Although the annual Festival International de la Bande Dessinée (FIBD), held January 28–31 in the medieval city of Angoulême in France, is one of most prestigious comics festivals in Europe, this year’s show will be remembered as much for protests over sexism and public relations gaffes by the festival’s organizers as for the tremendous display of graphic novels.
Controversy erupted in early January after FIBD announced a slate of all-male nominees for the Grand Prix, the show’s lifetime achievement award, prompting charges of sexism and a boycott of the prize. (The Grand Prix was eventually awarded to Hermann Huppen.) Then Frank Bondoux, CEO of 9e Art (a holding company that manages the Angoulême festival), aggravated the situation by claiming that “there are few women in the history of comics,” among other surprisingly uninformed remarks that ignited more outrage and public derision. And if all this weren’t bad enough, even as the show was ending, the organizers found new ways to insult the French comics community.
The night before the fair closed, the Fauve Awards (which honor the best books of the show) were hosted by Richard Gaitet, a French radio host hired under a mandate from the FIBD organizers to make the long ceremony a bit more entertaining. The emcee (who has since apologized profusely) spent about eight minutes announcing a series of “Faux Fauves,” or fake winners, a joke approved by the FIBD organizers. Publishers and artists initially named as winners began celebrating only to find out it was all a terribly unfunny joke. In response to complaints, Bondoux issued public statements that enraged just about everyone, essentially telling his unamused critics that they needed to get a sense of humor.
Matt Madden, an American cartoonist living in France and a member of the grand jury that picks the Fauve winners, provided an English translation of an open letter sent by the jury to FIBD organizers to protest the event: “We were stupefied by the cruelty and vulgarity of the ceremony as a whole. The announcement of fake awards, which broke the hearts of numerous authors, publishers, and readers, in addition to the sexist and off-color remarks of the MC, are beneath the dignity of a festival that remains an internationally respected flagship event in the world of comics.”
Despite its tone-deaf organizers, Angoulême is an impressive publishing event. The festival showcases hundreds of exhibiting publishers and artists, attracts thousands of fans, and takes over virtually every venue in the city. It is the Frankfurt Book Fair of graphic novels. More than 12 pavilions are arrayed around the city, each one focused on a theme and includes more than 20 museum exhibitions.
Much like Frankfurt, FIBD is a major market for buying and selling foreign rights. The rights market attracts 60–100 publishers (including a small but growing number of Americans). The French comics market is almost completely a book market, though American-style comic book periodicals (and superhero comics) have a small presence. Angoulême is all books—graphic novels of all kinds and genres—with no displays based on blockbuster movies or TV shows.
All of this rights activity usually takes place without North American publishers, but that is changing, thanks to Ivanka Hahnenberger, general manager of VIP Brands, a licensing company she founded in the 1980s. A multilingual American raised in Geneva, Switzerland, she’s a former investment banker, former digital content entrepreneur, and a translator, as well as a rights consultant.
Hahnenberger sells rights for Glenat, a major French comics publisher that releases 800–1,000 titles per year, in addition to representing some smaller publishers. Working with BIEF, the French equivalent of the AAP, she was instrumental in organizing a one-day symposium on French graphic novels held last spring at the French Embassy in New York, which kicked off BookExpo America and attracted nearly 60 U.S. publishers. She’s also a consultant to EuropeComics, a collaborative effort by 13 European publishers to provide easy-to-find rights and contact info on French graphic novels for North American publishers.
“I like to be on the cutting edge, and graphic novels are the boom sector in North America right now,” Hahnenberger said. “When I began selling rights, I realized that there were no publishers from North America [at the fair], so I said, Let’s bring them here.” One of the publishers she’s brought over is Ted Adams, CEO of IDW Publishing, a major U.S. independent comics house that publishes comics based on licenses such as Transformers, Star Trek, and My Little Pony, as well as offering original genre and literary works through Top Shelf, which IDW acquired in 2015. This was Adams’s first trip to Angoulême. “I’ve bought the rights to so many books I’ve lost track,” he said, guessing that he’s acquired at least a dozen titles at the show. “I’m focused on getting the kind of books we don’t see in the U.S.: biographies, slice-of-life narratives, independent books driven by an individual creator’s vision.” The highlight of his buying spree, Adams said, was The Story of Boddah: How I Killed Kurt Cobain by Nicolas Otero, a fictionalized story of the revered rock musician’s life and death. IDW plans to publish the book in fall 2016 with a big marketing push behind it.
Hahnenberger said there were about 26 offers made on books at the rights market this year. Acquisitions include Caravaggio: The Palate and the Sword (published by Glenat), an account of the life of the 16th-century Milanese painter by cartoonist Milo Minara, to be published in the U.S. by Dark Horse; and Castro by Richard Kleist (published by the German house Carlsen), a graphic biography of the Cuban revolutionary, to be published in the U.S. by Arsenal Pulp.
This isn’t the first time French comics publishers have tried to market their titles to the American market. But Hahnenberger is confident her approach— “slow and steady, and bringing over American decision makers” to see Angoulême—will make the difference. “I’m an American—we know how to pitch to consumers,” she said. “The French don’t work like that; they expect their knowledge of comics to win people over, and that just doesn’t work.”