Not As Good As It Used To Be

The story of Viz’s early days at the turn of the 1980s is the kind of tale that would bring a tear to the eye of any elderly gentleman who remembers a time before the internet.

01 oktober 2010, 12:00am

The story of Viz’s early days at the turn of the 1980s is the kind of tale that would bring a tear to the eye of any elderly gentleman who remembers a time before the internet. This was an innocent time when boys would make comics in their bedrooms, trade them at school and flog them at local gigs. But this time, these boys went on to sell 1.2 million copies of each issue.

Now more than 30 years old, the Tyneside title retains a staff of just five people who have, for the most part, been with the comic for its entire lifetime. Viz remains as nonsensical as it was from the very first issue in 1979, having stuck with its formula of useless tips, fictional tales of celebrity toilet habits, and strong regional accents. It is a combination that one early potential publisher refused to work with because “arse jokes are on their way out”. These days, with arse jokes more popular than ever, Viz continues to be one of the country’s biggest-selling newsstand titles, despite barely any advertising and minimal online presence.

Put simply, Viz has been funnier, for longer, than any single comedian you can think of. Its creator, Chris Donald, stopped having anything to do with the comic ten years ago, so we talked to two of its current editors, Graham Drury and Davey Jones.

Vice: How did you both first get involved with Viz?
Graham Drury:
It was around 1985. I was doing a PhD in botany and was just freelancing, sending stuff in to the comic after I saw something on it on TV. A few years later when we got the deal with John Brown Publishing, a proper publishers, they needed to start producing six magazines a year, so they took me on full-time. Up until then, we just released one when we had enough material. Then about ten years ago we went to ten issues a year.
Davey Jones: I first started working for Viz around 1986, just as it was going national. One of the first things I sent in was [the character] Roger Irrelevant, which was meant to be a one-off, but it went down really well and is still running today.

What tends to go on in the Viz office on a day-to-day basis?
Graham Drury:
We get in to the office at half-nine and sit around chatting and talking about whatever telly we watched the night before and reading the papers, until lunchtime. If we make each other laugh, we write it down and develop it in the afternoon. A bit nearer the deadline we will pay more attention to scripts and draw a lot. We tend to draw a lot at home. It all depends how near to the deadline we are.

Which newspapers tend to end up inspiring Viz strips?
Oh, all of them, just to get ideas. Broadsheets, tabloids and ones like the Weekly News, People’s Friend, Chat and Take a Break. The trouble with them is they’re so shit that they’re actually hard to parody. They’re doing all the stuff we’re doing, essentially.

The “Top Tips” in Take a Break are really good. I saw one once that was a guide to making a dangly ghost for Halloween by ruffling a tampon and putting two googly eyes on it.
Davey Jones:
They may have nicked that from us. You occasionally get letters in the People’s Friend from old ladies that are so surreal and abstract that you can almost just lift it straight out. We did a parody of Take a Break the other week—it was an advert for a magazine called Take a Shit, a weekly magazine that has lots of fantastic stories on the cover.

Do any actual comedians work on Viz?
Graham Drury:
We don’t have many connections with comedians, and do almost everything in-house. We write up scripts together and then go off to draw the ones we usually draw. We occasionally swap, but anoraks tend to notice when we do; they’ll write in. We also have a couple of cartoonists we send scripts too. Jack Black is done by a guy called Simon Ecob, a fantastic artist who draws it far better than we ever could.

A favourite strip of mine was the one-off featuring elderly Care Bears vegetating in a care home. There wasn’t even a joke in there, but the drawings were so upsetting that it became funny. Who did that?
Davey Jones:
Oh yes, that is a good one. That was Lee Heaney and Barney Farmer. They do the Drunken Bakers as well. Lee Heaney does the drawings and he got the Care Bear drawings just right. A lot of people were upset seeing the Care Bears so decrepit.

Why do you think Viz became so popular and blew up like it did in the early 90s?
Graham Drury:
I think there was just a gap in the market for us. It was something that spread around young people very quickly because it wasn’t a version of something else. It was something that had never been done before. Sales peaked very quickly and probably came down just as quickly. We never expected sales to stay at 1.25 million.

For as long as I can remember, people have been saying, “It’s not as good as it used to be”, and you even used it as a tagline for a while. Was it Mark E. Smith who said that?
He might have done, but he did accuse us of selling out very early on. After only four or five issues people were saying we’d sold out. It’s the same as when students like bands but have to go off them when the band becomes popular. A lot of people who read it in the early days had to go off it when we started selling millions.

