Hi-Ex! Highland International Comic Expo

3 Apr 2012 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 31 March- 1 April 2012

THE APPEARANCE of Starwars Stormtroopers of the 501st Legion and a parade of monsters, Manga and other costumed characters at Eden Court is always a welcome sight, doubly so in 2012 as it heralded the return of Hi-Ex! to the Highland capital.

ALTHOUGH the popular perception of Comic Art and associated conventions is inaccurately men in capes, Hi-Ex! successfully debunks this myth with a diverse range of events, panel discussions, exhibitors and workshops catering for all ages.

Hi-Ex! 2012 logo

Hi-Ex! 2012 logo

Throughout the weekend there was plenty to discover, from Tabletop Gaming , the world of Cosplay, drawing workshops with Nigel Dobbyn, Dave Shelton and Manga artists Inko and Chie Kutsuwada, portfolio sessions, costume life drawing, screenings of director David Barras and co writer Scott Mackay’s indie film Electric Manand the traditional HiEx! auction and raffle raising £1907 for charity Children First.

Blazing a trail since 2008 (when it was the only comics convention in Scotland), Hi-Ex is a resoundingly inspirational event, bringing professional artists, writers, publishers and exhibitors together with comic enthusiasts, emerging artists and the wider public. Distinctive for its family friendly atmosphere and healthy representation of women working in the industry, Hi-Ex is an important gathering of talent, energy and context. As part of a literary and visual tradition in Scotland, comic artists and writers are also part of an international multi-media environment including comics, graphic novels, music, film, animation and gaming. For anyone contemplating a career in creative industries (of any discipline) the knowledge, skill and creative vision of the Hi-Ex guest artists provides great inspiration and practical advice, opening up imaginative worlds of possibility.

Negotiations underway at Hi-EX

Negotiations underway at Hi-EX

When trying to break into the industry having opportunities to meet with professionals, together with an awareness of the national and international context of the art form is essential. While acknowledgement of Comic Art in the UK lags behind Europe, Japan or America, events such as Hi-Ex are pivotal in raising public awareness, showcasing the quality and diversity of Comic Art and enabling emerging and aspiring young artists to see that a career path is entirely possible. Tapping into cultures of indigenous storytelling originating in Scotland and Ireland was a strong theme this year, with panel discussions on the influence of Celtic traditions, the resurgence of comics and how they can be used both in the preservation of languages such as Gaelic and Scots and as an educational tool.

Chairing a panel on Comics Education in the UK, Dr Chris Murray from Dundee University discussed prejudice towards the medium; the persistent idea in a predominantly literary culture that images are easy, relating to early rather than lifelong learning and about surface readings rather than active interrogation of content. Significantly, Comics as a universal medium communicate a wide range of subject matter and complex ideas, engaging the reader’s imagination to complete the story, facilitating learning and visual literacy.

The educational value of creating comics, using both sides of the brain to process complex interactions between word and image, and use of comics in a range of different disciplines including Science, History and Drama, in primary, secondary and tertiary education were explored with contributions from panellists Andy Luke, Lindsay Powell, Lesley Mackenzie, Chris Murray and members of the audience.

Dr Murray reflected on the need for re-evaluation and reclamation of the word Comics, citing the Greek origins of the word and the relationship with the subversive and periodic Revels of ancient Greek society. The idea of rebels and community permeate the art form and its fan base, raising questions about cultural identity, knowledge and power. From the reception of The Bible, with text held by the clergy and images used to impart teaching to the masses, our relationship with visual culture continues to evolve, shaped by new technologies.

The hierarchy of artistic disciplines in the UK which persistently casts Comics as a lesser art form, separating Fine Art from Applied Arts, Craft and Design is perhaps another reason for negative perceptions of Comic Art as simplistic or as entertainment for children. One walk around the Hi Ex! exhibitors hall would prove otherwise, with independent and self publishing also clearly in evidence. Like all art and literature, the complexity is limited only by the creator’s imagination.

