Comixology offers a variety of French publications in English

Why NOW is a Great Time to Start Reading Franco-Belgian Comics

It is my opinion that there has never been a better time to be a reader of Franco-Belgian (les bandes dessinees, or “BD”) comics than right now.

I recently surveyed the Pipeline Comics Newsletter to see why people weren’t reading Franco-Belgian comics.  There’s a lot of commonality to their answers, and some interesting points I hadn’t considered before.

This article is my chance to answer the things some people find to be roadblocks.  The good news is, you can overcome the vast majority of these objections.

If you’ve ever considered reading some BD, but thought you had a reason not to, let’s see if I can remove some of those blocks for you today.

 

“I Can’t Read French”

Spirou and Gaston speak another language

Neither can I. Well, I can read some stuff, thanks to a couple of years in high school and frequent use of the “Translate” button in TweetBot and the Chrome browser.

Thankfully, more French albums are available today in English than ever before.  It’s not all of them and it’s not all of the best of them, but it’s a pretty good range of comics.

Why?  Digital comics.  They’re easier and cheaper to translate and publish now than ever.  The bounty of goodness we have showing up on-line is amazing, and growing larger every week.

It’s relatively cheap to create English language editions of French comics.  You need a translator and a letterer to accomplish 95% of the work, and some editorial/graphic design folks to handle things like the issue summary and front page credits layout.  Those are the cheapest parts of the creative team for any comic, so…

Once translated into English, the comics can be more easily sold in a lot of countries, including the United States, Canada, England, and Australia.  The only thing holding them back is legal issues regarding who has the rights to distribute these books outside of Europe.

 

“Nobody Publishes Them in North America.”

I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve had more publishers translating Franco-Belgian books into English.

Cinebook is the big one, in that it publishes albums in roughly their original format with regularity. They release multiple new volumes every month, including some of the biggest names like “Lucky Luke” and “Largo Winch.”

IDW's Eurocomics imprint

IDW’s Eurocomics imprint

But we’ve also had recent translations from companies as diverse as Humanoids, Dynamite, Dark Horse, NBM/Papercutz, Fantagraphics, First Second, and IDW.

And that’s just the print publications.

In the digital world, you can include most of the above and then add in all the translations under the Europe Comics banner.

 

“The Pages Are Too Big” (The Format Question)

Do you have a bookcase with a shelf full of DC’s “Absolute Editions” or IDW’s “Artist’s Editions”?

Those books are bigger.

BD size comparison to Artist's Edition and Absolute Edition

But, seriously, it’s not difficult to hold these books in your hands.  Even with the softcover binding, you can easily see inside to the binding even at the center of the book.  The publishing has adjusted for this.  And their comics don’t go full bleed, either.

These books are meant to be read at a larger size than your standard comics. They’re lettered with the bigger page sizes in mind. When you shrink it down, the lettering shrinks down with it, making the whole thing harder to read.  Full size BD is the only way to go.

That doesn’t stop some publishers from shrinking down the pages, anyway.  It’s often more cost-effective for them to use smaller page sizes with books that won’t sell in amazing numbers.

Papercutz prints in this smaller size, for one example, with books like “The Smurfs” and “Sisters” and “Dance Club.” Thankfully, those are also books that are less densely packed with panels and details, so they convert to the smaller page size easily.  (With The Smurfs, you also have the option of buying “The Smurfs Anthology” series, instead, which has a larger page size and a nice hardcover presentation.) They also publish books aimed at a younger market, which demands the smaller size. (Remember CrossGen’s smaller collections?  Or Marvel’s “Backpack” format?)

BD comes in all sizes, great and small

BD comes in all sizes, great and small. Generally, bigger is better.

“The Books Are Too Short.”

Yes, they usually come in at roughly two issues of a standard American comic.  Actually, now that Marvel and DC are down to 20 pages, BD albums are officially more than twice as thick as the typical monthly Big Two comic. Some are even two and a half to three times bigger.

They also usually tell complete stories, or complete chapters of a story.  So you are getting, in Heidi McDonald’s words, a “satisfying chunk” of story no matter what.

