LONDON — What makes a British cultural institution? Style? Sophistication?
In the case of comic magazine Viz, the ingredients are swearing, toilet humor and biting satire.
Martin Rowson, editorial cartoonist for publications including The Guardian newspaper, calls Viz “magnificently rude, irresponsible, stupid, puerile and brilliant.” The magazine has influenced a generation of British humorists and celebrates its 30th birthday with a major exhibition opening today at London’s Cartoon Museum.
Describing Viz is tricky — especially in a family publication.
It has echoes of classic U.S. humor magazines Mad and National Lampoon, with a dash of The Onion’s news parodies. Like “South Park,” it exploits the comic potential of potty-mouthed children, and like “The Simpsons” it skewers the mob mentality.
In form, it spoofs the wholesome children’s comics of a bygone age — publications like Beano and Dandy, home of cheeky characters like naughty schoolboy Dennis the Menace.
Viz takes the comic-strip format and adds a scatological, satirical or just plain silly twist. A typical strip might involve the adventures of Black Bag, the Faithful Border Bin Liner — a loyal, Lassie-like companion who happens to be a plastic garbage bag.
Recurring characters include pompous TV personality Roger Mellie: the Man on the Telly; Finbar Saunders and his Double Entendres; woman-baiting Sid the Sexist; the sanctimonious Modern Parents — and many others too salty for discussion here.
In the magazine’s pages, Britons are drunken, lecherous, conniving and often stupid. Real-life figures — from rock stars Sting and Bono to Osama bin Laden — are ruthlessly mocked. There are parodies of tabloid newspapers’ obsession with celebrities and aliens, and the long-running column Top Tips, which offers nonsensical nuggets of advice like “Don’t waste money buying expensive binoculars. Simply stand closer to the object you wish to view.”
“It’s in that great tradition of vicious and surreal British humor that includes Monty Python,” said writer and broadcaster Charlie Brooker, who cites Viz as a major influence on his own screeds against the idiocy of television.
Graham Dury, one of three writer-cartoonists who create the magazine in a small office in Newcastle, northern England, said that when it first appeared in 1979, Viz was unique — “a children’s comic that could be read by adults and laughed at by adults.”
“We weren’t the first people to do cartoons with swearing in — there was Robert Crumb and stuff like that,” he said. “But we were the first to do it like a children’s cartoon. It did look very much like the Dandy and the Beano, because we all read comics like that, and then when we got to 13 or 14 we stopped because they weren’t made for us anymore. We thought it would be nice if you could just carry on reading a grown-up version.”
Founded by teenage brothers Chris and Simon Donald in their Newcastle bedroom, inspired by the do-it-yourself ethos of punk fanzines — and partly funded by a small-business grant from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government — Viz grew from local student favorite to national best-seller. By 1990, it had a circulation of more than 1 million copies, making it one of Britain’s top-selling magazines. One survey of the time estimated that two-thirds of 18- to 35-year-old British men had read it.
There were spinoff TV cartoons and an animated feature film. Highbrow humorist Auberon Waugh said that “if the future generations look back on the literature of the age, they’ll more usefully look to Viz than they would, for instance, the novels of Peter Ackroyd and Julian Barnes.”
Viz’s mockery of tabloid culture and trash TV has been widely imitated. The magazine also helped spawn a slew of huge-selling “lad mags” in the 1990s, which embraced the spirit of political incorrectness but ditched Viz’s satire and, arguably, its sophistication.
Viz now sells a more modest 80,000 copies a month and resolutely goes its own way. The cartoonists shudder at the memory of the time their publisher suggested consulting focus groups.
Judging by the long lines of buyers at 30th-anniversary book signings, readers remain plentiful, mostly male, and range from students to middle-aged office workers.
In its disdain for politics of both left and right, its lusty embrace of bad behavior and its refusal to look on the sunny side, Viz is uniquely British.
Viz cartoonist Simon Thorp said the magazine’s key premise is “that everything’s rubbish, including this comic. It’s a magazine that’s masquerading like it’s been produced by stupid people.”
It’s a sensibility that has not always traveled well. Viz sells in small quantities in Canada and Australia, and scarcely at all in the United States, a country that in some ways remains separated from Britain by an Atlantic-sized humor rift.
Thorp recalls how several years ago the magazine produced a map of the British Isles showing all the country’s worst features — towns and cities were represented by serial killers, hooligans, toxic waste dumps. It was a big success. A similar map of Europe followed.
“And then we thought, we’ll do an American one,” Thorp said. “But when you go to America, you realize everybody in America loves America. You couldn’t really start slagging it off. It would seem really rude and unpleasant.”