A look at the European Comics Scene: The Festival d'Angoulême

Feb 10th, 2023
A look at the European Comics Scene: The Festival d'Angoulême

Among the things that some of us comics lovers do in the name of our lifetime passions is to take, whenever possible, voluntary pilgrimages to the places where, in our minds, the sources of said passions concentrate and flow like the biblical manna, or at least it does so in our imaginations. Our personal Meccas on the horizon to visit, like its famous namesake, at least once in our lives. Nevermind we may face long distances, expensive airfare, grueling trips and schedules, or go in otherwise bleak and unadvisable seasons for traveling.

Southwest France doesn’t really have lots of charm to go for in winter (the sights of the Charente river crossing the Aquitaine region hold the promise of a better outlook come spring, though), but it is there and then that the Festival D’Angoulême, named after the village it has been held on for the last fifty (yes, fifty!) years, keeps attracting thousands of comics fans from Europe and the rest of the world. A village no larger than New Haven, CT, Angoulême’s ancient past going back more than a thousand years ago was that of a fortified town atop a steep hill, of which many of these old walls can still be seen. Prior to its renowned fame as a comics and animation hub in France (more than 40 animation and video game studios claim the region as their home base), the town’s economy was that of an industrial hub that had seen better days. The Wikipedia entry on the town has more data on Angoulême’s ancient history than I could bother to include here, so let’s go right to the festival chronicle.

The Festival

The author, in front of Angoulême's Hotel de Ville (City Hall)
The author, in front of Angoulême's Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

According to the French entry of the festival on Wikipedia, a small group of comics fans of the village along with some support of the Town Hall began organizing modest “Semaine de la bande dessinée” events in the late 1960s. In parallel, the market of comics in France and Belgium started transforming from a mostly just-for-kids affair to include more adult-appealing themes and subjects, which began transforming the publishing market. Finally, in 1974 the first official edition of the festival, the Salon National de la bande dessinée, takes place on the final week of January — a date that has gone unchanged(1) ever since. The event is deemed an immediate success gathering more than 10.000 people, and 15.000 the year after, which helped officialize its importance, sponsorship and periodicity. Little by little, the Salon figure finally gives way to the Festival proper, as it is known today canvassing through the whole town, since 1996.

My Experience

I have been to two editions of the Festival d’Angoulême, the first in 2016 and now in 2023. For reasons beyond any logic I had vowed myself to be back for the 50th edition, which almost ties together with my 50th birthday… yes, I’m an old geezer now and my knees croak despite having walked 10 miles a day while in Paris. It is what it is.

Plus, being there a second time allowed me to have a deeper, more critical look at what the festival actually means for everyone involved — villagers, authors and publishers alike.

I had the perception that I saw much more people in this edition of the festival than back in 2016; after all, this was the first “back to normal” edition after two straight years of Covid-19 pandemic cancellations; people are understandably eager to have in-person experiences again. Although I had my share of masks and full vaccination scheme (I was asked for evidence to travel), it wasn’t very practical to keep a mask on at all times save for the risk of gathering in closed spaces with lots of people partout, but I’m glad to confirm weeks later I’m still healthy and able.

Accommodation for the festival isn’t exactly abundant, besides a few French hotel chains which unsurprisingly jack up prices for the festival dates, the other option available (and which I’ve used) is Airbnb, as some villagers have wised up to the demand and offer their homes for lodging. I’ve felt personally lucky with my choices — for the price of a single hotel night, I booked an Airbnb for 4 nights with an awesome host couple, on a shared property with some other comics fans from around the world — a great way to find like-minded new friends.


My Author Accreditation Badge
The accreditation badge I was given as a registered author to access the Festival's professional spaces.

Once you are done with your accommodation and if you are a creative professional (author, publisher… you get it), you should go pick up your professional accreditation badge as such at the town’s Hotel de Ville (City Hall). For this, you should have registered as such on the site previously, which I didn’t do…. So, don’t be like me. I still, however, managed to register at the front desk as I brought in my portfolio and pitch packages… same as six years earlier. Things are much more organized now.

Basically, you WANT to have this verification badge. Not only because it helps cutting through the LONG lines of general public’s access by using alternate entrances to all pavilions, but also because of the access it gives to professional spaces not available to the general public, like the “Marche International des Droits” (International Rights Publishing Market) where publishers and distributors come to close deals. I mistakenly thought it could be a place to show your portfolio to prospective agents and editors: it isn’t. Selling book rights and distributions to international markets is the main purpose here and these people are, well, from a different breed.

The Hubs

The Festival’s main activities, while actually spread all over the village, concentrate mainly on five very defined hubs; Le Monde des Bulles (literally, World of comic balloons) selling books from the largest commercial publishing houses; Le Quartier Jeunesse (Children’s Quarter), at the same building space that houses the city’s Musée De la Bande Dessinée (a museum with permanent and temporary exhibitions in comics), Le Nouveau Monde (The New World) with emphasis on alternative comics and small press releases, the Place du 9ème Art next to the town’s market gathering sellers of comics’ collectibles, and last but not definitely not least, Manga City (“Quartier Asie” or Asian Quarter in former editions) which has grown up so big that there was no longer space in the old town area to house it, so it was located on a big warehouse near the town’s train station.

