Sierre festival shows Swiss comic books in rude health

There's more to comic books than Superman, Asterix and the Swiss favourite Titeuf Keystone Archive

Switzerland's biggest comic book festival, in Sierre, attracted some 45,000 visitors this year - proof, if any were needed, that the Swiss comic scene is in good health. The main prizewinners also demonstrate that this so-called "ninth art" should be taken seriously.

This content was published on June 18, 2001 - 07:42

Comic fans who made to trip to canton Valais were drawn both by the chance to meet their idols and to snap up the latest titles, or the rarities, on sale. BD-Sierre, as the festival is known, ended on Sunday.

Unlike the other main Swiss comic book gathering, the more alternative Fumetto festival in Lucerne, Sierre reflected the fact that this field is a very broad church, whose congregation includes fans of sci-fi, manga, fantasy or childish humour. Visitors to BD-Sierre found everything from the shamelessly commercial to the offensively irreverent.

"We want to bring together both worlds, the commercial and the independent. There's no reason to separate them. There's a unity in this artwork," said festival director Philippe Neyroud.

Switzerland's most famous comic-strip character is Titeuf, a knowing but gaffe-prone 10-year-old, who would dearly love to be street-wise. Drawn by the Geneva artist, Zep, Titeuf has become a major mainstream success, with his own range of merchandise. Zep was one of the Swiss artists making a personal appearance in the alpine town.

But there's more to comic books than Asterix and Titeuf. The albums that scooped the main prizes in the competitions at Sierre this year reflect a more serious and adult side to comic books.

Universally acclaimed was "Un Peu de Fumée Bleue" (A Puff of Blue Smoke) by Denis Lapière and Ruben Pellejero, one of four Spanish artists to pick up prizes at this year's festival. It deals with a woman recounting to a stranger her relationship with a political prisoner.

"Comic books can be sensitive and deal with human feelings," said Neyroud. "This is a powerful book. It makes you look differently at the violence that happens around us every day."

Another book which was unafraid to venture into difficult territory was "l'Or Bleu"(Blue Gold), by the veteran Geneva artist, Ceppi, which picked up the press prize. It deals with the fate of the Kurds and the battle to control water resources in the Middle East.

Neyroud said the best comic books are those that combine good artwork and content: "Too often, you read a book and it is incredibly well drawn, but the story is weak", he said, adding that an important element at the festival is the search for emerging talent.

"It would be very easy to just show the established artists, but it's important to show that comic book editing is not just a commercial affair, there's also good artwork being done in smaller operations. That's why we have a competition for new talent," he told swissinfo.

The French-speaking world is one of the real bastions of comic books, which constitute around 20 per cent of French book sales. The genre is so popular in the French-speaking world that everyone knows what you mean when you say "BD" - the abbreviation for "bande dessinée", or comic strip.

"A German audience thinks BD is just for kids, Americans see it as being very underground, but in the French-speaking world comic strips are mainstream art that can tell a story. I am from the French-speaking world, so it's part of my cultural heritage," Neyroud explains.

Geneva is generally considered to be the current centre of the Swiss comic book scene, which is fitting, considering that the man reckoned to be the father of the comic strip, Rodolphe Töppfer, was born in the city. But Geneva has not always been pre-eminent.

In the early 1980s Zurich was shaken by a so-called youth revolution, when the young people of Switzerland's biggest city staged almost weekly riots and vandalism to protest against a lack of facilities and cultural events for them.

"Out of that movement came a lot of art students, who did crude - and rude - stories in black and white. It was very innovative - a new language of aesthetics; a new, often expressionistic, way of storytelling," said Hans Keller, a Swiss journalist and authority on the comic book scene.

Many of these revolutionary artists are now in their mid-40s and still drawing. This alternative establishment has influenced younger artists in other parts of German-speaking Switzerland and beyond. One can see its impact in the latest wave of young Geneva-based artists like Helge Reumann, Frédérik Peeters, Wazem Nadia Raviscioni and Nicolas Robel.

"They have borrowed the innovative aesthetics of the Zurich scene, and married it to the strong French story-telling tradition," Keller told swissinfo.

This year in Sierre the central theme was Science. Eight exhibitions tapped into the rich vein that is science fiction in comic books. One of the most impressive was devoted to a scientist who was not mad, but was persecuted for his discoveries in his lifetime, Galileo Galilei.

by Roy Probert

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