Sunday, 24 April 2011

At the Moomins of Madness

Hello. It is Sunday evening in April. It’s been a glorious weekend, meteorologically speaking. Even here on the banks of the lovely River Lea, where the buzzy nadger things have just returned from their winter break in the Azores, the whiny skeetery bastards. A wonderful weekend for picnicking, for gardening, for long improving rambles. Which is why I have spent the last two days at the Business Design Centre in London, surrounded by several thousand sunlight-dodgers at the first KaPow! comic convention.

The Ocelot's first law of comic cons:
You will never be more than 10 feet from a young lady dressed as Harley Quinn.

What a way to spend your weekend. I’m shattered. My legs are killing me, especially my shins which are creaking and groaning like the rotten timbers of an allotment shed, incensed at the painful indignity of wearing healed boots for 10 uninterrupted hours. I should’ve worn comfy trainers and said bums to fashion. But I am vain.

Allow me paint a picture of the convention for you, by way of a massively subjective account of my own experience. Do bear in mind that this will be coloured by several powerful post-con impressions, those being:

a) good Christ my feet hurt,

b) queues, queues more bloody queues,

c) an inability to go up to total strangers and ‘sell’ myself (see Linked Out for more on that) and

d) my complete and utter incompetence in booking a ‘portfolio review’ session.

Don’t worry if those reasons don’t make much sense to you right now because I’m about to lay them all out before you in a stunning display of self-flagellation.

So, Friday night. The evening before the convention. Having had sweet FA to do at work all day, I have had plenty of time to assemble a hodgepodge of my greatest hits, creative writings-wise. To wit:

• one 180+ page wargame rulebook which I have had the honour of contributing (all the cool bits) to,

• one 7-page plot summary for a possible Union Jack comic book (the story’s called ’51 and is a corker),

• one 3-page plot summary for a possible WWII/horror serial for 2000AD comic (called The Horrors of Gnarly Hill, and is less of a corker, possibly a piner or an MDFer),

• one 6-page script extract for a possible Marvel comic called Seconds (based on a way cool roleplaying game we used to run),

• one ‘director’s cut’ of a short story I submitted to SFX magazine’s short story competition a couple of years ago (I was placed somewhere in the top 25-50 bracket. Wooo.)

• one copy of my very own Brentford: the Roleplaying Game rulebook, based on the stories of (and endorsed by) Mr Robert Rankin (approx. 5 copies sold to date)

• one copy of my wargame Vlad’s Army, pitting the men of the Warmington On Sea home guard against the Fuhrer’s undead shock troops (sadly, the undoubted mega-profit potential of this game can never be realised, giving the copyright infringing nature of its central characters)

• and finally, in some ways my crowning achievement in the world of writing, my prize-winning entry in 2000AD’s ‘write your own script’ competition. From 12 years ago. Sad to say but this is to date the single creative endeavour of which I am most proud. And all I did was fill in the speech balloons for 7 pages of old Hap Hazzard artwork they’d found lying around in Tharg’s filing cabinet. For example:
The laff-riot that is page 6

So that my dear chaps, comprises what one might optimistically call my portfolio. Not that I knew it should be called a portfolio back on Friday, you understand. I was just putting together a load of stuff to take to the con with me, on the off-chance I happened to bump into someone from a comic company or TV company or film company, someone who really, really needed a versatile and well-spoken writer right there and then. That should tell you volumes about my levels of confidence and inexperience.

So I loaded my little collection of folders and booklets and printouts and comics into my rucksack and set off early on Saturday for the convention down in London. My goals at that point? Uh... to see some famous people (well, famous in the world of comics), maybe attend a few panels, discussions and film preview events, and maybe just maybe actually meet some of my role models/idols/stalkees, strike up an instant rapport and be gathered into their bosom for to collaborate with them on their next big-name project.

It could happen. Surely. A friend of mine way back seemingly got a gig co-writing with the legendary Pat Mills just from a meeting at some pagan event, as far as I can tell. I think my brother and I were incredibly jealous of her at the time (hell, I know I still I am) for blagging a 2000AD writing job without having first put in the requisite apprenticeship of reading nothing but comics since the age of 7. Jammy so-and-so.

