London Super Comic Con: Day 2 Diary – The Rundown
Panels: The Return of Miracleman (Marvelman), Avatar Press and Max Brooks: Uncut, Creativity in Comics.
Geek wear: Batman top from Junk Food, Batman shoes from Converse, Spider sweater.
Free stuff: Limited edition Chew print, signed by Rob Guillory.
“I AM SO SLEEPY,” my notes say, and I am. All the free tea in my hotel room is apparently not enough to stave off the exhaustion from yesterday. I’ve had a late start, but I’m still trying to wake myself up when I arrive at the Excel Centre.
Today is solely devoted to panels and interviews, partially because I spent all my money yesterday and partially because panels and interviews mean that I can sit down. I’ll be interviewing Al Ewing and Lee Garbett at 4 PM, and then Kieron Gillen after that.
My first panel of the day is The Return of Miracleman/Marvelman, featuring all three artists from Miracleman’s Warrior run: Mark Buckingham, Garry Leach, and Alan Davis. (For ease of reference, I’ll be calling the character Miracleman from this point forward.) When I first arrive, it looks like I’m the only woman in the room. As the panel goes on, a few more women do trickle in, but there’s a distinctly blokey feel—there’s no other word for it—to the proceedings. I don’t mean that I feel excluded. However, Miracleman was aimed at a predominantly male audience, and based on the ages of a lot of the attendees, a lot of them probably remember reading its Warrior run at the time of initial publication. Hence a room full of men.
It also explains the trip-down-memory-lane character of the first portion of the panel, which begins with Mark Buckingham’s brief history of Miracleman, “Britain’s answer to Captain Marvel,” from the 1950s to its revival in Warrior. He doesn’t touch on the copyright issues* that led to the Miracleman/Marvelman name controversy, which implies that attendees should already know about these.
*Said issues in brief: Miracleman started out as Marvelman in the 50s and remained as such through his revival in the magazine Warrior. Following clashes with Marvel Comics over the use of the word “Marvel” in his name, when Eclipse Comics began reprinting the Marvelman stories from Warrior, his name was changed to Miracleman to avoid future conflict.
Garry Leach talks about Miracleman’s Warrior revival as part of a general trend in comics that included V for Vendetta and other works that used the comics medium to criticize and deconstruct the social and narrative status quo. As the art editor on Warrior at the time, he added Miracleman to the magazine’s roster to build up its sci-fi content. When the new Miracleman run was being created for Warrior, he recalls, “everybody put their heart and soul into it.” And back then, “the idea that you could collect [comics] together was fairly new”; there was no expectation of a TPB or other collected edition.
Alan Davis is the soul of engaging self-deprecation on this panel. He remembers the character from his first incarnation in the 50s in a way that I think the other panelists don’t, but he also says with a laugh that he didn’t think he’d be on the revival for very long. This is tempered by Leach’s statement that Davis was chosen to draw Miracleman because he was “the very best” of Britain’s superhero artists at a time when Britain’s comics industry was not known for that.
Further illustrating the generation gap, Buckingham adds that the Warrior run of Miracleman came along when he was a teenager and helped to keep him from “falling out of comics.”
The moderator opens the question period of the panel by asking the panelists what drew them to Miracleman. Leach describes the character’s appeal as lying in his dual nature, as the “barrel-chested, goofy” Miracleman of the 50s and the more “realistic” Miracleman of the 80s revival.
The discussion moves on to Marvel’s current reprinting and revival (or re-revival) of Miracleman. Leach confirms that Marvel is reprinting the Eclipse run rather than the original Warrior run, while Buckingham reports that Marvel’s run will start with the 18 issues that he and Neil Gaiman had originally planned to do for Eclipse before the company went bankrupt. He reassures the audience that Marvel will give readers “as definitive a version of Miracleman as we can.” As for Davis? “I drew a few covers,” he says, an understatement that is greeted by laughter from the audience.
The moderator asks what’s in store for Miracleman in the future. “That’s for people other than the three of us,” says Buckingham, who isn’t sure “what plans Marvel will have for Miracleman” once his run concludes.
