This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #12, October 1999.
After valiantly struggling with the dinosaur that we used to call UKCAC (the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention) for years of falling attendances, diminishing publisher support, changing dates and venues, organisers Frank Plowright and Hassan Yusuf finally called it quits in 1998. Sadly not living up to its past triumphs, it was still the best the UK had to offer, and anxiously the British comic community waited to see who, if anyone, was insane enough to pick up the baton.
Enter Kev F. Sutherland, organiser of the National Comic Awards (the highlight of the UKCAC weekend in both ‘97 and ‘98), who switched the venue to his home town of Bristol and turned a mere convention into a fully blown festival, Comics 99.
Kev made two vital changes from the UKCAC format. One; printing and distributing the convention booklet months in advance (rather than passing it out on the day) allowing punters to plan their itinerary in advance. Two; scrapping the flat-rate high entry price in favour of individually ticketed events and value-for-money super passes, making it affordable for families and the simply curious to pop round the main convention hall.
Holding the event in Bristol met with some resistance to those who expect everything to revolve around London, but it was the only practical solution for Kev as organiser and made the whole project financially viable. Bristol is nearer to the capital than say Angouleme is to Paris, or San Diego is to New York, and that hasn’t hurt their attendances too badly over the years. Like many University cities, Bristol already had an exuberant youthful atmosphere, and the choice of the popular Watershed to house the main convention area certainly helped give the event a “buzz” which it had lacked in previous years.
Holding the event over the Easter weekend which was a gamble which has seemingly paid off – the festival was attended by around 2500 paying visitors, over three times as many as the previous year’s UKCAC. This was reflected in traffic and sales at the Abiogenesis Press table, well up on previous years and making the trip a profitable one.
It certainly was a welcome change of pace for myself and my US agent and Top Shelf impresario Chris Staros, who once again made the trip to England especially for the weekend. The official festival hotel, the Swallow Royal was luxurious to the extreme and was the venue for many of the panels and the now-traditional Saturday night National Comic Awards ceremony (similar to last year’s hilarious event, lots of video clips and more embarrassment for co-presenter Mark Buckingham as his Blue Peter appearance was rescreened).
Comics 99’s main focus was the well-publicised “World’s Biggest Comic Book,” which was actually a series of 6 x 9 foot “pages” assembled from enormous bubble-jet prints from computer stored images and suspended from a slightly fragile-looking frame at the front of the main hall. It contained single panel contributions from many of Britain’s top creators from a script by Kev and Dan Abnett – some stunningly rendered – most of the originals of which were auctioned off for charity over the weekend. (I actually contributed one piece in two parts, which Kev utilised as two separate panels in the final version.) The project helped garner a degree of media attention, particularly in the local area, enticing yet more casual visitors to the festival.
Other events included a great launch party on the Friday night (despite the fact that few “big names” were in attendance) with live music from John Erazmus and a dozen dancing Minnie the Minxes; Bryan Talbot’s celebrated slide show; Al Davidson’s one-man Spiral Cage show; plus the usual movies and panel discussions of every variety.
Chris and I had a fine time, especially hanging out at the star-studded Saturday night drinkathon after the awards ceremony, amazed at how a famous Vertigo cover artist was able to remain upright despite the volume of alcohol consumed and amused at one of Marvel’s leading lights who confessed that he was re-tiling his bathroom instead of working on a behind-deadline X-Men comic.
This was no Angouleme or even San Diego. Not yet. There were problems (which Kev has acknowledged and is making efforts to correct for next year). But for a first time effort, it was a tremendous achievement to create such a diverse range of events from scratch, and hopefully future festivals will build upon this very promising beginning.
Plans for Comics 2000 are already well underway. It’s set for the Easter weekend of April 22 & 23. Expanded dealer and exhibition space, exclusive bar and café facilities and better organisation are all promised. I’ll be there!