17 October 2009

A Report From A Con You Probably Haven't Heard Of, Yankee

WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS

A Con Report From A Young Turk Attempting To Storm The Castle

I love comic cons. Always have. As a young nerdlet I attended UKCAC (the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention) every year from '91 to '96, and at least once after that -- I forget how many more years it ran. I considered it an almost religious experience, a chance to pay tribute to my gods, and bask in their divine glow. I queued up to stammer at a remarkable number of my heroes, at a very tender age. I even entered the costume contest a few times -- my Hellboy was particularly good, if I say so myself. I've always enjoyed going around the various small press stalls, finding hidden gems and under-appreciated geniuses (geneii?)... I remember buying the first issue of Kane directly from Paul Grist at UKCAC one year, and I've made a point of seeking him out and buying something from him at every con I've attended since.

Nowadays, here in the UK we have two major comics specific events (although there are a few smaller things bubbling under, and the twice annual London MCM Expo, which draws in far more people but for some reason doesn't get the same focus from the comics industry), the Bristol Comic Con, which I can't attend because it takes place the weekend of my fiancee's birthday (I mean, Jesus, I love that woman -- I'm not going to make her go to a comic con on her birthday!); and the Birmingham International Comics Show- now rebranded as the British International Comics Show- which happens in the first week of October every year.

Birmingham's a bit of an odd con, to be honest. The fan/pro ratio (if by pro you include every exhibitor) feels like it's nigh on 1:1, which should tell you something about the difference between UK cons and their American counterparts. This leads to a wonderfully informal atmosphere, but it can be a bit disconcerting if, like me, you've never quite got over your fanboy reflex -- you know, the one that leaves you quivering and stuttering like an idiot as soon as you realise you're in the presence of someone who's work you enjoy.

This year's con was particularly surreal for me, since it was my first time on the other side of the table (at this con, at least -- I've exhibited at the even smaller UK Web And Mini Comix Thing a couple of times).

I thought maybe you might be interested in hearing what it's like to be a fanboy masquerading as a pro at a con. Hopefully, I'm right about that, because that's exactly what this here massive smear of writing is. I shall try not to let it turn into a straight up list of name drops and plugs for my friends; I'd advise you not to hold out too much hope for that though.

You know what the worst thing about exhibiting at a comic con is? You don't get to go to any panels. Which means I missed Bryan Talbot launching Grandville, Howard Chaykin being interviewed about his career, Geek Syndicate's 70 Years Of Marvel panel with Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, Andy Diggle and Paul Cornell (although I at least got to listen to that one afterwards via the geek Syndicate podcast ), and, er, the cosplay contest. Okay, I'll admit I'm not heartbroken about that last one. But on the other hand, I got to stand next to Chaykin in a queue for luke-warm fish and chips at the surprisingly unpleasant launch party. So there's that.

No. I didn't talk to him. I couldn't; for some reason the organisers felt that it would be appropriate to have a DJ playing god-awful top 40 RnB at ear-splitting volume all night. Because, you know, us comics fans just love the R&B apparently.

Here's the depressing little secret of what it's like to be a *cough* pro *cough* at a comic con: I spent two days sitting behind a table trying to sell my comics to people who didn't want to buy them, because they rather understandably wanted to save their money for Grandville. Luckily, I found myself sandwiched between the writers Ian Sharman and Chris Lynch (both of whom produce work you should definitely check out -- You'll find Ian's work here and Chris's here ) who helped put me at my ease with a rousing barbershop rendition of Color Me Badd's classic 80's hit I Want To Sex You Up, allbeit with the lyrics amended to I Want To Fuck A Goat. Well, maybe it was just Ian singing those words. Anyway, as I'm sure you can imagine, this wasn't an uncomfortable experience at all, and I wasn't in the slightest bit disturbed or frightened each time over the course of the weekend that Chris would begin humming the melody. Not at all, no.

Ian, by the way, is a bit of a renaissance man; he pretty much runs studio cum indy publisher Orang Utan Comics, as well as writing a pretty large chunk of the output. He's also a professional letterer (many of you will soon be reading his lettering work in the Top Shelf published AX), and an incredible inker. And he now owes me a double Laphroig on ice for the plug.

Oh, and in the interest of balance, Chris managed to impress me greatly by taking a random idea that came up in conversation on the saturday morning -- just after the singalong- and proceeding to craft a complete script from it in his notebook over the course of the weekend. That's creativity in action, folks.