These are not books designed to be read in six volume sequences.  Some do tell overall narratives that will run three or four volumes, but each one is a complete chapter that is satisfying.  When you have a series that only comes out once a year, that technique is nearly mandatory.

If you’re worried about the series that do, indeed, have longer stories told in two to four volumes, don’t read them until they’re done.  There’s plenty of other fish in the sea. Concentrate on the other fish until the book you’re interested in is completed.  We know this is something that’s already happening in North American comics, so it shouldn’t be a problem here.

 

“The Books are Too Expensive.”

cash register

This one has always bothered me, mostly because I don’t think most people who say this have tried it yet.  It also ties into the “too short” objection I just talked about.

How, you may ask, can a 48 page comic compete with a 144 page trade paperback, when the two are sometimes in the same ballpark, price-wise?

I can tell you from personal experience that the amount of time it takes to read each is often nearly identical.

Franco-Belgian comics do a lot less decompressed storytelling. They don’t do double page splashes.  They don’t do splash pages, even on the first page. They pack in a lot of story with a lot of dialogue.  The pages are larger, resulting in more panels per page, on average.

Here’s my challenge to you: Next time you sit down to read a trade paperback that collects six issues of a series, take a look at the clock before and after.  How long does it take for you to read a story arc from Marvel or DC?  I bet you can do it in a half hour.  Depending on the writer, you might even finish in as little as 20 minutes.

Trust me, most BD will take you longer to read just 48 pages’ worth of story.

 

“The Books are Hard to Find”

Yes, the Direct Market sucks.  For various reasons, it’s not incentivized to carry these translated works.  Even when Marvel and DC were playing with a line of their own (in different formats), they couldn’t get it to work in the Direct Market.

But you have Amazon.com for print.  You have Comixology and Izneo.com for digital.

Problem solved.

 

“I Don’t Know What’s Good”

It’s true:  There isn’t a single Must Read BD Comic for the North American market.

While everyone’s heard of “The Smurfs” and most comic fans have heard of “Asterix” and “Tintin,” there hasn’t been that one series that was a “must read” amongst North American comic fans yet.

Will it be “Valerian and Laureline” with the big Luc Besson-directed movie coming this summer?  Possibly.  But a movie directed by Steven Spielberg didn’t help Tintin much, so how would we know?

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson with Tintin

Somehow, this managed to fail.

That’s part of what I’m trying to do with my 100 reviews this year.  I want to find good comics for everyone. There’s a wide enough variety of comics coming out of France that I would bet good money there’s one for you somewhere.

So, please, keep coming back here and browse through some of the reviews.  Eventually, I hope to organize them in more cohesive ways to find what you’re looking for.

 

“I Tried One Once and Didn’t Like It”

Good news: there are a lot of different kinds of BD.  There’s humor and action and thriller and science fiction and horror and war and autobiography and so much more.  You might have just read one that was the wrong kind for you.  One publisher, Delcourt, has 30 distinct imprints. Certainly, there’s something for everyone there somewhere.

I’m not going to ask you to do a lot of work and research to convince yourself there’s something good out there you might like.  But do keep an eye on the reviews here all year.  I’ve already reviewed a pretty wide swatch of material, from sci fi/fantasy to autobio to thriller.  I have a lot more humor and some historical fiction yet to come, too. Plus some crime drama, and some kid-friendly stuff, and — just lots of things.

 

“The Translations Aren’t Very Good”

You didn’t read “Asterix,” then.

No, seriously, Anthea Bell is such an amazing translator for those books that I know her name without looking up. She’s the best in her field for translations, in general.  She’s amazing.

She is, however, an outlier.  She’s Michael Jordan compared to every rookie in professional basketball.

Yes, modern translations are imperfect, I can admit.  I’ve not read many books where I haven’t tripped over a phrase or wondered if a panel had been mistranslated because it didn’t entirely make sense.

They are, however, 100 times better than any job I’d do with my wits and Google Translator.  I also don’t have to deal with fitting the translations into the balloons that exist on the page already.

