This is the first of a series of interviews with comic convention organisers over the next few months, which will be cross-posted on downthetubes, the Forbidden Planet International blog, Bugpowder and Fictions. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in the UK.
176 co-organiser Oli Smith is a freelance writer and illustrator living in London who has also produced several self-published comics. He founded London Underground Comics in 2007, a group of London-based comic creators dedicated to raising awareness of the indie comics scene to the general public. The collective spent over a year running a stall in Camden Lock Market and Oli went on to organise several one-day festivals attracting hundreds of visitors and dozens of exhibitors each time. The LUC team also teamed up with Paul Gravett to run an event at the ICA during the ComICA festival., then went on to organise an exhibition at the Alphabet Bar in Soho, building to 176, what will hopefully be a massive one day multimedia event featuring live drawing, animation, comics and music at the 176 Project Space in Chalk Farm, London.
In his personal work Oli has self-published many small press comics, his first, Hazy Thursday, being named one of the best comics of 2006 by popular magazine Comics International. He also created the short film Weekend Friends, a documentary covering the events surrounding the second Camden Market festival which was shown at the Roxy Bar and Screen in Christmas 2008. He has also appeared in several episodes of Resonance FM’s Strip!, a weekly show about comics which can be downloaded as a podcast under the name Panel Borders talking about his work.
Professionally, Oli has illustrated articles for Electric Sheep Magazine and various comics anthologies as well as the odd indie album cover. He has written several reviews for Electric Sheep, Total Sci Fi, Sci Fi London and various comic-related websites and is currently working on illustrations for childrens’ books and has written for the 2010 Doctor Who Storybook.
downthetubes: Please tell us about a little about the history of your con and how it's evolved over the years.
Oli Smith: As I'm sure most readers of this article are aware, London Underground Comics (LUC) began life two years ago as a weekly market stall in Camden Lock manned by whichever people I could drag down from their ivory towers to help me stand around for eight hours on a Saturday.
Then we bought some chairs.
Then we sat around selling literally thousands of comics to the general public and realised we had been conned in the past by the small press scene and comics events organisers telling us that the only way to network or sell anything was to give them lots of money for events that didn't cater to our needs. So we decided to do our own conventions, to see how we did without the 'networking opportunities' of 'real' cons.
Then we met Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Eddie Campbell and got Paul Gravett to dance to the Austin Powers theme tune whilst we helped organise an event at the ICA and were interviewed by Radio 4.
We also ran two events in the Market with 50 exhibitors each time, a footfall of a few hundred visitors and for the first time in their life, I think every small presser could afford a round of drinks plus extra from the profits of the day, or at least had 50p spare.
Pretty sweet, I think.
downthetubes: How is your con funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant from the council, some other means or a combination of these?
Oli: 176 is funded by GOSH! comics shop and exhibitors. It's amazing what you can get for free if you just ask. I don't think we've ever had to pay over a hundred pounds for a venue, and considering the locations and spaces we get, it's a great deal.
For this special event we wanted to offer exhibitors more for their money than any other con, so we asked Gosh! if they would donate some money so that we could buy every exhibitor their own canvas and provide some sort of materials to decorate them with. They were very generous.
Also, anybody who is an animator gets the opportunity to have their work shown on our massive wall screen for free. We've also managed to subsidise the booze and give out free teas and coffees.
Did I mention ambient DJ's throughout the day and live music in the evening?
As you can see, we make the exhibitor's £5 for a quarter table and £10 for a half go a long way.
downthetubes: What are the overall aims of your con/event?
Oli: God, I don't know. When I started LUC I was very idealistic, but late nights of balancing accounts and replying to a million emails and organising the bloody thing have drained the political spark.
So what I would like to achieve now from 176 is for everybody to have a brilliant day out, try some new things, sell lots of their work to new and interesting people and get to see their mates. And to try and do it in such a way that they go home with a bob or two to spare.
downthetubes: Who is your con aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?
Oli: 176 is aimed at everyone, I want to see people who have never heard of comics drop by on the day and see what's going on. I want regular con goers to come and try something new. I want to present the small press as a stylish and professional thing to be part of, rather than rickety old vanity press in the corner.
I know that's not to everyone's taste, but I don't mean change the way you make comics. I mean change the way you sell comics. Let’s make those tourists think they're talking to professional artists when they drop by. Let's show the diversity of what the underground scene can really be. For instance, it takes me mailing round everybody to find out that there are some fantastic musicians in the small press world, and some even better animators. How didn't I know that before?
And, yes, we are family friendly. Not only are we going to have a nice little reading area and outside tables for people to sit and read their purchases, but you've also got the animations and coffee to give people a reason to stay past a quick circuit of the room and to want to read their purchases at the event!
downthetubes: How effective have you been in getting those kind of people to attend?
Oli: Very. Next!
Well, up until now we've only had events in tourist hotspots. It's not hard to attract a crowd on a Saturday in Camden if you've got 50 people in an event. The 176 Gallery is well known if you like art, but a little off the beaten track. Maybe I’ll send people out flyering round Chalk Farm tube. I still think we'll pack the place, to be honest.
downthetubes: Can you give a projected (or actual) attendance figure for your event?
Oli: Well, we sold all our table space in two weeks so that’s 45 exhibitors (we decided not to cram as many people in as possible, but to give the people that come a really nice experience and room to breathe). So, if they're sensible they'll invite all their friends and family. Then you've got the regular gallery attendees. We're the last event of a two month long series of arty things so there'll be people attracted by that, and then anyone who picked up one of Jake Harold's sexy fliers surely won't be able to resist.
downthetubes: What lessons have you learned during your time running a con, in terms of marketing and advertising your event?
