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Angoulême International BD Festival 2010:

The Annual French Celebration of Comics

For me, I feel my New Year only truly begins at the Angoulême International Comics Festival or FIBD. It’s held annually in France, in the Charente district city over the last long weekend in January, from Thursday to Sunday. And yes, it can get chilly this time of year and we had heavy snow in 2007 and 2008, but I have doubts whether a Facebook campaign, Angoulême au chaud (or “in the heat”), to move the Festival to a warmer month will succeed, now that the FIBD is such a cultural fixture in the publishing and media calendar. My visit in 2010 is my 26th since 1984. I only missed the 1997 edition and will forever regret it, as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat had a main exhibition. This year I had to smile when I overheard a slightly stressed grandmother, on wandering into another of the publishers’ tents, telling her young grandson, “Oh, more books.” I know how she feels.

Everybody who visits the FIBD takes home his or her own experience. And that’s a lot of different experiences, because these four days of festivities attract some 200,000 people. This global convergence of amateurs and pros, comics creators and consumers, has become the biggest in the world. Only Tokyo’s insane semi-annual Comikets draw a bigger public (over twice as many!). Now in its 37th year, the FIBD has grown so multi-faceted in its events, exhibits and activities that, short of cloning yourself, you have to make some tough choices about what to do and what to miss. Especially as you have the juggle getting to and from the different locations which can be quite a distance apart, from the city centre out to the new Museum across the Charente river. The free navettes or shuttle buses help you to get around, but a Star Trek-style instant teleportation device would sure come in handy.

More than ever, the biggest frustration was the clash of wonderful events hour-by-hour. It’s become almost too much. It’s easier of course if you have very specific interests. Is it any wonder that the majority of the public narrow their focus down to what they most enjoy and are most familiar with? Not everyone has my ravenous curiosity for the medium. Instead, in an almost tribal way, manga maniacs can congregate all day in their own Manga Building in the “Espace Franquin”, which would no doubt have been a surprise to the late, great André Franquin after whom this “Espace Franquin” is named. Children and their parents can head for the kids’ focus or Pole Jeunesse relocated to the Castro Building (that’s Roland the architect, not Fidel from Cuba), the new name for the former Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (or CNBDI).

Another “bulle” or tent spotlights young creators with a show of the competition winners and facilities to present portfolios to publishers and compare courses and colleges in comics across France. The press and media swarm to the Hotel de Ville while the pros-only Rights Area allows publishers far and wide to meet, buy, sell and socialise. So there are all these communities of public, creation and industry who come together, some who follow a certain character, series or author or maybe the independent scene, others who aim for the always buzzing alternative space for fanzines and “micro-editions”, French and international, where UK groups Alternative Press and B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S. (British Artists Standing Tall And Reaching Distant Shores!) manned two tables.

More than ever with this 37th edition, I was struck by the sheer scope and variety of Francophone and international comics on offer. The comic market in France is vibrant, even overloaded, and has seen constant, year-on-year growth over the past 14 years. In 2009, a recessionary year, that growth slowed down but still managed a 2.4% increase in the quantity of titles published, 4,863 in total. According to Gilles Ratier’s annual survey for the Association of Comics Critics and Journalists, this breaks down to: 3,599 new titles; 892 reprints; 297 art books; and 75 books about comics. This slight deceleration compared to previous years reflects some modest, sensible caution on the part of publishers in these difficult times, resulting in a reduction of 4% in brand new books compared to 2008. That’s partly explained by a particular growth sector in 2009, by 9% more than the previous year, in lower-cost reprints, particularly “intégrales” collecting whole multi-part series into one big fat book. That said, 140 titles, of which 40 were manga from 12 hit series led by Naruto, had first print-runs over 50,000 copies. One of these of course was the new 50th anniversary Asterix book, which was not a critical success, and less of a commercial one compared to previous millon-plus sellers in the series, whereas this latest addition managed under 600,000 copies. No less than one half of the year’s comics flood into the shops during the last quarter of the year, supposedly the best time for sales. Out of the Top Twenty best-selling books on all types last season in France, no less than ten were bandes dessinées. One final statistic from Ratier is encouraging: the proportion of women creators of comics published in France, previously only 6% in 2002, has grown last year to just over 11%. 

