That's right, this week I decided that instead of recuperating from the severe sleep-deprivation incurred by the most intense 4 days of non-stop insanity at New York Comic Con, I’d immediately fly to the UK for an even more intense 4-days at an international comic art festival.
Because of course I did.
Long-time subscribers will remember earlier in the year when I popped across the pond to Manchester to lend a hand planning parts of this festival. It was a long 48-hours, during which time I slept a total of 4 hours.
You’ll remember my flight over on that occasion was with the infamous Thomas Cook airlines; a company that provide little more than a seat and a fart-filled fuselage. I sat next to a screaming baby that entire trip.
This time was no different.
On Wednesday afternoon, I got a haircut, pulled on my crappy suit jacket and (over)-packed my bags for another Thomas Cook flight to the motherland, and sat right in front of — you guessed it — another fucking inconsolable baby.
I swear it was the same one. This baby has been following me around the world. It screamed the entire flight. Don’t believe me? Click here.
Already sleep-deprived, I desperately tried to get a wink of rest on the 5-hour flight… to no avail. Screaming baby was having none of it. By the time I landed in Manchester, I was greeted by the lovely Karen, a gardener from Kendal, who waited patiently while I ingested a year’s worth of caffeine to reanimate my lifeless, zombified body. It was 9:55am.
You see, I was to go straight from the plane and be driven 2 hours directly to Kendall College to teach a full theatre of engrossed students a slew of invaluable tips on using a Wacom tablet to create your art. I struggled to put two sentences together, but managed to cover the most important advice.
The lovely Karen patiently drove me through the centuries-old town of Kendal, educating me on the local wool industry and many lakes* of the Lakes District. *There’s one lake. I was so tired I barely retained any information but enjoyed hearing all about the history of Cumbria.
I had now been awake for 24 hours and desperately needed sleep, so she dropped me to my lodgings for the duration… Stonecross Manor Inn. Or as the locals call it “Fawlty Towers”, or "Flowery Twats"... or something.
This place was built in the Cretaceous period. The creaky walls burbled with sounds of boilers and snoring septuagenarians. The power sockets buzzed and cracked whenever anything was plugged in, and the Wifi was only available if you sat on the bottom of the staircase and held your laptop up at waist-height— Oh, and did I mention it was haunted?
Yeah. It was once an infamous girls orphanage.
Because of course it was.
This hotel was not the festival’s first choice for guests. The main hotel in town usually housing the VIPs was being used for a wedding this weekend, so we were relegated to the edge of town in this haunted old boiler-factory. I checked the guestbook to see who had previously stayed here.
After a brief nap, which was interrupted by a screaming baby in the next room (yes, actually) I spent a good hour trying to figure out how to use the shower. Like most hotels, they appear to have come up with their own wacky twist on ‘tap that turns on and water comes out.’ I had to solve a riddle and answer three questions to a troll before I could get a slow stream of warm, off-brown water to bathe in.
I ambled downstairs to be welcomed by my fellow National Cartoonists Society compatriots; Steve, Luke, Joe and Deb McGarry, Tom and Anna Richmond, and the inimitable, legendary Sergio Aragones. We stood around waiting for the shuttle bus to the Mayor’s welcome party, sharing horror stories of our first encounters with Fawlty Towers. We’d all been invited to the VIP opening night dinner and were to be received by the Mayor — a man of few words.
After a couple of complimentary sparking rosés, we were ready to mingle with the rest of the Festival guests and sit down to a welcome dinner in the aforementioned theatre.
I did fanboy out when I met Manchester-based New Yorker illustrator Stanley Chow. If you’ve ever seen my social media avatar (above), you’ll know what a huge fan I am of his style.
You’d have seen it at the top of every single online New Yorker article next to the writer’s name. he somehow manages to defy the conventions of asymmetry in caricature and create these perfectly symbolic illustrations, perfectly encapsulating the person and their entire aura in the process. He’s a wizard. With a Manc accent.
I found my place at a table with Graham Dury from VIZ (UK’s equivalent of MAD), along with Stan Sakai (Ninja Turtles / Usagi Yojimbo) and Sergio Aragones (Living God.)
After mains, there was a 26-question quiz for each table to compete in. The questions were projected up on to the giant screen right behind my head. At one point there was a question about me. Every other table got it wrong.
Because of course they did.
At the conclusion of the quiz, we filtered out into the night and down the streets of Kendal, to a local pub at which we’d be spending a lot of time this weekend by the name of Ruskins Bar. There, we sang karaoke and drank locally brewed ales until the wee hours, because body clocks be damned. I sang Drops of Jupiter by Train. I reckon they liked it.
After a lengthy wait in the rain, we were shuttled back to our haunted lodgings in seemingly the only cab in town for a nightcap and a spooky few hours of sporadic shut-eye.
The next morning after a quick English breakfast of baked beans on toast with sausages, we were whisked away to the Mayor’s Parlour at the Town Hall, to be taught all about Kendall’s history and its rare, priceless artifacts.
