The Birmingham Comics Festival delivers

It’s a difficult world now, that of convention organising, and it takes a brave person to invest the time and effort needed to get one off the ground. Birmingham has been a quiet comics stronghold for a long time and has seen its fair share of shows over the years but unfortunately of late has been steamrollered by the MCM giants (who continue to wrongly label their event a ‘comic con’). Last year saw the return of conventions in the shape of ICE, a show that pulled the stars but felt light on attendees, quite possibly because of the absence of a true comic convention in the city for a number of years. Nevertheless, it was a much welcome addition to our calendar and we are excited to see it return this year.

This year though we had a new kid on the block in the form of the Birmingham Comics Festival, an inaugural event held at the home of Warwickshire’s cricket club, a short distance outside of the city centre.  On arrival, it was quickly obvious that the ambition of the organisers was not that of smaller cons. The main hall itself was large and impressive and housed a logical array of tables with the artists’ alley occupying fully one of the aisles. There was a good mixture of exhibitors, with the large majority split given over to creators and publishers, yet plenty to whet the appetite of the merchandise and comic hunters alike.

There was of course the ubiquitous cosplay element to the show, which although divisive, does bring colour and dimension to the events and amuses the young and old alike. On the same note, I have increasingly noticed a much younger crowd attending the conventions these days and much more diversity along with it, maybe in part to the movies but also to the fact that the generation that started to embrace the US comics are now bringing their own with them.

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Alongside the stalls, there was a full programme of scheduled talks taking place, bodypainting, movie props and even representation from the local cinema chains. The venue was split into two, the formerly mentioned hall was large and accommodating and well laid out and the second part was a balcony overlooking the sun-soaked pitch and the city backdrop leading into canteen facilities. It was a really welcoming and friendly event, belying the scale.

Although ticket pre-sales were good, the event could have used more numbers. A signing by Mark Millar in the town on the same day did hamper numbers from the dedicated comic fans and towards the end of the show footfall dropped quite a bit. This can be forgiven though, a comparison to the Edinburgh con the previous weekend can be drawn where it took a first year to get established and saw huge growth in the second. This event like the Edinburgh con has plenty of expansion in terms of numbers and will likely grow through word of mouth alone.

Overall it was a well-organised, laid back and fun event with something for everyone. The attendees are shifting in terms of age and gender across all the conventions and this event managed to entertain everyone, from the autograph and sketch hunters to the cosplayers to the comic collectors and to the merchandise buyers, it managed to do it all. Roll on next year.


Edinburgh Comic Con review

Well, the votes are in and Edinburgh Comic Con (ECC) 2015 was a huge success! Held over the weekend of 11-12 April, the second ECC, with its diverse and imaginative mix of international TV, film and comic guests, was a complete sell-out. Sensibly rebranded from its first year title of Something Bloody Awesome to the more all-ages and geographically descriptive new name, Hero Conventions’ second con was a more ambitious and slicker operation than 2014, enjoyable though that was.

Again held over two levels in the refurbished Potterrow Mandela Centre not far from the Royal Mile, the con had scores of guests and exhibitors and the busy timetable included panels, a cosplay competition, a charity auction and a screening of Star Trek Axanar. The international media guests included more than a few faces from pop culture phenomena like Doctor Who, Star Wars and Game of Thrones and, from the pages of funny books, there was an eclectic list including Marvel headline artist Jim Cheung, DC writer Ivan Brandon and cult favourite writer-artist Ryan Browne. The only criticism overheard was that perhaps a bigger venue was needed due to the con’s popularity this year. And it’s not wise to question someone cosplaying as Judge Dredd!

ECC is a con fast making a name for itself and it will be very, VERY interesting to see what Hero Conventions come up with for 2016.

A NICE interview with Jeff Chahal

I caught up with Jeff Chahal, the organiser/ owner of the NICE conventions recently and took the opportunity to ask him a number of questions about the history of the con and more importantly, the development of this year’s con:

Q1. Could you tell us something of the history of the NICE con and why you actually started it?

The show sprung up from the signings I used to organise at the Close Encounters stores, these used to involve a number of guests at the same time (managed to squeeze in 13 guests for one at the Bedford store). These were very successful for guests and customers alike, up close and personal events which generally ended with eating and drinking.

Q2. What do you think distinguishes NICE from other UK cons?

NICE is small, it’s small on purpose…we have some very big names. Like the signings that I used to organise, the show has a personal feel to it. You actually get to meet people, and I’m not talking about ‘OMG I just paid £65 to meet Stan Lee’ which really means I just paid £65 to stand next to an old man for about 10 seconds. No, you can have an actual conversation with creators.

Q3. One great feature of the Con is the Sketch Roulette. Could you tell us a little bit about it and also about any reaction you get from artists and attendees?

When I first announced the idea for Sketch Roulette I had a few emails/facebook messages telling me I was mad and it just wouldn’t work. It’s a very simple idea, you have a number of artists sketching (Quick head shots only) for up to an hour, after an hour you change the artists for a fresh set of artists. Customers are in a single queue and they get whichever artist is available when they get to the front.

Some artists loved the idea, and some didn’t, overall the reception to the idea was very good.

Q4. You have probably landed the biggest guest of the UK Convention year by getting Brian K. Vaughn to come to NICE. How did you manage this, what has customers reaction been to the news and how are ticket sales going as a result of the announcement?

I get asked this every year…How did you manage to book Guest X, he/she never does any signings. Well it’s simple, I ask nicely and generally guests from previous years help by recommending the show. Customers of course are very excited, the social media response has been excellent, and I seem to have some new retailer friends all of a sudden. Ticket sales are up on last year and I really can’t stress enough that it’s important to buy sooner than later.

The sooner we sell out the sooner we can put in to place floor management plans, just turning up on the day makes it very difficult for us to work.

Q5. Do you have any plans for Brian while he is at NICE beside the signings? For example, a talk on Saga or a Q&A or anything else?

Brian will be doing talks and Q&A sessions throughout the weekend.

Q6. We know that you are far from finished on the NICE 2015 guest list. Can we expect any more international guests beyond those you have already announced?

Yep, R.M. Guera will be joining us this September and I’m still working on a few other people.

Q6. Nice has grown considerably from its first incarnation. Do you have plans to continue to grow the event or indeed any other long term plans for NICE?

My plan is to manage the venue I have and produce the best show I can, I don’t want a monster show, and it’s about quality not quantity.

Q7. Finally, what are the two most important things you would say to UK convention attendees to make them want to attend NICE?

Ummmmmmmmmmm two things?? If you love comic art and talking about comics, this is the show for you. If you want a show that’s not going to drain you financially for autographs and bottles of water, but still has the big names…

Thanks Jeff. We’ll see you in September

Peter Brewer