Tomorrow’s millionaire comics phenomenon has to start somewhere and a good few may well be studying at the Ecole Européenne Supérieure de l’Image (EESI) which offers a Masters Degree in comics. Visiting again before the Festival, I met some very promising students, several involved with the formerly free newspaper anthology Modern Spleen (2 issues), and now its 4 euro bi-monthly magazine successor L’Episode, all in French and English. The standout for me in the first issue is Maxime Jeune, who showed me his highly original 24-hour comic (Lewis Trondheim set the theme again for this year’s challenge of pirates). It’s also great to spot the work of Famicon member from London, Leon Sadler, serialising his Lava Flows. Jeune, Dan Selig and other enterprising students told me how they had clubbed together to buy their own printer to run off publications - you can check out their new association, L’Imprimante

In terms of superstar guests, two last-minute surprises caused quite a stir. It took a multi-pronged strategy of wooing and seduction but finally France’s greatest living humorous artist - “dessinateur” he insisted, and definitely not “illustrateur”- Jean-Jacques Sempé, now 77, made a rare public interview, Q&A and over two hours of signings. Denoël just published a gorgeous collection of Sempé‘s New York-themed work, much of it for The New Yorker. Much-loved, Sempé illustrated Le Petit Nicolas, written by René Goscinny, co-creator of Asterix, and adapted last year, with mixed results, into a live-action movie. My pal Alfred Eichholz from Amsterdam seldom queues for sketches from anyone, but this was one occasion he could not miss. He showed me a beautiful “dédicace” for Marcelin Caillou (out from Phaidon as Martin Pebble) with his unmistakeable lightness of touch, down to the spot of red for the hero’s blushing. During his interivew, what some of us mistook for mischievousness in failing to understand or answer the questions fully, was apparently also partly a sad side-effect of, or cover for, his poor health at present. Festival art director Benoît Mouchart confided in me afterwards that he felt flustered and was sure that he too was bright red from the pressure (he wasn’t blushing and handled it with his customary élan).

Sempé did eventually warm up and by the last question was in some sort of free flow, musing over why people found his drawings funny. He pointed to the gap between the ‘vrai’ and the ‘vraisemblable’ in an exquisite colour piece showing a cat slinking along the edge of a fence at night. We laugh at how the cat is enjoying a fantasy of being wild and predatory while clearly in a comfortable American suburban back-garden. Sempé revealed that he does not keep a sketchbook as his constant companion. But drawing is vital for him, so much so that every day he is unable to, as during his visit to the festival, he misses it profoundly. His images spring more from memory and invention than on-the-spot sketches. Afterwards, I was lucky to be introduced briefly and I mentioned Quentin Blake, who interviewed him in London some years ago, and “Bob” Blechmann, another in this evolutionary sector of deceptively simple, delicate humorous draughtsmanship - from Mel Calman and Michael Leunig to Glenn Dakin and, of course, Joann Sfar and a whole French generation or “school” in his wake. He might not consider his “histoires dessinées” as bandes dessinées, but he continues to inspire generations of comics creators.

The second special, if reluctant, invitee was Robert Crumb who got around to answering a few questions about his latest best-seller, The Book of Genesis. At one point, he asked people in the packed Salle Nemo to put up their hand if they believed that all of the Bible was true, and smiled when only one person did so. Another audience member spoke up about his difficulty and disappointment reading the book. I was able to chip in to draw Crumb out about his anti-patriarchal agenda behind this project. He admitted that, knowing now how much work this finally entailed, he probably would not have taken it on. I sat next to Crumb’s wife Aline Kominsky, who told me that they are working on a book together collecting their New Yorker joint pieces plus some new comics, and another compiling their daughter Sophie’s drawings from the age of 2 to 28. It seems Crumb has carefully conserved them all, noting whatever little Sophie told him about them at the time. Due this autumn, it promises to be a unique way to follow the growth of a personality through their art from infancy to adulthood.

