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Angoulême 2011:

The Biggest & Best Comics Festival In The World

My New Year doesn’t properly kick off till the last weekend in January when I make my annual pilgrimage and battery re-charge to the biggest and best comics festival in the world (outside Asia). Two hours by TGV from Paris, Angoulême lies on plateau above the Charente river in the south west of France. If you’re wondering why this historic city, a former centre of paper-making, has become world-famous as the combined Cannes, Frankfurt, San Diego and Mecca of comics, the capital of the ‘9th Art’, it boils down to timing and politics.


Crowds in the main publishers’ Bulle.

The Angoulême international Comics Festival has been lucky enough to grow up alongside the constant escalation of French comics, or bandes dessinées, as a market, an industry, a profession, a cultural phenomenon and an acclaimed artform. It all began modestly enough in 1974 when a few local enthusiasts invited leading creators of the time and found that thousands of readers were prepared to travel to meet them. Their timing was perfect because the French revolution in adult bande dessinée or BD was about to explode through new magazines like Métal Hurlant, Circus and A Suivre and their album compilations. Back then only a few hundred graphic novels were published each year, but the booms in manga, graphic novels, new publishers (now nearly 300) and new media have steadily driven up that total over the past 15 years, hitting an all-time high in 2010 of 5,165 titles, a rise of 5.46% over 2009. Goodness knows how retailers, let alone readers, keep up with this over-production. People keep expecting the bubble to burst but it hasn’t happened yet. Even the recession hasn’t hit BD last year as hard as other sectors and the French spent over 313 million euros to buy 31 million albums.


This year’s festival president, Baru, with his giant promotional poster.

Comics equals votes in France, so the political potency of Angoulême has managed to weather shifting parties and presidents, because whether on the Left or Right, those in power know how popular comics are with the public. In the 1980s, cool Culture Minister Jack Lang unlocked state support for comics. Then President Mitterand championed the city’s £8 million National Comics & Image Centre, the largest of his cultural projects outside Paris, which opened in 1990. Angoulême has continued to benefit from regional regeneration, becoming a hub for creative industries and offering comics and animation studios, a Masters degree, grants and residencies for artists, and in 2009 a stunning, state-of-the-art Comics Museum. And this year, President Sarkozy sent his European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez, a passionate fan himself, to meet creators and festival organisers, using comics as cultural diplomacy.


New this year, the Mangasia Area in the main tent.


Also in the Mangasia Area this exhibition of alternative women’s manga.

I’ve been going to Angoulême every year since 1984, missing only one year (which I’ll always regret!). I love seeing the look of wide-eyed astonishment on the faces of first-time Angoulême ‘virgins’ when they experience a festival on this scale, where comics are celebrated as a massive and vital part of everyday life. Now San Diego Comicon may be the biggest comics event in America, but even at some 125,000 visitors it pales next to Angoulême’s quarter of million public, not just die-had fans but from every age-group, often whole families. Rather than ‘convening’ inside one convention centre, Angoulême is a festival that takes over the entire city. Visitors can enjoy giant marquees or ‘bulles’ (as in bubbles) of publishers’ stands, as well as exhibitions, concerts and events that fill the town hall, theatre, cathedral and numerous shops and restaurants. There is so much going on, you’d need to clone yourself to see it all. And while San Diego mutates more and more into a fantasy-movie marketing platform, Angoulême is first and foremost dedicated to comics, although they premiered the Largo Winch sequel with author Van Hamme and other multi-media previews like a taster of the new 3D-animated Titeuf movie.


A signing by Moebius and Marguerite Abouet, author of Aya.

The Festival stays fresh because the previous year’s Grand Prix winner in the Angoulême Awards becomes the following year’s Festival President. So the 2010 winner Baru was invited to help shape the 2011 festival’s themes and contents. As well as designing the promo poster and being featured in a solo show of his originals from his many BDs rooted in his working-class experiences, he indulged his passion for rock ‘n’ roll in a special concert where he drew live, projected on a giant screen, to accompany American band Heavy Thrash led by Jon Spencer. Other exhibitions this year spotlighted the hit heroic fantasy series Lanfeust, 60 years of Peanuts, a vast survey of parody comics, the new generation of Franco-phone Belgian artists, singling out Dominique Goblet, plus Hong Kong manhua from Bruce Lee to today, and alternative manga by women.


Randall C. and others signing albums on the Casterman stand.


Ian Culbard signing French editions of his books.

Speaking of Japan, among the important global celebrities attending this year was Ryoko Ikeda, renowned for The Rose of Versailles, her girls’ manga from the Seventies set in Marie Antoinette’s Revolutionary France. Not only was Ikeda awarded a special Gold Fauve (the Festival’s wildcat mascot designed by Lewis Trondheim), but she was also honoured at the Palace of Versailles itself with an operatic performance. Moebius was signing his latest Arzak book alongside Marguerite Abouet, writer of Aya, coming soon as an animated film. Our very own Charlie Adlard was on hand to promote Walking Dead, as were Brits Sean Phillips, Ian Culbard and Nobrow, and Americans Dash Shaw, José Villarubia, Miran Kim, Tim Fish and John Pham. Karrie Fransman brought her five lucky interns, The London Print Studio Comics Collective, and you can get some idea of their first-time experiences in their comics reports on their blog. The International Rights Market was also buzzing with publishers pitching deals, including SelfMadeHero, Jonathan Cape and Walker from the UK and Image, Archaia, First Second and Drawn & Quarterly from North America.


Ulli Lust kissing her Fauve award.


Manga superstar Ryoko Ikeda with her Fauve d’Or Prize.

A highpoint of the Festival is the Awards Ceremony, where we learn which of the 60 or so books shortlisted as the ‘Essentials’ of the year are the best of the best and are honoured with their Fauve statuettes based on Lewis Trondheim’s wildcat mascot. Once again this year, this presentation was held rather oddly at almost the very last hour of the festival, on Sunday afternoon (for many years the prize-giving used to be done on Friday or Saturday nights). The overall winner was the young Italian Manuele Fior for his 500 Kilometres Per Second, who I have interviewed subsequently at the NextComic festival in Linz, Austria. The other winners included the German Ulli Lust for her 400-page punk autobiography. The public also gets to vote for their favourite, this year picking Blue is a Hot Colour by Julie Maroh, a powerful debut about lesbian identity. The grand finale comes on Sunday afternoon when the Grand Prix is announced. In an inspired choice, it went to Art Spiegelman, American author of Maus, the Pulitzer-prize winning Holocaust memoir. With Spiegelman at the helm, the 2012 Festival on January 26-29 promises to be even more unmissable. Make it your New Year’s Resolution to go - see you there!


Heavy Thrash, American band lead by John Spencer,
performing with Baru drawing live.


At the Lanfeust exhibition.

Posted: April 3, 2011

This Article originally appeared in Comic Heroes Magazine No. 6.
Photos © Jorge Alvarez / 9e art+ / Peter Stanbury

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