What I thought of the Bristol Comics Expo 2014

Last weekend was the Bristol Comics Expo. Last year I decided I was a wee bit harsh in my opinion of the event, so what about 2014?Well this was another year of coming back into the world of retailing for a few days only and it started on a farm somewhere just outside of Bristol loading a van up with lots and lots and lots of comics.

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This is the lock-up on the farm which also had some old army trucks which if done up properly, would make fantastic festival trucks.

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Anyhow, we loaded up and headed to the location which wasn’t in the Passenger Shed by Temple Meads, but in the Future Inn next to Cabot Circus in Bristol city centre. This was also a good location with a lot of footfall from passing shoppers, not to mention it’s near Old Market, a part of the city with a ‘vibrant’ culture that isn’t as gentrified (yet) as Stokes Croft. When we got to the Future Inn, the tables hadn’t been set up which wasn’t a problem as we were fairly early, but it was clear then with an empty room full of tables not put in their final positions that space would be tight, which considering the organisers had sold around 1,000 tickets this means things would be tight.

We finished unloading. Threw covers over our stuff and headed to a lovely cafe in Old Market  called the Whole Baked Cafe for what was a smashing lunch, and after being dropped off at my local for a few cheeky pints in the sun of the afternoon, I headed home for an early night to prepare for the weekend.

Next day saw what was going to be a problem. The convention itself was on the sixth floor of the hotel, so getting fanboys and fangirls to walk six flights of stairs isn’t going to happen so the lifts could only take eight people at a time, which meant when the doors opened at 10am, there wasn’t a big huge rush as there had been in years past. Instead there was a slow trickle of people coming up eight at a time which meant that it wasn’t really til 11am that things started getting busy, but when things did get busy the problem we’d predicted the day before happened and bottlenecks happened everywhere.

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Things were steady though, not too mention there wasn’t a lot of comic dealers, but there were a lot of small press tables offering some interesting stuff, some predictable stuff (I’ve seen enough Gothic comics to last me several lifetimes) and some utter rubbish.Also, the guests were crammed in so Michael Golden, James O’Barr and Arthur Suydam were wedged in among the toys and cosplayers and there were a lot of cosplayers and kids.

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Things got very busy by midday on the Saturday and the room we were in became horribly hot and stifling, plus having several hundred comics people in a hot room together meant things were exceptionally ripe after a while, but people were still milling around and more importantly, buying things.

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As the afternoon progressed, I managed to sneak off with a couple of lads I know from the Comic Book Resources forum, which meant nipping to the bar for some beers, some chat, some moaning about the forum reboot and a chance to take in what was going on at the convention which was a cosplay contest with the worst PA system in the world.I left the lads to carry on drinking as I nipped to get some coffees in what was now a minor gale outside, which had ripped some roof tiles off Cabot Circus which meant the flow of people had stopped as the police closed the street off. As I returned to our tables with coffees the room was quieter, but still steady but trade was slow as it was too hot and those people with wheelchairs or prams didn’t hang around long because it was difficult for these people to get around the limited space in the hotel.

I did spend time watching Cabot Circus getting blown apart by the wind and the sun breaking over the skyline of Bristol.

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Eventually the day ended and I was able to join my friends for a few wee drinks after the convention. not to mention tear myself away from the view I had most of the afternoon which was this.

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Now although we were drinking, fairly loud and pretty pissed, the hotel bar was, well, quiet. There were people who were hanging around for the few events on that evening, but the familiar faces which brightened up previous Bristol conventions were missing. A bar at a British convention is the lifeblood of that convention but no professionals, no dealers (present company excepted) and only a small, but fairly cheery core of fans mingling with the hen and stag nights which were passing through the hotel. I decided to leave when the idea of shorts was passed around as my liver can’t deal with that anymore….

Next day was drizzly and overcast as I walked from my flat on the Gloucester Road to the hotel. It was pretty miserable. there also wasn’t the large queue to get in that there was on the Saturday. A few people mingled around with the organisers and their staff, but not an awful lot of punters. Yes it ticked over, but there were vastly fewer people mingling around on the Sunday, which to be fair, is always a quieter day but not this quiet.

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We decided to knock it on the head around 3.30 as it was going to be a nightmare getting out down the lifts otherwise, so we managed to get the tables emptied and the stock loaded up, which meant we could grab a quick drink, say our farewells and head off to grab the end of the football in my case as the Expo closed with a meek whimper.

So what did I think of the Expo? Compared to last year, it wasn’t as good. The smaller location was a pain and although it was nice to have a bar onsite (the previous location didn’t) it was the only real advantage of the hotel which really didn’t know what it had on it’s hands. It’s also sad to see and event which is has the bloodline of UKCAC as this convention was created to replace UKCAC in 1999 with the current organisers only being custodians of something which should be vastly more important on the British convention circuit.

