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Interview: Julie Tait:

Lakes International Comic Art Festival

Britain is buzzing with comics festivals and conventions up and down the land and throughout the year. Across the spectrum of scale and longevity, Oxford’s determinedly human-scale small press weekend Caption is the longest one still running, while the MCM Expos can draw humungous hordes of fans, though not necessarily of comics. The term ‘Comicon’ has become rather debased lately worldwide, sidelining comics and standing more for fantasy and genre movies, TV, games and pop culture in general. Other festivals like Thought Bubble in Leeds and Comica in London, both bouncing back this autumn, put the emphasis firmly on the richness of comics.

Despite the non-appearances of the third Mark Millar-endorsed Kapow! in London and Scotland’s local heroes Hi-Ex in Inverness, this year is buzzier than ever, what with newcomers Nerd Fest in Nottingham and 22 Panels in Falmouth and the Edinburgh Book Festival running a big comics programme Stripped. But the most exciting premier must be the Lakes International Comic Art Festival over the weekend of October 18th to 20th (poster above by Bryan Talbot), which looks set to make the lovely Cumbrian town of Kendal world-famous for more than just the glorious Lake District scenery and scrummy Mint Cake!  Its first edition is audaciously ambitious and its director Julie Tait brims over with vivacity and vision. Amidst all the planning and organising, she kindly found time to respond to a few questions.

Paul Gravett:
What has made you so passionate about comics that you wanted to start from scratch a brand new festival devoted to them?

Julie Tait:
It’s been building up for some time and towards the end of last year a whole series of circumstances and possibilities came together to drive me to take the leap and establish this new festival. To cut a long story short, I have been working in the arts for nearly 25 years and have found my place in areas where “excellence” and “accessibility” really do sit together, “the great art for everyone” mantra of the Arts Council. My most recent work has been in the street and outdoor arts arena where risk-taking, subversiveness, humour and beauty are the order of the day and where people are taken out of the ordinary and can imagine alternatives, difference etc. I don’t mean this to sound at all pretentious - it is fact and I have seen it involve, inspire and enthuse audiences from the widest backgrounds and tastes, many of whom would not class themselves as arts “consumers” or attendees at all. Really exciting and motivating it is too. Comic art has always been an interest and my 15 year old son has intensified this for me over the last few years so it has become a shared interest. We have been to a wide range of conventions and events together. He has Asperger’s Syndrome so our experiences have been a little unusual too - another longer story. I have seen the parallels between outdoor arts and comic art and feel there is huge potential to reach a wider audience and so much amazing work going on - innovative and of the highest quality. Call it zeitgeist. The four-year Olympic programme, Lakes Alive, which I have been working on has come to an end (of course!) and whist there is a legacy, it is smaller scale now. So this leaves some room for new ventures. Plus there is no major event in the North West celebrating comic art and where better to put on a true cultural festival about this medium than the Lakes?

What will the location and facilities like the Brewery Art Centre (below) of Kendal bring to the appeal and contents of the festival? Are the local council and populace fully on board?

Whilst Kendal has its limitations in terms of size of venues and some challenges regarding visitor infrastructure, the opportunity to turn the town into a comic art town as you see in Europe plus the enthusiasm of the Town for festivals makes a potential recipe for success. The Town and District Councils are hugely supportive as are the Library Service (county-wide), schools and colleges - all critical to success too. Most importantly, more and more businesses are coming out of the woodwork with their own ideas of how to support it, and the local population, whilst not quite sure what it all entails, are becoming increasingly curious and then excited because it offers a new kind of event which seems to appeal right across the communities and age ranges and goes beyond the typical social fabric which engages with existing festivals which are arguably more niche.

What support and guidance have you been enjoying from local supporters in the profession like Mary and Bryan Talbot and Sean Phillips?

A massive amount of time and moral support from them all. They have seen it very much as their festival too which is great. Advocacy is critical. It has extended through their global networks and beyond and I could cite many examples of individuals and organisations/companies who have taken a leap of faith and spurred me/us on. This, of course, includes other events and festivals such as Comica and ones doing different types of events but in it for the “greater good” eg the small, new Nerdfest in Nottingham and others.

You and I met up this year at the 40th Angoulême International Comics Festival in France last January. What ideas and inspirations did you bring back from that? 

Well the reality check first which I already knew about from my travels to French street arts festivals. The Europeans get it, really value culture and have big budgets (still) and are embedded in their towns and cities  - huge envy! Then the excitement about making it happen on no budget from a standing start but with a great place and local energy to build on. To be honest that is the nub of it - the individual aspects were what I had expected and cheekily I even had ideas for how they could improve their festival “offer”! The most inspiring bit was the scale and the breadth and depth of its impact  - lots and lots of people and from all backgrounds reveling in comic art with displays in shop windows and streets feeling alive with it all.

How is Lakes catering for the sometimes very different interests, tastes and audience age groups in the world of comics?

