2015 was an interesting year for me. As I said to several people: the highs were really high but the lows were really low. It was around a year ago when I was wondering whether I’d made a mistake doing what I was doing; it was around a year ago when I found myself crying in a bathroom stall and thinking that I ought to give up.
2015 was the first full calendar year—and perhaps the only calendar year for quite some time—that I have really given my life over to writing and comics. In the before times, when “writer” or “critic” was not my primary title, I attended one comic convention a year, if that. I’d do what was easy. I attended NYCC every year that I lived in Manhattan and I once traveled to Baltimore for Otakon, but only because I already had family to stay with.
Last year, after leaving New York, I didn’t go to a single convention.
This year, I have been to four.
What I think I like about British comic conventions is that each has its own unique character. Though I’ve only been to a handful of US cons, even the outside impression gives me the sense that, for the most part, if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all. Maybe it’s the acronyms—SDCC, NYCC, ECCC, etc., etc. And maybe it’s the fact that mainstream, English-language comics have mostly lived in the US. UK comics have grown in a different way and, in turn, their conventions are less likely to be overshadowed by big names and corporations. There’s a little more freedom and each con is a little more personal.
I went to London Super Comic-Con with a friend in February. It was my first UK con and my first one since beginning to write about comics. LSCC is held in the ExCel Centre in Greenwich—southeast London, for the out-of-towners.
I’m used to huge cons, so initially the size of the con threw me. On reflection, though, it was probably the perfect way to transition into the UK comics scene. Acronym and all, it’s the show most similar in feel and structure to American conventions. Nice big (concrete) room, rows and rows of exhibitors, and the occasional cosplayer wandering about. I picked up a few comics and went up and down the show floor. It was a familiar scene, just transplanted to a different country. That might seem like a bad thing, but actually it made things a little less intimidating. I knew the score, felt okay striking out into the unknown—and pub culture really helped. American cons can very easily leave you cold, but the knowledge that everyone will be at the pub afterwards, fans and creators alike, goes a long way in making you feel welcome.
My past experience—conventional wisdom, you might say—had taught me that there is a bright line between creators and fans. You might meet them in an artist alley, maybe shake their hands, or tell them how much you like their work—but before 2015, my impression was that the scene was very “us and them.” Turns out, at least in UK comics, the line is much more blurred and things are open. Even though I found most of LSCC a little lonely, thanks to the pub I still came out of the con with a few friends.
Because I didn’t have very many UK friends in comics—I’d barely started writing for WWAC—it was great to have a space to talk to people properly and get to know one another. I met Alex Paknadel, who was at the time, getting ready for the release of his first comic with BOOM! Studios, Arcadia, and Sam Read, who writes Find and Exit Generation. Both were very friendly and great ambassadors to the UK scene. I met both on the show floor, while talking to Cameron Stewart, and then again at the huge pub just outside the centre. We had some good chats and exchanged Twitter handles afterwards. Just outside the pub, I also met Kieron Gillen—and talked to him a little about my WicDiv/postmodernism pieces—and chatted with Si Spurrier, who’d I met before at a different event and was nice enough to remember me.
When I look back on LSCC, I can see that it also coincided with the moments when I was feeling most alone. Even if it was probably my least remarkable con experience of the year, it was probably the one I needed the most. It showed me how friendly the British comics scene could be, even to a newcomer like me.
My next con wasn’t until August, about 6 months later. I’ve already written about NineWorlds Geek Fest for ComicsAlliance, but I really want to emphasize that it was unlike any con I’ve ever been to. My CA piece focused on accessibility and safe spaces afforded by NineWorlds, but the con was completely unique for reasons beyond that. It’s very much a con for academics, with a slant towards comics history and theory.
I went to WWAC’s Kelly Kanayama’s talk on race in Judge Dredd, as well as a panel on the effects of the Comics Code Authority on comics today. There isn’t really an artist alley or exhibition hall to speak of, nor are there signings of any kind. If a big name is present, it’s because they’re discussing something like any other panelist. It’s a con for a particular type of fan and one that I’m very glad to have around. Truly one of a kind.
Two months later, I was back on home turf—New York Comic Con. Except it didn’t quite feel that way.
Before I was a comics critic (still can’t quite get used to calling myself that), before I became an active part of comics Twitter, going to NYCC was just me hanging out with my (“real life”) friends. We’d maybe go to a few panels, probably spend a lot of time on the show floor and the artist’s alley. This year, though, I had a new comics family and new comics friends—Chase, Ardo, Ray, Mark—to spend time with and I was made to feel welcome by the kindness of many. But still: there were lots of people to say hi to, lots of events to show face at, and as fun as it was, it was also very exhausting. Even though I wasn’t actually going as press, I rapidly found that comics had become work alongside play. I still felt I had professional responsibilities.
