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What SPX Can Learn From Fumetto
posted April 14, 2006


Conversational Euro-Comics
By Bart Beaty

I don't usually write these columns by request because, well, frankly, I don't get very many requests. But this week I did get an email asking for some clarification, and I thought that it raised a couple of interesting questions.
Alex Holden asked: "Bart said that Fumetto revolved much more around art than selling books. Does this mean that Fumetto is being funded by the government? Since it's in Switzerland, that's my first impression. Could there even be a show like Fumetto in the US? Even if the funding was secured, would anyone care? It seems like such a different world over there."

There are simple and short answers to the first question, not so simple answers to the second, and the third is purely speculative. But here's my attempt at a response:

What SPX Should Learn From Fumetto

I've been a longtime supporter of SPX. I've attended six or seven times, and many years ago I wrote the first article about the show in The Comics Journal. I used to love the show, and may love it again if I go back this year. But the last time I was there, I was bored out of my mind. While I've attended some European festivals that I thought weren't great (the last couple of Angoulemes, for example), I've never been bored at one. So, in the interest of improving the quality of American comics shows, here's what the Swiss do better (specifically).

1. It's about the art.

Fumetto had two dozen art exhibitions this year. Angouleme had a smaller number, but probably close to eighteen, many of which were quite large. Think about that for a while. I was at Fumetto for two and a half days, in that time I saw every art show. Some of these took more than an hour to take in. There is a constant need at a show like this to keep moving to take it all in, and I've found that the most common way to spend time with people is to say "meet you at the Andrea Bruno show at 3:30, and then we'll grab a beer before seeing the Wazem." There is a careful apportioning of one's time. Angouleme is the same. So is Stripdagen. So is Salao Lisboa. You've got to do multiple shows in one day; you've got to budget.

The one time I went to San Diego the only art show I saw was the fan art (mostly Buffy paintings). This left a poor impression of what is, at heart, a visual medium. The success or failure of European festivals -- for the visitors -- is often tied to the quality of the art shows, and it's the art that makes a show important or unimportant. Give us something to do with our time! Fumetto can barely be done in two days. I've done SPX in two hours in the past because if you've bought all books you want, there's not much else to do. You can take in some panels, but now that they're divorced from ICAF, even those don't hold much interest anymore.


2. It's not about the books

Fumetto barely sells books. There is one retailer given a small amount of space. They mostly set up tables featuring books by the featured artists. This year at Fumetto I didn't buy a single book. For most people, coming home from SPX without a single book would mean that the show was a total and complete failure. For me, it made Fumetto a tremendous success.

The image of cartoonist after cartoonist sitting at folding tables selling comic books is truly a pathetic one. From talking with cartoonists, I get the sense that most of them find it debilitating, too. It's hard, often dreary work. It can be ego-crushing when no one comes to buy anything. I would hate to do it myself.

At Fumetto this year, the artists signed for one hour each on Friday and Saturday at the long table set up by the festival. No booths, just a short period of time when the artists would be at the table signing. Otherwise you had to find them at the exhibits, or having a beer, or cooking dinner for the Finns at a squat. When you do meet them, they're relaxed and amiable because they aren't working. Fumetto, for example, takes all of their invited guests on a three-hour boat tour of the lake on the Friday morning. Everyone just gets on a big boat and drinks coffee rather than staffing a booth and hustling mini-comics.

I'm not saying that SPX should get a boat; they have a softball game after all. But remembering that this should be fun rather than work would go a long, long way. And get rid of the books -- this isn't a store!


3. It's about the community

Alex asks about government funding. Yes, Fumetto and other festivals in Europe receive government funding, because European governments are more likely to place value on the arts. But that's a fraction of the story. I have no idea how much money Fumetto receives from the various levels of government, but I do know that they have more than one hundred volunteers who run the festival. They also have major corporate sponsors like Trident gum.

To say, well, SPX probably couldn't get the funding that Fumetto gets seems untrue to me -- Trident sells gum in the US, too. But the entire orientation of the show is different. And this is by far the most important distinction. Fumetto gets government money because the show is about giving back to Luzern. The exhibitions are things that the public goes to see. Mike van Audenhove is a very popular local cartoonist, and there were always dozens of people checking out his exhibition. Indeed, there were always people at every exhibition that I went to because they are scattered across the town. The Noyau exhibition (which I forgot to mention in my report, and it was fabulous!) was in front of the train station. There was an exhibition in the train station. You can't go two blocks in Luzern without stumbling into Fumetto, and it's why the festival is seen to be an integral part of the local cultural scene. This is even more pronounced in Angouleme, obviously.

Moreover, Fumetto has things like Fumettino, a children's area where kids can come and draw and make their own t-shirts (which was very cool). The festival runs an annual awards ceremony. Tom linked to one of the winners -- Michelangelo Setola (whose work has been published in the great Italian cutting edge anthology Carnicola). The other winners were little kids. Really, they have a contest for best comic made by young local children in about three age groups. Seeing five-year-old kids onstage accepting an award for best comic is way more interesting than seeing Chris Ware win another Eisner. Why? Because it's clear that Fumetto is all about bringing comics to the local community and working with the schools. I don't know of any American event that does anything like that at all. Honestly, Fumetto gave an award this year for Best Comic That The Jury Just Could Not Comprehend and it went to an eight-year-old boy who couldn't explain it either. But it was kind of interesting.

Could it be done in the US? Absolutely. Will it be? I don't know.

This is what SPX would look like this October if it were run by the Swiss. There would be six art exhibitions by cartoonists from Europe, three from big name American cartoonists (one editorial, one daily strip, one comic book) and a dozen exhibitions by cartoonists from Virginia, Maryland and DC. These exhibitions would be found throughout Washington, including one at the National Gallery and another at the Corcoran, one at the Holocaust Museum, and most others at local bars or galleries or schools. There would be one retailer (Big Planet) and they would sell some books by the registration desk. No one would be chained to a table.

Is America ready for such a show? Perhaps not. I really think that there is a huge desire on the part of many fans to go to shows to buy books. That's what they most want to do. These people would love Angouleme, because there's lots of books there to buy. But how much shopping can you really do? And is that what comics are? An opportunity to shop?

Can it be done? I think so. It doesn't require an enormous infusion of cash from the city or the state (though that helps). What it does require is a new conception of the way that comics festivals work. What it requires is treating comics like they are an art form rather than a form of commerce. SPX claims to do this, but I've never seen a lot of proof of it, to be perfectly honest.


Captions For Art (Written by Bart):

1. Peter Blegvad checks out a comic
2. Stefano Ricci draws for a fan. Note: No pile of books to be sold.
3. The entire shopping area at Fumetto.


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