Angouleme, Je T’aime

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Angouleme. Jeez — I’m not sure what just happened. I dreamt that this quaint little French hillside town with cobblestone streets and half-century-old churches it was descended upon by over one hundred thousand of the world’s finest comic-makers and -lovers for four long days of bizarre and beautiful graphic revelry. I dreamt that the winding lanes that spill down towards the river were thronged until the crack of dawn by a tipsy horde of friends and strangers united by the common love for this glorious and powerful medium of art.

Show Floor 2In size, in stature, in ambition, in variety and seriousness of purpose, Angouleme dwarfs every other show I’ve ever been to. If you could stir together the best parts of San Diego and TCAF in an antique tea cup, maybe you would wind up with something halfway resembling this insane event. And the wildest part is that everyone kept telling us how slow it was. This was apparently the dreariest Festival International de la Bande Desinee in recent memory. Mon Dieu!

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We were at the show as the humble guests of the one & only Peter Maresca of Sunday Press, the finest archival imprint in the business, the publisher of the impossibly beautiful broadsheet-format Little Nemo editions that inspired our own LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM — the bizarre, glorious, star-studded tribute anthology whose coattails we’re riding all over the world. After one whirlwind day in Paris, during which Andrew and I hoofed it all over the city trying to check off the obvious tourist sites (Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Serge Gainsbourg’s house), we somehow packed our gigantic boxes into Pete’s tiny rental car, loaded up on sandwiches and pastries, and headed south through the miserable, appropriately existential rain on a highway that looked less like my cliched vision of the French countryside than it did like the Pennsylvania turnpike en route to Pittsburgh.

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But we were happy to have a few hours in the car with Pete to talk about comics, life and France. And our arrival in Angouleme, despite the awful weather, was joyous. Centuries-old buildings covered in cartooning — the cognitive dissonance of it is shocking and delightful. Hey, there’s Tintin peeking out of an abbey window. Look, the side of that stately manse is covered with laser-blasting jet-propelled robots. Check it out, a garage with a 40-foot mural featuring nearly every Simpsons character.

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It’s too much. The comic-loving mind delights. So what if we had to claim a parking spot near our tent and hoof our suitcases a couple miles across the river to our AirBNB spot? We were here now. Wet and beat and happy. See, look how happy Andrew is.

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On Thursday at the show we heard a lot of talk about slow traffic, as the rain persisted and the heightened security made it kind of a hassle to move from tent to tent. Every 15 minutes or so the loudspeakers would blare with messages which, tranlated into English, took on an unintentionally (?) Orwellian cast: “Please surrender your belongings to the controllers.” “All barriers to the movement will be removed.” Police squads and bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the show floor. It all contributed to a strange, anxious urgency that I think brought out both the best and worst in a lot of people at the festival.

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Friday the weather was worse still, but foot traffic picked up considerably. We had promising meetings with a lot of companies about the prospect of foreign-language editions of Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. Otomo was appointed president, to general joyousness and acclaim. The table that we shared with Peter was awarded the official Angouleme prize for Most Gigantic Books.

Giant BooksWe tried to see Junji Ito speak, but were stymied by the sold-out crowd. We soothed our disappointment with pastries.

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There’s so much at this show that I wish I could tell you about — the talks by Brian K. Vaughan and Brecht Evens, the drawing display by Jiro Taniguchi, the awards ceremony — but meetings and tabling kept us too busy to really enjoy most of the asethetic fruits of this glorious, abundantly programmed show.

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The programming at most American conventions — even the really great ones — feels like a bit of an afterthought, an added enticement to the main offering of the show floor. Maybe it’s the government-funded, arts council-supported nature of this European festival, but the programming — the endless talks and exhibitions and screenings and debates and ceremonies — seemed like the real main course here. The signings, what few there were, felt informal and ad hoc, took place at publishers’ humble tables, and were free of charge. This gathering is a celebration of an art form, not a lucrative exploitation of an ever-burgeoning fandom.

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Was the slow attendance due in part to the fear of terrorist attacks? I’m not in any position to speculate — but Charlie Hebdo and Je Suis Charlie/Nous Sommes Charlie images were everywhere (including all the official festival programs and banners, which must have been hastily rebranded at considerable expense), and the still-fresh horror and sorrow of the events of January 7th gave the proceedings a powerful and intense gravity. Comics and cartoons are no joke. The stakes are high — truth and meaning and freedom of expression hang in the balance. In the US that feels like a fact that we comic folk have to defensively insist upon and constantly, self-consciously reaffirm. In Europe, at least for the moment, that seems to be taken as a given.

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But the seriousness and significance of all this certainly didn’t preclude joy or revelry, as the hundred-thousand-some of us, editors and authors and publishers and readers, flooded the streets of this charming little town, bouncing from bar to bar and hotel to hotel with wine glasses in hand, greeting old friends and meeting new ones. (It seems like all the bars in town must have lost a lot of glasses, as people ordered drinks and treated their tumblers and flutes as to-go cups. But, as folks ditched the glasses wherever they ended up, it probably evened out into a sort of informal glassware exchange program.)

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A 12-piece brass band popped up out of nowhere and blasted out what turned into an impromptu dance party on the cobblestones. We got down with the brilliant Israeli illustrator and Locust Moon contributor Keren Katz, which is an activity I highly recommend to all human persons.

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Angouleme is a place huge, wild and capacious enough to contain its own alt-comics anti-festival, FOFF (short for FUCK OFF — its message to the FIBD), which featured a lot of awesomely porny stuff and turned into a weirdo dance club after hours towards which a lot of the nightlife gravitated, where wonderfully nerdy French rappers presided over roiling mosh pits.

