Geek is chic, but it doesn’t come cheap.
Once the preserve of outsiders, geek culture is no longer niche and comics, fantasy, science fiction and horror are very much part of the mainstream. You probably watch The Walking Dead. You are on first-name terms with the residents of Westeros, thanks to Game of Thrones. You have seen the Marvel blockbusters and know who Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and the Black Panther are — characters who even five years ago were only recognisable to the comic-reading cognoscenti.
But if these things that were once niche are indeed now mainstream, it’s a consumption-led mainstream. Want to watch hit 80s horror-influenced TV show Stranger Things? That’ll be a Netflix subscription you’ll need. Keeping up with Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead will set you back a Sky contract. Fancy trying your hand at building Lego’s Ultimate Death Star kit from the Star Wars movies? Just the £439.99, please.
At least comic books, the foundations on which popular modern geek culture are surely built, are still within easy reach of even the most impecunious fan, though, right? Well, not exactly. I have a stack of old Marvel comics by me as I type this, American colour issues from the mid to late 1970s. They are priced at 10p.
These days? An issue of your favourite monthly comic from Marvel or DC will set you back the best part of three quid. Out of interest, I put the price of one of those 1976 comic books into an online inflation calculator (inflation.stephenmorley.org) and it told me that 10p 40 years ago is roughly equivalent to 76p today. So a young comic fan in 2016 would have to spend about four times as much as I did to feed a comic habit.
And that’s if you can even easily buy Marvel comics. My stack of 10p issues were assembled from various newsagents where American comics were in plentiful supply. Today you would have to go to a specialist comic shop that imports them direct from the States to buy them... and I’m told from fans that the post-Brexit plummeting pound hasn’t yet filtered through to comic book prices, so we can expect the cost to rise even further.
So indulging your geekhood might be OK for a 40-something bloke with wads of disposable income, but maybe for kids it isn’t quite as easy as it was in the days when “geek” was a slur and not a badge of honour. Thank heavens, then, for the Thought Bubble comic convention which takes place in Leeds this weekend.
Look, comic conventions are ten-a-penny these days. There was the massive London Comic Con last weekend. Similarly, the San Diego Comic-Con is a monstrous affair, attracting more than 170,000 people. And for these huge events, “comic con” has become something of a misnomer; they’re often less about the printed product and more about the big TV shows and movies, with fans in elaborate and expensive “cosplay” outfits, big-name stars in attendance and celebrities selling their autographed publicity shots. A signature can cost you anything from £15 up… at last year’s London Film and Comic Con you could purchase a “Diamond Package” for Michael J Fox that got you an autograph, a selfie opportunity and a seat at a panel he was on... for a mere £445 on top of your entrance ticket fee.
Thought Bubble, which runs Saturday and Sunday at the Royal Armouries Museum at Leeds docks, isn’t like that. For starters, it’s all about the comics. A jobbing actor who once played a red-shirt on Star Trek isn’t going to find an audience for signed photos at a tenner a pop, but the men and women who write and draw comics that range from the best-selling Marvel and DC titles down to photocopied self-published strips are feted as celebrities.
Thought Bubble is now in its tenth year, and is welcoming creators from all across the world. There are discussion panels, workshops, and rows and rows of tables spread over two halls and one massive marquee tent where the biggest names in comic books will be chatting to fans, selling their wares and generally having the time of their lives in what is considered in the industry one of the most friendly and inclusive comic festivals on the convention calendar.
Thought Bubble is so friendly you could even take your mum. Which is precisely what Kieron Gillen did last year. Gillen is a comic book writer, often partnered with his artist collaborator Jamie McKelvie, and their series The Wicked + The Divine, published by Image Comics, is one of the most popular comics at the moment.
Gillen has written extensively for Marvel comics, including X-Men, Thor, Doctor Strange and the Young Avengers. He says, “My mum kept saying she wanted to see what I did at these comic conventions, so I brought her to Thought Bubble last year. She had a great time. She wandered around and got a real feel of what comics was all about.”
Gillen and McKelvie have been attending Thought Bubble since its inception ten years ago, and will be back this year. On Friday, they will be attending the launch evening at The Gallery at Munro House in Leeds, which throughout November is hosting an exhibition of McKelvie’s work on The Wicked + The Divine. Thought Bubble is in their blood.
“The convention started at the same time as our careers did,” says Gillen. “They were the first people to invite us to a convention and offer to pay for a hotel room. We couldn’t believe it! Since then it’s grown with us and grown around us. Thought Bubble is really a portrait of everything I love about comics.”
