Every time they put up another statue of Ronald Reagan, the Anglosphere’s memory of the 1980s gets a little more schizo. In this country, the 1980s are generally agreed upon as a boomtime. Our president from that time is the only one that Republicans like to talk about, and boy, do they ever talk about him. Idea getting trashed? Mention what Reagan would have done. Nobody taking you seriously? Locate a picture of yourself seating across the aisle from Reagan.
This must be so alien to Brits. Their conservative icon, the one who waged victorious small war in the Atlantic and broke the unions into pieces, is a completely reviled pop figure. In my short time in England — admittedly, it was the apogee of New Labour — no one ever would have thought of popularizing some idea by connecting it to Thatcher. Her name meant the poll tax (“a tax on being alive”) and manufactured poverty.
Why does this matter? If you pull lots of comics from the bargain bins, as I like to, you find 1980s classics limned with political references, and only half of them still resonate. The British half. Anti-Reagan jokes make no sense anymore. Ah, but the many, many stories about fascist Britain — Thatcher satire! We all get it.
Grant Morrison’s “Dan Dare,” which I read in a collection of Rian Hughes-illustrated comics, is a classic example of the Thatcher-as-social-disorder story. Batman got a grim-and-gritty future, and thanks to Morrison, so does Dan Dare, a space age relic who was constantly at war with Venusians and Martians. In Morrison’s hands, Dare is a sort of Hindenburg figure. The German president, not the blimp. Crippled and bitter, slogging through a memoir (“I’m not a writer,” he mopes), he agrees rather quickly to help Prime Minister Gloria Monday — our Thatcher manque! — as the public face of her desperate election campaign. “We just need five more years to implement our program,” she says. When [SPOILER] she wins, it’s her “unprecedented fourth term.” That’s what Thatcher would have won if she hadn’t been ousted the year this comic came out.
I should step back: I am not trashing this. “Dan Dare” is an absorbing read, largely thanks to Hughes. This was my first extended exposure to his art, after noticing it and liking it on some posters. It’s perfect — it evokes the 50s serial and the 60s cartoon, and jars horrifyingly with the stuff Morrison gives him.
Morrison gives him a plot. This is a far more structured story than “Arkham Asylum” (which made him) or “Flex Mentallo” (his first, perfect work of superhero surrealism). Dare is pathetic, but the elements of heroism crackle in his brain, and he shakes himself out of a TV stupor to realize how horrible things have gotten. As he explores his doubts about PM Monday, he’s given a tour of northern England, all food lines (“some of them have been waiting for days,” says his guide) and abandoned art deco. He flashes back to the massacre he participated in against some helpless Treens, the civilization of northern Venus ruled by the Mekon. (The mega-brained Mekon, later ripped off by Marvel AND D.C. for their own genius-floating-on-a-chair characters, rules the Treens and wars against Earth and Dare.) He uncovers the secret that Monday has been hiding from Britain, and without spoiling it I can say it’s an early, potent example of how Morrison taps Freudian sexual paranoia for sci-fi twists.
This is minor Morrison, much more nakedly political than you could ever imagine him getting in this decade, but it works. All credit to Hughes: It’s easy to hack out a future dystopia, but his looks like all the toys a 50s whiz kid with play with, after he got bored and left them peeling in the rain.