A high Viz-ibility comic

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I first came across that disgusting (yet sometimes incredibly funny) rag called Viz at the age of 15 or 16 when a copy (owned by a chap called Donagh McCullagh and ably assisted and encouraged by Paul McGrade, neither of whom I’ve seen for some time) was doing the rounds of the 4th year classrooms.

The idea that a comic could contain bad language, extreme violence (albeit rather surreal cartoon-style violence), biting satire and “adult” humour (although adolescent or schoolboy/student humour may be a more appropriate description) was a novel one.  Another major appealing factor was that I’d read more traditional children’s comics of the day like the Beano and Dandy in my youth, but Viz went a step further by employing a similar style, yet creating grotesque parodies of these familiar characters.

 20 years later I’m still an avid reader…

Billy Connolly, when questioned about his style once said words to the effect of “I’d like to think I’m ‘dangerous’. I’d like to imagine there’s a 15-year old somewhere listening to one of my tapes, but he’s got the volume turned down low, because he doesn’t want his parents to know”. It was a similar illicit thrill with Viz. Smuggling copies into your bedroom under the noses of your parents was all part of the adventure.

It was during that time of life when there are certain things you can’t legally do. So buying Viz at the newsagents was like the thrill of getting served alcohol on licensed premises or being admitted to an 18 cert film when you’re still only 17¾.

As well as the traditional comic strip stories there are also of course the Joke newspaper tabloid-style headlines of bizarre celebrity scoops, letters from readers and handy tips.

Biffa gets hoofed in the "knackaz" once again.

Biffa gets hoofed in the "knackaz" once again.

I remember once being tortured while driving down the M25 to a wedding in Kent by my highly irritating passenger (who incidentally is also an occasional contributor to this blog) who consistently asked the question “what does the tattoo on Biffa Bacon’s mum’s arm say?” I felt like deliberately crashing the car just to put a stop to this. My passenger remains unrepentant to this day.

The multitudinous characters and stories which have graced the pages of Viz over the last 30 years are too numerous to mention here, but I’ll touch on a few of my favourites.

Jack Black and his dog – parody of the boy’s own adventure story or Enid Blyton style Famous Five adventure, sending up the right wing attitudes and xenophobic conservative values espoused by such children’s literature of the day.  In the standard formulaic plots young Jack Black and his dog are perpetually on summer holiday at his Aunt Meg’s cottage in some idyllic rural village, the type of place where strangers, particularly foreign ones aren’t tolerated.  Jack notices that one of the locals (or a recent incomer to the area) has been acting strangely of late and some unusual events are occurring in the village. With the help of his faithful dog and the local friendly bobby Jack unravels the mystery, which is usually something ludicrous involving Nazi war criminals, Islamic fundamentalists or drug and prostitution rings. The guilty party is generally brought to justice by meeting an unpleasant end at the hands of the enraged villagers. Cruel, but not that far removed from the stories it sends up.

It’s not just the political right who come in for ridicule though. There is “The ModernParents” – Malcolm and Cressida, parents whose obsession with political correctness, rights for indigenous peoples and social minorities, third world issues and alternative new age lifestyles leads to ridiculous situations much to the bemusement of their long-suffering children.  A magnificent parody of the liberal middle class type parents whose hypocrisy is always exposed at the end of each story.  There’s also Millie Tant, a stereotypical radical lesbian feminist who regularly becomes victim of her own highly strung principles. 

Millie Tant

Millie Tant

One of the comic’s most celebrated stories has to be “Biffa Bacon”, a character loosely based on Bully Beef from the Dandy. The Bacons, a dysfunctional family from the north-east of England who thrive on extreme physical cartoon violence. Mutha, Fatha (and occasionally Uncle Dekka who get their kicks from inflicting pain on their long-suffering son Biffa on the flimisiest of pretexts, who in turn takes it out on unsuspecting members of the public. But unlike the Beano et al, where the tormented underdog finally gives the bully his come-uppance there is rarely any justice at the end. Biffa or the innocent bystander usually ends up in a worse state than they started. In effect, Viz often subverts the traditional comic formula by letting evil triumph over good, thus reflecting real life much more accurately!

The fact that the dialogue is spelt phonetically to reflect the Geordie dialect makes it all the more authentic.

Roger Mellie (“the man on the telly”) – a foul-mouthed, bigoted, lecherous drunken TV presenter who despite (and often because of) his constantly atrocious behaviour always manages to maintain his lucrative broadcasting career. Not that far-removed from reality when you think about the high jinks of the despicable Jonathan Ross and his Houdini-style escapes from public justice.

Roger Mellie

Roger Mellie

Then there are the characters with ludicrous attributes such as Buster Gonad the boy with giant-sized testicles who often finds himself in excruciatingly painful situations, Felix and his amazing underpants , Finbarr Saunders, a boy who finds highly suggestive sexual innuendoes within the most innocuous phrases, like an extreme version of the “Carry On” films or the “saucy” English seaside postcards.

Mr Logic – a socially inept individual obsessed with  pedantry– who usually pays for his blinkered literal mindedness by getting beaten up or killed at the end of each story, yet returns in the following month’s issue as if nothing had happened.

Suicidal Syd – constantly depressed, but always fails his suicide attempts, then discovers that life isn’t so bad and decides to make a fresh start, only to come to a sticky end through bizarre and totally unexpected accident.

plodPostman Plod – a lazy, bad-tempered postal worker who takes pleasure in opening other people’s mail, skiving off work and playing football with the parcels in the sorting office – an ingenious send-up of the children’s character Postman Pat.

