The International Comic Expo, or ICE, held each year in the city of Birmingham in the UK’s West Midlands is one of those events that I’d heard of, had heard incredibly positive things about, but never actually attended before. Like NICE, Lakes and the like, I had been told that it was one of those comics conventions that actually, y’know, dealt with comics, in the face of a growing con culture that embraces all other ancillary media with a rabid passion. No Funkos, knockoffs or cheaply printed film posters to be found, here.
And so, with all this positivity, I contacted organiser Shane Chebsey, arranged a press pass and, very early on a cold and grey Saturday morning, weaved my way down the M6 towards a city I’ve never been particularly enamoured with – while it may be the second largest in the UK, Birmingham has a convoluted road system to match, and it and I had tangled in the past. (It had beaten me, emphatically, both times and I had vowed, ‘…never again!”)
Around twenty past ten, beating the streets and following Google Maps in a bit of a mad circle, I eventually found myself wandering up a side street to see a small line of dedicated attendees, lined up for what was, I discovered, the Early Bird entrance at 10am. This did not bode well. I was running a bit late myself and to find that people still lining up outside with the doors open, usually smacks of poor organisation.
However, it soon became clear that it was more a case of the Expo being quite the big draw for the hardcore ICE fans – indeed, Chebsey himself was manning the QR code scanner and welcoming people into the building as quickly as he could muster. These were the last of the horde, before the General Attendees started making an appearance in half an hour. I was issued my badge and lanyard, and in I bounded…
The first thing I discovered was The Studio Exhibition Space is actually nothing but stairs. With a epic staircase and lift system running through the centre of the building, with an accompanying maze of open exhibition spaces, with meeting rooms squirrelled down various corridors, I felt that that I may get a little lost. Apparently, however, my first port of call was right at the top of the building so I thought that would at least get my bearings by starting from the top down. Up I climbed.
What I discovered was, where I headed was actually the room where a number of the Headliners were being stashed away: Robbie Morrison, Ian Edginton, Andi Watson and Charlie Adlard had all set up shop in the Bond Room, along with the Markosia chaps, and Bob Layton was also there in a corner, glancing over his shades at the passing punters and hawking his incredible artwork (with breath-taking price tags to match) in his usual bombastic American fashion.
On my part, I started in this room to track down Ian Churchill, who I had met at London Super Comic Con back in March and approached to produce the artwork for the SDCC UK Attendees Facebook Group. He had done us incredibly proud, coming up with a gorgeous Ian McKellen/‘Gandalf’ piece which adorned the shirts in San Diego this summer. I felt it was only fair that he got, at least, a t-shirt in return – Ian grinned like a Cheshire Cat when presented with it. Lovely: job done.
From there, then, I went exploring: I hadn’t been provided with a floor plan or a schedule so I was enjoying a period of freewheeling. That sounds disorganised but it was more a case of wanting to not follow a set plan, as I usually do at conventions and get all in a tizzy fitting it all in, but letting the Expo come to me naturally. The rest of fourth floor was occupied by plenty of artist talent, either showcasing their own self-published work or pieces they had on sale; the third floor was more of the same, with some big names taking up the back wall, especially of the 2000AD variety – John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra were lording it up as the big ‘kings of the hill’ with (relatively) younger turks Greg Staples, Phil Winslade and Declan Shalvey. (The latter was one I wanted to track down, having a Big Bang Comics variant of Injection I wanted him to sign. No sign of partner-in-crime Jordie Bellaire – as, apparently, she had had quite the knees-up in Brum the night before and felt she needed a few extra zzzz’s. I’ll come back to her…)
Elsewhere on the third floor, right at the back of the building down a corridor was a presentation room where the delightful chaps of podcast The Geek Syndicate – Barry ‘Nuge’ Nugent and David ‘Monts’ Monteith were holding court over a range of panels. I came in halfway through their ‘Tales From The Comic Shop’ panel with Close Encounters Comics proprietor Bub Chatal (accompanied by a charming staff member whose name I didn’t catch) regaled the audience of stories of rabid comics fans (and Twitter stalkers), signing event curry cook-outs and bewildered elderly Saw mask enthusiasts. Nuge and Monts were affable hosts, even after getting a bit of a heckling from a female CE fan behind me who clearly had an axe to grind. C’est la vie.
I was planning on moving on but the next panels title intrigued me: ‘Time For Dredd To Take The Long Walk’? Really? That’s what you’re going with? In Birmingham, one of the biggest selling demographics of 2000AD in the UK?? Okay, lads, let’s see what you have in store for this one…
Many people, when faced down with the hungry, rapacious fan base of a character that many assume belongs in the annals of comics history, are gobsmacked by how many will come out of the woodwork when it comes to Dredd – Nuge and Monts certainly gave it the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ when they glanced and were struck that they were now talking to a full room, standing room only, all of whom were adamantly against the idea of their anti-hero disappearing any time soon.
Thankfully, Judge Dredd creators themselves, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, with writer Robbie Morrison and current Dredd artist Greg Staples, all voiced the opinion that the man himself – whilst being published today in an age which most resembles the Mega City One of Dredd’s own 1970’s storylines – still had a relevant place in the contemporary world. Tell you what, take a listen to this recording of the panel, see what your thoughts on the topic are for yourself…
A lot of fun. From there, I went on a bit of a wander: the second floor had plenty of Small Press and self-published creators, all hoping that the crowd would stop at their tables, even for a little while at which they would launch into their pitch. I always struggle with these rooms – not because I’m not one to be desperate sold to like a street market but because I don’t want these talented and driven souls to expend their energy, yet again, on someone who is there more as an observer. Don’t want to lead them on; I have never been one to be flirted to.
