Monday, 2 June 2014

Behind the Green Curtains

One of my favourite things about doing all these articles on the "rude comics" (besides re-reading them all and finding ones I've never heard of before) is when the people who actually made them pop up in the comments section, and share a bit about what it was like being a part of the whole thing. For example, take a look at what Rob Filth (or Rob Yuppies as he was then known) has to say about Ziggy and Spit, and while you're at the Spit bit, take in what Lee Turnock and Lew Stringer have to say about the whole thing as well.

Recently, Nigel Maughan popped up in the comments section too - click on his name in the side bit there, and you'll probably be taken to nearly every "rude comic" article I've done so far, as he worked on pretty much all of them (with a few exceptions - only Poot! and Lazy Frog come to mind immediately). Seriously, have a look at his CV, it goes on and on and on... Here's something of his in case it hasn't clicked yet who I'm on about:

That's one of the first things I ever saw by him, by the way - in an issue of Acne, a long, long time ago.

At the risk of sounding like a disgusting sycophant, I'm going to say now that I was a bit excited when Nigel got in touch - he's my fourth-favourite living cartoonist, y'see. We got to talking, and what follows is my attempt at a thrown-together "interview" about the "scene" in general. I've never done anything like this before, so you'll just have to bear with it. Plenty of illustrations/comics throughout though, so don't worry.

Just to be clear, we'll have my words in "normal" and his in Bold... Makes sense.

I was really impressed with a lot of what you said in your blog, you have obviously studied that period... As you say, I was in most of the adult humour mags - I was a bit unique as I wrote, drew and lettered everything I did. I started off writing and drawing for Viz and it was just a natural progression to work for all the wannabes. Yes, the "movement" isn't very well-known or talked about much, but it was an amazingly creative spurt (or dribble) that was very British and worth looking at and talking about.

Viz was possibly the first time I saw your stuff - Mrs. Neat it was, then it must've been either Acne or Fizz after that. Over the past year when I've been really looking into this stuff there's been some strange tales popping up - like the nutter who was in charge of Spit and the weird circumstances that lead to Fizz being published. And from looking at your "Work History" page there I've just learnt that Gutted followed Gutter - bit of a bugger for me that, as I'm currently working on a Gutted article! Ah well, never set out to do things chronologically anyway.

The story I heard about Gutted was that as the Gutter sales weren't that good they simply closed it down and re-named it Gutted. They told all the Gutter artists/writers that they weren't going to get paid for their work because Gutter didn't exist any more - it was a way of saving money because you had to wait 90 days for the money to come back from the distributors, so if a mag folded they diddled you out of 90 days money. That's why I sent strips to several magazines, in the hope that someone would pay me for it eventually. Some strips I got diddled out of my fees on each of the four or five occasions they were printed, but mostly I recouped  my fees for a strip from someone eventually.

I had a special card index noting who had printed what - I think you may be the first person to have even noticed that the same strip appeared over and over again in different mags, no editor ever noticed. I used to be allocated 3-4 pages and I just did whatever I wanted and sent stuff in unseen without any editorial input, they always printed whatever I sent.

Chris Donald was different, he was very careful and meticulous about what went in Viz. He always micro-managed my strips - the ideas were always mine but when he suggested changes they always improved my stuff.

I'm not sure who the nutter is you're referring to. Graham Hey was a great guy as far as I can remember, maybe it was his successor you were referring to? I don't remember his name... He rejected a Victor Ventnor strip because he appeared dressed as an orange at the Catholic Republican club in Liverpool singing about how oranges were best. That editor said he was frightened of retaliation from the IRA!

Just realised it was Zit I was on about with reference to the nutter, not Spit. Russell Church is who I meant! A bit of truth in his accusations about the similarities between Zit and Spit there, it seems.

Is it possible that the lack of notice about your strips appearing in multiple publications could be down to the "local" nature of these comics? In that it seems each part of the country had its own variation on the Viz formula? Liverpool had Igor, London had Skank, Glasgow had Electric Soup and so on... Just a thought there.

I've got a big pile of comics here that I'm slowly working my way through, and I should really be making notes as I go along, but it's only after reading different ones that I notice things that are of relevance to one that I've already read, by which point I've forgotten WHICH one it is, so have to go back through them all again. It's enjoyable though, so that's fine. There's one title that's even got stuff that previously appeared in Oink!