We sipped our cups of tea in fine china while a tall gentleman by the name of Simon hovered about the parlor, nervously holding centuries-old relics with his white cotton gloves. At the conclusion of his session, he offered for us to don our own pair of gloves and hold the various shiny things as Simon told us fun facts about them.
From there, we walked through the rain, across the bridge to the local tap house for some local ales and ham sandwiches. They loved their beer very much in this town and had even specifically brewed a number of beers for the festival itself. For dessert, we had chocolate cake. Made from beer.
Another nap was in order before the big live drawing event in the Festival Hub: The Brewery Arts Centre (I told you they liked their beer.)
Steve McGarry and I co-hosted a night of live-drawing with two artists hooked-up to giant screens, working on Wacom Cintiqs, while Sergio Aragones drew by hand, with a live camera feed from overhead lit up the stage with his drawings.
The theatre was completely full, and the demand so high for viewing that they ended up simulcasting the event to an adjoining venue for more people to pile in and watch.
Seeing Sergio draw live is like seeing all seven wonders of the world at once. I would implore you to look it up on YouTube. The man is as prolific as he is hilarious — and the most generous, charming person you’ll ever meet. That night we awarded the inaugural Sergio Aragones Award for Excellence in Comic Art to Dave McKean. You can see his work here.
We also officially announced the UK chapter of the NCS and inducted our first batch of new, British members. This has been in the works for years, so it was nice to be there when it finally came to fruition.
The rest of the weekend was a blur. I attended events, moderated a talk with Canadian cartoonist, ex-NCS President, and Pulitzer prize nominee Lynn Johnston on her comic strip For Better or For Worse. I demonstrated on the Wacom tablets at the ‘Wacom café’ and met a tonne of insanely talented comic artists that all made me feel welcome, and at the same time like a hobbyist, dabbling in the scribbling arts.
I was booked to do a ‘cartoon-a-room’ event to teach kids how to draw, not realising of course that I was following the famed comic artist for The Walking Dead, Charlie Adlard. Lovely guy. Tough act to follow!
The biggest highlight of the weekend for me was getting to sit and do signings next to Sergio. I only sold about 5 cartoons, but I was spending most of my time leaning over watching him draw and sign all his collections of books and prints. We chatted about cartoons — and about the fact that in spite of his appearances, he is 80 this year.
He said he liked my Wacom video which made me smily like a goofball for the rest of the day. I didn’t get to see him for the rest of the weekend. I’m glad I got to spend that time with him.
One big event that I’d been looking forward to was the so-called “Knockabout Cabaret” event on Saturday night — a variety show of music, comedy and humorous slides from all corners of the globe. I was asked to do a 15-minute comedy set, about which I’d been quietly nervous all day.
I re-jigged my set to tailor the jokes to a UK audience but got the sense as I saw the MC “warm-up the crowd” that no amount of re-jigging would help. It was futile. I was walking onto a beach of gattling gunfire with no weapon.
I did my 15 minutes to varied response… they liked the Smiley bit, but I lost them when I started ragging on the queen. (Bad move). I think by the end of the set they couldn’t have been more nonplussed by my lack of local references and verbose stories in jaunty dialects.
I left the stage dejected and sunk my sorrows into a couple of local brews, sinking into the shadows to avoid the glares of Her Majesty’s subjects, as the following, baffling act took the stage.
The MC called him onto the stage but alas, the act was nowhere to be seen… he was out the back of the room somewhere. As the MC figured out where he was, the enormous gentleman ascended from the shadows to reveal he was wearing a skin-tight unitard, a mask, goggles and was holding an electric guitar.
The audience clapped once again as he slowly took the stage, plugged in his guitar and leaned into the mic. What happened next was 30 minutes of jaw-dropping bewilderment and a stony silence from the audience that rivaled even my performance.
The performer screamed mercilessly into the mic while violently strumming his Fender until the strings broke, and he had to stand on stage to re-tune it. He asked the audience to take a beer break while he tuned his fractured axe. It didn’t end well for him.
The final night’s farewell party at old Ruskin's Bar consisted of a comedian by the name of Gavin, who unfortunately shared my comedic fate from the night before. After the Bohemian Rhapsodies and the Britney Spears medleys of the karaoke encore, the show came to a close as we cabbed it back one more time to trusty old Stonecross Manor Towers Gaol Institute for the Daft for one last nightcap.
We were treated to some old English folk songs from old English folks until eventually, we turned in around 3:30 in the morning.
I got 3 hours sleep before stumbling down the stairs with my suitcase only to find my ride to the airport had gone to the wrong hotel. Not to worry… it was only a swift 2.5 hours to Manchester at 6:30am in peak-hour traffic. At this point, my brain had gone into suicide mode and was thinking of quick and convenient methods of ending it all. After arriving at the airport and taking 1 solid hour to get through security, it made me wish gone through with it.
By the time I got to the plane I was an exhausted husk of a human, collapsing into my chair and passing out before we left the tarmac. Not even the screams of the baby in the next row could keep me from my coma.
And yes, I’m pretty sure it was the same baby.