14 May 2013

Bristol Comic Expo 2013: The Voyage Home

As the PCG focussed their collective weekend trip allowance for 2013 on the London Super Comic Convention earlier this year it was left to Stewart R to fly the Group flag in a rather last minute trip to the Bristol Comic Expo. Now he’s had a chance to settle back into reality, here are some thoughts on the past weekend's events:

'Artist Alley' Sunday
Stewart R: I made the decision to make my way up to Bristol very late in the day; while it was the weekend of the Expo there were some contributing social factors that made the choice to head to the West Country a definite thing and so I only arranged my travels last Wednesday. That I needed other reasons to cement the deal perhaps speaks a little of how one of the UK’s formally premier comic events has fallen a little from grace in recent times. I myself have only been attending the event for five years (including this year’s trip) while several of the group have been going for a good few years more than that. During my forays up I’ve seen the floor space grow year on year while the number of big name guests, publishers and retailers attending has dropped in equal measure.

The move back to the Brunel’s Old Station hall was pushed as something of a triumph in 2012 - the previous year’s I’d been the main hall had been located in the local Ramada with a second area at the Mercure serving to highlight the growing and bustling small press crowd - but possibly due to economic woes and competition from other conventions popping up on the circuit (Kapow turning up just a week later stole much of the thunder) the heralded relocation failed to live up to expectations. It was certainly noticeable last year that the retailers weren’t as busy as they’d been just 12 months earlier, the selection in the longboxes was reduced, the creative talent presence was dangerously low and the previously thriving small press suffered somewhat from the move in and amongst the mix at the larger main venue. I’m laying the negatives on a bit thick here as I enjoyed my time away from home with the PCG as always; there were plenty of laughs, some interesting purchases and I got to see the experience from the retailers perspective when lending Andy H a hand behind the Paradox stall, but it was the first time for me that there was no guarantee that I would be back for more in 2013.

And so with considerably lower expectations strapped to my back I hopped on the train and began my Bristol Comic Expo weekend. I arrived on the Friday evening and despite flying solo I knew that it was something of a tradition for creators and exhibitors alike to spend a few hours in the hotel bar of the Ramada, now rebranded as the DoubleTree Hilton, chatting about all things industry and many other things besides whilst quaffing upon occasional alcohol-infused beverages and anticipating the Saturday to come. To my surprise and concern the attendance in the bar that night was the lowest I’ve ever seen it - something noted by almost everyone I spoke to - and while I had a thoroughly enjoyable time catching up with familiar faces and meeting a few new ones, the thought that this was an ominous sign for the weekend lingered in the back of my mind.

And so Saturday morning rolls around, I shake off the parasitic cerebellum cloud known as the hangover and stumble in the direction of Temple Meads train station to get in the door and start the convention experience proper. Arriving at the Exhibitor entrance I was very happy to see a bustling hall crammed with smiling faces as the willing punters filled the Old Station with an electric sense of excitement. Those first few hours on the Saturday morning were generously busy and at times it was quite the task to navigate the modest pathways set out between the tables as everyone sought out their initial disposable income investments, caught up with old friends or showed off their cosplay and costume efforts. There was a generally positive vibe about the whole thing and that was quite the relief.  The hall was clearly divided into three sections with a long alley specifically laid out for artist/creator tables, a section dedicated to gaming and cosplay competitions and then the larger portion intermingling the retailers, other exhibitors and small press contingent. While still suffering from some bottlenecks thanks to this arrangement it was a marked improvement on the previous year’s maze and allowed the crowd to navigate the hall far more easily.

I set up my base of operations behind the table of Brighton-based comic creator Nye Wright which allowed me, having seen things from a retailers view last year, to see how the convention experience appears from the viewpoint of the exhibitor. Nye is as friendly and welcoming a creator as you’re ever likely to meet and his ability to connect with visitors to his table is smile-inducing as he leads the interested party through his table of wares and also enquires about their convention experience so far. During one of many conversations I had with Nye he spoke of a recent convention experience that had proven to be a crushing disappointment and he was genuinely happy with the number of eager individuals turning up to chat, discuss his work and potentially make a purchase through the course of the day.

Other guests also seemed to be doing well; Boo Cook and Ian Churchill were as busy as ever with people queuing for sketches and to look through various prints and previous works, while the likes of David Hine and Rob Williams seemed to have a steady stream of folk as the hours passed, each one looking to shake a hand and discuss topics of a comic book nature. General footfall certainly seemed up on 2012, but there were still moments when I noted that I could walk down the artist alley and only encounter maybe a couple of dozen people chatting to the talented folks who toil day in and day out to power the industry we love with ideas and visual magic.