Anyway, I have to say that while the experience was far more fun than sitting in one place for two days sounds, it also went by kind of fast. the daytimes quickly blurred together into one long weird smudge, a seemingly endless parade of upper halves of people appearing before me, picking up my comics, looking through them, and in most cases putting them down again and moving on; but in a few cases buying one, and in one rather memorable instance saying "Huh. Bit shit," and moving on... (I like to think that the next thing she did was fall down the stairs and break her neck. what, bitter, me? Noooooo.) Naturally, in such circumstances, the people who go out of their way to stop and chat are much appreciated, and I'm pleased to say a surprising number of people did. I can link you to three of them -- Scott from Comic Book Outsiders, Stace from Small Press Big Mouth and Jared from OK Comics all stopped by and brightened things up -- but most were simply straight up fans of the medium, pleased to be seeing a comic they hadn't heard of before, which gave me a real warm glow- even when they didn't buy a comic. I swear, social skills aren't our strong point as a subculture, but our genuine and unembarrassed love for this artform is a beautiful thing to behold. The teenage boys dressed like Tank Girl, the girls who wanted advice on how to make their own comic, Sam the cosplayer who played the most popular Superman I've ever seen (and who impressively suppressed his desire to kill me for not liking Starman)- every one of them made it fun to be behind that table, when it could so easily have been a terrible chore. If nothing else they drowned out the endless repeat eighties hair-rock a cappella karaoke performance taking place directly to my right...

As the weekend progressed, I found myself experimenting with different ways to encourage custom. Singing attracts attention, but not necesarily the right kind; while waiting to catch someone's eye and then performing a theatrical hand flourish towrds your wares actually seems to repel people. Surprisingly, the most effective technique turned out to be waiting untill a potential customer is within earshot and then simply saying, in a friendly but not loud or pushy manner, "these comics are really good." It worked every time. And now I have told you my secret and must kill you.

Unsurprisingly, it's the not-strictly-con-related stuff that sticks out in my memory. For example, chatting with PJ Holden in the street outside the hotel on the Sunday morning when I should have already been setting up at the con- that was a pretty massive thing for me, as I'm a big fat fanboy when it comes to mr Holden's work (and also the fucking hilarious podcast he co-presents, Sunnyside Comics ); his old-school 2000AD style and inventive but always clear and easy storytelling just sing to me. My annual visit to Paul Grist's table to pay tribute, tug my forelock, and back away respectfully was as important to me as it always is. Having a beer with Paul Cornell while Ian gushed about his Captain Britain run was fun and surreal. Sharing tales of heavy metal gigs and comparing moshpit scars with the Bearded Skull guys was a fun way to start the Saturday evening, and having a good long catch up and drinking session with my mate Tom and his brother was an excellent way to finish it. Putting faces to the names and avatars of the various podcasters and bloggers that I've chatted with online over the last few years was nice; apparently wearing a bloody great badge with your name on it makes that easier to do... it's not exactly the transition into some secret world of glamour and coolness that I think many comics fans imagine, crossing that con-table divide; it's more like starting work at a new place; being the new boy in some big institution. Some people will be friendly and welcoming, some will be standoffish and snobby; most will be cautiously affable, sizing you up to see how long you're going to last, and whether you're going to be trouble for them or their friends- or if you're going to be someone they want to work alongside. As you can probably imagine, this is both exciting and scary; my way of coping was to drink lots and lots and lots of whisky. Hey, you've got to have a system.

The thing that surprised me the most about the con was the sketching. Now, I'm told that it has been standard practice for years at American cons for pros to sell sketches -- but this was the first time I've seen it at a UK con; traditionally, artists have always done free sketches for all comers over here. Apparently over the last year there has been a spontaneous concensus decision amongst British creators that this is just silly, and a huge loss of income, which seems fair enough. Anyway, the thing about it that surprised is that EVERYONE was doing it, not just the "big names"; as well as Ian and Chris, I was also sitting with a couple of artists, MWM's Stu.Art (who I have decided I do not like because he is just too bloody good) and the rather lovely Simon Wyatt ( who is also bloody good but in a very different style from mine so it's ok), who does work for both Orang Utan and the increasingly popular Insomnia publications -- and both of them spent the entire con hunched over the table drawing, producing an impressive number of sketches which they then sold for a fiver apiece. Obviously, I will be doing this myself at the next con I go to. Frankly, if I'd thought to bring a larger sketchbook, I'd have been doing it at this one.

And well, that's it, that's the whole sorry tale. I'll finish up with a word of advice to anyone planning on attending a con anywhere: book an extra night at your hotel. Everyone I spoke too was travelling home on the Sunday night, and every single one of them looked positively forlorn as they made their tired, broken way to the train station or car park, laden down with unsold comics and table paraphenalia; meanwhile I took myself off to KFC for a boneless barbecue banquet box and then retired to my hotel room, where I was asleep by nine, so shattered was I from the weekend's shenanigans. Sure, it cost me a little more, but boy was it worth it.

I slept like a baby, too.

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