Angoulême’s theater and museum also host special guest talks, spectacles and exhibitions on the subject of comics at this time.

Le Monde Des Bulles

The Monde Des Bulles Pavilion
Overall view facing north of the Monde Des Bulles pavilion, shortly before being opened to the general public

This structure houses the largest and most profitable comics publishing houses in Europe, featuring lavish stands, coming to sell their recent releases at full retail price and zero discounts (some, however, had offers of tote bags and similar giveaways though). It would all be very standard stuff if it weren’t for the dédicaces or author sign up sessions, which is quite a sight on its own and worth expanding a little on, next.

Les Dédicaces

Waiting in line, and waiting and waiting
So you want your favorite author to sign up your book? Then you better stand in line and wait. On a crammed space. Getting so hot you can forget it's 34 degrees outside. And wait. And...
The author with revered comics artist Jose Luis Munuera from Spain
...and eventually, if you're patient, you'll get what you want. Here's me with amazing Spanish author Jose Luis Munuera. Wish I had more time to chat.
Showcase of comic books with sdrawn dedications
Some of the "dedicated" books by favorite authors I've gathered across the years.

The allure of the festival for many coming up is not just to purchase a BD hardcover album (short for bande dessinée and the standard 48-page book format) but also to have it with a drawing and signature from his or her author — a dédicace, or French for “dedication”. The culture of dédicaces is so ingrained in the festival that the largest houses’ stands feature a built-in espace de dédicace to house artists, complete with appearance schedules. And many, me included, are willing to wait hours in line, in super crowded spaces (an uneasy thought in these not-quite-post-pandemic times), to have their favorite artist cherish their book with a personalized touch. From time to time there has been some talk about making the dédicaces a paid extra in light of the sheer volume of people wanting them, but for the moment that’s not happened. (Only books bought in place qualify for it, though).

As you might imagine, it is a moment when artists get the rock star treatment and feel like so. Lesser known artists from smaller publishers, however, are naturally more accessible with less people in line and you can even have a little chat with them while doing their dédicace to you, something I always appreciate to do.

Le Quartier Jeunesse

Les Chais Magelis, home of the BD Museum and the Children's Quarter
The building of Les Chais Magelis, some former warehouses, now feature the permanent Musée de la Bande Dessinnée and the Quartier Jeunesse dedicated to children and families. Notice the lines on the ground — some days earlier, this was the blueprint to recreate the poster of the first edition of the festival with more than 35.000 candles.
Concours de la BD Scolaire Pavilion
Inside this building, an exhibition of the winners of a nationwide junior comics author's contest (from 5 to 17 years old) takes place. Some of the young talents exhibited are impressive.

Crossing the Charente River over a pedestrian bridge you get to a gathering of former spirit warehouses (Quai de la Charente) which today houses Angoulême’s Musee de la BD and the Quartier Jeunesse or Children’s quarter which, as you may guess, hosts kid-friendly exhibitions and activities. A nationwide comics contest among France’s school students has its annual exhibition here. Expect it to be flooded with school groups and families at all times, while pretending to be all comics scholar and stuff about your favorite kid’s comics artists while surrounded by French-speaking tiny and not so tiny, energetic tots in all directions. But if you have a problem with children, then why bother with kids’ comics for a start? ;)

Exhibition on Marguerite Abouet
Among the kid-friendly exhibitions held in the 2023 edition was a very well made, highly interactive and even sensorial one dedicated to Ivory Coast graphic novel author Marguerite Abouet.
Musée de la BD Permanent Exhibition
Alongside the permanent exhibitions at the Musée de la BD, this year's edition featured some others related to comics in music and 50 chief European comic works, one for each year of the festival.

Le Nouveau Monde

Pavilion - Le Nouveau Monde (New World)
Partial View of the Nouveau Monde (New World) pavilion, very near from City Hall and Angoulême's theater.

If you are familiar with alternative press events like the Small Press Expo in the US, then you already have an idea of what goes on here. A cavalcade of independent editors from Europe and beyond offering their publications ranging from the kid-friendly to the most daring fringe material. This is where you may have a good chance of meeting favorite cult artists most easily — but don’t think it doesn’t get crowded. This pre-opening scene give you an idea of what it looks like before crowds get in.

Circuit Shuttle Bus BD
During the festival, special comics-themed buses make free rides around the main town's circuit attractions. Something very welcome after walking up and down the hilly center for hours — but beware: these get quite packed every time.

Le Place Du 9ème Art

Place du 9eme Art Pavillion
On the "ninth art" pavilion you can find lots of European comics merchandise, from second hand albums to truly exotic original drawings and reproductions.

