:: Article

Skank: The World’s Most Dangerous Comic Book

By Richard Marshall.

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Skank: The World’s Most Dangerous Comic Book, Bobby Joseph, (Skank Comics, 2016).

Bobby Joseph’s Skank and Black Eye comics were depositories of a punkish, adult-orientated, brash humour that fried the neat complacencies of the day with generous wit and prankish insight. They had the satirical bite that turned over tables and bit hands, and when I started reading them they seemed part of a lively London avant-punk comedic scene that included the likes of Steven Wells, Mark Manning, Stewart Home, Tony White and the rest of the Attack! Books underground gang as well as the more mainstream antics of Lennie Henry and the late great Victoria Wood on TV. Damn, his stuff was always going to be political but only because racism features as a daily trial in his lived experience. Politics was neither the humour’s source nor central purpose and it isn’t where Joseph positions himself- it was more like shuffling meat-writing observational stuff – that was his thing, and his gags pivoted out of just the goings on of his family and friends, his neighbourhood, riffs on the popular culture, hilariously unsuitable captions for the days, burning off the smog of anything long and clean, minting fast and dirty like archiving the best shit ever. As I said, any political resonances came from the context out of which his material jumped – he was never chasing it down nor painting it up and in that the comparison with Victoria Wood seems perfectly apt; both drew their comedy from their lives and their genius was in taking the vernacular of the local and the mundane and slapping it about into something universal and classic. Their humour touches racism and sexism because racism and sexism touches them. It all worked out and shrugged off heavy meat-writing for this rude and bugged up stuff that incinerated ideas of literature that wanted – you know – ‘bird-baths of doomed youth’ art stuff. You live in a certain circle and circuit and real life and all its brews come crashing in – getting involved with reality could be done from anywhere, inside or out the mind –given certain incantations of race, class and all that stew. What this gives is an official sanction for writers to write about what is going on, the world we’re living in. No one can have missed this.It ended up with the fast brash knock about scratch ‘n’ sniff thrills banging out clandestine hits to 30,000 eager readers each time, comic strips that gave a poignant amalgam of knife-sharp jokes and caustic observations about shit landing on heads from on-high.It gives you the heebie-jeebies thinking back on how goofed up and great it was, glimpsing the discrimination from an implacable knowing stance that was juiced and always ready to deliver, you know, the sucker the sucker punch.

So coming to read his first novel you expected certain things. It was going to be funny and it was going to be about South London and his mates and it would show the public machinery surrounding the human act – which once you see it makes it funny (because people in machines always are, or else tragic) whilst reminding us these roles are not made for actors or routines and they are in the end what murders and defines. When you write knowing that what you’re doing is taking a line then, really, you have to know your enemy, because you mustn’t demoralise or weaken friends, and the whole lifestyle is geared to that end. Joseph calls out the police, naturally, because their way of looking at the world is bugged with terror frenzy and the damned and it isn’t a joke even when it is. ‘Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image. Everything speaks to them of themselves,’ says Marx. But in these sketches they’ll see nothing of their lifetimes, nothing but a bugged reflection where they’ll never be more than stumped. Joseph rides that sort of energy wave, something durable and something you never knew was there until it gets pushed out of the long-lost nerve-endings of the freak culture underground that just appeals – and to a hell of a lot of people, intensely, far more than you’d have thought. Because it touches that theme of taking back and talking back to power which needs chronology and a bridge to be understood completely and the media don’t like to promote those kinds of things being for the most part bought off by the plutocrats like Murdoch hired help. These days, everything becoming so illiterate and a-historical about this, its getting too late for an uprising, but as always it seemed possible back in day. So perhaps it will be again once more. Whatever; what Joseph has always done is jerk you out of the mire using biographical roadkill, jokes, semiotics and ‘us-against-them’ swagger: it has a heavy bearing on what he’s written in this book. It’s like he’s recognised how hard it is these days to be human without an excuse for it, which is a bit shitty but it’s like here there are no free rides looking out from the vantage point of human conscience and outpost bravado.

