You may have heard of Thought Bubble, the comic art and animation festival held each year in Leeds. Although not a large-scale event like New York Comic Con or Comic-Con International in San Diego, Thought Bubble has developed a reputation for being a friendly, immersive convention, which welcomes mainstream and independent comics alike.
CBR News spoke this past weekend at the convention, separately, to Thought Bubble founder Lisa Wood and “Young Avengers,” “Iron Man” and “Phonogram” writer (and festival mainstay) Kieron Gillen about their experiences at the UK show over the years.
CBR News: Lisa, where did the idea for Thought Bubble come from? What kicked things off?
Lisa Wood: Pure love of the medium, really. I’ve loved comics since I was little, and they’ve always been one of my favorite things. And because I’ve been involved in retail for a while, as one of the directors for [UK comics and games store] Travelling Man, I’d been involved in organizing some shop signings for guests, and things like that. So this kind of seemed like the obvious step forward.
Because I know people from [Leeds International Film Festival], I got in contact with them and they were keen to help out. They made it easy to set up the event. The very first festival was super-small — we held it in the crypt of Leeds Town Hall and 500 people attended. But I guess because the atmosphere was so nice and friendly, it just snowballed from there.
When did you first attend Thought Bubble, Kieron?
Kieron Gillen: The first year, in the town hall. Part of the reason why myself and [“Phonogram” and “Young Avengers” artist Jamie McKelvie] have such a tremendous affection for Thought Bubble is that they were the first convention to treat us like, well, decent human beings. Lisa and Tamsin [Isles, organizers of the first festival] knew creators much better than most cons know creators. They knew what very little things they could do to make creators happy. We’d just done “Phonogram,” so we were complete nobodies, but they brought water to our table, and they paid for our hotel room — all these scary things.
This was at a point where British conventions had hit a terminal decline. When I came to comics in 2000, Bristol was the only con there was. And now we have a range of cons across the UK, a whole range, and it’s not like any of them are shit. Thought Bubble was the first to really show off what you could do with a comics show, if you put an event into the right hands.
What do you think it is about Thought Bubble which has caught attention?
Wood: It’s kind of nuts, and I always wonder why this convention seems to have grown more than the other ones. I think it may be a few things. For one, we’re not a comic con, we’re a festival. Some cons may be superhero-focused and feature mainly Marvel and DC, or they may be indie like TCAF with a focus on independent press and an artist’s alley. TB is a representation of myself, and my own eclectic taste. For me, it’s all about getting things I love, which might be Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera, or a self-published creative team who’ve just made their first book.
It’s just my favorite stuff, all together in one show. I think we have the best guests from around the world here — they’re my favorites, and I think they’re the favorites of a lot of other people as well.
When people ask me why this is so successful, I think a festival or a business or an event is a representation of the team running it, and I think your personality always comes through. I try to be very friendly and respectful. I want to make people happy, and so from the beginning that’s been the heart of the festival.
From exhibitors to guests, I want to improve each year and try really hard to make sure everybody has a really good time. I think that’s what has made this so successful. We have a meeting of our volunteers, and team, and we tell them all that we have to make sure that this is fun for ourselves, and as a result for everyone else involved. We want to enjoy this.
Gillen: One of my favorite anecdotes about the convention is from the year I was writing “Uncanny X-Men.” I’m relaunching it for the first time since the 1960s. But when Thought Bubble contact me about what they’d like to ask me to do for that year’s convention, what panel did they put me on? “What was the best thing you read this year?”
So not only did they not do anything to seize on X-Men promotion — they put me on a panel where I had to talk about other books! And I think that sums up Thought Bubble. They didn’t think of what would be most commercial, they just thought, “What would be a fun thing for Kieron to do?”
How have you seen the convention grow over the last seven years?
Gillen: Thought Bubble always feels like Jamie and mine’s home turf. The fact they personally treated us so well in the first year means that we’ve been back every year since. Especially this year, it’s felt like people have been saying, “Oh, I’ve finally got to come to Thought Bubble this year.” There are many more foreign guests here this year than in other years, but they’re not slouching with home guests either.
It feels like, this is one of the things on the calendar where we check our progress as human beings for the year, I think? The whole indie scene is very vibrant at Thought Bubble — people like Marc Ellerby and Great Beast, for example, and that whole extended family.
For me, I feel an awareness. That’s something we start to feel now, this awareness. We have a proper number of people now queuing for us at our table and we’ve come every year and seen that queue grow, and an awareness build around us. It’s been amazing, the bonhomie. For me, it’s not so much “what’s changed” as it is “what’s stayed the same.” Like Dr. Dre, I still have love for the streets, the heart of the convention hasn’t changed over the years.
Wood: I think happiness and being positive can be really infectious, and my gut feeling is that this is why the festival has done so well; as we try and spread that feeling. If there’s any negativity, we try and make sure that we fix and help and sort out the problems as quickly as possible.
Gillen: A lot of the recent conversations we’ve had recently about harassment, and cosplayer objectification, and all these sorts of things — as far as I’m aware, and I may simply be ignorant to this, but I’ve never heard of any complaints at Thought Bubble. Thought Bubble is very friendly, demographically quite good, and I think that all comes from the programming. I think [organizers] Clark and Lisa let people do whatever they want to do.
I realized this year that, by pure chance, we had all the people here who’d be doing the “Afterparty” issues [of “Young Avengers”]. So we just went, “Oh, let’s do it!” It seemed an opportunity too weird to not use, and so we set up the “Afterparty” panel.
How do you feel this year has gone, expanding to three halls?
Wood: It’s been amazing. There were some teething problems on Saturday — we always have some on Saturday. It’s hard for our tiny team to manage the sheer volume of people, sometimes. But as soon as we get through Saturday, everything else seems to go smoothly.
I think our attendance was probably around 8,000, which for us is just crazy. We’ve always been pretty small, but I feel proud that it feels like our reputation is now preceding us.
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