I get in at about 10:30am, after having to get up at 4:30 in order to get to Gatwick airport on time, so I'm not exactly feeling fresh as a daisy. On top of this, when I get to the hotel (the correct address of which I only found on the plane - up until then I had it mixed up with a beer restaurant) the receptionist tells me I wouldn't be able to check in until 3pm. I must have looked particularly hang-dog and weary by this stage, though, because she takes pity on me and lets me into my room anyway. "Don't tell anybody!", she says. Her identity has been carefully concealed in the writing of this blog post. She was actually a six-foot welder from Barnsley.
The Egmont people - my sponsors for this trip - collect me from the lobby shortly afterwards and we make our way to the Internationaler Comic Salon (or CSXV, as it's the 15th bi-annual festival to be held here, making it 30 years old). I meet some of the other cartoonists I will be signing with - Mau Heymans, Patrick Hénaff, Peter Puck - and some of the editorial team, all of whom make us very welcome. I am assigned to someone called Tamara who is meant to be responsible for me, but I'm afraid I don't make her job easy, as I decide I'd rather explore a bit on my own - so I wander off to walk around the festival floor and see what's on offer.
|A Little Nemo original|
I chat to a fellow from NoBrow books - they've got a booth here, selling their English-language books, and I discuss the possibility of maybe doing something for their flagship anthology. The guy I talk to is in retail, not editorial, but he gives me a card and tells me who I need to talk to. Very keen to make my next few things as far away from US mainstream comics as possible, as I feel my career has been moving in a direction I'm not entirely comfortable with over the past few years. Something like this would be a step in the right direction. And I already have a script half-written that might be just the thing. Anyway, something to follow up when I get home.
I can't seem to get any wifi working on my iPod (Ah! First world problems!), so I take out my mobile phone, brush off the cobwebs and see if I can do something with it. I bought the thing specifically to use at comic conventions, which is literally the only time I ever need one; consequently, I have almost no idea how the bastard works. But I want to let Mrs L know where I am, as I gave her the wrong address for the hotel, so I gamely attempt to get to grips with it. Hmm - seems I can set it up to access Google mail. I send off an e-mail and cross my fingers.
Signing! This is initially awkward, as I appear to have left half my sketch tools back at the hotel, but a couple of Sharpies are dug out of my pockets and I'm soon improvising like a champion. It's only two hours, which (when I routinely sketch for eight hours at a stretch at US and UK shows) is a walk in the park, and everybody is very nice and, surprisingly, bring me a lot of American comics to sign. I was expecting it to be exclusively Egmont's German Muppet Show editions that people were familiar with here, but apparently not. Somebody even brought me a copy of Snarked Vol. 1 to sign, which is the first time I'd laid eyes on a copy. I got a little lump in my throat. Oh, wait, no, that's the pretzel I had earlier. I sketched Popeye quite a bit, many Muppets, one or two Fin Fang Fooms, and a couple of Walruses (including one where Popeye was punching him out). All for free, of course, because that's how they roll in Europe, but I'm having a grand time. I resolve to remember my proper sketch materials tomorrow and hopefully beef up the quality a little.
|Mau Heymans signing at the Egmont stand|
Back in my room, I check my mail. Hurrah! The phone mail worked! I phone home and catch up with the real world. My parents, who are visiting in London, locked themselves out earlier in the day and my wife found them in the garage when she got home. Stuff like that. I talk to the kids - Son (6) is his usual chatty self, and Daughter (9) is her usual truculent, surly, monosyllabic self. God help us when she's a teenager.
A nap, then dinner! On the way there, Peter Puck tells me that Erlangen was where the MP3 was invented. I ask him if he's a fan of the format. He's got mixed feelings about it - he does a lot of DJing and when you play it loud, apparently you can really tell the difference. But he uses them anyway. My tin ears can't tell.
We reach the restaurant, look at the menu. Lots of heavy food, lots of meat on the menu. There's a salad on there - I say "salad", it's actually a plate of meat and cheese with a few chives chopped over the top. I find a fried mushroom dish that suits my vegetarian sensibilities. Can't finish it, it's huge. I at least finish the salad (actual lettuce!) to show I made an effort. A couple of beers - very good beer here, somebody should have a festival around that, maybe in October - and I'm feeling no pain. I talk a bit with the boss about Egmont's publishing strategies and what have you - not a lot of original work, it's mostly translated foreign material, apparently - and Theresa, the Graphics and Rights Manager (whatever that is) about whatever fool thing pops into our heads (snowboarding came up, I remember that) - then, flagging somewhat, I decide to head back to the hotel.
