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Angoulême 2009:

The International BD Festival

It’s that time of year once again, always the last weekend in January (though this time jumping to February 1st on the Sunday), when it seems like the world of comics descends on Angoulême, now re-branded as the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image. First up, here’s my full, unedited report of the 36th International Comics Festival, part of which which appeared yesterday in ‘The Week in Books’ column in The Guardian‘s Review section. This is followed by some further web-exclusive coverage. With Blutch as next year’s President, the 37th Festival promises to be brilliant. The dates should be January 28th to 31st 2010 and I’ve started counting down the days already! So, are you going too?

While sharing a taxi home through snowbound London on my return from France, I mention to my fellow passenger Gabriel, a sophisticated young French microbiologist, that I’ve just been to Angoulême. "Ah, for the bande dessinée?" Though he has never been to the city’s annual comics festival, talking further, he enthuses about this year’s Grand Prix winner, known by the nom-de-plume Blutch, reported across the French media since the night before. To a great many of his countrymen, and not just die-hard aficionados, this modest city in the Charente region of southwest France is synonymous with comics, like Glyndebourne for opera or Hay-on-Wye for books.

On the world stage of graphic novels, America’s biggest convention in San Diego doesn’t come close and only Tokyo hosts anything larger than the almost a quarter of a million visitors who flock to the Angoulême International Comics Festival over the last long weekend in January. Now in its 36th year, this 4-million Euro event for professionals and public alike has grown into the comics equivalent of Cannes, Edinburgh, the Frankfurt Bookfair and Mecca rolled into one. Posy Simmonds was making her third visit, after her Tamara Drewe, serialised in The Guardian, was shortlisted as one of the year’s 50 Essential graphic novels. For me, this marked my 24th trip in 25 years and I still regret missing that one year.

Bandes dessinées in France are an artform, in fact "the 9th Art", though that’s not based on any Top Ten hierarchy but simply on the order of their recognition, after film (7th) and television (8th). They are also an extraordinarily booming sector of publishing, surfing a wave of growth that hasn’t flagged in 13 years. In 2008, 4,746 titles were put out by 265 publishers, 3,592 made up of new material, 821 reprints, 271 art books and 65 studies. This is a further increase of 10 per cent over 2007 and triple the total for the year 2000. Some are worried by this crisis of "surproduction", which can prevent all but the strongest sellers from enjoying more than a week or two of face-out shelf-life. Others cry "Vive la crise!" and suggest that "BD" may weather the credit crunch better than most sectors because comics are often not some casual consumer purchase but a passion, an addiction, an escape that people are loathe to give up in tougher times.

Top: A Boule & Bill 50th anniversary outside exhibition.
Below: Furry orange Boule & Bill dog ears, which
people were wearing at the Festival!

The festival proves that comics’ appeal cuts across the classes and generations. Little kids, and grown-up kids, are wearing long, bright orange furry ears which make perfect earmuffs, to celebrate 50 years of Boule & Bill, tales of a boy and his devoted pooch. Others are sporting little hotel groom’s hats of red cardboard based on Spirou, 70 last year. Almost every shop window has a cut-out character, comic album or poster on display. Over the public tannoy system the hesitant tones of American superstar guest Chris Ware, winner of The Guardian‘s 2001 First Novel Prize, waft through the streets as he discusses his struggles reading Marcel Proust as a kid. As night falls, the whole facade of the town hall comes alive, illuminated by an animated projection showing a mischievous little wildcat, the festival’s "fauve" mascot, scurrying from window to window and floor to floor, trailed by a flying saucer bringing down to earth the duo Dupuy and Berberian, this year’s double-brained presidents. The theatre hums with drawing concerts as singers and rock stars perform while celebrated cartoonists draw "live" in response.

