Saturday, November 3, 2012

Krakow Bound

I wasn't planning to go to Poland. But about eight weeks ago the opportunity came up to attend a conference as part of Reading Malopolska, exploring Cities of Literature networks. Krakow, Poland's 'second city', after capital Warswaw, is bidding for UNESCO City of Literature status. Melbourne was awarded this title about three years ago.

So last week I spent three days in Krakow, in the company of City of Literature representatives. I went wearing my Melbourne Writers Festival hat, to see about developing contacts with other cities and people as part of this group. You can see a nice video summary here.

Now there are six Cities of Literature: Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa, Reykjavik and Norwich. Almost all English language cities, I'm sure you noted. But here comes a new wave of applicants from cities including Krakow, Naples, Heidelberg, Tartu and Prague among them.

What is most interesting about the Cities of Literature is the different responses that each makes to the brief. In Melbourne thus far it has been mostly "top-down": the establishment of the Wheeler Centre being the flagship. But in Edinburgh, Dublin, Iowa and elsewhere, leaders have taken a vigorous grass-roots approach to the promotion of reading and to spreading an awareness of each city's literary heritage.

Which brings us back to Krakow. Because if the city can boast anything, (though boasting isn't the style of this quiet, historic city), it's literary backstory. Krakow is home to two - count 'em - Nobel laureates, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, and a heritage stretching back a millennium at least. The challenge for the city's cultural workers is figure out how to move forward without dispatching this extraordinary heritage. A country whose own political heritage has been so disrupted might well be anxious how 'modernisers' try to re-define Polish literature to the world. The conference organisers were acutely mindful of such anxieties, or the potential for such. But culture that exists only in a glass case is either dead or about to be so, and the opportunities for UNESCO recognition are an opportunity to revive the heritage, and take it outside the country. It might also be a platform for new writers to engage new audiences, at home and abroad and validate new endeavours.

Krakow is a city of extraordinary cultural riches, not just literary. For one, there is a da Vinci painting Lady With an Ermine that you can see, relatively uncrowded, in a medieval castle. For two, there is the biggest medieval market square in Europe (beneath which you can wander in the 13th century foundations). And for three, there is the 14th century gothic altarpiece by Veit Stoss. A truly extraordinary work of religious art, with a backdrop of towering stained glass.

Krakow is also the departure point for anyone wanting to go to Auschwitz, about 40 kilometres from the city. While I have absolutely no objection to anyone wanting to go the site of the concentration camp, I have no desire myself. I feel there are plenty of ways for me to understand and examine the realities and legacies of the genocide, but physically going there is not something I want to do. So it was quite some coincidence to discover a few days later in a bookshop (Foyles, in London), the graphic novel We Won't See Auschwitz by Paris-based Jeremie Dres. The book is a straightforward account of a trip taken by the writer and his brother to Poland in search their family's past. The illustration style appears simple, though it's nuanced and economical. I like the documentary approach. It's not without a few lighter moments, and the journey is presented without complication or need for artifice.

Dres is relatively un-conflicted about not visiting Auschwitz, (spoiler alert: the title is not ironic, there is no surprise twist), since he discovers amid the suspicion of lingering anti-semitism, a new wave of endeavours to bring Jewish heritage and culture back to Poland. there are people working on humanitarian, cultural and legal fronts to re-establish a new space for Polish Jews. Rather than remain fixated in one way of remembering the past, Dres draws us towards a view that there is more going on in Poland than a simple reading would lead us to believe.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Last words on Angouleme

This is an edited version of my report to the Copyright Agency Limited Creative Industries Career Fund. If you are an Australian working in the literature field, the CAL fund is well worth a look. Hey, they supported me!
(The post was originally written in February 2011.)

What is the Angouleme Festival?
Any mention of comics and France inevitably leads to the same response: “Ah Asterix! Ah, Tin Tin!” The Festival International de la Bande Dessinee d’ Angouleme is Europe’s biggest comics event, attracting between 200,000 and 250,000 visitors, over four days. I went to the festival to see how comic book culture is presented and promoted in France. Angouleme, a large regional centre, is 2 ½ hours from Paris by train. Perhaps not coincidentally the SNCF, France’s national railway, is a major sponsor of the festival. It is the French comics industry’s major event and 2011 was the 38th festival.

