Quite often comics conventions feel like they exist in little bubbles. Once you’re inside the hall/centre/shack/bunker the event is taking place in, you get the sense you could be anywhere. The organizers of The Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF) seem to be having none of this. Visiting Kendal for the weekend of the festival is like entering a parallel universe where comics and cartooning are part of the fabric of public life. Walk out of the Clock Tower for a breath of fresh air and a can of fizzy pop, and you might see Dr Who and Batman walking side by side down the High Street, or Chewbacca and a Storm Trooper having a chat and posing for selfies with weekend shoppers. (note: Frank Santoro was caught grabbing a selfie with Chewbacca – check out his LICAF adventures HERE!)
Queuing for sandwiches you can admire the mad drawings of superheroes plastering the windows, made by local school kids. There’s a real sense that the festival has pushed its tendrils into the local community, and vice versa. Stumbling home late at night to your lodgings, you might chance across original art from Oliver East’s The Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn, lit by slanting yellow street light.
It helps that the festival takes place in Kendal. It’s a pretty special place, with fantastic and fantastical grey stone architecture everywhere. I was generously put up in an attic flat in an enormous, labyrinthine house just outside the town centre, which set a tone of enchantment for the rest of the weekend (thanks to my generous hosts, Mandy and Geoff!) Walking from my accommodation to the town centre on Sunday I was taken with the strange rock formations on the crest of the hill above the town. The day previously I had been chatting to fellow CW alumnus Niall Breen and he mentioned he was going to go walking in the hills. How many other comics festivals or conventions are there you can take a break by walking out of town and up a mini mountain? Can’t be many. (note: check out Niall’s LICAF story HERE.)
I was there to help man the Comics Workbook table in the main hall of the Clock Tower, the market section of the festival. While this meant being out of action for many talks and workshops, there was a real buzz in the halls with loads of great folk stopping by to say hello. It was me and the aforementioned Oliver East behind the table for the weekend. The atmosphere was lively, with plenty of people coming by to browse and chat. I got to meet several cartoonists whose work I have admired for years, and was introduced to several whose work I hadn’t been familiar with.
The organizers seem to have deliberately gone out of their way to involve as many makers as possible from every corner, edge, nook, cranny and crack of the field of small press comics. Art comics similar to those on the CW table were well represented, as were superheroes, genre fiction, cute stuff and animal comics. The range of styles, content, genres and sensibilities represented by the sellers in the market was really impressive.
Being behind the table was a great opportunity to see different networks of comics makers and enthusiasts forming. This was really exciting. I was particularly taken with a concept Simon Russell is developing which involves establishing a new (to me, at least) model for independent makers of all sorts to sell side by side at small scale curated events. Less financial risk for the creator, and less creative ghettoisation, which in a field like comics is especially welcome. For a maker involved in self-publishing, this is what festivals like LICAF are all about – forging connections with other makers and enabling creative communities to be built.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about closing the circle between creating and publishing and publishing small and often in cheap little editions, road-testing stories in public, and building larger narratives or works from small individually published units. So far so confused? – excellent. Anyway, arriving at the table with this in the back of my mind it was great to see the organizers had hired Comics Workbook a photocopier so we could run off copies of the zines and comics produced in the CW workshops that took place on Saturday morning. Workshops are great and everything, but when you can demonstrate to people how easy it is to start running off copies of your own stuff to share, that’s something else.
Sunday I drove off in beautiful afternoon sunshine to a friend’s house nearby. As I drove down narrow winding roads scattered with the first leaves of autumn I saw enormous bales of hay or straw wrapped in bright fuchsia plastic, like relics of a future cartoon universe cast back in time. Then, rounding a tight corner, a field of sheep all dyed bright orange, suddenly came into view. It was as if the spirit of LICAF had seeped out into the surrounding countryside, creating these surrealistic eruptions from the lush green hillsides. I’m looking forward to coming back next year for more of the same.