Thought Bubble: TB Leeds to the future (har har)

In my middle-teens I had occasion to spend six or eight hours in a French bus station. It was fine, I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t expect it to form or support anything that turned out to be one of my ~life memories. Which, in fact, it did.

I could not read anything more than the most rudimentary French, and I cannot yet. Nevertheless, when one must wait for a long time, one wonders what might be found in le newsagent. Perhaps it will have pictures, non? I had a look, and I found that, in France, comics are normal.

Normal can be a loaded word, but that’s what you call it when something has multiple, thick, quality-paper magazines dedicated to it on the rack, right? Sexually objectified women? Normal. Sports? Normal. Moshi Monsters right now? A pre-teen fad, which is perfectly normal. And in Magic France, also, comics. Normal. Stacks of publications full of reviews, occasional previews, creator interviews, original strips, and presumably other things that I’d know about if I’d been a better student of Français. Wow. Cripes.

In Magic France, comics don’t hide in small shops up stairs/down alleys, behind posters of those Emma Frost miniseries covers. In Magic France, when a woman’s shirt is cut past her ribcage she’s got a sharp sword and a suave eyebrow and a Captain’s hat (name that series). In Magic France, manga is just comics, and you’re allowed to hear about, like, seventy different drawing styles instead of just two. In Magic France, each single magazine page covers two or three different comic titles, and on each page there’s something almost painfully gorgeous. It’s a utopia, Magic France, and intense and angry girls from uncomicky English villages, who are trying to be all about sequential storytelling, can lean their backs against dusty metal bus station columns, wrap their eyes in printed paper comforts, and know that there is somewhere. Somewhere to calm down.

Thought Bubble and autumn’s Lakes Comic Art Festival are important and precious things–because they are bringing Magic France, circa 2003, to England, right now. Other people–fans, publishers, industry support workers and creators–who know that there “is somewhere”, are working together to make somewhere here.

Raise your hand if you don’t think that’s amazing.

Now everybody with a raised hand–get on out of here. This town ain’t big enough.

With an even array of big publisher “name” guests, solitary zine makers, and all the small and medium-press array you can expect in between the two, it feels like “everything” is at Thought Bubble. And that they all get along! That’s so good, don’t you think? We need all of these, like we need bestseller novels and literary niche prizes, and fanfiction, and bedtime stories. You can’t choose one kind of prose and hope a culture will survive on that alone. You can’t choose one level of industry.

If comics are going to enter the collective consciousness deeply enough that every fan feels safe and unquestioned, we need to have crowds buying a sketch from Fiona Staples and chatting excitedly to Kieron Gillen, and pocketing a free minizine from Anaseed Man, and checking out price comparisons for volume five of Attack on Titan–and freakin’ haemorrhaging fifty pences on one-inch button badges at every third self-pub stall. All at once. We need this multi-directional perspective in any community that’s expected to work, grow, and progress. Anime conventions sell manga, and toys, and dance games, and patches, because anime alone feels academic. Anime and manga feed from each other and flourish; “grass roots” comics production and top-tier comics industry publishing feed from each other in a similar way. It’s not called grass roots for nothing, yeah? Picture an ecosystem. Becky Cloonan has scaled the heights, but she still puts out a self-published mini every year.

At Thought Bubble, like at TCAF and Your Favourite Inclusive International Convention, somebody who just wants to get their Punk Rock Jesus signed is gonna stumble across one of the indie Roller Derby book tables and lose their shit. Someone who’s only here to tell John Allison his character designs are so perfect–and that they never realised comics could just be about, like, normal people!–will get talking to a Kid Loki and discover that American-published superhero comics aren’t always completely stupid machismatic hellholes. Dreamers who love cardigans and zines and tea will find themselves perfectly catered to, buy a cute fox badge, and then see a stubbly dude in full Dredd cosplay and feel a special stirring deep inside. We all need each other to lean on, right? Kumbaya, guys. I’m head-over-heels for Thought Bubble.

I have write-ups of panels, short interviews and reviews, promises of longer interviews on some great projects, and interesting behind-the-scenes subjects, featurettes and following this paragraph, a con diary. If you’re sad that it’s over or you didn’t get to go, come back soon. Let’s keep the dream alive.

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I’d planned (and paid) to attend Friday’s Comics Forum sessions. Thought Bubble is a bigger deal than “just” the convention over the weekend that made up the bulk of my experience; it’s the full week beforehand and most of the week after as well, takes place at various locations around Leeds (and, I think, occasionally outside of Leeds), and it includes film and shorts screenings, academic lectures, art exhibitions, awards ceremonies, signings, and workshops.

