Worlds in Words and Pictures

The Graphic Novel - a worldwide phenomenon

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The graphic novel as a genre has engaged generations. John Hudson went to Europe’s biggest festival dedicated to the graphic novel, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinee which takes place in Angouleme each year and he discovered, with a little help from BDSLive, that the comic strip is a story that travels the world.​..

Angoulême, I can hear you asking, where’s that? Well, for four days in January each year, it is the centre of the world for the fans of the comic strip or graphic novel. Nearly a quarter of a million people visit the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée and this small city, set atop a hill in the Charente countryside in South West France, becomes a riot of murals, models of cartoon characters, music in the streets, thousands of red balloons, trade tents and world-class exhibitions.

There’s manga, Mickey Mouse, gothic, cyberpunk, Superman, fantasy, hardcore realism, Tin Tin, classic adaptations, adventure, gay and lesbian, Tarzan, philosophy, erotic, surreal, social commentary and downright strange… and you quickly realise that the graphic novel is big, it’s important and it’s exciting.

It’s particularly big in Japan where it is regarded, quite rightly, as an art form and in Angoulême a whole building is dedicated to Manga. It’s huge in the US where many of our best-loved heroes and heroines started their careers as cartoon characters. It’s immense in France where Asterix and Tin Tin (well, he’s a Belgian creation but the French treat him as their own) have exported around the world and where even the local supermarkets have shelves dedicated to the graphic novel. And, as the festival attests, it’s become important in Russia where, since the fall of the Soviet regime, the graphic novel has flourished as a means of social commentary and radical thinking. And in the UK…?

Log onto BDSLive and do a search for graphic novel and a long, long list of titles appears. Enter comic strip and the list is twice as long. But that’s only part of the story. Search under all media, for say, Superman or Tin Tin, and it soon becomes apparent it is not merely the publication but also its portability that makes the graphic novel so important. Film, computer game, audiobook, CD releases, even theatre productions and street grafitti… there is not a contemporary medium that the graphic novel hasn’t conquered.

Nor is there a language that the graphic novel has not been read in. Browse BDSLive’s search results for Herge, the creator of Tin Tin, and, at a glance, you quickly find editions in Arabic, Greek, German, Danish, Italian, Spanish and Welsh.

The popularity of the genre is growing. Perhaps it is due to the ability of the medium to deal with issues archetypal to the human psyche and cross boundaries in an ever more globalised world as much as the increasingly popular film and TV franchises around Marvel and DC comics. Whether looking for a hero such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan or recognition of darker urges through imaginary worlds such as Sin City or the graphic creations of Blutch (who featured in an excellent exhibition of drawings during the festival in 2011), the graphic novel addresses and explores, confronts and prods the reader.

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Witness to the genre’s growth can be had via another search on BDSLive. Type in Manga and over four thousand results are returned. Consistent with the UK’s interest in the form, we would probably find two or three times that number of releases on the shelves of French stockists, bookshops and libraries but – and this is the point - more than the first one hundred results in that UK-wide search are for titles yet to appear, titles due out in the next three months.

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A significant part of the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée is dedicated to young people, from pre-school, to teenagers and people in their early twenties. The relaxed lounging and reading areas were populated by children fixedly flipping the pages of the Moomins or a Victor Hugo adaptation such as Les Miserables. “Get ‘em young,” is the French philosophy and the graphic novel certainly gets youngsters reading and teenagers exploring their own issues through stories that mean something to them. Stories that deal with sexuality, substance abuse, family problems and integration into wider society.

For the reflective person, the graphic novel as philosophical discourse is elegantly represented by the work of Fabio Viscogliosi, artist, musician and writer, born in 1965. His cartoon sequences involving half-human animals and their ambulatory discourses – resembling Socratic dialogues – attract adults and children alike. One of his greatest creations is a donkey who wavers between ambition and resignation.

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“What I like about the donkey,” says Fabio, “is his ambivalence, not knowing whether he is intelligent or stupid.”

Perhaps, for a British readership, this sums up the dilemma with regard to the graphic novel. We have yet to take it seriously, but if ever proof were needed that the graphic novel is an art form that’s important and here to stay, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, allied with a little research through BDSLive, offers plenty.

To find out more about the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée go to www.bdangouleme.com