The Angoulême Grand Prix is Decadent and Depraved

On January 5th, Collectif des Creatrices de Bande Dessinés Contre le Sexisme (or BDégalite for short) launched a boycott against the Angoulême Grand Prix — a lifetime achievement award that crowns the winner the president of the following year’s FIBD festival — when it failed to include a single female creator out of a class of thirty nominees. Further exacerbating the insult is the fact that the award has only gone to one woman in its entire history.

Following the controversy around the Angoulême Grand Prix’s failure (and the ensuing boycott), event organizers have — after stopgap nominations of two, and then six, additional nominees — opened the selection process up to a free vote.

Art by Posy Simmonds.

Art by Posy Simmonds.

The publicity around the boycott prompted several nominees to ask for their names to be withdrawn from consideration including Riad Sattouf, Milo Manara, Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Daniel Clowes.

While much of the English language reporting around the controversy has focused on these high profile male nominees, what broke open the Grand Prix was direct and persistent action on the part of female cartoonists and a French media who refused to let its host, the Angoulême International Comics Festival (FIBD), off the hook.

The initial response to the boycott, from the official website of FIBD, was a blog post titled “The Angoulême Festival loves women… but cannot rewrite the history of comics.” If they were lampshading their own part in writing women out of the official history, it would have worked rather well, but instead argued that women came to comics long after men did. It went on to claim that critics would do well to look at the awards hosted at the festival for contemporary work to see female creators better represented. The post also went on to announce that Marjane Satrapi and Posy Simmonds would be added as nominees despite, in their words, having come in last in the voting.

The blog post drew attention to the fact that the last three winners were Katsuhiro Otomo, Bill Watterson, and Willem — an international range of artists who have, in the words of the blog post, have been active for decades. But critics were quick to point out that, until quite recently, it was an insular affair that rarely found a winner outside the Franco-Belgian sphere.

Art by Chantal Montellier.

Art by Chantal Montellier.

A blog post at BDégalite retorted that despite that characterization of the award, several nominees have been under forty when named, and Mirion Malle (who does journal comics under the title Commando Culotte) pointed out in an article at Libération that 2004 winner Zep had only one major work under his belt at the time.

Malle went on say that while the recent inclusion of manga creators like 2015 winner Katsuhiro Otomo represents progress for the Grand Prix, she feels that female manga creators including Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, and the CLAMP collective will be overlooked. Shoujo manga is commonly looked down upon for being made to appeal to girls and young women. Battling perceptions like that is also a key aim of the charter that BDégalite unveiled last year, specifically to de-stigmatize media considered girly and to desegregate comics in retailers and libraries based on gender.

When pressed on the topic of the lack of female inclusion in the Grand Prix with the example of Emily Carroll’s Eisner win in an appearance on Canal+’s Le Grand Journal, Franck Bondoux, the public face of FIBD, again pointed elsewhere. He says that other awards for current work presented at the event are where the female inclusion at Angoulême is apparent.

However, in December, BDégalite issued a report calling that into question as well. It revealed that when it comes to deciding who takes home the awards at FIBD, selection committees (who create the shortlist) were made up of an average of 14% female membership over six years and 23% female inclusion in the jury (who choose the winners from the shortlist) across thirteen years.

Art by Julie Doucet.

Art by Julie Doucet.

When further pressed in the same television appearance to come up with a list of potential female nominees of his own, he was only able to name Marjane Satrapi. It was a problem already brought to light by BDégalite the day before, when they published an e-mail sent to the FIBD rebuffing their request for the collective to send them an alternate list of female nominees in response to the initial lack of any female nominees. BDégalite’s position was that any nominee they put forward would be accused of using the collective to enact a personal crusade.

When Bondoux appeared on Le Grand Journal the day after the e-mail exchange, he argued that looking at the history of BD — and naming the same titles and anthologies as the text of the FIBD blog post (Spirou, Tintin, Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal) — there’s few female contributors to consider. This prompted the host to lift a copy of a collected edition of Claire Bretecher’s work into view.

Bondoux further argued that there’s no parity, because there isn’t a parity reflected in the history of French comics. This prompted a call out from one of the show’s panelists, pointing out that there was nothing stopping them from nominating an Englishwoman like Posy Simmonds or an American like Alison Bechdel. He replied that Simmonds had been added to the ballot that day. He then alluded to the further expansion of female nominees on the ballot, which ended up being:

  • Chantal Montellier
  • Canadian cartoonist Julie Doucet
  • American cartoonist Lynda Barry
  • Japanese manga-ka Moto Hagio

The latter is particularly interesting as a representative of the Year 24 Group, a loose designation of female creators in Japan who are considered to be the progenitors of shoujo manga. While not as well known or as highly regarded in the west as contemporaries like The Rose of Versailles creator Riyoko Ikeda, she is considered — along with Kieko Takemiya — to be one of the primary innovators of  the shounen-ai genre of female creators writing same sex romances between men.

