22 Nov 2015

Thought Bubble Comic Con 2015: The Voyage Home

Now he’s had a chance to settle back into reality following his first visit to Thought Bubble Festival - and get over the inevitable bout of 'con-flu' - here are some thoughts from Stewart R on last weekend's events…

Stewart R: Amongst the ranks of the PCG it’s been a common occurrence through recent years to a) consider a group trip to Thought Bubble based on the superb list of guests and anecdotal evidence of superb experiences from others, and then b) lament the understandable fact that none of us could make, or justify the trip that year once late November rolled around. ‘Maybe next year’ had honestly become something of a mantra within the group. This year I bypassed London Super Comic Con, wasn’t able to attend Melksham and had my eyes and savings set on another transatlantic jaunt to New York Comic Con. When that fell by the ticket-chaos wayside, a trip to Leeds for my first Thought Bubble not only became a distinct reality, but my solid comic convention plan for 2015.

Working in hospitality for the past couple of years has had a serious impact on my comic book hobby, affecting my enthusiasm for reading, limiting my ability to get to group meet ups and on occasion hindering me from writing about a medium that I do love. The pile of unread purchases from weekly orders, let alone previous shopping at conventions, is at this stage quite ridiculous. Like many others out there I have been feeling a touch ‘burnt out’ and have been wondering what it may take to rekindle my passion. I will say that it affected my attention to the point where I even gave the guest list for this year’s event just a cursory perusal, saw Rick Remender, Sean Murphy, Charles Soule and Scott Snyder were attending and booked the ticket without fully studying the line-up again until my bags were packed. So what was this convention like? Is it a weekend worth travelling to Leeds for and would I go again?

While the comic con is a two day event, travelling up on the Friday is a must and I know some people even prefer to get there Thursday as there are other festival events to partake in on the Friday during the day (as there are the rest of the week, this year’s festival running for seven days in total). I arrived mid afternoon on the Friday, checked into my hotel, wrote my ‘Road To’ piece and then headed out to visit some friends who have relocated to Leeds and briefly swing by the Joan Cornellà exhibition at the Gallery at Munro House on my way. Plans for the evening for the few individuals I knew from Twitter attending the con were varied and involved settling into their respective hotels and then drinks somewhere, somewhen. I’d spotted a tweet from the official TB account earlier in the day stating that there was something of an organised soiree taking place at the Double Tree Hilton for those attendees interested and it seemed that most people would be swinging by at some point.

What I discovered there was a glorious social that had memories of my first Bristol Comic Convention bubbling to the surface. Creators and fans rubbed shoulders, chatted, joked and cursed the hotel bar’s lack of foresight when they nearly ran dry on the pumps and we nearly emptied their fridges as one thirsty collective. I met strangers and was introduced to many new faces by the lovely comic socialite Fee (@feemcbee on Twitter), spoke about their respective projects, jobs, travels to Leeds and had one particularly in depth conversation about Star Wars with a gentleman who I never saw again through the course of the entire weekend. When I came to leave I let Esad Ribic through a small gap to then have Remender and Snyder hold a door for Al Ewing just before I walked out into the driving rain. Why was I leaving this party again…?

The con opened at 10am on the Saturday morning, and I’d made the semi-conscious decision when setting my alarm that I would take a more leisurely approach to my arrival, rolling across town at a relaxed pace and getting to the Royal Armouries for just after 11am. Thought Bubble was spread between four neighbouring sections of The Royal Armouries Museum; part of the museum itself, the New Dock Hall and a purposely constructed metal marquee situated in the courtyard between these two buildings. There was also an area in another nearby building at the mouth of the courtyard given over to the ticket and wristband exchange. It's here where I bumped into Tom Eglington and the Bristol jolt was given to my memories once more. Tom had taken on a superb installation project for this year's Thought Bubble, building multiple comic cover structures that were scattered around the con, where you, the reader, could actually become a living part of the cover. It was really fun idea and astutely marketed under the #getintocomics hashtag so if you pop over to Twitter you'll witness some of the joy to be had!

Once wristbanded up and leaving Tom to his busy and slightly stressful day, I headed into the nearest part of the convention I could see and was aware of, which was the marquee (to be honest I actually forgot about the New Dock section until early afternoon!). Heading through the door I immediately spied Sean Murphy, then next to him a sign for Declan Shalvey, then Rick Remender sat next to Jerome Opena. Oh look, there's Matteo Scalera! The number of high profile names was a touch staggering upon entering the marquee, but this was part of TB's finely laid out plan; there was a fair mix and spread of popular creators, small press, indie tables and exhibitors across the floor, but by separating the talent deemed to be in extra high demand into small, concentrated areas it meant that the queues didn't disrupt the flow of foot traffic and allowed the staff to cap lines at sensible, geographic points.

Having travelled up on my own I planned to do a whirlwind tour of the con to get my bearings and catch up with the familiar faces selling their quality wares and fresh offerings, before doing a slower, more concise crawl to make sure I saw everything and discovered new gems. I popped by the Disconnected Press booth for a chat, gave a brief hello to the ever enthusiastic (and two time Melksham 'Just A Minute' champion) Sonia Leong at the Sweatdrop stall, made sure I bought the latest instalment of Ronin Dogs from the talented Mark Pierce and caught up with Bournemouth expat and comic creator Sam Williams for a chinwag.

