When comics fans invaded the town of Angoulême, France, two weeks ago for the Angoulême International Comics Festival, children were well represented. That's not surprising: Children's comics are big business in France.
The big news of the festival came at the end, when Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson was awarded the Grand Prix d'Angouleme, a prize that recognizes a creator's entire body of work over his or her lifetime. Traditionally, the winner is the president of the following year's festival, but Watterson does not make public appearances and it is unlikely that he will attend.
The festival takes over the entire town, with tents and historic buildings housing exhibits, sales areas, panels, and performances. A special section, the Quartier Jeunesse, was set aside for children, with drawing and crafts workshops and the opportunity to meet artists and writers and vote for their favorite comics. During the first two days of the festival, school groups snaked through the tents that held the mainstream exhibits as well. In these tents, major French comics publishers such as Casterman, Soleil, and Dargaud hosted creator signings and sold stacks of graphic novels to eager attendees of all ages.
This year marked the 80th birthday of Le Journal de Mickey, the weekly comics magazine that popularized American comics in France and helped create modern French comics (known as bandes dessinees, or BDs). A series of billboards about the history of the magazine drew a steady crowd to the small outdoor plaza where they were displayed, alongside a car with a giant Mickey Mouse figure perched atop it. At the end of the same plaza, tourists posed next to a giant head of Herge, the creator of Tintin, possibly the most famous Franco-Belgian comic in the world.
Many of the children's properties on display in Angoulême would look familiar to an American visitor, either because they are American properties licensed in France or vice versa. A number of North American graphic novels officially were honored at the show, including the French editions of Paul Pope's Battling Boy and Ben Hatke's Zita the Spacegirl, both part of the Selection Jeunesse, and Joseph Lambert's Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, which was included in the Selection Officielle.
Publishers were also promoting their properties via creator signings, panels, and press events. Rue de Sèvres, which publishes Zita the Spacegirl in French, brought over Ben Hatke to sign autographs at their booth, and they were also featuring another imported title: Rep. John Lewis's graphic memoir of Civil Rights movement, March Book One, retitled Wake Up America (in English) for the French audience. The publisher's press materials for the show included Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's young adult graphic novel This One Summer (Cet été la), which will be released in May, shortly after its U.S. release date.
In terms of French comics that are well known in the U.S., the festival included a special exhibit of artwork from the French comic Ernest and Rebecca (published in North America by Papercutz), the story of a sickly young girl who makes friends with a germ, a relationship that no one in her well-meaning but fractured family understands. Writer Guillaume Bianco and artist Antonello Dalena were on hand to give several drawing workshops throughout the weekend. In addition, Philippe Coudray, whose Benjamin Bear books are published Stateside by Toon Books, made an appearance at the booth of his French publisher, La Boîte à Bulles.
Manga, licensed Japanese comics, is an important part of the French comics scene—more manga were published than original Franco-Belgian comics last year—and the teen genres are the most popular, with Naruto One Piece, and Fairy Tail topping the lists.
And then there were the comics that were distinctly French, such as the girls' comic Mistinguette and the manga-ish teen property Les Legendaires. The latter seems to be something of a phenomenon, as there was both a large display about the comic and a cosplay contest (virtually the only cosplay at the festival). Despite a deluge of novelties, the legacy children's comics have not been forgotten; panels at the festival included an earnest discussion of "Tintin; What's Next?" that contemplated the possibility of a new volume of Tintin, something that is not likely to occur until after 2054, when the copyright period expires.