Elyssa and I drove up to Bristol late Friday afternoon, getting stuck in traffic on the M25, quite a few of our fellow travellers sporting flags and scarves in either the red and blue of Crystal Palace or the blue and claret of West Ham, the teams whose play-off match was being held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff the next day. Three-and-a-half hours later we managed to find our hotel, the Bristol City Inn, and went straight out to eat at a nice little corner restaurant with a view of students, revellers and D'Israeli (briefly). The rest of the evening consisted of tea, cake, and watching the rather pants last episode of Friends.
What we were missing at this point were the UK National Comics Awards. I had recently learned, to my huge surprise, that The Rainbow Orchid was a nominee finalist in the Best Independent Comic section, but even more utterly surprising was that I was also a nominee finalist in the Best New Talent category. Each category had ten finalists and I came seventh in each, which I'm still amazed at - it's very nice indeed. Solar Wind was a deserving winner of the Best Independent, a genuinely funny and entertaining read, especially if you were brought up on all the wonderful wacky British Comics of the 1970's, brought to us by the hard-working Paul (von) Scott.
On Saturday Morning Elyssa and I made our way to the Commonwealth and Empire Museum where all the stall holders and signings were encamped. We found our way there by following a Superman t-shirt. In the queue to get in we overheard a girl say to her comics-loving boyfriend 'you're the coolest one here!', which gave a chuckle, and may well have been true, but in reality comics fans come in all shapes, sizes and genders, and this was reflected nicely throughout the weekend.
We soon found our way to the table I was sharing with Jason Cobley, and there he was, already set-up with a very fine looking spread of Bulldog Comics. Jason is one of those genuine people in comics, a talented writer, and immensely good company. Now that BAM! has completed a 27-issue run he is working on a graphic novel called Bulldog: Empire with Neill Cameron. Neill's artwork on the new Bulldog stuff looks gorgeous, and it was consistently complimented throughout the weekend, with many people's eyes lighting up as they looked at the images of Keiko Panda or Brittany Bell with their attendant armoured robots. I can't wait to read Empire, and it should end up being snapped up by a big publisher at some point - surely.
For myself, I had brought my last box of Rainbow Orchids as well as some copies of The Tempest and my last 10 copies of Captain Powerchord, plus my Rainbow Orchid exhibition folder which showed a couple of colour pages, some pencils and other 'behind-the-scenes' bits. Sales were good, about the same as London, but the highlight was talking to people who actually seemed really enthusiastic about my comic. The fact that people genuinely like it pleases me enormously, humbles me, and recharges my creative batteries. Thank you to everyone who showed any interest in The Rainbow Orchid, because it makes all the hard work done in isolation worth it.
I met so many people over the weekend, but there was more space and time than at London, so I had time to enjoy it more, rather than have my brain frazzled. Paul H. Birch made an appearance but for too short a time, and I'm disappointed I didn't get to have a proper chat with him. Paul first got in touch with me when I was putting out Cosmorama, some 15 years ago (!), and is a writer I really admire. The Accent UK group are all incredibly nice and friendly people, which is gratifying as my association with them is growing closer as they will be serialising Rainbow Orchid in Fusion from Engine Comics. Barry Renshaw is the editor of Fusion and for Red Eye, the UK independent Comics 'news magazine'. Colin Mathieson, who's Zulu comics I have read and re-read, is great company, and was constantly out and about around the hall, quite possibly talking to everyone on every table there. I also greatly enjoyed my time with Dave West, Larry Betts and Leon Hewitt - all the Accent UK people have a positive and creative attitude that can't help but rub off on you. We spent Saturday evening with this lot, plus Tony Hitchman with whom I had interesting discussions on bands we both liked and military history. The man is a database of the most bizarre facts.
Nice surprise meetings came from people such as Pete Ashton, quite probably one of the springs in the springboard that has led to today's vibrant UK independent comics scene, thanks to his Vicious Magazine and the BugPowder distro service and now website. Also Simon Perrins, who, when I realised it was he I was talking to, I had to make an effort not to go into sprawling fan-boy mode, as I truly love his comic, Hope For The Future, and I snapped up a copy of issue 8. A blast from the past was Richard Hill, who had collaborated with Steve Pugh on his Kingfisher strip for Cosmorama, and I last met briefly at UKCAC 91 or so. Another nice surprise was chatting with one of the Pleece brothers - I think it was Gary (please forgive me if it was Warren... I was just desperately trying to think of something good to say without flapping with excitement). He went away with a Rainbow Orchid. So many good people make up the UK comics community, and they include David Goodman (sorry I didn't get to chat to Arthur),Jenni Scott (always nice to talk to... I must try and get to Caption this year), Damien Cugley, Paul J Holden, Regie Rigby (he of Fool Britannia), Darren Worrow, Shane Chebsey (small press hero with SmallZone), Paul Scott (would have like to have chatted more, well I guess that goes for everyone really), Martin Eden (I caught up with O-Men issues), Jay Eales and Selina Lock (doing interesting new stuff, as ever), Aaron Ali (we go back a while too)... and not to mention all the new faces that were great to meet. There were also people I missed, such as Jeremy Dennis, who does a brilliant weekly webcomic, but I'm sure I would have just gone into gushing fan-mode with her as well. Then there were all the people who's websites I quite often visit and would like to say hello in person, but simply ended up with no time to do so. It's quite likely I might get a better chance to make new contacts in London this year, as I probably won't have a table this time.
I did manage to get to the small press panel, which was packed out - very different from the ones I attended at UKCAC. Briefly, the topics covered included a general dislike of the term 'small press', strength in numbers in the form of collectives and support groups, and comics on CD - if not for whole strips then at least for promotional and preview or extras purposes... it was all good positive stuff. After I had identified myself by asking a question, Paul Gravett said a very brief hello to me afterwards, while handing out leaflets for the various Comica events.
I'm sorry my report appears to have turned into a list of people with me saying they're all lovely, but there you go. This is what happens when you at last get to meet up with people who actually have the same interests as you, and it all happens in a single weekend. I'm very excited by many of the comics and creators I've seen, and feel excited for the potential of The Rainbow Orchid thanks to all the good feedback and interest I was getting. Our journey back was just about the same as the journey there, getting into that M25 glut, only there were far less West Ham colours in evidence.
For a page of photos that Elyssa managed to take at the festival (I never remember to!), click here.
Left to right: Colin Mathieson, Garen Ewing, Jason Cobley, Leon Hewitt, Dave West, Larry Betts.