You can hang around with a book so long you get frightened maybe it’s in another league, way off, way away, one that introduces us to some mythic dream. Catastrophe does that sometimes. Memories that haunt and seem trivial from one place rear up again later and get a sense of being heavy. This is a hitchhike across a land of fear done without pleading and is sort of gonzo – not so much written as performed, the entire contents straight into the stomach, through the navel so you’re not really breathing any more, hardly, actually, reading the saga. It’s on different levels, grounded on a foundation of utter catastrophe – the kind of harsh and brutal white rat test that makes the universe an ominous threat and little else if you’re not careful. Boils, madness, deaths in the family – the father lives to bury his daughter and some wet rawhide in the soul lashes hard and down. This is the sort of thing that goes further in penetrating the human skull than a safari blowgun. Take this book as the pliers removing the dart but you’re going to be rapt and still even when you get cashed laughing. Trace the rolling deliberate voices in this that come across as choral, a primal drama playing with the cost of vision and ambiguity. In the country of this language – its south London black vernacular occult – the vocal sounds could have polished up taciturn or instead found a myth – understood as a public dream – and there is a sense that Joseph is at times sleep dreaming out loud to get through the staggering enormity of these matters, all of them all matters of life and death even if there is laughter, the gag inside-out the scream being paid in full – but the sheer momentum of it all wakes up everything and reassures us that it’s no dream but actuality playing it’s funny brutality out loud. Take the jump-start – it all begins with a frowsy drag paragraph before it junks that to the tumbled voice of Jew Frankie and then doesn’t stop the ride …

On the evening of an otherwise dull day in February, a bitterly cold day, B received a call that changed his life forever. Shocked, dazed, nauseous and confused, he crumpled, collapsed and crashed on the unspectacular beige sofa in the middle of the featureless living room, in the semi-furnished, nondescript flat in Stockwell. His life fucked-up. Fingernails digging so deep into his chest that they drew blood, he took in an endless breath wishing for better things. He didn’t wish for a new job or fame or even to win the lottery. In that release of an unending sigh, he wished he was dead.

Jew Frankie (formerly known as Frankie Boy) rushed over to console him. A loud man in a rowdy pink shirt, he loudly protested he didn’t believe a bar of it.
It’s bollocks bruv, he scowled, a thick vein throbbing from his middle temple. Jew Frankie was a geezer. Bit of a rude boy, bit of a wide boy. He clapped B on the neck back. Hard.
Don’t zone out breddah man, he said, offering crusty clichés about God, the Psalms and shit. He told him not to worry. Dem kinda tings happen in the movies, not to people like we.’

It’s already rolling on, eyes on the road ahead and flashing its eyes at the future. We take a walk and can say, like Sarah Vowell says, ‘ I took back the night. And it’s all mine until I get stabbed, raped, mugged, shot. I’ve walked alone the darkened streets of tough towns from Palermo to New York, but the congenial Midwest makes me tremble. I know for a fact that the steam rises from the gates of hell in downtown Fargo and the Antichrist, laying low, shovels snow off the streets of Dubuque for extra cash…’ and in this there’s that reminder about how nice everything is until you get notice of what’s under it, or hiding in plain sight, a mythical, hellish ‘Midwest’ where the usually buried muttered curses of what strikes us down is whatever before struck us as ‘congenial.’ ‘Midwest’ and ‘congenial’ are code words for disaster. Congeniality – don’t get fooled. Disasters can be covered in ordinary plain congeniality language until bam – it snaps its fingers and changes the signposts. When that happens it can be fast as you like and you have to learn how to talk after, and which direction is the one going your way. In the face of his disaster Joseph becomes a primitivist-modernist in the face of death. Primitivist in that he has to learn to lay out and draw up the junk of hand-me-downs, the melodies and mail-order instructions of his joke routines as his only resources. And modernist in the consciousness of the extreme broken up frenzy that reverbed down his soul lines, stunned him to a pitch of consciousness that was desperate and an act that could only mask other fatal masks.

