Viz comic has become a national institution and, after 25 years, is taking to the stage at the Edinburgh festival. Is it finally respectable?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine
With a pint in one hand, a half-smoked "tab" lolling from the corner of his mouth and an arsenal of clumsy chat-up lines, Sid the Sexist is an anti-hero of the lad mag generation.
In the 25 years since Viz comic first appeared, Sid, one of its most enduring characters, has spectacularly failed in the pursuit to which he has single-mindedly committed himself: having sex.
Yet it almost didn't happen like that, says Simon Donald, who started the comic with his brother Chris.
When they set out to find a serious publishing deal, Sid's crass exploits did not raise a smile with the suits at one of Britain's magazine publishing giants.
"They wanted Sid the Sexist to be Sid the Smooth Talker. They were offended by the fact he was politically incorrect," says Simon Donald précising a letter from one of the big publishers.
It was 1985 and PC - political correctness - had taken hold everywhere from council chambers to student unions.
Simon Donald (left) and brother Chris in the early days of Viz
Viz, an irreverent, sordid, at times outrageously offensive skit on the traditional British kids' comic, already had a thriving teenage readership in its native Newcastle.
The next step was to go nationwide, and so the hunt for a big backer. The publisher in question, home to the sort of titles Viz had set out to lampoon, was looking for the next big thing.
But it wasn't to be.
The letter detailing the company's objections to Sid and just about everything else in the Viz repertoire is recited and entertainingly dissected as part of a show at this week's Edinburgh Fringe.
Called Swearing is Both Big and Clever it is a potted history of the comic which the late Auberon Waugh predicted would be more usefully reflected on by future literary scholars than the novels of Peter Ackroyd or Julian Barnes.
At the show's helm will be Simon Donald and Viz artist Alex Collier, both of whom have recently loosened their ties to the comic to pursue other projects.
Pondering the upcoming show, Donald returns to the letter.
"They couldn't stand the humour or the language, or the irreverence," says Donald, with the aplomb of someone who is still having the last laugh.
"They said a great deal of our stories appeared not to have a recognisable ending. They wanted us to stop using four-letter words, be more political, develop a story about Maggie Thatcher."
A strip entitled Sex and the Beatles, in which the mop tops are accused of having sex with their wives, caused particular anguish, he recalls.
Eventually, Donald and his pals found a publisher who granted them full editorial freedom, with the one proviso that they stayed within the law.
Viz's merciless ridiculing of stars and stereotypes, laced with much anarchic iconoclasm, proved the perfect antidote in an era of PC student politics and emerging celebrity culture.
By the early 90s sales topped more than a million per issue, and Donald and co saw the money come rolling in.
Donald feels vindicated: "Swearing has made me a living," he says
But the great minds behind characters like Those Pathetic Sharks - a strip about pernickety sharks who prefer ice lollies to human flesh - found swimming in the big sea of magazine publishing lured some serious predators.
Donald cites a parody of an old Ready Brek advert which showed a child glowing warmth and the line "Central heating for children".
Viz recreated the ad with a vagrant toting a well-known premium strength lager and changed the line to "Central Heating for Tramps", inadvertently drawing the rebuke of the brewer's lawyers.
Given its reputation for poking abuse, one might feel a pang of sympathy for the poor Viz defamation lawyer.
Not a bit of it, according to Donald, who says the comic relies on a loophole which permits "low abuse", ie plain non-libellous insults.
Viz has only ever made two apologies - one after it ran a strip about gipsies, and got a letter from the United Nations alleging racism.
"We didn't mean to offend. It doesn't look good on our record to be accused of racism," says Donald, who despite his record, is not averse to serious reflection. The other apology followed a misunderstanding about a celebrity who subsequently died from cancer.
A more spirited clash came against Scottish publishers DC Thomson, the power behind Beano and Dandy, after Viz ran a series of strips with names such as Desperately Unfunny Dan.
Susannah & Trinny portrayed as school bullies by Viz
After a "cease and desist" letter from the company Viz hit back with a strip about a "miserable Scottish git" called DC Thomson.
Not to be outdone, Thomson sharpened its knives and resurrected one of its old strips, the Jocks Versus the Geordies, as a means of mocking Viz's comic strips.
