Thought Bubble & My Rookie Year

Well, here we are then. Our first Thought Bubble is in the bag. The show I’ve wanted to do for the best part of a decade, over in the blink of an eye. I am now back in my house, near Swansea, with a cup of tea and the biggest convention of my “career” thus far in the rear view mirror. Let’s try our best to make sense of the show, the year that preceded it, and what it all means. Easy.

Thought Bubble 2018

What can I say about Thought Bubble that somebody else won’t have already said? It’s the big leagues of indie comics; small press tastemaker and impresario Sarah Harris (of Swindon’s Incredible Comics) once said that Thought Bubble is where you go to “arrive”; to announce your presence on the scene. A lot of people were making that announcement this year, including us (me and my wife, who is my salesperson and spokesperson while I’m busy drawing or scowling).

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 Thought Bubble looks, superficially, like other conventions, but it is not like other conventions. On its face, the process of getting to Thought Bubble was identical to the CICE and True Believers processes – we applied early, sent in some JPGs and text, then we turned up with comics and a roulette wheel. There was a folding table and some chairs, and nearby people were putting up those wire print holders that you clip together. Same old. But, as we soon learned, Thought Bubble is unlike anything else we’d encountered previously.

 I knew Thought Bubble was big, but I had no real concept of its breadth and scale until I saw it all laid out, taking over a large portion of the city centre. The marquee we were in, alone, would have been the largest comic convention I’ve ever exhibited at, before you consider it was one of four venues. Thought Bubble is almost too much, but of course if you’re into comics there’s probably no such thing as too much. I had grand plans to see so many people, almost all of which were lost to the blur of the event (except for Tony Esmond, Todd Oliver, and Sarah Millman, and even then I didn’t even get to see at her at her actual table; I bumped into her purely by chance in the street). If you want to experience Thought Bubble, don’t get a table. You can either be at it or in it, and never the twain shall meet.

 The mid-con party was a godsend in that regard, and it was a real pleasure to talk shop with other exhibitors while watching a flamboyant German attempting pistol squats to Boney M’s “Rasputin” in full cosplay. In fact, of all the things that happened in Leeds this weekend, I think I enjoyed the mid-con get-together more than anything. It’s so rare you get to really talk to other people doing this sort of thing – comics is, by nature, an isolationist pursuit, and even if you’re tabling next to good people (as we, fortunately, have done every time so far – this time with Paul Moore, a true gent and a talented man) you never really get to talk. I managed to get some good conversations in with Jon Laight, fellow weird comic producer Todd Oliver, and Andy Barron (whose work is so unique it looks like it was produced off-planet, a distant civilisation’s take on sequential art). And I saw the pistol squats. Great party, cheers lads.

 In regard to the actual show itself, I’m probably one of the worst people to write about Thought Bubble, because I saw fuck all of the actual show. We had so much fun - we met lots of great people, saw friends from shows past, Lauren met somebody off the Bake Off (I don’t watch it but she seemed very nice) - but it was just so hectic we couldn’t get a sense of what the punters experienced. All I can really tell you is how we did as exhibitors, as rookie exhibitors with a half-table in a marquee large enough to accommodate several hundred of the most talented indie comic artists in the country.  

How Did We Do?

I went to Thought Bubble feeling relatively conflicted in regards to expectations. What would low sales mean? What would high sales mean? Would we sell anything at all? Would we be kicked ceremoniously in the arse with a big pointed boot if we didn’t meet quota? No way to know. Had to just go there and see what happened. I had advantages here that I hadn’t had at our first show at True Believers – we’d had some experience, and some success, and we had the roller banner, at once repulsing and attracting, a cursed beacon luring punters towards it against their will.

It’s impossible to deduce your standing in comics from any one show, but if there’s one thing I learned from Thought Bubble, it is that any lessons you have learned from other shows do not apply there. Thought Bubble is a different animal; the punters look the same as the punters elsewhere, but they are not the same. They will do what other punters do – look at the roller banner with either amusement or disgust, pick up a comic to a gruesome page before sidling away, the usual – but these are not the people we encountered in Cardiff, Cheltenham, or Swindon. At smaller shows, we sold a lot of bumper packs (complete sets of my entire back catalogue, with a sketch, for a tenner). We offered a very similar package at Thought Bubble, and we priced competitively as we always do (or at least I feel we do). But the vast majority of money that came over the table was either for a Death Roulette on its own (£5, and fine by me – it’s the highest margin item on the table, considering I’m going to be at the table anyway and I genuinely love doing them) or a single issue, typically Adrift or one of the other shorter minis (Hell– my £1 mini-comic – was the breakout star).

We put this down to the sheer crushing weight of the competition; whereas a £10 pack of comics may seem like a good deal at a smaller show, at a show the size of Thought Bubble the smart play is to get a little taste off everybody. We’ll be making sure we’ve got more little things for sale next time, and I would definitely recommend anybody thinking about Thought Bubble to make sure you have plenty of “easy pickups” – badges, short comics for cheap etc. It also helps if you have something unique, which we will come to shortly.

We didn’t quite break even – nor, frankly, did I expect to; how could we? We’d driven from Swansea and spent two nights in a hotel, and then there was the cost of the table on top. But we came closer to breaking even than I would have imagined; very close indeed. Especially considering: 

-      I’m still a no-name, in the grand scheme of things (though some people did seek me out to pick up Adrift based on good reviews they’d read, and I signed my first few honest-to-goodness autographs for people who don’t realise my comics are actually worth lessif they’re signed). 

