It’s hard to believe that there are all these conventions popping up left right and centre, as comic fans, we’re spoilt for choice, the year began with the London Super Comic Convention and from there it all cascaded. We can’t really give the organisers of LSCC all the credit, a tip of the hat not only goes to Bristol Expo but instead the limelight is on three people, artist James Hodgkins, Scar comics publisher, Shane Chebsey and lastly but not least caricaturist, Andy Baker.
BICS was more than just a comic con, they did lively launch parties where guests mingled with attendees and the panels were as entertaining as the guests themselves. Last year they branched off for the unique Launchpad, this wasn’t a convention of at all, no con sketches but a talk shop where vigorous debates where held by Klaus Janson and DC editor Joey Cavalieri. It was an event where budding writers and artists could show their work to editors working in comics.
To fans it was looking through the keyhole into the world of comics and seeing it through a creators point of view and later in the year they did Birmingham Comic con, a one day con where Tom Strong artist, Chris Sprouse popped up just as Mark Millar had to bail out because of flu. Since then people have been asking about what’s happened to Birmingham’s favourite con, with another Launchpad planned for next year we spoke to Shane and James about the pros and cons and what it’s like being convention organisers.
Ok this is the most important question is why isn’t there going to be a con from you guys and is this it from BICS?
JH : I’m simply too busy with my day job (drawing comics), so can no longer spare the considerable amount of time it takes to put on BICS etc. Shane and Andy, also increasingly busy with other projects decided they didn’t want to carry out without all three of us in it together. So if people are looking for someone to blame for the demise of BICS, it’s me.
Looking back at your last event, what was it like running Birmingham Comic Con in comparison to the two days at Thinktank?
JH: No different really, the problems and logistics are exactly the same, just degrees of scale. A one and a half day event was slightly less work, and we put BC together in just 3 months, from start to finish, prompted by the fact that our regular venue (Thinktank) was unavailable.
SC : It was less stressful in some ways. To be honest though it wasn’t much different as Think Tank was just bigger. All the same problems remain just on a different scale. The one day show is certainly more attractive to most exhibitors I think so any future events would probably be one day from me.
You also did Launchpad last year, what made you do it and what was the feedback from it?
JH : We wanted to create an event focused on creators, specifically those wanting to break into the industry (getting that first break is not easy). I also wanted to bring together fellow professionals, not a Pro-con, but a trade show of sorts (practically every other professional creative field has such events), where pros from all disciplines could come together to chat, interact, bitch, moan, you name it, all in a very pleasant, relaxed but professional atmosphere. It was largely ignored by the professional comics community of course, as many of them won’t pay for anything, and think that event’s organisers should be taking them and their families on holiday.
Just because a person earns their living creating comics, does not make them a “professional”, I have met very few over the years. Even comics professionals based locally couldn’t be arsed to attend. Launch pad was incredibly successful though, and very well received I think, some new creators actually secured their first paying gigs, so job done. It remains a unique event, there has never been anything like it anywhere in the world (as far as we know), it will return.
SC : It was something seriously needed for the industry. The feedback was tremendous from everyone who attended. It was great fun to do too, so I’d like to do something similar again in the future as it was very easy to run as our speakers were all consummate professionals.
You all work in creative fields did you have to put them on the back burner when it came to organising a convention?
JH No, I had to juggle them simultaneously, not easy.
SC To a certain extent yes, but I’m a workaholic anyway, so I didn’t notice much difference.
You’re a comic artist, James how did it affect you in particular?
JH Deadlines, always deadlines.
How did your peers react when you said you were creating a convention?
JH In my case with great surprise and raised eyebrows. I can only hope we confounded expectations.
Are comic themed events like the ones you’ve done financially lucrative?
JH No. BICS has consistently lost money over the years, the audience for a properly “comic themed event” (in Birmingham) isn’t large enough to make large scale events commercially viable (Bristol did OK by being very small), to make money, real money, you have to expand into the areas of film and TV, “third wookie form the left” territory, the fan base for that malarkey is much larger. I find it incredible that you can have a hugely influential and visionary creator like Mike Mignola at your event, and still lose money due to low attendance, but put on a soul-less car boot sale in a whopping great hall, and chuck in the bloke who wiggled Jabba the Hutt’s tail, or some random woman off the telly and they come flocking in their thousands.
