UPDATE, 10th October 2017: A number of additional exhibitors have added their names of support to Zainab over the last twenty-four hours, including London-based small press publisher Avery Hill, TANK GIRL artist Rufus Dayglo and, most noticeably, illustrator and 24hr Comic Marathon organiser Dan Berry – AEISD has reached out to Avery Hill to ascertain what impact their absence would mean in terms of their signed creative talent and tabling. All updates have been included in the post below.
The Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF), to be held next weekend in the Cumbrian town of Kendal, is suffering a crisis of faith – and a loss of a number of exhibitors – in the wake of diversity criticism, which has been lingering in the background for a number of years.
COMICS AND COLA writer Zainab Akhtar tweeted her strong feelings about the lack of diverse faces in the announced line of this weekends event, pointing out the proportion of white faces amongst the sixty-six Special Guests invited by the organisers for LIACF 2017.
“66 guests= white, white, white, with a mild sprinkle of East Asia. There’s really no excuse for any comics show to look like this anymore”, tweeted Akhtar on Saturday in response to a promotional tweet by the organisers. In response to this tweet, the operators of the @comicartfest account blocked Akhtar’s and started Twitter conversations with other creators, explaining that they felt that the Eisner-nominated critic had long-held grievances against the show since her attendance in 2014. (Akhtar had written on COMICS AND COLA about her experiences in Kendal where she felt the show was lacking in terms of its lineup, as well as feeling marginalised by the town’s population.)
A number of these Twitter conversations were deleted by the management of the LICAF account as tensions rose over the past couple of days, with accusations of lying about ‘opening up of dialogue’ and harassment of allies in the comics community opening up many wounds.
As followers of both accounts took sides on the debate over the weekend – mostly concerning the manner in which the operator of the LICAF Twitter conducted themselves in the conversation, and also the contributions to the conversation by Sharon Tait, the sister of Festival organiser Julie – a number of exhibitors have announced that they would be relinquishing their table spaces in support of improved diversity at the show.
“I will no longer be attending LICAF this coming weekend. I do not do this to upset those who have supported me in the past so kindly – I truly appreciate the relationships I have with the festival organisers and patrons. Which is why I’m doing this in solidarity […] with those whose valid criticism and feedback regarding issues of racism have been dealt with in such a disappointing manner. I do not favour defensiveness and a lack of openness the representatives have displayed. […] The comics community will only grow and improve with an open mind and willingness to listen and change. I’m not a big voice in comics, but if it can help in any way, I think this is the right thing to do. I’m sorry it took me so long.”
“Dear LICAF organisers,
I am writing to withdraw from exhibiting at Lakes International Comic Art Festival 2017 this coming weekend. This is because I found Sunday evening’s twitter statements from your festival account and associated accounts unacceptable.
My academic work addresses themes of fairness in education, particularly the constructions of ‘race’ and social class, through the specific example of British comics. I need to do my best to ensure that my comics making, publishing, and distribution (as myself, and through my organisation Applied Comics Etc) remains consistent with these themes. This means that I cannot take part in a publicly-funded festival that has made such poor choices of language and tone when discussing issues of ethnicity and diversity.
With this in mind, I would like to offer constructive support when you plan the future of your festival. Please do let me know if my academic work on untangling and addressing issues of fairness – as well as my professional experience in staff development in higher education – is something you would like to make use of, in due course. […]
“Sorry to announce my cancellation @comicartfest. @comicsandcola owed an apology I believe. Hope they’ll fix future events and address issues”
“We’ve withdrawn from LICAF due to our concerns over the reaction to criticisms by Zainab Akhtar on the lack of racial & religious diversity. […] It is the duty of all of us in comics to listen to criticism and to try to improve. […] We will not allow our creators or AHP to be represented by the public statements we’ve seen in response from festival organisers.”
*stands up.* @comicartfest have done more for my career than pretty much anyone else. So many good things have happened because of them BUT […] Until they apologise properly to @comicsandcola I don’t think I can attend this year.”
The UK comics scene – as well as a number of international names, some of whom have attended Lakes in the past – is steadily becoming polarized by the argument, not only about the issues raised by Akhtar but also by the handling of the situation in a public forum.
— GAIL SIMONE (@GailSimone) October 9, 2017
Having seen the Lakes comic festival attack one of the most perceptive & insightful critics I know I can safely say I will never go there
— bloop to you (@KellyKanayama) October 9, 2017
The Lakes Festival needs to rein in their organisers' relatives, because they're doing even more damage than was already done.
— Al Kennedy (@housetoastonish) October 9, 2017
What winds me up most about the whole Lakes hoo-ha is the hypocrisy of calling out 1 particular festival when others (TB) are equally guilty
— Tim Pilcher (@Tim_Pilcher) October 9, 2017
I want to be very clear that I wish the Lakes festival nothing but the best; lots of amazing creators are there, and will be amazing.
— Neill Cameron (@neillcameron) October 9, 2017
So bad that it sends a horrible and divisive message. So bad that I fear it will put people off attending.
— Neill Cameron (@neillcameron) October 9, 2017
The Festival has issued a statement on the debate this weekend:
The Lakes International Comic Art Festival is a celebration of the comic art form in all its genres, styles and creative forms. The Festival exists to progress the comic art form, support the industry and to deliver an amazing festival experience for our visitors. We are now in our fifth year and each year we work hard to improve and build on what’s working and learn from the feedback we have received.
This year, we have been challenged over our approach to diversity, specifically race and religion. The Festival is of course concerned that such comments have been made.
We would like to reassure all our visitors and guests that we are committed and proactive in behaving fairly to all people and embrace the nine protected characteristics in the Equality Quality Act 2010 – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
We take proactive steps each year to ensure we are representing the diversity of comics and reaching new audiences. That said, we know we can always improve and we would welcome the opportunity to talk to any comic creators or interested groups who can suggest ways we can improve further in 2018.
We are always keen to address issues raised and tackle any matters that need to be addressed.
To kickstart this process, we are considering a specific meeting as part of our planning cycle to look at diversity and equality in comics. If you would be interested in getting involved or submitting comments, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Festival deeply regrets that the wording of some comments made over the weekend on social media caused offence. Unfortunately, in the lead up to a major event, when all are running at 110% overdrive to put on the best show possible, adverse comments about the Festival’s programming choices and its founding principles of promoting comics and all comic creators, regardless of creed, colour or country, were taken badly. This does not excuse the language used, but it hopefully puts the comments into context.
We always welcome your feedback. We are a small passionate team committed to delivering an amazing festival – thank you for your support.”
This years Festival features first time Special Guests such as Sergio Aragones, Stan Sakai, Michael Cho, Chip Zdarsky, Christian Ward, Jason Latour and Jillian Tamaki as well as many returning headline guests such as Charlie Adlard, Duncan Fegredo, Sean Phillips, Steve and Luke McGarry and The Etherington Brothers. The Festival for 2017 is showcasing the Finnish Moomins characters by Tove Jannson, Stan Sakai‘s USAGI YOJIMBO, Asian creators in special Manga panels and also the launch of the first ever Sergio Aragones International Award for Excellence, to be presented on the festival launch event on Friday 13th October.
Leeds-based comic journalist Zainab Akhtar was Eisner-nominated for Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism in 2017 – you can find more of her writing at COMICS AND COLA.
DISCLOSURE: The organisers of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival have generously afforded me press passes to the event for the past two years, at which I have covered the Festival for AEISD. AEISD will not be attending the Festival in 2017, due to current financial restraints.