This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #16, June 2004.
You know, it’s just typical. Not a single comic event in London for six whole years, then three come along at once. Since Frank Plowright pulled the shutters down on the penultimate UK Comic Art Convention in England’s capital city in March 1997 (prior to moving the event to Manchester for one final swansong in 1998), London has been entirely devoid of a genuine comics event (aside from the ubiquitous plain vanilla comic marts, of course).
Fortunately for comics fans nationwide, Kev F. Sutherland took up the baton in order to bring his own interpretation to the comic convention to his native south west and created the Comics Festival series which has been held annually in Bristol since 1999. Bristol does have excellent transport links and is less expensive to stage events like the Festival, but is not exactly in the heart of the UK geographically, so it was only a matter of time before someone again attempted something in London. The only surprise was that it took six years.
One: ComICA! 2003
First up in June 2003 was ComICA!, a two week long festival, based at the ICA, or more formally know as the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in The Mall (you know, just down the road a bit from Buckingham Palace) and expertly organised by the man at the crossroads himself, Paul Gravett.
Benefiting from sponsorship by The Guardian, ComICA! was able to attract some of the top names in highbrow comics, including Fantagraphics stablemates Chris Ware, Charles Burns and Joe Sacco, and to put on various panel discussions featuring the likes of Warren Ellis, Mike Carey, Posy Simmonds and Sophie Crumb to name a few. A series of other talks included the Escape Magazine reunion, D.I.Y. comics, and an Alan Moore panel upon which I was invited to ostensibly to launch Alan Moore: Portrait of An Extraordinary Gentleman, where I sat alongside David Lloyd, Melinda Gebbie, Peter Hogan and Garry Leach.
It also offered a small exhibition of rare underground and alternative comics, including titles created by the attendees (although display space was severely limited due to most of the ICA’s galleries being closed for refurbishment) and many relevant titles were available for purchase in the ICA’s own bookstore.
By all accounts ComICA! was a tremendous success with tickets for all the panels selling out long in advance. Paul has already expanded the initial period into an ongoing series of one-off events throughout the calendar, with an art speigelman talk and an especially arranged advance UK screening of American Splendor, with Harvey Pekar in attendance.
A second season of events is already being scheduled for summer 2004.
Two: Comic Festival Winter Special 2003
Next up in November was a stripped-down capital city version of Kev F. Sutherland’s Comics Festival. Held at the Holiday Inn in Bloomsbury, central London, over just the one day, it had much in common with the Bristol events, but with its own unique flavour.
Although the hotel offered only limited space for exhibitors, it did have excellent facilities for the talks and panels, which were extremely well attended. A number of charity events were organised, with the auction of the art from a deck of Christmas-themed trading cards and a huge roll of paper boasting sketches by just about every professional in attendance.
A big talking point was the unannounced appearance of TV celebrity Jonathan Ross with his son; Ross is a genuine comics fan, and he made a point of chatting to and purchasing something from virtually every small press table. If he has an off-screen ego, he left it at the door.
Unfortunately I didn’t have much opportunity to explore the festival myself as I was trapped behind my table all day – not necessarily because I didn’t have time between customers to escape, rather that the tables were arranged in such a way that I couldn’t actually get out without an extremely long and treacherous round trip or without use of a vaulting pole.
According to Kev though, the show exceeded his expectations and plans are being made for a second London Festival this November.
Three: The UK Web and Mini-Comix Thing 2004
The third event, another one day show, the rather awkwardly named UK Web and Mini-Comix Thing, was held in Stepney, east London in March of this year. I was invited along and agreed to attend despite its rather non-inclusive name, persuaded by the fact that it was only an hour’s drive from my home.
As a big-shot direct market self-publisher kind of guy, I felt that I might have been out of context in a “web and mini-comix” environment, but the clear fact was that almost all the exhibitors had to some extent a unique approach to their comic projects. Along with the familiar faces from other UK events like world famous Al Davison, cartoonist extraordinaire Roger Langridge and Rob and Rich from Pantomime Press, there were a large number of creators attending their first show, with lots of new mini-comics specially created for the event and softly humming laptops displaying web comics in their native format.
The venue itself was a very tall, octagonal building somewhat appropriately called The Octagon, with busts of celebrated dead British writers overlooking faux bookshelves on balconies surrounding the floor where the exhibitors were organised in concentric circles. Very unusual and very cool. A panel discussion or two and some small press workshops were also offered as part of the entrance fee, while a plasma screen displayed maps and event listings (which was overkill if I’m perfectly honest). In the spirit of co-operation, volunteers were assigned occasional tasks, such as door duty and crowd control, which as it turned out wasn’t entirely necessary.
Due to the fact that it was a low-key event, it gave the exhibitors ample time to look around one another’s tables and interact with each other, which was certainly a refreshing change of pace, but it did leave me rather out of pocket as I was keen to sample as much of the unfamiliar material as possible.
The biggest disappointment of the show was the number of punters through the door, which appeared to barely outnumber the exhibitors. This may have been down to it being a new event, not being promoted well enough, or not offering a discounted advance ticket price (which doesn’t encourage impulsive on-the-day attendance, especially on a windy, grey end-of-winter’s day). Or maybe, it was the fact that the venue was pretty hard to find, even with the custom maps that appeared to show the Octagon as a building somewhere behind the Queen’s College, rather than as a room within it. I personally drove around for a good twenty minutes before I found someone who could direct me, and talking to other exhibitors, it seemed that I wasn’t the only one. But my own theory is that it was the rather obscure nature of the event’s name which left even exhibitors wondering what the event was actually about.
Yet despite all these problems, everyone seemed to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and camaraderie and organiser Patrick Findlay seemed happy enough. There is talk of a repeat performance in 2005, either with a new organiser, a new venue, or just better directions, fingers crossed.
So there you have it. Three different, distinct comics events taking place in London within a nine-month period, with every chance that at least two of the three will be back for a second time. Who knows if we can sustain such appetite for the comic art form in the capital in the long run, or whether we’re merely gorging ourselves after being starved for so long?