The mysterious but thankfully only occasional vagaries of internet communication delayed delivery of this report by Paul H. Birch on the well-received Birmingham Comics Festival, but it’s here now! Enjoy…
Walking the fully-glazed curved length of Edgbaston Cricket Stadium’s committee lounge is a suitably impressive experience: beyond the immaculately mowed lawn, your vision reaches out towards Birmingham’s city centre where church steeples mingle with towering Victorian edifices like elder statesmen of reason above the chaos caused by modern town planning and government HS2 demands below. Meanwhile, here inside there are half-naked women catching my eye as scales and armour are being painted up and down their flesh, SFX props are demanding young males’ attentions and further along in the cafeteria aliens and an Avenger sit eating bacon butties.
The Birmingham Comics Festival is but the latest in a long line of such events that have taken place since Phil Clarke, Mike Higgs and the late Steve Moore held the UK’s first one here in 1968. But, frankly, I’m now fed up of declaring this on local TV and for printed media. Proud as I am, pimping PR while futilely trying to maintain some kind of anonymity has become ridiculous. But here I am ambiguously part of a complex equation involving people and personalities, opportunities, time and money that has helped realise today’s event. Whereas, Time Bomb Comics publisher Steve Tanner and Victor Wright have lead from the front from the outset; and not done too bad a job at all it transpires.
For starters, free parking is a better incentive to attend a show than a gift-packed tote bag any day, especially if you’re a dealer and have to hang around longer than most. There is a small queue as we enter and the processing of tickets runs smoothly, even if I’m a little baffled at being offered a volunteer’s T-shirt to wear and will bawl out Mr Tanner for lack of a proper pass, but he’s expecting my tantrum anyway so smiles patiently until I stop. Inking ace Mark Farmer walks by and asks where the female Captain America has gone for it seems she’s a fellow school governor at his twin daughters’ school. Here in Weirdsville Central I suddenly feel safe among my people.
A quiet but steady trickle of fans stroll between foyer and main hall, where for the most part traders had set up overnight ready to sell comics old and new, action figures and some heavy duty samurai swords at one booth. Elsewhere names like Futurequake, Geeky, Time Bomb Comics, Scar and Markosia come across as sci-fi renegades who’ve just bust free from a prison planet instead of some of the many independent publishers who’ll be selling and promoting their wares here today. Guests are still on their way, though Hunt Emerson’s an early bird, as are Mike Collins, Staz Johnson, Jim Alexander, Al Davison and a few others. A couple have had to cancel at the last minute and my casual enquiry about table space availability has Mr Wright swiftly finding my daughter Alex a place where she can sell comics I’d written or edited for foreign publishers.
As walking traffic picks up it becomes noticeable how many families are coming through, many of the satellite events that have been going on in the city this April have done their work and attracted people to spend this Saturday at their first ever comic book convention. Creators too will bring their young families, writer Ian Edginton and artist Dave Kendall, and the aforementioned Mr Farmer for example. One guest will be escorted by his own son: James Higgins introduces himself to me at Hunt’s table, I met him and his brother once when they were little boys, now he towers over me – I am overjoyed that his father Graham, who’s not been well, is able to attend, as are others for the man is surrounded by admirers. I reach over and tap his hand, he greets me with a hug but I have to leave to sort out the talk panels.
There are two rooms where talks are to be held, and both are massive; far too big for their needs with a hundred seats laid out in each. When I came here a month back I was shown one perfectly sized room, but within the last week umpteen cosplay related changes seem to have thrown curveballs here, there and everywhere and the stadium’s offer of the use of these rooms may have sounded brilliant at the time, but something I would have declined this year. All it did was create twice the problems, by needing to develop a whole new bunch of panels fast and in one case Titan Comics editor David Leach having to join the Doctor Who panel halfway through after hosting the comedy one. Me, I was furious, I’d purposely created a couple of panels where I wanted Mike Collins and Staz Johnson involved – It wasn’t fair to keep Mike in panels all day but I made sure I got Staz back. Neither did I want some of the more predictable panels to falter, so I did my darned best to ensure communicative, intelligent hosts conducted as many as possible, and refocused a couple of panels that I hoped would stir things up a bit.
To that end, Big Centre TV’s Julie Pickering questioned Laura Howell, Sonia Leong, Jessica Martin and Kat Nicholson on the opportunities available to women in mainstream comics with some interesting side notes argued vigorously, while The Birmingham Mail’s political journalist Neil Elkes had Jim Alexander, Asia Alfasi and Jonathan Maberry debating cultural stereotypes in the comics medium admirably. However, on the Doctor Who panel, host Caz Bennett and I both glared in horror at the raised stage and its lack of a ramp for Al Davison’s wheelchair so we just brought the show to the people and pulled the chairs down so David Roach and the aforementioned Collins and Leach could be seated in front of it alongside Al and Caz.
