Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Angouleme Report

Rules Pour Vivre By When Attending a Comics Exposition in France

The most important comics festival in Europe (excuse me, the most important comics festival in our particular galaxy) is held annually in Angouleme. It is called “Angouleme”, after the town named Angouleme, where it is held. Got that? So when you ask someone, “Are you going to Angouleme this year?” It does not mean, “Are you going to visit the town of Angouleme this year to check out the scenic view?" It means: “Are you going to the most important comics festival in the galaxy this year?” In other words, “Angouleme” is synonymous with “comics festival” the way that “Bilbao” is synonymous with the Guggenheim Museum, or, “Anaheim” is synonymous with Disneyland, or “Baghdad” is synonymous with insurgent acts of violence against an enemy that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Are you going to Baghdad this year? No, I decided to take the year off and encounter random car bombs in the comfort of my condo in Passaic.

Americans consider San Diego synonymous with comics festivals, but from my vast experience of never having attended the San Diego Comic Con, let me tell you that the two events could not be more different. For one thing, when in doubt, comics fans in San Diego dump ketchup all over their food, while the comics fans in Angouleme glop on the cream sauce. Then there’s the age difference. Your typical European comics fans tend to be an older, world-wearier 25, whereas American comics fans are the far less mature 24 and tend to go for the juvenile superhero titles. There is barely a superhero in sight at Angouleme. The refined European tastes lean more towards down-to-earth tales of grim reality where talking animals have graphic sex with babes holding howitzers. But, let’s face it, no matter where you’re from the real purpose of a comics con is for those with like-minded interests to get together and have a fun time spending money.

The gathering itself does not take place in one central mammoth convention hall but is sprinkled in tents throughout the town. Existing structures also house various symposiums and gatherings. The press room, in a modest wing of the City Hall (which is basically a friggin’ castle), is decorated with floor to ceiling tapestries, velvet wallpaper, and gigantic palm trees with monkeys chattering in the upper branches. I left as a standoff was going on between an Alpha Male and Quasimodo for domination over the gigantic chandelier.

They strategically schedule this festival to coincide with what the French Farmer’s Almanac predicts will be the most inclement weekend of the year. Sounds like a bad idea, huh? Au contraire! Very clever, these French! Cold weather forces conventioneers inside buildings and it is a proven scientific fact that most credit card transactions occur inside, you guessed it… buildings! Years ago, before ever there was a comics exposition in Angouleme, the town was deserted during this weekend, and most every other weekend. The boulangers would sit sadly in the shop window and watch mould grow on their breads and cakes in the display cases. Now when this weekend rolls around the jolly boulanger is selling his wares like hot gateaux.

* * *

Travel smart
What the Departement du Tourisme does not mention in their copious literature is that to survive the weekend in Angouleme you need to pack the following:

Head to toe foul-weather gear:
When the snow began to fall on the second day, the dusting transformed the slightly grungy gothic town into the Brothers Grimm. But by the end of the day the slippery sludge made everything merely grim, brother, very grim.

Ropes, carabineers, a set of those small alpine pick axes:
Angouleme is a city built on a hill, a steep hill. Small way stations are set up at several strategic points of altitude where beautiful French nurses administer CPR (in French this roughly translate as Chequesbook Procuremente Rendezvous).

12 extra pairs of disposable shoes, socks, pants, and feet:
A basic tenet of slapstick comedy is that it is funny to see someone else fall. It’s no joke, though, when you are dashing down a slush coated hill trying to make a scheduled bus and you slip and fall right on your Asterix…and crack the spine! I speak from experience.

A tank of oxygen and a portable iron lung:
Necessary after the ascent up the hill where, instead of pristine alpine air, one encounters a hazy pea soup of cigarette smoke, speaking of which, don’t forget to bring:

A carton of cigarettes:
Whether you smoke or not, cigarettes are very handy to have on your person. I am not going to make (too many) broad generalizations about the European attendees of this festival, but I found that if you need directions many people will stare in silence at the mangled English-French syllables dribbling from your mouth until you pull out a pack of smokes and offer one at which point they will personally escort you to the doorstep of the address you seek if you also have a match.

* * *

Let Intuition Be Your Guide
The Dept. de Tourisme kindly prints hundreds of thousands of handy maps directing attendees to the various tents, pavilions and panels sprinkled about. These are very useful as filler for the hundreds of thousands of garbage cans to prevent them from being blown away. I am pretty good at reading maps (I can get from Canal St. to 59th St. on the IRT without getting lost) but I was continually losing my way with that damn map in hand. The reason is this: Angouleme is a spider’s web of teeny streets with temporary tents erected here and there…wherever there is an open square. It does not lend itself to accurate mapping. Once I ditched my map everything went well. After that I got lost on my own and without that map in my hand I did not look like such a (complete) moron.

