Autoroute detail by Baru

This year’s Angoulême festival was a solid if somewhat unremarkable one, plagued more than usual by the cultural myopia that has always characterized it to an extent. Its organizers described it as a success, but below the surface, it turns out, lurk conflicts of financing and responsibility.

A symptom of this was a strange dissonance in the programming material. Two of the main exhibitions, the one showcasing Belgian artists Dominique Goblet and the retrospective of the work of festival president Baru (reviewed here), were not mentioned on the official site of their venue, the comics center and museum, Cité de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (CIBDI), and the extensive programming offered there was given less attention than usual in the festival program.

Didier Pasamonik, writing for the French-language news site ActuaBD, offers the contours of the larger conflict behind this unusual discrepancy. In short, a dispute over funding between the city of Angoulême and the festival’s organizing body 9èmeArt+ broke out in 2009, immediately following the changes brought about by the construction of a shopping mall in the city’s largest square, the traditional commercial locus of the festival. The city wanted to reduce its financial contribution to the festival, insisting the organizers appeal elsewhere for increased support. The latter seemingly succeeded in securing a three-year funding plan to the tune of €2.1 million, with substantial contributions made by the state, as well as the Regional Council and Department of Commerce of Poitou-Charentes.

Now it turns out, however, that this agreement, contrary to statements made in December by 9èmeArt+ director Franck Bondoux, was never signed by the Regional Council, supposed to contribute €225.000 of the budget. Its chairman, Michel Boutant, amongst whose responsibilities is the CIBDI, refuses to sign until a more equitable agreement between the center and the festival can be reached.

From the Dominique Goblet exhibition at the CIBDI's Castro Building

The exact nature of disagreements between the two remain unclear, but it surely relates to funding. The CIBDI contributes crucially to the success of the festival, lending to it the city’s largest exhibition spaces and conference halls, and yet receives about the same amount of public support annually as does the four-day festival. Boutant absented himself from all events relating to the festival in protest, while minister of culture Frédéric Mitterand visited the festival and the awards ceremony on Sunday, strengthening the position of 9èmeArt+ in the conflict.

Although this may have serious consequences for the festival in the future, it mostly provided a bit of background noise to the sensitive visitor, who was otherwise treated to a fairly solid festival, if one that had turned its attention further inward than any in recent memory.

The only major non-Francophone guest was Rose of Versailles creator and shoujo veteran Ikeda Ryochi, who appeared for a brief, overcrowded on-stage interview (I couldn’t get in, unfortunately). A major catch for a festival that has struggled with manga for years, it was a real shame that her presence was not consolidated with an exhibition or other events. In fact, the only Japanese exhibition this year was a small show of women’s so-called “underground” manga, which was severely underexposed (it’s not even mentioned on the festival website!) Tellingly, the so-called “Manga Building” exhibition space of previous years, had reverted to its old name, the Espace Franquin…

Not to slight the work of such North American creators as Charlie Adlard, Michel Rabagliati, Dash Shaw, or John Pham, but they are not exactly headline material for an international comics festival of Angoulême’s caliber. That left us with 70s dinosaur Philippe Druillet, his Métal Hurlant colleague Moebius — currently consecrated by a major retrospective in Paris — and Christophe Arleston, writer of the French-language Science Fantasy phenomenon Lanfeust de Troy. Of these, only Moebius can lay claim to international fame, and any non-francophone guest who might be interested then faced the usual problem of the on-stage interviews not being translated (of course, it did not help that the interview was also abysmally conducted). In fact, it is quite bizarre that a festival that proclaims itself international in its very title and attracts thousands of guests from all over the world makes so little effort to communicate with those who do not speak French. Everything, from exhibition labels to the official program, is grindingly monolingual.

Jeffrey Lau Wan-Kit drawing live in the Hong Kong exhibition

On one account, however, the festival’s international ambitions bore real fruit: this year’s guest country, Hong Kong, presented what is perhaps the most convincing exhibition and manifestation of its type that I have seen at Angoulême. Organized with considerable public support, notably from the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the centerpiece was a terrific exhibition, called The Kaleidoscope. It presented the history of Hong Kong comics from the 1960s to now in a suite of fold-out boxes on wheels containing a judicious mix of explanatory text, original art and comic books displayed in drawers, video screens showing both animation and documentary footage, large reproductions presenting select slices of comics history, and lots of actual comics for the visitor’s perusal. A breezy, informative and inspirational walk through half a century of fascinating comics, accompanied by an well-written and finely illustrated catalog lucidly laying it all out for the layperson.

Additionally, more than a dozen contemporary creators were in town. Amongst them were a few which I gather are fairly big time in their home country, such as Laitattatwing, Kai, and Jeffrey Lau Wan Kit, as well as a couple of the more alternative-minded artists that have wowed art comics audiences around Europe, such as Chihoi and Yeung Hok Tak. Participating in an extensive program of live drawing, signing, on-stage interviews and colloquia around the festival, they were ubiquitous. A textbook example of how an event such as the FIBD can open international doors both ways, despite the general cultural myopia of its organizers.

From the Moebius interview

The awards, handed out after closing time on Sunday afternoon yet again this year, confirmed this sense, dividing its ten prizes between five nations. And the nominations this year were remarkably international in scope — I cannot quite shake the impression that this reflects the relative lack of notable French/Belgian/Swiss books out this year.

Whatever the case, the winners present a solid, if somewhat middle-of-the-road field, high in quality, if less so in boldness, and with a distinct focus on the kind of realism seen in jury president Baru’s own work. The honors accorded the French editions of Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp were welcome if also obvious, while the awards for Brecht Evens’ The Wrong Place and Ulli Lust’s Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Lebens (reviewed here) seemed like no-brainers in that they have unquestionably been the art comics buzz books of the year in Europe (along, arguably, with Olivier Schrauwen’s latest book, passed over by the jury).

The Fauve d’Or (comic of the year) was given to the young Italian cartoonist Manuele Fior, for his latest book Cinq mille kilomètres par seconde. I have not read it yet, but am familiar with some of his earlier work. He is ambitious and very talented, and needless to say, this is a major recognition of his still fairly modest production. We shall inevitably expect strong work from him in the future.

From the exhibition area

Most significant, in terms of internationalization but also just in recognizing seminal cartooning, was of course the award of the Grand Prix to Art Spiegelman. As Jeet Heer points out here, there has been a sad tendency in recent years to downplay not only his importance to the development of the medium, but also the very quality of Maus itself — a tendency one may ascribe to his largely sub-par work since the publication of that masterpiece, but nonetheless thoroughly unjust. Rumor had it that the Angoulême Academy, responsible for the award, had long had similar reservations, hesitating to select him for this obvious honor. He will surely make a fine president next year, and will at the very least act as another, inevitably inspiring, opening toward the great world of comics beyond the francophone wellspring.

Originally published at on 3 February 2011.