At one point the cult British comic Viz was selling over a million copies a month which is pretty impressive considering it was set up by three young teenagers in 1979 from their bedroom. Sales have declined now to just under fifty thousand per issue but that’s still reasonably decent for a British comic, and it’s one of the highest selling ones we have. Viz originally became so popular because it sent up the comics of the seventies and eighties, with strips about Famous Five-esque characters having strange adventures, ultra violent bullies like Biffa Bacon, and surreal tales like Billy The Fish, who was one of the best footballers in the country, and the Pathetic Sharks who were, well, you can probably guess. As well as this there were stories which satirised various elements of our country like The Modern Parents, Student Grant and Victorian Dad, and the comic also has a great selection of written pieces including parodies of the kind of overly sensationalised news you get in the tabloids, Letterbocks and their infamous Top Tips.
There are a lot of articles that go in to depth about the comic, and I’d recommend checking out the links at the bottom of the article to find out more about it, but rather than mirroring their content this piece is a review of the very first issue of Viz which was produced by Chris Donald, his brother Simon and their friend Jim Brownlow. As you might expect it’s an extremely low budget affair where the art is mostly simplistic and the lettering a mix of handwritten scrawling or typewriter written text, but the low budget lof-fi element makes it rather charming as you can imagine just how many hours they spent putting it together, even though this first issue is only thirteen pages long.
The covers for Viz quickly established a regular format where various characters who featured in the comic were pictured along with outrageous headlines and other text telling you what was in the issue (like issue 52’s “20 Things You Never Knew About Shoes” and “Wig Wam Bam! Queen Says No To Royal Teepees”) but this first issue is a mad collage of various characters (Some of whom don’t feature in the comic at all, like a drawing of The Beano’s Billy Whizz speed reading the issue), and there’s also a random thug threatening to shoot Santa if we don’t buy the comic, a buxom lady claiming she’ll strip off, the promise of a free ice cream, and a naked mannequin advertising a shop’s “nude collection”. It’s amateur in the extreme but it’s still quite funny, and given the age of those who created it (Chris was 19, and Simon only 15), it would be unfair to expect more especially given the lack of any technology to design it on.
The first proper page contains a strip called Slouch in “The Little Waster”, a crudely drawn and odder and straighter effort than Viz is mostly well known for but it’s dry nature stands up well and it feels like the kind of (good) web comic you get these days. On this page there’s also a short Fat Sod – He Loves Grub strip (as they’d seemingly not yet got their famous knack for rhyming titles) which is more of a standard parody of Beano type comics (with lots of Tee Hee’s and Arf Arf-ing going on) as an overweight boy steals a pie and then is killed by it’s cook and baked in to a pie himself. It’s hardly subtle but it’s amusing enough even if some of the fat jokes are unneeded. On the next page is one of the odder pieces, The Revenge Of The Steel Skull, an obvious play on Doctor Doom as a metal faced psychopath plans death and destruction. The art is big and bold and it’s not like the 9 to 12 panel (and sometimes more) strips that Viz is famous for, but it’s still great, and it’s a shame that the character wasn’t used again bar a minor cameo in a strip in issue 2. Then there’s a one page expose of Prince Charles, unlike the news spoofs in later issues the formatting is basic and it’s unfortunately a bit homophobic as it suggests that Charles hasn’t married yet because “There is a chance, quite simply, that Charlie is a woofter”, it’s not horribly offensive but it’s a bit unneeded and tacky, and at best you could kindly suggest they’re going for shock value and didn’t intend to upset.
Fortunately thing pick up on the following page with “Skinhead – A Tale Of Urban Strife” which is supposedly written by a social worker and sees a skinhead go about beating the crap out of people, but it’s all due to unemployment, little or no recreational facilities and the state of society rather than being the skinhead’s fault. It ends with a police brutality gag and all in all is quite fun, but it should have been a case of one and done rather than carrying on later in the comic and then again for the next several issues. Skinhead takes up half of the page and the rest of it is a selection of short tales which are all amiable, if occasionally a little childish, as in the case of a a 3 panel strip which ends with a woman exposing herself and revealing “Yes!! I’ve got 3 tits”. Much better are Colin The Amiable Crocodile and Victor Pratt The Stupid Twat which are very likeable (if one note) gags, while the rest of the page has a text piece on Concorde’s which is filled with silly facts that made me laugh, and it certainly can’t be said you’re not getting value for money given how much is packed in to the page.
