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Gumph! Viz As Left Wing Satirical Magazine By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , December 15th, 2020 09:22

Viz is more than just a very funny comic to long time fan Noel Gardner. But the extent to which it's a vehicle for incisive, leftwing satirical commentary, he says in this subscriber only essay, is something that's open to debate...

Noel Gardner, portraits by Fiona Mackechnie/ all comic strips (c) Viz

A grand British institution that both exemplifies and subverts that nation’s rickety image, this story begins with a few years of slow brand-building and wilful daftness preceding untouchable status and a millions-strong fanbase. Then come the water-treading years, that period of essentially trading on past glories even while gamely trying new things, before steadying the ship into a latterday era of reliable peculiarity. All the while slotting high-minded reference points into a package which, despite everything, remains populist in essence.

When, in 2013, David Bowie supplied the Art Gallery Of Ontario with a list of his top 100 books for the career-overview …Is exhibition, the inclusion of Viz perhaps raised more eyebrows than anything else chosen. For one thing, it’s not a book but an ‘adult’ comic, although its publishers compile it in book form annually for the Christmas market – here, for example, we see Bowie, pictured in 2002 reading the previous year’s edition. (Aside: I visited John Peel’s house, also in 2002, and was cheered to note that the Peel Acres water closet was stocked up with Viz compendiums. Granted, the veteran DJ was rarely accused of being above a little toilet humour.)

For another, its reputation makes it a strange fit amidst Nabokov, Mishima, Martin Amis, a collection of John Cage lectures and suchlike. One does not tactically feign an appreciation of Viz in an effort to get one’s end away, be they Barack Obama or Sid The Sexist.

Real heads know the deal is more complex than this, however, and that the publication – 41 years old this month, having just published its 300th issue – has qualities far beyond the dick jokes and cartoon violence which comprise the surface level of its public face. I’d go so far as to say that when firing on all cylinders, Viz is one of the very finest satirical chroniclers of post-Thatcher Britain – albeit that claim carries a caveat or two, which I’ll return to. It’s certainly done enough to ensure the analogy between it and David Bowie in the opening paragraph of this piece was only moderately stretched, and then in a charming, vicar’s-sermon sort of way. I think.

This all goes against a grain of received wisdom, because for maybe 35 of its 41 years Viz has been “not as good as it used to be”. Mark E Smith is sometimes credited as the originator of this backlash, suggesting in 1985 that sibling co-founders Chris and Simon Donald had “sold out” by signing a publishing deal with Virgin. The late Fall vocalist’s take did little to stem perma-rising sales figures in the next half-decade, however – these hit the one million mark for a couple of years in the early 90s, at which point suggestions of a creative impasse were a bit more commonplace.

Befitting a publication which started in 1979 as a cross between a punk zine and a schlocky teen comic, Viz scarcely read like anyone’s complacent moneymaking scheme, maintaining a small staff and low overheads even at its most profitable. Extraneously, the editorial team (the Donald brothers plus cartoonists Graham Dury and Simon Thorp) and publishers got busy to the point of indignity with merch runs and animated spinoffs. Sid The Sexist, Roger Mellie, Billy The Fish and The Fat Slags, four of the best known characters, all got the latter treatment and all to pretty ropey effect (even the minor coup of getting Peter Cook, a formative influence on Viz’s comedic approach, to voice Roger Mellie couldn’t save it). Essentially, most of the mag’s countercultural cachet had been sloughed off by success, and after its commercial peak there’s an evident struggle to thrive both in its own self-created world and the more demanding real one.

At the time of writing, Viz’s most recent sales figures are slightly under 45,000 copies per issue, which is less than four percent of its zenith three decades ago but passable in the contemporary print media cataclysm. It’s had its lunch eaten by the internet, of course. Online is where people upload comic strips on the topic of events that happened literal hours ago, buff up the memetic turns of phrase which change the way we communicate, or spout utterly disgusting filth which may or may not actually be illegal but either way isn’t going to be stopped by a nervous publisher and/or WH Smith.

Perhaps for this reason – hey, you know what they say, if you can’t beat ‘em don’t ‘join ‘em either – Viz has always had a strange, slightly frosty relationship with the internet, implicitly treating it as an intrusive curio with little bearing on most of its protagonists’ daily business. Time was I’d have suggested such an analogue lifestyle was the preserve of old people; instead we have the new vanguard of pensioners spending their entire waking life having their brains boiled by right-wing disinformation outlets. (Conversely, Viz was actually a little ahead of the curve here with one of its newer strips, The Male Online, whose subject matter is just that.) All that considered, the writers bend this anachronism to their advantage, so even cartoons set on a broadly recognisable plane of existence can spirit you, the reader, away from it.

