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From Tintin To Perspolis

In the article below I take a look at the flood of comics from continental Europe now available in English, and look ahead to 12 exciting translation projects due to hit the bookshops in 2010… which also gives me the opportunity to plug two very special events coming up at the 2009 Comica Festival in London:

On Sunday November 22nd, Reinhard Kleist joins us from Germany to celebrate the translation from SelfMadeHero of his award-winning graphic biography of the most famous country singer of all time, the legendary Johnny Cash. Entitled I See A Darkness, it covers Cash’s life from his early sessions with Elvis, through the Folsom Prison recordings to his spectacular comeback, and features lyrics from 23 of his famous songs. Join us for a special celebration of “The Man in Black”. More details here…

And on Monday November 23rd, we’re thrilled to welcome one of the finest and funniest Flemish cartoonists, Willy Linthout, whose autobio-graphic novel Years Of The Elephant, coming in English from Fanfare, has won him huge acclaim for the poignant and surreal account of his grief after the suicide of his young son. Willy will be in conversation with former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, who wrote so touchingly about his own son’s death in The Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake. Expect an evening of insights into these tender, life-affirming first-person testimonies. More details here…

It’s so close, yet it seems so far. Just a short hop across the Channel an extraordinarily vibrant culture of comics is flourishing, especially the bande dessinée or ‘BD’ field in France and Belgium. Bucking the trends, year-after-year French-language comics have not stopped growing for 13 years in a row. In 2008 they increased by a further 10% above 2007’s total, reaching 4,746 books. Accounting for 7.91% by volume of 2008’s European Francophone publishing and 6.5% of sales, comics, alongside children’s books, are among today’s most dynamic 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 product, and fear this speech bubble must burst eventually. Comics may not be booming quite as remarkably elsewhere across mainland Europe yet they too remain buoyant, boosted these days by larger mainstream companies and innovative independents diversifying into graphic novels and manga.

This year marks the anniversaries of two of the most well-known and well-loved icons of Belgian and French comics, Tintin’s 80th and Asterix the Gaul’s 50th. Celebrations have included the opening in June of a lavish museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, outside Brussels, devoted to Tintin’s creator Hergé, and the publication on October 22nd of Asterix and Obelix’s Birthday: The Golden Book, with a print-run of 3 million copies, one third for the French market. Both series remain perennially popular in Britain and Tintin may fare even better when the first of a trilogy motion-capture 3D films from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson opens in in 2011. Looking back, it’s all the more surprising how long it took for these characters to click in Britain. Created in 1929, Tintin had to wait until 1951 to debut tentatively in English in the weekly Eagle comic and until 1959 for his albums to be published by Methuen, and now by Egmont. Created in 1959, Asterix was first poorly rewritten into an ancient Brit in 1965 in Ranger magazine. Apparently, Methuen and Usbourne turned down our Gallic charmer as “untranslatable”, before Brockhampton Press took it on in 1969 with startling success, continuing today through Orion.

So what could be the next big thing after Tintin and Asterix? After all, there are plenty more top-selling bande dessinée 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 & Mortimer, created by Hergé‘s assistant Edgar P. Jacobs; 535,000 copies of comedy cowboy Lucky Luke, written by Asterix author René Goscinny; and 490,000 of high-finance thriller Largo Winch, scripted by the prolific Jean Van Hamme. So it’s all the more puzzling that British publishers have so far mostly failed to import and implant such cross-Channel hits here.

This is changing, thanks in no small part to Cinebook, founded in 2006 by Canterbury-based French entrepreneur Olivier Cadic. “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 2 or 3 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.” What has been needed 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 agonised through 19 albums over 25 years before learning the secrets behind XIII. In a bidding war, Cinebook won the deal to bring XIII back into English because Cadic guaranteed to publish one album every two months, so that readers can discover XIII‘s identity in 2013, or MMXIII.

Another issue has been format. Until recently, bandes dessinées have traditionally come as large hardbacks of 48-64 pages. Cinebook uses this full album size, though in softcover, for its all-ages titles, as do Highland Books with Lou!, Panini with Requiem and Walker with The Little Prince, to preserve the detailed artwork. For Cinebook’s 15+ line, however, Cadic chose to reduce the pages slightly to “a smaller size, closer to the height of an American comic book to help booksellers display our books properly.” Dalen Books, translators of Tintin and other BDs into Welsh, have adopted this approach for their 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 into one chunkier graphic novel, but Cadic is changing this next year: “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.”

A newer graphic novel format, more compact, often one-shots, but a hundred or more pages long, has caught on in France and worldwide. In the wake of Marjane Satrapi’s Iranian memoir Persepolis, Jonathan Cape have released Guy Delisle’s travelogues and Abouet & Oubrérie’s African slice-of-life Aya. Next to these on the shelves are sitting 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 are bringing 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 below) are two acclaimed masterpieces. Blank Slate Press are readying Sleepyheads by Randall C., who scooped both the Flemish and Dutch debut prizes last year, and Dalen are 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.

