“We like original voices…”: A conversation with Jay Eales
In the coming weeks and months the Forbidden Planet International blog, Down the Tubes, Bugpowder and Fictions are going to be cross-posting Q&As by Matt Badham with the organisers of various British comic conventions, large and small. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in this country. (NB: Answers have been edited only in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and not for style or content.) For this third instalment, Matt chatted to Jay Eales, one of several co-organisers of Caption, a long-running comics convention based in Oxford.
Matt: Please tell us about a little about the history of your con/event and how it’s evolved over the years.
Jay: Caption is the UK’s longest running comic convention. The 2009 event will be our 18th. Started in 1992 by Oxford University students Jenni Scott, Jeremy Dennis, Damian Cugley and Adrian Cox, Caption emphasises the creative side of comics, and forms the backbone of the British small press and independent comics scene. Committees come and go, generally in a five year cycle, and venues change, (though always in Oxford), but Caption rolls on. Each Caption has a theme, around which we build our guest list, panels and talks, and an exhibition of artwork from attendees. Some years the theme is adhered to more loosely than others.
We’ve had years where we’ve had big name guests such as Bryan Talbot, Pat Mills and Rian Hughes, or guests from abroad such as Carla Speed McNeil and Aleksandar Zograf. I don’t want this to descend into a huge list, so suffice it to say that we choose an eclectic guest list each year, old masters, up-and-comers and a great many who walk their own path. A typical Caption guest is someone who is or has been a self-publisher, or an iconoclast. We like original voices. Plucking a ‘for example’ out of the air, we’d be more likely to approach Dave McKean than Jim Lee.
(Caption 2009’s theme is ‘Away With the Fairies‘)
Matt: How is your con funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant from the council, some other means or a combination of these?
Jay: Caption is funded by ticket sales, bolstered by an auction of donated art works on the Saturday evening of the convention. We also operate a system, which I believe is unique among the UK convention circuit, where instead of selling tables to exhibitors, to enable them to sell their wares, we have “The Caption Table”. In truth, it’s several tables, which trusty Caption gophers run, selling creators’ comics for them, freeing them up to enjoy the rest of the event’s talks, panels, workshops and general socialising. For this service, Caption charges a 10% fee. Creators just roll up, hand over their comics for sale, and settle up when they’re ready to leave. As they say in the advert: “Simples!”
Matt: What are the overall aims of your con/event?
Jay: To have fun! To promote the work of self-publishers and be a venue where creators can meet up and get to know each other in a relaxed setting. With the extremely hit or miss distribution that plagues the small press, many people use Caption as their one-stop shop, and catch up on all the small press titles that they’ve missed in the previous twelve months.
To raise the profile of creators we like and encourage a blurring of the line between the creator and the reader. Caption creators range from those who see their comics work as a stepping stone to working for Marvel or DC, to those who produce ten photocopies of a doodled mini-comic and hand them out for free, and all points in between. We contemplated whether it would be feasible to do some sort of Caption Small Press Awards, but concluded that it was not really in keeping with the spirit of the convention. Caption is all about inclusion, and raising one comic up above the rest does not fit the Caption ethos. Not to mention how difficult a task it would be to judge!
To help those who want to read comics find the good ones and those who want to discuss ways in which they can improve their own work avoid pitfalls or find a collaborator.
To invite interesting guests who have things to say about their careers. Just in the time I have been on the committee, we’ve had Al Davison, one of the world’s foremost practitioners in the medium of dream comics teaching a dream comics workshop, Rian Hughes talking about design and documentary film-maker Dez Vylenz giving a talk alongside a screening of his film, The Mindscape of Alan Moore.
Matt: Who is your con aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?
Jay: Caption is aimed squarely at people who like to read comics and people who like to make them. We try our best to be family friendly, but, in all honesty, we get very few children, unless they come with their parents, who are generally regulars on the comics scene. The Caption sketch pads and pens dotted around the place seem to be very popular with our younger attendees and, in most cases, talks and workshops are able to be enjoyed by all ages. It makes us feel as though we might be encouraging the next generation of creators. Last year, we had a mega-panel with a host of creators from The DFC, the new children’s comic from Random House, which had only just launched before Caption, and a workshop with Beano/2000 AD artist Nigel Dobbyn.
