Friday, 19 May 2017

When Celebrities Get Inked (or Viz Y'Know Killed The Radio Star)

As hard as I try I can't imagine Pat Roach being young.

Born this day in 1937, the much missed Roach was best known probably as Bomber in "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" although being in all three Indiana Jones movies is an equally fantastic claim to fame, not to mention his roles in Willow, Red Sonja, Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves, A Clockwork Orange and of course, Jack and Jeremy's Police 4. But when I think of him being born, like seeing ancient yellowing photos of your grandparents doing the dance moves of the time (examples include 'the spruce waiter', 'the groovy Rivron' and 'the rivers of blood') I just picture him being birthed with a full beard and Brum accent asking if its chips for tea.

As well as all these achievements, Roach was also in another exclusive club although not necessarily one he'd understand, or even known about. For Pat was the frontman for a cartoon strip all about...well, have a see...

Informative and informal there I'm sure you'll agree but you wouldn't be completely wrong for assuming it didn't actually contain any jokes - the discordant combining of a Look In magazine style factual strip with an actor unassociated with the sea in any capacity is the entire gag - and it works magnificently. For all its success, Viz Comic is very rarely commended for just how well it dismantled and parodied the entire history of British comics, from the 1930's Film Fun style antics of murderers Shipman and West ("Harold and Fred - they make ladies dead")  to the infamous DC Thomson take downs such as "Desperately Unfunny Dan", "Little Plumber" and "The Three Chairs". Some strips in early issues wouldn't look out of place in the underground comix scene which was still puttering along by the time the comic appeared in December 1979, but Viz was a product born of Newcastle not New York and this was reflected in its targets. In the above Pat Roach strip (issue 46 February / March 1991), the joke is simply to recreate the sort of boring factual filler magazines like Look In and its myriad knock-offs would print. Two years earlier in February 1989, issue 34 presented the following public service...

Simple but effective and given that extra twist by its use of a minor celebrity. Famous folk have been featured in Viz's humour from the very start but it wouldn't be until the early nineties that the official looking spin-off comic strip featuring an unlikely - and nearly always very British - star would become the regular go-to gag readers love still to the present day. As I write this the current issue contains "Fire Chief Bozza", a take on The Beano's General Jumbo and his miniature remote-controlled army with "52-year old Boris Johnson" as "the lucky owner of his very own mechanical remote control fire brigade". The previous issue had Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet fronting a "True Crime" strip, the latest in a long run of petty scams perpetuated by Elton John with his partner David Furnish and heavily Scots-accented Royal fun in "The Broon Windsors". On the subject of the latter, The Sunday Post strips originated in the 1930's by comics great Dudley D Watkins - "The Broons" and "Oor Wullie" - were clearly a source of huge inspiration to the Viz team cropping up in various guises, starting with this from issue 41, the first proper celebrity strip featuring Oor...Jimmy?!

I mean, its just an Oor Wullie strip with bucket to match (later use of the bucket would put in a copyright infringement-free slot to suggest it wasn't a bucket but Ned Kelly's hat.) With that little bit of history in place, here are my top ten celebrity-starring strips from the first two decades of Viz (1979-1999)...

10. Paul Daniels' Jet-Ski Journey To The Centre Of Elvis (Issue 85 - August / September 1997)

Two celebrities for the price of one here as Simon Donald draws this fantastic voyage of a miniaturised Paul Daniels sent in to remove a "peanut-butter log jam" from the King (who only communicates with variants on the phrase "Lord Have Mercy") after surgery is risked impossible to the singer's big belt. At the peak of his career, Daniels did actually headline in Vegas several times so it wouldn't be out of the realms of possibility that, had he lived, Elvis might have seen him perform. Although probably not coming out of his bottom on a wave of excretia. FUN FACT: Paul saw this strip and contacted Viz to buy the original artwork.

9. The Undersink Cupboard Of Jacques Cousteau (Issue 70 - February / March 1995)

A fantastically stupid quickie featuring the 85 year old (and two years from death) famous French marine explorer whose programme "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" had been a Sunday afternoon staple filler on BBC One throughout the 1970s.

