Pulling force… French Culture Minister Rachida Dati at the Angoulême International Comics festival in France on January 27.Photo: Yohan Bonnet/AFP/Getty Images
Like thousands of French people, Sylvie Pinault discovered comic books during the pandemic. although patterned straps – literally means ‘drawn strips’ and is often simply called BD or begde – are revered in France as the “ninth art”, the 52-year-old had preconceptions that they were intended for children. That changed at the beginning of 2020, when her partner suggested going to the gigantic comic festival in Angoulême. The following year, as the country went into lockdown, the bright cover of Léonie Bischoff’s graphic novel Anaïs Nin: A Sea of Lies caught her attention at an exhibition the canceled festival had organized at the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. “It had a different style – maybe that lowered some barriers I had,” says Pinault. It became her first comic book purchase and she took her first journey through the infinite ocean of French hand-drawn possibilities.
Three years later we take a breather in the large exhibitors hall, Le Monde des Bulles (The world of bubbles), in Angoulême. Pinault holds her copy of the Nin book, freshly signed by Bischoff. “She never knows what color she will start a line with,” Pinault marvels at their conversation. “That leaves room for spontaneity.” The thin floor below us vibrates from hundreds of meters high, moving around the stands of Dargaud, Casterman and other major publishing houses, clamoring for drawings and autographs. Punters line up around costumed Marsupilami ushers at the Dupuis stand, opposite a special concession for last year’s Grand Prix winner Riad Sattouf.
It is testament to the new energy injected into the BD market by the pandemic: between 2019 and 2021, fueled by measures such as the Culture Pass that gave teenagers hundreds of euros to spend, its size almost doubled from 48.4 million sales per year to 87.2m. “We did not expect this phenomenon [to last] after the lockdown was lifted,” says Marie Parisot, marketing and commercial director of Dargaud, publishers of Asterix and Lucky Luke. “Everyone was afraid that people would stay at home, introverted.” Now one in four books sold in France are comics.
But then we are talking about the realm of Asterix and Spirou, Tintin and Babar: the tireless Franco-Belgian comics tradition. It has deeper cultural roots than its counterparts in the US and Britain: while the latter appeared mainly in short-lived newspaper strips in the 19th century, the French-language version made an early attempt at bourgeois respectability, often published as hardbacks to give to well-behaved children to give . And it has benefited from government interventions to support bookstores, such as the 1981 law sponsored by then-Culture Minister Jack Lang that bans discounts greater than 5% of a book’s cover price.
With 3,500 independent bookstores (as many as Britain and the US combined), France is fertile territory for comic book makers to come up with an unparalleled range of styles. “What’s incredible is that the smallest title here has something interesting,” says veteran BD journalist and editor-in-chief of website ActuaBD, Didier Pasamonik. “Independent comics with a circulation of 600 are of just as high quality as those with 100,000.”
On Saturday, the biggest day in Angoulême, people stream up the hill from the train station to the fortified historic center where most of the festival takes place. There is thick fog, but the gamblers are clearly visible. Duffle-coated and tattooed aesthetes abound. I see two cosplay Marios. A group of Italians, covered in insignia, like pearl kings from comic books, walk by.
As to why the festival – the third largest comics festival in the world, after Italy’s Lucca and Japan’s Comiket – is being held in this pale provincial town 100km from the Atlantic coast, it comes down to the usual French explanation: gastronomy. In the early 1970s, local fanboys started inviting Belgian greats such as Hergé, Smurf creator Peyo and Spirou Franquin to drink the regional specialty cognac until the early hours and sign an autograph. dedicates (signatures) for them. The first real festival took place in 1974, when the government tried to create the Charente department a center of visual arts that quickly professionalized in the 1980s. It now attracts 200,000 visitors per edition.
Around the corner from the town hall is the other important location, Le Nouveau Monde (The New World), where a tent a quarter of a kilometer long houses all possible alternative comic strips: American big names such as Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns in translation, memoirs from the Arab world, British anthropomorphic fables, erotic Hellenic BD, small-print LGBTQ+. American Erin Meyer-Charneux, 51, looks at some merchandise, striking with a pink mop of hair and sequin-covered jacket, and is buzzing with creative energy: “I consider it professional development.” She’s here partly to flog her D-Day comic, but her riotous style has so far run afoul of Gallic demands: ‘They said it didn’t meet the rules of the French BD. Everything has to be in panels.”
