|To most English speakers, comic books suggest nothing more than cheaply printed pamphlet-sized magazines with frames of Spiderman, Archie, Batman and Scrooge McDuck, mostly oriented towards juvenile males. For most of my childhood they were either filled with various DC superheroes or modern film parodies in Mad Magazine. |
Parallel to that was my exposure to comic books from the French speaking world, real hardbacks with layers of narrative, history and language jokes, the worlds of Tintin and Asterix.
As soon as I had sufficient pocket money I began collecting these into my own library. This was certainly more practical than being on one of the endless waiting lists at the school library, and afforded my father with decades of late night escapist reading when he would collect two or three volumes from my bookshelf of an evening before retiring. I can still recall laughing so much when I first read the druids’ battle in Asterix and the Big Fight that I fell out of my bed. The sound of me hitting the floor brought my parents racing up the stairs to find me still laughing wildly and going back to read those pages a second, third and fourth time. I think my father’s enjoyment of them commenced not long after that.
In my final years of high-school, a book-van would make a regular appearance in the grounds towards the end of the year. Usually this was timed to allow end of year academic prizes to be selected as our town was at least half a day’s drive from a decent sized bookstore. The proprietor of the bookvan was also a connoisseur of Asterix and his fellow travellers and would be on the look out for me to show the latest offerings. Looking back at that in this day of internet book-buying and it makes me feel like I was in the old west waiting for the stage-coach to bring news of the world, but it was a little over thirty years ago. In site of my academic achievements, my teachers were not going to allow me to select the richly textured Fungus the Bogeyman or Asterix and the Great Divide as my prize for first in the year, no matter that one exemplified the existential crisis of a modern working man, and the other managed to satirise both Romeo and Juliet and the Berlin Wall in 48 pages. For what it’s worth, I still have both those books (from my pocket-money) and whatever “appropriate” dross I was given disappeared long ago.
The English-speaking world has moved on in more recent times with greater acceptance of what we now call the graphic novel, exemplified in its early popularity by Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-biography Maus which won a Pulitzer Prize and a slew of other awards. Writers like Will Eisner and Scott McCloud began producing self-defining works like Understanding Comics which explained the vocabulary of the medium of sequential art to tell a story. More recently I’ve bene very impressed with titles like Logicomix which goes into the early life and works of Bertrand Russell with nods to Godel, Frege and Wittgenstein; or Asterios Polyp, the tale of an architect’s journey of self-discovery.
Meanwhile in France, the practice of producing bandes-dessinées / BDs (drawn strips) in hardback graphic-novel albums akin to the format of Tintin or Asterix continued as it had for decades. Those books range across genres from historical escapades, to modern thrillers in the vein of Jules Verne, through polcie procedurals and of course basic humour, often with a philosophical twist and very often with superlative artwork.
I’ve mentioned before my exposure to the science-fictional adventures of Valérian when it was occasionally made available in English, and now I’m filling in the large gaps with the original French volumes. I’m also finding other wonders such as Nicolas de Crécy’s Salvatore series or his The Celestial Bibendum which simply defies description and is a must even if you just look at the pictures. I must confess that a couple of these are a bit daunting for me to read in French and I’ve been fortunate in finding recent English translations to ease me through their subtle dialogues.
There are many comic-book festivals across France with the closest being twenty minutes away in Éauze, which has come of age with its 21st Festival BD this first Sunday in August. When I reached the town-centre around 11am this morning, I was surprised to find that not only was it busier than a regular Thursday market day, but that many of the stores were open and there was a supplementary produce market going on outside the cathedral.
I had to go the Tourist bureau first to find where it was being held – one of my running gripes about many of these events is that the publicity and websites nearly always neglect to mention the actual venue or its location. Finally, properly guided to the appropriate hall, we found it packed with about five hundred people of all ages, and pretty evenly divided on gender lines. If I had to make a guess at median age, I would have had to say forty-ish, and there appeared to be some families where three generations were enthusiastically lining up for an artist/author signing or to riffle through the displays of the merchants lined up around the hall.
I’d name-checked the authors expected to be at the event but while I recognised a few, none corresponded to the titles I was interested in. Just as well, because the lines in front of each were long and slow-moving, as each visitor got more than the cursory nod and “name please?” that you get at so many other literary signings. In a country where the purchase of sliced meat at the deli counter can be a lengthy exchange, these encounters were more like mini-symposia with the added benefit of an artist doodle on your favourite text.
Munson won a few fans around the room, and we met a rather sweet couple who opened up their wallets to display a sheaf of photos of their own malamutes from over the years. I remembered taking Bondi into various Album stores in Paris where he was always treated like royalty by the staff.
We spent a couple hours there while I cast my beady eyes over the display tables, viewed some of the mini-exhibitions and watched artists at work on easels (or crossword-puzzles for the less popular). It wasn't French Comicon, but at least I didn't have to dress Munson up as Princess Leia to get in.
I intended to get some lunch in Éauze after that and then head back east to the Abbey Flaran where the vocal group Ensemble Scandicus were performing a 15th century mass and motets mid-afternoon.
Because it had begun raining heavily I decided to first take Munson back to the car to drop off the few books I’d purchased. When I got there I discovered that one of its tyres was completely flat, and I couldn’t extract my spare from its under-carriage holder. Luckily I had a can of Tyre Weld foam in my toolbag, which I’ve been carrying around for over five years. I let it empty itself into my tyre and was rather impressed to see this deodorant bottle sized container partially inflate the tyre. The next step was to immediately drive about ten kilometres to distribute its contents throughout its interior. That was enough to get me home but I was worried about one major ascent, so I stopped off at the house of my friends Chris and Emmy as I knew Chris would have tools to extract my spare tyre.
I was quite surprised to find that the tyre was fully inflated when I reached their house. After some effort Chris and I managed to switch tyres over and Emmy brought me inside to supply me dry clothing, not to mention caffeinate and feed me. So I missed the concert but had a great time with them and their visiting family.
At least I discovered the spare tyre issue in a convenient location rather than on a highway, and I must get another can of Tyre Weld ( or in French Répare Crevaison)! You wouldn’t learn about this stuff even in a comic book.