As a follow-up, the moderator asks what Miracleman is like to work on as a character. Leach again emphasizes his “realistic” nature and recalls taking the art on Miracleman “back to the 50s,” and away from comics’ trend toward exaggerated bodybuilder musculature, to “create a whole new body language.” Davis agrees, saying that Miracleman should look “balletic rather than powerful,” while Buckingham stresses the “grace and beauty” of the character. The panelists also drop the bombshell that the face of 80s Miracleman was based on a Page 3 model (although they don’t say which one)!
Time for questions from the floor now, which begin with the question of whether creativity on Miracleman should remain British to preserve the spirit of the character. It’s something I wonder about when British-made comics are handed over to American creative teams; Hellblazer definitely suffered in transition, and while Judge Dredd: City of Courts is frequently praised (its “California Love” parody is sublime), it lacks that sharp darkness that characterizes even the funniest 2000AD Dredd stories. Anyway, the panelists posit that Marvel will probably use an American writer, but can’t confirm anything yet.
Another audience member asks the panelists what they think of the Eclipse coloring controversy. The original Warrior printings were in black and white, but Eclipse did its reprintings in notoriously terrible color. Leach states that he didn’t look at the restored version for years due to how awful it was, “but coloring practices back then were fairly primitive,” with the initial coloring done “by Spanish fabric designers for £12 a page.” (Audible gasp from audience.) However, he’s much more amenable to the new digital coloring; “the new colorists are trying to be sympathetic to what 80s coloring was, and I feel this is the definitive version.” This is followed by a question from the floor as to whether anything has been redrawn. Issue #1 is mostly scanned in from Warrior, Leach confirms, but Buckingham’s run is mostly original art.
The audience seems to have run out of questions, so the moderator steps back in to forestall any awkward silence. Do the panelists think Miracleman could work on screen? While Buckingham sees “a lot of potential” in the core narrative, Leach not only feels “there’d be too much temptation to change the characters” but suggests that the nature of Miracleman—whose significance comes from countering entertainment trends—runs contrary to the crowd-pleasing demands of Hollywood.
The panel closes with a final moderator question regarding the crossover possibilities of Miracleman. It falls to Leach to say that Marvel could integrate Miracleman into their universe but would have to do much of the world-building themselves, since the character doesn’t come with “an extended universe to play around with.” It’s a rather vague last word, but it’s a last word nonetheless.
So after a short crisps and water break, I head to my second panel of the day, Avatar Press and Max Brooks: Uncut. The proportion of women to men is much higher in this panel—probably the highest of all the panels I’ve attended, actually, and a lot of them are younger than me. Possibly they’re Young Avengers/Phonogram readers here for Kieron Gillen; with the best will in the world, I doubt many of them are here for Crossed.
I notice a mother and youngish son in the same row as me, the latter of whom is holding a Secret Identities TPB, so I guess he’s here for Gillen too. Should I tell them what Avatar is? The panel description doesn’t have a minimum age, but this is the company that makes Crossed.
Before I can make a decision, the panel commences with a welcome from moderator William Christensen, owner of Avatar. Having the company owner moderate proceedings seems a bit odd to me; how can someone with such a stake in the company be even slightly unbiased? But his presence seems to make the panel feel more relaxed, meaning that instead of trying to justify their work, the panelists (Kieron Gillen, Si Spurrier, and Max Brooks) are simply chatting about it—which is much more interesting.
First up is Kieron Gillen talking about his “World War II alternate history comic” Über, wherein the Nazis not only win but have superhumans at their disposal, and which uses the lens of fictionalized history to analyze the concepts of both World War II and superheroes. This leads into a discussion of Avatar’s new sci-fi line, which includes Garth Ennis’s Alien-esque Caliban and Gillen’s Mercury Heat, a female-led sci-fi comic set in a future colony on Mercury that provides solar power for Earth. Mercury is envisioned here as a futuristic Wild West: “the hell that pays for heaven.” Gillen points out the “anti-apocalypse” nature of the comic, which focuses on dealing with the potential problems of the future—“I love apocalypse fiction, but it just says ‘Fuck it.’”
