Artist and designer Simon Russell, whose recent work includes Nearlymades, “a smattering of found stories and kipple narratives”, headed to Kendal for this year’s Lakes International Comic Art Festival and has kindly given us permission to cross post his account of the event…
I’ve missed one Lakes International Comic Art Festival so far. A willingness to travel so far – knowing how bad the roads/trains will be every bloomin’ time! – probably indicates how positively I view the Festival.
Previously, I have gone as a visitor or an exhibitor, but in 2017 I straddled both roles. With only a handful of copies of Nearlymades in print now, I was not especially interested in standing behind a table for the weekend trying to sell abstract comics to a general audience looking for something a little more familiar. But my comrade in confusion, the relentlessly experimental Dave Crane was including those last copies on the table he was sharing with Allan Haverholme’s Udu Books. When Allan’s travel from Sweden fell through, there was a space behind the table for me join Dave but also the freedom to wander off to panels and fill in for other friends who might want to take a look around away from their tables.
I went north on the Wednesday to so some walking and sketching in The Lakes and gather reference for a project I’m doing with Jon The Storyteller (sketches for this can be found on my Twitter and Instragram feeds tagged #inktober2017 for the curious) so this year I was Punter, Barrow Boy, Walker, Drawer, Gopher – which is a pretty good way to visit anything!
(For 2018 I probably need to ask if I can join the Windows Trail so I can add another hat…)
The Festival this year opened under a cloud following a controversial series of reactions to a respected critic condemning a lack of certain ethnicities on the guest list of the event a few days before it opened. The question was valid and the social media response by LICAF was regrettably wrong on many levels, but the rapid reactions of third parties defending or attacking each party increased the noise but swamped the signal.
As so often happens on social media, the comments of well-meaning individuals soon brought in less well-meaning trolls and the critic and the festival’s tweet writer were unforgivable attacked by people with axes to grind and half the story to grind them against – to the extent that both have left the platform in great distress.
There is still a lot of finger pointing going on as the dust settles on this (and very little self-reflection yet on the part of the well-meaners doing the pointing) and there was a definite chilling effect from some creators’ decision to boycott the show that was less publicly offset by the warmth of those who did and engaged in conversations among themselves and with the festival on how to incorporate the critic’s original observations in future plans.
I won’t name names as the situation is complex and I don’t want to add to the stress of either party or their supporters in the arguments or betray confidences of people I spoke to, but I will say this on the issue:
- The 2017 LICAF guest list was built around guest of honour Sergio Aragonés, a Mexican who is probably the most famous cartoonist in the world; his Japanese-American friend and collaborator Stan Sakai and his involvement with the National Cartoonists Society (NCS)
- So there were a lot of guests connected by their relationships with The Great Moustache
- There were many mangaka guests and Finnish, Canadian and French cartoonists as part of collaborations with groups in their homelands
- There were precious few black or brown faces on the guest list, but it was patently not a whitewash and most of the guests were obviously invited for their connection to the themes or their commercial draw
Talking with festival representatives, I’m convinced they are keen to expand representation of all facets of humanity and that the twitterstorm was as much a concern to them on a personal level as for any effect of the show.
The exhibitors and contributors that did attend the show were pleasingly more diverse than the guest list in ethnicity, physicality, gender and sexuality.
So, on with the report (and apologies for any heavy-handed notation of creators’ nationality and such due to the above)…
After a few days wandering and drawing, it was a treat to chat for a short time with Stephen and Jonathan of Page 45 in the Brewery bar on Thursday evening. They were girding their loins for setting up on the Friday after a long drive up, so I didn’t want to interrupt, but I hadn’t had an actual conversation with somebody I knew for 48-hours, so…
As is traditional, I thanked them profusely for all the work they do for Comics and confessed one of my dark comics secrets of the “I’ve never liked X” variety.
Friday was wet but that didn’t stop me getting to both of Kendal’s castles for some pleasant drawing and great photo reference for a work in progress.
Down in time to help Dave get our books into the Clock Tower and off for lunch and a proper catch up. We talked Comics and Controversies; Plans and Families and everything else under the sun. Then off to meet with the first of the Brighton contingent to arrive Myf Tristram and have a competitive cough.
New friend Mikiko Ponczeck kept appearing with her camera but fortunately I am not important enough to be photographed.
Checked out the exhibitions of Will Eisner original artwork and Fumio Obata’s thoughtful On To The Palm Of Unknown exhibition connecting nuclear plants at Fukushima and Sellafield.