Not doing very well with this diary-of-a-con format am I? Let’s try to get back to the story.

Picture me at King’s Cross tube station early on Saturday, making my way down the escalator to the Northern line platform. I clock several individuals on the platform who cannot be headed anywhere but the comic convention. The tell-tale signs are all there – two men travelling together, possessed collectively of two pairs of spectacles, one ginger beard, two ratty t-shirts depicting well-loved characters from animation and comic books, two bags bulging suspiciously with the rectangular outline of what can only be piles of precious comics, brought all the way from home so that they might be signed by their fave artists and/or writers.
A not atypical conventioneer
I leave it until we all actually exit Angel tube station onto street level before cheekily asking these two chaps if they need help finding their way to the con. 'It’s that obvious is it?' one of them, a Scot (they often are) enquires. I nod with what I hope is a ‘sorry for sussing you’ expression (not unlike the one I use if I ‘read’ a fellow transgender person – they’re often crest-fallen that they haven’t passed, but hey,  like gaydar or skrulls, we can always spot our own).

As de facto local guide, I lead the two Scots comic fans to the Business Design Centre. An easy task, as I explain to them that you really do just have to follow the stream of fat blokes in comic t-shirts up the street. Cruel but true. Not all of them fit the Comic Shop Guy template by any means, but there are enough to stand out in a crowd, like goths in a cricket team.

And then we hit the queue to get into the convention. Man, is there a queue. It stretches away from the building, up a side street, does a 180 at the end, and doubles back on itself so that we three join the end of the queue level with the head. And then we proceed to wait a good half hour to trudge to the front. And we had tickets! It wasn’t like we’d just turned up on spec. I’d forked out 25 knicker for the privilege of queuing up. Rubbish, I tell you. I could have bought what they call a VIP ticket and jumped the queue, but it was over a 100 quid for the weekend, and I weren’t paying that. Maybe in retrospect it would’ve saved a lot of needless standing and queuing over the next 36 hours, but how was I to know?

How was I to know? could have been my personal motto for the entire event. How was I to know there’d be a monster queue which would delay my getting into the exhibition hall itself until 10:30, halfway through the allotted 10:00 – 11:00 ‘signing’ hour of one Steve Dillon, a celebrated British artist who I had an extra special reason for wanting to meet (he was the artist and original plotter of the aforementioned 2000AD story I scripted, you see).

How was I to know where the two ‘event’ rooms were, or what panel / discussion / preview events were scheduled for those rooms? It took me well over an hour to notice that everyone else in the bloody exhibition hall was wandering around with a little booklet in their paws, which looked suspiciously like it contained a map of the convention and a timetable of events. Maybe it should’ve been in the free goodie bag they handed me on my way in, but wasn’t. At any rate, I tromped back out to the entrance hall and found a pile of convention guides on a counter and helped myself. It was already too late for some of the events though.

The joy of colour-coded timetables

How was I to know who was queuing for which event, or where the queues started? Or ended? I don’t think the people marshalling the events really got their act together until halfway through the first day. Up until then, queuing was a chaotic affair, with people either standing in line in an obviously queuey fashion, or else squatting on the floor behind the others like they were having a picnic and conceivably not in the queue at all. Sometimes the queue followed a straight line along one wall and sometimes it weaved back and forth across the gallery floor like a sidewinder. The only way to really work out what was going on with any given clue was to walk up to complete goddam strangers and ask them point-blank what they were queuing for. As if that was going to happen.

And most of all, worst of all, how was I to know that there was a special predetermined procedure for getting your work, sorry – your la-de-da portfolio - reviewed by the guest editors from Marvel? Okay, okay, in this case I concede that instructions for this procedure may just have been posted up on the convention website for all to read for days and weeks, but I was stupid and didn’t read that bit, OK? This complete failure to get my work seen would wind me up somewhat as the weekend progressed. As you will see.

