A Bustling Belgian at BICS Birmingham, UK – part 1

Posted by on October 19th, 2010 at 2:15 PM

Having just gotten back from BICS, the Birmingham comics convention, you’ll see a few british comics pop up here over the course of the following weeks. Visiting BICS itself was a sobering experience though.

Having informed myself beforehand, BICS was described by many as the second largest comic convention of the UK but I have seen comic conventions in Belgium in the middle of the country side that were bigger than this. Spread out over two tiny halls, it was located at the third floor of the Millennium Point building at the Think Tank section that houses the Rotating Escalators of Irritation which even got on the nerves of Mike Carey who is normally the summun of the gentleman. One half of hall 1 was mostly small press, the other half dedicated to celebrity artists signings while hall 2 housed publishers and stores, the odd small press table and one half of an isle being fake comic publishers set up for a teen movie that was being shot on location. I was mostly there networking and checking out the small press scene.

Being a bit disappointed by the small scale I was even more disappointed by the state of the small press at BICS – I just hope that it wasn’t representative of the whole UK scene (Matthew Craig told me that the London scene wasn’t present which is supposed to be pretty big). Keep in mind that I’m talking about the self published stuff here, not the smaller publishers themselves. What I saw was mostly amateur superhero imitations, rotated with the occasional western, horror and manga genres. The art presented (again, in general) was mostly doodles and amateur muscled hero art without being self aware of the actual quality presented. I’m not naming names because I don’t want to single anyone out but … no art zines, no graphic mini-comics, no silk screen zines or comics, no highly personal work a la Jeffrey Brown or a Souther Salazar. What I did find was a lot of enthousiastic people which is of course a good thing for mini comics but the general quality was quite low. Maybe I am pampered by the level of quality of the Belgian and American small press environment?

What also astounded me – and it is maybe part of the equation – is that people mentioned to me that getting a table at BICS is quite expensive for small press, around 120 pounds. I would say that it is partly the responsibility of the convention organisers to function as a mecenas to these people; to at least allow the fringe generation of comic makers to make a healthy profit. Charging over 120 pounds to people who sell home-made comics as low as 1 pound just sounds very money-hungry to me and counter-productive for the local comics/art scene. This is even more amazing when you keep in mind that the originator of BICS used to be a small press creator himself. To paraphrase someone I talked to: ‘if he can’t keep the prices down for us, no-one can so maybe this venue has outlived its usefullness for us’.

Anyway, strolling through the isles I got a nice surprise perusing through Knockabout‘s books when looking at the back cover of Willy Linthout’s splendid autobiographical GN Years of the Elephant. They reference an interview I did with Willy for Broken Frontier (part 1, part 2 and part 3) and mention my name which is always nice. Note to publishers: always let people know if you quote them because 1)  it’s nice to know your writings are appreciated and 2) it’s common courtesy.

In general, even though BICS secured an impressing list of big names and celebrities to attract the crowds (Charlie Adlard, Mike Carey, Jonathan Ross, Phil Winslade, Sean Philips, Duncan Fegredo, Bryan Hitch, Alan Davis among others) they certainly weren’t well organized.

I found BICS to be a pretty chaotic experience. Inquiring information from various crew members often led to them producing the same leaflets as was handed over the general public which wasn’t very helpful (but they were all incredibly friendly I must say). The same credo of non-divisiveness between table prices for small press and regular publishers apparently also stretched out to discrimination to online press attendance. Opting to only give out press passes to journalists from print publications, online press not being accepted as ‘press’ in this day and age is a totally backwards way of thinking in my opinion. I can understand weeding out the chaf in terms of fan sites and bloggers masquerading as news people etc but excluding all online press just because they are ‘online’ … that just blows my mind.

On to capsule reviews of comics acquiered at BICS …

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The Man of Glass by Martin Fink
published by AccentUK

Unexpectedly, this one grabbed me by the throat. The Man of Glass is a 44 pages counting full colour one shot, best touted as a graphic novelette I suppose. The honest and subdued artwork by Fink supports a very simple premisse of forgiveness, loss and redemption.

