urine.jpgIt was the best and worst of festivals at Angoulême this year. On the one hand, it was logistically chaotic because the exhibitor’s space had been moved to the suburb of Montauzier, a half-hour walk away from the city centre, with no restaurants, no cash machine, no trashcans, and no soul. Most of the debit for this bizarre attempt to have it both ways can be laid squarely at the doorsteps of City Hall. The same people who are obliterating one of the town’s two central squares with a butt-ugly shopping mall.

On the other hand, the festival was a triumph for comics as an art form, credit for which can pretty much totally be laid at the feet of this year’s president, Lewis Trondheim. He reformed the awards and contributed to giving them to a selection of high-quality comics, he decided to give us a gorgeous Jim Woodring-exhibition instead of the traditional retrospective normally accorded to the president (we would also have liked to see that…), he was a constant, animating presence at the festival, day and night, and it was on his watch that José Muñoz was finally awarded the Grand Prix.

champ_de_mars_1.jpgThe move of all the exhibiting publishers to Montauzier was a sundering in two of an event that has always maintained a wonderfully integrated feel in the middle of the charming hilltop town of Angoulême. And speaking of charm, it boggles the mind that anyone could decide to cram an unshapely turd of a shopping centre into what used to be a beautiful, expansive 19th-century square, the Champ de Mars (traditionally where the exhibitors set up). This is obviously much bigger than the festival, but is such an essentially philistine act that no amount of political doubletalk can gloss it over.

The construction going on at the Champ de Mars was the reason for last year’s rather unfortunate displacement of the exhibitors around town, some of which : the manga and the independents, of course : were given the short end of the stick to the extent that many of them were hard to find, even for hardened festivalgoers. It was clear that this solution was not ideal, but there must be some other way than banishing the publishers’ exhibitions : like it or not the heart of the festival: it’s where the comics are, fer chrissakes! : to some muddy field outside of town. How about using a combination of some of the smaller squares, like was done in previous years, part of the large, central Place New York, like was done last year, and the sliver of open space left at the Champ de Mars, as was done this year, and then perhaps involving the art school next to the comics centre (CNBDI) some more, and using their area?

throng.jpgInstead of reaching an acceptable solution, the politicking of local and regional representatives gave us an amputated festival, with over-crammed buses just barely managing the flow of people between Angoulême and Montauzier and a much less lively and vibrant city centre than usual. Needless to say, the merchants of Angoulême were not happy with this state of affairs, just as many of them do not seem to be happy with the desecration of the Champ de Mars, and the publishers, large and small, were initially almost unanimously dissatisfied with their dislocation, some threatening boycott, and one : Albin Michel : actually walking.

Apparently the festival did not suffer unduly and actually managed to attract around 200.000 paying guests : roughly the same number as 2005, before construction started at Champ de Mars and much better than snow-clogged (but beautiful!) 2006, when the festival took a serious financial hit. According to the local newspaper, Charente Libre (29/1/7), most of the publishers reported stable business between +5% and -10% at the end of the day, and some expressed satisfaction with the new location while others still wanted to return to the city centre.

trash.jpgIn any case, the festival organizers have already confirmed that next year’s festival will also be split between Angoulême and Montauzier, while they are working on other reforms that will hopefully improve things. In any case, we can only hope that the politicians, once they are out of their election-induced short term-thinking, will be more willing to listen (presidential candidate Ségolène Royal is elected in Poitou-Charente and has for a long time been at odds with the local authorities in Angoulême on cultural issues). One would think it inconceivable that at least the local politicians would let the festival : Angoulême’s only large-scale cultural event, and also one of France’s largest : slip away from their town, something people were actually talking about last week.

Read part II. Photos from around town: T. Thorhauge & Matthias Wivel