Monday, 20 October 2014

Some brief thoughts on the Lakes International Comics Art Festival

Steve and I went to the Lakes International Comics Art Festival on Saturday. The festival is now in its second year (I didn't attend the inaugural year). This wasn't a planned trip- Steve decided on a whim to drive up for the day, and asked me if I wanted to join him, and being curious to see what it was like, I was more than happy to do so (apart from a brief wobble when I had to get out of bed at 5:45 in the morning). My intention was to not go in 'journalist' capacity, but to have a wander as a comics fan and to check out this new festival and see what it was about. We were there for 5 hours on the Saturday, between 11-4 and returned the same day.

Foremostly, my whole experience was coloured by people's reaction toward me. Kendal, and the Lake District by large, is a very white, very middle class region. We saw -I think- maybe 6 people of colour in the time we were there (yes, I counted), and the festival, being located in the town center, on a Saturday with bright, dry weather- was busy, as was the surrounding area. I got stared at a LOT, and if you're visibly ethnic minority, you will instantly understand the hostile, open, up-and-down hard stares of which I speak- although some spunky people prefer a eye-contact off. We went into a fish and chip shop for lunch at one point, and people turned their chairs around to simply gawp/glower. As far as I could tell, it seemed to be the headscarf and being overtly Muslim, because the few poc I did briefly pass didn't seem to be under the same scrutiny, but I could easily be wrong about that. It was deeply unpleasant.

I'm sure there will be people saying I should separate my experiences from the festival itself, and I have tried to be as objective as possible in these rough notes below, but I would also state that it's difficult to divorce the festival as a separate entity from the town, because you're being sold the town as an integral part of the experience, it's pitched as a community event, local people pulling together. If you've never experienced being made feel unwelcome, and scrutinised so blatantly for simply being a different race, religion, whatever, you honestly will not understand how awful, how uncomfortable, and how unwanted it makes you feel. I live in Leeds, which is not without its problems or indeed, white gentrified areas, but between my home-town of Beeston -which has been a hub for immigrant communities for over 30 years- and the the city center, I forget how mixed, how multi-cultural it is, and what that means for me in being able to simply live and walk around relatively peacefully. It's been a while since I've been subjected to that in person, and on that level. The kicker is, you probably won't read another report that has a bad word to say, due to the overwhelmingly attendant demographic, and because people find it so hard to understand how 'a few looks' can have an effect or be racism and bigotry.

All the comics creators, journalists and so forth I chatted to, however briefly, were lovely. I am under no illusions about the make-up of the British comics scene in terms of its creators, but other conventions and events have been shown that the medium's audience IS diverse, and are slowly succeeding in attracting those people. I believe it's vital that we continue that approach and build upon it further, and be firm in not allowing any negative cultures or practices to fester.

Here are some quick thoughts/observations on the convention (less on meeting people or creators and books):

  • Currently, the festival seems to be very much a community event, with lots of local participation. Lots of shops and stores getting into the spirit and supporting the event by having posters up to advertise, doing window displays (which TCAF co-director Chris Butcher was in charge of judging and choosing a winner), etc.
  • The signage was great- dotted all around the town center: large banners, posters on lamp-posts and pillars and walls, and generally very widespread- you could tell something was happening. These were made all the more striking by the specially designed mascots by Louise Evans (aka Felt Mistress) and Jonathan Edwards who adorned much of the flyers.
  • The festival consists of various spaces located within the town center. As far as I could tell there were four main areas: the Clocktower: where the bulk of exhibitors and comics sales were taking place, the Brewery Arts Centre where signings and talks/panels were held, and the Shakespeare Centre and West Moorland Shopping Centre, both of which were hosting kids workshops and activities. General attendance is free, but talks and panels are priced and ticketed. The library and some bars were also involved in exhibitions and further events. This clear sectioning off of spaces worked well. The downstairs at the Clocktower felt a bit tight to navigate.
  • On the one hand, it's nice that these areas are clearly sectioned, and the programmes being handed out quickly help to establish what's occurring where. It also gives you the chance to wander around the town some, which is part  and parcel of the whole experience. It does, however also feel bitty and like you're going back and forth constantly.
  • Continuing from that, it seemed that a large portion of the audience was actually people in Kendal and surrounding areas (I don't know how accurate this is, it's a feeling I got from observing people), bringing comics to more local audiences and those who may not 'follow' the medium in any way, but attending as an event that's taking place in their town that might be interesting to go to,
  • One of the best things was seeing how many kids and parents were participating and having fun- more than I've seen at any festival and almost matching the adult attendees, and I imagines having the separate kids spaces: 'family zones,' really helped facilitate that.
  • There was a fun 'trail' for people to follow- a card which required a stamp from various areas, so each had to be visited and the stamp collected. The obtaining of all would result in a prize.

