Home Con News Recap: TBF2014 Thought Bubble Sequential Arts Festival, Leeds (Saturday 15th November)


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The Thought Bubble Sequential Arts Festival, Leeds (Festival: 9th-16th November / Comic Con: 15th-16th November 2014)


Starting as a modest one-day event in the basement of the Leeds Town Hall, Thought Bubble has grown over the last seven years into one of the worlds premier celebrations of comic creation, attracting some of the industries most respected talent to Yorkshire – in November, of all times: never the best time to visit the UK! Cold, grey, misty…  Why would anyone brave such grim surroundings?

Many thought that question when the culmination of the festival, a two-day comic con held at the Royal Armouries Museum, took place last year. The rains fell, the temperature dropped and some of the spaces that made up the con were less than inviting (more on that in bit). But every year, Lisa Wood (aka renowned artist Tula Lotay) and her team continually learn from the previous years and, in 2014, have once again raised their own bar to make Thought Bubble the premier event in the UK comics art calendar.

Leading up the Con…

Thought Bubble 2014 - Drew Struzan (north bar exhibition gallery 07)In 2014, Thought Bubble no longer takes place over the course of a single weekend; screenings, exhibitions, workshops, talks and ‘happenings’ fill up the diary to bursting point, from what I think is one of the strongest anime film programmes held in this country to Q&A appearances with the likes of Alan Moore and Adam Hughes – it really is breathtaking, the quality and variety of things to see and experience in the course of one week is staggering. I was lucky able to take in some of these on a trip into Leeds on the Tuesday 11th; I have been a lifelong Drew Struzan fan so the opportunity to finally see the Drew: The Man Behind The Poster documentary on a big screen was one I wasn’t going to pass up (more on that in my review, here).

 

image - TBF 2014 (drew struzan exhibition, leeds)But, on my jaunt around the city, from a bar which had a number of Struzan prints on display to the Town Hall itself for the doc screening, I was able to make a quick detour into the Leeds Central Library, somewhere which I’d never been before and certainly somewhere I’ll be visiting again: an unassuming doorway leads to a confluence of gothic, weaving stairways and bright, exhibition spaces. It was in one of these that the entrants to the Thought Bubble Comic Art Competition were on display for the week and, looking through the work on show here, it struck me that, if this was the tip of the iceberg, there is a mammoth pool of comic art talent that this country continues to produce, even at such young ages, and it’s great to have this opportunity to shine a spotlight on it. We are in safe hands – y’know, if the Americans don’t tempt them across t’pond.

I didn’t see any more of the other events: I will admit to avoiding Leeds when I can, with its extortionate parking fees, its infestation of over-priced, hipster coffee shops and that bloody awful one-way system which, if you’re not wary, will swallow you whole. But, for those brave enough to overcome these obstacles, there were a treasure trove of delights waiting for you. But personally, I was saving myself for the con – and I was not sure what to to expect…


Day One: Saturday 15th November

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 01)

As regular readers might already know, I earn my living as a DJ on most evenings, resulting in hitting the pillow late at night and rising late in the morning – safe to say, 6am on a Saturday is an alien world to me. And so, as I drove into Leeds (being a little ways out of the city centre, roads reaching the Royal Armouries misses out all the painful bits), I headed to what looked an alien landscape. Fields adjoining the M621 were flooded by a thick, low fog and the city skyline itself seemed to be rising from a murky planet atmosphere – thankfully, in my rear-view mirror from the East, the sun was doing its utmost to cut through the gloom… But, at this early hour, we weren’t quite there yet. And I wanted to get to the con sooner rather than later because there were some big questions that needed answering.

The popularity of Thought Bubble has swelled to such an extent that space had become a premium; an increasing number of exhibitors need that valuable table space and more and more comics fans have flocked to the con to meet and greet with their creative heroes over recent years. The two large halls of the Royal Armouries facilities – the Royal Armouries Hall in the museum itself and the New Dock Hall, a dedicated corporate/exhibition room, across from the main complex – were in place and fully booked but on evidence of the increasing numbers, this was never going to be enough. Thankfully, the landlords of the Allied London Building – one of the spaces that made up the commercial buildings that surround the Royal Armouries – had the ground floor vacant and were willing to let the Thought Bubble organisers take it on as a third venue. Thankfully… so it seemed.