Hosting two panels myself, the first had artists Richard Elson, Mark Farmer and Gary Crutchley and I grinding teeth passionately over comic-related anniversaries for titles as diverse as The Sparky, Giant-Sized X-Men and The Eagle against concepts and themes such as Kirby’s 4th World and The Avengers’ first line-up change. The winner however, for The BCF Hall of Fame 2015 Award went outright to Roy Thomas and Barry Smith’s Conan The Barbarian, a comic that affected our collective youths a whole 45 years ago. Then, flippantly, we cast Vinnie Colletta to the lions for the Hall of Shame Award because we’d overrun into the Horror panel’s time, hosted by the charming Jasper Bark with Jonathan Maberry and Ryan Brown.
Later in the afternoon, Steve Pugh, Staz, and again Richard and Mark would be on stage to discuss the subject of superheroes – I wasn’t sure I could stay for the whole event so drafted in Olly McNamee to help out, but ended staying as some highbrow considerations were voiced casually from all concerned, with one person spurring a new train of thought to be took up on by another: it was a writers and editors’ summit held by artists, and well worth listening to. Alas, it was during this hour that my mouth threw out further obscenities – Mr Wright got caught in the line of fire this time, but it was the winner of the festival’s Quiz Night who my frustration was really aimed at for being two hours’ late to receive an original piece of artwork created especially by Marks Buckingham and Farmer as their first ever collaboration, thus holding up a photographer, a panel show, and my blood pressure in the process is not a good idea. Still, no actual blood was spilt, and my outburst forgiven, I trust.
Sadly Mark Buckingham had gone down with a virus and couldn’t make the show, Lew Stringer was fighting one off but lost the battle and told us Friday, and Ian Edginton had passed on word to me that D’Israeli had family health issues that needed attending to. All missed, but there were that many creators present who had produced that many kinds of comics it was hard even for this jaded soul not to raise a smile when I thought no one was looking. Someone you couldn’t miss was the dapper looking octogenarian that was Commando artist Ian Kennedy, signing away quietly and later being interviewed alongside Charlotte Corday creator and fellow Commando artist Keith Page by Mr Tanner. On the other side of the coin there were those looking to break into comics, showing their wares to Accent UK and other publishers; youths who can but dream of such lengthy and productive careers as those two gents.
With cosplayers and those more outré or modern aspects of comics fandom featured more predominantly upstairs in the extensive committee lounges it meant dealers and guests’ tables weren’t blockaded by spandex-clad babes taking photos of each other as can happen at many conventions, and more a casual flow of them colouring the downstairs proceedings. However, my impression is that those based in the main hall didn’t get the full upstairs experience of the show unless they were going to the cafeteria – A subject that’s become quite a talking point across social media for its fudge cake I gather, though I myself would have preferred a wider variety of main meals than lasagne, fish & chips or salads.
Bad parent that I am I abandoned my daughter for most of the day. But Alex didn’t need me cramping her style. It began when I left her conversing with Graham Higgins about Japanese philosophy and she spent a good part of the day on her stand (well looked after by her neighbours the digital publishers of The Inheretic), selling enough comics to pay for a trip away as part of The Duke of Edinburgh Award she’s undertaking and to buy assorted small press comics herself. She had a good time, and I’ve yet to hear a bad word from anyone; in fact I’m probably the only one who’s voiced criticisms but that’s more to do with my feigning a laidback attitude most of the time when really I’m a demanding perfectionist at heart.
What can we all agree on then? That it had a relaxing, friendly atmosphere (“Like UK Comic Art Convention used to be” said some middle-aged folk, while locals waxed lyrical comparisons to the Birmingham Comic Art Shows that Nostalgia & Comics had put on back in the day; its plush modern surroundings were compared to BICS’ impressive Millennium Point affairs with a less confusing elevator service; its cosplay and side attractions drew comparisons to MCM (and all those shows that need to add the American terminology of Con as a suffix) but didn’t overstretch beyond their niche market; that in the best of worlds some things could have benefitted with being tinkered with but that it was also not the comic mart some people were worried it might be… All in all, a success then, hopefully?
Well, it has to be declared that, because as it was revealed at the end of the day, The Birmingham Comics Festival will be returning next April. What with more satellite events added, new major guests already pencilled in, the return of some from this year and the cost of hiring a private doctor to ensure Mark Buckingham is well enough to attend in 2016 being looked into, it all sounds pretty damned exciting. As if that’s not enough, rumours abound that following the success of the satellite event aimed at kids that took place at Birmingham’s Wildlife Conservation Park there was a request by city council authorities for it to be repeated as early as this summer.
UK comic book conventions began in Birmingham back in 1968, and we’ve been doing them that long we’re getting rather good at them so it would be foolish to stop now. Don’t let our accents confuse you, we’re not fools. Anonymity be damned; my name is Paul H Birch and I pimp for The Birmingham Comics Festival.
• The 2016 Birmingham Comic Festival will take place in April: bookmark www.thecomicfestival.com for the latest news