In the autumn of 1989 I go for a drink with Cefn Ridout, my former Acme colleague. I think Cefn was the person who originally sounded me out about becoming involved with Acme, and he was always the person in the team who I was most friendly with, and although I have left the company, we have remained in touch.
It turns out however, that this is not purely a social event. Acme have continued to limp along in financial terms, for reasons mentioned earlier, but in my absence, the possibility of a cash injection has emerged from an unexpected source – a man called John Brown.
John is a slightly maverick publisher who by 1989 has ended up in a rather fortunate position due to a combination of unlikely circumstances. A version of the company he founded still exists today, although John is no longer involved with it. By the time I become involved with them, John Brown Publishing is growing rapidly thanks to the goose that laid a profane, yet still golden egg – Viz Comic.
Viz is founded in 1979 in Newcastle, primarily by two brothers – Chris and Simon Donald. It is inspired by that part of the British comics market that attempted to amuse (and occasionally succeeded), particularly the slightly more anarchic titles like Cor!! or Whizzer and Chips. Viz is a punky, sweary, anarchic home-made version aimed at adult(ish) readers – incredibly rude, offensive, puerile and scattershot in its choice of subjects and who it chooses to make fun of. It is a legitimate work of (very British) genius.
The Donalds and some other collaborators develop Viz into a local Newcastle hit, and then try to go bigger, sending samples to companies they think might be interested in taking it on. Copies get to Titan – I recall sitting one lunchtime in the warehouse with Wilf Wood as we both read some samples and don’t, at the time, quite get it. I think I had, by that time, also seen a documentary on the comic, made I think for BBC Adult Learning which focussed I think on the small business aspects of the endeavour but rather glossed over the profanity. Titan passes on the opportunity to publish Viz.
Copies are also sent to Virgin Books. By the mid-1980s Richard Branson has diversified his music-driven empire, and publishing is one of his new endeavours. Any slightly left-field enquiries get redirected to John Brown, at the time a Virgin Books employee. I remember getting a letter from John myself after a mildly entrepreneurial instinct leads me to write to Branson suggesting that Virgin shops start selling American comics. I think I even trot down to Virgin at that point and maybe meet John – who while impressed by my comics knowledge cruelly exposes my lack of retail knowledge, so that’s that. By the time I meet him again I have largely forgotten this encounter.
John likes Viz when it drifts across his desk at Virgin, and makes them an offer. Virgin take over the publishing and go national with the title, to some mild success. Circulation increases, largely by word of mouth, but no-one suspects what is about to happen. John has ambitions to set up his own publishing company. He is encouraged in this by Branson, and in due course John Brown Publishing (JBP) is established, with Virgin injecting some cash as a minority shareholder. Branson also lets John take Viz with him as the first JBP title. The other strand of the company is what’s called contract publishing, which is the production of magazines associated with a particular company. The first title for this side of the business is Hot Air, the Virgin Airlines inflight magazine. So from the beginning, JBP is a mixture of middle class seriousness and anarchy. Editorially, Viz remains in the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond. Production, circulation and promotion is done by JBP in London.
Viz circulation begins to climb more and more rapidly in the JBP era. Most remarkably, this is a combination of word of mouth and favourable media coverage, rather than a “master plan” on the part of John or the editorial team. It just becomes a cultural phenomenon. When Virgin took over, circulation stood at around 5000. By the end of 1989 the JBP era has taken it to over a million copies per issue. For a time, Viz is the third best-selling magazine in the country, after Radio Times and TV Times.
John is of course thrilled, delighted … and rich, as a consequence of this. JBP starts to diversify (more on this later) and as a result of the success of Viz one idea is to grow the comics side of the business. However John and his colleagues know little about comics more generally, so they start to talk to people who do. In due course John has discussions with Acme, and becomes interested in publishing Speakeasy as an (almost) professional title. Acme are interested in the money to further their publishing ambitions and after years grinding away with the mag are quite happy to sell. However none of them want to move across to JBP as Editor – they just want shot of the title. So as conversations progress, the Acme boys mention this former colleague of theirs and, as Cefn tells me, JBP are interested in interviewing me for the post.
By this time I am somewhat losing interest in comics, so I have mixed feelings about going back into an industry I have tried to get away from. However, it’s not every day someone dangles the possibility of an editorial job at an up-and-coming publisher which has Britain’s third best-selling magazine under its wings. Not to mention that by this time I, like many people, am a huge fan of Viz. I tell Cefn to tell Dick Hansom to tell John Brown I am interested. So in the autumn of 1989 I troop down to JBP to be interviewed. Exciting, eh? Except that, as is often the case in comics publishing, things are not as simple as they first appear …