Bringing Bandes Dessinées to the U.S.A.

Alpha by Jens Harder

Rights to Jens Harder's Alpha are available in the United States.

“I don’t know why, but there are often naked persons in French comics,” said Sylvain Coissard of the Sylvain Coissard Agency. He was one of the panelists at the French Publishers’ Agency’s “From Bande Dessinée to Graphic Novel: Drawing Two Traditions Together,” which took place in November at NYU’s Maison Française. Coissard was speaking about some of the obstacles that French publishers face when trying to sell comic book rights to American publishers, but both sides agreed that there are also plenty of opportunities for the French and Americans to work together.

There are now 265 comic book publishers in France, said Thierry Groensteen, Comics Historian and Publisher of Actes Sud’s Editions de l’an 2, to the point that the market is “saturated.” 3,592 new comic books* were published in France in 2008. The market is divided into four different divisions: the traditional Franco-Belgian comics (of which Tintin is the best-known example, but 43% of the new comics published in France in 2008 were in this genre); manga (which appeared in France in the early 1990s and made up 40% of the new comic books published in 2008); graphic novels (10%); and U.S.-imported superhero books (7%). New Franco-Belgian titles, which are usually 48 pages long and focus on humor and adventure, are capable of selling 100,000 copies, and 50% of them sell between 50,000 and 100,000 copies. In 2008, humor comic Titeuf #12 sold 1,832,000 copies (bringing total sales since 1992 to over 20 million!).It’s almost impossible to imagine a comic book—part of a series, no less—selling nearly 2 million copies in the United States. Mark Siegel, Editorial Director of First Second Books, said that’s partly because comics are a central part of the culture in Western Europe and Japan—“everyone in France has a Tintin shelf”—but have been ghettoized in the United States. Dan Frank, Editorial Director at Pantheon, mentioned that the reason for this is the censorship of American comics in the 1950s. The Comics Code Authority was created in 1954 because of concerns about graphic violence and other inappropriate content in comics. Tenets of the code included “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals”; “Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited”; and “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” Though publishers weren’t legally required to adhere to the code, many stores wouldn’t carry their products without the CCA’s seal of approval. Kurt Hassler (with whom PT conducted a separate interview; Hassler was not on the panel), Publishing Director of Hachette’s Yen Press and the former graphic novel buyer for Borders, agrees that differences in sales between the two countries “has more to do with the history of comics in the U.S. than anything specifically related to French comics in this market. The Comics Code “pushed comics underground and focused the content on a very small demographic. It’s really only in the last decade that the negative impression of comics and graphic novels in the States has changed.”

Other cultural differences remain. Paul Levitz, former President and Publisher of DC Comics, describes French comics as “fairly eclectic by comparison to the mainstream U.S. genre fiction material.” First Second published a French children’s comic, Sardine in Outer Space, this year, but because it contains a scene set in hell, six states refused to buy it with public money. Another title, Wake, is about the last person on earth; rights have been sold in 15 countries. “The two countries that wanted the breasts covered?” Coissard said. “China. And the USA.”

(We can’t help mentioning one instance in which the U.S. is less buttoned-up than France: Frank mentioned that in France’s largest bookstore chain, Fnac, the comics section is the only place customers are allowed to sit and read. Meanwhile, you can’t walk through Barnes & Noble without tripping over somebody reading—take that, FNAC!)

French packaging also offers a challenge to U.S. publishers. First of all, there’s the simple problem of language—American publishers are usually looking at untranslated materials, says Hassler, though this is obviously less of a problem for the comic format because of the major role of the art. Furthermore, the standard 48-page, oversized, hardcover French comics are “significantly shorter than what someone here would consider to be a typical graphic novel, and definitely not a standard trim size for a graphic novel in the U.S.,” Hassler says. “It’s definitely something stores would have trouble putting on shelves. Often when publishers license this material they will double up two or three or four of those French editions into a single book at a smaller trim size to make it more accessible.”

Coissard has ideas on how the countries can work together. He would like to visit American publishers more often. “They don’t travel very much,” he said, “We don’t see you at Frankfurt. If you don’t want to trouble, we should come to you.” Also, could American publishers please tone down their contracts, whose excessive terms are “at odds with the French notion of moral rights”? (Sorry, won’t happen, Siegel told him.) Mostly, Coissard stressed that American publishers should have “more faith in the capacity of the American reader to take interest in the world.” Turning to Frank and Siegel, he added politely, “I hope I didn’t shock you.”

Groensteen suggested one French comic book that should be perfectly relevant to American audiences, since it is about the history of mankind. Alpha, by German author and illustrator Jens Harder, tells the story of the history of life on earth, from the Big Bang to the first appearance of man. The book, which is the first volume in a series of three (the second title will cover the history of the past 5,000 years; the third will focus on the future), is, Groensteen said, “an ode to evolution and Darwin.”

Should be universally appealing, right? Well, a recent Gallup poll found that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution. But hopefully they’ll be the audience for this beautiful book. So far, the book has been published only in France. Rights are available in the United States. For more information, e-mail Actes Sud’s Isabel Alliel at i.alliel [at] actes-sud.fr.

*Confused about the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel? Hassler explains: “‘Comics’ is a medium, not a genre—which is where most of the confusion comes from. In the same way that film is a medium capable of covering any kind of storytelling or genre, comics is the same sort of medium, and although most people tend to associate it with the floppy superhero stuff, it also covers book-length material (graphic novels), manga, as well as works like Maus or Persepolis.”

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