One of the reasons that we were in Brussels and Paris at such a miserable time of year was that the Angouleme Comic Festival was going on while we were there. I’ve heard Angouleme described as “the world’s largest comic book festival” (which, by implication, makes it larger than San Diego Comic Con), but this sobriquet makes me wonder “by what standard?” Still, it easily lives up to the label “Europe’s largest comic book festival.”
Because we were there to spend a day at the festival, I found it interesting to note the amount of advertising there was around Paris, telling people about the festival. There was a massive ad for the festival that we saw throughout the Metro, often in that sweet spot on the tunnel wall directly across from the platform. There were also multiple magazine articles and special editions dedicated to the festival. One lady we spoke to mentioned that she’d seen something about it on the news.
One of the magazines I picked up at a newsstand was Marianne, a fairly mainstream literary magazine from the looks of it. The issue I got was a special on BD, in honor of Angouleme. The front page editorial seems to be singing the praises of BD as literature and the main body of the issue is a genre-by-genre discussion of the best books that BD has to offer. Presumably, this was intended as a buying guide for the casual reader who wants to go to Angouleme and pick up the good stuff. (I certainly used it in this manner while I was there.)
The genres identified in Marianne are as follows: Heros, Adventure, Detective Novels, Heroic Fantasy, Drama, Humor, Historical, Biography, Science Fiction, Reporting, Social Critique, Adaptation and Erotic. There are at least three pages of the magazine dedicated to each genre, with some genres getting five or six or seven pages. And each page is crammed full of reviews, telling the magazine’s readership about what the classics are and what the current crop of good stuff is.
I could not conceive of a mainstream American or British literary magazine dedicating an entire issue to comic books in any fashion, much less avoiding the implication that comics have “grown up.” My wife also picked up a magazine supplement about the history of Asterix that was being given out to people who bought L’Express – a magazine that has the same look and feel as People.
Again, I doubt that People magazine would have an article about the current crop of erotic comics on the market now. Maybe the French are just more open and honest about how much sex sells and who it sells to.
More importantly, I am dismayed by the comparative paucity of the number of genres that mainstream American comics present for consumption: Super Heroes, Horror, Western, Humor and Autobiography. The comic book museum in Angouleme pointed out that Super Heroes are the only genre truly created specifically by the comic medium, but I’m not sure if this justifies the fact that people trying to create something outside that genre are largely relegated to the margins of the American market almost by default.
In a sense, there are two separate attitudes that are divergent between our two cultures. On the one hand, the public and the press have a much more mature and complex view and appreciation of the comic book and what it can do and has done. On the other hand – more significantly, I think – the publishers and creators have a much greater faith in their audience’s ability and desire to seek out something different and develop multi-varied tastes. And, very profitably, cater to those tastes.
I did not get a sense that the comic book reader base was unhealthy in any way, shape or form. The reason for that is, perhaps, that the market is diverse and thus able to adjust to demand as it fluctuates. Also, the most popular best-sellers have been around for decades and have sold millions of copies over their lifetime. Perhaps this is the difference between treating the commercial product as effortlessly disposable or persistently semi-permanent.
At any rate, the French comics market is going strong, pumping out large numbers of different kinds of books every year, with a vast back catalog that anyone can jump into at any time. There is slight regard (if that) for the majority of what the American comic book market produces. Alan Moore featured prominently, as did Star Wars comics. But I was just as likely to find Terry Moore or Brian Wood as I was to find Jack Kirby or Frank Miller.
By and large, though, I got the impression that there are very few people in that market holding their breath, waiting for American creators and publishers to grope their way to other genres. Certainly, they read them as they come out, but seeing DMZ in the context of French adventure and Science Fiction comics, it becomes just another title amongst its peers. Just like it should be.
Next week I will be talking about our arrival in Angouleme, part 8 of 12.