As publications go, this one doesn’t need to be especially great ‘at’ social media and indeed is cheerfully half-arsed about it. This is only notable insofar as it was the precursor – by a good quarter of a century, mind you – of a narrow but identifiable strain of tweet-based humour. The kind that’s not ‘weird’ or ‘left’ Twitter (though maybe adjacent to either or both) and definitely more legitimately fucked than that kinda twee-ish British defanged mugging-for-the-timeline pish which manifests itself in, for example, the Twop Twips account, a semi-bootleg version of Viz’s deathless ‘Top Tips’ section. The real version of which is still intermittently funny now but was glorious in its pomp, like this one from 1989. As with this letters page from two years prior, it’s a masterclass in delivering the goods within 280 (or even 140) characters. Chris Donald cites the “inane readers’ letters” in then-archaic, now-defunct magazine Titbits as his main inspiration here: “uniform and ridiculously brief, due no doubt to extremely harsh newspaper editing”.

Viz’s ability to nail the phrasing and tics of the organs they’re parodying – be those the ultra-compacted green-ink missives mentioned above, the captions in 1980s teen girl mag photostories or moronic garden variety Sun columnists (intermittently recurring Littlejohn type Charlie Pontoon, or Littlejohn himself) – is probably its most underrated quality. There’s an assumption among many, I think, that these sorts of things are easy to write to order because they eschew big words or long sentences, but to do so successfully requires a descent into a particular mindset as well as practise. In much the same way that Sun exposé-cum-biog Stick It Up Your Punter! is a better read for writers Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie’s clear admiration of some of its Kelvin Mackenzie-era linguistic innovations, in spite of their disgust at its ethics, it’s a safe bet that the Viz engine room didn’t consider themselves above the ineffable pull of British tabloid journalism. Someone who did could never write the headline “Who’s loony boozer Moon was where when man first set foot on moon?” or indeed the article underneath it (“Speaking from his plush £190,000 Oxfordshire grave Moon was remaining tight lipped yesterday”).

A full-throated commendation of Viz’s qualities invites bold statements. The ‘heirs to Hogarth’ claim gets trotted out now and then, such as this Nicholas Lezard piece on the occasion of the comic’s 25th anniversary. Picking out two examples from after that particular milestone, I put it to you that the Enrazzlement supplement, from 2007 and fully readable here, is about as brilliant a piece of written-word humour as has been created this side of the millennium. Providing you are moderately au fait with (a) the declarative pomposity of late Victorian English, and (b) grotty pre-internet porn, you’ll be good to go. More recently again, specifically from 2014, is a Sid The Sexist strip where the protagonist books a cab – “fuckin’ ‘ell. It’s a lass taxi driver!” – setting up what I’m fairly sure is the only riff on ‘mansplaining’ that has ever actively made me laugh. Given that the, albeit small, Viz writing team has been and remains exclusively male, I daresay that’s a statement which could be reframed as a confession; if the fullness of time shows there to be a wealth of transcendentally funny mansplaining-themed writing which I have studiously ignored, may the Lord strike me down.

Here, though, might be the nut of the situation: the present moment is severely fallow for commissioned written (and/or drawn) humour. I stress commissioned so as to observe that, like with nearly all other writing, there’s hardly any money to pay people, so limited compulsion for self-serving wits to try and carve out careers working to other people’s briefs when they can just carry on tweeting footloose and fancy-free. Outside of that platform, for product of genuine quality it feels like an American hegemony out there. The Onion and its one-time spinoff site Clickhole both remain solid, if ‘not as good as they used to be’; the women’s-interest spoof Reductress is about as strong as post-Onion sites get. Wondermark, running since the early 00s, retains an endearing niche of anthropomorphism, absurdism and verbosity: the strip you’ll know if you only know one, about the sealion, always struck me as having the energy of various obscure Viz one-offs.