Jo Brand said she didn’t like the Fat Slags because they’re “too unsubtle”. Is it weird getting attention from people like that?
I don’t know, we don’t interact with celebrities. Paul Daniels got in touch when we put him in the comic in his own strip, “Paul Daniels’ Jet-ski Journey to the Centre of Elvis”, where Paul was miniaturised and injected into Elvis to remove a blocked stool. He wrote in saying he liked it and asked to buy the artwork.

Did you charge him a silly price for it?
Absolutely. Sting’s from Newcastle, and we feature him regularly, but I doubt he would have any idea what Viz is. He probably doesn’t even go into a newsagent, never mind look at the top shelf.

Yeah, why is it that Viz is always up there?
It’s a legacy that the publishers have desperately tried to change. When it came out there was no shelf for men’s magazines to put it on. The only place they could think, because it had the f-word in it, was to stick it with the porn. When Loaded and all those magazines came out, it was already too late. Oh God, how we’ve tried to get it off the top shelf…

Do you have any control over the adverts? The “Improve Your Memory” ad has been in there for years. It took me years to realise it wasn’t a running joke.
We’re actually just going to do a piss-take of that. You’re right, it’s been running for years. Doctor Bruno Furst has obviously got a very good memory and remembers to send his copy in every five weeks. The adverts are all down to the publishers, but we do have the right to veto adverts. When it got really difficult to sell ad space, we used to have an awful lot of sex-line adverts. We thought it made the comic look awful. It basically said we think the readers are a bunch of wankers. And it made it very hard to take the piss out of things like that. We told the publishers that we wanted them out, but they’ll occasionally try to squeeze them back in.

Viz seems to have a big male following.
Davey Jones:
I know quite a lot of squaddies read it, and prisoners. We occasionally get letters from prison that are heavily censored, but at least we don’t get death threats from religious nutters like we used to. We once got one that was scary enough that we went to the police, but apparently if someone’s going to kill you they don’t tend to write to you and tell you first, they just kill you. We were more relaxed after hearing that.

Makes sense. The magazine has always been joyfully offensive, but has there ever been anything you’ve worried about printing?
Graham Drury:
We’ve always said that if you think of something and it makes you laugh and then wince, it’s funny. But if it makes you wince first and then laugh we’ll know it’s probably crossed a line. We’re not worried about offending people, but it’s not the object of the exercise. Stuff needs to be a bit close to the line, or else it becomes very safe and you end up with the magazine equivalent of My Family.

You got into a bit of trouble with the UN over a strip called “The Thieving Gypsy Bastards”—I guess that might have offended some people.
Yes, and possibly quite rightly. We had to put our hands up and apologise for that one. We did a cartoon on the opposite page called “The Nice Honest Gypsies”, with an old woman selling pegs and reminding people they’d dropped their change. I think we were trying to negate the offensive one on the other page.

The Sun discovered that the guy who complained to the UN was convicted of thieving soon after. Do you ever regret running strips?
We did one about the actress Marti Caine, and she died just as the comic came out. We got a bit of stick for it and felt bad. But you have to think if we would have felt bad if they hadn’t died. It’s the risk you take. If you do stuff about celebrities, there’s always a chance they’re going to peg it before the comic comes out.

Has getting in to trouble become a recurring theme?
No, mostly because it’s read by a very expensive barrister before we go to print, and she’ll tell us what is likely to get us into trouble. When we say something like Elton John was seen having the squits behind a skip, I suppose technically that is libellous, but she would just laugh and know Elton John isn’t going to do anything about something like that. It’s the D-list celebrities that you need to be more careful about.

How do you think Viz will be remembered? Auberon Waugh called Viz the legitimate heir to Swift and also said that, more than “serious” literature, “Viz has a genuine vitality of its own which comes from the society which it represents”. That’s quite good of him.
Yes, it’s nice to hear stuff like that. I hope the comic doesn’t have to be remembered and it continues to be sold. But it’s such an ephemeral thing. We’re so surprised that people collect it. For us, it’s something you buy, laugh at and throw away. I just hope it’s remembered as something that was funny, because that’s all it’s meant to be. It’s nice to attribute social comment to it, but it has to be remembered as being funny or it has failed.