Did You Know Britain Had a 'Black Viz'?
I spoke to Bobby Joseph, the founder of the <i>Skank</i> and <i>Black Eye</i> comic books.
Covers of Skank (Scans via)
If you’re an independent publisher, it’s generally a good idea to avoid defaming prominent ex-Olympians. Unfortunately, that logic clearly wasn’t something that Bobby Joseph and his colleagues at Skank – Britain’s first satirical black culture comic book – paid much attention to the issue that everything went to shit.
“Yeah, what happened there,” says Bobby, the magazine’s editor and chief writer, “is that we ran a strip that, according his lawyers, implied Linford Christie was taking steroids. He didn’t like that. Our publishing costs had already risen by that point, and after he sued us we had to shut the comic down.”
Before Christie’s lawyers jumped in at the tail-end of 1997, Skank was more than libellous jokes about retired British sportsmen. Started in 1993, the magazine popped out of a conversation between Bobby and Dotun Adebayo, publisher of Yardie – Victor Headley's debut novel and the first black British bestseller – and the founder of X-Press, the publishing company that sent 200 bullets to members of the press to help promote Headley's follow-up.
“Dotun was looking at the kind of stuff that Viz did, had seen some of the characters I was doing and suggested I do my own take on it,” says Bobby. That take turned out to be satirising the Caribbean communities in Lewisham and Hackney that Joseph and his team of artists had grown up in. Characters included hyper-aggy Jamaican policeman "Scotland Yardie" (“Most man’s worst nightmare – a yardie wid a badge”) and "Rachel Prejudice", who only dated white guys and bought “Latoya Jackson skin lightening cream” from the “BNP chemist”.
“We had quite a bit of backlash over stereotyping people; this was in the early-90s, when there was still a fair amount of racial tension in London,” says Bobby. “But I think the people who were angry with us didn’t see that we were turning those stereotypes on their heads and finding the humour in them. Some elements were our own personal quirks, but we had the ability to laugh at them.”
The first few panels from "Back to Basics" in Skank (Scan via)
That said, not every strip was a cutting takedown of black British culture. For each “Back to Basics” – a page sending up John Major’s Brixton upbringing – there was a strip about Mr Motivator hanging himself; for every edition of “The Fugitive”, a character who’s constantly on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, there was the unfortunately named “Fagga Muffins”, which – as you might guess from the title – is the kind of thing that presumably wouldn’t go down too well if it was published today.
“Obviously those weren’t our ideals or ideologies,” Bobby insists when I bring up the more contentious strips. “It was based on what we saw of people around us who were reacting and talking like this. We took the language to its extremes, but it was just a reflection of the stuff we’d hear.”
The first few panels of "The Fugitive" in Skank (Scan via)
That might sound like an easy justification, but once you get past the name the strip is basically just a platform to make homophobes look like idiots. One issue, for example, has a load of thugs rushing the Muffins at Carnival, before the mob’s own debilitating stupidity ends in them giving up the chase and bottling each other instead. Plus, it’s a satirical comic strip, not a Jezebel article – taking it too seriously makes you part of the punchline.
“We were silly back then,” laughs Bobby. “When I was about 20 we were doing a Skank photo shoot where we had all these guys holding weapons up. We shot it in a back garden – all these black guys pointing guns at this white photographer – and one of the neighbours saw and obviously thought we were trying to hack the poor guy. Next thing, police burst in pointing guns at me and we ended up being taken to Lewisham police station to explain ourselves.”
The next time the magazine had to explain itself, it wasn’t as easy as convincing multiple police officers that they weren’t about to murder someone.
Covers of Black Eye
After Skank closed, Bobby took a bunch of freelance writing jobs; a character for Lenny Henry was a successful one, a Radio 4 pilot less so. A couple of years later, he and his friend Errol Murray got talking about how the personalities in the magazine would react to what was going on in the London of 2001 – the Met police commissioner admitting the force was institutionally racist, So Solid being blamed for every single murder in the country – and decided to put together a new magazine, Black Eye.
“Skank was publicised left, right and centre,” says Bobby, “but with Black Eye Errol wanted to be a bit more low-key. We sold them at little sound clashes, record stores, comedy clubs – that kind of thing. And, from there, everything clicked into place and everyone just started picking it up.”
