Hi-ex – comics fun in Inverness

My report and pics on the fourth Hi-Ex comic convention in the capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness, originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

It’s the final day of March, Scotland has been enjoying a wonderful week of warm, bright, spring weather (yes, really, it has been known to happen from time to time) and today on this sunny Saturday the capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness, is basking in golden sunlight as the crowds head to the splendid Eden Court arts centre once more for comics fun. With theatres, cinema, bar, café, function spaces and more it’s proved to be a cracking venue for the first three Hi-Ex comic cons and this, the fourth con (following a hiatus last year), is no exception. I already find myself chatting to comics fans making their way up from the lowland cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh on the train northwards and on arriving at Inverness, after a brief walk along the river bank to Eden Court, I can see cosplayers, fans with goodie bags and, of course, some of the Star Wars 501st contingent who have been at Hi-Ex right since the first year, enjoying the bright day outside even before we set foot into the con proper.

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Checking in and donning my badge I meet Richmond Clements, fan , writer and co-founder and organiser of Hi-Ex, in his trademark con rig-out of a pristine white three-piece suit. Debate still continues in geek circles if this suit signifies he is the modern incarnation of Colonel Sanders or if he is cosplaying as Marty Hopkirk (Deceased). Naturally Rich prefers the Hopkirk option. He is harassed but happy on the first day of Hi-Ex’s weekend, already a busy morning of events, talks and workshops gone by before I arrive on the iron horse (on top of months and months of preparation and organisation, all done by the team while trying to hold down their day jobs – big hand to con organisers here and everywhere for all the work they put in to make events happen so we enjoy them without ever seeing the effort put in behind the scenes). Before embarking on my con going proper it seems to be my humanitarian duty to relieve some of his stress with a quick drink while I look over the programme and, as luck would have, it as we relax for a few minutes we meet comic creator Andy Luke, over from Northern Ireland, and he joins us, the first time I’ve gotten to meet Andy in person for a change, so my visit is off to a nice start right away.

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(Richmond Clements in his famous white suit grabs a rare few moments of peace inbetween making sure Hi-Ex runs smoothly for the fans and the creators present; pics from my Flickr)

In fact there is a bit of an Irish-Scottish, cross-Celtic comics theme to this year’s Hi-Ex, as other guests include Paddy Brown and one of our own guest bloggers, Maura McHugh, among others. Suitably refreshed I am thinking about entering the main hall as a number of young women in padding, helmets and rollerskates scoot past frequently (the roller derby girls are in town, a fun female dominated sport that artist Gary Erskine is a big fan of, noting that their appearance reminds him simultaneously of the movie Rollerball (and old Brit boy’s comic knock-off Spinball) and Tank Girl, and he’s right), but on realising I have arrived just in time to take in one of the panels, a discussion about British and Irish comics, I decide to hit that first and head into the theatre.

Several guests are on the stage as I take one of the very comfortable seats, including long time Brit comics editor and the man behind the fine Brit comics blog Down The Tubes John Freeman, Dave Shelton, Patrick Brown and Maura McHugh. The hour-long discussion proves pretty interesting, taking in both the established mainstream in Brit comics, such as 2000 AD, the new, with the Freeman-edited Strip Magazine and Phoenix comic (very new but already established as a firm favourite with our own daddy-daughter team of Richard and Molly, as regular readers will know) and the vibrant small press and self published scene in the UK. There was some discussion about the rich and talented pool of creators who earned their first spurs in the UK small press scene, such as in anthologies like FutureQuake, although debate as to whether the mainstream was taking advantage of that pool by encouraging it and drawing on it, giving its creators some chances to hone their craft more in a professionally edited publication, was less certain.

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(panel discussion on British and Irish comics)

The requirement of creative talent to publicise their work was touched upon, with various members of the panel, notably Maura McHugh, pointing out that even if a writer or artist is shy they have to realise that promoting their work, be it self published or professional, is now very much part of their job description, something I agree with, having had similar discussions with authors even before the days of social media concerning the importance of book tours, talks and signing sessions – some authors take to that aspect of publishing well, others loathe having to stand up in front of readers to do a reading and signing, I know, but it is indeed part of the publishing process. And today it is inescapable with social media – a writer or artist needs, as Maura noted, a Facebook page at the very bare minimum. But ideally Twitter and a blog to share news of new work, upcoming signing tours and basically have a web presence where their readers can find out more and preferably interact with them a little too.

