Convention Report Double Feature! True Believers and Cardiff Anime & Gaming Con!

Over the past two Saturdays I’ve been to two very different conventions where I had two very different experiences, True Believers Comic Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse (3rd February) and Cardiff Anime and Gaming Con at the Mercure Hotel, Cardiff (yesterday 10th February).

True Believers

True Believers is a show I’ve tabled at before and was selling at again. Booking a table, receiving set up instructions, and getting into the event was extremely simple. This isn’t the team’s first rodeo, they’re familiar with the venue and their own processes so everything ran very smoothly. Stuart and Andy, the main men behind the operation, made sure to pop by everyone’s table to have a chat, make sure they were okay, ask if there were any issues, etc. I think what’s always been very apparent is that these guys put on this show so everyone can have a good time, it has a by the fans for the fans feel.

There was a very strong presence of small press and indie comics and, while I only got away from my table for five to ten minutes at a time, it felt like the majority of tables were occupied by artists selling their self-published books. True Believers has come to have a very strong focus and the audience it attracts now expect, and get excited for, indie comics. It felt like every artist based in the South was in attendance. Sarah Millman, Dani Abram, Emily Owen, Rachael Smith, Attic Studios, Reckless Hero, the Awesome Comics Podcast, Big Punch Studios, Disconnected Press, Shaun Dobie, Matt Garvey… pretty much everyone you’d expect!

From a trading point of view, that was great! From a social standpoint, it was even better as I hadn’t seen a lot of these friends since Nottingham Comic Con in October 2017. I don’t know if it may have been an issue from an attendee’s viewpoint though. I stress this is only theory and conjecture and may be representative of a larger issue but many of the conventions in the South West seem to have the same line ups. I feel like a Southern small press clique has formed and, if you were to go to the Midlands or the North, you’d likely find an entirely different local small press community. Tony Esmond, of the Awesome Comics Podcast, Down the Tubes, and Never Iron Anything, made similar comments about small press as a whole on a recent ACP episode. It makes me wonder if things could get a little stale for visiting members of the general public. I know some shows operate a one year in, one year out, policy for table applicants to ensure variety and it may be something I test on a self-enforcement basis over the next year or two for all shows as-a-whole.

This was somewhat reflected in my own purchases as well. I already had most of the comics being sold at the event but did buy Awesome Comics 1, Beast Hunting Battle Badgers 1 and 2, Animal Magic – Political Animals (which was kindly gifted to us by our table neighbour), The Last Sheriff 3 and 4, and Operation Boom 2.

I’d skipped a previous year and people came by my table saying they’d missed me and were glad to see me back. It also meant I’d released new comics (more on that in a moment) since I’d last been at the show, so there was new stuff for them to buy and read. In fact, a number of people asked about Joe Cape 4, for which I refer to my previous blog post for details. I even made a little spending money (which I immediately spent at someone else’s table on retro video games)!

In terms of new work, I launched Sometimes, I Just Want to Kill You All, a venty, sweary, cathartic rant about my bus commute which seemed to go down very well. People found it relatable and we burned through three quarters of our, admittedly small, print run on the day! I also had a three page short from Unfamiliar Skies in the True Believers charity anthology, Tales From Beyond Infinity.

One downside to trading meant that I couldn’t attend the panels and workshops, however the trustworthy Sarah Harris says they went down well and the recording of the Awesome Comics Podcast Live panel certainly backs that claim up! One thing I did note was the return of the balcony, a series of seats on an upper floor that overlooks the convention floor – almost like the convention was a stage play! It served as a great chill out area and you could spot people sitting down to read the comics they’d just bought without them having to leave the convention.

Overall, True Believers continues to be a high quality show that focuses on a specific vision. If you want something that puts actual comics front and center while minimising the presence of plastic merch and blokes off Storage Wars, this is where to go! My only concern is that it may start having the déjà vu issue Melksham Comic Con suffered in its final year without shaking up the roster a little. True Believers will have a new venue for their 2019 show so that may go some ways to helping prevent that.

