Le comic strip presente...

Angouleme is to comic art what Cannes is to film. Every year it hosts a cartoon festival attended by the great, the good and, this year, Philip Sweeney
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The Independent Culture
In spite of last year's crash in the US superhero comic market, there are persistent allegations of an upswing in the fortunes of the graphic novel, the genre's intellectual offspring. The engagement of serious writers such as Paul Auster or Doris Lessing, whose Playing the Game was published earlier this year, is cited as evidence. But the UK is a cartoon wasteland by comparison with France, where 225 million books are sold a year, 40 per cent of adults up to the age of 50 are readers, culture ministers - even presidents - honour artists, and the Angouleme Festival acts as a booming if laid-back annual Cannes for what everyone refers to as the ninth art (the eighth is fruits de mer arranging).

Nothing illustrates the gap between the British and French scenes more dramatically than visiting Angouleme the month before London's Comic Art Convention, our equivalent. Unnoticed by Bloomsbury last weekend, the UK CAC consisted of a couple of dozen dealers' stalls in the basement of the London University Institute of Education, browsed at by a collection of rockers, students, early teenage fans and middle-aged men in well-worn anoraks crossing numbers out in notebooks as they located back issues of Doctor Strange or Verotica. In spite of the presence of star speakers - the bill was topped, significantly, by a French artist, the eminent Parisian Jean Giraud aka Moebius - the event felt like a fan-club gathering. No publishers' stands were present. "They don't really take it seriously," said Charlie Adlard, the artist for the Lessing book, sitting in the student union bar. "In the UK, cartoons are thought of as something for adolescents."

Meet British cartoon professionals at Angouleme a month earlier, and you find them torn between delight and envy. "Everyone who comes here goes away inspired but frustrated," says Paul Gravett, director of London's Cartoon Art Trust and indefatigable fund-raiser for a future National Museum of Cartoon Art. Agreement from Suzy Varty, co-ordinator of "Britain's first European-style comic festival" in Newcastle this June, agape at Angouleme's pounds 1.5m budget: "We estimated initially on pounds 250,000 - Newcastle City Council came back with an offer of pounds 12,500, and now we're talking around pounds 65,000." Further agreement from Charlie Adlard, present as a member of the British co-operative Les Cartoonistes Dangereux: "It's so nice to be appreciated as a serious artist here."

Angouleme's status as France's cartoon capital is symbolised by the Centre National de la Bande Dessinee et de l'Image (CNBDI), a dramatic assemblage of chunks of old convent and brewery set in a plate-glass cliff, opened in 1991. The Angouleme Festival, started in 1974, was modelled on Italy's prestigious Lucca Festival, but the factor that soon exalted Angouleme way above the small inter-professional Lucca was the reaction of the French public. More than 150,000 punters - kids, families, intellectuals, anoraks, Goths - cram into the acres of marquee in the city centre, browsing at the publishers' and retailers' stands, queueing to have books sketch- signed by the visiting artists, filing through the exhibitions and homages, and avidly following the colloquia. You book the best-located hotels a year in advance, if you're lucky.

French adult interest in the bande dessinee flowered in the early Seventies, following the lead of the new American counter-cultural cartoonists such as Robert Crumb (now living, and revered, in France). Despite the range and sophistication of subsequent developments, from the immaculate historical plots of Andre Juillard to the exuberant erotic work of Milo Manara, Angouleme retains a distinct soixante-huitard vibe, to use the technical mot juste. The prize ceremony, in spite of the presence of the Minister of Culture in crisp navy three-button suit, is determinedly ironic and anti-glamorous, with a surf guitar riff announcing the ascent of each prize-winner to the stage to receive the various prizes known as Alph'Arts - glass book trophies designed by Herge, the creator of Tintin, and constituting in effect the Oscars of the cartoon world. The laureates, invariably male and dressed either in black with cowboy boots or rumpled tweed and corduroy, joke and downplay their awards. The Press Alph'Art, also known as the Bloody Mary, is an actual bloody mary, consumed forthwith on stage this year by its recipient, Frederic Aristides, aka Fred, a veteran of 40 years in all the classic French magazines - Pilote, Hara Kiri, Echo des Savanes...

In the evenings, half the participating artists seem to be playing in rock bands around town. A grizzled bunch of bluesmen in a Mexican bar, known variously as Three Day Stubble or Not Quite Dead, include UK comic retailer Forbidden Planet's Dick Jude on drums and John Davis of the US distributor Capitol on guitar (not to mention Gilbert Shelton, the even more grizzled Sixties creator of Fat Freddie's Cat, and another French resident, propping up the bar on tequila glass). In a converted barracks downtown, Les Ambassadeurs, a rather powerful quartet, is led on guitar by Philippe Vuillemin, the eminent Parisian cartoonist and president of this year's Angouleme Grand Jury. Vuillemin's cherubic face and flowing locks belie a style of savagely scatological black humour that has had one of his books, the infamous Hitler Equals SS, banned in France and Italy, and made his appointment both controversial and welcome to those who feel the bande dessinee has come too close to the arts establishment.

"We're the irregulars of publishing, the bande dessinee people and poets," comments Didier Platteau, director general of the publisher Casterman, offering champagne and beer to visitors on his company stand. The publishers comprise the backbone of the festival, and for more of France's 30 or so major companies, plus a hundred others from Europe, the USA, Japan, India and Israel, a stand at Angouleme is de rigueur. Casterman, one of the oldest and biggest firms and the owner of Tintin, spent 600,000 francs this year on a heavily designed stand with furniture and framed pictures set at a slope to publicise L'Enfant Penchee (The Leaning Child) by the Dutch artist Schuitem. It is one of the publisher's major launches of 1996. Along the front of the stand, a row of Casterman authors sit sketching raptly on the title pages of an endless queue of books, newly purchased at the whirring tills by the public. "I must have done 150 on Saturday over seven hours," says Baru (Herve Baruela), whose new work L'Autoroute du Soleil won Alph'Art for Best French Album.

L'Autoroute du Soleil, which has so far sold 20,000 of a 35,000 print run (a modest success; big sellers can do 100,000 copies, but slowly over a decade's print life), is one of the most interesting newcomers to Angouleme. Two trends are prominent this year. One is the emergence of a new class of small, independent publishers and artists dealing in realistic personal subject matter and, often, black-and-white images. (A prominent British example is Bryan Talbot's Tale of One Bad Rat, a thematic mixture of Beatrix Potter, autobiography and child abuse.) The biggest trend, though, is the continual advance of the Japanese manga, and lately, the first co- operations between Japanese publishers and western artists. L'Autoroute was in fact the first French-authored manga, commissioned from Baru by the venerable Kodansha company and published first in Tokyo.

If Castleman's manga series represents a sort of dignified Euro-compromise with the invaders, the genuine article is in plentiful supply at Angouleme, along with a whacky array of associated paraphernalia. "We started business a year and a half ago with four people, just friends, no experience," says David Penava on the Samurai company's stand. "Now we've got 10 shops, 40 employees, our own publishing division and a monthly turnover of one million dollars. The erotic stuff is going best." In front of him, crowds press round the strange little soft porn "garage kit" plastic models and the stocks of Geisha Pink Zone mangas full of semi-realistic nymphettes with huge square Disney eyes and slightly obscured genitals having squelchy chipmunk orgasms.

Here, incidentally, is a point of similarity with the British. The UK CAC, too, boasted a flourishing manga presence, a lowest common denominator with a continental scene whose diversity, size and maturity the British, for the time being, can only dream about. As Frank Plowright, UK CAC's own organiser, put it: "There's very little produced in the UK of interest to anyone over 12 years old."

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