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February 11, 2008


[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.


Angoulême the town


Angoulême the comic book festival


Me trying to step up my game


Lewis Trondheim, me, and Christophe Blain



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.)

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

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

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.

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