Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Angouleme 2014

So the Angouleme Comic Festival 2015 ended earlier this month. Last year’s Grand Prix winner, Bill Waterson did not make an appearance but he did draw a touching comic strip about the comics. This year’s Grand Prix winner was Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also one of the finalist for 2014. Here’s some nice pics of Angouleme this year. Gosh, I miss the food.

I made it to Angouleme in 2014 and wrote a report for the International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA). A version of this appeared in the Vol 16, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2014 issue.

A First Timer’s Visit to Angoul√™me (30 January to 2 February 2014)

A stint in the UK has given me the chance to visit the Angoul√™me Comics Festival, Europe’s largest comic festival, for the first time. Being the centennial of the start of the First World War, a strong sense of history dominated the festival, which appeals to me as a history teacher. But it was another historical controversy from the Second World War that grabbed the headlines.

IJOCA readers may have known about the Korean comfort women manhwa exhibition put up at this year’s Angouleme. Much has been written about it and the AFP story has made its rounds in Asian and Southeast Asian newspapers. It was Korean soft power at work to punish Japan diplomatically, in the comics field which Japanese manga has dominated for the last 15 years. Korea has protested to the UN about the issue of Korean sex slavery in Japanese military units during the Second World War. Now it has taken the battle to France in an attempt to open a second cultural front. But it is a longer conflict than that (Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945), one that stretches to the present day.

While in 1993, Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono had apologized to former comfort women and acknowledged Japan's role in causing their suffering, in 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as sex slaves. In 2013, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto made a similar statement. In a public statement, Korea's Gender Equality and Family Minister Cho Yoon-sun made it clear that the exhibition was to show the world the cruelty Japan had inflicted on Korean comfort women. It had a political agenda, not just a cultural one.

On 30 January 2014 (the first day of the festival), Flowers That Never Fade, opened to much fanfare with Cho officiating the opening. 20 manhwa and 4 videos were shown. Korean media reported that more than 17,000 people visited the exhibition during the four days of the festival.

These are links to some of the visuals of the exhibition.

Korean comfort women cartoon shown at the exhibition

Taiwanese news report about the exhibition

The Japanese ambassador to France lodged his disappointment with the festival organizers while the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan Fumio Kishida responded at a press conference on 31 January: "It is disappointing that this action does not follow stated goal of deepening international understanding and friendship through comics."

By the time I reached Angouleme on the evening of 31 January, the first shots had already been fired. At the press centre I found a press release by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining their position about the comfort women issue – that the government had already apologized, and letters signed by former Prime Ministers had been sent to former comfort women. An image of one of these letters was included in the 2-page press release (Fig 1). It also mentioned that Japan had set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which provided funds for medical and welfare support to former comfort women, and also “atonement money” amounting to 2 million yen per person. The French and Korean versions of the same press release were found at the press centre the next day.

Taking all these into account, it would seem that the Japanese government has owned up to the comfort women issue since the 1990s. The problem is that while the Japanese government has acknowledged the existence of the comfort women and apologized for their treatment of them, what irked Korea is that conservative Japanese politicians now claim that the women had not been forced into sex slavery, but had been recruited. There was no abduction. This has led to another round of Japan-Korea diplomatic rows for the last few years. Taking it to Angouleme this year was Korea’s way of forcing the issue at an international platform, in a pop medium which Japan has gained much global popularity and success.

Views of the Korean comfort women issue in Japan are not monolith. There are Japanese women activists who fight for the truth to be revealed, not just about comfort women from Korea but the ones from China as well. I met one such Japanese female activist-researcher at a War in Asia international workshop at the University of Essex one month later. The work she does in documenting and exhibiting about the comfort women issue is very inspiring. Unfortunately, only binary views of the issue were shown at Angouleme. It would have been good if there were a general discussion held at Angouleme about the war in Asia and how it was presented/remembered in comics as the war involved not just Japan and Korea, but also China and countries in Southeast Asia. No one made the connection that Zhang Leping’s classic Sanmao strips from the 1930s and 1940s were reprinted in French and launched at Angouleme. A bulk of the strips was about the Chinese war of resistance against the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.

Some people I spoke to at Angouleme were not happy with the fact that while a huge space was given to the Koreans for their version of history (the Korean exhibition was housed on the first floor exhibition hall of the Angouleme Theatre), some Japanese artists who tried to display their manga showing the Japanese version of the comfort women issue was not allowed to at the Little Asia tent (the term Little Asia itself is problematic – why is Asia labeled as little? Is this indicative of an Eurocentric bias?). (Fig 2) I didn’t get the chance to see the controversial manga or talk to the Japanese artists. But it seems to me the crux of the issue is the definitions of politics and culture. Nicolas Pinet, the Angouleme official in charge of Asia was reported as saying, "It is not political to tell people an unknown fact; what is political is to tell people a distorted fact. The South Korean exhibition is art in nature for artists tell their memories and history, whereas the Japanese booth was extremely political in nature. So we had to tear it down."

An image of the manga can be found here.

Edward Said once said the cultural is political. It is difficult to separate the two, so for the festival organizers to differentiate the actions of two quarreling countries is to tread on thin ice. I decided to ask the Koreans about this affair. With the help of Nick Nguyen, a fellow reporter, as the translator, I spoke to one of the curators of the Korean exhibition. Basically, he stuck to his guns: this exhibition was cultural and not political, and the Japanese artists booth at the Little Asia tent was shut down because it was political and not about comics. He was aware of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release but as he had not seen it, I gave him and his colleagues a copy of the Korean version. They immediately pored over it. After a while, they said the issue was not about financial repayment to the comfort women. For them, this exhibition was about giving voice to the stories of the comfort women through comics.

