I’m guessing that when Rich first started trying to put together a comics convention in Inverness a lot of folks thought it wouldn’t work. We’ve been sadly lacking in comics conventions in Scotland for some years, with the welcome exception of Prestonpandemonium (and it is odd considering how many writers and artists Scotland has contributed to the form), so you’d think if there was going to be a fresh attempt it would probably take place somewhere more central, like in Edinburgh or Glasgow. But up in Inverness? In the heart of the Scottish Highlands? In the middle of winter? But they did it.
Actually, although an Edinburgh location would have been far handier for me I’m glad Hi-Ex was actually in Inverness – the journey up here is worth it on its own. Going from Edinburgh I crossed the mighty Forth Rail Bridge (a magnificent piece of Victorian over-engineering which has become a landmark), the coastal train route through the Kingdom of Fife, snow-dusted hills flanking the rich farmland in-between. And then as you move north, past Perth, as if a switch has been flung, you move from a winter landscape of some ice and a light sprinkling of snow to deep, white, pure snow. The hills grow larger and more majestic, all painted in white, glittering in a clear winter sun. Rivers flow fast from winter rainfall, except where the ice holds them fast; forests are decked with white, fallen trees with their skeletal branches lie covered in snow looking for all the world like the white bones of some dead animal with a long, thin spine and ribs.
(taking the Iron Road to the Highlands; click for the larger version. You can see many more pictures from the Hi-Ex comics con weekend on the FPI Flickr page starting here)
Deer run and dance across this winter landscape; I saw a young buck leaping across a field and into the treeline leaving a line of hoofprints across the otherwise smooth snow; birds of prey soar above the mountains, lords of all they survey as you enter the Highlands, where signs are in English but also in the ancient Gaelic tongue. And this is just what you can see from the window of a train: some of the most rugged, beautiful and wild countryside in the whole of Europe – welcome to the Highlands of Scotland. Yes, I know – apologies for sounding a little like a travelogue. But just think – I live in this country and even I was utterly entranced by the beauty out of my window on the way up. If you’ve never been here just think how much more amazing it would look like to you. Besides, no rule saying you can’t enjoy the journey as much as the destination, is there?
But to comics – that is, after all what I was heading into the capital of the Highlands for (the magnificent scenery rolling past my window was a bonus). Hi-Ex, the first major comics convention staged in Inverness. The day started encouragingly when a fellow comics-fan got on an hour into the trip, spotted me reading a proof of a new graphic novel from Top Shelf (This Salty Air, of which more in a later posting) and realised I was another comics geek on my way northwards, so we spent a couple of pleasant hours admiring the scenery and talking comics. Arriving in Inverness itself it was a fairly brief but scenic walk from the train station across the bridge and along the banks of the River Ness, swollen and fast-flowing with recent rainfall and melting snow running off from the hills and mountains. And we arrived at our venue, the Eden Court Theatre, which has only recently re-opened fully after a multi-million pound refurbishment, which from what I saw looks to have been very well done.
(the newly refurbished Eden Court Theatre and 19th century Bishop’s Palace in Inverness)
Nestling right by the river the Eden Court is a marriage of old and new – there is the modern complex with cinema, theatres and halls, bar and café, then the older part, the old Bishop’s Palace, a handsome 19th century building of native stone, now incorporated right into the fabric of the modern building; in fact, as you can see from this photograph (below), it literally is joined right into a hallway of the newer structure in a manner I rather appreciated. Looking through what had once been an outside bay window, but which now opened into the hallway, you could see right into the dealer room and the back of the FutureQuake stand. Time to head in past groups of folks wandering about clutching FPI bags (you can‘t get away from us!).
(where the old meets the new – the modern Eden Court Theatre incorporates the 19th century Bishop’s Palace where the artist’s and dealer’s rooms were to be found)
Okay, let’s be straight – this isn’t on the scale of the Bristol comics expo. It doesn’t pretend to be. After all this is a first time event, first time such a thing has been staged here among the Highlands and the space is also much smaller than the large main hall of stalls and tables at Bristol. It seemed almost as busy at some points though and there were tables manned and showing off wares, from our own FPI team (hi, guys! Thanks for looking after my stuff!) to some of our own British small press folks, other retailers and Waverley Books publisher Ron Grosset had an impressive stand up with Cam Kennedy on hand, boasting a fine array of the various editions (including, very appropriately given the location, the Gaelic version) of Cam and Alan Grant’s adaptation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped, along with some of Cam’s artwork for the imminent new adaptation by the pair of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (my favourite Stevenson tale), which, as with last year‘s Kidnapped, will again be part of a major reading campaign in conjunction with the Edinburgh City of Literature campaign (check their site for various events coming up).
