Here’s the thing: I’ve always thought that when it comes to knowledge about the funny pages, I’m no slouch. That’s not tooting my own horn, that’s just what happens when you spend your entire childhood reading the comics religiously. Granted, my expertise on the BAM! POW! world of superhero comics is pretty abysmal; but I’ve read books as thick as dictionaries on the history of American newspaper comics and have spent hours reading and researching classic comic strips all the way back to the bald and illiterate Yellow Kid to the modern-day heroes like The Far Side, and (of course) Peanuts. I even dabbled in some of the international stuff with The Adventures of Tintin and Astérix et Obélix. In short, I’ve always loved and felt a deep connection to comics. However, after attending the 42nd Annual International Comics Festival in Angoulême, France (Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, to the natives), I realize that I’m one ignorant son-of-a-gun.
I first heard about Le Festival de BD (“BD” pronounced “bay-day” is French shorthand for “bande dessinée”, which is what the French call comics) at work and thought I’d give it a go without doing too much research into what it was all about beforehand. I looked up some of the events, the address, and how much tickets would cost but that was about it. So, when I set off from Bordeaux on Saturday morning I didn’t really know what to expect. The festival had already been going on for two days, but since it was the weekend I was heading into the booming belly of the beast on the festival’s busiest day. I scootched my borrowed Modus into a street parking spot across from a restaurant called “O’Tacos” (where you cannot order a taco, I later found) and started to follow the banners with the 1930’s-esque cat cartoon symbolizing the festival in a seemingly aimless zig-zag up a giant cobblestone hill.
The maps of Angoulême are fairly deceptive in that they don’t indicate that the whole city is basically a series of ever-steepening hills. If you ever plan on going in the future, keep this in mind. It’s a truly Medieval layout with large stone castles and battlements at the very top looking down on the valley of terra-cotta shingled apartments below. The festival events are also spread all throughout the city, so what looks like a very short distance on your map might actually be several city blocks. Uphill. The signs weren’t exactly helpful and I got a bit turned around. The French excel at many things but making clear and helpful street signage is not one of them. As the French would say, c’est pas évident.
Much to my delight, however, all the permanent street signs were shaped like cartoon word bubbles. The ancient stone building were littered in colorful street art and graffiti depicting iconic comic book characters or giant murals of n’importe quoi. I finally found my way to the Musée de la bande dessinée (yes, they have a year-round comic book museum) only to realize that I had printed out the receipt for my tickets instead of my actual tickets and had to trek up another giant hill to the Billetterie Hôtel de Ville. So, after acquiring a free map, I slogged onward and upward. Following the signs across a bridge decorated with banners of beloved children’s characters like Le Petit Prince and Les Schtroumpfs (the Smurfs), I ended up in front of a massive glass building looming over the entire street. This is La Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de L’image, a cultural center dedicated to comic books with a working restaurant and comic book library. Of course, I didn’t know that I the time, I was still quite lost.
The nice ticketing lady told me to turn right and then go up a hill after the bridge, so I tried that for a while and then turned around and went the opposite direction convinced I had misinterpreted her directions (an action I would repeat often over the next two days). Looking around, the throngs of people weren’t at all your stereotypical Comic-Con types. There were little-to-no cosplayers or people in obvious fan gear. There were, however, many old couples in berets, euro-hippies, intellectual-looking young men in scarves, hipster girls in red lipstick, and families with small children. Every once in a while someone wearing a squid hat or a teenage boy dressed like the 11th Doctor would pop into view, but for the most part you wouldn’t be able to place the event based on its participants.
After turning around and asking two different policemen for directions, I made it to the center of town, the hôtel de ville, and to my flourescent green wristband granting me access to a world of BD.
As the sun shone down through the chilly January air, hundreds of people bustled through the cobblestone streets past cartoon characters painted on centuries-old buildings. Charlie Hebdo drawings of talking penises, a bent-over naked woman with an X over her lady-bits and an arrow pointing to her rear as a “solution for overpopulation,” and cursing Mahomets were proudly displayed on every street corner. A masked street performer wearing a pork pie hat plunked on a bass guitar while a man in a tuxedo created giant soap bubbles along with the song. All the time tinny music was being pumped through an unseen speaker system allowing Bobby Vinton to croon “Blue Velvet” through the town square and into the nooks and crannies of the offshoot alleyways. It was a very John Waters moment.
At this point I had spent most of the morning and the early part of the afternoon just figuring out where I needed to go as event after event I had put in my phone calendar pinged letting me know I had missed it. But I didn’t mind missing conferences with titles like “Comics Unmasked: une expo BD à la British Library” because walking around I realized that the way to take in the Festival de BD is to do just that: walk around and explore. I plunged into the first tent I saw, an expo called “Little Asia” in the hôtel de ville courtyard. Security was tight, possibly because of the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, and I soon learned the drill of opening bags, keeping pockets empty and spreading my arms out to get scanned at each entrance. Little Asia was an explosion of Manga with an entire section devoted just to Hong Kong. France as a country is obsessed with manga and anime. I was told that the only country that buys and sells more anime than France is Japan itself. I did not fact check that, however, so if it turns out to not be true you can blame a bordelais bookseller named Cédric.
