Mark Smylie is a writer and illustrator who has been working in comics since the mid 2000s. Perhaps best know to fans as the creator of the critically acclaimed "Artesia," he is also the founder of Archaia Comics, publisher of "The Mouse Guard" and "The Return of the Dapper Men." Recently, Smylie visited Angoulême, the largest comic book festival in Europe, if not the world, with the goal of discovering new comic titles to join Archaia's existing line of imported French titles, "Okko," "The Killer" and "The Secret History." Smylie wrote about his visit to the massive festival, discussing the particular challenges European graphic novels have when brought to the States, Archaia's particular approach to this issue and much more.
I'd been hearing reports of the festival at Angoulême for some time; one of the largest comic book conventions in the world, if not the largest, I'd been told, with over 200,000 people descending on a small medieval city to celebrate what in France and Europe is often referred to as the "Ninth Art." At Archaia, we'd been debating sending someone to the festival for a couple of years now, so it was a happy surprise when we got a last-minute invitation to send someone as a guest of the festival, which this year had decided to sponsor a number of American buyers in the hopes of increasing the number of titles brought over from France for the US market.
We've had some small experience in translating French material for the US market, having brought over fairly early in our publishing history "The Killer" (which was eventually nominated for a 2008 Eisner for Best US Edition of International Material) from the French publisher Casterman, as well as "Okko" and "The Secret History" from the French publisher Delcourt. They've consistently been amongst our strongest titles and we just recently started up "Cyclops," from the same creative team as "The Killer." We'd been trying to keep an eye out for new material to bring over, so once the invitation came in, I was happily packing my bags for France. I was joined on the trip by buyers from several other companies with broad and varied experience in bringing French material into the US, including husband-and-wife team Peggy Burns and Tom Devlin from Drawn & Quarterly, Carol Burrell from Graphic Universe (Lerner's graphic novel imprint) and Calista Brill from First Second (who, it turned out, is married to a guy I knew in high school), the very British Alex Bowler from the Random House UK imprint and Jonathan Cape and Todd Martinez from Image Comics, out on an exploratory expedition to see what might fit for Image as they eye new methods of finding titles outside of their traditional creator-owned model.
Both Japan and France have huge domestic markets for comics and graphic novels, dwarfing in many ways the size of the current US market. But historically, French bande dessinée -- the French term for comics and graphic novels -- have never really gained a foothold in the US market in quite the same way that Japanese manga have. Many American readers of comics are already familiar with some French authors and books, from classics such as "Lucky Luke" (still a bestseller in France), "Astérix" and "Tintin," or from the selection of some of the best French, Spanish and Italian titles (many of which are first published in France and Belgium) brought in by pioneering companies like Heavy Metal and NBM over the years: Enki Bilal, "Corto Maltese," "Borgia," Frezzato's "Keepers of the Mazer," Liberatore's "Ranx," the works of Royo, Manara and Serpieri, Trondheim, Moebius and Maniri. Once upon a time Marvel's Epic line had published most of Moebius' works and the French publisher Humanoids -- who put out the original "Métal Hurlant" -- has published in the US both under their own imprint and then through DC. But these works represent only the tip of a very large iceberg in terms of the width and breadth of material available from France (and elsewhere in Europe), as the burgeoning imports from Drawn & Quarterly and First Second can attest.
French publishers produce thousands of new titles every year -- about 4,600 new titles were published in 2010, with some commentators citing the risk of overproduction [photo 0202: The covers of books up for official prizes at the festival]. Translations of Japanese, Korean and Chinese books accounted for close to 40% of the new title offerings (so yes, manga is pretty much everywhere in Europe too, but also more pan-Asian material than seems present in the US). Total sales in the Franco-Belgian market in 2010 reached 31 million volumes for $428 million in sales, down a bit from the year before (particularly in the manga sector), with sales dominated by a handful of major publishing houses: Dargaud and its affiliates, the Glénat group, Delcourt, Casterman, MC Productions and Hachette together accounted for 60% of production and sales, with a small army of smaller publishers competing for the rest. Bande dessinée have been an accepted form of literature and art in France for decades in a way that has until recently escaped the comic book in the Unites States. We are only now (with the increasing presence of graphic novels in mainstream bookstores and the increasing acceptance of graphic novels as literature in the US) beginning to approach the same cultural position that the bande dessinée holds in France and Belgium, where creators like Hergé or Moebius are considered national treasures.