Half an hour later, hopelessly lost, I retrace my steps. The dinner party is really in full swing now, and I catch a now-clarinetted Mau Heymans (at least I think it was a clarinet, it may have been something else - I'm no expert) and his brother Bas on accordion, jamming to the patron's delight. It's turned into a real party atmosphere as soon as I left (I've always had that effect on parties, I fear). Tamara and another Manga editor, Sandra, trying not to laugh too much, get me back to the hotel safely. Pathetically grateful, I'm soon out like a light.
More early rising, only now it's just my usual slightly ungodly 5:30 am - which, thanks to the wonders of international date lines, now translates to a Germanic 6:30. Quite a relaxed start for me! I head down for some breakfast and then return to the room to do some writing. (I'm a great believer in the idea that if you don't write every day, you can't really call yourself a writer.) That done, it's time to get along to the booth for my first signing. This is going to be my busiest day here - not one, but two 2-hour signings and an interview for a magazine which I think is called Comics Report, although I may be misremembering that. The first signing shift goes smoothly, like clockwork - they're very, very organised - and there's a constant queue for sketches which has to be limited in order for me to fit everyone in. I wish I had that problem at home! A New Zealand accent comes at me about halfway through the first signing - it's Jeremy Bishop, proprietor of Gotham Comics in Auckland, whom I've corresponded with over the years but never actually met face-to-face. He has heard of my love of NZ's Gingernut biscuits (the only true Gingernut biscuit, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!) and has generously brought me a packet. He's also brought a couple of Knuckles the Malevolent Nun comics to be signed - still the thing I'm best known for back in the Old Country, apparently - and this prompts a little flurry of Knuckles sketches from intrigued German comic fans.
First signing over, it's time to be interviewed. This is quite a formal affair, with two professional photographers on hand to record it, but it soon settles down into something more chatty and it all goes very well. It's a sort of career-spanning job, with particular emphasis on the Muppet collections Egmont are doing here, since that's ostensibly what I'm here to promote, but we cover everything from student days to not working for Marvel any more and a bit of everything inbetween. It's all very friendly.
Then, back to the booth for more signing! I'm asked to draw John Carter a couple of times, a character I've not drawn ever before, and I have to decline initially, but the second request is accompanied by some reference material, so I have a go - and am surprisingly happy with how well it comes out. Lots of Marvel requests this time, mostly of characters I have absolutely no association with - Green Goblin, anyone? - but there's a little burst of Animals and Miss Piggys at the end which puts me back on familiar territory. When my shift is over, I am met by a gentleman named Ulrich Merkl, a writer, editor and art collector who co-produced that fabulous Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend book a few years back. He's working on a new Winsor McCay book - it turns out many of the originals in the exhibition I saw yesterday are from his collection - and he wants to know if I would be interested in helping him reconstruct some missing pages from an unpublished newspaper strip McCay was working on shortly before he died. It's called Dino (basically Gertie the Dinosaur under a different name); some of the pages survive, others only in fragments, and a couple not at all, although there are clues as to what might have been in them. It sounds like a fascinating challenge, so I assure Ulrich that I am extremely interested.
I've been asked for some sketches by the Egmont staff, so I go and find a quiet spot to work on those. Once they're done, I had back to the hotel to talk to the family back home, then draw for a while before dinner (the machine, once activated, is not easy to turn off!).
Dinner, at a different restaurant from the one we went to last night, though just around the corner from it. I sit with Peter Puck and Sandra, one of the Manga editors who got me back safely the previous night. I'm finding conversation hard work due to tiredness (and the fact that I usually find conversation hard work - spending most of my waking hours in splendid isolation as I do) but everybody is kind and makes an effort and so do I. Peter teases me about being a vegetarian and makes other assumptions about me based on this intelligence which he also teases me about - all of which are true (non-smoker, Apple Mac user). So I can't really take offense. It's all very good natured and he is likeable and funny. We talk about fonts (we're cartoonists, all right? Stop groaning) and I promise to supply him with a link to where I made my online-generated "handwriting font" (which you can get some pretty professional-looking results from if you work it a bit - the font I use on Snarked was made this way).
I'm pretty tired by now. The Heymans brothers, Mau and Bas, have whipped out their clarinet and accordion again and the party is in full swing, and it's a great atmosphere, but I'm a bit too weary to appreciate it. Having learned from last night's adventure, I shrewdly wait until somebody else is heading back to the hotel and follow them. Back safely, I finish a sketch and go zzzz.
Today my first signing is at the extremely civilised hour of noon, so I'm able to make a leisurely morning of it. Some of the Egmont staff want sketches, so I work my way through those, then write for a bit. Then I hit the show.
|Original hand-drawn Gertie frame|
Signing. The Popeye sketch request seem to have dried up, but there are still a lot of Muppets to draw, plus Marvel/DC characters I may or may not have ever worked on. Surprisingly few Muppet/superhero mash-ups, though; in the US and Britain, I seem to get those all the time. Anyway, the traffic is steady until my two hours are up.
