The Worst In The History of Humanity (Book Three, Part 21: Morrison and Controversy, Dare)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Morrison’s The New Adventures of Hitler made use of shock tactics, and like St. Swithin’s Day drew a predictable response.
AH: I wonder if I’ll be allowed to say that Hue and Cry are a crap band?
MORRISON: Possibly the worst in the history of humanity. – Interview with Grant Morrison
Indeed, The New Adventures of Hitler managed the impressive feat of being controversial before it had even launched. The June 1989 issue of Cut in which the first installment appeared also featured a column from Pat Kane, half of two-hit wonder pop group Hue and Cry, entitled “Disquiet on the Comics Front.” Kane had been serving as a columnist for Cut for some time at this point, but in “Disquiet on the Comics Front” he angrily resigns the position in protest of The New Adventures of Hitler. Kane begins with a potted history of British comics: Charley’s War, 2000 AD, the arrival of Alan Moore, and then into the modern renaissance, praising (ironically, as it would turn out) Crisis and mentioning Gaiman and McKean’s Signal to Noise, which was then serializing in The Face, a lengthy introduction to burnish his credentials as a fan of serious comics before swerving into his attack on Morrison.
Kane proceeds to construct an analogy out of punk rock’s use of shock, comparing the use of the safety pin and the swastika within punk. “The safety pin didn’t stand for anything in public before punk used it,” explains Kane, “or at least had a radically different meaning; a new symbol was created by punk’s inspired re-contextualizing. The swastika, as a symbol, already has a long and bloody meaning in the public realm; punks using it aesthetically couldn’t avoid being dragged into the world of contemporary racial politics.” Somewhat puzzlingly, Kane extends this metaphor to a comparison of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which he describes as the safety pin to The New Adventures of Hitler’s swastika, explaining that “Kiddy-cartoon characterisations of funny animals cannot be further away from the horrors of Nazi genocide; yet the use of the most light-hearted form to express the most profoundly disturbing of events in Maus reminds us of the incapacity of art to fully represent such pain and suffering, even as it must try to. A new symbol of the Holocaust is minted; one which remembers, but is conscious of its limitations.” In contrast, Kane suggests, The New Adventures of Hitler attempts to repurpose the symbol of Hitler himself. Crafting it into “an ‘empty sign’—but not so much to nihilistically proclaim the pointlessness of meaning (like punk), as to be re-filled with contemporary pop-cultural references,” arguing that the appearance of Morrissey existed to turn Hitler into a pop star, arguing that this is “an image of fascism which fascists, past and present, would quite like to be seen around: the Fuhrer’s early life portrayed like J. Alfred Prufrock’s, all bourgeois bumble and angst; references to hip pop music and comics culture; surely, then, not such a monstrous man, nor such monstrous times.” And so, accordingly, he resigns his column.
Morrison had been here before, however, or at least tried to be having spent their latter years on Captain Clyde trying and failing to shock anybody enough to write in and reply. Now at last they’d pulled it off. This was not without its stress; Kane’s column sparked a small wave of media coverage, with the fuss getting covered in The Guardian and The Sun both and Morrison fielding a barrage of calls from newspapers that they summarized as “ we’re just a small provincial paper, we’re not really interested in this except as the most side subject of all, but are you a Nazi?” Morrison has suggested the furor was inordinately stressful, saying, “I couldn’t eat for days. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought it was no big deal, so when all this happened I thought it to be very strange indeed.” But stressful as it was, Morrison understood perfectly well how a controversy works and was prepared to play their role to perfection.