Hi-Ex attendees in dress-up mode

Hi-Ex attendees in dress-up mode

Chairing an inspirational panel discussion with fellow artists Sally Hurst, Michael Carroll and Al Ewing, artist John Higgins (Watchmen, Judge Dredd, Jonah Hex) commented; “being a fan is important in creation” …  “you come to the business because you love the characters” … ”we do this for the love of creating and storytelling”. Centring on collaborative incarnations of Higgins creation Razorjack spanning multi-media novels, comics, music and animation, the discussion revealed the artist’s skill in creating a world and the integrity of that world as an invitation for further artistic interpretation.

Monty Nero’s workshop “A guide to digital art for comics” emphasised the foundations of image making and the importance of understanding proportion, anatomy, form, composition, colour and tone separate from the digital tools of tablet and Photoshop. Starting with consideration of character in black silhouette to convey attitude, emotion and presence, he demonstrated building up the image and character in successive layers of colour, tone and texture using a variety of digital tools.

Understanding the wider meaning of Realism to create credibility within an image and the importance of lighting were also discussed in a session which would be of equal value to painters, film makers, animators, comic artists and writers. With the emphasis on creative process and character taking the lead, this workshop was very much about the integrity and craft of image making, defining your own vision and utilising available technology to make a human mark.

Irish film maker John Vaughan’s entertaining commentary and interactive presentation of the 1977 killer bee film The Swarm, starring Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda and Olivia DeHavilland, was perhaps a tamer choice than expected given the Vault of Horror title of the session. However at a family friendly festival the choice of screening was apt and Vaughn’s personal take on the action very enjoyable.

The possibilities of humorous dialogue in connection with B Horror really begs a late night adult screening to fully exploit and unpack the genre, pushing the boundaries of delivery in this format. The Swarm is a film that four Oscar-winning actors and a 25 million dollar budget just couldn’t save, but worth watching for Vaughn’s commentary, the fetching orange combat suits, giant bee hallucinations and absurd pro American bee statement in the closing credits. Bee-induced nuclear meltdown was never so much fun!

Artist Tanya Roberts

Artist Tanya Roberts

The collaborative aspect of Comic creation, together with a sense of community, is hugely evident in the work of Hi-Ex! guest artists and Comic fans. This friendly, inclusive atmosphere has continued to define the event, accommodating all levels of interest in the art form and raising awareness of one of Scotland’s greatest cultural assets. Love of Craft and the element of discovery are two of the most exciting elements of the two day event organised by Richmond Clements and Vicky Stonebridge.

While future funding is uncertain, greater consideration should be given to how Hi-Ex! relates to fostering new talent, acknowledging the incredible lineage of Scottish Comic artists and writers and providing professional context in support of a growing multi media environment of Comics, graphic novels, film and animation on a world stage. The value of this event both culturally and economically should not be underestimated. The voluntary work and enthusiasm that makes Hi-Ex! possible is phenomenal; however to keep this momentum going as an annual event funding is a necessity.

With so much talk about support for Creative Industries it seems that the very best way to ensure growth is to invest in grass roots events such as this one, bringing professionals and audiences together year upon year. I very much doubt that a young person based in the North of Scotland wishing to pursue a career in Comic Art, animation or gaming and approaching the likes of Business Gateway would be able to meet directly with professionals working in the field. Conventions are one of the primary ways of breaking into the industry, honing your craft and meeting other artists, writers and publishers. Exposure to the work of international artists, together with awareness of the craftsmanship of storytelling, character development and the fundamentals of image making are invaluable to emerging artists and in changing public perception. The enjoyment and sense of community Hi-Ex! embodies makes it one of the most inclusive, stimulating and fun events on the national cultural calander and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that it will return in 2013 and beyond.

Exhibition photos by Vicky Stonebridge and Mark Dunanowski.

© Georgina Coburn, 2012