alagbe_portrait.jpgSome might have thought that, the pirates would leave the Angoulême festival alone, now Lewis Trondheim had been elected President and reformed the awards. Not so. Despite the invitation – from Trondheim, not the festival, we understand – to avant-garde cartoonist and -publisher Yvan Alagbé to sit on the jury, he and his colleagues at pioneering publishing house Frémok are not satisfied with the festival’s treatment of anything that does not fit into the conservative mainstream sensibility of the festival organizers.

“Do you really know what (not who) you are dealing with here? In actuality, no. You don’t have the foggiest. Blinded by some diffuse aura, some notion of supposed influence, you really thought you had a means of pretending to be the new friend of these dishevelled rowdies to whom you’ve given the moniker “alternatives” [by having Alagbé on the jury], and that we will therefore stroll happily through your fair city, beholding the true face of the colourful publications you prefer (those of your childhood). You shouldn’t do such things. It’s called putting on a blindfold while playing with fire. It’s extremely dangerous.”

This is taken from a lengthy – and very French! – insult letter written to the Angoulême festival’s artistic director, Benoît Mouchart, by the people at Frémok. And if you think the above is harsh, rest assured that the rest of the letter doesn’t let off for a second. Frémok is not satisfied with what they see as the condescending lip-service the festival is paying to publishers such as themselves, who publish comics that dare to be different. They alight upon a passage in the press material regarding the awards, where the festival writes that they have invited Alagbé who is “an eminent representative of poetic comics published in limited numbers”, and use it to make the point that the festival is stuck in the past and has no idea what is going on.

The point they want to make is that originality makes a difference. That its prescence not only makes for a healthier comics market, but actually sells. At the same time they take the time out to deplore the cultural appropriation by the mainstream of what one momentarily ill-advised but otherwise fine anthology editor named the “soft avant-garde” a couple of years ago. By this they mean that the mainstream publishers have discovered that certain comics different to the traditional fare – such as those of Marjane Satrapi and Joann Sfar – actually sell and have thus started to publish this kind of comics, situating them as the comics “alternative” to the mainstream and leaving the rest of the innovative comics, their creators and publishers, in a lurch.

Already last year, Alagbé emphasized how it has paradoxically become much harder to put out the kind of comics he and his colleagues do, now that the market has embraced comics that don’t adhere to the tired mainstream formulae. Last year, Frémok was part of a large and visible counter-manifestation at Angoulême, Les Littératures pirates, in which they and their colleagues in the organization of the same name, organized their own events and exhibitions around town and boycotted the official venues and events to differing extents.

Looking at the output of French-language comics today and comparing it to the years around 2000, at least this observer senses that the Frémok people are right. There are many more interesting mid-range books coming out now, the manga market is certainly the most impressive of any Western country, and they’ve even started putting out some quality reprints of classics (though there’s a long way to go on that…), but I find it hard to spot new works of comparable quality to the seminal works of around half a decade ago by such people as David B, Anke Feuchtenberger, Fabrice Neaud, Raùl, Aristophane, Martin tom Dieck, and many more.

The election of Trondheim, co-founder of arguably he most important publisher of quality comics of the last decade-and-a-half, L’Association, as well as a pioneering and prolific cartoonist, to the festival’s Hall of Fame is merely one sign that the avant-garde of the 90s is becoming establishment, slowly but surely. Another is the so-called “soft” alternatives mentioned earlier. The question is what the long-term effects of these changes will have.

feuchtenberger_chien.jpgOn the one hand, this all appears to be the natural result of the cyclical nature of these things – the avant-garde becomes mainstream and must reinvent itself, and so on – and things are certainly better now than they were ten-fifteen years ago, when some of these publishers were coming to their own in a regressive and incestuous market. On the other hand, taking into account the way things usually play out for the different, the idiosyncratic, the non-conformist, when the important decisions are made by people of vastly differing interests, the concentration of money on worryingly few hands in the French market these last few years (several of the big publishers have fused and/or been bought up by large media corporations), does not bode well.

Despite what one might think of complaints like the one Frémok makes, complaints that – tongue only halfway buried in cheek – threaten fire and brimstone and accuse the objects of their ire of “error of appreciation” and “taste malfunction,” they have themselves have decided to walk the walk and are releasing a number of ambitious and emphatically independent books at the festival. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing these and to following the further activities of this never uninteresting publisher. I’m also looking forward to the third volume of L’Association’s Jean-Christophe Menu edited critical journal L’Éprouvette which will be released on Friday and – if I’m not grossly mistaken – will deliver the right hook to Frémok’s left jab.

If you wish more background on some of these developments in the French market, provided by one of their most ardent critics, check out this excerpt of my interview with Jean-Christophe Menu from The Comics Journal #277. The pictures show a recent portrait of Alagbé, acquired from the Frémok almanak, and the cover of the Frémok edition of Anke Feuchtenberger’s next book, Si mon chien meurt, je me taille une veste, a book that unfortunately won’t be available at the festival, far as I can tell.