FRANCO-BELGIAN COMICS: AHEAD OF THEIR TIME?
At the turn of the millennium, a few publishers were giving Franco-Belgian comics (or bandes desinees, "BD") a serious try. The one with the highest profile was DC/Humanoids, but publishers also included NBM, Heavy Metal, and SAF. Sadly, it all fell apart in short order. The funny thing is, all the reasons for those failures are now moot. The market has shifted, but the comics industry has yet to realize it.
I think it's a time for a second shot at the material, and I think we can see the beginnings of it happening today at places like Marvel/Soleil, NBM (still going), First Second, Devil's Due, and Cinebook. None are doing it perfectly (Cinebook is by far the closest), but at least there's hope.
For now, let's take a look at what held the format back, and why those aren't problems anymore:
Those European albums are too big! Yes, this was really a complaint. Retailers didn't know where to shelve books. Collectors complained that they didn't fit into long boxes. You see, storage is far more important a factor in comics reading than proper presentation.
That argument still drives me up a wall. The Franco-Belgian comics format ("les bandes dessinees" or "BD," for short) is oversized, a good 50% larger than the standard Marvel/DC comic. This allows the art to shine through in a way it rarely can in American comics.
But look at the high end of Marvel and DC's publishing plans. "Absolute" editions are all the rage, and Marvel's hardcover format (not the Premiere Editions) is still bigger than standard size, if not quite up to the size of French comics. Comic readers have already embraced oversized material. Shelf size is not a valid reason anymore.
What shelf can fit "Kramer's Ergot," after all?
It's too expensive for 48 pages. This is a valid concern today, more than ever. I think, however, that it's something that can be mitigated. And we need to follow the rules of those "Absolute" and "Omnibus" size editions. That is, pack more pages in to make a more satisfying experience.
It's only 48 pages. Some people clearly haven't read one of these books yet. The larger page size often translates into more panels per page. I would argue that, even ignoring that for a moment, the larger art and more detailed lines make for good use of the page. It takes me 30 - 45 minutes to read an "Asterix" volume, for example. I could read 9 or 10 Marvel Comics in that time frame. Do the math -- I'm saving a good $20 there.
I'm not going to argue the value of a comic as pennies per page per unit of time or anything like that. I just want to point out that the reading experiences can't be directly compared, nor should they be.
It's not monthly. True. These albums are often released at the "glacial pace" of one a year. But I think the wait is worth it. It's the same argument as is used for discussing a potential future where all comics are Original Graphic Novels. Artists might work at the same pace, but the fruits of their labor appear just two or three times a year.
On the other hand, the fact that so little of the material has been published in America before means that there's a huge backlog of material to cover. Why not publish one of these series at the rate of one a quarter, say?
Monthly comics are where it's at. We could argue the merits of pamphlets versus collected editions versus webcomics 'til the cows come home. I just want to point out that the comics collecting -- and comics reading -- world is a whole lot more open to "books with spines" today than it was at the beginning of this decade. Tastes have shifted. People are ready for "original graphic novel" series.
"Scott Pilgrim" seems to be doing OK that way. "Owly" did fine. I hope Adam Warren's "Empowered" is holding up, sales-wise.
True, they're all smaller sized black and white books from smaller publishers, but I think they prove that people are willing to wait on quality from single creators in thicker formats, if not larger.
The question then becomes, "What's the proper way to package this material for the North American market?"
One of the problems DC/Humanoids ran into is that they reprinted material that Humanoids had just printed on its own in the previous couple of years. The people most interested in that material weren't about to buy it again in an inferior format. If you saw the tragedy of what DC did to Francois Schuiten's "The Hollow Grounds" series, you know what I mean. The broken up lines, the loss of detail, and the horribly smaller pages made the book an impossible read. Jodorowsky fans (a very supportive and vocal group at the time) were rewarded not with the next chapters of their cult-favorite series, but instead a reprinting of recent material in, again, a lesser format. DC didn't give them any reason to buy the books again, and thus doomed their line from the start.
Other selections from the line were a little too artsy fartsy, and not popular enough. "Different Ugliness, Different Madness" is an amazing book that I hope to review here soon, but it was a highbrow book in a line that needed more popular acceptance.
So, the first trick is to start with fresh material. Given the quantity of BD published in the last five years in America, that leaves you with about 99.999% of all comics in France to choose from.
Publish it full-size. This part is non-negotiable. Without that format, the material will lose some of its unique value, as well as one of its major strengths. I don't care if it's softcover or hardcover, at this point. Just make it full-size. Play it up as a marketing thing. It's time, comic companies, to make your marketing people do some work and convince people that they only want these books in their original size. Make a campaign out of "Comics. Full size." Do something.
Bundle the books together. DC/Humanoids did this, and it was one of their few good ideas. They published all three books from Schuiten's "Hollow Grounds" series in one volume, for example, keeping the cost down to read the entire trilogy. The "pain" of an expensive book is often lessened with more pages. It works for Marvel's "Omnibus" and standard hardcover lines and DC's "Absolute" line. It can work here. And, remember, Jeff Smith didn't publish RASL monthly oversized, but the recent trade paperback was album sized. Imagine more books like that. That would be very cool.
