With extremely large scale preparations well underway in the ‘picture perfect’ French town of Angouleme, the 32nd International Festival Of Cartoons — featuring the legendary American artist Art Spiegelman — is all set to continue its steady move towards the centre of the world stage with hugely ambitious events and spectacles drawing vast numbers of people to Europe’s ‘Capital of Comics’ for three magic days of art, innovation, and fun.
Four-hundred and forty-three kilometers South West of Paris and one-hundred and sixteen kilometers North East of Bordeaux, the ancient town of Angouleme — sitting snugly between the Charente and Aguienne rivers — is ‘picture perfect’ in every sense. Back in January, 1974, the town — once the center of the French paper industry, and now the center of comic-strip production in France — decided to hold an exhibition designed to showcase and encourage cartoon artists. Ambitious from the start, it was hugely successful, attracting international attention and — over the years of increasing success that followed — becoming regarded as a kind of “Cannes of cartoon”. Now, between the dates of 27-30 January, the whole town is given over to the festival, with free buses taking wide-eyed visitors from one dazzling event or exhibition to another.
“Yeah? And so what?” some of the uninitiated might say, “That stuff’s just for kids! A bit of escapism, only to be taken lightly, if at all.” No, no, no. The world of comic books and cartoons has been moving forward in leaps and bounds over the past few decades, drawing large numbers of artists to the form and huge numbers of fans. Sharp, sometimes violent, bitingly satiric, erotic, or just plain SHOCKING, this is an arena no longer guaranteed to provide escape from even the harshest realities.
ART IMITATING LIFE (THE GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Always internationally minded and seeking to cross all and any cultural divides, the special guest of this year’s festival is the legendary American artist Art Spiegelman. Art literally decided to imitate life — in a totally non-compromising way — when in the mid-eighties he set about writing Maus, A Survivor’s Tale, dealing with the Nazi holocaust by portraying the Jewish people as mice and the Nazi’s as cats, and single-handedly revolutionizing the comic book world in the process.
Working in underground, counter-culture publications in the late sixties and early seventies, Spiegelman had touched upon the holocaust before — driven by the suicide of his mother, a holocaust survivor who had suffered Survivor’s Guilt Syndrome — but Maus was a full-frontal confrontation of the horrors and, although treated with some suspicion at first, became universally accepted, exposing Spiegelman to international fame and changing everything.
SPIEGELMAN’S INTERNATIONAL INFLUENCE
Spiegelman’s masterwork inspired a generation and opened the doors to all forms of self-expression as one part of what is known as The Ninth Art. Apart from US artists like Adrian Tomine (Blonde platine), and Crag Thompson (Blankets — an extremely long autobiographical work, considered one of last years revelations), the graphic novel is thriving thanks to Japanese artists like Taniguchi (Quartier lointain – a 2003 prize-winner), Kiriko Nananan (Blue), and Yoshiharu Tsuge (L’homme sans talent – recently translated into French and a nominee for the Best Album Prize at the Festival Awards this year).
And of course, France and French speaking countries love the form and include works by such names as David B, Fabrice Neaud, Fréderic Boilet, Fréderic Peeters and Marjane Satrapi.
THE LONG ARM OF ANGOULEME
Angouleme has never been shy of moving beyond the limits of the town to promote itself and the artists it represents. I was at the Press Conference to announce this years Festival here in Paris last year and was astounded at the size of the journalistic turn out. Discussions and exhibitions take place regularly in places as far flung as Paris, New York and Switzerland.
I personally was lucky enough — along with around 150, 000 others — to see the excellent ‘Blake and Mortimer’ exhibition at the Museé de l’homme here in Paris, produced by the Festival International de la bande dessinée (FIBD), to celebrate the anniversary of creator Edgar P. Jacobs a century after his birth. The exhibition moved on to Switzerland from there, before returning home to be exhibited in Angouleme itself.