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Saturday at the show the weather finally began to break, the crowds really got crazy, and all of our calves started to get very toned from walking up and down the hill. There were some endless lines to navigate, and the town’s infrastructure seemed stretched to its very capacity. Still, we were told this was a pale shadow of Angouleme years past. Do people get trampled to death at peak Angouleme? Our sales picked up, and by Sunday morning we had managed to find happy homes for all of our LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM editions and wrap up our schedule of meetings, which gave us a little more free time to explore the endless expanse of this bottomless show, including visits to FOFF…

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An eye-opening display of Chinese comics…

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The Jack Kirby exhibition…

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And, closest to my heart, the Calvin and Hobbes exhibit, lovingly curated by Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk from the Billy Ireland museum at Ohio State.

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Calvin and Hobbes was the piece of art, more than any other, that kindled the undying love of comics and cartooning in my young heart. My enthusiasm Bill Watterson’s work has somehow only grown with age, and my only hope as a comic creator and comic publisher is to ever be involved in making something that can impart even a fraction of the joy that reading, re-reading, and re-re-re-re-reading these strips has given me over the last 32 years. Being in the presence of Watterson’s original line art, to see the effortlessly, dashingly minimal brushstrokes that formed Hobbes’s tiger stripes, was an almost comically humbling and moving experience. I had to resist the urge to touch them . There was a moment, when contemplating the beauty of one of my favorite strips, that I began to tear up. I felt silly, and a little ashamed of myself. But I looked around the room and saw a dozen other people gazing at this transcendent work with equally rapt, awe-struck religiousity, and I knew I wasn’t silly. I was Charlie. I was home.

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[Please forgive my terrible photography. All the decent photos here were taken by Andrew.]

-Josh O’Neill

BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Vehlmann & Kerascoet

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One brief caveat: you should not be able to name something BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, unless that something is an Avenged Sevenfold song or a student-run high-school poetry magazine. I’m going to extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that it sounds better in its original French, more like a gorgeous and powerful graphic novel than the LiveJournal page of a 17-year-old aspiring cutter. Because this book, newly translated by Drawn & Quarterly, is the best thing I’ve read in 2014.

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It starts with a tea party and ends with a holocaust. Our protagonist Aurora is shyly flirting with the handsome, dandyish Prince Hector over hot cocoa and cakes, when red globs begin to drop from the ceiling into their food. Confused, the two crawl into a wet, dark tunnel, where they see other cartoon people confusedly clamoring through the shadows. They climb up into some kind of cavity, out from their cover into the pouring rain, part of a refugee throng. Then the view opens up to give us context, and our stomachs drop.
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By the next morning the little people have set up camp around the girl’s body, cleverly re-purposing her belongings as survival supplies. A notebook becomes a tent; a pencil case becomes a watertight sleeping bag. Aurora, with all the pluck and self-sacrificing gumption (as well as the big dew-drop eyes and polka-dot dress) of a Disney heroine, takes it upon herself to lead the effort, setting up a kind of triage & rationing station inside the little girl’s purse. Over a few days, their society takes shape according to its needs and its personalities. Aurora makes friends with the field mice, who help her find berries.

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With astonishing elegance and economy of storytelling, Vehlmann & Kerascoet sweep us through the crisis, introducing their cast of instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic-yet-archetypical characters: Plim, the over-enthusiastic boy sidekick; Jane, the proud, self-sufficient loner with a pair of cuticle scissors strapped to her back like a samurai sword; Zelie, the preening, doll-like narcissist; the bickering ballerina triplets; Timothy, the shy, nurturing wallflower — to name merely a few. In a book that takes barely an hour to read, we are gifted with over a dozen characters who stand in sharp relief, imprinting themselves on our imaginations, such that when the frost takes hold and the plot threads tighten, we find that they have wound themselves, quietly and intricately, around our heart and throat.

The stage is set. We will spend three seasons here (summer, fall, winter — this is not a book about renewal), watching their social order shift as they struggle for survival in the shadow of a young girl’s decaying body. At first the threats are external: a cat, shadow-dark against the purple night, picking children off as they sleep; one of the triplets pecked to death by a bird. There is the expected squabbling over rations and rules, and while it might be said that we’re descending into Lord of the Flies by way of The Borrowers, the place we’re heading is actually much stranger than that.

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This is wilderness at its most gorgeous and frightening. The lush simplicity of these pencil & watercolor illustrations (credited to Kerascoet, which is a pen name for the Parisian artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) are sumptuously appealing, with their rich colors and delicate play of light and shadow, but they are unflinching in the speed and casualness with which they shade into terror and violence. There is a smiley-face painted over everything, from a girl who’s poisoned by a plant and watches her body revoltingly balloon and malform, to the children playing ticklishly in the maggot fields. There is something otherworldly and profoundly unsettling about the giggling carelessness with which they greet the ravages of nature and society, and the storytelling and gorgeous artwork combine to keep you constantly off-balance in this perfectly realized, rapturously decaying universe.

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To say too much more would be to spoil this remarkable story (if I haven’t already), which subverts your expectations and implicates you in its horrors by your mere attention, such that by the time you reach its monstrous, shocking end you feel you should close the book with care and slowly back away.

It’s the natural world writ tiny, with cartoon faces and pipsqueak personalities masking a soulless, indifferent universe. This is a very French book: an indictment of mankind itself, the cute masks that we wear, the sentimentality, the tea parties and small kindnesses that hide our sharp teeth, our callous hearts & casual cruelties. And whether or not you share this miserablist view of the human nature, you will queasily recognize something in these characters, in the shrugging ease with which they slide from sweetness to savagery. This is a book that will linger, whether you want it to or not. It will stick to your teeth. It will make you look for the tiny cartoon monsters inside yourself.

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– Josh O’Neill