It’s a misty chilly morning in Leeds, but Scarlet Witch strikes quite an image as she walks towards Tesco’s, neon yellow and bright green, vividly startling at half past nine on this achingly early Saturday morning of Thought Bubble. She is flanked by three other costumed, crusading comic fans and so my pilgrimage north to what is rapidly becoming one of England’s most friendly and professional comics events seems to have ended as I approach the hallowed ground of Saville Hall.
(Supergirl, Snow White and Zatanna in cosplay fun at Thought Bubble – all pics by James, click for the larger images on Flickr)
This is a festival in the truest sense; there have been a plethora of events all week, including an exhibition, as well as talks and outreaching workshops – but the culmination of this festival is the massed activities at Saville Hall where a two-day comic book convention will take place.
I stand outside and consider the lengthening queues. Although predominantly male, white, and thirty-somethings, the age range does still vary, and groups of girls dressed as a wide variety of gaming and manga and anime characters are obvious in their clusters of vibrant colours.
Judge Dredd is pacing around, day stick tapping in hand, while a pretty impressive Batman towers over both an Imperial Stormtrooper and speeder biker trooper who look too short in comparison (perhaps they really were a little short for a Stormtrooper).
There is a definite movement by those who dress in nylony spandex away from the beer barrel and towards the six pack; the guy dressed as ‘Deadpool’ is tidy and buff and potentially swift, not an easy geeky target. There is the occasional costume fail and some take their gaudy garb perhaps too seriously, but I appreciate their fashion faux pas as it’s a fun element that they bring as the lines calmly wait.
Although not everyone is dressed up, and unless you are wearing roller skates, red hair seems vogue amongst many of the girls who are queuing here, while hoody tops, jeans and trainers are de riguer amongst the boys.
People are turning up with big bags loaded with homemade self-produced comics, the mini industry a vital component now for many fans, who receive appreciation and monetary reward for their valiant efforts.
The convention has expanded considerably this year. The main hall, Saville, contains 196 tables, a staggering amount. The expansion of an extra 99 tables in the armouries hall is exceptionally good and the talks have been moved too, so there is considerably more space. I would say it’s close to doubled really, what with the talks moved to the Armouries, Bury Theatre, and Alea Cinema Room.
But 300 tables all about comics. This is huge and varied. There is no ghetto here; homemade comics sit next to 2000 AD, where illustrious luminaries such as Pete Doherty and Colin MacNeil sketch, and there is no sense that all the top artists are in one hall, with queues in both, for some of the best names in the industry at the moment in both halls, there is a sense of ‘everyone together’.
With two halls, there are two roller derby teams greeting fans, and also ensuring everyone has the right wristband, and who would mess with these fantastically fit women, who regularly kick ass on the circuit. Hot Wheels (www.hotwheelrollerderby.com ) and the Bruising Banditas are the teams, and they are fun and enjoying both the attention and spirit of the event. Delightfully violent sports women at a comic con – such a paradox in many ways – who would have expected it?
As much as I enjoy chatting to these girls, and bumping into other team players, I am after all here for the comics, and first on my mission list is to hopefully join Barry Kitson’s queue for a sketch. Now sketching is a mixed bag; I treasure a Steve Dillon Dredd that took about three minutes with a Biro, and adore a Jim Lee Batman that took even less, and some sketches are charged for and very good and time consuming, but Barry Kitson takes the biscuit. I am early enough that I will be able to get a ‘quick sketch’ in between some ‘long ones’. Barry is a consummate professional and decided some time ago, that he would enjoy his work, and also reward fans for queuing, and so he lays out a wide variety of pens and pencils, markers, brushes, inks, paints and mixing pallets, and so sets to work.
That’s right, with Barry, your sketch, if it’s long, will take about an hour, and it is a fully painted water colour affair, pencilled, penned, inked and then fully coloured, a treasured item. His shorter pieces are usually pencil and ink, but luckily for me, he did a quick colouring. It’s the ultimate in comic book experiences, to watch a master at work, and best of all he is engaging and delightful to talk to, and the time flies by, as his queue soon becomes comrades but soon I bid Aisha, Louisa and Liz farewell as they wait in line for long pieces.
Later I am stunned by both the penmanship of Colin MacNeil and the pencils of Mick McMahon. It is so nice to see McMahon, his Dredd unique and distinctive.
As well as sketches, I have a small amount of money for self published comics. This is a cottage industry on an incredible scale, and I am spoilt for choice and limited by funds, so I consider carefully the comics that I do buy. The first stand that really strikes me is a 3D display and bright imagery for Afroella. Described by the pleasant Gemma Bedeau as a ‘blaxploitation Barberella’ she explained that herself and artist Lee Fenton-Wilkinson had been working on it a year, and I can see the fruits of their labour. Straight away the strong colours and strikingly clear artwork in a realistic but cartoon style are captivating, but it is the added cleverness of the characters and the rollicking science fiction story that makes it a real winner.
