Oh Lordy, it's Viz at 20!

The first issue of Britain's favourite adult comic was laid out on a card-table in the editor's bedroom and sold in Newcastle pubs. But it turned out we had an insatiable appetite for fart jokes, and now, on its 20th birthday, Viz is in the hands of a major publisher, sells 300,000, and is the subject of a new exhibition. Even the Daily Telegraph wished it happy birthday. And still its founder hasn't dared show it to his mum
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I vividly remember the day the first issue of Viz was published. Me and my mate Jim Brownlow, the co-founder, caught a bus to the Tyneside Free Press to pick up the finished magazines. The print run was only 150 so they all fitted into one cardboard box. We picked up the box and scurried off to a café in Newcastle's Bigg Market, where we sat excitedly drinking tea and flicking through the comic.

I vividly remember the day the first issue of Viz was published. Me and my mate Jim Brownlow, the co-founder, caught a bus to the Tyneside Free Press to pick up the finished magazines. The print run was only 150 so they all fitted into one cardboard box. We picked up the box and scurried off to a café in Newcastle's Bigg Market, where we sat excitedly drinking tea and flicking through the comic.

It was a revelation to see our cartoons in jet-black ink on creamy newsprint. They suddenly looked like real cartoons, albeit not particularly funny or well-drawn real cartoons. The fact that the printers had bound four of the 12 pages the wrong way round didn't bother us in the least.

I can also vividly remember the day the 98th and current issue of Viz was published. Twenty years almost to the month since that first issue appeared, I strolled, ironically, across that very same Bigg Market and bought a copy for £1.75 in a newsagent's shop. That was the first time I've ever had to pay for a copy of Viz .

Viz is now a vast corporate enterprise run in London by John Brown Publishing. Posting a few copies to the editorial team in Newcastle is too trifling and mundane a task to concern them. Our latest annual, The Rusty Sheriff's Badge , has been on sale in the shops (priced a mere £8.99) for more than a week now, yet none of us in the Newcastle office has seen a copy.

Things were never like this in the good old days when, for the first five years, I published Viz myself. The magazine was laid out on a card-table in my bedroom. There were no deadlines, other than perhaps a casual notion mooted in mid-June that it might be worth having an issue out by Christmas. The comic was sold Big Issue- style outside gigs, and walking from pub to pub.

I used to hate walking into bars selling them, but something drove me to do it. I remember one drunken, bent-nosed farming student in the "agrics" bar at Newcastle University snorting at me, grabbing a dozen comics out of my hand and tearing them in half. You should have seen the look I gave him once I had got out of the building. Robbie Coltrane did the same thing in a pub in Newcastle - tore a comic up - in the days when he was just an up-and-coming fat bastard. Those were the days.

Fortunately, a couple of record shops in Newcastle agreed to stock the magazine, word spread and I started getting repeat orders. Then Brian Sandals got in touch. He ran the Kard Bar in the Handyside Arcade, which specialised in badges, greetings cards and Japanese death stars. He was impressed with Viz and asked for exclusive rights to stock it at least a day before any other shop in town.

As a result of repeatedly overestimating the commercial longevity of teenage pop phenomena, Brian had a large attic room full of glossy posters of the Bay City Rollers, Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. "Why don't you give them away as free gifts?" he suggested. They were too big, so we guillotined them in four and gave away quarter of a Bay City Rollers poster with every copy of our next issue.

Soon, shops such as the Kard Bar were selling hundreds of copies of Viz , and even high-street record stores began to stock it, albeit illegally. The HMV shop on Northumberland Street kept a huge pile of comics right next to the till. The staff were ordered to hide the comics if anyone from head office entered the store.

By 1984 we were shifting up to 5,000 copies of each issue and it was getting difficult to cope with demand. My brother Simon and I boarded the number 33 bus once with two of my granny's "Mrs Brady"-style shopping trolleys loaded up with bundles of comics to be distributed around town.