Longboxes; the endangered species?
One important factor about any comic convention for me is the opportunity to get my elbows out and wrists deep into a horde of bargain-holding longboxes, looking for an unexpected treat or that gap-filling issue in a run from yesteryear. I certainly managed to find some treasures during my search - Marvel Fanfare #22 and #23 were a tremendous highlight at £1 for the pair - and came away happy in my purchases, as did the one other PCG member who made an appearance, Kenny J, who discovered a haul of X-Statix to escort him back to Bournemouth. However, it was  disappointing to see that the retailer attendance was once again in decline. This was surprising considering the lack of convention competition compared to the cramped May of 2012, but I have theories on this phenomena which I may go into at another time. Certainly I would say that some of my PCG companions may have despaired at the limited offering if they had attended and it is an aspect of the Bristol Comic Expo that may need addressing in coming years if it's to maintain an interest amongst the dedicated collector crowd.

Speaking to various indie press guys and gals it also seemed that while they were enjoying the good natured socialising that accompanies every Bristol Comic Expo, their success rate at selling the fruits of their hard work was down a little on previous years, though those regular attendees with brand spanking new works on sale - Ronin Dogs creator Mark Pearce for one - reported that business had been good. The watchword amongst many of these promising up-and-comers seemed to be ‘Kickstarter’ and it appears to me that many people who once treated their creation of comic books as a self-financed hobby confined to their free time, spare income and sporadic audiences at a couple of conventions a year are now spotting the potential that such funding platforms can offer and the exposure that they bring. Will the ‘small’ in small press become a thing of the past? It’s a possibility it seems and that’s also amplified by a seeming lack of new faces with fresh ideas and handmade comics this year.

I’ve reached this far into my review and not made mention of a single panel, organised discussion or workshop and that’s primarily down to two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t attend any. Secondly, there was only one that vaguely interested me and I only found out it was on at the time it was due to start in the DoubleTrees and I was in the Old Station hall. I can’t report on how successful or busy the separate section of the convention proved to be as I just didn’t find the enthusiasm to get over there to check it out - especially when the local clouds decided rain needed to be delivered Sunday - yet I didn’t speak to anyone all weekend who had said that they’d been over there so I do have my suspicions. And this highlights something of a problem weighing upon Bristol Comic Expo at this time; a serious lack of self promotion.

I spotted no large banner up to announce the con to the passing world. There was next to no sign of the Expo logo anywhere to be seen within the hall itself. While I could have looked online for the list of panels and times, or sought out one of the few itineraries tacked up near the front entrance - I’d come in through the exhibitor side so didn’t see one until late Saturday - it just feels like a shame that the organisers don’t appear able or overly willing to promote and push the event to the patrons that are attending. Things have turned around somewhat sharply in the UK in recent years and the convention scene is becoming a more dynamic and competitive market. London Super Comic Convention and Kapow have turned up as young pretenders and provided as close a feel to the big conventions of the US as we’ve seen, while Thought Bubble has been wooing top talent and really making a critical name for itself. Several people were also speaking excitedly about the upcoming MCM at London's Excel and suggesting that while the comic book contribution to that extravaganza is only a small part of the puzzle - it's still predominantly a movie and anime show - they may well fare better over that weekend. Bristol has a long pedigree and legacy to live up to and while the ticket sales may say otherwise along with an optimistic turnout on the Sunday, I do believe that there is reason to be concerned if you’re a fan of the show.

Young lady mistaken for a droid...
Did I have a fun convention weekend? Yes, yes I most certainly did and much of that is down to the wonderful people who attended and who continuously beam out enthusiasm for our shared passion! There's still a firm sense of community at the Bristol Comics Expo that its competitors are yet to match though that will inevitably come with time. I managed to pick up some decent back issues and tantalizing indie comics. I even made the swift decision to start a sketch and commissions book and grabbed some time with Ben Oliver (Batwing) for him to christen the first page with an awesome Kang the Conqueror sketch. Spending time during the day with Nye Wright was also good fun and inspiring and I can honestly say that learn something new from each convention experience. The Expo itself however, is in definite need of some surgery to fix the ongoing problems as opposed to a couple of plasters covering up the odd scratch as there’s a real risk that the lifeblood of the Bristol Comic Expo, the punters, may soon ebb away and find themselves recreating the wonderful sense of fun and adventure within one of the other eager hosts hovering in the wings.


tam9018 said...

Hi it was my daughters birthday Saturday an we came to bristol hoping it being a good day, then we saw star wars , an that was it I was hooked , loved it since child hod an had a grill day especially from storm trooper in the white an blue outfit giving hand signals, won't forget it , thanks for lovely day

Colin M said...

Hi great insightful overview, we were among the stalwarts of ol' Bristol shows but last exhibited in 2009 and while still a soft spot for the show, sounds like we've made the right choice in passing over for newer better promoted and attended shows.

Its a shame but thats life, we're lucky in the UK that we have so many shows to choose from at the moment but it would be nice to return to Bristol at some point so lets hope it picks up?