Czechia in focus of this year’s Lakes Comics Festival in UK

The Czech Republic is this year’s main guest country at the annual Lakes International Comic Art Festival, which gets underway on Friday in the English town of Kendal. As part of the programme, the festival is presenting five leading Czech comics artists, including Štěpánka Jislová, the latest Muriel Award Winner for best Czech graphic novel.

The presentation of Czech comics at the festival in England is conducted in partnership with the Czech Literary Centre. I spoke to Jan Zikmund, one of the people behind the project, to find out more about the festival and the Czech presence there:

“The festival was established in 2013 and takes place over a weekend in October each year. It is held in Kendal, which is a beautiful town near the Lake District National Park, about 60 miles from Manchester.

“What is great about the festival is that it aims at comics artists and comics fans, but it also tries to get the locals involved (by ‘locals’ I mean people who live in Kendal or in the Manchester area). So, during the festival weekend, no one in the town can escape comics, which is great!

“The word ‘international’ in the name of the festival is quite fitting, I think, because the director of the festival, Julie Tait, and her team are very internationally oriented.

“They have already established more than 20 international partnerships with comics festivals and centres like us, not only in Europe but also in Asia, Africa and North America.

“Each year, the organisers select a focus country for the festival and that country then gets more attention during the festival weekend than others.”

So how was the Czech Republic selected to be the main guest country this year?

Jan Zikmund,  photo: Archive of the Czech Literary Centre

“It all started in October 2018, three years ago, when the first Czech event was featured at the festival. It was a presentation of the comic book ‘We Are Still at War’, a collection of testimonies by people who experienced some form of oppressive totalitarian regime.

“The event was organised by the publisher of the book, Karolinum Press, and the Czech Centre London, and it was supported by the Czech Literary Centre. It was so successful that it opened the doors for further collaboration with the festival.

“The Czech Literary Centre has built a very good bond with the festival, and we started to organise artist residencies in both Kendal and Prague. Each year, one Czech comics artist has the opportunity to go to Kendal, where the festival takes place, and work there for a month on some comics project.

“We provide the same for a British artists. So far, we have had two very talented English comics artists who came to Prague for a month and worked here, and a third one is coming later this month.

“Probably because of this positive experience with Czech comics and with the Czech Literary Centre, the organisers informed us in June 2019 that they selected us as the focus country for the 2020 edition. However, because of the pandemic, the 2020 focus had to be postponed to this year.”

Five Czech comics artists will feature at the festival, including three women - Štěpánka Jislová, Kateřina Čupová and Lucie Lomová. How did you select them?

Štěpánka Jislová,  Tereza Drahoňovská | Photo: Laydeez do Comics

“Here it’s important to say that we relied heavily on Pavel Kořínek, who is one of the leading Czech experts on comics. Pavel helped us to prepare the Czech programme at the festival, but he was also in charge of the selection process.

“I think the three women in the selection were all very logical choices. Štěpánka Jislová has had a lot of success recently. Last year, she won the Muriel Award for the best graphic novel of the year for her book Bez vlasů, or Hairless [an autobiographical novel and joint endeavour with writer Tereza Drahoňovská].

“Kateřina Čupová published a wonderful adaptation of Karel Čapek’s famous play Rossum’s Universal Robots. And Lucie Lomová is an established comics artists, well-regarded not only in this country but also in France, where several of her comic books have appeared in French translation. The two male artists, Marek Rubec and Václav Šlajch, are also both very talented.”

Have any of their books been translated to English? And how difficult is it for Czech comics artists to win recognition in the English-speaking countries, which produce a huge amount of domestic comics.

“I would say that the only major Czech graphic novel that has appeared in English translation is ‘Zátopek’ by Jaromír Švejdík and Jan Novák. This graphic novel was published in English last year by the London-based publisher SelfMadeHero.

“Hopefully, a few more graphic novels will be published soon by the English-Polish publisher Centrala. But apart from that, it is incredibly difficult for Czech comics artists to win recognition in the English-speaking countries.

'Bez vlasů' | Photo: Paseka publishing

“One of the reasons for that is that a lot of Czech graphic novels deal with Czech or Czechoslovak history. That makes them very difficult to promote them abroad.

