Book review: Rude Kids - The Unfeasible Story of Viz by Chris Donald


the cover of the book

If this was a private schoolkid, it would be the one who runs the odds on the nags and earns thousands of pounds from students and teachers alike before he's hit grade nine. And every year his parents receive an uninspiring report card bemoaning his lack of interest in the smallest measure of academic self-improvement.

Cover

A few cartoons "sticky-taped" to a sort of brown backdrop (which seems intended to evoke a defaced school desktop or possibly exercise book), including background scribble and the title header of the magazine. From the point of view that this is the cover of a book about the life of a cartoon magazine, it's pretty ordinary, given the wealth of visual material they had to draw from. On the other hand, deliberate crappiness was a defining quality of Viz. On the third hand (perhaps a close friend's) it's not THAT shit. Not, e.g, AMUSINGLY shit. Oh well. I suppose avoiding the "newsprint collage" is plus three.

Plot

Chris Donald leaves school in the north of England in the late seventies without much of an idea what to do with his life. He works a few jobs disinterestedly while, in his bedroom, knocking out cartoons along the lines of the ones he used to draw at school. In 1979 he turns the cartoons into a 'zine called Viz and shops it around town. With that particularly English combination of introversion, confidence and self-promotional talent, Donald gradually builds a momentum around his humble little mag, getting into shops and onto local TV, hiring friends and family to draw alongside him, and, eventually, making Viz magazine the third most popular magazine in the UK (after the unassailable TV Guide and Radio Times) with a circulation of 1.2 million copies per month.

The good

The appeal of Rude Kids will depend on your appreciation of Viz magazine and/or the regularity with which you daydream about starting a small business out of love, watching it bloom into a money tree, then sitting at home on a large golden sofa and whinging about the imaginary noblesse oblige of the self-made man. As I fit into both categories, have been drawing cartoons since I was about three feet high, and am a long-time fan (though only occasional buyer) of Viz, this book could have been tailor-made for me.

It helps that one of Viz's strengths was always the quality of the writing which interspersed the dubious antics of Roger Mellie, Sid the Sexist, The Fat Slags and Johnny Fartpants. Donald created this house style, inspired by a desire to mock the ghastly, hate-baiting tabloid bullshit of his home country and a genuine love of the sort of D-list celebrity cheese and "It happened to me!" nonsense which somehow fill whole issues of magazines like TV Week and That's Life. This writing was the backbone of what Viz magazine, such as it is, was, at least until Donald left in 1999. Top Tips ("MUMS. Out of Christmas wrapping paper? Simply convert birthday wrapping paper by adding "Jesus" after "Happy Birthday."), the letters section ("In reply to Mr. Jackson's letter on the bottom right hand corner of the page..."), and the occasionally hilarious tabloid-expose style articles (a 'story' about a man being molested by the ghost of Princess Di titled "Ging Gang Ghoulie Ghoulie Ghoulie Ghoulie Gang Bang") gave the magazine a continuity which its hit-and-miss comics lacked. Anyway, in Rude Kids, you get no comics, just a lot of prose from the man who wrote all that inspired nonsense. With his serious hat on, Donald's style is spiky and neurotic, yet somehow slightly delicate, too. There's a slightly contradictory tone between the author choosing his words with care, and the sometimes lumpenly laddish notes struck in the story itself.

One gets the impression that Donald is a fairly simple guy with fairly simple needs, who was in the right place at the right time and knew how to work hard when the situation demanded it. Which means this book ought to be mundane, but it isn't, probably because Donald has had twenty years experience knitting dazzlingly-coloured bollocks out of non-existent wool. If you see what I mean. Donald's story isn't all that complex, and certainly features little in the way of glamour, physical action, tension, scandal, sex or violence. But it's also somehow quite special, in its own humble way. For one thing, it conveys an awful lot about the British character in general, not least in the way it received Viz, an amateurishly-produced, foul-mouthed riff on Beano and The Daily Mail: Initial bemusement, a rapid awakening to something new, word-of-mouth excitement through all social strata, controversy, ubiquity, fame, backlash, negative word of mouth, sneering, relegation to the back pages, a return to sanity, then, after about a decade, the grudging apportionment of cultural credibility.

Donald's sense of humour shares something important with the Australian kind (c.f. The Late Show, Working Dog, Tony Martin etc), being a love for the shonky, the D-list, and the cheesily populist. Viz began featuring past-it pop-rocker Shakin' Stevens in their comic, largely because Donald found him amusing for this very reason. At first Stevens was appalled, but, as his legitimate appearances dwindled further, he became more and more willing to play along with Viz' combination of campish mockery and honest championship. This dual-pronged love of the tacky is the backbone of Viz magazine's success, because, beyond all the comics and swearing, it allows Brits (of ALL classes) to admit to, and indeed wallow in, their secret views of what they're really like. And that was Donald's creation, however inadvertent.

The bad

To make my one overriding complaint about this book, I'll begin with the following enormous generalisation: People from the North of England grow up with a chip on their shoulder. Up there, they breed 'em tough, vaguely resentful, distrustful of authority and extremely distrustful of intellectualism. This manifests itself most potently, in Donald's case, as a dramatic lack of self-awareness - a chronic disinterest in theory and analysis, particularly as regards the self. Now, biography can get away with this if (and only if) the subject has lead a life that reads like fiction - action, achievement, sex, violence, fame, glory, etc. Outside of that (where Donald proudly exists), we're going to need some self-analysis. The pity is that, like Tony Martin, Donald, as his comics demonstrate, has the comedian's eye for the uncut stone of laughter, and his well-developed tools can turn a minor event into a moment of real humour. BUT. His lack of self-awareness and disinterest in deeper motivations mean that his well-relayed adventures at the bottom of the showbiz and publishing barrels usually lack anecdotal punchlines, because anecdotal punchlines come from truth, and truth is an internal compass which needs constant referencing. Don't get me wrong, Donald isn't some vainglorious, deluded showbiz monster, but I will say that, alongside a thousand British rock critics, he's working proof that a veneer of self-deprecation does not self-knowledge make.

