sum, where I went: ICE and Portsmouth

Posted in comics

ICE Brighton & Portsmouth Comic Cons 2019
09/03/19 & 04/05/19

Some thoughts on cons

In recent the last couple of months I’ve found myself at a couple of second year comic conventions, ICE Brighton and Portsmouth Comic Con, so now seems a good moment to consider what they’d learnt and changed from the initial outings – and what they might want to change if they plan a third.

The answer to the first part of that seems to be ‘not much’ and the second is ‘quite a bit’.

I had tabled at the first ICE Brighton, visited PCC as a punter last year and tabled at both this time…

Frosty reception

The fact that ICE-1 was held directly after the month long Brighton Festival, Brighton Fringe and Artists’ Open Houses events spoke to the organiser’s lack of local knowledge and research. Event fatigue is a very real thing in Brighton by the start of June, and the chances of any serious marketing effort getting noticed (not that there appeared to be such a thing in place) are minimal. So… no surprise that although pre-show ticket sales had been healthy for travelling visitors, the actual footfall was woeful.

In 2019, ICE returned earlier in the year. This avoided the con getting lost in the noise of May and the somewhat greater numbers of visitors did seem to be more local, but ‘somewhat’ more than woeful is still not a lot.

Weekly trawls of the likely leaflet spots didn’t turn up many flyers in the wild and no posters at all; local social media groups had barely a whisper except my own self-promotion; schools didn’t know about the event. And so on… The misquote, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ is a terrible mantra. If you don’t tell them you’ve built it, there ain’t nobody coming!

Happily, this year’s ICE visitors were quite interested in talking to comics people (last time out they seemed more interested in the paid-to-appear cosplayers) and the proportion of comics creators and publishers behind tables was at least 50%. Sadly back issue comics were almost non-existent and the toys and tat stalls filled the other spaces (at least until lunchtime when our neighbours packed up and left after “our worst morning ever.“). Sales could have been respectable if there had been more than a steady trickle of people past the tables during the day, but if the formula of 15 browsers = 1 sale is realistic then the fact that we sold 10 comics on the day was to be expected (or it would have been if I hadn’t just made that formula up).

The panels at ICE sounded worth attending, which was something in its favour, but the signage on both years was almost invisible… lack of preparation, spending and communication, meant visitors to our table had often had trouble finding the talks or the Artists Alley room – often not realising there had been both!

Jon Mason, my co-creator on the Njord & Skadi comic  we were launching at the con, opened the talks with one of his spoken word performances… but there was no one in the room with a few minutes to go, so he danced into the main hall ringing a handbell and proclaiming loudly that the Storytelling was about to start. In the absence of any promotion or signage, this did the trick and we were later told he finished his hour with one of the biggest crowds of the day (and lots of good reviews). This street barker tactic was revisited by a few speakers borrowing Jon’s bell to drum up some interest.

So, ICE-1 was under-promoted, poorly attended and ineffectively signposted. ICE-2 showed small improvements in some parts and more chaotic planning in others. The organiser subsequently said he won’t be revisiting the city and offered the brand for sale – one could purchase all the ‘good will’ that came with the existing convention (!). I don’t think we need to offer suggestions for how to improve this event in future years…

This was a classic case of an outside promoter, looking at a vibrant area and parachuting their current business model in to capture a market they’ve convinced themselves is waiting for them. As so often happens, their lack of understanding about the Brighton scene undermined whatever good intentions they had and spoiled the ground for any other comic event promoters who might target the area.

  • Brighton, like London. has multiple events happening on any given weekend. People won’t attend your show just for the novelty of something being on their doorstep and they’ll easily skip something they’ve already bought tickets for if the weather turns or their partner double-books them. If you don’t have a marketing budget, you might as well give up on attendance figures. You need a drum. Then you need to bang it loudly and repeatedly for a long time.
  • It’s possible that Brighton and local towns have more comickers and cartoonists per capita than anywhere else in the UK. We have a university offering comics based BAs and MAs. We have the monthly gathering of Cartoon County. If you don’t tap in to these resources for programming and promoting, you are not only missing out – you are ignoring what sort of comics this town appreciates and offering us a flavour we probably don’t want.
  • There’s an amazing Comic Arts Festival waiting to be staged in Brighton. There are (and have been) back-issue marts to draw in collectors. Families already flock to workshops and classes. What there isn’t, in this town of flamboyant individuals, high-flying ‘creatives’ and cool-as-ice celebrities, is a taste for autograph shows, dress-up days or Funko Pops.