Last year’s Presidents, Dupuy & Berberian, draw this year’s, Blutch,
with his arrogant alter-ego Blotch, who grumbles
“Pfff… these young artist have too much talent.”

This year, I was struck by the richness and complexity of several of the exhibitions which demand, and reward, your time and attention. This year’s President was Blutch, barely translated into English at all sadly. He chose to show only a handful of his pages of comics, because he apparently does not consider them suitable for gallery walls. Instead he filled several rooms in a very attractive new venue for shows, Place Henri Dunant, with some 250 illustrations, with no captions or titles, including every piece from his Futuropolis album La Beauté, but also many private, unpublished works plumbing that great obsession in male French art, the mystery of “La Femme”. The effect was austere, often disquieting and erotically charged, focussing the visitor on looking and the pure power of drawing. Blutch invited surreal anthropomorphic cartoonist Fabio Viscogliosi to show alongside him, including some arresting sculptural pieces, and then offered a historical overview of great masters of humorous drawing, through William Hogarth, Caran d’Ache and Gus Bofa to the Golden Age of satirical cartoons in L’Assiette au Beurre in France, Punch in Britain, Simplicissimus in Germany and The New Yorker in the USA. It clearly placed Blutch, and Fabio, and indeed a lot of modern comics, into this long and closely related tradition.

Those same connections between past and present fill the impressive new Comics Museum, latest jewel in the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (or CIBDI, pronouced “say-ee-bee-dee-ee”)  and notably its new exhibition Cent Pour Cent (a pun on 100% meaning “A hundred for a hundred”). The spirit behind both was summed up by director Gilles Ciment quoting Cocteau at the opening: “A bird sings better when it sings in its family tree.” Cent Pour Cent springs from the novel idea of asking 100 contemporary international comic artists to select one original piece of comic art from the 8,000 items in the Museum’s collection and respond to it in a new work. It’s an inspired way to reinvigorate these works already in the Museum and to source some potential further acquisitions.

Mattotti reinterprets Alberto Breccia.

These responses ranged from reverential “cover versions”, such as Miguelanxo Prado’s redrawing of a page of ArZak by Moebius, to tributes, such as Alec Robinson’s enthusiastic commentary on a classic Will Eisner Spirit page. Others offered graphic analyses, Mattotti painting in colour the expressionist panache within a black-and-white page of Mort Cinder by Alberto Breccia, Scott McCloud dissecting and distilling a Fritzi Ritz strip by Ernie Bushmiller down to its base elements, or Edmond Baudoin extracting and abstracting a leaping horse from a Guido Buzzelli page. Some of the most engaging interpretations offered a critique of the source material. Posy Simmonds took the embattled Flo out of a Reg Smythe Andy Capp strip and placed her among the Seven Ages of Woman, at least as seen in comics, with their emphasis on the young and nubile. Finnish art-brut scraper-board madman Matti Hagelberg parodied the pumped-up pomposity of Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan, “traced from the original”, replacing the black villain with a figure of Christ and ending with ‘Kagoda?”, Tarzan-speak for “Surrender?” The cleverest by far was Ben Katchor’s flight of fancy about scientists trying to determine the vintage of a bottle of wine shown in a 19th-century comic by the Frenchman Cham. This is a lot to take in, frankly. Despite efforts to group like with like and provide plentiful captioning, Cent Pour Cent ends up rather under-curated, over-egged and challenging to digest. Rightly or wrongly, the artists seem to have been left to their own devices, so Cent Pour Cent does not score a full 100% but there are many more hits than misses. It continues until March 28th and comes with a sumptuous catalogue.

Posy Simmonds created this piece for Cent Pour Cent
responding to a vintage chauvinist Andy Capp strip by Reg Smythe.

You could lose yourself for hours in the Museum itself, opened in June 2009.  On entering, it’s surprising to most of the walls in cool grey totally empty, until you spot the flat, glass-topped displays which snake through the light, minimalist decor, whose treasures, printed and drawn, are refreshed every three months from the collection. You can also relax on six stylish curved sofas out of a science fiction film set and read from a wide range of books. And the Museum now houses an elegant big bookshop, its oversized coloured lampshades creating a drawing-room ambience. The site of the Museum, known as Les Chais, is part of the city’s disused paper factories on the banks of the Charente river and you reach it by crossing a zig-zagging bridge and walking past a statue of Hugo Pratt’s seafaring Corto Maltese, facing the ocean winds. Of the 9.65 million euros to set up the Museum, 40% came from Europe, 1,622,695 euros each from the State and the Region, and the balance from the city’s Magelis Pôle Image Syndicate, resulting in a 4,068 square metre institution, of which 1,330 square metres are devoted to the permanent exhibition.

As well as occupying these new venues, there were plenty more exhibitions all over town. Belgian publisher Dupuis held celebrations for two of its popular kids’ series, Leonardo and The Bluecoats, this one outdoors by the town hall, and devoted issue 3746 of their Spirou weekly to an Angoulême Special, given away free at the Festival with an extra satrical supplement, Trop Festoche. The crazy world of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece was spotlighted in the Manga Building, plus Viking manga Vinland Saga whose author Makoto Yukimura was invited over. Another mangaka guest was Seiichi Hayashi whose Red Coloured Elegy has been beautifully printed by Cornelius in black and red, as the author intended. Step upstairs in the Castro Building and you can engage in the playful and cerebral experiments of Jochen Gerner, Etienne Lécroart and the late British-born innovator Martin Vaughn-James. As part of a year of French and Russian cultural exchanges, Dmitry Iakovlev curated two modest exhibits with a bunch from the nascent Russian comics scene, while the mature graphic novelist Nikolai Maslov, author of Siberia, was also a guest. Belgo-French group Frémok mounted a show to present their project Match de catch à Vielsam in which four members, Olivier Deprez, Vincent Fortemps, Dominique Goblet and Thierry Van Hasselt, plus guest Italian Gipi, partnered with a handicapped artist to create a comic together. Of the solo shows, Fabrice Neaud’s was impressive and wide-ranging, veering from “ParaNeaud” or paranoid to “PorNeaud” or porn, mixing pages from his autobiographical Journal with such surprises as his large paintings, composite photos and drawings of cathedrals, an unpublished superhero project entitled Transhumans and a curtained area for his homoerotica. 

There was also further expansion this year in terms of talks, panels and events. At any moment, you could be spoilt for choice, with additional programming in the Museum’s new auditorium, “Rencontres autour du Dessin” at the Hotel du Palais bringing trios of creators together in discussion, 20-minute interviews in the FNAC/SNCF space with creators nominated for the Essentials Fauve prizes, “Rencontres Internationales” in the Salle Nemo, where I interviewed Tank Girl writer and co-creator Alan Martin, plus France Culture’s live radio coverage, in which I briefly helped out Joe Sacco. Even the Rights Area boasts a new space for business-based conferences. On top of all this, there were also a host of live drawing concerts, three giant cubes at the Museum in which dancers from the Italian company ECO interpreted Lucky Luke, Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, and two mega multi-media events by Enki Bilal or Schuiten and Peeters in the Theatre.

This year’s Awards, the “Fauves” named after Trondheim’s lucky black cat mascot, were not announced till very near the end of the festival, on Sunday afternoon. In a new departure this year, categories like ‘Intergenerational’, ‘Series’, ‘Outlooks on the World’ and ‘Revelation’ were introduced for the final Essential books that won. So Jens Harder’s evolutionary history Alpha justly scooped up the ‘Audace’ or ‘Daring’ category. I was pleasantly surprised that the public vote went to Michel Rabagliati’s autobiographical Paul à Québec, still to come in English from Drawn & Quarterly, and that the third issue from the Special Comics in Nanjing, as featured in my Chinese Comics exhibition last year, won the ‘Alternative Comics Prize’. Prolific, fresh and at times highly candid, Riad Sattouf surprised many pundits by winning Best Book of the Year with Stronger Than The Strongest, third in his first series for the comedy monthly Fluide Glacial, Pascal Brutal, a stinging prediction of an ultra-liberalised near-future.