(Waverley Books publisher Ron Grosset and artist Cam Kennedy working hard at Hi-Ex)
Ron also introduced me to a chap from the National Library of Scotland, who told me about the major exhibition of graphic novel art they have planned for this spring. “Local Heroes – the Art of the Graphic Novel” will run at the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh (the bridge next along from where our Edinburgh FPI store sits) from April 4th to June 1st and, among other works, will include a large number of works by Cam Kennedy. I’m looking forward to that and no doubt I’ll be able to update you further on the exhibition closer to the time; how encouraging is it to see an institution like the National Library taking such an active role in examining and celebrating sequential art? By my count this means in Scotland within the last twelve months or so we will have seen several graphic novel events (for the first time) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, comics writers talking at the prestigious Edinburgh Lectures, two large reading campaigns using graphic novels, the upcoming exhibition, a librarian’s conference discussing graphic novels and the inaugural Hi-Ex convention in Inverness. That’s pretty good going and it also means a lot of coverage in the mainstream media too, which means our beloved medium has been getting repeatedly exposed to the wider public. I don’t know about you, but I find all of this extremely encouraging; it seems as if, handled correctly, there is a new appetite for the medium and not just among the regular, long-time comics fans. Yes, I know, we’ve seen booms in wider interest in graphic novels before and they haven’t lasted, failed to fulfil their full promise, but this feels different: it seems spread over a wider readership and is taking on board teachers, librarians and literary festival and mainstream newspapers.
But back to Hi-Ex – moving through the rooms I passed the horror make-up folks who were providing some rather interesting new looks for some of the attendees – who needs botox when you can have fresh, livid-looking scars and zombie makeovers? My suggestion that a zombie makeover be followed by a trip to the café section to demand brains was, sadly, not taken up. It was amusing not only the adults but the significant number of kids who had come along; I found out later some of the art classes and other events in the morning had also been a big success with the younger fans (one group were eagerly stalking the rooms looking for some visitors from the Beano they‘d seen earlier, this really did have events for all ages), which has to be good for us – get those kids hooked on comics at this tender age and we’ve got them for life!
(John Higgins gives us a big grin for the camera; he told fans one of the things he loves about art is each time he starts a new sketch it is a mystery to him what he will draw, the idea just comes to him and off he goes – great to watch)
The artists had a nice room all to themselves, which at some point struggled to let all the fans in at the same time. The heavy storms that have wracked Britain in the last few days (for those readers outside the UK, our poor islands have been seriously battered by winter storms) meant that there were some guests who wanted to be there but simply couldn’t make it (sadly Alan Grant was snowbound further south – stuck in his huge Batman house, as Cam Kennedy joked – while, ironically, up in the Highlands we had snow everywhere but no real problem travelling). Nonetheless we had some good home-grown talent who had made the journey safely (honestly, folks, forget the old Sawney Bean tales, none of the locals will kill you and eat your bones as you travel up north, that’s just a silly fear. Anyway, more productive to steal people’s identity these days than club ‘em and eat ‘em). Among them John Higgins, Colin MacNeil, Cam Kennedy, Dave Kendall, Declan Graeme Neil Reid, Declan Shalvey and two very popular female manga artists who always seemed to have groups around them, especially the younger readers, who were eager to have themselves sketched as manga characters.
(Gary Erskine, riding high with the brilliant new Dan Dare series from Virgin, was apopular draw)
And there was a former FPI staffer among them, an artist whose work I’ve really been enjoying in recent weeks – Gary Erskine. Gary was proving a very popular draw with the fans and happily chatting away with them as he created some great Dan Dare sketches (on which note a big thank you to Gary for the cracking DD sketch he did for me), talking about how he first got into the industry when some of his work was shown to some guests during a signing in our Glasgow store where he worked which lead from one thing to another. Sadly, he noted, that sort of route seems to be one which is rarer and rarer these days, with far fewer series where a new artist can be easily introduced and allowed to learn and develop their way until they are ready to deal with major titles and characters.
(Gary Erskine sketches a very familiar face for some happy fans – myself included)
I suspect he’s right there – Colin MacNeil and Cam Kennedy made related remarks during a panel where they commented that even the stalwart 2000 AD, although still bringing in some fresh talent, has a large pool of long-term, old-hands like themselves to draw on (no pun intended), which naturally limit’s the opportunities for newer artists to move in. It’s certainly something the industry should be thinking about in my opinion – where do our next generation of top artists come from if they don’t get the opportunities to try out and develop under a decent editor’s guidance? Interesting trivia point for you: Gary told me that his interpretation of Digby is largely based on his partner’s father. When he saw the page in issue #2 where Dan and Digby are re-united and realised he had been the model he was delighted because he read the originals in the 50s.