But for whatever reasons, bande dessinée have seemingly not been able to garner the same kind of broad acceptance and recognition as a national body of work amongst American readers in quite the same way that Japanese manga has. Humanoids, for example, eventually shut down their US imprint and withdrew from their relationship with DC, having failed to somehow reach the impact and sales that they were looking for and many classic French and European works are essentially out of print and no longer available to US consumers. Only recently have there been what I would term "new" breakout hits from France, most notably "Persepolis," which has had massive success in the US book trade markets. And indeed, part of the reason we were invited to Angoulême was essentially to answer that question: why haven't bande dessinée been able to make inroads into the US market in quite the same way that Japanese manga have? We were scheduled to be speakers for a closed panel for French publishers and journalists to be hosted by British comics expert and author Paul Gravett to formally try to answer that and other questions posed by our hosts.
So with all that in the back of my mind I arrived in the city of Angoulême.
To say that it is a picturesque place to host a comic book festival would be an understatement. Some of my French contacts, mostly Parisians, had damned the city with faint praise -- "well, at least it's pretty," in the words of one -- but for most of us arriving from America it was a charming city and a very different kind of locale from both American comic conventions and the urban experience of Paris. Angoulême is a mostly medieval city on a hilltop plateau, looking out over the rolling French countryside of the Charente region -- this is Cognac country, home to Remy-Martin, Hennessey and Courvoisier (and yup, the cognac was very, very good) . A bit of history that I was not aware of was that New York City, before it was known as New Amsterdam, had originally been named New Angoulême by Giovanni da Verrazzano in honor of King Francis I of France, who had been Count of Angoulême and Charente prior to his coronation; a nice connection for Carol, Calista and myself, who all work in or near New York. Cobblestone streets and old medieval walls and fortifications don't necessarily leap to mind when you think of modern comics and graphic novels, but the transposition of the old and new created a sense of art historical context that is missing when you have a convention in a modern exhibition hall.
An immediate question on my mind was the difference in size and style from the granddaddy of all US comic conventions, Comic-Con International in San Diego. Oddly enough, practically the first words to me out of the mouth of Matz, the French writer of "The Killer" and "Cyclops," when I ran into him were, "It's not as big as San Diego, is it?" And truth to be told, it was kind of hard to tell. By the numbers, it's almost twice as large; but for at least the first two days it didn't feel that way. Part of that was because it took until the weekend for the largest crowds to show up. By Saturday, it was definitely feeling very well attended; and part of that was the way the festival is organized. Rather than a single giant hall, as at San Diego and other US conventions, where you pack everyone in like sardines, a number of pavilions were set up throughout the city so that attendees had to wander from one part of the city to another to visit different elements of the festival while loudspeakers in the streets played interviews with French artists and writers.
Besides the different layout, a couple of obvious differences in style became clear in comparing Angoulême and CCI. Well, besides the food, of course, which was almost universally fabulous. And the wine and cognac, of which I swear I had only a little. The most glaring difference was that Angoulême is almost entirely a festival devoted to books. Bande dessinée, graphic novels, comics, imported manga (for the French love manga as much as we do) -- whatever you want to call it, there was a largely singular focus on published works as opposed to film, TV, video games, etc. You could see perhaps a few signs of the encroachment of multimedia elements into the festival -- everyone who attended the opening night ceremonies complained about the focus on a French movie tie-in and on the Walking Dead, which is huge in France and going to have its French TV premiere soon (great news for Image), but at least that grumbling was restricted to the opening ceremony and not to the focus throughout the festival itself (unlike similar grumbling at the Eisners, which is mirrored by grumbling about the takeover of the San Diego hall by film and videogame companies). And indeed, French culture as a whole still seems more dedicated to the traditional book in a way that ours doesn't. Paris, for example, is filled with bookstores, a heartbreaking and humiliating sight when I thought about what has happened to bookstores in New York.
In addition, I was struck by the way in which the festival approached the actual art of bande dessinée -- with exhibits scattered throughout the city, in its museums and art galleries. There were exhibits dedicated to the worlds created by specific authors (for example, an exhibit devoted to the hugely popular fantasy series "Troy" and its spinoffs created and written by Lanfeust was held in the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville, a small former castle in the center of town [photo 0044: The exhibit for Troy]) and to individual artists (including one to Charles Schulz and "Peanuts") and to artists from different styles (an entire hall devoted to manga and other Asian comics). With the festival a seemingly permanent part of the city's schedule, the walls of a number of buildings had been given over to permanent murals by French comic book artists. And there were a few artistic elements I had never heard of in US conventions -- for example, the "Concert De Dessins," an official annual festival event in which artists drew comics on stage while accompanied by a band, as they improvised off one another to shape both the story of the comic and the songs being sung, the closest thing in the States being the informal drink-and-draw nights at convention bars. [photo 0162: The Concert de Dessins].