Marketing and public awareness
The festival is both a celebration and a masterful promotion of la bande dessinee. (Bande dessinee means, literally, drawn stories.) Prizes highlight a wide range of themes and audiences, and are awarded on the final night,. The shortlist of 51 titles in a range of categories are heavily promoted in bookshops and beyond. The national retailer FNAC (think JB HiFi meets Borders meets Ticketmaster), is a major sponsor, devoting considerable shelf space and marketing muscle to the Prix d'Angouleme. National newspapers and magazines across the political and cultural spectrum run cover stories and some offer quite lavish supplements as tie-ins with the festival. Radio staion France Info broadcasts from the festival. The industry, its artists and readers, are taken seriously. News that Art Speigleman was this year’s Grand Prize winner, and therefore next year’s festival president, was widely reported in press and online.

Angouleme is not a convention, or a fan-meet.
In addition to major exhibitions of French and international comic book artists, there is also a rights market; meetings with artists; film screenings and projections, book signings; book sales (oh, my suitcase), and an incredible buzz throughout the town. Add to that an exhaustive schedule of in-conversations, panels and debates. 'Is Temeraire a little Nazi?'; 'Teaching BD in art school'; 'Lesbians and bande dessinee' 'Violence and manga'; 'Mainstream or indie - is it necessary to choose?' The signature event is the series drawing concerts, or Concert de Dessiné, where major illustrators draw live in concert with well known international music acts. The drawing concerts that I attended were strongly supported and appear to be an excellent way to broaden the audience for comic books and illustration. Four days was not enough to see and do everything this event has to offer.

Being there
The town of Angouleme is taken over by the festival. It impossible to forget why you are there unlike, say, a writer’s festival in a major city. Hotels are also impossible to obtain as they are reserved each year for publishers, exhibitors and professionals. Visitors to the festival can stay outside the town and ‘commute’, or do as I did and stay with a local family, booking via the tourist bureau. Staying with a local family actually proved very enriching - though I can see the potential pitfalls.

So, where are the Australians?
Despite the challenges of accommodation I urge and encourage other Australians to go to this festival. There appeared to be very few Australians at the festival. One young French publisher I spoke to believed that Shaun Tan is an American, despite the fact the Tan had won the Angouleme Prize for best album (book) in 2008 for The Arrival. An Australian stand in the Nouveau Monde marquee would be an excellent opportunity to display Australian output in comics and graphic novels. I believe it would be an opportunity for Australian comics producers to see what the rest of the world is doing. I know they will find this festival an invaluable window onto the broad church of comics today, in the same way that the Bologna Children’s Book Fair does for children’s authors and publishers.

This festival is not only about French and Belgian comics: it is an opportunity to see the world of comics. I met Finnish, Romanian, Italian, English, Belgian, Dutch, Hong Kong Chinese, and of course French exhibitors. I saw American, African and Spanish musicians performing as part of the Concert de Dessiné. Books from Italy and the United States won major prizes.

Maybe not so different
While France has a strong and successful comics culture and industry, it also faces the same issue as Australia: how to navigate between the rock and the hard place of superheroes and manga. The diversity of storytelling, the artistic nuance in independent comics, the reworking of traditional forms, the audacious subject matter, is all clear evidence of how comics can exist beyond the fringe, the cult and the bland commercial mainstream. Australian comic creators and publishers could benefit from an engagement with this festival. I hope that in the future a small Australian team could exhibit in the Nouveau Monde space, alongside the plethora of other nations. I believe that Australian comics and graphic novels could be greatly enriched by exposure to and engagement with the pluralistic European comics culture.

Language barrier?
My French language skills are far from fluent, though having studied for the past four years (privately and at the Council of Adult Education). You might say that I have ‘high school French’. While there was some frustration, my skills were more than enough to let me engage with the festival program, the books, exhibitions, and literature. The Hong Kong exhibitors had a translator with them. Mastery of French is not a prerequisite for exploring this festival.

The town accommodates the festival in diverse exhibition spaces and in massive marquees housing a ranged of themed halls: edgy international content (Le Nouveau Monde), to commercial mainstream publishing (Les Bulles, packed!), to young new talent (Pavillion Jeunesse Talents), manga, collectors, meet the artist sessions, debates and more. In addition to the programmed exhibitions, independent and DIY artists, also staged events in a sort of undeclared fringe festival. The fact is that in four days one could not possibly see everything.

