Thursday, 12 January 2012

Viz Annual: The One-string Banjo book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 28th October 2006

Juvenile jokes fun for adults
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Viz Annual: The One-string Banjo:
A Cacophany of Bum Notes Plucked from Issues 132 to 141
Dennis Publishing, 159 pp, 10.99 pounds

There is a clear message on the back of the Viz Annual: The One-string Banjo that says, "Not for sale to children." Very sound advice, as adults will be spared the embarrassment of having to explain some of its contents to curious juveniles.

The irony is that a lot of the humor is just that--juvenile--and all the better it is for it.

For those unfamiliar with Viz, it is a comic that was started in the northern English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne more than 25 years ago by brothers Chris and Simon Donald which uses scatological, risque and occasionally downright offensive material as the basis for its jokes.

Over the years, characters such as Sid the Sexist, Roger Mellie, The Fat Slags, Mrs. Brady Old Lady, Finbarr Saunders and Biffa Bacon have all become legendary characters among Viz readers.

Their names alone reveal that political correctness is not high on the magazine's agenda. Sid the Sexist treats the opposite sex purely as objects of his lust and boasts of his success with women to his mates down at the pub. But the joke's always on him as his efforts are invariably doomed to failure.

And like many classic comic characters, there's a chance that you know someone like him.

Characters' names in Viz are often alliterative, such as Sid and Major Misunderstanding, or rhyming, as is the case with Finbarr Saunders and his Double Entendres or Roger Mellie (the man on the telly), an incompetent television presenter with a tendency to express himself rather too honestly on screen.

All of these characters turn up in The One-string Banjo, as well as many more taken from 10 issues originally published about two years ago.

Viz is not just about comic strips, though.

One of its most popular features is the letters page, incorporating Top Tips and Lames to Fame.

Many of the letters are made up by the editorial staff, but that doesn't detract from their hilarious observations on the absurdities of everyday life, such as this point made by Alan Hassell of East Bergholt: "I am constantly annoyed by those signs which read 'Keep Gates Closed at All Times.' Surely these farmers should simply put a fence there, instead of taunting ramblers with unusable gates."

Likewise, Top Tips are bizarre hints that occasionally border on the surreal or simple statements of the obvious, such as this piece of advice from Fiona by e-mail: "Penpals. If you and your penpal should fall out, simply send each other empty envelopes."

Lames to Fame are readers' tenuous connections with famous people, such as this gem from Jamie Bartlett in Hyde: "My ex-wife's brother-in-law's mum's next-door neighbour is the brother of Les McKeown out of the Bay City Rollers." And it won't be long before you start thinking of your own Lames to Fame. To start the ball rolling, my mother once spotted Oscar-nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite doing his shopping in her local supermarket.

It has to be said that Viz makes few concessions to an international audience. Many of its cultural and linguistic references will mean little to anyone unfamiliar with British culture, and the Geordie vernacular used by some characters may be a little tough to understand. But that shouldn't spoil the book for you as many of the themes touched upon in the stories are pretty universal.

There are parts of The One-string Banjo that are outrageous enough to make you wonder how in the world they ever got published in the first place, never mind in a collected form. But, as long as you keep an open mind and remember that almost any topic is fair game for gags in the world of Viz, this is less a cacophony of bum notes and more a barrel organ of belly laughs.

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