16 May 2011

Con Report: Bristol Comic Expo 2011

Alexi was at the Bristol International Comic and Small Press Expo 2011 and he thought it was good. He didn't have any new material on sale and there wasn't any particular BIG NEWS, but enjoyed some good panels, including:

The final outing of Dave Gibbons' and Budgie Barnett's Hypotheticals, a Bristol Expo favourite where comic pros are coaxed into giving honest answers on tricky comic industry situations in a strangely familiar alternate universe. Alexi enjoyed the balance of ethical insight and daft comedy fun, as he had done in previous years, from the brief but thoroughly considered responses of Richard Starkings to Tony Lee's excellent and curiously bath-centric alternative world opinions.

For pure humour, Alexi thought Hypotheticals was just pipped by the Just A Comic-Pickin' Minute panel. Following an almost identical format to a certain long-running Radio 4 programme, Tim Pilcher did an admirable job of adjudicating a closely fought contest between Paul Cornell, Si Spencer, Gary Erskine, and James Hodgkins, full of skill, verbosity and unnecessary personal revelations. Great fun.

Self Made Hero's H.P. Lovecraft anthology launch panel was a somewhat spookier affair. Alexi found it interesting to hear the insights of editor Dan Lockwood and contributors Ian Edginton, Rob Davis, INJ Culbard and David Hine, into why and how they tackled such iconic yet potentially difficult source material. There is no doubt the anthology looks lovely (in an indescribably horrific way) but Alexi has been slightly unsure about reading it, given the potential difficulties of adapting Lovecraft's prose style to comics. The panel discussed it openly and honestly. The big advantage of course is that Lovecraft's style can be hard going, dense and sometimes even a little rough or repetitive and adapation allowed the creators to distill the essence of the stories into much more readable forms. The disadvantage is the way that Lovecraft builds up a sense of foreboding and uses concepts and descriptions that are borderline unrepresentable (e.g. indescribable horror or a colour that has never been seen before etc.) and the fact that horror (in terms of being genuinely frightening as opposed to just making horror-themed images) is very hard to do in the sequential art medium.

Alexi was impressed with the panel's deep appreciation of Lovecraft's work (if not necessarily the man himself, who seems an odd and unhappy fellow) and their analysis of how best to represent it, so he is now keen to give the book a read and has high hopes it will terrify him.

Another sort-of launch that dealt with the challenges of using the comics medium was Screen and Page where some of the creators behind the recently-launched Tales of the Spiffing anthology talked a bit about it. Specifically, they talked a bit about the fact they were all working in animation (for Aardman) and how they had to adapt what they knew about storyboarding and animation and apply it to their new endeavours in comics. Alexi found it interesting to hear people who obviously knew a lot in their main field but were relative newcomers to comics talking about their learning experience. For example, they felt that you had more flexibility with the 180 degree rule in comics compared to film thanks to the discrete nature of panels (as opposed to continuous nature of film) but that also made it more important to be able to pick the important images to show - and then there's the difficulty of what size and formation to use to create the page layouts. Alexi found it really interesting stuff.

Another launch panel saw Strip Magazine saying hello to the comics world - an anthology adventure comic for kids too old for the Beano and Ben Ten and too young for 2000AD. Alexi enjoyed the panel, and whilst it was a shame that preview copies had got held up in France due to industrial action (boo), the comic looks like a cracking read for kids of all ages looking for some gung-ho action. The idea of doing something quite retro but at the same time quite forward-looking in filling this niche for older kids comics, using newsstand distribution, is incredibly ambitious but highly admirable.

The DFC, another recent attempt at launching a new British children's comic didn't quite make it initially (but is returning as Phoenix) but Strip is choosing to do a couple of things differently - first, in specifically being a predominantly action comic, and second in trying to reach the newsstands (The DFC was subscription only). It is however, following The DFC in aiming to produce collected albums of the the stories it runs. It is ambitious but it might just work. Alexi hopes that Strip (and Phoenix) will gain a foothold and show a new generation that comics can be something for them to enjoy.

Speaking of the influence of childhood comic-reading, one of the top panels of the weekend posed the question What's the point in small press superheroes? or rather Small Press Big Mouth's Stacey Whittle did as moderator, and Paul Grist, Matthew Craig, Daniel Clifford and Graham Pearce discussed it. Alexi really enjoys the work of all of these creators but at the same time is slightly disappointed that there are so many superheroic small press comics, so was intrigued to hear what the point was.

Despite a variation in experience and styles, the panelists were largely in agreement. They wanted to make superhero comics because they read superhero comics growing up and wanted to reflect that. Self-publishing (or, in Paul Grist's case, having Jack Staff published by Image comics) gave them the freedom to do stories where they could set the agenda, where they could show their love for the medium without being beholden to editorial control, but at the same time because they're not published by Marvel/DC, they have the difficult task of attracting that audience away from the mainstream titles or attracting the indie crowd toward a superhero book.

It's a strange conundrum. More superhero comics means more people read superhero comics so want to make more superhero comics so it continues, a vicious circle whereby one genre overshadows a whole medium. On the other hand, these guys are passionate about what they do and make great comics (often more enjoyable than both mainstream superhero material and non-superhero indie stuff). Perhaps what this points to is the simple answer that good comics are good comics and whether that's Marvel or DC or Image or other indie publishers or self-published, and whether that's superheroes or not, it doesn't matter. The important point is that people are making comics that inspire them and hopefully their audience.

A lot of that was also reflected in Com.X's It's a "yes" from him but it's a "no" from me panel, which talked about their submission review process and provided tips on pitching. What is a publisher looking for in a project? Something original that means something to the creators. What do they want to see in prospective creators? The ability to take criticism on board and develop. Alexi thought it was all sound advice and encouraging for any aspiring creator to hear.

Alexi is pretty sure there is some clever way to link all these panels together into some ultimate Bristol Expo wisdom-dump... but he can't quite manage it. Maybe he will one day.

Usual other comic con loveliness also occurred - big pile of acquisitions, late night blathering and so on. Alexi sends out mad props to all the good folk who he saw over the weekend.