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2004-11-29Bristol Comics Expo 2004, 6th / 7th November

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w00t! I'd never been to any form of convention before, so when Pete mentioned at the end of September that this was coming up, I figured it a good opportunity to be social and maybe pick up a few interesting knick-knacks at the same time. My level of interest only rose when I popped over to their site and discovered that Transformers writer and artists Simon Furman, Andy Wildman and Mike Collins would be in attendance. There was also mention of a panel on the mutilation of Hellblazer for the big screen, which we figured we could turn up to and ask "why?" at.

Having spent far too much time fighting with the Rail.co.uk interface, I gave up trying to get discounted advance fares and headed over to NationalExpress.co.uk—much more helpful; £10 year long discount card available to 18-26 year olds, and a £10 return special for November. Sweetness. :)

(Er, if you're here to read anything in particular, be aware there's going to be lots of rambling in-between. Probably somewhere in the region of thousands of words lots.)

As it turns out, I actually bought more comics on the way to Bristol than at the conventions. Whoops. Admittedly most of them with the intention of eBaying them on, but I doubt they would have been there when I went back—Booksale in Wolverhampton usually sells out of its returns stock of trade paperbacks very quickly. Anyway, I got the first volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to check out, and some Transmetropolitan, Hellboy and Transformers UK stuff to sell on. All nice enough pieces, but I'm much more interested in other volumes in those series.

The journey up was pleasant enough, especially when the coach emptied out at Birmingham and rather less people got back on. Read through League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a few times and then settled into a Kinsey Millhone book that I still haven't finished... nothing to do with Sue Grafton's writing, though. Got into Bristol just after five, and turned the corner of the coach station to be greeted by The Bay Horse where I met Pete and Lisa. Caught up a bit, Karen came down to say hi and then we walked back to the new house. Which is very nice, and presumably even nicer for Pete and Lisa, who don't have to live in an environment which actively tries to kill them. (Apparently one of the previous tenants of their old place died crashing down the main staircase, which I can well believe. It was a place where entropy could be observed in action and a sneak preview of the universe's heat-death be experienced. It's now being turned into office space, in which role its soul-deadening effects will be more limited in the number of hours they can prey.)

The new house is of similar era to Mark, Karen & Johnny's. (Speaking of, how does Jonny spell his name? I'm sure I've asked before, and I'm equally sure I've forgotten. I'll alternate for now.) Different internal structure, though, and it has things like a study. It also has Anthony, Fraisia, Pete, Lisa, Anna and a rabbit. So the weekend saw a number of firsts... first time I can remember picking up a rabbit, first time anyone tried to kill me or people I know with fireworks, first comic convention I've been to. Ah, yes. The fireworks. Firework, as far as we could work out. After food we went out for a quiet pint in a pub I completely forget the name of but have been to before. The George? The White Something-or-other? Ordered pint at bar, waited for it to settle and finish being poured, when Pete starts tugging at my arm and hissing something along the lines of "we've gotta get out of here, now!" Slopped a bit of Guinness turning around, and thoughts had just about travelled as far as "nutter? gun? weapon?" before gaze alighted on the alcove off the pool room, where I joined Gaz and Johnny. Shortly after that, things went bang and flash a few times. We did peer around, but everybody seemed to have cleared the door/bar area and there were pool players in the room next to us standing there watching.

Deconstructing afterwards, people did recall kids outside as they'd come in. Apparently whatever they'd slid through the door landed at Anna's feet, which she didn't notice, but fortunately Lisa was more awake and also bundled people out. Thanks to Pete, her (and probably some others sitting around the door) nobody got hurt. I'll endeavour to return the favour, assuming I actually spot the next thing which tries to kill us.

There wasn't any point in the landlord calling the police, who seem to have an unspoken agreement with the pub to ignore each other anyway, so we settled down in a far corner on the assumption that if any of the perpetrators returned someone would reduce them to a bloody pulp. Nothing's served by dwelling on near-misses, anyway. There was some dissection of the US election results (if you're of like mind to me, you may appreciate this) and the young sons of one of the regulars worked their way around our table with a coin trick they'd been practising. I doubt I can explain; suffice to say I reckon it's strongly weighted by gravity and angles in favour of the challenger—I think only Lisa beat 'em a couple of times.

