Right. Sunday at the Angoulême festival is always a bit of a wash when one lives abroad and hasn’t booked another night in France, but now it’s Monday and here are some thoughts on the festival as a whole.
The policy of announcing the festival awards and the Grand Prix winner on Sunday afternoon, instated last year, has removed a significant element of excitement from the festival — not only does it negate the popular rush to acquire the winning books from the publishers’ tents and make the awards ceremony an event an afterthought rather than a centerpiece, it removes from the awards an element of discourse and sense of import for the guests that might not compare with the Monday morning press, but surely still counts for something, seeing that it’s visited by some 200.000 people.
Add to that this year’s bizarre adjustment to the awards, diluting the smart and much-needed overhaul implemented by festival president Lewis Trondheim only three years ago. First, the addition of an award for best series, made to cater to the big publishers who felt at a disadvantage under a new system that seemed to privilege artistic quality over excellence in genre formulae, was a pandering move made before any specific tendencies in the new system could even be judged accurately, which sadly echoes the industrial ghosts of comics history. Imagine something like this at the equivalent event in cinema, Cannes.
Secondly, this change has evidently prompted the introduction of a handful of additional, new awards categories to replace what Trondheim & Co. had refreshingly decided merely to describe as a selection of the ‘best comics of the year’: now, we have things like the “Views on the World” award, the “Intergenerational Award”, and the “Audacity Award”. It’s hard to know what these even mean, and it seems entirely a, adjustment made for nebulous commercial reasons, possibly better to market each individual award winner. Never mind the lack of credibility to an awards system that constantly changes.
Anyway, the Fauve d’Or (or top) award this year was for Riad Sattouf’s third volume in the Pascal Brutal series, an often hilarious satire on life in the Parisian banlieues in a near future where ultralibertarianism rules, told from the point of view of a kind of super-immigrant’s son, the eponymous Pascal, a big virile brute with a big motorcycle and big sneakers. I haven’t read this last volume, but its selection is no surprise: the still young Sattouf is a star in France second only to Marjane Satrapi and Joann Sfar and a highly competent humorist. Its selection should also help dispel any lingering doubts that the festival is becoming too elitist. (The entire selection of award winners can be seen here).
In this context, it seems auspicious that the Grand Prix winner (for his life’s work) is Baru (aka. Hervé Baruléa, b. 1947), in that he is one of the great proponents of a working class and immigrant perspective in Francophone comics. Best know to American readers for the gorgeous but comparatively minor Road to America (1995-97, Drawn and Quarterly ed. 2002), his first major work, Quéquette Blues (1984-1986) pretty much established the blueprint for his work — a gripping tale of youthful enthusiasm and rebelliousness set in a working class suburb. It remains an energetically humanist portrayal of youth with a strong socio-political undercurrent. The masterpiece is L’Autoroute du soleil (1996), first serialized in the early 90s in the Japanese weekly Morning, which adapts the expansive storytelling techniques and page count of manga to tell a road story of two young working class men on the run from a neo-Nazi group. It is simultaneously a portrait of post-industrial France and a moving coming-of-age-story. Of late, Baru has tended toward self-repetition to diminishing returns, but he is still a major voice in Francophone comics, presenting an important, rarely-seen point of view.
As for the festival programming, I’ve already written about the most significant exhibitions and the long-awaited expansion of the comics center, but overall I would say it was strong. The Cent pour Cent show at the museum was too large, and its gimmick quickly got old, but its bravura display of gorgeous originals from all the greats was simply a fantastic way to inaugurate the museum’s new digs. Add to this a fine smaller show of the work of two of France’s premier formalists, Étienne Lecroart and Jochen Gerner, the intelligent Fabrice Neaud exhibition, and the sumptuous gag cartoon/Fabio/Blutch show, which though I found the latter two parts lightweight and pretentiously shallow, respectively, was certainly a major display of significant artists. As for onstage interviews, I’ve already noted the continuing problem of uninformed, unprepared interviewers, but some, such as the ones with Neaud and Joe Sacco, were competently handled and proved very interesting.
The main problem as I saw it, however, was the neglect of the festival’s traditional problem child: manga. After fine efforts to erase this blind spot the last couple of years, the shows at the so-called Manga Building hardly seemed sufficient, even if one of them featured commercial mastodont One Piece. There are probably a number of logistical reasons for this partial dropout, but it was at the same time conspicuous and though I am unaware of the reasons, it seemed significant that the presence of manga publishers in the exhibitors’ tents was drastically reduced. Have they decided to give up on Angoulême and concentrate on the big Chibi Japan Expo in Paris and other shows instead? What is going on?
Wrapping up, the atmosphere was very pleasant, though somewhat sedate: sadly, there was no Saturday night bacchanal at city hall this year (perhaps due to the Presidential incident last year?), there were no obvious buzz books, and the Official Selection proved rather uninspiring, consisting mostly of middling fare by “auteur” artists from the big publishing houses. Still, comics these days is such an embarrassment of riches and despite the above-mentioned problems, the festival demonstrated this abundantly.
Images from Baru’s L’Autoroute de soleil and Sattouf’s Pascal Brutal.