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Short Chat With Cartoonist Alex Robinson
posted March 21, 2005
 

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The Festival International de la Bande Dessinee, the world's premiere comics festival, ended on January 29 having attracted more than 200,000 visitors to its home in the French town of Angouleme. The North American presence at the "Angouleme Festival" has been growing in recent years, but the gathering still has a definite continental feel, with seemingly every major cartoonist and publisher in Europe in attendance.

Winning one of this year's official prizes at the Festival was American cartoonist Alex Robinson, making him one of a handful of North Americans to ever receive one of the honors. During a ceremony on January 26, Robinson was given the "Best First Album" award for the French edition of his massive graphic novel Box Office Poison, published in France by Rackham as De Mal en Pis.

Robinson's American publishers, Chris Staros and Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions, told the Pulse that they were extremely gratified to hear of Robinson's win. Top Shelf works with publishers like Rackham and Casterman (who did the French version of Craig Thompson's Blankets, also nominated) to get the work of cartoonists like Robinson into as many languages and to as many fans worldwide as possible. The Americans met Robinson's French publisher during a previous festival. "We met Rackham when we were in Angouleme and forged a relationship there," Staros said. "And with Casterman, Art Spiegelman actually introduced us by showing them Blankets when they were visiting the states." Staros described himself and his partner as "honored" to be working with both companies.

Back in the States, Alex Robinson answered a few of the my questions about his stay in France.

Tom Spurgeon: Can you tell me about the parameters of your trip -- was it for any purpose other than simply going to Angouleme? Did you do any business while you were there?

Alex Robinson: The purpose was solely to go to Angouleme. I had never been to France before, so when Alain David, my editor at Rackham, mentioned that I was being invited to the Festival I immediately said yes. Well, I hemmed and hawed, my wife immediately said yes.

I mostly approached it the way I would any American convention -- I just tried to sell as many books as I could. Ideally, I guess I should've tried making more contacts and so on but I was pretty nervous as it was, not speaking French. I'm a terrible self-promoter anyway.

Spurgeon: Can you compare your impressions of the Festival to American conventions, both as a fan of comics and as an attending professional?

Robinson: For the most part, I found it to be very different than American conventions. It's almost like the whole of downtown Bethesda taking part in SPX. There are banners everywhere in the streets and even businesses that had no real connection, like banks or pharmacies, would put posters of comics in the windows.

There were some similarities, however. I was surprised that, despite the fact that the crowd covered a broader age range, it was still mostly male and there were some people who would fit the nerd stereotype. But overall it was much more diverse crowd.

Spurgeon: What was the awards ceremony like? I know it's invitation-only and everyone seems very well dressed.

Robinson: The awards themselves were strange. I don't speak French, so of course I understood very little of what was actually going on, but it seemed both more formal and more casual. A bunch of students won awards and came on stage dressed like they were hanging out at a U.S. mall. Generally, the older people dressed more seriously. Curiously, most of the winners seemed very relaxed and almost nonchalant on stage, compared with nervous, sweaty, gigantic me on stage.

Spurgeon: Details, details! What was it like to win? Did you give a speech? Did they take your picture? Was there a post-ceremony shindig or any other formal functions because of your win?

Robinson: I've been up for a few awards and lost all but one. Most of the time I seemed to know what was coming, but this time I was totally caught off guard, thinking I had no chance. My name wasn't even on the guest list (my editor had to browbeat the usher into letting us sit in the VIP section) so I figured that confirmed it.

I thanked a few people, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it an actual speech. My picture was taken. My publisher took us out to dinner afterwards, which was great. I felt happy I sort of validated their taking a chance on my book.

Spurgeon: What was it like to win with such distinguished cartoonists from all around the world like Marjane Satrapi and Jiro Taniguchi?

Robinson: It was surreal. When I think about it, I get dizzy. In that sense I was very lucky I didn't speak any French because I probably would've passed out. The next morning at breakfast this couple came up to me and congratulated me. Their English wasn't that good, so it was a brief handshake and introduction and that was about it--and then I realize that the guy was Zep, who was not only the president of the festival, but one of the most popular cartoonists in the country.

Spurgeon: Did you get a sense there was a strong American contingent at this year's awards?

Robinson: I hadn't really paid attention other years, so I wasn't aware if there were more Americans represented or not. Afterwards a French woman came up to me, asked me if I was from the U.S. and then pointed out how Americans were coming over and winning all the awards. I don't think she meant it in a congratulatory sense. Sometimes I got the feeling that I some French people weren't happy an American won, but I'm a paranoid person so I don't know for sure.

Spurgeon: What kind of congratulations did you receive during the rest of the festival for your big win? Is there further interest in reprinting, or translating the winning work or future efforts?

Robinson: A lot of people congratulated me personally. I think I was very democratic about it, because as I mentioned before I'm woefully ignorant about the European comics scene so I was equally grateful when anyone congratulated me.

I think it definitely helped open some doors, in terms of the European markets but we'll see how it pans out.

Spurgeon: Your graphic novel is very much set in America -- both the background for what takes place and using the American comic book industry for a plotline. Are you surprised that Europeans have taken to it?

Robinson: Very much so, and I insist on giving much of the credit to Sidonie Van der Dries, who translated the book. For her to take a book as language heavy as this one and make it connect for an audience of a different culture must've been a lot of work. I'm aware that my art has it's, uh, limitations, especially when compared with some of the beautiful work they do in Europe so I attribute a lot of the success of the book to her.

Spurgeon: What's next for you?

Robinson: I'm about twenty pages away from finishing TRICKED, my second graphic novel. It's taken me forever, so I'm very happy it'll finally be out this Summer (hopefully followed soon after by the French edition).

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Alex Robinson's Web Site