the con is on!
As Leeds’ Thought Bubble 2015 con approaches, David Barnett talks to organiser Lisa Wood
It takes a lot to upstage Warren Ellis announcing a new comics project, but Thought Bubble, the Leedsbased convention that’s been quietly building up to become perhaps the most important UK comics event, managed it this year.
Ellis was on stage with his artist collaborator, Tula Lotay, at the Image Expo in San Francisco in July to unveil their new horror title Heartless when it was mentioned that Tula – not-sos-ecret identity Lisa Wood – was also the founder and director of Thought Bubble, which takes place in West Yorkshire every November.
“Everyone started cheering and applauding,” says Lisa. “It was a bit of a shock. I was like, how’s that happened?”
How indeed. Thought Bubble is now in its ninth year, and Lisa (she adopted her alter ego for her comics work after fearing her given name was too anonymous for people to find her online) couldn’t have envisaged how it was going to take off when she first mooted the idea of staging a northern convention in 2007.
She was working at Leeds’ Travelling Man comic shop at the time and had no experience of event management. “I’d never organised anything before,” says Lisa. This was gently pointed out to her. She went ahead and organised it anyway, with some support and advice from the organisers of the Leeds Film Festival, who offered to share some of their event space… in the basement of Leeds Town Hall.
“I was hoping maybe a couple of hundred people would turn up, if we were lucky,” says Lisa. “In the end, we got 500 over the weekend.”
She hadn’t seen anything yet. Thought Bubble grew and grew. Last year something like 11,000 people attended the events. This year is expected to be even bigger. And its reputation is growing, too.
Lisa says, “I was at Comic-Con in San Diego and people were coming up to me, telling me they’d heard about Thought Bubble.”
The guest list is a who’s who of comic talent from all disciplines and from around the globe. This year alone you’re going to see Becky Cloonan, Kate Beaton, John Reppion, Leah Moore, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie… And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, you’ll see Gillen and McKelvie there every year, whether there’s a Phonogram or Wicked + Divine to promote or not. Gillen says: “Thought Bubble’s growth has basically dovetailed with the renaissance in British comics in the same period. It’s grown from scrappy and charming into the highlight of the British cons calendar.
“There’s larger cons. There’s artier cons. There’s cons which serve one part of the genre more. But there’s nothing which is a snapshot of an egalitarian culture like Thought Bubble, with world superstars on adjacent tables to kids with their first black and white zines. If
everyone started applauding. i was like, how has this happened?
you want to know what comics is like at its best, you go to Thought Bubble.”
Gillen and McKelvie love Thought Bubble, so much so that their annual post-con DJ session is now a beloved fixture of the event.
Gillen agrees: “It has the best dance floor in all comics. If you want to see how comic fans can throw down given a little encouragement, the after party is it. That we get to DJ there is a blessing.”
Thought Bubble has long since outgrown its bit of space in the Town Hall basement – now it takes over the Royal Armouries site on Leeds docks. In fact, it’s outgrowing that as well, but Lisa is determined to remain loyal to the vision of a West Yorkshire convention she dreamed up years ago.
“We have sat down in the past and wondered if we might have to move, maybe to Manchester or somewhere, due to space and venue costs,” says Lisa. “It’s always more and more of a challenge every year, fitting it all in. But I don’t think we could move out of Leeds after all this time.”
That’s because Thought Bubble isn’t just a place for comic fans – in fact, it works to avoid that. Unlike most other cons, it’s knitted into the fabric of the community. The Thought Bubble team work with local groups in Leeds and Bradford who deal with refugees and people with autism, for example, to ensure all sectors of the community can get access to the world of comics. Children get in free and the ticket costs are deliberately kept low to ensure accessibility to all.
“We’ve always been about inclusivity,” says Lisa. “People go away from the event and talk about how friendly it is, how welcoming. That’s what we’ve always aimed for.”
The pressures have only increased with Lisa’s art career taking off so massively in the past year or two. Since 2013 she’s had art and/or cover credits on as diverse titles as Adventures of Superman, the Vertigo anthology Bodies, Image’s Supreme Blue Rose, The Wicked + The Divine, and of course the new Heartless title from Image.
a friendly convention
“There’s so much going on!” says Lisa, who’s also finding herself jet-setting off from leafy Ilkley – where she breaks away from the art desk to get up on the dramatic moors for “exercise and sanity” – to cons, expos and signings around the world.
That’s meant her time on Thought Bubble is squeezed tighter… but thankfully she’s got a team headed up by Martha Julian and Clark Burscough to help steer the con to fruition every year. But no matter how busy she gets as Tula Lotay, Lisa Wood’s heart will always be in the friendliest comic con on the calendar.
And Kieron Gillen wholeheartedly agrees. You can almost see the contented smile on his face as he sighs: “Basically, I look on Thought Bubble as my Christmas.”
One of the many fans of cosplay who attend Thought Bubble each year. Seriously, it’s a blast and you should all go in November.
Everyone is welcome at Thought Bubble, from the tallest Stormtroopers to the littlest bounty hunters.
Thought Bubble seems to grow bigger and bigger every year.