Kendal, 18th- 20th October
When I mentioned I was off to Kendal for The Lakes International Comic Art Festival, people asked if it was a comic con kind of thing. I answered that although I do go to those sorts of events, this is more of a literary festival. However, I feel uneasy about needing to legitimise LICAF in these terms, as this is a distinct area of practice that doesn't need to be legitimised. This is not a literary event, but is closer to the legendary Angoulême Festival, held annually in France since 1974. Organised with the support of founder patrons Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot and Sean Phillips, the whole of Kendal's high street has been included in a joyful celebration of sequential visual narratives, that shine through the gloom and rain of a wet October weekend.
Scattered throughout the town are events for families, comics made in local schools, exhibitions of original works by comic artists, and numerous venues hosting panels, screenings, live drawing sessions and other delights. These events are individually ticketed, keeping entry as accessible as possible as possible. The Brewery Arts Centre, the focus of many of the events, was a revelation. It is a special place, and long may it continue to offer so much to the area. The biggest problem with the festival is how much you miss, due to a crammed series of concurrent events. A long and busy day still left not enough time to browse properly in the Comics Clock Tower, where creators and publishers were on hand to display their wares. Probably just as well I didn't spend too long there, as spending more time in such a situation generally translates as spending more money. My schedule included the wonderful vision of what printed comics and illustrated works can be, offered by publishers Nobrow, and a joyously entertaining talk by Steve Bell.
However, as the events went on I started to worry about the overall impression given by panels, guests and presentations regarding gender balance and cultural diversity. There was some balance across my schedule, including a good showing of female creators on both a panel on graphic memoirs, and in a fun session in which creators were offered six minutes to talk about their work. Yet, at times, the dominance of white men felt uncomfortable. This became excruciating during Saturday night's 2000AD event, which kicked off with a moment of reflecting why the comic continues to be so male dominated. We were offered an explanation, that only a small percentage of women offered unsolicited submissions for editorial scrutiny. This doesn't explain why editors have failed, almost entirely, to seek out female talent more actively. It was embarrassing to listen to this lame excuse, while the panel degenerated into a collection of slightly inebriated blokes carrying on as if auditioning for a Top Gear tribute act.
Earlier on in the day while it was genuinely exciting to have underground legends Hunt Emerson and Gilbert Shelton together onstage, I couldn't help but think would it really have been that hard to seek out women who have played significant roles in underground comics? Shelton then made an unfortunate comment about Wally Wood's inking technique of using a thick black line down the middle of a protagonists face. He said it always worked, even though we don't have black faces. Looking around at the audience, I couldn't help but think he was, sadly, offering an unintentional description of a relatively monocultural gathering. Much more needs to be done by the festival organisers and participants to take on board questions of inclusion and balanced representation. So a fantastic event, but one that leaves a number of questions hanging. Could it have been more international? Yes. Is there room to work more actively to consider diversity and balance? Certainly. Am I looking forward to seeing these changes take place next year? Can't wait.
Follow Dr Dan Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/utopianimpulse