Author: Nicholas Burman
Photo Credit: Andrew Benge
Thanks to the pandemic, all but the earliest occurring of last year’s European comics festivals were forced to take a break or move online. Recently, as restrictions are gradually lifted and vaccine programmes gain pace, some events have tentatively announced plans for 2021.
While some European festivals include related cultural activity such as films and games in their programmes, others dedicate themselves solely to print publishing. In both cases, talks and signings by headline names are matched with international small- and self-published authors selling work directly to attendees.
Malta Comic Con’s Chris Le Galle says that “conventions offer an important platform for creators and publishers to thrive.” According to Eva Cardon, artistic director of Antwerp’s Grafixx, “shows [especially through lectures and panels] give that necessary in-depth look into an artist’s work which you won’t experience from posts on Instagram.”
In the Franco-Belgium sphere, the comics medium is highly regarded. France boasts one of the world’s biggest comics economies and its festivals are celebrations of this fact. While in the UK, comics are often sidelined as something for children, and so its festivals have an educational function, introducing visitors to experimental and challenging work. This is the case with the Leeds based Thought Bubble, which runs comics workshops at a local library.
While Helsinki Comics Festival’s main event was cancelled last year, they hosted interviews with local artists in front of a small audience, and streamed these events online. Under the title Pop Culture Online Fest, Malta’s Con produced similar events especially for digital distribution. According to Thought Bubble’s festival manager, Chloe Green, equivalent efforts by their festival helped to drive some much needed sales of artists’ work.
The pandemic has caused short and long term economic concerns in many industries. One of the ways comics festivals have weathered the past months is by receiving government support. Helsinki Comics Festival’s producer Maura Manninen says that in Finland subsidies have been provided for cultural organizations, but freelancers – which artists tend to be – have been sidelined.
Financial help has also reached Malta Comic Con, but Le Galle says that more institutional flexibility in regards to the bodies which provide funding would be beneficial in these uncertain times.
The pandemic’s effects – good and bad – will be felt for years to come. Manninen is worried that publishers may rely even more so on safe bets when it comes to what to publish, especially in regards to translated work.
Some events, such as Thought Bubble, offered artists the opportunity to roll over their 2020 exhibiting fees for the following installment. Widespread uptakes of this option have demonstrated artists’ commitment to festivals and has also helped with cash flow. According to Green, companies that provide private funding have generally been sympathetic to the festival’s lack of ability to make concrete plans.
Le Galle is worried about local retailers closing and a decrease of consumer purchasing power. This is because a festival’s relationship with its locale is circular: each one relies on its local scene, and its existence encourages the scene to grow. Meanwhile, Brexit’s effect on UK events is still somewhat unknown, but import and export charges for printing and shipping have already negatively impacted UK based artists.
Looking ahead, it’s likely some festivals will take place in 2021. Cardon tells me that Grafixx has “already planned time blocks and circulation to corona-proof the event, and we might book a larger room for lectures, so we should be good for November.”
Festivals are also sites of struggle. France’s Angoulême is being boycotted once again this year by artists protesting decreasing standards of living. There are also ongoing debates around how inclusive festivals are for people with health conditions, or to those from minority groups. Green hopes that Thought Bubble becoming a hybrid event, accessible both online and in person, will at least make it easier for people hard of hearing or who have anxiety to engage with the event.
Cons continue to be crucial opportunities for the sometimes atomized individuals involved in comics to talk and organise. European festivals’ resilience during the ongoing crisis demonstrates the community’s commitment to these events and the importance of public support, especially monetary.
This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.
On the Author
Nicholas Burman is an arts and culture enthusiast with an interest in how they intersect with society, politics and the economy. As well as being an advocate of print culture, he’s often writing about sound, DIY culture, comics, and much more besides.