Words rest in the air, take us right inside a personal tragedy that humour lets out, dissolving the pain eventually into a stoic clasp. Joseph’s little daughter died suddenly and he’s showing his hand when he starts to write it out because he knows that there’s only one thing going to be worse than this, and that’s to fake it. It’s here that you sense Joseph for the first time begins to think out some obligations that come to a writer, or rather, accepted that invitation a writer has to sooner or later accept – with all the obligations and occasions that being a writer demands. And in the face of his daughter’s tragedy he takes himself to find a requiem for the life that’s been left behind and deprive it of oblivion by building a strong memorial in what he writes full knowing the risks attached, the risk of the too edgy joke, the risk of being too extreme, the risk of too much a frenzy in the humour of hurling everything away into a too unsteady pitch, the risk of missing its mark. In writing this Joseph uses what he’s got left to try and make some sort of depot for the senselessness and cruelty of his fated hand. It’s a hugely ambitious book and one that takes a huge bet for high stakes. It’s a performance where fatalism has to be eclipsed. It has to bear witness to the terrifying discovery of living on, giving testimony to the chance and luck of existence. It’s in finding the tone against elegy, against Kaddish, against sermonising that Joseph casts away the first impulses – to find meaning – and then registers it, and through doing that finds a kind of happy nihilism in rough vernacular voices clashing or else just sitting around. In doing this he stays rinky-dinky clear of pitfalls. He makes it pitch perfect. He brings you in, makes it so intimate that you have to stay in the rooms with him. The episodes fill up with air rather than gloom, and light up plain and simple with all the sly deliberate dirty humour fun made up on the spot or rehearsed from somewhere else – so what he succeeds in doing is find the human and the humane. The result is this strangely tender and virtuous book. He wins the bet.

It is about grief and the nature of loss but its virtue comes from the nature of things clasped in a vision of humanity where being human is all filled up with sympathy, and in an enlarged sense of what sympathy can be at that. It is a sympathy that inscribes a way of living and thinking about life that says other people are what makes us who we are and where a sort of duty to cultivate sympathetic feelings draws us into the lives of others, soas we even survive the worst that can happen. As he describes the nightmarish scene where he is told about the catastrophe the character B does not retreat into the insensible autism of panic, horror and despair that rushes in but presents us with a man bombarded by the kindness of others, authentic beneficence and love that fills him up at the moment when he is least able to know anything about what he is feeling or what he is to do. He jump-cuts the tragedy with the hilarious vernacular of friends who witness his calamity and dig into the depths of their own compassion and emotions to keep the man alive to what has to happen next. He is a man drowning and saved by the people around him because he senses that any lost human citizenship is the loss of species and a menace at all levels. Add to this that this is a humourous story of the sort Mark Twain wrote: ‘The humourous story is told gravely: the teller does his best to conceal that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it’ and you see that Joseph is burrowing into this whole tiny tradition.

It’s a moving book because it disregards its fear, fatalism and the hysterical sorrow of the protagonist B and this creates a perfect foil for the reader’s expectations that results in the dead-pan and gravely done humour. You never lose sight of how this event will be the heaviest event of his life. But he’s cranky and despairing at losing his magazine too, and there are all these threads that go through to tie us into extravagant half-cracked stories that can’t be taken back and have the implacable, needling expiratory effect that you know takes his broken heart and stitches him back together again. It’s the voice he finds, round the corner and comic, finally liberated from one version of himself and his daughter, an omphalos with the days left as a point around which his humour can keep turning.

