The toothiest satire bites harder and deeper than superficial pisstakes to extract Humor in a Jugular Vein, the catchphrase of Harvey Kurtzman’s seminal Fifties MAD comic book. This take-no-prisoners attitude mutated British comedy comics, when the Donald brothers unleashed a first print-run of 150 copies of their equally seminal Viz on unsuspecting Newcastle pubcrowds in 1979.
Part Beano, part punk zine, part Sun letters’ pages, part Jackie Photo-Love, Viz may no longer shift over a million copies an issue but in its fourth decade it remains as funny and merciless as ever. That’s largely because, while the visuals do their job admirably, Viz is above all something to be read. Key to its success are the quality of the writing, honed and edited to glory in our living mother-tongue, as well as the tireless inventing, alongside recurrent favourites, of brand-new, sometimes one-off, characters. It’s proved a perfect way to stay both reassuringly familiar and provocatively topical.
So for Rude Britannia, Tate Britain’s current survey of humour in British art, the Viz team turn James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, their anarchic 18th-century cartoonist forebears, into ‘the Regency Twosome’ competing to be ‘the most biting satirical cartoonist of our age’. In the perfect twist, both rivals lose by pure chance to George Cruikshank, his prize ‘a slap-up feed of egg and chips and sex with Miss Humphrey’, Gillray’s comely publisher. The strip is also available appropriately on a tea-towel.
Elsewhere on four enormous blown-up pages are Viz regulars the Fat Slags chipping away at the fig leaves on Graeco-Roman statues; old lady Mrs Brady and her friend swooning at the sublime masterpiece of a Black Forest gateau in the gallery café, and spurious readers’ letters, including this one credited to the London Evening Standard’s legendarily haughty art critic, Brian Sewell:: ‘My favourite painting is that one of the bloke with his ear cut off. And I like the one of the old-fashioned cart stuck in the canal as well, because it’s dead realistic.’
For more erudite art criticism, Viz corrall sweary Roger Mellie to pontificate on the Hogarths and other past masters. A selection of these panels, scattered around the gallery as supplementary captions, are reconfigured for the strip below, which first appeared in the September 2010 edition of Art Review magazine. A few framed original artworks from Viz also adorn the Tate’s walls, such as Sid in the Sexist in the adults-only ‘Bawdy’ section, but these Geordie japesters maintain a healthy distrust of the art world. Their parody newspaper exposé ’£50m Painting “Not as Good” as £8 Telly’, reveals that, when subjects are locked for an hour in a room with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) and a black-and-white TV, they spend less than five minutes looking at the painting before spending the rest of the time watching whatever is on telly. In a final twist of the knife, Viz quote a devastated Sir Nicholas Serota: ‘I have wasted my life, All this shit is going in a skip first thing tomorrow, I can tell you.’
A Viz Tea Towel, available from Tate Britain
Not that the Viz boys are totally averse to making an exhibition of themselves. As recently as last year, they marked the magazine’s 30th birthday with an exhibition at The Cartoon Museum in London and they are currently showing till 4 September at Viz at The Lit & Phil in Newcastle. A decade earlier, back in 1999, I was Project Director of the Museum at the Cartoon Art Trust and one of the most ambitious and memorable shows I worked on, opening 27 November 1999 at The Brunswick Centre, London, was the 20th Anniversary celebration entitled Quack! Oops! 20 Years of Viz. While this adult-only exhibit featured plenty of pages of original artwork, the real attractions were the brilliant fairground-style ‘interactive’ contraptions devised with Chris and Simon Donald and above all their other, older brother, Steve Donald, a very talented cartoonist in his own right who tragically died in 2008.
Viz at The Lit & Phil in Newcastle
A modern Heath Robinson, Steve Donald devised such mad machines as the ‘Sid the Sexist Speak-Your-Tits’ machine, based on the traditional Weigh-Yourself machines, onto which members of the public could step and face a model of Sid, hands reaching out to grab your mammaries and ready to deliver his verdict. These included: ‘I’ve seen more meat on a sparrow’s arse!’ Another popular amusement was the Johnny Fartpants ‘Wheel-of-Fart-Tune’, which let visitors spin a wheel and depending on which country it stopped at, a famous national song from that country would be played ‘Pétomane’ style in musical farts. There were also giantess-sized figures of The Fat Slags, and a table-top scale-model of Fulchester town, with landmarks which lit up when you pressed the buttons. I’ve always admired Steve Donald’s nifty solution to making the small houses’ front gates - using Shreddies!
It’s all too easy to take Viz for granted on British newsstands. They may joke that it is ‘Britain’s 3rd or 4th Funniest Magazine (possibly 5th)’, but as it lurches maniacally towards its imminent 200th issue early in 2011, Viz has few real competitors as this country’s consistent, unvanquishable 1st.