by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten
7th June 2014, King’s Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Typical Belfast: it was raining, and the bus was late. Bedraggled youths in comic book shirts and young families with superhero-onesied kids crammed themselves into the bus shelter. When the bus finally departed it was chased by a colourful group headed by The Flash, underestimating the infamous Translink service: it waits for no-one, and once it rolls, it goes. There’d be another one in 15 minutes – perhaps.
Lines had long formed in front of the pink, art deco facade of the King’s Hall, curving around its side, and onwards. With our priority tickets we bypassed the queue, feeling slightly sorry for them. We were inside in minutes, but those poor folks who didn’t pre-order a ticket online spent hours in that queue with little movement. The ceiling of the baking hot festival hall was soon dripping with the humidity they’d bring to the con.
Inside we quickly realised that, however popuar Spider-Man, Harley Quinn and Pikachu might be among cosplayers, the event was dominated by one gigantic figure: Mrs. Brown. Her image was omnipresent: on the show guide cover, on screen and as a huge banner forming a surreal backdrop to many people’s photos. She’s the creation of comedian Brendan O’Carroll, who drags up as an Irish matriarch who interferes in her children’s lives with liberal swearing and homespun wisdom.
The Mrs. Brown’s Boys television series is enormously popular in the UK, and now her antics have been spun off to the big screen. Not everyone was enarmoured of the media offensive, but as far as the organisers were concerned, whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and the film’s distributors apparently contributed a king’s ransom to the organising of the Comic Con.
This was both MCM’s first Belfast event, and Belfast’s first big comics con. While many local fans were delighted to finally have a sizeable geek event within easy travelling distance, it’s already caused a problem for home grown events. Derry/Londonderry’s 2D Comics Festival has been a big success over the last 7 years but, this year had its funding cut, amid speculation that it was threatened by the commercial viability of MCM’s event. Q-Con meanwhile, organised by QUB Dragonslayers, the Queen’s University Belfast Gaming & Anime Society, saw its pre-registration numbers go down compared to previous years.
It’s a shame, though 2D is beyond our own travel range, and the student-centric Q-Con has never really been on our radar. Like us, many visitors will have been attracted by the sheer scale of the MCM event, proving the old adage that if you build it, they will come. That the guest list was B-list rather than star-studded, and comics themselves were thin on the ground, hardly mattered. Between the movie and anime merchants, illustrator Tim Stampton was an odd one out with his drawings and etches of mythological creatures, but fine art had its patrons, as modelmaker Chris Stephens will affirm.
In the Comics Village we found artist Christina Logan, alias 39sankyou, of Ballyclare. She brings an unusual watercolour sensibility to her space opera comic, and hoped to reach new readers through the convention. The team behind the Bunsen Bunnies meanwhile had artwork on sale to fund a print edition of their strip featuring a mix of stoner bunnies and reanimated corpses.
The biggest names that MCM touted were cast members from comedy scifi series Red Dwarf, supplemented with some voice and character actors and 2000 AD comic book artists. The guests appeared to be part of a travelling fair, schlepping from city to city in the MCM caravan, and 2000 AD artists Glen Fabry and Simon Bisley in particular looked the worse for wear. Their local colleague John McCrea was in better spirits, no doubt by having slept in his own bed.
Likewise unindentured was Belfast artist PJ Holden, but he had to do without star treatment and instead had to bed down in Comics Village. Lack of forethought also showed in the very late addition of Will Simpson, who was announced only the day before. He’s got a solid body of work behind him, though, and has been heavily involved with the production design of Game of Thrones. For the past few years the series has filmed extensively in Northern Ireland, and while the NI Tourist Board has only belatedly begun to explore its marquee value, local fans proved more on the ball.
Game of Thrones’ professional craggy Celt James Cosmo was supplied by MCM, but it really was fans of the TV series that permeated the con. A sense of local ownership is not surprising, as GoT employs many local actors, and everyone knows someone who has worked on it, whether as crew or extra. At the Comic Con, Danaerys was the show’s most popular cosplay subject. We counted seven, in a variety of costumes chronicling her whole journey from Dothraki queen with dragon’s egg to Mereen regalia. Several Night’s Watch men could be found, as well as a family group of Tywin Lannister, wicked King Joffrey, Jon Snow and, indeed, Danaerys.
About one in ten visitors to the Con were in costume, and not only Danaerys was popular – there can’t have been a fez or purple Joker coat to be found in Belfast for love nor money. Just coming from the deluge outside, Jack Porter found himself roasting inside his “classic, Sweaty Betty Judge Dredd” outfit. An utility belt stuffed with baby wipes and body spray added some comfort though. He wasn’t the only Judge either, as shortly afterwards we ran into Jonathan Fisher, the Lisburn author of the memoir August Always, whose power chair added to the futuristic impact of his detailed outfit.