The place is so packed that a highway-style right-of-way system has been started. Visual overload soon sets in: after a few hours your eyes feel like fried eggs bubbling on your face. The government also knows what a powerhouse the BD sector is: on Saturday afternoon Rachida Dati, the newly appointed Minister of Culture, will take office Le Nouveau Monde. Surrounded by a huge horde of journalists and bodyguards, she stops the circulation in the tent like a republican clot in this hipster artery. She declares herself on the side of the struggling authors: “In anticipation of the works, I look at the people who create them. I’m not just going to be minister of private viewings, exhibitions and shows – I want to take action.”
The financial situation of comics writers and illustrators is a hot topic. The growth in the number of titles on the market has been so rapid – 5,000 a year now, up from 700 in the 1990s – that authors are cannibalizing each other’s income. Now that the supply is so large, the financial power lies with the publishers. The takeover of major brands such as Spirou by publishers that are often subsidiaries of monopolizing companies (Dargaud and Dupuis, together with several other BD stores, belong to the Belgian group Média-Participations) has further tilted the balance towards the authors.
“One of the hidden tensions in the market is that publishers are trying to create their own brands that belong to them, and not to the authors,” says Pasamonik. “Then they give them to different authors to work on, like Disney or DC do, which is always to the advantage of the publisher.” Julie Durot, managing director of Dupuis, sees it differently: “It is important that we continue to promote these brands because it allows us to take risks with new and young authors. If we were exclusively ‘mercantile’ we wouldn’t do that.”
But the fact remains that 53% of French comics authors, according to a 2014 survey, earn less than the minimum wage. Various groups, including the Etats General de la Bande Dessinée, were created to advocate for them, but Pasamonik says they “have no weight.” The incredible thing is that, despite all the French BD fever and its guild-like classification of job categories, the status of comics artist still has no legal recognition here. But on the question of creating one, Dati is unsure: “I currently do not have a unanimous position or consensus on this issue.”
The other apparent shadow over French comics production is the dominance of Japanese manga, which now accounts for more than half of all BD sales in the country. (Such songs as Dragon Ball and One Piece – the latter was recently mentioned by name by President Macron in a tweet – are cheaper than French-Belgian albums.) But in reality there is no threat: French publishers usually license and sell manga themselves, the The resulting swelling helps fund local comics, many French creators work directly in the style, and the cross-pollination influences a new wave of millennial artists following in the Japanese footsteps of the likes of Van Gogh and Moebius.
The Eastern influence also affects boardrooms. The Japanese manga industry was split early on into e.g shōnen (boys) and shōjo (girls’) comics taught the French how to segment the market into the multifaceted beast it is today, including the non-fiction BD boom of the past fifteen years. Now Japan is leading the way in the digitization of comics: sales of digital manga surpassed paper versions in 2017. Digital comics readership in France is still only 2%, but many believe this is the inevitable future. Up front in Angoulême’s manga pavilion – tucked behind the train station, as if it still reflects a historically cool attitude towards the Japanese form that only began to change in the early 00s – is a major exhibition for Netflix-style Mangas.io platform for buying manga. CEO Romain Regnier obviously believes in this: “The people who consume digitally are already there, but they have a culture of illegal downloading. The challenge is to interest people in a legal solution that respects the rights chain.”
It seems certain that digital will play a role in some form, with the major publishers rolling out their own reading platforms, experimenting with daily Instagram comics and investing in the ‘webtoon’ medium that is custom formatted for online. Despite the explosive growth of the pandemic, there is concern: the BD market even shrank by 11% last year during a predictable correction. “The big challenge is always that young people read less,” says Parisot. “What we try to do is get them to open the door of a bookstore out of curiosity, because we showed them something cool in an Instagram post or on YouTube.”
Outside Manga City, a group of 16-year-old schoolgirls returning to the city struggle to determine what’s so special about manga versus French comics: “They’re almost set in a different universe.” One – cosplaying as some kind of anime sorceress with bobby socks and a sundae hat – is halfway through that door. French, Japanese, print, digital, real-life, fantasy, they don’t seem concerned about the future of BD; just excited to get to the next destination.