25 May 2010

Con Report: Bristol Comic Expo 2010

Alexi Conman recently attended the Bristol International Comic and Small Press Expo 2010 and thought he would write a bit about it.

Last year, the Bristol comic expo downsized substantially but retained a bit of scope thanks to the last-minute addition of a linked one-day small press event (read Alexi’s report here). Whilst this worked well enough for a short-term fix, the question was whether this twin event structure was sustainable and could be developed in subsequent years. Having had a year to prepare, hopes were high that progress would be made with this year's event, and Alexi is happy to report that it seemed to be a strong step forward.

As with last year, the Ramada hotel was the first venue, hosting the more mainstream events, and the Mercure hotel (a couple of minutes walk around the corner) hosted the Small Press Expo. However, this year the SPX was a much bigger beast, running both days with a full series of panels. Furthermore, the organisation was better – the Ramada had all the commercial retailers (t-shirts, back issues, toys, merchandise etc) and the Mercure had all of the indie/small press folks. There was generally a greater sense of integration between the two venues and although there could still have been more signage about it, it did feel like one large even rather than two smaller ones.

Whilst the Ramada bar was still the main location for socialising in the evening, Alexi was mostly at the Mercure during the daytime. Aside from the fact it had better air conditioning (which made a big difference on such a sunny weekend) and that it contained a hearty parade of small press gear (from which Alexi bought a satisfying bundle), it had the most interesting panels on and Alexi saw several of them.

First, the Sidekick podcasters interviewed Chris Lynch about symbolism, language and fiction, with particular reference to his graphic novel The Dark. Admittedly, Alexi didn’t have much knowledge of the book or the hosts going in, but despite that, he enjoyed the panel. The Dark and Lynch’s other projects sounded full of intriguing ideas and worth investigating. Similarly, it was all conducted with entertaining enthusiasm (especially a little audience-participation sort-of quiz thing they conducted) and Alexi will definitely be checking out some Sidekickcasts sometime soon.

Next, Glenn Dakin and Garen Ewing talked about their routes into getting their books published with Egmont. Both of these veteran UK comics creators now have books published through Egmont (Candle Man by Dakin and The Rainbow Orchid by Ewing) and the books seem to be doing well; however what was interesting was seeing just how long it had taken the projects to reach this point of fruition.

Dakin discussed how his story has ended up as a ‘young adults’ prose book, after it had previously been pitched as a comic to publishers as varied as Vertigo and The DFC before finding its natural home. Alexi hasn’t read it, but its graveyardy stylings sound like suitably spooky gothic horror fun (plus Alexi certainly recommends Dakin’s earlier autobiographical Abe comics). Ewing explained how his project had also gone through extensive gestation. He first started serialising The Rainbow Orchid in small press anthologies in 1997, before moving on to publish it online until it gained sufficient interest to get a mainstream publisher. Alexi has read the first volume of it (and is looking forward to reading the second which was released just in time for the con) and found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable adventure yarn with a lovely ‘ligne claire’ European style, well worth reading. Both creators were easy to listen to, clearly experienced and dedicated to their projects, and it was good to hear how they succeeded in getting their books picked up by a major publisher and out to a wide audience.

Barry Renshaw chaired a panel on digital comics that quietly proved to be a high point of the con. 'Digital comics' is one of those topics that keeps coming up and keeps proving interesting as the future keeps creeping into slightly clearer focus. The future is digital of course but exactly how comics will adapt to this still remains to be seen. There was a nice mix of panellists and the range of perspectives helped provide insight around the topic. Whilst far too much was discussed to go into full detail here, hopefully this overview should cover some of the most interesting points (via the medium of Alexi's own inane opinions):

A big recent development in the potential of digital comics has been the iPad, but for all the hoo-ha around it, the iPad market and the comics market are probably still fairly distinct. There is functionality to try and encourage people who’ve downloaded an issue to buy the book, but it can be difficult to assess whether that’s working. Digital has economic strengths and weaknesses: it does require an initial outlay to get a digital distribution system arranged, but once it is set up, it avoids all of the overheads of creating and distributing physical objects. So although a single issue download might only sell for 99 cents (59p), that might still provide greater revenue to the creators than a physical $3 comic would, perhaps opening up the market for smaller publishers. Indeed, one of the most likely outcomes of digital comics is that they will replace ‘floppies’ (single 24(ish)-page comics). The model that seems most likely in the short term is: free digital first issues, cheap digital subsequent issues, and premium physical graphic novels collecting the material in print.

