In Words and Pictures: Thought Bubble 2023

Review by Luke Williams

Thought Bubble 2023 - Photo by Luke Williams

Thought Bubble has become legendary worldwide, in comic industry circles anyway. Its focus is away from the mainstream fayre of Marvel and DC, instead promoting independent creators and publishers, with one exception probably being the reasonably strong, though not overpowering, presence of Rebellion, publisher of 2000AD and Treasury of British Comics titles.

The trip up to Harrogate from my home in South Wales doesn’t start well. The train network has been badly affected by the biblically wet weather. Some trains are cancelled or redirected and as a consequence carriages are crowded, and completely crammed between Manchester and Leeds. Only on the final leg, between Leeds and Harrogate, provides some respite.

Arriving at Harrogate, I swap train for a bus and pass the convention centre less than five minutes from the bus and train stations. The bus driver assists this hapless Welshman by indicating when to hop off for my digs.

To save a bit of cash for comics, I chose cheaper accommodation a 25 minute walk from the town centre, so after settling into the accommodation I set off on in the dark to get my bearings.

Even at this time of day, Harrogate is pretty. Christmas lights are creeping out ever earlier in the year across British towns.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Harrogate at night - Photo by Luke Williams

Taking in the sights, I come across one of Tharg’s droids. Not wanting to disturb, I move on and a little starstruck, I leave them to it. Back to digs, a bit of tea and off to sleep, a big day tomorrow.

Saturday morning, first day of the convention and suitably dressed in a (possibly counterfeit) Asterix T-shirt, I check my convention kit: tote bags (possibly insufficient capacity), nice warm coat, wallet, phone. Ready! Let’s go…

Planning what you want to see and do at a convention is essential; especially with a con as large as Thought Bubble. The two day programme is a smorgasbord of creator interviews, discussions panels and workshops, something to suit everyone. It may be that you are there for the whole convention, but you will never see everything that you want to see, either due to lack of time, or timetable conflicts.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Early Queuing - Photo by Luke Williams

Having never paid heed to this useful advice, I don’t plan and don’t even check opening times, assuming it will be around 9.00ish. Nope, 10.00am, but fans have already started to queue, jealously watching exhibitors walk in with their passes, displays and products of their long toil.

I decide to take in Harrogate in the daylight and wait for the queue to die down. The dark didn’t mask an ugly side, it’s a beautiful town.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Early Queuing - Photo by Luke Williams

I head back for 10.00, opening time, and I can see the queue stretching way past the exhibition complex, out of the town centre somewhere into the distance. At 10.20, I relent and decide to join the queue. Thankfully, and as an indication of the efficient organisation of TB, the wait isn’t that long, about 20 minutes, enough time for people watching.

Rich Johnston, a very well known head of some other comic related website, walks past staring into his tablet, presumably filming the length of the queue. The line to TB is peppered with cosplayers – some in very thin outfits, braving the chilly, but thankfully sunny and dry, Yorkshire morning.

Rich Johnston’s “From one side of Thought Bubble to the other” for 2023

For a newbie to TB, the first thing that strikes you is the size of that first Red Shirt hall, and the number of stalls. Reaching the end of that first hall you realise there are another two (Dstlry and Bubble Boy) of similar size, offering over 600 exhibitors in total. And, by crikey, it’s busy. It’s a wonderful sight.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Red Shirt Hall - Photo by Luke Williams
Thought Bubble 2023 - Photo by Luke Williams

Along with the three ground floor exhibitors halls, there is a stage / signing area, upstairs are two workshops and two panel rooms. Thought Bubble is big on inclusivity: for example, in addition to the halls and panel rooms there are chill out / quiet areas, play areas for kids and BSL signers for almost every panel I attended.

As a longtime Squaxx dek Thargo, I had decided to focus mainly on the 2000AD panels, starting with, off to the 2000AD Writer Talent Search. Over the next hour, eight would-be “Future Shocks” (or, as it turns out “Terror Tale”) writers threw themselves on the mercy of three professional writers: former Tharg, Andy Diggle, 2000AD / Judge Dredd Megazine contributor Leah Moore and previous writer talent search winner and Megazine writer Laura Bailey. Entrants have two minutes to pitch a four-pager for Tharg, then undergo a short critique from each of the panel. Understandably, you can see the nerves of some of the entrants; possibly not helped by the panel warming to their role and while never being unfair, quite candid in their criticism, but also praising where appropriate.

