Comics: Thought Bubble – The Wrong Side Of The Table
Guest post here from Matthew Craig, comic artist, injured and recuperating right now. He headed to Thought Bubble as well as Richard, Zainab, James, Matt Badham et al. We missed each other. But Matthew had an interesting time this year at Thought Bubble, spending his time on……
THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TABLE: MY FAVOURITE BOOKS FROM THOUGHT BUBBLE (and also Bristol)
By Matthew Craig
2012 has been a frustrating year here at Craigievar Castle. Having been unable to attend most UK comic shows due to their location and duration, and having been hampered by my ongoing RSI, my experience of the scene this year has been more consumption than creation. I’ve been part of two strong anthologies – the Southern Gothic BAYOU ARCANA and the urban horror DISCONNECTED vol.2 – but other people have been doing the heavy lifting on those, leaving me on the sidelines like a ballerino with a bunion.
Attending comic shows as a visitor, having been on the other side of the table for six years, takes some getting used to. One develops new sympathy for the punter, a mobile target to be lured by pitches and pretties, for there is far too much to see, and only so much money in their pocket.
One also gets an idea of the true size and shape of the UK scene when relieved of the burden of table and float. The main hall at Thought Bubble (hereafter referred to as “ThoBubs” with no space because it’s a cool nickname made out of virals and zeitgeist) makes you navigate the great mass of indie comicos before you get anywhere near the marquee talent. This may well be an organisational necessity, but it reinforces the notion that ThoBubs is first and foremost about British comics. The poor punter: imagine fetching up at your first comic show – or even just your first in six years – and being confronted by the range of content and style on display in just that one hall. I almost envy them.
The most basic difference between the scene of ThoBubs 2012 and my first show (BICS 2006), is one of volume. There are just so many creators out there, now. So much good stuff being produced. So many people coming into Comics, sticking with it, honing their craft, trying new things and coming back year after year. Never mind the punters: it intimidates the crap out of me.
Doubly so, in fact: on one hand, there’s so much more competition, compared to six years ago. But also because, as someone who is now solely a writer of comics, the prospect of approaching an artist at a table full of their comics and trying to persuade them to put my stories about GoGo Pixies and lighthouse keepers ahead of their muse seems both churlish and futile.
This realisation hit me pretty hard at ThoBubs. I often compare the search for an artist to the search for a romantic companion – it has the same arc of hope to disappointment, peppered with the occasional first date – but never have I been more painfully aware of not having anything more to offer than a bunch of stupid stories (actual quote from my Match.com profile). I took along some of my own comics to trade and hand out to interested parties, but felt bad even broaching the subject.
(I have a broad policy of Swappo when it comes to shows like ThoBubs or Bristol. I’d rather trade comics with fellow creators than take their money. As a past exhibitor, though, I can very much appreciate why people might wish to do otherwise, and regret putting them in that position. Next time, I’ll just hand out some freebies, in person or via email.)
“There are people out there.” Something I heard twice during my day at ThoBubs. “There are people out there,” as in artists looking for a writer. “Out there.” As in “not here.” It’s almost funny (it’s really not funny).
The UK scene, as filtered through the roller skate madness of ThoBubs, is incredibly healthy. There are comics for, and for the first time by a fairly broad spectrum of people. The age range of creators is broader than ever as well, making the prospect of a whole life in the medium not only viable, but visible. There are plenty of women on both sides of the table, and the quality of material, both in terms of art and printing, has never been better. It’s an inspirational feedback loop with the potential to bring in new readers and new creators.
But as wonderful as it was to meet up with all my comics chums, and as fantastic as it was to be able to indulge in all that British comics goodness, I left ThoBubs in a bit of a funk. Because I had set out to do some networking and schmoozing, and had lost my bottle. And because for the first time in years, I felt like I was on the outside looking in. And I didn’t much like that.
Here are some of the comics I picked up at Thought Bubble, along with a few I nabbed from ThoBubs exhibitors I actually met at the Bristol Expo, earlier in the year. All images are taken from scans of the actual books I actually read. That seemed important, somehow. I should note that many of these people are friends of mine, so feel free to dismiss the whole thing as a litany of lies and luvvieism:
THE QUEEN OF DIAMONDS - Bevis Musson - The New Adventures Of MiracleManc! Watch Musson’s art evolve before your eyes from a kind of early Alan Davis solidity to the more graceful and simplified cartooning style he employs today, in a first-rate superhero story that’s as gripping as it is emotionally honest.