Then there is Manga of course, but the less said about that the better, as much of it is utter drivel. I do love some Manga, Lone Wolf and Cub for example is brilliant, but not all Manga is created equal.
The many thousands that attend Manga themed shows are not there for the incredible body of work created by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, they are there for the free hugs and Pokémon pyjamas.
What were the attendance numbers like and which show do you think was the most successful you’ve done?
JH: I don’t measure the success of our events in terms of numbers, but by personal experience, and the feedback of others. For me, they were all successful, as we managed to achieve what we set out to do. Which was to celebrate the medium of comics (all comics) at a professionally organised but fun event in the best possible venue, providing the best value for our visitors.
SC: BICS got around 2000 folks through the door each day and BC got around 1000 people through the door plus the 50 VIP folks for the pre party. Launch Pad was limited to 120 people due to the nature of the event. They were all very successful as they achieved what they set out to achieve on many levels, but for me Launch Pad was the most successful as it really boosted some careers for delegates who attended the conference.
During your time as organisers, what were the guests like?
JH: With the exception of one (who shall be nameless) all of them were complete sweethearts, and an absolute pleasure to welcome to our shows. The unnamed exception was an absolute arsehole.
SC: We were mostly blessed with some truly wonderful guests. I have great admiration for some of them and some were so nice and generous with their time. We were very lucky.
Who was your favourite and why?
SC : It’s hard to say… Michael Golden was lovely, and Olivier Coipel was a great laugh, also John Cassaday was a legend. I think my favourite was Jonathan Ross…such a wonderful guest and very friendly and personable.
JH: I couldn’t pick a favourite, as many of our guests are personal friends, they were ALL amazing (except the unnamed one). A highlight for me was bringing over Chaykin, a personal hero of mine, a brilliant man on so many levels, with a well deserved reputation for biting wit and for taking no shit from anyone, he did not disappoint, legend.
You’ve attracted a huge array of guests over the years, are there any that escaped the net?
JH: Yes, hundreds…….notably Darwyn Cooke and David Mazzucchelli.
Shane you work as an Independent comic publisher and you champion the small press and indie side at BICS and various events, how are these comics seen at conventions by attendees?
SC It varies. Some people attend just for the indie scene, some people have no interest in them at all. Most folks will give alternative comics a try if they are good comics. We tried very hard to encourage the more professional element of the indie scene at BICS as the less professional approach doesn’t help the medium or the scene. We were lucky enough to attract some top indie publishers like Accent UK and Underfire Comics.
How do you view other conventions like Kapow, Thought Bubble, Bristol and LSCC?
JH I very much like Kapow, it’s a cool event, very slickly managed and organised with a real buzz of excitement about it. Thought Bubble is not a convention of course, it’s a not for profit charity festival , a comics event slap bang in the middle of a major international film festival, they do a great job with it, it gets a young crowd, I wish them continued success, it will continue to thrive as long as they keep getting the funding. Bristol used to be brilliant, I was not invited to this year’s show by the new organisers, so I cannot comment, I did not hear overly glowing reports, it seems to be chasing a small press audience, and will probably devolve into a hobbyist event, a far cry from what it once was. LSCC has a lot to prove, it’s one thing bringing over Stan Lee, I’ll reserve judgement and wait and see how they follow it up.
SC: I can’t comment on LSCC as I’ve never been. I have exhibited at Bristol since the beginning in 1999 and I have a huge affection for it. Not sure about it’s current incarnation as I’ve not attended. Thought Bubble has gone from strength to strength. It still seems a bit shambolic at times and rough around the edges, but they display a true passion for comics which helps to make up for any shortcomings in the organisation.Kapow is very well run. A true comics convention, and great fun to attend.
Recently there’s been DC and Marvel editorial having a presence at UK cons, what kind of effect do they have?
JH Not true, Marvel and DC editors have been coming over to UK events since the 80s (if not before), it’s nothing new. Its impact is incredibly positive, as it adds real gravitas to an event, and proves to be a real draw for established and aspiring professionals. It’s worth remembering that a substantial part of any con audience is made up of people who want to work in the industry
SC We had DC editors at every BICS and Marvel have always been at Thought Bubble. It’s good to have them there as many people attending cons are those who want to work as creators. The organisation of portfolio reviews can often leave much to be desired however… and we include ourselves in that one… it took us a couple of goes to get it dead right.
Was there any rivalry between you and other con organisers?
