Let us begin with a few short questions:
i) Do you have more than twenty comic books on your shelves at home?
ii) Are they hardcover, and lined up alphabetically by series?
iii) Have you been to a comic book festival in the last year, and if so, did you wait more than an hour to get your book signed?
If you said « yes » to any of these, you are likely either French, Belgian, or an American with no friends.
I’ve been in France for about six years now, and one of the biggest culture shocks I’ve experienced is the national passion for comic books. Growing up, I was subscribed to Spider-Man and Superman, and I spent enough time at the neighborhood comics shop to know that we, in the U.S., have the greatest variety of superhero comics the world has ever seen. And we have had some remarkable graphic novels as well. But our mainstream comics landscape pretty much stops there, and there are very few imports.
When I arrived in France, for instance, the only comic I knew in the Franco-Belgian tradition was Tintin. And even then, my experience with the young Belgian reporter was limited to a couple of books I’d read at my elementary school library. As for the rest — Asterix, Largo Winch, Spirou, Thorgal, Marsupilami, Yoko Tsuno, etc. — these words would have looked like nothing more than randomly scattered Scrabble tiles.
Yet over the past five years, I’ve become more attached to some of these series than I ever was to my beloved Spider-Man. And so I wonder: why was I never given the opportunity to discover these books before? When I got tired of superhero stories, why was I forced to read Goosebumps, rather than The Secret of the Unicorn? And why, even now, are these legendary Franco-Belgian titles so difficult to find on American bookstore shelves?
It’s a complex tale that has to do with geographical and cultural barriers, and an industry that is, overall, highly insular. But if we boil things down to the basics, the simple fact is that historically, very few American publishers have shown any interest in bringing over foreign series. And those who have tried have often fallen flat on their faces.
Let us take the example of Tintin. In the late 1950s, as the series was growing in popularity in Europe, American publisher Golden Press decided to bring Hergé’s masterwork stateside. Sparing no expense, they commissioned original translations in American English (rather than using the existing British English versions), and rolled out a marketing campaign that included ads in The New York Times, as well as the participation of the Belgian consulate in New York. All signs pointed to a successful touchdown in the U.S. for Hergé’s hero, almost thirty years after he first ventured across the Atlantic in Tintin in America.
Except that this was the 1950s, and comic books were under attack due to their supposed immorality. Despite Tintin‘s overall wholesomeness, the series did have a few black marks, so a cautious Golden Press requested certain changes in order to smooth over some of the comic’s rougher edges. Notably, that meant no mixing of races, and no excess drinking (I’m looking at you, Captain Haddock). How was this done? Very simple: Hergé was asked to redraw the offending panels, changing skin colors and censoring Capt. Haddock’s alcoholism.
I feel a little ashamed that 1950s America couldn’t handle a bit of European verve, but at the same time, I can see where Golden Press was coming from. They had a potentially bestselling title, and they wanted to bridge the gap as much as possible between the rambunctious Old World and a puritan New World.
Given Golden Press’s efforts, the publisher’s disappointment must have been all the greater when the sales figures came in. Whereas Tintin was flying off the shelves in the hundreds of thousands in Europe, the American numbers failed to hit ten percent of that. And without further ado, after just a few months, Golden Press decided to cancel the rest of the series, having put out only six books.
You can find a fascinatingly detailed account of the whole Golden Press debacle on the Tintinologist website. However, if the publisher’s failure is clear, the reasons behind it are less so. Was the problem the hardcover format, so different from (and more expensive than) the traditional American comic book? Was it the objectionable content? Or perhaps the simple fact that Tintin, for all his adventurous spirit, had no superpowers worthy of readers’ attention?
This last point likely played a role. The American public probably wasn’t ready to deify a Belgian reporter and his white fox terrier, at least not overnight. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise to the publisher. Such cultural imports take time. Had Golden Press persisted, and actually given its marketing campaign the time to take hold, they may very well have ended up with the blockbuster they had hoped for. There are no guarantees — perhaps it was simply the wrong time for a launch — but by pulling the plug so early, Golden Press never gave itself a chance.
This is a key point, because Tintin‘s failure to catch on with the American public has been mirrored by nearly all of its Franco-Belgian comrades. The cultural, linguistic, and logistical barriers at play here are not insurmountable, but they require a commitment from publishers over the long haul.
What is even more surprising about publishers’ collective disinterest is that the stakes are so high. Worldwide sales for Tintin have now surpassed 230 million copies, while the Asterix juggernaut has shot past 350 million. Those are very nearly Harry Potter numbers, and these series are not alone in their success. New releases of other popular series frequently sell in the hundreds of thousands (article in French).
It will undoubtedly take a long time for us to see such numbers in Anglophone markets, but there may be reason for hope. About ten years ago now, UK publisher Cinebook hit the scene with one goal in mind: to become « the premier publisher of the Franco-Belgian Ninth Art » in the English language. And they appear to have done a rather good job of it, scooping up the licenses of such heavyweights as Lucky Luke, Spirou & Fantasio, Blake and Mortimer, Largo Winch, and Thorgal.
Cinebook’s price point is competitive — around ten dollars in the US — but in exchange, their books are published in softcover, with lower quality paper and printing. In addition, Cinebook often releases volumes out of order, which can lead to confusion for someone already familiar with the original Franco-Belgian series. It’s hard to say what kind of impact this might have on Anglophone readers, but the result is a product that lacks the charm and distinction of the original.
On the other hand, publisher Magnetic Press, founded in 2014, has taken the opposite route. They have also brought a number of well-known European series stateside (including Naja, Zaya, and Klaw), and they have perhaps even exceeded the quality of the original books with their beautifully printed hardbound volumes.
Let us hope that this is a sign of things to come. For if my childhood is gone for good, it’s not too late to give future generations of American youth the broad-based comic culture they deserve. After all, no child should grow up thinking the only way to be super is to be bitten by a radioactive insect or born on a distant planet. Where, I might ask, is the democracy in that?
Written by Christopher Bradley
 1986 was a particularly good year, featuring the holy trinity of Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen.
 With the possible exception of the Smurfs, although their popularity is mostly due to a 1980s animated television series, not the comic books.