24-hour comics by (l-r) Joe Decie, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, and Dan Berry

  • The 24-hour comics event seemed to be a resounding success. Sarah McIntyre, Fumio Obata, Kristyna Baczynski, Jack Teagle, Dan Berry, Joe Decie, and Warwick Johnson Cadwell worked from 3pm on the Thursday through to 3pm on the Friday (I think I have that right- might be a bit off) to produce comics which were then printed locally super quick- 50 copies of each- turned into books and were being sold fresh at the festival. People seemed very interested in those and they seemed to be doing well. I didn't go to buy, but I picked up 3, although I was interested in them all, they were a bit pricey at £8 each, I felt, probably due to the quick turnaround on printing. Joe Decie's black and white comic was cheaper at £6, where the others were in colour.
  • I've never been one for panels/signings, but if you're that way inclined, the programming was pretty strong, and the relatively small scale and new-ness of the festival meant access was easier; no long periods of queuing and so forth. When we were at the Brewery Centre both Sean Phillips and Gail Simone only had a person each at their table. Other guests included Junko Mizuno, Boulet, Becky Cloonan, Dave Gibbons, Scott McCloud, and more.
  • Quite a few of the comic creators I talked to all mentioned how well they were being treated and looked after (regardless of perceived name status), and I think it's always nice to hear a festival taking good care of their guests.
  • I attend two UK comic conventions a year religiously: ELCAF and Thought Bubble: both function in very different ways: one provides great art and comics from more independent avenues, while the other is a mix of UK talent and more mainstream overseas creators (mainly American). Together, both provide me with ample opportunity to see my favourite UK artists and get their latest work, introduce me to new people and presses I may not have heard of, whilst also providing the opportunity to meet authors.
  • Looking to see where the Lakes fits in on this scene, and what it offers that the others don't: it doesn't  really do much to provide beyond that- there was nothing new, nothing that would make me add it to my list of shows that I attend each year, particularly as it's so close to Thought Bubble in terms of scheduling: 4 weeks before. As an attendee, if you had to choose where to spend your money, you'd go for the latter.
  • From what I can gather the focus, and the identity of the show, seems to be that it's at the Lakes, and that you come and stay for the weekend and experience the town and district, and it's a bit of a getaway- as I mentioned before, a 'come visit our town' thing. As I stated before, is probably fine if your'e white and middle-class- I'm sure that would be a very pleasant few days. I've been on holiday to the Lake District before, and it's not been this bad- perhaps that was because we stuck to the more 'touristy' areas, and here the small-town insularity and mentality may have come into play.
  • I think Kendal would function well as a starter show- if someone were looking to attend a UK comics festival, this is a good access point, not overwhelming in terms of potential things to do and people to see, and the fact that it is spread out around the town, and not as focused makes it less 'comicsy' and more accessible.
  • On the whole, the Lakes is not a festival I would return to: much of what it offers is available to me 4 weeks later in a much more thorough, friendlier, inclusive way right on my doorstep. I realise that's obviously not the case for everyone. Ultimately, at this point I don't feel it has developed something unique yet, something that it does that other festivals don't. Or it may simply be that the  facet that is supposed to set it apart and make it special - the environment- is not something I'd willingly partake in again. Unless Katushiro Otomo decided to attend.