News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Exhibit Review Essay: European comics festivals return to Angouleme and Haarlem

By Barbara Postema

Angoulême: 49e Édition Festival Internationale de la Bande Dessinée, France, March 17-20, 2022.

Stripdagen Haarlem, Netherlands, June 3-12, 2022.

        After several years of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year comics festivals are willing to give it a go again, and exhibitors and attendees are eager to participate. Both of the  festivals under discussion here were held in a beautiful historic city at venues spread across the town center, showcasing the city as a whole as well as the comics, and giving attendees room to wander if they needed to escape the crowds.

The Angoulême festival, postponed from its usual dates, was held in March for this once, where the spring-like weather made for a nice change from the usual dreary weather conditions in January. It was the 49th edition, already raising some anticipation for its 50th edition next year, for example with the selection of Julie Doucet for the Grand Prix. Her selection ensures that the anniversary next year will be historic in a number of ways—with only the third female Grand Prix winner presiding, and with Doucet being the first Canadian to take the highest honor.

As usual the festival started with a preview day for the press (March 16th), where exhibitions could be visited before they were open to the general public, often with the creators and curators present to provide commentary on the themes of the exhibits. Press day was much appreciated this year in order to see exhibitions with fewer crowds around. Programming for the press and comics professionals continued during the other days of the festival, including the International Rights Market for negotiating translations as well as adaptations to film.

However, the bulk of the events are open to everyone (at the price of a day ticket), and this includes numerous exhibitions, entry to the tents where publishers and creators are selling their comics, kids events, and signings. I spent quite some time (and money) in the tents Le Nouveau Monde and Espace BD Alternative, where small-press and alternative publishers and cartoonists hocked their wares. These two tents showed evidence of a few empty tables, signals perhaps that the move to March meant that some publishers could not attend this year due to schedule clashes, or perhaps that there were fewer international publishers and guests due to continuing COVID-19 travel restrictions. This latter possibility was also supported by the reported lack of Japanese guests and creators present at the festival, a change from previous years. Other tents throughout the city included Le Monde des Bulles, for the mainstream French comics publishers, and Manga City, where manga-related publications could be found. There was also a tent for the collectors, specializing in original art, special editions and ephemera.

Chris Ware Exhibit

But perhaps the most important aspect of the festival is the exhibitions. Every year there is a big exhibit dedicated to the previous festival’s Grand Prix winner, who gets to showcase their work. Chris Ware was elected for the Grand Prix in 2021 and at this year’s festival he presented a retrospective of his work in the fairly intimate space of the basement of Espace Franquin. The exhibition included many original pages, some of which were astounding in their size, while also bearing witness to the cartoonist’s careful and precise creative process. The show also included various objects Ware had made, including wooden models made for various family members to commemorate birthdays and anniversaries, as well as some fully constructed versions of the paper models he included in the ACME Novelty Library books, though those may have been assembled by someone else. The exhibit gave a nice sense of the great care and attention Ware dedicates to his pages, though his creative process as a whole remained mostly invisible.

Loo Hui Phang exhibition in Espace Franquin

The festival included two exhibitions devoted to the writers of comics. One was in the same building as the Ware exhibition: “Loo Hui Phang, Écrire est un Métier” shed a light on Phang’s own writing process, but also that of many other people who write for comics. Her exhibition also created awareness of the working conditions for writers for comics, who often lack labor protections and are also shut out from certain other avenues for making money in the comics world, such as selling original art, even as they contributed to the characters or the story represented in that art. She drew much needed attention to the precarious nature of work in comics.

René Goscinny exhibition in Musée d’Angoulême
The other exhibition focused on writing for comics put the spotlight on a writing superstar, René Goscinny, who wrote scenarios for numerous series, of which Asterix and Lucky Luke are probably the best known in the English-speaking world. This exhibition, mounted in the Musée d’Angoulême, provided an overview of Goscinny’s life and career while also showing his creative process, which included research, coming up with the names of characters (on of the key elements of the humor in the Asterix series), creating narrative sequences and writing a synopsis. Eventually a full script including dialogue would go to the artist (Albert Uderzo in the case of Asterix, or Morris for Lucky Luke), and the exhibition included many examples where the script pages were displayed together with the finished art for the corresponding page of comics, shedding light on a fascinating aspect of comics creation. Since comics writers tend not to produce products that work well on museum walls, their contribution to comics is sometimes easy to lose track of (as Phang’s exhibit also demonstrated), but the Goscinny exhibition managed to make the highlight on writing both illuminating and visually interesting.

