Over 2008 I wrote weekly for ComicsVillage.com, during a very exciting time in the UK comix scene..
My columns are concerned with four aspects surrounding comics – social community, economic factors, festival and exhibition coverage and modes of distribution.
In a last-minute deadline presser, the organiser of The Uk Web and Mini Comix Thing granted me an interview. After having my name attached to a boycott of the event, and a level of conflict between us, I’m pleased to report the interviewee was professional, insightful and brilliantly quick. For the purposes of this interview he’s asked to be referred to under his stage name, Mr. Thing. So, I’m extremely happy to be in a position to print this interview with the organiser of one of the more innovative events in comics of the last five years. It beats getting sent tank pieces through the mail.
Andrew Luke: Could you provide an introduction of yourself and of the Thing for those who may not know so much about them ?
Mr. Thing: I remember an event back in 1995? called UKCAC or something like that. I travelled all the way down from Newcastle for the day to go to that event. For me, it was an amazing thing. Basically, there was a huge room stuffed full of interesting stuff. I don’t remember too much about it but it was awesome. As such, I had this holistic subconscious perspective of a memory from a time when I was in my formative years as a comics creator.
This is the important thing. At that time for me it was very influential. That was the last year they held it. In 2003 I looked around and noted that there was nothing like that. There were small piecemeal events with, say, 20 exhibitors but they were either too far out or marginalised by the big names. I lamented the loss of UKCAC and at the same time the realisation that there must be hundreds of new comics creators, from the Internet, as well as the existing hoards of zinesters and mini comics people that would love to take part in another UKCAC type event. I was thinking about it and figured that it could be done really simply, all you would need was a hall with tables. That was it. I wanted to keep it simple, but at the same time make it scalable in that we could add to it.
The first year I went full out and had panels, artists workshops, and such, but in all honesty, they all flopped. But the basic premise was still solid, a hall full of people selling comics and it’s that premise that gives the show its current buzz. I also wanted to model the show around the American shows, MOCCA and SPX etc. They always looked so amazing. I really wanted to go to them and it was frustrating that the UK could not manage such a thing.
Another major point, the anthology. I never read it, but there was always a big buzz about the SPX anthology, I think. I really wanted to contribute to it. I contributed to any anthology I could, but because I wasn’t an SPX’er I couldn’t contribute to the SPX anthology. It was considered to be a great way to launch a career and get seen. As such, I wanted to create an anthology that would have a similar standing, something that people wanted to be in. The first two years I out-sourced that to volunteers as I was keen to allow other people to get involved, but it was a disaster, the end result was not something you would want to treasure forever. So, from 2006 I took control of the anthology back and created what is a very nice volume and a great read. People like nice comics, things that they can put on their shelves, and people like being published, it’s a great buzz, especially if you’re small time and, so, that’s where we are today.
To conclude, the show is mainly about providing interested visitors with a great experience, a hall full of creativity and exciting things. The show is complemented by a great anthology which should ideally give you a taste of everyone in the hall, just in case you miss something.
Andrew: The Thing as with you as the front-man and co-ordinator, as it were, is something of a collective endeavour. I think it’s made fairly unique by the range of homemade arts which aren’t just comics on sale and show there. In signing up, exhibitors agree to do their bit to facilitate the smooth running of the day. Could you give me an outline of the other players involved in management and how they have facilitate the events ? How much of a share of the workload at The Thing at a non-exhibitor level ?
Mr. Thing: There is no one else involved. Unless you want to count the hall owners or the exhibitors.
This is quite deliberate. You do not need a committee to hire a hall and allocate tables to comics sellers. It’s as simple as that.
However, there are other requirements, in particular running the ticket stand. The show was created on the notion that the exhibitors could each volunteer 1 hour of their time to helping out with the running of the show. This was devised originally as a two fold exercise; firstly to provide manpower to run the event, and secondly, to allow people an opportunity to get involved. This second purpose was, in a way, more important that the first because some people like to get involved. Spending a whole day behind a table selling comics, especially if your comics are not selling, can be both tiring and depressing. Allowing people the opportunity the carry out a duty for the show meant that they could get a break and gain some good experience from the event other than sitting behind their table. It wasn’t designed to be communist/socialist sharing of power. There are a lot of people out there that want to do something and the show is designed to allow them to do so. However, from the start it became clear that the show did not need that many helpers. With, say, 100 people volunteering time, only 10 were needed. At the start, we had jobs for people in the artist workshop, but people were not interested in having their portfolio reviewed and the volunteers were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. We currently have 1 full time assistant that helps out on the day, which is all that is needed really.
You have to remember that theres not a lot that can go wrong. There are not too many moving parts in this event – the exhibitors and visitors know what to do. It’s almost as easy as arranging for a piss up at a brewery.
Andrew: What is new to The Thing’s offerings this year ?
Mr. Thing: There’s nothing new really, unless you count the new exhibitors, and there are quite a few of them. One of the things about the original shows was that they were populated by the same people year after year. It became quite samey, but the Thing demonstrates a considerable turn around of talent, which is good, it makes the event very different. The only major thing thats different is that t-shirts will be available.
Andrew: Can you tell me a bit about how you publicise The Thing, and the response to the audience you hope to get – the general public inclusive of families ?
Mr. Thing: The premise behind the thing is that the exhibitors publicise the event, primarily through their web sites. This was a more revolutionary concept 5 years ago, the fact that we could let everyone in the world know about the show, and even today is the major factor. Years ago this would not have been possible.
