To tie-in with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Alice In Wonderland, the University of Sunderland held a free comics event entitled Wonderlands on Saturday 30 May 2015. Subtitled as a UK Graphic Novel Expo, Wonderlands was never intended to be “comic-con”, whatever that now all-encompassing term may mean to people, but rather to be something closer to a literary festival as perhaps befitted the academic setting.
Held in the university’s £12m sport and social facility CitySpace, a bright, spacious building, Wonderlands ran two separate streams of talks and workshops alongside a “Publisher’s Hall” dealer’s and creator’s room.
Although pre-publicity had stated that the workshops and talks would be across the road in the Murray Library, both were incorporated on the day in the CitySpace building which proved to be much more convenient for all concerned.
The Publisher’s Hall and the workshops took over much of the building’s gymnasium while the talks took place in a room just outside the gym itself. With seating on the building’s balconies, as well as a reasonable canteen at the bottom of the entrance hall, there were places to sit and chat as well as eat whilst waiting for the next talk to start.
The talks ranged from panel discussions on Young Adult graphic novels, adaptation of prose into comics form, and both fiction and non-fiction format graphic novels. The panels were made up of a wide range of creators, both writers and artists, as well as editors, academics, librarians, booksellers, and publishers.
In addition to these panels Paul Gravett was on hand for an overview of graphic novels, while Posy Simmonds, Steve Bell and Dave Gibbons each had individual talks.
The biggest drawback with all of these panels was that the organisers had decided that a set of blue LED spotlights were required to light the guest tables and had for some reason also angled them towards part of the audience. While in practice this meant that the majority of guests were bathed in blue light it also meant that those in the wrong place in the audience were looking almost directly at them.
You will understand therefore why many of the panel photos here (and elsewhere) look as if the guests are auditioning for the parts of Na’vi in Avatar 2 (or, in Dave Gibbon’s case, Doctor Manhattan).
The guests were also well stocked with bottles of water during the talks, fine if it was half litre bottles but when large two litre bottles were placed on the table well that just got in the way of seeing the guests (and of course reflected even more of that blue light).
Despite this Posy Simmonds was as amiable and informative as ever, pointing out that the live action film of Gemma Bovery with, somewhat confusingly, Tamara Drew’s Gemma Arterton as Gemma Bovery was due to get its British release during the summer. Posy even managed to talk about dog poo which she pointed out later was not something that she could not normally talk about at somewhere like the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Hunt Emerson interviewed his old friend Steve Bell about his career, from his short-lived time on British weekly comics to his fascination with David Cameron’s baby-smooth skin. I have seen Steve as both interviewer and interviewee at festivals over the years but this talk proved to be more fascinating and informative than many previous ones perhaps due to the friendship between the pair.
For those of us in the audience who had seen the pair chat at the Glasgow Film Festival in 2012, John McShane continued his questioning of Dave Gibbons about his various work over the years.
With the first part of his 2000AD version of Dan Dare due to be published by Rebellion in November this year, Dave unsurprisingly talked at some length on the subject advising us that he was drawing a new cover for the first book.
Lighting wasn’t a problem with the workshops which, like the talks, were originally due to have been held across the road in a different building. Instead they where set up in a partially cordoned-off section of the gym and effectively got treated by many as extra talks. How well this would have worked if the gym had been busier, and therefore louder, is debatable but it seemed to work well enough with workshops leaders ranging from Kev F Sutherland, via Metaphrog, to Bryan Talbot.
While a little extra thought about how the talks were presented would have helped, Wonderlands proved to be a relaxed and interesting event. Despite being completely free it never felt busy, which may have been good for the attendees but was probably less so for the sellers in the Publishers Hall although on their website afterwards the organisers put the turnout at 500.
Time will tell if we see Wonderlands return to the convention calendar next year but for a first time event it definitely showed a lot of promise.
With thanks to John Swan for the use of his photos.
• There are more details of Wonderlands, along with photos taken on the day, at the event’s website