February 11, 2008
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: :01 Stop: Watch

[From the Drawing Board of Gene Yang]


I got back from Angoulême two weeks ago and my brain is
still reeling from the experience. For
those of you who don’t know, the name “Angoulême” refers to two things:

    1. A small town in France,
about two hours’ train-ride south of Paris

    2. The Western world’s largest comic book festival (or
“convention,” as we call ‘em here in the States) which takes place annually in
that town

Dargaud, the French publisher of American Born Chinese,
invited me across the pond as their guest, and I got to spend four days rubbing
elbows with many of the most brilliant cartoonists in the world. Graphic novels from practically every
comics-reading culture were on display.

On my first afternoon there, I sat down at my publisher’s
booth to do a signing. I started off
signing books just like I do in America: the reader’s name in all caps, a happy little
message, my loopy signature, and a quick doodle of the Monkey King’s head to
prove I’m the guy who did the book. About five books in, I began noticing that the readers were all walking
away with frowns. Had I spelled their
names wrong? Did I smudge the drawing
with my hand? Was it a French custom
that I wasn’t familiar with, frowning at the sight of a newly signed book?

Then I took a good look at what the French cartoonists
around me were doing. The one on my
right was crosshatching a carefully rendered fight scene on a jacket flap,
while the one on my left was finishing up a watercolor portrait of her
protagonist on the bottom half of a title page. I realized my little monkey heads just weren’t cutting it. French comic book readers expect sketches
that are works of art rather than just sketches, and French creators are more
than willing to oblige. In an hour, a
cartoonist would sign maybe eight books tops, and everyone was happy about
it. The readers didn’t complain about
the wait, and the cartoonists didn’t complain about cramped drawing hands. I had to step up my game.

The elaborate sketches were indicative of a general atmosphere
that pervaded the entire show. The
emphasis of Angoulême wasn’t on autograph collections or limited edition toys
or blockbuster movies or skimpy costumes. The emphasis was on the art of comics. Everything else took a backseat, and everyone understood this. Displays of original comic book art adorned
the halls, just as they do at American conventions, only in Angoulême these
displays weren’t afterthoughts — they were the main attractions.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the zaniness of American comic book conventions. I love watching Jack from Jack-in-the-Box and
the King from Burger King engage in a light saber duel before a rapt audience
of classic Nintendo characters. I love
hearing Klingons shout Klingon jokes to other Klingons, and then laugh hearty
Klingon laughs. I even love bumping into
overweight Optimus Prime as we both search for those elusive issues of The
Warriors of Plasm in an endless sea of dollar bins. But to be at a festival where comic books are
seen — not just by the professionals, but by pretty much everyone in
attendance — as an art form in every sense of the word “art”… this was as
close to Hicksville (a geeky way of saying
“comic book heaven”) as I’m ever going to get.

The draftsmanship of the French creators certainly reflected
this attention to craft. I watched in
amazement as fully-formed scenes spilled out from their pens without a single
pencil sketch line to guide them. I met
cartoonists who had mastered a half dozen media to tell stories in a half dozen
genres. The panels that make up their graphic novels resemble small,
carefully-composed paintings, with conscious thought evident behind every brush
stroke and color. There is much that we
Americans can learn from the French.

Of course, the reverse is also true. After all, Will Eisner and Charles Shultz
were Americans.

And maybe that’s why I feel so lucky to be working in comics
right now. The three major comics
traditions of the world — Japanese, French/Belgian, and American – are in the
midst of a Great Cross-Pollination. More
often than not, cartoonists today can trace their influences around the globe,
to other cartoonists with whom they’d barely be able to sustain a verbal
conversation. And yet, through this
medium that combines the universal communication of pictures with the specific
communication of words, we’ve found a profound way to share with one another.

It’s an exciting time to be in comics. As a friend remarked to me recently, it’s
like being at the birth of rock-and-roll.


the town


the comic book festival


Me trying
to step up my game


Trondheim, me, and Christophe Blain


5 Comments on “ ANGOULÊME ”

  • John A. Walsh | February 12th, 2008 7:41 am

    It’s like we’re living in a comic-book “melting pot” right now — creators are coming up with new styles and ideas by sampling other culture’s comic traditions. There’s bound to be some awkward experimentation coming from this, but there’s also bound to be a steady stream of AMAZING work from these creators.

  • littlebird | February 12th, 2008 1:20 pm

    it’s awesome you made it to Hicksville, my friend.

  • elvmar | March 2nd, 2008 7:43 am

    it wasn’t amazing only for you, due to the fact that you are not an european.it was amazing and unique experience for a greek also. Even if I am not a comic artist, but a loyal comic reader I couldn’t stop runnning from one excibition to another in order to see everything.French are the best at this kind of festivals. Totally organised.
    next station, who knows, maybe San Diego

  • Torsten Adair | March 22nd, 2008 6:31 pm

    I remember when I attended the Comics Salon in Erlangen in 1994. I was surprised to find everyone doing artwork, so I rushed out and bought some art paper. I have two wonderful self portraits from Scott McCloud, and a fully rendered “sketch” of Scrooge McDuck from “Legends of the Lost Library”. It’s happening again this Spring, and it’s like Angouleme, but much less hectic. (At least it was in 1994.)

  • Logo Design | August 29th, 2011 4:27 am

    Now that’s just awesome. The various responses (and suggestions & compliments) to ABC must have Gene flying on Cloud 9!

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