Like I say, though, they're all American, and this article’s main focus is deeply, inextricably UK-centric. In the early 90s, Viz’s explosion led to the appearance of several imitation comics which were largely cynical, of little merit, and all eventually fell by the wayside. Similarly, the Web 2.0 era spawned online organs (The Daily Mash, Newsthump, others) pushing Topical Satire, evidently post-Onion but British, thus equally in the slipstream of Viz and Private Eye. Some of these have staked out their position over time, but with fairly hollowed-out content, which brings us to Private Eye itself. You know the spiel: lampooner of the great and good for nearly six decades, preeminent satirical journal of these isles, will probably be recorded thus in centuries to come if there is a functioning civilization to maintain such records. With all that in mind, has any other magazine retained such high esteem while so much of its content has been phoned in for so long? At this point it practically feels like a cliché to say ‘the’ Eye would be improved if they binned off most of the comedy stuff – certainly the near-uniformly feeble cartoons – or at least came to some arrangement so people could choose to just pay for sections like ‘Street Of Shame’ and the cataloguing of local politics skulduggery. This is to ignore its astonishing sales success in print, especially recently, rising to over 230,000 copies per issue in the first half of 2020. Am I out of touch, or is it the sexagenarian politics lecturers who are wrong?

One could, equally, make many criticisms of Viz, historically as in the present – I’ll come to some in time, and will forego others for reasons of brevity – but neither the comic or its writers have ever been Establishment in the way that Private Eye is. Juliet Jacques wrote a salient piece earlier this year, about mainstream UK comedy’s response to Jeremy Corbyn and the toothless complacency of establishment-absorbed satirists, Private Eye among them. (As it goes, the “Fair & Balanced six page Jeremy Corbyn Special Report” featured in a late 2015 edition of Viz, with its Charlie Pontoon leader, has aged… gracefully.) Perhaps, on some level, the British public want or expect our satire to come from our social superiors?

Less than scholarly (who would want that?) in their historical references, Viz is yet capable of honouring its ancestors in the caricature business, as crude then as they’re canonical now. ‘James Gillray & Thomas Rowlandson – Satirical Shenanigans With The Regency Twosome’, a strip “drawn for Tate Britain’s Rude Britannia exhibition in 2010” and published in a later issue, enters into this with gusto while pushing the notion of ‘actual events overtaking satire’ to a snapping point of literalism. Davey Jones, who drew that strip, has worked for Viz as a freelancer since 1987, joining the in-house editorial team for over a decade before returning to freelancing in 2012 and seemingly able to contribute more on this basis. He’s the unsung (or insufficiently sung) hero of the comic’s history: maybe of British cartooning, if you can accept that such a figure could go about their business without any real interest in rising through the ranks, or demonstrating technically skilled penmanship, and merely spend thirty-plus years drawing ripely surreal monochrome strips for a largely self-contained audience.

Jones’ work in recent years has also been notable for tending more towards leftist social commentary. I’m especially fond of this Paul Dacre-themed one-off from the late period of Dacre’s Mail editorship. Major Misunderstanding, an elderly Tory given to perceiving leftie dogooderism or antisocial yobbery whenever he leaves the house, has evolved into a vehicle for ripping the piss out of the right’s worst culture-warring pricks and their ever-shifting bleats, cf this Rhodes Must Fall item from 2017. Moreover, Jones isn’t exceptional within Viz’s pages in his tonal-ideological shift.

Baxter Basics, as the character’s name suggests, was created with the intention of sending up the predilection for sex scandals in the Major-era Conservative Party, and post-2010 has been tweaked into a sort of avatar for the Etonian High Tory set who regarded Cameron as overly liberal. Meaning that when we, the British public of 2015, were gifted the story of our prime minister facefucking a dead pig while at university, this strip and its chef’s-kiss punchline resulted. Surely the most Viz-like thing to ever happen in domestic politics, the comic showed unusual restraint on the issue all told – limiting it to a mere three mentions in this “free exclusive Bullingdon Club board game”, for example.

Jack Black, a schoolboy who solves mysteries in provincial villages – or more accurately grasses up outsiders for negligible infractions – has likewise developed from a perversion of plummy 1950s action comics into a meditation on Middle Englander curtain-twitching at its most spiteful. (“Later, I saw her leaving a shop called the Co-op – a downmarket store founded on socialist principles. Quite out of place on Nicely High Street.”) ‘Charlie And The Sportswear Factory’, a two-page one-shot starring ‘Mickey Wonga’ as a thinly-veiled Mike Ashley, is another case of the Viz team wringing black cackles from austerity capitalism at its foulest.

Which is more commonly the preserve of Barney Farmer and Lee Healey, a freelance duo (on words and drawing respectively) who’ve contributed since the early 00s but, again, seem to have been provoked into seething anger during the last decade. Drunken Bakers, their best known creation, has lost some of its Beckettian ambience over time, its two protagonists rotting away as ignobly as the high street on which their disastrous bakery sits – though this is not a case of their plight being blamed on society, 1980s radical theatre-style.