Canadian connoisseur Bart Beaty alerted me to another name to watch, Judith Forest, whose book 1h 25 from Cinquième Ciuche captures all her thoughts and feelings over those 85 minutes, Proust-like, while on the train between Brussels and Paris. Among the other new albums that caught my eye this festival, let me single out just these six:

Macula Brocoli
by Laurent Alexandre & Alexandre Franc
An arresting, graphically sophisticated genetic fantasy about two identical twins with very different reactions to life, love and the discovery that a fault in their DNA might make them go blind.

by Choi Juhyun
A tender memoir by this South Korean author about her grandmother, switching between autobio comics and black cut-out silhouettes as if in a shadow play.

by De Santis & Séenz Valiente
In this magic-realist delight from the Argentine magazine Fierro, an insomniac hypnotist moves into a seedy Buenos Aires hotel in search of sleep and finds an array of odd clients for his services.

Las Rosas
by Anthony Pastor
Editions de l’An 2
Pastor’s two first books stood out for their illustrations two per page, but the stories didn’t satisfy. Here he delivers a sultry, compelling 320-page graphic novel about an all-women village somewhere on the border between the USA and Mexico.

Le Vagabond de Tokyo
by Takashi Fukutani
Le Lézard Noir
Japanese comics never stop stunning me. Get past this manga’s relatively conventional artwork and you’ll discover Fukutani (1952-2000), a unique, edgy poet of desperate lowlife and sexual peccadilloes, as lived during the Eighties economic boom. He didn’t survive but his great work did.

Hair Shirt
by Patrick McEown
Gallimard Jeunesse
A great surprise, this brilliant Canadian cartoonist, crony of Dave Cooper, has a spectacular 128-page colour album out charting the contrary sexual attraction between two separated childhood friends who find each other again as young adults. This must come out in English.

Another year, another unmissable Angoulême. I come back with my batteries and my passion for this medium fully recharged. No wonder so many people make this pilgrimage to a city where comics in all their imagination and expression become a shared, transcendant joy.


Clockwise from top-left:
A Philippe Druillet painting adorns the Comics Museum’s foyer.
Sinuous vitrines snake through the Museum’s main gallery.
Jochen Gerner’s painted postcards of icy wastes.
Lucky Luke choreography in Cent Pour Cent Show.

Clockwise from top-left:
Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, 27 May 1955, “The Man from Nowhere”.
Also in the Museum this Chris Ware original of Quimby.
Fenice Stilt-walker gets ready.
Jochen Gerner (L) at his exhibition opening.

Clockwise from top-left:
Juhani Tolvanen admires Jochen Gerner’s “Speed” project.
Jochen Gerner’s striking concertina book.
Léecroart’s hinged, multi-optional comics.
Lécroart’s moveable puzzle-style comics.

Clockwise from top-left:
One Piece original manga art on bamboo grid.
Tony Tony Chopper dominates the One Piece exhibition.
Virginio Vona paints the online world of Fenice.
In the Publishers’ Bulle: New Digital World Section.

Clockwise from top-left:
Joe Sacco signing Footnotes In Gaza.
The Brit Invasion: Peter Lalley, Gareth Brookes, Jimi Gherkin & Edd.
Nikolai Maslov from Russia.
Hannah Berry (r) with ami Xavier next to Britten & Brülightly blow-up.

Clockwise from top-left:
Kristiina Kohlemeinen (Serieteket, SPX Stockholm) with Corto Maltese statue.
In Fabio’s show this chair with antlers.
Outdoor exhibit of The Bluecoats (in English from Cinebook).
Old Bécassine Painted Sign In Bistroc Restaurant.

Clockwise from top-left:
Fabio paints his strange animal farm.
Fabio’s horseman pulls his little dreamhouse behind him.
Two of Blutch’s erotically charged drawings.

Clockwise from top-left:
Fabrice Neaud draws his inner turmoil.
Transhumans, Neaud’s unseen superhero project.
Neaud’s childhood toys, Marvel comics & sketchbook.
Large painting of Neaud (r) next to another man.

Clockwise from top-left:
Guillaume, artist, signs La Saison des Flèches.
Samuel Stento, writer of La Saison des Flèches.
Bastien Vives signing in black.
Jens Harder draws a dédicace in his Alpha book.

Posted: February 7, 2010


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