2015 will bring us Si Spurrier’s Neurotrash, “kind of a heist flick” with “psychedelic extradimensional elements.” Neurotrash takes place in Europe about two centuries from now, where “being young is considered disgusting” and America no longer exists “because it picked a fight with something bigger than itself from another dimension.” The central story revolves around a group of children who break into mansions. There appears to be an uprising-of-the-downtrodden theme going on here.
Christensen also hypes Spurrier’s Crossed: Wish You Were Here and Disenchanted, both of which started out as free webcomics but are now coming out in print. (Vol. 1 of Wish You Were Here is already out, while Vol. 1 of Disenchanted is out in June.) Disenchanted addresses the question of “what happens to families, cultures, and traditions when they crash into the existential problem that is the city.” The characters are “forgotten relics of European folklore”—fairies, goblins, and so on—who live in an abandoned London Underground station. Spurrier stresses the comic’s focus on unsentimentality and the uglier, more intriguing side of folk belief, describing it as “The Wire meets The Borrowers.”
The panel moves on to Max Brooks’s Extinction Parade, a zombie outbreak story told from the point of view of vampires. “What happens when a species at the top of the food chain, that’s been given everything, faces an existential crisis?” Essentially, as zombies kill off humanity, vampires are left without their primary source of food. Brooks presents the concept as a reaction against the “anti-failure sentiment” of contemporary American culture. Too much strength, he argues, is actually a weakness, as it prevents you from learning from your mistakes and developing survival skills. “If Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t died, he’d be a fat loser in rehab!”
Unlike the other panelists (and most people on any other panel for anything), who stay seated the whole time, Brooks stands up and walks in front of the table to deliver his speech. And it is a speech: there’s a tirade against the popularity of the phrase “epic fail,” an appeal to the audience to consider the ridiculousness of anti-failure culture, and lots and lots of arm gestures. This is after he points out that Spurrier is “too good-looking” for the comics business and compares his own appearance to Yasser Arafat’s. It occurs to me that this is what British people think all Americans are like.
Once Brooks finishes, it’s time for questions from the floor. The first questioner asks the panelists why they choose to work with Avatar. Gillen mentions the “intensity” and “family unit” dynamic of Avatar, where the question is not “Can I do this?” but “Should I do this?” Spurrier says that having freedom of scope allows him to think about the applications and significance of his work. For instance, although Crossed “may not be for everyone,” writing it enables him to “think about horror as a genre.” Gillen picks up on Spurrier’s “not for everyone” comment and adds: “Nothing’s ‘for everyone.’ There’s a problem with the idea that all books have to be for one single demographic. Is it for you? That’s the only question that matters.” Brooks states that Avatar is a place “where we can do our dream projects” and calls Christensen “the last shoemaker in a world of shoe factories,” noting that “even Alan Moore—who lives in frickin’ Eisengard—likes Avatar!”
The profanity ramps up as the panelists get more passionate. Words like “cocksucker” are flying through the air, and the mother in my row actually covers her son’s ear with her hand and pulls his head towards her shoulder so as to block the other ear. Spurrier catches her eye and mouths “Sorry!”
But even with all the swearing and the horror talk, there’s a real sense of enthusiasm; these guys are genuinely so happy to be making comics and to be working with Avatar. In fact, it’s the nicest panel I’ve been to all weekend.
The last question from the floor concerns the push to get comics online and its effect on print comics. Christensen assures us that “print will always be around,” and that digital comics are “a feeder system” for getting people to buy print comics. Spurrier praises digital comics’ ability to provide “accessibility, in a way that’s always historically been an issue.” Thanks to digital, “comics can [now] equal anything,” and publishers are making comics in various genres for various readerships and demographics.
