This recent weekend at MCM London Comic Con
(ExCel Centre in London’s Dockland, 26th-28th October). was one of the most intensive, emotional, exhilarating and testing weekends of my life. Coming out of / still suffering through a wicked cold which started just as I left The Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal two weekends previous, I felt that I had gotten over the hump at several points over the past fortnight but that was clearly not the case. I had a nasty cough, low energy levels and a tendency to wander in speech and mind (something that would come round and bite me on the bum at a key moment at MCM – more on that in a bit!)
But, as I’ve discovered when I attend conventions on any kind of professional level – such as EM-Con Nottingham and Meanwhile… Comic Con, which was the worst cold I’ve ever felt in my life – something happens, the adrenaline and endorphins and the DJ/on-stage training kicks in and I barrel through, especially when there’s interesting things to do, fascinating people to see and talk to, and when a show goes all out to get my attention – and that of the paying attendees, obviously.
And that’s what made MCM London Comic Con so interesting – this show was arguably The Grand Experiment, where the ReedPOP influence really made its first major impression since their buying of the MCM brand, exactly twelve months ago. The shifting of spending budgets on guests at this show was noticeable to everybody, moving from media guests to international comic talent and I was curious to see how the MCM audience was going to react. And yet, in turn, it was that very audience that turned around and shocked and surprised everyone. Go figure.
Let’s talk about that comics talent and what it meant for the show. Simply put, this recent flagship event in the MCM / ReedPOP schedule deserves a valid shot at the title of ‘Most Epic Comics Convention of 2018’, with a jaw-dropping collection of both homegrown and international superstars, setting up stall in the Comic Village area of the ExCel, and meeting-and-greeting with fans across the entire weekend.
It speaks volumes that I pretty much forgot that there were some media guests at the show that I actually wanted to meet – the STARSKY & HUTCH guys (David Soul, Paul Michael Glaser and Antonio Fargas), Bernard Cribbins, Chris Barrie, Angus MacInnes, the transcendent Melinda Clarke… Missed ’em all.
From John Romita Jr. and Andy Kubert to Alex Paknadel and Dan Watters, from Tess Fowler and Emma Vieceli to Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, from Frank Quitely and Adi Granov to Mark Brooks and the simply legendary Chris Claremont… the line-up of invited comics guests was truly off the scale – but the cherry on the top of this particular cake was somebody fans in the UK have been waiting years to see in this country – the legendary Frank Miller, writer/artist of DAREDEVIL, 300, XERXES, SIN CITY, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and many more.
In two VIP sessions held over the course of the weekend which I moderated, Miller talked directly to fans, taking questions and dropping one or two fresh titbits about upcoming projects along the way. (Quickly, to get it out of the way, that was the session in which my inner fanboy came round and emptied my brain at a key moment. Imagine being charged with moderating a Frank Miller panel and absolutely forgetting what to say the very second you’re supposed to ask the first question – the mind went blank! And then, when I kind of recovered, went down a rabbit-hole of a question to which Miller responded with, “Okay, can you repeat that question verbatim?” Which I couldn’t! So I did the only thing I could, which was take the first audience question. I knew when I had been beaten by a mind like a steel trap…!)
But they weren’t the only sessions I hosted during the weekend: MCM kept me incredibly busy all three days of the show. From my first panel which was something I was thrown into last minute – a introduction to White Noise Studios, a new collective of UK comics writers made up of Ryan O’Sullivan, Ram V, Dan Watters and Alex Paknadel – to showcase panels of Billy Tucci and Chris Claremont, to first-time-for-MCM art presentations with Makiko, Dylan Teague and Tess Fowler, to fascinating in-depth sessions such as a US Comics Industry panel with Tara Ferguson and Valiant Comics‘ Lauren Klasik and an ART OF THE COVER panel featuring Amanda Conner, Jorge Molina, Frank Cho and Adi Granov, to my biggest panel of the weekend, an X-MEN: THROUGH THE AGES panel on the Centre Stage with Claremont, Molina, John Romita Jr. and Frank Quitely… I was facing down simply legends of the comics industry and I couldn’t be happier with the way that panel content at MCM had taken a significant shift up, even if the MCM crowd itself wasn’t entirely convinced.
