Monday, March 2, 2015

Angoulême: Year Zero

Yours truly, at Angoulême, with a copy of the latest Charlie Hebdo.

I'm back, after a month-long book tour in Europe. There's too much too write about in one blog post, and most of it would bore you anyways. So I'll focus on the Angoulême International Comics Fest, which Matthias Wivel in The Comics Journal dubbed Year Zero.

It was, of course, mere weeks after terrorists slaughtered 12 people, and injured 11 others,  at the office of Charlie Hebdo, while another fanatic killed a policewoman and an additional four at a kosher grocery. How would this play out at Angoulême? I wasn't sure what to expect.

Angoulême, as everyone should know by now,  is the greatest comix fest in the world. Creators from every corner of the globe gather here, along with 100,000 or so fans. There's no cosplaying hordes, no  dealers with slabbed $5,000 copies of Spider-man #14, no giant displays featuring a line of Justice League Craftsman Tools, no Walking Dead cast members signing 8x10s for $50 a pop, no t-shirt towers. At Angoulême, it's just comix publishers selling comix to comix fans. No one on the planet reads comix like the French. Not only do they buy them in per capita numbers larger than any other folk, but they respect the art form. Comix aren't junk culture to them. You'll never encounter someone in France looking down on you because you make (or read) comix. Just the opposite, in fact. 

Angoulême should be on the bucket list of every comix lover. The 2014 fest was my first. It stands as the highlight of my career. My colleague Frank Santaro wrote about  it, also in The Comics Journal. It's a great piece that really captures the experience, my experience. I read it every now and then, just to remember and smile.

The Nouveau Pavilion, where my publisher is located. Heaters pump hot air into the tent, which winds along a city street, the length of several football fields.

Inside the pavilion! And security kept the crowd smaller than the norm!
Angoulême is a sleepy village about three hours south of Paris by train. The fest is held in the last week of January. No one is sure why it's held in the dead of winter, other than it's been that way for 40 years, making it one of the oldest comic cons in the world. The old center of the town, up on a hill and surrounded by a magnificent medieval wall, is totally given over to the fest. Huge  tents.... portable halls would be a better description... are erected in the streets. Every public building is reserved for panels, exhibits and performances. Most locals in the center rent out their houses and flats to fans and visiting pros. For one week in the dead of winter, this small town becomes the center of the comix universe.

As usual this year, there were weather issues. My French publisher, Éditions Çà et Là ( it means Here & There) publishes only foreign creators, including many from the States. Serge flies a bunch of us over for Angoulême each year. This year, of course, the entire Northeast was snowbound. Everyone flying out of New York or Boston was grounded. That's the risk you run when you hold a festival at the end of January. There's been talk of moving it to May or June, but nothing ever seems to get done. After four decades, I guess the date is pretty well entrenched.

I lucked out (although initially I grumbled about it) and went via Atlanta, so I was one of the few who arrived on time. Cooled my heels at the Paris Montparnasse train station for a few hours... and I do mean cooled, because European train stations are unheated and, since Montparnasse is fairly remote and not in the center of Paris like some of the other stations, there's nothing to do but tough it out and wait. Later that afternoon I stepped off the train once again into Angoulême.

Right away, you could tell the festival was different. Security was ramped up to the max. Armed soldiers patrolled the street. They were right there in the train station. First thing I saw when arriving. It was necessary, of course. The French were admirably defiant after the Hebdo attack. If the fanatics wanted to respond to that defiance, where better than at France's largest cartoon festival? Mow down more infidel cartoonists and their infidel fans. I wasn't worried in the least. Heck, Angoulême was probably the safest town in France this week!

I wondered beforehand if Angoulême this year was going to feel like a funeral. It was quickly obvious that it wouldn't. Outside of the heightened security, I didn't see much of a difference. People were talking about Hebdo, sure, but most everyone was here for the love of comix. That, as much as anything, I thought, was the best way to honor the Hebdo cartoonists.

Even the ramped up security measures were taken in stride. There were long lines to enter every building and tent. Credentials were checked, bags were searched, everyone was wanded and patted down. It made moving about the fest a pain, and often damn near impossible. This is the price we pay to flip off the fanatics. The fans didn't seem to mind.

Hebdo covers, plastered on walls and displays throughout town.

The slow-moving line to enter one of the tents. I didn't hear any grumbling, even when
the freezing rain started.

All around town were reminders of the slain cartoonists. Posters of the Hebdo covers, the very ones that enraged the terrorists, were plastered everywhere. Most storefronts proudly displayed a Je Suis Charlie sign in the front window. A large banner honoring the dead hung on the facade of  the town hall. 

But once I was at the Çà et Là booth in Le Nouveau Monde pavillion (reserved for what we would call Indy Comix publishers), it was business as usual. I got right to work, with a 3-hour signing session. A solo signing, it turned out, because Joe Lambert and Liz Prince, who were scheduled to man the booth with me, were still stuck in snowbound Boston. It's a little tougher than it sounds. It's not just simply scrawling my name on the title page. French comix fans expect what they call a "dedicace," a nice signed drawing on the title page. Some creators go all out. Joe Lambert does intricate double-page ink drawings. Brendan Leach pulls out the brushes and adds watercolor washes to his. I stick to ink, because (not to brag) the lines waiting for my dedicace are too long to spend 20 minutes on every one. It's enough work as it is just to crank out a nice ink drawing! I enjoy it, actually. The fans watch you draw, smiling all the while. Some chat you up. It's a great way to engage with people who like your work. 

A drawing of Wendy O. Williams, a dedicace for Punk Rock et Mobile Homes.

My first trip to France, I fretted about people standing in long lines, so I scribbled as fast as I could and the dedicaces were.... well, let's just call them "rushed." No more. I don't linger, but I take my time and try to do a nice piece. The French don't mind waiting (some even bring portable chairs for the line!) and I don't kill myself working at a full sprint. Luckily, since I've been cranking out Trashed pages since August, I was at mid-season form. Doing 50 dedicaces in a signing sessions was no problem at all. The Mon Ami Dahmer dedicaces are all the same, a somber drawing of Jeff with some Fall leaves fluttering past. It's a little boring, since it's the same drawing over and over, but it's a drawing I've perfected, so the fans walk away happy. The Punk Rock et Mobile Homes dedicaces I have more fun with. Joey Ramone is my go to, but I happily take requests. It tickles me when a fan requests Ruby or Uncle Elmo or Becky the Biblethumper.

Overall, from my observation, con-goers were talking about Hebdo, to be sure, and it hung over the festival, but the mood was far more upbeat than I expected. Many French fans thanked me for the piece I drew following the attacks, which eventually wound up in a special insert in Liberation, one of France's national papers.  I was interviewed several times about the attacks, as well, including by the New York Times, an institution that has never shown the slightest interest in my work or opinion before. But here at Angoulême, the reporter was anxious to talk to me. Amusingly, one of the Çà et Là staff, who didn't give a rat's ass about a US newspaper, shooed her away, since she didn't have an appointment for an interview. The reporter returned later and was shooed away again! Luckily, I overheard this exchange and intervened. The reporter questioned me as I drew a dedicace of Joey Ramone. Very fitting, no?

Working on a dedicace. I prefer to stand, Puts me at eye level with the fans I'm drawing for and, after a long flight and train ride, it's good to stretch my legs.

I have fans write out their names, so I don't screw up the spelling. It's a nice souvenir of a
trip, a book filled with names.

I had at least two signings a day, which didn't leave a lot of time to look around the fest, since moving from venue to venue was difficult with the security lines and pat downs. I was determined to check out most of the big exhibits, though. The showcase one was the Calvin & Hobbes show. It debuted at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum last year, and since Waterson was awarded the grand prize at Angoulême (sort of a career achievement award) it was loaned out to the fest. In fact, Ohio State's Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk were in Angoulême to babysit the show!  Hilarious to spend evenings at the Chat Noir pub with a couple Ohio State pals, so far from home. I don't have much interest in Calvin & Hobbes, to be honest. I'm just not one of Watterson's fanatical groupies. It's good stuff, don't get me wrong, and I don't fault anyone for being attached to it, but I wasn't reading many comix during the strip's lifespan. I didn't grow up with it, like so many who love it deeply. For me, it was Peanuts, then Kirby.

The Jack Kirby exhibit was the one I was most anxious to see, and it would have been amazing, if not for the Hebdo attacks. Angoulême has a large museum, down the hill and across the river, in the new town. It's a proper museum, quite impressive, and it's here where the featured exhibits for every fest are held. But a Hebdo exhibit  was hurriedly thrown together, so the Kirby exhibit was bumped to a pavillion. Obviously, you're not going to display $1 million in Kirby originals in a tent, so the real pages were swapped out with same-size photocopies. Word has it the originals were stacked on the dining room table of the rental flat of the curator! It was an amazing selection, going all the way back to Golden Age Capt. America pages. You all know what a Kirby buff I am, but viewing photocopies, even with the originals somewhere in the village, well, that just doesn't generate the same thrill.

I made sure, however, to set aside an afternoon for the Charlie Hebdo exhibit. Joe Lambert and Kevin Cannon went with me. Security was even tighter at this exhibit. Everyone was carefully searched and the line was huge. But much to my surprise, we were waved through, thanks to our badges that IDed us as "auteurs." This is the only place in the fest where this happened.

Joe Lambert takes in the Hebdo exhibit.

It was one of the most powerful and moving exhibits I've ever seen. Granted, for someone like me, who once made a career penning cartoons that would have fit very easily into Charlie Hebdo, it packed an emotional whallop. I felt tears running down my cheeks at several points. Joe and Kevin were both moved by the exhibit, but not on that level, which is understandable since they've never done political cartoons.

The display, a history of Charlie Hebdo, impressively thrown together by curator Jean-Pierre Mercier and his team in a mere 10 days, traced the publication from it's early days as the magazine Hara-Kiri in the early Sixties, through the founding of Charlie Hebdo in the Seventies, to the current incarnation, which was started in 1992. 