Oli: Flier. Lots.
The youtube videos are a fun diversion, but they're there more to give a welcoming front to the people that are on the fence, to show we're friendly. But if a couple of people come because of them, then that's great.
What's nice are places like the Forbidden Planet International blog and downthetubes that are very good at picking up our announcements, which pretty much covers the comic circuit, and the Gosh! association should bring down some more London-based fans as well.
downthetubes: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about your con? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?
Oli: I don't have a mailing list. It would be too long really and I'd have to keep updating the contacts and stuff. It's too fiddly. We have the London Underground Comics website and my website and my twitter and facebook groups and events so it's pretty easy to keep tabs on what's going on if you're linked to me in any way. Facebook and twitter are good because word of mouth can spread pretty quickly once they get informed that such and such a friend has joined the LUC group or whatever.
Then there's the youtube videos, which still seems to be an emerging technology in the comics world.
downthetubes: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?
Oli: Haha, God, no. Who would, in this climate? If you print it you lose money, and if you charge for it you don't get readers. No one wants to go out and get anything physical for news any more. Also, it'd be such a pain to distribute when I could just post it all on a website, and hit some randomers along the way.
downthetubes: What's the mix in terms of exhibitors at your con? Do you even have exhibitors?
Oli: Yes, we have exhibitors, although in the future I want to maybe move away from the standard 'market' layout to events. But then, I want to graffiti a building for a day as my next event.
The mix is a hard balance to achieve; I love getting the newbies involved and they're very keen and up for anything. It's the best feeling in the world to know you're a few people's first ever convention. But then again I want all my old friends to come down and to have a catch up with them, so it's striking the balance of being fresh for the new punks and just the right hint of familiarity so you don't scare off the oldies. Like you, Matt.
downthetubes: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country? How do you try and support it (do you try and support it)?
Oli: I have a lot of thoughts on the UK small press scene, most of them revolving around, what's it for? I've had a few breaks recently in work and commissions, and none of them came from making a small press comic. I've not seen a career ladder that starts in small press and ends in professional work, I mean, it happens, but it could just as easily be a chat with the right person rather than a critically acclaimed masterpiece.
And if a career ladder isn’t your thing and you just want to share your ideas then that’s great and that's why I do it too. But is paying through the nose for a space at a con to sell comics to people you know really sharing your ideas or getting the word out? Or is it vanity press? Is it a club for people to sit around and feel famous because they're in a room with a very specific bunch of people who have all visited their site?
Convention organisers aren't helping break the vanity press mould and neither are the exhibitors who keep paying for these events. With LUC, I took comics to anywhere but where comics fans are found: the Alphabet Bar art gallery off of Oxford Street; Camden Market; The Prince Charles cinema; the Bookart Bookshop; we've given talks at schools and libraries. If we are scouting out a venue and there might be someone there who has heard of LUC then we're not doing our jobs and we move somewhere else.
To me, art is about communicating ideas, and sharing those ideas with as many people as I can. It's not about making a new issue to sell to all your friends at a convention so that you can make slightly less of a loss at the end of the weekend. That's just mutual backslapping. And I love my fellow creators, I really do, but I don't want them and only them to read my work. Because to me that isn't small press.
downthetubes: How much are the tickets for your event? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.
Oli: Tickets? You want me to charge money for people to come into a room and buy things? That's ridiculous. It's like WH Smith charging you to come in, even if you just want some gum. How do you get people who don’t know anything about comics to come in off the street with an entry fee?
At 176, there's reasons for everyday folk to stay and watch the animations or bands or abuse the coffee. Even if I had a panel of comics professionals, that wouldn't justify an entry fee for a family of four who don't know who any of those people are and only wanted to come in because their son saw Wolverine at the cinema.
downthetubes: How much are exhibitor tables for your event (if you have any)? Again, how did you arrive at that figure? [Editor's note: exhibitor tables at 176 are fully booked and have been for some time]
Oli: We work out what we want to do, how much it will cost and divide it by the number of people. If it's too much we cut back or find another venue. We never charge on the door, and we don't want to price anyone out of the market. It's small press, not private press. You shouldn't pay a member’s fee to take part.
Sadly that means I don’t make any money, but then I wouldn’t be best pleased to go to an event that charged me, lets say, £120 for a table. How many comics would I have to sell to break even on that? And how many more to cover my train fair, hotel bills and printing costs for this completely hypothetical event? A train to Birmingham is expensive.
downthetubes: Do you run workshops/events/panels at your con? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.
Oli: Every exhibitor gets a canvas. They draw/paint a picture on it during the day and we build a wall at the back of the room out of them as they are finished. Every event is accessible to all. The animation, the music, the comics should become this synergy-type entity. I don't want a convention, I want a festival.
downthetubes: As you've been kind enough to answer these questions, please fell free to big your con up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what your event's main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.
It's going to be a fantastic day filled with fantastic people. I've already gone into a lot of detail about what we offer above. I would like to say that if there are any more people out there who have animations they'd like to show or some music they might feel appropriate, please just send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll try and fit you in somewhere.
See you soon!
• 176 will take place on Saturday 27th June from 12 noon until 7.00pm at Project Space 176, Prince of Wales Road, London. For more information visit: http://londonundergroundcomics.com/?page_id=482. Our thanks to Oli for taking time out from revising to do this interview: hope his finals went well!