Russell Church was very odd, he genuinely thought that he could out-Viz Viz. He used to say that Zit was better than Viz! But the sad thing for him was that no-one was better than Viz. Spit was created by all the Zit artists that Church had pissed off in one way or another. Someone pointed out that if the artists left, he had paid them so little that he hadn't acquired any rights and all the artists could take their characters with them to Spit, which Church didn't like at all. He sent contracts to everyone still working for him requiring them to sign over all their rights for a £1 cheque - he was very dumb because no-one cashed their cheques so their were no contracts, but no-one from Zit ever checked up on it.

I never signed anything and still hold all the rights to my characters (even the Viz ones) and artwork so I could sell it as often as I liked. Don't get me wrong, I was entitled to sell my strips as many times as I wanted, but I generally waited until a mag was out of business before I re-sold items that had appeared in it to anyone else.

I don't think many of the other editors cared enough about what they were doing to notice repeated strips. They could have noticed because there was only a limited number of writers/artists available who could do this stuff, so they should have been able to spot it. They never challenged me about double-selling or brought it up, and the best explanation is that none of them cared enough to notice... Being allocated an adult comic to rival Viz was a losing battle for most of them, and it was bound to fail. The rival publishers read Viz but didn't understand the subtle brilliance of Chris Donald and what made Viz funny, they constantly gave their editors the brief that they had to "create a new Viz" but there was no point because there was already Viz. The million-plus copy sales was all that they were looking at.

We (the artists) all knew about each other's stuff but I only ever met Graham Hey (Spit), Lew Stringer and Kev Sutherland (UT), and that's only because I made the effort to visit them. I still get emails from people about stuff I drew 25 years ago, it just never occurred to me that people would remember this stuff. I put my heart and soul into it and I loved writing it and drawing it. A lot of people despised what we did but I was proud of my creations.

And that's the real shame of it - historians seem to gloss over the whole "scene" or just pretend it didn't exist. Graham Kibble-White in The Ultimate Book of British Comics says, in the introduction pages:

Adult comics of the Viz vein are excluded. Although they were everywhere for about two minutes in the mid-Nineties, they weren't ever intended for kids, nor did they grow out of the lineage of children's publications. Besides, all bar Johnny Fartpants' rag were bloody awful.

Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's Great British Comics mentions Viz and nothing else, whilst Dez Skinn's Comix: The Underground Revolution has three pages on Viz, finishing with one paragraph:

With such a huge success it was inevitable that pretenders to the Viz throne would try to copy the formula and in the late-Eighties/early-Nineties a slew of titles appeared, including the pithily-titled Zit, Poot, Gas, Smut and many more. Most failed after a few issues but a few were moderately successful, filling the gap between issues of the phenomenal bimonthly, among them Oink!, Brain Damage and Talking Turkey.

As you've said, it's really only the editors who were into copying Viz (as Kev Sutherland shows at the beginning of every issue of UT), most of the artists I suspect were just happy to have an outlet for their talent and imagination. Phil Baber did incredible stuff, whilst Dave Iddon could happily have found a home with the likes of Whizzer & Chips under the right circumstances. Could it be that the only things that have given these titles such a bad name over the years was bad management and editorial arrogance? A £1 cheque in exchange for all the rights to a character seems like proof of this!

Well I still get that snobbish reaction even today, apparently all I've ever done was Viz and several hundred pages for some short-lived adult comics. I get this from all the small press and alternative artists/writers that I meet, even if those people are unpublished outside of their own 'zines. It was still a valid creative spurt, uniquely British and representing hundreds of characters from dozens of publications. Mad really, but there you are.

Even the small press folk?? That's slightly ridiculous there...

All the time people are arguing about humour comics being "for kids", and yet "grown-up" comics are all either daft superheroes or "coming-of-age" dramas - what's wrong with having a funny adult comic? The Americans and the French have the right attitude somewhat...

My argument is that comics are the last artistic form that should be sanitised. Today we have to read boring 'zines about eating a bagel or nearly meeting a tramp when we can do almost anything we want. Comics should be bold and challenging and even funny and crude. Comics can be art but they shouldn't be solely art - they are in danger of becoming pretentious in their desire to be taken seriously. I think we should just say "Fuck it, I don't want to be taken seriously, I'm a flippin' comic!!!!!". The Americans wouldn't talk down any comic genre, and the French would love it.

True, true... When you're only limited by your imagination and the amount of ink in your pen, why draw a comic about the one time you were almost accidentally racist when you could be doing something, anything... Just whatever pops into your head, scribble it down. I'm still shocked about the small press folk talking like they are - they have the freedom to do totally ridiculous stuff, whilst the old "rude comics" could do the same, only they got sold on the high street. Which of those is the more "creative" now then?

