The Best French Comics Of 2009
It’s that time of year again when people start making their ‘Best of the Year’ lists. When it comes to comics, I’ll be doing mine quite soon, as well as tipping you off on the Most Anticipated Graphic Novels to come out through 2010. Also, as before, I’ll be sounding out international connoisseurs for their favourites. Meanwhile, over in France on Friday 4 December, the 37th Angoulême International Comics Festival announced at its Press Conference their three official selections of the 86 best bande dessinée books out of nearly 5,000 published in France in 2009. Can you imagine having this much choice, this huge an annual production?
So we now know the nominees for the 2010 ‘Fauves’, or wildcats based on the Festival’s moggy mascot designed by Lewis Trondheim. These awards are to be announced at the Festival next January. Sorted into three categories, there are 58 for the main “Official Selection” and then two shorter shortlists of 20 for Youth (for kids) and of 8 for Heritage (classics and reprints). Handily, you can take a look at all 86 covers here with short English text details: Official Selection; Youth Selection; Hertiage Award.
Frankly, I am far from familiar with everything on these lists, but I thought I’d get some overview of what’s been chosen and point out a few tips that I have read already, or am keen to. This year’s selections once again mixes French and Francophone originated works with others imported from the rest of Europe, North America, Asia and elsewhere. The one criterion is simply that they must be available in French. Focussing on the main Official Selection, there’s a broad spectrum of publishers here from mainstream majors to smaller houses. I can’t help pointing out the two British-created and published nominees this year: Hannah Berry’s Britten & Brülightly (Jonathan Cape), out from Casterman as Britten et associé (’...and Associate”), and Charlie Higson and Kev Walker’s Young James Bond origin adaptation SilverFin, actually a youth title in the UK from children’s publishers Puffin last year and released again by Casterman in French as James Bond, les origines.
Interesting to look at is the continuing rise of women creators, from France and in translation, in the French comics scene. Counting Hannah Berry, this year we have 8 out of the 58 by women: the 19-year old Korean Ancco’s urban ennui from Cornelius, which I’m definitely checking out; ex-animator Chloé Cruchaudet’s 19th century Swiss explorer of Africa from Delcourt; Laureline Mattiussi’s swashbuckling lady pirate from Treize Etrange; Belgian Judith Vanistendael’s mixed-race romance from Actes sud/l’an 2; Marie Pommepuy, co-author and co-artist on Jolies Ténèbres from Dupuis (more later); Camille Jourdy with the 3rd volume of Rosalie Blum from Actes Sud; and finally Nancy Peña’s Tea Party from La boite à Bulles. And if you were wondering like me about Gwen de Bonneval on two nominated albums, he’s a chap, in fact the bright spark behind the late-lamented children’s BD magazine Capsule cosmique.
There are several well-known North American names also picked out, from Seth’s George Sprott to Ivan Brunetti’s Misery Loves Comedy, from Daniel Clowes, whose old Eightball short stories finally get translated, to Robert Crumb - it’s intriguing to see the less comics-style, more naked French cover of his Genesis adaptation, with Eve full frontal and the book’s title serving as a fig-leaf for Adam. In contrast, Carlsen’s German edition cover is very severe, all black with God creating the world.
The new episode of Paul, the thinly disguised autobiographies by Quebecois Michel Rabagliati is also here - and hopefully to come soon from Drawn & Quarterly. Among the Asian invasion, I’m pleased to spot Mase Motoro’s Ikigami, a Viz manga that has got me hooked this year. I was shown Fukutani Takashi’s Tokyo Vagabond by Lézard noir at Angoulême last January and it also promises witty and gritty street life. I’ve leafed through and been impressed by the Franco-Chinese collaboration, Une vie choinoise by Chinese artist Li Kunwu and French writer P. Otié, fascinating cultural history. Going further afield, there’s Argentina’s Carlos Nine, another favourite of mine, and South Africa’s Joe Daly, who Fantagraphics are bringing out. And one total masterpiece here is the collected Alan’s War from L’Association by Emmanuel Guibert, out from First Second.
