It has been a long two years since the last Thought Bubble and for many artists, authors and creators that collectively participate in what can be called a ‘comics scene’ across the UK, it was a chance to no longer feel so isolated after so long without a show, and be recognised once more among fans and peers.
The most significant feeling you can walk away with upon attending Thought Bubble 2021 was that things were gonna be ok. People were still making comics, and more people were eager to buy them. Footfall at Thought Bubble 2021 was high. One tabler said that Saturday was only quiet for the first hour after doors opened and then wave upon wave of people flooded in. By Sunday afternoon they were down to a handful of stock.
While still officially a global pandemic and despite the rather vague, ‘it means what you want it to mean’ approach to covid safety by the British government and society at large, it was extremely assuring – perhaps a bloody relief! – to have the event take a stricter approach. Before receiving your wristband you were required to show proof of vaccination, and mask use was high. In such an environment it felt as safe as you could possibly get in the new status quo. Another exhibitor said that this stricter policy made it a much easier decision to attend.
While Thought Bubble 2021’s panel offerings continued their trend of being somewhat uninspired in their range (a handful of somewhat generic topics, interspersed with sketching spotlights) – there was still plenty of enthusiasm from attendees bridging the gap. On Saturday the YA Got It! and Strip Panel Naked panels were either filled to capacity or close-to. And workshops were also getting strong attendance.
Cosplay was evident but it didn’t seem as pronounced as in previous years, and most of the tables were comics. Very little merch and only a handful of print-only tables. Exhibitors were stretched across three spacious halls in Harrogate’s convention centre, with the aisles widened to allow for more distancing. On offer were small press, zines, micro-publishers and larger publishing stalwarts. With individual big name talents signing and sketching at the perimeter of the halls.
Larger and better known publishers Avery Hill, BHP, Myriad, Nobrow, SelfMadeHero, and Soaring Penguin – to name a few – were all in attendance with their latest offerings, so all could catch up on everything they had missed these two last years. There were even fresh faces – Scottish self publisher Eve Greenwood came to the show featuring a brand new indie comics publishing house: Quindrie Press. Some exciting work from Scottish creators was on display from Quindrie, with digital copies also purchasable. There are plans to publish works from further afield but Greenwood is intent to remain faithful in bringing forward the plethora of talent in the Scottish scene. Their newest title – When I Was Me: Moments of Gender Euphoria, an anthology of trans autobio comics is available for preorder now.
The 77, a new indie comic intended to recapture the nostalgia of early 2000AD and the popular British kids comics of the 1970s and 80s, had initially planned to debut with a single issue in 2020. The pandemic forced them to reorient and the group behind the operation successfully managed to leverage social media and crowdfunding to go beyond the original plan – with seemingly a whole publishing operation now in place. Five completed issues and an annual were on display and big plans for what they intend to do next.
There were some non-attendees. Show regulars Rebellion/2000AD decided to sit this year out. Previously the publisher would hold multiple panels including the Writer Talent Search competition (winners getting a paid gig). Many keen followers of the 2000AD have tried to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison et al and make the cut with a 4-page Future Shock would pitch their script live, with judge feedback. It was always entertaining – and informative. It still happened – but in a digital capacity – with Maura McHugh, Ram V, and Rebellion graphic novels editor Oliver Pickles serving as judges, and the ever boisterous Michael Molcher acting as host.
The controversy that hit Thought Bubble 2021 in July meant both Frank Miller and Zainab Akhtar with her ShortBox publishing house were absent. While the affair was dismal and disappointing on many fronts, it was a relief that it didn’t cast a long shadow. Hopefully it means the show will change for the better but the fortunate result of the absence of big-draw Miller meant that the focus of the show could shift and embrace the British small press and indie talents. There were big and bigger name guests and international appearances getting signing queues, for sure, but somehow the show felt more about the broader work available and not just The Talent™. It felt about the community more than the individuals.
While the majority of exhibitors were from the UK, there were still some that managed to brave international travel and make it to the event. Tablers and guests from France, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the USA could be found in the throng and were most welcome.
Thought Bubble 2021 wasn’t entirely positive. As stated before – panels still need a bit more planning to avoid feeling like a late-stage afterthought. Meanwhile, a lack of an “official” mid-con party meant things quickly devolved into cliques and scrums at the nearest bar.
Another slight annoyance came in the map territory – while the availability of additional maps to help attendees locate creators of colour and LGBTQ+ tablers was a neat touch it also frustrated – surely they could have all been included within the main map or in the programme. Visitors had to juggle three separate maps plus a programme booklet to get the full scope of the experience.
Despite these minor complaints, this was a surprisingly successful and heartening Thought Bubble. After a long hibernation and a harsh pandemic winter UK comics were alive and well – and maybe we weren’t as alone.