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Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese

Hugo Pratt is one of those names that you can use to separate the knowledgeable from the unlearned when it comes to European comics. Those that know recognize the name immediately; not knowing him is like not knowing Kirby.

A bronze statue of Corto Maltese in front of the Angouleme Comics Museum

His most famous creation is Corto Maltese, a name that should be familiar to anyone who’s read The Dark Knight Returns – it’s used as the name of the small island nation where Superman is forced to intervene. Frank Miller is an avid Hugo Pratt devotee and provided the introduction for the English translation of Book 3 in the series that NBM published in the mid-80s. Pratt’s extreme use of solid blacks and whites in high contrast for effect had a direct impact on Frank Miller, especially in Sin City.

In fact, many feel that Pratt’s linework is of more interest than the character he created, which is understandable. It’s obvious that Pratt put an enormous effort into creating believable tableaux, drawing from his life experience as a world-traveler to add a layer of verisimilitude to his creations. However, his best work is not the buildings and costumes that he creates, but those occasions where he finds it necessary to step back and provide a more impressionistic view of things – usually during action sequences.

The confident use of rough blacks, shadow effects and precise linework in concert is really what makes Hugo Pratt such an interesting artist. It’s nearly impossible to flip through his books without wanting to stop and examine the linework. From there, it’s a short lack of impulse control away from figuring out where the story starts and finding out what’s going on in the story at hand.

NBM released eight books in translation, but the whole run has been out of print for decades. Mostly because of the quality of the art, the books are very difficult to find and are an occasion for rejoicing when they turn up.

When I was at HeroesCon in 2010, I ran across a vendor who had a pair of the NBM books on his shelf. These books are very rare and can fetch quite a bit of money on eBay from sellers who know exactly what they have on their hands. The fact that I paid as little for these books as I did makes me want to go back to that reseller. In fact, I had my eye on his collected Terry and the Pirates reprints as well…

To me, the appeal of the Corto Maltese stories has always been the rich history of the character and the way that creator Hugo Pratt integrated him into the events of the day. From his (chronologically) first appearances in the Russo-Japanese war, where he meets the war correspondent Jack London and his long-time adversary Rasputin, the Maltese stories show him wandering the globe for over twenty years, visiting most of the continents and just generally being “a gentleman of fortune.”

Each NBM book collects a series of four or five 20 page stories that were originally printed in the Pif gadget comics magazine – which is how Francophone comics were usually serialized. I picked up Books 2 & 3 (Banana Congo and Voodoo for the President) in Charlotte and I already owned Book 4 (A Midwinter Morning’s Dream). Read in order, the stories tie together in a loose but coherent fashion. One leads into another into another and the books are structured about right for the themes presented.

Banana Congo and Voodoo for the President are largely focused on Corto’s adventures in South America and the Caribbean, getting involved in political situations that he has no stake in, searching for treasure, encountering unusual characters and eventually running off to Venice to find part of a long-lost treasure map. The next book in the series is entirely set in Europe and the remains of World War I, although it does have a great interlude in Dublin.

One of the best stories in these books is about a group of soldiers from various armies who have banded together to liberate a cache of hidden gold in a small town that keeps changing hands with the vicissitudes of war. The story makes the point that only a neutral pirate like Corto Maltese could have possible organized all of these various parties together to make the plan work. It starts with an observation balloon going off-mission, but it turns into a fantastic caper.

There are several dream sequences throughout the stories, some of which are centered on Maltese and some of which aren’t. It takes a strong character to not be the center of his own stories, which Maltese frequently isn’t. In the Russo-Japanese war story, he doesn’t show up until almost two-thirds of the way through the narrative! (Mind you, that story was written well after the character was established, in an attempt to give some more backstory to an already colorful individual.)

At one point, Maltese loses his memory. In the very next story, his traveling companion decides that the best way to give Maltese his memory back is to feed him magic mushrooms obtained from a tribe in the central Amazon rain forest. Predictably, this leads to yet another dream sequence.

As a treasure-seeker, rogue and anti-hero, Corto Maltese is much more world-weary than Han Solo or Indiana Jones and should really be placed in their company as a default go-to character archetype for comics readers. The wikipedia page about the character points out that Maltese frequently shows up in various other European comics – not always by name, but usually recognizable by appearance alone.