Back to the diary. I part company with my Scots fellow travellers as we finally enter the exhibition hall. I blurt out a half-decent farewell, something about probably losing track of them inside so best to say goodbye now. And to be honest I think they were grateful to see me go. God knows what they thought of me – some desperate overly chatty middle aged bird, or worse some freak tranny, trying to hook up with two younger blokes so she wouldn’t be all alone at the convention. They’d mentioned their respective other halves fairly swiftly when I’d first spoken to them - a sure fire indicator in my mind of the ‘piss off weirdo, we’re taken’ response if ever I’ve seen it.

So, into the exhibition hall on my own, marching quickly so as to lose the Scotsmen cleanly in the mob (quick breakups are best, I find). I weave down the long aisles of stalls flogging new and old comics, t-shirts, posters, DVDs, action figures and original artwork, and find myself at the far end of the hall, where autograph tables have been set up.

Into the seething madness

If you’ve never been to any sort of fan convention, this autograph thing might need a little scene-setting. Basically, the convention organisers arrange for a bunch of celebs (sportsmen, Star Wars actors or in this case comic book creators) to attend their convention, thus drawing in the fans. In return, the celebs get to take turns sitting at a table signing autographs for one fanboy after another. They tend to sign for about an hour at a time, spending a few seconds or minutes with each member of the public in turn, as a convention-supplied minder / marshal / rottweiler ushers the plebs forward from the queue (yes, there are more queues) one at a time.

At Kapow!, they have 4 tables, thus 4 comic artists or writers are in residence at any one time. As it turns out, Steve Dillon’s signing session started at 10:00, some 30 minutes before I had even got into the bloody building thanks to Jormundgandr the world-queue outside. Embarrassingly, I don’t at first realize that there is a formal queue lined up in the gloom of the hall outskirts – it looks like you just walk up to him and say hello – I can’t believe my luck!

But eventually even my woefully underdeveloped gaffe-sense tingles, and I notice the twitchy glares from various people in matching black t-shirts who I then identify as convention staff. Honestly – black t-shirts at a geek convention – can you think of anything less likely to stand out? They should be wearing bloody pink jackets if they want to stand out. So I realise I’m perilously close to barging to the front of a 50-person queue, go incredibly red and shuffle off in a random direction whilst pretending to have seen something interesting ‘over there’. Then I circle round cravenly and join the back of the queue. It is now 10:35 and I have 25 minutes before Steve Dillon’s signing hour is up.

Everybody else in the queue seems to have a copy of Mr Dillon’s artwork at the ready for him to sign. Generally this is a copy of Preacher, the DC comic he illustrated for Warren Ellis (and the only comic to my knowledge to feature Bill Hicks. Not to mention introducing a character called Arseface), or else another well-known title he worked on. I am the only person to have a 12 year old copy of 2000AD for him to sign, let alone one featuring a strip that was already 7 years old when it was printed, and long forgotten by everyone but the sad muppet that once won a competition to add in the words (probably against a load of 14-years olds) and has a 3’ by 2’ blow-up of their one and only published comic work hanging on their bedroom wall (yes, I really do).

Introducing Arseface

Time rushes on, ever closer to 11:00. The marshals are clearly chivvying everyone ahead of me as quickly as they can. When I reach the head of the queue, 2000AD in hand (not to mention my ‘congratulations you have won the competition’ letter tucked inside, and a business card with my email and web address – oh the shame), the flustered young lady in the black t-shirt asks me to make it quick. And quick it is. I walk up to Mr Dillon’s desk. I say hello. I shake his hand. I flop out my comic at the appropriate page and burble some bollocks about really wanting to meet him because of the competition back in 1999. He smiles. He signs his name. I walk off. It takes about 30 seconds from start to finish. Pretty compact for a meeting I’d been thinking about for 12 years. I look at his signature. It says ST Dil. And no, I didn’t give him my business card.

