I’ve done some blogs previously about the prehistory of British comic conventions and the story of my first real comic convention but leaving aside the tale of the Eisnercon in Glasgow for a bit, let’s go diving right into the tale of UKCAC
UKCAC was the brainchild of Frank Plowright and Hassan Yussuf to capitalise on the growing popularity of comics in all it’s genres, not just superheroes or 2000AD which tends to be the case with a lot of British events these days, hence the ‘Comic Art’ part of the title. The first one was held in London in 1985 but seeing as I didn’t attend that one or the one in 1986 there’s nothing I have to say about them but they quickly turned into the essential comic convention in the UK.
So in 1987 I went to my first UKCAC and this also happened to be the last time I paid to get into any comic convention in the UK, which is quite impressive in it’s own sad wee way, but anyhow in the summer of 1987 a group of us at AKA decided to go to that year’s convention. I reckon there must have been around seven or eight of us which included myself, Pete Root, Jim from the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh, Peter Coyle and a load of regulars and drinking partners from AKA. We decided the best way to go around things was to hire a minibus which was really a converted long wheelbaseTransit Van.
Seven or eight blokes. In a van. Driving from Glasgow to London overnight. The logical thing not to do before getting in the van is not go for a curry, so we went for a curry, bought a load of beers and piled in the van for the long overnight journey down to London. Now this was a long time ago, but I do remember the stench of a load of sweaty blokes drinking and farting all the way down.
It wasn’t pretty.
Anyhow a load of us were staying at the university halls that UKCAC had arranged as cheap accommodation, while some of the others had booked in at the main hotel but before we all planned to check in we’d arranged a trip to Titan Distributors in the East End of London. Now we turned up in London very early, probably around 6 or 7am (we even saw Alexei Sayle popping out for some milk on a Saturday morning) to the Titan warehouse.
Nowadays the warehouse is a set of yuppie flats….
But back then it was a filthy old building next to a park full of used johnnies and used syringes, with a horrific greasy spoon cafe nearby, but we piled into the warehouse, and I remember helping Pete Root get some stuff for AKA. I can’t remember who exactly was there as most of the staff had the day off as UKCAC was on. Once we’d done what we needed to at Titan, we headed into Central London to check into our respective rooms, dump our stuff and wait to get into the convention.
1987 was probably the year when comics became massive. Watchmen was massive, and Dark Knight Returns and Maus had taken off, 2000AD was in another great period. People were interested in comics as a medium and things were fun. Okay, it was still a male dominated scene and the stench of misogyny and sweat were still rife but it was growing and there were a load of kids becoming interested in anything comic related which was great as many of those people are still fans today.
Here’s a thing about these events; they’re a massive blur, so from the time we joined the queue to get in, everything seemed to happen at once. We got in, and I headed for the dealers room with most of the others while everyone else went to the bar. At comic conventions you always end up in the bar but I was still in my fanboy phase so it was comics first, beer second.
It was around here that was introduced to Geoff from Neptune Distributors in a meeting which ended up with me working for Neptune five months later. The afternoon moved on and I went to several panels featuring the likes of Alan Moore and a fresh faced Neil Gaiman who was on a panel with Grant Morrison who we’d brought with us in the van of sweat. It was all jolly fun during the day and in the evening we mingled with people we’d never met before from London comic fandom and had a fairly fun time.
After a pitiful nights sleep at the university halls, we did the same again on the Sunday which was like attending a wake before the person has died. That’s how depressing the last day at a convention or a festival feels. It’s awful and it’s always like it be it a comic convention or festival or anything where you know you have to go home at the end of it all.
We watched some awards, picked up a few bargains in the dealers room, had a few more beers, said our farewells and piled back in the van of stench for the long, depressing journey back to Glasgow with a promise to come back next year.
Sadly this was a promise I didn’t live up to as by this time I was working at Neptune, which was fine, but I’d been diagnosed with a particularly nasty bout of Glandular Fever and was off work for more or less a month while been told to stay in bed. I was painfully ill and my body was covered in open sores so I was in no fit state to go anywhere so I missed UKCAC in 1988. I did get some nice stuff brought back by workmates but I’d rather been there in person. Next year I thought from the pit of my sickbed…
Which brings us to 1989.
This year I was fit and healthy, still working for Neptune who co-sponsored the convention that year so that meant I was dashing around being nice to clients and potential clients which really means spending a lot of time in the bar, and the UKCAC bar was a large well-stocked bar.
