It's Jocks vs Geordies as 'Dandy' biffs 'Viz'

Tim Minogue on the comic battle of an old boy and a naughty upstart
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LIKE many a playground fight, it started with name-calling, followed by poking and pinching, and progressed to black eyes and bruises. But now the combatants seem ready to make up, just as long as their dads or big brothers don't get involved.

Newcastle-based Viz, a naughty upstart in the traditional school of British comics, achieved cult status among students and young males in the early 1990s with its surreal mixture of satire and smut. After a long, niggling campaign of mickey-taking, it has provoked a much older boy, the Dandy, into retaliation.

For years the Dandy and its stablemate, the Beano, have endured the taunts of Viz, which has shamelessly borrowed and parodied characters from their Dundee publisher, DC Thomson. The Dandy's editor, Morris Heggie, said: "Half of Viz is based on Beano and Dandy characters. Our 'Black Bob the Border Collie' became their 'Black Bag the Binliner'. 'Little Plum' became 'Little Plumber', their 'Three Chairs' are based on our 'Three Bears' and they turned 'Winker Watson', predictably, into 'Wanker Watson'.

Mr Heggie said he had never objected. "I don't mind the imitation. We take it as a compliment. We are in a different market, catering for children; Viz is really 'top-shelf' stuff."

DC Thomson's lawyers, however, took a different view. After Viz ran 'Wanker Watson'earlier this year, they threatened legal action for breach of copyright if DC Thomson characters were ever "borrowed" again.

Viz's publisher John Brown ordered editor Chris Donald to comply. Mr Donald's response was to introduce a completely new character - "DC Thompson, the Humourless Scottish Git". In the current issue of Viz he appears as an irascible old man in a kilt who complains of breach of copyright when he sees a greengrocer selling "little plums" and a mother telling off her son Dennis for being a menace.

To the relief of Mr Brown, DC Thomson responded not with a writ but with a comic strip of its own, "The Jocks and the Geordies", in last week's Dandy. A gang of Scottish schoolboys gets the better of Geordie rivals in a contest to produce the best comic. The Geordies suffer the full range of Dandy indignities - jabbed up the behind with pencils, falling down manholes and being biffed on the chin by the triumphant Scots.

"The return of the 'Jocks and the Geordies' is a one-off and just a bit of fun, friendly rivalry," said Mr Heggie. "I hope it shows we are not really humourless Scottish gits."

The original "Jocks and Geordies" strip made its debut in the Dandy in November 1975. More than 1,000 strips appeared before the retirement of artist Jimmy Hughes in 1990. The originals were rival gangs from schools on either side of the border whose encounters invariably ended with a punch-up.

They had historical precedents, said Mr Donald at Viz's Newcastle HQ. "We're very familiar with the situation on Tyneside. Trainloads of Scotsmen used to come to Whitley Bay in the shipyard holidays specially to pick fights with Geordies. It was a bit of a hobby of theirs. I'm glad the Dandy has responded to our strip in the spirit it was intended. Ever since we started Viz in 1979 we've been doing spoofs of Beano and Dandy.The whole thing is a parody of them. DC Thomson don't have world copyright on drawing cartoon characters in boxes. We have borrowed their formulas, just as they have worked on the formulas of cartoonists who drew in the Twenties and Thirties.

"When John Brown told us not to parody Beano and Dandy any more, I went along with it at first, then started to think it wasn't fair. I got pissed off with John. I thought he was getting soft and in danger of forgetting the spirit of the magazine. So I came up with the DC Thompson [with a 'p'] character instead.

"Our solicitor, who's a very boring woman in London who talks like the Queen, only posher, panicked a bit at first but eventually said it was legally OK. She said we weren't allowed to have DC sitting on a bucket, though. Buckets were copyright DC Thomson because "Oor Wullie" in the Sunday Post sits on one. So we drew a slit in the bucket so we could stand up in court and say, 'This is no bucket, your honour - it's Ned Kelly's hat.'

"I'm personally on good terms with Morris Heggie. He rings me up sometimes for a chat - although because it's long-distance and he works for DC Thomson he isn't allowed to stay on the phone for more than a minute or two. He's a nice bloke. I imagine him sitting there in his Dickensian office in Dundee, covered in cobwebs. We get on great with the writers and cartoonists at DC Thomson - it's just the old fogeys upstairs who can't take a joke."

Both the Dandy and Viz have seen better days. Viz, a bi-monthly which was produced for the first six years of its life by Mr Donald, 35, and his brother from a bedroom at their parents' Newcastle home, had an average sale for January-June of 527,030, half the figure of five years ago.

Dandy, founded in December 1937, has fallen farther, but from a much greater height. It peaked in the early Sixties with a weekly sale of more than two million, now down to about 130,000. "In those days children watched much less TV," said Mr Heggie. "There were fewer comics and computer games hadn't been invented. We can still hold our own against other comics, but the main opposition is on a screen these days.

"Viz is pretty good, but it's past its peak. It used to be hilarious. Now I think it goes over the top.There are only so many laughs you can get from four- letter words. There's no substitute for really funny stories."

Mr Donald said he had not yet decided whether to respond to the "Jocks and Geordies" jest in the next issue of Viz. "I was going to leave it," he said. "But after this 'Jocks and Geordies' thing anything might happen."