On page 6 (if you include the cover as one of the pages, which they certainly did) there’s The Disco Dancing Champion of The World who struts his stuff before getting randomly beaten up, with the moral stated as “Don’t Get Your Head Flattened”, the art is some of the best in the comic and though not exactly intellectual stuff it works effectively. Also on this page is another appearance of Victor Pratt which is daft and reminds me of Viz at it’s best, as does a Doctor Doctor joke, while there’s more extreme violence from Tommy’s Birthday and Pierre, both of which are simplistic but amusing. The next page features another news spoof, this time around a piss take of Sun sex scandals which is packed full of rape jokes and a drawing of a mostly naked 14 year old girl, so, um, yeah, that’s not good, not good at all and out of everything in the issue it’s this which really shouldn’t have been published. But there’s also two comic strips, one called The Bairn about a baby which cries a lot and another entitled Professor Piehead, both of which end with violence, but hey, it’s a winning formula and works again, even if it is getting slightly repetitive at this point. Then closing the page is Chester And The Man, a bit of mockery of hippy lifestyle which is very silly but also pretty funny too.
The eighth page is another fake news story, “Anti-Pop Mafia In False Nose Scandal”, an absurdist tale about Arthur 2-Stroke and Naughty Norman, two men who wear enormous fake noses and perform “Sneck Rock” to confused audiences. They’re apparently part of an anti-pop movement which also includes bands like The Noise Toys, and songs mentioned include “Anna Ford’s Bum” and “The Wundersea World Of Jacques Cousteau”. Initially I had no idea what it was all about but after a brief bit of research I discovered that Arthur 2-Stroke did actually exist and had a couple of minor hits a few years later, so it turns out it’s a gently tongue in cheek tale of his adventures and kind of serves as the first advert for the band, with the second coming on page 12.
Inside (page) No.9 is fittingly a spooky tale called Ted Dempster And The Goul Of Ricketty Towers, which to be pedantic is their misspelling rather than mine, and it’s a short tale where a ghost flies around stealing and murdering but then rather impossibly is revealed to be a local thug. It’s a send up of Scooby Doo and other ridiculous Saturday morning cartoons where the monster was always revealed to be human, and it’s fine, if not amazing, the best moments being the ghost’s juvenile comments like “Snigger snigger now to make myself scarce”. Also on the page is Tommy and His Magic Shoes where a young kid asks if we want to see his magic shoes, before revealing that we can’t as some bugger has nicked them, which is blunt and to the point but still pretty great. Finally there’s the adventures of Claws Th’ Kat, which is copyright Sexist Comics, but acknowledging that doesn’t make it any less, well, sexist. Still, it’s a throwaway gag and not horrendous by any means.
And so to page 10 where there’s four stories, Afternoon Tea With Mr Kiplin, Ben and the Space Walrus, UFO and The Kids, all of which have a fun set up and then end with either violence or vomiting, all are fine but it’s getting a bit difficult to say anything other than “Eh, that was pretty good and the ending made me smile a bit”. Space Walrus is the best of the four if only for the strong art and slightly unpredictable ending, but none of them are the comic at it’s best. And I’m glad that in future issues the style of stories and the set up’s became far more diverse. Page Eleven sees the return of Skinhead and more social satire, it’s the same gag as before as Skinhead commits lots of violent acts but it’s explained as being society’s fault once again, though this time it ends with Skinhead beating the crap out of the police. As previously mentioned it stretches the gag a little thinly, the first strip was tight and effective but this drags the idea to the point where it’s just a bit dull. Then the rest of the page is a brief survey asking readers what they liked about the comic, so we’ll move quickly on. And that’s pretty much it, as page 12 is a full page advert for Arthur 2-Stroke and The Noise Toys, with art which is fine if nothing-y, and then page 13 is the final one, a picture of the free ice cream that was promised to readers on the front cover.
This first issue of Viz is undoubtedly a product of it’s time and the work of young cartoonists, and only a few of the strips could have made it in to the comic when it was at it’s peak. But if you ignore some of the bits which haven’t aged well it’s a fun read, quite endearing and mostly charming in a quaint way, I know that if I’d been a teenager at the time and had read it I’d have loved it to pieces, but then I was rather immature as a kid, admittedly. It also highlights the trio’s ambition admirably and though no one’s ever going to say it’s their favourite issue of Viz that it stands up at all is a testament to their talents.
I’ve also read the next six or seven issues and though the next three are very similar by issues 5 it was starting to look more like the comic we know and love, with an appearance from Paul Whicker The Tall Vicar, the second Pathetic Sharks story, a photo strip of the likes you used to get in teenage magazines, and the production values are much higher with the fake stories looking vaguely realistic. With issue 6 that continued with Roger Mellie The Man On The Telly making his debut and you can easily see why it went on to be such a hit, and why it deserves to be one to this day, and so while issue 1 may have it’s faults it’s truly impressive how quickly it developed in to something all a bit special.