Mr Dillon as viewed at speed

To be honest, I am prepared for this sort of outcome. I’m not a total dreamer. And I’ve been here before with other, far more august personages. But y’know, I kind of thought he might just go ‘Hey, I don’t remember this artwork of mine ever getting published.’ And ‘Hey, I don’t recognise the words in the speech balloons. They’re pretty bloody funny! Who is this clever (and attractive) stranger who has brought this scripty goodness before my professional eye? I must speak to them further!’. But nah. It couldn’t have been a briefer encounter unless he took the signing to its logical conclusion and simply rubber-stamped my comic.

I stagger off into the crowd and try to dull the shock by joining another queue. I don’t even know what it’s for since the marshalling and signposting is virtually non-existent at this point. It turns out to be a panel discussion of ‘How to break into Marvel Comics’, featuring a smattering of British and American creators, all of whom work for my most beloved of comic companies. One of them is a man called Kieron Gillen, who is a new writer on Marvels’ prestigious X-Men comic. He wrote an independent comic called Phonogram about the (literal) magic of pop music, but it was really about self-involved music bores. The follow-up, Singles, is even more unashamedly indulgent – a bunch of self-involved music bores all go to a night club and talk about music a lot. They don’t do much magic, though it is a book about music-magicians. The reason for them not doing magic is explained away in the plot, but I suspect that they real reason is that Mr Gillen just wanted to write a story about a bunch of people at a night club, and the Phonogram series was his only commercial outlet for it at the time. He’ll probably do a story about the X-Men all going to a club next.

Yack yack yack

Actually, he seems like quite a nice chap when he speaks on the panel, and he gives some halfway useful advice for breaking into comics, though I think it boils down to ‘Somehow find a decent artist who’ll draw your stuff for free, work with them on some self-financed project and publish it on the web for several years. Hope someone spots it. Get the X-Men gig.’ Mainly, I’m just jealous of him. Possibly envious. I’m sure there’s a difference but I’m too poor a writer to know the difference.

For reasons I can’t recall, I leave the panel early, sneaking out the back of the upstairs gallery. I trot downstairs in order to rejoin the main convention hall, only to discover that the only door back going back that way is actually right next to the people on the Marvel panel I’ve just sneaked away from! I balk and retreat twice, going up and down the stairwell looking for another way out. But eventually I have to grit my teeth, stare straight ahead and charge out the door next to X-Men Writer Guy and his amazing friends. Oh the shame.

I talk to the people running the SFX/Comic Heroes magazine stand. They seem nice. For reasons I cannot fathom, I panic and start asking them about sales figures and how often Comic Heroes comes out. I manage to regain my wits after reflexively buying one of their mags and I cheekily ask if there are any jobs going. Naturally, they have their trusted regular contributors but the chap said there’s no harming sending something in ‘if I have an idea’ (all ideas instantly vanish from my head). We swap business cards. Woo-hoo. We’re practically meeting for a power lunch already.

Probably not a future employer

Then I bump into an old acquaintance who I had emailed some weeks ago on the off-chance he’d be attending, and so he is. For the purposes of this diary, we shall call him Declan. Declan is trailing a little group of chums behind him, which is nice. Were I an uncharitable sort who likes to disassemble everyone I meet in the hope of making them seem less intimidating, I would say he subconsciously cultivates lesser, geekier persons as his companions, so as to make it that much easier for his dominant Celtic personality to hold court with.

We exchange pleasantries. He stares at my cleavage. He mentions his recently failed marriage. I try not to conjecture as to the reasons. He mention that he is here to collect signed original artwork – that is, artwork drawn by comic artists at the fan’s request right there and then at the convention, which Declan will add to his already impressive collection.

In mid-conversation with me, he turns away to request a photo of two young ladies dressed as superheroes. This wrong-foots me a bit – the sheer speed at which he turned away to charm and snap them. It’s just a little niggle, but it reminds me that in Declan’s world, I come somewhere down the list below pale 20-year old girls dressed as characters from X-Force. Evidently.

Lady Deadpool and Domino. As you well knew.

