Con Diary: Thought Bubble 2018

Thought Bubble 2018

I had a bad summer. A boy I used to know broke my heart (not in the way you think, but close enough) and June, July, and August became unbearable. I worked a little too hard and probably slept a little too hard—and in the midst of working and sleeping, I decided that I needed something else.

Even though I was already headed to SPX the weekend before, I bought tickets to Leeds, asked my very nice friend Steve if he’d let me stay with him (he did), and decided I was going. I’d forgotten how it felt to be a person and I was hoping that somewhere between SPX and Thought Bubble, I’d remember. I felt abandoned and I hoped that, at least comics-wise, going back to Thought Bubble, to the British comics scene, would be like coming home.

I was right, I think.

My show began before the show itself. Instead of flying directly into Leeds, I managed to fly into London, have a brief drink with my aunt at the St. Pancras Brasserie, and then take the train up to Leeds from there. My friend (and fellow critic) Steve picked me up at the train station and we had dinner with one of my best friends, Claire, as well as her partner Tod and the very lovely Marissa Louise. It was the perfect way back: fake Italian food and real conversation. Tod and I got into it about Digimon (again) and Claire brought me the sweetest set of gifts. All five of us conspired about the worst possible thing to bring back for Marissa’s husband from the UK. (I believe Chicagotown Pizza was the conclusion.)

I talk to Claire every day, or close enough, though I’ve met her in person only twice. The first was at Thought Bubble 2015 and the last time was her 30th birthday—which I notoriously ruined by getting Tod into Digimon. Still, it doesn’t feel like only twice given how frequently we talk. And especially given when I was living in London, we only saw each other the two times, our third reunion felt no different than the others.

And then, back at the hotel bar, I saw everyone—Caspar, Ollie, Kelly, Dan, Ryan, Ram, Alex, Ted, everyone. Everything was as it used to be.

Or it almost was, anyway. Thought Bubble used to be in the Royal Armouries—a stone’s throw away from Steve’s flat where I stayed. Instead of rolling out of bed in a huge winter coat, Steve and I took a water taxi towards the Leeds Town Hall area, the show’s new location. I thought I’d hate it, especially because I was so fixated on my ‘returning home’ vibe, but it was actually great.

Though the show used to largely be within the Armouries with a single tent, now there were three tents with a fourth group of exhibitors in the Town Hall itself. Quite a few people mentioned that the show had more of a ‘festival’ feel—perhaps a mini-Angouleme style. The new layout very much suited the show, made it feel a lot less contained. Thought Bubble is likely the show that best represents all the different ways comics can be—capes, big but indie, small press, micropress—and it seemed fitting that, as a space, it similarly abandoned its own limits. Everything actually wasn’t as it used to be—but that was fine too.

On Day 1, Steve and I made sure to see everything at least once. The only thing I insisted upon, as soon as we arrived, was a stop at Avery Hill Publishing to make sure I bought a copy of Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam directly from them. Yes, it would soon be available in the States, but it seemed important to buy the book from them instead of First Second. Avery Hill had been fundamental in Walden’s work gaining a larger audience and fundamental in even attempting a project such as On A Sunbeam and they deserved the cash and recognition. Beyond that, I was happy to wander.

My usual method for a show is to look properly at every single table on the first day, buy what I absolutely want, and then leave Day 2 for anything that I was on the fence about. This time, I did things Steve’s way. Unlike SPX the weekend before (and maybe because SPX was the weekend before), I didn’t buy much on the first day. I just did a lot of saying hello. On the one hand, I think I may have done the show incorrectly, given how far I’d travelled just to not buy comics, but on the other, I think I did it perfectly. The show was about the comics, certainly, but this year, for me, it was about the people.

The people are what I’ve been missing, in the end. That’s the conclusion I came to when I wrote about Thought Bubble three years ago. UK comics people are my people, more than anyone else. I was afraid that would change after being away for so long, but it hadn’t, not even a little bit. I still felt the same burst of energy that day—seeing Zainab (with her bestie Jamila!), seeing Alison, seeing Jamie and Katie, seeing Kieron. I belong to that community for life, I think. No matter how long I stay away.

I did go on a small new adventure that night, though. Kieron was in the process of looking for new DJs for the mid-con party and was kind enough to let me try. I knew most of my friends (namely Claire and Zainab) would be too cool for any kind of mid-con partying, but I’d never DJ’d and I had fond memories of the ones in the Corn Exchange. (As ever, all things change, and this one was in Trinity Kitchen.) Kieron, our DJ Dad, showed me how everything worked and it all went pretty smoothly. My set was early in the night, lasted a half hour, and only a few people danced, but Katie West was one of them and she gave it her all. And, even more unbelievably, my friend Aqsa came up from London just to hear my set and dance the night away. (Aqsa and I worked in this awful office in Vauxhall and made a lifelong bond over its true terribleness.)

I’d expected to leave after an hour or so—what with my too cool friend set—but Zainab and Jamila actually did turn up. I sat with them for a while and talked to Jamila about a new project she’s working on—one that you will all love. And after they left, I actually ended up spending most of my time talking with Jamie—largely about comics, but also about television, food, and my weird day job.

I should probably say this to his face, but I’ll say it here nonetheless: every interaction I have with Jamie, I come to appreciate him even more. Jamie’s had my back in some tough spots and I’ve watched him do a lot of things that others in his position simply won’t. Chatting with him was one of the best parts of the show.

I spent the morning of Day 2 with Tod and Claire, in maroon-themed outfits, shopping for towels and cutlery and dirty Ghost in the Shell pages. We failed on all three fronts and Claire got a headache for her trouble, but in the end, we had a very mediocre breakfast at M&S before wandering the show once again.

This go round, I spent a bit more money. I picked up three French comics—one Valerian et Laureline, on Claire’s recommendation, and the other two parts of a different series called S.A.M. I grabbed Peow Books’ Heat by Jean Wei, as it’s the first book that Zainab edited for their publisher. And, of course, two books from ShortBox that I didn’t have—Michael Furler’s Helena and Luchie’s Food Baby. And of course, once I had Food Baby, I also had to have Luchie’s diary comic, Hot Milk. My last purchase was a beautiful print by Jess Taylor.

The day was slower, but somehow went quicker. Steve and I had a quiet dinner with Zainab, Jamila, and Luchie (I finally got a Scotch egg), and then the rest of the night was spent back at the hotel bar with Claire, Tod, and Zach Clemente. (Zach was what made SPX great the weekend before and this year’s Thought Bubble wouldn’t have been nearly as good without him.) I stayed up way too late with the three of them and went to sleep delirious and happy.

The last time I wrote to you, I was saying goodbye—to everything, it felt like. At SPX, something changed, and I finally felt like I was becoming something, shifting into something new. But at Thought Bubble, I somehow also felt like I had stayed the same. I saw all my old friends, but also made some new ones (hi, Adlai!). Thought Bubble re-energized me. It was a power-up. I’m stronger than ever.

I’m looking forward to seeing you there, maybe next year. I bet you will be too.

J. A. Micheline

J. A. Micheline

JAM's been reading comics since she was 8. As a critic, she focuses on race and gender issues. She also writes prose fiction, comics, and the occasional angry tweet before bedtime. Find her on Twitter at @elevenafter.