'Viz' fizz wanes as readers bottom out

THE GUEST list for the Viz party on Thursday says it all. They've got Ray Davies of the Kinks, a couple of blokes from Aerosmith, Lionel Blair, and one of the Bay City Rollers; and Suzanne Dando is a possible. Usefully, the back of the invitation gives ordinary guests etiquette tips: 'DO NOT stare at the celebrities. DO pretend not to recognise them.' But there are no young celebs at all. Viz, the 'comic for older boys and girls', has become the comic for thirtysomething boys and girls.

'We don't want to write about Michael Jackson and monkeys,' says Chris Donald, its editor. 'Our references are to things that were on the telly in the Seventies - Mud, Sweet and John Noakes. The 14-year-olds with baseball caps turned round who listen to raves haven't heard of John Noakes. So they don't want to read Viz.'

That means Viz's circulation is falling. At the end of the Eighties Viz, founded in 1979, was selling 1.2 million copies. Its last audited circulation was 713,000. The two issues since then - the paper comes out every two months - have sold 750,000 each, Mr Donald says. Circulation is merely 'settling to a more realistic level'.

'The fact that we got to over a million was always a bit ludicrous. When we sold 240,000 in 1989 and overtook Private Eye I thought that was as far as it goes.'

Since the magazine needs to sell only 60,000 copies to break even, Mr Donald seems not unreasonably relaxed. He is, in any case, bored with people writing Viz off. The first recorded announcement that Viz 'isn't as funny as it used to be' came in 1986: 'Mark E Smith of the Fall said it in some fanzine.' For a time the magazine used the line on its cover.

The forthcoming Viz annual contains an introduction by 'Professor Humphrey Arseholes, Reader in Adult Comics, Keeble (sic) College, Oxford'. 'For today's car-thieving, flammable-tracksuit wearing, computer-illiterate younger generation of ignoramuses, it is hard to believe that Viz used to be funny . . .' it goes, harking back to days when 'the expletive-hungry magazine-buying public were snapping up rude words like 'beef curtains', faster than Viz magazine could think them up . . .'

Competition has arrived, in a form. Viz's great success inspired many copycats, of which only Zit has made any impression on the market. Zit borrows the same Dandy and Beano format, marrying it with jokes that are unprintable more for being unfunny than obscene. (The best Zit joke is the inclusion of a free sample of it in the November Face). But it does have pieces on Lemonhead and Teenage Fan Club.

It is not a road down which Viz will go. Middle-class dinner parties may no longer ring to the sounds of people trying out their Geordie accents ('Divvent taalk ya shite, Amanda]'), but the magazine remains obstinately unchanged. The current issue has Roger Mellie, the Fat Slags, Johnny Fartpants, Spoilt Bastard, Tommy and His Magic Arse - if anything the bottom jokes are increasing.

Top Tips, the favourite column of Viz's most surprising fan, the former Tory minister Alan Clark, still thrives. 'Why pay for expensive jigsaws?' asks B. Reastford of Ironville, Nottinghamshire. 'Just take a bag of frozen chips from the freezer and try piecing together potatoes.'

Chris Donald has made several millions from Viz: he is a former train-spotter who has bought two redundant stations. He admits that on his 'bad days' he gets 'fairly bored'. He and his team toy with ideas for new projects: more television, more books, and a stage show. 'I read Ben Elton's novels, and thought, 'I could do better than this'. But when I sat down the other day I found it was going to take longer than I thought.'

Issue 62 has one innovation, a full-colour cover. 'It's partly to look different from our imitators, partly because we've had a price rise and we want it to look as though we're giving people added value for their money. Which we're not.' Never lacking in honesty, Viz. The very small print at the back of the current issue goes like this: 'Readers respond to mail- order advertisements in this magazine at their own risk. The Publisher accepts no responsibility. He just pockets the advertisers' money and pisses off abroad on holiday. Mind, can you blame him? With the weather we've had this year. It's the ozones, you know.'

(Photograph omitted)