Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Portsmouth Comic Con 2019

A couple of weekends ago ( trust this blog to always be up to the minute! ) we spent two days in sunny Portsmouth, home of the Mary Rose, the HMS Victory, the Spinnaker Tower, and the beautiful Portsmouth Guildhall which was playing host to hundreds of Wookiees, superheroes, gamers and Imperial storm troopers. Yes, you guessed it, this was the Portsmouth Comic Con and a very impressive con it was too, definitely the biggest one I've been to so far. The major draw for me was the appearance of those comic book legends, "Rascally" Roy Thomas and "Stainless" Steve Engelhart, two of the defining writers of the Silver and Bronze Ages. This was also an opportunity to catch up with the nearly-as-legendary Kids From Rec Road, but more of them later...

Whilst Sarah headed off to Gunwharf Quays for some retail therapy James and I| plunged into the maelstrom of the con. It was really quite bewildering with room after room and floor upon floor filled with toys, games, comics, artwork, cosplayers, families, people with very poor bodily hygiene, all squeezed into a labyrinthine building which was lovely but didn't seem to follow any logical pattern. After a little while getting our bearings I made a beeline ( whatever that is ) for "Sturdy" Steve Engelhart himself who was signing comics in the artist / writer area ( I'm sure it had a snappier title than that! ). For those who don't know, Steve was one of THE most prolific writers of the Bronze Age of comics who had celebrated runs on some of the most important mags of the day  -  The Avengers, The Defenders, Justice League Of America, Doctor Strange, Captain America, Detective Comics  -  whilst also creating or co-creating and writing such characters as Star-Lord and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. In later years he also wrote an excellent update of the Fantastic Four as well as working for Malibu, Valiant and Topps. Phew! My personal fave of all his comics work was the time he spent with the following master of the mystic arts...

Naturally, this was the comic I'd brought from my own collection for Steve to sign. He was very gracious when I gushed about how much I'd loved this series as a young reader and how it had been ahead of its time in terms of philosophy and concepts. He told me briefly about the differing working relationships he'd had with artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan on Doctor Strange  -  basically, Steve and Frank would brainstorm story ideas together over some jazz cigarettes and then Steve would shape those ideas into a story, whilst Gene was happy to work from a full script and didn't contribute to the plots. He also briefly touched on his time working with Marshall Rogers on Silver Surfer after I'd raved about that series too. Unfortunately our time was cut short after someone reminded Steve that he was due on a panel so I had to move on, but at least I'd spoken to one of my all-time favourite comics authors who had turned out to be a lovely bloke... and he'd signed my comic...

James and I legged it to the Guildhall's impressive council chambers for Steve's panel. Here we heard him repeat the stories he'd just told me about Doctor Strange and the Surfer, as well as further fascinating anecdotes about writing Captain America in the Watergate era, working with Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics, and his later creator-owned characters like Coyote and Scorpio Rose. Also at the panel were my ol' blog buddy Pete Doree of The Bronze Age Of Blogs and Kids From Rec Road fame, and Colin Brown, curator of the John M Burns Art Facebook page. We had a quick chat after the panel before going on separate quests. ( There's a wonderfully in depth post about this con on Pete's blog, which you can read here. He's remembered loads of stuff so I don't have to... )

James and I took a quick detour down to Gunwharf Quays to meet Sarah for some lunch and then it was back to the con. After nosing around the various stalls etc and briefly chatting with the guys from Knockabout Comics I queued up to meet the Rascally One himself... Mr. Roy "The Boy" Thomas...

Yeah, here I am with THE Roy Thomas! As someone who's been reading Roy's comics for nearly as long as I've actually been able to read this was an exciting, and surreal, experience.As with my meetings with Steve Engelhart and "Dauntless" Don McGregor last year I found it incredibly hard to encapsulate decades' worth of time reading and enjoying the man's work in the short time I had with him. ( I didn't get off to a great start when I shook Roy's hand and he said "Wow! You've got a strong grip... and I've got arthritis." Oops! ) Anyway, he was perfectly charming and allowed me to burble on about what a fan I am  -  I'm sure he hears this stuff all the time. For a long time, of course, Roy was Stan Lee's right hand man at Marvel Comics, taking over the reigns himself as Editor in Chief when The Man moved on to Hollywood, and is a legendary figure in the industry. He had a stellar career writing mostly for Marvel and DC ( excelling at team books like the FF, X-Men, Avengers, Invaders, Justice Society Of America, Infinity Inc ) but one of his characters clearly stands head and overly-muscled shoulders above all the rest and was the obvious choice when I was thinking of getting a signature...