Shigeru Mizuki exhibition in Musée d’Angoulême

The Musée d’Angoulême also hosted an exhibition of the work of mangaka Shigeru Mizuki, on the occasion of his hundredth birthday. The retrospective included original art from his illustrations, his war comics and his horror comics, most notably the Kitaro series. The framed original art was hung in a somewhat maze-like set-up, sometimes making for uncomfortably close quarters with other viewers, but the large original drawings of Japanese landscapes and creatures from folklore were stunning and fascinating nonetheless. The festival included two further exhibits that focused on manga, which I did not manage to view. I also skipped two exhibitions on comics for children, since I was not familiar with the works and there was so much to see.

Christophe Blain exhibition in Vaisseau Moebius
Some of this year’s FIBD highlights for me were two exhibitions held in the Vaisseau Moebius, “Christophe Blain, Dessiner le Temps” and “Sous la Plume d’Aude Picault.” Blain is particularly well known for period comics about pirates and cowboys, the series Isaac le Pirate  and Gus. Many original pages from these works were included in the exhibit, as well as cover paintings, sketches, and originals from Blain’s many other comics and from his sketchbooks. His inspiration from and homage to other media, especially classic cinema, were a particular focus of the exhibition. Aude Picault’s work was a revelation to me, as I was previously unfamiliar with her work. She has made humorous slice of life comics about a nurse, as well as travel diaries, memoir work, and several erotic comics. The exhibition of inked pages, often from the stage before speech balloons and text were added, showed off her light and elegant linework, well suited to her breezy narratives that yet include touches of social commentary.
Aude Picault exhibition in Vaisseau Moebius

The Cité BD, across the river from the Vaisseau Moebius, is a set of converted 19th-century industrial buildings which now house the BD museum and archives, as well as a large comics store. It was buzzing with festival activities and crowded with school children on the Thursday when I visited. I visited three exhibitions there that were not specific to the Festival and were scheduled to run past the dates of the festival, namely, “De Popeye à Persepolis: Bande dessinée et cinéma d’animation”, “Baudoin: Dessiner la vie” and “La page manquante: Carte blanche à Wajdi Mouad.” The Popeye to

Wajdi Mouawad exhibition in Cité BD
Persepolis exhibition was a large-scale survey showing the cross-pollination between comics and animation over the course of more than a century, including some attention to technical features of animation as well as original pages and sketches by the creators involved. The exhibition on Baudoin showed a retrospective of his entire oeuvre, featuring hundreds of original pages that showcased the brushwork of his black and white art beautifully. The exhibition created by Wajdi Mouad was the smallest of the exhibitions in the Cité BD, taking up a single room only, but it was conceptually the most immersive, since it was set up as an installation which was meant to convey some sense of Mouad’s experience reading Tintin album L’Ile Noire in Lebanon, as well as his experience with war and displacement to France, changing his perceptions of the album over time. This small room provided a novel approach to comics-related exhibitions, presenting a reader’s very personal experience with a book.

         Like the Angoulême festival, the Stripdagen Haarlem was made up of exhibitions and events spread across the heart of the city. The bi-annual festival had intended to celebrate their 15th anniversary in 2020, but had to postpone and was finally able to observe the festivities two years later,
Small Press Award nominees in the Pop-Up Store
still using the same theme, world-building, and poster art by Dieter van de Ougstraete. Haarlem lacks the year-round comics presence that Angoulême is able to sustain, thanks to institutions like the Cité BD, so the festivities and exhibitions in Haarlem were hosted by a range of more traditional museums and galleries. The headquarters for the 10 days of the festival was a pop-up store which featured festival merchandise, books by artists involved in the festival, and, an important new addition to the festival, all the submission to the Small Press Award, which made its debut at this year’s festival. The works were displayed behind plastic in a large bookcase, but could be perused with the assistance of the pop-up store’s staff.

Rijkswachters X Stripmakers at Kunst Centrum Haarlem

While the Stripdagen lasted 10 days, the main events took place during the two weekends bookending the festival. Both weekends included lectures and workshops, while the opening long weekend also featured markets where publishers, creators and antiquarians could be found selling their wares. Unable to be there during the weekend, I attended the festival on a weekday and took in six of the 20 or so exhibitions. The decorated shop windows in the Kleine Houtstraat, around the epicenter of the festival at the pop-up store, were a nice touch, and the other exhibits I visited were all in close vicinity to the store. The venerable Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in the Netherlands, hosted the Joost Swarte exhibition “Ode aan het boek,” with all the included illustrations, sketches and pages related to books in some way. There was a lot to see, but the close proximity of the pages in a single room did not give the work much room to breathe. More of Swarte’s work was on display in Galerie Kruis-Weg68, but unfortunately the gallery had limited days.

