Don’t call it a con: the Angouleme Festival International de la Bande Desinée may be huge—some 200,000 fans—but they are there to see comics, comics and more comics. The 41st edition of the Festival, which kicks off this Thursday, celebrates the Franco-Belgian tradition of comics—a tradition where readers were enjoying graphic novels in every genre decades before the idea caught on in the U.S. It’s a tradition that has created a huge and loyal audience for comics.
Held in a medieval town in the rural south of France, the festival annually turns the entire town into a celebration of all things comics, with banners, tents and statues throughout the winding streets. The festival is the largest comics event in Europe, drawing more than 260 exhibitors, and 1,600 cartoonists from all over the world—this year there are more than 400 events planned, including panels, talks and concerts. The festival also includes the biggest rights market for graphic novels in Europe. This year will also mark the first time PW will attend and cover the sprawling event.
Until recently, French comics were best known in the U.S. for Tintin and Asterix, but as the graphic novel market has grown, many more French authors have become known here, including Marjane Satrapi, who originally published Persepolis as part of the indie French comics collective L’Association; Joann Sfar, author of The Rabbi’s Cat; and David B. Even some of the more action oriented French comics are getting known here via media adaptations, including the Canadian TV series Xiii and a controversial film version of Snowpiercer.
Among the highlights of this year’s festival: a salute to Jacques Tardi, an 80th birthday party for Journal du Mickey, and exhibitions for cartoonist Willem, and the comics series Mafalda and Ernst and Rebecca.
However, the comics celebration has been overshadowed a bit this year by a growing controversy over the official awards. These include both the Official Selections—given to outstanding works in various categories—and the Grand Prix presented each year to a single cartoonist for a lifetime body of work.
The Official Selections this year include such U.S. titles as Saga and Hawkeye along with more literary fare by French and American authors. It’s a change from past years when mostly literary European books were recognized, and the move to populism has some purists up in arms.
Even more contentious is the matter of the Grand Prix. The prize is voted on by attending cartoonists, and last year there was a movement among some of the younger voters to recognize more international creators, even though in the past it has been presented to such non-French cartoonists as Art Spiegelman and Jose Munoz. This resulted in a split vote with acclaimed manga creator Akira Toriyama being presented with a special prize and Dutch veteran Willem being presented with the Grand Prix.
This year the intrigue has gotten even more intense, with 14 top French creators—including Philippe Druillet, José Muñoz, Enki Bilal, François Schuiten, Florence Cestac, René Pétillon, André Juillard, Daniel Goossens, Frank Margerin, Philippe Vuillemin, Martin Veyron, Jean-Claude Denis, Baru, François Boucq, Philippe Dupuy, and Willem—boycotting this year’s voting because its been turned over to a wider, younger voting group of cartoonists. And this group has responded with some rather bold choices: the three finalists for the Grand Prix in 2014 are Watchmen’s Alan Moore, Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Watterson and Katsuhiro Ottomo, creator of Akira. Traditionally the prize is much more than just a plaque: the winner actually serves as Grand Marshal for the following year’s festival, helping plan and participating in many activities. While Moore gives talks around his home town, he hasn’t been to a comics show in over 30 years; Watterson is perhaps the best known artistic recluse now that J.D. Salinger is dead. If either were to win it would cause quite a stir and remake the role of the Grand Marshal.
Other winds of controversy are shaking the festival as well, some of them typical grumblings that surround any beloved institution; some more indicative of the growth of the global market for comics, as manga becomes more known worldwide and even American cartoonists are household names where comics are read in France. Many of the issues were aired in cranky fashion in this open letter to the minister of culture by the publisher of a French magazine about comics; among the issues, a complicated web of influence between the festival, city government and a private company that runs the actual show.
While the intrigue may provide fodder for talk over a café, it won’t detract from what is really front and center at Angoulême: comics of all kinds. And as the growing crossover between French and English language comics continues, Angoulême’s FIBD will doubtless stay at the center of attention.