Interview: 'Thought Bubble' Director Lisa Wood

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Thought Bubble Festival is an annual celebration of sequential art that formed in 2007 as a one-day comic festival alongside the Leeds International Festival and has since grown to a weeklong non-profit festival that promotes comics, graphic novels and animation as an important cultural art form.  With past guests including Becky Cloonan, John Romita Jr, Ben Templesmith and Frank Quitely and this year’s guests including Tim Sale and Adam Hughes this is a place where the mainstream and the underground meet alongside academic debate and hands-on workshops with an emphasis on creating a warm and inviting atmosphere to further the cause of this most vital medium.  The fifth Thought Bubble will take place from the 14th – 20th November 2011 at venues around Leeds and Bradford, with a centre-piece two day convention on 19th – 20th November at Saviles and Royal Armouries Halls – Leeds’ largest conference venues.  Thought Bubble director Lisa Wood took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Starburst about her journey to create the festival that has met with international acclaim and is now one of the shining lights in our convention circuit.

Starburst: What can you tell me about the inception of Thought Bubble?  At what point did it become apparent that Thought Bubble would become a reality?

Lisa Wood: I've always loved comics and have been around them all my life, through reading and collecting as a child and working in several comic stores from the age of 18. I was lucky with Thought Bubble. The original idea I had of a sequential art based festival attracted attention from the Leeds International Film Festival and Travelling Man (a chain of comic stores), so that gave me momentum to make it happen. The event started very small (only 500 attendees in a small room at Leeds Town Hall) and so was easily manageable.  With the marketing of the film festival behind it, it gained an audience almost immediately. With help from major partners, guests, volunteers and sponsors along the way, Thought Bubble has gone from strength to strength every year.

What sort of changes have you seen in the growth of Thought Bubble since it began in 2007?

I would say the philosophy of the festival hasn’t changed at all. We are still non-profit, and dedicated to promoting education through sequential art. The majority of our workshops are free for everyone, and all events are free for children. The thing that has changed is the scale. With the support of Arts Council England and Travelling Man, the event has now become the biggest comics festival in the UK. We have developed the event from our initial one day convention to become a week long festival taking place across two cities.

What approach do you take when selecting which Guests to invite to the festival?

Because I read so many comics I have a good idea of which guests will attract an audience year on year. To make sure the festival is successful we need to invite current popular guests, in some respects these guests help bring audiences in to raise funds and awareness for smaller creators whose work is well respected among certain circles, but maybe not as well know. Year on year the guest list has comprised the top established and up and coming talent. I always sneak some of my favourites in there, too. We also keep our ear to the ground; if professionals have expressed an interest in visiting the UK we may approach them. Usually we draw up a wish list of the guests that will bring the most to our event. We have some incredible names lined up for this year — a few I can’t announce yet. The ones we are very excited to confirm are Tim Sale and Adam Hughes. Our line up is bigger than ever this year. I simply don’t have space for the list here but there are some real gems. Check

How would you describe the atmosphere at Thought Bubble?

As immensely welcoming, friendly, inclusive, and - most of all - fun. Everyone seems to come away with such a positive attitude towards comics and the comics community, an infectious feeling that’s due in large part to the wonderful audience that Thought Bubble is lucky enough to attract. Everybody who attends helps to add to the special feel of the events, be it our amazing cosplayers who brighten up the convention with their brilliant outfits, our wonderful guests who show that comics attract some of the friendliest creators of any medium, or our excellent volunteers - without whom none of this would be possible.

Events like these often meet with scepticism from local communities.  What sort of a response have you had from the city of Leeds? 

We have had massive support from organisations which are funded by Leeds City Council such as Leeds International Film Festival and Leeds Central Library, without the help of these bodies I don't think Thought Bubble could have happened. We have also had support letters sent to our main funder Arts Council England from Leeds City Council so they have really helped establish the festival.  It is true that when you strip away the support of individuals and the film festival and have to deal with council red tape it can be very frustrating. For a few years we have struggled with costs such as tax, trading licences and insurance. I know it is the responsibility of all organisations to cover these costs however when you are a small arts organisation trying to provide a service for the community through free workshops and education it can be demotivating to have to deal with this.  Working a full time job to fund Thought Bubble means that for around half of each year I end up working 15 hour days, but whenever exhaustion kicked in the support that I’ve received from our amazing guests, exhibitors and volunteers has helped me to keep the festival going.  We have also managed to secure Arts Council funding for the next two years and as the festival grows more private sponsors are coming on-board so things are looking very bright for the future.

Are there any new comics that you're hoping to pick up at Thought Bubble yourself?