Evidently leftist in their politics (Farmer tweets at a fair pace and is both insightful and funny), don’t come to these artists’ work for pat moral exercises where good meets evil: this strip apparently raised some hackles from people who thought the takeaway of the last panel was supposed to be “poor people sometimes make relatively frivolous purchases, and that’s bad”, rather than “…that’s fine”. That said, the bald foodbank manager in it is a recurring bête noire, transitioning between roles – slumlord, bailiff, fruitpickers’ boss – and his state-sanctioned sadism both recalls Ken Loach’s way with characterisation and prompts the feeling that, granted appropriate immunity and the proverbial five minutes alone, the writer of these strips would happily choke him to a purple blob.

It contrasts quite starkly with Viz’s earlier years, when Chris Donald steered the ship. Paradoxically, considering the mouthy anarchic image it cultivated, you’d be hard pressed to peg the actual politics behind almost all its content, and would barely find an acknowledgement of Margaret Thatcher, let alone Thatcherism, in the course of her entire premiership. (A token exception to this, another one-and-done character named Lenny Left, is basically an excuse to imply alternative comedians will sell out at the first invitation, although the joke in the fourth and fifth panel is legitimately funnier than most ‘political comedy’. Also, Thatcher resigned before the next issue of Viz was published, few would suggest coincidentally.) In his memoir Rude Kids, Donald self-identifies as a Lib Dem voter, in the course of explaining why he accepted an ad from the Conservative Students’ Association for some amusingly crap T-shirts in 1991; a couple of years later he agrees to become a Sun columnist, effecting a reverse ferret and pulling out in the nick of time.

A decade or so after that, by which time Donald had resigned citing burnout, Dury and Thorp briefly contributed cartoons to the Spectator at the request of its editor, Boris Johnson. Pictured here in his element at Viz’s depressing-looking 25th birthday party, Johnson’s precise degree of affinity with the comic is uncertain, but I’d lay odds that it is part-culpable for his unpleasant placement of the verb “spaff” in the popular lexicon last year, seeing as I’d never heard it used anywhere else beforehand.

All of which means that advocating for Viz through a leftist lens requires a certain selectiveness, and also asks you not to treat historical crimes as permanently binding. Their highest-profile fuck-up was a 1990 cartoon titled The Thieving Gypsy Bastards, which attracted the attention of the newspapers, the Press Council and various racial equality organisations and is as entirely merit-free as its name suggests – arguably more so, as the possibility of being both offensive and amusing is unexplored here. The “sincere apology” in the next but one issue is the only time they’ve had their hand thus forced, I believe; for taboo-baiting, no-punches-pulled periodicals like this, having to break the fourth wall for a sheepish mea culpa is humiliation squared. Though that strip was promptly retired, anyone minded to comb the Viz archives would likely turn up several items at least as disagreeable, and while not innately nasty there’s a lengthy period – a few years either side of the millennium – where a sort of lad-mag mist descended, contributing to a creative low in its history.

The wider world’s broad consensus of what humour is acceptable, or un-, remains in perpetual flux – and, for the avoidance of doubt, usually changes for the better. It’s always quietly interesting to see outlets like Viz, and indeed most others mentioned in this piece, recalibrating their limits of offensiveness without drawing attention to the fact they’re doing so. Circa 2020, it remains the seminal organ (I had to get something like that in before the end) for ink-and-woodpulp-based yuks concerning bodily functions, sexual outlandishness and wanking into Michael Gove’s coffee. As such, by no sensible metric is it pandering to the woke brigade (“once you start thinking about it 24/7, you see it everywhere”); conversely, this random dipshit writing in the Spectator last year is no less of a dipshit for that (the comic’s characters he deems to exemplify today’s PC-gone-mad generation have largely been mothballed on grounds of outdatedness).

Questions, then. Is there a strong case for claiming Viz as left-wing, even if that means going against its actual creators’ conception of it? If not, is there any contemporary British satire suited to that tag? (Citing the curmudgeonly hackwork of the reborn Spitting Image would probably constitute a bigger joke than anything in the series.) If not, is there a viable space for suitably inclined humourists to occupy in their preferred media format? If not, is this because they’re all happy enough in the more liminal space of Twitter, or because satire made in the service of a specific ideology or political faction has hogtied itself from the start? And if so, could we honestly expect it to match the simple comedic pleasures of Sid The Sexist dropping a cigarette out of his mouth while saying “GUMPH!”?