 

“I Don’t Have Enough Time”

stopwatch

William Warby via Flickr

OK, you win.

I’m not here to convince you to rearrange your life’s priorities or to quit watching TV or stop reading something else or to leave your spouse and children for a one bedroom bachelor pad filled with four color funnies and ramen noodles.

This is supposed to be fun.  If you don’t really want to read these books, and you’re already enjoying the ones you’re currently reading — whatever type they are — then have a blast.

If you change your mind, though, please read all of the above again and join me.  I’ll be here.

 

Go Forth and Read

I hope this answers some of your hesitations with trying something new.  And I hope something I’ve reviewed has pointed to you to a new comic series you’re exciting about.

If you have any other objections or questions, please leave a comment below.  If more FAQs come up, I’ll add them to this article.

Thanks for giving this a shot.

Some recommended books that I’ve already reviewed in 2017:

Lucky Luke Daisy Town cover header

Ken Games volume 1: "Rock" cover

Ekho volume 1 cover

The Man Who Shot Lucky Luke cover detail

Back to Basics v1 cover detail by Manu Larcenet

Mickey's Craziest Adventures by Lewis Trondheim, Keramidas, and Brigitte Findakly

(Dedicated to my father, whose parents came to America 100 years ago from Belgium, home of — well, most of the artists whose work you see above…)

3 Comments

  • Free European Comics Reading Suggestion: Bamboo Mag - Pipeline Comics May 4, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    […] that they can read them, enjoy them, and perhaps even recommend them to others. I’ve already answered all of your objections, so you have no more […]

    Reply
  • JC Lebourdais May 5, 2017 at 10:34 am

    It’s the right time for you now because you’re still in the discovery phase of the relationship. For us here, the golden age of French BD is long gone. It was 1930-1985 mostly.
    Today, quantity has mostly won over quality. There are four to five thousand new BD albums published every year in French only (Germany, UK and Italy are also massive producers in Europe, so far you haven’t touched that yet), smaller and smaller print runs (3-4k is considered moderate success, worthy of a second volume, the publisher breaks even), so if you had more choices of translated work, you’d have a hard time finding so-so work in an ocean of dreck, like we do. In France, BD is 80% sold in supermarkets, you do the math. Classics sell by the millions; the rest, not so much.
    Publishing a comic book album in Europe today is so easy that there is almost no barrier of entry on the level of skills required for artists and writers. This is the reason why European artists are 98% starving, and periodically go whine in the media every year around the time of Angoulême.
    The problem for Comixology and similar outlets right now is mostly how to decide which series to pick for translation, and I’m not certain that quality is the main criteria. Cheapness of rights might be the first one, cheapness of translation is probably the second (which is why translation quality has taken a nosedive recently). Blandness of contents is probably the third one, like YA Hollywood blockbusters, books have to appeal to the masses so, smallest common denominator and all that.
    I concede that the overall quality of European comics is superior to the US production today, mostly because of the art, but there are no frontiers any more, France is bleeding out great artists ending up drawing Superman for truckloads of money.

    Reply
    • Augie May 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm

      You’re absolutely right – this is all relative. For someone who doesn’t read French, the opportunities to read Franco-Belgian comics in America were very very limited. Asterix, Tin Tin, some old Lucky Luke reprints, and sporadic things from Humanoids, Fantagraphics, and NBM were all we had.

      Now, at last, thanks to digital the flood gates have opened. Like you say, it’s good and bad. We’re going to get plenty of both. But I’ll pick through them and find some gold in there and it’ll all be worth it.

      There’s 50 other years’ worth of comics to look forward to, even if we totally discount the most recent 20. That’s a good deal.

      In the end, this is Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap, no matter its point of origin. 😉

      Oh, and I just read a book last night that comes from Italian creators. That review should go up next week. No signs of anything from Germany yet, though.

      But, really, your description of the European market isn’t that far off from what’s going on in North America: Lots of drek, lots of low print runs, a few big winners that will be reprinted forever, and creators who should really look for day jobs because comics won’t ever pay them. (They go to video games/advertising/Hollywood.)

      Reply

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