How Thought Bubble draws on comics as a vehicle for good

It's the highlight of the year for comic, animation, games and film fans across Yorkshire and beyond. Founder Lisa Wood told The Big Issue how she's using comics to change the world

This week the UK’s largest comic art festival is coming to Harrogate for the first time, with Thought Bubble events running right across Yorkshire until the grand finale at the convention centre this weekend.

Comics, animation and film fans can look forward to workshops and panels featuring talent from DC, Marvel, and The Walking Dead as well as TV big shots from the likes of Netflix and Nickelodeon.

But the focus of the event – founded in Leeds in 2007 by Lisa Wood, otherwise known as acclaimed comic artist Tula Lotay – is as much on making sure people from different backgrounds come along and “find their family” as it is on bringing some of the world’s most talented artists together.

Wood, 44, recently travelled to the US to receive the prestigious Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award at the prestigious San Diego Comic Con for her work helping disadvantaged people in Yorkshire – through everything from LGBT book groups in Leeds to making sure refugees and asylum seekers could come along to the convention for free.

Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

“It came out of nowhere, it was really amazing,” Wood told The Big Issue. “It was really exciting for us to get that award. Although it was presented to me, it was really for the hard work the whole team does.”

But the founder was flying solo when she created the festival out of a desire to give people who felt they didn’t fit in somewhere safe to explore their passions.

“From a really personal point of view, I’d always felt a bit excluded,” Wood explains. “I was fostered and adopted, struggled with dyslexia at school and had a terrible time with bullying. I just really struggled to fit in.

“But I discovered comics and art, which was something I could love on my own. Being in that situation you learn how important it is to have community and friends, and a place in this world where you feel valued.

“I’m lucky to be in a good place where I have that now. So when I set up Thought Bubble, it was really important to me that I created something that was friendly and inclusive.”

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Wood also said she jumped at the chance to offer an arts event to Yorkshire, hoping it would counteract the London-centric nature of most gatherings.

Five years ago, Wood organised a LGBTQ book group through Leeds Library, partnering with comic retailer Travelling Man to buy in book stock that would be “helpful and informative” for readers and, crucially, always available to access. The groups are still going strong, and Wood coordinates a separate project which sees a variety of publishers donate thousands of all-ages comic books and graphic novels to libraries across the region.

The founder has also worked with Leeds Refugee Council to allocate free convention tickets for refugees and asylum seekers in the area, an initiative that continues into this year’s event. In the past, the Thought Bubble team has run workshops and open reading groups specifically for refugees and asylum seekers, and put on free transport to help bring them to the festival.

“Our goal is to put books in the hands of young people that may not necessarily have access to them,” Wood said.

The convention works with Leeds autism services every year to make sure the event is welcoming for everyone. They consult the same experts to design their quiet space, a designated calm area for people who might struggle with anxiety or large crowds. When the funding is available, the space has a resident art therapist available to work with anyone who wanders in.

This is all on top of the Thought Bubble generations programme, which aims to bring grandparents together with grandchildren by letting under-12s and over-65s in for free.

Outside the event itself, Wood uses her platform to organise free drawing and animation workshops in schools and libraries across Yorkshire (“One year we had Darryl McDaniels from Run DMC do a talk in Bradford City Library which was incredibly inspiring,” she added). The Thought Bubble founder also arranges mental health workshops in conjunction with the Leeds branch of MIND, which look at themes of mental illness and wellbeing within comic books.

Check out the full schedule for festival week and the Thought Bubble convention, held at Harrogate Convention Centre on November 9 and 10.

This week’s Big Issue features and exclusive comic strip exploring one vendor’s journey from homelessness to a brighter future. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or buy it online in the Big Issue Shop.