Over this winter, Andy Oliver has been publishing State of the Small Press Nation, a look at the sudden abundance of cartoonist shows around Britain, wondering what that swell in numbers means–for the exhibitors and for the scene in general. It’s interesting stuff with views and experiences “from prominent small press creators to DIY culture self-publishing newbies, through to boutique micro-publishers and beyond.”
Andy says, “While it seems churlish on the one hand to be ungrateful about this scheduling explosion–who could have imagined such an interest in the medium just a few short years ago, after all?–It is a valid question to ask whether or not we may have now reached saturation point.” I can’t exactly say he’s wrong, but I can offer my initial baffled reaction: hell yes, it seems churlish, and anyway, who’s “we?”
Let me set the scene from my perspective. The town I live in now has a population of twenty thousand (if you count our neighbouring parishes–otherwise it’s more like ten), and this is the largest place I’ve ever called home. Twin Peaks, to pull up a handy comparison, is a “small town” of fifty thousand. I’m a visitor to cons, not an exhibitor: for me, as for the average consumer of printed media, a convention is an occasion for the spending of money, not the making of it. For example, attending Thought Bubble last November, with a two nights stay in Leeds, cost my partner and I approximately the same as our rent that month. That’s a lot! If I want to go to London Super Comic-Con in March this year, before I even get to the con, that’s fifty quid I have to drop on a train journey for myself alone. Add food, travel to the Excel centre from my station, cosplay ingredients, purchases made on-site? It’s a bundle of cash, burnt on the altar of Comics, and that’s only looking at the financial costs. Social stress, travel hassle, the loss of your regular schedule, performance adrenaline… Cons used to be city-level social events only, and it was a killer.
Some people can afford to head for the urban sprawl (London, Milton Keynes, Leeds, Birmingham, London) to hang with their cultural like. A lot of people can’t. A convention popping up on your doorstep? In your rural, bumpkin town, where it’s exciting to see the one single solitary resident goth? For a low-budget member of the comic medium’s audience, that is a blessing without disguise.
So I was pretty excited to hear about OK True Believers, a brand new convention that it turned out I could, if I wanted, approach on the local bus for five pounds fifty. In fact, I did. In my view, the more modestly-sized conventions that spring up outside of the umbrellas of the bigger cities, the stronger the local receipt of comics will become. If creators and industry entrepreneurs can figure out how to spot each other on covering as many outlier cons as possible, fans won’t have to bet everything or blow their budgets on attending multiple big cons. They’ll have more money to spend near home, they’ll bring their friends, and talk about it at school or work, and in, what, ten years? Comics will be totally normal.
Okay, I’m reaching. But what if not very far?
So what makes a person take on the responsibility of putting on a con? Who are the heroes and heroines of these brave new country frontiers? I spoke to co-organiser Stuart Mulrain before the show. We talked about comics, culture, organisation, and stress, all in the name of the con he’s putting on in the fairly delightful, and my local, Cheltenham Spa.
Well, It started with Superman.
Picture a wee English lad, twenty-odd on holiday in Spain. What’s that on the newspaper, there? Is that Superman? He’s… come back to life? Superman was dead and he came back to life? Wow!
The Comic Book Death Cycle, it turns out, was (is?) not always powerless. Young Stuart gets home, he looks out these Superman comics. It’s confusing and strange because of course, he’s in England! Even now, our newsagents do not get American comics in a timely fashion. Clark Kent is fine, Superman’s dandy. No death to be seen. A fan’s made for life, though. The excitement, the scope. Add a little Batman (Azrael, even!), add a little Green Lantern Corps, stir in the fine and nourishing gravy of Lois & Clark, and those first two Reeve Superman films. We’re getting somewhere. Stuart tells me that he used to love the existing cons, the ones in the big cities. He loved them when they were “about comics.” Sick of what he calls the media climb, and cons being a place to meet actors, a seed started to grow in the mind of a grown-up fan.
It’s a perspective that a lot of us talk about from time to time, the idea that cons have lost their comicy focus. On the other hand… Lois & Clark wouldn’t exist without actors. Christopher Reeve wasn’t lines on paper. Stuart mentions Jessica Martin, a guest at OK TB: she has actress’ credits, sure, but she’s also the creator of biographical comics It Girl and Vivacity. In fact, one could argue that she uses her experience as an actress to inform and inspire her research and retellings of silver screen legends; her actress-ness is relevant and necessary to her comics’ existence. Not so much a vote in favour of actors’ presence at cons, as a heavy leaning on the idea of creator legitimacy. It’s a fairly strident perspective that I might roll my eyes about person to person, but in this professional context I’m not against it. There’s room, I think, for all sorts of new rule formations in these smaller, newer cons. Let’s try out different atmospheres and requirements for different territories! Let’s trial-run the idea of local con tourism.
Keeping it local, in fact, makes your con relevant to the businesses and institutions already in place in your “local area.” Cheltenham and Gloucester have a “good nerd scene”–there is, I’m told (I’m new here), a strong friend-of-a-friend network, plenty of gaming shops (the Red Power Ranger visited one in Gloucester late last year; celebrity legitimacy or what) and while Gloucester lost its local comic shop in recent years, Proud Lion in Cheltenham did the OKTB pro-sell on me when I was there in September. I doubt I was the only one to hear the pitch.
