|Illustration for the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention booklet in 1988.|
The first UK comic con was in Birmingham in 1968. I've been attending them since 1979, and have been fortunate enough to have been a guest since 1984. The style of the events has changed since those early days. Back then, the guests were there to take part in panel discussions, and signings were in the minority. Therefore, as a guest, you might only be called upon to take part in one or two of those panel discussions (usually lasting up to an hour each) and the rest of your day would be your own, often spent in the bar, or sightseeing around the area. Unsurprisingly, guests paid for their own expenses, as no one expected the organisers to fork out for hotels or travel for doing an hour's talk on a panel.
As for the dealer's hall, that would be full of tables selling back issues and a few with the latest American imports. Cosplay? We called it fancy dress back then, and you might have a dozen at most take part for a fancy dress contest at the end of the day. Some very cheap-looking home made outfits, but it was all good fun.
Today, guests are given a free table and are basically available all day for signings, sketching, and selling our wares. Sometimes panel discussions are involved too. It's a much more interactive experience, and as such we tend to have some, or all, expenses covered by the organisers. It's a win-win situation. Guests get to spend more time meeting the readers and that's a good thing. Freelance cartooning can be a lonely job, isolated at home, working strange hours to meet deadlines, not knowing if your work will be appreciated or not. I'm in the fortunate position now that, because I've been working in comics for over 30 years, I get to meet people who read my stuff when they were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, to the new readers of today.
The dealer's room is a completely different beast to what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Most tables are selling merchandise; toys, statues, and related material, and very few sell comics. Cosplay has become a huge part of the events. (We don't dare call it "fancy dress" now apparently.) Most participants spend hours, weeks, making their costumes as accurate as possible, and using professional-standard makeup. Instead of just hurriedly getting into costume for a show at the finalé of a con, they now spend all day in costume, and have become an attraction on par with the guests. (Some cosplayers even have guest status now.)
The big change in comic cons though has been their transition into multi-media cons. Thankfully, there are still quite a few events such as ICE that are 100% devoted to comics, (and cater to guests exceptionally well), but the rise of shows such as MCM and the Showmasters events has established the format of actors and cosplayers dominating the show, with comics creators sidelined in a ghetto-type "Comic Village". That said, some shows, such as the very enjoyable Preston Comic-Con, ensured that actors and comics creators had equal billing and were equal in number, and this year's London Film and Comic Con treated its 50 comics guests very well.
Doing so many events over the past two years has been a learning experience, and there are some that worked better than others. The main thing I've learnt is that one can't predict how well an event will go. Some can be a success for a colleague, and a disaster for others, or vice-versa. The multi-media events tend to mainly attract non-comics readers, but on the other hand those same people might recognise a character from their youth (eg: Combat Colin) or the Beano style, and purchase a sketch or comic.
What I've concluded is that, although I prefer the comics-focused events because you're guaranteed to have comic fans there, the multi-media events can be just as busy for comics guests (sometimes more, in main cities). In short, they're all worth accepting an invite to attend as a guest, and worth your time as a visitor if you like who's on the bill.
I'll conclude my reiterating what I've always said; that I've always had the highest respect for the organisers of these events, because the comics community wouldn't even exist without them! These people are putting on shows, often out of their own pocket, and it's always a massive gamble. It's most certainly highly stressful, and involves a hell of a lot of work and planning. It could be argued that there are simply too many events these days, and we'll eventually see some collapse. I sincerely hope not. When I started out, we had one convention a year (maybe two if you were lucky). We're living in a golden age of comics events right now. Let's hope it continues for a good while yet.
The next event I'm a guest at will be Bath Comic-Con on Saturday March 17th, 2018. Hope to see you there!
John Freeman has compiled a very useful calendar of upcoming comics events for 2018 which he's updating and adding to as news comes in, so check it out at the Down the Tubes blog here: