In the tenth chapter of The Greatest Book of All Time, we ponder the question: What would it mean in the American comic book field to name a foreign comic book as the greatest of all time? In this chapter, we are specifically thinking through the way that European (mostly Franco-Belgian) and Asian (read, Japanese) comics traditions have impacted our collective understanding of “quality” in the comics realm, but, of course, this issue intersects with the more fulsome discussion of the role of gender and race that takes place in the previous chapter.
Events of the past twenty-four hours have thrown these issues into even more stark relief. On Tuesday, January 5, the Festival international de la bande dessinée in Angoulême, the most prestigious comics festival in France, circulated a ballot to its professional attendees asking them to vote on the long-list of potential Grand Prix winners for this year’s event. That list included the names of thirty comics creators (some writers, some artists, some cartoonists) all of whom just so happened to be men. The fully deserved backlash was nearly instantaneous in this age of social media. Before the end of the day Riad Sattouf, who is one of only two people to have won Angoulême’s prize for best book on two occasions, refused his nomination in a post on Facebook. Later that evening, American cartoonist Dan Clowes also withdrew, calling the whole nomination process “a ridiculous, embarrassing debacle”. Over night an additional seven of the nominees withdrew their names (for breaking news, I suggest following Matt Madden and Jessica Abel on twitter – as Americans living in Angoulême they have been excellent news sources on this issue). You should also be following the Collectif des créatrices de bande dessinée contre le sexisme who have taken a lead role in organizing against this slate of nominations.
A little background: The Grand Prix at FIBD is generally considered the most prestigious prize in all of comics. It is a lifetime achievement award. The Grand Prix winner is announced in a place of honor (this has varied over time – some years it was announced at midnight on the Saturday from the balcony at town hall, more recently it has become the final prize awarded during the closing ceremonies on Sunday) and the recipient becomes the honorary President of the FIBD the following year, with an exhibition consecrated to his or her work. The President also chairs the prize jury.
Note that I said “his or her” work is exhibited. This is technically true, but only barely. The prize has been awarded forty-two times since Angoulême began in the 1970s, and it has gone to forty-two men (Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian shared the award in 2008) and one woman (Florence Cestac). Additionally, the FIBD has awarded a series of secondary prizes on special occasions like major anniversaries (tenth: Claire Bretécher; twentieth: Morris; thirtieth: Joann Sfar; fortieth: Akira Toriyama; Millenial Prize: Uderzo). Despite some claims that these secondary prizes are the equivalent of the Grand Prix, they are most assuredly not. They do not come with the same powers, nor prestige, nor an exhibition of the artist’s work. So, in forty-three tries, one woman. If you do want to count the secondary prizes, it becomes two women out forty-eight. It is noteworthy, however, that Joann Sfar (who won the thirtieth anniversary prize) was on this year’s ballot until he withdrew his name today. So clearly even the Festival doesn’t believe that these prizes are equivalent.
One of the big questions that has come up a lot in the past two days is: Who made this ridiculous list and how was it made? The short answer is: I don’t know beyond what Franck Bondoux (the director of FIBD) has said publicly, that it was the programming committee who developed the list. A little history is probably in order.
Historically, the Grand Prix has been elected by the previous winners at a meeting during the Festival. Those who attend, and a few who are tele-conferenced in, meet in a room and debate who will be the next to join the group. This led to a certain generational blockage, as the members of the academy tended to vote for their friends and colleagues – for many years it was wondered when a cartoonist who made his or her name in the 1990s would finally win (it was Zep in 2004, followed by Lewis Trondheim in 2006). Trondheim, once elected to the jury, became a notable critic of this process, publishing comics (collected in Little Nothings) that depicted certain members of the jury as hopelessly out of touch (I am told one juror asked as late as the 2010s “Who is this Chris Ware you keep mentioning?”). In addition to a generational bias, there was a nationalistic one, with the overwhelming number of Grand Prix winners being French. Only three Americans were elected under this old process: in 1974 (Will Eisner), 1999 (Robert Crumb), and 2011 (Art Spiegelman).
Attempts to reform the process have arisen over time. In the late-1990s a balloting was introduced briefly but the Festival almost immediately abandoned it. It is important to note that the Angoulême presidency is not about merit (although that is the central framing) so much as it is about marketing. FIBD is a commercial enterprise. One of its main drawing cards to the public is the many exhibitions of comics art (generally about a dozen) that it stages each year. The president of the Festival not only produces the poster, but is the subject of an exhibition. The Spiegelman show that toured widely over the past few years began at Angoulême. They are a big deal. The FIBD has no interest – or little interest – in a president who is not a “name”. Note the absence of influential names like Alex Barbier and Edmond Baudoin from the balloting. If these names are not known to you, that may be a reason that the FIBD has little interest in them as potential presidents.
Three years ago the selection of the presidency became an issue that boiled over. Past presidents threw up their hands in despair and quit the jury, rumours of deadlocks and feuding circulated and it was clear that a change was needed. The Festival threw open its balloting, asking artists who attended to vote for candidates for a short list from which jury would then select. This resulted in immediate change. First, the Dutch editorial cartoonist Willem was selected. Then retired American comic strip artist Bill Watterson (who refused to attend). Most recently, Katsuhiro Otomo. A series of firsts. The system seemed to be working. The stage seemed set for additional change. No prize has ever gone to a comics writer, for example. Not Rene Goscinny nor Jean Van Hamme, but suddenly Alan Moore found himself a finalist (though, like Watterson, he displayed no interest in attending). This year’s ballot included Brian Michael Bendis and Stan Lee in addition to Moore and Van Hamme, indicating a further warming in the distinction between writer and cartoonist.
Yet despite all of this new openness (to different genres, to different nationalities, to different technical specializations) somehow, FIBD produced a list this year of thirty men.
In an interview with Télérama, Bondoux made several arguments in defense of the men-only list. First, he noted, that this was a career award, which disadvantages women who were disproportionately under-represented in the glory years of French magazine publishing. He notes, though, that Zep (who won the award when he was thirty-seven) as an exception. However, Zep was not the youngest laureate: Enki Bilal won when he was only thirty-six, and Frank Margérin won when he was forty. This is not a prize for the elderly, even if it has sometimes seemed that way. Critics have pointed to hundreds of women cartoonists with careers as long as Zep and Bilal. He also suggested, with regard to Marjane Satrapi, that comics are now behind her, which would exclude her from consideration. Ironically, comics are also behind Watterson and Otomo, the two most recent winners.
Ultimately, despite Bondoux’s best efforts, there is no defence of these nominations. Definitions of merit do not take place in a vacuum, but represent the embodied ideologies of decision-makers. The calls for boycott have not made the selection of the festival political, rather it has shone a cleansing spotlight on a process that was always political, commercial, and ideological. As we argue in The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, prestige exists in a complex matrix of institutional relations. This week we have seen those relations thrust to the fore.
On January 6, twenty-four hours after the calls for boycott circulated, the Festival offered to add names to the ballot while defending their initial list. This story continues to develop.