Richard Sheaf reflects on the return of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival as a physical event, to Kendal, Cumbria, earlier this month…
Never having been to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival before it’s impossible to draw comparisons to what the event was like in pre-Covid times, so instead I’ll be focussing on what was on as part of the 2021 festival.
Rain, that’s what I was promised. Rain, and plenty of it… so imagine my confusion – or delight? – when I stepped off the train in Kendal and found myself bathed in glorious sunshine. The walk from the station to the centre of Kendal ticked off a number of items in my imaginary I-Spy Book of LICAF. There was comic art in an unexpected location (the chip shop!), a Batman flag fluttering from the top of the Town Hall, aka as the Comics Clock Tower, and plenty of advertising throughout the town heralding the weekend of the 15-17th as being LICAF weekend.
Kendal as a town has a lot going for it (a castle, two museums, art gallery, arts centre and lots of independent shops) as well as being on the doorstep of the Lake District, so it was great for a mooch around on the Friday afternoon. Kudos too to those shops (especially the Oxfam bookshop) that had seemingly been saving their recent comic acquisitions for this weekend.
The Festival proper began with the Friday night Battle of the Toons. This was a tie-up with NCSfest (the National Cartoonists Society Festival) in the US. The “battle” took the form of a “Balloon Debate”, is where a number of protagonists on both sides of the Atlantic put forward a case for why their ‘toon’ character should be saved from being ejected from the balloon.
A good selection of characters (Krazy Kat, Asterix, the Silver Surfer, Groo the Wanderer, Homer Simpson and others) was finally boiled down to a face-off between Krazy Kat and Asterix. Ultimately, Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson’s exuberant and persuasive style saw Krazy Kat triumph in this hilarious battle. Cartoonists Luke McGarry, beaming in from the United States, and French artist Boulet, in the theatre, who received the Sergio Aragonés International Award for Excellence in Comic Art the same night, also chipped in with their live cartooning take on proceedings as the debate.
This was the best attended event of the weekend for me and saw the main theatre venue pretty close to full. Other events carried on into the evening, including karaoke and more drawing with Luke McGarry, as people headed out into Kendal itself for a catch-up with friends old and new.
The Saturday morning weather was more in line with what I’d been told to expect but that was fine, as I wasn’t expecting to spend much time outside – instead I had a full day of indoor activities lined up.
My notes from the day say “Martin Rowson exhibition, Sean and Jacob Phillips talk, sketch from Charlie Adlard, Dave McKean talk (plus sketch), hilarious VIZ talk (plus sketches), Comics Clock Tower (get original art from Gustaffo Vargas, comics purchases from Roger Langridge, Martin Simpson and Kev Sutherland), virtual talk from Jeff Lemire”. Which sounds like a lot. And it was. However, I still didn’t have time to go to the Bryan Talbot signing or the Steve Yeowell signing, or go to the “That Texas Blood” talk or talk to Steven Appleby. I know it’s a sign of a good convention when they run more stuff than you have time to go, so I shouldn’t really complain. I should just say a few words about the main talks I attended, though…
Sean and Jacob Phillips I both knew by name but I wouldn’t have known what either looked like (and I’m way behind on trying to keep up with the work they’ve produced) played a quickfire version of the old gameshow Mr & Mrs, compéred by Festival Director Julie Tait, where they both had 30 seconds to draw the answer to a question about each other. We then compared the answers to see if they did know about the (dis)likes of the other. This was a fun drawing challenge and made a difference from the usual Q&A format. The final 15 minute “Draw an Elvis challenge” finally saw Sean master the technology he’d been wrestling with up to then – plus draw a great Elvis, obviously.
Dave McKean’s art couldn’t have been more different to that produced by Jacob and Sean Phillips, and his talk was all about his new book, Raptor, and just how much of it had been inspired by the re-connection with nature that Dave had experienced as part of the lockdown restrictions. Some lovely bird-watching photos preceded Dave’s view of the character Sokol, which is Polish for falcon, and how they’re trapped between two worlds.
