The weather was stuck on the rinse cycle, or at least that was how the BBC weatherman described the weekend of the first Lakes International Comic Art Festival over 18-21 October 2013, but while the rain and unseasonably mild temperatures made for a muggy weekend it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the creators and punters at the various events taking place seemingly all over the Lake District town of Kendal.
With talks, workshops, signings, exhibitions, window displays, face painting and sales tables, the inaugural Lakes International Comic Art Festival (or LICAF) seemed to have it all and Kendal also seemed to have embraced organiser Julie Tait’s concept of bringing a European style of comics convention to the UK. Banners hung from lamp posts around the town centre, the town hall became the Comics Clock Tower with four different and seemingly very busy dealers rooms, a Batman flag on the flagpole and a massive road spanning banner at its entrance plus the sail banners that also adorned the other major venues, the Brewery Arts Centre, the Carnegie Library and the Westmorland Shopping Centre.
Over two dozen of the local shops also got in on the act with comics window displays appearing in newsagents, bookshops, charity shops, outdoor pursuits shops, financial advisers, tattoo parlours and even the vet’s.
The main location for events was the Brewery Arts Centre, which was indeed a former brewery, with its theatres, cinema screens, bar restaurant and cafe. The town of Kendal is a maze of streets and alleyways (plus an incredibly long and torturous one way system for cars) and the Brewery proved to be something of a microcosm of the town with small spaces, corridors and stairs leading off in a multitude of different directions and a lot of puzzled faces trying to figure out just where they were supposed to be going.
Personally I often found that it was easier to go outside and walk up or down the steps until I got to the door that I needed to be at rather than negotiate the interior. But what a building, with outdoor terraces with chairs and tables that would have been busy if only that rain would have let up.
The biggest event space was the Brewery theatre which was set up as a living room with leather seats, and tables with comics, graphic novels, DVDs and Tintin toys, plus plenty of microphones for the guests and a big screen behind to project images onto. This homely atmosphere seemed to relax many of the guests as they sat on the leather sofa and chatted away about their work.
The image above is from Sunday’s Cape Crusaders panel of Jonathan Cape writers and illustrators and publisher which was well led by Dr Mel Gibson in the centre. After event signings took place in the large and nearby Malt Room with multiple signers and queues being handled by the convention volunteers, while film screenings and their creator introductions took place in the cinema at the top of the complex.
There were other venues for talks around the town including the public library, which was a little echoey and perhaps could have done with a microphone system, and Kendal College on the outskirts of the town centre. Indeed the 2000AD panel at the college on the Saturday night was the only major misstep that I saw during the weekend when the College decided that pulsing lights, dry ice, mime artists in black leotards and sparkly masks and other such cringe worthy nonsense were required to make the event entertaining. Whoever it was that masterminded the Kendal College event forgot one of the unwritten rules of literary festivals – don’t upstage the guests.
They also seemed very determined to get all the attendees, and there were children attending, into their bar to buy drinks at every opportunity rather than get on with the actual talks. Dundee University could teach them a lot when it comes to presenting comics creators to a paying audience so, for me, Kendal College will be a venue to avoid if Lakes does indeed return next year.
Much more entertaining was the Family Zone in the Westmorland Shopping Centre. This presented face painters and colouring-in areas for the children down stairs while upstairs all were invited to draw on a long strip of paper that ran around the floor. Also upstairs was something that I had never seen before – unused shop units being opened up and handed over to creators for the weekend. The Phoenix got an entire large unit to themselves while another large unit had a selection of tables and sellers.
Tim Perkins of Wizard’s Keep and Dave Windett put on a great display in the smallest but perhaps the most obviously shop-like unit, while next door Mhairi Stewart of Perfect Spiral had a larger unit to run art workshops in. How well this actually worked in practice over the Saturday and Sunday is up to the creators to say but it was certainly an interesting idea.
The Beano also had a ‘pop-up’ shop which was outside in one of the Lanes behind the library which, while physically divorced from the rest of the events, may have received more public footfall due to its location near a car park.
The two main exhibitions were Sean Phillips in the Brewery and Bryan Talbot in Wildman Street Studios. My initial reaction to the location of the Sean Phillips one, in a walk through foyer section outside the Brewery’s theatre, was that there wasn’t really the space to view it properly but, given that it was where people waited to enter the theatre, it was actually in an excellent place for people waiting for the theatre doors to open to see it.
The Bryan Talbot exhibition was in a dedicated display space near The Box and was quite simply one of the best exhibitions of comics art that I have seen over the years. Not only did it have artwork from Bryan’s childhood via Luther Arkwright and 2000AD through to Grandville and Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes, it also had Bryan’s page layouts for the new Sally Heathcote Suffragette book complete with the finished artwork from Kate Charlesworth.
Perhaps the most impressive part was the display of One Bad Rat artwork which was hung from an oversized book and even had a black and white rat sitting on the floor at the bottom. It just goes to show how a little imagination can enhance a display.
With such a wide ranging programme, both creator-wise as well as geographically, it was never going to be possible to see everything – I didn’t attend anything at the unusual looking The Box and never managed to find the Viz themed Fnarr Bar – but I was kept both busy and entertained for two days. Julie Tait and her team of volunteers are to be congratulated on the success of their first comics festival and my fingers are crossed that the Lakes International Comic Art Festival will return to the comics calendar in 2014.
• The Lakes International Comic Art Festival website is here.