Comics2003: Is there room for small press in mainstream comics events?
Posted: Tuesday, June 3, 2003
By: Debra Boyask - SBC's International Geek of Mystery
In New Zealand, the population size doesn't allow the kind of specific niche conventions for geeks that happen in more heavily populated places like England and North America, hence our comics conventions are more general geek conventions with comics as just one of the geek specialities, and we sit alongside Pokemon card collectors, Buffy fans, computer games, Klingons and fantasy wargamers. And small pressers are a small subset of the comics people. Earlier this year I attended SEACON, a major British science fiction convention, which was a bizarre and amazing experience. As the only actual public comics event I've attended outside of our own home-made Funtime ones in New Zealand was SPX in Maryland, a small presser's paradise, I was very interested to see what a standard mainstream comics specific event in the UK would be like for a small presser like me.
I first learnt about Comics2003 through its website and email list, which I located and joined once I discovered I'd be moving to Bristol, UK. I tried to engage with discussion on the list, initially just to try to find other comics people to hang out with, but did find it somewhat difficult. I think I'm on a different wavelength from the average list member there - well from the small minority contributing to the discussion at least. The list is managed by someone called Kev  who is the face and voice at the front of the convention and deals with the media and stuff like that. I believe he's also a school teacher, or at least has some involvement in teaching comic art in schools (...so many teachers in comics circles). ('Kev F.'s day jobs include stand-up comedian, comedy radio producer and freelance cartoonist'. R. Langridge) The face wasn't easy to catch on camera during the convention, as he was mostly striding swiftly hither and thither, evenly as a clockwork toy, doing announcements and PR and speaking into the microphone, and generally trying to be everywhere at once. The behind the scenes graft is managed by the industrious Mike  of Area 51 Bristol's best comic shop.
On the e-mail list, all the usual fanboy bickering flourished. It was heating up as Comics2003 grew nearer, with threats of violence for indiscretions such as inappropriate attitudes toward Alan Moore, who is very important because, apparently, lots of people think he's really, really cool. Probably you do too. And then, just a week or two prior to the convention, an enthusiastic and energetic Ladyfest organiser called Camilla, who had just joined the list, naively e-mailed Kev to ask why there were no women on the guest list. A good question. I'd noticed there weren't any too, but I was old and cynical enough to be unsurprised. In response, Kev asked Camilla if she'd like to run a panel on Women & Comics. In a small, makeshift room off of the big noisy main trading hall. Up against a very popular session called Hypotheticals. A difficult task.
So we rounded up some UK comic chicks, including: Jeremy Dennis - prolific comic maker, web designer and founding member of Caption; Jenni Scott  - long term small press organiser of Caption as well as comics critic and enthusiast; Anna & Karen Rubins a writer/artist sister act team who make the gorgeous and moodyDark, delightful Selina Lock - editor of the much acclaimed Girly Comic; Mardou - who has just released the first issue of an intriguing looking comic called manhole; Camilla - enthusiastic fangirl, music zine maker, Bristol Ladyfest organiser and future bride of Wolverine; and me.
It became clear that quite a few of us were reluctant to be implicated in yet another process that sidelined a fairly diverse group of comic people into a special and shabby little room called 'women' rather than integrating us into the main events, but it was grudgingly agreed that the obvious invisibility of women elsewhere in the programme necessitated that we go through with it this time. Throughout the discussions my nervousness about participating increased. It sounded to me like it could turn into a ghastly mess. But I was ignorant of the long experience in comics event facilitation of Jenni Scott, who ultimately took over the management of the panel discussion and all was as smooth as could be for something that was only an afterthought on the part of the convention organisers, and then only when prompted by an enquiry from a prospective attendee. As the (admittedly very small) room was packed full there is clearly an interest in the general area, and, in spite of all difficulties I think it went pretty well. And then everyone had some cake.
Most of the convention I spent sitting at my own table, where I was pushing Funtime Comics from Christchurch, New Zealand and a new anthology from a new comics community - Funtime Comics in Bristol as well as my own tat. I find it a very nice thing to have a table to hide behind in the noisy crowded chaos that is a convention. It's true it makes it harder to get out and see things, but I do find that many interesting things do come to see me. A girl was grinning and bobbing about maniacally in front of my table. I sort of looked at her in an enquiring way. She said I'm hyper and I should be on the other side, and pointed to the aisle behind where I was sitting. So I said Oh, that's easy. You just walk to the end of these tables and around the corner and you're there. and pointed. And she said Oh, thanks! and skipped off in the direction opposite to the one I indicated.
Other things to be seen at a British comics convention which are just as comon back at home: geeks in Sisters of Mercy t-shirts; many beautiful large glowing red ears; those vacant looking children with very thick lensed glasses, bum bags and plastic carriers; great big cameras.