Well whilst I know you can’t always please everyone, we’re having a go! Actually what we are trying to do is ensure there are different “entry points” so we can include as many people as possible who may think they are only interested in xxxx but rub up along yyyy and try something new….or not. The events programme represents a wide range of genres etc and a reasonable international representation too. Much to build on in the future. At the same time we have areas which are totally free and less “earnest” in presentation to attract those new to it all. However quality is the connecting factor I hope. Around that is the broader festival experience so it’s family-friendly, has a buzz and whilst the town goes about its business, there is a feeling of something extraordinary happening too. Again it shows off the wonderful qualities and appeal of comic art beyond sitting in auditoria and browsing market stalls.

Tell me about some of the superstar guests, special deals and big attractions on offer for this first edition?

Crikey, well we have pioneers, leading talent and new and emerging too and from US, Scandanavia, Spain, France, Belgium and even Scotland! Manga, political cartooning, superheroes, crime and horror genres, 2000AD, issue-based comic books - you name it. Joe Sacco, Ed Brubaker (our coup as first visit ever to UK), John Wagner, Duncan Fegredo, Posy Simmonds, Trina Robbins, Carlos Ezquerra, Kurt Busiek, Hannah Berry…..and Sean Phillips, Bryan and Mary Talbot of course. A pass costing £25 for the weekend gets you into 4 daytime events of your choosing with guaranteed seats plus unlimited access to our equivalent of the marketplace/artists’ alley - The Comics Clocktower where we have more than 70 creators and exhibitors including people like Gary Erskine, Emma Vieceli, John Allison…......SelfMadeHero, Nobrow, Myriad, Knockabout etc. Plus there’s a free exhibitions programme, a free family zone and more to make it a full festival weekend. It’s a different model to what many UK comic art event and convention attendees are used to. I’m not sure we’ve got that message across effectively yet and for some the devil will be in the detail, ie what it feels like over the weekend. We think it’s a good deal…..

To talk practicalities for a moment, how easy is it for people to travel and stay there? Will there be enough hotels and B&B’s? Any economy tips for people wanting to come?

We have a mainline train station at Oxenholme which connects to a town station too on a line from Manchester airport to Windermere. It takes approx 75 mins from Manchester, just 1hr 40 mins from Glasgow and 2 hours 45mins from London. There’s an excellent regional/local bus service too. It does mean you can do a day trip to the festival from North East, Yorkshire, Southern Scotland, Manchester, Liverpool etc etc. Who knows re accommodation?! There’s a great local information service all detailed on our website including re campsites still open and within a 10 mile radius there’s lots of accommodation. We’re also starting a homestay scheme this year which we hope to build on - again European-style where you can stay with families for a much-reduced rate B&B and get a true local experience! We need to get people out of London - they need and deserve a different kind of cultural experience!

How do you hope to develop Lakes next year? What would you like to build on and enhance to make it even better? Do you have any dream guests you’d love to invite or events you’d love to stage?

We need to keep the quality and balance of programming, experiment more with ways of presenting and attract the big names who will have strong and broad appeal. We need to build on the comic art town idea more than anything and engage local communities, schools and young people year-round. We’ll need to gather responses and feedback and see what that all means. Already busy programming and taking advice and ideas - all welcomed but not revealing who/what just yet, mostly because some of the wish list is a bit bonkers I think.

How are you applying your considerable expertise in other forms of participatory festivals, especially street arts, to Lakes Comic Art Festival? Could comics and performance combine in your programming?

Mostly through ideas for animation of the town, though limited this year because of resource but….......creating a good festival experience from information to food to toilets (!) and brilliant volunteers (we have 60+ and not just local) and definitely ideas next year for comics and performance and outdoors…

Other regional cities in the past, like Stirling and Sunderland, have considered setting themselves up as a citywide comics celebration to put themselves on the cultural map, but their plans sadly never came to fruition. How do you envisage the future of Lakes Comic Art Festival, and maybe it becoming Britain’s answer to Angoulême?

Ensuring guests this year go away and advocate for what we are doing, private sectors come to the table to support in year two and the public sector and tourism industries here see the benefits and want to help sustain it. If we can put down enough markers this year, I think we have a great future potentially. I’m also working hard to see where it could better sit within the Arts Council’s portfolio in England - like street/outdoor arts a decade or so ago, comic art doesn’t sit anywhere comfortably and clearly yet, so there’s to play for and the festival could be supported by Arts Council England as they move into their next phase of investments. In short, Kendal is a small market town which could be en fête in a way which is much more difficult for a city such as Sunderland or Stirling. Money isn’t everything and if the place and its people can capture the imaginations of visiting creators and fans, then that is the pixie dust we will need to take us into the future.

Thanks a lot Julie, and I’m totally looking forward to your inaugural edition of the Lakes Comic Art Festival, as a visitor and a participant. Do join me, as I’ll be interviewing major American scribes Ed Brubaker and Kurt Busiek, hosting a panel on crime comics with José Muñoz, David Lloyd, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, catching up with the Nobrow crew including artists Luke Pearson and Job McNaught. And touch wood, there will be some of the very first copies anywhere in the world of my brand new book Comics Art from Tate Publishing to accompany a stellar chin-wag with Joe Sacco, Posy Simmonds, Bryan Talbot, Dan Franklin from Jonathan Cape and The Observer‘s Rachel Cooke on The Ninth Art. You’ve simply got to be there, haven’t you?

Posted: August 5, 2013


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