This took place in the July 1989 issue of Cut, where Morrison was given right of reply to Kane in the form of an essay entitled “Live at the Witch Trials.” As the title suggests, at least some of this consists of banal mutterings about free speech. (“I laughed at Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, I howled hysterically at Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and I do not believe that the life and activities of Hitler, or anyone else, are beyond interpretation,” they say early on, recapitulating a line of Kane’s in which he, not unreasonably, used the phrase “beyond interpretation” to describe the Holocaust.) Other parts are crass false equivalencies—at one point Morrison plays the “Christianity killed more people than the Nazis” card. But for the most part Morrison twists the knife with relish, revealing that Kane made his decision to quit the magazine based off of the title of The New Adventures of Hitler alone, and rightly mocks Kane’s interpretation of his Hitler as an aspirational figure, noting that “I cannot be held responsible for fascists who see in a paranoid schizophrenic with sexual problems and delusions of grandeur a positive image of their cause.” It is derisive, unrepentant, and effective in making Kane look foolish.
But this obvious recitation of standard free speech talking points and straightforward reading comprehension only occupies about half of Morrison’s reply. The second half is altogether more vicious. “I don’t particularly want to mount a full scale attack on Pat Kane,” Morrison says, and you can immediately sense where they’re going next. “Unfortunately, his thoughtless actions have caused me no small amount of personal distress and, saintly as I may be, I am not above revenge.” And with this, Morrison sets about eviscerating Kane’s politics at large, accusing him of being a faux-Marxist, slamming the condescending poverty tourism of Kane’s description of going to shabby New York apartment for an album cover and laying into him for his milquetoast opposition to Thatcher’s poll tax, declaring, “Even if I were guilty of producing a comic strip which glorified Hitler and his ideas, it would stand as nothing against this very real betrayal of people living now in this country,” before concluding their essay with a blunt “Fuck off and die.” It is a rollicking tour de force, with Morrison playing the enfant terrible and the sage and reasonable person in equal and simultaneous measures. Three months before Arkham Asylum would drop and make Morrison into a celebrity, here they were proving they were more than up to the job.
Their adeptness at their role, however, did little good in the face of Cut going under in September with The New Adventures of Hitler still unfinished. But by the next month Morrison was a star, and their unfinished and controversial collaboration with the co-artist of Zenith was inevitably going to find a home somewhere within the momentarily thriving British comics scene. As it happened, this home was in Crisis, Fleetway’s attempt at a “for adults” comic magazine, where it ran over four issues in the summer of 1990 to no fuss whatsoever, although Morrison has never seen fit to have it reprinted despite owning the rights.
The New Adventures of Hitler was in fact the first of two Morrison projects to resolve in Crisis after starting elsewhere, the other being Dare, a reboot of Dan Dare originally published in a short-lived Fleetway magazine called Revolver, a short-lived effort to cash in on the boom in 1960s nostalgia following the acid house fueled 1988-89 “second summer of love.” To this end it attempted a revival of Dan Dare, Frank Hampson’s iconic strip from 1950s/60s publication Eagle. This had previously been attempted in the early days of 2000 AD, where Pat Mills and Ken Armstrong, along with artist Massimo Belrdinelli revived the character two centuries further in the future for an effort that ended up fitting neither with the brash aesthetic of 2000 AD nor with the staid history of the square-jawed action hero. IPC tried again in 1982 in the revived Eagle, focusing the strip on one of Dare’s descendents, and fared slightly better, but was still far from a rousing success.
By the time of Revolver in 1990, however, it was a very different world; revamps of old characters into modern contexts were the standard in the wake of Marvelman and the growing DC fad of hiring British people to revamp their old characters. And so Fleetway went with the obvious setup, tapping a rising star in Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, the comics artist/graphic designer behind Revolver’s overall look.
Morrison’s take on the material was straightforward—they described it in an interview as “little more than the Dark Knight [Returns] version of Dan Dare,” which largely describes it: an aged Dan Dare forced back into action for one final adventure. Specifically, he’s forced back into action by Gloria Monday, the Prime Minister, who offers Dare a return to relevance if she’ll cut political ads for her upcoming campaign for a fourth term. This is, obviously, Morrison doing yet another Margaret Thatcher piece, and sure enough Monday eventually turns out to be working with Dare’s old foe the Mekon, who’s running an elaborate scheme whereby British teenagers signed up for a “work training” scheme are actually murdered and fed to a biological computer.
