Angoulême 2022 finally happened. After over 2 years of waiting, including a last minute Omicron-induced delay, the Angoulême International Comics Festival returned for its 49th year.
In many ways it felt like coming home. The town was as it was, everything was there – the museums, the exhibitions, the murals, the vast marquee marts – even adding a René Goscinny mural in town and unveiling a special menhir outside the train station for the late Albert Uderzo, the influential artist who co-created the beloved French comics character Asterix with Goscinny.
France had recently eased mask restrictions (it is now only obligatory on public transport) and it seemed like the public were largely eager to dispense with them as few present were wearing over the course of the four-day festival.
Attendance was, as expected during these strange pandemic times, still down on the last edition (which took place in early 2020, a mere month or so before the Covid-19 pandemic was officially declared and the world shut down). French newspapers reported that the number of people buying tickets and coming to the festival had fallen by 25% but the organisers still called Angoulême 2022 a success.
In previous festival years, the place would be heaving with crowds come weekend. While this was true to an extent, this year those crowds were clustered in particular places. The more mainstream mart marquee which held the major Francophone publishers – your Casterman, Lombard, Dupuis and Delcourts – was, as expected, definitely packed with people, as kids crowded into the Dupuis stand, enjoying live draws and free Spirou caps. Exhibitions were often still too crowded to truly enjoy on the weekend (pro-tip, come early or stay a few days after the festival as some will reopen on Tuesday).
Comics had actually done very well out of the pandemic. According to a report published by the festival and analysts Growth from Knowledge (GfK), the French market overall had nearly doubled since 2019 and the manga sector had doubled in size (up 107%) in the last year alone(!).
One of the big highlights that makes Angoulême a true destination for comics lovers is the stunning exhibitions, and this year was no exception. There were in the region of 11 exhibitions in the main program, many of which had an international flavour, plus multiple others scattered around the town. The biggest exhibitions were René Goscinny, Shigeru Mizuki, Chris Ware, Christophe Blain, and Tatsuki Fujimoto (best known for the Chainsaw Man manga).
‘International’ is in the name of the festival and this definitely continued to be felt. The Grand Prix, the highest honour bestowed on a cartoonist and which grants the laureate an honorary presidency for the succeeding year, passed from American Chris Ware to Canadian Julie Doucet – a major surprise as Doucet faced some really stiff French competition from Catherine Meurisse and Pénélope Bagieu. Five of the thirteen book award categories went to work from the Americas, with the Fauve D’Or for Best Book going to Brazilian author Marcello Quintanilha’s Écoute, Jolie Márcia [Listen, Sweet Marcia].
In The Tents
As mentioned, exhibitions were a mix of international work, and the tablers and exhibitors continued to contain a mixture of Belgian, Canadian, Columbian, German, Swiss, Lebanese, Polish, plus a collective from the African continent, all alongside the big names of the Francophone mainstream and alternative Bande Dessinée world. There were some absences – Sweden, UK, and Israel most notably were not able to have a table presence this year – either due to Covid concerns or because of the logistics of the last-minute move of the festival from late January to mid-March.
Additionally, the town’s Maison des Auteurs – which hosts residencies for new and established artists from across the globe – miraculously continued to operate for over 50 artists in the last two years despite pandemic shutdowns and increased hurdles on intercontinental travel. It managed to further cement its more recent series of international partnerships and cultural exchanges in that time – notably with Taiwan, since 2015; and Serbia since 2019. It’s display of in-progress residency work featured stuff from artists who came from India, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Poland, Serbia, Italy, Spain, South Africa, the USA, and of course France.
There were some snags in the trip – the big evening congregatory point and watering hole of Le Chat Noir was temporarily closed for renovations. Hopeful revellers had to visit the nearby hotel bar (which was rather disturbingly full, cramped, and mask-free) or hang out at the cluster of alternative bars outdoors in the plaza. Thankfully oft-temperamental March weather proved more spring-like and warm than the traditional festival time of late-January.
Exhibits around town
The highlights of the show – beside the sheer joy of being back and being reminded that there is a world of possibilities in the artform – were the exhibitions. There was topical work (the Ukraine crisis; visions of post-covid cities), plus fascinating in-depth exhibitions. The Shigeru Mizuki centenary exhibition was fantastic for its depth of biographical detail and the sheer amount of original art that was brought in to be displayed. Likewise the René Goscinny exhibition – which seemed to be the most popular (and generally full) of the festival – was fantastic as well. Goscinny is the treasured and influential writer, editor and co-creator of classic character Asterix as well as other fondly remembered characters in the BD cannon – and important founder and editor Franco-Belgian comics magazine Pilote. The exhibition featured his original work from the time he tried to become an artist (early in his career), before he shifted to writing. It included his original scripts beside original boards from Asterix and Lucky Luke. The exhibition was incredibly large and well put together. The only real downside was that it kind of trailed off toward the end instead of properly covering his later life. It did pay particular mention to his efforts in the realm of writers’ and creators’ rights.
Chris Ware’s exhibition was also solid, at once trying to emulate his almost clinically precise layouts yet trying to reveal as much as possible about his methods via the significant amount of original art and materials on display. Ware’s work is amazing to behold as finished product but being able to see the degree of effort and precision – warts and all – on display was frankly incredible.
One thing interestingly highlighted via writer Loo Hui Phang’s exhibition was the plight of comic writers in the French bande dessinée system. French labour laws are rather hazy when it comes to registering as self-employed, which makes it difficult to receive the same protections enjoyed by other established professions. They still pay taxes but experience difficulties when it comes to welfare access, so their life – similarly to artists – is somewhat precarious. Couple that with less access to ancillary income: they can’t sell scripts like artists can sell original art, nor do they get income from signings/sketches, and often no royalties either. This information, in addition to photography and interviews with multiple writers about their methods and daily life in their careers – including the likes of Neil Gaiman, Chris Claremont, Marguerite Abouet – was quite revealing and a reminder that things are not always as rosy as they seem the other side of the pond.
Another great exhibition was Fujimoto’s as – while it was somewhat lacking in original art – managed to more than compensate with some beautiful props and displays.
It is still crazy to think that such large and immersive exhibitions are put up and then deconstructed after around four days. Not all of them though. In previous years, normally two or three of the major exhibitions are kept up for an extended run such that savvy visitors who stick around after the festival can enjoy them without the crowds. Sadly, probably because the dates of Angoulême 2022 were shifted and the logistics of navigating one exhibition overlapping another, meant that only Mizuki’s remained accessible from this year’s crop. It was still fantastic – full of biographical detail and original art.
That said, Angoulême 2022 didn’t debut or contain ALL of the exhibitions – the BD museum had two major temporary exhibitions on display. From Popeye to Persepolis (which will remain open until November 6, 2022) , an exploration of the history of animation and its links to the early comics; plus a focus on French auteur Edmond Baudoin (until June 19, 2022) – who had recently bestowed much of his materials and original art to the museum – got a special exhibition to highlight some of the materials. There is also a short exhibition by actor/director Wajdi Mouawad called The Missing Page about the link between comics and his own personal journey (open until June 19, 2022)
About that pandemic…
Despite the awesome return of the festival with Angoulême 2022 , Covid remains an issue. In fact the French press is already reporting that many visitors have caught the virus and Angoulême 2022 may have been a superspreader affair. Thus far, your humble scribe has tested negative. Thus far – but a sore reminder that the pandemic is far from truly over.
With next year marking the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest comics events on earth, things look to be exciting. Hopefully the prevailing circumstances will improve in time for the next show – expected to take place in late January 2023.
For an Angoulême 2022 official highlight reel from the show, check out this link.