JH No (at least not from my perspective), although we did notice that other cons stole a lot of our ideas and borrowed extensively from our model. Or maybe Shane just gave it all away, he’s like that..
SC Not at first, as it was just us and Bristol now it’s very different and everyone seems to be in competition. We gave advice to most of the new folks on the block though and most of our ideas are still being used in the new conventions. We wish them all well.
Prior to you launching BICS in 2006, what made you do a convention and how did you all meet?
JH: I had been thinking about putting on a con for years but never got round to doing anything about it. I started to think more and more seriously about it in 2006, and that year I met Shane at Bristol (I already knew Andy, he was at Bristol that year too), it seems we had all, quite independently been thinking the same thing, we talked, and said “fuck it, let’s do it, what have we got to lose?” I did it because I like conventions, and there was only one, Bristol, I figured there was room on the calendar for another, from the get go we liaised with, and were helped by the wonderful Mike Allwood.
What was the convention scene like pre BICS?
JH There was no scene, it was just Bristol (which inherited the UKCAC crown), we actually created the “scene”, people now seem to forget that, and only talk about Thought Bubble and Kapow.
Kevin Nowlan made a welcome appearance at BICS 07 here’s a sketch he did for a fan.
When you started out at the Custard Factory, what was it like in contrast to Thinktank?
JH They get fewer death threats at the Thinktank, and you have to worry a bit less about the Yardies. Seriously it was chalk and cheese, one was a superb, purpose built professional environment, with a friendly, dedicated and genuinely interested team, the other was the Custard Factory.
Do top superhero films like Avengers, Spider-Man play a part in people attending cons?
SC : Hard to say… maybe a little.
JH : I think we may need to have a discussion about what constitutes a “top film”. I suppose for those who see comics as a genre not a medium, then the impact of big budget, successful films based on the characters that help define that genre, will always raise awareness and interest, especially at a local media level.
How do non comic fans perceive conventions like BICS and Thought Bubble?
SC: God knows… they probably think we are all mad geeks!
JH: There are non comics fans? Where? Hard to say, on the whole I think they have no clue as to what it’s all about, and no desire to fill that knowledge gap anytime soon.
Do you think MCM expo and Showmasters are trying to duplicate the success of conventions like the ones you’ve done yourselves?
JH No, I think they are trying to make money, MCM have no interest in the medium of comics, to them it’s just a market to exploit, they are gangsters, if stuffed poodles were all the rage, then they’d be running highly lucrative SPE’s (Stuffed Poodle Expo’s). I know nothing about Showmasters, who are they?
SC We did it for the love, they are just cashing in. They used some of our ideas, but mostly they are just flogging tat.
There seems to be a lot of new conventions popping up, do you think you’ve left the party too early?
JH Quite the reverse, I turned up at the party too late, doing conventions is bloody hard work, it’ll kill you, it’s a young person’s game. I’m too old, and need to get out to help ensure I actually get a bit older.
SC Nope… there are plenty of folks to carry the torch. Who says we’ve left?
What do think the future holds for comic conventions in the UK ?
SC The future is bright…the rubbish ones will disappear when the organisers realise there’s no money in it and I think we’ll be left with 2 or three really good events through the year.
JH I honestly have no idea, but they won’t grow unless they diversify into other areas, comics is a niche specialist market in this country, I don’t see that changing any time soon. The audience for comic conventions proper is small, and that will always determine how big a comics only con can be.
What do you think you’ll miss from doing BICS?
SC All of it. Even the hard work. It was so good working with two of my best friends and it was wonderful meeting so many interesting people over the years.
JH Working with Shane and Andy, poncing about on stage, the guests and the visitors, just the atmosphere really, all that hard work, and stress, is worth it when you see several thousand people from all over the globe come together for one reason only : comics, it makes you feel less alone in the world, and that is a wonderful feeling.
Let’s say if you were to do another BICS again, what would you do differently?
SC Nothing really. Maybe some slight tweaks here and there logistically, but we are very proud of what we achieved with no outside help.
JH I’m a “don’t change a hair for me dear” kind of chap, so I would personally do it all exactly the same, just try and screw things up a little less. And we will do another BICS, you can be sure of that.
What kind of advice can you offer if someone wants to establish a convention?
SC Don’t do it!
Written by Neil Patel and special thanks to James Hodgkins and Shane Chebsey.
A poster promoting last year’s Birmingham Comic Con