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 04)Speaking to a number of exhibitors at this years event, all can recall horror stories of that space in 2013: cold, poorly lit, badly supplied with power and incredibly dusty, with cables running all around the build as organisers attempted to light and heat the space with lighting gantries and electric fires… While it gave the space a rough, indie, underdog vibe of the ‘bohemian struggling artist’, that appeal quickly wore off as the rain fell, the fingers began to shiver and the grim reality wore on over the course of that weekend. Many who were given tables in that room were not overly enthusiastic to return to such a setup in a hurry.

Thank goodness then that, in 2014, something new was introduced to replace the Allied London: the Thought Bubble Teepee, a hard-shelled ‘tent’, hired in for the duration and constructed in the courtyard between the New Dock and the Royal Armouries. When exhibitors were told they would be given room in ‘a tent’, many were unsure about what they were going to experience – what they actually got was a well-lit, well-heated, clean and pristine hard-shell, erected on the Thursday before with the heating and lighting going in on the Friday, which housed more than the Allied London had the previous year. Thursday night had Leeds battered by a torrential downpour and the construction staff, members of the RAI teams and Thought Bubble organisers huddled inside, hoping that leaks were at a minimum. As it happened: not a drop. A good start!

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 03)Those that had arrived in the early hours on that Saturday, started lining up outside the Teepee the second they arrived – the Teepee had two entrances, one from the Courtyard side and another around ‘the back’, opposite the Royal Armouries entrance, that had a dedicated hardcore collective of Mondo fans queueing from the afternoon before! For the more level-headed fanatic, 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning was considered a more sensible hour to start lining up: American comics writer Scott Snyder was the big draw for many, especially as he was bringing a Thought Bubble exclusive variant of his smash hit horror comic, Wytches, with its artist, Jeff Lemire, also in attendance. Off to one side, a number of Matt Ferguson fans also lined up, bright and early, in a dedicated line of their own.

I had gotten there early myself  as I wanted to see how lines were going to be arranged with the Teepee taking up that valuable space in the Courtyard – as it happened, Thought Bubble had commandeered the Clarence Dock Hall space, off to the side and keeping ticket lines away from the venues. This began the reoccurring theme of the weekend, a more thought out, intelligent approach to line management which kept everything running smoothly (at least, from Thought Bubble’s end). After getting my weekend wristband, venue guide and a swag bag, I wandered around, taking in the swelling numbers that grew and grew as we got closer to the doors opening at 10am. If there was any serious congestion during the day, it was at this early point, lines snaking around any spare space and then trailing down away from the Armouries – thank goodness the fog had lifted and the rain was holding off, only a mild chill dampened any moods.

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 02)

Thought Bubble Teepee

The doors opened, the crowds flooded in and, like any popular comic con, space became a vacuum: exhibitors found themselves confronted by a steady stream of people, swelling in places but mostly ebbing and flowing around the entire three halls. The exhibitors I found myself talking to were galvanised by a constant sea of enthusiasts, all wanting to soak up anything new… and there was plenty of that to be found here. The back wall of the Teepee was taken up by the signing tables with their barrier where you could find the more popular names, mostly from overseas: Becky Cloonan, Babs Tarr, Brendan Fletcher and the like. It was where fans – yes, including myself! – were hoping to find Scott Synder… but, alas, he was nowhere to be seen.

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 05)

Scott Snyder

As lines for Snyder’s signing were directed outside to the back access doors (all of the longer lines of the day were marshalled outside and then fed in smartly to the corresponding by the outstanding ‘Red Shirts’ team of TB volunteers), word filtered through that the morning’s deep fog had diverted his plane from Leeds/Bradford to Manchester. A good hour added with a swift drive down the M62 – not a massive delay but enough to slightly dampen the spirits of the dedicated, clutching their Wytches TB variants. Thankfully, the Red Shirts were always, always keeping everyone up-to-date with developments, almost by the minute; it was wonderful to know fans were constantly being kept in the loop. By the time Scott arrived, he barely had time to meet a handful of fans before having to disappear for his first panel of the day – Inkstuds Live, held in the Speech Bubble area. Thankfully he was to return afterwards, scheduled to sign at the Image Comics table and those in that first line were given raffle tickets to guarantee their place at the head of the line: “Image might grumble at that but, look, we’ll grumble louder. You guys were here first – you’re first.” Fair enough. This gave me an opportunity to take a tour of the site in total, including sitting in on a panel held in the Bury Theatre on something I’ve never heard of before: Bee And Puppycat, a webseries that I’ve now since taken a look at. I would’ve never had come across it if I hadn’t gone in the room – I know understand why the very dedicated fans that hung on every word of creators Natasha Allegri, Becky Driestadt, and Madeleine Flores (the panel was hosted by Frank Gibson). What a fun panel!

