Lost amid the discussion of the bungling of the Grand Prix at this year's Angoulême festival is a question worth pondering: How important is the prize?
Given the fact that Alan Moore has stated that he does not want it, Claire Wendling has asked, on her Facebook page, that people not to vote for her, and that Hermann indicated his desire to be removed from the ballot in 2014 (though he recanted that in 2015), one answer might well be: not very.
I have been fortunate enough to attend the Angoulême festival seventeen times. During that time I have had the opportunity to get to know some of the cartoonists who have previously won the award. I know past presidents who have been ecstatic to receive the news, and, frankly, a couple who met it with a sort of grim resignation. The presidency is actual work - unpaid work. There is press to do, an exhibition to coordinate (or help coordinate), juries to sit on, lunches to attend. It can arrive at the wrong time for some cartoonists. It may the greatest honour in all of comics, as it is frequently called, but it can also be a bit of a drag. We're seeing a bit of that this year.
A more focussed question, in terms of the way that we theorize prestige in The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, is: does winning the Grand Prix really bolster one's reputation outside of France?
It may be safe to say that many of the past Grand Prix winners are not exactly household names in American comics circles, even to readers who know a lot about comics. Hands up if you really know the work of Pellos (1977), Marijac (1979), or René Pétillon (1989), none of whom has been widely translated. Even more recently, Martin Veyron (2001), Georges Wolinski (2005), Jean-Claude Denis (2012), and Williem (2013) are names that are barely known in the United States, and Zep (2004), who may be the most commercially successful cartoonist of his generation, is similarly little-known outside of French-speaking Europe.
So, at the end of all this drama, if Claire Wendling is the winner, it may not do much to change her visibility outside of France.
Thinking about the Grand Prix led me back to some of the issues that we raise in Chapter Ten of our book about the international circulation of heralded books, and so I wanted to examine how past Angoulême Best Book winners have fared in English translation.
Angoulême has awarded book prizes beginning in 1976. These have gone by various names (Alfred, Alph-Art, Fauve) and the categories have been all over the map. For three years awards were given for best French and foreign comic in two categories (realistic, humorous). For two years there were no awards presented. Later it was best book and best foreign book. Today it is just best book (the Fauve d'or, pictured above with the 2013 winning book, Quai d'Orsay). What I have graphed below are the best book winners, but not the foreign winners (although if a non-French-language book was the overall winner, as when Chris Ware won in 2003, it is included). That gives us forty-two winners since 1976.
Looking at Amazon.fr, I tried to determine how many of the forty-two winners were currently in print (that is, I could order them today and not from a used book dealer). As you can see, a very high proportion of past winners are still in print.
I don't have a control here, so I can't even begin to guess what percentage of French comics published since 1976 are still in print. My best guess would be that it is far below the 81% represented here.
Note: not all of the books are currently available in the formats for which they won, many are in new editions, particularly editions that collect multiple volumes of a series. But you could read the winning work. Books that have fallen out of print are frequently from smaller publishers (Atrabile, Actes Sud, Cornélius) or even ones that have ceased to exist (Futuropolis).
The high percentage of award-winning books that are still available, however, speaks to the generally high quality of the prize-winning works, and also to the consecratory powers of the prize itself.
Now let's look at how those same forty-two books have fared in translation. I checked to see if they were available in print from Amazon.com:
A much more mixed bag in the trans-Atlantic market. The largest category, by far are Angoulême award-winners that are not in print. Works by F'Murr, Jacques Martin, Attilio Micheluzzi, Jano, Fred, Pascal Rabaté, and Riad Sattouf can be found in this section of the chart. Notably, eleven of the books are currently available in print as translations (by Dupuy-Berberian, Christophe Blain, Marjane Satrapi, Shigeru Mizuki, Guy Delisle, Christophe Blain, and the aforementioned Riad Sattouf), and one was originally published in English (Ware's Jimmy Corrigan) and one is wordless (Shaun Tan's The Arrival). Add to this the three winners listed as forthcoming: Manuele Fior's Five Thousand Miles Per Second, Alack Sinner by Muñoz and Sampayo, and Paracuellos by Carlos Giménez. So, depending on when you are reading this, the green section might be fourteen books (all three books are due in the first half of 2016). Finally, there are eight books that had earlier English editions but which have fallen out of print. These include books from Catalan, NBM, First Second, Drawn and Quarterly, and Knockabout that have, presumably, not demonstrated sufficient demand for continued printings. It is possible that the award placed them on the publisher's radar, but was not compelling enough in itself to create an ongoing audience for the work.
One other note: the rate of translation is generally upward. Of the sixteen winners since 2000, twelve have resulted in translations into English, while of the seventeen from the 1970s and 1980s, only six were translated.
So it seems that the prizes at Angoulême hold at least some power to keep books in print and to drive international attention via translation, and, moreover, that the distance between the United States and France may be closing over time.