As one of the Stripped bloggers I had more access than most and attended almost half of the forty-odd Stripped events as comics and graphic novels received more exposure at a major international literature event than they probably ever have had before.
While there were events for the two big comics fan cabals, American superheroes and 2000AD, neither dominated proceedings in the way that either of them can do at many British comic conventions. But then Stripped wasn’t a convention, it was a major strand within the two and a half weeks of the largest literary festival in the world and indeed Stripped by itself would have rivaled many weekend literary festivals for its sheer number and diversity of events. There were talks by creators from America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, France and Italy plus of course British creators were there in force – not just those that work on American superhero comics and 2000AD, but creators from Beano, Phoenix, Viz, newspapers, manga, long form books and small press.
Indeed small press, from where many of the modern creators have graduated from, was seen from the start as being something that the festival organisers wanted to be included in Stripped. As such BookFest did something that they hadn’t tried before and included a small press comics fair as part of the programme – not a mart with dealers selling comics and toys but rather a mixture of professional artists with their own imprint ‘on the side’ and small press creators still waiting for their big break – a fair that was as free for the creators as it was for the punters. With the main Charlotte Square Gardens packed with busy festival tents, the Stripped Mini Comic Fair was held just across the road in the building that houses BookFest’s headquarters, 5 Charlotte Square. That address might not mean anything to those outside Edinburgh but given that Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister Of Scotland and the location of Scottish Government cabinet meetings, was next door at 6 Charlotte Square, it was the equivalent of London’s Comica Comiket being held in 9 Downing Street.
BookFest always runs two major book shops during the festival, the children’s bookshop and the main bookshop. It wasn’t that long ago that the graphic novel section of the main bookshop was small and hidden behind the sofas and tables of the coffee bar. This year it was big and bold, highlighted with Stripped logos and adverts for the comics fair, and even extended to the nearby isle display tables. Unsurprisingly there were plenty of the books by the various Stripped guests as well as a rich selection of other titles as well as a surprising amount of small press. Next door the festival’s children’s bookshop also put on a good display with Beano and Dandy annuals and issues of the Phoenix alongside Tintin and DFC Library titles.
Promotion can often be a problem in Edinburgh during the August festival season, the Fringe Festival is so dominant that the many other festivals that run at the same time, from the Foodies Festival to the original International Festival, can often get lost in the noise. However as well as being included in the main 96 page A4 BookFest programme, Stripped had its own printed 24 page programme, appropriately American comics size on newsprint paper. No other individual BookFest strand had this and it meant that Stripped stood out from the rest of the BookFest advertising in the various programme and leaflet stations around the city as well as in comics shops and bookshops across central Scotland.
The other promotional tool for Stripped which sat apart from the main BookFest was the Stripped blog. Separate from the main and it has to be said less regularly updated BookFest blog, the Stripped blog and its associated Twitter feed gave the strand its own ‘face’ within the rest of the online festival promotion. Local creators and bloggers were approached to staff the blog with Edinburgh creator Edward Ross, who was taking part in one of the talks, and Glasgow creators John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs of Metaphrog, who had run comics workshops at previous BookFests, plus OchAyeComics’ Nicola Love and myself from downthetubes, all marshalled by Stripped marketing officer Kirsten Cowie who was the uncredited chief blogger. Forbidden Planet International’s Joe Gordon also helped out the Stripped blog by providing pieces that had previously run on the FPI blog which were appropriate to the Stripped guests.
Between them American creators Joe Sacco and Chris Ware, who sold-out both his events, were the Stripped representatives for three nights of the first week of BookFest while physicist James Kaklios was there at the beginning of the second week. However it was the calm before the storm as the main Stripped weekend was BookFest’s third weekend, from the evening of Thursday 22 to the evening of Monday 26 August. While this deliberate clustering of events meant that it was physically impossible to attend all the different Stripped talks and workshops, it overcame the problem seen at other festivals with their individual events spread over different days or sometimes weeks making it difficult and expensive for non-locals to attend more than a few. By creating the Stripped weekend, BookFest effectively turned Stripped into a destination comics event that people could travel to and spend a full day or longer at.
While cost can be an issue when paying individually for multiple events, the prices for talks ranged from £10 down to £4.50 with many of the events having a preferential rate of £5 for the under 26s, while art workshops ran from £4.50 for 40 minutes to £75 for 6 hour day events. However it has to be remembered that access to the main BookFest site, its two large bookshops and all the signing sessions was free, as were both days of the comics fair, plus the Amnesty International: In Graphic Detail event, and the two Jura Unbound events, Literary Death Match and Tales From The Strip.
Will next year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival have a comics theme of the same scale? Stripped was financed in part at least by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expos Fund managed by the Scottish Arts Council on behalf of the Scottish Government, the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a whole received £110,000 from the £2 million fund this year. My understanding of the fund is that it is used to promote different events each year so it may not necessarily be available in 2014 as a financial source.
However this year will have shown the BookFest organising team what worked and what didn’t as regards comics and graphic novels programming. While it was to be expected that Neil Gaiman, a BookFest regular, would sell out his Sandman talk with Hannah Berry as he sold out his three prose events, it was perhaps more surprising that all the short comics art workshops sold-out with tickets for Emma Vieceli’s and Adam Murphy’s workshops gone within a few days of going on sale, while Viz artist John Fardell had not sold-out a BookFest event in previous years until he was promoted this year as part of Stripped. Hopefully the knowledge and contacts gained this year will be put to good use in 2014.
I’ll remember Stripped 2013 for unexpectedly talking about Charley’s War with Joe Sacco, watching Emma Vieceli and David Fickling putting their hands up during the Etherington Brothers’ event just as enthusiastically as any of the children in the audience, discovering that 1.5 hours after his event had ended Garen Ewing was still signing copies of The Rainbow Orchid, seeing people that didn’t look like ‘typical comics readers’ sitting in the gardens reading not just graphic novels but small press as well, hearing Rutu Modan attempt “the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborus” in an Israeli accent, seeing Dave Bishop manfully contending with the one thing louder than his shoes, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo’s fireworks display, and Hannah Berry’s chairing of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman talk when she didn’t have firework explosions to deal with but rather Neil’s good-natured teasing of her nervousness.
The first piece I wrote for downthetubes about Stripped this year started with the sentence, “My favourite place to be on an August day is in the Scottish capital’s Charlotte Square Gardens with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest literary festival, in full swing around me.” It still is and this year Stripped made it extra special.
• The majority of the Stripped events are reviewed on the Stripped BookFest blog which includes links to recordings of some of them.
• The main Edinburgh International Book Festival website is here.
My thanks go to Joe Gordon as the instigator of getting me involved with Stripped in the first place and especially to Stripped marketing officer Kirsten Cowie who was a constant source of tickets, information and smiles.