The Roads to New Cross: The London Small Press Expo

Andy Johnson
One Must Prepare For An Awfully Big Adventure: The London Small Press Expo was held in March this year.

With convention season in the US rapidly becoming a yearlong calendar event, the London Comics Small Press Expo still makes those small, personal connections between reader, newbie creator, and established pro.

No one room can contain the ceaseless creativity of the British small press comics scene, though on March 12th the London Comic & Small Press Expo at Goldsmiths University was the latest event to offer a fascinating snapshot. “The capital's bohemian comic show” saw the Great Hall packed with over fifty exhibitors, their wares, and an engaged crowd of visitors who struggled to take everything in before the one-day expo closed at 5pm. Organised by Bristol-based small press publishers The Fallen Angel Media, the expo incorporated three panel talks and was followed at 6pm by the “Comica Conversation”, a discussion between Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti and his friend and fellow artist Dave McKean, famed for his work with Neil Gaiman. It would prove to be a long but inspiring day.

An effort to squeeze the very most from the expo meant planning a number of tours around it, and to approach each with a different goal in mind. Tour #1 was a quick preliminary recon, which revealed the bewildering variety of work on offer - humorous, meditative and erotic British manga; hyper-detailed, surreal psychedelia; and unique takes on superhero and web comics, never without a distinctive twist. The main body of our exploration could be called tour #2, intended to get a closer look at what was on offer. Only then was it clear just how much love and work had gone into these comics – only by talking to their creators could we begin to understand how they had come this far, and where they hoped to go. Having learned that all these people were motivated out of love for the medium, tour #3 represented an agonising set of decisions about who we could afford to support, leaving us with bagfuls of comics but still regretful for what we'd left behind.

Comics conventions and expos have a reputation for being geeky, male-dominated affairs. This may well be true to some extent of some of the larger, more mainstream industry events, but at Goldsmiths the crowd was impressively varied; women made up a significant proportion of both the visitors and exhibitors, and comprised at least half of the manga creators in attendance. The predominant lack of stereotypical spandex-clad comics content was reflected, it seemed, in the lack of a stereotypical comics audience. This was a group of comics creators and enthusiasts diverse in taste, age, gender and origin gathered in one place to celebrate the often bewildering range of styles of the British small press scene.

It wasn't just content that was varied but also the styles and methods of printing, binding and production of the comics for display and sale. At one end of the spectrum, a number of contributors were offering tiny, black-and-white minicomics for free, made of just one sheet of folded paper; at the other was something like Tales of the Spiffing, a thick and glossy anthology made and presented by a group of employees from Aardman, the Bristol-based animation studio best known for their claymation characters Wallace and Gromit. Other highly polished efforts included Birdsong/Songbird, an elegantly-produced British manga anthology published by recent startup Failboat Press.

Between these two extremes were more treasures than could be counted. Writer Dan Thompson was enthusiastic and talkative about the first issue of Moon, his idiosyncratic series drawn by Steve Penfold and coloured by Ivana Matilla; a signed copy just had to be bought. One of the best stories came as George Beedham explained how a conversation at a previous expo forced him to change the tagline of his bizarre series Jambo from “the only jam-based superhero” to the “premier jam-based superhero”.

Introducing Miss Nash

Another essential purchase was The Dead, a distinctively bleak black-and-white zombie series brought to the expo by German publishers Zwerchfell. What made the deal even sweeter was that with each copy, the purchaser received a sampler of the print version of Sarah Burrini's consistently amusing webcomic Life Ain't No Ponyfarm, complete with its talking elephants, dating disasters and references to classic adventure videogames.

After listening to Nigel Lowrey's staggeringly exhaustive talk on “A History of Comics on Film & TV”, there was yet more comics to see and creators to meet. Tom Hunt impressed enormously with both his sequential and non-sequential art; the only thing better than his striking online mini-series McGuffin and Squigglebunny was a solo image of what I described at the time as “a Giger-esque bar”. Elsewhere there was engaging “diary comic” antics from Introducing Miss Nash and comedy horror exploits from John-Paul Kamath's London Horror Comic, which can count Garth Ennis among its fans; the Preacher writer-creator has called Kamath “too good” and has jokingly threatened to have him killed.

When the expo wound down, just an hour was left spare for the gathering of thoughts and purchases before the Comica Conversation would begin. There had been so much to see that processing it all was a struggle; although we were weighed down with free minicomics, flyers, business cards, badges and small press purchases, somehow we knew that they would never quite recapture having been there.

John-Paul Kamath and the Werewolves of London, in Space

An impressive number of people returned to see Lorenzo Mattotti and Dave McKean speak. The rare event was organised and chaired by Paul Gravett, comics scholar and organiser of the Comica London International Comics Festival, and mainly consisted of Mattotti discussing his many years of comics work, as well as his contributions of cover art to publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Although the Italian apologised in advance for his poor English, he coped perfectly well – with occasional assistance from the audience – and proved to be an engaging, if verbose speaker. It seemed a shame, though, that Dave McKean found himself relegated to such a secondary role; his contributions were always amusing, interesting or both, but Mattotti almost always took charge. Nevertheless, the talk was a generally engaging full stop to a great day's celebration of comics.

The creators at the London Comic & Small Press Expo had so much to show that to see it all was a mammoth task, and one which no retrospective can replicate. Short of having been there, the best that interested parties can do is explore thoroughly the expo website's list of contributor links – they represent a glimpse into a world of enduring creative fervour, and into the minds of a diverse group of men and women, many of whom are bound to have a lasting impact on comics both within and outside the UK.

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I've sworn, after learning about the latest kleptocrat billionaire to buy a club, or scrambling from the clash between hooligans and riot police, or hearing a homophobic chant rise up from the stands, I would give up on the game. Anyone with sense would.

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