Behind the scenes - Issue 171 - Magazine | Monocle

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Every year in late January, 200,000 comic-book enthusiasts of all ages flock to the usually quiet southwestern French city of Angoulême. In pop-up marquees set up in picturesque squares, teenagers, retirees and parents with small children queue eagerly for an autograph (often accompanied by a small illustration) in the latest instalment of Spirou, Asterix or Gaston Lagaffe. In France, where comic books – or bandes dessinées – are big business, Angoulême is to the genre what Cannes is to film.

Founded 50 years ago, the Angoulême International Comic Book Festival was the first fair of its kind and considered a niche part of the publishing industry. It was a time when Franco-Belgian comics were synonymous with René Goscinny or Hergé, whose work appears in vast frescoes on buildings across the city. But today this has radically changed. According to market research company gfk, one in four books sold in France today is a comic and the festival is one of Europe’s biggest literary events. Last year the industry’s value was estimated at €877m, with 75 million comic books sold in 2023 – a 55 per cent increase compared with 2019. While the popularity of manga has certainly had a big impact (France is its second-biggest consumer after Japan), Asterix continues to top the best-seller list year after year, and graphic novels and non-fiction titles aimed at adults are also finding a new readership.

“It has been a while since comic books have earned their status,” says Stéphane Aznar, the managing director of Dargaud, a Paris-based publisher founded in 1936. Its stand takes up a large space in the middle of a section dedicated to Franco-Belgian comic-book publishers and has its own bookshop displaying a vast selection of recent titles: everything from Guillaume Bianco and Kerascoët’s Nunuche, the story of a girl and her cloud-looking puppy aimed at early readers, to Nos mondes perdus (Our Lost Worlds) by Marion Montaigne, a popular science title about the discovery of dinosaurs. “Today the comic-book industry has become a publishing segment in its own right and it’s just as important as general literature – and even more so in certain bookshops,” says Aznar.

Hey ladies, the name’s Lucien
Step inside ‘Le nouveau Monde’
Hats off to the festival’s mascot!
And this drawing is my favourite
So who should I make this out to?
Stéphane Aznar. I can print your comic
Marguerite Demoëte, artistic director
OK, listen to Goroglin. First you draw the body...
Comics have an even bigger impact on the wall
Marie Pommepuy, cartoonist
‘Non’, I’m Professor Calculus... Tintin

The publisher’s best seller of 2023 was Le monde sans fin (World Without End), a good example of how comic-books are reaching a broader adult readership. Illustrated by Christophe Blain and written by French engineer Jean-Marc Jaconvinci, it takes readers on a journey to understand the climate crisis, its consequences and possible solutions. “We’ve noticed a powerful development of what we call BD du réel [non-fiction comic books],” says Aznar. “Comics are not just for entertainment; they’re also for thinking, for reflecting. They’re a way of seeing and understanding the world.” The trend could be expanding internationally too: US and UK publishers have snapped up the rights for a release in English later this year.

“The pleasure of having a physical book that you can immerse yourself into, moving your eye across the page, is unmatched”

With graphic novels being picked up by readers who previously shied away, publishers of all kinds are jumping on the bandwagon. “If there is one new trend to note this year, then that’s it,” says Marguerite Demoetë, the festival’s artistic director. “Publishing houses that only focused on literature or essays now all want to publish comic books. That has to do with the industry’s valorisation. The festival has worked hard to legitimise comics as an art.” Indeed the “ninth art”, as it is also known, is still feeling the ripple effects of the coronavirus lockdowns that boosted sales. When the government released le pass Culture in 2021 – a pass with €300 for teenagers to spend on culture – some dubbed it the “pass manga” as 18-year-olds across the country stocked up on One Piece and Spy 3 Family. But now the craze has slightly dissipated, the entire industry is still going strong. “Today there is an appetite for consuming comic books of all genres, which are all doing incredibly well,” says Bruno Fermier, ceo of Canal BD, a network of independent bookshops specialising in comic books. He points out that the diversity in storytelling has also attracted more women, who now represent 50 per cent of customers; this wasn’t the case a decade ago.

As for children and teenagers, with an increasing amount of time being spent in front of a screen, the growth of comic books also reassures publishers that print is still a valuable medium. Though webtoons – a type of digital comic book made to read on smartphones – has had some success, it’s not something that is seen as competition for the traditional hardcover. “Digital comics never really caught on,” says Aznar. “Reading a page of a comic book on an iPad or on a Kindle is not a great experience. The pleasure of having a physical book that you can immerse yourself in, moving your eye across the page, is unmatched.” French readers of all kinds tend to agree.

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