A few weeks ago saw the culmination of nine months hard work whenUniComics, the Comics & Graphic Novels festival that I co-founded with the University of Hertfordshire (UH), was finally unveiled… and, to all our satisfaction, it seems we were a hit…!
Here’s a selection of some of the lovely feedback we received:
“I want to give you a big thank-you for organizing such a wonderful event. We all thoroughly enjoyed Comixbox, it was so inspiring to see other people’s work and hear them talk about their experiences.” – Jane Heinrichs, UniComix participant
“Just wanted to send a quick note to say thanks for yesterday – great fun was had by all, I think. Thanks for inviting me to be part of it.” – Douglas Noble, panel
“I just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed the Unicomics Festival yesterday – I made a special effort to get there in time for the 2000 AD talk, and the free Watchmen screening afterwards was a great bonus. I especially enjoyed the chance to chat to Kevin O’Neill and Pat Mills after their talk, even if I did monopolise their time a bit! Well done to everyone in the UniComics team – I look forward to more events.” – Hayden Nash, audience member
“I really enjoyed participating- dinner was great, the catalogues were beautifully produced and it was brilliant to see the other artists showcasing their work. There’s as many different ways to make comics as there are personalities in the world, and it never fails to inspire me!.” – Karrie Fransman, ComixBox participant
“Thanks very much for inviting Steve and I along to Unicon. We had a really good day, probably our most positive convention showing ever! It was a great show and I am very much hoping it does become an annual event and that we stay very much part of it!” – Chris Denton, Massacre For Boys
“Thanks so much for all your hard work on Unicomics! What a brilliant festival, so many of us were very impressed, and other people are already asking about next year. I’m definitely looking forward to it.” – Sarah McIntyre, author/illustrator and workshop leader (In fact, Sarah was so effusive with her praise, she added on her blog: “”Wow, Britain has a new annual comics convention, and boy, are those Unicomics organiser team people NICE! I’ve never been so well treated at a comics convention, with a big, organised, friendly team in matching shirts, a green room with free refreshments for exhibitors, not to mention the fun, eager kids stopping by to say hi. “)
Well, colour me extremely flattered.
Beyond such very, very kind words, the general consensus from attendees and guests was that UniComics was a very well-organised event – something of a rarity in the realm of comics conventions, apparently – with strong branding, a diverse range of high-quality events, a superb venue, and a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere which radiated high enthusiasm for the medium. (One particularly gratifying piece of feedback came from the indie/small-press creators at UniCon, who said that they felt respected and well-treated by us, which, surprisingly, is rather uncommon at larger, established shows.) The results of the feedback forms that were filled out by attendees also offered up hugely encouraging data, with consistently high ratings across the board and most people indicating that they greatly enjoyed the festival and want us to return. All of which is hugely emboldening to myself and the rest of the team, given the amount of work that we put in to it – it’s precisely how we wanted to be recieved.
From my new vantage point as an organiser, though – it wasn’t all perfect. Given that the first edition of UniComics was a pilot, it comes with the territory that there would be various hitches and all manner of things not going according to plan or expectation. One thing I certainly learned was that, no matter how much you organise and plan, you simply cannot tell how these things will play. In truth, it was disappointing that UniComics didn’t have bigger audiences. It was clear that holding UniComics in late April did not allow us to fully harness the UH student body as, of course, they all had exams imminently and this, I’m sure, denied us a larger audience (not helped by the fact that the weather suddenly turned wonderful on our key day, the Saturday). Another factor that we have to contend with is that Hatfield, while hardly remote, goes veryquiet on the weekend and, obviously, doesn’t have anything like the constant bustle and accessibility of London. That said, Saturday’s UniCon event had a steady flow of people throughout the day and, most pleasingly, our Ben 10 event was absolutely crammed with very excited kids.