“That’s why it is important that we have recently also had graphic novels such as the one I mentioned, Bez vlasů by Štěpánka Jislová. These are books that deal with themes that can be interesting also for people in the US, Asia and elsewhere. So, I think the more graphic novels like that we have, the easier it will be to promote Czech comics abroad.”

The festival programme includes several events involving the Czech artists, including An Extravaganza of Comic Art from the Czech Republic. Can you tell us more about it?

“We thought it would be great to have one bigger event to present all the five artists together. So we are extremely happy that the festival gave us this chance.

“The event will begin with Pavel Kořínek’s presentation, giving a short overview of the history of Czech comics and the trends in contemporary Czech comics.

“And then Paul Gravett, who is a world-famous promoter of comics, will talk to the five artists and the five artists will have a chance to present their work during the event.”

There will also be an exhibition called Here and Now – Contemporary Czech Comics, curated by comics expert Pavel Kořínek. What will be its focus?

“First of all, this exhibition is a project of the Czech Centres and we as the Czech Literary Centre are extremely happy and thankful that we can use this exhibition at the festival.

Lucie Lomová | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Czech Radio

“The exhibition was curated not only by Pavel Kořínek, but also by Tomáš Prokůpek and it brings together ten talented comics artists who are part of the contemporary Czech comics scene.

“I think one of the main goals of this exhibition is to show how inventive and modern and diverse it can be and what is wonderful is that three of the five artists who will attend this year’s Lakes Festival are featured in this exhibition. So it makes a lot of sense to present it at the festival.”

Finally, how important is it for the Czech comics authors to be recognised this way?

“I think it is very important that we can present Czech comics at this festival, because it belongs among the best festivals of its kind in the UK.

“Also, as I mentioned, it is very internationally oriented, so the Czech artists who will attend the event will meet other artists and organizers from all around the world and they can build new contacts and friendships.

“You never now. Perhaps some new collaborations and some new projects will originate and hopefully, also more Czech graphic novels will appear in English and French and other big languages.”

Jan Zikmund talking there about the upcoming Lakes International Festival of Comic Art, which gets underway in the English town of Kendal with a special focus on the contemporary Czech comics scene.

As part of this year’s edition, two Czech comics authors, Štěpánka Jislová and Kateřina Čupová, took part in a month-long residency programme in the picturesque town of Kendal. I phoned Štěpánka Jislová in England to ask her what she was working on during her stay:

Kateřina Čupová - ‘R.U.R.’ | Photo: Argo

“Ever since the beginning of this year I have been working on a graphic novel about relationships. I was hoping I could finish it during this residency, which was honestly a bit foolish of me, because there was so much else to do than just work. But I still managed to do another 10 to 15 pages, so I am happy with what I produced.

“I am trying to explore if love and relationship is something you can actually learn to do and if you can learn to do it well. We often think of love as something that happens to you, and since a lot of relationships end up being a disaster, the question is, was there a way we could prevent it if we took a more scientific approach?”

What was it like working for a month in a completely different environment? Was it inspiring?

“Definitely. It’s always good for one’s work if you can get out of your typical environment. Especially here in Lake District, which is famous for its national parks, I could go out, take walks and clear my head in between working. That’s one thing.

“And the second thing, which is characteristic just for the residency in Kendal, they actually have a really nice comics library in the Lakes Festival office, so I actually spent a lot of time just going through the books they have there, reading and learning from them too.”

You are one of the five Czech artists who will be represented at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. How important is this for you?

“Immensely, honestly. Even just the fact that there is a representation of Czech artists at a festival that big is pretty amazing, and we mostly have the Czech Literary Centre to thank for that.

“To be honest, I think even though we are living in the digital era, a lot of stuff in the publishing industry, especially in the comics publishing industry, is still happening in person.

“So if you want to have your book translated, the best think you can do is print it out, take it to a festival, and actually talk to the publisher of your choice in person.

“From my experience, they often decide based on how you click as people, even maybe more than if you just wrote a really nice email or if you produced a high-quality work.”

“I am trying to explore if love and relationship is something you can actually learn to do.”

“What is great about the festival is that it aims at comics artists and comics fans, but it also tries to get the locals involved.”