I'd slowly built up a small network of outlets in other parts of Britain - everything from a communist wholefood shop in Norwich to a dirty book shop in Bournemouth - and there were a good few subscriptions. All these comics had to posted, and eventually the lady in our local post office complained that I was buying too many stamps. "I need them for my regular customers," she moaned.

The business side was becoming a hassle and I decided that Viz needed a publisher. After being turned down by IPC in 1984 (its A&R man said arse jokes were on the way out) I wrote to Virgin and a copy of Viz landed on John Brown's then quite modest desk. He immediately scented a publishing fortune and caught the next plane to Middlesbrough, where a kind taxi driver gave him a quick lesson in geography and put him on a train to Newcastle.

I was impressed by John's track record at Virgin Books - he had published Russell Grant's Starscope - though I wasn't too keen on his mates. The first time I visited his office he introduced me to Tony Parsons. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and in August 1985 Viz became a regular publication for the first time and was available in shops everywhere.

My parents were kept in the dark about the comic. I didn't think they'd approve, and managed to keep it from them until a television crew arrived at the door one morning to film Viz for a "yoof" TV show. While making them a cup of coffee, my dad managed to winkle out what they were there for. My mum, who was wheelchair-bound, asked if I'd bring a copy of the comic downstairs for her to see. I Tippexed out 27 words before I had the nerve to show it to her. She didn't seem too impressed with what remained.

My dad seemed quite indifferent to the goings-on in my bedroom, although he did comment on the fact that the same friend was calling on me at 9am every day, going upstairs to my room, and then leaving about tea-time. I had to explain that this was Graham Dury and he was working for me, in my bedroom, as a cartoonist. Dad didn't seem to mind. It was a large bedroom, but with drawing boards, a photocopier, plan chests etc things were getting cramped, especially after Simon Thorp joined the staff in 1988.

Meanwhile, in London, Brown left Virgin and set up his own company based in a boathouse in Fulham, taking Viz with him. By 1990, Viz was selling 1.2 million copies per issue. Alas, sales eventually settled to around 300,000 per issue. But Viz 's toilet humour has provided good manure for a multitude of diverse offshoots, such as Gardens Illustrated (for people who employ gardeners but like to wield the secateurs from time to time) and Bizarre (the "freaks, sex and murder" magazine). It may not be quite as prestigious as the Ikea in-store magazine, and it may not have the royal seal of approval, but Viz remains John Brown's best-selling title, farts and all.

Viz has managed to keep Brown in a lifestyle to which he was already accustomed, even if it hasn't impressed his dad, Sir John Brown, former chairman of the Oxford University Press. I've done well out of Viz too. Unlike their granddad - who once shared an outside lavatory with nine other families - my three children have six lavatories to choose between. When your entire family can visit the lavatory at the same time and you've got one bog to spare, you know you've made it.

Viz may no longer be produced in a bedroom, but it's still the same formula. A few mates sitting around having a laugh. Twenty years on and the only difference is that now we have to pay for our own books if we want to see them before Christmas.

INMATES OF THE HOUSE OF VIZ

Roger Mellie The blasé, foul mouthed TV presenter who owes his stature to Mike Neville (formerly of BBC North East's Look North ), and his jacket to the legendary Stuart Hall. Mellie was created after Chris Donald overheard ITV newscaster Rod Griffith swearing in a bar.

Billy the Fish "Despite being born half-man, half-fish, young Billy Thompson was determined to make it as a pro-footballer". Fulchester United's legendary goalkeeper swam through the air. Team mates included Mick Hucknall and the late Cardinal Basil Hume.

The Fat Slags Dancing round their handbags, knickers round their ankles, San and Tray are always having a good time. Forget PC and wimmin's lib. Their motto is "eat chips and pick up men". With their leg-blotch carefully applied, you'll see them staggering from bar to bar.

'Quack! Oops! Twenty years of Viz', British Cartoon Centre, London W1, 27 Nov-3 Dec; Newcastle Arts Centre, 29 Jan-13 Feb 2000

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