Comic Book Shop Update: Gosh! Has Moved

Gosh!, my favourite comic book shop in the world, let alone London, was based opposite the British Museum for 25 years – I thought they would always be there. However, nothing lasts for ever and Gosh! moved premises to a new location at Berwick Street in Soho. And the new premises are fantastic.

The previous shop was bijou, to use estate agent parlance; the new shop is much larger and has floor-to-ceiling windows, which lets light into the wonderful display space and makes it seem even bigger than it is. The main floor is full of shelves along the walls with a massive selection of different books, with an emphasis on the variety of genres and styles that demonstrate the range of modern comic books. Art books, European graphic albums, crime collections, manga, history, journalism – the shelves heave with quality and diversity. This seems to have paid off – when talking to Andy, the manager, on the day before the official opening (they were still unpacking and downstairs wasn’t ready yet), he told me that there had already been loads of people coming into the shop, with a 50:50 ratio of women to men, all looking for a variety of books. They had been worried that they wouldn’t get so much walk-past custom after the move, especially as the new shop is opposite ‘porn alley’, but the seedy shops add colour to people’s expectations of Soho and they’ve had more people than ever, despite not being officially open.

In addition to the books on shelves, there is also a big old table in the middle of the shop that is laden with books and has benches around it, so that people can sit and read if they so wish (there wouldn’t have been the room to do that in the old shop). If you go downstairs (there is some art on the walls as you descend), this is where the superhero comics now live – the new imports are on the shelves at the back; the trade paperbacks are on the shelves on the left and right, with the back issues in boxes in the middle (the desk by the stairs is where the subscription lists are still handled). There is nice moody lighting, so you don’t feel as if you’re in a dark pit to pick up your ‘embarrassing’ haul of regular comic books; however, when I bought my first weekly haul from the new shop, a few books had been accidentally left off my list – I jokingly mentioned it on Twitter that they didn’t care about the old regular customers any more, to which they replied (jokingly as well) that it was all about ‘new media now, darling’; the teething problems have now been smoothed out and the shops seems to be running efficiently.

The new premises are an impressive space (which is why it has appeared in Retail Focus Magazine), and I can understand the desire to host exhibitions in the shop (they had some of Dave McKean’s art for a signing on opening day); there have been book launches, such as Nelson, and Eddie Campbell will be giving a talk at the shop in February. The move to Soho has definitely raised the profile of the shop: Gosh! was used as the location for an interview with Art Spiegelman on the BBC.

All of these raise the calibre of the shop – this isn’t your comic book dungeon, this is a book shop where anyone and everyone can feel comfortable coming in and looking around the rich diversity of books and asking the staff for obscure items and recommendations. I’m amazed that Gosh! moved to such big premises at a time when the sales of comic books are decreasing; however, the expansion into the full range of all the possibilities offered by words and pictures in a location that suits this market is a smart move, and shows why they are still in business and thriving.

Continue Reading

Comic Book Shop Update: A Place In Space (Central London)

I’m not timely on this blog, but I try to be complete. So think of this blog post as a tweak to a previous post, but with little in the way of actual information.

In my compiling of the comic book shops of London, the third in my list was Comicana in central London. I didn’t have much to say about the shop because it was small and I hadn’t visited it very often. Recently (I don’t know exactly when), the shop changed hands because it has a new name but little else different.

As you can see from the photograph, the shop is now called A Place In Space. What I can’t find out is if this shop is connected to A Place In Space in Croydon (which I talked about in a post about comic book shops in Croydon) – there is nothing about it on the Croydon shop’s Facebook page, and my Google fu is weak in discovering any information.

The shop is essentially the same as the previous shop, except that it’s brighter inside now and there are fewer posters and toys in the windows. Apart from that, the only difference is the banner on the front of the shop over the previous boarding (if you look closer, you can see URL for the old shop below the banner – NB: the URL doesn’t work now). At the time of taking the photo, there was a man who was sizing up the front of the shop for the owner, obviously to repair the wood at the bottom, so I guess there will be a new sign up soon.

My apologies for the lack of actual knowledge in this post. I just wanted to keep my files up to date, so to speak.

Continue Reading

Comic Book Shop (Sort Of): Book & Comic Exchange

I define a comic book shop primarily as a location where you can buy the new comic books that were published that week. Even though I don’t classify Book & Comic Exchange on Pembridge Road in Notting Hill as a proper comic book shop, I thought it warranted an entry on my list of places you can buy comic books and trade paperbacks in London. It has been around for a while (I traded comic books there in the late 1990s, early 2000s) and it even recently started a sister site on Berwick Street in Soho (where I picked up my Blue Beetle trades for a steal), although the Soho site no longer sells comic books, despite what it might say on the website.

The Notting Hill shop is just around the corner from Notting Hill Gate tube station, which could explain part of its long-lasting appeal – easy to get to and it sees a lot of people walking past (trying to get a photo of the shop without people walking past it or into it was almost impossible). However, the shop itself is not the reason to visit: it’s a mess. It’s a dark and dingy shop, with shelves from floor to ceiling full of books; in fact, the shelves aren’t enough and there are books on floor in various piles.