Like ourselves and others using mobility devices, he must have appreciated the level floor and sensible layout. There were no crammed alleys to negotiate, and despite the heaving crowds we found everyone extremely genial about making space for us. Parents with infants found that they too could easily navigate buggies, and small children had little fear of being trampled. A disability helpdesk was hard to miss at the show’s entrance, and we found convention staff helpful and proactive in getting us access to the events. Best of all: great disabled toilet provision, with no queues.
Less fortunate were those who found their wallets depleted, as the ATM proved the show’s most popular attraction, having longer queues than any of the signing booths. The beer in the Over 18 section was popular too, as it came straight from the fridge. An eclectic group of friends hung out here, made up of an Amy Pond, Hulk, Adipose, a Tolkien set and a Terminator, whose sole costume consisted of a pair of sunglasses, as the muscles came with the man.
More effort went into the costume of Jane Pacer, who came as Lady Loki. The helmet alone took her 36 hours to make, and her ensemble had one unanticipated side-effect: “The only thing is that you get stopped every five minutes for a photo. But it’s great fun!” Everyone in costume enjoys the attention, from seasoned veterans to small kids happy to have their character recognised.
In the light of growing concern about harassment of cosplayers, we were curious about how safety issues would be handled by MCM. The website and the show guide had given us no indication of any harassment policy or code of conduct, so we contacted the organisers before the Con. Masquerade organiser Joe Black reacted in brief to our query: “I am confident that the person in charge of security at the show is well aware of the issues that you mention.”
We tried to prompt Joe by sending him last week’s Beat article titled “San Diego Comic-Con under fire for its harassment policy, or lack thereof.” A quick reply followed: “The article you linked was interesting… very focused on the harassment on female cosplayers by men whereas one of the actions MCM have had to take was very much aimed at harassment that was quite the reverse!” Joe invited us to find him at the Con itself, but we didn’t get the impression that more information was forthcoming.
And indeed, at the show there were no anti-harassment posters, we could not locate any security staff, and MCM stewards were difficult to spot in their black t-shirts with small logo. As far as we are aware there have not been any incidents, but this may be less to do with MCM’s diligence than with the overall mellow attitude of the crowd. Decades of civil unrest have still not fully petered out, and a rather fraught past couple of weeks seem to have instilled one basic rule in all visitors: don’t be a jerk.
At the same time as the Comic Con, Belfast’s city centre hosted a march against racism, fuelled by attacks against foreigners and anti-Islam comments by a local preacher and by the First Minister. Further unrest, between Loyalist and Republican factions, is anticipated in the upcoming ‘marching season’. The Comic Con formed a welcome escape for those who are fed up with all that, especially for those our age who still expect big touring events to skip the area out of Troubles-ingrained habit.
Q&As with the actors on the main stage were well attended, but could have been handled better. Ian McNeice, for example, sat rather forlornly behind a small table on the vast stage, hardly able to hear the questions from the audience. When the event’s director almost literally came flying on stage, McNeice seemed as surprised as the audience that the plug was being pulled. There was hardly time for applause before the actor was whisked off the stage.
Saturday’s most popular event was no doubt the Masquerade, and we couldn’t help having mixed feelings over this too. Designed to be a proud moment for those cosplayers who’d chosen to enter the contest, it was undermined by the presenter, whose banter was that of a kids’ party entertainer, and the in-jokes towards the teenaged judges, who were in full ROTFLMAO mode. When a hyper-active Deadpool threatened to shoot the presenter, the crowd went wild.
With lively and iconoclastic performances, variety and pure charm, the actual quality of the costumes hardly mattered. The audience cheered as much for the frightening and award-winning portrayal of Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head as the bouncing foxes, the “how does it work inside of that suit” Arcanine and the cute father-daughter combo of Batman and Harley. Professional photographers were lined up in front of the stage, and sprung into eyebrow-raising action when young, short-skirted women took the stage.
As with most of the Con, what worked was mainly down to the participants themselves. Official merch could be overlooked in favour of small traders hawking their wares, the small press found a steady stream of the curious while big name comicbook artists were hardly crowded out, and in the end nobody really cared that Red Dwarf’s ship’s computer signed photos instead of Lister himself.
And even with the show’s success, there might just be a niche for a local comics con to fill: we were armed with a list of comics missing from our collection, but found ourselves sorely deprived of longboxes to root through. MCM’s barnstormer was a breath of fresh air in Belfast’s events calendar, but we would really love to visit a proper comics convention!