Foreign stars light up French comics fest

From the Iranian creator of Persepolis to cutting-edge artists from Seoul or South Africa, star authors joined about 200 000 fans in southern France this week for the world’s biggest comic book showcase.

Once a year the sleepy south-western town of Angouleme turns into the capital of the comic book industry, playing host to a star-studded marathon of book signings, talent scouting, live drawing, screenings, round-tables and concerts.

Marjane Satrapi, whose groundbreaking comic novel on growing up in 1980s Iran was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie, was a star guest among the 1 000 authors invited to this year’s four-day event, which runs until Sunday.

Now in its 36th year, the Angouleme festival — described as the Cannes of the comic book world — aims to celebrate the best of the genre, whittled down to a shortlist of 56 key titles.

Subjects range from sci-fi, superheroes and children’s fantasy, to ambitious graphic novels on politics, war or the legacy of slavery, all the way to romance, erotica and social satire — with offerings from around the planet.

“A comics strip is always a window open on the world,” said the festival’s art director Benoit Mouchart.

“That is true of our comics tradition here in the West — but it’s just as true of the Asian traditions, manga in Japan or manhwa in Korea.”

Japanese manga has its own tent at Angouleme — with a special exhibition on the work of Shigeru Mizuki — while a dozen authors from Sai Comics, a flagship South Korean independent publisher, were in town to work on a giant fresco, live before an audience of festival-goers.

A special exhibit focuses on the South African authors of Bittercomix, a cult comics fanzine that violently attacks Afrikaaner culture and the lasting legacy of racism more than a decade after the end of apartheid.

Other high-profile foreign guests include Italy’s Milo Manara, or the British cartoonist Posy Simmonds.

Even Steven Spielberg — who just started work on a big-budget Hollywood trilogy based on the adventures of Tintin, the Belgian boy reporter who turns 80 this year — made a brief on-screen appearance.

Spielberg and Peter Jackson — co-producer of the movie, starring Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig and set for release in 2011 — recorded a tongue-in-cheek video message for festival-goers, promising to stay true to the spirit of the original Tintin series.

Meanwhile household French-language stars at the show include the child’s comic series Boule et Bill, which turns 50 this year.

A jury of industry professionals will award its coveted Golden Lion for the year’s best album on Sunday, with separate prizes for runners up and for best youth and classic albums.

Further prizes will single out the best comics blogs, a fast-growing sub-genre and hotbed of young new talent.

Known in the French-speaking world as Bande-Dessinee, or BD — pronounced “Bay-Day” — comics are big business in France, with about 4 700 new titles hitting the shelves in 2008, a third of them manga, up from 1 500 in 2000.

Some warn the sector is ripe for a shake-down, saying quality is losing out amid the sheer volume of new titles.

“It’s confusing for readers — there comes a point, when you just have to stop churning out books that nobody has time to read,” said Philippe Ostermann, editorial director at the French publisher Dargaud.

But so far, experts say, comics have held up well against the economic slowdown, with a turnover of €350-million ($450-million) in French-speaking Europe in 2008.

And with on-screen adaptations on the rise — from Persepolis and Tintin to the brooding hero Largo Winch, the Roman-bashing adventures of Asterix or the sharp-shooting cowboy Lucky Luke — the future of comics looks bright. – AFP

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