poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Viz Symposium: One in the Oven

Fru T. Bunn (“the Master Baker”) is a recurring strip about a baker, Frubert Bunn, who makes gingerbread dolls and has sex with them. The invariants of the strip are as follows:

  • The real women in Frubert’s life, his wife (Noreen) and daughter (Chelsea), will make some plea for his attention. They will be ignored or fobbed off, and Frubert will find some excuse to escape from their company into his bakery.
  • Frubert will bake a human-sized gingerbread sex doll with large cherry-topped meringues for breasts and a doughnut vagina.
  • Frubert will talk to the gingerbread doll, occasionally filling in her side of the conversation (“What’s that you say? Where’s my wife? Don’t worry your pretty little biscuit head…”). He will act out a pornographic scenario with the doll, becoming increasingly frenzied as the fantasy progresses.
  • Frubert’s lust for his gingerbread creations, and the onanistic sexual release he obtains with them, will be punished with some comic mishap.

The strip is clearly situated in the conventional moral universe of British sex comedy, based on scarcity and guilt. It is taken as axiomatic that sexual fulfilment cannot be found with real women (who are either not interested in sex, or whose interest is threatening and monstrous, never coinciding with male desire). The interest of male characters is therefore focussed on dolly birds with exaggerated sexual characteristics, unobtainable in real life but presented in pornography as permanently willing and available. The dolly bird is the equivalent, on the sexual menu, of the “slap up meal” of bangers and mash typically given as a reward in the Beano and Dandy: an image of abundance that makes sense only in the context of scarcity and rationing (a contemporary reader, unfamiliar with the code, might simply see a plate with too much food on it). In Fru T. Bunn, of course, the woman is literally food; Frubert’s grotesque slavering is a distant relative of the Beano miscreant’s drooling over the enormous pie left on the windowsill to cool.

In this moral universe, lechery is correlated with greed, taking more than your fair share, and must be punished accordingly. In some Fru T. Bunn strips the comeuppance is conventional: Frubert is caught in flagrante delicto with one of his gingerbread creations, and humiliated accordingly. The most interesting strips, however, are those in which frustration, guilt and punishment are no longer real-world circumstances affecting Frubert’s access to and enjoyment of his fantasy, but occur in the context of the fantasy itself.

Here we can distinguish between two modalities of “crossing over” between the domains of real life and fantasy. In the first, elements of the fantasy invade real life: Frubert catches the gingerbread clap, is arrested by gingerbread policemen in front of a baying crowd of gingerbread citizens denouncing him as a sex pest, or locked in a prison cell with “Big Bubba”, a gingerbread man with a large chocolate eclair for a penis. The real-world consequences of actions taken in the fantasy domain are themselves clothed in fantasy: the agent of retribution is a figure from the fantasy world, like the abused toys in Pixar’s Toy Story ganging up on their tormentor. In the second modality, elements of real life invade the fantasy: Frubert’s play-acting with his gingerbread sex dolls starts to include precisely those real-world exigencies his escape into fantasy might be supposed to have left behind.

In the strip in Viz issue 178, the metaphorical “freshness” or “staleness” of a sexual relationship is literalised in Frubert’s confectionary misadventures. Frubert in this story is not merely interested in sex for its own sake: his fantasies concern the drama of adulterous transgression, first cheating on his wife with “a bit of gingerbread crumpet” and then cheating on his gingerbread mistress with a meat woman created by the butcher next door. To the first mistress, baked while his wife is in hospital for a month and a half having “ladies’ operations”, he complains that his marriage is “nothing but a hollow sham…we’d grown apart, you see. There was no excitement left in our relationship”. After a night of passion, he turns to her and declares that he “can’t imagine this relationship ever going stale”; in the following frame she is depicted, “6 weeks later”, sitting in an armchair in front of the television, clothed in a plain frock with a cup of tea and what appear to be chocolate logs representing her hair in curlers. Frubert “harrumphs” in his chair then goes outside and rants to himself: “Jesus Christ, Fru! When are you going to learn? She’s just like all the others…leading you on and then, once she’s got you where she wants you…”

The same scene is repeated in the closing frames of the strip, when Frubert elopes with his neighbour’s “meat missus”, promising her “new life in the sun” and declaring that “my love for you will only grow stronger with each passing day”; the final frame depicts her once again propped in an armchair, surrounded by swarming flies. In passing from gingerbread (which goes stale) to meat (which rots and stinks, especially “in the sun”), Frubert intensifies his enjoyment, but in the doubling-up of fantasy, committing adultery to escape the staleness of an already adulterous relationship, the real returns in horrifying form: as the fantasy “grows stronger”, so its traumatic kernel (the reality of physical ageing and death) takes form in the body of the fantasy itself.

This is strange matter for humour, and illustrates the knot in Viz that ties a comic sensibility largely based on the confusion of “levels” (between everyday and obscene speech, as in Finbarr Saunders, or between the absurd/whimsical/fantastic and the commonplace as in almost every strip in one form or another) to the most penetrating social commentary. This is how we should understand Graham Dury’s claim that “you’re no cleverer when you’ve read Viz. You might have had a few laughs, but you’ve not learnt anything”: each strip moves entirely within the circle of its own invariants, developing strictly on the basis of the rules it has set for itself and resisting the temptation to pass out of that circle in order to deliver some message or moralising conclusion. At its best, Viz is rigorously absurdist, and it is on account of this rigour that we may say that it approaches the consistency of a thought.