Bubble rap: How comic books changed our lives

Comic book illustrator Lisa Wood is director of Thought Bubble, a comic book festival to held in Leeds in November
Comic book illustrator Lisa Wood is director of Thought Bubble, a comic book festival to held in Leeds in November
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Struggling to read as a child, Lisa Wood found escape through comic books. Now an artist, she tells Sarah Freeman about the Thought Bubble festival which is devoted to comic art. Picture by James Hardisty.

Lisa Wood is sat in the first floor offices of independent comic and games shop Travelling Man.

Comic book illustrator Lisa Wood is director of Thought Bubble, a comic book festival to held in Leeds in November

Comic book illustrator Lisa Wood is director of Thought Bubble, a comic book festival to held in Leeds in November

It’s just a short hop from both the Victoria Quarter and Trinity Leeds, but it doesn’t have quite the glamour of either. In fact, the stairwell has the distinct aroma of stale booze from the pub next door and the rooms, which also double as the headquarters of Thought Bubble, the festival devoted to comic book art which Lisa founded in 2007, are a jumble of mismatched furniture and boxes of programmes and flyers for this year’s event.

No one seems to mind the slightly chaotic nature of the place and despite having only had three hours’ sleep, Lisa’s passion for comic books and her determination to coax fans of the genre out of the shadows is undiminished.

“There is so much to do,” she says, sat in front of a whiteboard which is acting as the festival’s countdown. There are only six days to go to the opening event and as is the way with these things, there are dozens of last-minute requests and a few unexpected glitches which need sorting out. “We’ll get there, we always do, but the week before Thought Bubble opens is always pretty frantic.”

The eight-day festival culminates today and tomorrow with a convention at New Dock Hall in Leeds where writers, artists and fans come together for what is in effect a two-day comic book love-in. Twenty thousand visitors in all are expected to pass through Thought Bubble this year, attending the various talks, workshops and live podcasts, and for Lisa it shows just how far the genre has come since she picked up her very first edition of Daredevil on Batley market back in the 1980s.

Comic book illustrator Lisa Wood is director of Thought Bubble, a comic book festival to held in Leeds in November

Comic book illustrator Lisa Wood is director of Thought Bubble, a comic book festival to held in Leeds in November

“My dad used to take me every Wednesday after school and give me 20p to spend. There was a stall selling comics which had been returned by newsagents and each week I would come away with four or five of them. I don’t think I ever got to read a complete series, because there was inevitably one issue missing, but it didn’t matter. It was a bit of a golden age for comics and from turning the first page I was pretty much sold.”

When Lisa talks about picking up Daredevil and reading the storylines of the now legendary Frank Miller, who created Elektra, the female nemesis of the Marvel superhero, it’s as though it is yesterday.

“I lost countless hours, not just in the pages of Daredevil, but in Return of the Jedi Weekly, Judge Anderson and X-Men. I’d always struggled with reading and was totally fazed when presented with just a large block of text. With comics I could feel my way through a story. If I didn’t understand a particular section, the pictures were there as a guide. It was only really through comic books that I was able to teach myself to read.”

When she went to an all girls school, wary of standing out, Lisa put away the comic books for a while. However, a few years later while studying art at Dewsbury College and later Bradford University she rediscovered her love. It was also while at Bradford that she realised her early problems with the written word might have been down to undiagnosed dyslexia.

“I used to get my ds and bs mixed up, but at school I think teachers just thought I was either a bit slow or lazy. I took a course in film studies and as soon as I handed in my first piece of work my lecturer called me in and said, ‘You do realise you’re dyslexic, don’t you?’ He was also dyslexic and he said I wrote in exactly the same way he did.

“It was amazing really. In that moment I realised that every teacher who had told me that I would never amount to much was wrong. It was just such a huge relief and it gave me the confidence to believe that I was intelligent. Having an understanding of what the issue was has been incredibly empowering.”

While further education gave Lisa an insight into her problems with reading, what she didn’t find was much encouragement to pursue her love of comic book art.

“Maybe they didn’t think there was a serious career in it, but I did find it incredibly frustrating. The art world lauds pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein who basically pinched comic book panels, often without crediting the original artist, blew them up and hung them on the walls of a gallery. However, the talent of real comic book artists has historically gone unrecognised. That just didn’t sit right with me.

“There is an incredible amount of snobbery when it comes to deciding what is good art and what’s not, but all I knew was the fact someone was telling me I shouldn’t do comic book art made me want to do it more.”

After leaving university, Lisa, who is now based in Ilkley, began to build her portfolio. In order to pay the bills she took a job at Travelling Man, which has stores in Leeds, York, Newcastle and Manchester and it was after organising a number of in-store events that she had the idea for Thought Bubble.

“I’d made quite a few good contacts and because there is quite a community of comic book fans in Leeds I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to stage something where we can all get together’.

The first festival, which was organised with support from the Leeds International Film Festival took place in the basement of Leeds Town Hall in the winter of 2007. Lisa had expected 150 would turn up. In fact it was nearer 500.

“I couldn’t believe it, there was something really infectious about that weekend and by the end of it I knew we would have to do it again. The reason I wanted to launch Thought Bubble was not only to raise the profile of comic book art, but to reach out to people who might really benefit from being a part of this community.”

Lisa and the Thought Bubble team have worked closely with Specialist Autism Services in Leeds to make the festival as accessible as possible for those on the autism spectrum and the Book Crossing project, run in collaboration with Diamond Comics, Travelling Man, and Viz Media will see a selection of graphic novels and comics given away free in selected libraries across Leeds and Wetherby.

“The festival has changed a lot in terms of its size, but I hope the ethos is the same. I started Thought Bubble because I knew how much comics had enriched my life and the idea was to give that same feeling to as many other people as possible. This has never been about making money. We try to keep the ticket prices as low as we possibly can and any profit will this year be donated to the children’s charity Barnardo’s.”

Away from the festival, Lisa is also in demand as an artist. She is currently working on Image Comics’ Supreme: Blue Rose with Warren Ellis and Bodies, a new eight part murder mystery series written by Si Spencer for DC Comics.

“In Bodies there are four different time periods and four different artists, so the brief is fairly rigid.

“However, with Warren it’s much more of a collaborative process. He still tells me how he sees the story unfold in pictures, but there is a degree of flexibility and because it’s just the two of us he is more able to take my suggestions on board.

“I’ve also been commissioned to do a number of covers, which is great, because they are stand alone works of art which I can fit around other commitments. I might not be getting an awful lot of sleep, but at the moment it really does feel like everything is coming together.”

Lisa also believes that while fans of comic books were once confined to the ghettos, thanks to Hollywood and a recent tendency by the big film studios to plunder the comic book archive, the tide is changing.

“Some people will always dismiss comic books as being a bit trivial. There’s probably nothing you can do to change their minds, but they are wrong. Even if you look at comics published from the 1930s right through to the 1970s you’ll find stories that deal with politics, religion and sexual identity, but they are told in a way that children find easy to grasp.

“The big Hollywood blockbusters have brought people back to the original stories and I would honestly defy anyone to read one of Marvel’s classic comics not to be impressed.”

• Thought Bubble is at New Dock Hall today and tomorrow. Visit www.thoughtbubblefestival.com