The importance of third party web coverage was covered too – as John Freeman noted his Down The Tubes, Steve Holland’s Bear Alley and Lew Stringer’s Blimey It’s Another Blog About Comics have been trying to cover specifically British comics news for some years (all sites you should have bookmarked), Maura and Paddy pointed out that the recent Irish Comics News has rapidly become something of a nexus point for bringing together news and links to Irish events, new releases and creators. As John said though, most of these sites were run by their editors on the side of a full time job and couldn’t give the levels of coverage sites like CBR, for instance, give in the US, but for predominantly American comics, and how the UK scene perhaps needs something a bit more like that large site. I was also rather cheered when Maura was kind enough to give our own FP blog a glowing mention as one not just looking at Brit comics but with a solid rep for covering that beat, notably the Indy creators (take a bow here, most especially, out reviewing powerhouse Richard for all his reviews coverage of the Brit small press scene).

After the panel I head into the main auditorium where the creators and the sellers have their tables, spotting Scotty, screenwriter from the excellent independent Scottish comics-themed movie Electric Man (reviewed here last year). The guys are still working on trying to secure distribution for the film (a separate battle after the usual battle to get funding for an Indy movie) and meantime are pretty much doing it themselves, with Mark Millar giving them a slot in his comics movie strand at the recent Glasgow Film Festival last month, a screening in Edinburgh’s lovely Art Deco Cameo Cinema next month and a couple of screenings in Eden Court itself over the weekend of Hi-Ex.

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(above:the main auditorium with the creators and the dealer’s tables, below: Scotty, screen writer of the excellent Electric Man indy Scottish comics film)

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Circulating round I am, like my last visit, finding that moving most of the comics folks through to this large auditorium and leaving the adjoining Bishop’s Palace for the gamer folk is working pretty well, affording everyone plenty of space and light but keeping them all together and handily adjacent for the theatre where the events take place and, equally, if not even more importantly, the cafe-bar (where again kudos to Eden Court’s good wifi). Continuing round I find a whole bunch of other creators, including Gary Erskine, Graeme Neil Reid (complete with some cracking sketches on offer and a new Sketchbook), Dave Shelton returned from panel duties to his table, Will Pickering returned once more, Alex Moore, John Higgins and Colin MacNeil among others, all busy with sketching and with their own work on offer; Gary has cornered the sideline in portraits of the Roller Derby girls. There’s an impressive Predator walking around, and several more cosplayers, including a terrific Harley Quinn.

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(above: Graeme Neil Reid sketching, below: a fine selection of French comics at the Cinebook stand)

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Bumping into John Freeman and Maura McHugh we head for caffeine stimulation; although I have known John for years, remarkably this is only the first time we have met in person, also the first time I have had the pleasure of meeting Maura in the flesh, always one of the nicer aspects of cons, getting to spend some time with folks in person. John shows us a very cool app on his smartphone with some comics work from Strip, enhanced so that you can have the speech bubbles read out – in a variety of languages, he adds, which is pretty cool, especially if you are trying to also sell your comics work to other language markets, or indeed also quite handy if you are learning a language. Time also for a quick log in on the notebook to post up a couple of photos and do a bit of Hi-Ex tweeting, before Maura has to attend another panel – this one is on Scots and Irish culture and language and their possible place in comics, so I decide to delay a second tour around the artists and dealer’s table to listen to the panel.

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(above: quick break with Maura McHugh and John Freeman, who was showing us a very cool digital comics app, below, comics get academic with Dundee’s Dr Chris Murray in his splendid shirt: )

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Despite Jim’s problems with the microphone (unconvinced it is carrying his voice as he can’t hear it as we can in the audience he keeps leaning into it causing ‘pops’, a pretty minor problem though), this panel with Jim Alexander, Maura, Paddy Brown, Lynsey and Colin MacNeil proves to be quite interesting, discussing the shared Celtic culture and how comics have contributed to it and how they could possibly be used in promoting, for instance, the languages such as the Gaelic, or BroadScots. Lynsey has worked in animation and comics with a Scots Gaelic theme and Paddy and Maura bring up good examples of work from Ireland either in Irish Gaelic or drawing on the rich heritage of myth and folklore and the general Scots-Irish love of storytelling in our culture. The use of the medium to support and encourage the Gaelic and Scots languages was discussed, as well as whether they were suitable only for discussing older, mythological or historical topics or if they were appropriate to use for contemporary subjects too (I pointed out afterwards that actually Matthew Fitt had written an entire contemporary science fiction novel in BroadScots, so yes, you can use our older words and tongue to apply to modern stories as well). The incredibly rich Celtic heritage of storytelling was also discussed (let’s be honest, a very ancient tradition and even in book terms the cross Scots-Irish tradition of words and pictures goes back to the magnificent Book of Kells, one of the literary treasures of the world). As someone who loves not only comics but the deep store of folklore and myth all cultures are heir to I found it rather pleasing to have creators contemplating how the comics medium could and did interact with that, especially in relation to Scotland and Ireland.