People had a reasonably early morning, with a view to getting to the con whilst there were still freebies. I think someone phoned Dan at this point, who turned out to be in the area and was lured down for Saturday evening with promises of wild and illegal entertainment.

Spent the first few hours next day reading the second volume of LoEG which Pete has—"if you liked the first one, you'll love this. It's got lots of sex in it!"—and trying to coax the rabbit downstairs. Pingu (not quite sure why Anna named a bunny after a penguin, but Anthony and Fraisa can be blamed for a 'surname' of Pikachu) may not have reached the switchblade-and-Glock level of versatility, but she's recently discovered how to climb stairs and to equate 'door' with 'freedom'. Nippy little thing. I also never realised that rabbits stretch themselves out like cats.

The convention was an affair Silver Bullet Comics pitched beforehand as "two days for fans to mingle with creators, editors, publishers and dealers in a friendly, intimate surrounding", which everyone I know who'd been to the last Bristol convention described as "smaller than the [last convention they'd been to]". Apparently the Expo will be returning to a larger venue for 2005—anyway, SBC were right, it was très cosy. We found the Ramada pretty easily—only about 20-30 minutes into town across those nice tucked-away bits of green Bristol has if you look hard enough.

Due to the general lack of space, signings were conducted outside the salesroom, and we went straight past them as I'd imagine most people had—I don't think the artists and writers there got ignored, per se, but most people probably had a root around inside before coming back out for air. I've no idea who was signing on the first day, to be honest—if I'd thought, I could perhaps have gone and bought stuff and asked Mike Carey to sign it. More on him later, though.

Five quid for the two days represented excellent value, and we got goodie-bags (the contents of which you might have felt slightly ripped off for had you paid for them: four titles from AP Comics with a nominal retail price of £12; a couple of backdated magazines (ToyMAX 1, June 2003 / Comics International 171, May 2004) and a $5 RPG supplement with entries from books in the D20 range.) The CI magazine actually has really interesting columns; I'll consider picking it up in future, and I didn't realise until afterwards that they were the co-organiser. ToyMAX I suspect may have been cancelled, as it's basically a catalogue filled with blurry resized JPEGs. I can't remember what the independent comics were; I think I've successfully blotted them from my mind, having launched them at someone else in a parcel with some other stuff. I only hope he won't interpret it as an act of war...

In the vein of independent comics, our first encounter was with the enthusiastic people at the Brodie's Law stand. Note to those promoting comics: pushing comics into people's hands and adding "that'll be [insert price]" at the end of your spiel is not a tactic likely to meet with much success or positive review. I had a quick flick through, but apart from some cross-hatching in the art (a technique which isn't seen enough in comics these days, in my opinion) there didn't seem to be anything setting it apart from the slew of similar books from American and Canadian studios. No epic, intriguing or even idiosyncratic plot either.

Some further advice for anyone contemplating a comic start-up venture: unless your idea is wildly original, well-executed and doesn't involve the American manga-lite style each artist tends to think is kewl and 'different' but which is saturating the independent market... give up now. You'll save yourself a lot of heartache and the likelihood of finishing up out-of-pocket. An exception to this is licensed titles—which are usually respectable sellers whilst the fad is in vogue—although these don't really qualify as 'start-up' titles since they come with a fanbase.

Another relative newcomer there was Darkham Vale, which appears to have reached a few issues being in print by virtue of ripping off demons from well-known anime films. Between the AP Comics offerings, the overriding feeling was one of homogeneity; not surprising considering they shared an umbrella publisher, but most noticeably because they seemed to have the same style of photoshopped colouring. Good paper stock and card covers, but the content didn't seem to warrant it.

On the other hand, many of the independents on the inner ring of tables suffered from the opposite end of production; mono photocopies, including covers. I don't mind black and white art (in some cases I prefer it) but pairing it with a colour cover and layout that doesn't look like I could whip it up myself would encourage me to check out more. I'm not saying that I'm artistic by any stretch, but composition can be more than a title and a piece of example art on a white background. Interestingly, prices didn't seem to vary an awful amount between the two predominant approaches, although at least you got more pages in mono. Getting people to part with more than the cost of a regular ad- subsidised comic for a title they've never seen before is a tricky business, and a salesroom not the best environment to preview half-a-dozen or more different ones.

<tangent>

A tactic I think bears more investigation is online previews. This is already used successfully by many, including the big publishers. Since it's a medium in which everyone can present themselves professionally, a simple site with a preview or first issue and a handful of subsequent pages or pieces of associated art added every so often (along with details of how to purchase regular issues, etc) can be a very useful tool. People are happier to read in a familiar environment, and happier to preview more titles at a time (so networking with other creators is particularly worthwhile.) There aren't any store employees looking at them in askance for handling multiple items of stock or reading for a while, and it's far more convenient. Web design doesn't need to be complicated for what I'm suggesting: a clean, consistent layout is achievable by anyone. Then all you have to do is offer a quality product and make it easy for people to buy and obtain.

</tangent>

I spent the first thirty minutes or so conclusively ruling out any of the dealers as having the two StormWatch trades I was after for something reasonably below retail (Force of Nature and Change or Die) and finding that few prices in the room were really very competitive on anything. Quite a few stands didn't seem set up with a view to selling, either—boxes jammed too full for easy browsing, interesting stock underneath tables, etc. Lots of Marvel superhero stuff, a reasonable number of DC and Vertigo titles represented, and one guy trying to shift a load of Dreamwave Transformers back-stock for what would have been good prices if of interest. Failing to spot any sets, I resolved to have a rummage later in the day for any DW stuff which might be resellable.

The heat coming out of the dealer room was phenomenal. Things had been running for a few hours when we got there, and whatever air conditioning there was had apparently already cashed in its chips.

Had a cool chat with one of the guys from KomixWorld about webcomics making the transition to print media (and even animation—his son had an engaging and professionally put-together video short on display.) This was precipitated by discovering Sluggy Freelance books on their stand, something I'd never expected to see in the UK—and if you've never read Sluggy, check out www.sluggy.com or better still, their nifty new viewer guide or quick list of early chapters. I bought Fire and Rain, book 8 and second of the large-format books. The production is great—a lot of time and effort has obviously been spent laying out strips to best effect, there's plenty of colour and we even get bonus material! Hopefully the first six books will be upgraded to this format in the not-too-distant future, 'cause I'd like book six, only not smaller and not in grayscale.

Les (I think; I'm crap with names) commented that Plan9 seemed to be dragging their feet on getting the existing books back into print—and come to think of it, I do remember a poll last December for whether they should do another small print run of the original format books for Christmas, then switch over to large format in 2004 as Pete was able to prep and revise the artwork. I suggested that the good Mr Abrams having a young daughter, con schedule and a couple of nasty bouts of illness were probably a main cause, but his impression was that there were publisher issues holding things back as well. Still, as long as they turn up; Sluggy fans are patiently anticipating some mainstream recognition—as was said, the Sluggy large-formats would be snapped up if they occupied the same position Eats, Shoots and Leaves did on Waterstones counters last Christmas.

I picked up a few issues of Hellblazer and Lucifer at the same time, to see what Vertigo have been doing semi-recently and as a tie-in to one of the panels we were planning on attending. Nothing was marked, but when I eventually got prices out of him (probably should've considered haggling—Mark got a set of The Thessaliad cheaper by going "ooo..." and tilting his head assessingly) I think I did reasonably.

