Last weekend I headed south for Kendal, a bustling town in the beautiful Lake District of England for a comics festival with a difference. The Lakes International Comic Art Festival fully embraced a European (Angoulême) approach to the medium, with the whole town celebrating the weekend of events, and perhaps consequently drawing a much more diverse crowd than even the largest comic conventions can boast.
With Mary and Bryan Talbot, winners of a prestigious UK Costa literary prize, as two of the founder patrons, the festival found itself splashed across the mainstream media in the run up to the event: Why academics are taking comic books seriously (BBC); Mary Talbot’s family run comic-book revolution (The Independent on Sunday); Comic and graphic novel stars take over Kendal for new festival showcase (The Guardian)
Yes, two of those are mine (I confess!) but given how difficult it is to actually get comic features into these papers – and in the busiest literary month of the year no less – it was interesting to note just how much attention this new festival was receiving. I was really interested to see just how busy the various events would be, and what kind of crowd mix would be drawn to the very varied program.
How busy was it then? Very! I was expecting a large number of the usual crowd given the star-filled guest list, but I think what really sealed the event’s success was both that great diversity within that line-up, and the fact that everything was so much a part of the town and so much more visibly accessible than many of the comic conventions I have attended in the past. This worked particularly well in Kendal, as it is already a thrumming tourist and market town on an average day.
People walking past many of the venues, from the library to the clock tower, and the cinema to the arts centre, were all free to pop in and have a look at what was going on. The streets were decorated with banners and flags advertising the festival – a Batman flag flew proudly above the Clock Tower – while various shop windows on the high street had been given over to celebrating all things comic.
I was also impressed to see signage for all the venues generously posted around the town – ideal for someone with no sense of direction like myself! Free exhibitions in various venues, showcasing art from the likes of Bryan Talbot, Sean Phillips (the third founder patron), Hannah Berry and Stephen Collins, also helped tempt the crowds in off the streets.
With guests including Ed Brubaker, Joe Sacco, Mary and Bryan Talbot, Posy Simmonds, Kurt Busiek, Andy Diggle, Hunt Emerson, David Lloyd, Trina Robbins, Sean Phillips, Gilbert Shelton, Carlos Ezquerra and many more, there was a wonderful mix of comic fans, graphic novel aficionados, and newcomers to the medium (of all ages) mingling and enjoying the festival atmosphere.
In some regards it reminded me of the recent Stripped strand at the Edinburgh Book Festival, but it was more welcoming even than that – with a huge number of events across the days and into the evenings, as well as many events in the family zone (again, well sign-posted!) for any kidlets passing through.
The number of events did mean it was impossible to see everything, but with the very different guests attracting different sections of the audience, I didn’t find many people complaining about missed opportunities. Looking around at various events I found that while there were definitely still more men than women, the latter were closing the gap to that 50/50 mark, and most evident of all was the huge age-span of the audience – in some places I was the youngest, in others the oldest! Always a good sign.
One venue seemed to specialise in live drawing showcases, another in one on one panels, and the Clock Tower was perhaps the busiest of all, hosting the small (and big!) press tables, independent creators, and signing events. It was here that I spent most of my time, catching up with friends, meeting new people, and yes – new people!
It was lovely to see some artists who I hadn’t met before: Howard Hardiman was there, with his newly collected (and wonderful) The Lengths with Soaring Penguin Press; the lovely Katie Green with her astonishing debut graphic novel, Lighter Than My Shadow; I missed John G Miller but happily picked up one of his psychedelic collections; my much wanted copy of Bad Machinery was to be found at John Allison’s table; Kristyna Baczynski had a display that completely bowled me over and saw me walking away with a full bag and a new necklace; Garen Ewing, legendary creator of The Rainbow Orchid; I was sucked in by the gravitational pull of the ridiculously cute Astrodog by Paul Harrison-Davies; hovered around the Team Girl Comic table (okay I do this every time but they’re fab!); and I sadly (ARGH!) missed my hero, Trina Robbins. Reviews to follow on all of the above.
Meanwhile across town there were talks from Bryan Talbot, Steve Bell, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Hunt Emerson and Gilbert Shelton, and “Watch them Draw” events with Charlie Adlard, Stephen Collins, Glyn Dillon, and Oscar Zarate. I caught the Phillips and Brubaker talks which were both interesting – I believe Sean Phillips had a few sneaky copies of Dynamite’s upcoming The Art of Sean Phillips HC – and it was particularly great to see Ed Brubaker on his first trip to a UK event.
The writer of Incognito, Criminal, and Captain America spoke about many of his comics and screenwriting gigs, as well as his fondness for spy stories thanks to his father who worked in naval intelligence, and his uncle who worked for the CIA.
Talking about his new Image series with Steve Epting, Velvet, which follows the adventures of a PA going back into the field when the top secret agent is killed, Brubaker revealed that it all came back to the kernel of an idea he had when watching Bond films – just what the backstory of the archetypal Miss Moneypenny really was.
With 15-20 issues mapped out, Velvet is definitely a comic I’ll be checking out in the near future. Particularly after he won me over after describing his Catwoman run as him now wanting any tits and ass bullshit, and his similar thinking on the difference between ‘sexy’ and ‘sexist’.
Brubaker certainly gets my award for most unexpectedly weird panel of the year, after a small child wandered on to the stage halfway through the talk, belonging to someone outside of the venue who could not at first be found. She plonked herself down, helped herself to the presenter’s iPad and started destroying his SimCity before eventually being retrieved as the talk went on after a brief – and understandable! – stumble.
And I give Brubaker mad props for his coke in the cinema story. It’s not repeatable. And it’s brilliant.
But all that was just the Saturday alone, unfortunately all that my hectic schedule allowed for. There were many more events on the Sunday and on the Friday night too, with lots of fun going on long into the evening.
The talks I went to were packed, the various venues full, and thank goodness that Kendal is a tourist town anyway as even though the coffee shops were all overflowing, there was always a seat to be found somewhere. Having the venues spread across town, though still fairly close together was a clever move – allowing room to breathe between time slots, and for the whole town to benefit from the influx of visitors. And indeed for the festival to benefit from more curious passers by coming along to enjoy the show.
All in all, the Lakes International Comic Art Festival was probably the most relaxing comics convention/festival I have attended yet, and a great way of both celebrating the medium that we love and of opening the doors to that wider audience. And the best news of all is that the festival has proven so successful, that it is definitely returning next year. Kudos!
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.