With its Anglo-Saxon lexicon of “truffle pipes”, “rib cushions” and “cocksmiths”, Viz magazine continues to defy all trends in modern media.
Thirty-five years after it started out as a stapled fanzine, it continues to find a loyal readership for cartoons dealing with flatulence and fornication, bowel movements and balls. These strips are drawn in a style that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1950s and yet they will form the basis of the comic’s first active website, which launches this month.
Viz celebrates the subject matter of the school playground, yet the average age of its readership is 38. And the two men who have dedicated almost their entire adult lives to generating this stuff are articulate, middle-aged fathers who pontificate on how to persuade their university-educated children to engage with such works of English Literature as “Johnny Fartpants” and “The Fat Slags”.
“Getting kids of our kids’ age to go into a shop and buy something made of paper off a shelf is next to impossible,” says Graham Dury, 52, who has been drawing Viz characters since 1984.
The move to the internet may be an economic necessity but Viz hardly seems tailored for the digital age. Aside from its basic production values, the comic is filled with references to stars of a bygone era – comedian Dick Emery, weatherman Michael Fish, Welsh warbler Shakin’ Stevens – and the escapades of its cartoon characters, even media types such as the foul-mouthed “Roger Melly, The Man on the Telly”, are devoid of the ubiquitous technical gadgetry of modern life.
Simon Thorp, 49, Viz’s other stalwart, recalls a short-lived attempt to introduce a social media reference with a strip about a certain Fireman Fritter, who accessed messages of 140 characters or less via a part of his anatomy rhyming with Twitter. “It was never destined to be a long-running cartoon,” he says. And yet Viz’s continued relevance is also a result of references to contemporary events and culture. It has a strip dedicated to Brighton rappers Rizzle Kicks and once offered a pair of “One Direction flares” as a competition prize. It could tackle the Jimmy Savile scandal in a way that others daren’t. “We thought ‘How are we going to do this?’” remembers Dury. “Everybody had done all the Jimmy Savile jokes – so we did it from the angle that he was marvellous.”
A two-page spread – “The Jimmy Savile Story” – duly opened with the lines: “We knew him best as Britain’s favourite kiddy-fiddling sex-case and rapist. But amazingly, there was another side to Sir Jimmy Savile OBE that few of us ever suspected. For, believe it or not, he was also a tireless charity fund-raiser, television presenter and Radio 1 disc jockey.” The strip concluded with Savile being admitted through the pearly gates, while asking: “Are there any cherubs about, your holiness?”
Viz humour is often dark. The scatological nature might make schoolboys snigger but the satire and social commentary can be biting and sophisticated – not that the authors would ever admit it. “When you were 16, you were too old for this rubbish,” says Dury. “So you might as well read it when you are 45, because it’s juvenile.”
The comic is owned by Dennis Publishing, the business founded by the late Felix Dennis, which has a reputation for innovation in stretching magazine brands across digital platforms. Viz already has a foothold here. There are apps for its “Top Tips” feature of surreal reader suggestions for navigating modern life (“Caught out in the wilderness with no loo paper? Take a leaf out of Bear Grylls’ book...”; “Conjure up a cock in an Audi or BMW by leaving a safe gap ahead of you on the motorway”), and the “Profanisaurus”, a list of crude interpretations of everyday expressions – and a helpful insight into Viz humour. Russell Blackman, the publishing director of Viz, says that there is an online audience for the comic. “You’d be surprised how many people search on Google for Sid the Sexist and Roger Melly,” Blackman says.
Viz has 315,000 fans on Facebook, he adds, and 115,000 on Twitter, who delight in alerting celebrities – such as science presenter and former musician Brian Cox – to the fact that they’ve been featured. “We had put in a letter saying that when [Cox] was in D-Ream he had said ‘Things can only get better’ but surely as a physicist he should realise that the principle of Entropy means everything breaks down into disorder and chaos,” says Thorp. “He replied on Twitter, accusing the letter writer of being a twat, and then he followed us.”
The Viz website is fairly straightforward. After 229 editions, it has 5,000 cartoon strips that can be uploaded on to what is currently a static landing page selling magazine subscriptions. “This website will be searchable, it will be optimised,” says Blackman of Viz’s new life online.
Most Viz cartoons are timeless. The appeal of its simple PDF-style tablet version – which accounts for around 10 per cent of Viz’s 57,000 circulation – suggests that readers are not clamouring for an interactive relationship with the likes of young bruiser Biffa Bacon, one of the remaining icons of the comic’s Geordie roots. (Thorp, a Yorkshireman, and Dury, from Nottingham, both long ago migrated to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Viz was founded by Chris Donald in 1979.)
Print copies will remain the money-spinner. The magazine’s editors flinch at the memory that it used to sell one million copies and was Britain’s third most popular magazine, but the hard-backed Christmas annual still shifts around 90,000 copies. This year’s edition is called The Dutch Oven – look it up in the Profanisaurus – and will be sold alongside a separate The Big Viz Book of Adventure, inspired by post-war comics and featuring such inspiring tales as “The Adventures of Jason and the Lagernauts” and “The Diary of Samuel L Pepys”, a “bad motherfucker”.
Viz has survived thus far and, in centuries to come, it might be studied as an important historical document of British society around the start of the third millenium. But Dury has no such ambitions. “As a reader, I would like that you get to the end and you’ve learnt nothing,” he says. “It’s just intended to make you laugh and you’re no wiser at the end of it.”Reuse content