Tonally, there was a greater emphasis on the notion of the author, as perhaps befits the nation that gave us the auteur theory of film [photo 137: Comic book creators; kind of crazy everywhere?]. Indeed, as I noted the similarities and differences in Angoulême and San Diego, I wondered if that might be the cause of the failure of French titles to find a place in the US, that as readers historically we have been more attracted to characters than to authors (though that seems to be changing now as the market shifts in the US more towards the book trade and away from traditional comics shops and the superhero genre). That notion of treating the art of comics and graphic novels as serious work and their authors as serious artists actually had its strongest culmination during my trip not at Angoulême itself, but rather in Paris, where the Foundation Cartier, a major contemporary art museum, was in the middle of running a retrospective exhibition of the works of Moebius that drew lines of hundreds of visitors on a Sunday, even with the festival of Angoulême wrapping up a few short hours train ride away -- kind of like if the Guggenheim or the Whitney decided to do an exhibit about Will Eisner or Frank Miller. [photo 0370: A view from inside the museum as someone posed for a snapshot]
Oh, and almost no one was dressed in a costume.
Despite those differences, however, I think I was mostly struck by the similarity in feel and vibe to San Diego and New York, the best comic conventions in the US. While it's true the festival was spread out over the city, for example, there were halls for exhibitors, halls for artists and halls for the French indie comics scene that mirrored almost exactly the exhibitor sections of US conventions [photo 0049: Crowds lining up to get into one of the publisher exhibit halls]. Indeed, one interesting thing to observe about the French market was how similar it was in comparison to the US, with the difference coming in the market share held by books and publishers in the superhero genre which, with the exception of Panini and its Marvel imports, were largely absent or relegated to the "indie" section of the festival. For some reason, the French don't really do the superhero thing. But anyone who has attended the MOCCA festival in New York, Small Press Expo or APE would feel right at home in the French indie comics pavilion, Le Nouveau Monde, nicknamed "Place New York," both in honor of Angoulême's ancient ties to the city and to the indie New York comics art scene. The books, art styles and even the same bored and desperate expressions of artists and small press publishers as their wares sat ignored by the crowds were all very familiar (and brought a pang of sympathy to my heart; after all, been there, done that, just in English). Young, fresh-faced artists and writers still in their teens with published books from major publishing houses spoke to the energy and enthusiasm of French creators, an enthusiasm that was very familiar. And the Hotel Mercure was the "Hyatt of Angoulême," as someone phrased it, with the after-hours drinking and networking being exactly the same as in San Diego [photo 0074: Smokers milling outside the Mercure].
Given the many similarities, that underlying question remained, that question of why French comics hadn't reached a high level of popularity in the States, the very reason why, in effect, we were all there as invited US buyers. Paul Gravett ably moderated the roundtable panel we all spoke at, entitled "Franco-Belge BD business in the USA today: where it is, where it is going..." and presented us all with that question, but we also received it during meetings with representatives of French publishers, even at dinners or in bars. And our theories as to an answer were as varied as one might expect.
A common culprit offered was the conservative nature of the retail environment in US comic book stores, in particular as regards the formats of the books being sold. US comic book retailers have been notorious (well, at least amongst publishers) for being resistant to books in odd formats and most Franco-Belgian and European comics are produced in a larger "album" size format -- about A4 standard, if you know anything about paper sizes, or slightly bigger than your typical newsstand magazine, usually 48-56 pages long and hardbound. It's kind of an in-between format, too long and large to be a traditional comic for the comic book market, too short (and too large) to be an actual novel for the book store market. Many of the books in the initial wave of translations in the US, such as those from Epic, Heavy Metal and NBM, duplicated that kind of oversized format. Suspicions about retailer and reader resistance to oversize formats was one of the reasons why we published "The Killer," "Okko" and "The Secret History" in sizes essentially the same as traditional American comics. We wanted to make sure those books were given the best possible chances to catch on with American readers and felt an oversize format put up a potential barrier, either inviting retailers to say no to it because it didn't fit their shelves, or readers to turn away from it because they associated the album size with certain kinds of imported books.
The US comic book market's historical dislike of oddly sized books is hardly confined to foreign imports, of course; I have often heard the demise of Barry Windsor-Smith's "Storyteller" series attributed to retailer resistance to its oversized format and the same to attempts with other titles to present themselves in a larger format over the years (such as with the first collected edition of "Red Star"). That seems to be shifting, with the smashing success of books from Top Shelf and First Second, Drawn & Quarterly and others all finding a place in (admittedly indie-oriented) comic book stores, or perhaps with some of our own titles like the square format "Mouse Guard" or oversize "Return of the Dapper Men." And with the book market (seemingly a bit more open to odd formats) an increasingly large part of graphic novel sales and the winning success of the manga format over the last decade, more and more US publishers are experimenting with different publishing formats.
