I’ve been going to Thought Bubble for three years as an exhibitor and each year the consensus among attendees is the same: the convention goes from strength to strength.
Thought Bubble achieves what few conventions manage, balancing as it does a high footfall while keeping the focus squarely on comics – the thriving UK small-press scene, in particular.
I had mixed emotions when news broke that the traditional two halls had sold out in record time for this year’s festival. It’s great to see the reputation of the festival reaching more exhibitors than ever, but on the other hand, some other well-known small pressers and regulars I knew had also missed the bus on booking tables, much like myself.
Just what type of exhibitors would be filling spaces this time around? And would they be about comics or would future festivals require curation of some kind to ensure comics were appropriately represented?
In any case, I resigned myself to being a slowpoke and not booking my table fast enough. Life goes on. Hey-ho.
And this is where Thought Bubble deserves real kudos for going the extra mile. Rather than sit back at having filled two halls, the organisers go and open a third one. Now patently there was demand for a third hall which made opening one feasible, but whereas other festivals would have remained happy at having filled the required spaces, Thought Bubble takes on more work and opens the Allied London Hall.
I’ve never organised a festival, and I can only imagine the work that goes into making a space "human friendly", but on the day I turned up to set up my table Allied London Hall was ready to receive me.
The space in Allied London was Tardis-like; smaller on the outside and bigger and cavernous on the inside. A couple of things stood out about the hall compared to New Dock (where I had exhibited the previous two years).
The first was that the space was big enough to incorporate a lot of exhibitors. Looking at the floor plan initially, I imagined space would be quite tight as the area snaked around itself like an (almost) figure of eight. This wasn’t the case. Tables were arranged in such a way that allowed the public to move around and stop and talk without causing blockages. This was important as later in the day I visited New Dock and found it heaving with people – a good thing in general, however the crowds made it a bit awkward at times to stand and talk to exhibitors.
A big part for me attending events is having the chance to speak with people, either about the book or their ambitions. As a one-man show it makes the whole experience a bit more social and in this way I think Allied London made for a much nicer environment for having a chat with people who approached my table.
Part of Allied Hall was carpeted, and because it wasn’t as large as New Dock, it meant it was a lot less noisy throughout the day. The large bay windows also let in a whole lot of natural light and organisers had set up separate lamps to ensure the venue was more than adequately lit. It was also well-ventilated and so by the end of the day I didn’t feel wretched or suffer any post-con lurgi.
Although free brochures had detailed floor plans of all three halls, signage calling out Allied London Hall wasn’t as prominent on the first day. For future festivals it may be better if there are display boards in the centre of the square with arrows to and maps of each of the halls, kind of like the ones you find in shopping centres. Also, because Allied London was cavernous as well as being new, some big signs inside with arrows indicating there was more to explore deeper in the hall would have been good.
That said, on the second day, the entrance to Allied London Hall was marked with two bollards, and the entrance itself was moved up nearer to the other two halls increasing visibility. I’m not sure if this was in response to anyone asking for this to happen, so it was nice to see Thought Bubble reacting to things.
Trade on both days was busy as ever, although in a weird reversing of timings, Sunday was busier than Saturday. I suspect part of this was due to people discovering the third hall, and or people doing their laps around three halls and doing their final purchases on the Sunday.
I found I sold more books to couples who had just turned out for the day and read a few stories in the book, as opposed to hardened comic book fans (who are awesome, too!). Again, it’s great to see that the Thought Bubble Festival markets itself as part of a wider cultural scene, as this in turn helps draw in people who might otherwise not crack the pages of a comic.
Lastly, no report about Thought Bubble would be complete without mentioning the stellar work of the volunteers. Being a one-man show, I regularly have to ferry assorted items from my car to the convention hall – a one-man band of comics if that helps conjure the requisite image. Seeing me struggle to do it all in one trip, a group of red shirts came to my aid and helped fetch items that had fallen, leaving a four-colour breadcrumb trail behind me. With offers to man my stall so that I could take a break and general good humour all-around, I always felt in safe hands throughout the event.
With another year soon behind us, Thought Bubble rightly deserves its reputation as the best comics festival in the UK. The organisers’ attention to detail and going the extra mile for exhibitors and attendees alike sets a gold standard for other comics festivals to attain.
See you in 2014, Thought Bubble!