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Wrap Up

The biggest thing that came out of our trip to Brussels, Paris and Angouleme at the end of January was the decision to learn to read French. It was a practical decision, based in large part on the fact that a great number of books that I wanted to read have yet to be translated into English. It is a commitment, yes, but a commitment that is fairly easy to adhere to because the only person hurt by my lack of rigor is myself.

In almost every way, this additional language becomes the gateway to another world – a different way of looking at comic book culture, a different comic book market and a wider variety of titles and genres to choose from. And, to be honest, if I am to regard myself as a serious comic book reader – which I do – learning to read French so that I can read some of the best work that the medium has to offer is a logical decision.

In addition, I regard the more mature Francophone comic book market and culture as something that the American comic book market and culture could (and should) aspire to. The reading base of the former is broader, encompassing a vast demographic that cuts across gender, age and economic lines. In our culture, comic book readers are a narrow demographic by default. There has been a belated understanding that other people might like comics as well, but there have really only been partial attempts to court those readers with material aimed at them.

Part of me is convinced that translating and importing select titles from the French market would be enable the American comics market to jump-start a marketing campaign to attract readers outside the default demographics. After all, these are books of proven quality and known sales figures. Many of them have extensive back catalogs. Startup costs for importing these books are different than paying authors and artists to create books from scratch.

If nothing else, the addition of choices to the market should increase buy-in from those readers who like comic books as a medium, but are less than enchanted by the current selection available. After all, the French market is vast – much larger than the contemporary American market. Their back catalog contains books that have been in print since the 1920s and are still being read heavily today by almost everyone. The American books from the 1920s – Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, among others – are being read by connoisseurs and not the standard comics reader.

The lesson I took from the Manga explosion and Harry Potter is that there are a lot of readers out there. The received wisdom that people simply don’t read anymore is false; Harry Potter had millions of people willing to pick up 800 page novels. Manga had people tripping over teenagers in Border’s – teenagers who were unwilling to go into comic book stores because those stores simply didn’t have what they were looking for. Readers want to read, but faced with the vast amount of choice available in today’s entertainment market, readers can afford to be selective. If there is nothing available that they want to read, they will not buy just to buy something.

All things being equal, though, I really don’t have a lot of hope for the maturation of the contemporary American comic book market. Chances are very good that it will continue to plod along as it always has, slaves to dedicated genres and narrow demographics, hoping to squeeze more dollars out of an increasingly depleted monetary pool. And the popular culture in this country will continue to regard comic books as something that is primarily for children – mostly because the big publishers probably will not change their marketing tactics in an attempt to counter this assumption.

Change only happens when it is necessary. The bigger an institution, the less impetus there is for change. If there is a revolution in the way that the comic book medium is perceived in this culture, it will not originate from the largest companies currently publishing comic books. Their business model was cast in the mid-sixties and has not changed significantly. From time to time, they branch out into different genres, but with the notable exception of DC’s Vertigo imprint, these experiments have not borne a lot of fruit.

If there is genuine desire for a more mature comic book market in our culture, it will have to be driven by people whose current marketing plan has not already been decided for them. It will be most likely be aimed at demographics that are not the standard 18-35 year old male readers. And it will probably not be driven by French publishers – they already have a very healthy market, thank you very much; an English market may be vast and relatively untapped, but it is not necessary.

As a result of this frank examination of the state of our comic book culture and market, I feel safe in concluding that if I want to read the kinds of comics that are interesting to me, it’s in my best interest to learn to read French. Or start my own imprint, importing translated comics to this market. On the whole, I think I’m going to have to stick with the option that doesn’t require a boatload of money that I just don’t have.

Posted 11 years, 8 months ago at 2:19 pm.

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Cent Pour Cent

One of the places we wanted to visit while we were in Angouleme was the BD Museum. We’ve been to Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore and the BD Museum in Brussels. This would give us a chance to compare and contrast the three and get a sense for what the French considered museum-worthy.

