This weekend saw the first ever Comics Summit in Cheltenham, the brain child of Big Punch Studios’ Jon Lock it was a chance for indie comics creators and newbies alike, to find out more and discuss the wonderful world of indie comics with their peers, without the need to have a table and sell your wears. But could this convention without customers be a success?
When heading to a comic convention in a new town, the usual rule of thumb is follow the cosplayers. However for this first ever Comics Summit in glorious sunny Cheltenham there was were no such tour guides and instead we had to rely on the impeccable welcome pack provided for us by summit organiser supreme, Jon Lock.
Wandering around the glorious leafy campus of Gloucester University felt like we were about to step into either a uni lecture from Indiana Jones or a game of Quidditch, and it certainly felt much more professional and business like compared to the usual pomp and ceremony that you might expect with a convention. But this is no ordinary convention, this is the Comics Summit. More of a networking event than a convention, as there were no punters and so no need to be selling.
It may have been the venue, but it felt like we had graduated to the higher education of comic conventions, and entering the lecture hall, complete with rows of chairs and fold out tables this felt very much like a mix of work and education. Which after all is what we see there for. The reason Jon set this event up in the first was to create a place for creators to talk with their peers and he reiterated that to us when we met him before the start of proceedings. He went on to mention how this was designed to fill a gap in the convention panel experience between the expert big name guests and the beginners panels we are used to and the language we heard throughout the day certainly reflected this intermediate or even semi pro approach which the summit was aiming for.
Due to other commitments we were only able to attend the Sunday, but talk of the previous day was positive with a well attended event and some great discussions. Guests like Chris Imber, Rich Hardiman and Hayley Illman had discussed their journey into comics as well as balancing day jobs and the unique perspectives of those not directly involved in the production of comics but are integral to their success (such as convention organisers, printers and critics). But today we would be in for a different set of panels. It was great to see familiar faces like Steve (Flintlock) Tanner, Sarah (NPC Tea) Millman, Vince (Red Mask From Mars) Hunt and PJ (Trolltooth Wars) Montgomery mixing with lots of new faces we didn’t recognise, but soon came to know as the day went on.
The opening panel saw Steve Tanner, and artists Sally Jane Thompson and Ade Brown discuss their journey into comics which set the tone for the kind of day ahead. Moderator Jon Lock posed thoughtful and insightful questions, directing them to discuss their early days that shaped them, such as Sally’s formative years reading Archie in Canada through to Ade’s love of Transformers, as well as their thoughts on crowd funding and what it is to break into comics. Indeed this subject of ‘breaking in’ was set to be a recurring theme throughout the day, as would the positive nature of the UK indie community which Steve described as like tapping an oil well only for it gush forth once you have broken in. But also like a cool party you are on the outside of but that you need to brave enough in order to truly embrace the scene (both good and bad)!
The second panel saw Thompson joined by Manga artist Vivian Truong and Improper Books’ Matt Gibbs to discuss the pros and cons of being a freelancer. They discussed issues from balancing your time, through to when you should say no, right through to how to get paid on time and how to manage clients expectations. Truong and Thompson offered tips on how to manage your time (such as a pomodoro timer in chrome) as well as ways to fit in admin around creative time and also how to make room for social and other creative endeavours. This was a great talk for those who are thinking of working for themselves in either comics or another field and was packed with great advices on getting the balance right.
Following a quick break for lunch we returned with Vince Hunt and Jenny Gyllblad discussing how to grow an audience for your comic. It was an interesting balance of a webcomic advocate, a print comic advocate ( who is also a podcaster) and a convention advocate. The conversation ranged from the pros and cons of webcomics, Tapastic and Patreon, to tips on convention etiquette, table planning and more. It was a lively discussion which saw the floor opened up for discussion very early on and was a great reminder of how this was more than just a one way convention panel and was more like a seminar where ideas could be shared among the wider group.
The penultimate panel of the day saw Big Punch’s Nich Angel, Matt Gibbs and Vivian Truong return to discuss how to get their books out to a wider audience, looking at everything from the value of traditional book stories and comic shops to the merits of Tumblr and beyond.
We’ll be honest, at this point we were struggling a bit with panel fatigue, and while the content of the discussions were very insightful and interesting, the samey-ness of them all were beginning to get to us. We wondered what the effect would have been if we had been there all weekend. While Lock was an excellent host, future events might benefit from a variety of questioners in order to get a variety of conversation going as well as giving Lock a break! Along with the microphones, (which were being used for recording the event), and obscured the panellists faces, these were only only negatives for the day.
Before the day was wrapped up though, the final panel grabbed back our attention as it looked at the hot button topic of the weekend – Advocating for Comics and how could things be made better for comics creators around the UK. For this panel, Lock was joined by Sarah Milman, whose online twitter posts after MCM London last year, along with Jon’s blog, had helped inspire today, as well as Geek Syndicate podcaster Barry Nugent and the always opinionated Jennie Gyllblad. As you would expect it was another lively conversation touching on a number of the issues which comic creators feel let down by.
But rather than be an hour of grumbling it felt like a really positive discussion with ideas being taken from Scottish Independent comics groups, lessons being learned from the past attempts to bring things together, and also positive words on how things could be brought together. Not necessarily in a union as some had feared would be discussed, but in a collective spirit rather than as a group of individuals. There was no discussion of lighting pitchforks and storming the headquarters of MCM or Showmasters and ended up feeling like a very positive look at how we could come together and make things better for the community. And that was a large part of what this weekend was all about – a chance for comic creators to come together and discuss what is important to them and more importantly if that can be solved and aided by their peers.
The whole weekend was a fantastic reminder of how welcoming and inclusive the uk indie scene is and this meant everyone went home feeling positive about the way the world is, inspired and energised into making comics. We were especially inspired by talking to Raechel aka @tinynoggin who had travelled to the summit to get tips on how to get into conventions and came away with a notebook full of ideas.
A huge thank you to Jon for organising the event and we hope this will become a regular part of the indie comics calendar, as it certainly would benefit the community as a whole, to have an event like this every year. After the success of this year’s event we hope that it can grown into something bigger and better with every iteration.