Philippe Dupuy (l) & Charles Berberian (r)
Photo © Andy Bleck

From huge tents or "bulles" for publishers to exhibitions from as far afield as Korea and South Africa in the streets, in the cathedral, the Paper Museum and the £9 million CNBDI national comics centre (Mitterand’s grandest arts project outside of Paris, opened in 1990), the festival’s reach and scale, its diversity and quality, and the way the whole city embraces it, can come as quite a culture shock for British first-timers, or Angoulême "virgins", like editor Lizzie Spratt from Walker Books. For their burgeoning line of graphic novels, she’s thrilled to have signed up to translate Joann Sfar‘s Le Petit Prince, his acclaimed retelling and expansion of Saint-Exupery’s beloved original. She’s selling as well as buying and finding eager customers for Salem Brownstone, an ornate gothic extravaganza by South African-born duo John Dunning and Nikhil Singh.

2009 Festival award winners
Photo © Andy Bleck

When the awards ceremony finally kicks off on the Sunday afternoon, Posy Simmonds’ book is chosen as one of the "Five Essential Fauves" of the year, an honour indeed, but the prestigious "Fauve d’Or" goes to a darkly scurrilous retelling of Pinocchio by Frenchman Winshluss, alias Vincent Paronnaud, co-director with Marjane Satrapi of the animated version of Persepolis. Nevertheless, Posy has been a huge hit, her Sorbonne French charming journalists and her long lines of Anglophile admirers relishing their copies of Tamara Drewe signed with a sketch or "dédicace". She’s more than pleased to have also won the Bande Dessinée Critics’ prize. Meanwhile, she explains that she has had to leave the rather cumbersome Fauve statuette she won in Angoulême with her publisher at Denoël. Her plan is to travel light next month, packing only a toothbrush when she goes to the Salon du Livre in Paris, so that she can bring it back with her and add it to her trophy-filled studio mantelpiece.

Later this June, Angoulême opens a grand new Museum of Bande Dessinée while in Belgium Hergé is honoured with a one-man museum of his own. As Tintin turns 80 and Asterix reaches 50, the status and vigour of comics across the Channel show no signs of diminishing.

OK, so why is all this going on in Angoulême, of all places? After all, it’s a two-hour TGV ride from Paris. Why not hold it in the French capital? Comic festivals have been tried in Paris over the years, but somehow they have never really clicked. But why choose this modest-sized city in the Charente region? There is some connection to comics because it was once a centre of the paper-making industry. It is also famous for its bottles of smooth Pineaud and pantoufles charentaises, the comfiest slippers.

But now, from modest beginnings in 1974, Angoulême has put itself on the map, of France and the world, and acquired an identity and celebrity as the "International City of Comics" which attracts the planet’s comics creators and consumers for four days of celebrating the "9th Art" in all its myriad forms. Here you can experience a world where almost everybody loves some aspect of comics, from tiny tots to grandparents, from multi-million-selling media darlings to local kids hawking their first zine. And rather than being one of hundreds of cultural events lost in a big metropolis like Paris, here the festival works because the city is just the right size for it to fill most of the main venues, liven up the streets and involve a major part of the local population.

Now you might also wonder why this jamboree is held from Thursday to Sunday in the last week of January. This might seem like the bleak mid-winter but, aside from freak storms in 2006 and 2007, it rarely ever snows or gets all that cold. This year’s blue skies and mild nights were positively spring-like. It’s also fixed in January because it’s become an annual tradition for the French press and media, with Libération, for example, transforming the entire paper for the first day into a comic, with every story illustrated not with photos but stylistically diverse illustrations by many of the most respected graphic novelists of the day.

Festival guests Chris Ware (l) & Adrian Tomine (r)
Photo © Andy Bleck

This year I arrive earlier than usual, on the Tuesday, as I’ve finally managed to accept the invitation to come and lecture for the students on the Comics Master course of the École supérieure de l’image. The school forms part of a former paper factory built literally with a river running through it, straddling the banks of the Charente river, the constant rush and roar of the currents energising the atmosphere. The school is abuzz with activity, students at computers in every room. At 3pm young artists embark on their 24-hour, 24-page comics, working with the constraints set by Trondheim, who was visiting and teaching the day before me, to craft a silent story set within a museum.