Will digital distribution mean that comics reach a wider market? Almost certainly yes, but it’s hard to predict to what extent. Format will have an impact. First of all there are the practicalities of using different platforms (the Com.X guys explained how they use Comixology as they found it to be the most responsive to developing delivery to match the material). With a range of non-interchangeable platforms (i.e. if you download something on one, it won’t work on another) there are barriers to effective mass market usage, but if a single platform gained dominance, then a monopoly situation could occur where that distributor could ‘name their price’, squeezing a greater cut out of publishers reliant on them for distribution. There’s also the question of how digital formats affect the way comics work visually. The panel was fairly unanimous that any animation meant something was no longer really comics, but even using only static images, there is a multitude of ways that traditional visual syntax might be modified, plus there is the potential for all kinds of additional supporting material (sketches, seeing the page through different stages in the production process).

Supporting material was also mentioned as one way of encouraging legal downloads as opposed to piracy. Illegal digital comics distribution is likely to grow regardless of what comics publishers might implement in terms of legal downloads, so tackling piracy is an unavoidable problem. Convenience seems to be the way to win: if downloading legally is substantially easier than downloading illegally, and relatively cheap, the public will probably mostly go with that. The music industry is an obvious analogy, and it does show likely routes that comics might take, but perhaps it also shows potential pitfalls.

One of the minor reasons why Alexi is generally quite technologically backward is that having everything so easily available seems to lessen it somehow; what was once ‘art’ is now just ‘content’. The concept of music albums is fading (and who remembers b-sides?) as people buy tracks individually and listen to their whole music library at random. Certainly there is a new massive potential to try new things, but there also seems to be a diminishment of the ‘value’ attributed to items (no longer beloved albums, listened to from start to end whilst looking through the accompanying artwork, fixed in time and place in memories, instead just more background noise for modern life?), and it would be a shame if this shift in perception were to also affect comics too much when the digital age sweeps through. Yes, maybe comics are a mainly disposable art-form, but it can still surely aspire to profundity? Digital comics have great potential, but there will always be something inherently pleasing about even the scrappiest photocopied physical comic that will never be downloadable to an iPad.

After a meander around Bristol in the evening sun, Saturday was rounded off in the Ramada bar with a performance by the finest band mainly composed of comic industry professionals, ‘Mine Power Cosmic’. Formed from the ashes of ‘Giant Sized Band Thing’ (who rocked BICS 2008), they played heavy rhythm and blues rock with a prog/psych slant. The crowd were thoroughly entertained and the only slight disappointment was that the whole room didn’t quite burst into dance at the brilliantly heavy cover of Abba’s ‘Voulez-Vous’. Hopefully the whole gig will turn up on Youtube soon.

On Sunday (after another trawl around the wondrous and varied small press stalls), the final panel that Alexi attended was a discussion of comics-related podcasts and their role in the industry. Though slightly lighter in tone that the digital comics panel, it was still insightful and enjoyable - as would be expected from a panel consisting of people used to yakking at the whole of the comic-reading interwebs. Emma Vieceli chaired, and Dan Marshall (Sidekickcast), Jimmy Aquino (Comic News Insider), Stacey Whittle (Small Press Big Mouth), Dave Williams (Waiting For The Trade) and Stephen Aryan (Comic Book Outsiders) represented the world of comics podcasters.

Probably the main issue discussed was: is podcasting journalism? The answer that the group seemed to agree on, perhaps slightly surprisingly, was ‘no’. Certainly, there has to be some level of integrity, ensuring that facts are right, confidentiality is maintained when required, and reviewing is honest and fairly impartial. However, the panel all classed themselves as fans more than journalists. They do it because they love comics, not for money or prestige or to slag stuff off or to talk about anything they’re not interested in, but to tell the world about what they like, namely: comics. They might all have slightly different takes on it the world of comics and slightly different demographics, but fundamentally it was nice to see such a unity of purpose, of just talking about comics that interest them, and trying to make it fun for themselves and their listeners. If you like comics, you should check them out (particularly Small Press Big Mouth, go on, try it now)!

It was a nice note to end on, and kind of encapsulated the whole con vibe. As always, Alexi hung out with many lovely people (to whom he extends his usual apologies for them having to endure his tedious company) and came away with a spring in his step and a renewed enthusiasm for comics, huzzah etc!