* * *

Be patient
There are many reasons to attend Angouleme not the least of which is to get your books signed by your favorite artists. Knowing this I still could not believe my eyes when I saw the hordes of people lined up to get sketches by the guy who draws the animals dressed up like Philip Marlowe, or the guy who does the comics of the large-breasted swords clasping razor-sharp women, or the guy who draws the cigar smoking devil in a trench coat. Imagine, waiting an hour for any of those guys? No way! Not me! Instead, I waited an hour to get drawings from the guy who draws couples floating in water, the guy who draws hideously beautiful expressionistic gutter scum, and the guy who takes a couple of trips a year and publishes his sketchbook drawings in absurdly expensive albums. I had plenty of time to do this because nobody was really that interested in getting a sketch from me (the guy who draws a guy on the telephone) in the recently (and handsomely) republished French version of “City of Glass”. 17 people did come up to me and ask what my collaborator on that book, the justifiably beloved and extraordinarily talented, David Mazzucchelli, has been secretly working on for the past 10 years. I simply smiled in that smug, condescendingly knowing way that makes my daughter want to abdicate lineage and shrugged. Actually, I don’t really know what he’s been up to, either, ‘cause he won’t tell me, so don’t ask, O.K.?

* * *

Set Your Priorities
There are dozens of publishers, exhibits, panels, and events going on simultaneously. To make the most of your time, to make sense of the chaos, and to make sure you keep breathing, you need to stay focused. Come with a plan of attack and follow it decisively. I came with a group of students from the Scuola di Comics in Florence where I am teaching this year. Their goal was to show their work to publishers and get published. I am pleased and proud to report that many of the best of them walked away with the possibilities of contracts. A middle-aged man and his teenaged son were in line in front of me to get the latest sketchbook by Jacques Loustal signed by the great artist. They had a small address book, but instead of addresses it alphabetically listed the hundreds of albums they had in their collection. These people had goals that they met.

I, too, had a goal that was met. In a tiny bakery, which I may never be able to find again with or without a map, I had a perfect brioche.

I had another plan, too, although I did not realize it until I got home and downloaded all my photos. Upon reviewing these pix I realized now that my subliminal plan was to get my picture taken with as many of my idols as possible in the bizarre hope that:

a) By sitting next to them and having the flash go off, somehow my total body of published and unpublished work might somehow reflect a bit of their brilliant sheen and magically appear better than it really is.
b) Even though I only sat next to them for a nanosecond I could publish these pics on my blog and make everyone think that these titans were my best friends, or at least would lend me 5 euros in a pinch.
c) Some of their natural European panache would make me look like less of a dork or at least that, maybe, in sitting within the spectrum of their coolness that my hat would not look as ridiculous as my wife says it does.

Well, anyhow, let me tell you, that was one hell of a brioche!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Ever Meulen does a sketch in a book he takes out his drafting tools and creates a tightly designed rendering using templates, a tiny ruler, and razor sharp pencils.

I had always assumed from Jose Munoz' dark and savage drawings that he would be a brooding misanthrope. He's not.

Gipi and I go way back...about three months when we met at Lucca. He won the Grand Prix for Best Album hours after this picture was taken. Although it is said about many people, in this case it is true: it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. It took him a day to recover from the shock. You Americans are now fortunate enough to be able to read his book, "The Innocents" through Fantagraphics in a format that is affordable and beautiful courtesy of Igort at Coconino Press. Go here and buy Gipi's book immediately or I will never post another blog...wait, on second thought...just go there and buy:

Lorenzo Mattotti is considered something of a God in Italy where they do not really care too much about comics. However, they do care about Pinnocchio (the little Italian boy who never grows up, a-duh) and he did a lovely illustrated volume of that tale a few years back. But, more importantly, Mattotti loves and draws beautiful women. I horribly lettered one of his strips for an English translation 25 years ago in RAW and I finally got to apologize.

( R.: Charles Burns, Joost Swarte, and Sgt. Dork)

I am assuming that this is being read primarily by Americans (hi, mom!) who probably know Charles Burns and have read his new book "Black Hole". No? And you call yourself an American?! Go here at once and buy this twisted tale of mutant love:

Joost Swarte has one of the greatest websites on the internet because it actually asks you to figure it out yourself. Even just watching it download is worth the work.

(L. to R.: Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, Clarabelle)

I don't know what I did. Maybe it was my loud obnoxious American gushing, shameless asskissing, or stupid hat, but all the Americans I met were way cooler than me and kept me at arm's length. When I told a nasty anecdote in an unecessarily loud phony French accent in a restaurant about obnoxious French behavior I had witnessed I thought Kevin Huizenga was going to renounce his citizenship, melt into the floor, and/or murder me in any particular order, and, I am ashamed to say, that he had every right. They are old hands at this European comics thing, I guess, and I was so thrilled to be there that I behaved badly on more than one occasion...O.K., O.K.,...most of the time. Anyhow, I apologize to these guys and hope that sometime in the future they will speak to me again, in English.

All three are top notch cartoonists though (they are all so smart that it hurts) and you should go here now and not hesitate to buy all of their very fine books ( the time I finish with you today you will have spent most of your paycheck.)

Kevin Huizenga's "Ganges"

...and while you're there, don't miss Matt Broersma's super-fine "Insomnia"



(L. to R.: Buster Cretin, Ben Katchor, Richard McGuire)

I was walking across the street when I heard my name called. It was Ben Katchor and his wife. We stood in the falling snow and chatted casually as though it were Bleeker and 6th Ave. and this happened all the time. Later I went to a slideshow reading that Ben gave, We could have seen twice as many slides without the translator speaking after Ben for each slide because when the lights went up it appeared that everyone in the room was American.

Richard had a great surprise when he saw his design had been used as a graphic for a poster all over town announcing a lecture series. I guess nobody thought about telling him. Fortuantely the poster design was very nice and he was pleased. A very good store whose name I forget even painted some more of Richard's Popeye designs on the gate next to their store: