Comic Book Shops: Bromley

It’s been a while since I’ve documented visits to comic book shops in London (and elsewhere), but I have recently become a resident of south-east London, so it was a pleasant surprise to find not one but two comic book shops in the general area. The two shops provide a contrast in the style and approach towards selling comic books to the public in the 21st century, so I thought I would write about them together.

Piranha Comics

I’ll tackle them in geographic order, from north to south: Piranha Comics is at the north end of Bromley high street, next to the Empire cinema – it has a nice shop front, a good display window, a funky logo and typeface, and generally looks modern. It is an open and friendly comic book shop, and I spent a good bit of time chatting with the chap running the shop – I guess that approaching customers is standard practice, as he asked about my tastes so that he could recommend things I might like, but the chat became more wide-ranging than that when he couldn’t point me towards something I didn’t already know about. We talked about various creators and their work and the different comic book universes (I felt sorry for my girlfriend, who felt like a third wheel, but unfortunately I was enjoying myself …), so I hope we didn’t geek out any other customers in the shop.

Because it is a modern comic book shop, Piranha Comics has merchandise but the emphasis was definitely on comic books – there were lots of trade paperbacks/hardcover collections, a large wall of new comic books, various collected sets of comic books on the shelf in the back next to the Superman statue. The variety was good, and it felt like a proper comic book shop (it compared favourably to my personal favourite, Gosh!) and it was friendly, a good size, welcoming and pleasant. It also acts as host to a regular Magic the Gathering evening, which was good to see even if I don’t have any interest in it. Piranha Comics has a good website (although the blog link doesn’t have any entries), a Facebook page that is well populated and well visited, and there is also a Twitter account for the shop – this level of social media presence should be standard for a retailer nowadays, but it’s good to see it done well in addition to serving the customers in the shop.

Time Trek shop

At the south end of the high street, nearer to Bromley South station and the larger shopping centres, is Time Trek, which is very different. It is a small shop, squeezed between a barber and a Wilko; the shop display is full of a wide range of merchandise, and it is rather cramped inside. The comic books are organised by publisher, crammed along the right wall as you walk into the shop; the range is impressive, with a lot of independent publishers included, but the comic books all overlap each other and it feels a little chaotic. There are also trade paperbacks and hardcover collections, as well as comic book sets, although not as much as Piranha. On the left, there is a centre section of merchandise, and then there is even more merchandise around the other side (there is only enough room for one person to walk down the aisles, which means you have to stand in the alcove at the back to let someone pass). The type of items on sale tend towards the popular stuff, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who (for example, I remember a Doctor Who sonic screwdriver pizza cutter), although it does cover the full geek range of sci-fi and fantasy.

As I entered the shop, the man behind the counter (who I think is the owner – you can see him in the photographs accompanying this piece in a local newspaper from last year, which I think was referring to the 25th anniversary of the shop) asked me if I was all right and then said that the shop was very quiet that day – he said that it was usually busier; it was a Saturday, so I hope he was right. The shop felt a little dated – the shop front hasn’t been changed in years (it still has an 081 phone number on top – see my photograph) – and it has a static page for its website, with no other social media, indicating an old-fashioned approach to retailing. However, there is obvious love for comic books and sci-fi, such as a ‘recommended’ graphic novel on the cash desk (when I was there, it was the first volume of Rat Queens), and the owner must be doing something right if the shop is still in business after 25 years.

Bromley: a town centre with two very different comic book shops. The choice is yours.

[EDIT as of 2016: Time Trek is now closed, after the untimely death of the owner – the details can be found in this article at News Shopper.]

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Theatre Review: Usagi Yojimbo

Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse

Image ©Richard Davenport

I’ve been reading the comic book adventures of Usagi Yojimbo – created, written and drawn by Stan Sakai – for over 20 years of the 30-year existence, so it was a delight to see a live-action play at the Southwark Playhouse. Like the books, the play is for all ages (from 7 years and up) and is the theatre’s Christmas family show this year. We attended the evening show while it was still in previews, so there weren’t many kids in attendance, but I think that children will enjoy the show as much as the adults who watched with us.

The narrative of the play is the ‘origin’ story for Miyamoto Usagi – Usagi is a slightly reckless youth who is sent with his friend Kenichi to the Dagora school of swordsmanship, but upon seeing the lion sensei Katsuichi dealing with some brigands, Usagi runs off to train with Katsuichi; however, Katsuichi is an unorthodox teacher and it is an arduous experience for Usagi in the mountains, but he begins to learn lessons that will last him a lifetime …

The adaptation by Stewart Melton follows fairly close to the comic books (the bulk of the story is taken from the original comics, as collected in Usagi Yojimbo Book 2), with a little extra back story and minor adjustments to make the play a more complete experience (the play includes more interaction between Usagi and Mariko and Kenichi when they were children before Usagi goes to train, as well as having Usagi’s mother as a major character; it introduces the idea of the villainous Lord Hikiji, something that doesn’t become part of Usagi’s life until he becomes a retainer; and deviates from the book by having Usagi’s father already dead, thus providing Usagi something to live up to, instead of dying just before the battle that made Usagi a ronin as in the books, and changing the lineage of the swords that Usagi will use in adult life). This means that the characters and storyline are fairly easy to grasp for newcomers, with the delightful interplay between Usagi, Mariko and Kenicihi as children – play fighting with bamboo sticks in place of swords and arguing over who will be noble Lord Mifune and who will be evil Lord Hikiji – acting as a charming introduction to this world, and they even go out of their way to overexplain why the story is called Usagi Yojimbo.

Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse

Image ©Richard Davenport

If I were to describe the play in one word, it would probably be ‘joyful’. Despite the fact that there is some sword-based death and brigand-based threat, director Amy Draper has maximised the whole production to fill the viewer with positive feelings. The set design is simple yet beautiful – the stage is plain wood but cleverly conceals trapdoors that reveal story-based props (a fire with cooking pot, a vegetable garden, a mountain stream); the fact that the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, something that is almost like a dojo in some respects, means that the audience really feel part of the performance, something that is complemented by the interaction of the actors with the audience before the play starts, as well as a few points throughout the show. At the back of the stage, there are bamboo trunks hanging down from the ceiling that are cut into a line that suggests mountains, as well as a backdrop that is lit with illustrations when appropriate – winds blowing, a kite flying, a peach being sliced in two – in the style of Stan Sakai’s artwork, something that is also used on the stage floor as well, showing leaves being swept by Usagi or transforming the stage into a river to be crossed and a mountain to be climbed. The music, composed and played live by Joji Hirota at the back of the stage with drums and flutes and whistles, is sparse yet beautiful, evocative and haunting. The animal nature of the characters is provided in a beautifully simple fashion, with headgear that evokes the creature (rabbit ears, a lion’s mane), which works wonderfully with the minimal make-up to create the idea of humans as animals. The production design does a great job of bringing Usagi’s world to life, from the swords to the costumes (apart from Usagi, the other actors play multiple characters, so they have to change minor elements throughout the show), taking the audience to 17th-century Japan with ease.

The actors are all delightful in their roles: Jonathan Raggett is perfect as Usagi, headstrong but honourable, as is Dai Tabuchi as a wonderfully gruff Katsuichi; Haruka Kuroda is a shining Mariko, displaying strength, humour and understanding; Amy Ip is exactly right as Usagi’s mother, and gets the biggest laugh of the night; and Siu Hun Li is a great foil as Kenichi, providing humour and antagonism. In addition to their main roles and side roles, the actors also have to fight with swords (although there isn’t as much death as in the comic books, perhaps understandable in a family production, but I would have loved to see a theatrical representation of the ‘skull’ balloon that Sakai uses to indicate death in the comic books), choreographed brilliantly by the wonderfully named Ronin Traynor. The story may be a coming-of-age tale but the cast and backstage team ensure that there is meaning and depth inside, as well as providing an entertaining 90 minutes, leaving the audience smiling as they do a small song and dance at the end. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the comic books or not, Usagi Yojimbo the play is a delightful evening’s entertainment and heartily recommend it.

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Live Comedy – Bridget Christie: An Ungrateful Woman

Bridget Christie’s show last year, A Bic For Her, was a double award winner and sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and the Soho Theatre (where I snagged tickets) – and this year sees her return with another show about feminism. Christie is a very funny person who makes jokes related to serious issues in order to make a point. An Ungrateful Woman is a follow-up/response to the previous show and the reaction to it, both hers and the public/media – after A Bic For Her, she was asked by a journalist what would be next for her, ‘now that she’d done feminism’, as if her writing an hour’s worth of jokes had solved 200,000 years of patriarchal dominance (as she put it).

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Recording of Chain Reaction with Graham Linehan and Adam Buxton

Chain Reaction is an interview show for Radio 4 where the interviewer chooses their subject, who then gets to choose their subject for the next show. It started off as a comedy thing, with comedians interviewing other comedians, but Stewart Lee changed that by asking to interview Alan Moore. This season, Frankie Boyle interviewed Grant Morrison, who interviewed Neil Innes, who interviewed Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, creator and writer of The IT Crowd and prolific Twitterer. Linehan chose to interview Adam Buxton, he of The Adam And Joe Show fame and more recently the wonderfully charming Adam And Joe radio show on BBC 6 Music and the Bug show. I am a big fan of both of these creators, so I was very lucky to grab two tickets to watch the recording of the radio programme.

The show was at Broadcasting House, where we haven’t been to since May 2010 for recordings for The Now Show and episodes of Clare In The Community, and there has been a lot of building work since then, which meant that I didn’t know where the entrance was, but it means that my wandering around led to me seeing Graham Linehan outside the main entrance, waiting to go in for the show. I didn’t bother him because I’m a shy, retiring chap.

The fact that two famous funny chaps were on the bill meant that the recording was a full house, with lots of people on standby tickets, which meant that people had to wait for over an hour to have it confirmed that they definitely couldn’t get in. I did feel a little sorry for them when we went through, but only a little …

The producer came out first to make some announcements and was surprisingly funny, with a dry sense of humour and delivery about the fire exits and turning off the phones. Then he got the two main men on stage, where they proceeded to talk honestly about everything for an hour – we could have listened for longer but Linehan was paying attention to time because he and Buxton were getting the same train back to Norfolk, where they both live.

