I got up at half seven in the morning on a Saturday for this.
I do not usually get up at half seven in the morning on any day of the week. Which should tell you just how much I get excited about these things every year.
(And my dad was dropping my mum off at the station for a 9am train, so I got a lift too).
But seriously, Stuart Mulrane and his team over the last four years have managed to craft a fantastic event that celebrates small press comics, cosplay and tabletop gaming in the best way; by being open, inviting and proud of all of it. Located at the Centaur, Cheltenham Racecourse (but not, sadly, next year, due to a schedule clash, the event is staying in Cheltenham however, with a new venue not publically announced at the time of writing). The venue is easy to find, with a bus direct from the train station to the racecourse, and, while there was a massive queue for the 2016 event, the queuing system has been refined and worked with to ensure as fast a processing time as possible at recent events (although, as I’ve pre-booked the last two events here I can’t really comment much myself, I’ve pretty much walked straight in without a fuss).
On entering, it’s best, I find, to take some time to settle yourself – check your bank balance on one of the ATMs, which tend to only do 20s and charge £2 per withdrawal, check out the bar just past the Proud Lion Tabletop Gaming area upstairs, and, of course, get to know the lay of the land on the show floor. It’s only one room, but it’s big, and the diversity and variety of the traders there always impresses. The layout here has also been refined over the years – in 2016 I remember feeling very cramped on the show floor, and that was with my smaller shoulder bag in tow, due to the narrow aisles and the sheer number of people there, but this year there was barely any issues, save for the very back, where there were some small pile-ups of people, but they were all resolved amicably, and that leads me nicely to one of the biggest reasons why I love this event: everyone is friendly.
I’m not going to be stupid here, there are bigger events, there are more popular events, there are events that hold more cultural significance than TBCF, but I am willing to bet what little remains in my bank account right now that there are a lot of those events where:
Everyone knows everyone. I talked to a lot of folks here, and the camaraderie is obvious from the outset, be it folks who collaborate or work in similar genres or just as a ‘hey, I know that name, I’ll go talk to those folks’ thing. And they all want to help everyone! There’s no competition here, no race to make money, it’s just ‘hey, if you like my thing, there’s a trader over there who’s got something similar’ or ‘hey, you know the person who did that print or did the art for my thing? They’re over there, they’ll sign it for you if you ask!’
Everybody’s nice as well. I know, it’s a horrible word to use, but genuinely, everyone is. They don’t have a bad word to say about anyone! If you ask a trader about their stuff, they’ll tell you, they won’t judge if you pass, or if you haven’t heard of them before (heck, my first event, the 2016 one? Paul Cornell was the only person at that entire event I’d ever heard of, and now I’m here two years later writing something like a thousand words and shouting to the heavens about it, so there you go.) Usually, you can have a nice long chat with a creator, about just about anything – I ended up talking to the CL Raven twins about Power Rangers for half an hour, for example, which is not the sort of thing I was expecting to talk about from a pair of writers who focus on dark romance and horror. Even at the end of a damp or downright ugly weather day, facing anywhere between a twenty-minute drive home or a three-hour slog back up the motorway, everybody’s smiling and laughing and having fun.
Which isn’t to say that folks aren’t taking the event seriously at all. This is fast becoming the premiere event of the convention season, spoken about with the same levels of respect as Leamington Spa Comic-Con and Thoughtbubble, two of the biggest small press events in the country as far as I understand it. The list of things that launched at TBCF last weekend is a testament to the dedication and belief that the creators have in their work and the event, as well as the diversity of it; while comics are, and always will be, rooted firmly in superheroes, it is not the only thing in comics, and it could not be shown more clearly than here. See for yourselves!
But comics are not the only thing that makes TBCF absolutely amazing. Their work with Celebrate Cosplay to put on a catwalk event every year is outstanding, as are the cosplayers themselves, be they Hellboy with a gun that had a barrel bigger than most heads, an absolutely incredible original character with the most ornately crafted staff and headdress I’ve ever seen, or, from previous events, Jack Frost from Rise of the Guardians, who wore a hoodie, three-quarter length trousers and flip-flops in torrential weather in 2016.
It’s not just the incredibly good cosplayers that get celebrated here either, or just the well-known ones, everybody celebrates everything, from the Scooby Gang (with a plush Scooby too!) or Harley Quinn to Daenerys Targaryen and her toddler Rhaegal, or Little Red Riding Hood, who was packing heat in her picnic basket and managed to bring the house down with her shout of ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf? DINNER TIME!’ on the catwalk. And they’ll all happily chat to you, too, even if you get their cosplay wrong – the OC with the staff? I told her she looked like someone I should recognise from somewhere, and she smiled and said she got that a lot. They don’t care if it’s your first time cosplaying, or if your costume was bought, and if they hear you saying that your costume is nothing or looks rubbish compared to some of the others, and I’m willing to bet they do hear that a lot, given some of the stuff the cosplayers craft, they’ll tell you it doesn’t matter as long as you’re having fun.
And if you want a break from the comic and cosplay madness, head upstairs to the Tabletop Gaming area run by local comic store Proud Lion. The games they have on offer to play change every year, and they know the mechanics and rules of every game inside out. They’re always happy to demo a game with you and they’ll walk you through it, no matter if it’s a cooperative deck builder or a competitive dice game, and they’ll always have a suggestion for you if you want to find other games to add to your collection.
At the end of the day, no matter what loot you’ve got in your bag, or how much of it you have, for ten pounds a ticket (kids 12 and under go free with a paying adult), you can find something you’ll enjoy here, and the best part is, it’s all at a good cost – I bought 18 comics and got 7 prints free this year, all for £80. I did the maths on that, it’s £4.70 per book. You won’t find that value at a San Diego Comic-Con or something similar. In fact, you’ll almost certainly find something you didn’t expect to find and it could be just about anything you can imagine, and that is why I love this event. You can come in with a shopping list as long as your arm, and go home with a whole bunch of things you weren’t expecting to see. And that, for me, is a fantastic day out.