Tom Muller and Ales Kot

Tom Muller and Ales Kot

Once Scott Snyder got out of Inkstuds, we all gathered again – in yet another line – and, coincidentally, found myself in front of Ales Kot and Tom Muller, the writer and creative designer respectfully of Zero, a book I’ve been reading as part of my press access to the Image archive. I enjoy the book and so, with the opportunity to grab a signed copy, I took it – along with taking a nice pic of the pair. As it happens, Scott Snyder has written a ringing endorsement of Zero for the back cover and, along with getting my Wytches variants signed, I cheekily got him to sign the endorsement, which confused him a little. Hey, it’s a great book and the signatures are a nice touch for my collection. Thanks, boys.

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 07)Image Comics was the biggest publisher in attendance throughout Thought Bubble – plenty of their talent pool had been brought to the event and the publisher also conducted a couple of popular panels during the day which filled up the Bury Theatre to capacity and the inside of the Museum saw queues bigger than any that would form for their usual attractions. Neither of the ‘Big Two’ – Marvel and DC Comics – exhibit at Thought Bubble but most of the big artists and writers at the event have produced for the pair so they weren’t exactly missed as such. However, the primary emphasis of the whole event seemed to be on independent publishers, from small start-ups who have been around for a year or two and have had a number of books on display, to one-man shops, printing their books themselves, just getting started.

Indeed, as I walked around the three rooms, it was difficult to pin down if there were distinct themes to the spaces; I spoke to one-man creatives, taking their first steps into comics, sat alongside known and established names in the industry – a wonderfully level playing field. It also meant that any bunching up of the crowds were eliminated as there was no one big, designated spot to cause any crushes: refreshing to see at any con. This didn’t mean that lines didn’t take up space throughout the course of the day but any issues that did arise were dealt with quickly and efficiently by the true superstars of the entire event: I refer, once again to the Thought Bubble Red Shirts, the army of volunteers that always kept the weekend running smoothly and efficiently, without losing a smile. If anyone is to be thanked for how well Thought Bubble ran this year, it’s them.

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 08)This is not to say there weren’t a few hiccups and things to grumble about but, thank goodness, these were few and far between: the Speech Bubble panel area, held in the same location as last year, from the same landlords that provided the Allied London space – it says a lot about the economic climate we’re still living in that the makeshift window display of milk-and-stuck-on-comics-covers was still there from the year previous. Another thing that hadn’t changed was the same poor lighting and heating that the Allied London had suffered in 2013 – where last year this was tempered by the glow of a single gas heater which gave the space a ‘gather ye around the campfire, let me spin ye a yarn’ vibe, which I enjoyed. However, a hard wall had been put in place by the landlords in the interim which split the entire space in half, reducing the capacity. And if it was cramped in 2013… There were a couple of panels that were guaranteed to be incredibly popular, in a room that now only held around fifty. Lunacy. I avoided like the plague.

The other small pebble-in-the-shoe of the Saturday was not strictly Thought Bubble’s fault so it seems churlish to bring it up, but… On the fourth floor of the museum is the Newsroom, a blacked-out space with raised seating, which held a screening of Future Shocks, a documentary on the history, impact and legacy of 2000AD, featuring some of the illustrious superstars from the comics 37 year history. Rebellious, anarchic, extremely profane, it’s a punk rendition which explains the necessity of the comic to kick against the pricks and defy the established rules. This attitude has almost cost the very publication of the comic itself as it found itself being passed from owner to owner in the 80’s and fighting financial and creative battles.

The documentary is a cannily told narrative, from 2000AD‘s conception to present day, taking diversions into topics such as the British Invasion of U.S. comics in the 1980’s, when American publishers came and tempted huge swathes of the UK talent pool across the pond, including from comics such as 2000AD; the dark times of the titles history when 2000AD found itself owned by companies who didn’t understand the core ethos of the comic, let alone what made it work; and the resurgence of the brand, framed against the backdrop of the rise of the contemporary superhero movie. Featuring interviews with nearly every major player in the comics history, from Judge Dredd creators Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra, editor including Andy Diggle and Matt Smith, and artists and writers such as Neil GaimanGrant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, Jock and Rob Williams, you can’t deny you get the full, unbiased, unfiltered picture of this incredibly influential comic, which is still running strong today.