So a couple of minutes later I in turn manage to cut him off in mid-sentence when I see a young guy from a TV documentary I’d watched a couple of days before. It was about facial disfigurations. So I turn away from Declan and say hello to this chap as he walks past and I burble something about comics. This action not only makes me feel sanctimoniously noble for talking to an unusual-looking young man without batting an eyelid, but also puts me back on 15-All with Declan in our little game of social tennis.

To mix my sporting metaphors, I follow this up with a knock-out punch by inventing some event I have to attend promptly and scamper off into the crowd. This is entirely necessary for my own self-respect, as Declan is one of those guys who unassertive people such as myself find ourselves following around and deferring to, unless we take decisive action. Yay me.

Walking back through the hall, I see that some young men with large black folders (the aforementioned portfolios) are talking earnestly to two chaps I recognise as big-shot editors from the Marvel panel. They are American and thus in my mind ‘proper comics people’. They are Marvel and thus really proper. I try to work out how these young men with their folders full of home-grown artwork got to talk to these Americans. I want to talk to them too. I want them to see my Union Jack plot and my script for Seconds and my name on an old story in 2000AD. But I cannot figure out how to get inside the corral of official-looking tables before me, where the Marvel guys are reviewing the young artists’ work.

See the impenetrable barrier of tables

In an unprecedented lapse of protocol, I sneak round the back of the tables, tap a young man on the shoulder and ask him how he got in on this portfolio-review thing. He says, in that sort of ‘Oh didn’t you know, strange old person?’ way, that they all dropped their folders off earlier in the day and got their names on ‘a list’.

So. Bum. I guess I’ve missed my chance to show my stuff off today. And these were the Americans too. I sob a bit inside.

I join another queue, this one is to sit in on an interview with Mark Gatiss, he of The League of Gentlemen, Lucifer Box, Dr Who, Ghost Stories, A History of Horror and apparently anything else he damn well wants to do, the bastard. I discover that these panel discussion events tend to take place with the celebs sat behind a long table in front of a mass of people on chairs. The long table is not elevated, nor are the rows of chairs banked up like in a cinema. Thus, unless you are on the front row, you spend an hour listening to Mark Gatiss talk but actually watching the big freak head of the bloke sat in front of you. Tch.

A splendid view of Mr Gatiss

I leave, again dismayed and jealous of this man who it seems get all the fun jobs. I trawl the exhibition hall, looking at stalls. 'Trawl the hall for stalls'. Heh.

I speak to a nice chap called Russell who runs an online animation and comic art gallery. He seems genuinely happy to chat to me about the art of Alex Ross and how we both prefer drawings of Superman when he looks middle-aged (see Kingdom Come). I also speak to a chap called Dr Geof drawing amusing sketches, and buy a poster off him exhorting people to ‘ENLIST IN THE FIRST TEA COMPANY NOW! I recognise him from a steampunk event last year, and we spend a merry few minutes discussing chocolate hob nobs, re-enactors in York and the architecture of the Scala.

I buy a pencil from a Dr Who merchandise stand, purely because the pencil has a Dalek-shaped rubber top, which might just pass muster as a 28mm scale model at next week’s Salute wargaming event. I then speak to a chap who makes engraved copper book covers by copying comic artwork, and resolve to ask him to do one based on some 7TV artwork. I buy a cyberman bookmark off him.

I find myself walking past League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill, who I have actually spoken to (not sure I’d so far as to claim I’ve met) a couple of times in the last two years. Conceivably I could step up next to him and say hello, but then I think ‘He’s probably on his way to a signing and doesn’t want to be disturbed’. So I veer off to inspect some replica Judge Dredd helmets on another stall.

I spot a chap called Rob Deb emerging from one of the talks, and clumsily say hello. At first it looks like I’m trying to get past him and he half-steps aside – my body language is all over the shop – I think it stutters. But then we have a jolly nice chat, first about his gigging as a geeky stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe (he seems quite immune to the invariably rough reception he gets from the drunken crowd at his free gigs in the Jekyll & Hyde pub), and then we talk about which comic chops in London we have enjoyed the most – it turns out he now works at one – Orbital, just off Leicester Square.

