Friday, February 13, 2015

A new Golden Age for UK comics fandom?

Comic conventions in the UK began in Birmingham in 1968, inspired by American comic cons that had been around a few years earlier. The first British one was organized by Steve Moore, Phil Clarke and Mike Higgs and took place in the Midland Hotel, Birmingham, on August 30th to September 2nd 1968. UK comics fandom owes a huge debt of gratitude to Odhams' comics for freely publicizing the event on its News From the Floor of 64 page in Pow!, Smash!, and Fantastic. Of course it helped that Steve Moore was on the staff...

Those comics were also happy to acknowledge the fanzines. Case in point being their plug for Tony Roche's Heroes Unlimited zine...

The first UK convention I attended was 11 years later, for Comicon 79 held at the NEC near Birmingham. The guest of honour was Steranko (and I'm pleased to say I briefly met the living legend). Here's the ad for that 1979 convention, from the pages of Bem fanzine. Just look at those ticket prices. £5 for a 3 day ticket, £3.50 for 2 days. (My pals and I went for 2 days.)

The 1970s were a golden era for comics fandom, or at least that's how it felt to those of us involved with it. Some say those days are long gone, but I think that's just cynicism and old age talking. If anything, fans have it better than ever now! 

I've been browsing through the list of comic events at comicconventions.co.uk and counted no less that 48 shows for 2015! Forty eight! All at various locations across the UK.

Now admittedly some of those shows are heavily dependent on guests from the world of film and genre TV and comic guests are sometimes in the minority. Nevertheless, the shows do feature a comics element to various degrees, and most do have tables selling comics. Then there are the shows such as The Lakes Comic Art Festival and ICE, which are entirely devoted to comics.

Compare that to the 1970s through to the 1990s, when we had just one annual comics convention (if we were lucky) that was usually centered in London or Birmingham. That was ideal for those of us with easy access to those cities, but not so good for people North of Manchester or out in Ireland. There were the comic marts as well of course, although their sole purpose was to feature stalls selling comics and it was rare that other events would be included. 

I really do think that we're now in a new golden age for comics fandom. With so many events in numerous locations it should be possible for most people with an interest in comics to attend at least one. Also, the rise of the Internet has allowed communication between fans 24/7 and immediate news updates. No more waiting two months for the next issue of a fanzine, and writing a Letter Of Comment that wouldn't appear until the following issue. (On the downside, admittedly the Internet has given an equal platform for trolls and crazies to abuse that freedom, whereas in the days of fanzines any letters from cranks could be tossed into the bin unpublished.)

The Internet and the proliferation of conventions has also strengthened the sense of community in fandom. In the past, we may have had our local comic pals we'd see at marts, or meet up with every week, but all those pockets of fandom can also now interact with each other online. It's also now far easier for fans and creators to communicate thanks to social media, and more opportunities to meet at events. 

The old comics fanzines have been replaced by blogs and websites but the small press scene has exploded. Thirty years ago, Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury were doing fans a great service with their Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Comic Marts, where they'd sell everyone's 'zines for a small percentage. These days the small press comics are legion, with creators having their own tables at events. We've also seen an increase in production standards of small press comics thanks to desktop publishing software and digital printing.

Even back in the 1970s there were those who disliked fanzines moving to litho printing because it made them look "too slick" and "less fannish" than stencil printing. That attitude still prevails today in some quarters, with a feeling that some comic shows have become "too big". But if things naturally evolve you can't hold them back. I thoroughly enjoyed those old fanzines and the old conventions, but I was much younger then so they held the magic that things do when they're fresh and new. I'm sure that today's 20 year old fans attending their first comic show, or entering a comic shop for the first time, are experiencing that same sort of magic today. 

If you've never attended a comics event for whatever reason, try and give them a go if you can. (And if there's anything putting you off, post your thoughts in the comments below.) I'll be a guest at the Birmingham Comics Festival on April 18th and the International Comics Expo also in Birmingham on September 5th. I'll also be at a couple of others in other locations but I'll wait until the organizers announce it before I post the news here. I hope to see you at some of them! 

