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The 9ème Art

A festival of comics at MICA showcases the French twist on the form

A panel from MICA student Kristina Diggs' take on François Rabelais' gargantua.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/14/2010

Festival Imagé

April 16-25 at MICA and the Alliance Française de Washington

"Comics are very important in France," says Sylvain Cornevaux, the deputy director/cultural manager of the Alliance Française de Washington, by phone. "There are more than 5,000 new comics in France every year, so we call it the 'ninth art.' I try to get the Alliance Française to promote the modern aspects of French culture, and comics is a part of that. It's more than a cultural trend because in France people from different backgrounds buy comics. It's not only kids, it's people, 25, 35, 45, 55 years olds. There is a real industry."

A taste of that industry comes to Baltimore this week for Festival Imagé, a joint venture between the Alliance Française and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Starting Friday, contemporary French comics writers and illustrators--Antoine Dodé (Armelle and the Bird), the Tokyo and France-based Nicolas Nemiri (the "Je suis morte" series with Jean-David Morvan), Cyril Pedrosa (Les Coeurs Solitaires)--and members of MICA's illustration and animation department present a series of panel discussions, workshops, and presentations that cover many aspects of bande dessinée (sequential art).

The festival came about because there's a strong French component already at MICA. Laurence Arcadias, who presents short student films from MICA animators and France's heralded computer graphics university école Supérieure d'Informatique de Communication (better known simply as SUPINFOCOM), is the co-chair of MICA's animation department. And Alain Corbel, who along with Éric Lambé created the Mokka and Pelure Amère comics magazines, is an illustration faculty member who teaches a course in sequential art.

In fact, the students in his class present their work during the festival April 24. Corbel had his students draw inspiration from Gargantua, one of two giant characters who appear in François Rabelais' 16th-century novel series, which was famously illustrated by Gustave Doré in the middle of the 19th century. "My idea was to combine something French, like Gargantua, and students and to make a mix between their historic background and the French character," Corbel says by phone. "I gave them length and some of them read a part of the book but not all of them, but most of them, for example, feature a drawing made by Gustave Doré, so I gave them other references. And I think everyone did a personal story."

Corbel is trying to get the students to consider a source and see something about themselves in it. "For me, Gargantua, in a society more under control, all the time cameras watching you and security everywhere, Gargantua is a symbol of freedom," he says. "But I think they didn't get really this aspect of the character. But something that is very interesting for me as a French guy, is most of them are not inspired by comics, so the way they work is more personal. And this is very interesting. They are not framed by comics. So I'm very happy with that situation, to know that they want to do something personal and not strictly for the market."

And to Corbel, that endeavor is something he recognizes from his own experience. "I think the big difference is in America since years, years ago, the market is completely covered by the superhero comics," he says. "In Europe you have many countries, different languages, and it's easier sometimes for a small publisher to go somewhere with his work. And in Europe, the comics writer s are more responsible for their work, so what they try to do is tell specific and personal stories--not necessarily about them but about specific topics. And if they cannot reach publisher they publish themselves--not alone, they try to organize them as a group. And after they became publishers--for example, during the '90s--this changed completely the panorama of the graphic novel in France."

Corbel isn't alone in noticing something different in the American sequential art student. "The type of student who is interested in sequential art has, in my opinion, changed radically since I first started teaching," says MICA illustration faculty member José Villarrubia, who delivers a lecture about color in comics April 19. "The kind of student we used to have was always boys who had followed Image Comics, specifically, whose idol was [Spawn creator] Todd McFarlane and listened to Todd McFarlane's advice of create a cool character and make a fortune but never draw from life, had a lot of sketches done in ballpoint pens in their notebooks of urban vigilantes that cause a lot of carnage. And they thought that they were going to be discovered one day or become Todd McFarlane, basically. They were hard to teach.

"We don't have hardly any of those anymore," Villarrubia continues. "I think that the biggest difference is the people who wanted to study comics 10 or 15 years ago were comics fans and they knew everything about mainstream comics and they had all these ideas about what would make those comics work. The people who want to study comics now mostly don't know much, if anything, about comics. They're not knowledgeable about comics as a medium, they don't read mainstream comics, and they don't read alternative comics, but they know they exist. So they don't have many preconceptions about what the medium is about. They don't see it so much as a career path or a way to become a millionaire."

And that's an attitude that compliments those of the French artists coming to the festival. "The comics artists have been very carefully picked for a number of reasons," Villarrubia says. "We tried to get creators who have accomplished a lot, but they're young and they're busy and each one of them has an interesting career path."

The festival has also invited publishers--First Second Books and France's Fremok and Carabas Revolution--to offer students a glimpse of what those alternative career paths could include, making Imagé not only a crucible for French-American comics cultural exchange, but further cementing MICA's interest in its constantly maturing sequential art curriculum. "I'm the only person in the department who works in mainstream comics," Villarrubia says. "Alain has done experimental comics in Europe, Brian Ralph used to do mostly children's comics and indie comics, and Dan Krall has done sort of a crossover between indie and mainstream, so we're not typical. I don't think any of our students want to be the next Stan Lee. And that's fine."

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