Fool them with American artists. This is what Devil's Due is doing, by focusing on Eurocomics done by American artists. Their initial wave of titles includes works by the likes of John Cassaday, Butch Guice, and Guy Davis. I hope they publish the works of Jamal Igle and Terry Dodson next. The American names will be familiar to American readers, and will bring ready-made audiences to the works. Hopefully, they can be drawn further in after that. The trick is in having the right material.
Fool them with known entities. We need a return of "Les Schtroumpfs" to these shores. Why not publish "The Smurfs" in their original format again? What about "Marsupilami?" (Maybe only a dozen of us remember the entertaining cartoon from the mid-90s, but it was based on a French series.) Marvel published the first collection of "XIII," which was a video game at the time and now a TV mini-series.
Publish the serious books with cartoonier art. Avoid the humor titles with cartoonier art, as those don't even sell in America. "Green Manor" is a book that I think could work over here, for one example.
Looking at the landscape today, I think Cinebook is our best hope for quality material. But I think Devil's Due would be in the best position to capitalize on it with American readers. If they'd publish the collections in full album size, they'd have it locked up. As it is, shrinking the art down to the relatively small North American size is a killer. And if they don't do it right, the page size ratio will be thrown off, meaning that you'll see books with extra white space in a margin somewhere and less art on the smaller page. It's frustrating.
Marvel gets points for being more adventurous. They're publishing the albums complete in each edition, and then bundling those editions together into attractive hardcovers. Sadly, it's all still done in standard comic book format size. But the lineup of titles is aggressive and there are some nice choices in there. I'd like to see them be a bit more adventurous and go even "cartoonier," but we'll see where they go. I'm not sure what titles they have to choose from through Soleil.
If all else fails, pick up a volume of "Asterix" and scoff at America's lack of acceptance for this modern piece of often satiric literature.
SCARED TO DEATH
"Scared to Death" Volume 1 (Cinebook, $11.95) is an odd book. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess that it wasn't originally published as the first volume of the series. The two lead characters don't feel strongly defined at all. The writer, Virginie Vanholme, assumes the reader knows as much about them as he does, and sketches out very little. Even the actions of the characters are relatively simple and direct. The boy with the glasses is a bit nerdy. The boy with longer darker hair is the bad influence. But they're best friends. And now they're on an adventure to find the vampires they're afraid might be living in town.
And, sure enough, there are vampires in town. I found myself hoping halfway through the book that there would be none. That would be a novel twist. Instead, we get them and a show-stopping origin story. I don't mean "show stopping" in a good way, either. I mean it as in, the vampire stops everything that's going on to spell everything out to us for three pages. It's Tell-Don't-Show. The vampire threat never feels all that real, despite a dead body leading us to it. The two main characters stumble through the book, without much in the way of consequences for their actions, save an hour of detention or two at school.
Sadly, the whole thing is kind of blah.
It's tough to tell where the problem lies in this book. No doubt a large portion of it comes from the original script, but the dialogue in translation is often stilted and formal. I can deal with the Britishisms in the final script -- Cinebook is a British publisher -- but the rest of it is too jerky to get lost in the story. There's also some initial confusion with the word balloons, where two balloons pointing to different people often are butted up against each other without any division. I found that odd. The font is a nice choice, though.
The book is aimed at younger readers, which likely explains why I felt like I was watching a bad Saturday morning cartoon at times. Maybe the ultimate answer to my problems with the book is that I'm not in the right audience for it.
The thing that saves it from mediocrity is the art of Mauricet. This book is beautiful. Mauricet has an art style that's somewhere between Neil Vokes and Dan DeCarlo. For those of you looking for "XIII" or "Largo Winch," you'll be disappointed. If you want "Asterix" drawn in Archie's "new look" style, perhaps, then you'll be more in line with what comes here. Mauricet's ink line is perfect and does a great job in defining the characters who appear always in motion and always with emotion. I can't properly explain it, but it works. The varied line weights define everything in an extra dimension than you might get from an average inker.
Top that off with a gorgeous coloring job from Laurent Carpentier. It's bright and colorful without being garish. It uses shadows and cuts in a way that feels right. It's not overproduced; it doesn't throw out black lines in favor of colors. It fits the tone of the story, often going for a more representative feel than a moody one. It flouts most of the rules of what comic coloring is supposed to be at Marvel and DC these days, save for colorists like Lee Loughridge, perhaps.
There are two volumes of "Scared to Death" available from Cinebook today, though seven have been published in the original French so far. The book is oversized, thankfully, and relatively thin. Whereas a book like "Largo Winch" might combine two French albums into one book, "Scared to Death" is presented one to one. You might pay a slight premium that way, but it's worth it to see the art in its proper size and proportion. The only question is how large a threshold you have for an uninspiring story.
Next week: A column you might want to read. I'll review something from America, I promise.
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