by Sherif Nagati - While the French might knock American superheroes as 'brainless macho violence', how do you explain the obsessive fascination of all French comic creators with equally brainless, macho and violent American genres such as Westerns and gangster flicks?
Show a copy of Watchmen to a French person, and they will probably tell you it looks "too American" for their tastes: garish colors, big costumed muscular characters, small paper-size, poor packaging. You can avoid the last two comments by presenting said person with the French printing of the title, which is oversized and handsomely packaged (by American standards), and also available as a collection of six hardcovers, each featuring a cover with a horrible montage of scenes from within the comic (the cover to the "complete" version, meanwhile, features a nifty group pose of the Minutemen).
The above situation perfectly illustrates the schizoid relationship between the French and US comics: on the one hand the French find American comics incredibly crude, while on the other (or maybe to make up for what they perceive as the lack of attention by Americans) they reproduce them in lavish versions that look cool on any bookshelf. Then there is the subject matter: while the French might knock American superheroes as "brainless macho violence", how do you explain the obsessive fascination of all French comic creators with equally brainless, macho and violent American genres such as Westerns and gangster flicks?
To explain these contradictions, it might be helpful to look back at some history. In the 1940s, France was hit by its own version of the anti-comics reactionaries that produced the Comics Code in the US. In a move fueled by nationalist protectionism and conservatism (most French comics at the time were produced by Catholic institutions), France banned any comics of American origin from publication in France. One comic got away though: by employing a roster of French writers and artists to locally produce content, France's Disney showcase Le Journal de Mickey survived the genocide and became a cultural icon. Thus, most French comics readers (and there were quite a lot of them then) were effectively shielded from all developments in American comics, yet grew up with Mickey, Donald, Picsou (Uncle Scrooge) and Dingo (Goofy). Ultimately, one of the most recognizable strands of French Bandes Dessinées (or BD's as they are commonly known), the adventure comedy, was strongly influenced by the wide-eyed characters and globe-trotting adventures of Disney.
One other American institution had an indelible effect on BD's: Mad Magazine. In a now legendary story about four of France's top artists journeying to America to explore new careers, the artists in question met up with Harvey Kurtzman and his fellow madmen. The subsequent works of these artists, most notably writer Réné Goscinny, was impregnated with the caustic wit and bitingly sarcastic parody of these visionaries and through them seeped into broad BD culture.
But by far the strongest American cultural influence on BD's was that of the movies: Just like the French New Wave of cinema simultaneously sent up and paid homage to Hollywood, so have BD's for the past half-century. Whether re-creating or parodying US movies, countless BD's are set in America and stick closely to genre conventions, be they westerns, gangster sagas, film noir, war epics or B-movies. Ironically, while the superhero was entirely absent from French bookstore shelves, and looked down upon as a sign of culturally handicapped America, the French comics scene was almost totally immersed in American culture.
It didn't take long, though, for superheroes to make a shy comeback: in the 1970's, Strange, an anthology of superhero comics reprinted from Marvel, became a minor cult phenomenon. Strange didn't gain mainstream attention, though, and folded by 1983. On the other hand, just as France was the place to go to find exiled American Jazz artists and out-of-print records in the 1960's and 1970's, the French fetish for collection guaranteed extended life for out-of-print US classics. Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant and Tarzan were all available in lavish collections that celebrated their historical significance. Outsiders like Robert Crumb were heroes in the eyes of French intelligentsia, and it is little wonder they chose a life of exile there over continued obscurity, and occasional harassment, in their homeland.
In the 1990's, the high production values that guaranteed BD's their long shelf-life also became their damnation. While the US comics industry was going through its period of extreme mainstream success, BD's were struggling to keep the attention of a new generation raised on computer games and to fend off the invasion of their local market by cheaper Japanese manga. True to form, French publishers started turning out their own lavish printings of Japanese classics (you have to see the oversized full-color hardcover printings of Akira to know what you are missing), but the market was still flooded by black-and-white pocket-sized comics that threatened the French industry. Some paperback black-and-white versions of BD classics even started showing up in bookstores (one such collection was tellingly titled "Pirate"). Simultaneously, some publishers started printing collected versions of influential US series, long before the term "trade paperback" was coined. Thus, rather than go hunting for a certain four-issue miniseries or buying back copies of Spawn, you could just conveniently buy the glossy, hardback collections in any French bookstore, complete with insightful introduction and the occasional interview with the creator.
It didn't take long for the French industry to rebound, though. In a strange reversal of fortune, US comic sales took a dip while new French series, in the same lavish packaging and bearing the hefty price tags of yore, began selling in five-digit numbers. Exactly what brought about the change is unclear, but it is likely a mixture of cult creators attaining superstar status (such as Bilal), a stunning level of diversity in subject matter and styles, and a keen sense of anticipating public demand. Leading the admittedly varied pack though, were works that still owed quite a lot to American pop culture, sauced up by just a small dose of European sensibility. Two prime examples are Largo Winch and XIII (both scripted by the highly prolific Jean Van Hamme): both are a highly effective and entertaining mix of Hollywood genre material complemented by a psuedo anti-establishment, anti-capitalist stance and a healthy dose of sex. Largo Winch is the story of a drifter/mercenary/playboy who inherits a billion-dollar US corporation and includes, among others, car, boat and plane chases, jungle guerrilla war, and espionage; XIII, a riff on The Bourne Identity, is about a man in search of his mysterious past who slowly discovers that he was involved in the most audacious power-seizing plot in US history, and features, well, car, boat and plane chases, jungle guerrilla war, and espionage.
Rather than diminish the market for American comics though, this resurgence, coinciding with the wave of comics-based Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men and Spider-Man, resulted in a wave of new French reprints of US material. This time around though, the material was not confined to major titles, but covered a broad spectrum of comics ranging from the latest Marvel outing to obscure indie stuff, all done with the care and refined taste you would expect from French publishers. So not only is it now as easy to find hardcover full-color reprints of the Byrne/Claremont run on the X-Men as it is to find hardcover collections of Charles Burns' Black Hole (still uncollected in the US), but the collections are occasionally worthwhile even if your French is less than perfect. Some of this has to do with the level of "completeness" the French strive for when they compile a "complete" collection: no-doubt inspired by the current Conan Chronicles from Dark Horse, a French anthology of Conan is now available, which differs from the former not only in size, cover material and art-highlighting black-and-white reproduction, but in the fact that it starts at the John Buscema works skipped in the US version. The same holds for the French Complete Swamp Thing, which begins by reprinting the Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson run.
With an incredibly diverse offering that includes works from Camelot 3000 to Jack Kirby's New Gods to Craig Thompson's Blankets, to Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond's Secret Agent X-9, the French are in the unique position of being able to explore US comics legacy in ways that the American audience can only wish for.