For as long as I can recall, I’ve loved illustrated stories. Whether it was the work of Maurice Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are, Tove Jansson’s Moomin series or John Bauer’s haunting paintings – each has influenced my love of storytelling. When I was younger, every summer we’d visit my family in Finland and I’d make the annual pilgrimage down to the local library with my sister and we would withdraw every English comic book they had – mainly consisting of Jim Davis’ Garfield, Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and some dog-eared copies of Charles Schulz’s Peanutscollections from the 1960s. 

Too many summers and countless rereads later, I find myself on placement with Thought Bubble Comic Art Festival (and Dekko Comics – though that is a story for another time) and it doesn’t seem quite real. For those not in the know, Thought Bubble is the UK’s biggest comic art festival. It was founded in 2007 by artist Lisa Wood a.k.a Tula Lotay and owner of Travelling Man Comics, Nabil Homsi, with the intention of promoting the power of comics and their ability to bring people together. Thought Bubble takes place across Yorkshire and culminates in a huge two-day convention in Harrogate. If you’re already interested (and why wouldn’t you be) the dates for this year’s convention are 13-14th November. 

The first time I attended Thought Bubble was in 2018. Admittedly, I’d been following it from afar for quite some time before then (it’s difficult to follow any UK-based comic artist and NOT hear about Thought Bubble) but other commitments had prevented me from visiting. However, in 2018 I’d squirreled away a fair chunk of my Fringe festival earnings, taken the weekend off work and arranged to visit the festival with a comic-loving pal. I’d tasked myself with being frugal at the festival which, admittedly, did not work. As any book lover will know, it’s hard to walk into a bookshop and leave with just one book. Now, imagine the bookshop’s the size of a couple of football pitches and filled with authors promoting their books – alongside thousands of other booklovers. Not an easy task, I’m sure you’ll agree. 

Arriving at Thought Bubble, you’d be hard pressed not to get caught up in the atmosphere as creativity can be found on every cover. I also imagine it’d be very difficult to miss Thought Bubble. It could be in the most covert of locations (it used to be in the basement of the Leeds town hall) but all you’d need to do is find Gandalf, or Zelda, or Squirrel Girl, and follow them and Thought Bubble would be before you in no time at all. Cosplay, or costume play, is the art of masquerading as a character – typically from the realms of film, TV, comics or videogames – and has a strong community across the globe. Cosplayers really are a breed unto themselves, with many crafting their costumes from scratch in some frankly ingenious ways – seriously, google ‘Transformers cosplay’ and you’ll see what I mean. 

[Image description: a couple of judges from the 2000AD comic and Hawkeye from The Avengers guard the entrance to one of Thought Bubble’s event marquees]

Part of the joy around Thought Bubble and comic festivals is that it often leads to impromptu scenes on the streets, as two seemingly unrelated parties – one dressed as Batman and the other as the Joker – bump into each other outside Subway. A dramatic pantomime might ensue, much to the entertainment of onlookers. One notable highlight from my visit to Thought Bubble was queuing up to enter one of the marquees and seeing a young child dressed as Spiderman being given the all clear to enter a venue by a couple of doormen/Judges (characters from the 2000AD/Judge Dredd comics that combine the role of judge, jury and executioner), only for her dad to be stopped behind her and mock-interrogated with the full force of the law. It’s these little moments that make Thought Bubble so special. 

Cosplay would not exist were it not for the characters and creators that inspire them, both of which Thought Bubble has in abundance. You could spend the entire day exploring the exhibitor tables, numbering in their hundreds, and that is before you even touch upon the events, workshops and talks that explore the industry at large. With veterans of the medium situated alongside self-published newcomers, Thought Bubble champions a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that many within the industry love. It’s a chance to move away from the drawing table or the writing desk and catch up with friends old and new. 

One of the real wonders of traversing Thought Bubble was discovering fresh and seasoned creators for the first time. Whether it is your eye being caught be a specific artwork; an entertaining conversation starting up during a rare moment of quiet, or an exhibitor working your t-shirt into their sales pitch – the joy of discovery at Thought Bubble seems alive and well. 

Exploring is a fundamental part of Thought Bubble. I remember seeking out Pablo Clark, an illustrator that my mate was particularly fond of, whom we found a little worse for wear following an artists’ knees-up the night before. He told us how the printer had used the wrong file when printing his comic, resulting in the text and its accompanying panels being out of sequence. A short while later, I recognised an Edinburgh local, and Napier alumnus, Dave Cook, who’s work I’d encountered at various Scottish conventions. There had been a tremendous outpouring of support for the debut of his cyberpunk comic, Killtopia, and Dave was beaming with a warmth and enthusiasm you could not help but gravitate to – he would go on to sell every copy of Killtopia he had with him. Thought Bubble really is a festival that embraces the magic of storytelling. 

[Image description: a photo of illustrator Pablo Clark, hungover and bearded with tongue protruding, holding his illustration of one of the Seven Samurai from Akira Kurosawa’s film of the same name] Image used with the artist’s permission.
Pablo Clark can be found on Instagram @inthedarkarcade

As with many festivals in 2020, Thought Bubble had to take its programme online and while it was an uncertain and challenging time for all involved, they embraced the change with great dedication – resulting in an overwhelmingly positive response. With the experience of 2020 behind them, Thought Bubble is planning to include digital content for the years ahead – a move they hope will improve accessibility for a wider audience and help to spread the word of the festival and its exhibitors. 

While the year ahead may be an uncertain one, the team at Thought Bubble are working hard to ensure creators and comic art still have their time in the spotlight – and if their 2021 line-up is anything to go by, it’s set to be another amazing year.

Thought Bubble is a non-profit organisation which has worked with a range of wonderful sponsors from many industries over the years, and its large two-day convention is supported by a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. So, if you are looking for an exciting sponsorship opportunity or have some time to spare in November: why not get involved