Of those other nominees not yet translated into English here, I can highly recommend the astonishing Alpha Directions by Germany’s Jens Harder (you might have seen his Leviathan a while back), apparently the first in a trilogy chronicling evolution. I’m particularly interested to check out Pachyderme by Fréderik Peeters, author of the wonderful Blue Pills; the first 200-page volume of Blast by Larcenet, whose Ordinary Victories came out from NBM; and one of the more “incredibly strange” home-grown colour albums, La Saison des Flèches (Season of the Arrows) from Angouléme local boys Editions de la Cerise. It’s a wacky satire in which one Irving Mulligan in 1879 invents a process to conserve Native Americans in cans. When a retired French couple open one of these cans, their cosy life is turned upside down by cohabiting with a Sioux family. You can see the first 6 pages here. Cabanes, Prudhomme, Rabaté, Sattouf, Alfred, Masson are just a few of the other French masters I have my eyes on closely too.
And who would be my choice? Well, I’ll admit this is not a fully informed one right now and indeed, how can even the selecting committee of these awards truly digest such a profusion of products over the past twelve months? I don’t envy their task. And I have no doubt whatsoever that plenty of stunning gems have been overlooked in this process. There is such abundance right now. But the single stand-out book I have read and re-read, that horrified and charmed me and haunts me still, is Jolies Ténèbres. This is exquisitely drawn by Kerascoët (pen-name of Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset taken from her home town) and co-written with Fabien Vehlmann. You might have come across Kerascoët’s Miss Don’t Touch Me with writer Hubert in English from NBM. Good though that is, Jolies Ténèbres is exceptional.
This is such a unique, unsettling amorality tale, from its opening sequence in which charming Aurore and her friends find their tea unfortunately interrupted as the large dollops of red gloop start falling onto them. A mass exodus follows, and it is only then that we we see them pour out onto the forest floor, leaving behind them the decomposing body of a little girl. The fantasy realm of Richard Dadd’s feverish fairy paintings collides here with the murder mystery puzzle of who killed this child and will they get away with it. Your moral compass goes all over the place and loses you, as you look for some guidance to the actions and motives of these mercurial, cute yet cruel little woodland creatures.
Lizzie Spratt from Walker shared my enthusiasm: “This has to be one of the most compelling works of moral philiosophy. I want to discuss! I want others to discuss! It’s so cleverly conceived and put together - the mixture of beautiful watercolours and realism combined with these charming cartoon characters with their bulging innocent eyes, but with all their self-concern, their hunger and the grimmest view of what makes nice and what makes nasty.” Shadows have never been prettier. Crucial to this book’s inception and guiding spirit is Marie Pommepuy, her own questioning of morality and mortality and her personality: Sébastien described her in an interview in Spirou No. 3702 as being “...as charming as a wild cat. One that nobody can get near and yet would purr in your hand. She’s a really wild girl!” I’m convinced that this is one wildcat who deserves to win a wildcat or Fauve award next month.
As two final comments, looking through the Youth titles, apart from series I know already, I’ve liked Vanyda’s work, notably The Building Opposite from Fanfare, so her new book looks promising. Bonhomme’s whaling tales of Esteban are wonderful and I’ve heard good things about Nob’s new Souvenirs de Mamette too. And in the Heritage category or Patrimoine, Charlie Schlingo’s inspired zaniness and Pekar’s American Splendor finally in French are both top tips, to my mnd, but what has gripped and moved me the most of these is L’Eternaute, a Fifties allegorical SF series in the John Wyndham mould which I’ve been longing to read for years from Argentina. It’s written by the tragically “disappeared” Hector Oesterheld and drawn by the legendary Solano Lopez, of Kelly’s Eye, Janus Stark and Galaxus fame among many other British series. This is much more than a comic, it’s a people’s fears and hopes, and their resistance to oppression and invasion, made manifest and symbolised in a mass-market strip serial. It tapped deeply and permanently into the national psyche. It remains as relevant today, to all citizens, whatever country you are in.Posted: December 13, 2009