Another interesting tidbit of conversation concerned the loyalty engendered by webcomics, which is often considerable. I got the impression Iliad and Plan9 (UserFriendly, Sluggy, etc) are his main points of contact, as something*positive hadn't registered on his radar. Although (thankfully) not all-ages, s*p is popular enough that when its author jokingly responded to his readers, "well, if you want to pay me to do this full-time, I'll be better with schedules!" he received enough donations to do just that for a year. As the contributory support model is one few cartoonists can rely upon for more than the occasional beer, the conversation shifted to avenues of income such as merchandising and subscriptions. I'm not personally convinced that holding back parts of a main storyline for subscribers can be successful; offering a few incidental bonuses, which is what Sluggy does, and contributing towards the continuation of something—that's a draw. There are three such comics on my list for when I'm pulling in sufficient disposable income, with another couple of possibles. Books, of course, are a happy situation for both readers and creators—and there's no problem with offering content in print which people can read online, to my mind. I'd always much rather have a book if I like the story enough, and I most often buy books I've read or by authors I've previously enjoyed books from.

Memo to self: pass on KomixWorld as being a possible UK retailer if/when RMK gets books sorted out for s*p.

Whilst very plush, the Ramada probably didn't do spectacular business from convention-goers. I doubt many who were not selling would have stayed over, and bar prices were fairly high. (Sunday attendance bore this out.) It was nice to grab a breather part-way through and flick through purchases—Pete came away with about thirty or forty Silver Age comics in lucky-dip packs, Anna got a set of Malcom Magic comics (creators Blink Twice's slogan: "The future is orange. The future is a big carrot.") which looked similar to a few webcomics I've seen—she's definitely on a bunny kick at the moment! Anthony considered a small statue of a masturbating anime dame to go alongside his living-room book of Japanese schoolgirl hentai, but the collectible stands were generally a bit of a rip-off. Mark picked up some Vertigo stuff, and I think either Pete or Lisa actually bought a copy of Brodie's Law. I'm sure Jonny was there and went to the anime panel with people, but I lost track a bit in the milling.

Pete and I stuck around for the Hellblazer panel, which was much more interesting than anticipated as it had little or nothing to do with the Constantine film. Mike Carey was pretty tactful about the whole thing, but the PowerPoint slides included things such as a contrast of Chaz in the movie (punked-up teen in baseball cap) and Chaz in the comics (absent-mindedly fishing a tire-iron out of the boot of his car to go and beat a pimp off John after John saw one of his ex-girlfriends working as a prostitute and decided to wander over and say hi.) Needless to say, the molestation of John Constantine—Scouse con artist, jaded survivor of Thatcher's Britain and sometime wizard—by Hollywood is so complete that Alan Moore has insisted his name not even be associated by the travesty which will be Matrix 4: The Exorcist. The best thing which can be said is that at least Keanu Reeves won't be attempting a British accent, although as Warren Ellis says, " John Constantine is now a man with the (super)power to go to Hell. So long as his feet are immersed in a bucket of water. Seriously."—at least the film may be good for a few pained guffaws. It sounds fucking awful.

However, Mike did announce that he's writing a Constantine graphic novel that will feature the characters we (sort of) know and love/hate, rather than the movie equivalents. It'll be pitched towards new readers, with the trademark bluffing-an-escape-from-certain-death but without too many references to years of continuity—sounds good, as Hellblazer has been running since the 80s and I've read relatively little of it. I'm up-to-speed on all of the major events, but the handful of random issues I have are mostly self-contained.

The panel was particularly useful to hear the history talked through by its current author, and we also got some digression into the writing he does for Lucifer and the pains he takes to keep those compartmentalised. That's something which is a little more straightforward at present, as the DC/Vertigo universe titles only faintly interact within a shared continuity these days—whereas previous authors had to contend with Lucifer having absconded from his post in hell, for example. Lucifer is the epic fantasy title, with an emphasis on metaphysical questions, whilst Hellblazer is very strongly grounded in Carey's own life in Britain. He considers John to some degree a revenant, anchored by familiar haunting grounds—previous writers had taken the character in different directions both geographically and culturally, so he wanted from the start his run on the title to be a re-affirmation of roots. This ties in neatly with the occasionally-referenced notion of there being a Constantine in every generation, John being only the latest to carry the curse...

Top stuff, although the guy running the panel with Mike kept fishing for audience questions to the extent some people were obviously sitting there wracking their brains with a view to theirs actually being the last and us all fleeing in search of food. After which I went and bought a couple of Transformers profile series issues and a handful of bargain box comics as people were packing up, most of which I subsequently jettisoned—I note for the record that Warlands now holds as little interest for me as most of Dreamwave's other titles. Rabbit munch.

