France has an august tradition of homegrown comic-book heroes but its rising stars now are Japanese.
The comic book, also known as “the ninth art”, is no laughing matter in France. Bande dessinée (or simply BD) has historically been big business: it’s here that characters such as Asterix and Le Petit Nicolas were born and where Belgian creations Tintin and Gaston Lagaffe were enthusiastically adopted and enjoyed by children and adults alike. Last year 85 million comic books were sold in France – a record – with the industry reaching a value of €890m. But at this year’s Angoulême International Comics Festival, the country’s biggest comic-book fair, the stars of the show aren’t French or Belgian. On the streets of this picturesque medieval town in the southwest of the country, you’ll spot large murals of Lucky Luke and Blake and Mortimer but inside the halls it’s Naruto and Goku who will greet you. That’s because competition is coming from Japan and the future of the industry is playing out at the festival’s Manga City section.
Under a huge tent with brightly coloured walls and floors, more than a dozen stalls are piled high with tankoubon, the standard pocket-sized manga volumes, which read right-to-left. Sisters Helena and Nathalie Devillers, 24 and 20 years old, are big manga readers and have travelled here from eastern France. “I’ve been a fan of manga since primary school,” says Helena. “I just bought Battle Club because I had been eyeing it for a while.”
Over the past 20 years, manga has been steadily gaining popularity in France, to the point that the nation is now the world’s second biggest market for this kind of comic after Japan. Fuelled by titles such as One Piece and Demon Slayer, the industry has been flourishing in recent years but in 2021 sales went through the roof: 47 million manga titles were sold in France – more than double the amount of 2020. Today, half of all comic books sold in the country are mangas.
As France’s biggest publishing house specialising in manga, Pika Édition’s history mirrors the rise of Japanese comic books in the nation. Founded in 2000, the company was bought by publishing giant Hachette in 2007 and has continued to grow with the success of its most popular titles, including dark fantasy Attack on Titan and teen-girl classic Cardcaptor Sakura. Standing in a quieter corner of the fair next to Pika’s busy stall, editorial director Mehdi Benrabah says that the recent explosion may be partly explained by the lockdowns of 2020, when book sales surged. “It was really quite surprising,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “We could never have guessed how strong our readers’ appetites were.”
When bookshops finally reopened, manga got another boost: in May last year the French government launched a “culture pass” aimed at helping the creative industry to recover from the pandemic. Every 18-year-old in the country was given €300 to spend on books, music, exhibitions or theatre tickets. To the dismay of some politicians, who were hoping to “diversify the purchase of cultural goods”, the pass fuelled a manga craze: by the end of the year, 56 per cent of purchases made with the bonus were books, half of which were mangas. “All the culture pass did was accompany an existing trend,” says Benrabah.
As one of Japan’s most effective cultural exports, manga is well-known all over the world – but its astronomical success in France still stands out. “It’s a market that has never stopped growing,” says Satoko Inaba, editorial director of manga at Glénat, the second-largest comics publishing group in France and the country’s leading publisher of manga. Born in Japan, Inaba was raised in France and joined the company in 2008, where she was instrumental in scouting Japanese authors to create manga especially for the French market. In a quick break between meetings on a busy first day of the fair, she explains that the rise in sales may have something to do with an existing taste for the bande dessinée: “In France there is a strong interest in illustration, the artistic side of it.”
However, Japanese cartoons have also been around for long enough to become entrenched in popular culture: in the 1980s and 1990s, a children’s TV show called Club Dorothée helped popularise anime such as Dragon Ball, Ranma 1/2 and Princess Sara. When publishing houses started putting out manga, they tapped into an excited and underserved teenage audience. Many of those readers stayed loyal as they aged, which provides another explanation for the current boom: those readers are introducing their passion to a new generation. “We often hear of dads who used to watch Dragon Ball when they were young and now read the manga with their sons,” says Inaba.