That final panel over-ran somewhat after the preceding one finished late and sadly by the time it ended I found myself too late for a second turn around the main auditorium, so missed out on the chance to pick up some mini comics I had my eye on before as everyone was packing up for the evening (although they still had the evening’s screening of Electric Man to look forward to after dinner). But that’s a problem with convention going, be it comics, science fiction or any other type, you simply can’t be everywhere all the time so you’re going to miss something. The last couple of visits I spent more time in the main hall but missed some panels, this time round I took in more panels but that meant less time to spend in the hall going round folk as much as I would have liked, but that’s how it goes. Last time around I did more live blogging, tweeting and photo posting than this time, but again as I spent half my time in panels that wasn’t feasible and I decided to settle for a few on the day and then let myself just concentrate on taking in the actual con rather than trying to mediate it onto the web in real time (bit of live tweeting is fine, but note to self, raise nose from keyboard to take in those folks around you that you only see every so often and enjoy it!).

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(Above: Team Girl Comic with some fan small press anthologies, below: Gary Erskine at work)

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(above: artist John Higgins starts a new work; more pics on my Flickr here)

My third Hi-Ex visit and another absolute pleasure – busy though it is the smaller scale than some events further south makes it very accessible, very friendly and personal, again it drew a lot of kids – my first impressions of the very first Hi-Ex four years ago remained, that it was a very family friendly event, with grinning kids in face make-up, cosplay costumes or happy after drawing classes trotting around. The creators and the host all very friendly and welcoming and again, as before, I was left with the feeling that the event was a good cultural one for the Highlands, not just for comics geeks, but in general, drawing in more than just the die-hard fans to check out the events. Yes, it may be a long haul for some, especially those down in the south (although to be fair no longer a haul than those of us in the north go through to reach Bristol’s comic expo!), but it is worth it for what has now established itself as a solid fixture on the calendar, the northernmost comics con in our sceptred isles, taking its place alongside other regular and much loved events like Thought Bubble, and hey, long trip up or not, it also takes you through some of the most magnificent scenery the United Kingdom has to offer. I saw pheasant and deer by the side of the rails, snow still dappled spring-time hills and mountains as we entered the Cairngorms National Park, while the trip back home offered a spectacular sunset as our local star dipped behind the western mountains of the Scottish Highlands, casting them into shadow while the sky above glowed a deep blue, splashed with vermilion. Even the trip to and from Hi-Ex can be terrific. Here’s to next year!

Hi-Ex comic-con in Inverness

On Saturday I took a very pleasant trip northwards from Edinburgh to Inverness to attend the third Hi-Ex, crossing over the mighty Forth Bridge (images of the 39 Steps playing in my mind as always when crossing this huge landmark which rears from the Forth like a Steel cousin to the Loch Ness Monster), around the coast of Fife, sun glittering on the Forth and the North Sea, Edinburgh across the water glimpsed in all her magnificent, volcanic majesty in profile against the still rising early morning sunshine. And on north, through Perth, through hills becoming mountains, still retaining their snowy caps even as daffodils and crocuses signal the rebirth of the land and spring at lower climes. Highland Cows and the occassional deer are glimpsed as the train climbs through the peaks of the British Isles, ears popping to remind you that you are ascending into the Highlands as the train rolls on, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. One of the simple pleasures of attending Hi-Ex is that most basic of travelling delights, sitting back and looking out the window. We’ve now got an admirable mixture of comics events in the UK, from the Indy press events to the big guns of Bristol and Birmingham, but I’d wager few of our comic cons offer such stunning landscapes on your voyages to them, right through the Cairngorms National Park, the last, great wilderness of the United Kingdom, home to our highest peaks. Yes, I know, this is indeed a blog about comics, but forgive me for waxing lyrical on my homeland (BTW, Visit Scotland, I’ll have that endorsement check now, please), but seriously, if you are travelling northwards to Hi-Ex then enjoying some of the finest scenery in the entire kingdom is a part of the pleasure.

