True Believers 2018 Recap

I began making comics and trying to draw “seriously” while at university in Manchester; buoyed by Kate Beaton and KC Green’s disregard for superheroes in spandex in favour of dry historical comedy and absurdist fiction, I began putting out my own comics. It was around this time the idea of appearing at a comic convention first appeared on my radar. I was vaguely aware of the likes of Thought Bubble, in neighbouring Leeds, and a few of the larger operations around my hometown of Cardiff. But back then it seemed impossible; Thought Bubble seemed like something for when I was better at it, which of course back then seemed impossible.

So about six months ago, it looked like I’d finally hit a bit of a stride with the illustrating; for the first time, I felt I had a selection of saleable items either ready or in progress, and enough to fill a convention table without being so embarrassed of their contents that I would spray curious passers-by with insect poison in an attempt to ward them off. While there was nothing to stop me applying to festivals and conventions in the preceding years, I always thought “next year”; “next year” would be the year I would be ready, with a colossal mountain of stock ready to sell. While I was still in Manchester in 2011, I was sure I would apply to Thought Bubble “next year”; I was similar convinced of that in 2012, when “next year” was 2013. I’m sure you see where this is going.

So I decided last year that “next year” would have to be it. It would have to be the “next year” that actually came. So in around October or November – around the time I’d begun work on Night Watch, when I had one full length comic for sale online and not much else – I started applying for conventions. I looked around for a nice convention to debut at, and eventually settled on True Believers, in Cheltenham. From what I could tell, it had a reputation as a friendly, manageable, welcoming convention, so I applied, and was accepted.

In the intervening months, I hammered out as much as I could – I redrew Gang Culture from the ground up, I put Night Watch out, got prints made, the full works – in order to have enough to sell. I was sure that booking onto a convention, and in doing so setting myself a deadline, would work – and it did. November to January was a productive period for me. But eventually, I actually had to pack up the comics and whatnot and actually attend the convention. My wife, ever supportive, accompanied me, and bleary-eyed last Saturday morning, we set off for Cheltenham.

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Fortunately, True Believers was as friendly and welcoming as I had heard – we were welcomed at the gate by colour-coded “agents”, who very kindly offered to bring our items to our table on a trolley from the car. We were dropped off near our table, where we were on a corner with Cardiff artist Sarah Millman, who was very enthusiastic and polite and reassuring about this brave new world of sitting behind a table full of things you’ve made. We set up, and we waited for the doors to open. I was entirely unsure of how it was going to go, but had made peace with the idea that I could go the entire day without selling a single thing – that the idea of attending True Believers was not to make fat bank, or even to recoup the cost of the table, but to get an idea of what to expect and to get my name in front of people. Fortunately, we did make the table deposit back, and a little on top; additionally, True Believers was a great human experience, in that we saw a lot of the good side of people; unbridled enthusiasm, authentic self-expression, and a sense that everyone had gathered to celebrate a commonality. There was no gatekeeping, none of the nastiness that can go hand-in-hand with (ugh) “nerd culture” that I was aware of; the most overtly negative thing I heard all day was about the weather. The vibe of the convention was very positive, I found, and was very glad of it.

The comics I’d brought did not sell in the numbers I had imagined – the prints did better than I expected, but the main source of income for the day was something I had almost left at home; a sketch gimmick called Death Roulette.

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The idea was reasonably simple - £5, spin the wheel, each number corresponds to an improbable mode of death, I draw the participant being killed in that manner, and that way they get a unique souvenir of their day at the racecourse. I ummed and ahhed about whether to bring it – it would, after all, mean being the only table to prominently feature a toy roulette wheel – but it proved more popular than I had imagined. I have dabbled with this sort of thing in the past; back in the days of Chat Roulette when normal people were checking out this novelty service (before it became a never-ending parade of half-hearted pervs lazily tugging at their ill-lit, low-bitrate appendages in plain and uninviting bedding), I used to play a game where I would put a card up offering to draw whatever they asked. I would then either fulfil their request as best I could or – if their request was unpleasant, or I felt it was in bad faith – draw them in a manner that I felt would make them unhappy (one shirtless American teenager asked for “boobs”, so I drew the boobs on him, which made him very cross indeed). You get the idea. I’m alright at drawing stuff on the hop, so I thought what the hell. Maybe one or two people will get a kick out of it. Plus, it takes the indecision out of it, and it’s something you know had to be drawn “live” (as opposed to a sketch of, say, Pregnant Waluigi or whatever, which could have been done ahead of time or whatever).

The promotional card that stood next to the roulette wheel.

The promotional card that stood next to the roulette wheel.

As I said, maybe one or two. To my surprise, nearly a dozen people took part, and enthusiastically. A further dozen hemmed and hawed about it, circling past the table several times and idly staring at the wheel, but ultimately lost their mettle when it came time to make a choice. Gutless cowards, every one.

Other sources of surprise included, but were not limited to:

-       The number of people who asked if I would be willing to draw their primary school-aged children being senselessly and gruesomely killed, their life snuffed out too soon in archive ink and alcohol markers (needless to say, I declined these requests);

-       The number of people who did not understand the concept of roulette, or had not seen the apparatus for it in the flesh before (these were not just children; some adults seemed puzzled by the equipment, and had queries about its mechanisms).

I won’t share them all, as they’re not really mine to share now, but I know this person has put theirs online (as they kindly tagged me in it) so this was my favourite. Thanks, Ryan.

Bad luck, Ryan.

Bad luck, Ryan.

The other big surprise of the day arrived while I was hurriedly drawing a death (a queue of cards, believe it or not, had taken shape on my table); my wife tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked up, only to find raconteur, small-press pioneer, best man at my wedding, and certified best bud Paul Capewell stood there, whom I seldom see, what with him living in London. I was beyond grateful of his presence, the show of support, and the massive burger and chips we had after the convention in the Bottle of Sauce (thank you, Bottle of Sauce). Even if the convention had been a total bust, this would have made the trip worthwhile.

Two lads.

Two lads.

So anyway. That was my first convention. It was as friendly and welcoming as I’d heard, I managed to make a small profit, and I did not imagine that so many people would want a rendering of their own death. Live and learn. The important lesson, that I seem to learn every few months, is that – like many things you can “next year” away – there’s never really a good time to start doing these things and you eventually just have to start. It’ll probably be fine. Everybody who stopped to speak to us at the table was incredibly polite (and often openly, directly complimentary about my art, which was difficult but heartening to hear), and I was genuinely glad to have met everybody who stopped by, whether they bought anything or not. I was also grateful to everybody who seemed challenged by my work, one way or another; particularly the person who picked up a copy of The Taxi to peruse, whose polite smile visibly fell from his face as he got further and further into it. Some people clearly did not enjoy what I had to offer, and that's OK too.

In conclusion, I enjoyed my time at Cheltenham, and I’m confident that my next two conventions will go even better for having done it. I will return to Cheltenham at some point in the future, if they’ll take me.

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My next two appearances will be at the Cardiff Independent Comic Expo in June, and Thought Bubble in September. 

John