UK comic conventions list for 2015:

Comic marts are still around too! (No guests or events. Just tables selling comics and associated media.) Golden Orbit organize several around the country. Here's the list for 2015:
http://www.goldenorbit.co.uk/goldenorbit/Frames2.htm

As an aside, I've just found the very first article I had published in a fanzine from 1979. Here it is, warts and all, on my other blog:
http://lewstringercomics.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/the-folly-of-youth-my-first-fanzine.html

11 comments:

Chris Holmes said...

Hello Lew,

What fun it was to read this post! I was at the 1979 ComicCon too, only I was the "head of security" for the Con and spent most of my time attending to that. I remember listening to Steve Leialoha & Frank Brunner, who were just passing through the Con, talking to Hunt Emerson about the original art he had with him. The art was from the "Thunderdogs" comic that, at the time, had yet to see print.

Colin Campbell was a great guy and I used to work on his tables whenever he was in Birmingham. I wonder whatever became of him?

Lew Stringer said...

Hi Chris! Thanks for sharing your memory of the event. Yes, Colin was a friendly guy. I used to order my comics from him before I started shopping at Nostalgia and Comics. Haven't seen him for many years I'm afraid.

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

Great read Lew I loved seeing the fanzine cuttings again. I agree this does seem like a great time for fandom nationally but for me (and perhaps it is only my perception as I am not actively involved in comic fandom or have pals that are comic fans) the amount of conventions and marts (as well as comic shops) in the Glasgow (and wider Scottish) area, once a bit of a stronghold for fandom seems to have dwindled. I cant recall many events recently -
saying that I don't think the 70s had many events outside of Birmingham, London or Bristol , the 80s - 90s were golden years (in my memory) in Glasgow area with amazing events marts etc then it literally seemed to stop overnight (no doubt someone will tell me there are still monthly marts and regular convention in the City lol) Personally I loved the old fanzines whether litho or stencil printed and looked forward to getting my fix of these (when I could) my first memory of fanzines was in an advert in UK Marvel (although I vividly recall that editorial etc in the Odhams books in 68) and then moving from near Glasgow to a small town about 15 miles south of the city only to find this unassuming place to be a hotbed of fandom and comics with a local printer that printed loads of the fanzines (Comics media news, Bem etc) it also had 3 great shops (all now gone) full of US comics (and toys etc). But Blogs are great and regular so I suppose nostalgia has a lot to do with me thinking it was better back then. I do like the look of these new events and may take one in (The Lakes one looks good to me)

paddykool said...

Hi Lew . i love this stuff about coic fandom and it was a great part of my life at one time.Here's my own personal take on it ...https://paddykool2.wordpress.com/comics-comix-and-fandom/

Lew Stringer said...

Hi Paul,
There's a big comic con in Glasgow this summer and there are various marts at other times of the year. Check out these links:


https://gccon.wordpress.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Bigglasgowcomicpage

http://www.comicfair.co.uk/

Phil Boyce said...

Growing up there were never any conventions of any sort over here in Northern Ireland, nor any creators visiting the comic shops, we were very jealous of England. Though the lack of such things here wasn't due to lack of interest, it was for a very different reason when I was growing up, unfortunately.

Lew Stringer said...

Fascinating stuff, paddykool! I'll have a proper read of that later. Your mention of Paul Neary reminds me that Phil told me he was one of the guests at that very first convention in 1968.

Here's a clickable link of paddykool's site for faster access for those of you wishing to see this great insight into early fanzines:


https://paddykool2.wordpress.com/comics-comix-and-fandom/

Lew Stringer said...

Yes, I can imagine, Phil. Or rather I can't really, not having lived in that situation. It's good to see you have two events in NI this year. Will you be attending?

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

Lew you're a star thank you for those links I was totally in the dark about these (I know there had to be something going on in the city re comics) the event on 15th March is one I will be looking to attend for sure. I've saved these pages on my favourites and will check regularly.

Lew Stringer said...

The Glasgow con is on the list I linked to in the article, Paul. For the rest I simply Googled Glasgow comic marts and found them.

If in doubt, Google. That's my motto. It might sometimes reveal a load of crap and misinformation but it's generally worth a go.

Phil Boyce said...

Definitely. We've had some cracker homegrown talent make it in the business. In Oink! we had Davy Francis and Ian Knox for example, through 2000AD and beyond John McRae is another. Would be fantastic see a good turn out from creatives, and not just movie and TV ones.

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