Matt: How effective have you been in getting those kinds of people to attend?
Jay: Reasonably so. While every year brings some new blood attendees, the core of Caption is the repeat custom. While it would be great to have a rush of new people, there is always the thought that if we were to double or triple in size, a lot of the things that make Caption so enjoyable would be lost. It is the intimacy of the thing that makes it work. A few years back, there was a Caption tradition where attendees could put their names down for takeaway pizza and Caption gophers would go out to pick up 30 or 40 pizzas. It was a cute little quirk of the convention, but as numbers rose, it became increasingly unworkable. I think something similar would happen to the rest of the show if we were to expand to the size of a Bristol or Birmingham show. Plus, to get those sorts of numbers through the doors, we would have to compromise on the type of guests we invited. We do our utmost to make Caption better each year, but better does not necessarily mean bigger.
Matt: Can you give a projected (or actual) attendance figure for your event?
Jay: Caption usually attracts somewhere in the region of 100 to 150 punters, depending on external factors like the weather, or who happens to be on the guest list that year. The majority of attendees are regulars, although we go to great lengths to make sure that Caption newbies don’t feel left out. After all, there’s nothing worse than showing up at a convention when you don’t know anyone there and seeing tables full of people who’ve probably known each other for years, deep in conversation. Working up the courage to join in can be a major hurdle, and lead to a disappointing con experience. Caption-goers are a really friendly lot, happy for anyone to just pull up a chair and join in.
Matt: What lessons have you learned during your time (co-)running a con, in terms of marketing and advertising your event?
Jay: That no matter how much advertising overkill you employ, Kev F Sutherland will post on some online forum or another that he didn’t know about it, and why had nobody told him? ;o) In all seriousness, the internet is your friend. It makes things so much easier to get the word out about events, as long as you cover all the bases with the different social networking sites and groups out there. But the absolute best form of marketing, for Caption, at least, is when attendees talk about the show to their friends. Strong word of mouth is what sells Caption to most newbies.
Matt: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about your con? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?
Jay: Handing over to Selina, who currently sits at the heart of the Caption web promotion hub:
Selina: ‘We use email lists (Caption Announce), have a LiveJournal community, have a Facebook Event page, and of course the convention website. When we have something new to announce I update interested parties via the email lists, LiveJournal and Facebook, and then the website is updated at a later date. Members of the committee also tend to post on their own blogs, forward the information on to other relevant lists and forums, and I’ve recently started twittering about Caption (Twitter ID Girlycomic, Tag: #caption2009).’
Matt: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?
Jay: We print flyers to promote Caption, which we take along to various other shows, and have been known to plug the show in the pages of small press titles such as The Girly Comic and Violent! (both published by yours truly, funnily enough), but otherwise, we concentrate our promotion to the online and word of mouth.
Matt: What’s the mix in terms of exhibitors at your con? Do you even have exhibitors?
Jay: It depends on how you class exhibitors. While the Caption Table does away with the need for a sea of creators sitting behind tables, the ratio of creators to readers is quite high on the creative side. And creators are also among the biggest readers too, don’t forget. Caption predominantly caters to self-publishers, some who use professional printing services, and others who control every aspect of the production of their work, bearing the scars of many years’ folding and stapling wounds.
But it’s not all black and white autobiographical mini-comics. I don’t need to tell you that the small press is a far broader church than its bigger brothers. Whoever it was who coined the term “the real mainstream” was right on the money. And yet, there’s little or no snobbery on show. Every year, Tony Hitchman runs a popular quiz drawing on the lunacy of comics’ history and when we had 2000AD’s Betelgeusian editor Tharg as a guest, his interview panel caused the bar to completely empty, which has to be some sort of Caption record.
Matt: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country? How do you try and support it (do you try and support it)?