Because the two gentlemen are both involved in the generation of comedic content, there was a lot of discussion about the nature of creativity and being productive and fighting procrastination and doing productive procrastination, such as watching videos about creativity. As a bit of a process nerd, I was fascinated listening to them and how they cope with self-doubt and worrying about being funny and being able to create new things, despite the fact that they have made lots of funny stuff that many people enjoy.

Buxton talked about how he is deliberately taking a step back from his regular assignments, such as Bug, to work out what he is doing and how he is doing it, instead of being reactive and commenting. There was a lot of great chat about working on your own and working with someone else – Linehan talked about working with Arthur Matthews and how, after Father Ted, they couldn’t write together after they had gone off to write other things with other people, Linehan on Black Books and Matthews on Hippies; Buxton talked about working with Joe Cornish and working on the TV show and how they did a lot on their own during the show because there was so much to do. Linehan asked him about how he feels about Cornish doing well and Buxton was very open about how he felt about certain things. He mentioned that Cornish had told Buxton that he was going to play the drug dealer in Attack The Block until Cornish used Nick Frost instead; he also talked about how surprised he was about the Star Trek 3 rumours because Buxton is a huge Star Trek fan and Cornish has poured buckets of scorn on the series. He’s happy for his friend but thought they would do stuff together in films, which hasn’t happened.

There was a lot of talk about Twitter and the internet and using it for work, with Buxton talking about interacting with a fan who had found his Edinburgh show uninteresting the night after Buxton had been particularly happy with the show and mistakenly gone on Twitter to see the praise; Buxton interacted with him on Twitter about it. There was also conversation that Linehan decided wasn’t worth broadcasting, shouting to the producer to ‘Cut all the fucking Twitter shit’ – Linehan isn’t a natural interviewer, which was part of the charm, and there were strange conversational cul-de-sacs and tangents, with both men enjoying each other’s company (they seem to have a prior connection in that Buxton’s wife used to work for a production company that Linehan used to work for back in the day), which is good when you consider they would be on the same train home together.

It was funny, charming, warm, open, interesting and insightful, and it was nice to hear the whole thing instead of the 30-minute edit that will be broadcast.

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Live Comedy – Bridget Christie: A Bic For Her

Let me say this before I start waffling: this show is funny, smart, silly and thoughtful about a serious issue that never overwhelms the fact that Bridget Christie knows she’s making jokes to make a point. It’s a very entertaining hour about feminism and the way that feminism is portrayed and trying to understand why it’s so difficult for people to grasp the idea that social, political and economic equality for women should be the norm, but still has time to mock Stirling Moss for his sexist comments about female racing drivers, which leads to Christie imagining the hilarious repercussions of his funeral in the case of his hypothetical death from falling down a lift shaft in his own house. That’s impressive.

I bought tickets for this show at the Soho Theatre in late September, and even then tickets were only available for weekday performances. Since then, the run from 5 November to 6 December has sold out and another run, for most of January, has been announced. This might not be the same as selling out a national tour of big theatres and arenas, but it still makes me happy that a comedy show about feminism has struck a chord and Christie’s talents are being rewarded financially, as well as the Foster Edinburgh Comedy Award for 2013. (And I thought she was having a good year after her very funny Radio 4 show earlier this year about feminism, Bridget Christie Minds The Gap …)

After a start where she’s warming up (she admits that she’s trying things to keep it fresh for her), she gets into the set that won her the Edinburgh comedy award with her twirling around to show that she is indeed a woman, which leads into the fact that the best woman was Wonder Woman because she needed to twirl around and the fact that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a good woman because she refused to turn around. She then went into the extended routine about Stirling Moss, which sees Christie’s physicality come to the fore, as she throws herself around the stage – this is a comedian who did previous Edinburgh shows as an ant, a donkey and King Charles II.

Throughout the show, Christie plays with the idea of what she is doing: she is passionate about feminism and knows that she is unable to change the minds of idiots who refuse to believe in the idea but also knows that she can make jokes about sexism and misogyny that contribute to the conversation that should be constantly happening. She uses pretend heckles from male audience members to highlight this – ‘What’s that, sir? Why’s she getting so angry about women’s pens when there’s human trafficking and female genital mutilation? I’m glad you bring that up but I’m trying to keep it light …’ – after the aforementioned routine about the show’s title, where she wonders how Bic got the idea and an imagined conversation between the Bronte sisters about their writing.

She also discusses the people who have been lauded as feminist icons despite the fact that they have stated that they don’t want to be defined by it (Beyonce) or who don’t believe in it (Thatcher), and states that her feminist icon is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to an education – although, crucially, she does this and still puts jokes in that are funny and appropriate. That’s the great balance here: the show is laugh-out-loud funny the whole way through while making her points in a passionate way, pointing out absurdities (Jay Z is now considered a feminist because he dropped the word ‘bitch’ from his raps after his daughter was born; asking that women be allowed to have feminism because ‘men already have everything else’) and the casual sexism that exists so that we don’t even notice it any more.

