Is the North of England leading the way in a new type of comics event?
By Ian Wheeler
There are many types of events for fans of comics. The large “Film and Comic Cons” which incorporate comics as part of a wider range of science-fiction and media merchandise. Small, specialised events in modest locations such as community centres and church halls, where collectors rummage through cardboard boxes full of old comics to find that elusive title missing from their collection. And larger Comic Festivals, where attendees have the chance to watch panels and meet the creators who have been responsible for their favourite titles and characters over the years.
All are good, all are valid.
In recent years, there have been two new additions to the many comics events held in the UK each year. The Lakes International Comic Art Festival began in 2013, returning 14th-16th October this year and Lancaster Comics Day started in 2015. Both have proved to be successful and each is developing into a slightly different type of event.
The Lakes International Comic Art Festival is almost European in flavour. It isn’t limited to one building or location. For the duration of the festival each year, the whole town joins in!
The local Brewery Arts Centre open its doors to host dealers and panels, comic art hangs in the local gallery, the shops of Kendal provide window space to support and promote the event and comic creators mix with local children for fun workshops in the shopping centre. Even the local MP, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, is supportive of the event and its aims. (Perhaps being at Newcastle University during the rise of VIZ rubbed off on him)
Then there are the excellent panels which are well thought-out and focused – accessible enough for the casual attendee but with enough in-depth content for the real comics devotee.
On top of all this, there is a really friendly vibe to the whole thing. There is no sense of “them and us” between the attendees and the guests. Some pretty famous comic creators attend the event and all seem happy to mix and chat with the fans, talking about their craft and offering encouragement.
And all this against the backdrop of the beautiful Lakeland town of Kendal! Such a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. Not the easiest place to get to for some people (more direct trains from Lancaster to Kendal would be nice) but a stunning location!
Last year’s event notched up 14,000 visitors – let’s hope it continues to thrive!
Then we have the wonderful Lancaster Comics Day. Again, there’s a real sense of the local community being involved with the event being put on by the very hard-working team that is the Friends of Lancaster Library. This is a smaller and very friendly event. From your arrival at the door, you are instantly welcomed by the friendly volunteers on the ticket desk. Then, after paying a very reasonable entry fee of a fiver (cheaper still for concessions), you’re through the doors and the fun can begin!
This event is different to Kendal but just as good in its own way. It’s more low-key – you don’t feel rushed and there’s plenty of chance to grab a cup of tea and gobble down one of the famous Lancaster Comics Day cakes. As you sit drinking your tea, you may even find yourself joined by one of the guests – it’s all so friendly and informal.
The panels here are held in an upstairs meeting room which is big enough to pack in a good few fans but small enough to be intimate. The panels are chaired in a friendly way (mostly by our own John Freeman) and attendees do not feel intimated about asking questions. Long-time comics enthusiasts mingle with local families – the event seems perfectly pitched for anyone who loves comics.
Only one talk is held at a time at this event and that to me is a bonus. It can be disorienting sometimes being at larger comic cons where there is just too much going on. You have to make tough decisions about what to see and what to miss. That said, this year’s Lancaster event had twice as many panels as last year’s so there’s no certainly no shortage of things to do. Overall, I like the way comic artist (and Lancaster Comics Day 2016 guest) Lew Stringer summed it up on his blog as: “A small but perfectly formed event.”
In Antony Esmond’s review of this year’s event, he said that John Freeman had jokingly referred to it as a ‘local event for local people’. That’s not to say that visitors from further afield are not welcome (far from it!) but it is a smaller event really well suited for the comics fans, students and families who inhabit the town. And a ticket is cheap enough that you don’t feel you have to stop all day to justify it. Pop in for an hour or a couple of hours. And pop back later if you like – you can get your hand stamped, go and do some shopping in Lancaster and come back!
I’m a big advocate of libraries being used as community spaces at the weekend and this event serves that function really well. Libraries shouldn’t be static places full of dusty books, they should be vibrant and welcoming and that’s what Lancaster Comics Day achieves.
If you get the chance to check out either of these two events, then I would heartily recommend that you do so. Kendal is probably the one which most justifies a long journey as there’s more to do, but Lancaster is great if you’re in the area and both events are suitable for people of all ages and of interest to any comics fan no matter what your level of knowledge is. (A third Lancaster Comics Day was announced last week, taking place on Sunday 11th June 2017).
To conclude, I am not saying that no-one else is doing these types of event at the moment – I am just saying that Lancaster and Kendal are doing them particularly well. Let’s hope they continue!
• For more information on the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (14th – 16th October 2016) visit www.comicartfestival.com. Tickets go on sale 1st July 2016.
• Before you go, read Norman Boyd’s “Beginner’s Guide to the Lakes Festival” Guide here
• For more information on Lancaster Comics Day visit www.lancastercomicsday.uk
• There are a huge range of comic events in Northern England through the year. For more information visit the dedicated comics events site www.comicconventions.co.uk or check our events guide (information welcome)