While I’ve been reading comics properly for over a decade, it’s only within the past 2-3 years that I’ve been attending conventions here in the UK. I initially went along to one of them with a friend of mine who was running an exhibitor table for his small press comics and found myself enjoying the hell out of it.
“Comic convention” is actually a bit of an umbrella term that seems to be used to describe pretty much any event involving hobbies or interests that one might consider “geeky” These can range from films and TV, to videogames and cosplay. Some shows are more geared towards certain aspects than others which depending on your reasons for going can have a huge bearing on how much you enjoy yourself.
Convention season is starting up again soon (in earnest it actually started a couple of weeks back) so here’s a handy guide to the main UK shows for 2012 and what you can expect from each one.
First up in the 2012 calendar is London Super Comic Convention, which actually took place on the last weekend of February in what was the first time that the event had been held. Focusing solely on comics it had a guestlist that was refreshingly devoid of actors or TV personalities, instead providing a respectable roster of creators ranging from UK favourites to big names from abroad such as Mike Deodato Jr and Jim Cheung. Stan Lee was in attendance for what was only his 2nd UK appearance and by all accounts the weekend seems to have been a success. For a first-time event I’ve heard it was very well organised and it looks set to become a regular fixture of the UK convention calendar.
Next up on May 12-13th is the Bristol Comic Expo. Bristol is a show that I’ve attended twice so far and have already made plans to visit this year. While nothing about it is stellar, there’s something about the show as a whole that makes it more enjoyable than other larger ones with more impressive guests in attendance. It’s a popular show for the majority of the UK comic scene and as such you’ll find a lot of guests will be there year after year. It’s this familiarity that makes it a bit more relaxed and, for me at least, more enjoyable. I may already have 4 sketches from Marvel artist Neil Edwards for example, but Bristol is a show where adding a 5th isn’t any great ordeal. Bristol this year features Denny O’Neill as the guest of honour aswell as UK regulars such as Lee Garbett, Mark Buckingham, Dylan Teague and Ian Churchill. The impact of Bristol seems to have been lessened somewhat since the start of the next show in this list, and you’ll now find that there are fewer foreign creators flown in than perhaps there were in the past, but it’s still a very worthwhile show.
Step forward Kapow Comic Con, organised in part by Mark Millar and for 2012 in its 2nd year (May 20th – 21st) Kapow sits in the calendar right around the time that Bristol does, and it’s a shame to see the small yet noticeable impact it’s had on Bristol attendance. Here the focus is much more on a San Diego-type affair where comics, while present, take something of a backseat to other forms of media. The majority of panels held at Kapow 2011 were about film and TV, with a not insignificant amount of floorspace given up to IGN for their videogame coverage. Artist’s alley was threadbare, and it was a shame to see the impressive list of comic professionals in attendance only signing in small slots over the weekend. After promoting the show with what was basically just a list of the big names in attendance it was hard not to be disappointed in seeing demand so completely outstrip supply. The show is organised well enough for the huge footfall it experiences, and if you just want a show where you can get something of the Comic Con experience without flying to California you could do worse, it’s just that for me as a sketch collector it wasn’t ideal. Kapow’s admittedly impressive guestlist so far includes Joe Quesada, Warren Ellis, Terry Dodson, Adi Granov and a whole heap of others. Just don’t count on catching them all for signings or sketches because their time is VERY limited and queues are always huge.
Birmingham International Comics Show (BICS) was the first convention that I’d ever attended and it’s one that like Bristol is unspectacular but still very enjoyable. Organised by artist James Hodgkins among others, the show attracts an impressive array of creators from abroad supplementing a foundation of UK talent. It’s a fairly laid back affair, with most of the guests manning their own table for the duration of the weekend. In some cases guests will only adhere to small signing schedules, but mercifully, and importantly when compared to Kapow, these sessions are conducted a few times over the weekend. Knowing that the artist you really want to see is signing later in the day as well as tomorrow morning means there’s much less joyless rushing around or tough decisions about schedule clashes. 2011 saw the show running as a smaller 1-day event in Birmingham city centre because the usual venue wasn’t available. Apparently the convention will be reverting to the weekend format this year although as yet nothing has been announced in terms of dates or guests.
November sees what in my mind is the best convention that the UK calendar has to offer in Leeds’ Thought Bubble festival. Spanning an entire week the festival encompasses academic conferences on the subject of sequential art, a film festival and then the convention itself on the weekend. It’s a brilliantly organised event that focuses purely on comics and always draws an impressive guestlist on the strengths of its reputation as such a great show. The show is popular with the more liberal media in the UK such as The Guardian, and seems to have a very mature approach to the entire thing, treating comics and graphic novels as the artform that they actually are. Thought Bubble 2012 runs from 11th-18th November and so far as confirmed guests Skottie Young, Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Kate Beaton, Yannick Paquette and Phil Noto.
Basically your enjoyment of any given show will depend on what you hope to get from it. If you’re mainly looking at going to a comic convention for cosplay, film/TV or just a general curiosity then you will probably enjoy a show like Kapow a lot. It certainly has more spectacle than the other shows to the point that if you’re attending with no real agenda and are just after a weekend out then you’ll probably love it.
If like me you want a show where you can get books signed and collect original sketches from your favourite artists then you can choose between Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds depending almost entirely on the guestlist and whether anyone in attendance peaks your interest. Thought Bubble is an exceptional show that should be your priority, but there’s a lot to love about the others too.
In the end there’s nothing to say that you can’t go to more than one convention. God knows I will be.