Every year for the past three years, something strange has happened to Kendal in the Lake District. It’s happening again this year on 14 October. For three days, the whole town becomes a comic book convention as the Lakes International Comic Art Festival takes over.
Once the widely-mocked refuge of stereotypical nerds, eagerly fingering the pages of old Green Lantern and Captain America* back issues, the idea of the comic convention has been the subject of a dramatic rebirth in recent years, aided by the mainstream acceptance brought about by blockbuster movie adaptations of Marvel and DC superheroes. Dressing up as Wolverine, or buying Justice League action figures, is no longer a one way ticket to social banishment. But then, the Lakes festival isn’t really about that either.
“Rather than being focused around a marketplace and just selling comics this festival is about celebrating the comic art medium in all its guises,” says festival director Julie Tait. From talks by famous comic creators, to performances, workshops and interactive trails threaded through the town, the closest comparison is the Hay Literary Festival, albeit with cool drawings, rather than a corporate merchandise bonanza.
It’s an approach that has earned the respect of those who toil over the drawing board to create comic art. “It’s just so much more inclusive than other festivals or conventions,” says Charlie Adlard, artist for The Walking Dead, the zombie comic that became a TV sensation, who is attending this year. “It’s not just one hall or soulless convention centre filled with people sat behind signing tables. Kendal strives to do more than just appeal to the die-hards. It’s a proper festival of our medium.”
For Tait, one of the key aspects of the festival is its willingness to cover the whole spectrum of comic art, and to introduce people to material they may not otherwise be aware of. “I think people feel the festival offers good recommendations and a good experience all round so people seem keen to extend beyond their comfort zones,” she explains. “We cover all genres, with quality being the guiding principle, however you define that! There’s a mix of paid and free events so it’s possible to experiment.”
For many, however, “comic” is still synonymous with “superheroes”, but events like the Lakes festival are widening that awareness. “The general public’s perception of comic-related product is still through the big Hollywood movies,” admits Adlard. “We’ve still got a big hill to climb, but do we want to embrace the mainstream? Perhaps it’s better to accept the fact that we are and have always been a niche industry, always on the fringe.”
“By their nature, comic art creators and readers are focused, modest, prolific, strange people so the fact that the medium has not been accepted to some degree particularly by the arts ‘elite’ is not necessarily a bad thing,” agrees Tait. “Our festival is about breaking down some of those barriers and encouraging people to appreciate and celebrate the incredible talent within the medium.”