Despite carving a handsome living out of parodying comics, Donald clearly retains great affection for the likes of Topper, Buster and Whizzer and Chips, which have shut down in the past 25 years.
But he concedes Viz's warts and all approach has, in some small way, contributed to a changing market.
"The world's constantly changing so we must have had a part in it in some small way. It certainly isn't one of our achievements that we shut down all the comics we grew up reading ourselves."
As for respectability, Viz has followed a familiar comedic trajectory, ŕ la Monty Python or Billy Connolly, from outsider to institution.
Donald is flattered by the Python analogy. "To paraphrase Quentin Crisp," he says, "if we're accepted now, it's not because we've changed, it's the establishment that's changed."
Simon Donald and Alex Collier will perform Swearing is Both Big And Clever at the Pleasance One, Edinburgh, on 25 and 26 August.
Add your comments to this story using the form below:
It's not as funny as it used to be.
I remember just what a shock to the system the early issues of Viz were. My brother and I were not allowed Viz by my mother - but were bought copies by my uncle, and each copy assumed the status of a contraband relic amongst our school friends...
I've been reading Viz since my brother showed me a few early issues back in the 80's. It's funny, sharp and knows the art of parody backwards. It laughs at itself too just as much as anyone else, so it's never been over-confident, which is important. Viz 4 eva!
Viz is low brow, crude, and quite offensive. This is why we love it. There are things about all of us that can be laughed at.
Chris, Bradford, UK
Viz respectable? Hadaway an *****! Still, its the infeasably good comic with the mind of a dirty old man.
I was surprised when I went to live in Australia, that Viz had reached those shores too in the early 1990. Whatever happened to Johnny Napalm..??
john kecsmar, Isle of Wight, UK
Viz was a work of genius, and one of the few things that made the 80s bearable. Simon and Alex, I salute you and your unfeasibly large testimonials.
Viz is perhaps the best newspaper available in the UK. Up there with The Economist and Private Eye. These guys deserve all the top awards for superb and cutting edge media output. May Viz live forever!
Tony Todd, UK
Viz Top Tips: "Why waste money on expensive binoculars? Simply move closer to the object you wish to view!" Classic!
ts, manchester UK
Nice to see Viz getting a bit more respect than normal. It's always struck me as amusing that it is widely regarded as nothing more than a low-brow, offensive, lads' comic. Slightly closer inspection would reveal a magazine that's an incisive, absurdly funny, snidely accurate and unsettling reflection of the society we actually live in and, as such, is a superb and deeply socially relevant piece of work. Here's to another 25 years.
I used to religiously read this when I was a teenager but now only read it when I seem to be bored at the airport. It's still funny now and the letters page and top tips continue to be some of the funniest things in print today. And now Billy the Fish has started to parody itself it shows this fantastically inventive and irreverent title should run and run!! Keep it up lads (phnar phnar!!)
Richard Courtney, UK
A fantastic magazine! I'm 30 and still look forward to it dropping through my letterbox every month. The Viz Book of Crap Jokes is also one of the funniest publications known to man. A must for every house!
Alasdair Yates, England
Respectable? Boring more like. Simon Donald is right, it hasn't changed. Is that meant to be good? Its humour and characters have been the same since the 80s.
Ed kinsella, UK
Paul Whicker the Tall Vicar - Classic
Surely less offensive than magazines giving sex tips to 13-year-old girls.
Big Vern, UK
Viz is a fantastic washing powder and gets my pants really shiny.
Terry F, UK
Last month's issue was the best example of collected ring tone and border line pornography advertisements I have seen in print yet!
"A small coniferous tree in the corner of your living room is an excellent place to store Christmas decorations!" One of the greatest "Top-Tips".
David, UK (Netherlands)
I used to love the ads lampooning those in more "respectable" magazines selling china figurines. My favourite was the little girl holding a bottle of bleach, entitled "Mummy, this lemonade tastes funny". Genius!
The Top Tips/Letters section seems to have inspired The Metro's letters page. The UK's ability to laugh at itself is second to none.
Re Jan's comment, I agree that it is definitely not as funny as it used to be. It is also too expensive.
Ben Dawson, UK
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