The Birmingham International Comics Show and Community Collaboration: The Shane Chebsey Deal pt.2

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.

sherridancottage

Continued from last week…

Andrew: The Birmingham International Comics Show is going into its third year now and you’re one of the co-organisers of this. I’m guessing for the folk who don’t ‘get’ small press and indy comics, this might seem like an alien jump, from selling photocopied black and whites to playing host to Mike Mignola and introducing Hunt Emerson on stage. For the sake of those folks could you tell how you got involved in this and explain the role you play and the structure of something at this level?

Shane: Well Andy, as you might know, in 2002 I sent out questionnaires to a few hundred comic fans asking them what they would want from a smallzone convention. I wanted to do a little event in Birmingham exposing the small press to a general public totally unaware of its existence.
However, I never completed this project and then Pat Findlay came along and did a great job with the first couple Web & Mini Comics Things, and I put the whole thing on the back burner, while at the same time being very inspired by Pat’s simple yet successful formula for a small press event.
Then in May 2006 I got chatting with James Hodgkins at Bristol and we discovered that we both wanted to do a show in Birmingham.
He knew the mainstream side of things and I knew small press and Indy, so along with Andy Baker who knows how to put on events, we decided to do one show that was more than just a big comic mart.
My reason for being involved is to promote the medium of comics, especially UK comics, and even more especially small press comics.
It was my idea to give self publishers the discount on tables, and my idea to give them equal footing to promote their books in the main hall.
Some people don’t like it, but I feel very strongly about it.
So to answer your question: To me, doing BICS is just an extension of what I try to do with smallzone.

CONCORD DIGITAL STILL CAMERA
(l-r Shane, James Hodgkins and Andy Baker by Declan Shalvey)

Andrew: I might think with your engagement with the comics shows and the emergence of LUC and hopefully its legacy, Smallzone might be powering down some?

Shane: Smallzone is still growing, but I am being pickier about what titles I’ll carry these days, simply because of the workload involved in stocking stuff I know won’t sell.
I think the LUC method is a very effective way for new publishers to try out their books without having to go through the smallzone route, so I really encourage folks to use the stall and support what Oli is doing.

LUC is almost like the perfect training ground for self publishers. It’s an opportunity to get direct feedback on their stuff for a very low price not to mention get a good indication of sales potential.

The Smallzone website works really well, despite the naff design, and I have some regular retailers who buy stuff from me, so Frontline is the next big project I’ll be expanding on after BICS has finished this year.
I’m also developing lots of stuff at Scar Comics at the moment which will see the light of day next year.

Andrew:  Frontline….that’s the Smallzone Distribution Catalogue? I understand it’s on CD nowadays. I’ve not seen a copy, could you perhaps tell us a bit more about it – and of the comics in there that have you particularly excited?

Shane: The new incarnation of Frontline is still in development. I want to get it right, so you’ll have to wait and see on that one I’m afraid.

Andrew:
 Big festivals like BICS are off-putting to me. I find there’s not enough coat hangers, air conditioning and seating. Mind you, I think you’re playing the game, with space between tables, interesting venues, a coffee area, and a big bar festival night. Still, will I ever be satisfied? Apart from that you and a number of the people are utter gems, why should I pay my admission fee this year ? How is BICS helping to build my moon on a stick?

Shane: Hey… BICS isn’t for everyone, I know that.
We basically put on the kind of show we’d love to go to ourselves, and invite like minded folks to join us for a very small entry fee when you consider what’s happening at the show. Hell… the goodie bags alone are worth more than a weekend pass!

Over 50 self publishers will be exhibiting this year, and we have made sure plenty of press will be attending so that Indy creators (and everybody else) get lots of exposure.

As well as the two large exhibition rooms there are events running all weekend in the Theatre, plus discounts on the Dark Knight at the IMAX.

miniportrait - shane chebsey

It’s a big show by UK standards (bigger than Bristol this year), so we have to charge for stuff as it’s totally self financed, but we think we offer very good value for money. Where else can a family of 5 meet their heroes and be entertained for a weekend for just £35?
Also, even though it’s a big show, we like to think it’s a very personal show with a friendly atmosphere.

Unfortunately even with the air conditioning turned up to full – as it was last year – 1500 – 2000 people in one room is going to be a bit on the warm side.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a major convention where this isn’t the case.

Andrew: 
As you know I’ve been involved with both Caption and LUC recently, and I was thinking lately to the trajectory that comics festivals are on. One of the better ideas I could come up with as a workable model was to adopt a Page 45 style publicity approach. For example, having rising talents like Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and The Comics Village Outlaws appear headlining on flyers with, say Chris Claremont or Joe Quesada further down the billing. (The rationale of course being, that the fans of those guys will inevitably seek them out)
After my snide remarks in this column about A-listers potentially being funded by small pressers, I notice you’ve got the notorious Dave Sim Ladykiller in this year. This seems an acknowledgement of the importance and validity of a whole portal of indy and smallpress publishers.
I guess that’s a long way of asking where you see the festival scene in this country as going ? Is there room for new takes on it, new frequencies and durations, and in what shape might others be having a go?

Shane: We don’t have Dave Sim, but I think Bristol are looking at getting him next year. Small pressers don’t pay for A – lister’s hotels and flights, we do.
The table money raised by exhibitors whether they be small press or big press all goes to the cost of hiring the venue. That’s how much it costs, so we work out a table price based on that cost.

The Pro UK names who support the show pay their own way too, which is something not all folks realise. The support we get from folks like Duncan Fegredo, Charlie Adlard, John McCrea, Liam Sharp, Tony Lee and Staz Johnson is priceless.
These guys have a passion for comics which goes far beyond doing them for a job.
I think it’s fine to give Smaller creators top billing if your show is supported by say the art council to help you promote your agenda. For us that’s not an option as we need numbers through the door to make our money back, so we need the big names in big letters.

The 2D show in Derry did a wonderful job of highlighting small press (hell they even had me as a guest… that was a shock I can tell you), along with bigger names. They had money put into it to do just that, with support from the Arts Council and local government. Unfortunately Birmingham City Council are not interested in supporting BICS for reasons I’m not at liberty to go into here. To cut a long story short, they asked us to jump through some hoops and we said stick your hoops up your ass.

Andrew: Hey Shane. I’m not boycotting BICS. I gave it days of agonising exposition. Leaning against a stained glass window, hand to my temple.

Still, table prices are too steep, and they have been for years. BICS makes concessions and reservations for small pressers and there’s a global recession on. Over years other jumping jesus upstarts will come along and say no to excessive fees. I’ll certainly never attend the Thing Show as a dealer. I know your views are generally anti-boycott on this matter, and I’ve asked my readers something maybe you can answer. Is there room for negotiation? Possibly in trade for duty service, or swaps?

Shane: I guess my previous answer sort of covers that question Andy. No one has to pay the table prices, if they don’t want to exhibit. That’s how much we have to charge to at least break even.
Have you seen how much it costs to exhibit at a major book fair?

We do cut deals with folks. If a publisher brings a guest along with them for example we give them a big discount, or a free table. If an attending pro does a panel for us, we might give them a free table.

I think big shows are important and help bring attention to creators, and I think small events are equally important as they also help build a creative community as well as sell comics and there’s a place on the convention calendar for both.

Chebsey Pub Thing 2006Above: Shane at the Post-Thing Pubmeet 2006, with comics journalists Barry Renshaw and Leon Hewitt in the background. Photo by Andrew Luke.

Shane: Interesting about your comment on The Thing. I’m not sure really what happened there, but it almost seemed like folks didn’t like the idea of Pat earning money for all his hard work. Overall he’s done a great job of raising the profile of small press comics, and I really think he’s due some financial gain for that.
Or is there something more?
Sorry mate you are the one asking the questions here. Continue…

Andrew: My problem was never with Pat making a financial gain, or to lay it out properly ‘a wage’. The biggest problem (of which I have a few), was the wage gap. With Pat making around £5,000 on dealers tables per event, half of which may total towards the following years costs. A large percentage of exhibitors don’t meet half of their £60 table costs.

Quite frankly I’d much rather you, Hodgkins et al made a wage on BICS. There’s a genuine investment by you guys on a grassroots level over a period of time. You’re decently respectful to a number of artists, a large number of whom speak about it, and who have gone on record. If you were to do ‘something less’, eg. resorting to mean spiritedness, condescending attitudes or conscious misrepresentation… well it would be far more difficult to organise a collective of artists.

It must be a very stressful process putting together BICS – there’s a cast of hundreds who will help make the event over the weekend. Could you single out ten names who have been at the forefront of helping put BICS together ? Sheridan Cottage will take responsibility for any bruised egos omitted in the week before the festival.

Shane: This is going to sound really conceited, but 90% of the work behind BICS is done by the three Organisers. We are all control freaks! 🙂
We have had help from Paul Birch, especially with proof reading 2006 – 2007, and also with press. We also have volunteers on the day, whom I suspect would prefere to remain nameless.