The overwhelming majority of the shop is dedicated to second-hand books; the comics and trade paperbacks are a small concern, contained in a central aisle in the middle of the shop. It’s not a huge selection – I remember that they used to have more comics back when I was a regular visitor, and I don’t think that’s just my rose-tinted nostalgia – but there is some filtering: there are some issues bagged together because they form a complete story; there are some relatively newer comics, sectioned out into Marvel/DC heroes or teams, which are different from the older (approximately 10 years) comics in another section; the trades are split into Marvel and DC and Indie; there is even a small filtering of authors (Ellis, Ennis, Moore, Morrison – it is a UK shop, after all).

The main appeal of the shop is that the comics are priced to sell – usually about £1 for recent things, 50p for slightly older or less sellable books – although the second-hand trades are about the same price as trade you can buy new on Amazon; however, you do get the opportunity to flick through the books before you buy and see what they actually look like (I flicked through some Jason Aaron Ghost Rider collections because I’ve never seen more than some preview material on comic book news websites), and you always have the opportunity to sell or trade them back afterwards.

If you want to get down and dirty with books and comics, you can always visit the basement – everything down there is 50p and there is no filtering of the books, and the comics are a messy collection on top of a table and on the floor. This is the chaotic part of the shop but the upstairs is only slightly less messy and chaotic. The shop is cramped, messy, dusty and unwelcoming – I’m amazed that it is able to keep operating. But exist it does, and thus demands cataloguing for the purposes of my comic book shops list.

Continue Reading

Comic Book Shops: Krypton Komics (Number 10 In A Series)

Blackhorse Road tube station, the penultimate stop at the northern end of the Victoria line, is one of those tube stops where there is nothing of note. It’s on the corner of a large and busy crossroads, with a pub and a few shops but no sign of anything else. If it hadn’t been for Krypton Komics, I would never have come here. After travelling nearly the entire length of the Victoria line, it had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, as its website says, the shop is a 2-minute walk from the station, so that helps.

I visited the shop’s original location – it used to be in Tottenham, up from Seven Sisters tube station – at some point in my past (possibly the late 1990s), but I don’t know when it moved to its current location. It seems out of place where it is now – if you use the street view on Google Maps, you’ll see that it is on a mainly residential road that has a fair amount of traffic passing it by. However, in some ways it adds to the charm of this little shop tucked away in a quiet spot.

The first notable aspect is gaining access to the shop – I have visited many comic book shops and this is the first time I’ve had to push an entry bell to be buzzed in to the shop. The man behind the till was a friendly chap (he blessed me when I sneezed) but he didn’t hassle me, probably because Krypton Komics is a back-issue haven, where the serious collector comes with his/her list to forage through the many boxes of old comics for a missing book in the collection. This is highlighted by the fact that you enter the shop into the middle of the back issues – the new comics are on shelves at the back of the shop. There are three tiers of comic book boxes all around the walls and in an aisle in the centre of the shop, although only the top box (at just above waist height) has labelled separators to indicate the alphabetical storage system. The only slight difference is the immediate right as you enter the shop – there are several boxes of 25p comics, some manga and then a couple of boxes of cheap second-hand trade paperbacks.

The cataloguing system of Krypton Komics has to be praised – the website calls it ‘the latest bar-coded inventory control system’ and I’d have to agree. Each comic has an identifying sticker: the name and number of the comics (with the volume number if applicable), the condition of the book, the price clearly marked, as well as details of the shop and a bar code. Compared with the small price sticker seen on books in other shops, it’s impressive and certainly the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen. I thought the prices seemed a little high – perhaps based on a price guide – but I’m not running the business, so my opinions don’t matter that much.

There are some trades on the walls and some select old comics (there are also a few boxes specifically marked ‘Silver Age’) but no merchandise that I could see. There was a large selection of new books when you finally get into the back area, showing no particular preference for the big two, but I can only imagine that they are for the regulars and locals because the shop isn’t going to get any passers-by popping in unexpectedly. It’s an achievement that this shop can survive in the current economic climate, but I’m glad that it does – it is obviously a labour of love for the owner and the people who work there.

Continue Reading

Author Appearance: Grant Morrison at Foyles

Grant Morrison participated in a Q&A in Foyles on Charing Cross Road on Tuesday evening to promote his new book, Supergods. Because we were not allowed to photograph or record the Q&A, these are my long and rambling recollections of the hour.

I was lucky to get tickets for this event – The Gallery on the third floor of Foyles on Charing Cross Road was full of Grant Morrison fans (all seats were taken, people were standing up; among the crowd, I spotted the new chap from Gosh!, and Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston was present of course, and there was a chap who had some original artwork from Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, which I assume he was going to have signed afterwards). I had a nervous moment when the woman with the clipboard of power had to flip to the third page before she found my name on the list, but find it she did and I took my seat in the third row on the left of a small aisle in the main bulk of seats. This was a good choice – it meant that I had a perfect view of the God of All Comics.