Thought Bubble 2023 - 2000AD Writers Panel - Photo by Luke Williams

Hats off to Ryan, Aaron, Tom, Finn, James, Mike, Brian, (another) James, Josh and the winner, longtime independent comic writer Ed Whiting. Ed combined a great story with the best delivery with his “Terror Tale”, the best pitch, “Essence of the Piece”. The writing is important, but in a pitch don’t forget to practice your delivery for time, concision and clarity.

Cons can be tough for socially awkward types. I know, I’m one. My mind goes blank when I go to speak to a creator (I’ve met John Wagner four times – it never gets easier, and it isn’t John’s fault), despite this being my umpteenth con. For the first half of any con, I’m usually doing circuits of the floor, summoning courage. Toward the end of the first day I finally develop some patter: “So, how’s the con going for you” is the sophisticated, urbane and witty ice breaker I come up with.

With so many stalls bearing so much great material and only a limited budget it becomes hard to say no to exhibitors, though there is never any hard sell. All the exhibitors I (eventually) spoke to were friendly, enthusiastic and clearly have drive, commitment and a deep love of the medium.

I’d planned, or at least sort of planned, to sit in on the “Best Thing To Read All Year”, not paying attention and seeing the timetable conflict the Writers Panel, and somewhere along the line I’ve missed an hour. But I do manage to get myself to the “Spotlight on Jason Aaron”. It turns out he’s as much of a nerd as the rest of us, referencing his love of the Marvel and DC universes, Star Wars, etc. Considering the nature of TB, It’s odd that the interview concentrates mainly on his mainstream Marvel work – although some time is spent on the sadly never to be finished Southern Bastards, a personal favourite. Aaron is funny, warm and self deprecating.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Jason Aaron - Photo by Luke Williams
Jason Aaron

The final panel of the day I attend is “Silence, To Astonish!”. It’s a quiz, with three question masters: two in in masks, one ape, the other a rather battered, but well made and convincing Galactus helmet, firing bizarre questions at a panel made up of Al Ewing, Rachael Stott, Lucy Sullivan and someone who is not Caspar Wijngard, who has become unavailable. Tasks include creating armour from Marvel’s Ravage 2099, listing nine best things, Crufts winners down the years, best tattoo ever (according to Al Ewing, it’s his Lego Space tattoo) and ending with guest appearances from Alan Moore (not really). The funniest thing I saw all weekend.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Silence, To Astonish! - Photo by Luke Williams

Sunday, Sunday…

On Day Two, I decide that if I’m going to wait half hour to get in the queue anyway I may as well start early. So I’m waiting in line at 9.30 , a much better plan, I’m in just after 10.00. The halls are a little quieter than Saturday, or I’ve got acclimatised – I’m not sure.

Thought Bubble 2023 - 2000AD Artists Panel - Photo by Luke Williams

The companion to yesterday’s “2000AD Writer Talent Search” is Sunday’s 2000AD Artists Talent Search”. The judges on the panel are art droid Anna Morozova, previous winner and Judge Dredd artist Tom Foster, and the legendary Jock. The start is delayed, as PR Droid Michael Molcher addresses some IT issues and Tom Foster gallantly fills for time. Competitors Andre, Lucas, Rose, Ross, Sinu, and Tom submit their interpretations of an Al Ewing Future Shock” script, and are assessed by the panel in front of the audience. You must really want to draw for Tharg if you’re prepared to go through that.

Again, like the Writers Search, criticism is honest and fair, if on occasion harsh to hear. Even amongst the entries that didn’t win, there are definitely stars of the future here, but Sinu Senan’s entry, “The Gifts of the Magi”, attracted involuntary intakes of breath.

