Artist and writer Gavin Pollock looks back at this year’s Thought Bubble Festival and reflects on its unique approach to promoting comics and, more widely the opportunities seeking to learn the comic craft it brings into focus…
Thought Bubble day started easily enough when the stray cat turned up yowling for food. Cats are strange beasts, but their needs are simple. They want food and to be worshipped, and then they ignore you. This suited me fine, as I needed to get to Leeds from Appleby in Cumbria when the trains are on strike and the roads are all closed. It was going to be a road trip, and I didn’t have time to worship small ginger predators.
We set off around the backroads South, and were making reasonable time until the cow happened. The storms had brought down a few trees, and one of the braver cows had followed one into the road.
Given that the entirety of Cumbria would be speeding down this road later, because all the other roads were closed, we decided we couldn’t leave her in the middle of the road. Cows are strange beasts, but their needs are simple. They want food and safety, and they’re scared of two things: things that move, and things that don’t. So herding her back through the gap in the fence was a question of pretending to be a thing that both moved, and didn’t, but not enough of either to be worth attacking.
One day, cows will realise we’re essentially small ginger predators and stop worshipping us, but thankfully not that day. We herded her back in, fixed up the fence, and set off again, only slightly more behind schedule.
I eventually got in to Thought Bubble around one, picked up my ticket from the very efficient office and joined the crowds of comic fans. Comic fans are strange beasts, and their needs are anything but simple.Thought Bubble seems to have decided that those needs are a huge number of comic creators in a few big buildings and marquees within easy walk of each other, and an army of helpful volunteers (all wearing rather nicely produced t-shirts featuring a tarot card design) to point you in your way. And they’re probably right. The literature provided was all easy to follow, and the maps got me from one end of the festival to the other, and that’s a good start for any event.
The next thing I found was the atmosphere was very inclusive and tolerant. I won’t say nobody was batting an eyelid at the cosplayers parading about. This is the centre of Leeds, and Victoria Hall in the middle of the festival was being used for weddings. And, fair enough, if you’ve come in from Harrogate to see your nephew marry Jenny from accounts, nervously looking out for the brides side of the family and worrying you’re overdressed, and are suddenly confronted with a bunch of Princess Mononokes and Spider-Men, even the most tolerant aunt from Harrogate is going to wonder what sort of family their nephew is marrying into. However, the comics tribes and the wedding clans managed to overcome the confusion and share the space quite happily.
My first order of business was also to see my nephew, En Gingerboom, who has been nagging me to visit Thought Bubble for years. He was there next to Jade Sarson , who I keep bumping into at steampunk conventions, and Rebecca Burgess in Victoria Hall. There were too many creators there to mention, including Shazleen Khan and Alex Moore representing the Drawn Chorus and Tab Kimpton, who organises the Rainbow Road map of LGBTQ+ zines, comics, and merchandise for just about every UK convention. I could have spent a whole day just in that one room, but there were a few other venues equally packed to visit.
After that, my main aim at the convention was to meet up with a few of the people involved in comics and education around the country, and to avoid spending too much money. I was partially successful. There are a lot of exciting things happening up and down the country with universities, museums, conventions, and organisations teaching the skills and techniques of creating comics, and Thought Bubble seems to have been contributing to that too, but more on that later.
Amongst the educators/ creators (can we call ourselves educreators? I’m going to start doing that and see if people throw stuff at me for it) there at Thought Bubble, I met Steve Marchant and Allison Brown from the Cartoon Museum in London, promoting the museum and its new location; Lydia Wysocki from Applied Comics Etc in Newcastle with a load of new projects on the go, and Yomi Ayeni, who has been working on an exciting multimedia project with Kendal College that will form part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival this weekend.
One problem with the September and October timing of a lot of comics conventions is that it really doesn’t fit in with the school schedule; teachers are far too busy in September to start comics projects. Kendal College arts and media campus seem to have managed to get round that, but next year’s Shrewsbury Festival in June might be better timed for school and college related projects.
And then it was time for a look around some of the marquees at the state of the independent comics business in the UK, and it looks great. There were hundreds of artists and writers with work on display, and the quality is phenomenal. As well as teaching workshops, I do aim to produce my own comics, and seeing the quality of the artwork on show gave me a real boost to get back to work myself. I was trying to stick to a budget, and I blew most of it on Al Davison’s book, so I didn’t pick up much, but Elliot Balson’s artwork for Untethered by Umar Ditta jumped out. It turns out Elliot is a graduate of the Dundee University comics school, who are producing some very exciting talents now.
Which leads us back to education. As I wrote, there is a tremendous array of schools and universities right now in the UK. When I started in the 1990s, Steve Marchant was ploughing a lonely furrow at the London Cartoon Centre. Beyond that, there was Will Eisner’s book, Comics and Sequential Art, and adult ed life drawing classes, if you were lucky. Now we have several universities teaching it, conventions running workshops, Comics Uncovered in Birmingham putting on classes with professional artists, life drawing groups like the Art Model Collective putting on drawing events specifically for comics artists, and more books on how to draw comics than you can shake a stick at.
The opportunities for people wanting to improve their skills have never been better.
I missed a lot of the workshops leading up to the convention end of Thought Bubble, because I was teaching workshops of my own in Cumbria, but they had an impressive list of events. There was a cosplay life drawing event I’d have particularly liked to go to. We’ve pioneered these at Megacon in Carlisle and the Asylum Steampunk Festival in Lincoln, and they work well for artists and models. The cosplayers get to pose and show off their costumes, and the artists get to draw. Put that in a pub and everyone is happy, so it’s great to see comics festivals doing them.
There were also workshops on writing and portfolio reviews from the 2000AD crew.
So, all in all, it’s a festival that’s giving a lot back to the comics community. I will be back next year.
Gavin Pollock is a Glaswegian/Cumbrian, so if he was a posh dog he’d be a Marraweegie. In between drawing comics, he teaches art, works as a life model for unfortunate art classes, plays with swords, and muddles through parenting. He’s fluent in grammatically incorrect Japanese and wishes he still had his ginger afro. Find him on Facebook here