This weekend sees the first-ever Oxford Children Comics Festival, held on Saturday 4th. I’ll be heading over meself, and there promises to be heaps of stuff going on, including workshops, tables, ice cream and something called ‘The Wall of Awesomeness’. But in order to find out exactly what an Oxford Children’s Comic Festival is, exactly, I had a word with The Phoenix’s Tom Fickling about the event. Tom works for The Phoenix Magazine, a weekly children’s comic collection, and also helped to organise and set up the festival along with the rest of The Phoenix’s staff, led by Liz Payton and Caro Fickling.
He’s a man with a plan, and that plan is for neatly-spaced convention tables and comics-themed pizzas!
Steve: The Oxford Children’s Comic Festival is the first festival of its kind in the UK (to my knowledge). What made you decide to set something like this up?
Tom: We can’t take any credit because it was actually the idea of one of our subscribers, Benedict! He wrote a great letter to our founder suggesting we start an Oxford based comic festival and we thought it was a brilliant idea — so we did!
Steve: What were your ambitions in regards to organising the festival – what did you want to offer people?
Tom: For this first year the ambitions were very humble indeed! We wanted to put a marker down and have a simple but fun comic festival. It’s still not a big event or anything, but the festival is now actually much bigger than we first envisaged. For example, we’ve got stuff like an awesome specialist Pizza van in the courtyard selling comic themed pizzas! That wasn’t in the original plan, I can assure you!
Steve: Who can people expect to meet at this festival? Who’ll be waiting for them, and what can they expect to find?
Tom: Well, The Phoenix team for one! Including lots of our artists and writers. But also authors, other comic creators and more! This first Oxford Children’s Comic Festival is obviously quite Phoenix-centric, but we want to emphasise that this is not just a Phoenix event. We want it to be a celebration of all comic stories for kids, whoever makes them. Hopefully next year we can entice some more people to come and join in!
As to what there is to do, all sorts of things! The venue is small but we’ve got lots going on. Workshops running all day, drawing areas where artists will be working with kids, a Phoenix feather hunt, a name the festival competition, storytelling area, plus some great guests like LOAF and THE ZOOM. And while they can’t be there in person, the fabulous NOBROW and ANORAK will have some kind of presence there too!
Plus 2000AD have a great event on at the local Waterstones for older comic fans where they can meet editor Matt Smith plus the brilliant Grant Perkins and Nigel Dobbyn!
Steve: There’s certainly a lean towards getting people involved in creating comics themselves, with workshops and storytelling sessions. Do you think that’s the key to getting kids interested in comics – showing them how easy they can be to make?
Tom: We really wanted the festival to be very interactive and full of stuff to do. I think children love getting stuck into things and we know that comic creators are brilliant at holding workshops and inspiring kids to get creative themselves, so we always knew that workshops would be a major part of the festival.
But while workshops are amazing at getting kids interested in comics and drawing I’m not sure I’d say they are ‘key’. Only because I think that by and large most kids just naturally love comics. We’ve been to a fair few events now and seen enough kids completely engrossed in The Phoenix, or The Beano, or some beautiful book from Nobrow, to know that they have a natural affinity for the art form. That’s why comics are so great at helping kids get into reading and why more and more teachers and librarians are bringing comics like The Phoenix into the classroom.
Steve: Have you found yourself changing the way you make comics, as a creator, as a direct result of interactions with Phoenix readers at conventions? Do you think creators can learn from talking with younger readers, and finding out what they’re enthusiastic about?
Tom: Yes, because kids are about as brutally honest as you can get! If they don’t like something, they just say! We are definitely getting a stronger sense of what works and what doesn’t thanks to the fan letters and artwork we get sent everyday and the readers we meet at events. And we certainly listened to Benedict and his idea about the festival!
Creators can definitely learn from talking with readers both young and old but equally I don’t think they should ever be beholden to an audience. Most often we don’t even know we want something until someone creates it. No one knew they wanted Harry Potter or The Matrix, and lots of kids didn’t know they wanted The Phoenix! But in general I’d say creators can always learn things from their readers, particularly kids.
Steve: How important is it that we have events like The Children’s Comic Festival, to get new people interested in reading, supporting, and making comics?