The closest thing I can find to... Not sure what to call it now. "The Scene"? Johnny Ryan's Angry Youth Comix. He's an American, and ridiculously offensive, but it's not like he's setting out to please anyone - he's just doing what he thinks is funny, and seems to be doing alright out of it as well.

In the UK, Lee Turnock's doing fun stuff, but the only one who'll publish his work these days is a Canadian!

Maybe the explanation goes back to Viz's million-selling days, when all the London yuppies started buying it too, but ONLY Viz. Everything else was "just comics" to them. It's a theory, I suppose.

Baby and bath water. A lot of the stuff that was done for adult humour comics wasn't funny or even well-written, and again, I think that's down to sloppy editorial control. Chris Donald was very particular about his content and though it gave off the feeling of ad-hoc student spontaneity, it was anything but. Plus there is very little in the way of drawings in the early Viz which was bi-monthly, so a lot of thought could go into the strips.

Unfortunately there was so much bad stuff in the competition that the good stuff got overlooked, and now everything is tarred with the same brush. However, no-one has stood up for the genre in the past and it's ready for a revival in my opinion. That's why it was so interesting reading your blog. I'm toying with the idea of re-printing a lot of my stuff in compilation magazines but cost is putting me off and I don't have the time, but I'd say there was enough for 10-12 magazines in my files...

Well thanks, always nice to hear appreciation - a revival would be fantastic (and would cost me a fair bit in keeping up with it!), but I'm not sure how it'd be possible. In a world where even the Dandy's disappeared from the shelves, is there room for a sudden revival? Poot tried it a few years ago, but couldn't keep up financially (from what I understand) and stopped after seven issues.

Have you considered the Lulu option? David Alexander and Shug 90 (amongst others) have reprinted all of their Electric Soup/Northern Lightz material in nice big books, and from what I understand it's a print-on-demand service.

As for Viz, it's the first time I've ever admitted to it but the quality seems to've declined somewhat in the last year. The "established" characters/cartoonists are still great, but the new contributors that have been getting admitted are of the variety that I doubt would've passed Chris Donald's quality control tests. Even Tom Paterson's recent strips - whilst fantastically drawn - have been dreadful script-wise.

I have the scripts scanned and may just set up a site and put them all on... I wouldn't try a mass circulation mag or print run, that would be far too expensive. I haven't read Viz in over twenty years, so have no idea what's going on between its covers!

Twenty years??? That's about as long as I've been reading it! You've never been curious or anything, maybe picked up an annual?

Here's a question: did/do you have an absolute favourite/worst out of all the various adult comics that sprung up post-Viz?

No, I've never been curious enough to open Viz in the last twenty years or so. I may have glanced at it, but I've never consciously picked up a copy and read it.

My absolute worst was the Sunday Sport Adult Celebrity Comic, no thought went into it, they just shoved whatever they had into it. My absolute favourite was Viz to be honest, it was simply the best edited. Spit would be the next favourite.

Looking back through some issues, I think Spit's amongst my least favourites - but from what I've heard about it being the result of "escaping" from Russell Church, I can respect it in that manner, and it did have a FEW good bits.

I think my favourite would be UT, or possibly the later issues of Gas. Kev Sutherland's influence seems to work well a lot of the time.

I can only say that from a personal point of view, Graham Hey was great to work with. UT was very classy and Kev Sutherland was really trying to get out a quality magazine. Gas and Elephant Parts had beautiful production values, but there was no editorial direction and the editor hated working on them.

Hope this stuff helps.

And... That's the interview there! I said I'd never tried putting one of these together, but there you go, hope there's been some interesting information here. How about some more comics before shutting up shop for the day? Alright then:


  1. I like Nigel Maughan's work, and enjoyed that. Brilliant interview, very interesting!

  2. THB, I left a message for you on one of my posts several weeks back, saying to give me your address if you want me to send you a facsimile of Badtime Bedtime Storybook #1, but I assume you couldn't have seen it as you haven't replied. Leave your address at my blog (it won't be published) and I'll send you one out.

  3. Good article, and it's always flattering to be mentioned.
    I think it's interesting that the US had a thriving underground press in the late sixties and early seventies, yet the nearest thing we had to a fully functional British equivalent didn't happen along until twenty years later. There was a lot of incredible creativity there, as well as a fair number of people who hadn't a clue (myself included - I cringe when I look back on my contributions to Acne!) and the inevitable hucksters who just wanted a slice of whatever was doing reasonable business at the time.