The Marquee

The Royal Armouries

New Dock Hall

It was in the midst of this initial tour that I realised just what Thought Bubble as a Comic Convention is, and is not. As I moved from room to room I kept expecting to be met by the usual sea of exhibitors with a wall of longboxes in front of them, statues behind and the occasional Funko figure or two hundred surrounding them. But as I made my way around the three halls it became clear that there was next to none of this to be seen. At a loose count I believe there may have been two to three dedicated stalls with a half dozen longboxes or more to dig through each. There wasn't a huge anime merchandise presence to make up for this either which is what can be the case at conventions these days. There were a handful of exhibitors specialising in graphic novel sales, but the boundaries of selection were incredibly wide indeed on that front.

The organisers had packed three entire rooms, wall to wall, full of individuals who make, and importantly, enjoy making comic books. This was a celebration of the creation of comic books, the building of ideas, the excitement of writing and illustrating and the excitement of the reader to get their hands on these stories and then thank and interact with those creators in person. This was not a celebration of the material trappings that come after success has been obtained, the money flows fairly freely and the factories start churning out associated pieces of shaped plastic or patterned t-shirts. As such, Thought Bubble to me buzzed with a general hum of contented enthusiasm that perhaps an ordinary wet and windy November day in Leeds might not generate.

Later in the con I had a conversation with Jon Lock (of Big Punch Studios) about the general feel for conventions these days and it dawned on me that compared to my initial experience of 5-6 years ago it appears that the hard sell from self-publishing and small press attendees has gone, to be replaced by a friendly, relaxed ‘let me know if you have any questions’ attitude, which in turn makes the ticket buying community more willing to stop at a table, pick up a comic, zine or graphic novel without fear of the creator jumping nervously at their face. As a result of this event’s creator-heavy focus this relaxed, easy-going feeling pervades the weekend and really does make it an enjoyable environment to be in.

Speaking of enjoyable environments, it’s probably time to mention THAT party. Yes, the notorious midcon party was back, once again ticketed and it seemed that only 50% of the people I spoke to during the day were going or had interest. It also seemed the slightly negative experiences from previous years - where headcount caps had left many with tickets outside unable to get in - had meant many were making Saturday night plans elsewhere. It’s never nice to brag or boast, but man, did they all miss out! Held at the Leeds Corn Exchange and musically curated this year by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Anthony Johnston, Al Ewing, Kate Leth and Marguerite Bennett all getting turns behind the decks, it was an exceptional night. The red-shirted TB staff filled the dancefloor early on, coaxing new arrivals to join in and boogie on down. And then… DMC got on the mic. Yes, DMC of Run DMC, who was at the con promoting his comic, had Gillen load up 'It’s Tricky' and then 'Walk This Way' and lifted the roof off the place. By the time he’d done his fine party work there wasn’t a face in the place without a smile on it. We danced, drank, met those stars we hadn’t spoken to during the day - Charles Soule and his wife are delightful - drank some more, heard songs we hadn’t heard in many a year, and I even got to meet Eddie Argos of Art Brut fame! It was a fantastic night and one that won’t be forgotten.

Charles Soule and a long line of fans
Matt Kindt
Suffice to say that I was not at my best Sunday. I was in good company in that regard it seemed. Twitter had flashes of apologies as people stated their expected arrival time back to the Royal Armouries was later than scheduled. Sundays at conventions are often more sedate affairs, with lesser footfall and brave faces everywhere hiding hangovers and a longings for the embrace of sleep. I arrived late once more, missed the one panel I’d half-heartedly set my mind to attending and realised I’d spent so much the night before that I wouldn’t be going ham on sketches and purchases. I met up with Fee and the lovely girls and guys I’d hung out with at the party before they popped off for lunch with David Aja. The lines for Remender, Murphy, Snyder et al remained long and I put away thoughts of signatures and handshakes. I got a sketch from Lee Garbett and then chatted to him a while as things started to wind down and people began to start thinking about journeys home. I slowly walked around the convention twice to make sure I’d seen everything, but really I knew I was just unwilling to admit that I’d done it all, I just didn’t want to leave.

But leave you must. You have to leave the patient, friendly, talented faces behind those tables. You have to leave the patient, friendly, helpful red shirts who form the Thought Bubble staff, who all work long hours across both days to ensure things run smoothly (they were even handing out sandwiches and lunches to the creators who couldn’t get away from their lengthy queues!). You have to leave the interesting, entertaining, hungover comic book fans who were strangers to you Friday, but are new friends as you depart Sunday. Thought Bubble seriously impressed me on my first visit; it’s an incredibly well run convention with great breadth and depth in its line-up of exhibitors, a clear idea of what it wants to be and an incredibly strong and worthy reputation. Those looking for the longboxes to file through will likely be disappointed if that’s your main reason for attending a convention, but if you’re a fan of comic books and the people who write and illustrate them then this is the event for you. I shall see you again next year Thought Bubble and that’s a promise!


Kev Walker
Lee Garbett

1 comment:

Julia Round said...

think you nailed it mate. thought bubble for me is all about the creators, whether large or small press - and generally an opportunity to see them behind tables rather than on panels (i'd like more panels, but hey that's just me).
glad you enjoyed it anyway!