However, we do send out 5000 flyers to comics shops around the country and carry out some online advertising, but, primarily I believe that the majority of the country have their ear to the net, and because of the scale of the Thing as an annual event, I can’t see anyone with even a vague interest in comics not being aware. I think it’s safe to say that the main target audience are people with an interest in comics and creativity. I think that the show is more about creative communication as opposed to great comics and, as such, the target audience will be slightly different to say a Comics Mart event where people are more interested in plastic figurines.
It’s a very narrow vertical, but it’s a healthy one. The people that turn up are in general younger, but not not as stereotypically closeted as they might have been 10 years ago. We do get families, but I wouldn’t say it was a family show. There are no bright kiddie colours and no real parent friendly crash out facilities.
Andrew: Is The Thing profitable for yourself and co-curators ? There’s a history of comics festivals in this country barely breaking even. I’d genuinely like to think there’s some sort of end wage attached to this hard work.
Mr. Thing: The show is not profitable. Profit is determined by a return on both time and money. However, on paper the show made £50 one year, £200 another, and has never made a loss. Technically. But if you count all the petrol running about to the shops and in particular the time spent, it is not profitable. However, I find it immensely profitable at a personal level.
The show could make more by selling the anthology at a higher price, or the t-shirts at the going rate etc, but I don’t see it that way. I think that in the spirit of things the show works well and breaks even. It has a turnover of about £5k. From that there are hall fees of £2k, printing, postage, and investments such as banners, tablecloths, computers, electronics, food and a million other little things that all add up. The event generally starts the day on a loss, that has been estimated, and by the end of the day is between £50-300 in profit. But I think it’s important to quantify the term profit and I find it frustrating that so many exhibitors argue about their profit margins. A profit is something that is worthwhile. Earning £100k a year is profitable, but earning £20 to walk 100 miles is not. What I’m saying is that the ‘profits’ the show make are not profits at all.
It is an interesting perspective though. Essentially, you have to ask yourself the question, are you there to profit from the small press and web comics? There is no industry as such. People like Marvel and DC will support the major events like the Comics Expo because they support their creators and their titles. Comics shops have no interest in the market because the self made comics are not products they can sell. That is why events such as UKCAC died, they were not profitable. However, now we have another interesting concept, and that’s power. Since the Thing started I think there has been a rude awakening and the industry has actually sprung to life with events all over the place. But that’s something else.
Andrew: Whats next for comics and yourself ? Are you planning on doing this again next year ?
Mr. Thing: I think that comics have a new lease of life, mainly because of the internet. One of the things that I have always wanted to do is a print magazine on web comics. I think it would have a good interest. I know someone recently tried, but as with many things that appears to have died off. Which is indicative of the industry, it’s full of good ideas. The Thing is a good idea, but what gives it strength is the long term vision and goal.
By using a simple structure and premise, a hall full of tables, the event is sustainable. There will be a Thing next year, and the year after. There will be a Thing every year until something happens such as there are no exhibitors or a major competitor steals the market. But comics are important because they offer so much potential. They are a great form of communication and allow people to express themselves and ideas. But they are also good for developing life skills. If you get involved in comics at this level, you are not wasting your time. I often get frustrated by things that young people do, drugs, music, loafing the streets, and very few of these activities have positive long term benefits, but with comics you are learning a discipline that could earn you money. But even if it doesn’t, you can draw pictures for your kids, you have a skill, you have a platform to socialise with through over the internet.
Years ago, comics and illustration were much more a closed market than they are today. You could have been a great artist years ago and still been left to toil in the factory. However, today you can really face the world through the internet. You just have to look at all the advertising that uses comic art, animations. As such, comics as a platform for direct or indirect success offers amazing potential and, as such, has an inherent value and worth. And until they come up with something better, the Thing will be around.
Andrew: Any there experiences you’d like to share about The Thing in the context of this column’s aims? Would you recommend, say, a mission statement or financial plan ? Advice or market researches you’d suggest for cartoonists or promoters ?
Mr. Thing: Not sure I follow the question, but in short I would say, if you are involved with anything, comics, shows or real life, keep it simple. The secret to the long term success of the thing is its simplicity. And this has resulted in consistency and stability that have both earned the show a degree of respect as a bulwark of to industry. People travel from the US, Norway, Spain and most of Europe to visit the show, thats because they have faith in the event.
I think the event would have died out long ago, like so many other shows, if it had tried to be clever. I think it’s easy to envisage special events, talks, films and such, but it all costs time and money, and its easy for those things to fall flat on their face. People will laugh at the whole show if you have a special guest speaker who ends up with an audience of 1 or a group event that ends up a farce. To look at it another way. A lot of people draw up amazingly complicated web sites that are in theory great, but a year down the line they find that they don’t have time to complete it or it doesn’t work. They try to be clever. A simple yet scalable idea will allow you to expand and contract as required, and this approach will work in most walks of life.
Andrew: Any final words – thanks to people, plugs to comics you’re enjoying, things you’d like to mention in context that I’ve not asked about ?
Mr. Thing: No final words really. If you’re reading this then I hope you’re coming to the event. Get your share of the major web and mini comix experience of the year. And I would say that, it’s not just about buying comics, it’s about sharing in a great experience, indulging in a sea of creativity and wonder.
You’ll want to buy the comics as keepsakes, souvenirs and momentos of your time at the show. Because you get to meet the creators you’ll find that the value you get from the comics you buy is so much greater. As a creator, I find that what I get from this show is the desire to create and do better than all these other people. It’s infectious and you don’t have to be a comics creator to get that. You’ll get ideas and perspectives you never had, as well as comics.
Book a ticket for The Thing. 2008 <> Donate through paypal to Interviewer c/o drew dot luke at gmail. com