The only strange thing about the night was the audience: it was populated by more women than would normally be found in a comedy gig, and it seemed like the majority weren’t normally comedy gig patrons. There were islands of people, like my girlfriend and I, who were laughing hysterically at the material but there seemed to be an uneven balance, as if people weren’t sure they were supposed to be laughing, as if they were expecting a lecture or something; it was something that Christie picked up on, pointing out where certain gags worked better or worse than usual. It’s early into the run, and then there’s the extra month of shows next year, so perhaps it will be different next year – I know I’m tempted to see the show again next year because it was so funny and it was great to hear someone saying things that needed to be said but in a hilarious fashion. I thoroughly recommend this show, and urge you to see it, and I look forward to Christie’s next material – she’s writing a book and a new series of the radio show – and whatever she does next.

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Notes On A Show – Open Book Theatre Company: Dracula

Adapted and directed by Kate McGregor
Starring Joseph Tregear as Jonathan Harker, Nicky Diss as Mina Harker, Vicky Gaskin as Miss Renfield, April Hughes as Lucy Westenra, David Knight as John Seward, Thomas Judd as Quincey Morris, Andy Mcleod as Abraham Van Helsing, Felix Trench as Arthur Holmwood

On 31 October, instead of being bothered by children begging for sweets, my girlfriend and I did something perhaps more in keeping with Halloween: we went to Tooting library to see an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by the Open Book Theatre Company, which stages theatrical adaptations of classic novels in libraries. The show was on the first floor, in the children’s library: chairs were arranged in three rows in a circle, as if for a group session of some sort, which was how the show began. Members of the cast were running a local meeting about certain ‘events’, primarily the disappearance of children; one was making tea, another was running the evening, while two were a couple in the chairs with the rest of the audience, who responded to the questions. Another member of the cast in the audience said he had some papers that might help to explain things, relating to events that occurred over a hundred years ago, which he thought should be read out …

The story of Dracula was recounted in and around the audience, using the small space to great effect to make us feel part of the show. The cast moved from the space in the centre of the seats to roaming around behind us; the show kept moving, flitting back and forth between the events of the book and the group meeting as they discussed the papers they have just ‘read’ out. The lighting, sound and music involved were used to create a suitably spooky atmosphere, enhancing the sense of dread and menace. One scene had the cast searching a crypt for the boxes of earth the count had brought with him to England, and the lights were off and they were using torches to hunt around the library, and it was delightfully eerie. The character of Dracula was also deployed well, barely in the adaptation at all and only used when absolutely necessary, with great use of sound and music.

The cast were excellent in their dual roles (as well as playing other roles in the adaptation as necessary), making the quick changes between scenes and flowing from one to the other, with particular mention for Gaskin as a female Renfield and the modern-day equivalent in the group session. They were particularly adept at being physical and emotionally intense in the confines of the small ‘auditorium’ so close to the audience without hurting anybody or stepping on any toes (although I was worried when they had some chisels for one scene). They make great use of stand-in props to convey the necessary tools, such as a sock for a bandage and tights for the blood transfusions and cotton pads for communion wafers. I really liked how they were able to convey movement and travel in the small area, such as in the second half when following the count as he tried to return home.

We thoroughly enjoyed the show: it was a great way to adapt the book and it was a great use of a library, as well as highlighting the connection between the great works of literature and the vital place libraries have in our society. I look forward to future adaptations by the Open Book Theatre company.

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Balham Comedy Festival Nights

I recently had the pleasure of two nights of comedy at the Balham Comedy Festival, and two different experiences. Jo Caulfield was performing Better The Devil You Know on Wednesday, Marcus Brigstocke was performing Je M’Accuse – I Am Marcus on Thursday, in one of the hottest weeks of the year, but Brigstocke was in the main room, packed to the rafters, while Caulfield was in the small room upstairs playing to about fifty people, which was a great shame as she was very funny (Brigstocke was funny too, but the numbers were not reflective).

For me, the difference between the two is that Caulfield is more of a writer whereas Brigstocke is more of a performer. Caulfield, in addition to her own shows at Edinburgh and her own radio shows, has worked as head writer on So Graham Norton and other shows, whereas Brigstocke has always been his own man, front and centre of things, such as Giles Wemmbley Hogg Goes Off or presenting I’ve Never Seen Star Wars on radio (as well his political bits on The Now Show) or presenting The Late Edition on BBC4 or captain on Argumental on Dave, to starring the touring version of Spamalot. Both write their own stuff that they perform, but Caulfield’s work is more about finding that funny turn of phrase, the interesting angle on theme, whereas Brigstocke is more about presenting his views about subjects, mostly political, in a funny way.

In principle, Caulfield’s show is about being married to her husband (they were together for years before getting married), but that’s just a useful Edinburgh title instead of the entirety of the material. There is material about watching various TV shows, getting a new washing machine, a complaint letter to a blinds company who in 6 months has only supplied one set of blinds that were the wrong shape and colour, and the difference in communication style between men and women – she read out dialogue between her husband and his male friends which was just exchanging facts. She does bring it round to being married, about how Cosmopolitan said that his age was where he should be having affairs (so she felt she should be encouraging him), and there’s a great routine about watching porn with her husband (‘Look at that kitchen – it’s lovely. That’s exactly how I want ours.’) and the different way of watching it. She was funny, charming, engaging with the audience in a friendly, unthreatening fashion, and she had some lovely turns of phrase to emphasise a point.

