I haven’t been to a convention since I attended the London Film and Comic Con in 2008, so it was about time I exposed myself to another celebration of geek culture. Mark Millar’s Kapow! might have been oriented more towards mainstream comic book (matching my tastes), but tickets for that sold out because it was so small (and I’ve started to come out in a rash whenever I read or hear Millar hyping himself and his products). The MCM Expo is huge, held in the vast ExCel London exhibition centre in the Docklands, so there was no worry about turning up on the day without a ticket.
In retrospect, turning up on the day to buy a ticket wasn’t the greatest idea I had in the world. You couldn’t buy General Entry (11am) tickets in advance, only the Early Entry (9am) tickets, which were £5 more expensive, but it might have been worth it: I spent 90 minutes shuffling along in the queue to buy a ticket (I tweeted a lot during this time to help, which kept my Expo timeline). The photo below isn’t great quality because it’s from my camera phone, but I’m in one corner of the huge hall and the place where you buy tickets is in the opposite corner, with all the people in between standing in rows walking up and down very slowly.
I wouldn’t recommend the authentic convention experience of extensive queues, unless you are in a large group of cosplayers – there were lots of people in cosplay, mostly related to anime/manga or computer games I couldn’t identify (there were some Stormtroopers, Harry Potter cosplay, steampunk and even a few superheroes; my favourite team-up was Rorschach and Deadpool), and they were mostly young people with an even split of girls and boys. I’d say that about half the people at the Expo were in cosplay, and the costumes were very impressive in most cases, but the only weird thing was the Free Hugs phenomenon: people in cosplay holding a sign saying ‘Free Hugs’ and all these strangers happily hugging each other. I’d never seen it before, but apparently it has been quite popular with da kidz for a few years now.
The other strange aspect was feeling old – a lot of the attendees were a lot younger than I am, and I was glad to see people of my age (some had brought their kids, even if they were in pushchairs) or even older (I saw a couple who were definitely OAPs) to make me feel less like an antiquated anomaly. It didn’t help that I was going solo (I’m glad I didn’t drag my long-suffering girlfriend along because the 90-minute queue would have tested her love for me), and I was worried that the youths were looking at me with suspicion.
Eventually, I got my ticket, which was a paper wristband that was initially stuck to my arm and they had to pull out a few hairs before it was put on correctly, and I was allowed entry into the Expo. Despite lots of people hanging around outside, the hall was packed (as the blurry photo above demonstrates) and wandering around was an effort in some narrow alleys. I had missed the Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class panels in the main stage (serves me right, I suppose), but I thought I might watch the Futurama panel, which had four of the voice cast from the show. However, the man who was hosting the panel was so incredibly annoying that I couldn’t stick it out (his ‘hilarious’ joke was to pretend to get someone in the front row thrown out) and I left before the cast arrived.
Fortunately, this worked out for the best because I accidentally arrived at the SFX panel on science fiction journalism. I don’t want to be a sci-fi journalist, but I was interested in hearing them talk about the experience. It was interesting and well hosted (I think by Dave Bradley, Editor-In-Chief of SFX), who kept it flowing and getting everyone on the panel involved. When it was opened up for questions, the first one was from Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston, who asked about the problems that the magazine has had with JM Straczynski (obviously, Johnston collects gossip from everywhere, not just comic books). I left when somebody asked the question, ‘What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into sci-fi journalism?’, demonstrating how much he hadn’t been paying attention.
It was another bit of good timing because it meant I could line up for an autograph from Warren Ellis. He had started at 2pm, so there were only a dozen people ahead of me when I arrived around 2.30pm and I didn’t have to wait long to get his signature. Unlike others in line, I hadn’t brought a specific comic book (or books) for Ellis to personalise; instead, I got him to autograph my writing notebook so that I could be inspired whenever I look at it. I’m a big fan of his work (see the Warren Ellis tag on this blog), so it was a pleasure to meet the internet Jesus in person. I didn’t fawn or gush – I told him my name for the autograph, I thanked him for being a writer (he replied, ‘Well, it was that or get a proper job’), thanked him for the autograph and left him to carry on signing. It was a relief to meet a writer whose work I enjoy without coming across as an idiot (as I did when I met Chris Claremont nearly 20 years ago at a UKCAC), so it was the highlight of the Expo for me.
Warren Ellis signed for only 40 minutes, according to a now-deleted tweet, which highlighted a significant aspect of the MCM Expo – it’s not really a convention about comic books. Yes, there is a comics village that is always increasing in size, and there were even some artists I recognised (Gary Erskine, John McCrea, Paul Duffield and, according to Rich Johnston, Frank Quitely was there doing sketches even though he wasn’t announced), but the main focus seems to be the manga/anime/gaming. If there was a Warren Ellis signing at a comics-focussed convention, it would not have been finished in 40 minutes. The sheer number of cosplayers (I haven’t seen any numbers online, but the number on my wristband was 13876, so I’d guess that about 20,000 people were at the ExCel, including the people who stayed outside at the MCM Fringe, and I’d guess half the people were in cosplay) dictated the focus of the hall: tables and tables of Japanese-related merchandise. Manga, anime DVDs, cuddly toys, statues, bags, hats, sweets, trinkets, cosplay swords (both wooden and real); even the Comics Village was half manga. There were other aspects to the Expo: there was the Games Village, where people could play the latest games (a lot of them looked like they were from Japan), and there were tables set up for Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, the British Origami Society, a wrestling ring where wrestlers wrestled and people watched (no, really), and places for people to be artistic, but the Expo seemed to attract and cater to the cosplayers more than the other geek elements.
To sum up: standing in a queue for an hour and a half is not fun, a lot of people like to dress up and get their photographs taken, Warren Ellis is a nice bloke, geek culture has taken over the world, and I need to attend a comic book convention so that I don’t feel out of place.