Bobby brought back many of the artists he’d worked with on Skank, notably east London graffiti writer Danny Francis, who drew the vast majority of strips and helped Bobby and Errol with the overall running of the magazine. One of Danny’s regulars was “Big Val”, a crime-fighting “yardie gyal” who looked a bit like Terry Crews if he wore denim cut-offs and used his nipples to intimidate people.
The first few panels from the first "Big Val" in Black Eye (Click to enlarge)
Val and her “mampy squad” were a progression from "Scotland Yardie" – a group of oppressively hostile women flown in from Jamaica to police the streets of Harlesden. Their debut appearance involves the squad firing grenades at looters, beating a gang of rioters with a medieval spiked club and gassing a load of drug dealers out of a trap house. In the next issue, they set out to shut down an illegal rave, before Big Val decides to sack off her original plan and find a guy instead. When she does, she has sex with him 30 times and he dies of exhaustion.
Other new additions included “Cotch Dan”, a roaming irritation who spent his days offending mothers, smoking huge bags of weed that didn’t belong to him and slowly driving people to suicide; “PC Dickie Davis, Institutionalised Racist”, a cop fixated on arresting ethnic minorities; and “The Artful Dodgers”, a couple of guys who’d dress up as various daytime TV presenters – Ainsley Harriot, Andi Peters and Rustie Lee, among others – so they could keep signing on under different names.
Overall, there wasn’t a huge shift in tone from Skank to Black Eye – there were still plenty of strips involving radioactive dildos and horny road-men throwing up on pensioners – but the jokes were sharper and the mockery net was cast a little further; as well as comatose stoners and cheating boyfriends, the writers started satirising social workers, benefits advisors and Britain’s leery attitude towards Romanian immigrants.
Thanks to the fact that Black Eye was being produced in London at the turn of the millennium, there was another new theme that managed to work its way on to almost every other page: UK garage. The genre had blown up around the time that Skank was shut down, and by the first issue of Black Eye Sara Cox was treating suburban mums and Home Counties commuters to Pied Piper tunes on her Radio 1 breakfast show.
That meant a strip devoted to “Garage Glen”, a spread defending So Solid (“The hole in the ozone layer – So Solid didn’t do it! Devaluing the Euro – So Solid didn’t do it!”) and an obsession with a goateed man from Southampton.
I mention the story on one Black Eye cover titled: “‘I’m the double of Craig David,’ says ugly man from Hackney.”
“Yeah, that was pretty much just a product of its time,” laughs Bobby. “I suppose we reacted a bit more to stuff from popular culture, like saying on the cover that Eminem was going to remake some classic blaxploitation movie – he wasn’t – or making up a whole page about how 50 Cent was the world’s most butters rapper.”
"Garage Glen" in Black Eye (Click to enlarge)
The magazine’s production values improved issue by issue – possibly with some help from the newly instated ads for sex-lines and hydroponic grow shops – but by 2004 it had become too much to handle. “After a while there was this real pressure to deal with distribution, and we were having trouble finding printers,” Bobby tells me. “They were worried after the whole Skank thing, because when you get sued, the printer gets sued – everyone down the chain gets sued.”
Deciding to bring the comic to a close, Bobby, Errol and Danny transferred some of the characters to video, taking their sketches to the Portobello Film Festival every year with the intention of releasing a series of DVDs: “The plan was to basically turn them into a kind of audio-visual version of the magazine and upload them all online for free, but unfortunately it didn’t really work out in the end.”
Ten years later, the writer and curator Paul Gravett asked Bobby if he could include Black Eye in “Comics Unmasked”, an exhibition of the UK’s most significant comic books, which opened last month at the British Library.
I ask Bobby whether he realised the significance of what he was doing with Skank when it first started, introducing a black British perspective to the comic book world for the first time. “No, I guess it was just a happy accident,” he says. “All I ever wanted to do was just write and put out funny comic books, and I’m lucky enough to have been able to do that for a living and honoured that people think that some of what I’ve done is worthwhile.”
“Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” is open at the British Library until the 19th of August. Bobby is currently working on Black Eye Skank, a best-of from both magazines, and a "Scotland Yardie" graphic novel. The forthcoming first book, illustrated by Joseph Samuels, is called Kendutty Fried Chicken. Follow him on Twitter for updates: @Malcolm_Vex
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