Forget San Diego's Comic-Con International: for many comic book writers and artists, the Angoulême International Comics Festival is where it’s at. Held every year in the French town of Angoulême, the festival has become the comic book equivalent of attending film festivals like Cannes and Sundance. As the San Diego Comic-Con has become more of a showcase for new movies and video games than comic books, Angoulême remains more of an arts or a book festival that celebrates the medium of comics itself. And for the last 43 years the festival has run, the crowning event has been the handing out its lifetime achievement award, the Grand Prix.
But when not a single woman was shortlisted for this year's award earlier this week, nearly half of the creators withdrew their names from consideration in protest.
Before this year, the Academy members, which consists of all past winners, were asked to vote on a winner from a list of 30 creators chosen by the festival’s organizers. Few women have ever been nominated. Just one, Florence Cestac, has ever won the Grand Prix, that was in 2005.
In protest, the French advocacy group BD Égalité, or Women in Comics Collective Against Sexism, put out a statement that in English reads:
“We protest this obvious discrimination, this total negation of our representation in a medium practiced by more women every year. We are discouraged from having ambition, from continuing our efforts. How could we take it otherwise? It all comes down to the disastrous glass ceiling; we’re tolerated, but never allowed top billing. Will we require women in comics to perpetually remain in second place?”
In the days since, 12 of the 30 nominees said that they would step away from the award in solidarity with the boycott, Jennifer de Guzman writes for ComicsAlliance. Faced with growing criticism, the festival organizers announced they would add comics creators Posy Simmonds and Marjane Satrapi to the list. While Satrapi has been nominated for the award in the past, Franck Bondoux, the festival’s executive officer, previously stated that she was no longer eligible because she has stopped making comics, Brigid Alverson reports for Robot 6. However, Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson won the Grand Prix in 2014, despite stepping away from the medium entirely after ending his comic strip nearly 20 years before.
“Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics,” Bondoux tells Frédéric Potet for the French newspaper Le Monde, defending the festival’s choices. “That’s the reality. Similarly, if you go to the Louvre, you will find few women artists.”
In response to Bondoux's quote, BD Égalité released another statement, which in English reads, "...If for him, absolutely no woman in the world deserves to be included on the 2016 list of nominees, and that is a reflection of the reality of the comics world today, it is time for Franck Bondoux to change his job..."
One of the most prominent cartoonists in the world right now, Riad Sattouf, went on Facebook to list a number of female cartoonists he would "prefer to cede [his] place to," including Rumiko Takahashi, Julie Doucet, Anouk Ricard, Satrapi and Catherine Meurisse.
Finally, the festival organizers announced on Thursday that instead of a more narrow shortlist, it will now leave the decision to the "free will" of Academy voters, allowing them to select any candidate who they feel is deserving of the award.
Though Angoulême tends not to focus on the superhero genre, this protest comes at a moment when diversity in characters and creators has become a major topic of discussion in the American comic book industry. The latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American superheroine named Kamala Khan, while Miles Morales, who is of black and Latino descent, suits up as Spider-Man and Sam Wilson plays the first black Captain America. Though these new characters have garnered strong fan followings, the comic book world has historically been (and still is) dominated by white men. Some comics creators, however, say that steps like boycotting the Grand Prix can help change that, little by little.
“Every cartoonist on the list deserves to be recognized for his great work, but it’s not an honor to receive a prize so deeply tainted with sexism,” graphic novelist Jessica Abel tells de Guzman.