After four years, NICE returned! And it was great.
On the way down, I gave Manny a crash course in comics and what the guests at the con were known for as the only comic he'd read was Watchmen and some communist propaganda comics he'd read as a kid. Upon arrival at the hotel, the Swan - usually the con hotel was the one on the opposite side of the river - we were met by Jeff. After Manny experienced Jeff for the first time, we parked up and headed to our room. Alles gut.
The hotel bar was also a restaurant and that's where we bumped into Barry Kitson and Caitlin, along with many friends I'd not seen since 2019 or earlier, 2015 at the Baltimore Comic Con in Barry and Caitlin's case. Wetherspoons was the place for a meal of convenience, shrinkflation the cause of the half empty plate I was offered. Still, it was a chance to catch up, set the Star Wars and MCU universes aright and give Manny a further education about the comic book world. Should've eaten at the Swan, in hindsight.
Arriving back at the hotel, Barry and Alan Davis were deep in conversation, so I only intended to pop over and say a quick hi. Ended up having a great conversation about Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, Jim Aparo, John Byrne, Blackpool, Aquaman and swimming - this is what I'd really missed about going to cons, the chat about art, comics, the good stuff! I forgot to ask Barry about his appearance on a kids tv show in the 80s, but hey, maybe next time. Then something strange happened, the bar/restaurant, which was in reality a very long, rather thin series of rooms, began to gradually close, everyone moving to the right. Eventually, we were ushered into a lounge with a rather eclectic decor. I decided to get an early night.
Manny snores. The next morning, it was warm, a little shockingly so, as we'd left Autumn behind us in Niamos (Cleveleys, see Andor episode 7). The con was all in one hall this year and it was already hot, even without the majority of guests and fans inside, before the doors were open to the public. I was situated next to Barry and there was some kind of cooler behind his table. Manny and I tried to nick it, but the cable was too short. Turned out it did nothing but emit a dim green light anyway.
I'd decided to never attempt likenesses at cons after drawing Prince sketch at Thoughtbubble a few years ago and spending an age on it. Faced with the unusual sight of people everywhere and being a tad disorientated/ nervous about sketching in front of people after a four year break, I forgot my rules and so the first sketch was of Marilyn Monroe. My sketch list filled quickly and I tried to remember how to talk and draw at the same time. I failed. Manny went for a wander and returned hours later. I was still drawing Monroe.
At some point, I realised there was a sketch missing, a Sandman that I'd done as a commission before the con. It nagged at me and I searched my folder several times, but to no avail. I figured I'd accidentally handed over the sketch when I gave Jeff my sketch roulette pieces.
Then an A3 Lou Ferrigno Hulk watercolour commission disappeared. Although, I didn't recall seeing that one at any point since I left home, so that wasn't as worrisome. Unlike the Sandman piece, there was a chance I'd simply forgotten to pack it during all the time I'd had to prepare before the con. So, there was an undercurrent of unease in the background throughout the afternoon. Then an envelope full of cash appeared on my table. Had someone given it me? Had they placed it down by accident? That bothered me even more.
Ben Le Foe, a man who let me use his name for one of the characters in my book, came bearing a gift, a metal Ultra Boy badge. Awesome! (thanks for the bookstand, Julian). I also met someone who'd read my book and really enjoyed it. Thanks, Dave!
Meanwhile, unlike Russ, who stayed at the table with me and talked to people so I could draw, Manny went wandering around Bedford and bought some fruit. He spent some time looking around the con too, and with no real knowledge of comics, he could look at whatever interested him with no preconception of whether the artist was a big name or just starting out. He simply looked at what he liked and enjoyed himself. I was worried he'd be bored, but he had a great time and spoke to a lot more people than I did. He was offered a free sketch at one point but turned it down, to the surprise of the artist, as he didn't know what he'd do with it. That's amateurish.
