The International BD Festival
Bande Dessinée can lead to EVERYTHING except to ‘BéDé’.
The lost expressions on many people’s faces at this year’s festival were not only due to having to find the brand new location of the publishers’ marquee. After being dispersed all over the place last year, at the publishers’ request the assorted tents were combined into one huge ‘bulle’, bringing all of the companies big and small (bar a handful like FLBLB) together under one roof. To find somewhere big enough to house this meant relocating the ‘bulle’ from the Champs de Mars in town, now a building site for a new mall and flats, and moving it to a new site in the nearby district of Montauzier, a bus- ride away from the centre. Everything hinged on the fleet of ‘navettes’ or shuttle coaches, manned by volunteer drivers, being able to ferry the crowds to and fro. Overall, despite grumbles from some about hold-ups, overcrowding and a shortage when trains arrived, most people seemed relieved at how easy the frequent service made it to get around. The main downside of the new site, though, was a severe lack of local restaurants (one good tip is the CNBDI‘s own top-floor café up the road).
Another big reason for all those lost looks was the excess of product being offered. For the eleventh year in succession the annual total output has increased again, in 2006 to a bewildering 4,130 books, that’s more than eleven new titles every single day, up by another 530 from 2005’s record. Could this be the year when the expanding market for French comics or bandes dessinées reaches saturation point? Shops can’t stock everything let alone read and rate everything, and often all but proven sellers get only a week or two’s display. Is it any wonder that many casual punters stick to their favourite series or artists, perhaps with only one or two new releases each year (unless you follow bulimic prodigies like Trondheim, Guibert and Sfar)? Almost the only way to cope is to put your blinkers on and hone in on what you know you like already, be it indie autobio and arthouse, shonen or shojo manga, or classic genre comedy, action or heroic fantasy of mass-market ‘BéDé’. And is it any wonder that some publishers, and not only smaller small publishers, like Thierry Groensteen‘s progressive Editions de l’An 2, have been forced to close or seek shelter with larger enterprises to support them? Even the once thriving monthly L’Echo des Savanes, a blend of sexy sensationalism, satire and comics, has been abruptly cancelled in December by its new owners, more interested in making money from sports and business web-news services than newsstand comics publishing.
In this climate of confusion and excess, where only a tiny handful of big sellers or critical hits get much media coverage, the Angoulême Festival Awards team headed by this year’s President Lewis Trondheim wisely elected to narrow down the 50 best books of the year, not just by French or Francophone creators but from all over the world and published in France, and to put these books on display for visitors to browse and discover. Trondheim’s idea was to replace the rather odd categories of best story, best art, best dialogue (best panel borders? best paper?!), with five essentials, one best reprint, one new talent and one overall best. To the surprise of many, and disgruntlement of a few, the top prize went to a manga, and one not very widely known, yet. Shigeru Mizuki‘s NonNonBâ from alternative publisher Cornélius is a 420-page tome for 29 euros and reads ‘unflipped” from right to left. It recounts the 84-year-old author’s childhood wonder at the thousands of invisible spirit worlds introduced to him by an elderly wise woman who knows the secrets of ‘yokai’ or supernatural creatures. A window onto one boy’s rural family life in Thirties Japan with a universal charm, it’s the sort of book, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, also recognised early by the Festival’s awards, that deserves to reach a broad readership.
Grumblings persist that the choices are too elitist. But the awards are not intended to lionise bestsellers. What sells the most is not always the best, though in fact Titeuf by Zep is undeniably funny and well-done, responding perfectly to French kids today. One idea is to acknowledge such massive-selling successes by introducing an equivalent to the ‘Gold’ and ‘Platinum’ disc for records. Another idea might be to come up with different sets of awards with different criteria, like the Cannes Film Festival. Why not manga awards, for example? My faith in Angoulême was reinforced yet again by Sunday’s annoucement of the Grand Prix winner. I’d heard that Trondheim, and maybe others on the panel of past winners, had one person strongly in mind and wonder of wonders, José Muñoz won the award. With his fellow Argentinian, writer Carlos Sampayo, he has been creating some of the most expressive and intoxicating graphic novels on the past thirty years (Peter Stanbury and I published a Joe’s Bar story in Escape #10, way back in 1987). Next year’s Festival promises to be rich with Latin American culture, and perhaps some of Argentina’s other maestros, like Oscar Zarate, Carlos Nine, Mordillo, Quino and their successors, will also get a turn in the spotlight.