8. Harry Enfield strips (Issue 62 - October / November 1993)

And in the same issue later on...

I chose these not for the lame puns or the incongruity of those characters having strips - indeed they had already appeared in comic form thanks to Charlie Higson's cartoons in Enfield's 1988 comedy cash in book "Wad And Peeps" (much more on that here) - but the fact that both of these comics appeared in late 1993, four years after Enfield had stopped performing either character. The Viz team were long acquainted with Harry by this point after he got in contact in regards to collaboration (also needing Geordie voice tips for his new character Buggerallmoney) and later provided the voices for the Billy The Fish and Roger Mellie animations. So they could have run these as "Look at us, friends with the hippest trend in comedy!" kudos five or six years earlier but didn't, thus making the appearance in the mid nineties even more ridiculous. And therefore brilliant. 

7. Noddy Holder (Issue 48 - June / July 1991)

In 1991, Holder was in a bit of an odd place as far as the public conscience was concerned - not quite the Grimleys-starring national treasure he would become but also not really relevant for his work with soon-to-split Slade (their final Top 40 hit "Radio Wall Of Sound" being released that October) anymore. This strip pitches him as a mischievous young lad who finds his granddad's old magic set in the attic and has absolutely nothing to do with his band, Glam or music in general. Its just a very daft premise and perfect for this list.

6. The Adventures Of Rolf Harris The Cat (Issue 46 - February / March 1991)

Look, I know, I know. BBC knew. We all knew. Whatever. Its a funny strip.

5. Fry's Turkish Delight (Issue 58 - February / March 1993)

Long in those dark days before endless QI repeats on Dave, Fry was still very much the go-to figure for someone extremely wordy and mildly pretentious. Although he'd left Cambridge over a decade previously, Stephen was still clearly the brainiest boy and so received this gift of a big pile of Turkish Delight with the proviso that it had to be gone from the premises within one hour or he'll be suspended. Numerous ruses fail and so it falls on him to eat the lot there and then and wouldn't you know it...

4. Donald Sinden In "There Goes My Knighthood" (Issue 86 - October / November 1997)

(open image in new window to enlarge)  

I knew Ald Sinden before he was made a Don you know... The definitive Viz farce appeared a lot later in the run than most people remember it and is almost certainly inspired by a similar knighthood running gag in Spitting Image some years previous.

3. The 2 Ronnies And Their Gangs (Issue 58 - February / March 1993)

Just perfect. There's something inherently ridiculous to me about The Two Ronnies when divorced from the material anyway so recasting them as heads of rival gangs seems the most gloriously appropriate fate and something that could easily have appeared in "Cor!" or perhaps "Beeb".

2. Spot The Clue (various)

Still occasionally making an appearance in the comic, Davey Jones' flights of fancy have been a crucial part of Viz since he joined as a contributor in 1986 with his regular strips such as Roger Irrelevant, Gilbert Rachet and "Spot The Clue" always contains a genuine but utterly banal red herring that readers can use to work out the perpetrator of a terrible crime. 

And taking the top spot...

1. The Human League In Outer Space (Issue 45 - December 1990)

Perfection. "Look In" magazine throughout its run from 1971 to 1994 would regular serialise "fun" stories featuring bands of the time such as Madness, Bucks Fizz, Five Star and, of course, Flintlock. The Human League amazingly weren't included into this pantheon of greats and so it was left to Viz to provide exactly the same sort of story that would appear in the pages of the "Junior TV Times". The fact that it came from a year when Phil and "The Girls" were at their absolute lowest career point just made the whole thing even more surreal, silly and the best celebrity based cartoon strip Viz ever produced.

For more writing by me about Viz and many other pop culture excitements, pick up the fantastic Talk About The Passion book here.

What do you think? Anything major missing? Feel like The Simon Salad Cream Story or Gary Bushell The Bear deserved a place? Perhaps Jarvis Cocker's His Quest For Knockers was cruelly overlooked? Or Bernie Winters' Circus Of Horrors? Yes, they all existed! Let me know on my new Facebook news page by subscribing AT THIS LINK I'M LINKING HERE. Thanks for reading and sorry about all that Rolf Harris business earlier...


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