Brigstocke was doing something very different. Instead of his political material, he was telling personal anecdotes, and it was a completely different Brigstocke to normal. He was open and happy and smiling, compared to the serious (yet still funny) approach he takes when presenting his topical material (there was a reference to the appalling way the NHS is being dismantled by Tories for the benefits of their friends where you saw his demeanour revert to normal and it was a marked difference). He started with a list of anecdotes and asked the audience to choose which ones to read. He was enjoying himself so much that he didn’t get to read them all, even though I think that’s the aim for the tight 1-hour set for Edinburgh. It was all personal stuff about him: being a 25-stone Goth with an eating disorder who was, at the time, the youngest person to go into rehab for food addiction; how he lost half the weight and became a podium dancer at the Ministry and even worked on an oil rig; he talked about getting a testicular scan for an ache he’d had for 18 months, and the person doing the scan was the father of kids at his children’s school. Importantly, it was hilariously funny – he was having a great time telling these stories and revealing himself but also telling great jokes. (Fortunately, he didn’t do any funny material about having an affair with his Spamalot co-star that ended his 12-year marriage, because I don’t think there is anything humorous to mine there.)

Two evenings, two funny shows, two lovely people (both replied when I tweeted my enjoyment, with Caulfield being particularly magnanimous by hyping the Balham Comedy Festival in her reply) and one (among many) satisfied customer.

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Richard Herring Leicester Square Theatre Podcast: Stephen Fry

The Richard Herring Leicester Square Theatre podcasts are fascinating and fun, not because of the silly recurring questions (‘Have you ever tried to suck your own cock?’ and ‘What would you rather have: a ham hand or an armpit that produced sun cream?’) or Herring’s shabby interview technique, but due to the atmosphere that leads to the interviewee opening up and discussing things in a honest and interesting manner, with occasional jokes thrown in. They are revealing and intimate and funny and unusual, particularly for fans of British comedy.

The first series had plenty of these from a wonderful selection: Stewart Lee, David Baddiel, Charlie Brooker, Adam Buxton and David Mitchell, to name a few. Herring would get them talking about their lives in a way that wouldn’t occur in a normal interview process, which meant that great anecdotes would arise from unguarded guests who seemed to enjoy the night as much as the audience. Intriguing nuggets of information would appear out of nowhere, as the guests felt relaxed and felt part of a conversation about their work and their history.

I don’t know how Herring got Stephen Fry to be his guest, but I’m grateful he did because the podcast from last Monday night was the best yet (and not just because I got to attend in person). The show had sold out on the day it was announced – I got lucky when I saw Herring’s tweet announcing Fry’s attendance – and it was a packed house on a warm summer evening that filled the downstairs auditorium. The host was nervous in the pre-podcast stand-up section – Fry had yet to arrive and he was worried he might not turn up and have on his hands an angry audience demanding their money back (as he joked, it’s not as if Fry had never failed to show at a theatre performance …), which I think reflected in his performance, which was slight on material and more about talking to audience members, although he thinks differently as he has released that as a separate podcast (something he doesn’t usually do as a way to entice people to pay for a ticket to the night). However, when Fry sneaked in the side just before 8pm, Herring relaxed and stopped the chatter for an interval before the main event.

And what an event it was: 90 minutes of wit, honesty, anecdotes, revelation and eloquence. I think Herring was a little in awe of Fry but he didn’t try to cover it with his usual braggadocio; instead, he realised that he was second fiddle and let Fry take the lead, occasionally putting in a joke but standing back to allow Fry room to talk. Talk he did: he chatted about various film roles (he did Spice World because he, like all the other actors, would be loved by their sons/daughters/nephews/nieces/godchildren if they gave them signed photos of the Spice Girls), with nice anecdotes about working on A Civil Action with John Travolta and working with Walter Matthau on I.Q. He did a great Rik Mayall impression when he talked about suggesting the University Challenge idea to Mayall and Ben Elton after the first series of The Young Ones. He also did a good Dustin Hoffman when relating an anecdote about Hoffman asking Fry for his autograph for his daughter. He said that Hugh Laurie was still his best friend after all these years (for the past 25 years, they have always had Christmas together, either at his or Laurie’s house), which was rather touching. He and Herring discussed in detail the character of Fabian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and talked eloquently about his life in response to Herring’s (deserving) praise of the first volume of his memoirs, Moab Is My Washpot, and told the story (with accents) of being hypnotised by a Hungarian man in order to be able to sing for a sketch on ITV’s Saturday Live; he also thoroughly answered Herring’s recurring questions about self-fellatio and the ham hand/sun cream armpit dilemma. Fry was his usual mix of intelligence and warmth and insight and humour, and it was a joy to be in the audience, but there was more to come.