The French publisher Casterman has re-released the entire Corto Maltese library in chronological order of occurrence (which is not the same as the publication order). These handsome, hardback books also contain a little essay at the front, talking about Pratt’s artistic influences and the time period of the story – or so I imagine; I haven’t actually gotten around to translating that bit of French yet. The Casterman books are also notable for being in color, which is unusual because the originals (and NBM translations) were printed in black and white.

The colors do not actively detract from the impact of the linework, but the black and white pages really show off Pratt’s compositional abilities at a macro level to much better effect. I will say, however, that the page just before Corto’s introduction in La Jeunesse (which I picked up in Brussels) is almost an abstract comic. The individual panels are really just snapshots of action, flashes of color that capture our attention.

When I originally started reading La Jeunesse, I was using the one-word-at-a-time method with a dictionary and only got about halfway through the story. After reading Books 2 & 3, though, I went back and realized that Pratt’s storytelling style was not all that complicated. With a little bit of squinting, I was able to get through the rest of the book using only my casual understanding of French. I should have known to do that from the fact that I was able to read the introductory page from La Jeunesse without any translation assistance at all.

Reading the book in French, however, did highlight the fact that the letters of the alphabet have evolved from pictographs and are, essentially, nothing more than standardized drawings. When those letters form patterns that are recognizable as words that I understand, I see them as text. When they form words that I do not immediately recognize, their evolutionary past is much more obvious and they become just another kind of organized pattern of marks on the page.

There are occasional rumors that one company or another is going to publish the Corto Maltese books in English, but nothing ever comes of them. For that reason, those readers who are serious about Hugo Pratt and his most famous character will probably have to deal with the language barrier and read the series in French. Considering the volume of additional material that comes with French, I’d say that it’s not a bad way to go.

However, if you happen to find a copy of any of the NBM albums when you’re poking around in dusty bookstores, pick it up immediately. If you pay less than $30 for it, you got a bargain. If you find a copy of The Ballad of the Salt Sea, let me know.

Posted 11 years, 2 months ago at 6:15 am.

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Le Reflet

One of the BD I picked up in Belgium was Le Reflet (the Reflection) by Marc-Renier and Yvan Hasse. One of the things I was specifically looking for as I browsed the European comic markets was metafictional works. I picked it up because Le Reflet is one such work – obviously so.

My French is not very good. It got marginally better over the summer, when I took my first French class in 22 years. However, I took the class after I read Le Reflet – which involved a painful, word-by-word flip through the French/English dictionary. There were several passages that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, but I’m fairly sure that I got the gist of the whole story, if not the specifics.

Having said that, the whole piece has sat heavy on my mind for the past several months and I decided to take the opportunity that has been granted (the wife is on a girl’s weekend in Brooklyn) to unravel my thoughts on the work.

The book itself is very short. It’s not as wide as a standard BD album and it’s a brisk 30 pages long. The art is a Herge-influenced ligne clair style with a color scheme that is slightly more pastel than you would expect for a story with such dark themes. This makes sense, as Marc-Renier got his start working for Tintin magazine at about the same time. The two best things about the art are the numerous callouts to classic European BD (the story is set in a BD shop) and the tails on the word balloons, which have a beautifully art deco flip to them. The book was published in 1983, but the clothing on the characters suggests an earlier era – 1950s or 60s, maybe.

Spot the references.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Marc owns a shop that specializes in classic BD, which he declares to be genius (“Genial,” above). He’s found an artist to illustrate a BD that he wrote – something of his own that he can place next to the canon on the shelf. The comic shop is named “Au Miroir Malefique” which translates into “In the Evil Mirror.” The reason for the name is an ominous mirror (that you can see below) that came with the shop when he first rented it. He took it as an omen. No, really. Accordingly, the BD is called Le Reflet (the Reflection) – an obvious nod to the name of the shop, which is appropriate because it’s about the history of the shop.

Close up of the detail on the balloons and the mirror.

All of that gets established in the first dozen pages. In the next two pages, the book arrives. Unsurprisingly for those that have been paying attention, it is the book that the reader is currently reading. The title is the same, the cover is the same. In a broad hint about this eventuality, Marc is seen on page two holding an inked page for his yet-to-be published BD that is the same as the previous page.