As reported by The Beat, however, those additions and all previous nominees have been scrapped in favor of a free vote:

“Basically voting will be open to those cartoonist registered in France and verified by a French publisher. Apparently, this list is comprises 3500 voters, of whom 200 are women. After open voting, the top three candidates will go to a final vote. This system was used twice before, resulting in wins for Goosens and R. Crumb.”

Le Monde has speculated that the rapid shift from adding four more female nominees to scrapping the entire list was the result of fears that the new additions would reject their nominations as had a total of 18 of the initial 30. When reached for comment for that piece, Montellier noted that there had yet to be any kind of apology or appearance of being apologetic on their part, calling her nomination a ruse that looked more like paying alms than a genuine recognition.

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Art by Lynda Barry.

The entire episode has very publicly, internationally even, aired longstanding grievances that never had to escalate as far as they did. The late additions to the nominations clearly point to there being prominent and easily found women worthy of consideration. The overall desire for change and greater inclusion for women, far from being new to FIBD, has been a major topic of conversation within the industry over the last year.

2014’s FIBD was host to the panel that, in part, lead to the founding of BDégalite, a satirical panel organized by Lisa Mandel called “Les Hommes et la BD,” translated as The Men of Comics, in which male creators were subjected to the kinds of questions that female comic creators are faced with on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a fact that FIBD wears proudly even as it protests against the criticism of the Angoulême Grand Prix nominations.

When Julie Maroh was contacted shortly thereafter for inclusion in an expo at Centre Belge de la Bande Dessine (CBBD) that, in her eyes, reduced the work of female comic creators to girlish pursuits, she made use of the contacts she made during the planning of Mandel’s panel to organize a total of 70 female creators. When private negotiations between them and CBBD broke down, they formalized the collective and went public with their charter.

Speaking about the events last September, she characterized it as an early example of what they hoped to achieve in the future, a statement that clearly foreshadows their action against the Angoulême Grand Prix nominations:

“We want to organize boycotts, to raise people’s awareness during festivals, to debate through conferences, to help institutions to prepare events or exhibitions that don’t badly particularize women’s image. You know, months of private talks couldn’t make the CBBD withdraw their “comics for girls” project. But when we published our charter online on Tuesday, quoting their horrible words in the page “Historique,” What happened on Wednesday? They published a public communique to announce they renounced to their project at the moment! It means we can really move lines.”

Art by Moto Hagio.

Art by Moto Hagio.

That FIBD, and Franck Bondoux in specific, didn’t see the initial nominations as being problematic speaks to the widely held belief that women are latecomers to comic. Under pressure, Bondoux has repeatedly stated that to see female creators represented in awards, critics should look to prizes for current work. This is an attitude called into question by Carla Berrocal, founding member of Autoras De Comic, a Spanish collective of female creators founded in 2013 with similar aims to BDégalite.

“It’s very important to recover the art of our pioneers because the history can be rewritten. We can do justice: justice for their work and their art. We can [recover] them. The claimings of Mr. Bondoux are true but are also unjust and dangerous. That’s why I say that the problem is in the society structure. We are less because historically women can’t do anything by education. So, we can change that, writing again the history and take part to all that women that fight against her time and do what she wanted to do: drawing. That’s justice.”

In expressing her lack of surprise at the controversy surrounding the nominations, Berrocal highlighted the similar struggles that she and her peers in Spain face:

“About the nominations, personally It’s not a surprise. In Spain happen the same. There’s a lot of work to do in this. The comic sector it’s not equitative, in France the number of comics done by women it’s still the 25%. In Spain… we don’t have numbers but it’s lower than France. The problem it’s the same: the editors, authors and critics are men and they only visibilize the most common names, the most popular. It’s necessary a compromise from all the men and women involve in comics to give voice to the women. It’s complicated because this problem it’s still in the structure of the society, but with solidarity and self-criticism we have an unique opportunity to change this.

The climate about this it’s changing, now we have a huge generation of spectacular women artists working in Spain and outside. They’re strong and they’re working to change things and this it’s inspiring.”

There is perhaps no better way to sum up the fracas around the Angoulême Grand Prix nominations and why these kind of awards remain critical than the conversation leading to the founding of Berrocal’s group. Ana Mirllales made the observation to her that there will never be a woman in comics as famous as Moebius, prompting Berrocal’s reply:

“It was unjust so, I convinced her, Marika Vila and Elisa G. McCausland to do something and try to change that. That’s the birth of the Collective.”

BDégalite did not reply to a request for comment in time for publication.

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