Continuing our series of interviews with British comic convention organisers, for this ninth – and for now, final – installment Matthew Badham talks to Lisa Wood of Leeds’ Thought Bubble Festival.
Thought Bubble is a four-day annual event which celebrates sequential art in all its forms, including everything from superheroes to independent small press. We are a non-profit making organisation dedicated to promoting comics and graphic novels as an important cultural art form. Taking place at a variety of venues across the city, our aim is to cater to both long-time comic book fans and those who have never picked up a graphic novel before!
Thought Bubble will take place next weekend, 19th – 22nd November 2009 with a centrepiece one-day convention on Saturday 21st.
These convention features are being cross-posted on downthetubes, the Forbidden Planet International blog and Fictions. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in the UK.
downthetubes: Please tell us about a little about the history of your event.
Lisa: Thought Bubble started in 2007. I had been toying with the idea of running some kind of comics based exhibition or a series of workshops and the idea grew from there. I was really keen to bring a comics festival to the UK that was in the same vain as some of the European festivals; something that wasn’t just a convention but a celebration of comics on lots of different levels.
I feel really passionately that comics should be recognized as a valid art form like in France, when they are called the ninth art and regarded very highly. The public’s perception of comics and graphic novels is changing at the moment due to the popularity of comics-based movies. We are not only seeing superhero comic movies at the moment but films such as Road to Perdition, Scott Pilgrim and History of Violence too, which are all based on great graphic novels.
downthetubes: How is your event funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant, some other means or a combination of these?
Lisa: Thought Bubble is funded by Ticket sales and exhibitors. We have also just found out that we have Arts Council funding which is amazing! It is great to know serious funding bodies such as The Arts Council are recognizing the benefits of comic books for learning and literacy. Hopefully this is the beginning of something really special.
downthetubes: What are Thought Bubble’s overall aims?
Lisa: Our aim has always been to bring comics and graphic novels to the mainstream, and to show they can be an excellent educational tool to be embraced by libraries, schools and local councils. We want to put on a great show celebrating the amazing art and writing in comics.
downthetubes: Who is Thought Bubble aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?
Lisa: We are very family-friendly. We pretty much aim the con at everyone! We try and programme events that will appeal to all ages and types. At our Alea event we host panels, screenings and talks, which are for adults. However, we also run lots of workshops and events especially for young people! We recognise the importance of introducing young people to comic books so the art form can keep growing and growing.
downthetubes: How effective have you been in getting those kind of people to attend?
Lisa: Because we run as part of the Leeds International Film Festival, we tend to get a wide range of people attending our events. We also tend to get people coming along who are just curious, which is great for us because we have the chance to introduce newcomers to this wonderful art-form, this is what we always intended to do.
Lisa: Figures for our festival and one day convention were: first year convention 500, festival as a whole 1100, our second year convention was 1500, festival as a whole 2500 and we are hoping this year will be 2200 for our convention and 3000 for our festival as a whole.
downthetubes: What lessons have you learned during your time running Thought Bubble, in terms of its marketing and advertising?
Lisa: I think we are still learning how best to approach these areas. We will probably concentrate more on online advertising this year rather than printed matter, just because costs can be so high. The way we have approached this in the past is where possible find in-kind sponsorship. We have worked with various magazines to promote ourselves and in return we have helped promote them. We also work with various shops around West Yorkshire to promote our event as much as possible. Getting people on board to help us spread the word and our brand is invaluable.
downthetubes: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about Thought Bubble? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?
Lisa: We’re really into using social networking sites to spread the word. We have also set up a Youtube account, where we can post our favourite clips and hold competitions. We also have a WordPress blog that is updated daily at the moment. Our next goal is to record all of our workshops and talks to build up an online library of educational information for anyone and everyone to access.
downthetubes: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?
Lisa: Because these cost tend to be fairly high we try and avoid buying adverts in magazines and work on in-kind deals, as I mentioned before.
downthetubes: What’s the mix in terms of exhibitors at Thought Bubble? Do you even have exhibitors?
Lisa: We have over 170 exhibitors. The mix is usually, small press 50 per cent, guests and pros 20 per cent and retailers 30 per cent. It changes year on year though.
downthetubes: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country? How do you use Thought Bubble to support it (do you try and support it)?
Lisa: We absolutely support the small press scene. We love it! We hold weekly small press features on our blog, highlighting some of our favourite small press people.
downthetubes: How much are the tickets for Thought Bubble? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.
Lisa: Our tickets are £8 full price this year, half price for cosplayers and under-12s are free. For this price you get to spend the whole day listening to various talks and have the chance to take part in workshops, watch screenings, meet artists and writers and ask for sketches. It is a tough call trying to keep prices low. venue costs can be really high. There are also lots of hidden costs such as insurance and trading licence, the stage, tables. Running a convention can end up being very pricey. When dealing with ticket prices you need to look at your own costs and what your competition is charging.
downthetubes: How much are exhibitor tables for Thought Bubble (if you have any)? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?
Lisa: Again, we try and keep this low where possible, especially for small press as most of the time they end up losing money attending cons. Our small press and professional tables are £40, retailer and publisher tables are £60.
Lisa: Most or our programme is full of free workshops for young people and adults, our Arts Council funding helps us to do this. We invite industry professionals to come along and let people know how they write or draw and how to get in to the business. Our workshops have been incredibly successful, with most of them selling out before our brochure comes out. So far workshops have been run on a voluntary basis by industry professionals who are kind enough to give us and the public their time.
downthetubes: As you’ve been kind enough to answer these questions, please fell free to big Thought Bubble up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what Thought Bubble’s main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.
Lisa: This year, Thought Bubble will include art and writing based workshops for young people and adults, panels and talks lead by industry professionals and a programme of sequential art related film screenings.
The special one-day convention includes an incredible line up of leading artists and writers, and over 150 tables selling comics and merchandise. The day will also feature portfolio viewings and competitions.
This promises to be one of the best events of its kind in the UK, where you’ll be able to meet some of your favourite comic book creators and browse the huge selection of memorabilia on sale – brought to you by the biggest and best exhibitors and dealers from across the country.
downthetubes: Thanks to Lisa for his time answering our questions. Check out their blog, by the way, for some brilliant comic creator interviews with the likes of Frank Quitely and Charlie Adlard!
• Photos by Matthew Kitchen: http://matthius.deviantart.com
• Thought Bubble Official Site: www.thoughtbubblefestival.com. Full details as to this year’s programme can be found on the Festival Information 2009 page, while Thought Bubble’s guest list also looks amazing and they have some brilliant small press exhibitors in attendance.
More Matters of Convention by Matthew Badham
Matt Badham is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD and Big Issue in the North.