Mise en abyme

Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinee calls this Mise en abyme, where “art is transposed ‘to the level of the characters.’” Her book gives a more obvious example from Mathieu’s L’Origine, whose main character begins receiving pages of BD art in the mail – each one depicting a scene that has already occurred. Mathieu takes the conceit to an existential conclusion (to great effect), but it was published in 1991, seven years after Le Reflet was published.

It’s details like these that made me pick up Le Reflet in the first place. They don’t happen enough in Anglo-Saxon comics, but they seem to appear in the BD created in the land of French language theorists with startling regularity. What I found most interesting about this particular narrative artifact was what the creators did with it.

The final two-thirds of the book start with Marc receiving his books from the printer and then goes rapidly downhill as he finds himself completely unable to sell any copies of his books. The situation spirals out of control – he yells at customers and friends and grows despondent as boxes of books are returned and begin to accumulate.

Eventually, he shuts up the shop and hides with his BD. Unshaven and distraught, he talks to himself (literally – a clean-cut reflection that appears in the evil mirror and is his sole voice of encouragement) and eventually dies. His publisher friend finds his dead body and is astonished to flip to the back of Le Reflet to find a page that looks exactly like that scene; even moreso because it was not there the first time he read the book.

Breaking and entering.

There’s a bit of a Twilight Zone ending to the story, but it’s a necessary twist. Without it, the whole construct begs to be given the third degree. To wit: did Marc knowingly write a story about his own downfall and death but pretended to be surprised when it came true? The implication comes with the conceit – the album published in the story is intended to be read as the actual album and vice versa. What happens in one will happen in the other. Fate happens to everyone eventually.

But if the content of the story changed after the fact, then Marc is not a self-destructive creator, merely a run-of-the-mill self-delusional one. And that’s a much easier position to understand; who hasn’t gone to those histrionic extremes in this day and age of self-publication? In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the original story Marc published was all about how wonderful he was and how successful this book was going to make him.

There’s more than a basic parable about believing your own hype here – I still haven’t unpacked the symbolism of the mirror. Obviously, calling the shop “In the Evil Mirror” is a broad hint at the nature of the mirror itself. But it also points at the nature of the relationship between the shop (and the universe it sits within) and the mirror; the shop is in the mirror, and is the evil reflection of some other, idealized world.

I doubt very much that Marc really thought too much about these implications. After all, “In the Evil Mirror” is a pretty awesome name for a local comic shop; it’s almost on par with “Forbidden Planet” without having to contend with all of the pop cultural baggage.

But one hopes that he thought about this stuff when he named his book Le Reflet; placed in the context, the BD becomes the reflection that is in the evil mirror. I don’t think he parsed the relational themes as presented. If he had, he might have figured out that the outcome he was experiencing was a result of being on the wrong side of the mirror.

Which is the reflection?

The book ends with both reflections of Marc on the inside of the mirror, looking out at the mess that was created. In the end, it’s where Marc was probably meant to be.

One ironic footnote to the album. I found my copy in the bargain section of a used-BD store in Belgium. The price tag shows 2.50 euros and it’s obviously seen better days. Exactly where you’d expect to find a book that presents itself as a sales failure. I honestly wonder what happened to les Editions du Miroir (no kidding!) – as far as I can tell, they only put out a handful of books; two of which were written by Yvan Hasse. His entire bibliography.

Posted 11 years, 2 months ago at 8:46 am.

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Wrap Up

The biggest thing that came out of our trip to Brussels, Paris and Angouleme at the end of January was the decision to learn to read French. It was a practical decision, based in large part on the fact that a great number of books that I wanted to read have yet to be translated into English. It is a commitment, yes, but a commitment that is fairly easy to adhere to because the only person hurt by my lack of rigor is myself.

In almost every way, this additional language becomes the gateway to another world – a different way of looking at comic book culture, a different comic book market and a wider variety of titles and genres to choose from. And, to be honest, if I am to regard myself as a serious comic book reader – which I do – learning to read French so that I can read some of the best work that the medium has to offer is a logical decision.