One of the things we noticed from the map of the town was that the BD Museum was on the bus route of a special bus that took festival goers on a set route around town. When we got on the bus, we discovered why this was necessary. The main portion of the comic festival is in the town square, which is on top of a massive piece of high ground, way up high. The BD Museum, which is next to a river, is on the flat, low ground. The bus provided a way to go from up to down (and vice versa). Did I mention that the town was very hilly?

By the time we got to the BD Museum, our feet were starting to ache from the combined effects of six consecutive days spent wandering Brussels, Paris and now Angouleme. We really wanted a place to sit down. Thank god for the BD Musuem.

You have to cross the bridge to get to the museum. Halfway across the bridge is a bronze statue of Corto Maltese, looking up into the clouds. The museum itself is housed in what looks like an old paper factory. The inside of the museum, however, is space-age as all get out.

I understand that the main exhibit room just received a major makeover in the past few years. I don’t know what it looked like before, but now it looks like someone stole Kubrick’s interior sets from 2001 and molded them into the space. Scattered throughout are massive benches that people can use to sit down. In the center of the seating area are dozens of comics that people can sit and read for as long as they want. The museum is actually designed to be interactive and treats the museum-goer like a library guest.

The exhibits themselves were very interesting and informative, with laminated cards in English. The timeline of comics were broken down logically and Anglo-Saxon comics were placed in their proper socio-historical context, vis-à-vis the French comics of the time. The collection on display was very extensive and I got to play “I have that book.”

The special exhibition (created specifically for the festival) was a show called Cent Pour Cent, where 100 cartoonists reinterpreted 100 classic comic pages. Of course, there is a massive book that reprints all 200 pages, side by side for comparison purposes. The show itself was great. Some of the pages were a bit abstract, but the pages that were good worked very well.

Of course, the best way to judge a museum is by its gift shop. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, for example, has the worst gift shop I have ever been in. This is especially distressing, considering the business that the owner is affiliated with. By comparison, the gift shop in the Brussels BD Museum was fantastic. But the gift shop in the Angouleme BD Museum was like walking into a store like Waldenbooks – beautifully arranged tables overflowing with books. My wife pointed out that it was the local comic shop for the people in the surrounding towns; a small price to pay for living in the middle of nowhere, I guess.

One of the great things about the gift shop was the fact that it stocked art supplies in the front of the store. This meant that the intention was not just to sell comics, but the means of making comics as well. I don’t know if the students visiting the museum got the message that they were intended (indeed, encouraged) to eventually take up the pencil if they wanted, but it was there.

There were other exhibits in the surrounding buildings, but we were so beat at that point that we took the bus back to the top of the town, found a bar and split a bottle of wine. If we had been staying in town, we might have gone back to our rooms for a quick nap before trying to see Enki Bilal, but our train was coming to whisk us back to Paris instead.

As in Brussels, seeing such a well thought-out museum dedicated to the ninth art was very satisfying. Again, it provided some context for the mass entertainment that I’d been wandering around in all day and gave me some material to look out for in the future. I would recommend this place for a visit on its own, but it’s worth visiting during the festival to get the full effect, the context and the spirit of goodwill that’s generated.

Next week is the last installment of the 12 part journey through French comics country: the series wrap-up.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 6:13 am.

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The Major Publishers at Angouleme

As busy and crazy as the alternative press hall was in Angouleme, it was no comparison to the major hall at the other end of town – the major publisher marketplace.

Where the alternative hall was a long, narrow hallway, this marketplace was wide, which gave the publishers room to set up trade show booths; this was appropriate because we were at a trade show. The major publishers had a couple hundred square feet apiece, which they filled with shelves; the exit inevitably led past the cash register.

There were six major publishers (based entirely on size of booth): Dupuis, Delcourt, Glenat/Drugstore, Le Lombard, Dargard and Casterman. Judging from the pile of books next to the computer, my go-to publishers were Delcourt and Casterman, although I have stuff from Dargard and Glenat in there as well.

