“thought bubble is a reflection of what i love” — lisa wood comic book artistBack
To young Lisa Wood, growing up in the early eighties, Batley was an incomplete world filled with possibilities.
Instead there was Batley Market, and its ‘seconds’ magazine stall where the comics that newsagents couldn’t sell were saved from being pulped and given a second chance at finding a reader.
“My dad used to take me every Wednesday,” says Lisa. “He would give me 20p which would get me five comics, and I’d get so excited at the thought of picking my comics up there every week with dad. He’d buy five boxing magazines and I’d buy five comics. We both loved it, I was about seven when we started going.
“I remember Daredevil was the first one that really pulled me in, the Frank Miller Elektra story. It was probably a bit adult for a seven year old but I loved the art and these amazing characters, Daredevil and Elektra, she was so bad ass. My other favourites were X-Men – some of the best storylines were from the eighties in my opinion, stories like The Dark Phoenix Saga, God Loves, Man Kills and Days of Future Past. I also loved Return of the Jedi Weekly and Judge Anderson – but because they were seconds I could never get a full run. They would always be odd issues, so I had to try and piece together the story, but I still loved it.
“It was exciting, not being able to find certain issues. I guess when something’s hard to get it makes it more precious, and I think with today’s culture and the internet that has disappeared a little bit – everything is readily available. But having to hunt for something that is hard to get makes it even sweeter when you get it.”
Despite Lisa’s success in recent years, she struggled at school and her childhood and teenage years were difficult. Growing up with dyslexia at a time when a lot of schools did not recognise or know how to deal with it made it hard to gain a complete picture of the world’s possibilities.
“I struggled with my education when I was growing up – because I’m dyslexic, I always found writing and reading hard. I didn’t really learn a lot from school. I never managed to fit in and because of that I think a lot of teachers just left me to it. I feel like the education I’ve had is what I’ve taught myself.
“The one thing that I engaged with that I really loved was comic books. They helped me to read, the art pulled me in, and by following the panels it became easier to pick up words and understand text. I think comic books are so important for this. Giving a child, teenager or even an adult a novel to read when they have dyslexia is something that doesn’t make sense to me.
“Maybe this doesn’t happen in schools anymore, maybe they have great ways of dealing with literacy problems, but for me, I was given books. I couldn’t understand them, therefore I left school not being able to read properly. But because I stuck with my comics, I managed to teach myself; from those comic books I learnt to read and I read novels all the time now, I’m slow but I love it. I love reading.”
A novel filled with words that won’t give up their meanings is like someone who tells you they know a secret about you but won’t let you in on it; and the secret inside the novels and books that are introduced to children is the key to imaginary worlds and people that inspire creativity. Comics weren’t just a way for Lisa to discover beautiful artwork, but to discover that storytelling in comics and films was something that could be for her and about her, and match her imagination.
“I grew up at a time when cinema was just incredible for fantasy and horror, and I became submerged in that. Between that and the comics I guess I grew up with massive passion for fantasy, sci-fi and horror. During the eighties I loved films like The Lord of the Rings animation, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the Harryhausen stop-motion animation films – plus a lot of the comics I was picking up at the time pulled me in because they were about spaceships or superheroes or kick-ass, female, futuristic cops.
“A lot of children search for that, I think. It’s escapism; you find these things around you that fascinate you. I didn’t have computer games – they did exist, there were Spectrums or whatever – but I never had any of that, so it was all about movies and comics.”
Lisa was already drawing before she discovered comics, but the artform gave her a model and an outlet.
“I was drawing from when I was very little, and then from around the age of seven comics fuelled that and vice versa. I stopped reading comics for a little while from about the age of twelve to fifteen, because I went to an all-girls school and I soon realised that if you read comics at an all-girls school, that made you a target.
“So I tried to fit in for a while and didn’t read them, but around the age of sixteen I picked it up again. I was lucky because around that time DC were just launching their new mature readers spin off, Vertigo Comics. It was a super exciting time for comic books, they were changing, there were more out there, there were suddenly graphic novels appearing. That was around the time I started art college and I thought, this is what I want to do. I would love to do this.”
It was while at art college, then university, that Lisa discovered the depth and breadth that comic book art had to offer, from the first investigations with Daredevil and X-Men through Vertigo comics like Shade the Changing Man, Hellblazer, Preacher and Enigma; graphic novels and independent publishers.
“There was a newsagents in Batley bus station that stocked Vertigo comics – it’s so odd, but that’s where I got them from. And I just love the artform so much that it was a natural progression to explore more stories and see more things.
“I’d say most of my knowledge of sequential art came from working in comic stores, though. I needed part time jobs to pay for my studies, so I started working in comic shops and finally ended up at Travelling Man in Leeds. Submerging yourself in that environment, you are surrounded by so many new titles, different names, different art styles, it was so inspiring to have access to all that.”