I wanted to experience the diversity of publishing in the field of comics, and to see how the festival presented the creators and their work. In both of these areas - content and presentation - Angouleme was like a four-day masterclass. Curatorial standards in exhibitions are extremely high. For writer-illustrator Baru, the honour of being this year’s festival president was evident in a generous retrospective that included original artwork, large panels, a documentary film, objects including a period car, pinball machines, music and more. But this was just one of numerous exhibitions. Also on show was an elegantly packaged touring show on the history of comics in Hong Kong; a French colonial history; the Middle Ages in comics (in the late gothic town hall); a Christian BD show (in a cathedral); homage to rock and rock record covers with soundtrack; a magna show; 60 years of Peanuts and Snoopy; a youth prize show and more. The Hong Kong show was a major part of the festival and the curatorial standard was equal to anything a major cultural institution in Australia might have in permanent exhibition. This show was designed for touring and I have been speaking with the Melbourne Writers Festival director about bringing it to Australia.

In addition to these (and many other) temporary exhibits, Angouleme is home to la Musee de la bande dessinee, a permanent exhibition on the history of comics. The stylishly designed museum includes comics from all over the world, not just France.

I hope that my experience is just the beginning of wider engagement for Australian creators with European comics. It’s a big world out there, and there is more to French comics than Asterix and Tin Tin.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

There and back again

There and back again within a week. Usually a trip to France involves years of idle dreaming, months of detailed planning and weeks of anxious anticipation. But this one was different. This time, it was the festival organisers to whom the planning and anticipation fell. For me, it was mostly a matter of turning up and keeping my eyes an ears open. I was invited to represent the Melbourne Writers Festival at meetings for the Word Alliance, a network of major writers festivals, of which Etonnants Voyageurs is a part.

The Word Alliance was embraced warmly by Etonnants Voyageurs, reflecting as it does, many of the values of the St Malo festival. The local media reported on the visit and canvassed that issues discussed at meetings.

Michel Le Bris, Etonnants Voyageurs director, centre left. (Pic

The annual St Malo literature and film festival, Etonnants Voyageurs, is unlike any other. It is certainly a major event, pulling around 60,000 people over the four days (including a schools program that I missed) to it's broad offering of panels, readings, exhibitions, screenings, book market and more besides. And given the absolutely perfect weather that arrived in time for the long weekend. The spring that stubbornly failed to appear for months unrolled itself in one glorious long weekend of blue, blue skies and gentle breezes.

At least, unlike any that you would find in Australia. I came away from the three days with the sense that this is very much an auteurs festival, auteur in the sense that the festival director firmly controls the direction of the event. As pointed to in the previous post, this festival takes as its purpose the task of widening the boundaries of 'French writing', which it redefines around the idea 'writing in French'. This immediately opens up the definition to include the many Francophone countries and cultures, and implicitly challenge the Paris as the bastion and tastemaker of literature. The 6th arrondissement is not the be all and end all of French writing.

The idea of 'la France pluriel', multicultural, multi-ethnic France, is central to the festival's agenda. I discovered that Rennes, the nearby city and capital of the Brittany region, recorded the highest socialist vote, and lowest vote for far right candidates, in the recent election. A politically progressive literature festival has found a good home in the region.

Like any good festival there was far more happening than one could hope to see. The main venue held a number of exhibitions, including a selection of grueling images under the banner Le bande dessinee speaks to the world. I could only describe the images as uncompromising, showing the violence and consequences of war and conflict in places like Chechnya, Rwanda and Cambodia. If you ever doubted that graphic novels could handle serious subjects here was a show to banish the doubt.

Poets in French, Arabic, Spanish and Flemish were heard; novelists in French and American, humorists, travelers, photographers, directors, essayists, memoirists and more were on stage. The variety of venues, both in the conference centre and the theatres, cinemas and schools of St Malo gives the program a nicely varied and authentic quality. It was also a good excuse to explore the narrow streets within the walls.

My trip was supported by the Institut Francais and the festival. Thanks to Emmanuel, Michel Le Bris, the logistics team and Word Alliance colleagues, from whom I learned a very great deal.