The huge revelation (which would become headline news on Wednesday when a transcript of the podcast was released to the press – it was very strange to ‘know’ the news nearly 48 hours before it was announced) came about from the simple question, ‘What’s it like to be Stephen Fry?’ (one of the questions of the 12-year-old son of the producer of the podcasts). Fry talked about how lucky he is, with the success and the privileges that have ensued (‘Oh, another invite to the royal box at Wimbledon – shall I go?’), but then started to talk about how his bipolar disorder affects him, and that he had tried to commit suicide in 2012 (the first time he has mentioned it), with a combination of pills and vodka, which caused him to pass out and then convulse with such violence that he bruised four ribs. Fortunately, he was discovered by the producer of the programme he was working on and he was brought back to the UK and recovered. He talked about how there was no reasoning behind it (if there were, he could be reasoned out of it), and how he couldn’t talk about it to anyone, let alone a best friend (‘Imagine your best friend in the world. Now imagine you have a genital wart. Would you tell your best friend?’). It was quite something to be in the presence of this man who has been an inspiration to me for many years and I was shocked at the revelation and then overjoyed when he said at the end that he was much better now and on better medication, and the whole audience applauded in unison in happiness that he had survived this ordeal. It was a fitting ending to the show, even if we could have stayed there and listened to him talk for much longer, which was really something special (even Herring was moved, as he wrote it about in his daily blog). You should really listen to the podcast to enjoy it for yourself – you won’t regret it.

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Author Appearance: Warren Ellis at Foyles

I have been very fortunate to see several of my favourite comic book creators giving talks or in conversation – Alan Moore and Alan Davis in the same day, and Grant Morrison at a similar event at Foyles – and this was another enjoyable personal appearance from a favourite creator. Warren was in The Gallery at Foyles on Charing Cross Road in conversation with journalist/author Sam Leith, specifically to talk about his new novel, Gun Machine, but conversation obviously took in comic books, as would be expected, and Warren – smartly dressed in jacket and waistcoat and with a freshly shaved head – was in a warm and funny mood with a desire to share. These are my hastily scribbled recollections of the night.

We were told to turn our phones to silent at the start – we could keep them on and tweet about the event, as would be expected of @warrenellis, but Warren said that we would only be tweeted by his friends with horrible questions to ask him. Before talking about Gun Machine, Warren was asked about his first book, Crooked Little Vein. Crooked Little Vein was written to shut up his new literary agent (he was with an agency in LA, but the New York office took over and he was inherited by a new agent who constantly pestered him until he wrote 10,000 words of something he considered unsellable; however, two weeks later she phoned him to say, ‘I’ve sold it’, which is why she is still his agent). Crooked Little Vein, Warren said, was written to prove to himself that he could write a novel – if he hadn’t been pushed into it by his agent, he probably wouldn’t have tried prose for a few years, which was something he was thinking about. Now, with Gun Machine, he wanted to see if he could write a good novel (‘But please buy copies’, he joked). He had the spine for the novel and proceeded to write it from page one, word one through to the end, with only one jump when the Warren of that day didn’t consider himself up to the job of writing that passage, so he jumped to the next section and returned to it another day; he said that you are only as you can be on that day, which could be due to something like having only five hours sleep because the cat jumped on his head, but you just have to keep writing – write, write, write and get the bad stuff out of you.

Another thing about Crooked Little Vein: the cooking recipe at the back of the book was the editor’s idea, taken from Warren’s website, and something he’d only put up as a joke. He gets mocked by his daughter when he cooks at home – she pretends to swing a plague bell, shouting ‘Unclean!’. He said she texted a friend ‘Dad cooked and unusually I didn’t die’. ‘Horrible child’, he called her, but you can tell it’s a joke – why else would he have got her a horse?

Gun Machine came out of discussions with Legendary, the studio adapting his Gravel comic book; they wanted to keep the story based in the UK because they thought the USA didn’t have the necessary history, whereas they thought the UK had the weird history that the book needed, calling it ‘mystic’, to which Warren thought, ‘Yeah, we walk around with twigs in our hair and live in Stonehenge’. It got him thinking that the US did have a lot of history, particularly New York. He hasn’t been to New York in over a decade, since he nearly took a flight from Los Angeles to New York on 11 September 2011, but changed at the last minute to reroute the day before via Chicago. He admits that it can keep him up some nights. Anyway, the idea started there, with Mulholland Books saying they wanted a book but it had to be a mystery/suspense book because that’s what they publish, so the two things came together. He used his own memories of New York, used a friend who lives there for research and Google Street Maps to virtually tour the places he used to walk around – it showed him a tree where he knew one didn’t exist 12 years ago, so he put it in the book as a location where a victim was found pinned to it.

He said he used the James Herbert trick – he didn’t describe his male protagonists, and figures showed that something like 95% of his books were bought by men, because they could all project themselves onto the hero without being taken out of the story by physical descriptions (something used in manga, which Warren said is called masking). Tallow is not described in Gun Machine, which is why Reg E Cathey, an African American actor, could do the audiobook and it doesn’t conflict with the book.

Leith asked him about cities, which play an important part in the novel, mentioning Jack Hawksmoor as a previous example. Warren said that cities are an inherent part of his being – half his family is from the East End and he’s lived in or near London all his life – and he can feel the many different levels of history around him when he walks around a big city, feeling the layers beneath him when he walks around London.

