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In France, comic books are serious business

The comic book industry in France is an established art form and their best days may be yet to come

Children at the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. There are now more comic books published annually in France and Belgium than ever before. The market has risen from 700 books per year in the 1990s to 5,000 this year. The turnover in the comic book industry in these two countries reached 510 million euros in 2018.

Angoulême, France

IT'S a big year for comic book anniversaries. Batman's 80th is this year, and Asterix is turning 60. But at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, which ended on Sunday, there was a sense that the form's best days may be yet to come - in the French-speaking world, at least.

"It's a kind of golden age," said Jean-Luc Fromental, a comic book author who also runs a graphic-novel imprint for the publisher Denoël. "There has never been so much talent. There have never been so many interesting books published."

There are now more comic books published annually in France and Belgium than ever before, according to the festival's artistic director, Stéphane Beaujean. "The market has risen from 700 books per year in the 1990s to 5,000 this year," he said in an interview. "I don't know any cultural industry which has had that kind of increase."

Research by the market research company GfK, released to coincide with the festival, showed that turnover in the comic book industry in those two countries alone reached 510 million euros (S$787 million) in 2018.

The bumper year in France and Belgium contrasts with a mixed situation worldwide. Comichron, a website that reports on comic book sales in the United States, where the market is worth around US$1 billion, says that sales there are declining.

But in terms of respect and recognition, comics are on the way up. In July, Sabrina, by American artist Nick Drnaso, became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award.

March: Book Three, a graphic novel about the civil rights movement, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2016.

Not merely an annual preoccupation

In Angoulême, a city about 450km south-west of Paris, comic books are not merely an annual preoccupation. Visitors arriving by train are greeted outside the station by an obelisk honouring René Goscinny, one of the creators of Asterix. There's a comics museum, and a comics library.

The festival, spread out in venues across the city, featured comic books on just about every conceivable subject - the life of Jules Verne, the wines of Burgundy, erotic stories set in space, even one whose main character is a gym sock.

The St-Martial church was repurposed as a shop specialising in comic book titles for Christian readers, whether modern spiritual tales or retellings of Bible stories.

The Angoulême event is unusual in its embrace of comics from around the world, including, but not limited to, those from the three traditions that dominate the form here: French-Belgian, American and Japanese manga.

"It's the only place in the world where you can see all the comics created in the world," said Mr Beaujean, who this year has doubled the size of an area where publishers can buy rights to international titles.

Books featuring classic characters like Donald Duck, Wonder Woman and Tintin were available in both freshly-printed form and as secondhand rarities.

While occasional encounters with men in superhero outfits are unavoidable at an event like this, Angoulême has a very different atmosphere from its American counterparts such as Comic-Con.

"In America, it's about the pop culture, which would include everything from Marvel movies to Lego," said American comic book artist Terry Moore, the author of a 26-year-old series, Strangers in Paradise.

"In France, I'm seeing that it's about books, books, books," he said.

Last Saturday, France's culture minister Franck Riester gave a speech comparing the event's role in the world of comics to that of the Cannes Film Festival in cinema, and Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, visited last Thursday. The attendance by government officials underscored the way the "ninth art", as comic books are sometimes referred to in France, is not a niche pursuit but a mainstream activity.

The Angoulême festival announces a number of prizes each year, their recipients chosen by fellow comics artists. This year, for the first time, women won both of the festival's biggest awards. A jury of seven artists selected the debut graphic novel by American author Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, as winner of the Fauve d'Or, or Golden Wildcat award, for the year's best book.

Cornerstone of the comics industry

Japanese manga artist Rumiko Takahashi won the Grand Prix, the festival's lifetime achievement award. Mr Takahashi began publishing manga comics in 1978 and her books, including Inuyasha, about a time-travelling schoolgirl, have sold more than 200 million copies. She is only the second woman to win the prize.

Angoulême is a cornerstone of the comics industry in France and Belgium, but some in the field say the exuberant headlines conceal a more complex picture. A common refrain is that the huge increase in titles has meant that, while there's more money in the industry, there are also a greater number of authors grasping for a share of it.

Benoît Peeters, an author of comic books who has also written a biography of philosopher Jacques Derrida, said in an interview that despite the increase in overall readership, "the sales of each book, except for those like Asterix and manga, are going down".

Mr Peeters founded an organisation called The General State of Comics to lobby publishers and the French government to defend the interests of comic book artists. He said that publishers were hedging their bets by signing up for too many books, with smaller titles often receiving inadequate support as a result.

"I think the publishers need to make some choices," he said. "When they choose a book they have to defend it and promote it."

But in France, at least, comic books were taken seriously as an art form, he said. "When I was a young author I came from a more literary world," he said.

"People said, 'What are you doing with comics? You are a clever person. You should work with movies or literature.' Now, nobody would say that." NYTIMES