The term “ninth art” related to comics is —how else— a Franco-Belgian fabrication, and therefore quite at home here. Anyway, what this place is about is comics art and their merchants offering them for sale, from second-hand albums you can get for 6 euros up to very (very, very!) expensive originals if you (and your wallet) are so inclined. Some artists also show up here from time to time.

Manga City

Aerial view of Manga City
Aerial view of Manga City from the overhead peatonal bridge connecting to Angoulême's downtown. On the left side, the Médiatheque building hosted a special Attack on Titan exhibition which I didn't attend. Far right: the Alligator 57 warehouse / Manga City complex.

It would be absolutely unfair to skip mentioning what is definitely the biggest growing segment of the festival, so big it has already gone past available space in the city center. A pavilion adjacent to a big warehouse featuring an “urban”, gritty market space with a full skateboard ramp (!!) named Alligator 57, Manga City is all what you would expect from the name; manga publishers, sellers of toys and tchotchkes, special delegates (Taiwan and Hong Kong had very interesting, dedicated stands this year) and even some cosplayers, although quite few compared to your average U.S. comic con. This place just bursted at the seams with people of all ages, so much so I was denied a second time pass (VIP acreditation notwithstanding) because of some glass containers I had bought in my way… which weren’t even looked at the first time around. Anyway, more people, more problems… But I did get in to see, and even took home this copy of Cat Mask Boy by Linus Liu, a Hong Kongese novel author for me. Now that’s some manga I can relate to.

Inside View of Alligator 57
Inside view of the Alligator 57 complex adjacent to Manga City. It did house themed eateries, bars, and merch sales, but even when crowded to the max it was too cold for comfort.
Alligator 57 Skateboard Ramp
The complex also included a skateboard ramp. What does skateboarding have to do with comics? But hey, whatever it takes to appeal to young audiences I guess.

Speaking of manga…

The exponential presence of Japanese manga —almost eclipsing all other offers— in the largest comics festival in Europe isn’t at all arbitrary; it is undeniable that Japan’s comics scene is where it’s at with the up-and-coming crowd, and all of the festival’s biggest celebrated special guests every year in recent editions have been revered Mangakas of Asian origin. Recently departed artist extraordinaire Kim Jung Gi —who I had the privilege to see live back in 2016—, was a regular at the festival. This said it is still a bittersweet fact for me personally, as my initial gut reaction is one of us Westerners having no business pretending to copy their style while being devoid of any cultural references from Japan in our societies and daily lives, just because we like what we see… but at the same time we (as in, Latin American artists we, can only speak for myself) don’t think twice about adopting the canon styles of U.S superhero comics culture, or yours truly being bigly influenced by Belgian artists whose heyday was more than half a century ago. Which begs the question: Is there such a thing as a “national” comics style? After all, Osamu Tezuka — one of the most famous and influential mangakas in history — was heavily influenced by Disney films in his beginnings, so it goes both ways I guess. Anyway, rant over, moving on…

The Theater and the Museums

Ryochi Ikegami masterclass at the Theatre D'Angoulême
Legendary manga artist and honor guest Ryochi Ikegami giving a masterclass at the Thêatre D'Angoulême. You better know French to understand the interpreter — no English translations offered.

The Théâtre D’Angoulême ánd the Musée D’Angoulême (not to be confused with the Musée de la BD) also hold special events like the annual awards where the leading creators of the scene are prized each year. For the 2023 edition, Syrian-French author Riad Sattouf (a bestseller in French-speaking countries) was awarded the Grand Prix for his work, including his autobiographical series L’arabe du Futur (The Arab of the Future, published internationally).

The city’s museum which normally houses a permanent collection of fossils and indigenous artifacts dedicates its temporal exhibit halls to comics. The 50th edition features an exhibition of living legendary manga artist Ryochi Ikegami.

Worth going?

How much do you like, or are curious about European (and Asian) comics? Enough to withstand crossing the Atlantic in the dead of winter? Enough to take back your rusty school French and re-learn it to read these works in their original language? (So I did)… For me, a big part of its allure in it is that there is really something for everyone and that all age groups and markets can coexist peacefully — something we still don’t see enough in our shores. With the exception of events like Baltimore’s Comic Con where there is a big and strategic kids’ comics section, the vast majority of comics events skew towards teenage to adult offerings — the audience with money in their hands, a no-brainer. But in doing so we risk losing a new generation of readers that can sustain the comics market in the forthcoming decades. There, I see something we can learn from the Europeans — that comics, as an accessible form of art and entertainment, belong to anyone and everyone, and are ingrained in our culture in more ways than we think. And in any case, exposing yourself to different world views and conceptions of what sequential art is and should be can only make your appreciation and culture richer.

Would I come back? Maybe… but hopefully while presenting a work of mine backed up by a publisher, being part of a Latin American delegation, or even better, to go pick up a prize, as far-fetched as it can be. But hey, shoot for the stars, right?

Holding metal balloon saying 'To Believe' in French
"To Create"... because that's what we do, right?

1The only exception for this rule happened during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2022. The 2021 edition was replaced with a virtual one and the 2022 edition was split into two date blocks, in January and April.