He had a beautiful girlfriend, a promising career, good friends and a lovely son. Today he sits in the park with a beer, all his belongings in two plastic bags, watching the world passing by. How did he get there? And what happened to all the good things he had going for him?



The rythm of storytelling is leisurely and slowly draws you in while visual clues are sprinkled throughout the story in order to make the reader work at figuring it all out. The focus is very tight, panels are close cropped and zoom out when needed displaying a good intuition for atmosphere and visual impact, juxtaposing daily habits with the inner life of the protagonist. The emotional baggage of the story is of such a magnitude that it would be easy to exploit (naming it would ruin the whole impact of the graphic novelette) but the almost wordless narrative never overtly exploits it. The story builds to a nice crescendo and the ending … the ending is an emotional punch in the gut.

The Man of Glass succeeds in walking the fine line between emotional exploitation and truthful emotive responsiveness. Highly recommended.

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Whatever Happened To The World’s Fastest Man ? by Dave West & Marleen Lowe
published by AccentUK

Just like The Man of Glass this is based on a simple premisse exploring one idea in this case dealing with an ordinary bloke who has the power to stop time … wait, don’t run away just yet, there’s not a tight in sight anywhere in the book!

It actually is a sometimes clever little book that Dave West crafted. The protagonist is a simple lad, just wanting to live his simple life but he can’t help but feel responsible whenever something happens in his vicinity and well … ‘use his powers for good’. When there’s a train accident occurring in his train, he stops time, carries everyone out to a safe distance and then re-starts time but what happens when someone decides to detonate a bomb in the city where he lives? He can’t just carry everyone out like he usually does, can he? That someone in this case is of the disgruntled/mad sciencist variety which feels like a cliched genre intrusion, a simple terrorist threat would’ve suffused in this case. Though it feels a bit slight on the character side, he could’ve used a bit more motivation and roundness to his character, it has some nice ideas and reads pretty breezily.

The art by Marleen Lowe is also non-standard fare with the nice added touch of using pencil work for the people frozen in time while the protagonist is inked in being the only one able to move. Lowe’s style has a slight amerimanga feel to it but being of the more alternative kind. Scratchy and wobbly lines lend a real life atmoshpere to it all, inputting some emotional weight into an otherwise rather pensive and sto•c character.

Whatever Happened To The World’s Fastest Man ? is nothing earth shaking but I enjoyed reading it. It’s just a shame that, between the lines, the cover refers so much to mystery men and superheroes while this is actually a bit more than that.

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2 Responses to “A Bustling Belgian at BICS Birmingham, UK – part 1”

  1. oliver east says:

    Sounds like you should have chosen Thought Bubble, in Leeds next month, instead. It’s more small press friendly, friendlier staff and nicer room, albeit still not great for passing trade.

    I went to two Birmingham shows and vowed never to return. Ask me next time before going anywhere it’ll save you money.

    UK doesn’t have any big indie shows, Though Bubble is the closest, but it has a fair few small ones. Don’t forget as well, not every artist can be arsed with these things so trying to judge a country’s scene by the wares at a show is a little futile.

    Also, the body odour issue is worst at BICS than at TB

  2. Hi Oliver

    Thanks for your comment. I just checked out the Thought Bubble site and it does indeed look more interesting than BICS. Shame that the people I checked with didn’t point me that way but what the hey … maybe next time. I’ll make sure to check in with you though since you’re in a good position to know.

    Mind you, I said in the post ‘I just hope that it wasn’t representative of the whole UK scene’ so I’m not judging the whole UK self published scene by just this one visit to BICS. Though I did find that particular subsection of comics at BICS not very interesting at all.

    At least I came prepared for the body odour with soap and deodorant (eco-friendly mind you).

    Cheerio
    Bart