US graphic novelist Chris Ware gets top prize at French comics festival

France  screen grab from Someone I'm Not,
© screen grab from Someone I'm Not,

Graphic novelist Chris Ware has been awarded one of the industry's top prizes, the Grand Prix of Angoulême, for his work documenting the quiet dramas of suburban American life.

A master of the comic art form in the US, 53-year-old Ware was destined to one day win the French award, which celebrates an entire career, having been runner-up for the past three years. 

France is one of the most avid comic-consuming nations in the world, and the Angoulême International Comics Festival is widely seen as the industry's most illustrious event. 

Normally held in January, it was postponed this year due to the pandemic, but with restrictions still in place for a few more weeks in France, the festival was unable to go ahead physically. 

So Ware, author of the classic "Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth" based on his own Midwestern upbringing, was forced to accept his award from the United States. 

Ware joins a trio of past US winners: Art Spiegelman ("Maus"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes") and Richard Corben (fantasy comics).

Solitude of modern life

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Chris Ware is known for his meticulous attention to the tiny details of ordinary life - delivered with simple, clear lines and comforting, rounded figures.

Balancing melancholy with streaks of dark humour, they speak to the anxieties and solitude of modern life - themes that are not for every reader but have long impressed critics.  

"The apparent meticulousness of my stuff only comes from trying to provide as clear as possible reading experience out of the tangled and knotted experience of life as I've come to know it," he told The Guardian newspaper in 2019. 

His books are generally long and sprawling, but his immediately recognisable style scored him early success, and led to 25 New Yorker covers. 

Ware has previously won Best Comic Book at Angoulême in 2003 for the French translation of his breakout work, "Jimmy Corrigan", and the Special Jury Prize for the indefinable "Building Stories" in 2015. 

It was the publication of "Rusty Brown" in 2020, his lauded recreation of a single day in the world of his youth, that appears to have finally tipped the balance with voters for the Grand Prix. 

In the documentary 'Someone I'm Not', he reflected on drawing female characters like Rusty Brown.

"Do you not draw women and then maintain an allegiance to some sort of experience that only you have had? Or do you try to expand your understanding and your empathy for other human beings?"

He chose the latter.

The winner of Angoulême is selected by fellow writers and artists from the industry. There was some controversy this year when a group of French voters lodged invalid ballots in the first round as part of a protest over government support for the industry. 

It was not clear how this affected the outcome, which saw Ware go into a second round against two French artists, Penelope Bagieu and Catherine Meurisse, before winning the final vote.

Comics have increasingly thrived in France, with sales up 46 percent in the last decade to reach 591 million euros last year, according to the National Centre for Books, thanks in large part to the popularity of Japanese manga. 

Organisers hope next year's edition of the Angoulême festival will go ahead as normal from 27 to 30 January.

 (with AFP)