Grant Morrison was looking in good shape – no shiny white suit, rather a dark blazer, a dark t-shirt with a design and slogan on it and shiny black trousers, to contrast his bright shaven head – and he seemed happy and comfortable as he sat down to begin the hour of Q&A to promote his new book, Supergods. As he drunk from his glass, he commented how much it looked like a urine sample: ‘Mmm, Neil Armstrong.’ Laughter would be a regular background noise throughout. After the clip-on microphones had to be replaced with an old-fashioned microphone (Morrison started crooning Strangers In The Night when it was passed to him), things were got underway. He explained how the book came about: an editor friend suggested compiling his interviews (great, thought Morrison, 500 pages and I don’t have to do anything); Morrison’s agent suggested he write a new introduction; when the agent read the introduction, he said, ‘This is good, why don’t you write a book?’ This was at a time when Morrison was in the middle of Final Crisis and Batman: RIP, so it’s not as if he wasn’t busy enough already. However, he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to create a ‘cultural artefact’ when given the opportunity; 18 months later, he wasn’t feeling the same way – he described clinging to his desk, having worked ridiculously long hours and avoiding friends, leading to what he called a ‘businessman’s breakdown’, where he would stop because he simply couldn’t continue but 15 minutes later would knuckle down and get back to work because he ‘had to’. Despite this, he’s very happy with how it turned out and that it exists.

(My recall of the specific timeline of questions and answers after this first round of discussion is a little hazy, and the phrasing might not match the exact words used by Morrison, so please allow for some interpretation.)

Morrison talked about the ‘superheroes as archetypes’ idea (Superman is Zeus, Batman is Hades) but he expanded on it – Flash is Hermes and the Egyptian Isis and the Babylonian Nabu (god of wisdom and writing), but now Flash represents more than just that: he is the idea of modernity, of modern-day communication, of fashion, of transformation. Morrison’s depth of understanding and his ability to explain it is quite breath-taking – he is a smart man who has obviously thought about this a great deal and what it means to him personally. The point of archetypes is more than just the superheroes, it’s about ideas – he talked about the idea of love existing throughout human existence (we all hope to experience it at some stage, but the idea of love remains whether we do or not), or the idea of anger (which was represented as the ultimate form of anger in gods of war), or the idea of being 16 (we all experience it but only for a year, but there is always someone somewhere who is intense feeling of being 16). I was smiling just listening him drop knowledge bombs on his attentive audience.

The book examines the relevance of the lightning symbol in the development of the comic book, and Morrison discussed some aspects of it. The lightning bolt is present throughout the ages of comics, from Captain Marvel in the Golden Age, through the Flash in the Silver Age, Alan Moore’s Marvelman (a version of Captain Marvel, don’t forget) in what Morrison terms the Dark Age (from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s), and the Flash again in Mark Waid’s run on the character, which Morrison sees as the start of the current renaissance of comics. In the book, he links this to the Kabbalah (the original version, not the string-wearing modern silliness) and the magician’s path – the jagged structure from right to left (which is the reverse in the Reverse Flash, which reflects the dark magician’s path) – and he tried to put this structure into the book itself

He talked about the notorious alien abduction episode – where he was taken up by aliens on a higher dimension and they reassured him about the state of the world – about the different branes of reality, describing it terms of how we can see lives represented in 2D in comics, so what if there are beings on a dimension who can see us in the same manner of higher dimensions because they can see five dimensions, including time, so they can read us in the same way we read comics, seeing us at all points of our life at the same time. He also says that, regarding the abduction, he doesn’t believe it, but he does (with a cheeky grin on his face) – it’s a fiction but a really positive fiction

One topic that recurred was the concept of the reality of superhero comics. For example, Superman is more real than us – he’s been around for longer, he will be around long after we are dead, more people know who he is than will ever know. Morrison talked about how adults (a pejorative term for people who have closed minds who can’t enjoy themselves) don’t get fiction, particularly superheroes – they can’t enjoy the comics because they let reality intrude (how can Bruce Wayne run a billion-dollar business during the day and be the Batman at night? It’s not possible. To which Grant responds, with an unbelieving smirk on his lips, ‘because he’s not real’). In contrast, children understand the difference between fiction and reality, despite what adults think, and don’t believe that a cartoon of a crab is the same thing as an actual crab and don’t expect them to start singing and dancing.