The puzzle is why are comics so much more respected and successful in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, than in Britain? Glasgow University’s Dr. Laurence Grove explains in Comics in French: The Bande Dessinée in Context (Berghahn Books, March 2010) that “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.” None of these would have occurred, Grove expands, without the importance of comics in Fifties France, when “the two main pressure groups, the Communists and the Catholics, both expressed their ideals through top-selling BD journals, Vaillant and Coeurs Vaillants.” Taking a still broader perspective, Grove sees comics in France as part of “ exceptional history of devotion to visual culture, not just through emblem books and early image narratives, through the ‘high art’ stories in the Louvre… but also in the modern industrial era, through the invention and widescale propagation of photography, the illustrated press, the moving image, and, more recently the internet, of which Minitel was the original forerunner.”

So where do you begin if you want to catch up with Euro-comics properly? There’s no better place than the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Some two hours by TGV from Paris, Angoulême in the Charente district of southwest 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 million professionals and punters from across the globe, flocking there even in mid-winter (in the 25 years I have been, it’s snowed only twice). British non-specialist publishers of graphic novels are waking up to the value of visiting and this year, Lizzie Spratt, Commissioning Editor at Walker Books, made her first trip. “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.” The whole family can enjoy huge marquees of publishers’ stands, a whole building dedicated to manga, numerous first-rate exhibitions and live events in the cinema, theatre, on the streets and even in the cathedral. Angoulême also boasts the state-backed £8 million National Comics Centre and, on the opposite bank of the Charente river, a splendid new Comics Museum opened last June.

On top of this, the festival also offers significant commercial opportunities as “the Frankfurt of comics”. Since 1990, publishers from around the world have been gathering to make deals in the professionals-only rights area. Lizzie Spratt was impressed: “It’s a sensational business over there. Such a variety of books, it was mind-boggling and inspirational. I made many contacts and certainly came away feeling I had a lot to learn from my European counterparts.” As next year’s 37th edition ( 28-31 January, 2010) draws near, Angoulême looks set to live up to its rebranding as the undisputed International City of Comics.   


by Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrérie
Jonathan Cape
A witty serial set in 1970s Ivory Coast continues from Jonathan Cape, with an animated feature version now in production.

Corto Maltese
by Hugo Pratt
Dalen Books
Umberto Eco once wrote, “When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want to read something serious, I read Corto Maltese.” Fellow Italian Hugo Pratt’s enigmatic seafarer makes his long-awaited return.

King of Flies
by Mezzo & Pirus
Fantagraphics Books
In the territory of Charles Burns, these French freaksters bare the horrors lurking behind the facade of American suburban normality in this hardcover colour trilogy: Vol 1 Hallorave in February, Vol 2. in the summer, Vol 3 in 2011.

by Julien Neel
Highland Books
A fourth volume waits in the wings of Julien Neel’s utterly charming, candy-coloured comedy about a teenage girl and her single Mum, as the French animated series hits The Disney Channel.

by Lise Myhre
Titan Books
Norwegian goth-girl comedy strip Nemi, as seen in the Metro newspapers, is proving a cult bestseller.

by Patt Mills & Olivier Ledroit
Panini Comics
Celebrated 2000AD scribe Pat Mills can really cut loose on this febrile French horror fantasy decadently illustrated by Olivier Ledroit.

by Randall C.
Blank Slate Books
This subtly-coloured Flemish fantasy charts a couple’s fascinating, surreal sleepwalk through a philosophical dreamscape.

The Little Prince
by Joann Sfar
Walker Books
Joann Sfar’s charming, idiosyncratic reinterpretation of Saint-Exupery’s classic will be a definite highpoint of next year.

The Wrong Place
by Brecht Evens
Drawn & Quarterly
Another Belgian wunderkind, Brecht Evens, unpeels the layers of twenty-something post-graduates at a kaleidoscopic party in his watercoloured tour-de-force.

by Christin & Mézières
Light years ahead of its time, Christin & Mézières’ intelligent science fiction is acknowledged as a huge influence on George Lucas’s Star Wars.

West Coast Blues
by Jacques Tardi
Fantagraphics Books
Jacques Tardi’s gritty adaptation of Jean-Patrick Machette’s hard-boiled thriller about a family man sucked into a spiral of violence involving a war criminal in exile and two hired assassins. Out now in the States from Fantagraphics and coming to the UK next year from Jonathan Cape.

by Van Hamme & Vance
Simply one of the most gripping thrillers in Franco-Belgian comics, spun off into a successful game and American movie starring Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer.

Posted: November 15, 2009

This article originally appeared in The Bookseller: Graphic Novels & Manga Supplement in November 2009.


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