YEREVAN (A.W.)—Comic strips are known as the ninth art worldwide, comprised of both literature and drawings. It is a genre that allows you to see, feel, and live through the stories at the same time. It is often viewed as being equivalent to graphic novels, and there are many feature films and animations that are based on comic books.
Very recently, a festival dedicated to comic strips was organized in Yerevan by the Association of Comics Art Promotion in Armenia (or APBDA, the French abbreviation for l’Association pour la Promotion de la Bande Dessinée en Arménie). The Third International Comics Festival took place this year from April 20-22 in the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, within the framework of events dedicated to the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing, and the proclamation of Yerevan as the World Book Capital of 2012.
The festival was supported by the Armenian Ministry of Culture and the French Embassy in Armenia. In his opening remarks, the ambassador of France to Armenia, Henry Renaud, said the event was the result of cooperation between the Armenian and French sides. “I am pleased that the Ministry of Culture has comprehended its importance and supported this event,” said Renaud. The Armenian deputy minister of culture, Arev Samuelian, was also present at the opening.
The festival included exhibitions, conferences, animated movie screenings, comic book presentations and signings, contests, and comics master courses.
One of the exhibitions, titled “My Armenia,” showcased the work of 20 Armenian illustrators who had attended skills courses with French comics professionals in 2010-11. Their work was also published in a book with the same title, and the first presentation and signing of the book took place during the first day of the festival, after the opening ceremony.
Another exhibition took place in the “Art Bridge” bookstore/cafe. It included the works of Dikran Mangassarian from Armenia, as well as the original works of world-famous artists, such as Marjane Satrapi, Arthur De Paine, Juano Cardino, and others.
This year’s festival was clearly focused on the Armenian Genocide. The exhibition titled “Never Forget” was dedicated to all genocides.
Jean Mardikian, the co-founder of the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême, France, and the co-founder of APBDA in 2008, told the Armenian Weekly that this exhibition was the initiative of the National Heritage Center of the city of Valance in France, which also hosts a genocide museum.
“The Institute Francaise usually helps us financially to do our projects, and they also helped us to bring their comics collections on the Armenian Genocide to Armenia,” Mardikian told the Weekly. “They also help us with the necessary connections and professionals to do master class courses in Armenia.”
The opening ceremony featured guests from France and Italy. Paolo Cossi from Italy presented his comic books Medz Yeghern and Ararat.
“I made my first book Medz Yeghern to explain and introduce the Armenian Genocide to the Italian people,” said Cossi. “My motivation was a very human motivation in the first place, and it was very important because it is the first genocide of the 20th century. I wanted to create something that can educate the Italian public about genocide, because they know very little about it.”
Medz Yeghern, Cossi’s first book, sold 3,000 copies in the first release. It was translated to French, Dutch, Spanish, and Korean. One of the most important publishing houses in France, “Dargaud,” soon after agreed to make a second release of the book with 10,000 copies.
“I started my first comic book about the Armenian Genocide, which pushed me to be more interested in the Armenian culture. So I decided to make the second book about Mount Ararat,” said Cossi.
Ararat is in Italian and will soon be available in French. The book tells of the daily life and culture of Armenians living around Mount Ararat during the period before the genocide. The story is half-fiction and half-historic.
After Medz Yeghern and Ararat, Rossi’s next book will be about the life of Armenians today.
“It is my second time in Armenia. I like the history and culture of the country, the church rituals, the local traditions, and its story of independence. My books are not translated to English, but I strongly desire that, because I want these storied to be read in the United States and the English-speaking countries,” said Rossi in an interview with the Weekly.
Dikran Mangassarian, an Armenian cartoons illustrator based in Yerevan, also took part in the festival. Mangassarian has already written six comic books, two of which are published. One of them was ordered by the Mekhitarian Monastery in Venice, and is about the life of Mekhitar Sepsdatsi, the founder of the Mekhitarist order. The other is the second part of Silence; order from Costantinopolis, a comic book about the genocide.
“My friend’s father was a very famous genocide scholar and I used to learn a lot about this issue from him during my student years,” said Mangassarian. “One day a friend told me their genocide survival story and that was when I decided to present that story with graphic images by making a comic book.”