Another facet of this the participation of the real world in comic books: the original Superman and Batman were realistic superheroes – they were responses to world around them, facing foes from headlines – whereas Captain Marvel was the first magical hero, with the mythic origin. He expanded on this by providing his thoughts on the types of writers of superheroes. He believes there are two types: the Missionary and the Anthropologist. The Missionary comes along and imposes his reality on a character: in real life, the missionary arrives at a new civilisation and says, ‘you’re naked, here’s a Bible, you’re doing everything wrong’ (despite the fact that the civilisation was fine before they came along); in his analogy, this leads to comics that are realistic and dependent on the outside world to impose rules on the stories. In contrast, the Anthropologist takes a different approach: when an anthropologist meets a new society, he strips down, paints his face, eats food he shouldn’t, blends in, gets stuck in and accepts their customs; his Anthropologist writer accepts the rules and limitless imagination of superheroes and works with them to come up with something new. Obviously, Morrison sees himself as the Anthropologist, who believes in the unreal reality of the superhero and enjoys it and celebrates it and doesn’t impose the real world on the superhero (or, as he put it, ‘Batman has never pissed EVER because he’s not real’ – take that, Kevin Smith). Saying that, he did state, ‘Watchmen is a beautifully written piece of work, you can’t take anything away from it’, despite it being an obvious example of the reality-based superhero story.

I can’t remember the context for the next answer but it had a lovely feel to it: for Morrison, writing superhero comics is like twelve-bar blues – there is a basic structure to it but with that you can do anything you want as long as you stay within the parameters of the rules. The analogy of someone who knows what he is doing and talking about.

Morrison was specifically asked about Action Comics, his new book about Superman in the new DC universe in September – in the book, Morrison wants to address certain issues that ‘adults’ have about the character, but he’s not allowed to say anything about it because of signed NDAs.

After 30 minutes, the Q&A was opened up to questions from the audience. I captured some of them, although I can’t always remember the questions. There is more Seaguy coming (Morrison thinks it is the best thing he’s written). When asked about the conspiracy stuff of his Invisibles, he agrees that there are no lizards running everything because we humans are not smart enough yet, so the world is all chaos. When asked about his first experience with superheroes, he said that he learned to read at three years old (thanks to his mother), and that his first comic was a story where Marvelman meets Baron Munchausen (which obviously influenced everything he’s done since, because it is the story of a magical superhero meeting a complete liar). He talked about how his parents were anti-bomb activists, which affected him a lot as a kid, not helped by the family friends would sing songs about the bomb, so he was really worried about the bomb. The arrival of superheroes was exactly what he needed because these characters could defy the bomb and diffuse his fears.

When asked about the contradiction between believing in the reality of the DC universe, which exists outside the people who have created it, and the reality of the fact the DC universe is owned by a corporation, he said that nobody owns superheroes – we do, everybody does, like Robin Hood or King Arthur – and that they will probably soon be open source soon and we will all be writing these characters. On a related note, he said that he doesn’t have carte blanche at DC, he is just allowed to do his stuff because his comics sell. When talking about comic books in general, he professed that he mostly loves superheroes rather than comics as a medium – he isn’t interested in, say, a comic from a bloke in Iran. Related to his Missionary/Anthropologist analogy, he explained quite succinctly the difference between stories that are relevant to the world around us and those from the imagination – he wants stories that are ripped from the neurones, not the headlines.

Morrison loves the ways comics engage both sides of the brain simultaneously, and he is undecided about digital comics – at the moment, he thinks they are like early cinema trying to recreate theatre, that they are just replicating comic books on another medium, even as far as having you flip the pages – and is waiting to see the development because of its potential; he’d like to see digital comics where you can press on a character and the entire history of the character would pop up, or press on another part of the page and you could play a related game. Asked about the way that Batman is being reset to only Bruce Wayne in the new DC and how he felt about DC ignoring his Batman stories, he said he knew it was never going to last, which is why he always tries to write a complete story in his entire run on a book (such as on Batman and New X-Men) that reflects his passions and affection for the characters, because the characters will always be reverted to the status quo.

Morrison talked about something he discusses in his book, which is the superhero history in terms of a life: Golden Age is like a child, with its simplicity and bright colours and black and white viewpoint; Silver Age is 12 years old, the age of transformation, as puberty hits and there are lots of changes (such as Superman becoming fat/multiple/small, or Flash and his large head/gorilla, or Jimmy Olsen and his many changes); Dark Age is adolescence, with its anger towards the previous way of doing things, making things more serious; current Age is adult, intelligent and knowing but also playful (he used Warren Ellis’ work as an example, and as an example of good comics). In the book, he parallels these ages of comics with his own life (he was 12 when the Silver Age ended, he was an adolescence at start of Dark Age). He was embarrassed at the ‘cringeworthy’ memoir aspect (memoirs make him sound like he’s 86), but he thought it would mean that people other than comic book fans would read it because it was cached in an acceptable literary format.

Comics are wish fulfilment, in response to question about superheroes being used as propaganda (specifically, Captain America punching Hitler) – this would have been great for soldiers at the time, most of whom would have joined up just so they could punch Hitler on the nose, ignoring the occupied territory and huge army in the way of achieving the goal. He’s sure that Holy Terror will be cathartic for some Americans but it’s not his thing. When asked if he had a final Superman story, Morrison brought up Alan Moore’s Mr Majestic ‘Big Chill’ story (from Wildstorm Spotlight #1), calling it the best thing Moore’s ever done (Morrison would like to write something about it one day), and also thinks it’s the best Superman story. He reckons that if it was drawn by someone like Jim Lee (and not Carlos D’Anda), it would be considered a classic. One answer to a question involved him talking about Socratic Dialogue and then Ronald McDonald and referencing his own conversation with Animal Man in the classic issue where Morrison meets the character. Wonderfully bizarre.