In addition, I regard the more mature Francophone comic book market and culture as something that the American comic book market and culture could (and should) aspire to. The reading base of the former is broader, encompassing a vast demographic that cuts across gender, age and economic lines. In our culture, comic book readers are a narrow demographic by default. There has been a belated understanding that other people might like comics as well, but there have really only been partial attempts to court those readers with material aimed at them.

Part of me is convinced that translating and importing select titles from the French market would be enable the American comics market to jump-start a marketing campaign to attract readers outside the default demographics. After all, these are books of proven quality and known sales figures. Many of them have extensive back catalogs. Startup costs for importing these books are different than paying authors and artists to create books from scratch.

If nothing else, the addition of choices to the market should increase buy-in from those readers who like comic books as a medium, but are less than enchanted by the current selection available. After all, the French market is vast – much larger than the contemporary American market. Their back catalog contains books that have been in print since the 1920s and are still being read heavily today by almost everyone. The American books from the 1920s – Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, among others – are being read by connoisseurs and not the standard comics reader.

The lesson I took from the Manga explosion and Harry Potter is that there are a lot of readers out there. The received wisdom that people simply don’t read anymore is false; Harry Potter had millions of people willing to pick up 800 page novels. Manga had people tripping over teenagers in Border’s – teenagers who were unwilling to go into comic book stores because those stores simply didn’t have what they were looking for. Readers want to read, but faced with the vast amount of choice available in today’s entertainment market, readers can afford to be selective. If there is nothing available that they want to read, they will not buy just to buy something.

All things being equal, though, I really don’t have a lot of hope for the maturation of the contemporary American comic book market. Chances are very good that it will continue to plod along as it always has, slaves to dedicated genres and narrow demographics, hoping to squeeze more dollars out of an increasingly depleted monetary pool. And the popular culture in this country will continue to regard comic books as something that is primarily for children – mostly because the big publishers probably will not change their marketing tactics in an attempt to counter this assumption.

Change only happens when it is necessary. The bigger an institution, the less impetus there is for change. If there is a revolution in the way that the comic book medium is perceived in this culture, it will not originate from the largest companies currently publishing comic books. Their business model was cast in the mid-sixties and has not changed significantly. From time to time, they branch out into different genres, but with the notable exception of DC’s Vertigo imprint, these experiments have not borne a lot of fruit.

If there is genuine desire for a more mature comic book market in our culture, it will have to be driven by people whose current marketing plan has not already been decided for them. It will be most likely be aimed at demographics that are not the standard 18-35 year old male readers. And it will probably not be driven by French publishers – they already have a very healthy market, thank you very much; an English market may be vast and relatively untapped, but it is not necessary.

As a result of this frank examination of the state of our comic book culture and market, I feel safe in concluding that if I want to read the kinds of comics that are interesting to me, it’s in my best interest to learn to read French. Or start my own imprint, importing translated comics to this market. On the whole, I think I’m going to have to stick with the option that doesn’t require a boatload of money that I just don’t have.

Posted 11 years, 8 months ago at 2:19 pm.

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Cent Pour Cent

One of the places we wanted to visit while we were in Angouleme was the BD Museum. We’ve been to Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore and the BD Museum in Brussels. This would give us a chance to compare and contrast the three and get a sense for what the French considered museum-worthy.

One of the things we noticed from the map of the town was that the BD Museum was on the bus route of a special bus that took festival goers on a set route around town. When we got on the bus, we discovered why this was necessary. The main portion of the comic festival is in the town square, which is on top of a massive piece of high ground, way up high. The BD Museum, which is next to a river, is on the flat, low ground. The bus provided a way to go from up to down (and vice versa). Did I mention that the town was very hilly?

By the time we got to the BD Museum, our feet were starting to ache from the combined effects of six consecutive days spent wandering Brussels, Paris and now Angouleme. We really wanted a place to sit down. Thank god for the BD Musuem.

You have to cross the bridge to get to the museum. Halfway across the bridge is a bronze statue of Corto Maltese, looking up into the clouds. The museum itself is housed in what looks like an old paper factory. The inside of the museum, however, is space-age as all get out.

I understand that the main exhibit room just received a major makeover in the past few years. I don’t know what it looked like before, but now it looks like someone stole Kubrick’s interior sets from 2001 and molded them into the space. Scattered throughout are massive benches that people can use to sit down. In the center of the seating area are dozens of comics that people can sit and read for as long as they want. The museum is actually designed to be interactive and treats the museum-goer like a library guest.