In addition, there were about a dozen smaller publishers scattered along the periphery and in an adjacent structure. The back of this second structure was occupied by Soleil – a major publisher of high fantasy comics. The front of the structure contained Marvel Panini, the publisher that obviously has rights to Marvel comic books. Ironically, they also seem to have rights to the DC comics as well. It’s very interesting to see Stan Lee and Watchmen shelved next to each other, but also very amusing. (One American comic that we conspicuously did not see: Sandman. There’s probably a story there, but I don’t know it.)

Each of the major publishers had a section roped off for artists and/or writers who would be appearing later. All of these sections were filled with people in line, patiently reading their comics, secure in the knowledge that they will meet their heroes in due time. The Soliel portion of the building had a big series of tables set up in the back that was filled with artists – apparently, their artists are in demand.

But that was the closest I saw to an actual artist’s alley. In fact, I saw more artists signing in the alternative hall than I did in the major publisher halls. The major publishers were commerce machines. Each of them had a lady with a scanner, cash register and credit card machine – Delcourt had two. By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to have to learn to read French regardless, so I approached shopping with an open mind.

My wife found a Dave McKean comic in an anthology based on the songs of Bob Dylan. I found a copy of L’Homme Bonsai by Fred Bernard – about a man who is turning into a tree; it’s a pirate story. I also found Le Sourire des Marionnettes by Jean Dytar, a gorgeously illustrated book about Omar Khayyam and his encounter with Hassan ibn Sabbah – the so-called Master of Alamut aka the Old Man in the Mountain aka the master of the assassins.

As I said, by this time, I was well aware that I would be able to read these books in due time. With that in mind, it was easy to convince myself to buy these books. After all, I wanted to read the books at the festival. Taking them home and making the comprehension of another language the only real barrier to reading them would arguably be a good motivation to learn. If I was that serious about comics, I should be willing to make a leap of faith like that in order to expand my frame of reference properly.

So I did.

Next week, the Angouleme comics museum – the penultimate part of this twelve-part series.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 8:14 am.

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Alternative at Angouleme

The buildings for the festival in Angouleme are actually semi-permanent structures made of wood and vinyl from the same tent DNA as the air-conditioned dance tents you see at outdoor festivals during summer. The structures at Angouleme are designed to fit into the open space available (presumably park land in the city square), but they are also heated and it’s easy to forget that you’re in a building that will be taken down at the end of the festival.

In the square next to the indie/alternative/small press building was a presentation about a long-running series in the Charleroi style called Les Tuniques Bleues. When we went by the first time, it was filled with screaming schoolchildren who were doing some kind of choreographed reaction to the series, I think. Their enthusiasm for the series was very real, despite the staging. The odd thing was that I had never heard of the series before I started looking at the list of events for the festival. Just something else to get caught up on.

I actually took the time in the cold late afternoon to look at the panels of the presentation. There were six panels per kiosk and five or six kiosks. The panels were about various aspects of the series – where the characters had gone, prisoner of war camps in the South during the Civil War, what historical events and figures the characters encountered, how the series dealt with issues like slavery and so forth. It was fairly informational and probably would have been very interesting if I could read more than a third of the text.

But the use of illustration did provide enough context to give me an idea of what each topic was about and how the topic was integrated into the comic. Given the obvious deference given to the series, the presentation was probably not designed to induce people to read it. But it was intended to explain to people why the series was good and what it had done, correctly or not. I gather that this kind of spotlight is something they have done every year of the festival and I wonder what other comics had been picked out for special consideration – and what was said about them.

The first table in the main entrance of the alternative hall was L’Association, arguably the biggest indie publisher around. Formed by the likes of Lewis Trondheim and David B., L’Association treads the fine line between creating art and creating commercial product. There’s an entire chapter about L’Association in Bart Beaty’s excellent book Unpopular Culture that’s well worth reading. And, of course, they got to sit at the front of the alternative hall. That’s what prestige and a good reputation will do for you.

