Bandes Dessinées in a Material World

My name is Nicolas Labarre. I am French, and while completing my Ph.D., including a dissertation on “Theories of Mass Culture in the United States,” I write comics. Or more precisely, bandes dessinées. This reminds me: I will frequently be using “BD,” a widely accepted acronym for bandes dessinées. Keep in mind that it can refer either to the actual books (also called albums) or, used as an innumerable, to the medium in general.

Let’s start with AsterixAsterix, more than any other series, shows how mainstream BD is in France. Asterix and the Falling Sky, its 33rd adventure, which happens to be a horribly chauvinistic work and a disgrace to earlier stories, sold between 1,5 and 2,4 million copies (depending on sources) in its first half year of publication. The figure gets even more interesting if you remember that the population of France is roughly a fourth or a fifth of that of the United States. When the album came out, and despite a deservedly cautious critical coverage, the “event” was given extensive media coverage, be it in national newspapers or in the evening news on television. While this was not entirely comparable to the agitation around the most heavily promoted blockbusters, it still got more press than most movies. Obviously, this is a slightly biased example, since Asterix is a unique phenomenon. It is obviously a very active franchise, with new albums, videogames, movies and such, but at the same time, it belongs to a limited pantheon of truly classical bandes dessinées. This dual status is achieved through the continuous presence of Albert Uderzo, who co-created the character in 1959 and still draws and writes it today. It should be noted, though, that most critics agree that no good Asterix album has been made since the death of Robert Goscinny, who wrote the early albums. While Uderzo is a very competent craftsman, Goscinny, who worked with Kurtzman in the late 40s, was a major actor of the development of BD in the 60s. But that’s another story.

So, Asterix may be a special case. Then what about Angoulême? The BD festival takes place in January every year since its inception in 1976 and attracts nearly all the editors in the field, numerous authors as well as a horde of fans (around 150 000 visitors, over three days). It could be just another convention, but this one gets intensive media coverage, both in cultural and mainstream media. While some critics have regretted that BD is hardly discussed at all the rest of the year, the fact remains that you could hardly escape it during these three days. Liberation, a major daily, welcomes a host of BD artists every year and dedicates at least one issue to a detailed coverage of the festival. Once more, this isn’t on the same scale as the Cannes Film Festival, for example, but it does offer a lot of visibility to the medium. This is even more relevant since in the last few years, the top prizes have constantly been awarded to difficult works, often published by independents. Thus, the whole field of BD is promoted, from the top sellers, which always make for good copy, to the most obscure but rewarding albums. In spite of its shortcomings, and in spite of the numerous polemics that have surrounded it, the Angoulême festival is one of the most compelling evidence of the major role that BD plays in French culture.

However, BD in France has a dirty secret. The sad truth is that most albums are bought because they make nice gifts. Compared to most TPBs, mainstream BDs are elegant and costly objects: hardcover, 48 pages of thick glossy paper, fit for a good rendering of colors. They look good, they are well-crafted. They are respectable. These material characteristics go a long way into explaining the status of BDs in France. Richard Reynolds, an American academic working on super-heroes (Super-heroes, a Modern Mythology, 1992) once noticed that some of the impact ofThe Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in their TPB editions could be attributed to the fact that the books looked good. As he puts it “the bid for increased mobility is apparent as soon as you pick up a copy of the perfect-bound paperback reprinting of either title” (p.96). This effect holds true even when all BDs have these characteristics. It might be added that the word “album” originally referred to children’s books, and contemporary BDs are indeed standardized descendants of those, which is also a factor of acceptance.

Thus, BDs make great gifts, but they also have some snob or counter snob value. The perception of the medium started to change in the late 60s, but it still belongs to a distinct group of non-threatening but not wholly respectable subcultures, together with science fiction novels, for example. Since BDs are expensive (around 12-13€ for 48 pages), they lead themselves easily to a kind of fetishism: you buy one to read it, of course, but also to display or lend it. This is true of most cultural objects: you rarely buy them just for their content, but since the price of the average album is so high, related to the time it takes to read it, its material characteristics actually prevent people from buying them to get a good read. Case in point: you will frequently find in large book shops people reading BDs they will not buy, thus consuming them with no consideration for their fetish values. This may sound marginal, but it is a widely accepted mode of consumption, and some of these book shops have gone as far as to install chairs for these in-store readers. It is also worth noting that BDs are present in large numbers in (most) public libraries, thus providing another inexpensive way to access them. While the sales figures for mainstream BDs are impressive right now, and the sector is still growing, there is no doubt that they are too expensive to be as popular as they could be.

Mangas are cheaper. They have also been gaining a lot of volume and popularity over the last few years. I do not feel qualified to provide more than general remarks about them, but while it is true that French editors and readers are catching up, they still represent a mere fraction of the field: since they do not have the gift-value of classical albums, they tend to be very far from the top-sellers. While most of them are published as the usual black and white booklets, a real legitimating process is taking place and notable mangakas (manga creators), from Tezuka to Taniguchi, are made available in better bound and better printed volumes, targeting an audience of intellectuals looking for authors and not for series or characters. The European album is used as the model for legitimate consumption.

Speaking of which: mainstream comics (read Marvel and DC) are now edited in a much more systematic fashion than they used to be. Regular series are available on newsstands, with only a few months delay. In spite of the fine selection taking place, which ensures that translated comics have at least some value (to take just an example, House of M was translated, but its spin-offs were not), those are extremely marginal. On the other hand, it is now quite easy to find decent collections in book shops, especially for mini-series and other self-contained events. Sadly, the public does not seem to be large enough to support complete editions of ongoing or overlong series; even Sandman hasn’t been fully translated to this day! Once again, some editors have understood that the best way to promote comics outside their niche is to put the emphasis on authors: Alan Moore, in particular, has been heavily promoted as the comic book writer, and complete editions of WatchmenV for Vendetta, or From Hell fit right in the idea of BDs as valuable and respectable objects.

Thus, we find ourselves in a situation where only BDs are truly acceptable for most readers, which leads editors to market noticeable mangas and comics as BDs. Everything that does not look like a classical album is marginal to a certain extent, and that includes most independent BDs. The medium appears to be less important than its dominant form: the ubiquitous 48-page color album. Which is another way to say that, for most people, there are no BDs besides mainstream top sellers.

Which leads us to the real questions: What are these top sellers? Are they any good? What are the alternatives?

What do you think?

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Hi, I'm French. While completing my Ph.D, I've also done a lot of work in and about comics over the last few years, including a published BD, illustrated by my talented sister and an ongoing personal project. This is all in French, though.

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Also by Nicolas Labarre:

The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


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