Bookshops across the country are having to adapt, with owners who previously snubbed the form realise they can no longer afford to. “When I was a teenager, people were very prejudiced against manga,” says 30-year-old Éleonore Amar, who manages Bulles en tête Vaugirard, a bookshop specialising in comic books in Paris’s 15th arrondissement. “It was frowned upon because people thought it was violent or erotic. They didn’t realise that there are mangas about everything.”
On the shelves of this shop you’ll find titles on any topic, from wine (Drops of God) to vikings (Vinland Saga) and radio presenters (Wave, Listen to Me!). Opened in June 2021, this is independent chain Bulles en tête’s newest and third outpost in Paris: the company’s growth has been helped by a 120 per cent increase in manga sales in recent years. Some customers might read it on screen but this does not replace the value of holding, leafing through and collecting the printed thing; this is an analogue product that still manages to bewitch a digital-first generation of teenagers.
The rising fortune of the genre has also enticed comic-book designers in France to get involved. Though they still only represent a smaller proportion of sales, more and more French artists are trying their hand at manga, or what some call “manga-inspired” comics.
“It’s a natural entry point into the world of comic books, because we grew up with it,” says Tony Valente, whose series Radiant is one of the few French manga to have been so successful that it broke into Japan, where it has an anime adaptation. Born in Toulouse, Valente started publishing comic books at the age of 20. In 2013 he came up with Radiant, the story of a young wizard who must save humans from menacing monsters that fall from the sky. Inspired by Celtic and Norse mythology, the series tackles European issues of immigration and racism but in a distinctly Japanese style. Manga’s format, he says, is better suited to the kind of stories he wants to tell.
“A French BD is about 50 pages and comes out once a year, while a manga is about 200 pages and published twice a year,” he says. “There’s more space and it comes out more regularly. A year is a long time to wait when you’re 12 or 13 years old.”
Author Christophe Cointault, who is attending the Angoulême festival for the first time as a published mangaka, agrees that there is a certain creative freedom that comes with manga. As we sit in a hotel lobby, surrounded by publishers deep in sales pitches, he explains that French and Belgian comic books tend to stick to similar-sized panels on a page but with manga, the format is up to the designer.
“You can take up a lot of space; you can go crazy with big boxes or double pages,” he says. His first shonen (an action-filled genre primarily aimed at boys) Tinta Run was published by Glénat in 2018 and he is currently working on the final volume of Wind Fighters, which follows the adventures of a brave and bright-eyed hero named Helio who must save the world from a dictator with the help of his sister and a cunning red panda named Toaster. Cointault points out that visual techniques borrowed from film, combined with the fast pace of serialisation, makes manga more addictive. “It’s like a Netflix series: every episode ends with a huge cliff-hanger,” he says. “The rhythm keeps you hooked.”
This cinematic quality gives it another advantage: unlike the BD or American comics, which produce big-budget blockbusters once every few years, manga can be easily adapted for TV or video games. Japan has been producing anime for decades and streaming platforms are cottoning on: Netflix almost doubled its number of anime releases last year and dedicated platforms such as Crunchyroll and adn are raking up an increasing number of subscribers; the global demand for anime has more than doubled over the past two years.
Back at Manga City, a group of teenagers talk excitedly about the plot of superhero mystery Spy x Family, while adults queue for a signed special edition of Grendizer, the first anime series to be broadcast in France, in 1978. Manga has seduced audiences in a way that traditional comics no longer can.
“The narrative is built in a way that allows you to feel empathy towards the characters,” says Inaba. “It’s not the same logical narrative you find in BD, where the focus is more the script.” Whether it’s because it pulls on readers’ heartstrings, because it has a variety of topics to explore or because it is a refreshing addition to a fine tradition, manga is conquering France – and its rise is not over. Asterix had better be stocking up on magic potion.
Cliffhangers and incredible characters – with manga taking France by storm, here are some of the most popular series by French and Japanese mangakas alike.