Yet he also shows how catastrophes can branch out and carry more than one line, one promise, so nihilism can promise death but also a bad joke as well as a good one, some inimitable copy for the pages of some book that may or may not ever see the light of day. A shallower book would have imagined the event as melodrama, or else played a more hard-boil clinical angle so beloved of certain metropolitans. But this book seethes with zesty life, especially the zoomy voices of the lives of others, voices clamouring into his own narrative to continually frustrate any sense that there can be just one causal chain of action reaching like a ghastly hand from the nightmare phone call through to the end of the world. Joseph’s character never comprehends anything fully but instead gets shown via the conversations, asides and gifts of his community to be grasping the full meaning of everything in fragments and in parts – & maybe it never gets all put together. Maybe mourning and loss come like that in packages that don’t always or ever come back fully restored. There’s a symbolic and emotional power in the way he handles this, a vernacular impulse defecting from the authoritarian imagination that finds transcendence embodied in temperamental conservatism and archaic obstinacy, & in place of ponderous clichés of despair Joseph creates a transitory oral monument that exists in his caught-up, chaffed words. Instead of the waffling melodies of intoned dull prissiness Joseph finds the resources of a spontaneous whap of voices jabbing to the moment, jumpy and hep. He produces raw gutty speech, a kind of decomposed common prose that works like a kind of feral letter-writing that fights against the tight confines of printed text. It becomes an intense attitude and accent that drives the mind alone, and each flip confident address surprises and takes the reader aback with its hectic testimony. It’s voice carries a series of direct flung restlessness to resist the orthodox stillness of the sad, as if through the quick witted and nimble consciousness he can overcome – must overcome – the profound numb deadening of his hurt.

Make no mistake this is funny crack and never wanders off it’s porch. It has the goony laughs as interchangeable signposts for the incomplete ceremony of Joseph’s recognition of the whole point.

Is it going to finally kick off? Is it finally going to go down?
He snarled. He didn’t business. He was confident he could easily bruk up Jew Frankie. Michael had the advantage. He was taller, fitter and did boxing training three times a week. And he was sober.
Michael flexed his pecs. Waiting for something to kick off. Jew Frankie puffed on a snout. Flashing a cheeky grin, he opened up his arms for an embrace.
‘What’s up Mikey?’ he said. Michael squirmed and pulled away from the clinch. ‘Just came to see how B was doing?’ he said. Jew Frankie put his arm around Michael’s shoulder, escorting him into the house. ‘Ah. B’s alright. Yuh know how it go? Also, bredrin, thanks for bailing us out with that cab money yesterday. I’ll deffo pay you back on giro day.’ Michael nodded. He knew Jew Frankie was never going to pay him back. ‘That’s cool. I’ve cooked B some chicken.’ Michael opened up the rucksack. Pulled out the container. Jew Frankie popped it open. He looked at the food, investigating it and then sealing it back up. ‘That’s okay,’ he said, ‘I’ve already cooked. There’s some in the pot. You can leave the food you’ve brought to the side in the kitchen, or take it home and feed your rabbit.’
Michael, reflecting, responded.
‘I don’t have a rabbit.’ he said. ‘And, rabbits don’t eat chicken. They are not carnivores.’”

Stories run on and through as if they can come to load up heavier on the soul, they come through again and again without giving up the sense that this is the language that needs to be spoken, alive to its imagery: and the crime won’t vanish but is rather laid up to another arraignment. The cost of this vision is ambiguity – as in all stories the perspectives come and go so their dreams can become more worrying than events:

‘Cha man. Let’s honour this ting right,’ he said.
He switched on the radio to a pirate and pumped the volume up high. Angel by Shaggy came on. Everybody got up, and dropped moves. The bass boomed. The walls vibrated. The tracks kept coming: Girls Dem Sugar by Beenie Man, Pretty Girl by Sanchez, They Gonna Talk by Beres Hammond, Down By The River by Morgan Heritage, Psalms 23 by Buju Banton.
People hummed, danced and sang along.
Michael sat on the couch taking it all in. Above the music he heard Jew Frankie holler something about doing something in Baby Girl’s honour. Michael cringed. A bad thought crept in his head.
Is Jew Frankie trying to make money off Baby Girl’s death?
He allowed it. But the idea had seeded. It bugged him. Staring down at the lino he lit a spliff and, during the course of the evening, maybe two more. The night dragged on. He soon forgot his beef with Jew Frankie.’”