Okay, Conan The Barbarian wasn't actually created by Roy ( that honour of course goes to the legendary Robert E Howard ) but he's probably the most important character that Roy developed for Marvel and he's the character that is the most associated with the Rascally One. And it was always going to be this exact comic that I'd like to have signed, Conan The Barbarian #24 from March 1973, the last regular issue to feature the incomparable art of Barry Windsor-Smith. I've had this issue since ( I think ) the Christmas of 1978. Back in the Summer of that long-ago year ( imagine? 41 years! ) we'd had a family holiday in that there London and I'd had my mind blown by my very first visit to a comic shop, the legendary ( there's a lot of "legendary" in this post ) Dark They Were & Golden Eyed. For my first glimpse of the world of comics retail, before the advent of such faceless shops as Forbidden Planet, DTY&GE was a pretty cool place to start. A veritable Aladdin's cave of comics, posters, "head shop" products and ephemera, it was a wonderful place to visit and I easily blew my limited budget. And then I came across a copy of CTB #24. I persuaded my parents to buy it for me but they kept it as a Christmas present so I had to wait half a year before I could marvel at Roy and Barry's four-colour masterpiece, The Song Of Red Sonja.

( Yes, it was a pretty good Christmas morning! )
As with my chat with Steve Engelhart I was aware that that there was still a queue of people behind me waiting to see the great man so I didn't hang around too long. I had a quick word with Roy about The Hero Initiative, the charity he's involved with which raises funds for healthcare for veteran comics creators ( read about its good works here ), gave some money to the cause and then moved on. It had only been a short moment really but... I'd met Roy Thomas! Very, very happy.
( Incidentally, did you notice that Roy signed the above with a Biro not a marker pen? He was concerned that the thicker ink from a marker pen might show through on the next page. Pete and I were talking about this recently and he remarked on how respectful Steve and Roy were for the artwork on the covers they signed  -  they always tried not to cover important parts of the art. A small but very telling point. )

In between these encounters with awesome authors I did manage to rummage around the long-boxes for some bargains. Unfortunately these were in short supply  -  for all its good points, the Portsmouth Comic Con was severely lacking in yer actual comics, in fact it's probably the poorest one I've been to in terms of back issues. ( I mean proper back issues, not just year-old American comics at a slightly reduced price. ) And, of course, virtually no British comics at all. I only picked up two
 ( two! ) comics  -  an issue of  Warren Ellis & John Cassady's wonderful Planetary ( only one issue of the series to go to complete my collection ) and this Fourth World wonder from the King himself...

As the day began to wind down we headed to the local Wetherspoon's ( only the best pubs for us! ) to meet up with the Kids From Rec Road for a swift drink before we went our separate ways. Although the dreaded ( and pseudonymous ) Arnold Lipschitz didn't show, I still caught up with Pete ( blogger extraordinaire! ), the mega-talented and award-winning Sean Phillips, and met the third of the Kids  -  Dave H who actually lives in good ol' Gloucester just like your humble blogger. It's a small world but I wouldn't want to paint it etc. etc. Here are the Kids in full flow, with Dave explaining just why Marvel are better than DC ( probably )

Not long after I took this photo, Sean headed back into the Guildhall for the Tripwire Awards where he won for Best Artist and Best Original Graphic Novel  -  very well deserved!
Whilst Sarah, James and I headed off as well  -  to our hotel just outside Portsmouth and an extremely average meal in a local restaurant. We then spent the next day in sunny Portsmouth, more to follow...

So, a fun day out with some fine people  -  shall we do it again next year?

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Visions of Venice

A year ago Sarah and I had an amazing week in the beautiful city of Venice to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. For some reason I didn't post any photos at the time but here are a few belated glimpses of that magical place...

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Sleeper / The Supernaturals / Thyla at the Bristol O2 Academy

My first gig in Bristol this year and it was a cracker! An exciting up-and-coming band, the long-awaited return of some old favourites and a triumphant headline set from Britpop legends.

After finishing work and experiencing a refreshingly easy and traffic jam-free journey down to Brizzle I hurriedly found myself something to eat and then high-tailed it to the O2 to catch ( most of ) the set by Thyla who were on at the ridiculously early time of 6:45 pm.

Thyla are an extremely promising young band who reminded me slightly of The Horrors  -  not that they sound a lot like them, but they have the same instinct for taking old genres ( Goth, shoegaze, '80s indie ) and giving them a modern twist. Although some of the songs seemed a bit lacking in the tune department, they were more than made up for with the urgency of the shimmering guitars and pounding, tribal drums. Front woman Millie Duthie sang like her life depended on it, her voice an ethereal cry from the heart ( if that's not a contradiction ), like a mixture of Liz Fraser and Kate Bush... but with hobnail boots on. ( Actually she wore some pristine white trainers with very thick soles. )  The last song, Pristine Dream  -   a strident denial of being pigeon-holed by male expectations  -  was a Banshees / early Cure -style stomper and is sure to propel them into the big leagues.