(“these aren’t the comics you’re looking for, move along…” Some of the 501st directing visitors where to park their landspeeders at Hi-Ex, click the pics for the larger versions on Flickr)

(Hi-Ex co-organiser Colonel Richmond Clements, with artist Alex Moore. Not pictured, leading brand of stain remover who were sponsoring Rich’s ensemble)

It’s been a great day, as anyone who followed my and other attendee’s Tweets will attest. With the Eden Court venue having a very good complimentary wifi several of us were able to log on and enjoy posting updates on Twitter and a bit of live-blogging. Several times I cyber-squatted next to Dave Evans and the FutureQuake Press table to post some updates; I have to say there’s something enjoyable about being able to sit cross-legged with a laptop across your knees posting updates on the con and even getting some photos onto the web. Gone are the days when we attended conventions, wrote up our report in the local inn afterwards then either handed the copy to a fast pony express rider to carry to the editor or used the new fangled telegraphic device. By the time I stepped off the Edinburgh train the Saturday Hi-Ex (there are many more events on the Sunday) was in full swing – after a short walk along the Ness I came to Eden Court and a plethora of Imperial Stormtroopers guarding the entrance, a whole bunch of the 501st on parade. Inside I was to find that Hi-Ex has grown – when I came to the first convention two years back most of was in the adjoining 19th century Bishop’s Palace. Now the main room in the Palace was used for the role playing gamers while the dealers and the artists now shared one much larger space than before in the main theatre, in the spot where at the first con the panels were held. The theatre seating cleverly recesses backwards into the wall leaving a great two-storey space, plenty of room for the writers, publishers and dealers to set up their tables and for the crowds to get around.

(some of the artist’s tables – Alex Moore, Gary Erskine and Simon Fraser just visible from this angle)

(Looking down into the main hall with the artists and dealers’ tables)

And crowds there were – it was impressively busy by midday and quite a few of the dealers’ table and the artists had good crowds around them. Dave Evans with his FutureQuake Press table told me that by mid afternoon he thought he’d done as much as he’d do at a busy day at the Bristol comic con, so he was a happy bunny and there was busy traffic around all the table. The artists seemed to be doing a steady trade with original artworks being browsed and sketches drawn and again I noticed that the contingent of manga artists, along with the Beano crew, were a big draw with the younger convention goers (Asia Alfasi seemed to have a constant line of folks waiting to get a manga portrait made and her mini-comics tied up with ribbon were things of beauty). Actually again, as with the first Hi-Ex, I was struck with the number of kids who were there and clearly having a ball, it’s a very family-friendly event and although I don’t have a breakdown of guests I got the strong impression a number were local families who had come in because it looked like a fun event, complete with face-painting, sketching and how-to classes. Sarah McIntyre and friends were obviously enjoying themselves with the kids and I noticed she was constantly posting up more artwork some of the delighted kids were making with her.

(Sarah McIntyre and her other half Stuart – you have to dig Sarah’s Gerry Anderson UFO-era retro SciFi costume and shiny white space boots!)

(Dave Shelton with his Good Dog, Bad Dog, part of the very first wave of DFC Library releases which we’ve been enjoying. Fortunately the dogs were all house trained)

There was a good mixture of folks in the main hall – guests ranged from some of the small press crew (I’ve come home with several fun looking mini-comics, which I will post more on later) through to very well known names. In addition to the aforementioned Sarah McIntyre, Asia Alfasi and Dave Evans there was Gary Northfield, Gary Erskine, John Higgins, Jeremy Briggs (flying the flag for Down The Tubes), the boys from the Indy Scottish superhero movie I mentioned recently, Electric Man, Simon Fraser, Cliodhna Lyons, Will Pickering (fresh from doing a stint as an extra on the John Landis Burke & Hare movie – clearly not content with just being the artist on the B&H graphic novel), Colin McNeil, Kevin F Sutherland, Charlie Adlard, Graeme Neil Reid (who I somehow kept missing), Cam Kennedy, Andi Ewing, the Com.X boys, Roger Gibson and Vince Danks and from the Harker comics (solid faves around and more. Panels included discussion on horror comics and the European scene and Kevin Sutherland managed to entertain and more than likely scandalise some with the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre which had me roaring with laughter (seriously, I know many of you have seen bits of the Falsettos at various cons or the videos Kev posts on YouTube, but if you get the chance to go and see the whole performance, take it, you’ll thank me. His Sock Puppet Star Wars is genius).