Now, the gripes: the playtrack was slightly muffled in the Newsroom but that was down to the compression of the file being played, combined with the Newsroom space clearly not being designed to have PA bouncing and echoing around it. The screen was being projected a little low, meaning subtitles (essential for Ezquerra interview sections), unreadable through people s heads, even for those in the raised seating section – plenty of giraffe necks on display when the Spaniard took to the screen. Also, on a constructive production note, the tempo and editing style of the doc meant there was a sense of repetitiveness and monotony to the film and you anticipated when cuts were coming, interview clips metronoming against comic screenshots at a very regular pace. Combined with a fair number of  file errors which glitched the playback several times throughout the presentation, I found the whole thing very hard viewing for a documentary that, as a life long 2000AD fan, I was really looking forward to seeing. I’m hoping that my fatigue at that point of the day is tempering my recollection of the documentary ad I look forward to seeing it again in a fully awake state to give it a proper review. (Screener, please!)

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 09)From the screening, I headed downstairs to the Bury Theatre, to take my seat for the British Comic Awards Presentation Ceremony which is something I was determined to live blog for this website, as I had missed the event last year. I had no idea what to expect from this but I assumed that it would be a prestigious event, seeing the sheer scale of talent, both established and fresh, that had made the short list of the four categories presented that evening – I also naively assumed that a majority of the judges would be in attendance. I arrived forty-five minutes early to secure a seat – and discovered that, in actual fact, I could’ve just rocked up ten minutes before and even then just strolled into the theatre. Looks like comics award ceremonies are not the standing room only affairs I make them out to be in my head!

image - thought bubble 2014 (saturday 15th recap 10)I was also surprised to find that only two of the judging panel were in the room: Suzy Verty, who I’d had a chat with outside (a lovely woman who confessed that her busy schedule had left her struggling for time to read the entrants to hand but had managed to, cramming last minute) and Jonathan Entwistle, who I didn’t manage to see, even though I kept an eye for him – guy’s like a ghost! No Jonathan Ross – okay, understandable as the man does keep himself busy but, for an enthusiastic supporter of the industry, I hoped he might make an appearance – no Jessica Hynes and no Danny John-Jules, either. I spoke to Danny at the MCM Expo in Birmingham the following week and he confessed that he hadn’t even heard from the BCA Committee about who had won. Wow! The guy had read all those books for you and you’d have thought that even an cursory email was in order! Anyway…

Even if we in the audience were in the minority, I for one felt very privileged to be in attendance – the presentation was ably hosted by Geek Syndicate’s Dave Monteith (who shared some very personal events of the past year and talked passionately about how comics rose him from his own family’s struggles) and it was especially exciting to see Kieron Gillan and Jamie McKelvie take to the stage to collect an award for Best Comic (The Wicked + The Divine #1, a comic I’m a rabid supporter of – it’s easily my favourite book of 2014, too) and to have Posy Simmons be interviewed about her life and career as she was accepted into the RCA Hall Of Fame.

Leaving the Royal Armouries, I made my way home to unload the mountains of swag and comics that I’d gathered throughout the day (and I wasn’t planning on leaving three Wytches variant covers lying around). Thankfully, I only live twenty minutes down the road which meant I was able to sit down for a spell, upload the pics from my phone, and then make my way back into the city centre to attend the legendary Thought Bubble Mid-Con Party, held at the Leeds Town Hall. However, because of my personal lack of sleep and the need to be up again at the very crack of dawn (combined with the staggeringly inflated bar prices and, frankly, the rather ropey decision to let some of the ‘DJ’s’ play from iPods and mobile phones, meaning the quality and sound levels of the MP3’s was fluctuating between poor and very, very bad – this is what happens when you organise what is essentially a house party through a 15k sound system, the PA hire guys were tearing their hair out!), I left before 1am, meaning I missed the Kieron Gillan set of the evening, which apparently had the crowd rocking until the doors closed at 4am. I’ve seen posts about the comics industry’s brightest and best staying up till the wee hours – I’ve no idea how they do it  and then get up early for another full day of con – maybe I’m just past it! To bed, to sleep…


 

Click here to follow my experiences of the next day, Sunday 16th of the Thought Bubble comic con…

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