It’s quite a challenge for me to do all this in French but the students help me out with tricky words (like walrus, or "morse") and it goes really well. And the best part of it is getting to talk one-to-one to each student about their projects, a real privilege. Students here are very international and transnational, as the world is today, their comics as personal and unique as they are as individuals. So, for instance, the Chinese Lei Fang enjoys a freedom as she cannot find in her homeland to portray how China is seen by the West and as it really is. Her fresh, lively drawing, building on Taiyo Matsumoto, will be featured in the Manhua! China Comics Now exhibition which returns this May in Durham. Lei Fang is having a bit of a struggle with the to-and-fro repartee of her trio of girl characters. Neither manga nor bande dessinée have dealt so directly with how to convey extended conversations in comics, where people repeat, interrupt, sidetrack, overlap. Earlier I’ve shown them Brian Michael Bendis’s "string theory", streams of balloons, horizontal or vertical, in mainstream Marvel titles like Daredevil and Alias, over one panel. This is something fairly alien here, throwing open the compulsion to show every microexpression and reaction panel-by-panel within a dialogue.

Another Asian student is developing her narrative by interweaving three couples living and loving in the same rooms of an apartment used for prisoners’ special visits. Yet another student, Sophie Awaad, is half Polish, half Egyptian and is reflecting on her childhood and how she can connect to her Arabic roots. A talented half-Russian woman is trying to adjust her layouts and number of panels per page from what she is used to in the smaller area of American comics to the larger colour BD album format. She’s already crafted with Photoshop a strong sampler intro to her SF drama about Christ returning as a young woman, but she agrees with me that’s it’s too worked and finished. Talking with her, she shows a wonderfully loose study of a black femme fatale and I encourage her to keep on rethinking her approach like this as we rave about the lush, loose digital expressivity of China’s wonderboy Benjamin. One guy has given Macbeth some striking graphics, such as swarms of daggers. Another is so in thrall to Chris Ware’s Acme Datebooks, his diary/sketchbooks, that he sees producing one of his own as an end in itself, whereas for Ware these are important but private exercises and outlets. I do sympathise that the sheer plethora of styles and approaches in comics, and the search for a story to tell, can inhibit students, but I am mightily impressed with so much of the talent I see emerging here. It’s a tradition each year for students to exhibit their work at the Ecole and in a smart anthology Au Fil du Nil, now in its 19th year, but they have another brand new outlet now, Modern Spleen, a free full-colour, bi-lingual, 24-page comics paper, inspired by Finland’s Kuti Kuti and sponsored by the local paper Charente Libre with a 25,000 copy print-run.

Modern Spleen

This year’s spring weather, often sunny, mild, even overnight, is perfect for ambling from publishers’ tents or "bulles" to exhibitions and live events. If anything, this year offers more to see and do than ever, an impossibly rich feast of festivities. One highlight for me is to hook up outside the home I stay in with my lovely Italian amice, Francesca Ghermandi and Gabriella Giandelli, and they sweep me along to the Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (CNBDI), rebranded last year as the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (CIBDI) to catch a presentation by Chris Ware. I introduce them to him in the lobby and when we get upstairs to the Salle Nemo it’s thronging with public eager to get in. I fantasise to them about my whisking them both through the crowd as superstar artistes and a moment later Jean-Pierre Mercier spots us and leads us inside and lets us sit in the front row. Talk about the power of the law of attraction!

Top: Chris Ware (l) prepares his presentation
with Jean-Pierre Mercier (r)
Below: Among Ware’s fans in the audience were
Gabriella Giandelli (l) and Francesca Ghermandi (r)

Another live event I enjoyed attending was Jean-Paul Jennequin’s crowded panel on gay comics. It’s only taken 36 years for Angoulême to programme something like this. Joining chairperson Jean-Paul were Hugues Barthe (France), Tim Fish (US),  Hélène Georges (France),  Massimiliano de Giovanni (Italy), Pascal Hureau et Didier Eberlé (France) as well as the extra guest, the  always outspoken Fabrice Neaud. In a full house, the discussion between panelists and audience soon became highly animated and opinionated about issues of homophobia, heterosexual predominance and the underrepresentation of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities in French comics. There were some encouraging signs of change, notably two free bandes dessinées, one dealing with homophobia in the workplace from L’Autre Cercle, the other a Belgian AIDS educational comic for young people entitled Alex illustrated by Neaud. In addition, Jennequin has launched a dedicated web site.

