Ever read Johnny Fartpants in Viz and thought: I’d really like to know the full life story of the man who drew those magnificent guffs?
No, of course you haven’t. But nonetheless, comic-artist-turned-stand-up Simon Donald’s autobiography is a thoroughly entertaining account of how a working-class Newcastle lad came to become one of the publishing sensations of all time.
His account of how, with his brother Chris, he created the comic as a hobby from their bedrooms in 1979 is an evocative personal account of what seems like a peculiarly creative time in post-punk Britain, a time which also saw the birth of alternative comedy. Today, when anyone with half an idea – and even those without – can publish whatever they like online with little effort, the idea of cobbling together a magazine with scissors and glue, then carting it around Newcastle’s pubs and music venues in cardboard boxes seems strangely primitive.
Despite the effort involved, or possibly because of it, Viz’s mix of foul-mouthed caricatures, daft photostories, spoof news, top tips, parodies of classic British comics and devil-may-care attitude became increasingly popular, first through word of mouth, and then through the marketing efforts of Virgin, until it sold 1.2million copies a month – making it the third bestselling magazine in the UK.
Key to its success was a deal that few corporations would be brave enough to take, then or now. Publisher John Brown gave the team complete editorial freedom – including the policy that Viz would take adverts only if their artists could write and design them, often in very unflattering ways. Donald’s favourite was the strapline for an HMV ad: ‘Only puffs shop elsewhere’.
Encounters with the Establishment are the funniest parts of this book, whether it be the humourless executives from another publishing house making their helpful suggestions, the Viz team’s shambolic appearances on TV, or the in-house lawyer who cleared a spoof ad for Carlsberg Special Brew which showed a homeless man with a Ready Brek style glow around him and the slogan ‘Central Heating For Tramps’ on the grounds it was pretty much true… a point privately conceded by the brewer’s legal guy, too.
Production of the magazine was not without its problems, particularly tension between Simon and Chris, who here comes across as uncommunicative, temperamental and difficult, contributing to the clinical depression the younger brother suffered. Indeed, family illnesses seem a recurring theme in Simon’s life: from his mother’s multiple sclerosis and his other brother Steve’s cancer. Donald – who overcame dyslexia to write this book – doesn’t shy away from mentioning these episodes, although frequently finds himself unable to go into too much detail, which he is honest enough to admit.
On more upbeat ground, his tales from schooldays are rich with the sort of characters who would later inspire his comic strips: from Dozy Dawson, the eccentric technical drawing teacher who would turn up to class with two ties on, to the disruptive teenage girl who when reprimanded for giggling responded: ‘Divven’t fuckin’ call me immature, I’ve had more cocks than ye’ve had hot dinners.’
Donald’s encounters with some of the more colourful elements continued in the pubs of Newcastle, where he spent a lot of his time – though Viz’s success gradually elevated him into rather more exclusive company: Becoming a mate of Paul Weller’s, winding up at parties with Jodie Marsh (who he put in her place deliciously), and playing football at his beloved St James’ Park.
Donald quit the magazine in 2003, and following a brief career as a late-night TV host and manager of the band Hungover Stuntmen, Donald turned to character stand-up, with his first Edinburgh show in 2009. He says that he has now found his vocation – although on the evidence of Him Off The Viz, live comedy will be hard-pressed to offer the range of memories his time with the comic offered him.
- Him Off The Viz by Simon Donald is published by Tonto Books, priced £16.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £10.53.