PARTICLE FICTION - David Wynne, Orang Utan Comics/Markosia – Some truly Adams-worthy verbal and visual puns in this digest-sized omnibus of sci-fi adventure stories from my Twitter pal David. Art inky in the Matt Wagner style, not a millimetre wasted.
NIGHTBUS 01-02 – Chris Jones & Gary Bainbridge - Novocastrian nogoodnickery balancing super-brave page layouts with scratchy, characterful art and strong plotting. An interesting and original approach to the urban vigilante concept, and something I’d like to see more of. Gary Bainbridge’s other Tyne titan, Sugar Glider, returns in the new year, and I can’t wait.
CARCASS AND SLIME 0 & 1 - Neil Williams - Weirdly sweet if frustratingly incomplete opening chapter of this monstercom set in a dark nookieless future.
DREAMCATCHER - Mo Ali & Valia Kapadai - Full disclosure, Valia and I both worked on Bayou Arcana. But this is something quite different: a rich, resplendent poeticomic unlike anything else available right now. The poetry of the text is matched wonderfully by the poetry of the colour palette: tender purples, warm reds, cold, sickly greens. Magic.
TEAM GIRL COMIC 5 - Team Girl collective – Various writers and artists - Oh, man. I embarrassed myself at their stall. I was a bit overstimulated by this point in the day, and launched into a whole Highlander routine based on one of the contributors being called Evy Craig. They forgave me and sold me this fine mixed-style collection of anecdotal strips, including my very first stitch-o-comic.
NECESSARY MONSTERS – Daniel Merlin Goodbrey & Sean Azzopardi, First Comics – I picked the larger First Comics edition over the self-published digest edition because this horror-adventure comic deserves to be read LOUD. The gleefully self-possesed, morally complex characters and strong, moody art make this a good candidate for a “British Hellboy.” One problem with the current UK comics scene is that there aren’t enough mass-market magazines to carry first-rate adventure comics like this.
SQUARE-EYED STORIES 25 - David Goodman, Jim McGee & Arthur Goodman - Veterans of the UK scene that get better and better with every outing. Mixed-influence humour comics that are genuinely funny, masterfully drawn, and delightful.
SGT. MIKE BATTLE: LAST ADMIN HERO 2 - Graham Pearce - There’s parts of this A5 comic – whole great swathes, in fact – that are drawn on a 16-panel grid. So it stands testament to Graham’s hard-won skills that this wordy, fast-paced and cheeky satire on American action-adventurism reads so clearly.
JOHNNY PULP vs. ATOMIC DRACULA – Joshua Shepherd - A 9-page 24-hour comic which lives up to its title. Shame it wasn’t longer: the Euro-comics cartooning style is infectiously silly. All for the gross-out ending, as well.
THIS IS NOT A SERIOUS MUSIC PUBLICATION - Sammy Borras & Sarah Fogg - A music zine from two of the Inspired Comics Collective (which includes my friend and colleague Jack Davies). Much of the music discussed in the zine is outwith my experience, but the gig sketches, picture essays and comics are excellent. Sammy’s engaging, accomplished art and Sarah’s more calligraphic, occasionally ethereal style make them a pretty strong double act, as well. Free minicomics a bonus.
WINDRUSH - T’Sao Wei - London-based kung fu comic that puts a maternal spin on the conventionally patrilinear superhero genre. The art is busy without being cluttered, and has a strong depth of field.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN 1 & 2 – Richard Worth & Jordan Collver, Water Closet Press - Sumptuous Victorian adventure strip with fluid, smoky art, that grasps the hand of the genre and runs until it drops.
ELEMENTAL MICAH 1 - Michael Georgiou - First love complicated by first powers in this against-type superhuman romance comic. Most British superhero authors owe a debt to a certain web-headed wannabe ladies man, but few take the “ordinary man” archetype to such a degree as this. Charmingly awkward.
MOON 2 – Dan Thompson, Steve Penfold & Ivanna Matilla, Beyond The Bunker - My last purchase at ThoBubs, after a day of overstimulation and heaving mood swings, and it’s a good’n. Frantic and playful, and featuring some engagingly odd character designs; the ne plus ultra of daffy British action comics.
INSURRECTION 0 & 1 (Russell Stearman, Lost Publications) – A politically-conscious magazine-sized comic in which a naive and apathetic young man finds himself falling down the rabbit hole of the modern protest movement. Earnest storytelling and efficient art (including a double-page spread that justifies the A4 format on its own).
