I’ve loved reading Viz magazine since I was about 16. After first being exposed to the wholesome, 1950s-style optimism of British “Fish & Chips” comics like Dandy and Beano there was something that spoke to me in the subversive and sniggering-behind-the-bike-shed humour of Viz and its motley band of characters like Felix & His Amazing Underpants, The Fat Slags, Buster Gonad & His Unfeasibly Large Testicles, and Roger Irrelevant. Reading Viz was a bit like listening to Derek and Clive: you knew you weren’t really supposed to be doing it, and your parents definitely wouldn’t approve. The fact that someone had made the effort of drawing these amazing comics, and gone to the bother of producing and distributing the magazine though was something I was incredibly grateful for.
Upon moving to the UK in 2004 I learned a few more things about Viz, such as it being one of the UK’s highest circulating magazines at one point. Pretty much everyone I spoke to here knew about it, and it’s widely accepted that many of today’s magazines, TV shows and comedy acts are descendants of the type of humour that appeared in Viz.
At the Cartoon Museum they’re running an exhibition of Viz’s history in recognition of the publication’s 30th anniversary this year, and so Housemate James & I thought we’d pop along and have a look, both as longtime fans.
The exhibition features loads of original art panels of many of the different comic strips, along with some fascinating narrative text on the history of Viz. Unfortunately (but understandably) you’re not meant to take photos of the art, however it was permissible to take “general photos of the gallery”. Which is why it was OK to get a picture of James with The Fat Slags.
It’s quite hard to believe that Viz is 30 years old, and still manages to maintain its tone of irreverence and satire – though many people, including the writes themselves, staunchly maintain that it’s not as good as it used to be. In fact, ever since I started reading it in the early 90’s they were making that same claim. At one point when a new cartoonist was brought on board, he was given the advice “Just write strips with characters with rhyming names”. So this is possibly why Sweary Mary, Farmer Palmer, Aldridge Pryor (the hopeless liar), Mrs Brady – Old Lady, Captain Morgan and his Hammond Organ, Scottie Trotter and his Tottie Allotment, Norman the Doorman, Bertie Blunt (His Parrot’s a C*nt), Finbarr Saunders & his Double Entendres, and of course Roger Mellie – The Man From The Telly – made their way into the hallowed pages.
As well as the regular cast of misfits, on exhibit also are a good selection of the once-off strips – the sort of ludicrous no-brainer ideas that really make you wonder what the guys in the Viz office do all day, and often inspire people who have no other way of responding to say “They’ve got too much time on their hands”. I’d long-time been a fan of The Vibrating Bum-faced Goats (centred around a farm where the livestock consists of vibrating robot goats – every one with a face like an arse!), Topless Skateboard Nun, and Doctor Poo (travelling through space & time desperately trying to have a shit), but was also excited to discover on exhibit such gems as The Adventures of Bono out of U2, Mickey’s Monkey Spunk Moped (about a guy who owns a moped powered by simian semen, and the various scrapes he gets into trying to refuel it), and a strip from issue #1 – Tommy “Banana” Johnson, a boy with a huge banana which he tries to incongruously solve peoples’ dilemmas and problems with, and ends up with it stuffed up his arse by a local policeman.
As well as the comic strips, one of my favourite things about Viz was the advertisements for mail-order shelf tat that they used to put in there – parodying the collectibles that places like Franklin Mint would sell. One example which turned up at the exhibition was a ceramic cottage model called “No. 22 Shit Street”, complete with “the fire-damaged, urine-stained mattress, carelessly discarded below the bedroom window, to the jauntily angled dustbin spilling its putrid contents across the path in a splash of repulsive colour” – I remember seeing the full-page colour mock ads, complete with tickboxes on the order form saying things like “My statutory rights are not important”, or “tick here to send us and extra £10”, and assuming that there’s no way anyone would really manufacture this stuff. So imagine my joy and surprise when I turned the corner at the exibition to see 2 of my all-time favourite items – The Life Of Christ In Cats (a plate depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, where the figures were all replaced with kitties), and the piece-de-resistance – The Elvis Presley Dambusters Clock Plate of Tutankhamen.
Another aspect of the event I very much enjoyed was the volunteers they had wandering around the space, ostensibly to offer useful nuggets of information about the works, but also largely to ensure that nobody was photographing or stealing anything. The one that was there on Saturday was a quite properly spoken, slightly older English gentleman, who was bursting to share his selection of Viz anecdotes with anyone in the area, however you could plainly tell that he wasn’t the type to routinely use the type of language which he had to employ in order to relate these particular stories… and yet because it was a Viz exhibition it was somehow sanctioned. Perhaps getting the Establishment to say “c*nt” in public is just another victory for the Viz writers. It will be quite interesting in June to see what turns up in the mooted Viz exhibition at the Tate Britain!
The exhibition at the Cartoon Museum (Little Russell Street) runs until January 24. £5.50 entrance fee.
Later in the afternoon I was lucky enough to be joined by Belinda & Judy (and as it turned out, not by Lizzie) to go see the awesome a-capella epic fresh from Edinburgh Fringe, Barbershopera II.
The idea of a 75 minute comedy show performed in 4 part harmony parodying operatic storylines sounds like the sort of thing that could possibly go quite deep into “smug & unbearable” territory, however this piece is pure fun from one end to the other. The story is of a Catalan matador who travels to Shavingham, in Norfolk, to find his dead barber father’s Golden Thinning Scissors, and ends up in a feudal contest with local unisex salon owner Trevor Sorbet – the stakes being that the loser must pack up shop and leave Norfolk. A barbershop quartet performing an opera-style story, about a barbershop.
Even though we turned up seconds after the show had started and therefore had to stand in the vestibule, the performances and show were so engaging and enjoyable that it wasn’t a chore at all to not be seated. Aside from the excellent close-harmony work, the lyrics were superbly crafted and never left you with the idea that the writers had desperately reached for a word just to complete a rhyme, and the performances were vivacious and cartoonish, doing a splendid job of caricaturing the bombast and stuffiness of opera.
Barbershopera II runs until February 6th at Trafalgar Studios: click here for tickets.