In advance of this year’s Thought Bubble Comics Convention, Thomas Chalk talks to founder Lisa Wood – better known as comic book artist Tula Lotay.
Thought Bubble started in 2007 in a basement room in Leeds Town Hall. In the years since, it has gone from strength to strength and is now the UK’s largest comic art convention. Lisa was working in Leeds comics shop Travelling Man in 2007, and set up the Festival thinking it would be a somewhat small, niche affair. “All of us expected just a couple of hundred people to come, but we actually had five hundred and we just were run off our feet all day, and from that point on the numbers have doubled, quadrupled… it’s been incredible.”
The festival now attracts thousands of people every year. While it includes animation and cosplay, the focus is very definitely on comics and comics creators. It’s all about the writers and the artists. This is not a convention for people who want to pay for the autograph of someone who once wore a red jumper in a non-speaking part in Star Trek.
Lisa’s interest in comics stems from an early age, buying them second-hand at Batley market. They were an important part of her childhood, not only as a gateway to exciting new characters and worlds, but also as a way into reading. One of the underlying reasons for founding Thought Bubble was to connect children with reading difficulties to comics. I asked Lisa if comics are more than just a stealth way to get children to read: is there something inherent in the fact that it is so much more visual as a medium that makes it accessible to children with reading difficulties?
“It absolutely is – comics are so important for that. I suffer from dyslexia, and I remember at a very young age I would fall behind in classes, so I was put in what was called the remedial group at school because I couldn’t get my bs and ds the right way round, and other things that the teacher just didn’t understand. When we were in lessons reading from books, I would just see these huge bodies of text, and it was not something I could take in and something I could learn from. And if I didn’t know the odd word, the pictures would help me understand it.” Far from limiting her, comics helped open up the world of words: she now reads without difficulty.
For the last five years, Lisa and Thought Bubble have worked with Specialist Autism Services to make the convention more inclusive. There is a ‘recharge zone’ for people who need time out from the sensory overload of the convention – the noise, the visual stimulus, the crowds. “The reason it came about was – there are people around us every day with autism, a lot of them are undiagnosed, and some we do know have that, and can really struggle with day to day things. Through knowing people who have it, and through dialogue with other people and especially Specialist Autism Services, we realised that quite a few people we were talking to really did love coming to the show, loved comic books, loved everything we celebrated, what we were about, drawing pictures, and were really interested in drawing and writing comics.”
There has in recent years been an explosion of interests in comics. Most visible is the endless cycle of superhero movies and the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But comics have had a wider pervasive influence in the movies, whether providing stories or visual aesthetics. We talked about the idea of “geek culture”, and whether the term itself acts as a celebration, or continues to marginalise the comics medium as somehow niche, less worthy. Lisa dislikes the term “geek” – indeed, it was something she was taunted with at school – and feels strongly that the art form should be taken seriously. “I studied fine art at Bradford University, and I’ve always been into comics ever since I was little; I’ve always wanted to draw comics, but I was told it was not something I could go into or should go into. I grew up thinking ‘Why bother? If I draw I’ll draw for myself; it’s a pipe dream that’ll never come true’.
Studying illustration at Bradford University I was still doing comic book style stuff, because that’s the way I draw and that’s what I like, and even at that point in my early twenties I was told that it wasn’t a worthy art form, I should be looking to pop art and various things like that; I should leave comics aside.” Illustrating in a comic book style remained a hobby for many years for Lisa, until she began to put her work up online on Tumblr. This gained her the exposure needed for comic publishers to become aware of her work and to seek her out. She became a full-time professional comics artist in 2013.
We talk about diversity in the comics industry – if Lisa minds that these are questions that invariably are put to women working in a stereotypically male field that would not also be put to the men, she doesn’t let on. “The female representation in comics and the diversity that started happening ten years ago, has only just started happening in Hollywood. We’ve come a long way, and the amazing thing that’s happened over the last two years, especially the diversity, has shifted so much within the comic book industry that it’s obvious you are going to get so many different stories and different content that’s never been told before, and that’s what society needs, and comics are leading the way.”
Thought Bubble Festival takes place from 17 – 23 September in various Leeds City locations, culminating in a weekend convention on 22 and 23 September. Tickets are available here
Thought Bubble is a not for profit organisation, promoting comics, supporting creators and providing education and outreach to promote literacy and artistic skills in the community.
Feature image by John Slemensek