Held every January since 1974, the Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême, or Angoulême International Comics Festival, is one of the largest comics events in the world. Unlike American comic conventions, which are usually confined to a weekend in a single venue, European “festivals” incorporate entire towns for longer periods of time, and Angoulême is arguably the highest-profile of these events. Lucca Comics & Games in Lucca, Italy, is reputedly bigger, but the French festival, for whatever reason, is more well known and more heavily reported on in English-speaking territories. One part of this popularity stems from the festival’s Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême—a lifetime achievement award that routinely nominates cartoonists and writers from all over the world.
This year, however, the festival is receiving intense heat after the group BD Egalite (BD being short for “bande dessinee,” the French/Belgian term for comics) published a call to boycott the 2016 Grand Prix. The boycott is in response to the list of this year’s nominees, which includes 30 men and zero women. As the group writes, in 43 years, the prize has only ever been awarded to one woman (Florence Cestac) and only a handful of women have even ever been nominated. In fact, the festival’s executive officer, Franck Bondoux, considers Persepolis author and 2015 Grand Prix nominee Marjane Satrapi ineligible because she no longer makes comics—inconsistent criteria for eligibility considering that 2014’s winner (and this year’s festival president) was Bill Watterson; the Calvin and Hobbes creator published three comic strips between June 2014 and December 31, 1995. Speaking with the high-profile Le Monde (translation via Google), Bondoux said: “The concept of the Grand Prix is to [reward] an author for all his work. When looking at the charts, we [look at] the artists that…show some maturity [are] and of a certain age. Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics. It’s a reality.”
Ignoring Bondoux’ assumptive use of masculine pronouns, his statement is flat-out farcical. Proving him factually wrong are names like Rumiko Takahashi, Moto Hagio, Gabrielle Bell, Rutu Modan, MK Brown, Naoko Takeuchi, Kyoko Okazaki, Moyoco Anno, Alison Bechdel, Trina Robbins, CLAMP, Julie Doucet, Jackie Ormes, Tove Jansson, Phoebe Gloeckner, and yes, Marjane Satrapi and Posy Simmonds (two former nominees who were subsequently dropped). While some of them are ineligible by dint of being deceased, they still constitute a history of comics often overlooked to suit a male-centric conception of comics culture.
The reaction to the boycott was largely positive, with, as of this writing, 10 nominees publicly asking for their name to be withdrawn. Daniel Clowes removed his name right away, but as writer about comics Kim O’Connor was quick to point out on twitter, Clowes didn’t have a problem last year, when Satrapi was the only woman nominated. The same could be said for Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Joann Sfar and others. Burns’ French publisher tweeted: “Charles Burns wrote to tell us that he refuses to be included in a list of nominees that does not include a single woman,” and it seems that a literal “single woman” is a substantive difference for many of these cartoonists. Other responses ranged from bizarre—Brian Michael Bendis half-jokingly declined the nomination in the conclusion of a shaggy dog response to a tumblr ask—to outright laughable. Milo Manara wrote on his Facebook page:
Given the importance that women have had in my artistic life (and in my life itself) and the fact that I have always tried to be respectful of their role as subject and not object in my work, I wish to remove my name from this list of candidates for the Grand Prix d’Angoulême who forgot to mention even a single woman artist for this important award in our profession.
Mind, Manara is a cartoonist famous for hardcore works like Click, a comic where a woman is kidnapped and implanted with a device so that others, namely random men, can have full control over her libido. Its original Italian title, Il Gioco, translates to The Game.
The Grand Prix is a prestigious award; eschewing the award in favor to bring attention to a glaring and persistent erasure is admirable. The decisions of these men should be seen for what they are: a good thing. It is important, however, to consider their exigence. It’s unlikely that these men made their decision based on their personal observation of an injustice. Speculation, but speculation that is more comforting than thinking the repeat nominees were aware of the institutional sexism and considered a single female nominee acceptable progress. What’s most likely is that BD Egalite’s call to action didn’t fall on deaf ears. It alerted people to a problem, and people reacted—whether out of a genuine concern over sexism or to save face is irrelevant. The story moved fast and made waves in one of the highest-profile newspapers on the planet; it was a rare instance of the comics world spilling out of its niche. In response, the festival, in a condescending and crocodile-tear stained announcement, pledged to add more names to the list of 30, names that would presumably be those of women.
The ostensive effectiveness of this boycott speaks to a larger issue, namely the effectiveness of protests. In the preceding year, discourse surrounding protests, in the form of boycotts, petitions, sit-ins, criticism, et al., was largely centered around whether it worked, whether it was worth anyone’s time. From the mainstream to the microcosm that is comics, people spoke out—on deaf ears, many mocked. The most recent example of this was fans’ successful campaign to get Star Wars: The Force Awakens protagonist, Rey, included in the film’s edition of Monopoly. But as my friend J.A. Micheline recently wrote in her contribution to Comics & Cola’s send-off of 2015:
 was a year of sexism, racism, transmisogyny, queerphobia, and ableism—which, in truth, is just an ordinary year, but what makes this one notable is the concerted pushback by marginalized readers, critics, and creators alike…Just another year in comics, but again, the difference is, that things did change….These victories are small and there is a great distance to go, but they are victories nonetheless.
The derision and criticism of acts and products is effective if it’s part of an actionable politick. Talk is cheap; actions (or strategic inaction, as the case may be) have weight. Even the boldest, most incisive criticism is ultimately toothless if it lacks a manifest praxis. A call for a boycott is nothing compared to the boycott itself; a condemnation of something is self-congratulatory onanism if parties continue to hurl money at it. So as the story continues to develop and we wait on bated breath to see if it has any long-term effects (and what those effects are), it’s important to remain critical and vigilant, to ascribe BD Egalite the credit that group deserves, and to never accept less than we all deserve.