I still had 4 sketches that I'd yet to start at the end of the day. As usual on the Saturday, I declined the kind offer of the free meal in the evening for all the guests and staff and went to a fine Indian restaurant situated down an alley, or narrow street, a few building to the left of the hotel (Thali and Tandoor) with fellow Legion fans, Rob and Julian (and Manny - we tried to limit the Legion chat, but it was difficult. He now knows about the Cosmic Boy bustier. Not sure how he feels about it, really). Rob is also my book editor, so it was also a work do!
After the rather swift meal - Rob and Julian had to get a certain train back as there was a partial strike on - Manny and me decided to wander over the the Close Encounters shop. Couldn't find it, even with sat nav. We bumped into some friends who were actually heading to the hotel to look for us and they told us where the shop was. Still couldn't find it!
So, back to the maze-like hotel. Sitting in the lounge, a group of us talked comics, a part of the con experience I really enjoy, and lamented the comics we'd lost, sold, never bought, and then moved onto art and the pages we'd never bought when offered them cheap back in the day - you get the picture. I myself passed up Giant Size X-Men #1 for £15 (ok, it was almost 40 years ago, but still, not that expensive. I bought a Green Bay Packers bomber jacket instead. To be fair, my toddler cousin had an accident on the floor of the comic shop in Bournemouth, while I was deciding if I wanted the comic or not, so it was a little stressful. But...what a fool.
Turns out that, even though the hotel bar was closed, you could order a bottled drink rom reception, but only if you were sat in the lounge and had filled out multiple pieces of paperwork. Complicated for staff and guests alike. Caught up with Dave Kendall and had a chat with Bob about Spectrum games, which was awesome. Manny failed to turn up to the lounge even though it'd been his idea to go back downstairs. I read his message at 0230 that he wasn't coming. Jeff ordered pizza and I was admonished for not having any.
The air con in the room worked. I didn't sleep well, trying to figure out where the sketches that were missing had gone, and what the envelope was about. Waking early, we enjoyed breakfast, love a buffet breakfast, and decided to go to the con early. It was shut. So was Close Encounters - yes we finally found it. Meandering back to the con venue, we stood chatting in the morning sun with fans who were there early to ensure they could get in line for their favourite artists. Jeff, sprightly despite a late night, arrived to insult us all and tell us we still had an hour before the venue would open. Bub said I could go to the store and sketch there, if I liked, so I did. Manny and me were browsing books and comics when Bub called me to say he was watching me on his phone through the security cameras from McDonald's and I'd not even pulled out a pencil. Sussed. Close Encounters is a great store, including the book section on the upper floor.
On Sunday the con was a little quieter, which was ideal for catching up with sketches. Barry was, as on Saturday, in his seat on time. It was the first con for a long time when Barry didn't disappear. Part way through the afternoon, he was suddenly playing an electric guitar.
Soon after, I signed what I think was a violin.
The day was overshadowed a little by the missing sketches and the envelope situation. However, I did finish most of the sketches I was asked to do. Although I still have four to start. And I did have to finish one after the con at Close Encounters.
It was a great weekend. Jeff and Bub really looks after the guests and puts on what is probably the most laid back, friendly con there is. And it's certainly the most comic orientated one in the UK. Also, the staff and helpers are just that, helpful! I didn't manage to see much of the con at all as I was glued to my desk all weekend. A shame as there were many comic sellers there and people I'd have liked to catch up with.
We got cocky on the journey home, Sunday night, no need to use the toll. The result was that we sat in standing traffic for almost an hour near Birmingham. It's every time. I've been forced to boycott that part of the motorway. It's pathetic.
The missing sketches were on top of a Kallax unit in my studio. Thing is, I'd seen the Sandman one at the con, I was sure. The envelope of cash? I'd like it to be mine but have no idea if it is. It's now on the desk in my studio.
Update: I did the maths. The £140 is mine! The confusion was that I gave Ben Le Foe some cash so he could buy art and he repaid be via Paypal. Sheesh.