The Mark Searby Review: MCM LONDON COMIC CON (ExCel Centre, 25th-27th October 2019)

Mark Searby feels the energy was back in the ExCel for this October’s MCM London Comic Con London - it has been sorely missed. He says: here’s to more shows from the organisation like this past weekend...

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‘Energy’ – a word that can’t really be levelled at the past twelve months of MCM London events, with recent shows demonstrating a lack of momentum and enthusiasm. However, it seems, this may be a period in the organisation’s history that can be seen as a glitch, with this past weekend’s MCM London Comic Con returning some of that energy. In fact, at times the capital’s ExCel Centre was positively throbbing with energy – a return to form for the prestigious London show!

While the number of special guests weren’t spectacularly huge in numbers, the ones on display were still big enough draws to pull in fans from many different fractions of pop culture fandom. The big headliner of the weekend was arguably STAR TREK/SPACED‘s Simon Pegg on a rare convention outing, there to do autographs, photographs and even a panel or two (Pegg even surprised fans in the cinema truck by introducing a screening of the masterpiece that is HOT FUZZ).

From the world of Hollywood, man-mountain Jason Momoa and legendary character actress Alfie Woodard represented their upcoming Apple TV offering SEE, and young-un’s Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff from the recent IT films were also there all weekend. Power Ranger, and all-round Best-Dressed Guest, Jason David Frank did his usual party trick of drawing in the big crowds at his various auto and photo ops; Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario himself, was also in the building signing and taking photos.

Numerous other guests featured over the weekend including Lindsay Jones, Nakia Burrise, YungBlud, Tara Strong on her first outing to a UK convention, and Nolan North celebrating his birthday, to name just a few. These and more ensured the Special Guests areas stayed busy throughout the whole weekend.

In the comics side of things, Artist Alley has grown noticeably and exponentially over the past few years at MCM, under ReedPOP’s umbrella – this year was no different and the area always seemed to be bustling with traders and consumers alike, all very nicely spaced out and with a sign at the end of each row as to who you could find down each of the tables. The little touches like that made it all the more accessible when trying to hunt down your favourite artists in the alleyways.

Niche and experimental media has always been something that MCM has prided itself in representing at its events, either in terms of anime, streaming content, or gaming. Indeed, if you are a gamer then MCM really really pushed the boat out in terms of bringing out the big guns: Sony Playstation arrived with what felt like half the convention floor space as they demoed new games, attendees trying out their new VR games.

While many familiar elements were in place, all around the show, everything seemed bigger and bolder. American toy company Funko is finally slowly embracing the mad cult-like panic for their exclusives at a convention and Saturday morning, when the shutters lifted, saw a mass stampede towards their towering booth.

That initial throng of people felt like a chaotic mess, where it seemed there was no organisation keeping things in check. Eventually, a semblance of order was restored but Funko are seriously going to have to look into how their lines are managed in future as it could be quite dangerous. That aside, their business was relentless throughout the show, selling out of most of their exclusives before the end of each day – a sure sign that you’re doing something right and ensuring repeat business.

One thing that seemed to appear on more and more vendors stalls this year was the ability to ‘crate dig’, with boxes upon boxes of computer games, figures, books, jewellery and more. I saw attendees constantly rummaging through to find that elusive thing they need that they didn’t think they needed, a clever idea to keep people browsing your stall even longer.

Still one of my favourite areas of MCM Comic Con is the Pop Asia area, with plenty of vibrant sights and sounds on display, and tempting food stalls serving up an array of different and tasty Asian flavours. This year, the area seemed more popular than ever before for these as lines bled into other lines – it was difficult to know where the queue for the bubble ice cream started and the line for Katsu curries ended. It was just a merry-go-around where you constantly grabbed something from each stall until you burst at the seams.

There were many live acts on the Pop Asia Stage: passing by one time, for example, I saw a dance troupe performing to a standing room only crowd. I promise you, if you attend MCM Comic Con in London and don’t visit the Asia section, then you’re missing out on a significant, important portion of the convention, a different edge than most other cons wouldn’t think to include.

The activations – those interactive attractions, based around a certain show or film or IP – remains a puzzler for audiences at MCM Comic Cons because, in the past, they haven’t really been pushed and attendees have yet to properly get their heads around what they are. Yet, over the past year or so, there have been more and more of these free activations appearing and the crowds are really responding to them.

This year was possibly the biggest one yet for these activations and ones that would tempt 99% of people to have a photo taken or take part in an activity. While it might seem like a pointless endeavour, brave attendees willing to give them a chance find that they very much aren’t – not only do those taking part to receive a souvenir of their experience (something like a printed photo followed by a digital photo, or maybe a 3D digital photo), there is also the ability to grab a more substantial piece of merch, like a free t-shirt, a keyring or some other piece of memorabilia.

Sure, this kind of thing is hardly news at some other bigger cons but it’s still a pretty recent addition to the MCM Comic Con flavour, especially at it felt there seemed to be more swag given out at the activations this year, even more than has in recent years at the likes of, say, SDCC. This is clearly a growth area, a way for attendees to share the brands and IP’s virally with friends, and companies like Sky Atlantic, Netflix, Warner Bros and Universal will hopefully continue to take full advantage of all that organic promotion in the future.

Right, then: Panels! In the past, panels at MCM Comic-Con have been considered ‘meh, okay’ or even less. The Live Stage on the Exhibition Floor offered a non-stop revolving door of smaller presentations and the individual smaller stages are busy without being packed to the rafters. My panels beef, however, is with the Main Stage and how it’s utilised.

This massive space is only being used three or four times a day and even then, some of the panels presented aren’t going to drag anyone in (‘MCM Sneak Peaks’, anyone? Hardly a draw.). Yet, this past weekend, MCM had panels featuring the likes of Simon Pegg, the kids from IT, Jason Mamoa, BBC One’s DRACULA, Hasbro, DOCTOR WHO and the hugely popular EuroCosplay Championship Final. These are BIG panels.

Yes, it’s great to see MCM embracing the big panels more and more, with a very slick and snazzy presentation style and great guests on stage – my criticism is that they need to do more of these each day. With more promotion and encouragement, we could see the Main Stage being a central feature in much the same way that panel shows are regarded in North American conventions, with many people who would spend the entire weekend in the Main Stage room to see panel after panel after panel. Currently, however, it seems that the Main Stage is packing them in for one headlining presentation out of four throughout the day, with the space left near empty for the one directly afterwards.

Programming is key here and, yes, it will take time. I just think it is a section of the event that has so much more potential than being used at present. However, credit where it is due, this past weekend pulled in some big guns and that’s a huge stepping stone to hopefully running even bigger panels in the future. And more of them.

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