It’s a slightly overbearing strip, although to be fair the original Frank Hampson strips were not exactly towering monuments of literary nuance. Indeed, to some extent the constraint on a really clever and effective Dan Dare reboot is simply that Dan Dare is less a towering classic of the comics medium as one of the few remotely good things coming out of the British market in the 1950s and 60s, and that once the adult reboot of a concept had become passe—which by 1990 it firmly had—there simply wasn’t much in Dan Dare specifically to fuel an approach. (Indeed, both Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan would turn in their own mediocre Dan Dare reboots in the decades to come.) The idea Morrison had 3/4 of the way through the script of “weaving Hampson’s life story into the text in a Dennis Potter-ish way” is certainly more interesting, but at the end of the day Dare was a perfectly respectable execution of a slightly cynical brief with some fun satire as a bonus.
Revolver ultimately only lasted seven issues, a grim omen of things to come, although it produced two specials in that short time as well: a horror special published the same month as issue #4, and a romance special published the month after the magazine had been cancelled and hastily rebranded to include the logo for Crisis, into which Dare and the Paul Neary/Steve Parkhouse collaboration Happenstance and Kismet would be slotted to finish their runs. These specials contained a motley of the rising stars of the British scene, with Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Neil Gaiman all represented within their pages.
This marked one of Neil Gaiman’s few engagements with Fleetway—an oddity among the writers of his era, who otherwise all had somewhat lengthy associations with the publisher, which remained the easiest vehicle for establishing yourself in the industry. Gaiman, however, did not get on with the company, finding their editorial practices frustrating (they removed all the jokes from his Future Shock “I’m a Believer,” which he’d originally written as a Douglas Adams pastiche) and objecting to the fact that he didn’t get any royalties off of American reprints, reasoning that “I always had this theory which was: I should bet on myself. And invest in myself. And it seemed to me like writing something that you were never going to get royalties on, no matter what happened or what success it had, was not betting on yourself, was not investing yourself. That’s one-off. That seemed wrong.” On one level this was similar to the logic of his mentor, who similarly stopped writing for Fleetway over issues of creator’s rights. But for Moore this had been at heart a moral position rooted in his larger beliefs about art and creative freedom. For Gaiman, the reason was more prosaic, implicit in the words “bet” and “investment”: it simply didn’t make financial sense.
This was an important aspect of Gaiman compared to his contemporaries—a key reason why he would rise to heights of success that none of them would ever approach. In addition to his talents as a writer he was also a shrewd businessman who kept a consistent eye on both the market and his profits. [continued]
September 2, 2021 @ 6:52 am
Minor biographical detail on Pat Kane: just after this micro-controversy, he was elected to be Rector of the University of Glasgow. This is a 350 year old position that’s elective; it is chosen by the student body, and it wobbles back and forth between being a purely symbolic honor given to celebrities (Edmund Burke, Lord Macaulay, Winnie Mandela, Edward Snowden) and being a real job whose responsibility it is to represent the UoG student body to the administration.
Why the 1990 student body chose a 26 yo musician / journalist with no particular claim to fame other than a bit of activism and one (1) top 10 single is completely beyond me. It might might have been a gag? Or maybe it was that the rival candidate was Tony Benn? Regardless, it’s a hell of a thing to have on your CV at that age.
I do wonder how much of Morrison’s aggression came from being attacked by someone in his peer group. Kane was a couple of years younger, but he was a fellow Scot from the greater Glasgow area, his band had notched up a top 10 hit (this was before Arkham Asylum, remember, and it was not yet clear that Hue and Cry would never chart again), and if he and Morrison weren’t acquainted personally, they were surely within one handshake of each other a dozen different ways.
30+ years later, Kane seems to have settled down to a modest role as a C-list intellectual-journalist-what have you — wrote a book, a few Guardian columns, had a blog for a while, type of thing.
Anyway. It’s nice to see this series rolling along now! Pray keep up the excellent work.