Notes On Thought Bubble

Jamie and I like Thought Bubble a lot. We’ve been there for each of its three years, and each year it’s grown gracefully and elegantly. It started small, and intimate and friendly. Now, it’s as big as any comics-specific con in the UK, without losing any of its positive traits – not least being organised with devastating effectiveness by the Thought Bubble staff. It’s not a con – for example – when a major guest misses his panel because no-one told him he was in a panel. I’m also a fan of its one-day structure, which rather than spreading it out over the weekend, it does in a single day – and then does workshop events on the days around it. In other words, you turn up on one day, and you see everything you want, and then get drunk with no worry that you have to move at all the next day.

So yes – Jamie and I sat at our table and dealt with a pretty much constant flow of human beings. Our positions changed a bit over the years too, of course. At certain times, we had to deal with a full on crowd of people. There really wasn’t a gap. Jamie drew all day. I talked all day. And the people visiting us were a mix of the new and the familiar. Having done this for a while, and seeing people change across the years is fun – seeing people we first met when they were in their mid-teens grow to adulthood in stop-motion photography is fascinating. Also, for the first time, we had significant amounts of people who primarily knew me from our Marvel work. Even had one chap who’d never read anything outside Marvel – the understandable “I had no idea where to start”. Of course, starting with Phonogram will doom him completely.

I didn’t do any panels, except the one I was chairing: Videogames and Comics panel, where I prodded Pete Doherty, Liam Sharp, Duncan Fegredo (who I only now realise I didn’t actually speak to outside the panel, which is a real shame) and my room-mate Antony Johnson. It seemed to go pretty well – I sort of was in full on dual-class mode, trying to balance being a journalist (i.e. Facilitating the discussion and getting everyone else to reveal juicy anecdotes about the two media) and being a creator (i.e. revealing juicy anecdotes about the two media, swearing, insulting Zelda and Modern Warfare 2’s writing). At the least, there were laughs in the right places. Hurrah!

The main event was in the evening. Lisa had somehow been convinced into letting us DJ. Abstractly, it was the Phonogram wrap party. While the issues wouldn’t be out, we figured that at least all the work done. Except, of course, that was over-optimistic, and Jamie still has to finish off the last one. Still – there were other reasons why we’d want to do DJs. Thought Bubble ties into our own personal Phonogram narratives. Last time, we’d just got the orders for issue 1, which were so disastrous we were scowling monsters. I missed the train and forgot to bring books. Jamie came close to losing art. It was a fucking disaster. And then Thought Bubble was Thought Bubble and we went away back in love with comics. In a real way, I sometimes wonder if Thought Bubble wasn’t there, whether we’d have just thrown in the towel.

A part of that for me – though Jamie was in the VIP bar for most the evening – was the dancefloor. Mikey Bennet improvised laptop DJing, crouching on the stage – the only place with a jack – and keeping a heaving crazy dancefloor seemed to be about as punk rock and joyous as anything gets. People trying to avoid dance too loud – while still throwing themselves off the stage – because the volume was too low. It inspired the final B-side in the final issue.

It made perfect sense for the circle to turn, y’know? We had to do something there. We had to DJ.

Problem: Neither Jamie or I had ever DJed. I don’t know about Jamie, but everyone’s always surprised when I say I’ve never done it. A few chances, but fate has always got in the way of it, and I never pursued. So in the true Phonogram spirit, we turned to our friends – wanting to both express our solidarity with everything and save our asses if we were shit.

In other words, half hour sets from assorted luminaries – but Jamie had 45 minutes, me an hour for reasons which I’ll explain later. First up was Penny B in absentia, playing her varied eccentric playlist (Disney’s Macho Duck to the Style Council to God Knows What). The first real set was the spikey-rush of Julia Scheele and Tom Humberstone (Who later coined the phrase “It’s all gone a bit phonogram” in response to everything going a bit Phonogram). Jamie went next with a cheerful array of synth-diffused music. I lead into Matt Sheret – and the Joy Division obsessive showed a fearless i’m-not-fucking-around best-indie-club-ever-if-you-like-people approach (You start with Hey Yeh, you know what the stance is). Though, of course, some Joy Division worked in. Adam Cadwell was balanced being worryingly cool with actual pop which lead from sixties motown and Northern Soul to end with… well, he was over-running. I was going to ask him to move on. He said he had one track left. I asked what it was. He told me. I said he could play it.