It was my first convention really feeling like I was on “the other side of the curtain,” so to speak. Considering where I was at the first con of the year, it’s been a pretty wild transition. I had fun, all in all, and especially having got deeper and deeper into Comics Twitter, it was nice to spend time with some of the people—Steve, David, Scott, Afua, Abel, Chrissy, different David, Alex, et al—trying make this mess better. Yeah, NYCC is loud and bright, and yeah, it’s so unbelievably American, and yeah, it gets the Jurassic Park theme stuck in your head, and yeah, maybe I did have a brief moment of stress where I asked myself if I even liked comics, but it is fun. And there’s this kind of sense that you’ve defied death if you make it through. It’s kind of hilarious. You run into people on the third or last day and you go through the pleasantries, which includes the mutual agreement that you feel as though you want to die.
But it was fun, I promise.
It took a full month to recover, though. I think I maybe read two comics during the period, before I found it was time to go to another convention, the last one of the year.
If LSCC is the almost-American con, and NineWorlds, the academics and social justice con, and NYCC, the monster con—how do I describe Thought Bubble?
Thought Bubble is a con…for me. Or at least that’s how it felt.
I’ve been watching my con habits change across the years and particularly this year. I think I went to my first con ten years ago. I went to a ton of panels, bought loads of fan art and official swag at the artist’s alley and exhibition floor, took a thousand pictures of every cool cosplay I saw. I was in it, all the way, 100%. That’s the kind of energy you’ve got when you’re sixteen. I remember, before that first con, I printed out all the panels and highlighted which ones I wanted to go to. I color coded conflicts and coordinated with friends who would do what.
So, then, fast forward ten years later when I found myself at NYCC, the center of comics’ commercialism, having bought precisely nothing and attended three panels. I have evolved and my con methods have too. I don’t buy anything that isn’t either practical or frame-worthy. And I don’t really bother with panels either, unless friends are on them or friends want to go to them. I’ll take the occasional picture of a cosplay, but mostly, my con habits reflect me settling in. I am happy to wander, to see what I see, and most of all to sit. I am older and wiser and what I have seen before I will likely see again.
I say all this to highlight the fact that I spent all of the cash I’d taken out for Thought Bubble within the first two hours.
This year in comics has been unbelievably good to me, but it has also been long and, at times, bleak. I joined Twitter to watch Matt Fraction yell at Kieron Gillen for making hideous puns, only to find myself caught up in the ugliness and injustice of the comics industry. While, for example, I did not expect to find myself friends with Kieron a year later, also thanks to comics this year was the first of my life I’ve had the n-word used to describe me (to my face). It’s all fun and games until you call a comic racist. Or maybe just publicly boycott a publisher or two.
As a result of a lot of the mess and the mire, I’ve found myself turning away from the mainstream and away from the larger and more obvious dens of sin. Small press and independent comics are not, by a long shot, the safe haven they are purported to be, but they are something different and something I’m more ready to embrace than I was before. I’ve threatened to go back solely to manga, though, if only because I’m less likely to find out about all the bad shit that goes down in those creative circles and companies. We’ll see if that threat becomes a reality when I’m evaluating a year from now.
It’s my turn towards small press/independent comics that made spending at Thought Bubble so easy. The convention is held at the Royal Armouries Hall in Leeds and there are two large rooms packed, as Features & Opinions Editor Claire Napier can attest to, with independent, self-published or small press comics—the likes of which I may never see again. And, of course, there were still loads of big names too (Kate Beaton, Scott Snyder, Kieron and Jamie, Declan Shalvey) gathered together in the marquee tent—or as some con-goers affectionately called it, “the teepee.”
I say Thought Bubble is the con that meets me where I am in comics because I think it’s the only one to strike that perfect balance between small-press names and industry giants. It accurately reflects the balance that I myself am trying to strike–different and new while still appealing to my superhero trash sensibilities. I still haven’t got round to reading my Thought Bubble haul, but regardless of the quality of its contents, I don’t regret a single pound spent. The show represents me. Or maybe I represent it.
2015 is coming to close and I feel that I can say, comics people—and especially UK comics people—are my people now. Thought Bubble had a lot of incredible moments, but I found almost all the best ones took place outside of the exhibition halls: a Christmas market and Hannibal chat with Zainab; the equivalent of a comics stitch-and-bitch with James, Claire, Tod, and Paul; talking absolute nonsense with Ollie, Alex, and Matt; just sitting on the floor with Steve; and the kindness of friends resulting in me turning up to that mad, mad party after all. Also, a bit tangential but also related—my friend Sam doesn’t know this, but one of the best (and most relieving) moments of NYCC was actually seeing him and walking around for five minutes on the show floor. If that doesn’t say that British comics feels like home, I don’t know what does.
True story: I registered for a press pass at next year’s LSCC while writing this piece. No clue whether I’ll be accepted, but it’ll be cool to see what LSCC looks like to me now that I have some kind of comics career to speak of.
Truer story: I’m glad that it’s a whole two months away. Cons are exhausting and November was a marathon and comics I love you but the ending of the con season is an absolute mercy.
Truest story: Now, more than ever, while everything goes to shit and it becomes increasingly apparent that this industry does not care about me or anyone else—a con is a kind reminder that there are good people here and that not everything must always hurt.