 Comics Forum is an academic conference, this year (2013) focusing on small-press and indie scenes. Two days of talks from international experts? Sign me up. I was signed up. But I had just moved, and we hadn’t figured out the bus stops yet. We didn’t hit Leeds until almost four, didn’t find the library until maybe half-past, and my main take-away, from what was sure to have been an amazing event, was “never lose your phone in Leeds Library, because nobody there seems to have a clue about lost and found protocol.” I’m very interested in following up on everything that I missed; I think we need academic study and the coverage thereof. Can anyone hook me up?

SATURDAY

So Saturday’s start was pretty bogus, what with trailing up and down stairs asking if anybody had handed in a phone (nope) that barely even works. I missed the Blank Slate Publishing Panel–if anybody has notes, again, give me a buzz–but Donya Todd owes me an email anyway. Lizz Lunney, Jim Medway, Joe Decie, and Donya, MC’d by Woodrow Phoenix, talking about Blank Slate’s “New British Comics Initiative.” I want to hear about that!

The queue for wristbands was satisfyingly long. With this kind of still-technically-niche thing, it feels awkward to search for a gathering and find not many attendees—but Royal Armories Square was filling up quickly, a fat queue was forming, and there were plenty of calm people in subdued colours to offset the bouncing cosplayers getting to know each other under the trees. Actually there were plenty of calm cosplayers in Hawkeye colours (and a Tintin. Tintins always look immaculate) to offset the bouncing queue members getting back in touch with each other, too. And accents! A glorious array. I luv u, Britain.

Thought Bubble convention was made up of three main halls (all opening onto one outdoor courtyard), two smaller lecture halls, one “quiet room” (so thoughtful, though!), and a sort of bar … barn … tea (£2.00) /stew (£4.50) area full of tables, chairs, and statues of cows. And people. It was full, full, full of people, everywhere.

Royal Armories Square (or “New Dock Square” or “Clarence Dock”, depending on which taxi company you ask) is surrounded by expensive-looking towers of flats, of the sort where you can observe people as they take the lift, all the way up or down, from outside. It’s not technically private, but it didn’t seem precisely public, either; non-con-goers would walk through the square, every now and then, looking puzzled–but not many. Those that did were sweetly priceless–an older lady trying to figure out what was going on so she could tell the two small children with her, coming up with “Bubble … Thought? Bubble thought? I don’t know what that is …”; or the batch of lads off to the gym walking the be-cool/lol-nerds line until they caught sight of the fella in full, huge, Space Marine armour, exchanged looks of wonder, and instantly reverted to “excited, age twelve.” My heart!

Once we had our wristbands, there was time to spare before the next panel I’d circled (Comics 2.0). So we thought, why not take a look through the halls? The main hall was in the same building as the reception area; the doors were right there. Seems sensible. Maybe it was sensible, for those who like a lot of stimulus at once, but I gave it three seconds and retreated. Gotta work up to that kind of mind invasion.

The second hall was smaller, with yellow walls instead of black; this makes a lot of difference (this is important information for those of you who make comics, or other visual products). It seemed “cheery” instead of “intense,” and I could see people I knew. I didn’t talk to them (Hi, Neill!). We took a stroll around the stalls and looked for things labelled “free,” but did not find any. I had a chat with Ned Hartley of Heartless Comics about their anthology Punchface!!!: yes it’s “pretty British” (jokes about our Dave, etc.), no there aren’t any woman creators involved (“not for want of asking,” although he could only name one example at the time), but there is one woman on one of their other books about ghosts. The ghost comic looked interesting, and I quite like Punchface’s design. He looks like “a right nutter.” His power is punching the face. And, in fact, I was given a free sticker.

Label your free stuff, table sitters!

Comics 2.0 was an illuminating panel with Jordie Bellaire, Nicholas Gurewitch, Cameron Stweart, and Nathan Fox, MC’d by Chris Thompson. I encourage you to read my post on it, once I have cleaned up my notes! More than being about reading digitally or digital publishing, it concentrated on producing digitally–learning curves on digital tools, psychological and physical barriers, how These Digital Times impact upon us as creators, creatives, and social beings. If I wasn’t such a compulsive note-taker (or if I learnt shorthand? Note to self), I could have sat in ThoBub’s panels alllll daaayyy.

And it was time to attempt the big room again. Because I had not noticed the third hall yet.

Amidst the bustle and packed bodies, Howard Hardiman (The Lengths, Badger) smiled at me, the kind and forgiving smile of a man who has known bullshit and will not waft it at you. I went to talk to him (and more on that later, reader) because there are fine things to be found in his books and upcoming projects.

