood Windsors. Then, using classic tabloid language, he barks: “Let that be a warning to anybody else who thinks they can tell us what to do in our own country. Hands off Britain!” It’s a tone the likes of The Sun have weaponised, particularly against the EU, and this moment skewers the tabloid papers' self-defeating jingoism.

2000ad prog 848: Big Dave, Monarchy in the UK. Artwork by Steve Parkhouse and written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar.
Hands off: Big Dave goes full tabloid after mistakenly murdering the Royal family. Artwork by Steve Parkhouse.

In truth, Big Dave’s a contradiction: in the comic he’s lionised as the ultimate tabloid hero but, a benefit scrounging football hooligan would be The Sun’s worst nightmare. Was this a conscious effort by Millar, Morrison and Parkhouse? In one way, he could be interpreted as the revenge of the underclass demonised by the tabloid press, unleashed as a one-man wrecking ball on the papers’ favourite institutions. The British Army, police and the Monarchy are crushed under his size 20 trainers.


Letters Rage

Unsurprisingly, 2000ad launched a robust defence of Big Dave in Prog 849. In response to a particularly critical reader's letter, the comic attacked the contributor’s use of ‘politically-correct dogma’ (shorthand criticism of contemporary left-wing ideas) and then claims Dave is a portrayal of ‘the sort of person who buys those newspapers and laps up truly xenophobic and war-mongering headlines’. As Colin Smith’s blog points out, this was confusing. Was it a satire of the rabid right-wing readers of The Sun or the ‘soft’ left-wingers? It’s complicated: Big Dave aped the tabloids it ridiculed. Just like in The Sun, it stripped away all nuance to create a simplistic character, which was violent, sexist and machine-tooled to offend. If this was the creative team’s intent, then it’s a form of satire which could be wrongly interpreted by 2000ad’s readership as a validation of the tabloids’ vicious views.


Millar admitted Big Dave was ‘shockingly offensive’ (Thrill Power Overload), while Parkhouse defended the strip as a much needed ‘breathe of fresh air’ to shake up established readers (Thrill Power Overload). His sharp artwork is undoubtedly a highlight and provides plenty of memorable moments: the grotesque image of Dave reading the paper while sitting on a filthy toilet next to a Union Jack (see below) packs a hefty satirical punch. For me, the strip is best seen as a scattershot mockery of the tabloid press which illustrates the difficulty in getting it right. Making The Sun, The Star, Daily Mirror etc look stupid is incredibly hard because these papers, for all their self-importance, are knowingly extremely ridiculous in the first place.

2000ad Prog 846: Big Dave, Monarchy in the UK. Drawn by Steve Parkhouse and wiritten by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar.
Bog on: The image of Big Dave on the toilet tells you everything a reader needs to know about the character. Stunningly realised by Steve Parkhouse.

Alas, 'The Summer Offensive' didn't attract many new readers, in fact the opposite may have happened. Writer John Tomlinson, who worked with editor Alan McKenzie at the time, admitted in Thrill Power Overload: “Whether we gained news readers was debatable, but we certainly lost a few.” But Big Dave wasn’t to blame for the comic’s struggles. A string of nondescript stories, readers growing up and the loss of talent which had driven the initial success had caused an identity crisis. In many respects, Big Dave’s brashness was in keeping with the comic’s attitude, if not the reader’s views. The character had several more misadventures, including Costa Del Chaos (lampooning foreign stereotypes) and Wotta Lotta Balls (mocking England’s relationship with football) which continued the tabloid trouble.


Both Millar and Morrison claim Big Dave is some of their best work and, while I disagree, it’s certainly an unforgettable strip. His creators waded into a complicated topic and created a comic strip so offensive, it will probably never be republished. Much like the tabloid newspapers which the comic mocked, it is prone to be misunderstood because it takes pot-shots at almost everyone - lampooning right-wing newspapers and offending left-wing readers alike. Twenty-nine years since his debut, Big Dave remains contrarian, occasionally funny and deeply offensive; it’s biggest achievement is carving its name into the history of 2000ad.


References


Bishop, D. Stock, K (2016). Thrill Power Overload, 2000ad the First 40 Years, Kindle Edition. First accessed on July 23, 2022. Published by Rebellion Developments Limited, Oxford.


Duffy, B. Rowden, L. (2004) You Are What You Read: How newspaper readership is related to views. Published by Mori Social Research Institute. Accessed via https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/publication/1970-01/sri_you_are_what_you_read_042005.pdf on July 15, 2022.


Moran, J. (2005) Reading the Everyday. Published by Routledge, Oxon. Accessed via https://books.google.com.fj/books?id=75XNQmWeGyYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_vpt_read#v=onepage&q&f=false on July 11, 2022.


Ullman, J. (2020) As the Media Has a Reckoning on Race and Genders, Let’s Talk About Class, Media Diversity Institute. Accessed via: https://www.media-diversity.org/as-the-media-has-a-reckoning-on-race-and-gender-its-time-to-also-talk-about-class/ on July 15, 2022.

Social Research Issues Centre (SIRC). Media coverage of football hooliganism. Accessed via http://www.sirc.org/publik/fvmedia.html on July 12 2022.


Smith, C. (2013) “A Few Short Sandwiches Short of a Picnic?” Shameless Pt 29. Accessed via http://sequart.org/magazine/29967/%E2%80%9C%E2%80%A6-a-few-sandwiches-short-of-a-picnic%E2%80%9D-shameless-part-29/ on July 15, 2022.


Strudwick, P. (2015) This Man Spent 25 Years Fighting Newspapers Over Their Anti-Gay Reporting and Finally Won, Buzzfeed. Accessed via https://www.buzzfeed.com/patrickstrudwick/this-man-spent-25-years-fighting-newspapers-over-their on July 23, 2022.



Recommended Reading

Journalist Colin Smith analyses the work on Mark Millar in his lengthy blog Shameless?, which includes some great insight on Big Dave.


This fabulous blog makes a pretty good argument why Big Dave is the only really English super-hero.


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