Euro-vision: the graphic novel market

<p>The UK graphic novel market has come on by leaps and bounds in recent years, with 2009 another year of growth in sales terms. But, just a short hop across the Channel, the popularity of graphic novels is on another level&mdash;an extraordinarily vibrant culture of comics is flourishing in France and Belgium, especially the bande dessin&eacute;e or &quot;BD&quot; field, translated literally as &quot;drawn strips&quot; and meaning French language comics.</p>
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<p>Bucking the trend for other book sectors, for the past 13 years the number of French-language comic books being published has continued to grow. According to the 2008 annual report by Gillies Ratier, secretary general of the ACBD (Association des Critiques et Journalistes Bande Desin&eacute;e), in 2008 the total volume published increased by a further 10% year on year, totalling 4,746 comic books and accounting for 7.91% in volume of 2008's European francophone publishing output and 6.5% of sales by value.</p>
<p>Comics, alongside children's books, are among France's most dynamic publishing sectors. In fact, the market has mushroomed so exponentially that some in the industry worry about a crisis of overproduction, as stores are inundated with new products.</p>
<p>The main puzzle is: why are comics so much more respected and successful in France and Belgium, and indeed much of the rest of mainland Europe, than in Britain? The University of Glasgow's Dr Laurence Grove explains in his new book Comics in French: The Bande Dessin&eacute;e in Context (Berghahn Books, March 2010) that &quot;for at least a quarter of a century, comics have benefited from government patronage, via festivals, book subsidies, exhibitions in national insititutions and above all, the creation of its own national institutions&quot;. None of these would have occurred, Grove explains, without the importance of comics in France in the 1950s, when &quot;the two main pressure groups, the Communists and the Catholics, both expressed their ideals through top-selling BD journals, Vaillant and Coeurs Vaillants&quot;. Taking a broader perspective, he sees comics in France as part of &quot; . . . an exceptional history of devotion to visual culture&quot;.<br />
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<b>Landmark birthdays</b><br />
Perhaps best demonstrating the long history of comics in this part of Europe, this year marks the respective 80th and 50th anniversaries of two of the most well-known and well-loved icons of Belgian and French comics, Tintin and Asterix the Gaul. Celebrations have included the opening in June of a lavish museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, outside Brussels, devoted to Tintin's creator Herg&eacute;, and the publication last month of Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book, with a print-run of three million copies, one third of those for the French market alone.</p>
<p>Interestingly, both series are now perennially popular in Britain, and Tintin may fare even better when the first in a trilogy of motion-capture 3D films from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson comes out in 2011. But, looking back, it is surprising to discover how long it took for these characters to click in Britain. Created in 1929, Tintin had to wait until 1951 to make his tentative d&eacute;but in English in the weekly Eagle comic and until 1959 for his albums to be published by Methuen, and now by Egmont. Meanwhile Asterix, created in 1959, was first poorly rewritten into an ancient Briton in 1965 in Ranger magazine. Apparently, Methuen and Usborne turned down the Gallic charmer as &quot;untranslatable&quot;, before Brockhampton Press took on the character in 1969 with startling success, continuing today through Orion.<br />
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Crossing the channel</b><br />
With these two characters having eventually transferred, can the UK find its next big icons lurking in Europe? After all, there are plenty more top-selling bande dessin&eacute;e series, with impressive first print-runs for their latest episodes. Last year, French publishers printed 600,000 copies of the frightfully English detective duo Blake &amp; Mortimer, created by Herg&eacute;'s assistant Edgar P Jacobs; 535,000 copies of comedy cowboy Lucky Luke, written by Asterix author Ren&eacute; Goscinny; and 490,000 of high-finance thriller Largo Winch, scripted by the prolific Jean Van Hamme.</p>
<p>Such strong sales make it all the more perplexing that British publishers have mostly failed to import and implant these hits here. This is changing, thanks in no small part to Cinebook, a Canterbury-based publisher, founded in 2006 by French entrepreneur Olivier Cadic, which translates European comics into English for the UK market. He says: &quot;When Cinebook started, a lot of people said there is no market in English for European graphic novels. We launched Thorgal and noticed that fans were interested but resistant, because they thought that we would stop after two or three books if we didn't make enough money, as had happened in the past. For this reason, we have announced in advance how often we publish every book of every series.&quot;</p>