Dan showed up shortly after we'd walked back. Gaz being in much the same process of moving to Bristol that Pete and Lisa were two years ago, it seems you can't keep the 44 posse out of one room for too long... anyway, it seems Dan has settled within laundry distance of Neath, scored a surveying career, bachelor pad and all mod cons. You know those tables on wheels they have in hospitals so that patients don't have to get out of bed to eat? Dan has one of those. He is, as Pete said, living the dream, in addition to being the most professionally grounded of the four of us. Certainly an impressive leap from being more aimless than myself this time last year. (My plans for 2005 involve as much contiguous temping as possible, Poland in the summer and then either back to temping or onto supply teaching. 2006 will be whatthefuckwasIthinkingin2003-time.)

After offering the rabbit chips and prawn crackers, we decamped en masse to a new pub, Dan proceeding to wipe the floor with all-comers on the pool table until he potted the white right after the black. It was probably just as well he did, having been unbeaten for most of the evening with many of the regulars taking it as a personal—if friendly—challenge. We moved around the bar to take up a different third of the seats, and spent the next couple of hours shouting conversation over reggae and dub whilst watching an hypnotic party video and discussing starting up a magazine dedicated to tasteful porn and photos of people clipped by BB gun pellets. Apparently the pub is becoming infamous for this particular video, which is basically one guy with a camera filming the grinding and jiggling guests at a very casual wedding bash—it's compulsive and surprisingly fair in featuring both genders. Mix in the music (thankfully a bit quieter after a while) and lots of very mellow people, and you have quite the winning formula.

After failing to inveigle the group into a lock-in at another pub on the way back, we settled back into house #2. Anthony (who'd opted for a quiet night in, and was therefore sober enough to drive) charitably offered to pop down to the 24hr garage for baccy and nibbles. There followed an extended session of shooting wind chimes with Pete's BB gun, before people figured it would be best if the bunny was retired to the safety of a hutch before she caught an accidental rebound. Now, I don't know whether rabbits are too daft to think about height whilst trying to escape or just expect to bounce, but she wriggled out of Fraisia's grasp from a few feet up. Thankfully she didn't do the same to me; apologising for breaking people's pets can be a little awkward.

House #2 gradually filtered off to sleep, or at least occupy beds, and Karen turned up with an affable guy whose name may have been Dez or Dave. (We're at the point where coming to finish off writing this three weeks after the fact may come back to bite me, now—no disrespect is intended, I assure ye.) Everyone was worse enough for wear that Karaoke Revolution 2 seemed like a good idea, following which Gaz shot Dan in the ear with the BB gun and things kind of progressed from there. When they put each other down... er, to be honest I'm drawing a blank on most things from this point apart from the aureole comparisons and debate about whether patents encourage or impede innovation. Finally got my head down sometime after six—I suppose if I'd been thinking straighter I could have gone and passed out in the study earlier, barricading myself in against commando BB raids, but my nagging autopilot had recollections of having promised to lock up and of needing to pack for the Sunday.

Pete woke up to corroborate he'd lost his baccy tin the night before, and determined to lead an expotition. Everyone who'd gone the day before had pretty much done what they wanted to and Fraisa was in two minds about leaving the cosy warmth of bed, so I started on the second pack of mince pies I'd taken with me and tried to sketch out a mental map to the Ramada. The TF creators panel wasn't until 2pm, but I figured people might be dashing off after it so I wanted to try to get stuff signed beforehand, and that it'd give me a clear couple of hours after the panel to find the coach station again. Said my goodbyes and that I'd ring when I got lost, then set out a bit before one.

