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How to organise a comic con in your spare time

The man behind England's Margate Comic Art Festival explains why running comic conventions is "a labour of love."

Image Comics

Comic conventions are big business, with huge events like the annual San Diego Comic Con turning into vast international entertainment juggernauts highlighting movies, games and TV shows. But it can be harder to find smaller events that focus just on the art of comics -- and even harder to make money from them.

"Anyone who goes into doing comic conventions thinking they're gonna make money is just deluded," laughs Shane Chebsey, organizer of this weekend's Margate Comic Art Festival bringing comic superstars and fans to the British coastal town.

A seaside destination for more than two centuries, Margate is home to the Turner Contemporary art gallery and Dreamland amusement park. The town has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, especially among creative types yearning for a drop of sea air amid more favourable rents than London or Brighton. 

In fact, the Margate event began with a request from the historic Winter Gardens: "They wanted to bring a comic convention to the town," explains Chebsey, who already runs the International Comics Expo (ICE) in Birmingham and Brighton, "because the town is full of comic artists" and a popular destination for artists, writers and poets.

Fittingly, the first Margate con opens with a panel featuring creators who do like to be beside the seaside, including local residents Kirsty Swan, Kev Hopgood and Si Spurrier.

Other guests putting the sea into sequential art with signings and talks include Kieron Gillen, writer of Star Wars, Young Avengers and The Wicked and the Divine; Laurence Campbell, Punisher and BPRD artist; Simon Furman, Transformers and Death's Head writer; Rufus Dayglo, Tank Girl and 2000AD artist (above); Emma Vieceli, Back To The Future and Doctor Who artist (below); and Dan Abnett, writer of everything from Iron Man to Warhammer. 

In addition to the usual guest appearances, signings and sales, ICE offers opportunities to explore comics from different angles. Chebsey highlights a talk by designer Emma Price about design in comics as an example of how fans and aspiring comic-makers can learn stuff that sometimes get overlooked. "It's about celebrating every aspect of the medium," Chebsey says. 

Then there's the fun stuff. As well as a cosplay competition, there's a Green Arrow archery area. Kids can also learn to fight like a Jedi in lightsaber training sessions with Andrew Lawden, who was Liam Neeson's body double in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

The roots of ICE and the Margate Comic Festival go back more than a decade to when Chebsey and a few friends were hanging out at a comic event in Bristol lamenting a lack of events serving comics fans. So they started their own, offering what they thought was missing from the scene. 

"We wanted to show there was more to the medium than just superheroes and Dennis the Menace," Chebsey explains. "So we started to give independent publishers the chance to have an equal footing in the exhibition areas, so it wasn't just your usual Marvel and DC."

I chatted with Chebsey during his lunch hour before he returned to his nine-to-five job. 

Organising the Birmingham, Brighton and Margate cons takes up his spare time, helped out by a team of volunteers doing both promotion and marshalling on the day. "It should be a full time job time really," he laughs. "We certainly put full-time hours into it ... Unfortunately it doesn't really pay."

Running the events as a nonprofit-making endeavour, Chebsey has learned from his early days in the business to keep a tight rein on the budget. "It's not viable as a business. That's the short answer," he says. "A lot of people are finding out this the hard way ... But if you're doing it for [the money], you're doing it for the wrong reasons."

He cites Comic Cons these days that aren't even about comics. "It's just a business to them," he says. "We're doing it for very different reasons, to promote comics because that's what I do. It's a labour of love." 

Margate Comic Art Festival takes place at the Winter Gardens in Margate on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 April. Tickets start at £5 for children and £15 for adults, with £25 weekend tickets as well as VIP passes including evening events and a gala meal with the pros.

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