Sunday, October 14, 2007

Celebration of an unappreciated medium? Or just a Geekfest?

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I've just spent a chunk of my weekend in Brum at the International Comics Show. It was the first time I'd been to such an event in a long time, UKCAC98 being my last. Oh, that's back when it was called the UK Comic Art Convention - always a bit of a misnomer as many of the real stars were the writers; people like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Neil Gaiman (I've been unashamedly parochial there in most of my examples).

August #1 cover by Frank Quitely. Krane #1 cover by Jez Elford

UKCAC98 was a particularly important event for me because it was where James Murphy and I launched our independent comics imprint Bigger Betty Independent Publishing on an unsuspecting world. We had published several 'ashcan' editions of comics and collections of illustrated short stories for several years. But this was a proper launch with proper printed comics; two titles called August and Krane, the former boasting a painted cover by Frank Quitely (later of Batman and JLA fame) and internal art by Mr Murphy, and the latter featuring a painted cover by games designer Jez Elford, internal art by Sarwat Chadda, and a back cover poster by the legendary Michael William Kaluta. Both comics sold well and garnered us some excellent reviews. But, sadly, our enthusiasm outmatched our finances and we were forced to fold after just one issue. Which was a huge pity as Krane issue 2 had a stunning wrap around painted cover by Tom Carney and internal art by talented new discovery Kelvin Cox. And we had a third title ready to go - Bedlam, written and drawn by Dan Schaffer with a cover by the legendary Ian Gibson (Halo Jones, Judge Dredd etc.). Dan's since gone on to comic stardom with his Dogwitch and The Scribbler titles for Sirius and Vertigo Comics and has recently co-authored the excellent Indigo Vertigo with Katiejane Garside of rock band Queenadreena. I'd like to think that we helped to give him a start. That was our intention after all - the promote new British artists and writers.

Unpublished Krane #2 cover by Tom Carney (copyright Tom Carney)

The fact that Bigger Betty went tits-up was indicative of the times. Comics were on the slippery ski-slope to oblivion ... almost nothing of any real interest was happening in the big comic company stables. Titles were stagnant. Artwork was cloned from one franchise to another. The storylines ranged from the mundane to the frankly ridiculous (and that's saying something in comics). The indie market was buzzing with some excellent publications from companies like Noel Hannan's and Rik Rawling's Bad to the Bone, Paul Grist's Dancing Elephant Press and Gary Spencer Millidge's Abiogenesis. But there was no money in any of it and things looked bad for the whole comics medium. There was rebellion in the air too with comic creators demanding ownership of their titles and developing alternative publishing houses like Toxic, Strip and the hilarious Shit the Dog. In the USA, Todd McFarlane had proven that you could create and own your own franchise with his Spawn comics and was beginning to develop what would become a multi-million dollar toy empire. But these were early days and, sadly, we chose the worst possible time to try to launch a new comics company. Heigh ho.

Bedlam #1 cover by Ian Gibson and #2 by Dan Schaffer (Copyright respective artists)

But, as it happens, all of that turmoil did do some good. Comic creators finally did get ownership of their creations. New imprints appeared which allowed for diversity in style and content. Digital printing was starting to make set-up and production costs cheaper. And the digital revolution was also making it possible for comic characters to finally work on the big screen without looking silly (did you ever see the original Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four starring (apparently) Mr Tickle from the Mr Men?)

All of a sudden, comics were sexy again ... X Men, Spiderman, Sin City, Hulk, Hellboy, Constantine, Superman, Batman all made the jump from pulp to celluloid. And it wasn't just the big names that made the leap. Did you know that Men in Black, Road to Perdition, The Mask, Bulletproof Monk, 300, Darkman and Ghostworld all started their lives as comics too? And the mass transit is in no danger of slowing. Pretty soon we'll be seeing Iron Man and 30 Days of Night on the big screen. And in the next two years, Ant Man, Avengers, Shazam, Button Man, Sub Mariner, Captain America, Watchmen, Deathlok, The Flash, Dr Strange, Luke Cage, Madman, Wonder Woman and Thor will all be joining them. All of which is great news for the comic creators because they no longer have to be pasty, pale and wan and starving in garretts slaving over their typewriters or blue line pads. These people can now be Hollywood movers and shakers. Okay ... so a goodly proportion of those films will be complete dogs (think Daredevil, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman here), but some will be fan-fecking-tastic.

So the atmosphere at this year's UK comic convention was one of confidence. Mike Mignola - owner and creator of Hellboy - had flown over to sign and sketch and answer questions about his big red baby (Hellboy 2 comes out next year). I spoke to writers and artists who have lived on the breadline for years but who are now enjoying the luxury of knowing where the next bottle of ink is coming from. I watched demonstrations of digital art on giant expensive plasma screens. I listened to comic writers explaining how they'd now broken into other areas of work (Paul Cornell, for example, scripted a two part story for the most recent season of Dr Who). I met Bryan Talbot whose deservedly award-winning Alice in Sunderland and Tale of One Bad Rat have both broken extraordinary new ground in graphic storytelling. And I felt happy that the future of comics seems to be in safe hands.

Oh, and there were some geeks there too.

But what makes a geek? Is it someone who loves brilliant sequential art and great storytelling? Is it someone who dresses up as Batman once or twice a year? Or is it someone who paints his face blue and dresses up as a fat footballer every Saturday in order to stand in the rain drinking beer and chanting idiotic songs to a bunch of millionaires kicking a bag of wind around a field? I know who I'd rather hang around with.

My name is Stevyn. And I am a geek.

No comments: