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 DessinĂ©. 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.