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39th Angoulême International Comics Festival:

A Short Report

Why does a modest city some two hours from Paris in southwest France attract almost a quarter of a million visitors from all over the world for four days at the end of January? It all began in 1974 when their shared passions for comics and cognac brought crowds of France’s creators, publishers and readers of ‘bandes dessinées’ (comics) flocking to Angoulême in the bleak midwinter for the city’s first annual Comics Festival.

Thirty-nine festivals later, it has mushroomed into by far the medium’s biggest and most international celebration in the world, not counting Asia. While San Diego’s Comic-Con in July may get more exposure in the English-speaking media, mainly for hyping the next Hollywood fantasy genre blockbusters to diehard fans, Angoulême puts ‘the 9th Art’ (as the French consider comics) firmly centre stage and appeals to every public. Rather than being cut off inside a cavernous convention centre like Comic-Con, Angoulême takes over the streets and engages in the life of an entire city. No wonder this Charente city has been rebranded as the International City of Comics.

The festival takes place in France principally because no other European country has such a dynamic and diverse market for comics, whether in traditional French 48-page colour hardback albums similar to perennials Asterix or Lucky Luke, translated American comic books, manga from Japan and manhwa from Korea in black-and-white paperbacks, or a profusion of graphic novels created locally or imported from abroad. Extraordinary comics can come from anywhere and it is the festival’s global perspective that makes it such a draw for anyone interested in the latest trends in graphic storytelling. And don’t think that comics are merely about humorous skits and cartoon heroes - pictorial storytelling is tackling wider issues and current affairs.

Despite the 2008 crash, French comics have surprisingly shown further growth in output in 2011, for the sixteenth year in a row, totalling 5,237 titles, an average of 100 every week and an increase of 3% over 2010, according to Gilles Ratier of the ACBD or Association of Comics Critics & Journalists. Bigger choice, however, has not meant bigger sales, although bandes dessinées seem to be weathering the decline better than other sectors. Of those sales, the lion’s share goes to the biggest hits like addictive thriller XIII (half a million copies) and computer-game comedy Kid Paddle (360,000 copies), both from Belgium, or adolescent ninja Naruto from Japan (three volumes of 250,000 each), or TV tie-in The Simpsons from America (seven volumes cumulatively selling over one million copies), a few of the 99 titles in 2011 with first print-runs topping 50,000 copies.

Guest countries spotlighted this year included Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, and a joint exhibition bringing Turkey together with Armenia, where a promising generation is emerging. Among these is Agata Badalian (above), born in 1978, who is recollecting her childhood experiences of living through powercuts, blockades and war in her forthcoming My Days of Darkness and Light, drawing in a sepia style inspired by her love of Japanese manga and anime.

As further proof of comics’ effective role in cultural diplomacy, the Festival worked with the European Commission and Parliament to invite 52 creators from 23 of the European Union’s 27 member states to chart in strip form how Iris, a representative 19-year old blonde French student of architecture, discovers different countries and cultures as far afield as England, Estonia, Romania and Cyprus. The touring exhibit and accompanying book Europe is Taking Shape prove how attractive comics can be for putting across messages. Among the participating artists were Luke Pearson and Andi Watson for the UK.

So it was symbolic that this year’s President of the Festival was Art Spiegelman, a key American pioneer of the graphic novel whose account of his parents’ survival of Auschwitz in Maus won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. He was honoured with two exhibitions, one a career retrospective, as complete as it could ever be, the other his choices of comics and creators in his ‘Personal Museum’, continuing until May 6th. The treasures on display in the latter show, many loaned from Californian connoisseur Glenn Bray, are phenomenal, including the entirety of Justin Green’s artwork for the seminal autobiographical underground comic, Binky Brown Meet The Holy Virgin Mary.

