Tim Pilcher, ex-editor of DC Comics, and current head of Comic Book Alliance writes for Bleeding Cool, after attending and exhibiting at this weekend's Bristol Comics Expo;
I've been attending comic conventions in Bristol ever since Kev F Sutherland first set one up to replace the defunct UKCAC, way back in 1999. That's 13 years—unlucky for some. In that time, the conventions have changed hands and names several times, but it had always been a key event in the comic professional's diary. For many years it was the sole comic convention in the UK and, by default, it achieved an exulted status. However, in recent years there has been a huge surfeit of conventions, of various shapes and sizes, popping up all over the country. This year alone has seen London Super Comic Convention, Bristol Comic Expo, Cardiff Comic Expo, Exeter Comic Expo, and Hi-Ex (Inverness) and we're not even halfway through the year. Still on the horizon are MCM Expo (London), Kapow (London), 2D Festival (Derry), Thought Bubble (Leeds), and probably loads I haven't remembered!
The fact is, with so many shows, creators are suffering from "convention fatigue". Cons take up a lot of work time, for professionals. Very few have their expenses covered, unless they are guests of honour, and so it's a double hit for them, in terms of time away from the writing desk/drawing board and earning money, while having to lay out cash just to appear at the show. Hence, many try and recoup their losses by charging for sketches, selling original artwork and comics, and sleeping with fans for cash (one of those is a lie). Consequently, many stayed away from Bristol this year in favour of the more lucrative London-based Kapow, due the following weekend.
The other reason to attend shows is to talk to editors and publishers about work and network. This maintained Bristol as "the professional's convention" as there were fewer fans and everyone could just mingle and hang out with friends they only saw once a year (an important part if you are a freelancer working alone at home). But now there are so many shows, it was the first con I've ever left saying to many, "See you next week"!
In this climate every show has to prove their worth, and unfortunately Bristol's stock has been in freefall for sometime. The ever-decreasing punter footfall, and lack of major "hot" US guests and publishers has seen the convention becoming less of a viable option for both fans and professionals, particularly with so much competition. Every single weekend this May has been taken up by a show: Bristol this weekend, Kapow the following, then MCM Expo and finally Collectormania. All of these shows see more punters through the door, have more exciting panels, with bigger name US guests and, frankly, make Bristol look old and tired. Most stallholders I spoke to didn't make enough money this weekend to cover their costs, and a lot won't be returning (to be fair, I did speak to a few who did OK, but they were targeting the non-comics readers). All this was compounded by no one turning up from either of "The Big Two" (or even "The Medium Six"), and star guest Denny O'Neill failing to appear. Plus, having checked with a local journalist, I was stunned to discover there had been no local press or publicity arranged (no wonder less than 300 people turned up). Personally, the fact that some little shits decided to steal the Comic Book Alliance's Tank Girl banner was the last nail in the coffin.
Basically, something's got to give, and the fat's got to be trimmed, and it looks like Bristol is the first casualty to fall victim of the "Convention Wars". I suspect it won't be the last. There was a scurrilous rumour going around the weekend that the Birmingham ComiciCon/BICS has been cancelled this year.
It seems a shame that Bristol Comic Expo should end on a whimper rather than a bang. I liked coming to Bristol, it's a nice town and it was a great convention. But I, for one, shall not be back. And I know I'm not alone.
Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.