What do you get if you combine Captain Jack Sparrow, Darth Vader and one of Despicable Me’s Minions with a sleepy Wiltshire market town and a sunny Saturday afternoon – why its the Melksham Comic Convention of course! We were there along with over 600 other eager geeks from all across the UK, so here’s our report on what went down.
Arriving into the quaint market square of Melksham, with the sun shining and flowers in bloom we could be in any idyllic English country town. But then out of the corner of our eye we see something that isn’t quite right. Is that Captain Jack Sparrow unloading a Volvo? Why yes, and he appears to be being helped by a Ghostbuster – we’re definitely in the right place!
There’s no need to ask for directions once we arrive, we simply follow Mario and Luigi and a yellow guy carrying an inflatable banana who’ve parked next to us in the pay and display. Following at a safe distance, we know we have hit pay dirt when we hear the dulcet tones of R2 D2 and turn the corner to see Darth Vader rattling a charity collection tin, the geeks truly have invaded and taken over the Melksham Assembly Hall! This is usually the kind of place that is more used to hosting an evening with eccentric British Eco pioneer Dick Strawbridge or psychic showman Derek Acorah than a Sith Lord and a radio-controlled dustbin on wheels, but along with Cap’n Jack, Darth Maul the Punisher and a host of other brave cosplayers we are welcomed into the Melksham Con.
As we enter the hall the buzz of excitement hits, as does the technicolor ambiance. This isn’t some dingy hall full of misfits trying to sell poorly photocopied art projects and knocked off Star Trek merchandise, this is a proper convention with proper exhibitors and its properly full! Taking in a lap of the hall there’s something for everyone here from local graphic artists and painters, to local comic shops with tables full of merchandise to indie publishers with their self published comics. All the stands are smartly turned out with enthusiastic vendors looking to share their masterpieces with the world.
Then of course there are the big-name writers like Young Avengers’ Kieron Gillen and X-Men Legacy’s Si Spurrier alongside artists like Dylan Teague and Lee Townsend who have work from Marvel, DC, 2000ad and more on show. They all happily chat away with their fans in this most welcoming of environment. There are no big queues making them feel isolated and they happily sketch away or stroll the hall when no-one’s around or they’re not at their tables making the whole place feel intimate and accessible.
It’s at this point we bump into convention founder Hayley Spencer who we interviewed last week . Unmissable with her bright pink hair we ask how its all going, and she answers with a simple “Aaaaaargh” and a wave of her hands! We take this to mean “things are going well, but organising an event this size, even with a 20 strong support crew is still a pretty stressful undertaking – albeit a rewarding one!”. Ticket sales have gone well with over 500 pre-ordered and more expected on the door, this really is a great indication of how comics and sci fi have taken over the mainstream and that even in the darkest depths of Wiltshire comics are still cool.
As the hall fills up the first panel of the day is slated to take place, with the launch of a new book from UK artist Nich Angel and writer Jon Lock. Combining their two self published titles 7 String and Afterlife Inc. into the kind of world spanning crossover that only works in comics, their new book The Heavenly Chord mixes characters from the after life with a fantasy realm based on music to give us something truly unique. In front of a packed room the chatty pair explain the back stories of how they met and how they came to produce the book, along with the secrets to making a book like this work – “A tear in the multiverse is a great get out of jail free card” John tells the appreciative audience. With an event like this it’s easy to get caught up with the ‘name talent’ or the surprise of seeing people in costume, but this is the real core of the comics world right here. Two guys who love comics and want to make them, and doing a great job at it.
They have so much to say that they nearly crash into the next panel, which is all about ‘Women in Comics Industry’ and features Comic Con founder Hayley alongside Disconnected Press’ Lizzie Boyle and writer Si Spurrier. Set up as a reaction to a similar panel at San Diego, they start by discussing the question of whether they should even be having such a panel? Treading carefully in order to avoid sweeping generalisations, Spurrier sums up an articulate and inciteful opening roundtable from the three by pointing out that ‘until everything is equal then positive discrimination in this way is ok’. Discussing a Todd McFarlane comment about comics being a predominantly male industry because of the male-focused titles, dismissing it by pointing out that a larger number of indie creators and consumers are women and so to stereotype ‘comics’ with the tar brush or ‘superhero’ comics does not lead to a fair judgment. After all, you wouldn’t stereotype movies in the same way.
Analysis continues as Lizzie Boyle discusses the challenges of finding female artists for her self published work – including a fantastic story about two young female artist she met at this very convention last year and whose work she publishes in her anthologies from Disconnected Press. Meanwhile Hayley discusses at length her status as [probably] the only female indepedent comic shop owner in the UK and the pitfalls of owning a comic shop and dealing with stereotypes like being asked “can I see the owner” and “what does your husband think” on a regular basis.
Taking a break for lunch after these two fantastic panels we popped into a shop and asked the shopkeeper what he thought of the activities ‘down the road’. He knew what we were talking about for a start, and was enthusiastic, if a little baffled by all the eclectic folk wondering the high street. Telling us he had even called his son to tell him to come down and check it out, this is clearly a great sign that the town of Melksham is embracing this new cultural phenomenon and getting the word out to those who might not normally go to such an event and not being scared off by the people funny coloured hair in odd outfits.
The afternoon featured two more fascinating panels. First up were artists Emma Viecelli and Paul Duffield in a panel called ‘Between the Cracks’ where artists who have worked across different genres, from indie to mainstream discussed how the classification of their work had both a positive and negative effect. Despite both Emma and Paul coming up through the Manga Shakespeare series, this ended up being a largescale discussions about what is ‘manga’ – a visual style or just genre term – as both discussed how their work could be seen as much more than just the loosely collected term that many people use to describe anything with ‘big eyes and tentacles’.
This was then followed by the ‘Writers Room’ panel which featured Kieron Gillen, Si Spurrier and Rob Williams discussing the world of writing comics from small scale indie books to mainstream work fro Marvel. As introductions were made and back stories exchanged, Gillen and Spurrier bickered like an old married couple, as Gillen outlined his background pre-Marvel including a tale about dissecting brains for medical research. Unfortunately due to time constraints this was only a half hour panel, but it could have gone on for hours as Gillen, Spurrier and Williams discussed everything from their own artistic voice to dealing with the epic continuity of mainstream comics. This led to one of our favourite quotes of the day as Spurrier told us “Continuity is an Easter egg for those who know its there” when discussing his work on X-Men Legacy, and that reading a characters Wikipedia page is like reading the writings of a mad man if you over analise their back story and the number of times they have often died and come back to life.
With the panel wrapping up in full flow, there was only one thing left for the Convention, and that was the curiously British pheomenon of the raffle! That’s right, like any great British gathering our day ended with people pulling little paper tickets out of a bucket for prizes, but would we have it any other way?! Once the prizes were dished out to all and sundry, founder Hayley took to the stage to thank us all for coming and anounce the fantastic news that they will be back on the same weekend next year, but that it will be a two day affair in 2014, which is fantastic news for all involved.
As the Con began to wind down and the geeks of the west country began to disperse back across the Wiltshire countryside it was left for us to reflect on what was a fantastic day for everyone involved. The ‘Brians’ (aka the support crew) should be rightfully proud of a fantastic event and here’s hoping that 2014’s event goes even more successfully. We’ll be there and we think you should be too.