(Dave Evans with the latest issue of FutureQuake)

(Asia Alfasi’s manga portraits were hugely popular and despite being so busy she always seemed to be smiling)

Co-organisers Richmond Clements and Vicki Stonebridge, ably assisted by a team of enthusiastic young helpers, were buzzing around radiating a fascinating mixture of urgency, pleasure, concern, tiredness and happiness that I generally associate with convention organisers. Rich was especially fetching in his dapper three-piece white suit, somewhere between Randall & Hopkirk, Deceased and a scary Southern evangelist minister crossed with Colonel Sanders (Kentucky Fried Comics anyone?). The now annual Hi-Ex charity auction took place in the afternoon – Rich told me he was pretty pleased with the amount they had raised between the auction and raffle (we’ll get the final figure later in the week, but unofficially it was looking like £1500 quid when I had to leave) and, in a very touching gesture, a number of the artists present came up to Rich to present their own further contribution in the shape of money they had made from their sketching during the day. Since I know many artists who attend comic cons rely on paid sketchwork as part of the way they can make a convention financially viable for them that’s a really generous move on their part and huge kudos to them.

(Roger Gibson and Vince Danks, the team behind FP blog fave Harker)

(Cliodhna Lyons, Deirde and Kyle Rogers with a fine array of mini-comics – including some in Irish Gaelic they were showing to some of the Scottish Gaelic readers of the Highlands. On the basis of Mr Rogers’ mini-comics he is a very sick man and I look forward to telling you more about that later)

All in all a cracking day out for kids and big kids alike – the only small niggle for me and, as I heard later, others, was the bar staff were rather bad (I gave up after several minutes of them taking turns to ignore me, heard later there had been other problems with service, which seems downright unprofessional not to mentions self defeating given the sheer number of visitors Hi-Ex was bringing in to the venue). But other than that minuscule aside I had a great time, even better than I had at the first Hi-Ex, and I loved that. It’s grown nicely, there’s more space, more guests (guessing the arts council funding must have helped a bit too and how great was it to see a comics event getting arts council help?), but it’s still at a nice, human scale that makes it very easy to move around, talk to folks and simply to enjoy it. Congrats to Vicki, Richmond and everyone else who made the third Hi-Ex a great success and here’s looking forward to it continuing to grow in future years.

(an Iron Man fan – perhaps he should have come as Big Daddy! – with adorable but getting a bit sleepy mini-fan’ there were a lot of very happy looking kids wandering around Hi-Ex)

(hunting the most dangerous of all prey – comics fans...)

I know more of you who were there will be posting your own write-ups and pics from Hi-Ex, so please do send in links to those postings (and also the folks who were at Schmurgencon or The Thing over the weekend too) and we’ll try and post up a links round-up for them for everyone; there are more photos from Hi-Ex on Flickr here.

The iron road to the Highlands

Early yesterday morning I caught the train for Inverness to cover a brand-new comics convention for the FPI blog. Crossing over the mighty Forth Bridge (I can’t remember going over that since I was a kid, usually I’m going over the nearby road bridge) the train went along the Fife coast to begin with, curving around past Burntisland, giving great views right across the Firth of Forth where you could see all of Edinburgh in profile, the Pentland Hills behind the city dusted with snow and an orange glow behind them as the early morning winter sun struggled to rise above the hills. As the train turned further inland the rolling hills of Fife were sprinkled with snow too, while the rich farmland between them was mostly snow (although not ice) free.

(click the pics to see the full size version on the Woolamaloo Flickr stream)

However, as I got further north, heading up past Perth, Pitlochry and further, the snow went from a light sprinkle to deeper, purer, whiter. As we got up into the Highlands proper and the Cairngorms national park it got colder and ever more spectacular. The view from the train window was quite simply spectacular: snowbound forests (fallen trees with their skinny, snow-covered branches looked like the skeletons of some long-spined creature), rivers swollen and fast-running with recent rain and snow runoff from the mountains, except where the water had frozen fast into ice.

Deer ran lightly through the snow; as the train past one field I saw a young buck, couldn’t have been more than two years old, bouncing through the snow and off into the treeline. There were a number of football fans, all loaded up with beer, on the train (I think their match ended up cancelled because of the weather) but even they grew quiet, totally taken in with the astonishing beauty of the Scottish Highlands passing outside their window to the clickety-clack, clickety-clack beat of the train on its rails. You can feel the pressure on your ears as the train begins to climb steeply – it isn’t as clear from the view but your body can feel it as the train pulls you ever higher into the land of mountains.

I haven’t been up that far north in years, not since going on a few ski trips many moons ago and that was driving so you don’t get to appreciate the view quite so much. Sitting on a train with a great big window you could just watch all of this slip past, one of most scenic parts of the whole of Europe just sliding past my window. God we’re so lucky to live in this country – next time any of us moan about our weather we should think about these scenes then realise just how utterly beautiful our mountain kingdom is.