Where else can you find intelligent Beckettian drama featuring addiction, depression, fatalism and gastronomy?
Viz isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s mistakenly considered by many to be nothing more than puerile toilet humour. Admittedly, it’s very often puerile and the toilet probably features more than is strictly healthy, but it’s also the most socially-aware, well written and (occasionally) on-the-money satirical publication around. Some of the comedy is even – and I’m going to struggle to back this up – quite sophisticated. However, even a hardened fan like me has to admit that the adult comic that gleefully mocks itself as ‘not as funny as it used to be’ on its own front cover is usually not as funny as it used to be. Whether through laziness, repetition of deliberate sabotage its output tickles the ribs less often than it used. The infrequently published Drunken Bakers, however, has proven itself a high point not just in Viz’s predominantly impressive back catalogue but in the history of British humour.
For the unenlightened, the Drunken Bakers is a single page strip following the non-adventures of two middle aged dipsomaniac men who, in theory, run a bakery. In reality they simply drink till they collapse, knock themselves out, end up in hospital or are beaten insensible. We never find out their names and they rarely successfully bake anything or end the day without burning the shop down. There’s blood, seepings, death, despair and ruination. It sounds pretty bleak and it is – bleak, desperate, painful, tragic and absolutely hilarious. Blackly hilarious. I love it. But I realise I’m not selling it very well.
There’s no punch lines, no happy endings, no escape – just self-raising immolation.I believe that if you like the doomed demeanour of Withnail, the grim wit of Tony Hancock or Harvey Pekar, the exacting pacing of Beckett or the minimal plotting of the Royle Family you’ll like the bakers. I like it because there’s nothing else quite like it our there. The strip’s creators, Barney Farmer and Lee Healey, present a world of misery and futility encapsulated in a few simple lines and rudimentary typeset speech bubbles and made extraordinary by the doomed, futile symbiotic relationship between the bakers, their mordant non-sequital interactions and their unending quest for boozed-up oblivion. The worse their lives get, the darker and funnier it all becomes.
The strip is utterly atypical of Viz in that it’s the only one of the comic’s offerings that’s even on nodding terms with reality. If you make your brain squint real hard you can just about imagine these characters living their tragic, brutal lives in your town. The same could never be said of Biffa Bacon or the Pathetic Sharks. But what is typical is the determination of Viz’s ever-contrary editorial staff to not pander to the ever-growing army of Bakers fans demanding that their heroes appear more regularly. They aren’t in every issue, far from it, there’s not been a compendium and only a couple of badly scanned strips can be found via a Google search. This decision is both headstrong and very canny – if we want to follow the Bakers’ adventures we have to buy the comic.
So, do it. If you are unaware of the magnificence of the Drunken Bakers buy Viz, hope the strip is in that issue and then lie back and glory in its hilariously deathly-grim glow. There’s no punch lines, no happy endings, no escape – just self-raising immolation.