On Saturday, after scraping the icy car, we drove down to Brighton on a fresh clear morning. The journey was easy, hardly any traffic, and I was able to park right next to the Hilton Metropole where the expo was taking place. We met up with Jay Eales, of The Girly Comic, and while they all went to set up their table together, I left for a quick sea-front stroll before the doors opened to the public.
Neill and I went to the first talk of the weekend, which was Paul Gravett hosting a discussion on manga, especially the UK scene. I'm not really a manga-ka of any seriousness, but I do like a lot of what I see (Nausicaa is a special favourite), so found the chat very interesting, and Paul's knowledge and enthusiasm for comics is always interesting and infectious. Perhaps there was a bit too much on the panel members' own projects, and not enough discussion of the actual manga scene, but then, as with most interesting panels, two hours is needed rather than one. It was a good start.
I went back to the main hall, searching faces now for various people I knew, and ended up at the Accent UK table. In fact, this is where I spent a lot of my weekend - sorry chaps - and a nicer bunch of comics friends you couldn't know. Only Colin (Mathieson), Dave (West) and Leon (Hewitt) had made it down, no Baz, but I get so easily lost in conversation with them, that quite a few of the weekend's hours where whiled away in front of the red, white and blue of their stand. I love Colin's work, partly because we share similar historical interests, but also because his artwork has a very attractive charm about it, and when he writes, he writes stories that have substance and direction. Dave is just a thoroughly terrific bloke whose comics I still don't actually know that well, but I'm a real fan of his often quirky contributions to the Accent UK series of anthologies. He provided one of the highlights of the weekend by giving me the original artwork to his wonderful Julius Chancer drawing, which I absolutely treasure. Leon too is very easy to talk to and a naturally likeable chap. His cartoons always give me a good chuckle but they also have a thoughtful side. I like associating with the Accent UK lot - a genuine bunch of people who make good comics. I just hope I didn't bother them too much!
I was also back with Neil and Jason a fair amount, who were sharing a table for the weekend with Jay Eales and Selina Lock. Jason and Neill have partnered up to produce Bulldog Empire, a kind of a fresh start for Jason's long-running Bulldog character, and the first issue has gone beyond all expectations, partly thanks to the fantastic artwork Neill has produced for it, but also because of Jason's fresh approach coupled with his experience and talent. I think there's a bit of a stir with this new book, they both seem pretty excited about it, and that has transferred to its readers and will develop further... who knows where it will end up. Whatever, greener pastures beckon these two accomplished creators, I am sure. Jay and Selina are another couple of interesting and highly likeable self-publishers. I always find them great to talk with, and they are another two of the most friendly people in comics. It's very weird, I've sort of known them for a few years, but only actually spent a handful of hours with them in total, yet they do seem like friends, which is rather presumptuous of me to declare! Jay is an encyclopaedia of geekery (in the best way possible, he doesn't come across as a geek) and Selina is wonderful company and dedicated to the various projects Factor Fiction Press produce.
As ever, with these things, my convention reports end up as a list of me saying how nice people are. Most people are nice, it's true, but not everyone has the depth of generosity, humility and interesting conversation that these people do. I suppose, in a way, this is the circle of comics people I have fallen in with, and I think I've been very lucky in doing so. Shane Chebsey is another one of this group, though I didn't get to socialise with him as much this time round, much to my regret. His dedication to independent comics is inspiring, and I don't know how he can keep going, with a smile and a chuckle, after all these years. Many many hats off to him. I was also very pleased to have too few brief words with one of my favourite artists, Jeremy Dennis, who was also on the SmallZone stand for most of the weekend. On the other hand, there were people I didn't get to meet up with. How can you miss people amongst just a few rooms over a couple of days? I was disappointed not to find Christine Harper, who I have yet to meet in person. Paul Gravett told me she was around, and despite being on the lookout, I had no luck. This happens all too often at comics conventions!