Finding the hotel again was easy enough, though it took me longer with everything I'd taken to Bristol with me and I wasn't very compos mentis by the time I poked my head into the foyer. Hopefully I didn't come across as too much of a twattish fanboy, but I got my copy of End of the Road signed and bought a bookplated copy of Dark Ages. Apparently there'd been a steady trickle of fans throughout the day, but attendance didn't look anything like Saturday numbers. We had a bit of a chat about the Dreamwave prequel stories flowing better as trade collections (The War Within definitely benefited from having preview material sequenced into it, for example, and I'm waiting for a trade on Age of Wrath) ... it's an issue greatly affecting the comics industry (and comics shops) at present, with most readers around their twenties and many of us preferring volume collections. For example, we know that with Dreamwave trade paperbacks are a virtual certainty and that they'll include bonus material to attract those who bought the comics; they're also accessible from regular bookstores and online sources. To encourage individual issue sales, Dreamwave produce innumerable cover variants, which usually results in a spike of sales for issue #1 of any given mini-series and a tail-off as people miss issues here and there (not surprisingly, given the company's lousy track record of meeting published deadlines.) First issues are also serving as indicators for the buying public of whether a trade will be worth considering ...eh, the trade paperback debate deserves its own write-up at a later date, though.

Probably being a little too direct, I wondered out loud to what extent Simon felt Chris Sarracini may have been scapegoated for the art-driven first volume of Dreamwave's Generation One comic, citing the improbability of a writer giving a page over to panels of vehicles moving forward. Got a tactfully worded concurrence that Pat Lee probably wouldn't have been refused requests, anyway—having a company boss as an artist must be quite a weird dynamic, I reckon. I read comics ("illustrated fiction" if we're being grand) primarily for story, noticing art most at its extremes: above and beyond (Bryan Hitch, Mike Mignola and Darick Robertson spring to mind) or actually failing to express the script. Guess where I place Pat Lee on that sliding scale.

Also mentioned was the upcoming live-action Transformers movie, which I remarked I was slightly surprised the production team was going with 80s characters for rather than recent ones perhaps more recognisable to a younger audience. (Confidence was more in evidence on the other side of the table; Simon had arranged to meet-up with producer Don Murphy, which he was in good spirits about, and figured that if people went to watch without too many preconceptions it should be an enjoyable flick. Hopefully the online TF community will approach with an open mind, because there'll be a big influx of people joining or returning to the fandom with the appearance of a new film, and some sections of it can be a bit rabid.) At this point another fan turned up at the table, an opportune moment to stop making a pest of myself and suck in some fresh air outside, where I promptly felt guilty for not saying much to Andy. I'd guess he's used to this at Transformers-related gatherings, and I don't think I've read any of his other Marvel US work, but I should've been able to pluck something from the memory about Thundercats at least. Sorry dude.

The panel mustered a dozen or so of us, which was probably a decent percentage of attendees left at that point, and in typical Transfan fashion we spread out across the room. What followed was an engaging hour of presentation—nothing particular that hasn't been covered in interviews and panels before, but it was good to hear things first-hand. It hadn't registered, for instance, that Mike Collins worked on the early Ladybird books or wrote "Crisis of Command!" since I got into TF UK at around #268 (1990) and wasn't paying attention to things like artist credits at the age I first saw the Ladybird books. I've read and collected backwards since, of course, but I'm far from completist—I've read everything at least once, but my main interest is for later stuff.

All three came across as very pleasant, laid-back guys. Mike in particular tended to downplay his contribution and chip in to support points by the others. He did, however, mention that Optimus has always been a favourite character and that the Insecticons were fiddly to draw. Andy plumped for Galvatron as a favourite character to pencil, since he went into comics with the desire to draw superheroes and Galatron is probably the nearest thing in terms of body shape. Apparently the Marvel US artists had books of reference art long before Marvel UK (which explains the toy-oriented art on early UK stories) and it was later a similar story with reference material for Movie character (hence Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge in the first part of Target: 2006 being drawn as per the toys.) All in all, there was very little communication between US and UK operations, causing Simon to focus particularly on characters marginalised by US tales in case there were clashes with the American reprint strips. This was also an opportune moment for the story about the giant cigar-smoking nuns to be told again (an April Fool's script was produced just to see whether any attention was being paid to the submissions sent for rubber-stamping. This naturally involved aforesaid nuns fighting Galvatron, the deaths of pretty much all of t

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