Like thousands of French people, Sylvie Pinault discovered comic books during the pandemic. Though bandes dessinées – literally meaning “drawn strips” and often simply referred to as BD or bédé – are venerated in France as the “ninth art”, the 52-year-old had preconceptions about them being for children. That changed at the start of 2020, when her partner suggested they go to the gigantic comic-book festival in Angoulême. The following year, with the country locked down, the limpid cover of Léonie Bischoff’s graphic novel Anaïs Nin: A Sea of Lies caught her eye in an exhibition that the cancelled festival had put on in Paris’s Gare d’Austerlitz. “It had a different style – maybe that lowered certain barriers I had,” says Pinault. It became her first comic-book purchase, and she took her maiden voyage on France’s infinite ocean of hand-drawn possibilities.
Three years on, we are pausing for breath in the main exhibitors’ hall, Le Monde des Bulles (The World of Bubbles), at Angoulême. Pinault is clutching her copy of the Nin book, freshly signed by Bischoff. “She never knows what colour she’ll start a line with,” Pinault marvels from their exchange. “That leaves room for spontaneity.” The thin flooring underneath us is vibrating from hundreds of feet, milling around the stands for Dargaud, Casterman and other big publishers, clamouring for drawings and autographs. Punters edge around costumed Marsupilami ushers at the Dupuis stand, opposite a dedicated concession for last year’s grand prix winner, Riad Sattouf.
It is testament to the fresh energy injected into the BD market by the pandemic: between 2019 and 2021, fanned by measures such as the Culture Pass that gave teenagers hundreds of euros to spend, it almost doubled in size from 48.4m sales a year to 87.2m. “We didn’t expect this phenomenon [to last] after lockdown was lifted,” says Marie Parisot, marketing and commercial director of Dargaud, publishers of Blake and Mortimer and Lucky Luke. “Everyone was worried people would stay at home, turned in on themselves.” Now one in four books of any kind sold in France are comics.
But then we are talking about the realm of Asterix and Spirou, Tintin and Babar: the indefatigable Franco-Belgian comic-book tradition. It has deeper cultural roots than its US and UK counterparts: where the latter appeared mostly in ephemeral newspaper strips in the 19th century, the Francophone version made an early play for bourgeois respectability, often published as bound books to be given to well-behaved children. And it has benefited from governmental intervention designed to support bookshops, such as the 1981 law sponsored by then-culture minister Jack Lang that forbids discounting practices that go beyond 5% of a book’s cover price.
With 3,500 independent bookstores (as many as the UK and US combined), France is fertile territory for comic-book creators to concoct an unrivalled breadth of styles. “What is incredible is that the slightest little title here has something interesting,” says veteran BD journalist and editorial director of website ActuaBD, Didier Pasamonik. “Independent comics with a circulation of 600 are just as high quality as those with 100,000.”
On Saturday, the biggest day at Angoulême, people stream up the hill from the train station towards the fortified historic centre where most of the festival is corralled. There is thick fog but the punters are highly visible. Duffle-coated and tattooed aesthetes abound. I spot two cosplay Marios. A group of Italians covered in badges like comic-book pearly kings file past.
As to why the festival – the world’s third-largest comic-book festival behind Lucca in Italy and Japan’s Comiket – is held in this pallid-hued provincial city 100km from the Atlantic coast, it comes down to the usual French explanation: gastronomy. In the early 70s, local fanboys began inviting Belgian luminaries such as Hergé, Smurfs creator Peyo and Spirou’s Franquin to come down, drink the regional speciality cognac until the small hours, and sign dedicaces (autographs) for them. The first festival proper took place in 1974 and, with the government seeking to make the Charente département a hub of visual arts, became rapidly professionalised in the 1980s. Now it brings in 200,000 visitors per edition.
Around the corner from the town hall is the other key venue, Le Nouveau Monde (The New World), where a quarter-kilometre-long tent houses every single variety of alternative comic conceivable: US big hitters such as Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns in translation, Arab-world memoirs, British anthropomorphic fables, erotic Hellenic BD, small-press LGBTQ+. Poring over some wares, conspicuous with a pink shock of hair and sequin-covered jacket, American Erin Meyer-Charneux, 51, is buzzing off the creative energy: “I view it as professional development.” She is here partly to flog her comic about D-day, but her loose-limbed style has so far butted heads with Gallic exigency: “They said it didn’t obey the rules of French BD. Everything has to be in panels.”
