Wonderlands Expo 2017

Fans of graphic novels were in their element recently with the return of the ever popular ‘Wonderlands’ Expo to Sunderland. Now in its third year, this free celebratory event was held at City Space, Sunderland University, and paid tribute to the comic in all its forms, with a wide variety of workshops, panels, stalls and talks.

Ordinarily home to the Sunderland City Predators, a converted basketball court was the stage for a variety of stalls, featuring work from a plethora of talented national creators and designers. Artists like Track 11 Design, Drew X and Castle Rock’s Bob Turner were on hand to provide caricatures and commissions as well as examples of their latest work. Others, such as Alan Henderson’s The Penned Guin, provided a humorous example of parody and design with selections from previously established catalogues.

Guests of honor gave talks throughout the day, with a particular fan favorite being Liverpool born John Higgins, colorist on Watchmen; the seminal series from DC Comics written by Alan Moore and later a major motion picture directed by Zack Snyder. “We can’t believe how friendly people are” John said, “The Northern friendship is just magic. I think the thing I enjoy most about it is that you get to meet the fans. 90% of the time we spend at home is in a darkened room drawing, so to actually get out and meet fans is just so important and the fact that the University is presenting it in such a considered way we can give a bit back about how we created the characters and share that knowledge is fantastic”.

In a time where more and more graphic novels are making that leap to the big screen, John discussed the Watchmen adaptation: “I loved it. It was so close to what I’d like to see on screen. For me it worked on so many different levels. The fact that they actually got a tint of my colour in it, even though it was a completely different medium they had a tinted cast to represent my input, I thought it was so adventurous and definitely brought in new fans”

The events strong foot fall was just one indicator of its popularity and continued success. Organizer Hannah Matterson, Events and Development Coordinator for MAC Trust, said: “We’re thrilled that Wonderlands [is] back for a third year. We’ve worked hard to make sure the event stays free and we’ve been awarded money from Arts Council England to help support the event.”

Providing an introduction for younger people, ‘The Wonderlands Anthology’ was a brand new comic book available for free – a collaboration between pupils at Farrington Community Academy and St Aidan’s Catholic Academy in Sunderland – where students contributed their own short strips for inclusion and then collected their published work at the event. It was another reminder that Wonderlands catered for all ages and exposures.

Beano illustrator Nigel Auchterlounie travelled from Whitley Bay, on hand to make a rare public appearance at Wonderlands showcasing works like ‘Bunny Girl and Pig Boy’ and leading an informal design workshop. “It’s great here, I’ve never been before” he remarked, “I think events like these are important in widening culture, showing another medium, there are so many other ways to tell a story than television – like in comic books”.

Bob Turner of Castle Rock, who travelled from Edinburgh to host his stall, said that comic books are about looking at how stories are composed. His latest project, DTH, follows a non uniformed narrative, as he explained: “It’s about looking at how stories are constructed, for me the emphasis with Castle Rock is about producing something with that didactic element. It’s entertaining but there’s something interesting there, I want to encourage people to look into something themselves.

I think there are rules people follow in comic books whereas I look for the unusual pass through in design and narrative. Comics for me, have something you can’t do in cinema, you can’t do in other mediums. They bring a sense of creativity and expression”

Other attendees to the convention used comics in more serious, yet still entertaining light. Comics vs. Cancer are an innovative forum in which Scottish writer Gordon Robertson used the medium to talk about taking a stand against cancer. “I was diagnosed with cancer” said Gordon, “I wanted to write a blog about it. But there’s so many great cancer blogs out there, things that are heart rendering.

I didn’t have that bad of an experience [with cancer] so I felt I couldn’t do that…I created a comic called ‘Arse Cancer’ and that’s where it went. I taught we could use it to raise money for charity. I had bowel cancer, my first wife died from breast cancer and my current wife has also had breast cancer. Humor is a great way of getting things across we wouldn’t normally discuss, so if it helps people recognize symptoms it could save lives and make a real difference.”

Wonderlands ended on a high, being a positive event for Sunderland, encouraging people to expand their minds, get to know a little bit more about graphic novels and share similar interests. A resounding success for the region.

Record Store Day 2017

They say old habits die hard. Vinyl, once considered an antiquated format for music consumption, has made an astonishing revival in the past decade to dominate shop shelves and storefront windows; everywhere from Urban Outfitter’s to Sainsbury’s is selling copious amounts of plastic.

But there’s one special day on the calendar no Vinyl enthusiast could have afforded to miss, with the regions premier Independent stores celebrating the tenth anniversary of ‘Record Store Day’ on April 22nd. Shop’s like Hot Rats and Pop Recs are home away from home for many loyal music fans throughout the year, with this special day being their chance to come together and celebrate shared passions.

The event, first begun in the US, is hailed by many as the force behind the Vinyl revival and sees independent record stores selling local fans exclusive releases created especially for the day.

For many years Hot Rats was Wearside’s only independent record shop and still keeps patrons awash with an eclectic mix. Proprietor Marty Yule is no stranger to the realities of Vinyl, being a former member of Punk band The Toy Dolls and beginning the store almost 25 years ago as initially something to do in-between tours.

“Originally the day was to encourage people to pop down to your local independent record shop and perhaps spend a couple of quid at a time when shops were closing at the rate of one a week. Now it’s pretty good business for both the shops AND the suppliers / distributors.” says Marty, “It’s become pretty important, it’s certainly the busiest day of the year. More importantly it seems to get more people into vinyl every year and there’s plenty of press, thanks to ERA, the body that looks after the day.”

Planning and preparation for Record Store Day takes place long before the morning of the event itself. Beatdown Records in Newcastle, themselves a regional favorite amongst music fans, are hard at work in the days approaching.