Thought Bubble has what Gillen calls “a very flat stage”. There are no roped-off VIP lounges, no Diamond Packages that get you signed photos at a premium cost. And the artist on the big name comic of the moment is lumped in with everyone else.
“It’s very egalitarian,” he says. “You go into the marquee and you’ll get this big American star on the next table to someone who’s just created their very first black-and-white comic. And you get the whole sweep of comics... a couple of years ago Posy Simmonds was there, and you had everything from her work to Superman in the same room.”
Friendly and informal is a great antidote to the commercially-driven big cons, of course, but Thought Bubble is about much more than that. It’s about democratising geek culture, making it available to everyone and anyone, no matter what their budget.
It still costs to get in, of course – a day ticket on the door is £18. But Thought Bubble is not about raking in the geek-pound for profit’s sake. All money raised is ploughed back into organising the next event. And there’s a huge focus on inclusivity.
For example, under-12s get into convention events absolutely free, and for the first time this year the organisers are making the con free for over-65s.
“We’ve always done free admission for under-12s,” says Lisa Wood. “But we have been thinking for some years that the over-65 demographic is one we needed to engage with more, so this year we’ve done the free admission. We thought it might be really lovely if grandparents brought their grandchildren to us for a free day out.”
Thought Bubble is Lisa’s brainchild. Ten years ago she was working at Leeds comic shop (and major Thought Bubble supporter) Travelling Man – she’s now a director of the company – and thought out loud how it would be great to have a friendly, diverse and inclusive comic convention in her home town of Leeds. Her friends in the local comics community were supportive but there were a few cautionary voices who told her it would be a lot of work and she probably wouldn’t pull it off.
“That just galvanised me more,” says Lisa. “It put fire in my belly. So I set off and organised it.”
The first Thought Bubble was a fairly small affair, held in the vaults of Leeds Town Hall. Lisa had her fingers crossed that maybe 150 people might turn up. In the end, 500 attended. And Thought Bubble grew and grew. In its tenth year, says Lisa, they’re expecting 8,000 people to attend the two-day convention this weekend and in total, with the week-long array of events and exhibitions that Thought Bubble has been running across West Yorkshire, the festival as a whole is expected to reach a whopping 40,000 people.
“It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come,” says Lisa, who as well as organising Thought Bubble and acting as a director of a thriving chain of comic shops also has a third job – under the pen-name Tula Lotay she’s a comic artist herself of some renown, working for the likes of DC and Image comics.
And one of the major foundations of Thought Bubble has always been this idea of inclusivity and putting comics in reach of everyone. The small team around Lisa does a lot of outreach work with schools and especially with community groups that deal with marginalised or disadvantaged children. In recent years they have worked with Leeds Autism Services, the local Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre network, which deals with children with emotional and social issues, and a group in nearby Bradford that helps the children of asylum seekers and refugees. Thought Bubble has carried out workshops and events with the young people, and has provided free tickets for them to attend the convention.
“One of the reasons I set Thought Bubble up ten years ago was because I wanted to do something, in some way, with disadvantaged kids,” says Lisa. “Comics are a great tool for engaging young people and encouraging reading.”
And Lisa knows what it’s like to be an outsider. Growing up in the early Eighties with a penchant for comics at a time when geek culture was something to be sneered at marked her out as different. She says, “And I left school barely able to read or write properly because I was dyslexic. I had a bad time because of that and I wanted Thought Bubble to be able to appeal to those kids who feel that they’re different, who have a difficult time because of it.”
Having attended Thought Bubble for a couple of years now, I can confirm that it is indeed the friendliest convention around. That’s not to say it doesn’t have all the trappings of the big conventions; it does. You’ll see people dressed as their favourite characters (under-16s get a special discount on admission if they come in cosplay) and there are long queues to get comic books signed by the big-name artists and writers.
But like all the best superheroes, under this mask of brisk geek culture, Thought Bubble has a secret identity; it is the comic con with a social conscience, with a mission to democratise the enjoyment of comic books, with a desire to engage young people in this most fascinating of art forms. And that’s hardly surprising.
Because, as any comic fan familiar with Spider-Man’s first appearance (Amazing Fantasy number 15, fact-fans) knows full well: With great power comes great responsibility.
Thought Bubble runs Saturday 5 November-Sunday 6 November. For more details visit thoughtbubblefestival.com