Joost Swarte exhibition in Teylers Museum

Marcel Ruijters exhibition at Museum Haarlem

Some exhibitions nearby included “Gevangen in Dromen: Wonen, Bouwen, en Beleven bij Marc-Antoine Mathieu,” “Marcel Ruijters: Terug naar 1913”, “Rijkswachters x Stripmakers” and “Het Kleinste Museum van Haarlem.” Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s oeuvre is impressive, and the title, “Imprisoned in dreams” was evocative, but I found the exhibit a little underwhelming, since while it captured the promised themes, the included images and pages were photocopies pinned to walls and did not produce much new insight into the artist’s thought or creative process. However, Mathieu’s work has previously not been particularly well-known in the Netherlands, so perhaps the exhibition will bring some deserved broader attention to the French cartoonist’s work. The exhibition next door, devoted to Marcel Ruijters’ alternate world of 1913 proved more interesting, including original drawings as well as sketchbook pages. The exhibition paid a lot of attention to the world-building Ruijters put into his alternate history, so, like the Mathieu exhibit, the show fit in well

Haarlem’s smallest museum: SFF pocket covers

with the theme of the Stripdagen. These exhibits were to be found in the Museum Haarlem and ABC Architectuurcentrum respectively. Close by, in Kunst Centrum Haarlem, was an exhibition that was also a fundraiser. Just over 20 Dutch cartoonists had been invited to decorate a small wooden figurine, made from packing crates used in the Rijksmuseum, to capture the visual detail, style, or even the atmosphere of their work of choice from the Rijksmuseum collection. The resulting figurines were on sale. The most whimsical of the exhibitions I saw was to be found at the same address as the Rijkswachters. This “smallest museum in Haarlem” took the shape of a single shop window dressed with science fiction and fantasy pockets from the 1950s and 1960s, all chosen for their colorful and imaginative covers that evoked the contents of the novels in the most vivid and lurid ways possible, providing the first hints at the world-building inside the covers. The books were all taken from the collection of festival director Tonio van Vugt.

Cor Blok exhibition in Noord-Hollands Archief

The final exhibition I went to see, and which I perhaps enjoyed most of the ones I visited at the stripdagen, was also related to book covers. This exhibition, “De Wereld van Cor Blok,” was set up in the building of the Noord-Hollands Archief, and showcased the work of a Dutch artist and art historian who is best remembered for the covers he drew for the Dutch editions of The Lord of the Rings. The exhibition included some of his illustrations for Tolkien’s work, as well as maps and drawings of his own fantasy world Barbarusië, collaged and painted works that had never been exhibited before, and selections from his one and only comics work, The Iron Parachute, which Blok completed when he was 82 years old. This retrospective had been intended to honor the artist in 2020, but the festival and the exhibition were postponed due to the pandemic, and sadly Cor Blok died in 2021 before the exhibition came about. The exhibition was fascinating to see because it showed work in a great range of styles while also tied together by a consistent character. In addition, Blok’s work also simultaneously had an old fashioned quality harking back to the late 50s/early 60s when his Tolkien illustrations first appeared while also feeling fresh and timeless.

   The exhibitions of the Stripdagen were open for the 10 days of the festival (or longer in some cases, like Swarte’s Ode to the Book). However, the opening times were a little confusing, since especially the galleries kept their own hours,  mostly being open during the weekends of the festival, but with more hit and miss times on weekdays. As a result I found myself in front of a locked door when I tried to visit “Schaduw over Holland,” a joint exhibit by Guido van Driel and Milan Hulsing, drawing on their most recent graphic novels. Other exhibitions I had to miss due to time constraints included “Storm in de Geest,” which featured the world-building of the Pandarve, a fantasy world created by Don Lawrence and Martin Lodewijk which can be enjoyed in the series Storm, and also “De  Klaagzang van de Verloren Gewesten,” an epic fantasy series set in a medieval Celtic kingdom, written by Jean Dufaux and originally drawn by Grzegorz Rosinski. By all accounts, these exhibitions capture the theme of this year’s edition of the Stripdagen exceedingly well.

Both festivals offered a number of attractive publications related to the year’s festival and exhibitions: the FIBD has three published catalogs, for Goscinny, Mizuki, and Blain, as well as poster sets. Stripdagen Haarlem offered a catalog for the Joost Swarte exhibition “Ode to the Book”, a tie-in magazine called Wereldbouwers (world builders), which put a spotlight on the theme of the festival and the various featured artists, as well as posters and prints (some of them signed). These were available at the relevant exhibition venues as well as at the pop-up store.


Barbara Postema is Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes at Groningen University, a member of the History in Comics research project, and an honorary research fellow at Massey University New Zealand. Her book Narrative Structure in Comics was published in translation in Brazil in 2018. She has contributed work on narrative theory, wordless comics, and abstract comics to Image and Narrative, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and the International Journal of Comic Art, as well as collections such as The Routledge Companion to Comics and Graphic Novels, The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel, and Abstraction and Comics. Dr. Postema is a former president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC/SCEBD), and a current Member at Large of the Comics Studies Society (CSS). She is co-editor of Crossing Lines: Transcultural/Transnational Comics Studies, a book series from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

 A version of this essay will appear in print in IJOCA.

No comments: