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Autarcic Comix Festival 1997:

The Future Belongs To Comics

It was just over ten years ago that I travelled to Brussels for the inspirational Autarcic Comix Festival, held on April 18 to 20, 1997. Here’s my report, which originally appeared in Caption Magazine #30, in early 1998.

‘Autarcic’ is pronounced ‘ought-ARR-sick’, with the stress on the middle syllable and a soft ‘c’. As for what it means, my French dictionary usefully translated it as ‘autarkic’. Still mystified, I eventually found ‘autarky’ defined in an English dictionary as ‘a system or policy of economic self-sufficiency (especially of a political unit)’. The motivation behind this comix movement seems to go beyond the term ‘self-published’ to embrace self-reliance, autonomy, even separatism, from the mainstream ‘BD’ industry.

The first Autarcic Comix was organised by the creators of the Brussels comix publishers Fréon from September 28 to October 2 1994 as ‘the first European meeting of the independent labels of comics’. Jean-Christophe Menu from French collective L’Association recorded his diary of the event in his strip in Lapin #6. A year later, a second successful Autarcic Comix took place from October 6 to 8, expertly analysed in Frigobox #5 by theoretician Jan Baetens. In the meantime, Yvan Alagbé and Olivier Marboeuf from Amok Editions had started a smaller, more frequent version of Autarcic in Paris, in a programme of one-night soirées in clubs where creators could meet each other and the public, sell their productions and exhibit their artwork.

This year, Fréon had greater ambitions for their third Autarcic Comix. For a start, they had arranged to exhibit in the Hailes de Schaerbeek, a massive covered market that had recently been refurbished into an arts and music venue. To take advantage of the sheer scale of this cavernous aircraft hangar of a building they were forced to re-think how to present artwork intended for the printed page. They invited other groups to join them in creating 3D ‘narrative spaces’ to involve the public in experiencing comix in a new way. In the most successful ‘installation’, each of the Fréon artists constructed an environmental room, using decors, sound, lighting, cobblestones, and peepshows to convey the atmospheres of their work. The members of L’Association collaborated on a pyramid, illustrating one side each with hieroglyphic friezes. Due to its modest scale (had someone read centimetres instead of metres?!) and its seven sides (six artists plus an inaccessible, keyhole-shaped ‘entrance’), most people took it to be a wigwam or teepee, rather to Menu’s annoyance.

Amok adapted their display modules from their Paris evenings, while La Cinquième Couche constructed a labyrinth of corrugated cardboard screens and boxes on which to mount their pages. In another part, hanging from the ceiling on wire were a flock of comix magazines and books. One or two groups declined to take part; in particular, Ego Comme X from Angoulême felt their focus was on books and magazines. The Swiss-German Strapazin had only a modest presence, a set of striking silkscreen prints accompanied by copies of the magazine.

In addition to all this activity on the ground floor, on the mezzanine balcony around all four sides were displays of comix and illustration by local art students, tables of items for sale and the all-important bar. From the ceiling hung huge vertical banners spelling out each group’s name.

There was more downstairs in the basement. In ‘Fragments Choisis’, Jan Baetens and his students had selected forty artists to represent in their view the major directions of comix today:

 

From Belgium:
Denis Deprez
Olivier Deprez
Dominique Goblet
Jan Lens
Jean-Christophe Long
Olivier Poppe
Vincent Fortemps
Bjorn Vandenbussche
Luc Vandewalle
Thierry Van Hasselt
Eric Lambé
Michel Squarci
Damien Rocour

From Germany:
Atak (Hans-Georg Barber)
Martin Tom Dieck
M S Bastian
Anke Feuchtenberger

From Italy:
Gabriella Giandelli
Stefano Ricci

From France:
Yvan Alagbé
Aristophane Boulon
Alex Barbier
David Beauchard
Stéphane Blanquet
Alain Corbel
Patrice Killoffer
Olivier Marboeuf
Jean-Christophe Menu
Fabrice Neaud
Mattt Konture

From Spain:
Ricard Castells
Federico del Barrio
Ferrere
Manolo
Cifre

From Britain:
Dave McKean
Oscar Zarate

   

There were two surprising late additions: Julie Doucet, now in Berlin, and Chris Ware from the USA, who is becoming much admired in Europe. Sadly no catalogue was produced for this remarkable group show.

Also downstairs was a space for talks. On the Saturday, Gert Meesters took a linguistic approach to comics. I gave my talk on the vital role of artistic, autarkic ‘movements’, rather than publishers, in evolving comics, from Harvey Kurtzman‘s EC/Humbug group and the US underground to the Pilote rebellion and the Bazooka Gang. I was also very aware of the tensions, not all of them positive, between the more strictly comics-influenced creators and those who were coming to comics from a fine art viewpoint. On the one hand, Trondheim and Stanislas from L’Association had not been chosen for the group show because they were too classical, ie not progressive enough, which made Chris Ware’s inclusion even more of an anomaly. On the other, to my mind, some of the students exhibiting had little or no understanding of the history and language of comics. You can choose to reject them, but why remain ignorant of all that has already been done so brillantly in this medium?