We are indebted to Mike Alwood and Dave Morris for advice and assistance, and to those special guests who make the show more than just a mart, I think they all know who they are.
Thanks to Hunt Emerson, and Michael Wright at DC must be given for various reasons, and also to the two Daves at Nostalgia and Comics – Birmingham’s local comics shop – who have been strong supporters of the show since day one allowing us to adorn their large windows with huge BICS posters each year.
I could go on, we’ve had amazing support from all areas of the industry since we started doing these shows, but the thought of attempting a comprehensive list, and then forgetting somebody terrifies me.

Andrew: In the times that we’ve known each other as major comics network people, I’ve drifted away from comics to maintain my own sanity and creativity. This has occurred with a number of other folk in this area in the last decade. Yet you’ve remained a constant figure on the scene. How do you do it? Are you on some sort of reality sanity practice that we all should know about?

Shane: I guess you have to look at why people get into the small press scene.
For me it’s a simple matter of loving the medium, and having a clear aim in everything I do, that has never changed.
That aim has never been to make money, so I guess I’ll never be disappointed.

Andrew: Thankyou Shane Chebsey, who has as you reckon has been quite accommodating given BICS is but a few weeks away at time of interview. Over the course of our interview I asked Shane if he could find me a gophering job to keep me out of trouble, so I’ll maybe see a few of you around.

bics08

The Birmingham International Comics Show is a proper big grand UK comics festival managed by Shane, James Hodgkins and Andy Baker. At a glance it features such luminaries as Dave Gibbons, Neil Cameron, John Cassady, Charlie Adlard, Dean Ormston, Sean Phillips, Chris Weston and  and Oliver Lambden. Theres also the grand return of one of the more entertaining scenes in UK comics festivals – Hunt Emerson and the Black Country Cats on the Friday night stage. By clicking on the image you can view more details of the events, order tickets and find places to stay. The event has a new e-forum too which I expect to be filling up any time now. And to find out more about buying comics online and through the post, theres another below.

Next Sunday, is a write up of my experiences organising the Caption Comics Collective at a gallery – with a list of pointers for folk considering similar. Its far from light hangover reading, its potent, though do come around. Goodnight.

Car Boots and International Shows – The Shane Chebsey Deal: pt.1

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.

sherridancottage

 

The UK comics scene has invoked dilligent workers including journalist publishers and promoters such as Paul Gravett, Dez Skinn and Phil Hall. In between the collapse of the weekly newsagent offerings the adult British comics industry rises from the underground into the emerging new virtual digital age. Shane Chebsey has been one of those pivotal figures of the previous decade in Brit comics. A major distributor in getting comics to people in the days were mail order was an only avenue, to the spotlight he’s walking into in organising the Birmingham International Comics Show. It’s my great pleasure to be able to present a two-part interview with Smallzone man Shane ‘Chebbo’ Chebsey.

shane chebsey by lew stringerPhoto provided with kind permission of Lew Stringer

Andrew: Tell us about your secret identity ? Who are you when you’re not Shane Chebsey, Comics Networker Extraordinaire?

Shane: Ha ha… if I told you I’d have to kill you.

Andrew:
 
Smallzone Distribution set up in 1999 and I’d see you at many of the comics festivals I’d attend. There’d be mad stories going around about you also selling small press comics at those rack-only marts, and out of car boots. At one point I began to see your future as touring around the country in a van with an open-hatch at the side. In terms of numbers how many events had a Smallzone table and are there any wild anecdotes from your time on the road?

Shane Chebsey: Hi Andy.
Well it’s not really that much of a wild life lugging comics around on trains and buses, so I’m afraid I don’t really have any crazy anecdotes for you, well not any that won’t result in my being sued for all I’m worth (which aint much) anyway.

smallzone

At one point Smallzone was at an event every Saturday, including Marts, conventions, markets, car boot sales – you name it, and I was there selling little photocopied comics.
That slowed down really when a) I got a job that meant I had to work Saturdays, and b) I got a PC in 2000 and started to build the first Smallzone Website.
Now I just tend to do major events, with a few marts as and when I have Saturday’s off.chebsey

Andrew: Its true then about the car boot sales ? Was fun had ? How many comics would you have shifted ?

Shane:  Fun was has indeed, especially when the rain came as you can imagine. Comics and rain don’t mix!

Andrew: I had this problem with the market stall in Oxford. Rain built up the night before giving us a canopy of doom. Five or more mini comics shoppers were soaked.

Shane: It ended up being a waste of time, and that’s why I no longer do them… also, I no longer have a friend with a car.

Andrew: Though there were other zines and comics mail dealers, Smallzone was seen, I think by many, to be the main game in town. Am I right to understand this was (asides from the help of your family), a solo endeavour in terms of the physical movement of boxes and main administrative duties?
How many comics were/are you dealing with distributing at the height of Smallzone’s business?

Shane: Help from family? You must be joking mate!
I’m afraid it’s always been a solo effort really. I started with just 8 publishers, and now I guess it must be around 300 and I still make no money!
I do tend to carry lighter boxes these days though, my back wouldn’t manage as much as it did back in the day.

Andrew: Obviously theres a few ways in which folk can help ‘feed’ Smallzone? My own TRS2 micro-reviews used to run in Smallzone’s CAOF and Imagineers publications, for example. Or to go and do something independent as Oli Smith has done in Camden. Do you have a need for, and are you accepting, volunteer workers ? And how could folk help?

Shane: There’s no workplace for smallzone really other than the shop/ storage space at Infinity & Beyond and my spare room at home, so the best way folks can help the cause is to do distro themselves or set up stalls like Oli has done. I don’t often get to London, so Oli’s work at Camden is invaluable.

Another way folks can help is to link to the site, and publishers can help by listing smallzone as their distributor instead of not bothering.

Andrew: It’s long been held by myself and a few others that the Smallzone website is…well…fairly naff and ill-suited to looking at in terms of design. I think a superior volunteer web programmer might be welcome. On the other hand, the new Smallzone network for creators on Ning looks marvellous, really. Hats off, the design there is very refreshing. Inspired by a different approach to feeding distribution?

Shane: Well, I’m not a web designer, so I guess it is naff … yes. (You should have seen my first attempt when I was learning html, it was even worse).
However, no volunteer could possibly keep up with the work of updating the site the way I have to and I would not expect them to.
I am looking at buying a template with a full cart system, but as yet I’ve not found anything flexible enough to do what the current site does and not look like a template.

The Smallzone Ning community is not really a small press thing, more a comics industry meeting place without fans. I just thought it would be nice to include the small press in that and stay true to the original aims of smallzone… including giving small press the exposure and respect it deserves. No design involved on my part… it’s just a template network, but does the job very well.

However, something similar with a flexible shop template would be cool.

Andrew:  Travelling Man was a comic shop in your local vicinity which you managed to turn part of into a Smallzone shop, presumably with aspects of the Page 45 model in mind, is that right? How did this come about? What were the arrangements involved, and what gestures in space are available for someone to replicate what you had there, elsewhere?

Shane: I think the shop you are referring to is Infinity & Beyond in Shrewsbury near where I live.
I’d known the owners for many years, so when the space was available for rent I thought I’d give it a shot. The aim was to move more stock for publishers and to introduce Indy comics to more people.
It’s worked out very well on both counts. The rent means I still don’t make a penny, but it does shift stock, and gives me something to do with my weekends other than drink beer.
chebbo falling sky
I think it could be replicated elsewhere very easily and I have talked with another small press mover and shaker about branding the idea and moving it into other shops, but that thing called money makes it very difficult. I think in a city shop it would be profitable, but it would have to be a franchise to work properly.

Andrew: Travelling Man closed and I’m not fully aware of the circumstances. How much of this can be blamed on small press and mainstream obsessions with male power fantasies? And in relation to replicating the successes, what lessons were learnt for the hypothetical next time?

Shane: Don’t really know much about this, sorry.
I think it was just a case of… Oh I really don’t know, sorry.

Andrew: I understand a number of Smallzone distributed comics went missing, among the headaches for all concerned, in the closure of Travelling Man?

Shane: Yes, but only my own Scar Comics stuff, luckily the last batch of smallzone stuff had been paid for.

Andrew: Did anybody bother to accidentally or otherwise disappear my comics and how will I know? Have these issues been resolved?

Shane: Don’t worry Andy, none of your stuff was there.

Andrew: Seriously though, Bed sit Star Wars porn is immensely popular. Someone must have bought my comics, when was the last time you sold any?

Shane: Eh?

Andrew: Have you any desire to return to editing/publishing anthologies, and what’s interesting to you about the actual process of doing this or not doing this ?

Shane: I will – from time to time- do some more anthologies, although Andy Richmond is the half of Scar Comics that tends to do more of those.
My interest has turned to Graphic Novels. We have some great books in the pipeline that I hope will build on the success of Falling Sky, which –by the way – has now been optioned as a movie.

bics08

The Birmingham International Comics Show is a proper big grand UK comics festival managed by Shane, James Hodgkins and Andy Baker. It features such luminaries as Dave Gibbons and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and from what I heard the grand return of Hunt Emerson and his band to the Friday night stage. By clicking on the image you can view more details of the events, order tickets and find places to stay. The event has a new e-forum too which I expect to be filling up any time now. And to find out more about buying comics online and through the post, theres another below. I’ll be back with Shane next week were we talk more about the future plans and inner workings of Smallzone and BICS, in a very read-able piece including the words ‘boycott’ and ‘pay’.