Cardiff Anime and Gaming Con

I went to this convention as a civillian and on an impulsive whim. TrueStorySeamus, a Twitch streamer I originally met via YouTube and whose Discord channel I frequent, said he was going if anyone wanted to meet up and I soon found myself buying tickets. It was also based in Cardiff’s Mercure Hotel, which will be this year’s venue for Cardiff Independent Comic Expo (CICE) in June, providing a perfect opportunity to see what the space was like.

I arrived at 10:30, the original time posted for early entry, and joined the queue. Sadly, the queue was outside along the street in the rain. Not a problem for me wearing a hooded coat but I could see a number of cosplays getting soaked. The Discord crew arrived and made the queue a lot of fun with jokes and selfies, but we were still very aware the queue wasn’t moving. We eventually got into the convention around 11:10 and it was slightly irritating to see those who hadn’t pre-bought tickets and were instead paying on the door had a separate, much shorter, queue where they seemed to get into the event much faster than we did.

The convention was split across three floors. The ground floor housed registration, artists, and dealers; first floor was the bar, main panel stage, and table top gaming; while the third floor was dedicated to video gaming. While two of our party went to register for fighting game tournaments later in the day, the rest of us checked out the artists and dealers on the ground floor. The artists were the first thing you saw, sharing space with registrations, and I actually kind of liked that idea. It gave them a nice sense of focus. I’m curious how that translated to their experience behind the table though. The area they were in was essentially a central hub for traffic so there was a lot of footfall but I don’t know if those people were stopping and browsing or just rushing through on their way from point A to point B.

The other thing I notice at anime conventions as-a-whole is a lack of self-published comics but an abundance of prints. I know UK-drawn manga exists, such as Sarah Child’s Chronicles of Gyzra, Laura Watton-Davies’ Biomecha, Rachel Dunn’s I Wish, and everything by Sonia Leong and Sweatdrop Studios, but I don’t know why it’s seemingly absent at most anime events I go to. I’d have thought if it was going to reach its primary audience, those would be the conventions to go to. Maybe I’m wrong?

Being an anime and gaming convention, I’d written a “hit list” of video games, anime, and manga I wanted to buy. Nothing special or out of the ordinary, I can’t find my childhood cartridge of Pokémon Blue so I wanted to replace that, I had a long shot hope of finding Mega Man Legends on PlayStation, I wanted to grab the final two volumes of Shiro Amano’s Kingdom Hearts II manga, I was curious about the Persona 3 and Persona 4 manga adaptions, and I also had my eye out for anything related to My Hero Academia and Dragon Ball Super. Sadly, my hit list remains as it was, I couldn’t scratch a single thing off.

I did make some purchases at the convention, I got some Fairy Tail blu-rays from United Publications, some Mario & Luigi games from 8-Bit Planet (an awesome Bristol based store I visit whenever I’m in the area), a Shadow Heartless Funko Pop for the other half, some Pocky to nom on, an Inktober 2017 sketchbook from Wine & Zine, and some ProMarkers to replace colours that were starting to die on me after several years of use, but nothing that I’d gone looking for.

To be honest, the dealers hall itself was quite small and the majority of the space was taken up by seemingly unlicensed or bootleg clothes and plushies. There was only a single video game stall, I’d hoped maybe there would be more stalls in the gaming area upstairs but no, just the one and their main focus was on trading card games rather than video games. Later on in the day, I left the convention to get lunch and visited a few shops in Cardiff, including Super Tomato and Forbidden Planet International, where I found the selection and prices to be far better than that inside the convention. It was also apparent I wasn’t the only one who’d had that idea as convention attendees (identifiable by their cosplays, entry wristbands, or what I overheard from their conversations) were present at every single store I visited.

After the dealers hall, we went up to the third floor to meet up with the guys who’d left to register for tournaments. Getting to and from the third floor was a nightmare as there were no stairs connecting the first and third floors. Instead, you had to use the elevators that were being shared with all of the other convention attendees and all of the regular hotel guests. They were in constant use and consistently over capacity. I feel for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia, you wouldn’t have made it.

