Angoulême for Beginners

Poster by Zep for the 32nd Angoulême comics festival

Poster by Zep, President of the 32nd Angoulême comics festival

If you've never been to a comics convention before, you might as well start at the top; and that must surely mean Angoulême. The Festival, now in its fourth decade, has gradually taken over the town (the CNBDI, the Centre Nationale de la Bande dessinée et de l'Image, or national comics museum, came to Angoulême as a result of the Festival, and not vice versa). For four days, huge marquees squat on the city centre car parks, events and exhibitions fill every available space and the streets are thronged with comics fans.

Or rather, everyone is a comics fan: there is no sense of a separate population of Festival-goers: there comics everywhere, but their presence is treated as normal, as offering something to interest every member of the family and everyone with any interest in the creative arts. The local paper produces a special edition, and restaurants label their fixed price menu "Menu BD". Some of what follows must be common to any major comics event, but this is probably unique.

Of course, the Festival is a commercial event; not just because it brings a huge amount of business to the town, way outside the normal tourist season (the last weekend in January), not just because behind the scenes there is a lively market in international rights, but also for the visitors, whether they are buying or selling. The most striking expression of this was the presence of the major publishers, with walk-in stands like mini- (and not so mini-) bookshops, and with rows of artists sitting, each under his or her name, signing and decorating their books for long queues of fans.

Despite the production-line appearance of this arrangement, I was amazed by the generosity of the artists present; I've been to plenty of book launches, where the author signs the new book (and maybe some old ones, or maybe not) with perhaps a brief message - but these people were giving serious time to creating a sketch for everyone who asked, and looking round for paper when their visitor wasn't buying a book. I still think that Neil Gaiman's endurance at his marathon signings is phenomenal: but I begin to see the culture from which it emerges.

As a result, just hanging around, chatting to people you don't know, drifting around bookstalls looking at stuff you know very well - or are interested in, or have heard of, or haven't - becomes an immensely enjoyable form of entertainment. Which is great. But there is also a very full programme of more formal entertainment. With organisation, planning and dedication, it would still not be possible to do everything in four days: every talk, every exhibition, every bookstall and press conference. There would still be scheduling clashes, impossible dashes from one place to another, and probably exhaustion too. So I accepted I wasn't going to do everything, relaxed and had fun.

We made it to two of the programme of Rencontres internationales, interviews with a selection of comics creators from outside France (with Eddie Campbell and David Lloyd), conducted with the aid of simultaneous translation, available through headsets. We visited the CNBDI, enjoyed its exhibition of Les Musées imaginaires in which an elaborate stage set was employed to display comics in hypothetical museums ("supposing we organised our material this way? or like this..."). We didn't have the energy to do more than dip into the Zep exhibition, and admire Zep's gallery of drawings in the style of those who had influenced him (including Leo Baxendale!) and a corresponding gallery of portraits of Titeuf by some of the great names of comics: Albert Uderzo, Marcel Gotlib and Moebius among them. We sat in an extraordinarily uncomfortable cinema and watched a series of half-hour television programmes directed by Benoît Peeters for Arte, bringing together under the title Comix talents as disparate as Goscinny & Uderzo and Chris Ware, Jiro Taniguchi and Joann Sfar - and while we were queuing for this very popular programme, saw a display of cave paintings, which argued very convincingly that the prehistoric artists had used multiple lines to depict movement, and provided animations of the paintings as proof!

We walked around the town, enjoying the way comics art has been incorporated into the townscape, we browsed the small press tent and the bouquinistes (second-hand dealers), we bought comics... And we took a morning off to drive to Saint-Sornin and buy some wine.

And we talked about next time...

Photo album

Click the links for more pictures:

Portrait gallery: the Professionals Photo Album: La Ville de la BD I bought some books...
Portrait Gallery A stroll around the town I bought some books...

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Photos © Roger Cornwell 2005