Conquering the comics world without Asterix


French cartoonists create some of the best comic books in the world, but Francophone comics are still struggling to find an international market, writes JOHN BYRNE

FROM THE 27th to 30th of this month, one of the largest and most prestigious comic book festivals in the world will take place. Not, as one might suspect, in Los Angeles, London or Tokyo, but – as it has done annually since 1974 – in the small French town of Angoulême. Though some 250,000 visitors – from Europe, Japan, the US and beyond – will descend on Angoulême over the course of the festival’s four days, few on these shores, outside of the comic book cognoscenti, will be even aware that it exists.

Perhaps the chief reason for this relative obscurity is that the festival celebrates a cultural product that has, to date, stubbornly resisted any and all attempts to export it. Unlike cinema, or jazz, or any of the other artistic endeavours for which France is regularly feted, Francophone comics have, for reasons mysterious, never quite managed to “cross over” and translate local mass-popularity into success on an international stage.

There are, of course, exceptions – most notably the peerless Franco-Belgian duo of Asterix and Tintin, two series that have conquered minds and markets both regional and global. Yet for all their success, these venerable titans represent but the uppermost tip of a thriving, prolific and progressive creative iceberg.

While comics are frequently dismissed as frivolous juvenilia in many other parts of the world, their status in France remains nonpareil. Buoyed by state sponsorship, consistently healthy sales and a cultural climate in which they have achieved the exalted status of “the Ninth Art”, Francophone comics, or bande dessinée as they are known locally, offer up a richness, sophistication and diversity not readily found elsewhere.

So why, given these many strengths, have the products of this industry largely failed to impact in any significant way upon English-speaking markets? An obvious, albeit facile, answer is that they’re “too French”, cut off from Anglophone readers by a linguistic and cultural divide that prevents them from easily resonating and connecting with them.

Yet we need look no further than the shelves of our local bookshops to see evidence of a publishing phenomenon that has overcome far more formidable barriers of language, form and aesthetics. While Franco-Belgian comics have floundered on foreign shores, Japanese Mangahas swept the globe, becoming part of the cultural currency of an entire generation. Does its huge success prove that European comics could, with the right guidance, prosper in a similar fashion? Olivier Cadic, founder of the UK-based Cinebook, certainly thinks so. After relocating from Paris to the UK in 1996, Cadic experienced, he says, “a huge cultural shock” upon discovering that the sole representatives of the Franco-Belgian comics world on show in UK bookshops were the aforementioned Tintin and Asterix. A subsequent trip to a London conference on international comics, where the lack of awareness of the Francophone scene was acute enough for Cadic to take it as “a personal offence”, convinced him that this “ignorance” needed to be redressed. To that end, Cinebook was founded in 2005, rapidly establishing itself as the premier publisher of translated Franco-Belgian comics for English-speaking markets. “When we started,” Cadic explains, “all the French publishers told us that many had tried and they’d all failed. And I thought ‘I love that!’, because then if I fail nobody will think it was my fault.”

The main factors contributing to these previous failures were, he suggests, poor translation coupled with a lack of serious commitment on publishers’ parts.

“When US publishers first started to translate European graphic novels into English,” Cadic says, “the translations were usually really poor. Then after two or three volumes they’d stop. So readers who’d see a new graphic novel series from Europe would think, ‘Oh, after one or two years they’ll stop publishing it so why should I bother?’”

In a bid to restore consumer confidence, Cadic has set about tackling these twin failings.

“Even if a book is finding it difficult to be successful initially,” he says, “we don’t stop publishing it.” This guarantee stands in marked contrast to the dabbling of previous publishers, whose piecemeal “try it and see” approach meant that translated titles inevitably struggled to find an audience. By way of example, Cadic cites Cinebook’s commitment to Lucky Luke, a perennially popular and much-loved staple of the Franco-Belgian scene. “In four years with Lucky Luke,” Cadic explains, “we published double the number of translated volumes that had been published in the previous 50 years.”

Acknowledging that slapdash and careless translation can easily alienate readers and leave even the most complex and mature texts looking naive and nonsensical, Cadic has established a relatively sophisticated chain. “We have a team of three translators,” he says. “First a British translator, who translates the text into a British idiom. Then that translation is reviewed in the US to check that the English also makes sense to an American market, and then finally a French translator who checks that the previous two translators’ work is consistent with the intention of the original author.”

All very laudable and conscientious, but can the traditional resistance of the English-speaking world to the charms of bande dessinée really be easily overcome? Laurence Grove, author of Comics in French: The Bande Dessinée in Context, sees parallels with what was once another slow-burning cultural export. “I think there may be a time-lag in the same way as that experienced by New Wave French cinema,” Grove says. “When it first hit English-speaking worlds it was seen as slightly pretentious, and it took someone like Woody Allen to latch on to it and make it seem funny and interesting before Hollywood started embracing it.”

Grove points to Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming motion-capture production of The Adventures of Tintin as exactly the kind of commercial juggernaut that might just drive Francophone comics on to the next level. “French comics could become the new New Wave,” he suggests. “They could well be the next sexy culture that hits us.”

2011: the year of the bande dessinée “breakout”? Watch this space.

Lucky Luke(Cinebook) Created by Belgian cartoonist Morris (aka Maurice De Bevere) and written, during its golden years, by Asterix co-creator René Goscinny, this affectionate parody of the American West remains one of Europe’s most popular and enduring comics series.

XIII by Jean Van Hamme(Cinebook) Played out over the course of 19 volumes and 25 years, Van Hamme’s best-selling thriller about an amnesiac’s long quest to reclaim his past is an engrossing experience – for those who can stay the pace.

It Was the War of the Trenchesby Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics) Tardi is, simply put, one of the most important and influential French comic artists of the last 30 years.

This welcome translation of his harrowing and haunting first World War narrative is as good a place as any to start.

Epilepticby David B (Jonathan Cape) David B’s sprawling, multi-layered and bewitching childhood memoir is one of the most significant Francophone breakout hits of recent years. Its bold, woodcut visual style proved influential on Marjane Satrapi’s similarly acclaimed Persepolis.