(Dennis the Menace in the complex’s foyer; I didn’t see Gnasher, perhaps dogs weren’t allowed inside)
A trip back through the foyer and past the bar (and the large Dennis the Menace – that’s the D.C. Thomson Dennis, of course) brought me to the cinema (plenty of screenings to entertain both young and old) and the handsome new theatres, where the panel discussions were being held. Trying to get round everything and talk to folk meant I only caught some of the panels, but the discussion with Colin MacNeil, Cam Kennedy, Fraser Coull and Mark Harvey (from the Glasgow based independent SF/superhero web TV series Night is Day, which you can check out here) on Scots in comics (and why we seem to be so prevalent in the industry) was one I managed to see and was quite interesting, with possible reasons given ranging from the influence of the mighty D.C. Thomson and their acting as a training ground for upcoming talent to the fact that for half the year Scotland is cold and dark which discourages going out and encourages sitting around inside thinking up ideas.
(Fraser Coull, Mark Harvey, Colin MacNeil and Cam Kennedy on the Scots in Comics panel at Hi-Ex)
I also managed to catch half of the panel on small press publishing in the UK with Graeme Neil Reid, Declan Shalvey and Paul Scott where, among Declan’s observations on why comics artists didn’t have groups of adoring girlfriends hanging on their every brush stroke, the guys discussed the small press scene, making it clear that no-one should enter into the field thinking they are going to be the next big thing and rake in the plaudits and cash, although it could be a good place to begin establishing a reputation which is handy if you intend to ever try and go professional (advice was also given to try your hand at very short pieces to being with, which you could submit to more established small press imprints like Futurequake and other anthologies). However the consensus was that most folks in the wonderfully varied small press scene will be doing this as a ‘time consuming hobby’ not because they thought they might magically be discovered but because it was something they wanted to do and something they enjoyed, which has to be the best reason for doing anything really.
Before I had to head for my train home I did another circuit, intending to talk to the artists again before leaving, only to find out that even as evening fell on the Highlands they were not only still busy with fans but actually even busier than they had been earlier. Very encouraging. I checked in again with my colleagues on the FPI stand who reported brisk business; talking again with some of the others who had tables in the dealer room, like Dave from the very fine Futurequake (which has essentially become a micro-publisher with an impressive stable of British small press titles and talents, all produced to very professional standards; anyone with an interest in the Brit small press has to feel encouraged at their range) and Graeme Neil Reid (picking up the latest Something Wicked horror anthology from FutureQuake and Graeme’s One Last Time, a highly enjoyable retrospective collection of his early work from the 90s, including strips published in Joe Pruett’s prestigious Negative Burn) .
(we can now officially say Graeme Neil Reid has sold out. No, not his artistic integrity, his comics)
I asked all of them how their experience had been and had it been worth the trip? They all responded in the affirmative – they had all been enjoying the con and, yes, it had been worth it both in terms of exposure and financially (FutureQuake’s Dave happily reported that decent sales meant he would indeed be eating this evening and not trying to pull raw fish from the nearby river like some comics geek Gollum), while Graeme had actually sold out of some of his titles he had brought up. Note to some of the other folks in the Brit comics community who were wondering if Inverness was worth adding to their list of cons to try attending – that looks like a big yes from where I am standing and from some of the small press folks who came along, so if you are reading this and wondering if you should think about attending any future one, drop the boys a line and ask them how it went for them.
Of course, the question is, will there be another one for them to come to in the future? Organiser Rich was constantly moving around from room to room, from panel to film screening to talks and workshops, keeping an eye on things, making last minute adjustments occasioned by expected guest being stuck by the weather and all the million and one other things than need to be sorted during a con, but I managed to talk to him for a few brief minutes. He and his comrades had obviously been mad to even attempt a comics con in the Highlands. Or had they? Had it been worth all the sweat, all the organisation, all the stress? Yes, he grinned, totally worth it – something that folks thought couldn’t be put together, couldn’t get some good talent coming along to appear, couldn’t get much of an attendance so far north in the country (in winter) and yet here it was and it had been a success. With another day to go he wasn’t sure of the exact numbers, but by mid afternoon on the Saturday they had already seen more folks turning up for the con than they hoped they’d get for the whole weekend. I’d call that a result.
(FutureQuake’s Dave with Hi-Ex organiser Rich, tired but happy and from the direction of their eyes looking at something much more interesting off to the side)
So the big question – halfway through the con, being pulled every which way checking on panels, events and artists – would he do it all again? Would they try and put together another Hi-Ex? Another tired grin from Rich – yes, they want to hold another one. In fact they are already talking about possible guests to invite, with hints that someone pretty major is already interested in a future gig. I’m pretty damned happy to hear that and hoping I’m going to be heading back up through the Highlands again in another year. And given how well this first con has gone I’m hoping to see more guests, more publishers and more fans there too.
(cold weather but warm reception for comics fans in Inverness; check the FPI Flickr stream for many more pics of the Hi-Ex convention weekend starting here)