I won’t lie, though: my two events were dreadfully attended, which both embarrassed and depressed me considerably, given the work I’d put in to them and that they were technically headline events. But what the hell: you live and learn. However, as Lucy said, you put the same effort in whether you have ten people or a thousand – very true – and it was very pleasing to hear that the people who were there enjoyed themselves thoroughly. It was undoubtedly a thrill sharing the stage with three bona fide heroes of mine at the 2000AD event on the Saturday night and I was very touched to have my family and closest friends supporting me in the audience ( a special shout-out here to my pal Lee “Von Shtahlein” Medcalf, my uber-geek wingman and, crucially, my longtime Man from The Ministry of “Don’t Fear The Tech”, who once again ensured that my laptop did not betray my dignity. ‘Nuff said). ANYWAY: let’s accentuate the positive and highlight the supreme achievement of UniComics 2010…
We have a brand.
UniComics is now a legitimate, solid professional-looking brand that is well-regarded, capable of hosting marquee names and, vitally, brimming with potential for the future. This, my friends, is the flagstone upon which we shall build.
Putting UniComics together was a particularly energising experience for me – it’s a hell of a learning curve – taking my career in to a whole new arena and, importantly, an ideal platform upon which to debut the “DG Brand”. I’m incredibly proud of what Natalie, Darren, Maureen, Emma, Katie, Melissa, Nicola, Sarah, Daniel, Sean and myself put together and I think I can speak for us all when I say just what a massive thrill it was to see UniComics actually happen after all our months of intense planning, no matter what. It’s a profoundly special achievement and, despite the exhaustion, it was a great deal of fun!
I learned a great deal from my involvement in UniComics, but the one thing I learnt above all is that such endeavours – which are very time-consuming, very stressful and notcheap – stand a far, far better chance when they are steered by someone who is well-organised, graceful under pressure, charming, cheerful, approachable, inspiring and enthusiastic. In our case, that’s a lovely lady named Natalie Fountain, who’s the manager of UHArts. UniComics was certainly helped by having a group of founders who worked together so effectively, but it’s undoubtedly down to Nat that UniComics turned out the way it did, professional and rife with potential – she was quite simply an ideal leader and I enjoyed working with her enormously. As it happens, UniComics is Natalie’s swan song, as she’s leaving UH to return home to her native New Zealand – after a bout of travelling – and marry her partner Dave. Over the creation of UniComics, Nat immersed herself in Comics and has become a big convert. Indeed, she’s already brewing up ideas for a comics festival for NZ…! It goes without saying that we’re all going to miss her enormously and, for myself, I want to effusively thank her for allowing me the opportunity to make a dream come true.
Closer to home, I want to say a public “thank you” to my amazing girlfriend Lucy, who, while a massive source of support to me all the time, totally went above and beyond in the feverish build-up to UniComics and the festival itself. It’s still something of a revelation for me to have a partner who’s actually really interested by my rather idiosyncratic career and is so enthusiastic and supportive of it. Whether it was ferrying guests to and from Hatfield Station, providing a picnic hamper stuffed with grub for the festival’s team of volunteers, helping me navigate the non-complexities of Powerpoint, making sure I had the right cufflinks, practically being my agent and talking me up to all and sundry, keeping me positive, making me laugh and so much else, she is simply all kinds of wonderful. I must add, too, how amused I was at the dinner we had for the guests on Saturday night, where Lucy was happily bantering away with Dave Gibbons, Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, adeptly steering them away from “shop” (which is all I wanted to talk about – obviously, right??). Indeed, once Dave had told her that the Directors Cut of Watchmen was his preferred version, that’s the one we had to watch. Her film critic boyfriend’s insistence at watching the Ultimate Edition was hence rendered void. Fine, I was wrong. It is the best version.
So. The Big Question. What happens next…?
Well, following an extensive debrief held a few days after the festival, we all agreed that, while our opening effort was a strong one with many plus points, UniComics needs to be considerably refined. If we come back – and it’s certainly looking positive – then you can expect UniComics (in its festival form) to potentially return late next year, at a time which yields better involvement from UH’s students, for starters. Until then, there is the intention to hold “satellite events”, so as to maintain momentum for the brand we’ve created. The last thing we want is for this to stall after all the hard work. Fingers crossed etc, but I feel confident that UniComics will flourish, following its very promising start.
To finish, here are a selection of pictures from UniComics 2010…! (Click to enlarge)