The remainder of the hall was a long corridor of booths, filled with small and alternative press creators. Erotic publishers were mixed in with children’s book makers and solo artists self-publishing stuff that they’ve been putting out for twenty years. There was a strong vibe of the experimental small press that I would expect to find at Small Press Expo – which tells me that there is always room at the bottom to do weird stuff in an attempt to learn what works.

We ran into two different groups of British comics creators – BASTARDS and Alternative Press. We got several books from each of them. I also picked up a fair number of catalogs. These give me an idea of what the mid-sized publishers were putting out without wasting my time on the day of, trying to puzzle through endless back cover texts. One thing I did notice was the volume of mid-size publishers at the show. The erotic publishers shared space with Sarbacane and Tanibis, who were fairly indicative of what was available.

Possibly the most valuable artifacts that I brought back from Angouleme were the catalogs, buyer’s guides and magazines that carried reviews. They’ve given me insight into what sells and what the range of material available actually is. I found several books in these publications that looked good enough to pick up when I was there. I suspect that I will be shopping from these catalogs for years to come.

Next week, I will be talking about the mainstream publishers at Angouleme, which was an altogether different experience.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 11:15 am.

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Arriving in Angouleme

When we first booked our trip in August of 2009, we tried to get a hotel room in Angouleme for a day or two during the festival. Then we discovered that every hotel room within an 80 mile radius of the town is booked solid almost a year in advance; many of the participants probably book for next year as they are checking out.

As a compromise, we took a day trip from Paris to Angouleme. We left Montparnasse at 7:30 in the morning, which got us into Angouleme at about 10:30. At the end of the day, we caught a train at 20:50, which got us back into Paris at about midnight. Waking up early enough to catch the train sucked, but having three hours of enforced not walking on the return trip after a whole day of tromping around Angouleme was quite nice.

Angouleme bills itself as the City of Festivals, but we reckon that its traditional role as the center of paper-making and printing for this region of France is what originally made it a festival destination for BD. At any rate, the city itself is very happy to be a tourist destination and many businesses feature random BD albums in their store displays, even if the additions don’t make sense. One shoe store had a few Tintin books thrown in with the sneakers, for example.

One shock that we received upon walking from the train station to the town center was the fact that Angouleme is, unlike Brussels and Paris, not flat. Not at all flat. Rather the opposite, really. The maps we had of the town didn’t mention anything about hills.

After some effort, we managed to find our bearings and visit a few of the vending halls and the museum across the river – each of which I’ll get to in later essays. At the end of the night, we sat in a space-age bar next to the Hotel de Ville and killed a bottle of wine over a pile of comics that we really couldn’t read. Still, it was a very nice way to end what had been a slightly frustrating, physically taxing, mentally exhausting day.

One thing my wife pointed out when we were on the train back to Paris was that the Angouleme festival really had no demographic. There were multiple school groups in attendance – elementary school through late high school. (Could you imagine an American school taking students on a field trip to a comic book convention?) There were entire families – with and without children. There were little old ladies shopping by themselves and there were sisters, brothers, fathers and sons shoulder to shoulder in the crowd.

Everyone was looking for the material that spoke to them, but they knew that there would be something (most likely many things) to their taste. Even the camera crew from the French news program that had been filming all day had their bag of comics with the equipment.

Frankly, considering how much the Europeans seem to detest traveling over long distances, it was astonishing to see the volumes of people wandering around the town and shopping in the various marketplaces. The festival was 37 in 2010, which means that several people in the crowd had probably grown up with the festival. That level of engagement is extremely encouraging to see, especially considering the state of our comics market. The crowds in Angouleme – even on a rainy Friday afternoon in January – were bigger than they were at Heroes Con or Baltimore Comic Con, both of which I attended in 2009. And I actually heard that attendance was down slightly overall this year – probably due to the weather.

Next week, I’ll talk about alternative comics in Angouleme, part 9 of 13.

Posted 11 years, 9 months ago at 6:22 am.

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