Raptor looks visually stunning (as you’d expect from Dave) and he did try and take us through just some of the other projects he’s working on at the moment – but for someone as prolific as Dave, it’s hard to fit all that new work into just an hour! I would day that I’m looking forward to seeing his finished work on a new set of illustrations for Mervyn’s Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Commissioned to draw 24 drawings he drew 150 and persuaded the publisher that that was a better amount. Lucky for us.
The VIZ comic talk on the Saturday afternoon was martialled in laconic fashion by Miles Ross (a producer, director and writer who worked on the television adaptations of the most famous VIZ characters for Channel 4) with Simon Thorp and Graham Drury providing a steady stream of hilarious anecdotes to go along with their drawings of Johnny Fartpants and the Fat Slags.
This session really got going once the drawing commenced and all concerned relaxed into the afternoon. Their generosity at the end of the session was pronounced with each of us going home with two free sketches each – in fact they had pre-prepared more sketches than they had attendees, so the rest of the sketches ended up as freebies on the information desk. Cheers, guys!
The highlight of the (wet!) Sunday for me was to hear comic artist, author and archivist David A. Roach talking to John Freeman all about his career in comics, and his interest and influences.
David, who spent the 1990s working in US comics, talked mainly about his work in British comics – how he loves not being given deadlines by 2000AD and why Doctor Who star David Tennant is great to draw – but Sylvester McCoy is hard to capture, a challenge noted by many other artists!
Interestingly, as a kid he spent time drawing real people and just didn’t draw comic strips at all. This love of drawing real people continues to this day, with his love of life drawing as a discipline. He also revealed that he is in fact colour blind and that’s why he does so much work in black and white.
John also covered the “art detective” work that David has been doing for the last two years for Rebellion, in advance of the forthcoming publication of their new line of “Apex” editions. These huge tomes, the format similar to “artists editions” volumes that have proliferated in recent years with original art presented the size it was originally drawn, will kick-off with Brian Bolland’s work on Judge Dredd, and this will be followed up with a further volume of Mick McMahon’s work shortly after. Expect to hear more about the latter soon – all I can say at this stage is that the cover looks great, and the contents will be, too!
The talk is to be included on the LICAF YouTube Channel.
All in all, I have to say I loved the ‘campus’ feel of this Festival – it wasn’t all in some big barn on the edge of town, it was in all parts of the town and there were lots of (non-comics) people in town who were excited that it was the comics weekend. It’s great just wandering around and seeing other comics folks doing the same,rather than just being stuck behind a table all day, and therefore somehow more approachable for a chat. A special shout-out to Marc Jackson, who I saw in plenty of café’s, and Rian Hughes, who I saw everywhere I went.
There was loads to do loads of people to see – including some people who I knew where there, but somehow managed to not see at all over the weekend (Neill Cameron, I’m talking about you!), hey ho.
To my shame I haven’t even mentioned the Martin Rowson exhibition or the Czech guest artists or the Comic Art Trail, or said enough about all the creators in the Clock Tower, apologies all.
The mask-wearing was dull but necessary, and while I avoided some events that I wouldn’t have batted an eye-lid about attending before COVID-19 I was, frankly, grateful that the Festival had enough confidence in their own abilities to run at all. I’d happily go again in a non-COVID year, because I’d love to share the warmth of the celebratory “we survived, life is back to normal” vibe that would make this great Festival truly joyous.
Roll on 2022, then!
The Lakes International Comic Art Festival will return over the weekend of 14th – 16th October 2022 – mark those diaries now!
• Some events at the 2021 Festival were live-streamed or recorded, and feature on the Festival’s YouTube channel, which also includes comic creator interview features such as “Desert Island Comics”, produced by Peter Kessler, and “Comic Art in Depth” profiles of creators such as Dave McKean and Martin Rowson
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Photos by and © Chris Dissent, John Freeman, Christopher Payne and Richard Sheaf
Richard Sheaf is a longtime contributor to downthetubes and has written for numerous magazines about British comics.