<p>Clearly, what has been missing in the past and is much needed to make translation work, is this commitment and reliability. Take XIII, an engrossing mystery about an amnesiac on the run. Both previous attempts to translate this phenomenon got no further than the first three albums, leaving readers hanging, while European readers got to enjoy (and agonise through) 19 albums over 25 years before learning the secrets behind XIII. Now, after a bidding war, Cinebook has won a deal to bring XIII back into English because Cadic guaranteed to publish one album every two months, so that English readers will eventually discover XIII's identity in 2013, or MMXIII.<br />
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<b>Format formalities</b><br />
Another tricky issue has been which format to publish in. Until recently, bandes dessin&eacute;es have traditionally come as large hardbacks of between 48 and 64 pages. Cinebook has kept this full album size for its all-ages titles, in order to preserve the detailed artwork, although they come with a soft cover. This is also done by Highland Books with Lou!, Panini with Requiem and Walker with The Little Prince. However, for Cinebook's 15+ line, Cadic chose to reduce the pages slightly to &quot;a smaller size, closer to the height of an American comic book to help booksellers display our books properly&quot;. Dalen Books, translators of Tintin and other BDs into Welsh, has also adopted this approach for its first English editions of meticulous Celtic historical dramas, Arthur the Legend and Druids. So too have First Second, Pantheon, NBM and Fantagraphics in the USA. Several publishers have also chosen to compile two, or more, albums in one chunkier graphic novel, but Cadic will not continue with this practice next year:&nbsp; &quot;We realised that this made it too pricey for some readers to try, so in 2010 Cinebook will publish only single volumes to let everybody sample our series,&quot; he says.</p>
<p>Recently, a newer graphic novel format, more compact, often standalone, but a hundred or more pages long, has caught on in France and worldwide. Some have already been published with success in the UK, while others are soon to make their way over. In the wake of Marjane Satrapi's Iranian memoir Persepolis, Jonathan Cape has released Guy Delisle's various travelogues as well as Abouet &amp; Oubrerie's African slice-of-life series, Aya. Next to these on the shelves sit Bloomsbury's Logicomix, a mix of maths and comics by Greek novelist Apostolos Doxiadis, SelfMadeHero's first graphic biography of Johnny Cash by Germany's Reinhard Kleist, while Fanfare has brought over My Mommy, drawn by Frenchman Emile Bravo, about a young boy's missing mother, and Years of the Elephant, Willy Linthout's surreal account of his fatherly grief after his son's suicide. Among next year's crop (see box below) are two acclaimed masterpieces. Blank Slate Press is publishing Sleepyheads by Randall C, who scooped both the Flemish and Dutch d&eacute;but prizes last year, and Dalen is about to set sail with Corto Maltese, the atmospheric period epic by the late, great Hugo Pratt, awarded France's Grand Prix in Applied Arts in 1988.</p>
<p>So where do you begin if you want to catch up on the latest and greatest in Euro-comics? There is no better place than the Angoul&ecirc;me International Comics Festival <br />
(www.bdangouleme.com). Some two hours by TGV from Paris, Angoul&ecirc;me in the Charente district of south-west France has become a landmark thanks to its annual festival at the end of January. The largest in the world outside Japan, this four-day fiesta welcomes nearly a quarter of a million professionals and punters from across the globe.British non-specialist publishers of graphic novels are waking up to the value of visiting. This year, Lizzie Spratt, senior commissioning editor at Walker Books, made her first trip.</p>
<p>&quot;Having attended the Bologna Book Fair, I assumed it would be similar. I was completely wrong. This was a fair that took over the entire city. I was blown away by its sheer scale, which combines a trade fair with lots on offer for the public too.&quot; In fact the whole family can enjoy huge marquees of publishers' stands, a building dedicated to manga, numerous first-rate exhibitions and live events in the cinema, theatre, on the streets and even in the cathedral. Angoul&ecirc;me also boasts the state-backed &pound;8m National Comics Centre and, on the opposite bank of the Charente, a splendid new Comics Museum which opened last June. <br />
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<b>Deal-maker</b><br />
The festival also offers significant commercial opportunities as &quot;the Frankfurt of comics&quot;. Since 1990, publishers from around the world have been gathering to make deals in the professionals-only rights area. Lizzie Spratt was impressed: &quot;It's a sensational business over there. Such a variety of books, it was mind-boggling. I made many contacts and certainly came away feeling I had a lot to learn from my European counterparts.&quot; As next year's 37th edition (28th&ndash;31st January) draws near, Angoul&ecirc;me looks set to live up to its rebranding as the undisputed International City of Comics. <br />
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