Fair play, though: the audience in attendance that was on the receiving end of these pitches were all target audience. While waiting for my Shavley signing, I talked to some attendees in the line, saying I thought that ICE wasn’t as busy as I thought it was going to be. They all said that they weren’t surprised themselves at all – ICE isn’t a con which goes out of its way to grab passing trade from the city centre. And they were right: everyone I talked to, everyone who was there to explore the tables for new and exciting talent, were all hardcore comics and sequential art enthusiasts. If anything, it was incredibly refreshing to not be constantly bumping into a cos-player or bumping into a table selling cheap tat from a Tupperware bowl. These attendees were all incredibly serious about the craft and medium of comics, to a man. A heady brew.
That kind of atmosphere also lent itself to talent doing some heavy networking. The Atrium restaurant area on the second floor was always teaming with artists, writers and publishers, all huddled in intense conversation. Upstairs was a second seating area but, from below, it looked more like a board meeting than a luncheon: I left well alone.
Once I had devoured my very tasty (but, to be expected, highly overpriced) sandwich and tea, I headed out again – only to bump into organiser Shane Chebsey, someone who I had noticed from the corner of my eye being incredibly hands-on wherever he went, making sure exhibitors were being looked after, that lines were being managed properly, that no-one was being neglected. I know that it was only, technically three floors of Expo but that’s still a fair old space to cover and Shane was making sure everybody at his shindig were well looked after and happy.
Asking if I was enjoying myself, I told Shane that I was, immensely, bouncing from floor to floor and having quite the giggle in the Geek Syndicate panel room. Motioning down a corridor, he asked if I was heading to the AfterShock Comics panel, then – it was something that I didn’t know was taking place and certainly not just down the hall. (It was the one fly in the ointment for the whole event: the sineage was particularly lacking with no indication what was happening down any particular corridor or room. You kind of had to discover it all for yourself with some small matter of detective work.)
And so, with Shane in tow – he wanted to sit in on this panel, too – I was given the introductory pitch of new comics upstart AfterShock Comics, being headed up by Editor-In-Chief (and former Marvel Comics Executive Editor) Michael Marts, an experienced editor with time and writer Joe Pruett. Marts had headed over to Brum to present the plans for the company, showcasing the impressive writing and art talent they have lined up for launch, with all the talent retaining the ownership of their works. Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner and (personal favourite) Marguerite Bennett are all already lined up to produce for the company in a business model that sounded familiar to fans of Image Comics: bold, inventive creator-led properties with the company focusing on quality and story from the get-go.
Being a highly focused audience at ICE, it came as no surprise that the audience for this panel were made up of press, interested in seeing what this brash young buck on the block had to offer, but also a number of comics artists and writers, determined to put their face in the frame. Questions about content ownership, about page rates, about submissions: Mike was eager to at least give them all time, a handshake and a business card. This is a collective with a lot of capital and stake in it from inception, with big goals and lofty ambitions (no doubt greedily eyeing up the lucrative multi-media deal that’s been recently afforded to Fraction & DeConnick‘s Milkfed Criminal Masterminds). I myself was intrigued by the intention to fold ‘adult content’ and horror titles under the core AfterShock banner – two styles that usually get their own off-shoot (I asked if there was going to be an ‘AfterShock AfterDark’ and was told by Marts that I really should get that copyrighted before they did…!).
All in all, I was impressed, not so much by the presentation which was something that could be hawked over a press release – and, apparently, it will, some time this week – but in the dedication of Marts to even make the journey in the first place, over to a country that has made its lasting literary and artistic impression on comics, perhaps with the intention to woo talent back to the States with him in a manner not seen since the 80’s. Expect to hear of a number of UK names being courted by AfterShock in the near future.
My one last stop of the event was heading back up to the Third Floor to find a chirpy and effervescent Jordie Bellaire, now fully recovered from her whiskey-fuelled blow-out the night before, to sign my Injection. (I asked who was usually the ‘bad influence’ on such occasions, her or Duncan – she was not-so-forced to admit that that honour was usually hers!). Jordie was bantering with an event volunteer who was being won over sufficiently to run out into the Birmingham streets to fetch some coloured craft paper for her and doing so in quite the winning, sarcastic manner – I already admired her art before but here, confronted with this bubbly American ex-pat with with sharp wit. I fell in love straight away. I even forgot to take a picture. You better not tell t’Missus.
So, that was ICE – farewell, we hardly knew ye. I’ll admit, I bailed way too early; like I said, I had been burnt by the Birmingham traffic system before and I had to make my way back to Yorkshire for a DJ-ing gig but I was utterly enamoured by the heady mix of industry networking and stratospheric talent on show. I missed so much – I missed catching up the Vice Press crew that has teamed up with Ezquerra for a limited screen print run; missing the Dave Gibbons panel (which doubly smarts as I pretty much barged into him as he was making his way to the panel room); missed meeting Jimmy Broxton in what was his exclusive convention appearance of 2015…
I’ve already promised to Shane that I will take the whole weekend out to attend the full ICE experience next year: train ride, hotel, evening shenanigans, the works. And, if you’re up for a comic convention that is literally nothing but, I would seriously recommend you do, too.
Thanks to Tripwire’s Joel Meadows for the use of a number of his excellent pics for this recap.