This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #14, June 2002.
The 29th Festival International de la Bande Desinnée
Angoulême, France • 24-27 January 2002
After fifteen years or more of intending to visit the legendary Angoulême comics festival, I finally made my first pilgrimage this year, despite suffering from a particularly stubborn virus (which had gripped most of the UK throughout the winter months).
In fact, I simply didn’t have the energy to walk back up Leigh Hill in the fine rain that had started falling on me as I had stumbled down the hill, else I probably would have bailed out of the trip at that point. I had already found excuses to avoid the festival every other year and was determined to finally make it this time – or die trying – so the promise of a warm, dry seat in the carriage of the train won me over and I was on my way.
It was also my first trip on Eurostar – the high-speed rail link between London and Paris (as well as other major European cities) and despite its many critics, I had a pleasantly comfortable, fast, efficient and competitively priced journey. My only problem arose when attempting to negotiate the Paris Metro in time to make my connection at the Montparnasse station, which I managed with only a couple of minutes to spare and which took its toll on my greatly reduced lung capacity. This last leg of the journey – on the impressive high-speed TGV train from Montparnasse to Angoulême itself) was just a pleasant as Eurostar, and alighting the train I found myself right in the town centre and within spitting distance of my hotel.
My experience of the first days of the festival were coloured by my persistent ‘flu-like symptoms, the damp, drab weather, characteristically poor French plumbing and toilet facilities, the impenetrable language barrier, the combination of an illogical road system with typically erratic driving, and the food. The French are famous for their cuisine, but I found no evidence of that here, with stale French stick (they call it that because that’s what it tastes like) and tasteless cheese the most palatable option for a vegetarian, greasy croissants everywhere you look and even the Americans could teach the French a few things about how to make tea.
But steadily, the town of Angoulême and the superior cultural appreciation of the French people worked its magic on me, and as I started to feel better, I begun to recognise the tremendous achievements that have been attained by both the festival and the townsfolk. And although the French’s reputation for being unfriendly is not entirely unfounded, I discovered that if you make some kind of effort to speak their language, they appear to appreciate it and seem a lot more co-operative as a result.
Angoulême is not a convention restricted to one or two large buildings, but an event which encompasses the whole town itself, with imaginative use of public buildings, hotels and theatres, and enormous temporary marquees providing exhibition space and large areas for dealers and publishers to display their new projects.
Virtually every shop window sports comic-themed displays (predominantly Tintin and Asterix it has to be said), restaurants have comic-themed menus, traders sell the latest graphic albums on street corners, street theatre is improvised at all times of the day and a tannoy system announces the latest events across the town centre, between songs invariably by either The Corrs or, bizarrely, Boney M. Even the churches and the cathedral get in on the act by opening their doors to provide yet more exhibition space.
My favourite attraction of all was Traits Contemporians, an astonishing installation in what I believe was the théâtre d’Angoulême, (although there seems to be some discrepancy in the festival literature), featuring 76 cutting-edge cartoonists from all over the world, with art hung in birdcages, suspended at extraordinary angles on wires and displayed from behind port-holes. Printed comics were mounted alongside their original counterparts, sketchbook and layout drawings were displayed to compare with the finished pieces and even photographs of the artist’s studios, models and items of merchandising were incorporated very effectively. Many of the artists were unfamiliar to me, being predominantly relatively unknown Europeans, but I couldn’t fail to spot work by Dave Cooper and Craig Thompson to name but two.
For collectors of older material, the festival would probably be somewhat of a disappointment. There are few “back-issue” booths in the oddly hyphenated Espace New-York tent and several cramped rooms full of dealers in L’Espace Bouquinistes, but even these are mostly concerned with old albums rather than magazines. The focus of the festival is very much on current material, established and up-and-coming artists and exhibitions of all kinds, which is, taking into account the stranglehold the collector has on the American comic book market, the way things ought to be.
