Last weekend was the Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds - the biggest event in the UK indie comics calendar.
Small press and independent comics creators come from all over the country (and beyond) to sell their wares, to buy those wares, to buy things by Chris Ware, and to occasionally drink until mentally unaware. Publishers come along to showcase their latest releases, local comic shops have stands bowing under the weight of graphic novels, and there are signing tables with big industry stars and huge queues, but the vast thriving majority are individuals who write and self-publish their own works. If you ever want to get a good view of the community side of the comics world, this is the place.
I'd only been once before, in 2008, when I knew absolutely nobody, had no idea what I was doing, and then missed my train home and got stranded in Leeds. That year was brilliant. This year I had friends, I had plans, and I had an app on my phone that would tell me what other connections I can get if my train is running late. This is what I got up to…
I have so much to do. I'm booked on the 18.03 from Charing Cross to Leeds. My mum is flat-sitting while we're away. I only got back from another event in Bristol yesterday. My list of things to do is overwhelming. Why is my partner Xavier so calm? I print out price lists for the table, then realise the ink heads on my printer won't unclog and it'll never manage the A3 posters I need. I call the printers and ask them if they can do a rush job. They oblige. (The Print Room in Brighton, everyone. GOOD PEOPLE.) After a frenzied hour on Photoshop I scurry into town to pick them up. Also some mount board and a new Sharpie. They only come in packs of two. To hell with it. Two Sharpies. And a money box to put my takings in. Looks professional. And the bank, to get some change yes I do bank here: here is my card. Come back. Start packing. The train to London leaves in three hours. Don't forget train tickets. Make sure to pack drawing things. Carefully trim and mount the posters on the mount board, make a stand out of a cereal box. (No one will see that.) Had postcards and badges made: pack those. Take extra copies of Britten and Brülightly just in case. The US edition with the funny cover. (Why didn't they like my cover?) Train leaves in one and a half hours. Try on clothes to decide what to pack. (Sat - sitting behind table. Must look approachable. Sun - on a panel. Must look authoritative.) Take jumpers and proper shirts. No hoodie. Laundry now dry, plunder for socks. Pack socks. Repack hoodie. Bring umbrella. Don't forget train tickets. Don't forget phone charger. Don't forget card-reading attachment to take card payments through iPad. Should I look more professional on Sat? Time to leave. Realise I haven't left any instructions for my mum on how to look after the cat and the tortoise. Previous flat-sitting notes on desk. In box. Under ukulele. They'll do. Lift uke case - all papers fall to floor. Scream at desk. Time to go. Grab things. Why is Xav so calm? Check I have train tickets. Grab bags. Check I have train tickets. Go.
Finally on the train to Leeds, Xav and I can unwind. Well, I can unwind; he is already unwound.
We arrive in the city and drag all my crap to the hotel, and then meet up with some very welcome familiar faces -
In the bar next door is a huge crush of people whose names I'd recognise but whose faces I don't. They don't have name-tags. I stay out of it.
There are lots of people hanging around the lobby: some I know; a lot I don't. Everyone is in pre-festival spirits. I get to chat briefly to John McShane, manager of Plan B Books in Glasgow. The best thing about having a festival in Leeds is the rare treat of catching up with comic buddies North of the border.
I drink more than I intend to.
The hotel room is nice. I spend nowhere near enough time in it, then get up and go to set up our table down at New Dock Hall (formerly 'Savile Hall', but not any more, reader. Not any more.) Our publishers, Jonathan Cape, have tables there for the first time this year, but are unfortunately unable to staff it on the Saturday. Opportunistic people that we are, Karrie Fransman, Simone Lia and I (hereafter known as 'The Capettes') bring our own books and things to sell and set up shop on the empty spot for the day.
Simone at our tables, plus someone's baby (not for sale).
I think you'll agree I look pretty damn approachable.
The Capettes, coming soon to a town near you. (Although Karrie is technically with Square Peg, but we don't talk about that.)
At 10am the doors open and the queues already waiting at the doors when I rocked up an hour earlier surge in, cosplayers and all. It's an onslaught! A big, wonderful, terrifying onslaught!
