ICAN distinctly remember the first time I read Viz. It was the early Eighties, I was sitting in a pub in Northampton waiting for my wife to finish the supermarket shopping.

As an exiled North-Easterner living in the Midlands at that time I had heard a lot about this curious comic, which looked a lot like the Beano but was apparently outrageously rude and incredibly funny.

Friends back home had urged me to read it, telling me that it would make me homesick for the North- East and its black, surreal brand of humour.

When I started turning the pages I found myself sniggering, then laughing and – eventually – crying helplessly.

I realised that I had to put the comic away or risk a seizure, being ejected from the pub or being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Like hundreds of thousands of other unsuspecting readers around the UK at that time I was discovering unforgettable comic characters such as The Fat Slags, Roger Mellie, Sid The Sexist, Biffa Bacon and Buster Gonad.

The outrageous humour of Viz was so successful it created the publishing sensation of the Eighties and Nineties.

From humble beginnings as a 12- page, hand-drawn and photocopied magazine first sold to punk music fans in The Gosforth Hotel pub, in Newcastle, in 1979, the circulation of Viz reached the incredible figure of 1.3 million in the early Nineties, making it the biggest selling magazine in the UK after the Radio Times and TV Times.

In recent years, sales have fallen to about 100,000, but it still has a special place in the affections of its readers, past and present.

TO mark the 30th anniversary of Viz, the so-called Viz editorial team were at the HMV store in Newcastle on Friday, talking to fans and signing copies of this year’s Christmas annual – The Council Gritter and a new Viz book, The Magna Fartlet.

Judging by the subject matter, you might expect to see a bunch of characters straight out of The Young Ones. But instead of tattooed, studded, mohican-wearing Ade Edmondson lookalikes, the team responsible for the inspired cartoons and storylines in Viz look rather like 40-something university lecturers.

Chris Donald, who produced the first editions of Viz from his Jesmond bedroom, with the help of his brother, Simon, and friend, Jim Brownlow, are long gone.

Following several takeovers, Viz is now run by a collective including cartoonist Simon Thorp (first cartoon published in Viz in 1985), cartoonist Graham Dury (joined in 1987), cartoonist Davey Jones (joined in 1996) and designer Wayne Gamble (joined in 2002).

Rather appropriately, Viz is now owned by Dennis Publishing, run by Felix Dennis, who famously was one of the editors of the underground Oz magazine who were briefly jailed for obscenity in 1971 after turning over editorial control to a bunch of schoolchildren. Some similarities there, then!

While Viz is still produced in the North-East – from an office in Tynemouth – and still features Geordie characters such as the underclass superstar Biffa Bacon – none of the four members of the editorial team is actually from the region.

TACKLED on whether Viz can properly reflect the spirit of the North-East, Simon “Thorpy”

Thorp argues that outsider status probably helps them to understand and satirise the unique humour and culture of the region.

“Perhaps it works because we can look in from the outside,” says Simon, who argues that most of the Viz editorial team have “gone native”

anyway after living in the region for years.

Cartoonist Graham Dury, who, like Thorpy, has lived in the North- East for many years and is married with three children, argues that the spirit of Viz, with its North-East references and roots, has not really changed in 30 years.

“It is exactly how it was when I first read it. If it is North-East humour it is one that I shared when I lived in Nottingham. When I read it back then, it hit the spot for me.”

Thorpy doesn’t believe in getting analytical about Viz and its contents.

“It never really had anything to say, that is the point. It didn’t have any message. I think the test is whether it is funny and I think it still is.”

Informed of my own Viz-induced near seizure, Thorpy tells the tale of an email they got last year from a female reader who complained that within hours of buying a copy of Viz with the slogan “free heart attack for every reader”, she had one.

Thorpy explains the free heart attack related to a reader offer whereby Viz readers who took a copy of the magazine into a fast food emporium in Arizona offering highly calorific “heart attack burgers” would get a discount.

“We told her the heart attack wasn’t anything to do with us and sent her a free book,” he quips.

Thorpy is pleasantly surprised at all the publicity surrounding the 30th anniversary, hoping that it will be reflected in a rise in sales to new readers and returners who thought Viz had closed years ago.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t know we are still going. I think many of them would still buy it, if they knew we were still here.”

The circulation is only about a tenth of what it was in its glory days, but Thorpy jokes that this would still be pretty good “if we were a motorcycle mag”.

What slightly worries him is exactly where people go to buy their copy of Viz.

“When I go into my local Tesco’s in Hexham I never know in which section to look.They never put it near Private Eye, they put it near the top shelf, but I think it should really be with The Economist or The New Statesman.”

Thorpy is particularly proud of creating the character Fruit T Bunn, but admires Davey Jones’ regular cartoon which portrays Elton John, however unlikely this may sound, as a benefits fraudster. So far they haven’t heard from Elton John’s lawyers, but they do have to be careful.

A planned Michael Jackson strip had to be changed at a late stage to avoid possible litigation.

GRAHAM DURY jokes that he is the only one of the editorial team to have had a career before becoming a Viz cartoonist.

“I was a scientist, specialising in plant genetics. I thought I would do this for a couple of years, then go back to science. That was 25 years ago.”

The cartoonist responsible for Spoilt Bastard, reveals that the character is partly based on his brother – only greatly exaggerated.

“He made mum’s life a misery,” he says.

Graham is currently working on a new Fat Slags strip for the Christmas issue of Viz.

Like Thorpy, he is constantly asked if Viz is still going.

“I reckon we have probably got just as many readers as in the past, but they are just too stingy to buy every issue,” he laughs.

Davey Jones loves drawing oldfashioned comics and can’t believe how lucky he is that he is a full-time cartoonist with Viz.

Any particular favourite creations?

“I did one cartoon called The Vibrating Bumfaced Goats. It only appeared once, for some reason, but it really seemed to appeal to people.”

Like Thorpy and Graham, Davey gets a bit irritated with people who think Viz folded years ago. “A lot of people assumed that it hasn’t been going for 20 years, but it is still here.”

One tradition at Viz never changes. Davey admits that each edition only really comes together at the very last minute.

“It would be good to spread the work all out, but it doesn’t happen that way. You really need to panic.”

All of the editorial team are thrilled that the entire panoply of Viz characters invented over the last three decades will be on show at The Cartoon Museum in London from tomorrow until January.

A last word from Thorpy.

“I have been doing this for 24 years and I don’t know where the years have all gone. I suppose that one day I will get a proper job.”