Comic strips and graphic novels are tremendously popular in France and every January, the country hosts one of the world’s largest comic book conventions, Angoulême International Comics Festival. Americans might be surprised to learn that this event is even bigger than the annual Comic-Con that takes place in San Diego. During the 4 day festival, comic creators from around the world are recognized and celebrated (provided their titles are available in French), and the small town of Angoulême rakes in the bucks from more than 200,000 attendees.
Much to the disappointment of many comic and graphic novel enthusiasts, last year’s festival was mired in controversy. The problem began when the festival’s selection committee announced the names of 30 nominees for the prestigious Grand Prix d’Angoulême. This award is somewhat similar to the lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. It is intended to recognize an author for his/her extended production of exceptional work, and it’s an immense accomplishment to even be considered in the list of finalists. The problem with the 2016 list? Every last nominee was a man.
Women in the industry were outraged and, in a show of solidarity, 12 of the male nominees eventually withdrew their names from consideration. Initially, the festival defended the list by issuing a statement claiming that the comic industry had long been dominated by men, that women simply hadn’t worked in the field long enough to deserve recognition, and that if you were to wander around the Louvre, you wouldn’t find many women artists in there either. Not exactly the diplomatic reparation that female cartoonists were hoping for.
In fact, over the years, many of the nominees have fallen well short of middle age. One such author, Riad Sattouf, born in 1978, won the award in 2014 at the age of 36. Mr. Sattouf, has been honored many times in Angoulême, and in 2016, again found himself on the list of nominees for the Grand Prix. Kudos to this talented artist—author of a series of autobiographical novels describing his life growing up in France, Libya, and Syria—for being one of the first to withdraw his name from the list of nominees and speak out about the ludicrousness of overlooking the numerous talented women, deserving of recognition.
Under pressure from the growing number of nominees who were filing petitions to withdraw their names from the running, the festival added two female authors, Marjane Satrapi and Posy Simmonds, to the line-up. These women had both been honored at Angoulême in prior years, so the selection committee was in some ways showing its lack of familiarity with female authors rather than breaking new ground. What came next, however, was a gaffe that will certainly be cemented in the annals of poor taste.
Festival organizers (I am assuming that more than one person planned what follows) decided it would be fun to pull a prank on some of the artists that had been nominated for the Grand Prix. During the award ceremony, presenter Richard Gaitet, rattled off the names of several people that had apparently won the prize, then announced that everyone could proceed to the bar for dancing and drink. As the baffled crowd grappled with the multi-way tie, as tweets and social media posts flew off the assembled cell phones and laptops, as recipients and their loved-ones wiped tears of joy from their eyes, Gaitet announced that it had all been a joke and that the real winner was the Belgian author, Hermann Huppen.
Needless to say, this insensitive display did little to restore Angoulême’s stellar international reputation. This year, the festival runs January 26 through 29. As an ardent Francophile, I am hoping that 2016 was just a weird glitch, that Angoulême 2017 will prove to be phenomenal, and that France’s place among the comic elite will be fully recovered.