The Frankfurt Book Fair: Comics Pavilion

As an American living abroad for a year, I've resolved to make a nice tour of the faraway places that are now easily accessible - and one of the nice things about living in Europe is that you can travel in Europe very cheaply. And so, when my friends and colleagues invited me down to the Frankfurt Book Fair, I jumped at the chance, booked a budget flight and hostels straight away. Arranging last-minute travel details into a city engaged in a major festival isn't the easiest thing to do, but with a bit of juggling I was surprised at how well the planning stage went (better, certainly, than my still-frustrated efforts to get to Angouleme). I was very keen to see how comic publishers set up in a more traditional book convention, and also what manner of new material I might be able to dig up. I came in expecting an armful of freebies, a few unexpected autographs, and some very fascinating European comics; what I came out with was a bit different, but very much worth the doing.

Comics have their own arena at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Hall 3.0, which also houses the more mainstream German fiction publishers. There wasn't much I could do with the German lit, but the comics section was a bit of fun. Just like at comic-specific conventions, there were teenagers dressed in costumes, with popular anime and video game characters dominating - there were no Spider-men or Supergirls, but at least three Inu Yashas and a few Cloud Strifes. And it was pretty amusing to hear the girls' high-pitched anime voices speaking in German.

But of course my major difficulty in navigating the comics area was that, well, everything was in German. I had hoped to discover some new and exciting strips or artists (indeed, the popular European cartoonist Ralf König was a guest of the fair), but upon trying to shop for anything it struck me how quixotic the whole idea was. Once, I may have purchased a few books just for the novelty, but in my current situation as a poor graduate student and the fact that, eventually, anything I buy this year will have to be shipped back to America, a look-don't-touch approach seemed the wiser course. Even failing to make a purchase, though, the comic marketplace was a blast to look around, watching all the kids line up to get autographs from stars I didn't know, or to watch interviews with manga writers interpreted from Japanese to German. Tokyopop had a sizeable booth to promote the new editions of Jeff Smith's "Bone" in color, in German. I was hoping to see Jeff Smith at the show, but my wanderings did not coincide with his scheduled appearances. There were also large displays from allied Taiwanese and Korean comic publishers. Also: free popcorn. Cheers much to the Korean reps.

As to what we consider the major comics publishers in the States, only Dark Horse and DC had a presence, and it was not in the comic pavilion. Instead, they were situated in Hall 8, with the other English-language publishers, and their representatives were primarily in attendance to negotiate foreign rights and find new book stores to work with rather than to display graphic novel plumage to the fans. Which makes sense, a bit, as FBF is primarily an industry thing, and if English is your standard you've probably come a long way to be here. Viewed this way, the more democratic feeling of the German halls seems perfectly natural. And anyone looking to find Superman or X-Men at the fair could just stop by Panini's impressive booth, and pick up a balloon for their trouble.

Art, of course, transcends language, and the three exhibitions of comic art in Hall 3 were quite impressive. Pages from "Bone" and unexpected process pieces from that series grace several plastic columns near the stage area, and less familiar images from a French comic called "Le Sursis" honoured the stylistic contributions of Jean-Pierre Gibrat. The most stunning pieces, however, came from the entries for the German Cartoon Prize, all based around the theme "New in Every Way." It would seem there's a resurgence of Impressionism in European comics, and it's amazing to see what sort of classic yet modern stories can arise in only a few pages, and largely without text.

Frankfurt Book Fair is not a comic convention, and - unless you're comfortably fluent in German - should not be approached with the same expectations. But anybody with an interest in books will enjoy browsing the absolutely enormous festival halls, searching out the latest exciting volumes and marvelling at the giant (and repetitive) displays for something called "Naked Gymnastics." And even if you can't read the words, having a look at what's going on in European comics can be a great introduction to other cultures, and intriguing variations on an art we love.

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