The tent is so crammed that a highway-style right-hand passage system has started up. Visual overload soon sets in: after a couple of hours, your eyes feel like fried eggs bubbling on your face. The government also knows what a powerhouse the BD sector is: mid-afternoon on Saturday, Rachida Dati, the newly appointed culture minister, alights on Le Nouveau Monde. Surrounded by a huge scrum of journalists and bodyguards, she stops circulation in the tent like a republican clot in this hipster artery. She declares herself on the side of struggling authors: “Ahead of the works, I’m looking at the people who make them. I’m not only going to be the minister for private views, exhibitions and shows – I want to take action.”
The financial situation of comic-book writers and illustrators is a hot topic. The growth of titles on the market has been so rapid – 5,000 a year now, up from 700 in the 1990s – that authors are cannibalising each other’s earnings. With supply so high, financial power rests with the publishers. The acquisition of big brands such as Spirou by publishing houses that are often the subsidiaries of monopolising corporates (Dargaud and Dupuis, along with several other BD outlets, belong to the Belgian group Média-Participations) has further tipped the balance away from authors.
“One of the hidden market tensions is publishers trying to create proprietary brands that belong to them, not to the authors,” says Pasamonik. “Then they give them to different authors to work on like Disney or DC do, which always favours the publisher.” Julie Durot, managing director of Dupuis, sees things differently: “It’s important that we continue to promote those brands because it allows us to take risks with new and young authors. If we were solely ‘mercantile’, we wouldn’t do that.”
But the fact remains that 53% of French comic-book authors, according to a 2014 study, earn less than the minimum wage. Various groups, including the États Généraux de la Bande Dessinée, have been created to advocate for them, but Pasamonik says they have “no weight”. The incredible thing is that, for all France’s BD fever and its guild-like classification of job categories, the status of comic-book author still has no legal recognition here. But pressed on the question of creating one, Dati equivocates: “I don’t currently have a unanimous position or consensus on the subject.”
The other ostensible shadow over French comic-book production is the domination of Japanese manga, which now accounts for more than half of all BD sales in the country. (The likes of Dragon Ball and One Piece – the latter recently name-checked by President Macron in a tweet – are cheaper than Franco-Belgian albums.) But in reality there is no threat: French publishers generally license and sell manga themselves, the resulting coffer-swelling helps fund local comics, plenty of French creators work directly in the style, and the cross-fertilisation is influencing a new wave of millennial artists following in the Japanified footsteps of the likes of Van Gogh and Moebius.
The eastern influence is affecting boardrooms, too. The Japanese manga industry, compartmentalised early on into the likes of shōnen (boys’) and shōjo (girls’) comics, taught the French how to segment the market into the multi-faceted beast it is today, which includes the boom in nonfiction BD over the past 15 years. Now Japan is leading the way on digitalisation of comics: digital manga sales passed print in 2017. Digital comics readership in France is still only 2%, but many believe it is the inevitable future. Up front in Angoulême’s manga pavilion – tucked away behind the train station, as if still reflecting a historically cool attitude here to the Japanese form that only begin to shift in the early 00s – is a large display for Mangas.io, a Netflix-style platform for buying manga. CEO Romain Regnier is naturally a believer: “The people who consume digitally are already here, but they have a culture of downloading illegally. The challenge is to interest people in a legal solution that respects the rights chain.”
It seems certain that digital will play a part in whatever form: the big publishers are rolling out their own reading platforms, experimenting with daily Instagram strips and investing in the “webtoon” medium that is formatted bespoke for online. Despite the explosive pandemic growth, there is anxiety afoot – the BD market actually contracted 11% last year in a predictable correction. “The big challenge is always that young people are reading less,” says Parisot. “What we’re trying to do is get them to open the door of a bookshop through curiosity, because we’ve shown them something cool in an Instagram post or on YouTube.”
Outside Manga City, a group of 16-year-old schoolgirls heading back to town struggle to pinpoint what is so special about manga vis-a-vis French comics: “They take place in a different universe almost.” One – cosplaying as some kind of bobby-socked anime enchantress with an ice-cream sundae hat – is halfway through that door. French, Japanese, print, digital, real-life, fantasy, they don’t seem worried about the future of BD; just eager to get to the next destination.