The centrepiece of the festival is probably le Champs du Mars, the twin mammoth marquees housing Europe’s largest publishers displaying vast quantities of new and back-catalogue albums with signings by the biggest names in bande desinée. Also situated in the these tents are smaller publishers from all over Europe and including London’s Knockabout Comics, who this year shared with Top Shelf Productions all the way from the US. Tony and Carol from Knockabout had kindly invited me to sign copies of the Strangehaven trade paperbacks (and do free sketches for hoards of anglophile teenage schoolgirls) at their booth alongside a revolving roster of cartoonists including Peter Kuper, Hunt Emerson, Metaphrog, Dylan Horrocks and French resident Gilbert Shelton of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers fame.
Other notable attendees to the festival included Bryan Talbot, Spain, Nabiel Kanan and from across the Atlantic, Jeff Smith, Will Eisner, Dave Cooper and Joe Sacco.
And it’s not all temporary events, either. After 29 years, holding an International comics festival has left its mark on the town for all to see. Murals, painted by comics artists adorn the sides of buildings and what otherwise would be plain brick walls, from a three-storey Lucky Luke cartoon, to a life-size Moebius character squeezed between two shops and a trompe-l’oeil sequential cartoon by Marc-Antoine Mathieu. Even the street names on plaques are enclosed in speech bubbles – a lovely touch.
The impressive four-storey glass-fronted Centre National de la Bande Desinée et de l’Image (thankfully also known as the CNBDI) set into the side of the hill on and around which Angoulême is built, as the name suggests, is the official national centre for bande desinée. It comprises a restaurant/café, a cinema, a comic library, an enormous shop and acres of exhibition space. As luck would have it there was a special American exhibit set up this year, split between Génération Indépendant (Dylan Horrocks, Tom Hart, Howard Cruse, Chris Ware, Peter Bagge and Jessica Abel among others) and Maîtres de la Bande Desinée Américaine (rarely seen original art by Eisner, Herriman, Kirby, Schultz, Hal Foster, Walt Kelly and Chris Ware). Other areas were devoted to this year’s festival artists Martin Veyron, Jean-Marc Rochette and the outrageously talented Argentinean cartoonist Carlos Nine.
A new permanent attraction, La Maison des Auteurs is still undergoing construction, but was open during the festival to give visitors an initial glimpse of what will be, and it looks as if it will be another valuable addition.
The organisation of such an enormous event that attracts in the region of 200,000 visitors every year has to be excellent, and fortunately it is. Free buses run every twenty minutes to ferry the public between the various attractions spread across the town. Creators and other professionals are treated like royalty with no-queue access to most areas, free transport and a free beer tent (or the International Rights Area as it is otherwise known).
At night, the majority of the visitors disperse to their homes or hotels (official hotels are up to 25 kilometres away such is the demand for rooms) and the town is left to the mercy of comics professionals, who fill the many restaurants and bars hidden in the narrow, steep streets until 3 or 4 in the morning, networking and having a good time.
Fortunately, my signings were scheduled for after lunchtime, and most exhibitions were open luxuriously late into the evenings so I was able to sleep in a little and allow my body time to recover (although upon my return to England I did experience something of a relapse).
One of the most remarkable things about the festival, ironically, is how normal it all seemed. The demographic of the many tens of thousands of visitors appeared to cut across all walks of life – and although there were a handful of scruffy, stale-smelling black-clothed fanboy types to be spotted, they were in a tiny minority. Imagine walking down your local high street on a busy Saturday afternoon. Now imagine that these people are not there to buy clothes, food, mobile phones or computer games, they’re there to buy comics. Imagine if the newspapers had special supplements that were devoted – not to football or cars – but to bande desinée.
Angoulême is Mecca for the comic connoisseur and everyone who considers them self to be one ought to make their pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
[IMAGES TO COME]
Cover of French national newspaper Libération, special Angoulême edition, 24 January 2002. Illustration ©2002 Marc-Antoine Mathieu.