The big draw for Friday evening was the Quick on the Draw evening gala – Sergio Aragonés drawing to order and at three times the speed of the cartoonists he was flanked by from NCS, Viz and Aces Weekly stalwart Marc Jackson while chatting and delighting the crowd. NCS chair Steve McGarry was an engaging MC and segued in to the announcement that the National Cartoonists Society was launching a UK chapter and the first recipient of the Sergio Aragonés International Award for Excellence in Comic Art is Dave McKean.
Afterwards I got to shake Sergio by the hand, had him sign and sketch in my precious 1970 Mad About Mad paperback (all new work he was pleased to tell me) and gushed just a little too much. The man is as engaging and twinkly as people say.
Saturday began at the Finnish Village outpost (which was criminally poorly signposted with felt tip notes on A4 paper and a hidden entrance). It was too early for me to use the horsebox sauna, luckily, and because my hotel was next door I got to be the first visitor through the door for the somewhat neglected display of contemporary Finnish Comics and the totally loved Archipelagogo exhibition by Jonathan Edwards and Felt Mistress – who were putting the finishing touches to the show.
Cue more gushing from me…
This exhibition is a rare case of two styles that mesh as complementary aesthetics and with equal and consistent high standards. It’s a delight and fun. I’m going to pester the Cartoon Museum to see if I can get them to bring the exhibition to London!
A quick tour of the Clock Tower to help Dave set up our wares and say hi to a lot of friends who were exhibiting and I dipped out again to see Stan Sakai’s talk and marvel at his live drawing (when I bumped in to him later I asked if he knew the work of Dalgoda artist Denis Fujitake, as their drawings have a lot of common ground – Hawaii is so small they couldn’t help knowing each other and he was quite enthusiastic about the work of this forgotten cartoonist).
Back at the table, we were selling comics at a reasonable pace. Reasonable for us, at least… our more experimental works are never ones to fly out the door, but it is always encouraging to see comic veterans and newcomers engage with non-fiction/non-bio works.
I was excited to discover we were next to Karis and Emily Rose of Big Brown Eyes collective because I’ve followed their work this year and never met them before. Nice people with real talent and about to invite collaborators to a new anthology… offering a platform to new creators just as they were introduced to readers by Broken Frontier… because giving back is just natural in Comics.
Dave’s quirky salesmanship and my pleasure in selling other people’s work make chatting to browsers a pleasurable exercise even when were do close a sale, so the middle of the day whizzed by.
Occasional sorties around the rooms allowed me to chat with all sorts of creators including Ilya; Soaring Penguin; Mal Earl & Kermit Leveridge; Michi Mathias; Nye Wright; Tom Eglington; John-Paul Kamath; Steve White; Zara Slattery; Sydney Jordan and William Rudling; Lorenzo and Rob, The Etherington Brothers; Robert Brown; Zoom and Ace Rockman; Douglas Noble; the Myriad Editions team; Wallis Eates; Knockabout … among others.
I could have bought work by all of the above but I’d already spent up on Philip Ardagh’s World of Moominvalley in the Page 45 room thanks to a tip off that they had very limited numbers. You can make up for my poverty by clicking on their names…
Two of my comics heroes Sergio and Hunt Emerson came over to say hello – it was just a tour of the room, but they stayed a while and made us feel like they came in just to see us!
My afternoon treat was watching Paul Gravett interview Sophia Jansson and Tuula Karjalainen (and barely get a word in, which if you know Paul…). Illuminating and interesting stuff on the life of Tove Jansson accompanied by a live draw by Jonathan Edwards, whose watercolour mixing alone was mesmerising.
Tove Jansson was unimaginably creative across so many disciplines that this talk could have run twice as long without losing steam. I desperately want to ask what difference there is in the reading of her work in English and Finnish, or to hear about her anti-Hitler cartoons, but there was no time.
Appropriately, I found this nearlymade Snork Maiden getting married on the streets of Kendal…
… and a Hemulin sniffing the local botanicals!
Dashed between sites to catch Mal Earl and Kermit Leveridge signing their super new book. Gutted to miss the reading, but if you did too I believe Mal still has copies of the recording by Howard Marks [here].
Stuck my head round the door to see Marc Jackson enthusing a room full of young cartoonists in one of his many workshops and paid homage to Will Eisner again, before a brief talk from festival organisers about the future: partnerships with Myriad for the First Graphic Novel competition (if you have a comic in you, this would be a great trigger to get making it); NCS with the UK Chapter; and a mentoring programme to bring new voices into comics. A lot of this was drenched in diversity buzzwords after the previous week, but it is an example of things moving forward behind the scenes that most of us are not privy to.
Up in the bar there was beer and chat. A lot focused on issues of inclusiveness and how important it is for individuals to see themselves represented in art and celebrations of course (the irony being that at times, I was the only white middle-aged male at a busy table, with no visible indications of any sexual, physical, mental or religious distinction, which is not often the case in non-comic gatherings). But we talked Art, Commerce, Family, my sordid past and future downfall and all the other things you talk about with dear friends. Which is a wonderful thing about comics, because some of those people had never met before.