The opening page of Sinu Senan’s take on Al Ewing’s story, “The Gifts of the Magi”
The opening page of Sinu Senan’s take on Al Ewing’s story, “The Gifts of the Magi”

Next stage, off to Dead Northern Stage to watch Ram V and Rachael Stott pick their Favourite Apocalypse, which drifts to a discussion on the merits of 1990s Michael Bay “classic” disaster movie Armageddon. It’s all a bit silly, but great fun, unfortunately marred by it being in a large echoey room, the poor sound quality and the noise from the signing queue being only a few yards awa,. However, the organisers had accounted for this and provided headphones for the audience seated further away from the stage, I just wasn’t sensible enough to use a pair. The tone of the panel changes a little bit as the banter between the hosts and panelists gives way to a few sober questions from the audience.

Thought Bubble 2023 - 2000AD Artists Panel - Photo by Luke Williams
Judge Dredd story, “A Penitent Man” by Kenneth Niemand and Tom Foster
Heading our way: a collection of the Judge Dredd story, “A Penitent Man” by Kenneth Niemand and Tom Foster

Off to the 2000AD panel. Turns out Tharg is releasing a new edition of Slaine: the Horned God <sigh>, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the character or to celebrate the umpteenthth collection of that story? There were interesting snippets: an Apex reprint of Button Man, a new softcover collection of Brian Bolland’s Judge Dredd work Master edition, the return of “Full Tilt Boogie”, a new series of “Thistlebone”, a collection of Kenneth Niemand and Tom Foster’s “A Penitent Man” sequence from Judge Dredd; a collection of the Lowborn High” strip from 2000AD Regened.

There were previews, too, of some great-looking upcoming Dredd strips from Rob Williams, Arthur Wyatt, Henry Flint and RM Guerra. Laura Bailey plugged her new DeMarco series drawn by Rob Richardson, while Elizabeth Sandifer talked about the writing process and the relationship between writer and artists, who observed:

“The fun thing about comics is that you can come up with horrible things and lets someone else deal with it.”

Whereas Rob Williams recalled an early submission to famously truculent Tharg David Bishop, who responded savagely, commenting that it was the most unoriginal Future Shock” ever. Winner of the unofficial best footwear competition went to Elizabeth Sandifer’s husband for his boots, sat in the audience. While the unofficial best jumper of the con’ prize goes to Tom Foster.

The final panel I attended that day was the “Illustrator to Writer To Batman” panel consisting of Jock, who’s recently written and drawn the Batman: One Dark Knight series, alongside his creator owned work, and Christian Ward, who had recently started his work on Batman: City of Madness. Jock and Ward make a great double act, wind them up and let them go. They (over?)share experiences with mentors, parents education and their time in the industry and what they are planning for the future and offer advice to budding creators.

Thought Bubble 2023 - Jock and Christian Ward - Photo by Luke Williams
Jock and Christian Ward

And that was Thought Bubble. An amazing experience. It can be overwhelming for the first time visitor, but there is a warmth and enthusiasm from the staff and the creators that will soon calm your excitement.

To labour a point, planning your day(s) is essential – there is genuinely so much to see here, I was lucky to notice that some of my favourite creators were here, because basically I hadn’t paid enough attention to the guest list or the guides when I entered the halls and as a consequence, I missed a few people I would have liked to have spoken with. Organisation is tip top. I had heard some complaints from exhibitors, but for the punter, I couldn’t find fault. Staff are very helpful, friendly and approachable. Even the food on site is reasonable – not the usual exorbitant prices you’d find at such an event.

The event offers a fantastic opportunity to speak directly with creators and be introduced to new work in a friendly environment. Just make sure you have plenty of money or lots of self control.

Luke Williams

Head to the official Thought Bubble Festival website for the latest news about their 2024 event, dates coming soon:

2000AD have a full guide to their projects announced at Thought Bubble 2023 here

• For a full read-through of everything discussed at “The Galaxy’s Greatest Panel”, offering a look at some of the comic’s recent stories, and what Earthlets can expect from 2024, head to Popverse, who live-blogged the entire panel. For anyone who is interested in future art contests in particular, there’s some zarjaz hints and tips – both Laura and Tom started their 2000AD careers through the Thought Bubble Talent Search, so there’s plenty of great advice

Categories: 2000AD, British Comics, Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Events

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