The comic has come a long way since the days of a few photocopies pages stapled together and sold by two brothers in the pubs of Newcastle.

And yes, some of the sexual and scatological humour ranges from the distasteful to the downright disgusting and is not always pleasant to digest, but Viz will be Viz.   Long may it continue to be!

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8 comments

  1. Yes, I’m sure you do Francisca, but I don’t suppose you’d like to comment on Viz and its influence on western contemporary society? Or on some of the earlier posts like the Mexican revolution and its legacy regarding contemporary democratic politics in Mexico and President Calderón’s war on drugs? The legacy of apartheid in South Africa and its effect on cultural symbolism? The music of Ennio Morricone? Captain Pugwash and the urban myths which amused a generation of schoolboys?

  2. Ciaran,

    a great piece. I was introduced to Viz through your good offices, and, as you know, have found some of the comic strips and characters contained in the comic absolutely hilarious, some not so funny, some tedious, and others bordering on downright offensive.

    Like all good satire, Viz very often makes a very cogent point through the use of exaggerated characteristics, and, like you said, tears up the comic “rulebook” about the way things are supposed to happen in society and in life. I have often wondered whether we as children were given the idea that outcomes would be “fair” and bad people would get their comeuppance through comics and cartoons, where this is generally the rule. In most instances in our world those with the power and resources prevail over those with none, whether they are “in the right” or not.

    “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

    However, Viz often punctures the inflated pride of some public figures, and for that reason alone, it is worth a look.

    Phil

  3. Phil
    “Viz often punctures the inflated pride of some public figures”

    Now, who could you possibly be referring to here? Not by any chance a vertically challenged pretentious rock singer (and part-time self styled messiah) from Dublin?
    You make an interesting point about good and evil. Yes, it’s true that most conventional religions teach the misleading notion that good will always triumph over evil and this tends to be reflected in varying degrees of accuracy in cinema, literature and comics etc. Which reminds of an old episode of Grange Hill where a disgruntled pupil protests to his teacher after being given an unpopular task to do, resulting in the following exchange:

    PUPIL: But that’s not fair, sir!
    TEACHER: You’re going to find a lot of things in life aren’t fair, son. NOW JUST DO IT!

    Like the profound words of Juan in “A Fistful of Dynamite” – how very true, Mr Baxter, how very true.
    As Ronnie Cornett would say, I digress. I can’t believe you could write anything about Viz without a single mention of Biffa Bacon or Postman Plod!

  4. Yes, how could I not mention Postman Plod or Biffa and his family when I have spent countless hours tormenting you about the adventures of the Bacon family, all done in the Geordie dialect?
    Or Postman Plod, the miserable sod? The thing that makes these characters funny is that not only are they perversions of existing comic characters, but, as with all funny things in life, there is a grain of truth in them that we can recognise.

    I’m afraid that when I made my point above about good and evil I borrowed from Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony at Julius Caesar’s funeral oration – so I can’t take credit for this!

    Perhaps I made the point about good not prevailing over evil a bit too strongly in my earlier comment. I believe that good DOES eventually prevail over evil in our world, but this does not necessarily happen within the “timetable” we humans would like to see. So I suppose that patience, forbearance, and acceptance are often called for, and we could remember that events are often outside the control of either good or evil people.

    Phil

  5. I neglected to mention above that Bono is not the only public figure who has been satirized by Viz, and perhaps, despite what we think of him and people like him, we should not single him out more than we have to – after all, part of the success of Viz is that it does not grind any public figure into the ground constantly, but fires off barbs at them occasionally, which is probably the best way to do it – it keeps our mind on its toes!

    Viz, like South Park and Bernard Manning’s humour, satirizes anybody and everybody, from the Pope to the Queen, to the Prime Minister to the US President. For example, the last Pope, John Paul II, was sent up in Viz in two comic strips: one, Pope-eye the Pontiff Man” (an obvious take on Popeye); the second was a skit on the Beezer comic strip Pop, Dick, and Harry, called “Pope, Dick, and Harry.” Now if God had not wanted us to laugh, He would not have blessed us with a sense of humour, and Pope John Paul II was well known for his love of a laugh and for his sense of fun. Had he saw those comic strips, and had the significance of them been explained to him, I am in no doubt that he would have laughed too.

    Perhaps with Viz there is an element of rough democracy, without which our society would be worse off without: the idea that no personage or institution should be above the sharp barbs of humourous satire which the comic is noted for.

    So, like you said, Ciaran, Viz will always be Viz!

    Phil

  6. One further comment, on the theme of humourless groups and individuals: characters like Millie Tant in Viz are completely without a sense of humour, and a sense of irony, and, to me, are as inflexible and authoritarian as any Burmese general, despite their liberal protestations. The reason why they are so inflexible is because ultimately they are insecure about both themselves and what they really believe in. Being able to laugh at oneself denotes a strong confidence in one’s own person and belief system, and, perhaps is even one of the foundation stones of democracy.

    Phil

  7. Phil
    Funny you should mention Bernard Manning, as I recall he himself was sent up by the comic. Not long after he popped his clogs and entered the great working men’s club in the sky, Viz featured a spoof advertisement for a Bernard Manning commemorative plate (an amusing send-up of all the hysteria which followed the death of Diana of Wales) entitled “Fat racist c*** of hearts”.

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