Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Drunken Bakers

The Drunken Bakers are characters in the British adult humour magazine Viz created by Barney Farmer and Lee Healey. 

The two bakers run a bakery together. Their names have never been mentioned; one has sparse black hair, the other has a bulbous nose and large phiz of fair (possibly blond) hair. They are drawn as - and have the personalities of - a pair of classic clown archetypes, an odd couple: the curly haired but balding one being short and aggressive, the taller being doleful. In one episode, they were drawn as wearing suits that were for the curly-haired one much too small, and for the taller one much too big - another classic clown trope. 

The presentation of the strip portrays a fatalistic style, where it is obvious that the bakers will never reform, their customers will never get proper service, and no-one is doing a thing about it. Some storylines fail to resolve themselves and end indeterminately, reinforcing the character's cyclical and depressing existence. (In a recent strip, one of the bakers is bitten by a stray dog he has befriended, but he doesn't notice. "Your mouth is pissing blood" remarks the other baker.) 

Drunken Bakers is probably the most subtle and, in a way, philosophical Viz strip ever. Unlike the rest of the comic's more usual fare, it's not a satire on anything in particular and, despite the subject matter, is totally dissimilar to Eight Ace, the other regular Viz dipso. I've seen Drunken Bakers compared to Beckett in print before and think that's about right. The characters' drunkenness isn't funny, they're not comedy drunks - these are broken men, and men whose pain and suffering we only come to understand slowly through tiny snatches of information which occasionally bleed into the strip.

Not all contemporary video art has been conscripted into the Whitney Biennial. One exception is ''Drunken Bakers,'' a deft and pungent bit of appropriation by the British artist Mark Leckey. Its quarry is a raunchy British adult comic strip written by Barney Farmer and drawn by Lee Healey for Viz magazine. Given Mr. Leckey's fidelity to this source, his effort should probably be called an adaptation or an homage.

With ''Drunken Bakers,'' as with ''Shades of Destructors,'' Mr. Leckey raises his game considerably, but through simplicity not complication. He forsakes collage, color, youth and music, as well as moving images, to dwell on more advanced dissipation: that of two middle-aged Bumstead-like alcoholics haplessly lurching from one disaster and one drink to the next as they attempt to run a bakery. He has ingeniously filmed the comic strip with close-ups and jump-cuts, creating a kind of stop-action animation, and added a skillfully explicit soundtrack replete with convincing belches, slurps, breaking glass and vomiting. (The comic's speech balloons, which Mr. Leckey deleted, are read verbatim by Mr. Leckey and Steven Claydon, a member of Jack2Jack.)
Roberta Smith
NY Times review

Comedy drunks have been around since drinks began, but few have been so utterly forlorn as The Drunken Bakers. As the name suggests, this cartoon strip - a semi-regular feature in that fine comic institution, Viz - concerns some bakers who get drunk. The essentials don't vary much: the average black-and-white, page-long episode sees a customer coming in with a simple request for, say, a wedding cake or some buns. With the best of intentions, the sweet-looking, white-haired pair head out back to gather ingredients and mix dough. But soon, one will quietly suggest a little drop of something - Drambuie or gin, perhaps - and the other will stoically agree. Before long, they're both staggering round a smoke-filled bakery surrounded by empty spirits bottles. Again. It's tricky to say what's so appealing about their slide from being worthy citizens to utterly wrecked lost souls. Writer Barney Farmer and artist Lee Healey imbue the strips with a real sense of despondency; these aren't drunks who have convivial escapades or adventures - they are drunks who drink, get drunk, pass out and burn the cakes. And being bakers somehow makes it worse: it seems such a wholesome occupation. Recently, one baker headed off for supplies and, in the next speech-free frame, was shown on his hands and knees in a shopping centre surrounded by liquid oozing out from a mess of broken glass and polythene. The look of sad befuddlement on his face was kind of moving. So, yes, clearly there are limits, plot-wise. But I'm hoping that for some while longer, Viz continues to show us the non-exploits of two bakers who, tragically, never quite manage to bake.
Steve Lowe

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