He knew Gun Machine would be a novel instead of a comic because it was going to be a very internal story, which wouldn’t work as a comic book (imagining telling his artist, ‘Pages 19 to 45, Tallow looking sad’, in nine panels per page). An aside: he mentioned an anecdote about working on The Authority with Bryan Hitch – they used to discuss scenes before Warren scripted, which Warren thought Hitch would remember, so when it came to the double-page spread of the alien armada in battle with the US Air Force above Los Angeles, Warren wrote ‘The fleets engage’. He got a phone call from Hitch, ‘spitting blood and nails’, because it took him a week and a half to draw it. An interesting aside: when describing Alan Moore’s ultra-controlling scripts and his possible attitudes to the artists who will read them, because Alan wants to control EVERYTHING, Warren used the phrase ‘human meat puppet’ – he said he wouldn’t go that far, but you got the idea.

Warren talked about comic books and how he got into them: he started at the age of three with the weekly comic that had strips based on television shows of the time, such as Doctor Who, Thunderbirds and Star Trek, then he had 2000 AD at the age of nine and he was never the same. As he said, when you open the first page of 2000 AD and see a dinosaur with a mouth full of chewed-up cowboy, Superman comics paled in comparison. But that’s Brit comics for you – he mentioned reading a Dan Dare strip at a young age (which he thought was stuffy at the time) where there was a splash page of a spaceship over Jupiter with a hole in the side and people falling out and their stomachs expanding and exploding due to the vacuum – ‘I never want to read anything else ever again!’ He talked about how comics for him were about generating new ideas, telling new stories, reflecting the times as you go along. He doesn’t want to do the new versions of the company-owned mythologies the way Grant Morrison does. It’s a personal thing, and he doesn’t have the same affection to superheroes because he didn’t read them growing up.

He talked about the difference between prose and comics – in comics, you have to be a journalist, keeping to a word count (citing the maxim of ~28 words per normal-sized panels) and chiselling sentences to full effect and with minimum words, always bearing in mind the artist (he cited that for Colleen Doran, he only has to write the acting of the characters because he doesn’t have to worry about the background and mise-en-scène, whereas other artists require more detail and cinematography). Also, the 20-page limit is a very restricting amount of space to tell the story effectively and requires a lot of craft and effort. However, a novel has no word limit – he could keep on going and take his time.

For someone who has written so much, he said he still dislikes what he has written, even what he wrote the day before. (My theory: he’s mentioned before that the pace of monthly comics meant that he was essentially writing first drafts – therefore, he didn’t get the luxury of disliking what he turned into his editor, and so he kept writing and we got to enjoy his output.)

He said that people keep asking him when he’s going to bring back Spider Jerusalem, which he can’t understand because he finds the character so annoying. He was asked about writing comics set in the US – crass commercialism, on his part, because ‘they don’t want stories set in Southend’. Although it was mostly a chat between Warren and Leith, there were some questions at the end, such as what is his next book about; however, Warren said he couldn’t say anything because he’d been muzzled by his publishers.

A few name drops: Michael Moorcock told him that Elric and Jerry Cornelius were his way into the worlds he wrote, which isn’t the way Warren thinks; he doesn’t return to old characters because he always thinks that new stories demand new characters. William Gibson said, about Gun Machine, ‘this is a compliment, but I found it peculiar’.

An hour in Warren’s company wasn’t long enough – I could have listened to him discuss his work and his approach to writing for hours (we did get to hear him after the talk because he was still miked up, which I found rather amusing), because he’s a smart chap with a very thoughtful, analytical mind when it comes to his craft. He’s also very funny, with an infectious laugh and a desire to entertain and amuse, borne of a natural storyteller (although don’t expect him to direct – he specifically said that he’s only a writer when asked if he wanted to take after Garth Ennis). If you get the chance, I would recommend seeing in Warren in person.

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Saturday at the London Super Comic Con

I think this is the first comic book convention I have attended which gave me an actual, not metaphorical, headache at the end of the day; I’m trying to work out if it was because I enjoyed the con too much or if I’m an inexperienced attendee. Despite coming home to pain killers and an early night (I am so old), the London Super Comic Con (or LSComicCon for short, used as the Twitter name) was a lot of fun because it was primarily a convention about comic books.

My headache didn’t start until I came home, but it might have been set in motion by the queue to get into the con. Having learned my lesson from attending Saturday at the London MCM Expo in the same location last May, I arrived with pre-purchased tickets (a birthday present from my lovely girlfriend) – this was originally the only way you could attend, but the organisers changed their minds the night before when Stan Lee, the guest of honour, appeared on The One Show the night before (where Chris Evans got the name of the con wrong and Stan was only on for 10 minutes despite it being an hour-long show on Fridays) and they announced that tickets would be available on the day.

When I arrived at just after 10am, when the con was supposed to start, the queue to get in was outside the main entrance to the ExCel Centre, snaking down the stairs and almost to the water. I joined the queue and it took an hour (which felt longer) to get to the entrance to the con itself, which was at the other end of the exhibition centre, and another fifteen minutes of queuing in the con itself before I had got my shiny plastic pass on cord (like a backstage pass at a gig) and was allowed in properly.