The exhibits themselves were very interesting and informative, with laminated cards in English. The timeline of comics were broken down logically and Anglo-Saxon comics were placed in their proper socio-historical context, vis-à-vis the French comics of the time. The collection on display was very extensive and I got to play “I have that book.”

The special exhibition (created specifically for the festival) was a show called Cent Pour Cent, where 100 cartoonists reinterpreted 100 classic comic pages. Of course, there is a massive book that reprints all 200 pages, side by side for comparison purposes. The show itself was great. Some of the pages were a bit abstract, but the pages that were good worked very well.

Of course, the best way to judge a museum is by its gift shop. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, for example, has the worst gift shop I have ever been in. This is especially distressing, considering the business that the owner is affiliated with. By comparison, the gift shop in the Brussels BD Museum was fantastic. But the gift shop in the Angouleme BD Museum was like walking into a store like Waldenbooks – beautifully arranged tables overflowing with books. My wife pointed out that it was the local comic shop for the people in the surrounding towns; a small price to pay for living in the middle of nowhere, I guess.

One of the great things about the gift shop was the fact that it stocked art supplies in the front of the store. This meant that the intention was not just to sell comics, but the means of making comics as well. I don’t know if the students visiting the museum got the message that they were intended (indeed, encouraged) to eventually take up the pencil if they wanted, but it was there.

There were other exhibits in the surrounding buildings, but we were so beat at that point that we took the bus back to the top of the town, found a bar and split a bottle of wine. If we had been staying in town, we might have gone back to our rooms for a quick nap before trying to see Enki Bilal, but our train was coming to whisk us back to Paris instead.

As in Brussels, seeing such a well thought-out museum dedicated to the ninth art was very satisfying. Again, it provided some context for the mass entertainment that I’d been wandering around in all day and gave me some material to look out for in the future. I would recommend this place for a visit on its own, but it’s worth visiting during the festival to get the full effect, the context and the spirit of goodwill that’s generated.

Next week is the last installment of the 12 part journey through French comics country: the series wrap-up.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 6:13 am.

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The Major Publishers at Angouleme

As busy and crazy as the alternative press hall was in Angouleme, it was no comparison to the major hall at the other end of town – the major publisher marketplace.

Where the alternative hall was a long, narrow hallway, this marketplace was wide, which gave the publishers room to set up trade show booths; this was appropriate because we were at a trade show. The major publishers had a couple hundred square feet apiece, which they filled with shelves; the exit inevitably led past the cash register.

There were six major publishers (based entirely on size of booth): Dupuis, Delcourt, Glenat/Drugstore, Le Lombard, Dargard and Casterman. Judging from the pile of books next to the computer, my go-to publishers were Delcourt and Casterman, although I have stuff from Dargard and Glenat in there as well.

In addition, there were about a dozen smaller publishers scattered along the periphery and in an adjacent structure. The back of this second structure was occupied by Soleil – a major publisher of high fantasy comics. The front of the structure contained Marvel Panini, the publisher that obviously has rights to Marvel comic books. Ironically, they also seem to have rights to the DC comics as well. It’s very interesting to see Stan Lee and Watchmen shelved next to each other, but also very amusing. (One American comic that we conspicuously did not see: Sandman. There’s probably a story there, but I don’t know it.)

Each of the major publishers had a section roped off for artists and/or writers who would be appearing later. All of these sections were filled with people in line, patiently reading their comics, secure in the knowledge that they will meet their heroes in due time. The Soliel portion of the building had a big series of tables set up in the back that was filled with artists – apparently, their artists are in demand.

But that was the closest I saw to an actual artist’s alley. In fact, I saw more artists signing in the alternative hall than I did in the major publisher halls. The major publishers were commerce machines. Each of them had a lady with a scanner, cash register and credit card machine – Delcourt had two. By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to have to learn to read French regardless, so I approached shopping with an open mind.

