Calvin and Hobbes’ creator Bill Watterson won the 2014 Grand Prix, the top prize at the 41st annual Festival International de la Bande Desinée in Angoulême, France. Watterson beat out finalists Alan Moore and Katsuhiro Otomo to become the second American winner in four years. (Art Spiegelman won the prize in 2011.)
The awards, presented on Sunday afternoon, were marked by a significant showing by English language comics in awards that traditionally skew more towards the Franco-Belgian comics tradition. Other U.S. winners included Derf Backderf for Mon Ami, Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts in the U.S.) and Peter Blegvad for Leviathan (Overlook in the U.S.) in the New Book category, and Ted Stearn for Best Series with Fuzz and Pluck: Splittsville (Fantagraphics in the U.S.). Israeli cartoonist Rutu Moden won the Jury Prize for La Propriété, published in France by Actes Sud and by D&Q in the U.S./Canada.
The biggest book prize however, went to Come Prima by French cartoonist Alfred. Published by Delacourt, it is the story of two Italian brothers going on a road trip home to pay their last respects to their dying father.
Watterson’s win in the Grand Prix—a lifetime achievement award of sorts—was fraught with ironies. The winner traditionally serves as the Grand Marshal of the entire festival, helping plan the exhibitions and general tone. For Watterson, whose public utterances since ending Calvin and Hobbes in 1995 have consisted of a bare handful of interviews, chairing a festival is an unlikely role, to say the least. (Watterson’s J.D. Salinger-like reclusiveness even led to a 2010 book called Looking for Calvin and Hobbes by Nevin Martell.)
Fellow finalist Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and many other acclaimed comics works, had already turned down the award should he win, given his dislike of travel and lack of a passport. Watterson’s participation next year is equally unlikely, although Universal Features president Lee Salem—who called in to say thank you for the Award—said he’ll try to talk Watterson into it. Most thought that would be a valiant but futile effort, but some held out hope that Watterson would pull a surprise appearance.
The third finalist, Katsuhiro Otomo, much acclaimed creator of the epic sci-fi manga thriller Akira as well as a film director and writer, was actually at another awards ceremony at the very same time, showing up in Los Angeles to pick up a Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement award from the Annie Awards, which honor achievements in animation. Many observers hoped Otomo would win—not only because he’s the only winner likely to show up—but because the Grand Prix has yet to go to a manga creator, which many see as a huge oversight given the worldwide influence of the style.
But prizes were only part of the controversy around this year’s FIBD. More than 40 cartoonists—with more joining every day—wrote an open letter asking the festival to drop Sodastream as a sponsor over their factory located on the contested lands of Ma’ale Adumim on the West Bank. While the home soda-machine maker claims it is employing more Palestinians than any other business in the area, human rights organizations condemn the business because it is located on contested lands. Cartoonists including Joe Sacco, Eric Drooker, Ben Katchor, Peter Kuper, Matt Madden, Seth Tobocman and Sue Coe have all signed the petition. The matter escalated when Angouleme comics grand master Jacques Tardi joined the boycott and said he wouldn’t have participated in this year’s FIBD if he had known about the Sodastream sponsorship. Tardi’s World War I history Goddam This War, is the subject of a huge, grim and deeply moving installation that was for many the highlight of the festival.
Another exhibit touched off a mini international row over long-existing sensitivities between South Korea and Japan: South Korea’s installation Chiru Koto no Nai Hana (The Flower That Doesn't Wilt) used the work of ten manhwa (the Korean term for comics) via multi-media installations to tell the story of “comfort women,” thousands of South Korean women who were conscripted by the Japanese during World War II to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers. The Japanese are very sensitive over the subject and controversy swirled throughout the event, with the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs condemning the exhibit and a Japanese manga that dismissed the claims was removed from the manga tent entirely.
Meanwhile, away from the political problems, thousands of comics lovers—mostly French but increasingly global—thronged the cobble-stoned streets of the festival, some lining up for hours to get a drawing from a favorite cartoonist. With a message untouched by movies, superheroes or video games, Angoulême remains a vibrant and increasingly international showcase for comics and their creators.