In the course of the four installments I will be writing for this blog, I will attempt to briefly investigate some phenomena that have struck me during my (ongoing) investigation of the graphic novel scene in Flanders. In doing so, I do not intend simply to provide a descriptive overview of the scene. Instead I aim to capitalise on the particular nature and function of the Flemish production in terms of how it allows us to address certain existing questions in the domains of comics studies, literary studies and cultural studies, how it allows us to reformulate those questions and how it generates new questions in those domains.
The Strip Turnhout Festival vs. the F.A.C.T.S. Convention, In which the Graphic Novel  Shines by Virtue of Its Absence (Part I)
A couple of months ago, attempting to gain additional insight into my research object, I found myself attending the largest Flemish comics festival currently in existence: Strip Turnhout. Lest the Franco-Belgian connection fools the reader into associating this festival with the iconic Angoulême festival in France, I must emphasise that this festival is of rather more modest dimensions . Strip Turnhout is a bi-annual festival. Founded in 1977 it runs over the course of two days (and one evening). The 2011 Strip Turnhout edition included expositions ranging from very mainstream material to the more experimental works of a Karrie Fransman or Douglas Noble (in 2011 the UK was featured as the guest country of honour). One might also browse the bins at the comics flea market (most comparable to the space called the “dealer’s room” by Matthew J. Pustz in his monograph on American Comic Book Culture (1999)) as well as partake of the now-standard cartooning performances to music. At the heart of the festival lies the comics fair, however, the space in which both more established publishers and independent newcomers display their wares and comics artists sign (or mark) their work. In Pustzian terms, this is a place where the artist’s alley and the publisher’s area come together, although it must be noted that the festival is not as rigorously structured as an American comics convention seems to be (one publisher had migrated into the exposition area for example). The comics which can be found at this festival – both in the dealer’s room and in the publisher’s area/artists’ alley – tend to be European comics. American comic books are nigh invisible and while some (expo) space is devoted to alternative comics, these are not the comics the fans or collectors seem to be interested in. Indeed, there are two audience sections at Strip Turnhout that truly stand out and whose attitude towards the festival is quite visibly different. One of these is overwhelmingly male and relatively advanced in age (this is the fan and collector audience), the other tends to be very young (these are the children who bring their mothers and fathers). The participation style of the former may be described as focussed, that of the latter as casual. One cannot help but notice the perpetuation of certain comics stereotypes in this distribution. The collectors gather in the dealer’s room, the flea market packed with older Flemish comics, or the comics fair where they have traditional or fantasy comics artists sign their comics . The children tend towards mainstream expositions and events focusing specifically on mainstream children’s comics. As a result, while the biggest names in Flemish alternative comics do get to sign some copies of their work, in terms of audience (more so than in terms of the space they are awarded), the (Flemish/European) graphic novels seem to fall between the cracks at the festival.
The particularities of the Strip Turnhout festival struck me as all the more interesting because of the contrast they provided with a convention I had attended the year before in Ghent (we are of course still in Flanders here). This convention – called F.A.C.T.S. after its focus on fantasy, anime, comics, toys and space – also engages with comics, but it does so in a different way. Organised annually since 1993, this is a convention which seems to function much along the lines of the American convention. Originally very much a small-scale fan initiative, it has surpassed Strip Turnhout in terms of visitor turnover . While some aspects of the convention are similar to what Strip Turnhout offers (the dealer’s room remains a fixture at both events, although what is dealt and how is quite distinct), others are decidedly unique to the F.A.C.T.S. initiative: movie guest stars, screenings of anime and sci-fi movies etc. Whereas these activities echo F.A.C.T.S.’ multifocal approach (an approach that arguably emerges from the nature of the cultural objects featured) one of the most visible characteristics of the convention can be connected to comics culture per se: costuming. In reference both to the American superhero tradition and (especially) the Japanese cosplay phenomenon, role-playing and dress-up are one of the most striking components of the F.A.C.T.S. convention. This dimension, along with the American and Japanese comic book culture, is completely absent from the Strip Turnhout festival. Additionally, Strip Turnhout is also far less commodified in comparison with the F.A.C.T.S. initiative, which is described by the organisers as a “buyers’ paradise” (F.A.C.T.S. website). While one may be put off by the merchandising tsunami that is F.A.C.T.S., something can be said for the strong economical or consumerist orientation