My wife found a Dave McKean comic in an anthology based on the songs of Bob Dylan. I found a copy of L’Homme Bonsai by Fred Bernard – about a man who is turning into a tree; it’s a pirate story. I also found Le Sourire des Marionnettes by Jean Dytar, a gorgeously illustrated book about Omar Khayyam and his encounter with Hassan ibn Sabbah – the so-called Master of Alamut aka the Old Man in the Mountain aka the master of the assassins.

As I said, by this time, I was well aware that I would be able to read these books in due time. With that in mind, it was easy to convince myself to buy these books. After all, I wanted to read the books at the festival. Taking them home and making the comprehension of another language the only real barrier to reading them would arguably be a good motivation to learn. If I was that serious about comics, I should be willing to make a leap of faith like that in order to expand my frame of reference properly.

So I did.

Next week, the Angouleme comics museum – the penultimate part of this twelve-part series.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 8:14 am.

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Alternative at Angouleme

The buildings for the festival in Angouleme are actually semi-permanent structures made of wood and vinyl from the same tent DNA as the air-conditioned dance tents you see at outdoor festivals during summer. The structures at Angouleme are designed to fit into the open space available (presumably park land in the city square), but they are also heated and it’s easy to forget that you’re in a building that will be taken down at the end of the festival.

In the square next to the indie/alternative/small press building was a presentation about a long-running series in the Charleroi style called Les Tuniques Bleues. When we went by the first time, it was filled with screaming schoolchildren who were doing some kind of choreographed reaction to the series, I think. Their enthusiasm for the series was very real, despite the staging. The odd thing was that I had never heard of the series before I started looking at the list of events for the festival. Just something else to get caught up on.

I actually took the time in the cold late afternoon to look at the panels of the presentation. There were six panels per kiosk and five or six kiosks. The panels were about various aspects of the series – where the characters had gone, prisoner of war camps in the South during the Civil War, what historical events and figures the characters encountered, how the series dealt with issues like slavery and so forth. It was fairly informational and probably would have been very interesting if I could read more than a third of the text.

But the use of illustration did provide enough context to give me an idea of what each topic was about and how the topic was integrated into the comic. Given the obvious deference given to the series, the presentation was probably not designed to induce people to read it. But it was intended to explain to people why the series was good and what it had done, correctly or not. I gather that this kind of spotlight is something they have done every year of the festival and I wonder what other comics had been picked out for special consideration – and what was said about them.

The first table in the main entrance of the alternative hall was L’Association, arguably the biggest indie publisher around. Formed by the likes of Lewis Trondheim and David B., L’Association treads the fine line between creating art and creating commercial product. There’s an entire chapter about L’Association in Bart Beaty’s excellent book Unpopular Culture that’s well worth reading. And, of course, they got to sit at the front of the alternative hall. That’s what prestige and a good reputation will do for you.

The remainder of the hall was a long corridor of booths, filled with small and alternative press creators. Erotic publishers were mixed in with children’s book makers and solo artists self-publishing stuff that they’ve been putting out for twenty years. There was a strong vibe of the experimental small press that I would expect to find at Small Press Expo – which tells me that there is always room at the bottom to do weird stuff in an attempt to learn what works.

We ran into two different groups of British comics creators – BASTARDS and Alternative Press. We got several books from each of them. I also picked up a fair number of catalogs. These give me an idea of what the mid-sized publishers were putting out without wasting my time on the day of, trying to puzzle through endless back cover texts. One thing I did notice was the volume of mid-size publishers at the show. The erotic publishers shared space with Sarbacane and Tanibis, who were fairly indicative of what was available.

Possibly the most valuable artifacts that I brought back from Angouleme were the catalogs, buyer’s guides and magazines that carried reviews. They’ve given me insight into what sells and what the range of material available actually is. I found several books in these publications that looked good enough to pick up when I was there. I suspect that I will be shopping from these catalogs for years to come.

Next week, I will be talking about the mainstream publishers at Angouleme, which was an altogether different experience.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 11:15 am.

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Arriving in Angouleme

When we first booked our trip in August of 2009, we tried to get a hotel room in Angouleme for a day or two during the festival. Then we discovered that every hotel room within an 80 mile radius of the town is booked solid almost a year in advance; many of the participants probably book for next year as they are checking out.

