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Looking back: a decade of Flemish graphic novels at the festival of Angoulême

The latest edition of the Angoulême International Comics Festival (25-28 January 2018) was a special one. Flanders Literature and the Dutch Foundation for Literature presented recent French translations at bookshop ‘Café Les Phares du Nord’ and, together with their French publishers, invited along seven graphic novelists working in Dutch. However, this year’s edition was special for another reason as well. It was the last time our colleague Els Aerts promoted the Flemish graphic novel in this comics heartland, because in October 2017 she reduced her workload by two days a week. Her last professional visit to the festival caused her to look back on the past decade with some nostalgia.

Starting from scratch

“In January 2007 I went to Angoulême for the first time. I had only been working for Flanders Literature for a few months and was the first to promote Flemish children’s and young adult literature and graphic novels abroad. One of my jobs was to ensure that we would be guest of honour at the Angoulême comics festival in 2009. At the time only a single graphic novel had been translated with the support of Flanders Literature (‘Armstrong’ by Philip Paquet), so it was obviously a huge challenge. It’s a good thing I like those.

On that first visit I was accompanied by Linda Torfs, our erstwhile chair of the graphic novel advisory panel, and that was wonderful. She was able to show me the way, both literally and by introducing me to important publishers and other contacts. We decided to bring one graphic novelist, opting for the youngest on our shelves: Brecht Evens. Even then, at the tender age of 19, he was brimming with talent. But I could never have dreamed that more than ten years later he would be so successful. I am really happy for him!

Putting graphic novels from Flanders on the map

Flemish graphic novels take over Angoulême: 2009, 2013 and 2015

To cut a long story short, we did indeed become guest of honour in 2009, with the exhibition ‘Ceci n’est pas la BD flamande’ and a bookshop in the form of a café. The shop, which sold French translations of Dutch-language graphic novels, was a regular feature for four consecutive years. In 2013 we invited Brecht Evens to curate an exhibition. That became ‘La Boîte à Gand’. In 2015 we approached Nix with the same request, and he put together ‘The Kinky & Cosy Experience’ for us. Highlights, all of them.

And so, step by step, we managed to put Flemish graphic novels on the map. Meanwhile, more than 100 translations of works by Flemish graphic novelists have been published, usually with the support of Flanders Literature. Needless to say, this does not happen by itself. Over time, we built up a network of international comics publishers and festival organisers, whom I would see in Angoulême every year, and sometimes also at the London Book Fair and/or the Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Angoulême: an important festival with an intimate atmosphere

The remarkable thing about Angoulême is its intimate scale compared to other international book fairs. Instead of sleeping in a hotel, you stay in people’s homes. (Which meant I also had to say goodbye to my French family this year.) You end up frequenting the same restaurants in the evening, followed by the same café: Le Chat Noir. So it does not take long before you come to know the Finnish, German or Spanish comics scenes, to name but a few, or at least their main international players. Of course I am going to miss them all terribly…

Our Flemish-Dutch café, serving books instead of beer

A café once more

But my final edition of the Angoulême festival was unforgettable. We ran our old café again, this time with lots of translations on hand. It was great to see them all together. Not to mention the many French editions of books by Dutch and Flemish graphic novelists that became available independently from Flanders Literature. Seeing the huge current selection is wonderful. And Linda joined us behind the bar, just like way back when.

Seven authors accompanied us this year to promote recent translations: Erik Kriek, Aimée De Jongh, Herr Seele, Ward Zwart, Enzo Smits, Simon Spruyt and Brecht Evens. They were interviewed by journalist Gert Meesters – who was also around in 2007. The authors took turns signing books at our stand and at those of their enthusiastic French publishers. On Friday they were guests of honour at our annual networking event where we try to match Flemish and Dutch professionals in the comics world with international contacts. Not only is it a fun social event, but also a very productive one. With many thanks to the Flemish Delegation and the Dutch Embassy in Paris as well as the representative of Flanders Investment and Trade in Bordeaux, who, as always, have been very generous in their support.

For graphic novel artists, signing books means creating small works of art

A worthy successor

But what was most rewarding for me personally may have been the handover to my colleague Lien Devos. The two of us had some thirty-odd meetings at our stand in the international rights centre. I had a chance to introduce her to many international publishers who have almost become friends. ‘Next up is someone who squeezes a pun in every line.’ Or, ‘The publisher we’re about to see is the sweetest woman in the comics world.’ It goes without saying that Lien could have discovered all of this on her own, but I liked being able to share these things with her. Only to see that she immediately struck up lively conversations with everyone, eagerly showing them new Flemish graphic novels and capturing plots that are all but impossible to summarise in gripping synopses. I couldn’t have done a better job.

‘Of course this won’t be your last time!’ is the line I kept hearing during the final weekend of January. And perhaps it is true; perhaps I will return to this small French town which stole my heart in 2007. If so, I will go there as a tourist. That said, there is no doubt I will still be having a refreshment at Le Chat Noir with Lien."

Feb 7th, 2018