To its credit, the gaming room had a decent variety of titles. Our party of 6 started off with a fun game of Mario Party 9 but the room also had shooters such as Halo: The Master Chief Collection, fighters including Dragon Ball FighterZ, and platformers in the form of Sonic Mania! It’s without a doubt where we spent the majority of our time.

We tried to visit the bar on the first floor for a pint and a chat but were woefully disappointed. Hotel staff were walking around trying to catch out anyone loser-conning (attending a convention without a ticket), which is fair enough but the way they went about it was in such a rude, disruptive, and unpleasant manner that it brought the atmosphere down. There was maybe one seat for every five attendees trying to use the space which was annoying as there was an entire section of empty tables that had been cordoned for those ordering food only. The bar was staffed by only two people and after twenty minutes of queuing I gave up when the guy next to me was charged £5.90 for a single pint of Heineken! It was at that point I went into town for lunch instead.

I returned from Cardiff’s high street to watch my friends compete in their tournaments. Somehow, I managed to get back into the hotel, up to the third floor, and back into the gaming room without having my wristband checked. I was wearing a coat and a hoodie which both covered my wristband completely, so no one could have seen it at a glance. I wasn’t avoiding anyone or taking an indirect route, I came in through the main entrance and the third floor was accessible by elevator only, there was just no one manning any of these entrances!

The tournaments themselves were fraught with issues. The software keeping track of the brackets and who had advanced to what round had crashed on every tablet, PC, and smart phone bar one. The Dragon Ball and Super Smash Bros tournaments that were supposed to be back to back instead ended up running alongside each other, causing one of our party to be called for two matches on two different games at the same time. There were also a lot of wins by default due to players not showing up for their fights, allowing one of our group through to the semi-finals without ever touching a controller!

Thankfully, the gopher overseeing the tournament was positive, friendly, approachable, and had a genuine interest in the games she was overseeing. We then became aware she’d worked six hours without a break. When another crew member came along she asked him if he was her cover. His reply was no, and he immediately questioned why she hadn’t said anything to anyone. She had said something to someone several times, hence assuming he was her cover. While the tournament itself was “hype” (apparently that’s what the kids say nowadays) and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, the numerous issues hinted at organisational cracks and potential problems behind the scenes.

To be fair to the event, some of these issues may have applied to True Believers had I gone as a punter rather than a seller. Conventions in general can sometimes lack things to do outside of the dealers hall so I applaud Cardiff for having gaming rooms, anime screening rooms, and panels just as I’d congratulate True Believers for having talks, cosplay catwalks, and workshops throughout the day. Catering seems to be an ever-present issue with venues insisting on providing their own facilities and then having a monopoly over availability and pricing unless attendees go off-site. The main difference between True Believers and Cardiff was that TB had a very clear and narrow focus. They chose to do one thing and do it very well. Meanwhile, Cardiff had a little bit of everything, resulting in a scatter-gun approach where everything worked but nothing was particularly outstanding or memorable.

Cardiff struck me as a social convention with quizzes and parties into the evening. I couldn’t stay for those as I had to catch a train back home to the middle of nowehere but it felt like a show where you needed to be staying overnight to really get the most out of it. It had all the basics, it was competent, but it didn’t wow me and I felt slightly underwhelmed by it. I had a lot of fun, but that was because I was with good company who made the day an absolute blast – had I gone on my own I might have been done with it inside of an hour.

The nagging thought at the back of my head was the knowledge that Anime League, the organisers, are holding their London show this coming weekend (16th to 18th February). I wondered if their focus and resources were going into the London event, leaving Cardiff as something of an afterthought. Their guest lists and such for the London show certainly leave that impression. Overall, the show wasn’t bad, it was simply okay but in a world with some very tough competition it’s hard to justify “okay” as being good enough anymore.