One that I missed was CARS IN COMICS in Paris between September and October last year, in which the Festival teamed up with the Paris Motor Show to exhibit some of the cars appearing in the most popular of the action comics.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
One of the many highlights of the Festival this year is a highly innovative tribute to Winsor McCay’s LITTLE NEMO, created in 1905. The tribute, entitled, ‘A Concert Of Drawings’ will show the live creation of a comic, which will be illustrated by around ten major illustrators from the French scene.
Above the stage will be a gigantic split-screen, divided into four panels, forming a broad imitation of a comic book plate. Sloped desks, equipped with cameras, will be set out at each side of the stage for the illustrators to come to and work, gradually filling the four panels in accordance with the story-line. The story itself will be an original scenario written specifically for the Festival.
The saying ‘A picture paints a thousand words,’ should indicate to readers how far short this little article falls of properly describing the variety of works to be displayed, inspired by international culture: French, Japanese, African, American, Canadian, Swedish, British, and — of course — the power of the individual imagination. Having mentioned the Japanese, it should be pointed out that the mighty MANGA will be celebrated this year.
Each year the judges receive around 400 albums and break them down into seven albums for each of six categories for the Official Selection. This year’s selections reflect a vast array of international talent and a wide open field of differing styles, approaches, personalities and artistic vision, ranging from American underground hero Kim Keitch in the ‘Best Album’ category, to Japanese Manga Rebel Tsutomu Nihei, nominated for best art-work.
ZEP — a thirty six year old Swiss cartoonist and star of European comics — stunned the Festival last year by walking away with the grand Prix du ville du Angouleme, usually thought of as a kind of ‘life-time achievement’ award and automatically making him the President of this year’s Festival. Apart from some of his own famous creations, like Titeuf , he is also penciled in as one of the artists in the above mentioned ‘A Concert Of Drawings’.
From Canadian Dave Cooper’s sometimes grotesque, surreal and bitingly funny imagery, to the violent, sexually explicit mangas; from PICSOU (Donald Duck’s grumpy relative), to the harsh realities of the graphic novel, this year’s Festival promises to be an orgy of imagery and idea, inspiration and innovation, as France spreads it’s love of the cartoon — and it’s belief in the value of that art — across the world with great success.
BREAKING EVERY RULE IN THE (COMIC) BOOK – WILL EISNER (1917-2005)
This year Angouleme will also be mourning the loss of one of the legends of the comic book world. Penciled in during the early stages of planning as a possible guest this year, Will Eisner died on January 3rd. Whilst mourning his loss, his legions of fans will not neglect to celebrate his life.
Born in 1917, Eisner grew up in tenements in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Achieving popularity with his own creations through exciting story telling, Eisner couldn’t resist breaking any rule that stood in the way of his imagination, and he did so with a huge amount of success. At a time when comics were made up of rectangular panels, arranged in an strictly uniform manner, he would use panels as it suited, sometimes spreading a single drawing across an entire page and bringing a powerful, cinematic quality to his cartoons.
Later in his career he met Art Spiegelman and other radical young artists and was deeply influenced, instantly recognizing in them the kind of ground breaking innovative instincts that he had been driven by. From that point on, Eisner worked primarily with the graphic novel.
He once said, simply and modestly: ‘Just call me a Jewish Frank McCourt. I’m a city boy. I love New York. That’s what I know and that’s what I write.’ One of the original innovators and a true hero of The Ninth Art, Eisner has achieved immortality through his work.
YOUNG TALENT PAVILION
The Angouleme International Festival of Cartoons puts a huge amount of emphasis on contests for young people and brings to it’s Festivals experts, lawyers, publishers and artists in a collective known as the ‘Young Talent Pavilion,’ set up with the very serious intent of inspiring, molding and educating young talent, so that young people can benefit from the kind of help and encouragement that artists like Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman could only have dreamt of.
And if a picture paints a thousand words, that speaks volumes about Angouleme.
Angouleme International Comic Festival – 27 – 30 January, 2005.
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