I guess when you're starved of comics-interaction for most of the year, finally meeting up with a crowd of like-minded people is always going to be a pleasant experience. I met many people I half-know and don't know at all over the weekend, and wanted to know each one a little better. Most of them I didn't even get their names. I keep remembering others I bumped into, all too briefly, such as the busy Ed Berridge of FutureQuake, but I think it's best I stop with the name-listing and telling you how nice they all are, before it all gets a bit too much.
As it turned out, the manga panel was the only one I actually attended on Saturday. I decided to go the to the Dave Gibbons talk, but while waiting for him to arrive (and catching the end of Gilbert Shelton, which I wish I had gone to) I noted the Steven Appleby talk might be more my thing, so snuck out to the other hall, but when I got there it seemed to be something about the world comics book, so I left again, ending up with no panel to go to!
On Saturday evening I went out to dinner with Jason and Neill, Jay and Selina, and the Accent UK lot. As I was the 'sort-of-local-chap' I led the way to a good restaurant I knew, a bit of a walk, but worth it for the fine food and very enjoyable evening. After walking back to the hotel through the Lanes, Neill, Jason and I returned to the car, and back to East Grinstead - with cups of tea and Ellie's marvellous lemon cake awaiting us.
Sunday morning started with a bit of a disappointment as Jason had to drive back home; his little girl had been ill when he left, and it had been touch and go whether he came down at all, leaving his wife with a lot to handle on her own. He felt it was best to return, the right decision I'm sure, but it was sad to say goodbye halfway through the weekend. At least Jason had been able to come for one day, and I was very pleased to have had him stay and been able to chat away from the tumult of the expo. Ellie decided to come down to Brighton on the Sunday, and we soon got going on another clear and sharp morning, through the lovely Sussex countryside until we joined the duel-carriageway as late as possible. Brighton was much busier today, and this was reflected to some degree at the expo, but generally, most people I talked to seemed to be having quite a slow time of it as far as sales went.
Dave West introduced me to Bryan Talbot who had written to me earlier in the year enthusing about The Rainbow Orchid (Terry Wiley had lent him a copy on a train journey a few months ago), so it was nice to say hello in person. Bryan also remembered The Tempest from a few years ago, and showed us some of the wonderful pages from his new project, Alice in Sunderland. On the way back we stopped at the Hous'd table where Dave got a great little sketch from the strip's creator, Ali Graham. One of the biggest laughs of the weekend was provided by the remote-control Dalek that was rolling about. I presume there was someone inside doing the voice, and they were pretty funny, doing a great stairs-joke, and signing autographs with his plunger. Neill and I met up with Ellie at lunch time and we went into the Lanes for some lunch.
One of the guests for the weekend was science-fiction author Harry Harrison, whose Stainless Steel Rat books (and others) provided much of my teenage reading. The last time I saw him was in the very same place, eighteen years ago, as I attended the World Con in Brighton (Conspiracy 87) and got a collection of his short stories signed. He looks a lot frailer now, but seemed to be enjoying himself, if perhaps a little bewildered. I didn't get to hear him speak, but at the World Con I remember he was very funny and had many stories to tell.
Ellie joined me for the last event of the day, as I'd decided to go to Bryan Talbot's 'Heart of Empire' talk. I'd seen his 'One Bad Rat' talk a few years ago and found it very inspiring. When we got to the hall, there was a small crowd waiting to get in as the previous panel had overrun, but not only that, the hall had been double-booked with the Heavy Metal/Dominator film show. They worked it out, with us seeing the 10-minute trailer (one of the worst things I've ever seen, I'm sorry to say - despite the hard work that has obviously gone into it), and the rest of the time going to Bryan's talk. It was very enjoyable (well, for me, Ellie dozed off!), even if it wasn't new stuff as I'd read Bryan's annotations on the Heart of Empire CD-ROM.
It was only left to say goodbye to various comics friends (who knows when I'll next get to talk about comics out in the open!) and we made our way home. I was able to take Neill to Gatwick for a coach to Oxford so he could get home fairly easily. It was great to have him and Jason stay over, two of the best, and just a shame we didn't have some time to take off from the expo and discuss a few things at a more leisurely pace. Maybe next time.