The next tent was the “Para BD” expo featuring artists and comics without any formal classement or definition. Booths upon booths of comic book sellers hawked everything from classic Tintin albums to pornographic pinups (guys, I saw so many cartoon boobs, penises, and vaginas this weekend just hanging out in plain site. The French are a pervy lot, and it burned my prudish American retinas). Artists sat at tables signing books with personalized doodles and unpublished illustrators tried to catch new fans by displaying prints of their art.
It was impressive to see just how much product each vendor was moving. Investing in cultural items is a huge part of French culture (which is part of the reason their publishing industry is still flourishing—people actually buy books), and that includes comic books.
After wandering around some more and having a restorative lunch of chorizo and peppers pizza at an understaffed joint owned by Anthony Bourdain’s harried French doppelgänger, I moved on to what for me would turn out to be the pinnacle of the day. The line outside the Calvin et Hobbes expo snaked out the building and halfway down the block, but I happily waited in line as the city’s loudspeaker blasted “You’re the first, the last, my everything” by Barry White and a vagrant man shouted songs to the crowd and did somersaults wearing skis, sliding down the pavement to the roundabout and almost getting crushed by a bus in the process.
Walking into the dark room of the expo felt weirdly almost hallowed to me. All day I had discovered new artists and characters that were exciting and interesting, but they held no nostalgia or personal connection. Walking through an homage to Bill Watterson and his legacy, on the other hand, felt deeply personal. It was wonderful to slowly inch along walls covered in framed pieces of original Calvin and Hobbes panels and to watch non-native English speakers mumble to themselves as they read each panel until they burst into short, sincere, jocular laughter at the end. In front of one of Calvin’s Spaceman Spiff adventures a young French girl read a panel out loud in a thick accent while her mother gently corrected her after every sentence.
“Bravely confronting space…”
It was a great. Everyone in the room was enjoying the strips unabashedly and we were all sharing in the experience together.
The rest of the day was spent meandering in and out of expo halls. The town cathedral (as all French towns have at least one cathedral) had been turned into a bizarro playroom with cardboard cutouts of Bible characters with booths and kiosks for Christian comic book artists. Children ran around and jumped on foam pillows in the transept surrounded by stained glass windows and wooden crucifixes. In an adjacent chapel a woman sat in an armchair in front of a paper fire that had been put in a fake fireplace underneath an icon of Mary.
In yet another tent all the big-name authors were available for meet and greets. People crushed to get in line to meet authors they had loved for years or authors who had been nominated for one of the festival’s prizes.
There were booths where attendees could vote on comic books and graphic novels based on different categories, but I quickly realized I was too ignorant to put in my two cents. The only characters I recognized were the large plastic statues of The Avengers and The Joker.
Saturday wrapped up with the Jack Kirby exhibit and participating in an “atelier” to trace character sketches, if only as an excuse to finally sit down.
Sunday, having learned my lesson (and the layout of the city) I went at it with a battle plan. In the morning I was in the first group to see the expo on new young talent. It was mostly very weird but there were also some extremely cool and innovative stuff. Then on to the Jirô Taniguchi exhibit at La Cité, the giant glass building I had first encountered Saturday morning. Again, in my ignorance I had no idea who Taniguchi was.
This was an amazing exhibit showing how diverse and complex one artist can be. I’ve never read any of Taniguchi’s comic books or graphic novels, but just going through his exhibit gave me an appreciation for his talent. Most of the prints were still in Japanese, but the images were expressive enough that the dialogue wasn’t necessary to understand what was happening.
The man is extremely talented and some of the watercolor art for one of his latest books depicting a tourist walking around Venice look almost like photographs or architectural renderings.
Finally I ended the day in the “new world” expo. Here artists from all over the world have made their pilgrimage to the French city of comics to meet with their peers and gain exposure. A man from a publisher called Hootchie Cootchie spent 10 minutes trying to explain his pirate book to me. I choose to believe that the reason I couldn’t understand him was because he was Belgian and not my own poor language skills.
The content was extremely varied. A hipster publisher creating mostly angsty Millennial cartoons also created a Dungeons & Dragons spoof called Offices & Humans. Gritty thriller and crime novels (les polars) were set up on tables next to goofy drawings of animals. The booth for Mexican cartoonists had the most color but some of the darkest art. Surprisingly, the LGBT booth had almost no color at all.
My personal favorite moment was getting a “dédicace” from an artist named Samos. He draws “Les Cacas”, or, “The Little Shits” as he called them in English. He drew me what can only be called a love poop, “le caca d’amour”, on a piece of toilet paper while we discussed differences between French and American cultures.
Experiencing this weird and wonderful festival certainly gave me the realization that I actually know very little about this part of popular culture that’s always fascinated me. It makes me want to take a French attitude toward comics in the future, which is to say, it’s time to start taking my cartoons more seriously.