Why Do French Comics Sell Abroad?

March 1, 2014 | By Book Department

On the occasion of the 41st Angoulême Comics Festival, which ended last week, what better time to take a look at the state of French comics on the American book market? This year’s festival demonstrated the increasingly international character of the world of comics. Although Franco-Belgian tradition was well-represented among the laureates [among others, Alfred’s Come Prima (Editions Delcourt, 2013) received the prestigious ‘Fauve d’Or’], American comic books were greeted with particular enthusiasm. Most notably, Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterson was awarded the festival’s Grand Prix.

While American comics are securing popularity and prestige in France, Franco-Belgian comics, also called bandes dessinées, and French romans graphiques are becoming more popular in the United States than ever before. Recent U.S. press coverage of the Angoulême festival [see Heidi MacDonald’s article in Publishers Weekly, for example] has served to further acquaint American publishers with French graphic books, which have enjoyed a growing presence in American bookstores.

Comics books, bandes dessinées, romans graphiques

It is important to understand that American and French comics are not categorized in the same way. In the U.S., ‘comic books’ are thin periodicals of about 32 pages, mainly based on the adventures of superheroes, while the term ‘graphic novel’ is given to illustrated hardcover books, and the audiences for these two categories do not always coincide. In France, however, both traditional bandes dessinées [series like Tintin and Astérix] and romans graphiques are bound in hardcover, and are therefore all classified as ‘graphic novels’ in the U.S. The challenge is to find a larger readership for these titles, which do not always have their own shelf in American bookstores.

In 2013, 5,519 comic books were published in France, of which 25% were new editions and anthologies and 75% were new titles. The large number of new titles represents a rich variety of subgenres, including 1528 Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées, 372 graphic novels, 385 American comics, and 1575 mangas, among others.[1]

Despite prevailing impressions to the contrary, French comics do quite well on the American market. Rights sales indicate that both the bandes dessinées and romans graphiques genres, recognized internationally for their unique graphic styles and narrative voices, are appealing to American publishers. In addition to their literary value, they are often commercially successful. Titles such as Blacksad, by Juan Diaz Carnales and Juanjo Guarnido [Darkhorse, 2010], Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows [Graphic Universe, 2012] and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis [Pantheon, 2004] have been very popular in the U.S.

How it All Began

The creation of Humanoids Inc., the U.S. branch of the French publishing house Humanoïdes, was one of the first steps in bringing contemporary European comic books to the U.S. In opening a branch in the U.S., Humanoids aimed not only to introduce Americans to authors like Moebius, Pierre Christin, or Enki Bilal, but also to publish American comic book authors. In 2005, Fantagraphics Books followed suit by launching a collection of European comics in translation, beginning with the Ignatz series by Italian author Igort. Fantagraphics’ acquisition of works by Jacques Tardi, Lewis Trondheim, and Jason has helped to establish them on the American literary scene. Joann Sfar [published by First Second Books] has also achieved recognition in the U.S., and received the prize for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material at the 2006 Eisner Awards.

Another major contribution to the diffusion of foreign comic book art has been made by Françoise Mouly [art editor, The New Yorker] and Art Spiegelman [Maus]. In the late 1980’s, several European cartoonists were featured in their comics anthology Raw [later published by Pantheon Books as Read Yourself Raw, 1987]. Today it’s through Toon Books, launched in 2008, that they bring heroes of French children’s publishing to the U.S. Toon Books has published the series Silly Lilly by Agnès Rosentiehl and Benjamin Bear by Philippe Coudray, and has announced an upcoming translation of the first volume of Philemon, a well-known series by French artist Fred that appeared in the monthly fanzine Pilote in 1965.

Recent Successes

Lately, a new wave of young French authors has been well-represented in English translation, thanks to the support of numerous independent publishers. In 2013, NBM released several ambitious titles, such as Etienne Davodeau’s The Initiates and Christian Dureieux’s An Enchantment, while Archaia published Last Days of an Immortal by Gwen De Bonneval and Fabien Vehlmann. British publisher SelfMadeHero exports its catalogue, which includes new authors like Frederick Peeters and David Prudhomme, directly to the North American market. Nobrow released its London catalogue in the U.S. two years ago, which introduced the first comic strips by Blexbolex. Many of these publications have been made possible by rights agent Nicolas Grivel, who has helped bring the work of young European cartoonists to English-language publishers for the past four years [see Calvin Reid’s article in Publishers Weekly].

Major publishers sometimes play a role in this phenomenon by investing in best-selling titles: in 2008, Marvel formed the imprint Soleil for printing English translations of European series such as Sky Doll and Ythaq: The Forsaken World. In 2011, Vertigo Comics released Marzi by Marzena Sowa and Sylvain Savoia, translated from Editions Dupuis' famous series on communist Poland in the 1980's. In 2012, Dark Horse acquired the extremely popular Blacksad, and started translating the Jeremiah series by Hermann. A few years ago, DC Comics and Devil's Due collaborated with Humanoids Publishing, the former on the distribution of Humanoids’ titles and the latter on translations of new series including The Zombies That Ate The World and I Am Legion in the comic book format.

There has also been a notable revival of children’s comics in the U.S., which includes a growing number of French translations. In addition to the well-known Aya de Youpougan, available in both hardcover and paperback, Drawn & Quarterly recently took a chance on Anouk Richard’s Anna & Froga series. Papercutz has enjoyed a great success with Peyo’s The Smurfs [whose sales have skyrocketed since the release of the film in 2013], and has taken on a second Peyo character: Benny Breakiron. Papercutz has also found a bestseller in the Ariol series, written by Emmanuel Guibert and illustrated by Marc Boutavant, which has sold nearly 10,000 copies in its first year.

French-American Friendship

American festivals have been essential in bringing European graphic books to the U.S., often inviting both authors and editors to participate. In 2012, no less than seven French cartoonists took part in the Brooklyn Comics & Graphics Fest: Anouk Richard was invited by Drawn & Quarterly and Blexbolex by Nobrow. Nine Antico and Clément Baloup were able to sell their books based solely on their graphic merit, as they had not yet been translated into English. A panel hosted by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and moderated by Françoise Mouly gathered the same seven authors and drew a huge crowd. In 2013, Boulet, whose work was only available online at the time, was requested by several U.S. comics festivals. His North American tour included Chicago CE2E, the Portland Stumptown Festival and the TCAF, and resulted in a limited edition publication by Adhouse Books, which sold 800 copies in one month. For 2014, the Society of Illustrators will enlarge the international programming of its MoCCA Fest, with Joost Swarte, Brecht Vandenbroucke, Marion Fayolle, and European publishers like Fremok.

Perhaps the best ambassadors for French comics are American authors who have visited or lived in France. Writer and artist Matt Maden, for example, has contributed to the promotion of Oubapo’s authors in Words Without Borders [whose February issue showcases international graphic novels!]. Upon returning to the U.S., American cartoonists often enthusiastically promote the traditions they found in France. After participating in the experimental comics lab “Pierre Feuille Ciseaux” in Besancon, Zach Sally invited nine Francophone authors for a residency at Minneapolis MCAD last summer.

New Platforms

Thanks to new technologies and online platforms, the European graphic novel is now able to reach a larger audience. Last June, the website ComiXology added a selection of over 400 French-language comics to its U.S. catalogue, and recently presented Joe Keatinge’s Top 5 Picks in French comics. Similarly, the Brooklyn Rail recently started posting regular comic strips by Francophone cartoonists in its fiction section. Among others, the site has featured comics by Alfred and Antony Huchette, and French publisher L’Association has offered some its best short stories from the “Pattes de Mouche” collection.  This year’s Angoulême festival has awarded young French cartoonists whose unpublished work is only available online [and can be seen on the festival’s website]. The festival gathered 380 cartoonists to come up with comic strips inspired by a creative constraint invented by Lewis Trondheim for the annual "24 heures de la bande dessinée."

Posting one’s work online before finding a publisher has proved successful for a number of authors. For example, First Second Books has scheduled titles by Bastien Vives and Penelope Bagieu after the success of their “blogs BD.” These authors have started posting their work online before signing with a French publisher. In fact, “blogs BD” have become their own sub-genre, often managing to reach a global audience, especially when the blog is also available in English, as was the case with Boulet.

Despite several setbacks this year, the future of translations on the comic book market looks bright. Dan Nadel’s closure of Picture Box in New York led to cancellations of upcoming translations, and with the death of editor, translator, and writer Kim Thompson in 2013, Fantagraphics was forced to delay further publication of its French List. However, Fantagraphics was able to raise $222,327 through a highly successful crowd-funding campaign, demonstrating fan appreciation for the Seattle-based company’s collection of translated titles and the importance of digital platforms in the world of comics. Even in the face of these unfortunate events, though, rights sales and publishing initiatives indicate increasing success for European comics in America. This spring, several outstanding Franco-Belgian titles will be released in the U.S.: Alaxis Press will launch François Schuiten and Benoît Peter’s series The Obscure Cities. Top Shelf has announced Renée, the second installment in Ludovic Debeurne’s Lucille. NBM has plans to release the second volume of Zombillenium, by Arthur de Pins. SelfMadeHero will publish Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, which won the prize for best album at the 2013 Angoulême festival. French novelist David Camus and Eisner-winning graphic novelist Nick Abadzis will also collaborate on the Cigar that Fell in Love with a Pipe, which will be written directly in English.

We look forward to the release of these exciting new titles, and are confident that appreciation for French comics in the U.S. will only continue to grow!


[1] According to ©Gilles Ratier, secrétaire général de l’ACBD (Association des Critiques et journalistes de Bande Dessinée) [http://www.acbd.fr/category/les-bilans-de-l-acbd/]

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