On reflection, one of the interesting things to note in Franco-Belgian bande dessinée was the increasing diversity of the formats there as well, as French publishers begin to move away en masse from the traditional album format and now seem to be embracing smaller sizes as well as longer books -- many of the French publishers appear to have accepted the US market move towards the OGN and are now essentially publishing their own American-sized "graphic novels" as a distinct category of book, with page counts in the 120-180 range and in hardback formats more like our own. A way, perhaps, in which the two markets are feeding each other and moving more and more towards viewing graphic novels as being just like other books.
Other questions were raised about content, both in terms of subject matter (books that deal with French subjects obscure to Americans will obviously be a tough sell, as Calista Brill pointed out) and sexuality. A number of people remarked throughout the festival about the differences in attitudes towards sexual material between American and French readers; nudity and sexual content are fairly common in bande dessinée, even on the covers and sometimes even in books that are aimed at children. Our intrepid hostess, the globe-trotting Ivanka Hahnenberger, expressed some shock of her own upon seeing the covers of the popular Glénat children's book "Titeuf." One cover in the series basically had a large cartoon penis on it. That gets a shrug from the French and a lot of work for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in the US. And it could be that many American readers either associate French and European titles with children's books ("Lucky Luke," "Tintin," etc.) or quasi-pornography, causing them to ignore the thousands of other titles that are somewhere in between.
Other theories proffered included the lack of a singularly identifiable style -- European comics come in a wide variety of art styles and so French comics lack the easily identifiable markers of a national style compared to the way in which many manga books share a specific aesthetic (or the way that the Marvel look or the Image look, for example, have dominated US comics in past decades) -- and the lack of a corresponding wave of French TV animation and film in the same way that the adoption of Japanese manga and anime went hand-in-hand in the US. As several of my co-panelists pointed out at one dinner, there has not been, in effect, the French equivalent of an "Akira" to grab the attention of US audiences; nor anything similar to the wave of anime films, TV shows and manga that followed "Akira" into eager American hands in the 80s and early 90s to set the stage for the dominating cultural position of manga in the US that followed.
Plenty of evidence emerged that the French, both as entrepreneurs and as a government, are starting to follow the American and Japanese multimedia models, however. The French publishing giant Glénat, for example, has a first-look deal with Luc Besson's EuropaCorp to develop both live action and animated films based on their extensive bande dessinée catalogue; newer companies like Ankama are producing video games, massive multi-player online games, animated TV shows and then the bande dessinée and graphic novel lines to support them; and French television is doing animated series based on classic children's stories like "The Little Prince," while over the last decade an increasingly pop-culture-oriented filmmaking is taking root, with action thrillers such as "Le Pacte Des Loups" ("Brotherhood of the Wolf"), "B-13" and a wave of cutting edge French horror films such as "Haut Tension," "Martyrs," "Calvaire," "Frontier(s)" and "Sheitan" slowly making their way to US shores. Truffaut may be rolling over in his grave, but there is a visceral energy in this new wave of French filmmaking that may appeal to new fans outside of the traditional foreign film crowd in the US and help usher in a curiosity about what is going on in contemporary French culture.
And in Angoulême itself, indeed, stood an intriguing example of the kind of concerted government-private industry cooperation that is of course entirely missing in the US comics and multimedia industries, in the Pôle Image Magelis, a center devoted to the promotion of visual image industries in the city and surrounding region. The Magelis project supports everything from animation production studios, illustration and animation schools, a department devoted to developing new authors in bande dessinée (including the "House of Authors," a two-year residency program for comics, multimedia and film creators), workshop spaces available for start-ups in the visual image industries, funds for aiding the development of the regional film and TV industry and the ENJMIN, the Graduate School of Games and Interactive Medias (the first of its kind in France), all the result of a combination of private and public funding. The architecture and connected industries of the Magelis project are now a seemingly permanent part of the city, as a result of its hosting of the annual festival of bande dessinée.
I can only wistfully hope that the cities of San Diego or New York would ever consider something similar on such a scale.
I do not know if we were able to satisfactorily provide an answer to our hosts about the difficulties that French bande dessinée have had in finding access into the US comics and graphic novel market. The traditional book-world licensing model of advances against royalties has always been a problematic one in the American comic book market, though it will be interesting to see what happens if Image or its partners decide to begin exploring the import business in earnest. And now that major traditional publishers such as Random House, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster are expanding their graphic novel publishing lines, companies with vast experience in the foreign licensing field are becoming involved in bringing books to the US market, as the successes at First Second and Pantheon can attest. I do know that all of us seemed to find a wide variety of titles that fit with the varying and different styles of our companies (indeed, one of the interesting things about the group of buyers selected was the very different nature of our publishing catalogs) and so with any hope some new books and authors discovered at the festival will be introduced to those of you reading this in the coming year.
And with any luck the festival will have considered their experiment a success and will sponsor a round of US buyers next year as well. For I think I can speak for all that went this year when I say we would all love to go back.