I barely move from the table until closing time at 5pm - it's infuriating, as everywhere around me I can see tables and tables of dazzling colours and shapes and fabulous people, some of whom I know, some of whom I only know the names of. Fortunately, even though I don't get to see the many people, many people do come to see us, including:
Nice guy Alex Fitch, comics journalist and producer of Panel Borders;
Xav (who brought lunch) and Karen Rubins, comicker and previous artist in residence at the V&A, being 'thought-provoking' (Just behind Karen is Dan Berry, who was sharing a table with British Comic Award nominee Joe Decie. Dan and I may be related, but we haven't figured out how yet);
…and the many others whom I forgot to photograph. (I'm sorry, others.) If you're interested, I'd suggest having a little Google of other people's blogs/Flickr to get a fuller picture of the festival from people unanchored to a table. (In fact, I'd recommend it heartily, as I didn't get a picture of a single cosplayer. Look at the tiny Judge Dredd!)
Even better visitors than the people I did know were all the people I didn't: the strangers who stopped by and bought my books, which I then lovingly defaced with my name and a drawing. All were good conversationalists, which is fortunate as I draw very slowly indeed. I'd like to give special mention to an American journalist by the name of Linda, who was not only a fascinating person but persuaded many passers-by to buy my books and then gave me a chocolate chip muffin. That's a winning move right there.
My view for most of Saturday. That dessert there? Didn't last long.
The doors eventually close, and people head to the auditorium across the way where the first ever British Comic Awards will be announced. Unfortunately Karrie, Xav and I don't make it into the auditorium before the doors shut, so we miss out on this particular moment of UK comics history. We drop our things off at the hotel and bump into the brilliant and American Alison Bechdel and her partner the equally brilliant and American Holly Rae Taylor (who we'd met not two days earlier in Bristol). Embarrassingly we bump into them as we are filling out pockets with free executive lounge goodies.
There's a big, mid-festival party at the Corn Exchange, which is a very grandiose place for a party. Well done, Leeds! A flash of the festival pass and we're inside.
Comic-lovers cutting some rug.
Mary Talbot and Megan Donnolley, co-director of the Comica Festival, looking sultry.
Ben Dickson again with Howard Hardiman (terrible photo. I am a terrible photographer.)
M'self and Megan Donnolley. And wine.
Glyn Dillon and Dan Berry, having a good old laff.
Creatures of the night. What sweet music they make.
Back in the hotel room, I sleep as if anaesthetised.
After deciding it's far too early for a fried breakfast but making sure by eating one, Xav and I raid the executive lounge for snacks to see us through the morning. As if by awkward magic, at this exact moment we run into Alison and Holly again. It's hard to protest your innocence when your arms are full.
Hannah and Ruth man the Cape table properly.
Today's the day the real Jonathan Cape staff arrive, and so we're free to roam the hall unburdened by the need to collect cash from strangers. I don't, though, because I'm on a panel at 11: 'Women in Comics', because I am in comics and I am a woman. We pass by a queue on the way in and are delighted/alarmed to see it's for our panel - 220 people in all, I'm told later. Thank god I'm wearing my authoritative shirt.
We question the need for such a panel in these enlightened times, but decide it's nice to have a separate space to celebrate all the good work we do. We shoot the breeze in a ladylike manner; I tell them about writing this blog and I get a round of applause. (The fact that you are reading my words makes them happy, so keep up the good work, you.)
We also talk about the ways that we none of us consider ourselves to be writing for women especially, or specifically as a woman, and the way that some reviewers still talk about us using terms they certainly wouldn't use for men. Anyway, I believe all this is available to watch online somewhere…
I'm a member of a Facebook group 'Women In Comics, Europe', and there are a few of us in the room. I know Maura McHugh, Laura Sneddon, Selina Lock and Jay Eales (honorary woman), but many I haven't met before. It's nice, you know? A proper sense of community. The group was set up for networking purposes, but as far as networking goes it's at the co-supportive end of the spectrum, so we all go for a coffee.
I get a call from the Cape table - a few people have bought my books and all now need gracing with the new Sharpie. (The books, I mean.) I race for the hall-
This is a lie: you can't race in situations like this. Every few steps you see a familiar face that you haven't seen for far too long and you have to stop and catch up. But I chatted to them more briefly than I would have done under normal circumstances. To the table!
Back at the hall I sign and scribble in some books, then realise that I've only got about an hour until we need to get the train back South.
I cram all the browsing and chatting and buying of a weekend into that hour, pitifully little time for so many brilliant people and so many gems. I run and interact and collect like every video game I've ever played has taught me, then we hurry for the train. On the way I make a metal list of all the people I haven't managed to say a proper goodbye to. Essentially, everyone but Alex Fitch, who is walking with us to the station.
It's four and a half hours back to Brighton, and it's late when we get back. I am tired beyond words, more tired than I can articulate. Even my hair feels tired.
I can't wait for next year.
SONG du JOUR
'Go to the Mardi Gras' by Professor Longhair