Truly a man without fear

I watch Mark Millar sat before an enormous bloody queue, signing copies of his comic Kick-Ass. He’s a little Glaswegian dynamo and no mistake – all weekend he’s busying around, giving talks, signing books, hustling and bustling. I think the con is partially his baby, or maybe his other half’s. He seems decent enough, but I can’t help but slightly resent someone whose biggest claim to fame is coming up with the character of a little girl with a sword who says the c-word. Genius.

A shakespearean moment from Kick-Ass
I walk past a stall selling various non-superhero comics and books. My view is slightly obscured by people pressed up against the counter leafing through the products, so I can’t read the titles clearly as I go past. In a weird case of persistence of vision, my eyes conmfuse two neighbouring book titles, one by Tove Jannson, the other by HP Lovecraft, forming what I consider to be the title of the greatest unmade book this year – At The Moomins Of Madness. I resolve to write this great work one day.

In need of a sit down, I decide to queue for the very last event of the day – a preview of the forthcoming Thor movie. It starts at 6:30pm. I start queuing around 5:00pm. The queue practically circles the entire exhibition hall. I refuse to sit down on the ground like some kind of a homeless, so remain standing with a rucksack full of pointless portfolio material slowly giving me curvature of the spine. I manage to strike up precisely no conversations with the people standing in front or behind me in the queue. My social skills seem to be actively losing ranks by the hour.

The security for the film preview is monstrous – I haven’t seen measures this tight since we queued to get into a post-9/11 Empire State Building, being shouted at and herded by loud black ladies in uniforms every step of the way. At Kapow! we are required to surrender our mobile phones ‘and other recording equipment’ so as to prevent naughty pirating of the movie clips and subsequent leakage onto YouTube. I cannot be arsed to explain to the goons in the suits that my old mobile is incapable of anything but phone calls and texting, and so into a wee plastic bag it goes.

The screening room itself is unbearably hot once we finally queue our way in. Oh, I should have mentioned before that once we’d handed over our phones and held out our arms for a scanner to be passed over us, and had our bags searched, we had to queue again, inside another room. We actually queued up to one blank wall of the room, wheeled en masse like a military band at the Trooping of the Colour and then queued all the way back and finally entered the main room.
Dodgy Asgardian bling sets my turkey-sense a-tingling

Which was hot, my god was it hot. And sweaty from the massed odour for overweight men in fading Green Lantern t-shirts. Granted, it was cool to see about half an hour of the films ahead of the official release, and nice to see (sorry - listen to from behind someone’s fat head) the actors who play Thor and Loki, but I’m not so sure it was time well spent, even if everybody did cheer at the cameos of Stan Lee and Hawkeye. There was a suspicious amount of slapstick during the ‘mortal Thor on Earth’ segment, and I’m just not sure about the supporting cast, particularly the foreign bloke from Pirates Of The Caribbean (Stellan Something – this decade’s Max von Sydow). And don’t get me started on the shiny gold bling worn by the Asgardian characters – I’d hoped for more of a Riders of Rohan vibe.

I leave the convention hall and finally arrive home at 9pm in the evening. Footsore and not a little wired from sensory overload, celebrity disappointment and eating an entire packet of custard creams on the train home.

I spend most of Saturday night and Sunday morning dreaming about how to make it all better when I return for Day Two of the con. And having nightmares about Moominshoggoth.

Tekele-Li! gibbered Snufkin


Anonymous said...

"And don’t get me started on the shiny gold bling worn by the Asgardian characters – I’d hoped for more of a Riders of Rohan vibe."

What I've seen of Thor has looked shonky but to be fair don't the cotumes in the comic look all blingy and like robocops cyber armour ?

Bet there's no Beta-Ray Bill either - I want my super-powered, necro-horse, alien love-plot !

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

I guess some super outfits are always going to look dodgy when transferred to the screen. S'why the X-Men movies were all about the black leather.

The lack of Beta-Ray Bill is indeed a dreadful oversight and an insult to the viking oral tradition of which he forms an integral strand.

And no Thor-Frog either!