Visitors to the table included: Tom, a small presser from South Africa who would have been quite a wee hottie if only he'd remembered to have a shave; the amazing Jeremy Dennis, a prolific comic maker, web designer and comics personality from Oxford, who needs to make no adjustments whatsoever to be hot; Xena, who, as everyone knows, is intrinsically hot; a nameless fanboy who politely asked me to draw him a zombie, so I did, with a handbag. Xena also asked for a drawing, but with fewer prerequisites, so I did a robot holding a tray of cakes.
I had the opportunity to catch up again with David Morris, a local small presser and talented artist/writer of Burp! who has a wonderfully infectious laugh, and showed him one of my own favourites from New Zealand - Nice Gravy by Indira Neville, and he seemed to enjoy it a great deal, as did Damian Cugley , a small presser and senior member of Caption in Oxford, generally all round decent bloke and brainy designer of the Picky-Picky collaborative comic jam game.
Now and then, when kind people looked after my table for me (Jenni, Jane of Funtime in Bristol & Gary Northfield who makes the beautifully crafted little Stupid Monsters mini-comics, I had the opportunity to venture out into the throng. All kinds of people come to these things. I saw a famous person checking out Jenni's camera. And is that another New Zealander, Roger Langridge  behind that table flogging clowns? The artwork half of the Rubins team poses beside her wares. During the weekend I also saw: rather a lot of amazing hair, which we are told belongs to Natalie Sandells, comic artist whose work inclues the graphic novel Devilchild; a miniature dinosaur monster thing; suits conferencing between the tables; coppers and some guy whose name I don't recall. I also met Regie, a jolly English teacher from up north somewhere who writes for Silver Bullet Comics, and Gavin Burrows, a groovy comic maker from (the real) Brighton. I failed to meet the cheery Craig Lemon (does he use the Orange mobile phone network?), a Comics2000 e-mail list member, also associated with Silver Bullet but missing in action when I visited his table, and Simon Gurr, another list member who lives locally and whose name I heard mentioned a few times over the P.A. system, so he must be more important than I'd realised. Oooh! And apparently his picture of a hulk bear (what's a hulk bear?) ('..a very funny pastiche of Rupert the Bear turning into the Incredible Hulk, done in the Rupert style and everything'. R Langridge.) sold in the charity auction for £150. That must have been a hulking big hulk bear. It must have done the washing up and the ironing and made the tea for that much.
In spite of the predominance of mainstream flavours, it was a great weekend for meeting and exchanging ideas with lots of small press and alternative comics people. I brought home plenty of interesting reading material, evidence of the lively and vital small press scene in the UK. Not only that, but the cafe was dispensing quite nice chunks of victoria sponge, which I haven't had since I was quite young and my mother made them sometimes on birthdays. I'm now looking forward to the major small press event of the year; Cyber Caption on the 2nd & 3rd of August.
Clockwork Kev marches comic-ally up and down the aisles, pausing periodically to make announcements.
Mastermind Mike - the organisational brain behind the sparkle and glamour, pointing to something important and chatting to some American DC guy in a rather loud shirt.
The Women & Comics panel in a small, airless room unadorned by media tech (what would girls do with technology after all?) - Karen Rubins (illustrator and artist of Dark), Camilla (Ladyfest Bristol arts organiser), Mardou (manhole maker - ooooooh! gosh!), Selina Lock (Girly Comic editor), Jeremy Dennis's nice blue furry head.
Jenni Scott - panel facilitator looking sweet with artificial anenomes from my table.
My table - to counter the possible frightening effects of too many mutant robots, big guns and exploding globules of green ectoplasm I brought with me a floral tablecloth, teapot, flowers and doilies.
Poster advertising a new Funtime Comics anthology made this year in Bristol, the 19 available copies of which completely sold out.
Tom the South African small presser with a distinctly UK accent as far as my untrained ear could detect.
Jeremy Dennis all in blue, the colour of the day.
Xena whose website is under the name of kumara (teehee) - she loves NZ but hasn't been yet. Who will volunteer to make her a Sunday roast with kumara when she eventually makes her pilgrimage?
Sweet wee fanboy with notebook - fancy asking a cake specialist for a zombie! What on earth was he thinking?
David Morris (comic maker) enjoying some Very Nice Gravy by Indira Neville from New Zealand.
Damian Cugley (Caption veteran) also enjoying Nice Gravy.
Matt D'israeli, local comic artist of note.
Comic artist flogging clowns.
Karen Rubins, artist of Dark.
Natalie Sandells: Hair, fabulous hair...
This is what happens when geeks breed. Don't say you haven't been warned.
Some people thought the weekend was over and they were back at the office already.
Batman was busy elsewhere (possibly holidaying in Eastbourne), so the local boobies stood by in case any crime-fighting became necessary.
This man was absolutely sure he'd seen us there last year... ...but we were many miles away.
Addition: since writing this convention report, the author has purchased a copy of Alan Moore's Watchmen to find out what all the bloody fuss was about. Be sure to check out her webpage at http://teacake.comics.org.nz
For someone's view of Debra at the con, try:
Boys and bats..
If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me