From 26 to 29 January, the 44th Angoulême International Comics Festival was held in south-west France. This is the top event in the European comics world. This year about 200,000 visitors again flocked to the event and roamed around the picturesque streets of the medieval town.
Large marquees filled with publishers’ stands, countless interviews and panel discussions in different locations, big and small exhibitions scattered across town – there’s no doubt that the 44th Angoulême International Comics Festival was mainly a great celebration of illustrations and stories.
The striking thing was the abundance of anniversaries on the official agenda. There were celebrations for the 100th birthday of American Old Master, Will Eisner, the 60-year-old mishap-prone comic strip Gaston Lagaffe, the 50th anniversary of the science fiction series Valerian und Veronique. Plus, celebrations were also held for the (nearly) 80-year-old Belgium Hermann or the wonderful manga artist Kazuo Kamimura (1940–1986). He was the first Japanese comic book author to consistently feature strong and self-confident women and to create a sensitive, always elegant genre picture of post-war Japan.
Bridging the gap between past and future
Focusing on the past is naturally an important mission for any festival, and these exhibitions were certainly interesting and thoughtfully curated. However, retrospective once too often prevailed at Angoulême. Only marginal attention was given to the present, while the outlook for the future hardly existed (at least on the official Angoulême programme).
This possibly expresses something of the perplexity in the comic-strip sector. During the last two decades, plenty has happened: in terms of content and artistic style, the comic has evolved in all kinds of directions. It has also gained an international reputation, while attracting a new audience.
Today, a growing number of comics are published in France. In 2016, there were 5,300 new titles, whereas sixteen years ago there were only 1,500. While this has resulted in a degree of saturation, it has also boosted popularity. Everything is available, but where is the focus? No project is on the horizon that promises a new beginning.
The presumably essential shift from the old guard to the new generation has not taken place because young artists are possibly integrated too readily into existing structures. They have less need to win an audience by setting up independent publishing and sales channels, as was the case for their predecessors. Lastly, particularly in the online and digital sector, convincing new financial models are rare. The incentives to make a fresh start are not discernible.
Yet, there are plenty of challenges and questions: three publishing groups and several other major publishers produce 67 % of all comics and are marginalizing the small players. The situation for some is critical. This is even more regrettable, since independent publishers always drove forward innovation. The multiple publications have also led to a collapse of sold copies and, as ever, there is no convincing vision for e-comics.
A glimpse at the French bestseller list is also sobering: in 2016, the new volumes of classic series like Lucky Luke, Blake et Mortimer, Thorgal and XIII settled into the top spots – here again, nostalgia steals the show and asserts its steady values. The only up-to-date title is Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future – his third book sold 200,000 copies. http://www.literaturhauseuropa.eu/en/observatory/blog/the-future-was-yesterday-die-zukunft-war-gestern?set_language=en
It’s not surprising that the Grand Prix for a lifetime’s work was awarded to Swiss cartoonist Cosey who won out against his younger rivals Chris Ware (USA) and Manu Larcenet (F). Born in 1950, Cosey more than deserved this most prestigious European award. He has worked tirelessly for 40 years on his personal work whose quality – both graphically and narratively – is of exceptionally high standard.
The future is an open book
Of course, at a festival like Angoulême the present-day and current topics cannot be excluded. Last year, the event was dominated by a polemical debate about the under-representation of women in the comic world. This year, this crucial debate continued and was critically explored in well attended lectures, panel discussions and a seminar.
The nostalgic attitude was defused by comic illustrators themselves. With more than 2,000 artists in attendance from all over the world, there was simply too much creativity bustling in the festival marquees, around the twisting alleys of the old town and overcrowded bars for the focus to be permanently stuck in the past. The comic is alive, and the scene is kicking – and maybe it’s a good thing that now nobody knows where the journey will take us. The path to the future is wide open.
The top prizes:
Eric Lambé/Philippe de Pierpont: Paysage après la bataille (Frémok/Actes Sud)
Matthieu Bonhomme: Der Mann, der Lucky Luke erschoss (Egmont)
Thierry Smolderen, Alexandre Clérisse: Ein diabolischer Sommer (Carlsen Verlag)
First comic book prize:
Ancco: Mauvaises filles (Cornélius)
Kazuo Kamimuri: Le club des divorcés (Kana)
By Christian Gasser
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright