Conventions are always held up as the pinnacle of geekdom. They’re the places you go to learn new things and meet new people. They’re supposed to be a safe space, the sort where everyone feels at home.
What no one likes to talk about is how rarely that happens.
On paper cons look like celebrations of geek togetherness certainly but what about when you get there? Smaller cons can be little more than the same few people getting drunk with each other and larger cons can overwhelm you and not care they’re doing it. At best they can be mildly disappointing and, at worst, you’re massively out of pocket and staying in a room where the electricity is on a timer that runs out in the early hours of the morning.
As a small group of people reading this shiver in recognition and sympathetic cold, let’s talk about how Thought Bubble directly addresses those issues. Based in Leeds at the Royal Armouries Complex, Thought Bubble is both a perfect “on ramp” to the UK convention circuit and one of the best comic cons in the country. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, the show regularly gets some of the biggest names in comics through, with Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, Jordie Bellaire and Cameron Stewart all on deck this year. More importantly, it’s a show that’s pared down to one simple idea; connecting people who love comics with other fans, creators and books.
It does this by placing an emphasis very strongly on the trade hall side of things. In fact, this year Thought Bubble had three, New Dock, Royal Armories and Allied London. Each was laid out much the same, with pros sharing aisle space with indie companies and shops. There was no ridiculous high school dining room Darwinism like you find so often online, just a huge crowd of comic creators and fans all talking about and doing what they love.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t plenty to do, with panels running throughout the weekend in the splendidly named Speech Bubble room. The line-up included creators from 2000AD and an Image panel that detailed some of their 2014 titles, including science fiction detective series The Fuse written by Antony Johnston as well as the Young Avengers wrap party. This was huge fun, opening with writer Kieron Gillen making everyone in the room pinky swear to not reveal any spoilers and closing with a deserved round of applause for one of the hardest working teams in comics.
For me though, the highlight was seeing Jon Lock of Afterlife Inc and Nich Angell of 7 String talk about their upcoming crossover.
Jon and Nich’s books are fantastic. Afterlife Inc is the story of the Empyrean, the colossal structure everyone, regardless of spiritual belief, goes when they die. More specifically it’s the story of Afterlife Inc, the company who runs the thing. Three volumes have been released so far and I can’t recommend them highly enough. In fact, I reviewed them for SFX earlier this year.
I’m nowhere near as familiar with Nich’s work but simply seeing him in the panel sold me on mit. The idea is equal parts Final Fantasy , Avatar and Saturday morning cartoons. Set in a world ruled by the gods of music, it’s the story of a boy with a guitar sword and the different cultures that have grown up around the different gods. It looks amazing and the panel, discussing the crossover between the two books was packed with art and details about both books and Nich and Jon’s plans. It was also hugely funny and enthusiastic. Both these chaps clearly love what they do and that their enthusiasm for what they do will have won them a lot of friends this weekend.
That enthusiasm was everywhere, from the redshirt volunteers and Roller derby teams that help run the event to the attendees and guests. It’s the lifeblood of Thought Bubble, an espresso shot of pure creativity. There’s real excitement to the entire con, a sense of joy at simply being there. These creators have worked flat out to get where they are and seeing them not only present their projects but make new friends and new plans was as sweet as it was inspiring.
Shows like this are the beating heart of the comic industry and if you’re a comic creator of any stripe, you’ll feel right at home. Indie creators rubbed shoulders with shops, mainstream pros and publishing companies of every size. Everyone there loved comics, or made them, or both. There was no snobbery just a welcoming, enthusiastic space filled with welcoming, enthusiastic people. What every con wants to be, in other words.
There are still problems. Allied London, the third hall, had to be extensively renovated for use and even then was a very stripped down, almost industrial space. Whilst this worked in favour of the con’s pared down, unified approach it still felt a little too sparse in both layout and foot traffic. That being said, this is the first year with a third hall so hopefully the space will find its feet next year. No con is perfect, and Thought Bubble is no exception but very few cons are this good and this willing to get better.
The trouble with most conventions is how difficult they are to enjoy. The trouble with Thought Bubble is working out where to start. A fantastic show, a perfect capstone to the year and a cross section of just how energetic the industry is, Thought Bubble is brilliant fun. Hopefully I'll see you there next year.