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Friday, 31 July 2009

Matters of Convention - We are Family: A conversation with Vicky Stonebridge

Continuing our series of interviews with British comic convention organisers, for this fourth instalment, Matthew Badham chatted to Vicky Stonebridge, the co-organiser, alongside Richmond Clements, of Hi-Ex!, a convention held in Inverness, Scotland, regularly reviewed on downthetubes by Jeremy Briggs.

These convention features are being 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.

(NB: Answers have been edited only in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and not for style or content.)

downthetubes: Please tell us about a little about the history of your con/event and how it's evolved over the years.

Dennis the Menace at Hi-ExVicky Stonebridge: The next Hi-Ex! will be the third. It’s been rather a runaway monster and hopefully by then we will have caught up and tamed it!

It started when we were talking to the outreach worker for the venue, who suggested we ask a couple of comic creators up for a book festival. There was such a positive response it quickly turned into the idea of a weekend event, the venue talked about £10,000 funding, we got carried away and then it turned out that there was no funding or support or time. Somehow, despite the roads being blocked by snow for both years one and two, we have managed to pull it together and it has wildly exceeded our expectations.

Where we have drawn strength is from the industry itself. Other con organisers past and present have been wonderfully helpful. Publishers, businesses, small and big comic companies, the creators themselves and some of our friends have assisted way beyond the call of duty. Its a shame the arts, education and funding agencies in the area have been less so.

downthetubes: How is your con funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant from the council, some other means or a combination of these?

Vicky: Funding!?! Don't get me started! In year one, we got a third of the cost to have Kev F Sutherland in schools for two days from the council. We funded the rest ourselves. Year two, nothing, de nada, from anyone. The ticket sales just about pay for the venue, while the sale of exhibitor spaces and our personal credit cards pay the rest.

It’s very frustrating as we know this event is good for the area, good for comics, good for local families, charity, the venue and yet business wise its a really, really stupid thing to do and we end up living off baked beans all year to pull it together...

Year three we hope will be different! We are onto it...

downthetubes: What are the overall aims of your con/event?

  • To plug a gap in the market as there were no main comic weekend events north of Leeds.
  • To give folks in the North a chance to participate in something cultural as there is very little happens up here that is relevant to normal people.
  • To raise money for a children’s charity.
  • To encourage children and families to get into comics.
  • To promote literature, and comics as an art and literary form.
  • To encourage new talent in the area.
  • Words like inclusion, opportunities and participation are important too.
We want to get away from the 30-something male clutching a superhero comic idea. Comics is a huge diverse wonderful art form, that overlaps so many other exciting media. We want to encourage and represent that.

downthetubes: Who is your con aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?

Judge RoseVicky: 'Family' is our core audience. While we want to cater for diehard fans, we want to attract people who know nothing about comics, especially children and local families.

downthetubes: How effective have you been in getting those types of people to attend?

Vicky: 15% of our attendees last year were under 16, which for a UK comic event is a major achievement.

We work hard to promote Hi-Ex! through Schools, youth groups and libraries. We are very pleased that it seems to work and intend to build on this.

downthetubes: Can you give a projected (or actual) attendance figure for your event?

Vicky: The first two years came in at around 500-600 attendees. We hope to have more in 2010 as we have managed to push the date back away from snowy season.

downthetubes: What lessons have you learnt during your time (co-)running a con, in terms of marketing and advertising your event?

Vicky: Loads! We have been very lucky in that the press have picked up on Hi-Ex! in a big way and you can't buy better advertising than that, although all the headlines seem to carry a "zap, kerpow!" and refer to pants over tights.

We also learnt very quickly to watch what we say to anybody. Within days of the first event being announced someone was telling an Internet forum that they were organising it and that a certain big name guest would be there... They weren't and he wasn’t going to be.

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?

Eden Court Arts Centre, InvernessVicky: Absolutely! Without the Internet, Hi-Ex! simply wouldn’t happen, we [Vicky and co-organiser Richmond Clements] wouldn’t be involved in comics and in fact wouldn’t have met. I'd be knitting haggises for tourists in a remote glen and Rich would still be daydreaming 9 to 5.

We have a wonderful website -- hi-ex.co.uk -- that sci-fi and comics author Mike Carroll kindly built and runs for us. We have groups and pages on social networking sites. We do have a mailing list but try not to spam people too much!

downthetubes: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?

Vicky: We produce flyers in advance and posters, and have had a couple of adverts, like a page in 2000AD.

downthetubes: What's the mix in terms of exhibitors at your con? Do you even have exhibitors?

Vicky: We take everyone who wants to come, big or small! We try and contact as many people as we can, the more of a mix the better. We are very keen to attract more European publishers and creators.

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)?

Vicky: Rich co-edits FutureQuake publications, Zarjaz and Dogbreath. The small press is very close to our hearts. Many of our favourite comic people are small press. I don't really differentiate, it’s all comics.

downthetubes: How much are the tickets for your event? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.

Vicky: We generally have a concession for under-16 and family groups. We have yet to set the ticket rate for 2010. A lot depends on if we get funding and what the venue are going to charge us, but we would love to make it as affordable as possible. We also look at the other events in UK to try and be within the same ballpark.

downthetubes: How much are exhibitor tables for your event (if you have any)? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?

Vicky: As above, we try and keep it low as people have to travel a long way to attend and we appreciate that. But we do have to try and cover print costs etc.

downthetubes: Do you run workshops/events/panels at your con? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.

Vicky: Yes these are integral to the event: talks, a portfolio session, fancy dress, a charity auction and raffle (which raised over £1600 in 2009), discussion panels, face painting, children’s activities and art competition, children and adult writing and drawing workshops. We'd love to do more but there’s only so much we can squeeze in. What we do depends on our guests and what we can press-gang them into doing. The children’s art workshops are hugely popular.

downthetubes: Are there any external events connected to Hi-Ex!? Educational stuff, talks, workshops, comics promoting, that kind of thing?

Vicky: We'd love to do more outreach events all throughout the Highlands, as its woefully unfair on folks in rural areas that they can't access cultural happenings. The council are funding me to do over 20 workshops this summer in 'How to draw comics and manga', from Ullapool to Dingwall, which is great fun. There's always such a positive response from young people who are hungry for this sort of thing. We have loads of great ideas for other weekend events or festivals, but all are subject to funding.

downthetubes: As you’ve been kind enough to answer these questions, please feel 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.

Vicky: We like to think of ourselves as one of the most fun, family-oriented and friendly of events... come and join us!

• Hi-Ex! 2010 is the week before Easter, 27th - 28th March 2010, in Inverness. More information can be found on the Hi-Ex Website

• downthetubes review of
Hi-Ex in 2008

• downthetubes review of Hi-Ex 2 in 2009

More Matters of Convention...

LUC 176: And Then We Bought Some Chairs
The British International Comic Show: Something for Everyone
Caption: We Like Original Voices

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