Sinclair McKay celebrates 30 years of Britain’s funniest, sharpest and most irreverent cartoon. David Cameron need look no further for a perfect picture of broken Britain
Some night soon on the peaceful back streets of Bloomsbury, you might want to keep an eye out for two young ladies from the north for whom the term ‘muffin top’ might have been invented. They will be extremely drunk, laughing like open drains and displaying unsuitable underwear. They will be looking for romance. They are known widely as the ‘Fat Slags’.
Sandra and Tracey are two of the Hogarthian figures that populate the pages of Viz, a distinctly adult comic. It is now celebrating an anniversary that few children’s comics ever see: 30 years of scatalogical, frequently obscene cartoons. To celebrate this birthday, the normally decorous Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury is staging a special Viz exhibition. The Fat Slags will be there, alongside a sweary parade of characters who have, over the past few decades, provided a most unflattering reflection of modern British society. Among these are: Sid the Sexist; Roger Mellie, the Man On The Telly; Mrs Brady, Old Lady; Finbarr Saunders and his Double Entendres; Millie Tant And Her Radical Conscience; Billy The Fish; Major Misunderstanding. All are drawn in a richly detailed style reminiscent of every comic you grew up with. Viz also has a raucously funny letters page, and a ceaselessly ingenious ‘Top Tips’ advice column (‘Catch moths using a mousetrap baited with a jumper’ was one recent suggestion).
But the genius of the comic throughout the years has been its unflinching and rather unforgiving approach to various forms of antisocial behaviour. From benefits fraud to unreconstructed sexism to alcoholism to tiresome green posturing, Viz characters are quite often vividly irredeemable. The comic’s founder Chris Donald once disingenously described the Fat Slags’ ceaseless promiscuity as ‘unbecoming’.
For long-term fans, it is a shock to think that Viz started as far back as Margaret Thatcher’s first term as prime minister in 1979. ‘We still get a few young readers,’ says co-editor and prolific cartoonist Simon Thorp drily. ‘That is, people in their late thirties and upwards.’ Thorp has been with the comic since 1985. The Viz office, just outside Newcastle, comprises himself and his fellow cartoonists Graham Dury and Davy Jones, plus Stevie, their office manageress, and their designer Wayne. For a publication so comically ferocious, its monthly gestation is very equable. They all sit around on sofas ‘discussing what they watched on television’; ideas come up; and if one person writes a script, then the other will draw the strip for it. Thorp says that the only real editorial requirement is that the stuff that makes them all laugh loudest goes in. And despite language that would make a horse retch, Viz is embraced snugly in the bosom of the comedy establishment. For instance, the veteran comic genius Barry Cryer is a huge fan, and once took the Viz team out to a pub — accolades really do not come higher.
Take another look, though, and some of the strips seem — unless this is my imagination — surprisingly right-wing, as opposed to simply anarchic. One regular is ‘8-Ace’, a frequently incontinent alcoholic made to live in his shed by his understandably violent wife. Ace’s sporadic attempts to find gainful work are always scuppered by his remorseless daily consumption of eight tins of extra-strength ‘Ace’ lager. Then there is ‘Tasha Slapper’ and ‘Tasha’s Mum’ who seem to be emblems of a Jeremy Kyle culture — caterwauling, pathologically selfish, and again frequently drunken. It is all prime Iain Duncan Smith material.
Elsewhere, in Mrs Brady Old Lady’s latest adventure, the formidable old bag is seen diddling her disability allowance and then, having fooled the benefits inspector, refereeing a football match. Meanwhile, the Fat Slags — and their various paramours — are rarely seen in any form of legitimate employment. In other words, the implication of these recurring strips is that the welfare state as it stands is often being played for a patsy by feckless, irredeemable monsters.
Add to this the nauseatingly right-on monologues of spoiled, mollycoddled Student Grant, and the insanely politically correct diatribes from lesbian Millie Tant and… well, it is certainly not Guardian territory. Indeed, traditional Guardian readers are also traduced in the ‘Modern Parents’ strip, in which a pair of sanctimonious, ill-tempered eco-hypocrites bully their poor children out of mass-produced toys, TV-watching and meat-eating.
But Simon Thorp recoils from this suggestion of right-wingery like a cat squirted with lemon juice. ‘No, I don’t think we are right-wing,’ he protests. ‘I don’t even know where we stand on the Lisbon Treaty.’ He also says that Viz tries to be even-handed with politicians, in the sense that ‘we lash out at everybody’. ‘We once included Stephen Pound’s name for some reason in a word-search puzzle which was themed around “large organs”,’ he says. ‘He sent us a box of chocolates.’ Thorp also cites the long-running Viz character Baxter Basics MP — who as the name implies, came into being at the end of John Major’s premiership, ‘but then flipped to being New Labour’.
The circulation might not be quite what it was 20 years ago — there was a point when Viz was outselling Radio Times, with a million copies per issue — but Thorp is aware of just how loyal long-term Viz readers are. The forthcoming 30th anniversary issue features the return of such old favourites as Roger Irrelevant and Finbarr Saunders. ‘Some characters have continual appeal because they reflect the times,’ Thorp says. ‘Billy the Fish (half-fish, half-goalkeeper, Viz’s surreal answer to Roy of the Rovers) will be competing on Strictly Come Dancing.’
Perhaps average Viz readers now resemble the three-bearded real-ale bores who sometimes appear in the comic. Every time I see someone chortling away at it, it’s a middle-aged man in a jacket and tie. Oh, hold on. That’s me as well.
‘We have had people reading us for a very long time. And convicts,’ Thorp adds helpfully. ‘We had a plaintive letter from a convict recently complaining that he couldn’t get Viz in his prison. We sent him an issue with the proviso that on his release, he must never offend again. We always look out for our incarcerated clientele.’
Thorp is thrilled about the forthcoming Cartoon Museum exhibition. His own favourite artists are H.M. Bateman and Pont. ‘Pont…’ he says wistfully. ‘I only wish I had that subtlety. It’d have to be an accident.’
Too modest! In truth, the needle-sharp satire of Viz — combined with the important fact that it is consistently, howlingly funny — means that it has more than earned its place in the comic pantheon.
The Viz exhibition is at the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell St, London WC1, from 4 November.