Having spoken to a nice person, it is much easier to approach the mysterious masses. I picked up a zine, a card and a chat from Anaseed Man (a fellow toku fan; give his Kamen Rider/kaiju-flavoured webcomic a glance). Found myself at Paul Duffield’s Firelight Isle launch (watch out for that feature, coming soon. And check out that comic, because it looks seriously worth it) and had an IRL chat with Kate Brown (last seen on WWAC talking ballet comics). She had sequinned bows in her hair, which I am tempted to appropriate, and mentioned that this TB is bigger than ever; Kate and Paul have been attending for years, and it’s only getting better.

The big hall had a lot more signs saying free, and if I’m overdoing it here, then… I’m going to keep overdoing it, because a convention-sized shopping experience is just too big, too eager, for a confident level of discernment. I want to be exposed to new comics, I want to find new creators and creative teams, and I want to be able to support them with cash money. But I, like many comics-loving people of this epoch, can’t afford to guess. If you give me a free thing and I like it, then when I have the money I’m coming back for you. (This is the youtube/boxset dichotomy, also.) If I can’t tell whether a thing is free, then I won’t take it, because I can’t spare the interaction energy that apologising/deciding to spend (or not spend) however much would take. Not at an event this size. Consider your audience’s stress levels!

That said, you gotta put your contact info on your badges, small-press creatives. I liked your art enough to spend between 10 pence and two pounds on a wearable button, but I don’t know who you are once I’ve left you! How am I to rec you? At least try a little tag around the pin.

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Above: James Harvey on the right, and on the left… google suggests Rob Wells?

Decompressed: The Young Avengers After-Party was at a quarter to two, wherein–at behest of Boss Gillen–I pinky-swore with a stranger that I wouldn’t reveal any spoilers online. I’m not even sure if that promise is still current, but I don’t plan to cover anything spoilerish–there was more than enough to think about re: creative process and rules of collaboration. Watch for the panel write-up etc., etc., so forth. ASAP. Listen for the podcast release at Decompressed, too.

After Young Avengers was done, I (finally!) noticed the third hall. By this point I was dropping–even writing about my day now, muscle memory is making me sleepy. We whipped through it, met some people, and made a lot of notes on interesting projects. But I have a sentence in my notepad: 4:18. Hate everything. Too much people. Put me in the bin. My sweetie left me on a bale of hay (the weird barn/bar thing, remember?), abandoned the idea of getting stew at such a price, and brought me a soothing cup of tea. I looked at the breast-and arm-printed papers hanging from the ceiling and wondered what sort of a venue it was when there were no comics conventions in town. We decided to go home. And after a false start that saw me running back to Nathan Fox’s table, where I had cooly and professionally left my mittens… we did.

But of course the convention spirit doesn’t end until you’re out of the city. Waiting for a taxi, we made friends with Captain Punish America. He had a flask in his utility belt that was full of real tea. That’s so sensible! He didn’t share, but that’s okay.

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Picture of me instead of him because… I was tired, okay, thoughts were misplaced

And that was that for day one.

SUNDAY

On Sunday we started early, which I soon ruined by starting to vomit. That’s the rock’n’roll of comics life, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. But, like Wolverine (in attendance, looking tuff’n’gruff), I soon recovered and did the City Centre to Royal Armouries walk in a decent twenty minutes.

Thanks to my momentary malady I missed the Comics for Everyone! panel–a major bummer. It was great being on hand as “comics expert” for #kidbkgrp’s November conference; it reminded me how good it is to be able to help children and young teenagers know that it’s okay to like comics, that there are comics they will like, that comics are a valid form of communication and entertainment. To make comics, for want of a better word (and kicking back to my intro to Thought Bubble post), normal. I don’t know enough about family-friendly comics. I want to. I hope that panel was full, but featuring Neill Cameron, Nathan Fox, Meredith Gran, Roger Langridge, Hope Larson, and Maris Wicks, it sure should have been.

Arriving at the second day of a con is strange, because you’ve already sort of “done everything.” The layout is memorised. You’ve been in every hall (unless you are a smart planner?), scoped every main table. You know where the panels are being held, and you’re aware of where both the cosplayers hang and the biggest creator-queues are. Those first few “well … what now?” minutes feel like a let-down, which they shouldn’t, because today is another day, and you haven’t met everybody yet. There are still fresh scheduled talks. Scary masked characters will yet cavort at you and make toddlers cry (poor sweetie!). And there are still … things to buy.

I hadn’t planned to spend any money, cos I don’t have that much. But I accidentally promised to buy Howard Hardiman’s Angela on Saturday. Spur of the moment, like. “A stalker’s love poem to Angela Lansbury, based around her Murder She Wrote appearances,” so how could I resist? I literally couldn’t. An assurance of purchase fell from my mouth like water from a pipe onto Spider-Man. I fuckin’ love Murder She Wrote. I don’t regret dropping this first fiver one bit–Hardiman was a stand-out creator of the weekend for me, and I’ll be telling you why soon as poss–but it made it a heck of a lot harder to keep the cash in my pockets from there on in. To tell the truth, though, my interaction tank was running low already, and spending a little bit on a badge or a zine is the easiest way to get an equally worn down creator making friendly eye-contact and venturing into a wee chat. Top tip. Shhh.

