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Thursday, October 15, 1998 Published at 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK


Viz: Is it still the biz?

Viz: Still "not as funny as it used to be"?

Even before it hit the big time almost 10 years ago, epitaphs had been drafted for Viz, the adult comic with attitude.

First off the mark was Mark E Smith, lead singer of the Fall, who, in 1986, berated the adult comic for having lost its spark.

And with typical ironic aplomb the magazine itself jumped on the bandwagon, declaring on its front cover: "Not as funny as it used to be (and it's losing sales)".

Sales slump

Die-hard fans might take issue with the first half of the statement. But no one is denying that sales-wise Viz, which next week launches its Christmas annual - Viz on the Bone - is now just a shadow of its former self.

A decade ago Viz was poised on the cusp of mega-circulation. Its potent recipe of profane language spouted by quirky comic book characters, complemented by a dash of tabloid parody and "crap" jokes had come of age.

From its humble inception as a photocopied rag with a print-run of 150, to a prime placing on the shelf of just about every newsagent in the country - it seemed like everyone was getting the joke.

[ image: A Viz favourite: Roger Mellie - the Man on the Telly]
A Viz favourite: Roger Mellie - the Man on the Telly
Like Dennis the Menace, the Bash Street Kids and Roy of the Rovers before them, Viz's very own roll-call of stars - Billy the Fish, Buster Gonad, Roger Mellie and Biffa Bacon - were becoming household names.

Students and wayward schoolboys lapped up the bizarre antics of characters such as Johnny Fartpants, Sid the Sexist, Roger Irrelevant, Mrs Brady - Old Lady, Spoilt Bastard, Farmer Palmer, Morris Day - Sexual Pervert, Those Pathetic Sharks, Big Vern and, perhaps the most famous of them all - the Fat Slags.

And when that all got a bit too much there was always the letters page, where Viz would act as arbitrator in readers' disputes; and the Top Tips column - a hilarious rip-off of the handy hints section run in women's magazines (see below).

[ image:  ]
The brain-child of Chris Donald, who put the first edition together in 1979, with the help of his younger brother Simon, some friends and a Xerox machine, Viz was no overnight success.

But its momentum grew, especially after Virgin snapped up the publishing rights in 1985. By 1988 it was selling in the hundreds of thousands. The following year sales nudged one million, peaking in early 1991 at 1.1 million, just behind the Radio Times, TV Times and Reader's Digest.

The most recent audited figures show average sales of 312,000 per edition. Readers also log-on to the Viz website.

Despite the drooping sales, comic expert Kev Sutherland says Viz is still the biz.

"In a sense it's unfortunate that Viz did so incredibly well in the past because it will always be compared to the heyday," says Mr Surtherland, organiser of the Comics 99 festival which is to be held in Bristol next year.

Still selling by the truck-load

"Selling 300,000 copies is the sort of circulation that most comic or magazine publishers would kill for."

That includes many of the pale, and some now defunct, imitators such as Smut, Zit, Poot and Ziggy, which jumped on the Viz bandwagon during its golden days.

[ image:  ]
Another, Ut, was edited by Mr Sutherland between 1991 and 1993 when it regularly shifted up to 30,000 copies. Mr Sutherland admits it wasn't a patch on the real thing.

"The beauty of Viz; the reason why it was always way out in front was that there was no pre-conceived master plan. It wasn't contrived. It grew organically and the same small team stayed with it.

Comic historian Malcolm Phillips thinks it "touched a nerve". "The humour was descended from the tradition of seaside postcards and that's a very, very essential part of British humour," he said.

His particular favourite was the sniggering schoolboy Finbar Saunders, whose acute ear could discern a double entendre in just about every sentence.

Still rated

Despite the falling sales, Mr Sutherland remains a big fan. "[The team] are astounding. I've never seen comic creators create so consistently."

And in his eyes, at least, Viz now works the old magic better than before. It's "rarely been better," he says.

Even if the glory days are over for Viz, according to Mr Phillips, it has secured a place in the comic hall of fame to rival more traditional titles.

Good investment

Last year Mr Phillips, who runs Comic Book Postal Auctions in London, raised what he claims is the highest sum ever for a Viz first edition - 485. It matches the top price paid for another outstanding title, the first edition of the boy's comic Eagle, which was issued in 1950.

But now that the Viz bubble has burst, Mr Phillips thinks it will soon run out of steam.

"I don't think it will be around in 10 years time. People are looking for something else, something fresh. If there is another comic to take its place it will be something mocking the sheer stupidity of the 20th Century."

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