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Creating an image of bande dessinée

Comics are far than Snoopy says Angoulême Festival director Benoît Mouchart, but at 60 he still deserves celebration

Angoulême is a mecca for fans of bande dessinée (“drawn strips”, ie. cartoons) every January, and this year will be no exception.About 200,000 lovers of “la BD” descend for the Angoulême Festival.

Like Cannes for films, new French-language BD albums are selected for a competition, with a host of awards, notably the Fauve d’Or for the best album, named after the festival’s wild animal mascot. Others include the Grand Prix de la Ville d’Angoulême for lifetime achievement,or the Fauve FNAC-SNCF for the public’s favourite album.

More than a prize-giving, this year’s festival, on January 28-30, includes “the world's biggest BD bookshop”, a space to read the competition albums, talks and signings, children’s activities, BD career workshops, and musical or comedy shows.

There are also exhibitions, including one on rock’n’roll BD (a passion of 2011 jury president Baru, who won last year’s Grand Prix), a Manga space and a celebration of Snoopy’s 60th anniversary. Oliver Rowland interviewed the festival artistic director, Benoît Mouchart (pictured).

The festival has an increasingly international renown.
We will have authors from all over the world, notably a lot of Americans and people from Hong Kong. Angoulême is arguably the biggest festival of its kind, because it is not just a fan convention, like Comic-Con in San Diego, but a true cultural event for authors fans and the general public.

And if you can’t get to it, you can follow what’s going on the internet,with live videos on your site.
Yes, and you can vote for your favourite album to win the Fauve FNAC-SNCF by flicking through the selected albums.

What are some of the highlights?
We have exhibitions with real popular appeal, like one on Lanfeust [a series set on a fantasy world inhabited by trolls], but we also introduce you to what BD will be tomorrow, with avant garde exhibitions, such as work from Hong Kong. Also, one of our very successful ideas, much imitated, is the shows we put on.

For example, “drawing concerts” where singers or comedians interact with an artist who draws live on stage, projected on a big screen. One highlight will be New York group Heavy Trash, illustrated by jury president Baru.

You also have a one-man-show by Philippe Geluck (author of Le Chat).
That should be funny and a real one-off show,adapted specially for us. It’s stand-up; I don’t think he will be drawing on stage. The point is, the festival is not just a book fair, it is a place for creativity.

Which other authors are coming?
Moebius [French author known for western series Blueberry] will be there, and a lot of Americans [such as Dash Shaw, of Bodyworld, one of the top young US talents], British illustrator Charlie Adlard of Walking Dead [about zombies] or the Japanese star Ryoko Ikeda [who is inspired by themes such as the French Revolution or Wagner’s Ring Cycle].
There will be more than 1,000 there and there will be talks in English by English-speaking authors, with headphones for simultaneous translation for French visitors.

So the festival is not limited to French albums?
The only requirement is they should have been translated. Winners have included Americans like Art Spiegelmann [Maus], Chris Ware [the Acme Novelty Library] or Charles Burns [Black Hole]. It is true there are more Americans than Britons, but, for example, Guardian cartoonist Posy Simmonds [Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovary] won a prize recently.

You are also celebrating Snoopy
Everyone knows the character in France, but they don’t know his cartoon world. Schulz’s drawing style was revolutionary and there is also a philosophical side which is actually quite pessimistic, even depressive. I want to show that there’s more to the series than the T-shirts and posters. It is one of the world’s most important cartoons.

You have an exhibition about Baru’s work?
It is very socially relevant. He deals with immigration, because he is of Italian origin, about the working class, loss of industry, unemployment, how to get out of social deprivation, for example through sport. He’s a bit like Ken Loach, but with more humour and hope. In a civilisation of the image and that is always on the move, BD is a kind of writing that offers a particular vision of the world. A drawing style is a way of looking at the world and society. It has always been important to us to show that BD could be more than just entertainment.

It seems cartoons are taken less seriously in the UK.
Perhaps, but you have some of the most important authors. Alan Moore has won prizes for Watchmen and V for Vendetta and From Hell. He is one of the greatest living authors. Neil Gaiman is another whom we have had at Angoulême, and a few years ago we had an exhibition on Dave McKean. I think they are more appreciated outside the UK: “A prophet is without honour in his own land”.

How do you make your selection?
Each year there are at least 4,000 new BDs published in France, and we receive about 1,000. It’s a huge task. French publishers produce translations of BD from all over the world, so it gives us a perspective on the world.

To read a Korean, Mexican or Iranian BD is a way of appreciating their culture. I have a team of less than 10, who meet eight times a year to come up with a shortlist. An important factor is whether it’s enjoyable to read. You don’t have to feel guilty about pleasure in reading. If the album has no strong message but makes you burst out laughing, we’re not going to reject it.

Are there certain tendencies?
BD doesn’t hesitate to tackle subjects that French films and novels don’t. For example, there is Quai d’Orsay, which is about Dominique de Villepin at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which would be unimaginable as a film.
It’s rare a French film would tackle a subject about living leading politician, though there were films like The Queen or W. about Bush in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Manga has become popular. Do you see it as competition for European BD?
No, it’s stimulating for the French market to be confronted by ambitious foreign books.

Do you enjoy it when BD is adapted for the cinema?
I am really looking forward to Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin film later this year. Hergé actually gave the go-ahead to Spielberg to do it before he died in 1983. Adaptations can be good or bad, depending on the director, but they also help to get the characters better known.

Catch the festival online at
Photo: Jorge Alvarez

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