As a compromise, we took a day trip from Paris to Angouleme. We left Montparnasse at 7:30 in the morning, which got us into Angouleme at about 10:30. At the end of the day, we caught a train at 20:50, which got us back into Paris at about midnight. Waking up early enough to catch the train sucked, but having three hours of enforced not walking on the return trip after a whole day of tromping around Angouleme was quite nice.

Angouleme bills itself as the City of Festivals, but we reckon that its traditional role as the center of paper-making and printing for this region of France is what originally made it a festival destination for BD. At any rate, the city itself is very happy to be a tourist destination and many businesses feature random BD albums in their store displays, even if the additions don’t make sense. One shoe store had a few Tintin books thrown in with the sneakers, for example.

One shock that we received upon walking from the train station to the town center was the fact that Angouleme is, unlike Brussels and Paris, not flat. Not at all flat. Rather the opposite, really. The maps we had of the town didn’t mention anything about hills.

After some effort, we managed to find our bearings and visit a few of the vending halls and the museum across the river – each of which I’ll get to in later essays. At the end of the night, we sat in a space-age bar next to the Hotel de Ville and killed a bottle of wine over a pile of comics that we really couldn’t read. Still, it was a very nice way to end what had been a slightly frustrating, physically taxing, mentally exhausting day.

One thing my wife pointed out when we were on the train back to Paris was that the Angouleme festival really had no demographic. There were multiple school groups in attendance – elementary school through late high school. (Could you imagine an American school taking students on a field trip to a comic book convention?) There were entire families – with and without children. There were little old ladies shopping by themselves and there were sisters, brothers, fathers and sons shoulder to shoulder in the crowd.

Everyone was looking for the material that spoke to them, but they knew that there would be something (most likely many things) to their taste. Even the camera crew from the French news program that had been filming all day had their bag of comics with the equipment.

Frankly, considering how much the Europeans seem to detest traveling over long distances, it was astonishing to see the volumes of people wandering around the town and shopping in the various marketplaces. The festival was 37 in 2010, which means that several people in the crowd had probably grown up with the festival. That level of engagement is extremely encouraging to see, especially considering the state of our comics market. The crowds in Angouleme – even on a rainy Friday afternoon in January – were bigger than they were at Heroes Con or Baltimore Comic Con, both of which I attended in 2009. And I actually heard that attendance was down slightly overall this year – probably due to the weather.

Next week, I’ll talk about alternative comics in Angouleme, part 9 of 13.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 6:22 am.

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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.

Posted 11 years, 10 months ago at 6:24 am.

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Other Things We Did in Paris

We did other things in Paris besides comic book shopping. We made an emotional visit to Jim Morrison’s grave so that my wife could say goodbye to her mother. We sat in cafes, drinking red wine and watching the snow fall while the crazy Parisian traffic screamed past. We randomly walked into what the guidebook later told us was one of the best cheese shops in Paris. We sought out, and found, fat girls stores scattered throughout the city. We did not, alas, buy any fat girls from said stores, although my wife did get a nice jacket from a saleswoman who spoke not a lick of English.

Our hotel was between the Arc de Triomphe and the Trocadero, which meant that we could (and did) see le Tour Eiffel from the plaza above the Trocadero Metro station. We also stomped around the Jardin de Tuilleries and watched little kids play with giant soap bubbles that some random guy was making next to the pond. And we found that locating the Concorde Metro station from the ground level is incredibly frustrating, especially in the cold.

Did I mention that it was cold? It was cold. We saw a lot of Brussels and Paris at high speed, mostly because when we stopped to admire something, the cold caught up to us. Sometimes, rain would fall to add to our enjoyment of the cold. It also snowed twice while we were in Paris, which added to the fun.

We also saw the worst French band we’ve ever seen open for Big Pink in a club in Belleville. Big Pink was amazing and the lead singer will do great things if he can curb his self-destructive tendencies. My wife is a DJ, so it’s become somewhat of a tradition to go see bands (big or small, she doesn’t discriminate) when we go to any random city. We discovered that it’s fun to do it in cities where you don’t speak the language. (In Brussels, we saw Good Shoes at an old greenhouse that had been turned into a cultural center/performance space.)

