This past weekend saw me attending the Showmasters run London Film and Comic Con. Anyone who knows me as a creator (for LGBTQ+ superhero comic series, The Pride) might be surprised to hear that. Hell, possibly anyone who’s just followed me online, as I have loudly decried Showmasters shows for a long time. In fact, for the last three years (or thereabouts) I boycotted them.
It’s a long and tawdry story, much of which is probably best left off the internet, but involved the organisation of the comics section of Showmasters show by the previous organiser performing that duty for Showmasters. At that time, comics, both Pros and small, indie press like myself, were treated like an afterthought — which, frankly, is putting it mildly. We were absolutely mistreated. Regularly misinformed, moved without notice, and hidden in the venues of their shows, and when we complained we were occasionally yelled at right there, publicly, on the show floor.
The previous organiser of comics areas at Showmasters burned a lot of bridges among the UK independent creator community and the professionals alike; but he’s gone now.
As Tony Lee, comic creator and last minute organiser of the Comic Zone at LFCC, himself explained, Lee was brought in on relatively short notice and a drastically cut budget with the specific goal of not only running the Comic Zone after the previous organiser had been removed, but also improving it and even mending those bridges.
When I learned of Lee’s role, I publicly noted my surprise on Twitter as Showmasters, in my mind at that time, were the worst offenders of treated comics creators like rubbish yet still wanting to use the term ‘Comic Con’ and the attraction that has. Lee invited me to be part of the Bleeding Cool section within Comic Zone he set up, along with Rich Johnston, and very much so I could see for myself how LFCC and potentially Showmasters shows as a whole, could change.
I agreed, even though this would mean missing MCM Manchester, where I have historically done very well and have had a fabulous time (a queer comic in Manchester? Yeah, you can imagine, it does brilliantly there). In my mind, I could not continue to gripe about Showmasters if I was not willing to give them a chance when they say they’ll change. That being said, I went in with low expectations; no offence to Lee, but a great deal of damage had already been done, so low expectations indeed.
Coming out the other end — I am surprised, and yes, relieved, to report that Showmasters have shown a great deal of good will and promise to make a significant improvement for us comics types going forward.
Now, naturally, I know my experience had to be taken with a pinch of salt as I was invited as a Guest, and would be treated differently than the indie creators who purchased table spaces in the Artists Alley/Small Press section. However, I did speak with a number of creators from both aspects of the Comics Zone to gauge their feelings of this show, and previous history with the show, and thoughts on where it was going.
Similarly, as with any show, not every single person will have had the exact same experience, and any such creators reading this, I implore you to include your experiences in the comments.
However, what I found of the weekend was a convention unlike other conventions from Showmasters in the past. Not completely perfect, but certainly not as terrible for the comics creators as I once knew them to be.
The Comic Zone is still held upstairs in the Olympia along the Gallery, which circles and overlooks the main show floor. While some may bemoan this location, it’s actually not as bad as they’ve had at other venues at other times (I have known the Comic Zone to be placed in the most obscure places, effectively hiding it’s presence). The Gallery is visible throughout, and unlike at other shows past, I noticed a number of maps around that fully explained where each section was and their access points. This, in itself, was an improvement, however, I still have to admit to not seeing such maps on their website ahead of time. Certainly many Guests of Comic Zone were provided maps which could be used on social media, but that puts all the work on the creator, and not the organiser of the event, so I hope they look into that for future shows.
Similarly, as far as the Guests of Comic Zone are concerned, we seemed to all agree to being treated incredibly well by Lee and his staff of runners who constantly made sure we were doing okay and happy to resolve any issues that came up. Again, this was Guest treatment, but as I understand it it was much better than treatment in the past. In fact, many from Guests and the Small Press section seemed to agree that an atmosphere had been lifted, and people actually enjoyed being there more.
Speaking to those in the Small Press section, those I spoke to seemed to agree that the show as a whole felt a lot better and that they felt a lot less like an afterthought. They admitted there were still problems to be sure, but that this might indeed be the first steps in the right direction. Likewise, some who were happy to discuss sales admitted that they had not been spectacular but certainly better than they had been before at the same show. I’ll go into that more a little later on.
As I say, nothing was perfect. There were still some organisational hiccups and errors, which of course are common at all shows, but always seemed more so at Showmasters ones. However, when these were brought up it seemed that people were much more eager and willing to get those issues sorted as soon as possible. I’d never experienced that at Showmasters before, so that was good to see.
Going into sales, I’m not going to give exact figures, but I will say this was for me a good selling show. However, not the best selling show I have ever had in London. In fact, for me to do London shows, particularly if I am paying for a table too, I really need a very good or even exceptionally selling show. Travel and accommodation are big factors for me in that area. And indeed, speaking to those in the Small Press aspect of the Comic Zone, it seemed a common feeling.
Certainly for those living closer where travel etc are less of a financial concern, this show is definitely worthwhile, but those coming from further afield might find they should take a moment to consider. For me, if I had paid for a table, too, I’d probably have just made a small profit on the show, so it would be enough to make me consider it (especially if it again clashed with another, traditionally much better selling for me, show).
This, however, is something all comics creators should be wary of doing, anyway.
It’s also worth noting that I think there could still be improvements yet to make. As it is currently set up, the Small Press section and Comic Zone Guests are actually pretty separate. Guests were on one side of the Gallery in a kind of alcove set up, while the Small Press were the other side (and starting to come around the corners a bit too) leaning against the railings and facing outwards. This left a large footspace in both sections that meant people would regularly walk past either area without being near enough to even really look at the tables much.
Many of us indie creators (myself and the Small Press area people I spoke with) felt that both aspects of Comic Zone would benefit from the two areas being brought together. Same structure (Guests area layout as it, and the Small Press tables up to the railings facing out), but working out the space requirements, there would still be plenty of room for free movement up and down the aisles (the Gallery is surprisingly spacious) and would open the Gallery to possibly more Comic Guests and Small Press or spreading out some of their other Guests.
As I understand it, the Small Press section and Comic Zone guests section are handled by two separate people (understandable as each would require full time levels of attention), but working together, still with a separate focus, could only help the Comic Zone continue to improve and grow. Likewise, one complaint I heard from Small Press attendees was that they didn’t really seem to get any attention from organisers, volunteers or runners, so bringing everything together more may help as the teams on the floor on the day won’t be as stretched thing and can provide that element of support and care that Small Press attendees still feel is missing.
One of Lee’s aims he said was to make LFCC a comic con where comics are a focus. It’s still not that, and it may never be that. Not due to any failing on Lee’s part, and perhaps not entirely Showmasters either, but the audience of this show are primarily there for the celebrity signings and photo-ops. I spoke to a number of fans online who openly stated they were only there to get a ton of signatures, some having even flown in from other countries like Germany and Spain. That’s fine, and there’s room for that kind of show too of course, but while LFCC may not be comics focused or make comics a huge aspect of the show, this year’s felt like it was a more important and welcome part of the show than I’ve ever known it to be before at a Showmasters event. That in itself is an important and huge step in the right direction for the show, and a great deal of thanks has to go to Tony Lee and those involved in arranging it this year, especially given significant obstacles.
Hopefully, these changes and steps will continue, and not just at LFCC. At the time of writing, Lee was not going to be doing another show, and he certainly is not involved with Showmasters other shows outside of London. It will be interesting to see who comes in to help next, and what changes are kept or made going forward, and if they roll out to the other events too. For now, Showmasters have at least become a show worth keeping an eye on again for comic creators, and will hopefully continue that trend.