I also spoke of the continually frustrated potential of comics, an idea that Dylan Horrocks conveyed vividly in his lighthouse library in Hicksville. Only now, perhaps, is it becoming possible for creators to persist and mature within comics, to be fulfilled by them, and find a readership for them.

On the Sunday, Thierry Groensteen, Director of the Museum at the CNBDI in Angoulême, took us through a history and theory of ‘Mute Comics’, ie without words, building on his article in 9ême Art 2. It is interesting that in the last few years there has been such a resurgence of interest in textless comics and not just in a page or two but in longer stories. Caran d’Ache, the subject of a major exhibition at the Angoulême Festival in 1998, proposed to Le Figaro a full-length visual novel entitled Maestro in 1894, but it was not accepted. (The only copy sits on the shelves of the Hicksville library!). Thierry’s explanations for this recent return to silent comics included a desire to break away from the conventional models of comics and explore the medium’s specific qualities, a rejection of writers in favour of the complete ‘auteur’ or artist/writer, who may lack skill with words.

The Festival ended with a debate on current comics, which unfortunately was not all that fruitful. Chairman Jan Baetens seemed to ask mainly theoretical questions, Menu was shy and moody, Thierry seemed bemused, Olivier Marboeuf was the most articulate. The more practical, uncomfortable but burning issues were not really addressed and, as so often, these panel discussions become dissipated, unfocussed.


Le Voyage by Edmond Bauboin

Still, nothing could diminish the richness and inspiration of this weekend’s gathering. There was a real buzz. I talked with Edmond Baudoin, who was puzzled at receiving the Angoulême Alph Art Award for best writer. As he said, his Le Voyage really belonged in the foreign translated album category as he originally created it for Japanese publishers Kodansha. His second story for Kodansha, Salade Niçoise, will be published shortly in French. Over dinner Saturday night, I met Martin Tom Dieck from Hamburg, he was very open and curious about where his work will go and its personal meaning to him. He told me that he decided how his Innocent Passager book would be reformatted for the French paperback from Seuil and was happy with it. His latest book is Hundert Ansichten von Spicherstadt (Reprodukt), a breathtaking allegorical journey through a submerged dock.


Hundert Ansichten von Spicherstadt
by Martin Tom Dieck

Fabrice Neaud told me he is hard at work on his next autobiographical ‘Journal’, even longer and probably more sad! I met Placid, Barbier, Charlie Schlingo was there with his dog E.T., and Thierry had his 40th birthday on the Friday. Stefano Ricci and Giovanna from Mano in Bologna told me that Mattotti is working on a longer version of the beautiful Stigmata story that appeared in Le Retour de Dieu anthology from Autrement. I also met Nicholas Wood, a British artist with a Belgian mother, who is part of the Cinquième Couche. His paper collage panels, relating a walk on the beach in Dover, were astonishingly intricate. David B. did a drawing in my copy of his new Dargaud book Le Tengû Carré. He confirmed that nobody is paid for their work in Lapin, but they receive a standard royalty for all the single artist books. Olivier Marboeuf of Amok talked with me about his ideas for a British comics exhibition at the Paris Autarcic evenings in the autumn - hopefully I’ll have more news on this.


Stigmata by Lorenzo Mattotti

My travelling companion and fellow guest, Oscar Zarate, also had a great time and we were both very grateful for the incredible hospitality of all the Fréon organisers. A big thank you too to the British Council, who helped to pay for our travel and hotel - yes, they actually supported comics! And after the event, the Fréon gang heard the good news that they look set to receive funding for Autarcic from the European Community.


Les Soeurs Zabime by Aristophane

Finally, two friends discreetly informed me that the outstanding young French comics creator Aristophane has destroyed all his original artworks for his 300-page L’Association tome Conte Démoniaque. He is a very private person, not given to explaining himself, but they suggest this may have been a reaction to changes in his life, putting behind him the undeniably dark stuff that seethed through that harrowing epic. In fact, they told me that he may be doing a companion project (Conte Angelique?). Meanwhile, his new book from Ego Comme X, Les Soeurs Zabime, is another departure towards life-affirming pleasures, an episodic story expanding on tales of his Guadeloupe childhood, and features some of the most sensual, physical, Cezanne-inspired brushwork. I’m reeling from it. My only misgiving about his work was seeing a few trial pages by him in colour at the comic shop Brüsel’s gallery exhibit - somehow he just hadn’t got it in colour, at least not yet. Critix 2, an excellent new BD review magazine has a dossier on Aristophane (by the way, a huge favourite of Teddy Kristiansen of House Of Secrets). He would not be interviewed but wrote a short piece. Two telling passages: "I was born in 1967 in Guadeloupe and came to Paris in August 1975. It’s by reading comics, and particularly those by Jack Kirby, that I learnt to love comics. Kirby is my first and indelible influence." Isn’t that wonderful, that Kirby can end up evolving into Aristophane? He goes on to conclude: "A friend reminded me of a phrase our teacher told us [at art college] In painting, everything has been explored. The future belongs to comics. Ever since, I have always had these words in my mind."

Posted: June 3, 2007

This article first appeared in Caption Magazine #30 in 1998. The Autarcic festival is now no longer running. Aristophane tragically died in 2004 aged 37. Publishers Amok and Fréon combined forces to become Frémok.

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