Angoulême is one of those French cities by-passed by the modern autoroutes. So a place missed by most road travellers. And it is a community where the TGV to Bordeaux pauses for just two minutes, before the doors slide shut and the train heads on to the south, speeding past the homely stone villages that are a feature of this part of western France. Yet for aficionados of the comic strip, Angoulême is much more than just a brief stop on the train.
The comic strip, or bande dessinée, is a peculiarly polarising art form, derided by its detractors but celebrated by its devotees for its cultural vitality. And for those devotees, Angoulême is the undisputed capital of the art. The city hosts its enormous comic strip festival, called the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, in late January each year. It is an event which regularly pulls close to a quarter of a million visitors to the city on the Charente river. Large marquees swarm with avid fans; there are performances, interviews and exhibitions; and artists sign and dedicate endless copies of their books.
Angoulême has been holding its annual bande dessinée festival for thirty-five years and, quite simply, it is the event in the calendar of comic strip artists across Europe. There are other comic strip festivals — in Saint-Malo, Blois and other cities in France and Belgium — but Angoulême reigns supreme. Marquees, called bulles (literally meaning ‘bubbles’, but also recalling in their name the familiar ‘speech bubbles’ of comic strip art), are erected for the event along Angoulême’s Champ de Mars, which was renovated in 2007 to better accommodate them. Aller sous les bulles is the expression used by artists before diving into the marquees to meet their fans and dedicate their books. Such dedications are often fairly elaborate affairs, usually being executed in the form of a drawing or painting, rather than with merely a signature.