The Angoulême International Comics Festival is one of the biggest and most prestigious comics conventions in the world. Which is why it was surprising when a group of France’s largest comics publishers, 40 in all, announced they’d boycott next year’s event unless there was an in-depth structural rethinking of the Festival and its governing body. The Angoulême Festival could be said to have brought it on themselves, following not one but two major controversies at this year’s event.
The Festival draws over 200,000 people from around the world to a town of just over 40,000. For a variety of reasons France has always accorded comics, or bandes dessinées, a higher status than North America, commercially as well as artistically; French comics make up 12 percent of the French publishing industry while American comics are about three percent of American publishing. Angoulême is the French comics industry’s annual crowning moment, a celebration of what the French call the ninth art. This year’s edition took place from January 29 to February 1.
But the first of the controversies erupted almost a month beforehand, when the list of nominees for the Festival’s Grand Prix was unveiled on January 5. The 3500 or so registered cartoonists in France were to vote on the 30 names were on the list, and select three finalists. The problem was that every one of those 30 nominees was male. The Grand Prix is a kind of lifetime achievement award, and the shock of this year’s improbably-masculine list of nominees was amplified by the fact that of 42 Grand Prix winners before this year, only one had been a woman. Various groups and individuals expressed outrage. Twitter hashtags trended. Lists of credible women nominees were composed. There were calls for a boycott. A dozen of the nominees withdrew.
The Festival’s response was chaotic. Executive officer Franck Bondoux tried to defend the all-male nominee list, saying: “When you look at the prize-winners, you see that the artists on it have a certain maturity and are of a certain age. Unfortunately, there are not many women in the history of comics. That’s just reality. If you go to the Louvre, you will also find few feminine artists.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t help the situation. The next day, the Festival briefly added six women to the list of nominees. Then, later the same day, they removed the list of nominees and declared that instead the cartoonists would be able to vote for anyone they wanted.
There was precedent for that. There was also speculation that the Festival feared the half-dozen women they’d added to their list would refuse their nominations. At any rate, two weeks later the Festival announced a shortlist of three creators had been voted in: Belgium’s Hermann Huppen (widely known as Hermann), England’s Alan Moore, and France’s Claire Wendling. Moore had previously declined the award. Wendling, who hadn’t created any comics in 20 years, asked people not to vote for her.
Hermann won. News of his victory leaked out a couple of days before the Festival opened, quelling the Grand Prix controversy. Only for a second controversy to blow up around the presentation of some of the Festival’s other awards. On Saturday, January 30, the Festival had a ceremony to hand out the Fauves, nine awards for the best comics of the past year. The master of ceremonies, French radio host Richard Gaitet, began by announcing that he intended to name the winners as quickly as possible so everyone could go on to drinking and dancing. He rattled off a list in eight minutes—and then concluded by announcing it had all just been a gag. The real awards were still to come.
It was a colossal misjudgment. Nobody had been forewarned. So a bunch of people briefly thought they’d won a major award, then found out it had all been a practical joke. Of course many were hurt; others were confused. Worse, some of the crowd had been tweeting out the winners Gaitet provided. Cartoonists, editors, and publishers around the world got to have a brief moment of pride only to have the rug pulled out from under them.
Within a couple of days Gaitet apologized in a public letter to Le Monde (the Angoulême Festival is mainstream news in France). Franck Bondoux, on the other hand, tried to minimize the hurt of the fake award stunt, insisting that the problem was “the dictatorship of the tweet.” After all, he said, the whole skit had only taken up eight minutes of an hour-and-40-minute-long ceremony.
Bondoux later gave a full apology, but the damage was clear. Reading reactions in the French media, many in the industry felt humiliated by the poor taste of the joke, the poor judgment of not nominating even one woman for the Grand Prix, and the general defensiveness and tone-deafness of Bondoux and the Festival. Just over three weeks after the 2016 Festival closed, the French comics industry struck back.
Forty of the most important publishers in the French comics industry announced in a widely-disseminated letter that they wouldn’t be participating in the 2017 Festival unless it was swiftly rethought in depth, “its structure, its governance, its strategy, its project, and its ambitions.” Given the amount of money these publishers sink into the Festival, this was no minor threat. They demanded to meet with the French Minister of Culture of discuss the situation; she agreed, and the meeting took place on March 11. The publishers apparently wanted her to take part in appointing a mediator between them and the Festival’s organizers.
No official news yet, but one report stated that the publishers were satisfied with the meeting. Change is in the wind. For years people have been saying that Angoulême should be more open to non-European cartooning traditions, especially manga. It had seemed there had been some improvement on that front, only for these latest steps back. Now there’s a chance to rebuild the Festival in depth. Who knows what Angoulême will look like in a year’s time? As they say in French: à suivre.
—Follow Matthew Surridge on Twitter: @Fell_Gard