It wasn’t all comic book talk. When talking about the current evolution of human society (we have the database of human knowledge at our fingertips, we are making new connections in a new way now, but we’re too close to it to understand how fast it is happening and what it will do, but it is having an impact), he talked about the phone as an organism that has evolved with us, adapting to our needs – ‘machines don’t want to kill us, they want to fuck us, like we want to fuck them.’ Morrison talked about film: he thinks that in the future, we’ll wonder why we paid Tom Cruise to be the hero in films when we will soon be the heroes in our own entertainment – he thinks everything will be video games 20 years down the line. Saying that, he has just finished writing the script for Barry Sonnenfeld – Dinosaurs Vs Aliens – and really enjoyed it; he laughingly said he wanted to do more – particularly Dinosaurs Vs Quakers. He also talked about some heavy stuff, when talk of how superhero always come back led into how your mum/dad won’t come back to life, and talk of how he’s getting older and how hard it is to see his mother, a strong feminist, not as able to think as she could. He said that he wanted to go the same way as the magician in Captain Marvel’s origin – a concrete block falling on him and crushing him. The phrase that also stuck with me was, ‘Being human is hardcore’, meaning that it’s scary on the small scale. Although, after talking about some heavy stuff to do with human society and progress, he said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not a fucking guru’ with a laugh

It was such a shame that we weren’t allowed to photograph or record – I wanted a transcript just to capture a record of his thoughts on everything. He expressed himself so well and eloquently and passionately. An hour wasn’t enough, as he said when he finished answering the last question, ‘I was enjoying that’ with a smile on his face. He was doing a signing afterwards, but only if you bought a copy of the book – I almost wish I bought hardbacks. The book sounds like it’s going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. Listening to him talk, I was enthused about comic books again and their possibilities, and I wanted to read all Morrison’s books all over again.

Continue Reading

My London Comic Book Mart Experience

The National Collectors Marketplace is a regular mart for comic books, trading cards, books and merchandise related to science fiction, film and TV. According to the website, it is the largest of its sort, hosting 130 tables in the Royal National Hotel near Russell Square in central London. When I arrived on a wet Sunday at the beginning of the month, I could believe the claim to size.

The hotel had three large rooms packed with sellers – I recognised Paul Hudson, who owned Comic Showcase (one of the shops I frequented in my youth) until it closed down in 2006, and Incognito Comics (I used to buy from the Canterbury store when I lived there) had a huge stall of boxes filled with 25p comics – with the emphasis on comic books. And the comic book fans were there in force to buy from them; I arrived 30 minutes after the doors opened at noon, and the place was packed. Unfortunately, these readers of comic books hadn’t taken to heart any of the ideals of altruism and looking out for your fellow man that populate superhero stories, because they didn’t care about anyone or anything else apart from finding comics at a good price.

People – mostly men – were flicking through the comics in the longboxes and not letting anyone get a look in. If you were lucky enough to locate a space to examine the comics, the people on the either side were not very friendly or patient. There was one chap who had spent all his money on comics and not an optician, because he kept his head absurdly close to the comics as he flicked through them. There were the hunters with their lists – computer printouts of spreadsheets for some, aged, folded pages of hand-scribbled titles for others – obsessively going through every box and every comic book to find their missing items. There were some ‘ordinary’ punters, but there was also a large contingent of the type of comic book fan who are examples of the stereotype that rest of the world sees: overweight, wearing superhero t-shirts that were too small, unfamiliar with personal hygiene (the smell in the rooms was a little on the ripe side).

I had intended to take some photos of the mart to accompany this reminiscence but I felt too awkward, too uncomfortable in the confined space with the crowds – if you want some photos, see the report by Dom of London Loves Comics. I’d been looking forward to rifling through comic boxes looking for bargains and trying to fill gaps in my collection, but I felt out of place and didn’t enjoy it as much as I had wanted. Oh, I wandered around and looked diligently through the boxes – I even found the five issues of Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis at 50p each – and thought the variety of material for sale was impressive (trays full of Doctor Who novels in plastic bags, old British comics lying on tables, old cult films on DVD, original artwork, even old British porn mags). However, the experience left me little deflated and out of sync with my collecting hobby, which is a shame. I can’t fully explain it but I don’t have the urge to return to a comic book mart, even though I still have the desire to buy cheap comic books. It’s not to do with the National Collectors Marketplace, just an adverse reaction to my first interaction for a while with the hardcore comic collecting community. I don’t classify myself as a real geek because I don’t have the depths of geek-ness I perceive in real geeks, even though I’ve just spent 600 words talking about going around a room full of old comic books, but this was yet another sign to confirm my belief. Your mileage may vary.