Many viewers were taking notes. Others were overcome with grief and sprawled across the cases, like a spouse throwing herself onto her husband's casket. Others simply stared at a single display, one which obviously meant something special to them. I watched one man, on his knees, stare at one cover for a good 10 minutes. I was curious to ask him why, this cover in particular meant so much to him, but I didn't want to disturb his reflection.

The serpentine display cases led viewers on a winding path through covers, cartoons and controversy (unfortunately, with no English translations of the accompanying  text so I missed out on the full history), right up to the final issue before the slaughter. That lone cover, set by itself, had a powerful effect. Wham! Here's the end. I staggered back a bit when I got to it, so overwhelming was the visual.

Stretching along an entire wall of the large gallery was a blackboard, where people were encouraged to pen their own thoughts. It was covered at this point, with messages layered on top of each other many times. I didn't pick up a piece of chalk and add my own. I already had my say, after all. To scrawl something else seemed more showy than genuine, I thought. Maybe that's silly, but I don't regret it.

Another moment that resulted in a hard lump in my throat, above. A father teaches his daughter the simple act of defiance in the name of freedom of expression. He patiently talked to her the whole time, explaining that they weren't simply drawing fun pictures on a big blackboard, but that this meant a great deal more.

In a separate room, behind the blackboard, was an exhibit devoted to the individual work of the slain cartoonists. As I moved around the displays I heard people softly sobbing. The total effect on the overall exhibit was simply staggering. To be honest, it wasn't in keeping with Charlie Hedbo at all! It's understandable, of course, since this is, more than anything, calling hours at a funeral, but I didn't hear any laughter, or even see any smiles as people viewed the work. Shouldn't there be laughter? Wasn't that the life's work of these men? I mentioned to Joe and Kevin that it would have been completely appropriate had loud fart noises been piped into the gallery. 

I left Angoulême the following day, for a a week-long book tour of Provence. By the time I made it back to Paris, most of my Çà et Là compatriots were gone. I still had another week of signing around Paris and other places in France, then Belgium and then to the Netherlands for the launch of the Dutch version of My Friend Dahmer. I took the Metro from the train station to the Place de la Republique, the nearest stop to my hotel. The grand open plaza was also the scene of the impromptu gathering of thousands on the night of the Hebdo attacks. I dragged my luggage behind me as I viewed the memorials littering the statue at the center of the square.

I dumped my bags at the Hotel Cosmos, and, since I had the rest of the day free, headed over to the Hebdo office, where the murderous assault took place. It was only a few blocks away. I didn't want this hanging over my head during my stay in Paris. I wanted to go there anyways, so might as well get it over with.

The building is right in the heart of Paris, quite near the Bastille. It's incredible that the terrorists could drive away and slip the noose after the assault! In NYC there would have been 1000 cop cars screeching up to the front door by the time you could count to 20. I suppose the unexpected nature of it is to account for that. Paris is not Fortress America. In fact, there was almost no police presence at the building. Just a couple cops directing traffic in the street, as gawkers slowed to gander at the memorials that were piled along the fence. And they were packing up to leave as I walked up in the late afternoon.

Three weeks had passed by this point, and the weather in France I'll charitably describe as "shitty." Driving rain, mostly. So most of the memorials, especially the notes and drawings, were weatherbeaten and decomposing. Garbagemen cleared it all away once a week, so the memorial was steadily replenished. The flowers that lay along the fence were wilted and brown. The overall effect was quite sad. It's as if the emotion had drained out of it. All that was left was sadness and regret.

Still, some were quite moving. This piece, obviously the contribution of a working cartoonist, is brilliant. I  couldn't find anything about the cartoonist "Laleu" online.

What I found most heartening were the simple reminders all over the city, and all over the country, for that matter. Like this one, stenciled into a crosswalk on a quiet Paris side street. 

As many French told me, not many people cared or thought much about free speech before the attacks. All the terrorists had done, outside of murdering 17 innocent people, of course, had reminded an entire nation how important this issue was to them. And where no one read Hebdo before the attacks (it had a circ of roughly 50, 000 and was kept afloat by a consortium of larger publications who provided budget and resources), now EVERYbody reads Hebdo. The print runs are now in the millions. This won't last, of course, that's only natural and there's always a shelf life on defiance, but it's admirable. All the gung-ho Americans who crack nasty jokes about the French and their supposed lack of fighting spirit should take note. 

It's not an experience I'll forget, being here mere days after the attack. And, of course, a week later, a fanatical lunatic tried to assassinate another cartoonist in Copenhagen. My fear is not being a jihadist's target, but rather for the chilling effect these assaults will have on the artform. Hell, the American political cartoon is already a nearly dead genre. It's been downsized, de-fanged and dumbed down by the corporate masters of media. Think they'll stand up to the threat, real or, more likely, some meaningless online rant? Let's not hold our breath.