Mention the term “comic convention” to your average man or woman on the street and certain stock images will instantly spring to mind. Many of these will have been gleaned from the less than glamorous portrayal of cons in the popular media, and some may be downright fabrications, but there is a certain stigma attached to these events by the public. Were these the bad old days of terrible events simply designed to prise cash from the hands of hardcore fans you could forgive this lack of acceptance, however, the modern iteration of the humble convention is, at its best, an entirely different animal. A quick glance across the pond to established titans, such as Toronto’s Comic Arts Festival and the New York Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s Festival, demonstrates that quality events attracting a diverse audience are not mere flights of fancy.
Since its expansion in 2008, Thought Bubble has referred to itself as a “sequential arts festival”, an admittedly verbose term, but an accurate one nonetheless. As an organisation we are dedicated to promoting comics, animation, and other types of illustrated storytelling as an important cultural art-form, aiming to cater to both long-time fans and those who are completely new to the medium. Part of this involves putting on free workshops and other such events to try and engage with young people who may be interested in comics, but don’t know where to start; and the other is bringing a variety of events to the general public to showcase as many of the different faces of sequential art as we possibly can. This year we’ve expanded the festival to run for a week in November (14th – 20th), devising a programme which will include workshops, exhibitions, book give-aways, screenings, academic talks, and a “traditional” comic convention – all for the cause of promoting funny books as a legitimate art-form.
Thought Bubble was founded in 2007, and its first incarnation was as a single day event taking place in the basement of Leeds’ Town Hall. Growing rapidly over the following years, Thought Bubble has become a multi-venue, multi-media festival, organised in such a way as to attempt to accurately reflect the current state of the sequential arts community which it seeks to promote. Comics, similar to those events that seek to promote them, hold a certain stigma in the eyes of the general public, possibly due to the indelible connection that they have to the somewhat unfairly (or legitimately, depending on your point of view) derided Superhero genre. Scratch beneath that surface, however, and you’ll quickly find one of the most exciting, insightful and diverse storytelling and artistic mediums currently in existence. A quick stroll around the exhibition halls at Thought Bubble’s convention allows attendees to unearth a treasure trove of sequential art, with myriad styles and story themes, all produced within thriving local, national and international communities which seem to be growing every day. Part of this growth, in a contemporary context, is unarguably down to the internet, which has increasing the ease with which digital materials can be attained, collaborations can be formed, and feedback can be received. A brief browse through sites such as deviantART, or a quick internet search for ‘new webcomics’ and other online sequential art projects suggest that this period of expansion is showing no signs of abating.
In seeking to reflect the ongoing diversification of sequential art, Thought Bubble itself has attempted to expand, not only in terms of size and duration, but also in the type of art which it showcases. This includes (to date); animation, live-action film and documentary screenings; interactive art installations; the upcoming production of a themed anthology; hosting of 24 hour comic creation sessions; and partnership with the Comics Forum strand of academic talks. It is arguably the increasing prevalence (and acceptance) of academic criticism on the medium that reinforces the generalised dismissing of comics as puerile or asinine endeavours as untenable. This line of reasoning suggests instead that sequential art, when done right, can be a source of legitimate debate – highlighting (sometimes controversially) society’s problems, as perceived by a wealth of highly talented creators with their drawing and typing fingers firmly on the pulse of contemporary culture.
It is because of this ongoing development of the medium that the comic convention itself has had to evolve. In order that it not be viewed by the current crop of readers and viewers as an anachronistic dinosaur, such events must reflect the modern state of graphical storytelling, whether that be through the acknowledgement of increasing prevalence of digital techniques of creation and dissemination, or simply making the proceedings as open and welcoming to fresh initiates as possible. In a similar vein, 2011’s Thought Bubble will feature a day of talks devoted to the independent creation of comics, hopefully helping those who wish to produce their own sequential art the knowledge necessary to get started, or take their projects to the next level.
As well as growth within the creator community, there’s been considerable increase in terms of audience size and sophistication. In the post-Tarantino world pop culture savvy appears to have become an accepted attribute in the mainstream, and, coupled with increasing box office exposure of comic properties, sequential art is an increasingly accepted aspect of the zeitgeist. One only need witness the ever-growing hordes of cosplayers at Thought Bubble’s convention to see that comics remain part of the staple literary diet of modern generations. One of the most heartening aspects of this most unashamedly public form of fanaticism, is the wide variety of influences on display, something which can be traced back to the increasing availability of different forms of sequential art in mainstream booksellers and local comic shops, as well as schools and libraries. Thought Bubble seeks to work with libraries, schools and youth groups in the area each year, in order to utilise comics as a viable means of increasing literacy and art skills in future generations, and, somewhat self-servingly, ensuring the ongoing development of potential sequential art devotees.
Hopefully this trend of growth throughout the comic community will continue for many years to come, and Thought Bubble will be able to reflect this accordingly. We live in an exciting time to be involved in sequential art, graphical storytelling, or whatever moniker you prefer to apply to the seemingly simple, yet infinitely complex task of telling a story using words and pictures – long may it last.
Clark Burscough, Thought Bubble Co-Director