-      What an honour it is for anybody to spend anything at your table at an event like that. Considering the exhibitor list was essentially a who’s who of UK indie talent, I know how lucky we were to have made one red penny. I wouldn’t have bought anything from me if I’d been a visitor at that show, for fuck’s sake.

If you bought from us this weekend, even if it was just a badge, or you just took a business card or talked to us for a minute, I’m very grateful. I’m especially grateful if you joined the 2018 class of Death Roulette. 

Death Roulette

For those who aren’t aware, Death Roulette is my signature convention sketch game; we bring a small toy roulette wheel, and each of the 37 numbers corresponds to an improbable mode of death that I keep hidden under the table. You pay £5, spin the wheel, I take a good look at you, and you come back in 10 minutes to find out how you died. 

We welcomed an all-time record number of people to the Death Roulette hall of fame at Thought Bubble; nearly 30 people elected to be mangled, crushed, decapitated, stabbed, shot, frozen, impaled, or otherwise maimed. I love doing Death Roulette portraits, and thankfully everybody so far has seemed happy with the grim vision of their own demise they’ve received. Here’s some of my favourites from Thought Bubble.

Death Roulette has been a godsend at conventions; it’s gotten conversations started and it’s driven comic sales (either from people “upgrading” to a bumper pack that includes the portrait and all the comics, or people getting a sense of what’s inside the comics from their portrait). Out of respect to those brave enough to take a blind punt on their own demise this year, I’ve decided to draw a line under the 2018 class of Death Roulette, in that any deaths that were drawn this year will never be repeated. If you took part in Leeds, or Cardiff, Cheltenham, or Swindon, thank you so much. You are more handsome than god and braver than the troops.

In Conclusion

Thought Bubble has been a long time coming for me; I may have had the highest ratio of “years planning on exhibiting” to “years exhibiting” of any attendee this year. When I moved to Manchester for university (in – ugh – 2008), myself and my good friend Paul Capewell arrived a little older than our contemporaries and unenthused about the idea of chugging beer through a funnel or playing soggy biscuit on a flag frisbee team. We were hugely fortunate, then, to have found a poorly-advertised “society” – the ragtag group of misfits responsible for running PULP Magazine, the student union publication. We signed up in the afternoon one day, and joined the editorial board that evening. I would spend my every waking hour that year writing print and video content for the magazine and the website, and Paul became its defacto web lead, building its website and churning out videos that looked far better than they had any right to considering the equipment on which they were made. PULP Magazine had no money, no time, and no oversight beyond its perennially overworked editor. Paul and I were not the best-qualified people on campus for the jobs we did at PULP, but we were available, and willing, and if we didn’t do things, nobody else would. The editorial team of PULP 2008/09 spun straw into gold in a way I’ve not really experienced since (and would do anything to experience again). 

I think everyone who worked on PULP that year got something out of it, but the main thing I got out of it is that you don’t have to ask permission to make things, and you can’t afford to wait. PULP changed hands the following year and folded shortly after due to perennial mismanagement on the part of the student union (leaving Manchester Met – a university that so prides itself on its art and design faculty – as the largest university in the world without an official print outlet for its students’ work), and shortly after it died, I began producing photocopier comics under an assumed name. I think I just needed something to fill the void that PULP had left behind. They weren’t the best work I’ve ever done, but that doesn’t matter. Manchester had a vibrant, healthy culture of weirdo small-press bullshit where the only thing that mattered was the willingness to make something; be it zines full of emetic-grade poetry, or – in my case - self-produced compendiums of the worst comics ever made. I had experienced a late-stage conversion to comics after becoming intoxicated by the beguiling work being put out by Kate Beaton and KC Green, whose work seemed to single-handedly wash away the ungodly stench brought on by the mid-2000s webcomic “boom” (many people think the 90s was comics’ nadir, but all the foil covers in the world cannot touch the sheer volume of excruciatingly poor content produced by the supposed champions of webcomics in the early-to-mid 2000s). And PULP had taught me that nobody’s going to tap you on the shoulder to let you know it’s time – you just have to crack on with what you’ve got and hope you eventually land somewhere you want to be, knowing that even if you don’t you’ll probably feel better for having done something. I had heard, through regional channels, of Thought Bubble, which was growing each year. I swore I would, one day, when I was ready, fill out an application, set up a table, and do it. Just do it, fuck it, see what happened. That was 2010. 

A lot happened between those first photocopier comics and my Thought Bubble debut – I graduated, got a job, got married. Got a kitten, called it Potato. Life happened. I stalled on comics, but the idea of comics never really went away; I dabbled with it the whole time, aimlessly, never sure what exactly I ought to do with it. Just over a year ago, I decided to actually make a proper go at it for the first time; really put all my effort into it, and see what happens. I didn’t know what success looked like, but I thought I’d know it when I saw it. Looking back over the past year, I think I have had a successful rookie year in comics. I’ve had profitable showings at good comic conventions, my work has had good reviews from established critics, and I finally held my own at the convention that has been my white whale, taunting me from afar, for eight years. It’s hard for anything to live up to eight years of hype, especially when that hype is entirely self-generated.

But I think the past year, and Thought Bubble with it, was a bigger success than I could have reasonably hoped for. And I believe now, perhaps more than ever before, in the ethos I learned at PULP Magazine – if you don’t make whatever it is you have the urge to make, nobody else will, and there’s never a good time. You just have to get on with it. It took me a while, but I’m just glad I finally got on with it.

Thanks for making my first year in comics a success, and hopefully I’ll see you at next year’s Thought Bubble.