As media sensations go, a collection of wilfully ham-fisted and obscene cartoons might seem an unlikely basis for a success story. Yet cartoon publication Modern Toss, described by its makers as "pointlessly hostile", and by the press as "like Derek and Clive illustrated by an angry child", evolved from cult website to high street retail phenomenon within two years. And this might only be the beginning. In addition to selling magazines, books and having a Channel4 show commissioned, the duo behind the cult hit is also contributing cartoons to a variety of publications including Private Eye, FHM, the Daily Mirror, The Guardian, Golf Punk and Bizarre.
For its makers, writer-illustrators Jon Link and Mick Bunnage, demand for their work in the past six months has seen what began by Link's admission as "a place to put cartoons that were unpublishable in my view" become a full-time occupation for them both. They are undoubtedly now the hottest new cartoonists in publishing.
The pair first collaborated on the Office Pest cartoon strip which appeared in Loaded where they were both employed in the mid-1990s. Bunnage sees the "experimental violence" of Pest (a character whose coffee breaks led to arson, mayhem and the slaughter of colleagues) as the natural antecedent to the grotesques that make up Modern Toss. Chief among them is Mr Tourette, a sign writer who is unable to prevent his everyday commissions from lapsing into public obscenity. The range of characters and styles in Modern Toss - from almost sub-human scrawl to high-standard strip cartoon - is testament to its makers' experience. Bunnage recalls an early career "drawing wounded animals for a veterinary magazine", while Link had worked on record sleeves before moving into magazine design.
The duo first served up their Modern Toss on their website, Shiftlap.com in January 2003. "We had five cartoons on at the start but we would do more and then email them out to this list of subscribers that started growing." As commercial interest grew, the cartoons they had once considered unpublishable found their way into newspapers and lifestyle magazines.
With visitors to the site reaching 3,000 a day, "Friends of Modern Toss" were invited to pledge £5 towards the publication of the Modern Toss comic - two softback volumes of cartoons, many of which feature in their latest venture, Modern Toss Book.
Richard Milner, their publisher at Macmillan, first contacted the duo through their site. "I thought it would have a big commercial appeal," he says. "While I found it funny, humour is so subjective so I asked colleagues in the building to log on and see if it was just me. But almost everyone came back saying, 'Despite myself I find this absolutely hilarious.' Obviously it's rude but there's a cleverness behind it. It's very carefully thought out and the design is unique. I could see it was very visually appealing."
Having already published the Viz spin-off titles, Milner says he was confident the book would succeed. "At the moment it's selling 200 copies a day. It's very good and. given the time frame where everyone is just about gearing up for the rush on humour titles at Christmas, it's great to be at that level now."
One fan is the actor Rhys Ifans, who bought 20 copies of the book with the intention of handing them out on the set of his next movie. Channel 4 commissioned a Modern Toss Comedy Lab special from Talkback Thames which is to be shown in January. With progress like that, such obscure concepts as Spider Self-Harm Group, Mr Tourette and Porn Club may yet find themselves next year's household names.Reuse content