Jay: Darling, Caption pretty much is the small press scene. ;o) It’s a great place to take the temperature of the scene as a whole. I can’t speak for Caption prior to the first one I attended in 2001, but when things are really cooking with gas, the atmosphere at Caption is electric (he said, mixing his metaphors with wild abandon…)
Matt: How much are the tickets for your event? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.
Jay: Caption is a two-day event, with a straightforward £5 per day ticket, £10 the weekend arrangement. We’ve managed to hold the price for several years, and the entry price gets each attendee a copy of the Caption Programme, which contains as many pages of illustrations, comic strips and articles on the theme of the show as we can prise out of the comics community ahead of the show. As with most UK comic shows, we want to keep the entry charge as low as we can, to get as many people through the door as we can manage, and leave them with more money to buy comics, of course!
Matt: How much are exhibitor tables for your event (if you have any)? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?
Jay: As mentioned above, the Caption Table defeats the need for exhibitors to have their own table. We do occasionally make exceptions, when people insist on having a table to hand-sell their comics. But that usually happens with creators who’ve not been to Caption before, and have yet to experience the freedom that comes with not having to man a table all weekend and miss out on the rest of the convention!
Matt: Do you run workshops/events/panels at your con? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.
Jay: All of the above. They have always been an integral part of Caption. Without them, it would just be a glorified mart. We try to link the programme of events around the theme of the show, as much as possible, although we also have to work with what we are offered. When people offer to run workshops for us or are able to give a talk on an appropriate subject, we often bite their hands off. We look at what we’ve done before, to avoid repeating ourselves too much, or if something went down particularly well in a previous year, we might arrange to do it again. We listen to feedback from attendees and fine-tune things where we can. If we have a particular guest in attendance, we try to find what they are most interested in doing. That might be a talk, running a workshop or being interviewed. We also have to balance the programme across the weekend, and take into account whether a given creator might only be able to attend on one of the days.
Matt: Are there any external events connected to Caption? Educational stuff, talks, workshops, comics promoting, that kind of thing?
Jay: Occasionally, Caption has done other things outside of the main show, such as financing a trip to a convention in Serbia for Lee Kennedy, who then did a talk at the next Caption about her experiences. Last year, there was a Caption Comics Collective exhibition elsewhere in Oxford, which ran across the whole of August, and showcased the work of several Caption regulars, such as Terry Wiley, Jeremy Dennis and Andy Luke. We have done some cross-promotion with similar events, such as the UK Web & Minicomix Thing and the Blam Festival organised by Leicestershire Libraries.
Matt: As you’ve been kind enough to answer these questions, please feel free to big your con up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what your event’s main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.
Jay: In précis form, then: Caption is an intimate and relaxed convention in Sunny Oxford, where attendees can participate in workshops, listen to talks and panel discussions on a variety of comic-related subjects, buy small press comics or ignore all that and camp out in the bar, holding forth on whatever…
Caption 2009 (aka Caption Is Away With The Fairies) takes place on August 15th and 16th 2009 at the East Oxford Community Centre, 44b Princes Street, Cowley, OX4 1DD. We are and currently still confirming guests and the programme, but, subject to work commitments, we anticipate Garen Ewing giving a talk about how his Rainbow Orchid series went from the small press to a high-profile book launch from Egmont at the beginning of August. Also down to attend are Sarah McIntyre, creator of The DFC strip Vern & Lettuce, talking about comics and book illustration, Mark Stafford, artist of Cherubs, (written by Bryan Talbot), rising manga star Asia Alfasi, Phonogram artist Jamie McKelvie on the upcoming sequel to Suburban Glamour and others yet to confirm. For the latest information in the lead-up to Caption, go to www.caption.org Anyone who wants to submit illustrations, comic strips or articles on the subject of the theme of fairies, for consideration for the Caption Programme and/or exhibition, please get in touch with me in the first instance at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt: Thanks, Jay (and Selina), for answering our questions.
For more on Caption (15-16 August 2009), please visit their website.