Tom: I think it’s very important, particularly for children. A lot of the parents of our young readers don’t read comics and graphic novels. They probably did when they were younger but they don’t any more. An event like the Oxford Children’s Comic Festival hopefully shows them not only how good comics can be but also how much they can inspire and encourage children.
Image taken from Sarah McIntyre’s Guide To Conventioning (very worth reading!!)
Steve: What’s the best advice or feedback you’ve ever had from a Phoenix reader?
Tom: Start a comic festival!
Steve: The Children’s Comic Festival is held in association with The Story Museum in Oxford, as well as with partnership from 2000AD. How valuable is it to have this cross-brand support for children’s literature and works, and for companies to work together in support for comics as a medium?
Tom: Well the Story Museum is going to be a temple to the awesome power of stories for both adults and children so it’s great to work with them. And 2000AD are a British institution and the reason why I never did my homework (thanks Slaine) so it’s fantastic to partner with them too!
I think that it’s tremendously valuable for companies and people to work together to support comics as a medium. In fact, in general I always take the view that united we are stronger. I am particularly pleased that we are finding ways to partner with 2000AD, and I hope we can do more stuff together in the future. I very much like the idea of The Phoenix training future 2000AD fans!
Steve: How have you found the UK convention scene? You’ve been prominent for a while now, appearing as a cornerstone for events like Comica or Thought Bubble. Has the experience helped you in organising this festival?
Tom: It’s been great! We were at Comica recently, (I’m not sure we can claim to be a cornerstone, though we were in a corner!) Anyway that was really fun, loads of families and children and some great artists. Thought Bubble was awesome last year and we’re really excited to be there again this year. We’ve got loads of stuff planned so people should definitely come and see us! I should also give a shout out to The Lakes Comic Art Festival which starts this year and looks like it’s going to be brilliant. And Melksham comic-con! But back to the question…
It’s helped us in that we know what a good comic festival is meant to be like but of course we are much much smaller than any of the above! We also had some great advice and help from various people who know much more about all this kind of thing than we do! So huge thanks to them!
Steve: How has reception been to The Phoenix as a whole, over the last year? How do you think the magazine has progressed over the 12 months?
Tom: The reception has been amazing from everyone. And we are very grateful for that! The comic world has been brilliant and supportive and we’ve had loads of great feedback from parents who’ve bought subscriptions for their children. More and more schools are getting The Phoenix and teachers are telling us that it really does get kids reading which is great.
But most importantly of course is the feedback from our readers and thankfully they seem to love The Phoenix! It is very heartening to see a child pick up a copy of the comic and become completely engrossed in it.
But having said that we know we can improve! There are lots of things we want to do and lots of stories we’d love to tell. But hopefully we’re getting better and learning from our mistakes. And we’ve got some brilliant things coming up later this year which is very exciting.
Steve: Now, here’s an important question –what is The Wall of Awesomeness?
Tom: It’s the place where we stick all the brilliant fan art we get sent. And we get a lot! Really it’s too awesome to describe with words so here’s a picture:
Steve: What have been the highlights of the last year for The Phoenix?
Tom: Publishing all the strips for one! We are really very lucky to be working with such a talented group of individuals. Our first birthday was also a great milestone to reach. And the launch of our ipad app was good because it finally allows us to be read by more people abroad.
Steve: The Phoenix has been going for over a year now, and has become, I think, a valuable part of the UK comics scene. What does the future hold for you? What comes next?
Tom: Well that’s very nice of you to say! This year we want to consolidate and grow and make The Phoenix available in more places. Basically we want to get more kids reading the Phoenix! And adults! And anyone who likes comics and great stories!
We’re going to be putting plans into action to get the book publishing side of things going and to make the comic itself more widely available. And in the near future we will be re-launching parts of our website. It’s going to be awesome and we’re very excited about it so watch this space!
But we’re still a very small outfit and we still need a huge amount of support. I think some people assume we’re some big publishing company but we’re not! We’re a small family business with only four full time staff members!
So if you love comics, have kids or just want to read some brilliant stories then subscribe to The Phoenix! You’ll be supporting us and getting a great comic too!