by Dave Roman
Imagine a cartoonist-centric comic convention, held in a city that is equal parts Kiki’s Delivery Service and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and you get a small taste of what it’s like to attend Quai des Bulles. You would have to consume many delicious butter-filled pastries to get the full taste!
My wife, Raina Telgemeier, and I often hear about Angoulême, the largest European comics festival, held each winter (often in snowstorms), that takes on a Mecca-like quality for cartoonists. So when Akileos, the French publisher for her graphic novel Smile, invited her to the SECOND-largest convention in France, we had no idea what to expect.
Quai De Bulles, with its buccaneer mascot, is held annually on the docks of Saint-Malo, a historic port city in Brittany a few hours west of Paris. It is surrounded by medieval stone walls that are accessible for walking, providing an amazing view of the surrounding beaches and castles. Many of the castles were built offshore, and are accessible only during low tide! Entering the gates of the city is akin to walking through Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, where cobblestone streets, endless bakeries, and crêperies await around each winding corner. The continuous smell of warm cookies evokes the feeling of Christmastime; the illustrated iconography of Breton women in their traditional tall lace hats replaces Santa Claus.
It’s easy to get distracted by the great foods and magical atmosphere, but everything about the comic convention itself is equally appealing. One building was dedicated to panels and screenings of animation, as well as classic black & white pirate movies like Captain Blood, a café, a performance drawing stage, reading libraries, and a series of art galleries. The other building houses the main convention floor, containing exhibition booths for all of the major French comic publishers. The space itself is reminiscent of San Francisco’s Concourse, where APE is held each fall, with wooden beams and bright skylights. Cartoonists were set up at their respective publishers’ booths (there was no artist alley or small press area) with signs designating what times they would be available. There is no such thing as just a signature in France—artists labor over each book, providing elaborate, personalized illustrations that often involve fancy brushwork and full watercolors! It is very common for people waiting in line to bring collapsible chairs, yet everyone seemed very patient, since the one-of-a-kind drawings are worth the wait.
I had only a passing familiarity with French comics (referred to as BDs, an abbreviation of bande dessinée for drawn strip), but it was easy to tell which books were the huge hits. At the airport and train stations I had seen tons of ads for Kid Paddle, which seems to be the European equivalent of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Kid Paddle’s giant booth at QdB rivaled the kinds of things the Sci-Fi Channel or Marvel would showcase at Comic-Con. It had a smoke machine, walls riddled with bullet holes, dripping slime, a life-sized monster in a giant cage, and my favorite element: a giant screen magnifying what Michel Leden (aka Midam) was drawing in each person’s book, so the people waiting in line could enjoy his doodles as well.
Having gone to at least six American comic conventions per year for the past ten years or so, it was exhilarating to discover so many new books all at once. I could only decipher a few words in French, so I focused on art styles more than story content. I was especially drawn to a series called Mamette by Nob, starring a cute old lady who has more youthful vigor and spirit than all the curmudgeons around her. The cartooning is to die for and the background settings and colors made my mouth water just as much as the kouign-amann (the signature pastry of Breton made from salted butter and sugar into a crisp, caramelized spiral).
Other books I picked up at the show included La Saga d’Atlas & Axis by Pau (which looks as if Drew Weing illustrated a spinoff of Bone about warrior dogs), Hôtel étrange by Katherine and Florian Ferrier (Moomin meets Strawberry Shortcake by Richard Sala?…), and the hilariously offensive Fernand the Polar Beer by Marshall Joe and Wandrille. Everywhere I turned, something appealing would jump out at me either for myself, or a book that I knew a friend would get a kick out of. There were booths with back issues of classic French comic albums (in milk crates instead of long boxes), Tintin merchandise everywhere (both for the movie and classic comics), and tons and tons of manga!
One of the most impressive aspects of Quai des Bulles were the various galleries of original art. These were not just makeshift displays of comic pages, but elaborate (and expensive looking) multimedia installations like you would see at the Museum of Modern Art. Large monitors, fancy frames, giant props, displayed sketchbooks, mood music and lighting effects, all customized for each room dedicated to a different artist. I don’t think any cartoon-related museum in the U.S. has put on a show anywhere near as extensive as what was showcased at this comic convention. All the more impressive when you realize it’s meant to stay up only for a single weekend! All of the galleries had reading areas with samples of the cartoonists’ work in book form, so while the parents admired the craftsmanship, their kids could just read the comics.
And read comics, they did. Everywhere you turned there were kids carrying comic albums, or huddled in some corner with their nose in a book! There was also a specific gallery showcasing the works of teen and pre-teen cartoonists, and an art class area for younger kids. It seemed like more than half the attendees were groups of comic-loving families.
The family-friendly atmosphere was great news for Raina, as Akileos sold all the copies of Smile (or Souriez, as it’s called in French) they’d brought before noon on Sunday.
It was especially cool to spend time with the Akileos staff and their attending comics creators: Vincent Brugeas and Ronan Toulhoat (Block 109), Mara (Clues), Dan Lish (Cartigan) and Ian Culbard (At the Mountains of Madness). Luckily Raina and I weren’t the only non-French artists, so we felt a little less embarrassed by our caveman approach to the language. Plus, everyone made us feel extremely welcome and of course the language of comics is universal. Snacks were plentiful, with chocolates and macaroons being offered by all.
Every night we got to eat fantastic dinners, have great conversations, and take in all the sites and sounds of Saint-Malo. This included lots of crêpes, both savory and sweet, another specialty of the region. Our final morning was bittersweet as we took one last walk around the walled city, and ran through the cobblestone streets snapping photos and grabbing a few last pastries for the train ride to Paris.
[Dave Roman is the author of several graphic novels including Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery and the forthcoming Teen Boat!]
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.