The inclusivity note is a nice one to end on and to take to my last panel of the convention: Creativity in Comics, featuring Peter David, Robin Furth, and John Layman. The cosplay finals are in the other panel room, and the noise is ridiculous. On the bright side, I get to see Peter David shouting “SHUT UP!” into a microphone, so it’s not all bad.
To start us off, each panelist talks about their different routes into the comics business. David started out as a sales assistant working under Marvel’s legendary Carol Kaelish; Layman worked for a newspaper; Furth was doing a PhD in poetry and is a published poet.
It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, with most of the material coming from panelists’ answers to questions from the floor and anecdotal recollections. I ask Furth about making the jump from the abstract focus of poetry to the narrative scripting of comics. She references Plath’s timescale of poetry—between the time a door opens and when it closes—and likens this to the brevity of comics panels. She even tells me that she’d love to talk with me later about comics and poetry, which is a heck of an ego boost!
Another audience member asks the panel how they approach the issue of writing female characters. Both David and Furth say that when they write women, they generally use a model of women reasoning out their problems first and punching later, and men tending to do the reverse. David is “surprised” by the fact that many women love his impulsive, bad-life-choice-making female character Fallen Angel. It’s not a surprise; we’re just tired of the whole virgin-whore dichotomy, I want to say, but don’t. Layman says that he doesn’t really make gender-based distinctions between his male and female characters in terms of personality. Some women act before they think; some men are shy; it all depends on the individual.
My favorite question from the floor, though, is whether the panelists agree with the argument that there are only a handful of basic narratives in existence and that there are no new stories, just new retellings of old ones. The three of them discuss the differences between archetypal narrative structures/elements and full narratives, and soon fall into the comfortingly grand language of heroes, quests, romance, and mortality. This topic inevitably comes up at some point when discussing any form of narrative media, but as comics fans we often try harder to believe that what we’re doing has cultural merit. We have to, since the mentality still prevails that comics are simply trash culture. But here we are, discussing comics in the terms used for epic and myth—perhaps not because we’re trying to convince ourselves they’re worth it, but because we already believe they are.
After the panel breaks up, I thank Layman for writing Tony and Toni Chu into existence, telling him that I waited almost two decades to see characters like them in comics. In return, I get a limited edition Chew print signed by Rob Guillory! Apparently there are only a few left and Layman is trying to get rid of them. Good thing I caught him when I did.
On the way over to Al Ewing and Lee Garbett—it’s interview time—I chat briefly with Furth about her experience writing comics and poetry and how the two overlap. She encourages me to just start writing my ideas down and assures me that it’ll be easier than I think. Also, I should mention that she’s remarkably easy to talk to, and that our conversation has more of a chatting-at-a-conference feel than a big-name-handing-out-advice feel, even though that’s what’s happening.
The interview with Ewing and Garbett goes off without a hitch. We manage to find a quiet place near one of the coffee places outside the convention hall, and talk for over half an hour about Tom Hiddleston, British comics, and much more. (Details will be revealed when the interview gets posted!) On the way back to the con, I start singing the 90s X-Men cartoon theme song—it was relevant to the interview, sort of—and someone at a nearby table joins in.
The Gillen interview takes place outside a nearby pub after the convention shuts down. I also spot Tanya Roberts there, and we compare our sweet Batman shoes; she gets extra points for having hers in color and an adult size. Despite the busy atmosphere, the interview works out well, although I periodically worry about how the background noise from cars and wheeled suitcases on pavement will affect my ability to transcribe this later.
And then I hang out with Gillen and his friends, and Al Ewing. I’m dropping names like they’re hot, but this really did happen. There is wine. There is chat about Norfolk, growing vegetables in London, and swearing in front of kids.
Unfortunately, the time comes for me to leave London and return home. I’m dead tired; I’m buzzing; and I can’t wait to do it all over again.
What makes this experience really wonderful is the comparison between where I was and where I am. A year ago, I was stuck in the hellish cycle that is temping, feeling stuck and miserable. Now I’ve interviewed comics professionals and networked as press at my first UK convention in pursuit of something I love. It’s a pretty big change for the better. I’m looking forward to seeing what next year will bring.