The Gloucestershire Echo, the local paper, also gave plenty of support to OKTB throughout the whole of 2014 and sent a reporting team–words, pictures, and video–to follow up afterwards. And keeping it local also allows you to contribute to and benefit from your county’s homegrown cultural scene. Cheltenham has an established Festival schedule with the Literature Festival, Cheltenham Folk Festival, “The Festival” (which is horse racing), Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival. Which is why I attended OK True Believers Comics Festival, not OK True Believers Comics Convention. Other local conventions were also keen to lend their support and form a network of sorts: Melksham Con had a table and Leamington’s recent start-up regularly tweeted about OKTB in the months before the show. Both organisational teams were willing to talk it over, successes and stresses, with Stuart and his team. Ain’t that nice?
Prior to this convention, Stuart and his business partner ran a small film festival. It was fun, he says, but they wished it was a comics convention. When Mojo Jones, burlesque performer, suggested putting on a con, I guess nobody thought she was talking about glamourous crimes.
The hope was to break even, and I don’t know if they did. But, I hope so. And I can believe that, maybe, they did, because once I found my way inside I was impressed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! Here’s what it was like, getting to the Comics Festival.
I knew it was at Cheltenham Racecourse, because I had been impressed with the sparkiness of this idea. Both my times at Thought Bubble have been mildly marred by the one on-scene cashpoint running out of money well before the con was done. What are you never gonna run out of at a racecourse? Ways for people to access, and thus gamble, their cash. “Bazinga,” as they say. Cheltenham Racecourse has fairly long plaza-approaches before you enter its sacred halls, and these plazas were empty of signage. There were A3-size posters on the doors, but do you take binoculars to the Comics Fest? You take ’em to the races, but, there were no races. (There weren’t even any fursuit ponies.) This was amiss, and should be fixed for next year. If I’d been a teen, I’d have scarpered. Not knowing where to go is hell on the nerves.
I believe that Racecourse staff were on duty, as a very tall man in a suit asked everybody entering the vestibule for their tickets. The ticket desk came after his door, which was confusing, but it all worked out alright. Then again, if I were as nervous as I used to be, that would be yet another hurdle. Give the people a flat track, Racecourse!
It’s a terrific venue, though. A main floor, three sides of balcony seating above that, and an airport lounge-style second floor room for cosplay appreciation and the masquerade show which led up to a smaller room with seating, a projector and screen, and a raised area with a table of microphones and water for panels. The panels were pretty terribly announced with a man standing on the balcony above the main hall and just yellin’ into the general noise over the PA system playing various superheroic instrumental themes. Seems like there’s an obvious fix, there. But next year, next year! This may have been why the panel I attended was so sparsely attended. Again, silver linings: It was, as Emma Viecelli bracingly suggested, intimate. And useful and cheerful, and full of real-feeling goodwill. Two women (Emma and Kate Brown) and one man (Tim Perkins) sat on a panel about encouraging and skill-sharing for drawing. It was sweet, and I say that with no disdain. It was a nice room to be in, and it felt like a success.
It’s a terrible thing to say, but I couldn’t help but be repeatedly impressed with how legitimate it all felt. People do these things. A man you can meet in a pub can get together with two others, build a team, and organise something that brings an event that feels just as real as London con. And in fact, I did notice the lack of the queues to see actors and superstar-creators, and I LIKED it.
At Thought Bubble, the feeling is of being at a cultural event for young adults. OKTB was full of babies, babies with their dads. None of them seemed to cry. There were many more teenagers about than I am used to, and I felt a joy to see that amongst them cosplay seems to be normal, unembarrassing, and common. There were plenty of groups of pals who were mostly women or girls, and noticeably few groups of friends who were male-only. Cosplayers were of all ages and varying degrees of polish–I delight in this, because a cosplay is never going to be something the wearer doesn’t care about, is it? If it’s not beautifully made that’s because the wearer didn’t need it to be before they could have fun and feel satisfied. And if it is beautifully made, well, wow. One negative to name: “Blurred Lines” as a part of the soundtrack for the masquerade? Maybe not, ay?
To return to an earlier point, I think that every convention–or festival–should have balcony seating somehow. Somewhere warm to eat your lunch, somewhere restful to check out where you want to visit next, a place to catch up with friends (old or new!), or catch cosplayers for a picture. There were tables at three points around the balconies, too, so the pleasant buzz of creative commerce lulled even the dormant attendee, but nowhere, at any point, got too busy. I hope that this not going to mean there is no next year. I hope there are many next years.
A smaller, more local con with a smaller, more manageable range of tabling creators doesn’t only mean that you get a greater idea of who’s making what near enough to your home for the exhibitor cost to be worth it. It also just means that you get a better chance to check out brand new, self-published comics you’s never know know, and creators have the time and, critically, energy to give you a vigorous pitch and a fairly lengthy discussion or Q&A session. Meet me back here in a week or so to hear about the cool people I met, yeah?
I am a True Believer.