Mangassarian chase comic strips as a way to present that story. It’s become his medium in art, as well as his main source of income since the 1990’s.
According to Mangassarian, comics are able to cure many of the ills in the Armenian society.
In 1992, he established the first comics newspaper in Armenia. He was one of the very few in the country to make comic strip novels for the next 15 years. In 2007, he went to Angoulême and presented his comic book about the genocide to Jean Mardikian and Varoujan Sirapian, who were already involved in the art of comics in France. Together, they had the idea of creating seminars to develop this form of art in Armenia, which eventually became the comics festival.
“Our work needs a perfect follow-up,” said Mangassarian. “I used to sit with the script writer for long meetings to make the proper illustrations for each episode. Comic strips are so much different from normal novels, because they cannot have a lot of padding. There mustn’t be any irrelevant parts to make the story longer. It must be carefully molded and compact.”
“At that time, when I started doing comics in Armenia, young people weren’t familiar with this art as much as they are today,” he said. “I am very optimist about the future because Armenians love cinema and they have perfect painters, too. The combination of these two creates comic books admirers. I think that in one or two-year time, we will have several professional comics illustrators… After that we can even have comics journals, where we can view political satire, detective stories, and various serials, just like any ordinary comics journal in France.”
Sirapian said they had the idea of creating APBDA in 2007, when they published the first cartoon book of Tintin in Armenian and brought it to Armenia. “We asked around to know how to start a small festival of comic strips, and we contacted Jean Mardikian… We also contacted the Embassy of France in Armenia and the Ministry of Culture of Armenia,” said Sirapian, who has served as the president of the Arshak Tchobanian Research Center and a lobbying organization in France for many years.
In the beginning the project was powered through the center, and was later registered as an independent association, the Association of Comics Art Promotion in Armenia.
During its six-year life, APBDA organized three comics festivals in Yerevan—the first in 2008, the second in 2009, and the third just recently, in April 2012. APBDA also organized comics illuminations and fireworks in 2011, open-air events, master classes, and several exhibitions.
“Back in the Tchobanian institute, one of our objectives was introducing the Armenian culture and literature in Europe, and also familiarizing Armenia with French and European culture and literature,” said Sirapian. “In Europe, many of those who know Armenians only know about the genocide, and that is why this association is also working on introducing the various aspects of the culture and traditions of Armenia to them.”
Merveilles d’Arménie (Wonders of Armenia), published in 2009, was one of those works. The association has also published 24 works of Hovhannes Toumanian in French, under the title “Mon ami Toumanian” (My friend Toumanian).
The association has a geopolitical motivation, said Sirapian. Any country that wants to improve and develop must rely on its youth power, he said. And making it possible for Armenian youth to stay in Armenia is a very important step. According to Sirapian, to this end, they either had to give financial help or create work opportunities inside the country.
“After working in book productions, we found that comic books are the best sold productions in this business. Publication giants in France sell more comic books, with increasing demand, than other books. We started from this point, and we planned to start with a group of young people from Armenia, and to teach them how to make comic strips. This process might take a few years to reach the European quality level in this domain; in the meantime, we can give some assignments to those artists to produce in Armenia and send them abroad to get published in Europe. This was a way to have those talents stay in Armenia, but also benefit from the opportunities presented from abroad. This is the win-win project that we are working on,” Sirapian told the Weekly.
The association, however, can only support a limited numbers of interested young people in such projects. The chain of comic books production starts with the illustrator, then the writer, the publisher, the distributor, and the seller, which helps the work reach wider audiences and have a bigger effect.
During the festival, the APBDA founders held several meeting with Armenian officials, and expressed their concerns about the lack of proper bookstores in Yerevan. “You can publish books as much as you want, but where are you going to sell them?” said Sirapian. “Besides, we cannot sell our books in Armenia with the same price that we sell them in Europe. Plus, there is the problem of illegal copying and distribution. If we make the prices a little higher than the country standards, it might be scanned and copied without permission and it is very unlikely that we can defend our rights. There are a lot of problems for publishing in today’s Armenia, but we are working to develop this field with whatever conditions are available to us,” he said.