Store Manager, Nick Wrightson, said: “A lot of blood sweat and tears goes into preparing for the day actually, it’s a logistical nightmare trying to make sure you’ve got the space to get it all in, the knowledge to know what will sell and what won’t. It’s a bit of a juggling act but it’s also a lot of fun.

One of the major contributors for the continued and increased interest in Vinyl is due to the ambitions of younger collectors, who are eager to make up for lost time and add as many pieces as possible, especially those students from across the UK who spend their Education in Sunderland. Grace Tonkinson, of Heaton Manor Sixth Form, and Lilly Thompson, of St Anthony’s Girl’s School in Sunderland found themselves perusing Vinyl on the day but for slightly different reasons. “We’re walking around taking photo’s for Grace’s art” Lilly explained, as best friend Grace clarified that “it’s to do with my A Level Art project, I’m doing a theme on human form and in different environments. I thought this was a good environment to use because it showcases peoples personalities so well, enjoying music.” And there’s certainly plenty of that.

Michael McKnight, Manager of Pop Recs in Sunderland, looks forward to the day and the live music in store, saying: “It’s always great to remind people that we’re here, so I guess it’s a nice excuse for a bit of a party. We have the Cornshed Sisters, This Little Bird and Chelsea Lynch playing on the evening. I’m really looking forward to that.”


And speaking of performers, there was at least one on hand to pick up Vinyl in Sunderland from the moment the store opened its doors early that morning. The euphonious Frankie of Frankie & The Heartstrings took a moment out of his busy schedule to speak with me about Record Store Day, saying that “I think it’s good, I came in today, no idea what the guys were selling and picked up this ‘Bollywood The Psychedelic Years’; which you probably wouldn’t find on a usual day in a record store, so I think it’s a good cause. I think that it’s great that it highlights the plight of the record store…it’s great that it’s celebrated in mass media.”

Although still considered ‘the new guy in the band’, Pop Recs has made a lasting impression across all generations in Sunderland, first opening their store in June 2013 and then launching an incredible Kickstarter campaign in 2015 when the store was forced to close temporarily and relocate. That project saw 642 backers pledge £14,292 and reaffirmed both Pop Recs importance to the region as well as their continued influence among the positivity of inspiring people through enjoyable music.

This year’s Record Store Day provided many treats for fans. One particular favorite was a limited reissue of The Beatles 1967 7” ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ backed with ‘Penny Lane’. The single was originally released to gap the bridge between the bands albums Revolver and it’s follow up, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 1st. “You’re never going to be left with a Beatles album or a Bowie album” Nick tells me, proving classic artists are still as popular with punters today as they’ve always been.

Customer Maxine Wilson was queuing early, her shopping bag to hand and a list filled with relatives and friends choices, those who were unprepared to brave the Sunderland morning themselves. “I queued with a friend two years ago in London” she explains, “it was a bit hectic cause we were out overnight but I got everything I wanted and I was hooked.”

Mistaken for thinking Maxine is a seasoned spin master, she tells me that actually “I take them to my Dad’s because I haven’t got a vinyl player yet, I’m saving up to get a decent one…but I’m going to Vegas this year to get married so I might have to put it back.” Maxine confesses further she’s spent at least £100 on vinyl this month, with no player in sight, proving the records themselves might be more tempting than the ability to hear them.

There has been criticism, given such high profile re-releases, that many exploit the nature of the day, collecting limited items to resell them at profit at online auction sites. This in turn prevents more genuine collectors getting these items at Record Store Day prices.

“If the company’s release interesting stuff fans and collectors will come and buy it. You of course get a percentage of eBay ‘flippers’, but thankfully they seem to be getting less” says Marty, with Michael adding that “I’d guess you’d have to be a mad collector as the records are so expensive. I only ever buy vinyl that I want to listen too”

But the morning’s queue was headed by the purist of the pure, with local man Philip Carrington having the distinction of taking first at the door of Hot Rats. “I was here at five…” Phillip tells me with bloodshot eyes, his tired complexion aside, he’s proud of the achievement, “I’m after the dead or alive…last year was my first one, it’s on the build, the more people and record companies get involved the better it gets”. Gary Weeks, second in the queue, is tight lipped about what he’s looking for but does tell me about a friend of his queuing in Brighton. Apparently he turned up at 2am and was only fourth.

Bronze Medal in the Hot Rats queue goes to Anthony E, his coat pulled against the rain, the heavens opening for a shower as we speak. He’s queued a few years now and it doesn’t seem the weather’s improved, but he sports an optimistic smile and tells me that “I’ve supported the football team all these years so I might as well support my local record store” and then gives Marty a wave as he arrives to open up.

At its heart, Record Store Day is a celebration of everything positive about the impact of good music and comradeship in collecting. It’s brought money to Sunderland this morning and it’s brought a crowd, soon gathering attention from onlookers, to part with their hard earned for records. Whether we celebrate its twentieth or thirtieth anniversary is unclear, but regardless, there’s no denying the positive influence it has had on the landscape of music across the region.

As we ended the celebrations on the day itself, we were given some parting words of wisdom about safely storing and caring for those treasured purchases, so that we might be able to enjoy them for many years to come.

“It’s always worth putting your LP’s in poly lined anti-static inners. Store them upright and away from any heat sources. NEVER touch the vinyl surface with your fingers, hold by the edge and label.” Marty says: “If at all possible don’t play them on them horrible ‘dancette’ things. You need to spend a few hundred pounds on an amp, speakers and deck.” Nick agrees with this, saying that “store it vertically, keep it clean, don’t buy one of those cheap record grinders if you can help it but most of all play them and enjoy them, they do no good sitting on a shelf not being touched”.

A note upon which we are all perhaps agreed then, with Michael adding simply that “As long as people are listening to them, I’m happy”