As a manifestation of comics as an art form, this year’s festival was the best in a long time. It was the happy result of the synergy of a market in which a number of quality comics unprecedented in the past 25 years have become available, the reform of the awards to match this fact, which resulted in a group of quality winners that seems timely and fresh, and a president willing to make it happen. However, having attended the festival this year, it is not difficult to spot the potential problems the proliferation of so-called auteur comics – of which the awards this year were a consolidation – might bring the market and, especially, the art form in years ahead.
It has all been seen before; something starts selling, is consequently turned into product and hawked excessively. One cannot help but feel that the staggeringly high production of what, for want of a better word, could be called ‘graphic novels’ – a commercial term for a commercial product – these years is simply too much for the market to support. Something’s got to give.
Almost every large comics publisher, as well as most of the large generalist houses, have started their own lines or imprints publishing comics in book form that do not adhere to the traditional genres – the kind of work pioneered by the intrepid smaller publishers of the nineties. Or rather, a certain version of it, for it is by no means the eclectic entirety of their output that has been embraced by the mainstream. Rather, the order of the day seems increasingly to be the great chase for the next Persepolis, but bourgeois.
The fear is that the first casualties of this overproduction is going to be the small, creative publishers who have been deprived of a significant source of their revenue upon the entry of bigger structures. The second, it is feared, is the group of big publishers that are all fishing in the same small pond and are quickly discovering that there is simply not enough money to be made doing it.
At the roundtable discussing his new book on comics as a cultural phenomenon, Thierry Groensteen voiced this worry and mentioned that he had heard that generalist publisher Gallimard’s graphic novel imprint Denoël Graphic were running at a serious enough deficit to be considering scaling back considerably. If that happens, and the other large publishers follow suit, the theory goes, there will be very few publishers left to solicit and publish the work that keeps the art form alive, especially since the readers will also have grown disenchanted with it because of the profusion of mediocrity being thrust their way these years.
These kinds of doomsday scenarios always appear during boom times, and the future is probably not as bleak as it might seem, but we have seen depressing boom-and-bust cycles in comics before, so I would not be too dismissive of the pessimists. And I at least cannot shake the feeling that – as I wrote recently – the vitality and sheer artistry of the late nineties and early naughts are waning in today’s ‘non-traditional’ or ‘alternative’ French-language comics. Though they are undeniably better than the well-groomed mediocrities that are usually awarded prizes at the festival, Pourquoi j’ai tué Pierre, Lupus and Lucille are far from L’Ascension du haut mal, Conte Démoniaque or Journal. Cause for some concern, I would say. Though, even if worst comes to worst, we will always have all the wonderful (as well as the not so wonderful) Asian comics that are becoming the new mainstream.
This does not mean that the festival’s consolidation of comics as an art form that is very much alive was not significant. Overproduction or not, recognition of the validity of the medium is important to its development in the future, since this development like it or not will take place in a much greater cultural context than the microcosm of comics fandom. It is indeed inevitable; Angoulême’s move ahead had to happen, but that does not mean it should be given less credit for it.
Contrary to Bart Beaty’s rather negative impression of this year’s event, I do not think that a disproportional amount of attention was paid to the commercial aspects of the festival, or at least no more than what is usually the case. And though things seemed to work out OK financially for most in the end, the relocation of the publishers’ exhibition to Montauzier was not exactly popular amongst anyone hoping to make money off the festival. In any case, we have other great festivals – Luzern, Haarlem, Kemi – that focus more exclusively, and very successfully, on comics as an art form. That is not Angoulême’s role in comics – it is a large, commercial festival. It would not be as large and as important as it is, if it did not attract everyone, big and small.
This naturally does not mean that it should neglect the artistic side of things, which is of course essential. More attention could and should definitely be paid to non-commercial programming, but that has been a problem of all four festivals I have attended. OK, I agree with Bart that the general quality of the exhibitions was extraordinarily low this year, but I can count on one hand the number of interesting exhibitions I have seen at Angoulême, and only two have been great – “Les Maîtres de la bande dessinée européenne” in 2001 (not originally conceived for the festival, but for the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris) and, incidentally, this year’s wonderful Jim Woodring show (paid for by the money that had been set aside for the Trondheim retrospective he declined).
The problem is a general one; it is not specific to this year’s event. A bigger budget for exhibitions is important (the sickly CNBDI is also in severe need of help, but that is outside the scope of the festival). But equally vital is a much higher level of quality control. This extends to the panels and roundtables; with the exception of last year’s anomalous independent manifestation, Les Littératures pirates, this year’s programming was – on paper – actually the best I have seen at the festival. Unfortunately, lack of a proper concept and bad planning pretty much ruined two of the panels I attended (Burns and Woodring/Touïs/Frydman), panels that could have been much better.
But in the final tally, a festival that finally recognizes Japan with its most important prize, and honours a true master of the field, José Muñoz, with the greatest distinction in comics, is a good one in my book. I think I might have tried to say as much when I – at three in the morning, Sunday – drunkenly made a fool of myself in front of president and cartoonist extraordinaire Lewis Trondheim (who, true to form, had participated energetically in the festivities most of the night), but I do not remember.
It had been a good festival.
Read part I . Photos of the town, Delcourt’s Tezuka-selection, the Woodring exhibit and Lewis Trondheim dancing with strangers at the party at City Hall, Saturday night: T. Thorhauge & Matthias Wivel