Tuesday, 18 August 2009


My report on Caption 2009

The cake, it does not lie. For Oxford’s Caption comics convention really was eighteen years old last weekend! As I’m yet to miss a year, mathematics would at this point seem to suggest that I have been to eighteen of them. But whenever I try to think about that it makes my head spin, so let’s talk about something else...

Rich Johnston’s report perhaps sums up best the unique atmosphere of Caption, with his gamely attempt to compare it to America’s largest con in San Diego. (Rather reminding me of the Attila the Stockbroker poem ‘Southwick is Like Amsterdam, Only Smaller’.) He closes events with a shot of cartoonist Terry Wiley nipping out for more loo roll, as the centre has run out. For the sake of the gag, I’d like to tell you there that Terry was a guest. But, as Caption makes so little distinction between guests and attendees, that sort of thing is tricky. Terry has been a guest in previous years, but as even I’ve been a guest before now I suspect that counts for little.

Way back in 1992 Caption was started by a clutch of cartoonists, who figured no-one was putting on the sort of convention they wanted to go to - so they might as well do it themselves. In the process they somehow engendered some monster, forever re-replicating itself on a duplicating machine, that lumbers on to this day. At a time where everyone in the small press scene wanted to talk about distribution (mostly complaining at the lack of it), their event completely ignored the whole question. You just dumped your wares at one central stall, then forgot all about them until it was time to pick them up again at the end. Caption was a kind of extended front room, where those who made comics could meet up, drink, draw and do a whole lot of hanging out.

Though things didn’t always run in that order, for Caption is absolutely littered with pens and pads. (Something I don’t think I’ve seen at any other convention.) The pads are always full and the pens driven to their dried-up death before the weekend ends. Drawing games normally spring up spontaneously, at a roughly equivalent rate to people’s alcohol consumption. One panel was titled ‘You Should Totally Run Your Own Con, Dude’. But that’s pretty much what happens here anyway. Like the kids from Fame, the attendees put on a show right here. Caption is a magnet and a playpen for people as mad as you. Then times by nineteen.

To return to our baking theme, the talks and events are therefore merely the icing upon a cake which bakes itself. But they’re easier to talk about so let’s home in on them...

Every year has a theme, this time ‘away with the fairies’. Always somewhat voluntary, some themes seem to ‘stick’ better than others. This time the fairies didn’t seem to transpire much at all, barely mentioned even during the final panel featuring Mark Stafford’s ’Cherubs’ and Jaime McKelive’s fairy-friendly ’Suburban Glamour’. This was perhaps a bit of a wasted opportunity, as one of the articles in the programme (by co-organiser Selina Lock) had already made the necessary expansion from fairies to folk tales. It seems to me that comic have a more natural inheritance from folk tales than they do from film, painting, literature or any of those other things they all-too-easily get bundled in with. Maybe next year, people will believe in them better.

Instead we swapped fairies for the internet - focusing on the impending Longbox which (McKelvie informed us) will be like iTunes only for comics. Which is an exciting enough prospect. However, I’d earlier been to Sarah McIntyre’s eye-popping talk on children’s picture books. (That’s me on the left, looking like her scary stalker.) One of McIntyre’s points had been the greater relative size of books for children, and how that made it easier for them to get immersed in what they were reading – leading her to fantasise about an ‘instillation book’ big enough for adults to step inside. In fact one of the few criticisms I could make of her talk was the fact that it was mere slides, when it would have been so much sweeter to pick up those enticing-looking books and thumb through them. As it was, it was like looking at pictures of a decorated cake you couldn't actually taste... oh, wait I already did that...

Emboldened by this thought, I asked if there wasn’t something vital being lost when a physical comic gets replaced by pixels on a screen. A CD might come in nice packaging, but with a comic there’s no such separation between the object and its content – the two are one. McKelvie agreed readily that they were “different experiences”, but made two replies. First, that “young people” didn’t necessarily see things the same way as us. (Which fair made me chuckle, because he must have been one of the youngest of folk I’ve spoken to in ages!) Second, people can end up buying both, ‘trying’ with the download before ‘buying’ the object. (And indeed our concept of ‘ownership’ does seem to be becoming more conceptual, CDs coming with download codes for MP3s etc.)

We also discussed the idea that home printers might reach the level of sophistication where they could serve you up a collated colour comic just the way that shops used to sell them, essentially eliminating the question. Matt Brooker (aka D’Israeli) also pointed out a paradox that the download button was reasserting the authority of the flat page, taking the animations, sound effects and interactions back out of web comics in order to make them printable again. To think that, at the first Caption, I’d barely heard of the internet!

With fairies on the wane, robots seemed to mount a takeover for the year’s theme. (Come to think of it, Fairies vs. Robots would have made for a great convention T-shirt!) This was perhaps down to ‘Titanic’ Tony Hitchman’s quiz, now a Saturday night regular. He left us with two bits of useful advice, robots are best dealt with by a sharp kick to the head, guaranteed to set cogs a-spilling and save the day. And evil sentient computers are defeated by unplugging them at the back. Though steeped in those deliriously wacky DC comics of yore, Hitchman’s quiz belongs at Caption. Just because comics are primarily a sophisticated medium for tackling adult issues, doesn’t mean they can’t be stupid, goofy and juvenile as well.

We’re told Caption will return next year, but as yet no word on the theme. Me, I’m still canvassing for The Evil UnCaption. This comes from the old Star Trek episode, where the crew encounter their evil dopplegangers in a parallel universe. Everyone would be issued with false moustaches and goatees (the pan-galactic symbol for the sinister) and instead of sharing one big comics stall, vigorously defend their own whilst trying malevolent schemes to topple all the others. The Evilest Of Them All would be issued a prize at the weekend’s end, though of course that would probably just be a front for an assassination attempt. Or Caption could swap personalities with San Diego for a year, which might just be a different means towards the same end...

Anyway, whatever theme is finally hit on, I hope to see you there!

These photos and more from the Caption2009 Flickr group.

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