I managed to make it into the Laydeez Do Comics Presents: Diversity In Comics panel in good time, although without finding Pai’s (and fellow #kidbkgrp guest expert) Saranga for a Sebastien O exchange (sounds rude, but isn’t–it’s just Grant Morrison). Like the other three other panels I attended, Diversity In Comics was great; well worth the write-up. I took copious notes. My hand ached. I won’t say too much now, but it was a panel full of positivity, security, and warm community feeling.

From there, it was back to the smaller halls to pick up previews from european-style publishers (and OH BOY does the Cinebook library look transporting all laid out together) and find out more about the small-press and self-pub tables that had stayed on my mind from yesterday. Stay tuned for reviews, interviews, and recommendations, yeah?

Having said so much about how big names and little names all being together is important, hah, I barely spoke to any of the creators famous enough to have a capslock print-out of their name above their booth. (This doesn’t make them SOUND famous, I know, but while we might recognise an artist by their drawing, or occasionally a writer from their twitter icon, these are definitely Names rather than Faces. (Absolute gorgons, the lot of them.) (But really though.)) For one thing I’m not much for queueing, especially in a hall as packed and stimulus-heavy as that one; for another, I’d just hold up the line by asking them anything. Rude! And–how much more general coverage do the DeConnicks, Fractions, and other Marvel-DC-etc. mover-shakers outside of that particular marriage need within comicsville? They’re big fish in our pond, and it’s up to the wider press to open up their audience. I wouldn’t have minded a minute with Paul Cornell, as a fan, but the only opportunity I saw was whilst he was enjoying a mid-day pasty. One cannot come between a man and his meat.

So. I had a look at Brandon Graham from a few metres away (he seemed fine), watched Andy Wildman do a bit of drawing (got pangs for Marvel UK), and asked Rufus Dayglo how much his merch was. He told me all the expensive things, I specified “the small, cheap ones,” and he wasn’t really sure, so he gave me some for free. Wot a gent. Now I have twin chaotic goddesses (look out for Solid Gold Death Mask in 2014, I’m relying on it to be good) on my bike helmet, and obviously I am riding better.

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The other panel I got to on Sunday was 5 Ways That Comics Can Help You At Work And Study. A presentation by Neil Gibson (Twisted Dark) about some of the exceptionally communicative mechanics of comics; semiotics, brain functions, graphs, etc. His aim was to explain why we like comics, why the general populace doesn’t, and how we can change public opinion in order to streamline our learning, teaching and understanding as a culture. It was good stuff. I have a lot to tell you about it, and an interview pending. Gibson made us applaud like six different guys and told a story about being strong-armed into buying Watchmen by Canadians.

My gentleman companion was keen to find the mid-teen volumes of Saint Seiya he’s been missing. We looked at every manga stall present (I’d say … three? Maybe four), but: no dice. Too old and just sub-classic enough? Whatever the reason, there was disappointment for us, if not for the several Shingeki no Kyojin corps members running about, looking for their life stories. As a side note, I guess anyone willing to sell lolicon-at-a-glance manga has made their peace with how that colours the atmosphere surrounding their merchandise.

I spent most of my last hour at Thought Bubble waiting for the three MegaCity Judges to come out of one hall and then, being slow, out of another. I “could have” shouted for them to waaaaaiiit on their journey between the two, but if you were me you’d know that after two days of outgoingness, after throwing up my breakfast, after dunking my head in again and in again and in again to those full, hot, noisy halls: that option was currently unavailable. I just wanted a picture of you strangling me while I flipped you the V, Judges! I just wanted to look cool by way of implied crime! But they vanished. I could not find them. We called a taxi. I was defeated.

It wasn’t so bad. My pockets were stuffed, and so was my mind. I had notes out the wazoo and a straining backpack. Thought Bubble was more than worth it: worth four hour train journeys (shut up, Americans, here that’s “long”), worth losing my stupid phone, worth eating 35p noodles and soup dust from two hotel room coffee mugs instead of ten pound, plump Express pizzas inside the con boundaries–worth spending almost a week’s food budget on books and badges and a Lizz Lunney patch. Seeing blazer-y sixth form girls and big ole grizzle-bearded blokes in leather hats in the same con panels, with the same expectation, excitement, and relaxation in their eyes is a good feeling. “My people, who are All People.”

We need more of this. If it can be this good, it can be better. Who wasn’t there? Next year, you should come.

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