France’s comic book festival starts a culture war by nominating zero women for its grand prize

Clumsy slight, or evidence of the persistent bias against women in the comic book industry?

Angoulême, France

The following was a freelance story written in advance of the Angoulême International Comics Festival that was held at the end of January 2016. It was never published, so I’m sharing it here.

ANGOULÊME, France (Jan. 25, 2016) — Just days away from hosting one of the world’s largest comic book festivals, this 800-year-old city finds itself ground zero for the nation’s latest cultural controversy.

The dark clouds hovering over the Angoulême International Comics Festival began rolling in earlier this month when organizers announced the 30 nominees for the festival’s Grand Prize.

One glaring problem: Every nominee was a man.

The omission triggered the predictable outrage across social media channels. An association of France’s female comic book artists denounced it as evidence of continued sexism in their industry and called for a boycott. France’s cultural minister pronounced herself “a little disturbed.” Organizers scrambled for a response.

With 200,000 attendees about to descend on this medieval city for four days, there remains a heated debate over whether the lack of female nominees was just a clumsy insult or the latest symptom of an industry long considered less-than-friendly to females. In either case, there is widespread concern that the incident will leave a permanent black mark on an event that for decades has been a great source of pride in France.

“The festival is a mirror that reflects the reality of the comic book market,” said Franck Bondoux, director of the festival. “The reality of the history of comic books in Europe is that there have been very few women authors. That is changing, but we are still not at parity.”

The controversy has captured widespread public attention in comic book-mad France and neighboring Belgium. It’s hard to overstate the popularity of graphic novels in these countries, where they are known as “Bande Dessinée” or “BD” and also referred to as the “9th Art.”

Indeed, they are taken quite seriously as an art form, with public libraries in France stocked full of BDs and an official critics association.

Angoulême is France’s spiritual BD capital. Located about 280 miles southwest of Paris, this picturesque town of 50,000 has been host to the event (officially the “Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême”) since its start in 1974. The city boasts one of the world’s largest comics museums: “La Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image,” which has an official government designation that puts it on the same cultural level as the Louvre in Paris.

Inside the BD museum

Preparations were in high gear for the festival, which opens January 28, when organizers announced the nominees for the annual “Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême.”

The award is meant to honor an author’s career, but in the 42 previous years, only one female author had been recognized: France’s Florence Cestac.

So this year, when the votes of the country’s BD authors were tallied and the result was a male-only list of finalists, it seemed like the last straw to many.

The backlash was swift and led by BD Egalité, or “Women in Comics Collective against Sexism,” a group of more than 100 female comic book authors who formed in 2013 to raise awareness of their industry’s bias.

In a statement issued in early January, they noted that the lack of women nominees not only sends a discouraging signal to young artists, it also makes it harder for them to get the recognition that could boost sales and other licensing deals.

“We protest against this obvious discrimination, this total negation of our representation in a medium that has more and more women,” the statement said. “It is no longer tolerable that renowned designers, whose career is recognized by everyone, are absent from the nominations of this Grand Prix.”

That spurred several other authors to announce they would skip the festival. Among them was Oakland-based Daniel Clowes, author of the “Ghost World” graphic novel and an Oscar nominee, who said in a statement:

“I support the boycott of Angoulême and am withdrawing my name from any consideration for what is now a totally meaningless ‘honor,’” he said. “What a ridiculous, embarrassing debacle.”

In the weeks since, the response has only intensified. Marisol Tourine, France’s minister for rights of women, tweeted at the hashtag #WomendoBD to thank artists who were boycotting for their “gesture of solidarity.” Fleur Pellerin, at the time France’s minister of culture and communication, declared in a radio interview:

“Culture must be exemplary in terms of parity and respect for diversity. So I, too, am a little disturbed.”

In mounting a defense, festival officials insisted the real issue was that the award honored lifetime achievement, and that decades ago there were far fewer women comic book artists. Even now, according to the latest annual report from the Association of Comic Book Critics and Journalists in France, women only account for 12.4 percent of the BDs published.

Festival organizers also argued that critics were ignoring the fact that 25 percent of the authors nominated for the event’s other major prize, the best BD of 2015, were women.

Still, acknowledging that they had made a “symbolic error,” as Bondoux put it, organizers attempted to add the names of six women authors to the list. When many refused, the festival announced it was scrapping the list of nominees altogether and that any eligible BD author could nominate any author.

All these responses seemed to inflame, rather than defuse, the situation. And that has some longtime observers worried that it could permanently damage the reputation of the main festival.

“It’s completely ridiculous to decide this two weeks before the festival,” said Didier Pasamonik, editor of Actuabd.com, a BD online news site. “Everybody is laughing about them. It’s not good for the festival’s credibility.”

Cestac, the sole female Grand Prize winner, said she is frustrated with organizers but also happy to see the attention the story has attracted. She believes the outcry shows how much support female comic book authors have for their cause, and hopes it will help accelerate change in the industry.

“The reaction of the media has been formidable,” she said in an interview. “They say this is because there are very few women in BD. But the times have changed and now there are many women. And now this is being recognized.”

Cestac plans to go to Angoulême this week to hand out an award she helped create in honor of another BD colleague. Then she will attend an impromptu ceremony being organized by a French comics magazine, “Fluid Glacial.”

In the wake of the controversy, the group announced it had created a new prize to honor artistic courage which it says will be awarded next week to a woman brave enough to attend Angoulême. The name of the award is “Couilles-au Cul” which translates literally as, “balls up the ass.” Though, in fact, it it means: “to show great courage.”

The group commissioned an anatomically correct trophy for the event.

BD artist Nadia Khiari of Tunisia won the Couilles au Cul prize.

Amid the growing mockery, festival organizers announced last week that a woman was one of three finalists under the new voting scheme for the Grand Prix. Rather than offering a reprieve, however, this latest turn promised to create a whole new headache.

That’s because the woman finalist, France’s Claire Wendling, was horrified to learn of her inclusion. Wendling, best known for her BD series, “Les lumières de l’Amalou,” had left behind the BD world decades ago, frustrated by the commercial aspects, preferring to lead a solitary existence as an independent illustrator.

Wendling seems equally disgusted with the festival organizers, the infighting among BD artists, and the global attention over the fuss. While reminding everyone that there are far bigger problems in the world, Wendling has taken to her Facebook page to beg people not to vote for her.

“I don’t like prizes and this maybe is the worst year to be nominated,” she said in a interview. “I don’t like to split the world into different sides. Over what? Over a convention? At some point, everyone has to grow up.”

Note: The Grand Prix was awarded on the evening of January 28. Fortunately for her, Wendling did not win. Instead, the award went to Hermann Huppen. At the BD Festival, there was an impromptu panel held to discuss “women in BD.”

Pellerin and Tourine also made appearances to show their support for women BD artists. And BD author Aurélia Aurita distributed this comic for free at the festival. (Sorry, it’s in French, of course).

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