Last year’s festival president José Muñoz
draws his successors in poetic silhouette
for the Festival’s special ‘20 minutes’ supplement

The exhibitions spotlighted some wonderful artists though I was less impressed by this year’s Dupuy & Berberian double-act, compared with last year’s remarkable Argentine odyssey with José Muñoz. There was certainly a huge amount of their wonderful originals on display, from first forays in fanzines to their latest books together, such as their satirical series Bienvenue à Boboland for Fluide Glacial and Un peu avant la fortune drawing for writer Jean-Claude Denis, as well as their solo flights such as Dupuy’s Haunted and Berberian’s Sacha, new from Cornélius Editions. But I do wonder what the public can really be expected to get from seeing so many "planches", while the "mystery" of how these two writer-artists jointly create their pages is kept coyly unexplained.

Top: One of several miniature models in glass
display cases of Dupuy & Berberian "at work".
Below: And here’s that same model re-created
life size for their spectacular exhibition.

I had seen a more restrained D&B show some years back at the Haarlem Festival in Holland which included some of these small hilarious mechanisms, all cogs, pulleys and strings, similar to Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg contraptions, also shown here. For this much grander career retrospective a live-size version of one of these machines was constructed, with a light shining through it to cast intriguing plays of shadows on a screen behind it. Dupuy & Berberian invited another duo, Ruppert & Mallot, to join their exhibit. Much as I can appreciate their crisp, almost clinical graphics and mordant wit, I’ve found it hard to find a way into their work and their world so far. For this they devised a sort of brothel-cum-peepshow, its plush red velvet walls punctured by small holes through which visitors could strain and peek at various artworks, a fancy enough concept but I wonder how much it actually delivered.

Top: Dupuy & Berberian must have emptied their
cabinets to fill the walls with so many originals.
Below: Dupuy & Berberian invited another duo,
Ruppert & Mallot, to exhibit and draw each other.

There were precious few originals for Kiriko Nananan‘s one-woman show, which was filled out with blow-ups and one monitor showing Benoît Peeters’ fine Arte documentary about manga-makers including Nananan. Author of Blue, this mangaka is known to be quite shy and so did not accept the festival’s invitation.

Crowds at the Bittercomix exhibition
Photo © Andy Bleck

The Bitterkomix crew, Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes, did come over for the first time from South Africa (Comica invited them back in 2004) and a number of others from South Africa attended such as Joe Daly and Karlien de Villiers. A rather French storm-in-a-teacup erupted over some of the more racially-indelicate Bitterkomix imagery which ended up forcing the CIBDI to filter admissions to adults only, when it was not possible to separate an adult section of the show. This was a limited, rather cramped show, bearing in mind the exceptional large-scale gallery-specific works and 3D objects which Kannemeyer and Botes have created for their previous major shows elsewhere. They deserved more space and context for the public to appreciate it fully, but for their first exposure here they made an undoubted impact.

Winshluss contemplates his own grave.
Photo © Andy Bleck

Just down the road from the CIBDI, the Winshluss exhibition came mostly in cemetery black complete with tombstones. For me, this was too small, underdeveloped and disengaged, perhaps because Winshluss clearly, perhaps shrewdly, grabbed most of the money for it and chucked it instead into having some fun making a short movie entitled Ville Molle (something like Dumbsville). This starts as a snide mockumentary about a deranged, idiotic French village which, when that idea runs out of steam, morphs into a sub-Shaun of the Dead zombie-shambles starring artists Blutch, Menu and others from "the usual gang of idiots" larking about on the screen. Proof that "Comics will eat itself".