Again, things were a blur. I did a lot of running from the lower levels of the convention to the bar and was cutting a dashing figure back in those days, but we all had great fun teasing the Titan lot, and making nice little digs to the Forbidden Planet crowd who came down from Glasgow. Pettiness can be fun kids!
This is where things get a bit vague, as the next convention I went to as part of Neptune that was organised by the UKCAC team was the first Glasgow Comic Art Convention held as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture celebrations in 1990. This however is destined for it’s own blog, so this brings us swiftly to the 1990 UKCAC in London.
By this time I’d left Neptune in a blaze of glory a few weeks earlier, so myself an Neil (another former employee of Neptune) went down off our own backs to London to help out Chris Bacon’s tables but seeing as we didn’t have much money, we didn’t have anywhere to stay so we went down in the hope of winging it, which we did. We ended up crashing on poor Martin Skidmore’s floor, who by this point was still editor of Trident Comics and had his room paid for by Geoff and Neptune. This meant Neil and myself took the piss by ordering beers, food, making transatlantic phone calls, making noise, keeping poor Martin up and generally running up an enormous bill. 400 quid I believe. Considering I left Neptune being owed a few hundred quid I considered this payback.
But this was a transition as I moved to be firmly part of Chris’s retail set-up and for the next eight years the pattern was set for UKCAC, which meant turning up early on Friday morning. Setting up. Getting drunk. Selling comics, Getting drunk. Selling comics hungover. Going home. Sleeping.
The catch in all this that apart from one or two years, mainly later on, I had nowhere to stay so this meant blagging a floor, heading up to the Scala for an all-night film programme, or staying up all night in the bar drinking.
1991 was an interesting year in that I wasn’t working full time in comics, but had nearly a decade’s worth of experience in the industry by now, so I knew a lot of people. But I was helping out Chris now so that meant getting down early on Friday to help set up.
After the set-up, there was a free bar paid for by Titan and Forbidden Planet as the Friday was a dealers day, so dealers from across the UK would come down for various fairly boring meetings. The free bar however was a chance to cover yourself in glory by drinking as much as possible in the hour the free bar was open. I was normally wonderfully successful in this, and would take as much of Mike Like’s money as possible seeing as I was a freeloader by this point.
It should also be said that the dealers room was fucking heaving in these days. You literally had tens and twenties in big thick wads coming over the tables. You can see this in this video from the five minute mark or so when you see the rush there used to be at UKCAC, and yes, that’s Little Chris (as opposed to Big Chris who wasn’t big) and our tables being filmed. 1991 though was a transition year and the following year was when the pattern of comics, drinking and hangovers kicked into full gear.
This was a great year. There was some lads down from Glasgow as well which made things even more fun. I annoyed Warren Ellis. I helped an American writer/artist avoid getting a kicking for being a loudmouth twat. I crashed on a hotel floor somewhere. Sold some comics, stayed up all night in the bar, sold some comics hungover, packed up and went home feeling ill to Leicester which is where I was living at the time.
1993 was more of the same, but by now there was a group of people, so that was people like Doug, and Steve Noble, and all the other people who would come in and out of the scene. I was in Bristol at this point, so this was a huge year as it was a big Comics and CD’s outing which meant tonnes and tonnes of comics being driven up from Bristol to London, which we unloaded and loaded.
1993 also seemed to be the start of UKCAC’s decline. Frank had priced the event too high to help pay for the thing and get the calibre of guest it needed from the US, but it was still heavily supported within the UK but London isn’t a cheap place to hold conventions, nor is it a cheap place to stay for a weekend if you’re on a budget so from 1994 there was a decline in numbers, not to mention Frank seemed less enthusiastic about running these things in London and Glasgow (which had become a regular event since 1990, but 94 was it’s last year) for five years.
This is where years blur into each other. I’m not sure if 94 was the year where myself, Steve Noble and Doug stayed up all night on the Saturday, got drunk and then wandered round Russell Square to find a breakfast. Or if this was the year when Dez Skinn helped a fanzine publisher who was getting gobby with people avoid getting a thick ear. Or if this was the year when I woke in a strange hotel room with a female member of Forbidden Planet’s staff. Or if this was the year when Kev Sutherland dared me to go up to an editor of DC Comics and take the piss out of Vertigo titles. Or if this was the year where the only people left drinking in the bar were Scots and we were scaring tourists coming down for breakfast.