Continue Reading

Saturday At The London MCM Expo

I haven’t been to a convention since I attended the London Film and Comic Con in 2008, so it was about time I exposed myself to another celebration of geek culture. Mark Millar’s Kapow! might have been oriented more towards mainstream comic book (matching my tastes), but tickets for that sold out because it was so small (and I’ve started to come out in a rash whenever I read or hear Millar hyping himself and his products) – the MCM Expo is huge, held in the vast ExCel London exhibition centre in the Docklands, so there was no worry about turning up on the day without a ticket.

In retrospect, turning up on the day to buy a ticket wasn’t the greatest idea I had in the world. You couldn’t buy General Entry (11am) tickets in advance, only the Early Entry (9am) tickets, which were £5 more expensive, but it might have been worth it: I spent 90 minutes shuffling along in the queue to buy a ticket (I tweeted a lot during this time to helpwhich kept my Expo timeline). The photo below isn’t great quality because it’s from my camera phone, but I’m in one corner of the huge hall and the place where you buy tickets is in the opposite corner, with all the people in between standing in rows walking up and down very slowly.

I wouldn’t recommend the authentic convention experience of extensive queues, unless you are in a large group of cosplayers – there were lots of people in cosplay, mostly related to anime/manga or computer games I couldn’t identify (there were some Stormtroopers, Harry Potter cosplay, steampunk and even a few superheroes; my favourite team-up was Rorschach and Deadpool), and they were mostly young people with an even split of girls and boys. I’d say that about half the people at the Expo were in cosplay, and the costumes were very impressive in most cases, but the only weird thing was the Free Hugs phenomenon: people in cosplay holding a sign saying ‘Free Hugs’ and all these strangers happily hugging each other. I’d never seen it before, but apparently it has been quite popular with da kidz for a few years now.

The other strange aspect was feeling old – a lot of the attendees were a lot younger than I am, and I was glad to see people of my age (some had brought their kids, even if they were in pushchairs) or even older (I saw a couple who were definitely OAPs) to make me feel less like an antiquated anomaly. It didn’t help that I was going solo (I’m glad I didn’t drag my long-suffering girlfriend along because the 90-minute queue would have tested her love for me), and I was worried that the youths were looking at me with suspicion.

Eventually, I got my ticket, which was a paper wristband that was initially stuck to my arm and they had to pull out a few hairs before it was put on correctly, and I was allowed entry into the Expo. Despite lots of people hanging around outside, the hall was packed (as the blurry photo above demonstrates) and wandering around was an effort in some narrow alleys. I had missed the Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class panels in the main stage (serves me right, I suppose), but I thought I might watch the Futurama panel, which had four of the voice cast from the show. However, the man who was hosting the panel was so incredibly annoying that I couldn’t stick it out (his ‘hilarious’ joke was to pretend to get someone in the front row thrown out) and I left before the cast arrived.

Fortunately, this worked out for the best because I accidentally arrived at the SFX panel on science fiction journalism. I don’t want to be a sci-fi journalist, but I was interested in hearing them talk about the experience. It was interesting and well hosted (I think by Dave Bradley, Editor-In-Chief of SFX), who kept it flowing and getting everyone on the panel involved. When it was opened up for questions, the first one was from Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston, who asked about the problems that the magazine has had with JM Straczynski (obviously, Johnston collects gossip from everywhere, not just comic books). I left when somebody asked the question, ‘What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into sci-fi journalism?’, demonstrating how much he hadn’t been paying attention.

It was another bit of good timing because it meant I could line up for an autograph from Warren Ellis. He had started at 2pm, so there were only a dozen people ahead of me when I arrived around 2.30pm and I didn’t have to wait long to get his signature. Unlike others in line, I hadn’t brought a specific comic book (or books) for Ellis to personalise; instead, I got him to autograph my writing notebook so that I could be inspired whenever I look at it. I’m a big fan of his work (see the Warren Ellis label on this blog), so it was a pleasure to meet the internet Jesus in person. I didn’t fawn or gush – I told him my name for the autograph, I thanked him for being a writer (he replied, ‘Well, it was that or get a proper job’), thanked him for the autograph and left him to carry on signing. It was a relief to meet a writer whose work I enjoy without coming across as an idiot (as I did when I met Chris Claremont nearly 20 years ago at a UKCAC), so it was the highlight of the Expo for me.

