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February 7, 2013

Bart Beaty In Angouleme 2013 05: The Final Report

imageBy Bart Beaty

When all is said and done, my strongest feeling is simply that it didn't feel "special." The 40th Festival International de la Bande Dessinee in Angouleme noticeably paled in comparison to the 39th, and, indeed, to the vast majority of the 17 Angoulemes that I have now attended. There was a consensus all around that the show was flat. People would throw around adjectives like "fine," "good," and "okay." It wasn't a disaster (as were some of the shows disrupted by construction), but it also wasn't that memorable either. A work-a-day festival if ever there was one.

To start: This was Jean-C Denis's FIBD. The surprising pick for the presidency, whose work is very little known on this side of the Atlantic (I'm not sure what, if anything, has been translated), opted for a very small exhibition in the Hotel St Simon. That space, spread over two floors, accommodates only a couple dozen people at a time, and sometimes barely that. Pages of his various Luc Leroi books hung from the walls alongside portraits of the character by past presidents and other big names of French cartooning. Denis's work is classical in the best sense of the term: sophisticated and well-crafted. His originals, many of which are hand water-colored, are quite lovely to look at, but there was not much to think about in this show other than a chronological walkthrough of his career.

Two of the supporting shows were very similar to this, giving the Festival a bit of a stale feeling. Comès exhibited originals in the Theatre, a small space where his career was represented through a procession of chronologically presented black and white pages, essentially culminating with his best book, Silence. Andreas, another big name from the 1980s, was shown in the Museum. This was a well-staged show, but essentially repeated the same formula, this time with pages from Rork and Capricorne. Each of the shows was worth seeing, but was not memorable in any way.

Certainly the big public draw was the Uderzo exhibition in the "old museum." Unlike his last exhibition here (2000) the show did not emphasize originals, but took on a more pedagogical approach, breaking the Asterix series down into themes and presenting a large number of reproductions, a film of Uderzo discussing his work, and tons of background information. It was not a show for someone well versed in Uderzo's work, but there is certainly an important educational role to be played like an event like this. In some ways, I'd like to see far more of this type of show in the future.

Across the Charente in the "new museum" a side room showed pages from Baudoin's recent biographical comic, Dali. These pages, it really goes without saying, were exquisite -- far more compelling to me personally than anything in the larger shows. The main temporary exhibition space at the museum was a total misfire. Dozens of cartoonists were asked to collaborate with French painters and gallery artists to create new work. Some of these pieces were simply terrible -- failing to capture anything of the talents of either artist. Even the couple that came off best -- Avril, Baudoin -- were pale imitations of what each artist produces solo. Garish, immature, and rife with unbridled misogyny, this show was the worst I have ever seen at Angouleme.

A few other shows fared better. Brecht Evens curated a show of new Flemish cartooning that was excellent (even if they initially refused me entrance to the reception -- apparently the badge carries little weight in Flanders!). The Jano show featured another artist best known from the 1980s, but who surprised everyone with very interesting sculptures that he is currently doing. The Mickey and Donald show, while set up for very young children, was really first rate in terms of its staging. The Korean show was highly educational for someone like me who knows very little about the cartooning culture there, so I was grateful to have taken it in.

I don't frequently go to the panels at Angouleme (there are far fewer of them than even at small shows in the US), but I did attend the OuBaPo Show on the Thursday afternoon. A packed audience watched as cartoonists like Etienne Lecroart, Matt Madden, Alex Baladi, Andreas Kundig, and Francois Ayroles used constraints, randomness, and chance to create comics live on the spot. Lewis Trondheim offered introductions, flipping through projected word balloons through which he would put words in the mouths of his compatriots. This was exactly the sort of event that a show like Angouleme should be offering all the time -- something that we don't get the opportunity to see anywhere else.

Of course, for most people, Angouleme is first and foremost a retail space, where artists sign their books and people queue for dedicaces. I thought attendance seemed down this year -- I never experienced a throng as big as anything in recent years -- but almost everyone I talked to seemed to experience solid sales. I heard from multiple publishers who sold out of books at the show, particularly when they had artists on hand who rarely (or never) come to the event.

imageAs for the prizes, well, a bit of a mixed bag. I can't object too strongly to any of the prizes (which is rare for me), though I will admit to being a little dismayed upon seeing the Fauve go to the second volume of Christophe Blain's Quai d'Orsay. Don't get me wrong -- Blain is a cartoonist's cartoonist and I will gladly snap up anything he puts out and beg for more -- but a sequel winning the big prize irked me for some reason. Maybe I'm just cranky.

And, of course, they voted. That is, a certain percentage of the authors present chose among 16 nominees for the presidency. We know, thanks to Lewis Trondheim's tweeting, that the five top vote getters were Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira Toriyama, Alan Moore, Chris Ware and Willem. The 15 past presidents who were in attendance then chose the oldest and most French of those (though Dutch by birth), Willem. (It has been widely rumored that certain of the electors absolutely refused to give the prize to a Japanese artist, and also that many of them had no idea who several of the finalists even were. There are, it seems, still a few flaws in the system).

Willem is an interesting choice. He is an almost pure product of the political events of May 1968, and he began publishing in the underground papers associated with that era. Later he began a long -- and ongoing -- career as the editorial cartoonist for the left-leaning daily newspaper, Liberation. He is a darling of the French indy comics scene (published now by Cornelius), and is a lion of the old school of French satire. His presidential exhibition will likely be scabrous and scandalous (it is easy to imagine it being closed to young children!), although it is also the least "international" choice that the jury could have made. A curious choice, to be sure.

As for me, I feel that my relationship to Angouleme has finally changed. I first attended in 1997, and over that time I've watched an entire generation of cartoonists come of age and take their place on the world stage. It has been a wonderful experience, and I am grateful to be able to spend four days every January with so many good friends talking about topics that I find of great interest. I love the fact that in the space of a few minutes in a single bar I can move from a conversation with Paul Karasik about Nancy to one with Emmanuel Guibert about the fact that his brilliant new book won't be translated into English for about five years (the horror!). But it's also cold, and it's wet, and it's so very far. I'm not quite ready to say adieu to Angouleme, but I do want to rethink the way that I approach the Festival and whether it is still worth the investment of time and effort that is required to take in the biggest beast on the European festival circuit. So I'm also not quite ready to say a la prochaine either.


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