The book seethes with this subconsciousness depth that Joseph assembles through his swift and deft use of speech and its internal verbal fragments. It’s a repertory of performances out of which the individuality and distinctiveness is presented, the result of a kind of folk-anonymity ensemble. It’s a novel that reaches back and forth out of a dense lattice-work of disconnected scenes, memories, events, jokes, couplets, relationships, verses, one-liners, pieces of eight – until there emerges the mystery of feeling not spoken outloud, but inexorable.

Only the legendary Mark Manning comes close to being as page for page funny as Joseph. Turn to any page and it’s impossible not to grin:

B reached to the back of the car. He pulled a box of tissues and gave her a few. She wiped her nose and tears. Thanking him, she continued.
‘The pain and anguish were etched on the lines of my forehead. I howled. I shook. I trembled. I kissed Abraham on the mouth and said goodbye. I then closed the Tupperware lid and we all covered Abraham’s coffin with handfuls of dirt.’
B paused. He gave Ellie an offhanded look. ‘I don’t understand. Did you say Tupperware? What do you mean Tupperware?’ Ellie shot back a quizzical look. ‘Tupperware? You know. What you put your lunch in?’ B rolled his lips inwards. He sniffed. ‘Yeah, Ellie. I know what the fuck a fucking Tupperware box is. But what the fuck has that got to do with Abraham?’ ‘Abraham was in it.’ Ellie said. ‘Abraham was in the Tupperware box?’ B said. ‘How do you get a fully grown man to fit into a Tupperware box?’ Ellie shrugged her shoulders. ‘You cannot get a grown man to fit in a Tupperware box,’ she said. ‘I know a grown man can’t fit in a fucking Tupperware box. It defies size and physics. Correct me if I’m fucking wrong, but didn’t you say Abraham was buried in a Tupperware box?’ B said.
‘I did indeed.’ ‘So how can a man be buried in a Tupperware box?’ Ellie laughed nervously. She slapped B playfully on the arm. ‘You’re such a silly sausage! When did I say Abraham was a man?’”

The blurb summarises the whole atmosphere of the novel perfectly:

‘THIS IS THE STORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS COMIC BOOK – STRAIGHT OUTTA SARTH LONDON A.K.A. ‘The Black Viz’, Skank magazine was Britain’s best-selling ‘bad-bwoy’ magazine selling 30,000 copies every issue until a haze of ganja smoke AND the Prime Minister, HM The Queen, Sir Trevor McDonut and a Linford Christie lawsuit, lunchboxed the teenage boyz-n-da-hoodies behind the mag off their definitely-not-stolen mopeds. Suddenly, they were having to buy their own weed. AND smoke it. Just when life couldn’t get any funnier, the worst thing that could happen to anyone happens to B…’

And as a bonus, each chapter has illustrations from Joseph’s comic book like scrolls from the other culture that the novel celebrates. Back when Skank and Attack! Books were rolling there was a sense of writing as being hardly the point, words being an excuse to present a comedic matter that doesn’t always rescue silence but gets close, with sentences just further excuses to find such words; and through the fog of anguish which is the obvious mystery of life, they worked to prove the claims of comedy over tragedy, to float that idea out and test it. Punk felt like that too. That sensibility is here in this book. There’s such a living in its south London vernacular buzz because there’s so much mortification.

E.g. ‘‘Only you could equate my very fucking real life situation with the loss of your pet hamster. I told you shit about my Pops. Shit I wouldn’t tell anyone. Shit I’m dealing with coz of losing my Baby Girl. I’m so fucking mad right now. I’m also mad that I argued with you about the life expectancy of a domestic rodent instead of focusing on my loss.’”

When you finish reading and stop grinning ‘… you know it’s wide and deep/can stand right here/ see my face from the other side.’ Bobby Joseph’s novel is one that has a heavy minor chord playing through but with a circle pulling him away from the doom theme because if there wasn’t then the circle would really have been closed and there’d never have been another word to say.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 15th, 2016.