Welcome to the World Comics Capital

Mike Shuttleworth has just visited Angoulême, France, for the 38th Festival international de la bande dessinée, the world’s biggest international comics festival. In a cross-post from his blog, he tells us what he found there.

Imagine the crowd at the MCG, the AFL grand final. Double it and then add a few thousand more. More than 200,000 people turned up for the 38th Angoulême International Festival de la bande dessinée. And like an AFL grand final, people come from all levels of society. Angoulême, two hours by TGV south-west of Paris, is indisputably the home of bande dessinée, or BD, in France. Don’t be put off by the term bande dessinée: literally it means ‘drawn stories’ and encompasses comics, graphic novels and sometimes picture books.

Diversity is at the heart of this extraordinary festival. Across four days and nights, the festival caters to all tastes. Exhibitors, artists and publishers also come from all over the world. I met French, Romanian, Belgian, Finnish, French, Spain, and Hong Kong publishers, writers and producers.

Australia however, is largely invisible. In 2008 Shaun Tan won the festival’s Best Album prize for Là où vont nos pères, or The Arrival. The young independent publisher I spoke to this weekend thought Shaun is an American. We are the great unknown, and Australians could learn a great deal by coming to this festival. Why more, or indeed any, Australians don’t go there is a mystery to me.

This year’s festival president, Baru, is renowned for autobiographical depictions of the French (and migrant) working class, beginning in 1982 with Quéquettes Blues. The exhibition that honoured Baru’s work was generous, imaginative and sympathetic - a delight to explore and experience. Baru’s exhilarating exhibition Debout les damned de la terre (translating roughly as Showing the Damned of the Earth) is a journey through working class lives over fifty years. Baru’s massive body of work was smartly curated, displayed with real panache, and a great introduction to this artist.

Kaleidoscope, a history of bande dessinée in Hong Kong and produced by the Hong Kong Arts Centre succinctly, elegantly and engagingly explored a turbulent past and present. The show - designed for touring - touched on the political, economic and technological changes that have driven Hong Kong’s diverse visual comics culture. It looked so good that it could easily stand as a permanent exhibition. I would love to see this show in Australia.

The varied, diverse and distinct thematic marquees ranged from the big (really packed) commercial houses to the edgy and innovative up-and-comers in Pavillon Jeunes Talents. If you want to see what is happening in comics internationally, this is a great way to see it. Angoulême is not just French and Belgian comics: it welcomes the world.

And finally, Les Concerts des Dessins. I saw three, each very different in flavour though using the same ingredients: live music matched live drawing. Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara was coolly complemented by illustrator Clement Oubrerie. On the other hand, Jon Spencer’s new outfit Heavy Trash rocked the house down (around 800 screaming French women and men going absolutely bonkers) while Baru and friends drew up scenes of rockabilly mayhem, culminating in the artists setting fire to their pictures. Why don’t all concerts come with live illustration? It was a hell of a way to go out.

Angoulême is not a convention, or a fan-meet. And it’s not, obviously, only about Tintin, Asterix and Spirou. There is an exhaustive schedule of in-conversations, panels and debates. ‘Is Temeraire a little Nazi?’; ‘Teaching BD in art school’; ‘Lesbians and bande dessinée’ ‘Violence and manga’; ‘Mainstream or indie - must we choose?’ There is also a rights market, meetings with artists, film screenings and projections, book signings, sales (oh, my suitcase) and an incredible buzz throughout the town.

The festival is both a celebration and a masterful promotion of the bande dessinee. Prizes are awarded on the final night. This year’s Angoulême Festival Grand Prize winner, and therefore next year’s festival president, is Art Speigleman. The shortlist of 51 titles in a range of categories are heavily promoted in bookshops and beyond. FNAC (think JB HiFi meets Borders meets Ticketmaster), is a festival sponsor. National newspapers and magazines across the political and cultural spectrum get their hands dirty. The industry, its artists and readers, are taken seriously. Yes, the French comics industry was built on the likes of Tintin and Asterix, but there is so much more.

Mike Shuttleworth was the Centre for Youth Literature program manager at the State Library of Victoria for 9 years. He curated the exhibition Look! - The art of Australian picture books today, currently showing at the State Library of Victoria. His travel to Angoulême was supported by the Copyright Agency Limited Creative Industries Career Fund.

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