THE AMUSING BROTHERS and KNIGHTS OF THE REALM - Fraser Geesin - Surreal is too easy a word for these hypnotically-paced comedy strips. Visually and verbally inventive, and wonderfully puerile, The Amusing Brothers would have sat well in any of the quality grown-up anthologies of my youth. Geesin is the earthly condensate of one of the super-etheric entities behind one of my favourite podcasts.
HALCYON & TENDERFOOT 1-3 – Daniel Clifford & Lee Robinson, Art Heroes - Really excellent superhero comics for kids that don’t shy away from the complicated stuff. The art strikes a perfect balance between kid-friendly and emotional heft. Some YA publisher needs to pick this series up for a full-colour run.
THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF SPACE BABE 113 - John Maybury - Cheerfully goofy abstract cheesecake and one of the most delightful character designs going. Saw a few rude comics at ThoBubs this year; I was, of course, far too shy to buy any.
ROISIN DUBH 1 - Robert Curley, Maura McHugh & Stephen Daly, Atomic Diner Comics – Another homegrown mythological horror that would do well in a mixed magazine format, introducing a haughty young demonslayer in an exciting, well-paced and solidly illustrated origin story.
BEARLANDS 1 – Jeremy Biggs & Bakki, Subversive Comics - Completely wrongfooted by this. Wasn’t expecting a post-apocalyptic zombie comic starring teddy bears to be this straight-faced. Interesting, and definitely worth a look.
SPANDEX 5,6, 7 and minicomics – Martin Eden - Full disclosure: I’m in here somewhere, with a pin-up in the microsketchbook SPANDEX: BLACK AND WHITE. This trilogy largely rounds out Martin’s world-shattering superhero saga, living up to the ambitious scale and rich cast established in the first half of the story. Plus, the bright, flat colours are amazing. I’m gonna miss these characters when they’re gone. The minicomics included with each issue feature a cross-section of the UK scene (including me, yes, but it hardly counts). Formal experimentation in both layouts and production abound.
Setting all my bitterness and jealousy aside for a moment, the comics listed above are genuinely lovely, in a way that needs no qualification. They’re not lovely “for a small press comic,” or “for an early work,” but lovely full-stop. There’s a large degree of commonality among the UK scene – certainly in terms of genre coverage and stylistic similarities, to the point where a couple of different aesthetic schools almost seem to form when you take a step back from the individual books. There are people working in an abstracted style, others working la ligne claire. Still others burning through the manga seam like thermite, and artists springing out of nowhere, complete and original. Between all the deconstruction, fusion, homage and invention, the UK scene has grown into something new and quintessentially Us. I could have gone back to ThoBubs on the Sunday with the same amount of money in my pocket and easily picked up a completely different set of stories (e.g.: if I’d bought the complete set of British Comics Award nominees). So that’s a good thing, right?
Well, yes. Kind of. With so many creators at so many large conventions – mostly in bloody London – it can be very easy to get lost in the crowd, whether you’re new to the game or not. And despite the obvious economic value of producing work in serialised format, such as keeping costs down and turnover of material up, I can’t help but wonder if some of the comics above might have benefitted from a more substantial page count, or a smaller but more regular outlet, perhaps with other fellow travellers.
The latter is a problem that each creator needs to solve in the best way for them, but the former might already be in good hands. The power of a show like Thought Bubble is the way in which it brings the Great Comics Nation together under one roof (two, yes, shut up). But that concentration of creators – every one of which has poured their heart, soul and cash into reaising their dreams – can certainly seem
With so many larger shows concentrated in the capitol, as well, a trepidatious soul might fear saturation, or worse, con fatigue, cannibalising to the point of exhaustion the same finite pool of people and punters. In this economy, it may be that one way to grow the scene would be to go smaller and more local. One-day events such as the Canny Comic-Con, CamCon in Cambridge, Birmingham Zine Festival, Cardiff Mini-Con and others can and should help to grow the scene, or at least maintain it until we can figure out a way to get this kaleidoscope of comics into the hands of the broadest possible audience.
I just hope I’ll be back on the right side of the table next year.
Matthew Craig needs to pay for a new oven, having narrowly avoided being killed by the old one (really). Go and buy his comics in print</a> and digital format (50p/99p), and maybe he’ll have more than Turkey Ham for dinner this Christmas. Bayou Arcana and Disconnected vol.2 are out now. If you get a chance, go and listen to my friend Alistair Kennedy interview Mark Waid and Kieron Gillen at ThoBubs.