Monday, 24 November 2014

Rediscovering Comics

and a review of Thought Bubble

Two weeks ago I went to Thought Bubble: Leeds' dedicated comic convention and part of a bigger festival of comic art and writing. I had been to comic conventions before: great jumbles of artists, stands, merchandise, games and anime. To be quite frank I hadn't enjoyed these experiences. The halls were too busy and without focus; I felt like a outsider, not knowledgeable enough about comics anime or games; I was older than the other clientèle, female, and not cosplaying. It was a world that was difficult for me to access.

Thought Bubble Annie Wu
Illustration by Annie Wu used with permission.

 Thought Bubble, I was told, was different. For starters, rather than the mishmash of everything from games to anime with comics thrown in there in the middle Thought Bubble was about comics and only about comics. OK it covered all aspects of this media from self published zines to big publishing houses and graphic novels but the core was still the telling of stories through printed art and words. There was only going to be the one subculture for me to deal with.
More than that, they said, Thought Bubble was, from day one, designed to be inclusive; accessible to anybody regardless of gender, age, ability or disability, whether they were life long fans of comics or turning the page for the first time. This was the real charm: a comic con that I could go to and feel safe and not excluded. I was impressed that a con would be organised in this manner, that the managers and staff that ran it went in to it with conscious aim of not discriminating against, in fact actively supporting, many groups of people.
I was told of policy regarding sexism and gender issues – those comic artists who were overtly discriminatory in their drawings or views simply weren't invited. Booth girls weren't a feature. People who used discriminatory language would be asked to leave. The organisers made sure to provide facilities for people with physical or neurological disabilities including quiet areas, gender neutral toilets and easy access to event halls. This sounded incredible but I was dubious about how it actually worked in practice.

I resolved that I would go, just for a day and see for myself how this modern and open minded comic con worked. I was still a little nervous though. I am one of many who was in to comics as a teenager. I am also one of the many women who was driven away from comics because of the attitudes toward women in the comic industry. I can distinctly remember being completely ignored in comic shops, even when I asked direct questions, only to have my boyfriend ask the same question and receive an answer. I remember picking up comics and putting them down again after scanning the pages and seeing supposedly strong women stripped of their clothes and taken as slaves. I didn't want those mainstream comics with their generic stories of male heroism and violence and I was excluded and pushed away from finding the comics that I would have enjoyed.

Fifteen years later and there have been changes in the comic industry. Yes superheroes and the world of Marvel and DC are still the public face of comics, in fact more popular than ever bringing comics out of the dark and into the mainstream through canny film franchises. Now though, cleverly crafted stories of fantasy worlds, space travel, real world politics and satire are get their own displays in comic shops and are talked about as legitimate and valued works. Independent and small operation publishers are making their mark, getting their work seen and pushing the boundaries of what subject matter can be dealt with in comics.
So much choice is an exciting thing, but how do I know where to start, and how do I separate out the dross from the real beauties. Sexism in the comic industry is a hot topic but people are fighting for a change. Could a (admittedly timid) woman in her late twenties venture into this illustrated world and come out unscathed?

I was fortunate enough two have a number of friends attending: one a lifelong comic reader and fan, the other like me returning to comics after a long hiatus and curious about what we would find. This seemed like the perfect combination of support, understanding, enthusiasm and knowledge. Thought Bubble was the ideal venue for this exploration of comics; spread between rooms in the Royal Armouries, a marquee and and rooms in the New Dock Hall (a collection of modern conference room, restaurant and apartment buildings) there was no feeling of being hemmed in and there was plenty of space for people to mill about, socialise and for some, show off their costumes.
The three main halls were full of tables where artists from well known and respected, to new and independent could sell their comics and meet their readers.
The atmosphere was warm, welcoming and vibrant. It was immediately clear that this was a con for all types of people. Men and women, older and younger, different ethnicities, different style choices, able bodied and people with physical or developmental disabilities were browsing side by side. This diversity wasn't limited to the con goers, but was matched in the artists, writers and vendors, in the staff and volunteers and best of all in the art on display. When my friend and I disclosed to various artists and other con-goers that we were essentially new to all this, we were greeted with excitement and enthusiasm, no trace of derision or scorn for not having a clue what we were talking about.
As for the comics available, one excited quote over coffee from the weekend sums it up:

''It's a comic about existentialism and feminism in a noir style!”

It was in short, just what I was looking for in a con.

We spent all of our time browsing stands, meeting writers and becoming wildly enthusiastic over duochromatic depictions of tragic loss and destruction (it would seem I have a 'type' when it comes to comics, and surprisingly it's not limited to noir existentialist feminism). If we had had more time or been a little better prepared we could have attended one of the many panels or talks, had something signed or taken part in one of the more creative sessions. So much on offer and all of it based around engaging as broad a range of people as possible in illustrated story telling.

Comics, and the culture surrounding the genre, has moved on somewhat in the past 15 years. There are still undoubtedly problems, especially in mainstream comics with the depiction of women for example and the inclusion (or rather lack) of different age groups and ethnicities in both the comics and in the society that enjoys them. Reassuringly though, people are moving on and the status quo is naturally changing as people start to draw characters that reflect the people and world around them (albeit with super powers, transplanted into a fantasy dystopia or with a moon for a head). Titles and publishers who have been going for decades are equally starting to update their repertoire and those who resist are being met with an active and vociferous resistance and calls for art and stories that don't support or encourage discrimination of woman or minority groups. The comic industry isn't perfect yet but it is improving. It is becoming a subculture where all genders, ages, abilities,  people with less or more knowledge can come together to enjoy the media available together and without fear of discrimination.

Not all comic cons are there yet, but Thought Bubble definitely is. The claims that it was welcoming to all people as well as being a platform for some of the biggest and best talents in the industry really are justified.
It may have been fifteen years but I am once again, a comic reader.

I had fully intended to do a review of the comics I came home with and to name check some of the people I met and cooed over. I think that can wait for another post.

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