It was an early start on the Thursday - the first day of the festival, but one I would spend travelling - up at 5.45 for a train to East Croydon, then on to St. Pancras for the Eurostar to Paris. I was slightly anxious about the short time I'd have to get from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse for my train to Angoulême, but here's a top tip - I discovered you can buy Métro tickets from the buffet car on the Eurostar, so I got two (one for the return journey) and I was all set to get off the train and scoot right on to the Métro - plenty of time.
I finally reached Angoulême just after 16.30 and made my way up the big hill and into the town centre to find Espace Para-BD, where the BD Must stand was and from where I could collect my pass. I introduced myself to Jean-Michel and his BD Must crew, as well as the artists already signing - Eric Heuvel and Vano from the Netherlands (I had met Eric before), and Patrick Dumas and Nicolas Siner from France. I was also delighted to meet, for the first time, my Spanish publisher, César Espona of Netcom2 Editorial. Half an hour later I was sat down and sketching and signing in books as well.
The festival closed for the day at 7pm, and after wrapping up the stand we drove to a restaurant a few miles outside of Angoulême, where I had the first of three (Thur, Fri and Sat) of the best meals I've had in a long time. And the company was excellent too - Eric and Vano were my fellow non-French speaking, English-speaking travellers, while the French and Belgians had a mix of a little English to very good English. I had a tiny bit of French, which got me by when I needed it, but otherwise I had to rely on, and was very grateful for, the fact that mainland Europeans are so much better at languages than the British.
After that it was back in the car and off to our accommodation. This was at Chateau de la Tranchade, a 14th century castle (with some 16th, 17th and 19th century updates) some miles to the southeast of Angoulême. We weren't in the chateau itself, but a very nice converted farm house in the grounds, each with our own room, en suite, and a communal room with a real fireplace. I had a pretty good night's sleep!
The next day, after breakfast (pain au chocolat, toast, croissant and tea - I am in France, after all), we drove back to town for the start of the show at 10. I was signing from 10 until 1, and when not signing for actual customers, I was sketching in and signing stock for future shows (BD Must do about twenty a year). It was good to meet Thomas Du Caju, Belgian author of Betty and Dodge and Francis Carin, another Belgian author with his latest book, Ennemis de Sang - but I knew him better from his Victor Sackville series (written by François Rivière), and we discussed the Sackville name a little as my home town is connected very strongly with the actual family.
For lunch on Friday I went off with Eric Heuvel and Vano and we grabbed some sandwiches and visited a few of the other tents - Le Monde Des Bulles, which housed the big mainstream publishers and was something akin to a shopping mall with stands like little bookshops, and Le Nouveau Monde, which seemed to house the independent and small press and was full of a huge variety of fascinating material. Here I found some fellow British citizens in the form of the Dessinators - Francesca Cassavetti and Oliver Lambden (Sean Azzopardi and Sally-Anne Hickman were away from the table). I'd also had a welcome visit from Clíodhna Lyons earlier when she stopped by the BD Must stand.
We ate our lunch at Espace Franquin, where the Dutch contingent (many arriving together in a single coach - their French-dwelling countryman, Willem, was the festival president this year) had set up shop - a print shop to be exact, with a number of artists making daily posters, screen printing them on-site, and then putting them up around the town. While eating our sandwiches here we had an amusing episode: the three of us were sat down when suddenly a piece of paper and a pencil was thrust under my nose. I looked up to see a schoolboy of about 7 or 8 - he didn't say a word but had evidently seen my 'auteur' badge and was hoping for a sketch. As I put pencil to paper, we were quickly and silently surrounded by about ten more children, all with paper and pens (there were a lot of school parties at the festival). We did a couple of sketches, but had to say no to more or we'd have been there all day - I felt bad but we'd already been sketching all morning and had limited time before we had to get back.
But with the little time left before we had to be at the BD Must stand again, we went for a wander and got a little lost, though nicely so, because we saw some of the quieter bits of Angoulême. At one point we came across the cathedral, which also had a comics exhibition in. Vano made me laugh, saying "in every toilet an exhibition!". Not far off ... Angoulême is a true city of comics, from the speech bubble street signs (some named after comic creators), to the statues of Hergé and Corto Maltese, and the numerous permanent comics murals adorning many of the town's buildings. Eric's quote of the day was "our audience grows old with us and dies with us!"
I was signing again from 3-5pm, and for a short while sat next to Henk Kuijpers, creator of the astonishingly good Dutch series, Franka (I've long wished these were in English). He showed me some of the panels in his book, explaining some of the research he'd done and his creative process. I also very briefly met Thim Montaigne, the French artist behind The Third Testament.
Finishing at 5, I had two hours to fill until we went to dinner, and suddenly realised I didn't really know what to do. I wasn't very prepared for what to see at the festival and at first just revisited the big tents for a more detailed look. I thought about seeing the Tardi exhibition, but by the time I found it it was getting late and I knew I wouldn't have enough time. So, though it was nice wandering around, it was a bit of a long (and slightly cold) two hours. Lesson for next time - get to know the festival a bit better beforehand and have plans for free time.