You get the picture…
One thing was clear though. That was that the crowds were declining, London had priced people out and Frank was intent that year would be it’s last, so after the 1997 UKCAC there didn’t seem to be any stomach for it anymore, plus Frank was living in Glasgow now (I’d helped sell the city to him years earlier) and really hated the trips to London to organise UKCAC, but Glasgow was too far north for a location so in 1998 UKCAC was to be held in Manchester.
Now this isn’t to say Frank didn’t try in the last few London years. He did. He managed to get Jonathan Ross and Paul Gambaccini to present some awards, not to mention he was still trying to inject some life into UKCAC but it didn’t bring it back to life. There was also the fact that people were growing up and there wasn’t the younger crowds to come in as there was in 1990 to 1993. The event was pricing kids out.
So the last year in Manchester. I’d come up from Leicester with a mate Kev, I was working with at the sadly departed Pump and Tap who was a huge fan of Shaky Kane, so we went up winging it to Manchester. We turned up with no hotel, so we found this cheap dive near the station, which was a shite hotel but we only had intentions to use it to sleep.
As we turned up at the UKCAC venue Chris and Maurice hadn’t turned up from Bristol with the stock. In fact nobody seemed to have turned up. In fact it was a big empty room though there was a very helpful young girl who said everything was booked and we were the first people there.
So we waited, and by late morning on the Friday, Frank had turned up to shake things up to be followed by the first few dealers, including Chris and Maurice from Bristol who we were helping out. The rumours were already underway that this was the last UKCAC, and Frank clearly didn’t have the stomach for it anymore and I don’t blame him. He kept the thing going for over a decade, often with no thanks and a lot of spite chucked his way, but he was clear this was it as far as he was concerned, so Manchester was the end.
Only problem was that there were few dealers, and as the convention was set up around us on the Friday, it looked like there was nobody coming. There was a party in the convention hotel on the Friday night which Kev and myself went to (where he met Shaky) which really did feel like a wake, but it was in a large hotel which also happened to have a student ball which meant the toilets quickly filled up with sick, and then I got very drunk and made a Manchester United fan look daft. I remember being taken back to my hotel by Kev and crashing out in preparation of the day ahead…
The first day proper of the convention was ok. As there wasn’t a lot of dealers, and actually more people than anticipated turning up, we made quite a lot of money and were coining it. The whole thing though just felt sad as we knew there was nothing to come next year, and the marts being held in cities across the UK were no substitute. This feeling of The End ran through the entire weekend, and into the Saturday night in the bar which is normally a fun time was still fun, but was full of people talking about what would happen next.
This however wasn’t a priority as we went back to our hotel room that night to find that someone had broken into it as they were too drunk to realise they were in the wrong room, so we ended up getting a free hotel for the weekend even though we had to kip in a room that smelled of someone else’s sick for one night as there wasn’t anymore rooms. the next morning went to breakfast and saw this chap sheepishly sitting across the room from us as we stared the fucker down.
Anyhow, we did the usual on a Sunday. Sold comic hungover. I was interviewed by a girl from Manchester student radio who accused us of selling porn to kids which was completely not true. We just sold it to their dads…
The other interview was from BBC Manchester who came down to do the ‘oh, let’s laugh at the geeks’ piece telly often does when covering these events.
Sunday ran it’s course. We had a whip round for Frank as it was the farewell and used the money to buy some Captain Marvel comics from, errm, us, which was nice. Frank was made up though and seemed genuinely happy, plus he was getting shot of the whole UKCAC thing so he was relaxed.
As for everyone else there was talk of next year. Chris and myself were talking of looking into doing something in Nottingham, while a chat with Kev Sutherland opened up an avenue in Bristol, (which is eventually where a UK convention ended up but more of this another time) but nothing was confirmed beyond a chat in the bar. As far as anyone was really concerned it was over, so we all said our farewells, and Kev and myself got the train back to Leicester just in time to make last orders at the Pump and Tap to give a final toast to UKCAC.
So for 12 years or so UKCAC galvanised the British comics scene and brought out a generation of fans and creators. It did an amazing job. Yes it had flaws. Yes, it died a fairly sad death, but nobody else managed to put on such a good show. People tried, but nobody else succeeded, even a large American company who organised a convention at Alexandra Palace in the early 90’s failed to see it take off.
There’s one more thing. This cartoon by Lew Stringer sums up a huge number of comics fans..
It was in the programme for the last UKCAC in 1998 and it’s pretty spot on. I seem to be stuck at the minute between cynic and nostalgist…
Next time, something Glastonbury related or the Eisnercon story…