The next band were eagerly awaited by me and many others in the crowd for it was the return of Glasgow's former kings of melodic, melancholic indie-pop, The Supernaturals. I have to admit I never saw many of the Britpop bands back in the day because their rise coincided with my buying a house, starting a family, all those money- and time-consuming things which are lovely but don't leave you much opportunity to go out and watch bands. ( I think my list would only include Blur, Pulp, Echobelly, Catatonia, Longpigs, 3 Colours Red... maybe a couple of others ) But I did see The Supernaturals. Many times. In fact, they were something of a fave band at the time for myself and my mate Glenn and we always said we'd definitely catch them if they ever reformed. Unfortunately, Glenn couldn't make it to this show as he was gigging himself that night with the mighty Borrowed Time, but I knew I couldn't miss it.

The band shuffled on stage and started the set almost apologetically with the low-key hymn to "bitterness and inadequacy" Trees. Maybe not the most exciting of beginnings but the set slowly picked up as singer James McColl warmed to the audience ( and vice versa ) and the band unveiled classic pop song after classic pop song. The likes of Lazy Lover, Sheffield Song, Dung Beetle, Love Has Passed Away and Smile brought a grin to every face and a chorus to everyone's lips. The 'Naturals were always masters at hiding biting and often melancholy lyrics inside catchy, deceptively bouncy guitar-pop and it was great to see they still had the knack. A mid-set highlight was lesser-known album track Idiot, in which James describes himself as "so handsome and intelligent... the world's number one suavest gent" before going on to admit "but of course I'm not, I'm just an idiot, sweetheart..."

All these songs of wounded masculinity and failed relationships ( which are much funnier than they sound from my descriptions! ) reached their peak with the majestic Day Before Yesterday's Man, with it's unforgettable lines "Jesus, I'm freaking / I've had such a weekend / I think I must be turning to God / My girlfriend has dumped me and headed for the country / With a boy who wears white socks"
  -  great stuff! All in all a fine return for a band who, while they may not be as exuberant as they were two decades ago ( who is? ), can still bang out some wonderful songs. Hopefully I'll be able to see them headline again at some point. That'd be nice. And can you play Stammer next time, please?

And then, after quite a wait, the headliners came on stage to a mighty roar. I'd always liked Sleeper but wasn't aware of much more than their hit singles, even though I always thought Louise Wener's breathy vocals were one of the signature sounds of the Britpop era. I recently bought their first two albums to try and catch up and found what I'd been missing all that time...

 They started with the sugar-rush of Nice Guy Eddie and instantly set the tone for the set  -   ridiculously fun, perfectly played, exciting guitar-based indie, with Louise Wener having a great time, fully in control of the audience, in fine voice and, it has to be said, looking very foxy indeed. Is there a sexier line in 90s music than "I picked up that bra you fancied"? Probably not. I think half the audience were reduced to a quivering heap on the floor at that moment. Ahem! Moving on...

And the next song was Delicious ( "You're delicious / You're so dirty / Make it dirty" ) so, yeah, more of the same. Next up was Paradise Waiting from their new album and you could see straight away that this comeback wasn't just an exercise in nostalgia  -  the new songs effortlessly reach the heights of the old ones. In fact, the title track The Modern Age was easily one of the best moments of the night. Sleeper's songs were often character studies about misfits, pulling back the curtain on suburbia to find the neuroses hidden there, and the new material seems an update on those themes in the age of social media and the general confusion of the 21st century. At one point, Louise mentioned how refreshing it was that Sleeper audiences don't tend to view their gigs through iPhone screens, but try to stay in the moment... "And now I've said that I can see someone filming me..."

After hitting us with such perfectly-formed, fizzing pop-bombs as What Do I Do Now and Statuesque, Sleeper showed some respect to the lineage of great female-fronted guitar bands by pulling out a fantastic cover of Blondie's Atomic which got everyone dancing, from the old gits like me to the young 'uns in the audience who wouldn't have been born when that track first burst out of New York. Note perfect with drumming from Andy Maclure that would have done Clem Burke proud. It was just sublime.
The set finished with the mighty Inbetweener ( of course ) and then the band came back to thunderous applause to play three more songs, finishing with the punch of Las Vegas and the sardonic Sale Of The Century. The band had clearly had as good a time as the crowd, with Louise telling us a couple of times how they had been unsure about this revival but now realised what a powerful thing this connection between performers and audience could still be. Hopefully they'll stick around now and I definitely need to see them again. I'm officially a Sleeper fan now! It only took 20+ years...

I'd actually dug my old Supernaturals T-shirt out of mothballs for this gig and, as I was heading out of the venue, a guy called Jed Maxwell came up to me and said "I used to have that T-shirt when I was 18! Quality shirt! Will you sell it to me? " Funnily enough, the answer was no. He was obviously upset that I didn't give him the shirt off my back and even tweeted about it the next day :-)
Here's the famous T-shirt:

After the gig I met up with Sophie, who'd just finished a shift at the Hippodrome, and we went for a quick drink at Bristol's Harbourside. A lovely end to a wonderful night.


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