Twenty years on, Spiegelman has seen autobiography, biography and reportage of historical or current events become significant and successful trends in contemporary comics. Famously, Marjane Satrapi’s multi-million-selling Persepolis, about a young Iranian girl’s coming of age during the Islamic Revolution was adapted and co-directed by the author as an Oscar-nominated animated movie in 2007. This year, the Festival’s ‘Fauve d’Or’ or Golden Wildcat for Book of the Year, is Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, the fourth of author Guy Delisle’s idiosyncratic yet revealing travelogues. Delisle is fifth from the left in the back row in this group portrait of the Fauve winners.

Among the shortlisted non-fiction albums were further fascinating autobiographies by: veteran manga creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi, adapted into an animated film; Glaswegian raconteur Eddie Campbell; English-teacher in Japan Lars Martinson; French artist Etienne Davodeau and his wine-loving friend; Portuguese-born Cyril Pedrosa; former international rugby professional Jean Harambat; comics war-correspondent Joe Sacco; and Antonio Altarriba, memorialising his late father’s struggles in Spain under Franco. Their graphic novels tap into a growing appetite for so-called ‘slow journalism’ in comics, and their ability to offer highly personal and reflective takes on our world in both words and pictures, for example in the French quarterly current affairs magazine XXI. At Angoulême, five authors announced the first digital magazine of documentary comics, La Revue Dessinée, launching later this year.

Technologies continue to transform the medium of comics. Internet publishers AveComics, Digibidi, Izneo and others continue to enlarge their catalogues. A profusion of webcomics and blogs in diary-style strips are building readerships for their eventual paper reprinting. Online readers are also being invited to become ‘edinauts’ - a neologism combining ‘internaut’ or surfer with ‘editeur’ or publisher -  and to invest in book projects of their choice in development on crowd-sourcing sites like Sandawe and My Major Company BD.

New hybrid forms of graphic novel include Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3 Seconds, all the time that transpires in this mischievous mystery, which attentive readers can unravel by rewinding each micro-moment in his 80-page speechless picture-book and its online counterpart (a UK edition is due from Jonathan Cape next year). Another innovation was a demonstration of François Schuiten’s La Douce, his first solo album about a classic locomotive, out in April. This is the first comic to make use of augmented reality, activated by filming each page with your computer’s inbuilt camera to watch panels miraculously animate themselves into virtual 3D motion. You can watch a video report and demonstration of this innovation on YouTube.

For all these hi-tech enhancements, hand-crafted ‘high-touch’ comics retain their allure, from Aurélie William Levaux‘s exquisite imagery embroidered onto fabric (above), to Vincent Sardon‘s rubber stamps (below) composing dark, satirical collages. As ever, there is too much to see and do in this intensive period. Other popular exhibits open only during the Festival period celebrated the poetic works of Fred, best known for his adventurer Philémon, and the utterly charming, surreal children’s series L’Ours Barnabé by Philippe Coudray, which has been translated by Toon Books as Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking.

As for emerging trends, while certain standardised drawing traditions remain popular, such as the crisp, outlined ‘Clear Line’ associated with Hergé‘s Belgian hero Tintin or the more caricatured, animated slapstick of Asterix, 21st century comics auteurs may come from film, fine art, animation or other fields and bring with them a wider range of influences and approaches. The tendency towards much longer graphic novels has led to more loose, intuitive drawing, sometimes deliberately un(-der)polished, to emphasise its hand-made individualism, and to bolder experimentation with pacing, page layouts and combining multiple styles and media within one book. To get a flavour of the variety of contemporary comics published in France in 2011, explore the nominated titles for the best books of the year in the Official Selection online or downloadable.

The language of comics is still being invented. Forty and fighting fit next year, Angoulême provides a four-day tour de force at the cutting edge of comics in all their proliferating forms and formats.

Posted: March 4, 2012

An edited version of this Article appeared on the subscription website Stylus.
Photographs © Jorge Fidel Alvarez / 9e Art+, & © Peter Stanbury.

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