One glaring exclusion, and not for the first time, from the Angoulême winners was any traditional colour large-format hardback bande dessinée album of 48 to 64 or so pages à la Tintin or Asterix, still the format of choice for many publishers, creators and punters. The only one close to this, Le photographe from Dupuis, is quite unusual, combining documentary illustrations and photos into a powerful reportage on Afghanistan. The success of manga and L’Association in establishing smaller-sized, longer graphic novels often in black and white has raised doubts about the classic BD album’s continued practicality. This peculiarly French-language format, which originated with children’s gift books, and the first compilations of Hergé‘s Tintinfrom 1930 on, has not been exported that successfully, at least in more recent years and especially to the USA. The solution by Pantheon, First Second, NBM and the Humanoids has been to shrink this unwieldy, art-book size down to graphic novel proportions and combine two or more of them into one meatier package. The problem is not the format, of course, but what is put into it, all too often formulaic genre stories and moribund if not entirely dead artwork. The graphic novel, in its varied innovative forms and formats, is what is being recognised, year in and year out, by the judges.
Freezing blizzards on arriving on the Wednesday night did not augur well, and rumours of minus 12 by Saturday recalled last year’s foot of snow and treacherous ice on the hilly streets of the city. Luckily, the weather gradually improved over the days and was unnaturally spring-like by Sunday. That was some relief to shops and especially restauranteurs in the town centre, who probably noticed a drop-off in business with more people spending most if not all of their stay around the sales stands. More time stuck on a bus meant less time to fit in snacks or meals. There were things to do and see in town, loads of talks and encounters, with guests like Charles Burns and Alison Bechdel and family-friendly exhibitions, mainly prints rather than originals, on Hergé, Kid Paddle, sports manga, and storyboards.
Another change this year was Trondheim’s choice not to have the usual one-man retrospective exhibition. Instead, he put the emphasis on live drawing events, improvisations, contests, ‘concerts de dessins’, a comic-strip wall, a 24-Hour comics session and fanzine factory. These ‘performances’ can be huge fun, though his own Saturday morning demonstration was predictably packed to the roof and would surely have worked better in the larger main theatre. A big highlight was a Saturday night concert in the theatre, a sell-out rave with the eccentric mature chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine, accompanied by live drawings projected behind her by the brilliant Blutch. The lack of really exceptional exhibitions did leave a bit of hole in the festival. It was unfortunately filled by the promising ‘Exposition universelle’, which turned out to be two container trucks (more are planned in the next two years) in the otherwise deserted Place New York. The good idea of showing ‘world comics’ was poorly conceived - simply throwing together various pages of comics from around the planet, small repros lit from behind, with only the most meagre captioning, shorn of any context, fails the engage visitors and help them appreciate how global comics truly are. And much as I loved seeing the sumptuous originals by Jim Woodring and the crisp enlarged graphics and animations on monitors by Richard McGuire, their presentation was formal, frames or repros on walls, with none of panache (and budget) of past installation extravaganzas which really plunged the public into the storyverses of the creators. The promise of a Chinese comics exhibit was also not fulfilled, with merely prints by a great master He Youzhi. The Archéographie exhibit at the Maison des Auteurs, on the other hand, stood out especially, presenting works completed and in progress from their talented resident authors. Another memorable display was an eye-popping installation by artist Bernard Pras, who carefully crafts trompe l’oeil constructions, made from all kinds of detritus, car parts, plastic toys, etc. which from one specific viewpoint coalesce into a familiar comics icon, in this case Captain America.