An aside: while waiting to get in, I was amused to notice that there was a Zumba instructors conference in the ExCel at the same time – there would be no problems with attendee crossover there, despite the fact that the instructors looked like how comic book artists draw female superheroes: slim, healthy women with exposed stomachs and tight tops (although nowhere near as pneumatic as the women who grace the covers of far too many comic books).

My first impressions were that the space wasn’t as large as used for the MCM Expo, which was held in a different hall near the main entrance, and that there weren’t as many people as the MCM Expo. There were lots of people, but they were mainly queuing for Stan Lee: as the main draw for this event, his presence had attracted a huge crowd of people who were there just for him. He hasn’t attended a UK con for decades, so it was something of coup to get him; at 89 years old, the man is doing amazingly well, full of energy and charm, but I don’t know if he’ll be back for another con in this country.

Another initial impression was there weren’t as many cosplayers as had attended the MCM Expo. The MCM Expo seemed to be mainly about the cosplay: there were hordes of them inside and even more outside, who I began to think hadn’t bothered to enter the Expo but just hang around outside to enjoy the atmosphere. The LSComicCon had a good showing of cosplayers, the majority keeping to comic book characters (for example, there was a very good Galactus roaming the hall), and they made for an impressive sight when they were in the queue to enter the cosplay competition at the end of the day; however, they were in the minority compared with the other attendees.

One of the main attractions for me was the presence of such a stellar Artists Alley: the impressive line-up included Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kevin Maguire, Brian Bolland, Jock, Sean Phillips, Mark Buckingham, Duncan Fegredo, Jim Cheung, Phil Jimenez (see here for a full list – Mike Deodato Jr unfortunately missed his flight, so he wasn’t there on Saturday). There were also some writers in attendance (Fred Van Lente, Mike Carey, Paul Cornell) but I wanted to see the artists. It was great seeing them in person and seeing some of them sketch (I saw Chaykin knocking out a Logan sketch with consummate ease) but I realised that I was an amateur when it came to attending a con to see artists: the long queues for the artists were full of people who had bought small comic book boxes for signing or small suitcases on wheels with stuff to sign. Having suffered enough queues for the day, I left the professionals (both the artists and the people who wanted stuff signed) to their own devices.

Instead of standing in a queue, I attended two panels where I could sit down and listen to people talk about comic books: How To Write A Comic Script and 35 Years Of 2000AD. The first had Fred Van Lente, Mike Carey, Kieron Gillen, Andy Lanning and, briefly, Simon Spurrier – he relinquished his seat at the last minute in response to Paul Cornell’s Panel Parity, allowing Tammy Taylor to take his place. It was an interesting panel, with each giving an introduction, talking about how they broke in, their experiences with different script formats (the first script Carey saw was Alan Moore’s ridiculously dense script in the back of the Watchmen trade paperback, so for years he thought that was how you were supposed to write them) and how they approach writing. The sound system wasn’t great, but Van Lente easily made himself heard (he is American, after all), and Gillen was effusive and cheeky on various topics (for him, plot and character are the same, and writers who aren’t interested in people are not proper writers in his opinion), and it was a shame that the panel had to end as soon as it did.

The second panel I attended was a cosier affair, as the three artists on the panel talked about their work. Jock, Duncan Fegredo and Brian Bolland chatted about their cover work for 2000AD (Bolland was surprised to discover that one of his old covers is appearing on a stamp for Royal Mail; he also thought that they could have chosen a better and more classic cover) as led by a chap who I assume is an editor at 2000AD but whose name I didn’t catch because the sound system was even worse in this panel. The artists were nice blokes, sharing a nice camaraderie; Jock and Fegredo were very happy to have done Dredd covers for the comic that was so important to them, and they had a lot of respect for Bolland. Bolland was a great panel member, sharing little anecdotes and talking about how he didn’t have the time he does now and how the covers and classic artwork was put together so quickly. He also talked a lot about Mick McMahon, saying that he was in awe of him and how McMahon was the one who designed Mega-City One; Jock had to step in and say how Bolland had defined Dredd to the majority of people. Another enjoyable panel.

As I said, the focus of this con was comic books and that was the great aspect of it. The booths of comic book companies such as IDW and Markosia, the small press sections, the portfolio review booth, the guests and the stalls selling comic books (I did enjoy myself picking up cheap trades and issues missing from my collection, after fighting my way through the others with similar intentions) were all about comic books and not about movie tie-ins or games or television shows. This was reflected in the audience, which seemed to skew older and had a larger proportion of men than the MCM Expo.

It has to be said that the majority of people were there for Stan Lee – the queues for signing and photos were amazing (Rich Johnston has video footage of the con and Stan at Bleeding Cool, although there should be a warning because he is an awful cameraman; it looks like really bad found footage and will cause nausea if watched for too long) and Stan’s panel, which I didn’t attend, was standing-room only – the panels I attended were only about a third full. The crowd loved him: the roars of approval when he arrived on stage and then left at the end were deafening. Perhaps they should have called it the Stan Lee Convention …

According to Johnston, the convention seems to have been a success with around 8,000 people, and publishers/vendors/creators selling everything they brought with them. That’s good news because it means the LSComicCon can continue and improve, and we can have a regular comic-specific con that is well organised and enjoyed by all attendees. Just as long as I don’t keep getting headaches by attending them.

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