I don’t attend specialist comics conventions very often. Indeed, the last time I did so was also in Bristol in 2005, when I was hoping to persuade all of the UK’s finest comics talent to come to Worldcon in Glasgow. But when I’m in the UK getting to Bristol is generally fairly easy for me, so if I’m around at the right time of year I try to make the effort to keep up with what is happening in comics.
This year I ended up falling in with a bunch of podcasters. These included Amy of Birds of Geek, Scott of Comic Book Outsiders and Dave & Barry of The Geek Syndicate. I was impressed with how enthusiastic they all were, and how they were very much focused on promoting comics (and indeed anything else they liked). The Geek Syndicate guys were particularly hard working, and I am going to make a point of listening to some of their work. I have a video interview with them in my video diary of the convention.
I bought a number of comics while I was there, all of which I will try to write a little bit about in the near future. These are: Neil Gaiman’s Batman; Hope Falls, by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood; Vampire Free Style, by Jenika Ioffreda and The Girly Comic Book, an anthology edited by Selina Lock.
Other things of interest included Asia Alfasi’s Arab manga and the return of Classics Illustrated. Asia (whose name is pronounced more like ah-seeya than ay-shah) stood out in the convention in her traditional Muslim garb, but she was every bit as enthusiastic about comics as all of the other professionals there, if not more so. She is originally from Libya, and told me that kids in Arab countries often read more manga than western comics, which is how she grew up wanting to draw in the manga style. The idea that there is a flourishing community of Arab manga creators is fascinating and I’d love to find out more about it.
Classics Illustrated is a fond memory of my youth. They published exceedingly abridged versions of classic literature and adventure stories in a comics format. I remember owning several of them when I was a kid, and they were probably my first introduction to classic writers such as Verne and Dumas. A British company has bought the rights to the series and is republishing them. The web site says:
In doing so we hope to enrich young readers’ lives with these marvellous tales, helping them develop their reading skills and stretching their imaginations with fabulous tales of heroes and villains based on stories and novels that have passed the test of time over hundreds of years.
Hey, it worked for me. Here’s hoping that it works for modern kids as well.
On Saturday I spent quite a while talking to Dennis Morrison of ZzizzlComix.com. They have a very interesting idea. The produce what’s essentially a comics version of an audiobook. That is, they get voice actors to read out the text, but because this is a comic you also get video of the artwork. By adding motion, and not necessarily showing the whole frame at once, they add a lot of new artistic possibilities. The thing that struck me most about this is that it is actually a very effective promotional device for the paper comics. With the video you don’t always see all of the art, and the resolution may not be too good, so there is a definite incentive to buy the real thing. As an example, see the Grandville trailer that I just posted (which is not by ZzizzlComix but is a similar idea).
That feeling was reinforced on Sunday at the Independent Publishing panel when Harry from Markosia revealed that he’s selling comics on mobile phones in China. Customers can go to the web site and download issue #1 of various comics for free. They then have to pay a small fee per issue for subsequent comics. Prices in China are very low, but the mobile phone company has 500 million subscribers.
What about the convention itself? Well, this year it was very much downsized. In previous years it has used a huge shed near Temple Meads station for all of the dealer/signing areas. The Ramada hotel has been used only for panels. But the shed was costing £22,000 to hire, and the convention organizer, Mike Allwood, decided he could manage without it.
Packing dealers and signing into hotel function space was always going to be something of a challenge. Mike imposed a membership cap (reportedly 500) and was surprised when the con sold out well before the date. Even so, things were a bit claustrophobic at times. The panel on the Watchmen movie had to turn people away because the room was packed to overflowing. Other panels may have maxed out as well.
The good news is that a related event took place on Saturday at the nearby Mercure. This is a much more modern hotel and the space appeared be to rather better. This year it was used only for small press publishers. It may have looked a lot busier if the likes of Forbidden Planet and TokyoPop had been in there. Next year the plan is to use both hotels for both days. They are quite close together (separated only by a minor road and a magnificent Gothic church), but even so planning the split of functions between the two will be challenging. The con can’t abandon the Ramada. It needs the space in both hotels, and the Ramada people are generally very welcoming. In particular it has a very nice bar whose staff earned plenty of brownie points by all dressing up in superhero costumes on Saturday night. That almost made up for the heinous crime of closing at 3:00am on Saturday morning, which apparently upset some of the hardened drinkers.
At the moment it is difficult to see how this will pan out. Mike says that this year’s event was very successful. He notes that the attendees are mostly hard-core comics fans who are much more likely to buy things than the casual day attendees. Having 1,000 attendees instead of 500 won’t necessarily double dealer revenues, and if the price of catering to the extra people is huge you can see why Mike is reluctant to do so. I did have people complain to me that there were a lot fewer big name artists there this year, but there were plenty of high profile people, and Dan Didio was there so clearly DC thinks highly of the event.
In the end what all this is about is facilities. Hotel function space and large sheds in railway stations are all well and good, but they are not proper convention space. Several of the people I met were talking excitedly about the London MCM Expo taking place at the end of the month. That’s going to be in the Excel Centre in Docklands (one of the places being mooted as a possible site for the next UK Worldcon). Attendance is apparently expected to be around 30,000.
If Bristol wants to compete with that I think it has to get more industry-oriented. It needs to be more of a World Fantasy type event that comic creators go to in order to network rather than something they go to in order to meet the public. It will probably need more in the way of panels, and will need to major on being a place where independent publishers and new talent can shop their wares relatively free from the distraction of the fannish hordes.
Oh, and it could do with a press room where people like me and the podcast guys could do interviews.
All this, of course, will take place over a multi-year time frame. Attendees probably won’t see a huge change from one year to the next. The problem for con-runners, however, is that a convention is very much like a supertanker – it takes a very long time to turn around. And if you don’t start turning as soon as you spot trouble you may not be able to avoid it before it is too late. I don’t envy Mike his problems, and it is always impossible to please all of the people all of the time, so whatever he does someone will carp. But for now Bristol is still a good event, and if I’m in the UK at the right time next year I shall certainly go back. I think I’ll book a hotel room as well.
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