A Report from Bristol International Comics Expo

While this weekend, every comics fan in America had their eyes focussed on the Emerald City Comic Con, British readers were instead convening in the south-west of England to attend the UK's most popular comics event - the Bristol Comic Expo, which took place from the 9th-11th May this year. Something of a focal point for the UK side of the industry, Bristol is where creators and fans alike can mingle, where small press and professionals both sit behind tables to sell their books, and, of course, the place where you can witness the presentations of what everyone will reluctantly describe as "the BAFTAs to the Eisner Awards's Oscars" - the Eagle Awards.

Notably, for the first time this year the Comics Expo has a tagline claiming that it also features the "Manga Expo." A massive increase in cosplayers and a few more manga exhibitors than normal reflect a slow, if definite thawing between the comics and manga industries in the UK, where the two have otherwise largely stayed separate from one another. While the bulk of the action happens in the main exhibition hall, where anyone with a comic to sell sits at a table and tries to get themselves noticed and retailers watch happily as comic collectors sift hungrily through their boxes of back-issues, CBR News checked out some of the panels on Saturday.

Comics industry legend Dave Gibbons was found, naturally, in the Dave Gibbons Spotlight panel, in conversation with Lee "Budgie" Barnett, both of whom work closely with the Bristol Expo. Discussing Gibbons’ wide career, the two naturally spent plenty of time on the forthcoming “Watchmen” movie. Asked about “Watchmen's” many background details, Gibbons claimed that the film, if anything, "exceeds the level of detail in the comics" and said that he'll be "very surprised" if the film is anything other than fantastic. Discussing merchandise, he was aware that the action figures were something of a contentious matter, but said the license won't turn up anywhere, promising "no Rorschach Lunchbox."

Gibbons also went into further detail about the recently announced "Watching the Watchmen" hardback from Titan books, describing how glad he was to have Chip Kidd handling the design and hoping that it would be a "Nice complement to the movie." He did add the volume will be entirely about the graphic novel, containing unused and unfinished pages, script samples and more, right down to an early design of “Watchmen's” iconic smiling face logo. Gibbons expressed bemusement (and some regret) that he sold the original art for “Watchmen,” but kept all the preliminary notes and sketches that will now end up in this book. He also added that since it'll feed off movie publicity but be entirely about the comic, he hoped “Watching the Watchmen” would fuel interest in a way that highlights Alan Moore's role in creation of the source material without offending him by associating his name with the movie, from which the writer’s divorced himself, as he does routinely with such adaptations of his work.

At a later panel, Karen Berger, the chief editor of DC's Vertigo line, discussed their current crop of titles with some of Vertigo's UK-based creators, with teases for upcoming stories in “Fables,” “Army@Love” and “House of Mystery,” as well as a reminder that this year is something of a big one for “The Sandman,” with the final two Absolute volumes and an adaptation of the Gaiman-penned, in-canon Sandman prose story "The Dream Hunters" in the cards for the end of the year.

At 5:00 pm, much of the convention gathered in the Park Room for the weekend's most anticipated panel, the ninth annual Hypotheticals (hosted by Lee Barnett and Dave Gibbons) where comics industry professionals take a trip to Earth-Dave and are invited to tell us exactly what they'd do in the hypothetical situations presented to them, taken from the comics industry headlines for the year. As ever, Barnett wrote the jokes and Gibbons, clipboard in hand, fluffed them during delivery. The answers given by the professionals stay strictly behind closed doors, but Emma Vieceli of Sweatdrop Studios (or rather, on Earth-Dave, SweatSHOP Studios) probably got the most laughs despite making her debut appearance, delivering her replies with a mixture of fear and, well... more fear, while Walt and Louise Simonson demonstrated the good-humoured class and pure entertainment value that can only come with their combined decades of experience.

After the ordeal was over, the assembled convention-goers dispersed to find food and drinks, before reconvening later than night to watch the Eagle Award presentations. The awards were hosted by sitcom actor and closet comics fan Fraser Ayres, who confessed that he realized the extent of his comics addiction when he took down a picture of his own mother so that he could put up some new Barry Kitson artwork. After the introduction, organizer Mike Conroy stepped up to address recent controversy over ballot-stuffing, fully absolving those accused of any wrongdoing, before the awards began.

While CBR was robbed in the Favourite Website category, with Marvel.com winning the prize (not undeservedly, in light of their Digital Comics scheme), “Absolute Sandman” received the Favourite Reprint Eagle, and Dave Gibbons received Favourite Letterer, seeing him comment, "After 30 years, someone has finally recognized that I can spell."

"The Walking Dead" once again won Favourite Black and White Comic, though the biggest cheer for this category was directed towards the critically acclaimed "Phonogram" by local creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, leaving no doubt where the convention-goers favours lay. Perhaps the most surprising moment of the awards was seeing "Hellboy: Darkness Calls" beat back such industry titans as "All-Star Superman," "Y the Last Man" and "Captain America" to win Favourite Colour Comic (US). Relative newcomer Matt Fraction won Favourite Writer, vindicating Marvel's recent confidence in him with such high profile assinments as “Uncanny X-Men” and “Invincible Iron Man.”

Conroy ended the night with a second announcement, formally handing over the awards organization to his daughter, Cassandra, as of next year. A full list of Eagle Award winners will be available on the official site soon. As ever, the "real" event - the satirical Champagne Glass Awards (as presented by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood) immediately followed the Eagles in the hotel bar, with Emma Vieceli winning Hottest Creator, Jamie Boardman, winning Hardest Drinker, Jamie McKelvie winning Best Comic Created by a Friend for "Suburban Glamour," Dave Gibbons receiving a Lifetime Achievement and Best Other going to Top Cow VP Rob Levin, presumably because he made the trip across the pond to the attend.

On Sunday, a quick aside to Panini's "X-Factor" panel (named after the TV talent show, rather than the comic!) saw fans pitching story ideas to Panini UK with the promise of having their idea written up in Panini's youth-oriented Marvel-licensed comic, "Spectacular Spider-Man." Victory ultimately ended up going to this reporter's friend, Seb Patrick. Those at Panini suggested the panel would be back next year, so aspirant Spider-Man writers might want to start working on their 2-minute pitches now!

While the scale of Bristol can't remotely compare to the big US conventions like New York Comic Con or Comic-Con International in San Diego, the Bristol Expo once again delivered the same idiosyncratic slice of comics industry shambles that can only come out of the UK. An unmissable experience for all British fans, and for any brave Americans who want to make the trip, let's hope to see you there next year.

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