Instead it’s plugging along. It’s better than a few years ago, but the potential is being wasted away. It’s as if you’ve been given Manchester United to play with and you’ve decided to make it into Bristol Rovers because you don’t see the potential of what you have in your hands. The lack of creators from the British industry is also worrying. Yes, the small press creators should be applauded, encouraged and given the space to grow but people also want to meet and see people who are working for Marvel, DC, 2000AD and everything else out there.Now I know guests cost money, but Bristol was a weekend away for some creators who saw it as a jolly with mates. Excluding those mates and instead, focusing in the smaller aspects of comic publishing restricts the potential.

On the other hand, the fact it attracts so many people for what is essentially a glorified mart. It’s a delight to see kids buy comics as it is to see so many women get into comics, and not only that, get into the cosplay aspect (or fancy dress as it was back in the day) of fandom as it is now.

Bristol was at one point, the only game in the country for comics conventions of any major scale. It’s now a small player in a scene which is increasing every year, so it has to play smart, and in some cases it is. I wish though it realised the potential and returned to it’s former glories.

Bristol Comics Expo 2014 is upon us.

It’s that time of the year when I strap on the retailer shorts and sell comics for one weekend only like a sad comic book version of Keith Richards slapping on a guitar but not as exciting or old. I’ve had some worries over the way the Expo has been run over the last few years, and I’ve recanted them a bit after last year.

I’ve concerns about this year. There’s a new location at the Future Inn by Cabot Circus which is actually a good location with a lot of passing traffic so obviously you don’t sell tickets on the door as I believe they won’t be. There’s also a pretty thin events programme which I suppose is good for us retailers.

So for the next few days it’s lugging around boxes, selling comics and drinking while not sleeping much. A report to follow after it’s all over and done…..

Maybe I Was a Wee Bit Harsh About the Bristol Comics Expo…..

I wrote a blog last week about how the Bristol Comics Expo was basically, fucked, or at best in a coma trying to find a way forward. Well after the weekend I have to tone down my opinion because the weekend went very well in terms of takings and of firing me up for a Big Idea (more of this another time) that dropped into my brain over the weekend.

This isn’t to say I though it was a success rather it was a vast improvement upon last year’s complete fiasco and when you’ve hit the bottom it’s easier to come up than go down and really it was the crowd that made the weekend work, rather than the exceptional organisation. It wasn’t really a comics convention either as the amount of comics dealers numbered no more than ten but most of these dealers were horribly overpriced which was great as we cleaned up but this was my view for two days….

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First the problems:

You can’t market an event like this on the cheap or on the fly, or hoping that a big lump of luck drops in your lap and a large London convention is cancelled. Sticking flyers in local shops & stickers on lampposts is crap and before anyone thinks ‘oh what does he fucking know’ may I point out I was helping organise conventions in the 80’s, signing sessions and events in Bristol in the 90’s and have spent a lot of the last decade in various sales and marketing jobs.

I know my arse from my elbow basically.

They need to listen and they did. Just not enough and frankly the business over the Halo Jones print, and the stubborn attitude alienated too many people. Also, as much as I don’t want any more comics dealers there next year for entirely selfish financial reasons you can’t run an event of this size with depressed looking small press publishers wondering how they’ll pay their hotel bills after a poor show. I only really saw a few who were always buzzing and busy. Most of the small press tables ranged from being alright to dead so simply put you can’t rely upon these people to fill out the hall and hide the fact a lot of comics dealers were very, very fucked off last year.

Listening is a great skill. Few people know how to use it though.

On the good side, the amount of kids were astonishing and utterly brilliant. I love seeing these kids get excited at picking up a Hawkman comic for 50p because they’re thrilled at the cover..

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That was great to see that and it happened dozens of times over the weekend as kids were enjoying the thrill of comics in all shapes or forms. well, what comics there was on sale.

And this is where I admit I’ve been suffering from Old Man Syndrome wishing for the old days. Yes, kids today probably don’t have the understanding of the medium as they did when I were a lad but that’s to do with a massive lack of good retailers out there and while splendid retailers like Page 45 or Gosh! there’s also a lot who aren’t. I even had a chat about Herb Trimpe with one lad who couldn’t be more than 20 something, and I’ve blogged how much how much I loved Trimpe’s work when I was a kid so that was fantastic.

Then there was the women and girls. I also saw a girl going through our stock with a pissed off looking boyfriend when it’s normally the other way round. In 30 years of going and working behind tables at cons I’ve never seen that before. It was brilliant! The dressing up aspect as well was something I’ve always been cynical about as I’ve always though of Cosplay as a wee bit sad, but seeing a girl no older than seven or eight dressed as Storm and having the time of her life was great. It’s a release and a shield. I didn’t get it because I’ve become old. Time to stop thinking like an old man.