To give an example which is germane to the magazine itself, Donald, briefly discussing the magazine's critical reception at the height of its popularity, mentions an irate review in a serious paper, in which the critic accused the magazine of pandering to the basest elements in the national character. Donald states that "...he just didn't get it...", and retorts that these base elements are what form the national character. Then Donald quotes, in response to the first critic, a second critic's postmodern academic perspective which takes the view of Viz being a deliberate journey to the backwoods of the national psyche, thus allowing the reader to find humour in his worst aspects and to move away from them via the medium of humour. Or something like that. Donald instantly dismisses this as a load of academic wank, thus positioning himself as the hard-working chap who just wants to do t'job, caught between artsy bullshit and ignorant, fogeyish condemnation. Instead he comes across as someone who can't even be bothered to figure out why anyone even likes what he does, thus accidentally defining himself as the most accidental kind of success story.

Which is a little unfair, because Donald worked very hard creating Viz, and it often seems that not only is his quiet, insular personality unsuited to the pose of Northern anti-intellectual hardcase, but is also unsuited to running a business, let alone a business which entails corralling 'creative types' into a functioning whole, to a deadline, under the gaze of unsentimental publishing-industry businessmen. Donald describes his life becoming a cycle whereby, each month, he'd build a brutal head of steam, thundering into the printers with final copy and seconds to spare. Then he'd crash into a morose lethargy, slumping motionless and silent in an armchair for days. He kept this routine up for a decade, with the periods of melancholy gradually growing into a full-time depression which nearly cost him the job which was killing him but to which he was inescapably tied. For once, here, Donald ventures into psychological territory. He comes to the tentative conclusion that his life (and, the reader divines, his entire sense of self) were tied to the only real job he'd ever had, the job that had come to be inextricably linked with his wellbeing. As the magazine's sales slumped (to the level of a typical successful publication, yes, but I suppose it's a long fall from the top) and the comic's innovations dimmed, Donald's self-worth spiralled downward in sympathy. He figured this out before it was too late, thankfully, and quit the post in 1999.

Considering that this episode forms the climax of the narrative, one might hope for more than a paragraph about the author's nervous breakdown. To which Donald might well reply that Rude Kids is subtitled "The Story Of Viz", not "The Story of Chris Donald's Neuroses", adding, as he is wont to do, that he hates all that celebrity self-help tell-all bullshit. To which I would reply, if self-examination saved his life, why is he still trying to avoid it at all costs?

Paraphrased, there's a feeling of wanting to have it both ways throughout Rude Kids. The ultimate example of this is that, almost from day one, the Viz team are approached by people wanting to collaborate (AKA make money with/alongside/via) them. This happens at least half a dozen times throughout the book and EVERY time, the cycle spins thus:
1- Man approaches Viz, wishing to make, e.g, an animated cartoon.
2- Immediate distrust from Viz staff, combined with fear of selling out, corporate oppression from Southern types, etc.
3- Sum mentioned.
4- Cautious optimism lasts just long enough to deposit cheque.
5- Donald sees first glimpse of work, is appalled.
6- Project is released to deafening silence/universal derision.
7- Donald angrily rings manager on behalf of team, rips into suits, and demands, e.g, a large bundle of cash sum be delivered to each member.
8- Manager concedes, having already purchased his second Porsche that month.

It's frustrating enough to watch a man's mistakes recur, and when we've invested ourselves, as readers, in the success of Viz, it can be quite exasperating. Why doesn't Donald LEARN from the last episode? Why doesn't he demand changes? Why doesn't he maintain creative control from day one? Why doesn't he, at least, get quality guarantees from the people involved? And if he's worried about selling out, why does he do it every time, without fail? And if he's NOT worried about selling out, why does he preface each disastrous project by claiming he knew it would be shit? Does he think that absolves him? Most telling of all, is that, throughout these sorry episodes, Donald evinces no contemplation of their repetitious predictability, leaving one with the impression that the author, even now, is reflexively averse, e.g. scared, to look beneath the surface. Once again, the author's patina of cynicism and self-deprecation forms a wholly inadequate substitute for genuine self-awareness.

Rude Kids is a fun, tartly written excursion through the UK of the eighties, a publishing world struggling to modernise, and the life of a man who made his high-school daydream come true without realising it. But it could have also been a street-level exploration of the contemporary British character, and, in that, lacks even the depth of the profanity-laced funnybook which inspired it.

What I learnt

It's going to sound annoyingly pat, but running a magazine seems both harder, and easier, than you might expect. In short, computers have made everything eighteen times simpler, and if a big bunch of people want to read what you're making on them, you'll be free-lunched by a queue of greying pony-tails faster than you can say "make that out to cash." On the other one, somebody has to get everything done before the deadline, and if you think November goes fast now you should try it with thirty pages of finished art due at the end.



In short

Title: Rude Kids - The Unfeasible Story of Viz
Author: Chris Donald
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0007190966
Year published: 2004
Pages: 228
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Autobiography