Dinner on the Friday night was in a brasserie in Angoulême, and was, again, delicious, and again, in excellent company. I was learning a lot about the European comics scene from my new continental friends, and was even starting to believe that I may be a legitimate part of it after all - especially after meeting some of the enthusiastic customers for my own book. True, seeing the huge signing queues and marketing forces at work in Le Monde des Bulles reinforced the notion that I was a very very tiny part of it - but then I already knew that!
On Saturday I wasn't required at the BD Must stand until 1pm, so had the morning free. Eric and I went down to the Musée de la BD and had a good look around the main exhibition there. It was a chronological look through comics, with plenty of originals, vintage publications and process videos. I did a double-take when I saw a familiar-looking aircraft appear on a screen as part of a display of Bécassine pages from 1930. I waited until it came round again and, yes, there it was - a Breguet 280T! Only about 21 of these were made, so to see the aircraft I used in The Rainbow Orchid also appear in a classic strip from 1930 was quite a surprise. I overcame my strong sense to not flout rules and took an iPhone photo of the screen.
After that Eric and I took the weight off our feet and enjoyed a hot chocolate in the foyer. Eric was especially kind throughout the weekend, showing me around and being an excellent companion. BD Must have just put together a beautiful six-album set of January Jones, drawn by Eric and written by his mentor (Eric's term), Martin Lodewijk. Eric is a masterful artist of the clear line - and although I own some Dutch softbacks of some of the January Jones albums, I was droollng over the BD Must set (especially the two new works which I hadn't seen).
While Eric had to return to the stand for his next signing slot, I joined the long queue for the Tardi exhibition (Saturday was noticeably busier than the previous days). The queue didn't really seem to be moving, and it was looking very crowded inside, so with time running short I decided to return to the Musée and have a look at Nocturnes - an exhibition of comics relating to dreams and nightmares. And I'm glad I did - starting with prints from the Illustrated London News and a selection of original Winsor McCay pages, it was a very absorbing display. In fact, by the time I got out, I just had time to nip to the loo and buy a quick pressie from the shop for my daughter, and then I had to belt up the hill to make it to my signing session which started at 1pm.
(A note on the Tardi queue - I was later told by a couple of people that I should wave my 'auteur' badge around a lot more - it's apparently a permit to bypass queues, enter through exits, and to make a general VIP of yourself ... it really doesn't come very naturally to an Englishman - if we see a queue we're liable to join it.)
For the Saturday afternoon I was scheduled to sign from 1 to 5, but I ended up sketching and signing all the way to the day's end at 8pm (the festival is an hour longer on the Saturday). Dinner that evening was at a very nice little créperie - again, truly delicious. (Most of the restaurants in Angoulême are so busy during the festival that they simplify their menus, often to just 4 or 5 choices or a set 'BD Spécial').
And so came my last day. After breakfast, and with half an hour before the chateau owner's son drove us into Angoulême, Eric, François and I had a little time to look around the castle grounds. It was a lovely misty morning, very atmospheric, and I managed to get a few photos (I never take enough photos at these things).
I was signing from 10 to 2, a lot quieter than the Saturday (Sunday is 'family day'), but when most of the other artists left for lunch at 1 and there was room on the signing table for a little L'Orchidée Arc-en-ciel display, a few more sales were added in my last hour.
After goodbyes and au revoirs, I left for my 3.30pm train and the journey home began ... Angoulême, Paris Montparnasse, the Métro to Gard du Nord, the Eurostar to St Pancras, the Underground to Victoria, and then the last Sunday train home, putting my key in the door just after 11.30 pm. The first thing I did was have giant mug of tea.
So I have at last experienced Angoulême ... 18 hours of travelling, over 17 hours of signing and sketching, a city where comics and their creators are truly celebrated - like nothing in the UK. The festival prizes are widely reported in the mainstream press, taken seriously, and the publishers make the most of those prizes to help sell books, both during the nomination and winning phases. I hope things move that way here too. It's very interesting that the Grand Prix went to Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson - the winner becomes the curator for the next year's festival, but as Watterson retired in 1995 and pretty much disappeared from public life ... well, we'll see what happens.
I wish I'd got to see the Tardi exhibit - he's one of my favourite creators (update: I got to see it in Germany a few months later). I wish I'd made better use of my free time on the Friday afternoon. Was I inspired? Yes, to some degree - though I was working quite a bit, I did feel a lot more integrated with the European scene, which was very good for me. The question is, how can you hold on to that inspiration, bring it home and make it last?
A huge thank you to Jean-Michel for inviting me, and to all the BD Must crew, Patrick, François and Philippe, for making me feel so welcome and for looking after me. Thank you to everyone who bought my books! I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I'm sure - I hope - I'll be going back.