ANGOULÊME (AFP).- One of the world's leading comics festivals opened in France on Thursday under tight security as it dedicated this year's event to the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.
The festival in the southwestern town of Angouleme also created a first when it gave its coveted Grand Prix lifetime achievement award to a manga artist, with Japan's Katsuhiro Otomo scooping the prize.
This year's guests -- including some of the biggest names in comics and graphic novels from around the world -- found themselves under unprecedented protection after the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 that left 12 dead.
"The 2015 festival will be a time for remembering but we also want to show that life goes on," festival director Franck Bondoux said.
Graphic novel writers, press cartoonists and animators were among the stars in attendance at the festival, which this year features special displays on Asian cartoons and Jack Kirby, creator of "Captain America", "Hulk" and the "X-Men".
Spirit of Charlie
Comic books are hugely popular in France, with 35 million sold in the country last year.
But three weeks on from the attacks in Paris, it was "the spirit of Charlie" that weighed heaviest on this 42nd edition of the festival.
A number of special commemorations were planned, including the inauguration of a new "Charlie Award for Freedom of Expression".
The prize will this year go to the cartoonists killed in the assault on the magazine, whose past caricatures of Prophet Mohammed have sparked controversy and were cited by the attackers as the reason for their killing spree.
In the future, the prize will be awarded to artists fighting for free speech around the world.
The festival organisers also collected over a thousand contributions from artists around the world in homage to Charlie Hebdo and a special album entitled "Comics are Charlie" was being prepared with the help of 173 well-known cartoonists.
Past front pages from the magazine were plastered all over the town in the style of an electoral campaign.
And an exhibition gathering together documents and drawings by Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists -- dead and alive -- attracted the crowds.
Priests, rabbis, the pope, imams, presidents, left-wing and right-wing politicians. Everyone was a target for satire in cartoons that denounced issues as serious as homophobia, paedophilia or racism.
"Their death had an awful impact on the world of cartoonists. Some called me in tears. For many, they were role models," Jean-Pierre Mercier, one of the managers of the exhibition, said.
Japan in the limelight
On Thursday night, Japan's Otomo, creator of the cult manga series Akira, was awarded the Grand Prix, which last year went to "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo built on the ashes of a city that was destroyed by a blast that triggered World War III, the Akira series are known the world over.
The awarding of the prize to Otomo highlights the importance of mangas in France, where they represent a quarter of all comic book sales.
The festival also awarded a special Grand Prix to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed in the attack -- Cabu, Wolinski, Charb, Tignous and Honore.
Among other stars in attendance was godfather of manga Jiro Taniguchi, presenting a retrospective in Europe for the first time.
In an interview with AFP before he left Japan for Angouleme, Taniguchi said he constantly had in mind the impact his drawings may have on others.
"The human being is an animal for whom the visual sense reacts first, and words and analysis come after," he said in his little Tokyo workshop.
"I know the expressive power of drawings and their risks, which is why I always did my utmost to handle them with precaution by always keeping in mind the impact that my story and my way of drawing may have on certain people."
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