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To Be a Kid for a Day

photo: martin vaughn james, festival bd

Fine lines need a close look by Martin Vaughn–James.

Paris Life – No 36

by Laurel Avery

Angoulême:– Saturday, 24. January 2004:– Comic Art, or 'Bande Dessinée' as it is called here, is extremely popular in France, with entire sections of bookstores devoted to the art. So much so that the city of Angoulême hosts an annual comics festival every January that is the largest in the world outside Japan.

This small medieval city perched on a hill is magically transformed each year into comic heaven. Nearly every shop and establishment has some sort of comics theme, with 18 different sites throughout the town featuring a different exposition related to comic art.

The foremost museum for comic art in France, Le Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l'Image [CNBDI], is located here, built into the city's ramparts and looking out toward the river Charente.

When you first approach the museum, it looks like a building straight out of Gotham City, and one can easily imagine it in the pages of a comic book. An ultra–contemporary building of stone and glass, it appears to have grown right out of the sidephoto: bd museum of the hill. The 7000 square–metre structure was built on the site of a former Benedictine abbey, some of the walls of which still stand just outside the museum. The abbey was transformed into a brewery in the early 20th century, an odd but somehow amusing history for a comics museum.

Exterior view of the museum.

CNBDI has a huge collection of over 10,000 comic books which are available for public view in their library. The museum features mainly French, Belgian and American artists and documents the history of French comics from 1830 to the present.

I was actually surprised that some of my early childhood favorites were not on display, figuring they must be popular worldwide. My childhood featured Archie and Veronica, Richie Rich, and of course, Peanuts, a panel of which is shown in one of the museum's galleries. But most of the museum's featured collection was unknown to me. And how could they neglect having a whole room devoted to Calvin and Hobbes?

On the whole, however, the exhibits are well presented and I learned a lot about the history and techniques of comic art. Just walking through the museum is an experience in itself, with each space built to resemble a comic book. It's like stepping out of the real world and into the two–dimensional pages of one of your favorite comics.

This year's featured artist in the Contemporary Art Gallery was Martin Vaughn–James, who created 'The Cage' in the early 1970s, an early graphic novel consisting of nearly 200 surreal pen–and–ink drawings. CNBDI acquired the work in its entirety and has the collection of drawings on display.

It was somewhat awe–inspiringphoto: bd museum, interior to think that someone could have created so many elaborate and detailed illustrations in only about two years. According to Vaughn–James the drawings for 'The Cage' were created in a tiny one–room apartment in Paris, which no doubt helped inspire his treatment of the subject matter.

The unlikely–looking interior of the museum.

When not shuttling from one BD tent to another, it's easy to relax in one of the city's many restaurants and bars. It's easy to get lost in all the small winding streets, but it's pleasant to just stumble onto a small jewel of a bistro on a hidden side–street that you may never find again, such as Le Passe–Muraille. It's an old–time restaurant with photos of famous people on the walls, from Victor Hugo to Brigitte Bardot, where the clock runs backwards.

I wondered if anyone else in town this weekend was over 30. The thing about BD – an what probably keeps it alive – is that it is extremely popular with young people. But even though I felt like one of the oldest people around, I got to feel like a kid for at least a few days.

Martin Vaughn–James – has an exhibition of his latest works, whichposter: expo, martin vaughn james continues until Saturday, 13. March. From Tuesday to Saturday, from 11:00 to 13:00 and from 14:00 to 19:00. On view at the Galerie Eric de Montbel, 34. Rue de Seine, Paris 6. Métro: Odéon. InfoTel.: 01 43 29 34 31.

'Dix Millions d'Images' was the title of the first 'Salon de la BD' held in Angoulême in 1972. Hugo Pratt signed the festival's poster and honored guests were Hogarth, Harvey Kurtzman, Tillieux and Franquin. In 1989 Angoulême got its own home, with the inauguration of the 'Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l'Image.' 'Salon' became 'Festival' in 1996, the same year that a selected exhibition was sent on a world tour. Robert Crumb signed the festival's poster in 2000 and in 2001 Florence Cestac was the festival's first lady president. This was also the year of the return of the Japanese 'Mangas.'

Text & photos, Laurel Avery © 2004

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