After all, I could hardly not allow a man to play Where’s my Jumper.

(Er… not that’s a good example of Cadwell being cool, of course. Some things are betond that)

Marc Ellerby played took the quality American Indie-rock card, with a splash of – er – other indie-rock, probably. Les Savy Fav, Pavement, et al. Mikey B made his return with a… oh, it’s all getting foggy now, but it inched more towards pop with a credible edge. And then, rounding off the evening, was Al Ewing. Who took pop, sheared the credible edge off and used it as a brutal bludgeon to mash the dance floor into a shape which amused him. Starting with Jazzy Jeff’s Boom Shake the Room, running through early nineties dance, German Abba versions, Come on Eileen and…. well, it’s nearly 3. People are going. Coats are on. Seeing this, we decide to wrap up. He drops the final count-down – and the wondrous sight of people trying to resist the sheer stupidity, and then submitting and dancing and screaming in their coats.

It only gets more stupid. He ends on Take That’s Never Forget. A scratch-comics Take That take the stage and lead the crowd in a micro-stadium gig. Heartwarming and stupid and… POP MUSIC, y’know? This is what it’s about.

I fear footage of this will emerge online shortly.

My set was simple. No room for improvisation. I just played the setlist for the Singles Club. The main core of the stuff that happens in the club happens within just beneath an hour. Also, notably, between 11 and 12. I threw a couple of relevant ones at the end, but otherwise it was just The Singles Club live, with me as Seth Bingo and Jamie on lights as Silent Girl. It went brilliantly, though obviously having to play a set list I wrote as a literary device lead to a few things I wouldn’t have played making it in… but nothing totally killed the dancefloor, and the best stuff was amazing. Seeing Can I Take You To The Cinema actually pack the floor after all this time’s a joy. And seeing what Pullshapes did… well, I actualy got a bit emotional. Not tears in my eyes, but an enormous feeling of love for pretty much everyone alive. Seeing a great mass of friends and friendly strangers lose themselves in all their glorious, individual ways, their natures showing with every step, all human life twitching before me… yeah, it felt amazing. I think it’s my new answer for “Where did you get the idea for the Singles Club from?” question. That moment was so profoundly beautiful it echoed back down the timeline to my earlier self, making me create something to create that moment, and incarnate it.

(Actually, that bit was so splendid, I ended up fucking up the next song and skipped Robyn’s Who’s That Girl. However, because in the comic the record skips, it’s actually appropriate. There Are No Accidents)

And, of course, I had people doing requests and me trying to remember what Seth would say to them. “No Oasis. The only monobrows we play are Le Tigre” is the only one which sticks in my mind. Though we were only like that to clear Phonogram readers – the party is upstairs in the Leeds Casino, so we got a steady trickle of general local people just wandering around. Trying to explain to people why we couldn’t play Release Me – not least that I didn’t have it – added another element of surreality to the whole thing.

Oh – as several people asked, I’m not planning on revealing the full set list yet. I suspect I’ll include it in the back matter for the trade, so expect it to make its way online around then. I’ll link my spottify playlist too. It isn’t actually possible to work out from the comics – there’s some songs which characters respond to but don’t actually get actually named. I was pleased to see the unnamed-in-the-comic track which dragged Kid-with-knife to the floor managed to do the same to a whole lot of people

In short, Thought Bubble remains Britain’s premier comics convention. I’m fond of all of them. Caption is a micro-scene pleasure. Bristol has had a few rough years, but is still an institution. Birmingham is rock solid. MCM is enormous and splendid, but its comic section – while larger – is a side-event rather than the main thing. I could go on.

But Thought Bubble is the best. To use the line you always use if you want to be easily quotable in marketing: if you only go to one UK convention a year, go to this one.

I’ll see you there. Like, obv.