French Comics

I spent a week in France in September, and I was fascinated by the comics. The first and primary thing is that they are everywhere - there's an entire street in Paris that is almost nothing but comics shops, and even the small town in the Alps we spent a few days in had one.

And the range is pretty stunning, too. There are translations from English, of course, New Mutants and the like - pretty good translations, too. It's very odd to read familiar characters in another language. But there are also translations from German, Italian, and Spanish, and a wealth of home-produced material.

The genres of comic are different, too. There's almost no sign of the costumed superhero type - instead, the shelves are labelled "Science Fiction", "Fantasy", "Mystery" and "Action". And "Erotic", which made me blink.

Spoiled for choice, I spoke to the small-town shop owner, who patiently (he needed to be patient with my command of French) explained the various comics there, and recommended a translation from Italian, Le Jour des Magiciens as a good place to start. The two first volumes in the series - large 80-page hardback books, somewhere between A4 and A3 in size - were packaged together, and set me back a total of €20, down from €12 each. At the time, I didn't really pay much heed to this, but looking back, I'm rather stunned. In Ireland - and elsewhere in the Anglophone comic world - we end up paying €25 and upward for a single trade paperback. Production values are much higher, and the only reason that I didn't go out and buy the rest of the series when I finished the two books was that it's new this year, and there isn't any more yet, not even in Italian.

Now, if they can make a profit on those beautiful hardbacks at half the price of our trade paperbacks, there's plainly something wrong here. Part of it is the cultural values, of course. Comics are still "kids' stuff" here, and that's plainly not the case in France. I saw one middle-aged couple buy a book for their son (and the owner giftwrapped it for them - giftwrap! in a comic shop!) and then Papa turned around and bought one for himself as well.

My question (apart from "where can I buy these online?") is: how did this happen? French is spoken by 70 million people as a first language, English by 350 million - and many more have it as a second language. So how does it come about that French comics equal English in number and exceed them in quality?

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Posted by Drew Shiel at October 7, 2004 5:07 PM | TrackBack

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See Ninth Art for a variety of frustrated musings on this very topic. The history is complicated, and has to do with the way comics started out as "the funny pages" in newspapers and thus from the start had an inferior, red-headed-stepchild position, seen as being good enough for people who couldn't handle the real news; then English-language comics got their own magazines, which were churned out by a bunch of teenagers, basically (not exclusively, but Joe Kubert, who is still drawing and writing, started off professionally at the age of 13, and he wasn't all that exceptional), printed on bad-quality paper, and generally treated as unimportant ephemera...

Then, in the '50s, just as things were beginning to look a bit better, Frederic Wertham came along, kicked up a stink about how these comics (which were intended for an adult audience) would corrupt children and turn them into juvenile delinquents. There was a Senate hearing, EC Comics went out of business, and The Comics Code Authority was brought into being as a self-regulation body so that comics publishers wouldn't have to submit to federal controls.

The Comics Code was the equivalent of requiring every movie ever made to have a G rating. Only worse. Naturally, adults didn't really read comics after that, because there was nothing there for them except maybe nostalgia.

The '60s saw a revival of the notion of comics for adults (Robert Crumb and the like), but these comics couldn't be distributed through normal channels because they weren't Code-compliant. So they were sold through head shops etc. Now, the direct market -- i.e. specialist comics shops as we know them today in the English-speaking world -- is essentially descended from that model. Head shops were/are places that didn't draw attention to themselves, that often didn't make a profit, and that were run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. The same is the case with direct market comic shops.

This completely sucks, because you have to be in the know to want to go to one of these places -- they're not friendly to the casual browser at all -- and because they're largely run by superhero fans for superhero fans, superhero comics are, by and large, what you get there. It's extraordinarily difficult to get non-superhero comics to sell well through the direct market, because the retailers won't buy them. The publishers will, and so will the public if they know where they are (comics by comics-creators operating outside the direct market system do very well in bookshops, e.g. Raymond Briggs, Posy Simmonds, art spiegelman etc.); but the retailers aren't interested.

This sucks, and is why I want to start up a chain of really decent comics shops for the English-speaking world, so that we can catch up with the French. The creative talent is there: there's just a bottleneck in the retail sector. But that can be fixed. If somebody wants to fix it.

Posted by: Katherine F. at October 7, 2004 9:42 PM

Katherine; that explanation doesn't let the UK, Ireland and the Antipodes off the hook.

French dictionaries have pictures. The monolingual, thick ones that kids get when they go to college. That threw me. What else ... I remember hanging around with a lyonnais grad student who was doing--evidently legitimate--background reading for a paper on the Rwandan genocide, and this background reading was a graphic novel. Can you imagine that here?

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at October 8, 2004 5:16 PM