There are so many, I buy way too many comics! The new Nicola Streeton book Billy, Me and You is receiving amazing reviews. SelfMadeHero and Nobrow's new publications are always wonderful. Nelson, the new book from Blank Slate has many great names in it, the art looks incredible! Kristyna Bacynski's new book Lunch Date looks great too! Mostly I look forward to finding those hidden independently published gems that you never get to see elsewhere. There are so many creative people self publishing and comic conventions happen to be the place where they all congregate.

The full line-up of events has been announced now, are there any activities that you would particularly like to draw our attention to?

This year's programme is our biggest yet and we've tried to pack as many cool things into it as we can, so it's a Herculean task trying to pick out highlights. However, if I was forced to choose, I'd flag up our programme of film screenings (in association with Leeds International Film Festival), as there's some great stuff in there that you won't see anywhere else in this country. I'd also highly recommend our day of talks on Saturday 19th with the We Are Words + Pictures collective, as it'll be invaluable for anyone thinking of creating their own comic - from coming up with a killer idea, through to marketing the finished product. Really, because the programme is so big and varied this year, I'd recommend everyone take a look at what we're putting on and try to pick out their own favourites - there should be something for everyone!

Image are publishing a Thought Bubble comic anthology in October, how did that come about?

In 2010, as part of our ongoing expansion, and with help from Arts Council England, we held the first ever Northern Sequential Art Competition (NSAC) - a new platform to help and encourage UK artists and writers of all ages to engage with the medium of illustrated storytelling. Entrants were given the brief of producing a self-contained, single page story, told in six panels or more, on the theme of ‘November in the North of England.’ We received many fantastic entries from all age groups, in a variety of different styles, and six overall winners from two age categories were picked by a judging panel comprising luminaries from the world of comics editing and journalism.  Parallel to this we developed the idea of producing an anthology comic to showcase the winning entries to the NSAC, and also feature some work of creators who have previously attended the festival. This plan quickly blossomed from envisioning a small-scale limited print-run, to one that would be globally distributed, with all profits going to the Barnardos charity. The end result is a publication featuring a variety of original tales by incredible industry talent from around the world, plus some shining new stars of the UK comics community. Our first anthology has been curated with the ultimate aim of showcasing the very best that sequential art has to offer and will feature new work by Mike Carey, Duncan Fegredo, Charlie Adlard, Andy Diggle, D’Israeli, Antony Johnston, Robin Furth, Becky Cloonan and film director Stuart Gordon. Issue #1 will also feature all the winning entries from 2010′s Northern Sequential Art Competition with stories from Gavin Ross, Sally Jane Thompson, Will Morris, Alice Summerscales, Sophie Kamlish, and Raymond Mak.  This special inaugural issue is due to be released in comic and book stores in November, just in time to be brought along to the festival to get signed by the contributors. This is the first time a comic produced in this context has been picked up by a major publisher, so hopefully it will help spread Thought Bubble’s message to all corners of the globe. The anthology serves as a microcosm of Thought Bubble, showcasing the variety of styles that sequential art can embody, and the almost limitless possibilities that the medium of comics afford to creators.

All profits from the anthology will go to the charity Barnardos, can you tell me why you chose Barnados particularly?

I owe a great deal of gratitude to Barnardos as they took care of me as a child and placed me with foster parents and then adoptive parents. They're an incredible organisation who dedicate their time to helping children in need. Thought Bubble's main essence is to provide and educate through the medium of comic books so our main charities year on year have always been children's charities.

For anybody still debating whether to attend or not what does Thought Bubble offer that they can't get from other festivals?

Thought Bubble is unique amongst UK comic shows and events in that we combine an extended festival of programmes with a "traditional" comic convention. We're the largest festival of this type in the UK now, and we'd like to think that you won't find anything else like it on the comics event calendar. We've tried to make the programme as varied as possible in order to cater to everyone's tastes, and we think we've succeeded.  More than anything Thought Bubble brings an overwhelmingly friendly atmosphere to proceedings.  We've tabled the events to appeal to both the hardcore comics devotee, someone who's never picked up a comic before and everyone else in-between.  We hope that everyone who attends, or is considering attending, will appreciate just how much fun it is being here, in amongst the action.  The only way to find out for sure is to come along and join in the experience! 


P M Buchan will be at Thought Bubble on the 19th and 20th of November 2011 reporting for Starburst, buying an obscene amount of comics and hopefully not shaming himself too much at the party on Saturday night. Contact him on Twitter @FrancisSobriety if you’re in attendance and want to wax lyrical about the small press gems that you’ve uncovered.

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