Any port in a storm

The first Portsmouth Comic Con in 2018, was a happy callback to the days of UKCAC with Industrial Comic creators and editors signing and holding forth on panels, halls full of comics traders – small press creators, publishers and back issue dealers – as well as more recent fixtures like toy stalls and prints. It also boasted some art exhibits, board and computer games rooms and a steam punk society in the basement of the impressively visible venue.

I went on the Saturday and enjoyed a couple of the talks and a happy, if expensive, wander among the vendors, and reports say it was a good selling event for many.

This year was ostensibly more of the same, but disconcertingly the Big Name American guests’ panels seemed to be little more than a listing of all the jobs they’ve held through their career and the selling halls had a much smaller percentage of actual comics tables (I’d say down from 66% last year to about 25 % this year). At the far end of the row where I shared a table with Kevin Gunstone, was Robert Wells, and opposite us was John Charles… and that was it! There was a prose author and a couple of illustrators (not) selling their wares and the rest of the row was composed of toy stalls and novelty gifts – one toy stall looked like a down-market boot sale and the table on our right was selling cushions and glasses with slogans like ‘I’m not a bitch all the time (that’s a lie)’ printed on them.

Footfall was good most of the time (just a few lulls towards the end of each day where we couldn’t see visitors walking towards our pitch). Saturday May the Fourth had obviously been talked up in pop culture circles as Star Wars Day, so it was no surprise to see all the stormtroopers and wookies and jedi cavorting in the aisles alongside the happy superheroes (lots of Wonder Women and Captain Marvels) and anime characters. Lots of families bringing the kids in to enjoy the spectacle too.

Sunday was thinner on cosplay and a lot more locals coming in ‘to see what this was all about‘, or because ‘it’s nice to see something going on in town on a Sunday.‘ so still lots of bodies wandering past…

But the problem on both days was that lots of bodies doesn’t equate to lots of shoppers. The costumed folk are there to pose and preen, not to buy – most of them didn’t have purses or pockets of course, and those that did tended to be fixated on ‘their’ pop culture character. Their spectators came to see the parade not to see comics. And the locals who had no real experience of comics were faced with rooms of pop culture tat emblazoned with familiar trademarks to spend their pocket money on… when they came upon a stall selling small press comics surrounded by mainstream merchandise many of them seemed confused!

After a while I began to track the movements of people passing our table: unlike the dedicated comic reader, they tended to zig zag along the rows, missing tables by accident or because they were busy. Their eyes skidded quickly from racks of recognisable product to cosplayers to the distance. A surprising number didn’t appear to look down at what was on the tables they passed at all, and those that did glanced up again so quickly it was as if they’d seen a spread of leaflets from the Tourist Information Centre laid out or something.

This time, it was a case of Big Audience/Wrong Audience.

I hope this doesn’t sound like sour grapes – my own comics tend to be nicher-than-niche, so I try not to judge a con by sales figures, and PCC-2 offered many fine interactions with actual comic readers and passing civilians. Most of the visitors looked to be enjoying their day out and I enjoyed both of mine.

But, it seemed like a step backwards from last year – in terms of imaginative programming, layout planning and table curating.

  • Portsmouth is an Austerity-hit location, it has a lot going for it, but there are limited numbers of cool events for the locals to look forward to. This means that if you promote something from Pop Culture you’ve a good chance of getting bums on seats. The challenge is in avoiding their presence disadvantaging the Comics element of the event.
  • It would help the comics and comics-adjacent exhibitors to segregate them from the straight up retailers – a critical mass of comics would prevent them from seeming out of place at the comic convention.
  • If you accept bookings for flea market type tables, put them in one place and call it a Boot Sale… piles of action figures 2 feet deep were spilling off tables in more than one room and it inevitably cheapens any creative work in their vicinity.
  • When it comes to panels and interviews, I think it is imperative not to fall in to the habit of listing nostalgic references and make sure there is something more to be said or asked than “and then what did you work on?
  • For an event that is going to draw in so many families, a properly managed play zone or creche would allow parents to attend programming or shop for themselves.

I liked PCC-2 very much, and the mayor (who I accused of cosplaying in his chain and robes) and his oppo were very pleased with the buzz it created around town – but if it rests on its laurels, it will backslide pretty rapidly I fear.

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