Warren Ellis signed for only 40 minutes, according to this tweet, which highlighted a significant aspect of the MCM Expo – it’s not really a convention about comic books. Yes, there is a comics village that is always increasing in size, and there were even some artists I recognised (Gary Erskine, John McCrea, Paul Duffield and, according to Rich Johnston, Frank Quitely was there doing sketches even though he wasn’t announced), but the main focus seems to be the manga/anime/gaming. If there was a Warren Ellis signing at a comics-focussed convention, it would not have been finished in 40 minutes. The sheer number of cosplayers (I haven’t seen any numbers online, but the number on my wristband was 13876, so I’d guess that about 20,000 people were at the ExCel, including the people who stayed outside at the MCM Fringe, and I’d guess half the people were in cosplay) dictated the focus of the hall: tables and tables of Japanese-related merchandise. Manga, anime DVDs, cuddly toys, statues, bags, hats, sweets, trinkets, cosplay swords (both wooden and real); even the Comics Village was half manga. There were other aspects to the Expo: there was the Games Village, where people could play the latest games (a lot of them looked like they were from Japan), and there were tables set up for Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, the British Origami Society, a wrestling ring where wrestlers wrestled and people watched (no, really), and places for people to be artistic, but the Expo seemed to attract and cater to the cosplayers more than the other geek elements.

To sum up: standing in a queue for an hour and a half is not fun, a lot of people like to dress up and get their photographs taken, Warren Ellis is a nice bloke, geek culture has taken over the world, and I need to attend a comic book convention so that I don’t feel out of place.

Continue Reading

Theatre: As It Occurs To Me Season 2 Episode 8

Richard Herring‘s As It Occurs To Me (shortened to AIOTM) is an impressive undertaking: Herring writes an entirely new 60-minute sketch show each week, rehearses it with the cast (Emma Kennedy, Dan Tetsell and Christian Reilly on guitar) twice on the day and they perform it live on Monday night, which is recorded and released as a free unedited podcast the next day. You’ve got to hand it to him for putting his money where his mouth is and just doing this; even though it might have started as a failed pitch to BBC radio, but it has evolved into something else entirely. Free from the constraints of corporate interference, it allows the show to be sweary and filthy and obscene. And it’s all the better for it.

I had listened to the first series without actually going to the live performance, so I made a special effort to attend this series to give some money back for all the free entertainment provided, and it seemed best to go for the last show in the season, at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 5 July. Bizarrely, I hadn’t listened to any of season 2 AIOTM before seeing the final show; however, the running jokes didn’t interfere with the enjoyment.

Herring provides a full show – the first half was a preview of his Edinburgh show, Christ On A Bike, an update of an old show that is a funny and intelligent discussion of his disagreement of things in the bible. It was a good show, even if it isn’t completely finished yet, with some big laughs and a well-reasoned argument; all Herring has to do is calm down on the shouty section where he has a go at the error in the first sections of the New Testament, and he’ll do fine.

After an interval (where the queues for the men’s toilets was larger than the women’s toilets, such is the ratio of gender in the fans who attend these shows), the live performance of AIOTM went ahead, including all cock-ups and digressions. It was fun to watch the show being performed, seeing the actors playing the lines instead of just hearing them; Emma Kennedy was particularly funny, especially the physicality of her SuBo character (and she slightly counters for Herring’s worrying trend towards misogyny). The show does have a tendency towards recurring gags (Tiny Andrew Collings has become a huge part of the script), which can hinder the casual listener, but it was a lot of fun and it was a hoot seeing the cast making each other laugh, and seeing them happy when a sketch worked well. The audience certainly enjoyed it, but they were slightly biased fans (my long-suffering girlfriend went with me but didn’t have quite the same reaction, which only makes me love her more for putting up with me dragging her to stuff like this) – the feeling in the theatre was of warmth and enjoyment and almost community. I can certainly recommend the sensation, and seeing AIOTM live was definitely worth it.

Continue Reading

Comedy: Live Recording Of Clare In The Community

It was only when I was fact-checking for this post (yes, hard to believe, I know, but I do try …) that I discovered that Clare In The Community is now in its sixth year and sixth series – it’s an impressive achievement for a radio sitcom about a social worker who gets worked up about other people’s problems while ignoring her own. It’s a very funny show with a strong cast, and I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t on television. In fact, a pilot was filmed in 2002, before the radio show, with Julia Sawalha in the lead role, but it was never broadcast. The strangest fact I discovered was that Clare In The Community started out life (and continues to this day) as a cartoon strip in The Guardian, written by Harry Venning (who co-writes the radio scripts with David Ramsden). Isn’t the internet great?

I’ve listened to the show for a few years but I’d never got round to going to a live recording before. My lovely girlfriend snagged tickets to remedy this. As with the live recording of The Now Show, there was a large queue of people waiting long before we were allowed into the building – Clare In The Community has quite a following. This is not surprising because it is really good; however, it is very much a radio comedy – there are some jokes in the show that can only work on radio, and it is much better for it.

The best thing about the live recording, apart from the fun of being there as it happens, was putting faces to voices. I knew Clare was played to perfection by Sally Phillips (of Smack The Pony fame) and Nina Conti played her Scottish co-worked Meggan (although I didn’t realise that she also played the Eastern European nanny, which was impressive), but I could finally see the face of Brian, her long-suffering teacher boyfriend (Alex Lowe), and her work colleagues Helen (Liza Tarbuck) and Ray (Richard Lumsden). There was a new addition to the cast this year – another social worker: Libby, the Australian lesbian. I recognised her as an Australian comedienne who had done a set on Russell Howard’s Good News Extra, but my Google-Fu has failed me in locating her name. Sigh …

[Edit: Sean Prower, from The British Comedy Guide, emailed to tell me that the name of the comedian is Sarah Kendall. Thanks, Sean. Among the things he has written on the site, he wrote the entry for Clare In The Community. Go read it to thank him for me.]