Simply put, at any ‘pure’ comic convention, this would have been a killer line-up – but for those that have been coming to MCM shows in the past, that isn’t their focus, it’s to meet the Hollywood and small screen stars and we’re not at the point yet where actual comic fans can be convinced to come to an MCM show, in the same way that they would attend a London Super Comic Con or a Thought Bubble. This past twelve months has been a very slow burn – with the likes of Liam Sharp, Ken Lashley and Geof Darrow being invited to the May show, and Donny Cates and Brian Azzarello attending MCM Scotland – and the feeling was perhaps this was still too much, too soon. But I’m hoping that if ReedPOP and MCM just continue to pile this attention on comics special guests at their shows, this will change and the perception of MCM will evolve. Fingers crossed.
But let’s get the unbelievably massive elephant in the room out of the way – fandom has changed, a new element was introduced and it steamrollered over the entire event. CRITICAL ROLE has arrived.
This came out of nowhere – except for the Critters, the avid fans of the show itself. I had been monitoring the chatter on various groups and boards, to see what the impressions of the guest list was on a daily basis. When the CRITICAL ROLE gang were announced, many if not most wondered who on Earth these people actually were – if that includes you, CR is a web series of live DUNGEONS & DRAGONS sessions, hosted by an incredible bunch of Los Angeles voice actors, that was originally signed up by Felicia Day for her Geek & Sundry YouTube channel and has gone on to evolve into a mammoth entity of its own.
But how would that online and North American popularity translate across t’pond? The first clue should have been the speed at which the photo ops sold out for the CRITICAL ROLE team – the sessions with Matthew Mercer, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien and host, Brian W. Foster, sold out in literally seconds, leaving a lot of wailing and gnashing online for the disappointed and completely baffling the uninitiated. If that latter group were unsure of the popularity of the show before the weekend of MCM, they learnt very quickly once the show got underway.
My wife Caroline is convinced that a good 80%-90% of the cosplay that filled the show floor was CRITICAL ROLE related. Artists that do CR comics cover and unofficial fan art that had booths in the Comic Village had lines snaking down the aisles from the second the doors opened to the second the doors closed. And a Celebration panel filled with BATMAN comics royalty had an audience 15% in the room for that – and the rest were there for an impromptu second Main Stage panel for CR for the weekend, moved from the intimate Live Stage due to sheer popularity. It was a monster!
For the optimism and vibrancy of the cast and storytelling skills, the best thing about CR is the fandom, and I totally understand its appeal to be a part of that. In a time now when there appears to be that classic conflict not just between fandoms – STAR WARS vs STAR TREK, Marvel vs DC, Western Comics vs Anime – 2018 has been the year for conflict within fandoms, with factions forming between artists, writers, industry figures, fans and publishers themselves. Everything has become so fraught and tense, reflecting the culture we’re living through today… And CRITICAL ROLE has none of that. It’s stunningly positive, it’s incredibly inclusive and it’s just so immersive. I totally get it – and it scares me to lose hours upon hours which I need to dedicate to updating and creating this site on this beautiful thing which I know for a fact I would.
Let’s take a brief look at the things that didn’t work for MCM, and we have to because they’re important elements which still need to be addressed, especially if MCM wants to get to the place that they’re aiming for. This is going to be tough, as I now have that working relationship with them (that I really, really want to continue, please!) but this needs to be said: there’s something missing, and I think they are important links in the chain – between promoting of getting people through the door to the final end punter experience. There are an ambitious amount of plates being spun in creating this show… and some of those plates are being dropped.
The lack of communication is the biggest thing, with attendees, talent and even the stewards on the ground (of which there were a shocking lack of) being left completely out to dry. I appreciate that there are some people that are grown-ups and don’t need nannying but then there also does need to be a basic level of support structure in place for when things fray at the edges, because when people start to feel neglected and ignored in any capacity, they’ll come to the show unloved, under appreciated and ultimately feeling unrespected. There needs to be a level of showmanship and presentation beyond just bringing in guests, putting them upon stage or behind a table in front of fans, expecting the two sides to work it out for themselves.
Here’s a clumsy metaphor: it’s like throwing all the right ingredients into the pot and simply expecting a Michelin star meal to come out the other end. Any chef worth their salt will tell you, it takes more than that. It needs control, it needs temperament, it takes showmanship and ultimately it needs a firm sense of character which ReedPOP insist is what they invested in when they bought the MCM brand. But you can’t just buy that and expect it to just work. You need to nurture that goodwill and connect with your audience. You can’t just expect an app to do the heavy lifting of connecting to your fanbase – especially when it’s not updated at a convenient pace.
The Grand Experiment continues.
And, oh yeah, you really, really need to get venue security in that knows how to deal with nerds. What is it with comic cons, do they find the most obstinate and sour-faced people on their books for those specific weekends or is it a general job requirement??