Convention report: Dave Roman on Quai des Bulles

by Dave Roman

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Imagine a cartoonist-centric comic convention, held in a city that is equal parts Kiki’s Delivery Service and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and you get a small taste of what it’s like to attend Quai des Bulles. You would have to consume many delicious butter-filled pastries to get the full taste!

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My wife, Raina Telgemeier, and I often hear about Angoulême, the largest European comics festival, held each winter (often in snowstorms), that takes on a Mecca-like quality for cartoonists. So when Akileos, the French publisher for her graphic novel Smile, invited her to the SECOND-largest convention in France, we had no idea what to expect.

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Quai De Bulles, with its buccaneer mascot, is held annually on the docks of Saint-Malo, a historic port city in Brittany a few hours west of Paris. It is surrounded by medieval stone walls that are accessible for walking, providing an amazing view of the surrounding beaches and castles. Many of the castles were built offshore, and are accessible only during low tide! Entering the gates of the city is akin to walking through Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, where cobblestone streets, endless bakeries, and crêperies await around each winding corner. The continuous smell of warm cookies evokes the feeling of Christmastime; the illustrated iconography of Breton women in their traditional tall lace hats replaces Santa Claus.

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It’s easy to get distracted by the great foods and magical atmosphere, but everything about the comic convention itself is equally appealing. One building was dedicated to panels and screenings of animation, as well as classic black & white pirate movies like Captain Blood, a café, a performance drawing stage, reading libraries, and a series of art galleries. The other building houses the main convention floor, containing exhibition booths for all of the major French comic publishers. The space itself is reminiscent of San Francisco’s Concourse, where APE is held each fall, with wooden beams and bright skylights. Cartoonists were set up at their respective publishers’ booths (there was no artist alley or small press area) with signs designating what times they would be available. There is no such thing as just a signature in France—artists labor over each book, providing elaborate, personalized illustrations that often involve fancy brushwork and full watercolors! It is very common for people waiting in line to bring collapsible chairs, yet everyone seemed very patient, since the one-of-a-kind drawings are worth the wait.

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I had only a passing familiarity with French comics (referred to as BDs, an abbreviation of bande dessinée for drawn strip), but it was easy to tell which books were the huge hits. At the airport and train stations I had seen tons of ads for Kid Paddle, which seems to be the European equivalent of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Kid Paddle’s giant booth at QdB rivaled the kinds of things the Sci-Fi Channel or Marvel would showcase at Comic-Con. It had a smoke machine, walls riddled with bullet holes, dripping slime, a life-sized monster in a giant cage, and my favorite element: a giant screen magnifying what Michel Leden (aka Midam) was drawing in each person’s book, so the people waiting in line could enjoy his doodles as well.

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Having gone to at least six American comic conventions per year for the past ten years or so, it was exhilarating to discover so many new books all at once. I could only decipher a few words in French, so I focused on art styles more than story content. I was especially drawn to a series called Mamette by Nob, starring a cute old lady who has more youthful vigor and spirit than all the curmudgeons around her. The cartooning is to die for and the background settings and colors made my mouth water just as much as the kouign-amann (the signature pastry of Breton made from salted butter and sugar into a crisp, caramelized spiral).

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Other books I picked up at the show included La Saga d’Atlas & Axis by Pau (which looks as if Drew Weing illustrated a spinoff of Bone about warrior dogs), Hôtel étrange by Katherine and Florian Ferrier (Moomin meets Strawberry Shortcake by Richard Sala?…), and the hilariously offensive Fernand the Polar Beer by Marshall Joe and Wandrille. Everywhere I turned, something appealing would jump out at me either for myself, or a book that I knew a friend would get a kick out of. There were booths with back issues of classic French comic albums (in milk crates instead of long boxes), Tintin merchandise everywhere (both for the movie and classic comics), and tons and tons of manga!

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One of the most impressive aspects of Quai des Bulles were the various galleries of original art. These were not just makeshift displays of comic pages, but elaborate (and expensive looking) multimedia installations like you would see at the Museum of Modern Art. Large monitors, fancy frames, giant props, displayed sketchbooks, mood music and lighting effects, all customized for each room dedicated to a different artist. I don’t think any cartoon-related museum in the U.S. has put on a show anywhere near as extensive as what was showcased at this comic convention. All the more impressive when you realize it’s meant to stay up only for a single weekend! All of the galleries had reading areas with samples of the cartoonists’ work in book form, so while the parents admired the craftsmanship, their kids could just read the comics.

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And read comics, they did. Everywhere you turned there were kids carrying comic albums, or huddled in some corner with their nose in a book! There was also a specific gallery showcasing the works of teen and pre-teen cartoonists, and an art class area for younger kids. It seemed like more than half the attendees were groups of comic-loving families.

The family-friendly atmosphere was great news for Raina, as Akileos sold all the copies of Smile (or Souriez, as it’s called in French) they’d brought before noon on Sunday.