We were treated to two episodes, both of which were excellent – the quality of writing was very sharp and the performances were great; it was very funny, and funny watching people trying not to laugh while performing the show, especially when they know a particularly good bit was coming up. Sally Phillips seemed to be enjoying herself even more than the others. It was impressive seeing the cast doubling up – all of them apart from Phillips and Tarbuck did at least two different voices during the night, although special credit must go to Conti for her performance in the second episode, which saw her switching between the two voices (both of which are not her own natural accent) in alternating scenes with aplomb.

The shows were very funny – there was even a joke playing on the Gordon Brown ‘Bigotgate’ incident – so much so that, of the few extra takes that were needed after the initial recording, one of the retakes was because the audience was laughing too much, ruining the rhythm of the joke and putting Phillips off the timing of the punchline. Admittedly, the crowd was full of fans – the producer offered to give people a quick introduction to the show, but the audience reaction told her she didn’t need to do it – but everyone had a very enjoyable evening, and I can’t wait until they start broadcasting the episodes on Radio 4 to relive the experience again.

Continue Reading

It’s A London Thing

[Writing about television programmes really takes it out of me, so you’ll have to wait for the final post in the current run, because it will take a bit more time to get it all together. So, here’s something completely unrelated.]

I was born and bred in London and, with the exceptions of living and working in three other cities, I’ve spent most of my life in London. I’m supposed to be of an age where I move further away from the city, even to another county, but I find it impossible to do when London is such a great place, with so much to do and so much to offer.

Take for example a recent Saturday. Without having to get up too early, my girlfriend and I travel to the Barbican, the wonderfully odd and interesting art centre in the City of London, to see a free art installation – the Céleste Boursier-Mougenot commission for The Curve gallery. To quote the website, it is ‘a walk-through aviary for a flock of zebra finches, furnished with electric guitars and other instruments and objects’. We arrived about 20 minutes before it opened and there was already a queue, but we were in the first batch of people admitted to the exhibit and it was a joy. The point of the installation is the music created by the birds, but that wasn’t the most appealing factor. What I got out of it was being so close to these tiny little birds, mostly oblivious to the people walking around them. In fact, if you stood in the correct place in the hall, the birds would land on you, especially women with handbags on their shoulder, with all the perches created by the material. It was so easy to wander around, being close to the birds as they sat on guitar strings or tried to build a nest on the bridge of another guitar, you completely lose track of time as you became enchanted by the proximity and the connection to nature.

After a refreshing beverage and wandering around the ‘lakeside’ terrace of the Barbican – the sun was shining on old London town, and the combination of water and old buildings and new buildings was quite beautiful – we walked up to Islington to visit the large Cass Arts there before hopping on a bus to take us to King’s Cross for lunch. In a side road off the Euston Road, away from the normal food areas, is Snazz Sichuan. Sichuan food is one of the latest ‘new’ cuisines to hit London recently, but this is not the recent for our decision to go there – having recently discovered My Old Place near Liverpool Street, we’ve been looking for any place in London that serves this fiery Chinese food. My Old Place is a small, unspectacular-looking restaurant that closes from 2 pm to 5 pm, even on the weekends, but it serves some amazing food – the dry-fried chicken with chillies authentic style is the most amazing taste sensation I’ve ever had, and they do dry fried green beans in chilli that is fantastic – so we’ve been looking for other places because we felt guilty about going to the same place all the time. Snazz Sichuan looks more like a fancy restaurant – we were sat in booths in the window, although it was fairly empty for a Saturday around 1.30pm – but it still serves extremely spicy food. A hearty meal of dandan noodles, dumplings in chilli sauce, their version of the dry fried chicken (but with a cumin-containing flour coating the chicken), and ‘hot and numbing beef in fiery soup’ filled our stomachs and spiced up our mouths, although they didn’t use as much Sichuan peppercorns as My Old Place.

The next stop for the day was fortunately a few steps away – the Magnificent Maps exhibit at the British Library. The library itself is impressive enough, but the exhibition of old maps (some dating back to the 1400s) and even the largest atlas in the world was very impressive, especially as it was free – the proximity of both Euston and King’s Cross stations meant that there were a lot of people in the exhibit, dragging their luggage around with them. I would suggest going at a quieter time to fully appreciate the pieces on display. The maps and globes show the history of the map and its use in displaying wealth, power and changing history, and is a fascinating look at the way they have been used.

[You can get the female perspective of this day over at the blog of my long-suffering and lovely girlfriend Kim, who has to put up with me dragging her around lovely London.]

Now, tell me – after a day like that, when we didn’t even take full advantage of the city, how can we possibly leave London?

Continue Reading