Signing done, I swing by Panini to say hello to Skottie again, but he's still super-busy - it looks like he hasn't moved at all since I last saw him. I take the opportunity to look at some of his gorgeous original art, then I make my way slowly to the Winsor McCay exhibition, where Ulrich has promised me a guided tour (looking at everything as I go - did you know that Seth originals cost around $1000 US? That's something I learned. So much for getting one for my wife's birthday). There are a few of us at the McCay exhibition, and Ulrich is very passionate and knowledgeable about his subject... and, of course, the work itself is absolutely beautiful and totally, totally worth another look. The tour is detailed and thorough and it takes me bang up to my next signing at 4pm. Which turns out to be a strange one - it's completely dead at one point, very unusual for this show (unique, in fact). I'm about to take a break when it kicks off again and it's constant from then on. Gratifyingly, I'm getting asked for quite a few Snarked Walruses, and even the occasional Fred the Clown. Yay, creator-owned comics! Once the signing is done, I notice that it's Beer O'Clock, so I help myself to a cold one. There's not a whole lot of time after that before dinner, so I head back to the hotel, phone home, have a quick shower and we're off.
The restaurant this evening is Thai, and it's all very nice - they even have a few vegetarian options, hurrah! I was beginning to think it was all cabbages and potatoes around here. An intemperate amount of wine is consumed, and this (or possibly just the fact that, three days in, everybody is a familiar face now) makes the conversation easy. I'm sitting next to Peter Puck again, who is great company - he still teases me about not eating meat, although I feel now that I have the measure of him and take it in the right spirit.
Later - much later - and after really quite a lot of very good wine, we make our way to the big party. Lots of dancing, music, booze, people, noise. I run into Skottie again and we chat a bit, and I meet his wife - they're here together without kids, because there are grandparents back home who can care for their little one. Lucky sods!
Given how much I've had to drink by this point, I stick to water for the rest of the evening. A wise move, because after chatting to various people I wander onto the dance floor and before I know it I'm sweating like a loon and looking very much like a 45-year-old man in the throes of the biggest mid-life crisis of all time (which is, of course, exactly what I am), flailing my limbs and swinging my hips like a good 'un. Thea, Theresa, some other editorial bods whose names I'm blanking on (Manya?) are already on the dance floor and don't seem to mind my ridiculous company. I somehow manage to keep up this nonsense for a good couple of hours. I'm not the oldest person in the room by any means, but I'm pretty sure I'm the oldest person dancing. I am a sad, sad man. It's 3am when we leave. I swear I must have lost five pounds, James Brown style.
I wake up at the pointless hour of 6:30am after only a couple of hours' sleep. Duh. My plan becomes: have an early breakfast and go back to bed for a few hours. It sort of works. I seem to have avoided a hangover, possibly because I'm still slightly drunk, or maybe all that water has paid off; regardless, I eschew my usual fruit and muesli (Peter would laugh his head off at that; the only thing missing is the sandals) and go for the scrambled eggs, hoping the grease will work its morning-after magic. Breakfasted, it's back to bed. A couple of hours later, properly rested (or as near as I'm going to get), I attend to a few promised sketches. Yesterday, Theresa asked me if I'd draw Animal, so in recognition of our turn on the dance floor the previous night I do the full Electric Mayhem having a bit of an old groove. What the hell, I really did have fun, so some sort of thank you seems appropriate. Then writing. Then pack my bags, check out of the hotel and off to the show.
I present the sketches to a gratifying chorus of oohs and aahs - I don't look for those, but I kind of like when they happen, because I am a cliché - then I walk a bit and sit down and write a bit.
Back to Egmont for the signing. It's fine, more of the same - I think I'm permanently cured of wanting to draw the Muppets, but thankfully I'm asked for a few other things (quite a few Captain Americas, weirdly) and two hours sail by.
Signing over, it's time to leave. Lots of goodbyes, lots of hugs, it's all rather lovely. I really have had a great time and I like these people a lot. Peter's there and seems for once not sardonic but genuinely warm towards me. I like Peter a great deal. I picked up one of his Rudi books - no hope of reading the damn thing, but it's a memento, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Who knows, I may conquer it one day.
While I'm waiting outside the hotel for a taxi, Peter wanders by and tells me he was in hospital that morning. Apparently he passed out. "Just tired," he says. "I'm too old for this rock 'n' roll shit." There's a hug. I hope I see him again.
A taxi, a plane and two trains later, I'm home. The end.