Monday, 7 November 2016

Thought Bubble 2016


This might be a farewell to comic conventions, at least for a little while. Let’s write it and find out.

I’ve never felt very comfortable on the show floors at cons. For anybody who’s never been to one, imagine an aircraft hangar stuffed with rows of tables. At these tables are a mix of creators – some you’ve never heard of, some so beloved you can’t believe you’re in the same room – and people selling comics and comics-adjacent merchandise – t-shirts, prints, hand-knitted toys, Back to the Future-themed vinyls.

So, in theory, you can go up to the person who wrote or drew or coloured that one comic that broke your heart last summer, and tell them how it helped you grow as a person while they put their signature on the front of it. In practice – at least for someone who is: a) a bit socially anxious and b) reads pretty much all of their comics digitally – you end up awkwardly standing over their table going ‘hey... um... I think you’re cool?’ and then running away Zoidberg-style.

Which is how I met Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen at a Birmingham Comics Festival, enough years ago that I don’t want to actually check the date lest my body erode with sheer age and blow away in the wind.

I followed them from event to event for a while, until I realised the whole comic-con thing might not be for me. I remember being at Bristol Comics Expo, dropping by their table for the fifth time that day and over-sharing (as usual) that, if I felt out of place even in at a comics convention, where the hell would I ever fit in? So I gave up on comics events.
Me and my boo.
Until, a few years later, Tim and I started talking online and, having heard the early legends, decided maybe we should meet up in person for the first time at this ‘Thought Bubble’ comics festival in Leeds.

It was a revelation, not only because it forged one of the most important friendships in my life, or even because Tim that weekend introduced me to beef brisket, an eating experience I would chase for many years afterwards. But because, for the first time in my life, I unreservedly enjoyed a comic con.

Let’s be clear: Thought Bubble uses the same basic format of tables in a hangar. And I still feel just as awkward at the tables of people whose work I love, stammering that fact in their faces down at waist-level. But it also has a dancefloor.
This year’s dancefloor, courtesy of Reece Lipman. The file name informs me it wasn’t even midnight yet.
The mid-con party is built around half-hour DJ sets from various comics creators, with the four core pillars being Kieron, Jamie, Al Ewing and Antony Johnston.

I might not be the world’s most comfortable talker, but drinking and dancing? That is somewhere I feel right at home, especially when said dancing is to the likes of Kenickie (thx KG). I’ve been to the past six Thought Bubbles, and that dancefloor is a large part of it. I have a pleasant enough day, mumbling praise at my favourite creators and sitting in some excellent and occasionally enlightening panels, but the whole time I am like J-Lo. Waiting for tonight.

 That lack of inhibitions, especially with Tim as my drift-compatible dance partner, means we’ve been first to the ‘floor a few times over the years, and felt a small warming nugget of responsibility when it eventually catches light.
Early doors on this year’s dancefloor.
Over the past six years, Thought Bubble has snowballed. As an event, slowly consuming more and more of the Royal Armories venue and moving, but personally too.

Our group has swollen, from that initial two into something more closely resembling Blazin’ Squad. I have friends I know entirely through Thought Bubble, faces and names I know solely from previous years’ parties. Every year the number grows – not least thanks to Boy King of ThoBubs Adlai McCook, seen in the below picture receiving his rightful worship.
Picture nicked off’f Al Kennedy’s Twitter. Sorry Al 



And every year we’ve picked up more traditions and running jokes and legends. That time we went to the party in full ThoBubs make-up. Chvrches. Red’s True BBQ. That time Alex tried to snog Kieron for some reason and ended up kissing Al Ewing instead. Cosplay bingo. Tim’s dancing. Alex & Tim’s dancing. That time DMC from Run DMC came and dropped a few verses at the party. “Try not to die.” Total Eclipse of The Heart. The Venga Bus. The eternal search for the 24-hour Greggs. Al opening his DJ set with War of The Worlds. Shirts coming off. Shirts always coming off.

 All this means expectations, and expectations can be dashed. There’s the fear that traditions can ossify into a mandated ticklist.

So I went into this year’s Thought Bubble having decided it would be my last, at least for a little while. Coincidentally, but also not entirely coincidentally, Jamie and Kieron (and Al, it turns out) had declared it also would be their last time DJing.

So my heart was especially big this year, and ThoBubs filled it. The feels runneth over.
Picture feat., and nicked from, the Whatnot Tree collective
Picture feat., and nicked from, the Whatnot Tree collective
The show itself was great. There’s a special energy to nudging your way past Judge Dredd to browse through Mondo’s latest prints, or to spotting a tiny Stan Lee clinging onto his mum’s hand while you queue for a talk. Thought Bubble goes out of its way to be kid-friendly, and that leads to a lot of these heart-warming moments. Here’s another: a kid dressed as the Flash battling a group of grown-ups dressed as his rogues’ gallery.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have Speed Cock.

 The culmination of the Silence to Astonish panel – a sort of surrealist comics chat show hosted by a man in a homemade Galactus helmet and a rubbery-faced werewolf – Speed Cock is the ancient competition of drawing as many penises on a whiteboard within one minute as possible.

With its own theme tune. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The panel in question, this year starring ‘temporary Ryan North’ Adlai McCook
But yeah, let’s be clear, it was all about the Saturday night. The venue – a food court on the second storey of a shopping centre – was unusual and not always ideal – the sound system scraped the bottom level of bass off every song, the audio cut out a few times, they kept turning on the lights in an attempt to kick us out.

Then again, when else are you going to get the opportunity to dance through a tangle of tables, a tray of ribs in hand, knowing that if the next song is a major banger you’re going to have to drop the food to the floor and sprint to the 'floor?

Besides, the audio problems also led to one of the night’s most magical moments. Faced with a minute of technical-difficulties silence, Kieron cast around for a song people might be able to sing without any accompaniment. 

“...Every now and then I get a little bit nervous, that the best of all the years have gone by.”
“TURN AROUND!
“Every now and then I get a little bit terrified, and then I see the look in your eyes.”
TURN AROUND, BRIGHT EYES!
“Every now and then I fall apart!” 

The ThoBubs dancefloor in full effect.
And you look around the dancefloor, and you think about all the horror that’s been going on in comics of late, horror that like, much of 2016, you can summarise as cishet white men being awful to everyone else. And you look at the faces, as many women as men, everyone letting their freak flag fly, screaming the lyrics to a Bonnie Tyler song no of them can hear, and you think: No, this is comics

And then you step back from the dancefloor, partly because this song isn’t one you’ve got the moves for but mostly because the last run of Robyn/CRJ/Taylor Swift has left you with no shake remaining in your ass. And you put your arm around Adlai, and the two of you get a bit teary over what’s unfolding in front of you, and that this might never happen again. 

And then Modern Love comes on and you rush back to the dancefloor, and the circle of friends you left three songs ago is still there only it’s somehow grown even bigger, and you dance and you shout the words and know that there is some corner of Leeds that will be forever dancing, forever the very best of geekdom, forever ThoBubs.

Farewell.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.