that accompanies the convention in that it arguably forms an impetus to keep the convention more of an open system in terms of audience gathering . In both respects, our general impression might be that the Strip Turnhout Festival exercises more (old world) restraint than does F.A.C.T.S., which – after the concept of a convention – seems to focus more on the (social) fan experience and less on that which facilitates the experience (the comics themselves). In contrast to the festival, the convention caters to an audience which seems to consists largely of adolescents or “younger adults” (15-35 age range), both male and female. Doubtless the inclusion of anime in the event facilitates the introduction of youngsters and women to the convention. Indeed, while the costume aspect makes it so that far more skin is shown at F.A.C.T.S. than is the case at Strip Turnhout, the increased presence of female fans in the fannish realm itself arguably makes the convention a less sexistically structured space. Additionally, the element of play and performance inherent in the costumes may also be said to neutralise the sexualisation of what they reveal in a way. Most striking, however, at F.A.C.T.S. has proven the nigh complete rupture the convention signifies with regard to the home production. The audience is quite Flemish (although the convention does have international appeal), but there are very few Flemish comics, graphic novels or artists in sight. Interviews with convention-goers point towards the fact that 1) while they may know some Flemish comic books, the ones that appeal to them are made either in the fantasy or the American comic book tradition and 2) they are not very familiar with the Flemish graphic novel. The latter point is in fact an understatement, these are comics fans who often had not even heard of the most well-known Flemish graphic novelists. At this point I found myself almost in a parallel universe (compared to my own research focus), a universe clearly made up not necessarily by comics readers, but by fans and American comic book culture enthusiasts.
As Pustz indicates in his book, conventions or festivals are an integral aspect of comics culture, of the experience of the form. Their dynamic (self-) positioning can therefore function as a site of revelation when it comes to changes (or changed constellations) in the culture. In this case I have introduced the festival and the convention as they seem to point towards a sort of moulting of the comic book culture in Flanders which – at the very least in terms of cultural praxis and audience – appears to have resulted in the emergence of three simultaneously existing spheres amongst the adult audience: a USA-oriented sphere, a more nostalgic Franco-Belgian-oriented sphere and a (European) graphic novel sphere. While at least two out of these three spheres are deduced from tangible events, I believe they are mobile concepts, if one allows for a case-by-case adjustment of the relationships between the spheres (and arguably provided that they are used within a context that touches upon culture and audience more than text). If cultural praxis is the element that allows me to speak of these spheres then we must flesh out the hallmarks of the practices and audiences associated with each sphere. Part II of my posts on the Flemish graphic novel will tend to this very question (among other things I will spend some time on the issue of convergence culture which we should not be too quick to apply to any of the spheres (in particular the USA-oriented one)).
“English, Strip Turnhout.” Strip Turnhout. Strip Turnhout vzw. n.d. web. 13 Feb. 2012.
“F.A.C.T.S. 2011 – 21st edition – Facts.” F.AC.T.S. – comics, sci-fi and anime festival. BVBA Con-Fuse. n.d. web. 13 Feb. 2012.
Pasamonik, Didier. “Angoulême 2012 : Les organisateurs annoncent une fréquentation en hausse et préparent le 40e Festival – Actua BD : l’actualité de la bande dessinée.” ActuaBD. ActuaBD. 30 Jan. 2012. web. 13 Feb. 2012.
Pustz, J. Matthew. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 1999.
Charlotte Pylyser is a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven. She operates from a literary studies and cultural studies background and her research concerns the Flemish graphic novel in particular and issues of culture and context with regard to comics in general.
She sits on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.
 – Let me simply state that “graphic novel” should be considered in the Flemish (European) context in this text. For the sake of brevity, I am talking about this phenomenon: http://brechtnieuws.blogspot.com/, not so much about this one: http://www.dccomics.com/vertigo/.
 – While it is difficult to determine exactly how many people attend the festival (as it is free and there is no alternative control system), its website suggests that we ought to situate the visitor turnover capacity in the realm of 15000 people (Strip Turnhout Website). Simply as a means of comparison, Angoulême was reported to have welcomed something closer to 215000 visitors this year (ActuaBD Website). This number, too, is tentative at best, but it suffices for a sketch of proportions I believe.
 – As F.A.C.T.S. charges an entrance fee, more reliable visitor numbers can be provided. The event now welcomes around 20000 fans (F.A.C.T.S. Website).
 – Strip Turnhout is a state subsidised initiative, I plan to investigate the role of the (fundamentally important) subsidising policy in Flanders in another blog post.