In the last few years Lisa has become at home among the ranks of independent comic book artists producing incredible work. The critical and reader reception of the Supreme Blue Rose series has included Lisa’s artwork being described as “otherworldly” and “like a neon semi-lucid dream”; co-creator Warren Ellis says her images “breathe with real human presence.”
Cinematic, noirish images tremble with a sci-fi blur that enhances Warren Ellis’ poetic storytelling, giving the books a style that is so hard to describe many fans have concluded it’s unique.
“I don’t know if I’ve reached that point yet!” says Lisa. “People keep saying this to me, talking about my style and how unique it is, but I still…
“I think I’m pretty self-aware, but in terms of my art I still don’t feel self-aware enough to enough to understand how it’s perceived or how that has come about. I’ve never drawn something and thought okay, I’ve done it, now I have a style.
“I’m still learning and evolving, I still feel like I have so much to learn – I don’t truly feel like I ever draw anything and I’m completely happy with it. There’s so much more to experiment with before I get to that point.”
Working with Warren Ellis is proving a great education, not only in terms of Lisa’s art, but in terms of understanding her part in the collaboration.
“Warren is such a intelligent writer. I think he studies the person that he’s working with, and I think he writes a story that will complement their style, so in turn he makes it easier for the artist, or at least he has done for me. He’s said in interviews that he’s really put me through the wringer and made me draw some crazy stuff – I just had to draw a bridge connected from the earth to the moon – but really, he’s allowed me so much creative freedom that he’s almost making it easy for me. He’s clever like that. I think most great writers understand they have to give room for the artist to explore and breathe, 50% of the story is theirs after all… or at least it should be.
“I only realised this recently, and it’s possibly quite naive, because I’m new to this business and Warren is established and one of the best. When we were teamed up together by Image Comics, in my head I was thinking: I’m now going to draw a Warren Ellis comic. Maybe a lot of people feel like that when they’re new.
“But as we’ve gone along and I’ve gained more confidence, I’ve come to understand that we’re working on this 50/50 and Warren is allowing me to interpret half of his story in my own way. I have the freedom to draw things how I want and change things how I want. It’s incredibly satisfying.
“I love it, I love it so much. When the pressure’s on and I’m finding something hard to draw or the deadlines are hitting it can become a bit intense and scary, but it’s amazing.”
Part of Lisa’s growing realisation of her status as a comic book artist was discovering her Tumblr tag – “I only just found that out!” – although when you search for her art, you need to remember it’s tagged with her pen name: Tula Lotay.
“It’s a really stupid name! Nabil at Travelling Man made up the second part of it, but there’s no interesting story behind that name being made up – it just got made up. I’ve always tried to get a website in my name, but if you do a search for ‘Lisa Janet Wood artist’, it brings up hundreds and hundreds of people.
“So I quickly realised that if you’re trying to put your art out there you need an online identity that people can find easily, and if you create a completely new word you’re the only person who will appear in any search. It’s purely business – nothing interesting or creative!”
Although the shifting identities aren’t intended to create a double life, the connection isn’t always immediately made between Tula Lotay, the comic book artist, and Lisa Wood, organiser of Thought Bubble Festival, but the two roles are sides of the same comic book art-loving coin. The influences and interests that have shaped Lisa’s artwork have also been used creatively over the last eight years to make Leeds home to one of the world’s best sequential art festivals.
“Thought Bubble is a reflection of what I love,” says Lisa, “And of what everyone who works on the festival loves. We just try and celebrate the best sequential art out there, no matter what genre it is.
“There are various reasons why I started Thought Bubble, but from the beginning it was always going to be creator focused, about the artists and writers. We don’t involve any media, TV or film stars like a lot of other big conventions, we’re just purely based on comics.”
That focus on talent and creativity rather than hype and popularity allows more room at Thought Bubble for small presses and independent, individual creators to present their work to the public, and to meet other like-minded creatives.
“The main thing that enables Thought Bubble to keep going is the incredible independent press scene in the UK,” says Lisa. “These are individuals, creating their own comics and fanzines, that may be fantastical or autobiographical, but they can be about whatever they want to make them about.
“Because of that you get so many different art styles, put together so differently – some are incredibly professional, some are print-outs and staples. They’re all amazing and charming in their own way. I absolutely love that people do this stuff and we feel so privileged to be able to put on a show for them.
“I’m a big, big fan of Kristyna Baczynski, a Leeds based artist who has been creating her own comics for a long time, and she has a very unique style. Her stuff is very quirky and she tells lot of different stories, anything from something cute and silly to something that’s quite profound. It’s her style that pulls me in more than anything, her use of colour – she uses pastel tones, pinks and greens, and her art is quite blocky and very stylised, it’s beautiful.