Poster by Olivier Schrauwen
for the Flemish comics exhibition

Other exhibitions were the main highlights for me this year, first and foremost being the spotlight on Flemish comics, as in comics from the non-French speaking part of Belgium. Its title, Ceci N’Est Pas La BD Flamande, plays with the famous work, Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe by Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte, whose humour is an influence on several of the twenty young creators shown here. A couple have already been recognised internationally: Philip Paquet, noted for his biography of Louis Armstrong; Olivier Schrauwen, translated into English by Bries and now appearing in C’est Bon Anthology, Mome and others; and Randall C., whose Sleepyheads is forthcoming from Blank Slate Books.

The Flemish Comics Exhibition
Photo © Andy Bleck

Pieter de Poortere, also from Bries, deserves a wider readership for his cynical wordless comedies, as does Nix, whose blonde twins Kinky & Cosy are catching on in France. Judith Vanistendael was among the Essential nominees for her touching album about a mixed-race romance, while I was struck by the advances made by two artistic innovators, Brecht Evens and Gerolf Van de Perre. Thomas Goorden directed a fascinating documentary about this new and diverse local scene in Flanders which came within a handsome catalogue with texts by Geert de Weyer, frustratingly not in French or English due to financial restrictions. Sometimes the design and decors in the exhibition itself threatened to overwhelm the content and the works being presented, but overall this marked a very professional and positive exercise by the literary fund, Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren, in raising the profile and promise of Flemish comics. May it be the first of many.

SAI Comics Exhibition

The Paper Museum welcomed SAI Comics from Korea, and though working within a limited budget, it was a warm, creative, involving show, where visitors could watch invited authors creating comics live on the walls and explore another, more experimental and personal side to manhwa, distinguishable from the often overly manga-fied commercial products of the bigger publishers.

Another country in the spotlight was Galicia in Spain, whose most internationally famous author, Miguelanxo Prado, designed their poster. The exhibition marking ten years’ of promising development offers another positive example of state support to promote national comics production abroad. The exhibition continues in the Tourism Office until February 22.

Poster by Miguelanxo Prado
for the Galician Comics exhibition

The Espace Franquin was taken over again and converted into The Manga Building, host of several delightful exhibitions, from Hiroshi Harata’s meticulous samurai histories and Hayao Miyazaki’s watercolours for Ponyo, his latest animated movie. It was also a treat to meet the Paris-based mangaka Junko Kawakami and watch her at work. She was presenting the first volume of It’s Your World, her series about the culture shocks of a Japanese teenage boy whose family moves to Paris, from Kana’s Made In Collection. The biggest space here was devoted to Shigeru Mizuki, winner in 2006 of the Essential Best of the Year with NonNonBa. He’s best known for his spooky kid Gegege no Kitaro (an all-ages manga classic that crazily is still untranslated), but he’s also become a respected expert in Japanese folklore. While there were no originals on view, the exhibit closed with a set of his stunning block-coloured prints in the ukiyo-e tradition in homage to Hokusai. Mizuki won his second Essential this year in the Heritage category for Operation Mort, reprinting the autobiographical account of his horrendous military experience.

Hiroshi Harata (l) & Junko Kawakami (r)
Photos © Andy Bleck

Speaking of prizes, the awards ceremony was reorganised, yet again, this year, with certain awards being announced earlier in the festival (notably the BD Alternative prize which went to DMPP 5 which features a major section on Gustav Verbeek). The biggest news, however, was postponed till Sunday 4pm, the latest ever in the festival. I learnt that the thinking behind this was that France has only a few Sunday newspapers (apparently connected to the presses not being open on Sundays), nothing like the massive multi-section monsters in the US and UK. So there’s not much potential coverage on Sunday if the winners get announced on Saturday and by the Monday it’s old news. By deferring the announcements till Sunday afternoon, they can make headlines in lots more papers on the Monday.