Out early because I wanted to see Tales from the Nordic Archipelago at Kendal Museum. Out TOO early because they weren’t open yet, so I settled down on the steps to work on an Inktober drawing – but the door opened and the lovely curator invited me in from the cold. I think I’d seen most of these photos of Tove Jansson before, but to see them again filled me with joy. That woman had a compelling beauty from childhood to old age, that was not founded on her look but her sense of wonder. Impossible for me not to smile after looking at them.
Meanwhile at the clocktower, Myf was having to leave a day earlier than planned so I sat in for her when Zara wanted to get out to panels. It’s much nicer selling someone else’s work – you can genuinely enthuse to passers by without feeling like you are bragging. One of the beauties selling for these two Ladies of The Lakes is that their work connects with mums and children so much and almost sells itself once you show it to them. My offers to forge their signatures and sketch Batman were politely rebuffed.
Zoom Rockman at the next table has been making comics for so long that it was painful congratulating him on being announced runner-up in the Young Cartoonist of The Year UNDER 18 category! And his little brother Ace was debuting HIS first comic. Opposite was the force of nature that is the Etherington Brothers. I felt old and was relieved to flee the room to see a walk through the amazing life of Sergio Aragonés (him again).
My grande finale was The Lanky Walk. Oliver East’s new book was launched on Saturday and he was leading a draw-while-you-walk outing along a nearby stretch of the Lancaster Canal included in The Lanky.
Now, I am firmly of the opinion the Oliver will eventually be recognised as the most important UK comicker of his generation… hopefully that can be accompanied by commercial success (but meanwhile, you could do worse than back him on Patreon) in the certainty that you will be supporting work that is going to influence the form in ways we can’t foresee.
So when I found out about this walk, I rescheduled my homeward journey and signed up on the spot. Oliver and his bright-eyed son bundled six of us into a taxi and we headed four miles out of Kendal to walk back, listening to anecdotes and tips, drawing as we walk and filling page after page with quick (often unintelligible) lines. It was a nice leisurely stroll through fields and cowpats and my fellow walkers were fine company – even the rain held off for the duration.
The artist bought us a beer at the end and then I had to run to catch a train south, wishing I’d been able to stay longer chatting to the rest of the group…
Walk ‘n’ Draws look likely to be a recurring feature of festivals and I would recommend it to you in a flash.
The trains south were traditionally screwed, but since Brighton is served by Southern Rail, that’s nothing new. Getting in long, long after midnight gave me time to ponder the highlights and lowlights of the weekend:
On the downside, the diversity criticism clearly hurt the festival’s visitors (fewer creators = less diversity of work to browse) and exhibitors (it felt like fewer attendees from out of the region meant there were more new-to-comics/just-looking browsers than shoppers so sales were depressed for some) and two human beings had their lives massively impacted.
The galling part of that is that it was avoidable at numerous moments, but that’s where we found ourselves.
Some of the signage was poor; scheduling of talks I wanted to see overlapped (yes, it is all about me!); panels needed bigger windows to fit Q& A sessions in; and a nagging worry on my part that an invasion of comics folk from the south (where beer and food is more expensive) could be seen much as college students tend to be in residential Brighton: “they come here with all their noise and attitude and think they own the place“… I think maybe we need to explore a little more of the town than pizzas at The Brewery and karaoke at Ruskins.
The upside was pretty big for me though!
That diversity criticism seems to have opened the festival’s eyes to some of the things they can (and I believe want to) do better, and it also opened some dialogue on representation of all manner of people, which if it bears fruit will be better for everyone.
The town itself is obviously still in love with the Festival.
The talks I saw were better prepped than sometimes before.
I made new friends, enjoyed the company of old friends and felt moved to make more and better comics.
But the best thing? hmmm…
Meeting Sergio Aragonés will be a fond memory forever.
The Archipelagogo exhibition has made a lasting impression and given me ideas for future projects.
Signing a copy of Nearlymades ‘Happy Christmas, nan’ for a chatty family makes me smile.
But THE BEST thing. The Lanky Walk ticked nearly all my boxes.
• Artist Simon Russell has worked as a newspaper artist and cartoonist; a magazine and book designer; a creative director and commissioning manager at the British Tourist Authority. He trained as an illustrator and splits time between designing for clients, working for charities and making his own art in print and prints.
The Lakes International Comic Art Festival returns 12th – 14th October 2018. Web: www.comicartfestival.com
Lakes International Comic Art Festival Twitter “Moments”
Here are some Moments from the Festival, assembled by John Freeman