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It has been awarded mainly to French and Belgian authors, but also to ten people of other nationalities. Recipients are, on average, 50 years old. Only two women, Florence Cestac and Rumiko Takahashi, have ever won the prize.
The prize was first awarded during the first Angoulême festival in 1974. Traditionally, the winner has been selected as the president of the board and the prize jury of next year's festival. Since 1982, the winners have also drawn the next year's festival poster. In 1984, cartoonist Claire Bretécher received a special tenth anniversary award apart from the main prize, a practice since repeated on subsequent anniversaries.
After 1989, the prize was awarded by a jury of all previous winners, except for the time from 1997 to 1999 when all creators attending the festival voted on the winner. The jury system was criticized for favoring cronyism and Franco-centrism, and was abandoned after 2012. Subsequent years have seen a variety of changing award mechanisms. In 2015, the winner was again selected by vote of all registered comics creators, based on a list of nominees.
In January 2016, 12 of the 30 nominees for the 2016 prize withdrew their names from consideration in protest against a shortlist of exclusively male nominees. Following media reports, the festival's board first announced 6 additional female nominees,
 then retracted all nominees, allowing registered professionals to vote for any person.