Spotlight on Angoulême

Recently while on vacation in France I was asked if I wanted to visit the Musée de la Bande Dessinée (Museum of Comic Books) in Angoulême. Visit the city that hosts the International Comics Festival, the largest comic convention in Europe? "Mais, oui!" I immediately answered. It was July and the Comics Festival takes place in January, but I was still eager to check out a town that so honors comics.

Angoulême is a medium-sized city built on a hill in France about 50 miles from the Atlantic coast. The town has been connected with paper-making and the printing industry since the 14th century, mainly because of the moderate climate and ready source of water via the Sorgue river. More recently the town has acquired a reputation for its working artists, and I wondered if they were represented in the crowds populating the cafe terraces lining the pedestrian streets in the town center. Mostly wearing leather jackets and blue jeans, bucking the popular direction of France by smoking, they had to either be artists or rejects from a James Dean bio-pic.

In France comics are called B.D. which stands for "Bande Dessinée," or "drawn strip" in English. Franco-Belgian comics have oddly paralleled US and English comics with only a few crossovers such as Tintin, Asterix, and perhaps Lucky Luke. That could lead a non-Francophile to believe there's a paucity of comics in France, but comics are huge. In fact the market for the “ninth art”, as graphic novels and comic books are called in France, has been the most resistant publishing sector to the effects of the economic crisis in the 21st century.

The national Musée de la Bande Dessinée (CNBD) is a relatively new museum in Angoulême dedicated to honoring comics from many countries, although it focuses primarily on French, American, English and Japanese works, in that order. The permanent display of original and hard-to-find older specimens is interestingly laid out by country and chronologically. They also present temporary exhibitions such as "La bande dessinée animalière," showing samples of cartoon animals in 19th and 20th century comics. Across the way from the CNBD is the exposition hall with a movie theater, art gallery, and classes in art techniques and history. Entry to the museum is 6 euros, free to kids under 18 years old. Plan on spending at least an hour, although the museum also has reading tables stocked with hundreds of comics, so you may end up finding a couch and getting comfortable. Photography is forbidden, and the low lighting makes it sometimes difficult to clearly see all the details of the work, so you might be tempted to purchase the museum's catalog at 60 euros, available in the gift shop. In fact, I spent nearly as much time browsing the shop as in the museum itself.

Aside from the museum, Angoulême does its best to represent comics throughout the town. I spotted comic book references everywhere: Wonder Woman and Spider-man promoting scooter-delivered pizza, a Chinese restaurant blatantly exploiting Tintin's "The Blue Lotus", and a painting of Winsor McKay and Little Nemo under a bronze plaque of la Republique Francaise. In the courtyard of the comic museum was a statue of the Italian comic book sailor, Corto Maltese, while near the center of town was a building called Espace Franquin. Apparently a public media center, it's named after the creator of the French comics Gaston and Marsupilami.
Someday maybe I'll go to Angoulême in January and be one of the 200,000 visitors to swarm the city during the four-day festival. But, on a hot day in July, my mind turned to a refreshing Perrier et menthe (Perrier with mint syrup) so I headed back to a bar I'd seen on the pedestrian street. Sipping my bright green drink some colors caught my eye inside the bar, and I went to investigate. Even the bar displayed comics, in this case paintings done by a local satirizing the greed of Scrooge McDuck. Yes, this is a town that takes comic seriously.

The Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l'Image can be found at 121 rue de Bordeaux, 16023 Angoulême.  Here's an article from 2009, just before the museum opened.

The Angoulême International Comics Festival has been held in January every year since 1974. Here is a blog entry about the 2009 festival.