Review / Gallery: Thought Bubble Festival (Harrogate UK, 13th – 14th November 2021)

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It’s safe to say, the anticipation for the return of the UK’s premier comic-focused convention – the Thought Bubble Sequential Art Festival, to give it its original full title – was stratospheric. Everyone was ready and eager for this show’s return, whatever the hurdles.

And there have been plenty of those. From the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (very much still ongoing, whatever your Facebook relatives may be telling you), to the challenges of securing appealing guests and exhibitors in the wake of said pandemic, to the sheer anxiety of creatives, publishers, talent and punters of simply being in a room with that amount people after so long, so sooooooo long.

image - Thought Bubble Festival 2021 (caroline gallery 60)

However, one thing that the past two years have shown us is, those with drive, resiliency and imagination will endeavour to prevail. Whether it’s through adapting business models to accommodate the strains, whether it means seeing each other through the veil of a mask, whether it means shifting and warping established practices to evolve and become something… better. Comics people have demonstrated the creativity to do this.

And so have comic convention organisers. Lisa Wood (aka, rockstar artist Tula Lotay), festival director Chloe Green, the gang at Traveling Man and the truly Herculean ‘red shirt’ volunteer team that put on this past weekend’s Thought Bubble rose to the challenge to put on a show that felt safe, felt welcoming, felt inclusive, felt fresh and new… and they not only faced that high bar but they cleared it with aplomb.

image - Thought Bubble Festival 2021 (caroline gallery 36)

After a two year gap (incorporating a virtual convention that also met the usual high standards of this show), TBubs returned to the Harrogate International Convention Centre, its second visit after debuting at the venue in 2019, following a well-established series of shows at the Leeds Town Hall, the Royal Armouries and the town centre of Leeds in a multi-venue Angoulême-style event. If 2019 felt like a rebirth for Thought Bubble in its new home, 2021 felt like a full-blown renaissance – the next level for a convention that has already reached so many of those in its short existence.

Yes, a number of international (and some UK) guests had dropped out in the months, weeks and days leading up to the show – from Frank Miller being royally booted from the guest list after objections from those offended by his output on recent years, to many American names feeling that heading to the UK, while our COVID statistics remain so precarious, a risk too high (cheers, Boris), to those last-minute cancellations made up of sniffles, colds and deep, long looks into the eyes of kiddies and loved ones, and simply not willing to take the chance. I can’t begrudge any of that.

image - Thought Bubble Festival 2021 (caroline gallery 09)

Those that did decide to make the journey, however, found themselves at a show that – thanks to a rigorous entry criteria that included mandatory mask-wearing, a double-jabbed vaccination status and negative test results – actually felt very safe indeed. The layout had been changed by the organisers to allow for an easier and less constricted level of movement and this layout actually allowed people to feel less hemmed in, freeing up the metabolism of the traffic between the Halls and, ultimately, creating a more accessible atmosphere throughout the entire convention centre.

I suspect this may have also contributed to a better browsing experience, letting the almost-universally masked attendees breath – if you’ll pardon the pun – and explore more of the tables, especially further into the convention footprint. And – mercy be praised – maybe even explore more at-the-table sales, too. Many exhibitors that I spoke to at the close of the show were reporting either sell outs or much-welcome profits from healthy spending. Very nice indeed, that’s absolutely what you want.

image - Thought Bubble Festival 2021 (caroline gallery 35)

No Mid-Con Party this year so how people spent their out-of-convention hours was completely up to them: there was a comiXology-sponsored gathering on the Friday night of the great and the beautiful (oh, and one or two gatecrashers – waves!!); Saturday saw a bit of switcharound as dozens of comics creatives found themselves gatecrashing another event at the Majestic Hotel (an Indian wedding made sure that a half-hour wait at the bar was the norm all evening – and no classy toilet facilities could take away from that harsh reality); bars and restaurants around the whole of Harrogate found themselves hosting intimate huddles of people doing their best to keep things low-key and behave themselves in the shadow of COVID.

All-in-all, though, I felt safe and secure in the efforts of everyone, inside the con and out, to be respectful of the trauma that we have all endured throughout 2020 and 2021. The big concern was how facing a convention horde would feel after all this time – in the end, it became apparent that even the crowd had its own concerns and were just as apprehensive, meeting exhibitors halfway and, ultimately, facing the demons together.

image - Thought Bubble Festival 2021 (caroline gallery 19)

Thought Bubble learnt, for this show, how to take on the pressures of hosting a convention in this new reality and, in doing so, actually found solutions to problems that they didn’t even know they had two years ago – crowd-flow, talent placement, tone and atmosphere, etc. In 2022, when we all find ourselves back in Harrogate again and – fingers crossed – at full strength, we may find ourselves attending a show that’s even better because of pandemic. Now, how’s that for optimistic?


THOUGHT BUBBLE FESTIVAL: Photo Gallery by Caroline Sultana

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