Publishing innovations this year include the real start of popular locally-created manga by French artists. From the Humanoids’ Shogun monthly serialising manga to direct-to-book series like Pika‘s Dreamland and DYS and others, there seems to be an appetite for these brash, youth-appeal local stars, as has happened elsewhere, and a few of some quality may emerge. The sheer variety of manga translated into French is exceptionally broad, especially through smaller independents like IMHO, but also some of the larger specialist imprints and more recent arrivals from general publishers like Le Piquier and Le Seuil. Strangely, the one almost non-existent genre seems to be yaoi or boys’ love, big with girls in the USA, but for some reason still to be properly pushed in French but sure to catch on.
Among the mainstream news is the prospect of the conclusion of the long-running thriller XIII, begun in 1984 by Jean Van Hamme, screenplay writer of Diva. After an aborted serialisation in pamphlet form, the first three albums of XIII are out from Marvel, of all people, and Dabel Brothers, helped finally by the fact that there is now a XIII computer game. Imagine the anticipation of the conclusion of 24 or Lost and you have some idea of the popular buzz about this series’ end after 23 years. Not only with there be a final episode by regular artist William Vance, but it will be sold with an extra conclusion set in Northern Ireland and drawn by Jean Giraud, alias Moebius. Sold together, the print run is expected to be half a million copies each or more.
Staying with a family you see the more everyday consumption of BD. My lovely landlady’s two boys both had favourite BD series, the sort you’d expect. Her older son likes Lanfeust, pumped-up dungeons and dragons drama with showy, rendered art. Her younger boy likes funny stuff, like Captain Biceps, a brilliantly funny pisstake of superheroes that would probably get sued to extinction if it appeared in English. They queued for 90 minutes to get a ‘dédicace’ or original and free sketch by the artist Tébo. Others they like are broad chuckles like Les Blondes, frankly embarrassing sexist dumb-blonde humour, or L’Effaceur, cartoony short gags about a dumb hitman. For many people, kids and families, thrills and fun are all they expect. Superheroes were also on their menu, but no manga so far.
The physically biggest event was the third and final ‘pavé’ or ‘brick’ of L’Eprouvette, a compendium of theory, criticism and polemics, in essay and comics form, compiled by L’Association‘s stripey jumpered figurehead Jean-Christophe Menu. Too much has been made of the relatively few pages (7%) in the three issues’ 1,284 pages devoted to accusations against the crass and predatory nature of so much of the ‘BéDé’ mainstream, as described above and evident in much of the predictable best-sellers hit-parade, and against the lack of serious journalistic criticism of comics. This storm of controversy has overshadowed the much more important thrust by Menu and company to push Bande Dessinée forward, out of the marketplace mentality and into vital new territories. L’Association in 2006 saw a huge shake-up with the departure of Trondheim, Sfar and Killoffer, leaving only Menu and Mattt Konture. L’Eprouvette will probably prove to be a turning point, not only for Menu as an individual artist, editor and publisher, and for L’Assocation, which has helped reshape the editorial landscape, but perhaps also for French comics and comics in general. The end of L’Eprouvette ushers the beginning of some remarkable things to come in comics that we can perhaps barely perceive right now. As the third issue’s opening statement proclaims like a manifesto or battle-cry, "Bande Dessinée can lead to EVERYTHING except to ‘BéDé’."
Finally, a rather more cynical, if not bleak, outlook on comics typically came from President Trondheim, ex-co-founder of L’Association, whose joke exhibition, ‘The Seven Wonders of Comics’, was ‘hidden’ in different locations around the town. I’m not sure how many of these seven other people hunted down. I found two in the lobby of the Theatre. One was a tall display panel painted red with the caption “Original Smurf Comics”. Instead of showing Peyo’s artwork, though, viewers had to get down on their knees to see tiny Smurf-scale frames at floor level containing crazy little Smurf parodies by Trondheim. Neaby another panel announced examples of the greatest comics from five centuries into the future. Look more closely, though, and you’d see this was completely blank, except for a notice explaining that this was because humanity would prove so stupid that by this far ahead we had wiped ourselves out. Could one warning of this be the way the Angoulême weather mutated from winter on Wednesday to spring by Sunday? Trondheim’s cautionary gag can’t help leaving you a little uneasy about today’s excess of comics, and not just in France, and about the shape of comics to come.Posted: February 4, 2007