And that amazing beach, once more. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Grand amateur

Last year I was very fortunate to attend the comics festival in Angouleme. This year I am heading to St Malo for a few days to attend the Étonnants Voyageurs (Amazing Travellers) International Writers and Film Festival.

The event in Brittany is held over four days, including a schools day, from May 25-28. The Melbourne Writers Festival is part of a group called the Word Alliance, a network of leading literary festivals that includes Edinburgh, Toronto, Jaipur, Beijing and St Malo. My trip is to meet with the directors of other festivals (although I am a program manager, not the director!), and to plan ways that we can work together to create stronger programs and increase international participation.

It's fair to say that I am just a little bit excited. St Malo looks like an amazing place. It's the area where A Summer's Tale by Eric Rohmer, one of my favourite films was shot.

St Malo is a few kilometers from Mont St Michel. Which I won't have time to visit. Dommage.

And the festival looks amazing! It's held within the walls of St Malo, great solid granite walls that were substantially damaged in WWII, but have been restored. The program naturally has a very French flavour, though it's agenda is to challenge and extend the boundaries of what constitutes 'French' writing.  Lauren Elkin writing in The White Review gives a pretty perceptive take on the issues at stake and how the festival responds to them. Anyway, I am fascinated by the idea of a festival having an argument of sorts with its literary culture. So it will be more than interesting to see how this is played out. I look forward to meeting with the organisers of Étonnants Voyageurs and other Word Alliance festival folk.

The festival website provides bios for all people participating, and to my surprise, my name is there. But don't worry French people, I won't be giving any talks. Your ears are safe. But it is funny, sort of, to see myself described as 'grand amateur'. Quoi?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bande dessinée by numbers

The excellent, the French website dedicated to all things French graphic novels, recently posted the annual health check of the industry. Despite the economic straits France finds itself in, the comics industry continues to grow. While the overall picture seems quite healthy, a closer look reveals a more interesting picture. And students of the Australian publishing sector will certainly draw some parallels with our colleagues francaise.

Being on holiday and at something of a loose end, I have written a translation of the article, and added links. were contacted for permission but have not yet replied. You can read the original version at the website.

In the meantime, allons-y!

Bande dessinee is 2011: the boom of the sure thing

The annual meeting of the Bande Dessinée Critics Association (Association de critiques et tournalistes de bande dessinée) noted again this year the growth of the production of albums (books) -- but with the caution that publishers are supporting the safe bets.

The traditional annual report from Gilles Ratier, the general secretary of the Bande Dessinée Critics Association (ACBD) has been delivered for 2011.

For the sixteenth consecutive year, the production of albums has increased: 3.04% against 2010; an increase of 162 titles, for a total of 5,327 albums. However the report noted "the economic conditions are hardly favourable for industry, which for three years has lacked a strong engine. Hence, we have a general climate of watchfulness, highlighting safety first and anxiety!"

Watchfulness in effect because of the 5,327 albums only 3,841 are strictly new (of which only 1,577 originated in francophone Europe). The traditional publishing sector (le secteur patrimonial) is fully expanded, with 1058 new releases, compilations or bind-ups (980 in 2010), 224 woks dating from more than 20 years published finally in album and 31 francophone series reprised or continued by new creators.

Watchfulness also because in 2011 on 99 "sure things" (valuers sûres), had sales of more than 50, 000 copies and bestowing the bulk of sales on this sector. At the head of these 'locomotives' are: XIII (500,000 copies); Kid Paddle (360, 000) and Boule et Bille (253,000). Counting manga, ten series (from five publishing houses) provided 50% of sales, Naruto at the head (250,000 copies of each of three titles in the series).

Looking at publishing houses, 310 publishers produced bande dessinée in 2011. And yet the trend towards concentration is again confirmed: four groups accounted for 43.6% of production. With the acquisition of the majority share of the publisher Soleil by Guy Delcourt, Delcourt became by far the biggest producer of albums with 840 titles, being 15.77% of production.

On the economic graph, the prize nevertheless gos to Médias-Participations group (Dargaud, Le Lombard, Dupuis, etc).

The report noted the strong success of the bande dessinée blogs, which have become a "fishtank" (un vivier) for the print publications. On the other hand few were seduced by the e-book. And bande dessinée is always well exposed in the news stands, with 76 specialist journals.


So, thanks again to ACBD and ToutenBD. And apologies for all infelicities in 'la traduction'.