Our other major complaint (besides the cold) was the number of staircases in the Paris Metro system. There were times that we would walk up a flight of stairs, turn a corner and walk up two more flights. Then go down half a flight and up another flight. It got ridiculous very, very quickly. We did get treated to an impromptu guitar solo late one night, though. And there are accordion players on almost every train, asking for money.

Overall, the Metro worked out very well for us, taking us nearly everywhere that we wanted to go within the city. There are a lot of lines, but the real skill lies in being able to read a map, not in reading French.

Overall, it was a pretty city and we’d be prepared to go back in a month that wasn’t known for being cold. August, maybe. A pleasant time of year instead of a miserable time of year.

Next week, I’ll be talking about a French literary magazine that I picked up, in part seven of this twelve part series.

Posted 11 years, 10 months ago at 1:03 pm.

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BD Shopping in Paris

One of the most obvious differences between Paris and Brussels is the national attitude towards language. In Belgium, there are two official languages: French and Dutch. By law, everything has to be printed in those two languages and a lot of people find it to be just as much trouble to print in three languages as it is to print in two, so English appears often around town.

France is not a bilingual nation, but a reasonably large number of Parisians speak a little English, which has the dubious benefit of not being German. Overall, we had more encounters in Paris than Brussels where language was a barrier, but it turns out that shopping for clothes knows no lingual boundary.

When I was there, I made the comparison that Belgium:France::Canada:United States. They share the same language, provide a vital input to the national entertainment economy and yet stand apart. I suspect that there are long-running tensions and pre-defined relationships between the two countries that go back centuries. For me, I was just happy that we started our crash course in French in a city that offered an English backup from most signs and merchants. Then we landed in a city that didn’t.

Comic book shopping in Paris was centered in a small neighborhood between the Sorbonne and Notre Dame. There is a small street called the Rue Dante that is the traditional home of old comic book shops in Paris; this makes sense, considering the proximity to the university. Around the corner from the Rue Dante are a couple more comic book stores at the intersection of Saint Germain and Saint Michael. One of these, Boulinier is an amazing example of a reasonably sized media mart. There are floors for books, reference books, CDs and BD.

Again, the selection was impressive, but it was organized in a way that would be familiar to the experienced shopper, not really the relatively uninformed American whose French is worse than it should be. I found myself in the same situation in a used-BD store next to Boulinier and in the few shops that I went into down the Rue Dante. There was a store called Album, which had the best selection. I found some stuff that I had read about in review magazines that I’d picked up and managed to find a few free magazines in the store as well.

The only other store on the Rue Dante that I went into was a little shop that specialized in older, out of print French comics. Again, I didn’t feel that I had the depth of knowledge to browse the store effectively, but I did find an edition of Barbarella for 120 Euros. I didn’t check to see if it was a first printing or not, but it’s out of print now and that sort of price is probably fair if you really want to read the material. I made note of the store, but left without spending any money.

On the whole, though, I found that I had created artificially high expectations of the Rue Dante and was not prepared for the much better impression that the Brussels comic book stores had given me. Size and sheer selection went to the Belgians, but I did appreciate that most of the Parisian comic book stores were in one small area – that made it easy to peruse most of them in an afternoon.

There was one other comic book store that we went into while we were in Paris. Being tourists who shop, we went to the Champs d’Elysees on a very cold night. We walked about four blocks up the street, then walked back. One of the places we stopped was the Virgin Megastore, which contained no escalators and a half of a floor dedicated to BD. In fact, as you walked up the marble staircase to the top floor, there was an entire display of comics that had were official Angouleme selections.

The Virgin Megastore’s shopping space for comics was incredible. The selection was very good, even if it was skewed a bit in the direction of obviously commercial work and less in the direction of experimental stuff. Still, every book on the Angouleme selection list was available and I came back on our last day in the city to buy one of the books that I missed picking up at the festival.

I’m an especial fan of the Virgin Megastores in London – they have treated us very well over the years – but I really wish that they felt that they could dedicate half a floor to comic books in that city, the same way they do in Paris. The trip to the Megastore was yet another sign that the people perceive comic books differently than we do in our culture. After all, if they were seen to be profitable and accepted, more stores would dedicate more space to them. Stores sell what people buy.

Next week marks the halfway point in this series – part 6 of 12 – general Parisian tourism.

Posted 11 years, 10 months ago at 6:58 am.

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