  4. I am not sure Graham Kibble-White qualifies as a comics historian. I remember I was very disappointed with The Ultimate Book of British Comics when I bought it a few years ago in the early days of my collecting hobby. I was concentrating on Odham’s Power comics at the time (WHAM!, SMASH! and POW!) and they aren’t mentioned at all in the book!

    1. To be fair, he does say in the foreword that he intended to concentrate on the 'pop culture' era, which means... whatever you want it to mean, really.

    2. Yeah, it's a bit vague... He covers both incarnations of Eagle, but not the Odham's stuff. He covers Toxic (1991) but not Sonic The Comic (1993). It's all over the place, but still an enjoyable enough read.

      You do get the impression though, that with some titles he based his entire "review" around one issue.

  5. Posting your Badtime Bedtime Book to you (1st Class) today, THB. You should get it before the end of the week. You'll need to open it extremely carefully 'though - it's very closely wrapped.

  6. Haha, that's spot on about the current UK small press. A lot of it is basically just blog entries (or even Facebook statuses) in picture form. That or the well-trodden paths of the "dark superhero" and "fantasy quest manga with disparate characters who go on a long trek across a fantasy world". The latter rarely getting beyond the first chapter.

    (he says, working on a "manga" set in modern Britain, in a town that strongly resembles Lincoln, with a university that exactly resembles Lincoln)

    ((though I am also doing one about a guy with a gadget-filled Spitfire, like a cross between Commando and Knight Rider)).

    1. "Sgt. KIT"? I like the sound of that, ha ha!

      It's hard enough even FINDING good small-press stuff these days. My usual Liverpool and Manchester haunts stopped stocking them because no-one bought them except me, so it's either chance happenings on the Internet or annual trips to London when I find any.

      To be fair, I've got a few good ones so far this year - should probably do a "round-up review" sort of thing, really.

  7. Have I got this wrong (or have YOU got it terribly wrong!?), or is Nicholas Schwab Nigel's pen-name? Since that's the credit in most of the strips.

    I wonder if Nigel's read Rude Kids, Chris Donald's autobiography? He's in it (well, Schwab is), in a not-very-flattering meeting.

    1. It is his pen name, yeah... And here's a big shock, I haven't read Rude Kids! Something that needs to be rectified even sooner now, you've got my curiosity in a chokehold there.

      Don't suppose you'd summarise the event concerned?

    2. Let me fetch it...

      Okay in 1987 Viz are having a party, for their "silver" 25th issue, in the Jewish Mother nightclub in London...

      "I'd made a point of inviting all the Viz contributors to the party. It was strange meeting some of them face to face for the first time. A cartoonist called Nicholas Schwab introduced himself. To my horror he was stocky, with a shaven head and a very thick neck. I was struggling to find anything to talk to him about when Simon [Thorp] leaned across and helpfully whispered in my ear that Schwab looked just like a Sontaran, the Humpty Dumpty-esque Doctor Who monsters. He did as well. Early on in our conversation Schwab boastfully mentioned that he was a black belt in karate. I never used another one of his cartoons after that."

      Transcribed just now from "Rude Kids", which you really should read, if at least for all the other pages. It's a brilliant autobiography, personal as well as professional, and is as funny as you'd think it'd be.

    3. Page 115 by the way, of the paperback. Around a pen drawing of Simon Thorp. For your reference.

      I wonder if he did give Nigel work after? Did he drop the pen-name? Did Nigel ever know?

    4. Oh, that's a real shame...

      I speak to Nigel on Facebook a fair bit, and that is indeed what he looks like. Who's Chris Donald to judge by appearances anyway? As long as the cartoons are good, who gives a fuck? Nigel's one of the friendliest, most approachable people I've ever "met", I'm feeling slightly bitter toward Mr. Donald right now...

      Still going to be on the lookout for Rude Kids though, it seems essential reading!

  8. Yes I read his childish remarks in 'Rude Kids', He is very insulting, though he did use my work after that party. I didn't look like that at the time of the party and although I was a black belt in karate and a brown belt in Judo I don't remember mentioning it to him. I liked them all and they never said anything like this to my face . Shame they were being petty and derogatory behind my back. I have a letter from Donald saying that they couldn't use too much 'outside' stuff because they were staying bi-monthly and could produce plenty of stuff 'in house'. They paid very poorly anyway and I was getting loads of work from almost everybody else. I think they got wind of the fact I was a policeman and they had had problems with the law about that time. Anyway, don't know, don't care. Simon Thorp was an insignificant little man in a tweed jacket and Donald was a bong eyed scruff but I never mentioned it to them.