It was also funny to see a vastly younger and new crowd rather than the same old faces, which isn’t to say I don’t like the same old faces, I do, but new people at these things is wonderful even if some of them are just a bit too forced for my liking but then again so was I 25 years ago.

So, the positives were wonderful but there’s a lot of work needing to be done. Having video game competitions might be fun for those playing them but being stuck in the same room as it for nine hours isn’t fun. More about actual comics on the programme as well as some American guests would be good but this seems to show the lack of knowledge from the organisers about comics and their limited contact book.

The conclusion is this was more like it. It’s still not the sort of thing I’d love to run in Bristol (I might blog about that sometime) but it’s getting there. Slowly.

Bitter Sweet Symphony part six/ The Great Bristol Comic Shop Wars

Go read the other parts of this series otherwise you might be a wee bit lost……

Part one. Part two. Part three. Part four. Part five.

We’re in the last two parts, both of which are relatively quick and to the point, so lets crack on…..

In early 1993 I moved down to Bristol to work at Comics and C.D’s on the Gloucester Road. The shop was owned by Chris Bacon and Maurice Pitman (known to most people as Marr) , who were a pair of characters I’d first encountered in my Neptune days through Neil Phipps who was a colleague there. Neil had worked for Chris when Chris owned a comic shop in Leicester which used to be in the underpass by the Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) around 1986. They ran a business selling comics mainly at comic marts like the Westminster comic mart which was utterly bloody massive in those pre-internet days when getting comics was a chore and a half, and they bought old stock from Neptune thanks to their connection with Neil.

After Neil left Neptune after a truly spectacular falling out with Geoff, I became Chris’s main contact there and continued to flog him whatever we were trying to clear, and when I left Neptune started helping Chris and Marr out at marts, not to mention travelling to Bristol to help tackle the massive amount of stock in Marr’s extension. In 1992 they decided to open up a shop in Bristol as Forever People on Park Street was really the only game in town. This didn’t cause any major problems as Chris and Marr were on good terms with Mike at Forever People plus Park Street and Gloucester Road had different types of shoppers compared with how things are today. If anything Comics and CD’s caused a little ripple at Plastic Wax but that passed, and they’re still around looking very much as they did back then.

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I moved down to Bristol around March 1993, and ended up having some great fun in the shop which was on Gloucester Road at a time when every shop on the road (which is one of the longest roads in the city) was an independent shop.

The shop was just past what is the Co-Op and is now a rather nice wee deli.

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I’ll go on about my time at the shop, the fun and games, more about Chris and Marr, that experience with half a roast chicken in a service station on the M4, late night drinking sessions and the fun and antics of 1993’s UKCAC, and of course the Vertigo signing session that spilled from the shop and cut a drunken swathe across Bristol before ending up with Jamie Hewlett drawing Tank Girl sketches for people at the Cadbury House pub.

The point is that things were again pretty cushy for me. Things were fun. Everything was shiny and fab! I was even at the shop when Chris bought Neptune’s remaining stock at a bailiff sale in Nottingham and we got their stuff from there to the shop, so all this stuff followed me around. In fact, when I moved back down to Bristol in 2000, some of it ended up in my garage in Clifton but I’m getting ahead of myself….

Then who should come lurching back into the picture waving at me but Mike Lake and Forbidden Planet….

As previously pointed out, FP were expanding across the UK in the wake of the success of sorts of FP Glasgow, and then opened in Cardiff, Nottingham and across the country but in a city where they had existing customers they were still avoiding opening. In Bristol they had not only us at Comics and CD’s, but Forever People who were one of the very first comic shops in the UK..

The attitude by now coming from FP was ‘fuck it’ so they opened in Bristol and promptly undercut both shops in the city. Comics and CD’s struggled on for a bit before Chris and Marr sold the shop to Mike Allwood who renamed it Area 51, which is still in Bristol, but a bit further up Gloucester Road in a much, much smaller shop.

Unlike the long, bloody and bitter war between AKA and FP in Glasgow, this was more of a  Audley Harrison-esque battle which was over before it really started. Chris and Marr retreated back into doing conventions and marts, not to mention selling wholesale to other dealers from the UK and US.

I moved back up to Leicester just before Christmas 1993, and that was the last I spent earning a living full-time in comics but would still continue to work for Chris and Marr for the rest of the 90’s up til the last major Bristol Comics Expo in 2008, though I did help Chris out at last years frankly disastrous Expo, but again, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The point is that the real world was trying to come crashing into my life and if there’s one thing about working in any part of the comics industry, you don’t interact with the real world much. Thankfully though working in the licensed trade is almost as unreal as comics but I really am bloody getting ahead of myself..

Next time: so what was the point of this series of blogs anyhow?