Angoulême! It’s an eyegasm. As promised. The sky, overcast since Paris, finally brightened as the TGV pulled past Poitiers without stopping. From my seat, I was playing the game I always do when going to geek cons, whether comics or science-fiction and fantasy: spot your fellow travelers. There were the obvious alt chicks and skinny guys with portfolios, but then . . . well, pretty much everyone got off at Angoulême, even though the train was bound for Biarritz, where the weather’s much nicer.
Central Angoulême is set on a hill overlooking the River Charente, and surrounded by the rampart remains of old fortifications. The Festival itself, in its thirty-eighth year, is now such a part of the French cultural landscape that is seems to have been around forever. It can also be interpreted as a triumph of municipal determination, much the way our interest in Beaujolais nouveau is a triumph of canny marketing. Nothing inherently ties the city of Angoulême to comics, apart from a long history of papermaking (whose most famous product was actually rolling papers).
France really puts its full weight behind its cultural product, sort of the way every actor in England seems to feel it a patriotic duty to appear in Harry Potter films. From the station newsagents, all the dailies proclaim the festival on their covers. The front page of Libération sports an original David B. illustration (on Mubarak’s Egypt); images by famous artists accompany every article. A five-story mural by Nicolas de Crécy just outside the train station is one of the first of many by major artists you’ll find throughout the town of Angoulême, where even the street signs and house numbers appear in speech balloons, or bulles. Literally “bubble,” it’s also the word used for the many temporary expo spaces dotting the squares and boulevards.
It’s as easy to tell the townies from the comics crowd as it is to tell who’s winning in the battle for the town. Angoulême runneth over, restaurant and bar. I try to get answers to a few basic questions. Is it like a stateside conference, where the cool kids (are we professionals in fact the cool kids?) skip all the programmed events and hang out hobnobbing? Well, no: encounters-with-the-author sessions often prove rewarding and interesting, and the festival arranges all sorts, from live drawing Q&As to live-music-accompanied sketching. All Francophonia fills the bar and lobby of the Hôtel Mercure after hours. English speakers are said to prefer Le Chat Noir, a few blocks away. Good luck eating anywhere, or even grabbing the free shuttle, without a reservation.
Angoulême seems to combine the best of both worlds: the intimacy of a small conference, where everyone knows each other, where fans can have actual conversations with authors, and the furor of a convention event.
When you walk into the Independent Publishers’ Pavilion, the first and largest booth, front and center, belongs to L’Association. On the tables where books should be are neatly-laid-out copies of the letter announcing the strike. The eight employees who signed the letter staff the booth, ready to explain their cause. Things are looking iffy for L’Asso. On the other hand, indie comics as a whole are thriving. The Pavilion is teeming with fascinating work. If the fall of the giant means smaller houses will be out of its shadow, stellar indie presses like Cornélius, who’ve been around just as long as L’Asso, may actually stand to gain.
Baru, last year’s winner of the Grand Prize of the City of Angoulême (a lifetime achievement award) is this year’s president. On Sunday, all the past presidents will get together and pick this year’s winners, including this year’s Grand Prize, or next year’s president. Frontrunners are Italian Lorenzo Mattotti, Edmond Baudoin, or… Art Spiegelman. Naysayers claim that Spiegelman, however deserving, would be a largely politically motivated choice, an attempt on the part of the organizers to assert a sense of the festival’s truly international reach and importance.
By night, images are projected on the medieval towers of the otherwise Gothic revival town hall, a stolid bastion of mismatched architectural styles. I spot bestselling kids’ humor comic character Titeuf and the fauve, the black cat that is the festival’s mascot.
Mercure, part of the French Accor family of hotels, is a Holiday Inn-like chain, not exactly known for its luxury. But it’s the best Angoulême has to offer, and each year hosts the major moneymaking power players: Casterman, Delcourt, Soleil, the Dargaud-Dupuis-Lombard complex. But even Mercure throws itself into the festival proceedings in a way no American hotel would at the height of either coast’s Comic-Con. The walls are plastered with posters for comics, including many of this year’s Official Selections, from which pool the final prizewinners will be chosen. Every piece of art has been swapped out for a framed and matted original comic page. The lobby is a zoo when I walk in at midnight. The private dinner Dargaud is throwing for festival invitees is still going on through conference room doors slightly ajar.