by Winshluss

This year’s 50 Essential was rich with wonders, Francophone and translated imports. Posy Simmonds was thrilled for Tamara Drewe to be chosen among the Five Essentials of the year but the Fauve d’Or (Golden Wildcat) for best book of the year went to Pinocchio. Now I adore Winshluss’s works, especially the remarkable Monsieur Ferraille, a monstrous, scurrilous distortion of the mass-marketed brand run amok. He’s done similar scabrous skewering in the Supermarché Ferraille and the imminent Huile exhibition mockingly promoting a brand of oil you can use in your car as well as in your food. But for me his Pinocchio, told in parts in Ferraille, just isn’t the very greatest opus from him, and yet somehow it has bedazzled the critics and clearly the judges too. It’s easy to be drawn to Winshluss’s overly elegant cover, which riffs on Ware’s fastidious period design tropes, though little of this is carried over inside, where his perverse reinterpretation of Carlo Collodi’s classic fairytale about a reanimated wooden boy never has his nose grow because he always tells the truth, no matter what and in fact is a robot, with Jiminy Cricket inside him.

Now I’ll admit a certain bias here for fellow Brit Posy’s book, and I can see there might be some concern at not recognising any French book as the best for a third year in a row (after NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki and The Arrival by Shaun Tan). Patriotism aside and quite impartially, though, Tamara Drewe (and of course Gemma Bovery before it) have added such an important new approaches to the medium, notably her skilful incorporation of passages of text within comics. Posy told me in passing that she wasn’t aware there were such rules within comics that she was breaking by doing this. For all its parodic post-modern referencing and re-mixing, Pinocchio adds little to the techniques or contents of comics, certainly when compared to Winshluss’s exceptional previous output.

Top: Giant animated projections light up
the front of the Town Hall at night.
Left: The dramatic, glass-front of the CIBDI.
Right: A new footbridge connects the CIBDI
with the new Museum.

During the opening soirée of the festival, I had the chance to meet again with Hubertus von Amelunxen, director of the Ecole, in the Chronoscaphe, a new reception room based on Edgar P. Jacobs’ time-machine from his Blake & Mortimer series. We chatted on the balcony of the CIBDI, looking out across the Charente river to the home of the brand new museum of comics. This will be opening on June 20th in a refurbished factory. Already built is an illuminated pedestrian bridge across the river, linking directly the CIBDI. It makes me think of the "wobbly bridge" that spans the Thames linking St. Paul’s Cathedral to the new Tate Modern (btw architect Norman Foster based this on the Bridge of Light in Flash Gordon illustrated by Alex Raymond). You see, comics connect to everything. One repeatable story Hubertus told me concerned the flawed proposal to build a life-size version of the famous red-and-white-checked rocket from Tintin on an island on the Charente, visible from the CIBDI. The project for this tourist attraction advanced a long way until somebody discovered that if it were built, it would have slowly sunk into the unstable, marshy land beneath it. "The Leaning Rocket of Angoulême", anyone? So luckily the whole thing was shelved, although it seems payments under the contract for permission to use this design still have to be made for several more years to come. Hubertus also told me that the Ecole has chosen Jochen Gerner as their prize-winner this year, who will be fêted with an exhibit next time.

I also learnt from director Gilles Ciment about the "Cent pour Cent" project for the Museum. One hundred artists will pick one hundred original pages out of the 7,000 plus in the Museum’s collection and create their own responses - a tribute, pastiche, recreation, reinterpretation, however they choose to respond. Ciment let me into some of the wonderful surprises already submitted: François Schuiten adapting and expanding on a page of Paul Cuvelier’s Epoxy, a 1960’s erotic fable about centaurs; Emmanuel Guibert creating his own version of a page by Mark Beyer (now there’s an unlikely juxtaposition); and Jochen Gerner rethinking a page of Frank Bellamy’s Robin Hood by showing the same action and conversations but remotely, emanating from a distant forest. All these originals, 100 classics side-by-side with 100 new works, will make an unmissable show in the Museum for next year’s festival. It’s a brilliant initiative to add fresh insights into the treasures in their archives.

Posted: February 8, 2009

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Guardian newspaper on February 7, 2009.


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