It is precisely this point that perplexes me. After viewing the Korean exhibition, I got a sense of what the Korean government wanted me and all the other visitors to learn about the comfort women issue. Most of the comics were commissioned for this exhibition. Only one of the comics had been published before. Other than short narrative stories, there were single panel cartoons, illustrations and animation on display. Interestingly, they were done in a manga style – were the Korean manhwa artists deliberately appropriating the more popular Japanese style and using the ‘enemy’s weapons’ to attack them? (Fig 3)

The stories of the Korean comfort women I ‘hear’ at the exhibition were mediated by the agenda of the government. Some critics at the festival said that the work was didactic. But I was more disturbed by the fact that the ‘true’ voices of the comfort women had been lost. In the narrative of comfort women in Asia, it is often the case that they have not been allowed to ‘grow up’. Even at an old age, they are still stuck in the role of victim, of being comfort women in their youth (Fig 4). They are still being ‘used’ by governments in their countries’ fights with one another. The exhibition has since travelled back to Seoul and was exhibited at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History from March to April 2014. The opening was officiated by the Korean Prime Minister Chung Hongwon.

That is why as much as the Korean comfort women exhibition fits in with the other exhibitions in Angouleme in dealing with the cruelty of war (Tardi, Gus Bofa), I tried not to let it overshadow my overall experience of the festival. In direct contrast to the theme of loss of innocence in the Korean comfort women exhibition, the innocence of Mafalda cheered me up tremendously. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the well-loved character and the Angouleme special exhibition was a trip down memory for many (Fig 5).

I also had the chance to interview Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel Are You My Mother? was up for a prize at Angouleme (it didn’t win). She felt a bit overwhelmed by the whole media attention, and the schedule of interviews that had been lined up for her. “I don’t know whether I am coming or going,” she deadpanned. The interview before mine asked her if she had seen the latest Wolverine movie. She was still musing on that. (Fig 6)

Bechdel was surprised at how far her book had travelled, been translated and been nominated for an award at Angouleme. To her, Are You My Mother? was an odd book. The earlier book, Fun Home, was more universal. But while there was a story in the sequel, the emphasis was on ideas. “That’s what I love about comics, that it can convey information other than action. It could be an essay…I like to figure out how to create comics that can convey these ideas.

“Fun Home deals with the Oedipus story. It is more straightforward. Are You My Mother? is a pre-Oedipus story, pre-psychoanalysis, before that symbolic organization of language. It is more murky, a less direct story.”

It was also a tougher read, I told her. Bechdel admitted that she felt bad when she had completed the book. But two years on, she felt better about it. “I felt ambivalent about exposing myself and my mother. My mother hated the fact that I was writing about her. This story is basically about how I negotiated the writing of Fun Home with my mother. When I started on that, I had to tell her about it and it was scary. So the main action of Are You My Mother? is the creative time when I was writing Fun Home and dealing with her reactions. It was difficult but it was a great psychiatric growth for me to confront my mother, to go against the rule of my family in making my story public.”

I felt that I had learned more about women issues in my short chat with Bechdel than at the Korean exhibition. It is a pity that this year’s edition of Angouleme has been dominated by political discourse. Such discourse is important but it should not distract us from the comics. Fortunately for some comic artists, they focused on the comics and not nationality. A last run to cover some booths I have not seen led me to the Misma booths. I ran into Takayo Akiyama, a London-based Japanese comic artist I got to know recently and she was showing me her Y-Front Mouse comics published in French by Misma. I asked her about the Korean comfort women controversy. She said she heard about it, but she did not have the time to look at the exhibition as she was manning her booth. She then introduced me to the comics of her booth mate, L’Aventure de l’homme-chien, drawn by Yoon-sun Park, a Korean comic artist based in France. This simple act of camaraderie between a Japanese and a Korean comic artist in that corner of Angouleme reminded us that the festival should be about the comics, and not just politics. In fact, I suspect the two did not even consider their nationality when they draw their comics.

There were many good, historical works that were launched at Angouleme. Of particular interest to me (as someone who has taught modern Chinese history) was the French reissue of Zhang Leping’s Sanmao, a wordless comic strip from the 1930s and 1940s about a young vagabond whose hard life on the streets parallels the story of China, from being bullied by Western capitalism to waging the war of resistance against Japan.

Zhang is one of the pioneers of Chinese cartooning, together with Feng Zikai, Liao Bingxiong, Ding Cong, Hua Junwu, Huang Yao, etc. It is rare for that generation of artists to gain attention in the West. Through the efforts of John Lent and Xu Ying, this journal has published many articles about them. In 2004, I put together a small section of Feng Zikai and Liao Bingxiong’s cartoons in Rosetta Vol 2 (Alternative Comics). In 2009, the Library of Congress and George Mason University organized an exhibition and conference on Ding Cong. The granddaughter of Huang Yao, Carolyn Wong, has continued to promote of his work through the Huang Yao Foundation. Now publisher Xu Ge Fei has worked with Zhang’s son, Zhang Weijun, to release a handsome volume of San Mao cartoons for the French market. I had had the opportunity to chat with Xu and Zhang junior at Angouleme and they shared with me the long process of bringing San Mao to Europe (Fig 7). They were confident that the book would do well in France. Their optimism reminded me of San Mao himself, that little rascal whose indomitable spirit represented hope for China in the 1940s and still does so today.

If comics are supposed to be an international language and medium beyond America, Europe and Japan, then it is important for us to know the past masters of comics and cartoons from different countries. The efforts of companies like Fei Editions in bringing Asian comics to the West should be noted. Overall, this first trip to the Angouleme Comics Festival has been an enriching learning experience and I look forward to attending another one in the near future.