Another book that I picked up in the secondhand shops on Saturday was a 1972 collection of John Kent’s satirical comic strip Varoomshka.
The series and its eponymous heroine adapted their name from that of Veruschka, a top model of the period, best known now for her brief appearance in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (she’s the woman being straddled by David Hemmings on the poster), and for being photographed in elaborate trompe-l’oeil body paint.
Varoomshka first appeared in 1969, on the tail-end of a vogue for Candide-like adventures in which scantily- or un-clad young women acted as innocent witnesses to the vicissitudes of contemporary society. Other examples include Little Annie Fanny, Phoebe Zeitgeist and, most obviously, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy.
Compared to these, Varoomshka was relatively mild. Unlike Candy or Barbarella, she was not sexually assaulted repeatedly, nor was she as literally objectified as Phoebe Zeitgeist. Mostly, she merely acted as a decorative witness to the words and actions of caricatured politicians of the day (and to be fair, Kent’s unmodulated line and use of clear open space, matching the style of girls’ comics of the day, can be very decorative). Sometimes, however, she was more completely integrated into the story, as here.
I think we can all guess how that tale turned out.
Artists have, of course, long used allegory as an excuse for producing pictures of naked women. Additionally, British newspaper comic strips have a well-established tradition of undressing their heroines: consider Jane in the Daily Mirror or George and Lynne in the Sun. So which rag ran Varoomshka?
That’s right, it was the Guardian, bastion of British social democracy and cultural liberalism. Little wonder that, according to Kent’s obituary, many of the staff there objected strongly to the presence of the strip. And it wasn’t just the sexual politics that was an odd fit. In this sequence, Varoomshka goes to the cinema, to see a film about an African republic whose leaders are, basically, Prime Minister Ted Heath and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, in blackface.
Sometimes it is sobering to remember that such things were acceptable comic discourse within my lifetime. But it is reassuring to note how many of the politicians in the book are now so thoroughly forgotten that I can’t recognise them at all. The strips remind us, too, of how many discarded options and contingencies litter the path of history, as Kent uses Varoomshka to object to (never fulfilled) plans to sell off BBC Radio 1, or to the prospect of a deal with the illegal white minority government of Rhodesia. Presumably these must have seemed like genuine possibilities at the time.
Kent would go on to produce a number of comic strip political satires for Private Eye, but mostly without the half-dressed women.