Strip shows

From full-on dressing-up extravaganzas to a focus on the fine print, David Barnett lays out the comic conventions coming up in the north this year

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Comic convention season is underway, and the north has some of the best of the country’s events devoted to sequential art in all its forms.

Superheroes from the twin publishing giants of Marvel and DC have never had more mainstream recognition, thanks to the all-conquering movie blockbusters featuring the likes of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

“One of the reasons I set Thought Bubble up was to work with disadvantaged kids.”

The comic cons that are springing up across the region include the multimedia events, with guests from the worlds of TV and film, and the accent on memorabilia and fancy dress (or cosplay, to give it the proper term) and those more devoted to the purity of the actual printed comic books – which, it should be pointed out, are by no means all about superheroes.

Sometimes they’re a mixture of both. The next big event on the calendar, for example, is the Liverpool Comic Con, coinciding with the release in cinemas, as it happens, of the next big Marvel movie, Captain Marvel. Guests include Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, who played the lead roles in the 1990s TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, alongside Dennis the Menace artist Nigel Parkinson and Dave Taylor, who has illustrated Batman and Judge Dredd stories.

Run by the same organisation, the Manchester Comic Con is even more weighted towards film and TV, and has a 1980s/1990s theme, with a clutch of stars from the Gremlins movies, a bevy of Baywatch beauties, and even Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg.

Huge fun, no doubt, but if you want the real comic convention experience – a celebration of the comics themselves – then arguably the finest cons in the country take place in the north.

One of the fastest growing and most beloved of them all is Thought Bubble which moved from its traditional base in Leeds to nearby Harrogate.

Thought Bubble features dozens upon dozens of comics writers and artists from the UK, the US and across the world, and attracts thousands of people. The event was the brainchild of Lisa Wood, who 13 years ago was working at the Leeds shop of the comic store mini-chain Travelling Man – it has outlets in Manchester, York and Newcastle – when she thought what a good idea it would be to have a friendly, diverse and inclusive comics convention in her hometown.

Friends were supportive but warned it would be a tough thing to pull off properly. Wood recalls: “That just galvanised me more. It put fire in my belly. So I set off and organised it.”

These days, Wood doesn’t just work at Travelling Man – she’s a director of the company. And she’s a comic artist herself of some renown. Under the pen-name Tula Lotay she’s done work for Marvel, DC and Image Comics.

The first Thought Bubble was a modest affair, held in the vaults of Leeds Town Hall. Wood thought that if 150 people turned up, it would be a success. There were 500 people there. Thought Bubble outgrew the venue, and moved to the Royal Armouries at Leeds docks, and then last year expanded into the city centre. In excess of 8,000 people turn
up for the weekend con, but Thought Bubble also runs events in Leeds and Bradford in the preceding week, working especially with schools and marginalised groups.

Wood says: “One of the reasons I set it up was because I wanted to do something, in some way, with disadvantaged kids. Comics are a great tool for engaging young people and encouraging reading.”

Thought Bubble is one of the twin giants of the northern comic con scene, the other being the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal. Like the Leeds festival, LICAF aims to be a family-friendly event, with the accent on celebrating the comic art form, inclusivity and diversity. There’s always a very strong overseas presence at and a focus on some of the more literary areas of the comics world.

Thought Bubble (Photo:Proud Fox Creative)

That’s not to say superheroes are frowned on at these events – far from it. They have their share of cosplay, and artists and writers who work on some of the biggest caped crusaders in the world are present. A couple of years ago, Thought Bubble welcomed as a special guest Gerard Way, the former frontman of My Chemical Romance and the creator of the comic Umbrella Academy, which has just been released as a Netflix TV series. But comics – like fiction, TV and movies – embraces a multitude of genres, from crime to romance to horror to literary.

Or, as LICAF’s mission statement so succinctly puts it: “Kick-ass super-heroes, future worlds, fantastical creatures, zombies, crime fighters, politics, satire, documentary, comedy, manga and much more. The world of comic art is a diverse and spectacular place, bursting with creations that transport us to other dimensions and stories that explore the world and our place within it.”

There’s also been a surge in smaller, one-day cons, such as Macc-Pow! which takes place in organiser Marc Jackson’s home-town of Macclesfield.

Jackson is a pro comics artist, and in 2016 was asked if he could help add some kind of comics-related event to Macclesfield’s established Barnaby Festival 10-day arts event. He got in touch with Aileen McEvoy, a good friend of his and one of the organisers of LICAF, and after talking to her decided he would try his hand at a mini-con.

Jackson says: “After working in comics for the past nine years, I was fortunate enough to have some great contacts and asked if they might be interested in being involved. My initial guest list for the first year began with Lew Stringer and Paul Grist, cartoonists who have both worked in comics for over 30 years.”

Jackson wanted to create a space where local comics creators could show off their wares and also entice out-of-towners to visit Macclesfield. He says: “I wanted to show my town my love of comics and the rich diversity of the medium. In the first year we had 500 visitors on the day and it was a great success.”

This year will be the fourth Macc-Pow!, and the event has grown steadily since its inception. Last year it attracted 800 people through the doors and the guest list expanded to include 40 comics creators, including Barcelona-based Genie Espinosa and Lorenzo Montatore.

Jackson says: “I am a full-blown flag flyer for comics, for independent comics and the medium as a whole. This event focuses fully on comic art, introducing both young and old to a fantastic mixture of comics and creators.

“Macclesfield loves the arts and the townsfolk love a family-friendly event that introduces them to something new. The fact that they have embraced this event so well is testament to that. This year I really want to reach further afield with our visitors, the same way we have with our guests.”

Other comic cons worthy of note include Comico, the weekend event that usually runs as part of the Bradford Literary Festival in June, centred on the city’s university, and Manchester Comics Fest at Wythenshawe, which mixes up comics creators with TV celebrities and cosplay. And a new one on the horizon for 2020 looks interesting; Beeston Indie Comics Festival is in the planning stages by prominent Leeds comic publisher and writer Zainab Akhtar, and she’s promising some big names in attendance.

But there are cons of some description springing up from Wigan to Stoke to Doncaster, and whether your tastes run to meeting the people who actually make the comics themselves or just enjoying a family day out with some replica Daleks and a life-size mock-up of the time-travelling DeLorean from the Back to the Future movies, satisfying your inner geek has never been easier.

Upcoming comic cons and festivals across the north 

Thirsk Mini Con Thirsk and Sowerby Town Hall, 16 March

Keighley Comic Con Victoria Hall, 16 March

Doncaster Unleashed The Dome, 14 April

Manchester Comic Fest Wythenshawe Forum, 27 April

Oldham Comic Con 3 Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11 May

Humber Unleashed 7 Best Western Willerby Manor Hotel, 12 May

Yorkshire Cosplay Con Sheffield Arena, 18-19 May

Comic Con Manchester Bowlers Exhibition Centre, 1-2 June

Wigan Comic Con Robin Park, 1 June

Macc-Pow! Macclesfield Town Hall, 22 June

Lakes International Comic Art Festival Kendal, 11-13 October

Thought Bubble Harrogate Exhibition Centre, 9-10 November


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