Nearby I was surprised then to find that Blaxplotation was so vogue this November, when I saw a poster for Gav Heryng‘s ‘No Shit Sherlock’ with a Black handlebar-moustachioed Sherlock Holmes. Gav explained that it was a concept and that he ‘started it as a webcomic a couple of years back when I wasn’t getting any work in, but it got put on the back-burner after the first episode when the paying gigs started again. I intend to restart it as part of an anthology in the new year. ‘ I was impressed by the bold imagery and the poster was striking. I would have bought the comic there and then, but then this is part of the pleasure of being at Thought Bubble, the ideas and process are tantalisingly close.
Likewise was Andrew Tunney’s Girl & Boy which wasn’t for sale, but which had very nice promotional material and also the man himself happily handing his iPad with the comic on it to passersby. He had completed the comic that week, and obviously has grand plans for it, and from what I saw it did indeed look good. The first seven pages are online.
The activities of the aristocracy in the seventeen hundreds may seem like an unusual subject to cover in comics, but Robin Hoelzemann has created a comic set in the time of pre-Revolutionary France and her work is incredible. Robin was selling Curia Regis on a table, but there was also a host of other items available. The first two chapters of her book were available, and her black and white artwork, printed on most shiny paper, stood out fiercely. You can find about twenty pages available on her webpage and it’s wonderfully drawn. She has quite a clear style and I found both the architecture and characters really well done, and the story engaging. She was wearing a stunning frock and although I didn’t spend enough time chatting, I was taken with her enthusiasm.
I had to pick up Meet the Beast from Hayena Studios. This one-shot contains two wordless sample stories, a showcase for a range of forthcoming and established characters. The first is set in the 1920s adventure verse and this world follows Captain Freeman of the Armed Services, Sexton Blake, Mata Hair, Bulldog Drummond and Caeradoc. The other is Pneumatic New Worlds, set in an alternative Victorian time with a steampunk theme, staring Young Sherlock Holmes, Penny Black, Tom Swift, Host and my favourite, the inventor and rebel Ace. Victoria lives thanks to the unknown interventions of a Rasputin, the head of the Investigatory Science Police. It looks like cracking good stuff and although the comic is brief and teasing, it gives a sufficient taste of what is to come. Young Sherlock Holmes is a personal favourite of mine, and I love Huw-J and JL Straw’s stylised cartoonish artwork, but it’s the inventiveness and clever use of character that makes this so interesting. With a Sexton Blake The Baker Street Detective, Penny Black and a Freeman comic all due next year, it looks like Hayena will be busy.
I cannot mention Sherlock Holmes without of course thinking of Leah Moore and John Reppion, who have another Sherlock Holmes story entitled The Liverpool Demon coming out. I was pleased to wear a number of Thrill Electric Badges which they were handing out in between signing a host of comics and promoting the web comic (see here for a Director’s Commentary on the series by Leah and John).
I was surprised that I got into such a good conversation with Nicola Streeten, who has recently had her ‘Billy, Me & You‘, a memoir of grief and recovery, published to much acclaim (see here for Richard’s recent review), and even more publicity, with the BBC and Guardian being among the mainstream media to make much of it. This is a hard story of how it was to deal with the loss of her son sixteen years ago. Much of our conversation was driven by my honest appraisal, explaining pleasantly that I wasn’t sure if the comic would be up my street, and I think that Nicola was pleasantly surprised to be able to engage with a comic reader who wasn’t her target audience. Yet the comic itself is worthy of a good look and is perhaps one of the hardest creations of the year to read.
This is the joy of a comic festival such as Thought Bubble; there are no boundaries or barriers to what you can sell. I picked up promotional material that weighed me down, and I must say that the Phoenix comic looks good, as does Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park When You Are 29 and Unemployed, with a blue-horned creature on the cover.
Yet it is the ever expanding range of products that still surprises me; for instance, the amazing range of jewellery by Lynn of the Tuckshop, with comic images incorporated into the design, was just captivating. The wide variety of Keep Calm and Carry On pastiches were hilarious, although I think I could improve on one with ‘Keep Calm, That’s No Moon’, but the Zelda posters, stickers, items made from knitting, fabric, gaming images pixellated and Judge Dredd’s helmets.
I must say the staff are really a very decent bunch, helpful, avoiding the officiousness that sometimes comes with the job, and really into the spirit of thing. It made me smile to hear one volunteer with a loud brogue voice cheerfully trying to get folks into the right queue, his accent or perhaps enthusiasm confusing the locals at such a time, indicative of the mixed nature of the help from many quarters with nice attitudes.
I left with bag of comics, I came to buy a selection of Battle and Action Annuals from the late seventies and early eighties for £2 each, found a load of bargain graphic novels, was thrilled to chat with costumed fans and enjoyed the relaxed craziness in the bar. I didn’t get to the panels I wanted to but Maura McHugh did, and reports on the Women in Comics panel here.
Overall, it was a great day out and I am already looking forward to next year.