“I like John Allison too. He does an incredible web comic called Bad Machinery; he’s got a massive following and his stuff is wonderful. It’s incredibly funny but he also has this fluid art style – I think it could be easy to dismiss it as very cartoony, but the actual skill involved in his perspective and proportions is mind blowing, and I don’t know how he does it. He gets it so right. He’s a very clever artist and his work is delightful to look at.
“There are so many great people – Dan Berry, Marc Ellerby, Adam Cadwell, Isabel Greenberg – people creating incredible stories and beautifully skilled artwork. Those artists are the lifeblood of the festival, and what makes it such a varied and unique show.”
From its beginnings in the basement of Leeds Town Hall Thought Bubble has grown each year; this year the Town Hall will be the venue for the mid-convention party, while the festival itself is concentrated on the large spaces at Leeds Dock and the Royal Armouries – spaces Thought Bubble now stuffs to bursting with more than 7,000 people at the show.
“I’ve always wanted to build a friendly environment so people can bounce their ideas off one another and have it be a bubble of creativity and inspiration. It seems that that’s the thing a lot of people do get from it, which is just perfect.”
One of the keys to setting the tone of the festival is that the inclusivity is a cornerstone of the event, with a strong emphasis on supporting women in a male-dominated industry.
“I’ve never really made a big thing of this, because I didn’t want to exclude other people,” says Lisa. “But when I started the festival seven years ago there still were not many women in the comics industry – and although it’s growing quite a lot, there still aren’t. So I decided that every annual festival image we commission will be by a woman to highlight the incredible female talent in the industry. Sometimes I worry about saying that because I don’t want any kind of backlash, but it’s something I wanted to do personally. It’s important to me. So over the last seven years we’ve been lucky enough to have illustrations by Becky Cloonan, Eleanor Davis, Tran Nguyen, Alice Duke and Annie Wu.
“There aren’t many festivals like Thought Bubble that do what we do to encourage women within the industry, so that’s something we’ve actively tried to nurture, and I think it’s worked for us. I wouldn’t like to say we’ve had an impact on the industry as a whole because I have no idea about that, but the way things are changing for women in comics is amazing. I think it’s a great time to be involved.
“There are so many incredible artists popping up, working for publishers, publishing their own stuff – it’s really inspiring. Becky Cloonan is amazing, she’s one of my heroes; and Isabel Greenberg, Amy Reeder, Fiona Staples – these people are just the best at what they’re doing.”
If Thought Bubble has a mission beyond bringing together the best of comic book art and graphical storytelling, it’s expanding the numbers of people who take part in comics and graphic stories, whether creating or reading.
“One of the main reasons I started Thought Bubble was that I wanted to help children and adults, who might be in a similar situation to the one I was in when as a child. I want to encourage a love of the art form, and show that comics are really useful to people that may struggle with literacy problems.
“Another key element of what we do is our commitment to the local community. It’s incredibly important to us that we work with other organisations to put on free creative and literacy workshops for people, and that we hold an inclusive, friendly, exciting event that anyone and everyone take something useful from, no matter who they are. Every year we work with organisations like Leeds Autism Services and Bradford Refugees, and we try to help with the funds to bring them to the show. We put on free workshops and events in Leeds and Bradford Libraries, the Town Hall and the Art Gallery. Working in these buildings with different organisations and communities is integral to what Thought Bubble does.”
Keeping on doing what Thought Bubble does is one of the main challenges now – like the universes in the comics exhibited there, the festival is full of wonder, but constrained – a comic by the number of pages, Thought Bubble by time and space.
“We’re a small not-for-profit organisation built up from scratch,” says Lisa. “We’re a tiny team and it’s so much work. It’s strange because within certain circles things have snowballed and everyone knows who we are, so we seem to have a very big reputation. But if you’re talking about the regular public I think there’s a lot of information we can still get out there to let people know we’re here.
“In the current climate with arts funding cuts and local government cut backs, it can be hard to maintain what we are doing. Thought Bubble has always been about free creative workshops, affordable table space for artists, the community as a whole. To lose this would be to lose the idea of why we started. We are not just a comic convention.
“We work extra hard every year to keep these events going, to continue to nurture the great relationships we’ve built up and the communities we work with. Whether they are Leeds Autism Service, artist exhibitors or our own volunteers, all these people are the life blood of what we do.
“We want more people to come to the show, and we need this to happen to fund what we do, but at the same time we keep outgrowing our venue! It’s a balancing act. And it’s never easy but we always try to make sure it’s fun. The constant support we receive from everyone in the industry makes it worthwhile. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the feedback we get and I feel so happy that we seem to have such a positive impact on so many people.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 17