It was especially cool to spend time with the Akileos staff and their attending comics creators: Vincent Brugeas and Ronan Toulhoat (Block 109), Mara (Clues), Dan Lish (Cartigan) and Ian Culbard (At the Mountains of Madness). Luckily Raina and I weren’t the only non-French artists, so we felt a little less embarrassed by our caveman approach to the language. Plus, everyone made us feel extremely welcome and of course the language of comics is universal. Snacks were plentiful, with chocolates and macaroons being offered by all.

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Every night we got to eat fantastic dinners, have great conversations, and take in all the sites and sounds of Saint-Malo. This included lots of crêpes, both savory and sweet, another specialty of the region. Our final morning was bittersweet as we took one last walk around the walled city, and ran through the cobblestone streets snapping photos and grabbing a few last pastries for the train ride to Paris.

[Dave Roman is the author of several graphic novels including Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery and the forthcoming Teen Boat!]

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Comments

  1. Kat Kan says:

    That sounds like a wonderful trip. I know just enough French to get myself in trouble, and that Mamette looks like something I’d really really like (especially now that I’m a grandma). I’m glad Raina had a chance to meet French fans of Smile/Souriez!

  2. I want to go to there.

  3. Dave, cracking report! I was lucky enough to go to Angouleme this year, and yes, it certainly lived up to billing. But St Malo sounds just fine. A couple of your comments really resonated with me. Firstly, your ‘discovery’ of books and styles of illustration that seem wholly new. Why are we denied this in the anglophone world? Katherine and Florian Ferrier’s Hotel etrange is but one example. Secondly, the book signing thing. I share your surprise at the appetite of French readers for “le dedicace”, the illustrated book signing. Finally, the quality of the exhibitions associated with festivals – museum quality!

    Lastly, who delightful to see your wife’s book published in France. I recently bought a copy for my school library in Melbourne. A student was looking for it today. Looks like it might have gone walking. Might have to buy another copy.

    Like Kurt – I want to go there.

    Bonne chance!

  4. Florian ferrier says:

    @Mike: why are we denied in the anglophone world? That’s a good question… Maybe one day Hotel Etrange will be published over seas!

  5. Florian ferrier says:

    if you want to learn more about it…
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/HOTEL-ETRANGE/118044614904996

  6. I love the Quai des Bulles. St Malo is a beautiful walled city, home of the corsairs. I hope you did some sightseeing. The castle from the Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis film The Vikings is just down the coast. The entire area is beautiful, and full of history. This is just the start of the oyster/mussel season and the seafood is wonderful. I didn’t make it this year, but would love to return soon.

  7. Mycroft says:

    @Kurt Busiek :
    Please come !
    When Redhand was published, I hoped you would be able to make it to France either at Quai des Bulles, Angoulême ou the Utopiales (a science-fiction convention featuring bookwriters, comic-books artists, movies, …).

    Too bad we won’t see the end of Redhand …

  8. Torsten Adair says:

    Continental comics have had a hard time gaining traction in the U.S., especially when even American comics have had trouble.

    For most comics fans, “Continental” = Asterix, Tintin, Moebius, Heavy Metal.

    That is changing, as kids’ comics become viable via libraries and bookstores, with Papercutz importing some quality stuff.

    I think it was the second NYCC where the French BD society had a table, showcasing the variety of titles. I tried to entice NBM with Kid Paddle, having deciphered some of the text (and silent panels).

    Myself, I love Arthur de Pins’ style. Both his sexy “Guilty Pleasures” (“Péchés mignons”) line, as well as his “Zombillenium”.

    If you want to sample new continental styles, try “Fluide Glacial”. I find my copies at the Grand Central Terminal newsstand, right next to Picsou (!)

    Or just do a Google image search for “bande dessinee” (you may wish to turn on your content filter).

  9. Mario Boon says:

    Almost got there myself but couldn’t afford to stay and train ride.
    Next year for sure!!

    Now, roll call for Angoulème?

  10. I’d love to see more international exchange of great comics! If I was a publisher, I’d jump at the chance to bring over Hôtel étrange, La Saga d’Atlas & Axis, and Mamette. The appeal of these books seem totally universal.

  11. >> @Kurt Busiek :
    Please come !
    When Redhand was published, I hoped you would be able to make it to France either at Quai des Bulles, Angoulême ou the Utopiales (a science-fiction convention featuring bookwriters, comic-books artists, movies, …).>>

    That would have been nice. Maybe on another project, I can put aside the time to do a European tour…

    >> Too bad we won’t see the end of Redhand …>>

    Sorry about that, though RDHAND was wide-open for many, many more volumes before there’d have been and end. Hope we kept each volume self-contained enough that it feels like you got two decent stories, though.

  12. @Florian – I met you at Angouleme (I was the fish-out-of-water Australian). Delighted to see that there are more Hotel Etrange titles. Must track those down!

    Perhaps it is simply the ‘tough times’ in book publishing that is holding back the opportunities here. In Australia there are few independent publishers.

    However, in my view, it is more likely to be the books for younger people that start to bridge that gulf between Francophone and Anglophone. Writers for young people have more freedom to innovate and be original in comics and picture books.

    Wonderful festivals like St Malo and Angouleme can only help spread the word.

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