Tres Bien! French Comic Books Hit the U.S. with Range and Creativity

Andrew A. Smith
Come Prima. (Delcourt Group)
Tribune News Service (TNS)

The French are invading! (And they’re bringing comic books!)

The French are invading! (And they’re bringing comic books!)

Delcourt Group, the leading independent comic book publisher in France, launched an exclusive line of English language, digital-first comics and graphic novels on comiXology July 6. ComiXology, for those who haven’t tried it yet, is the cloud-based digital platform that offers thousands of U.S. comics, manga and now “bandes dessinées” —as the French call their comics — on Android, iOS, Kindle, Windows 8 and the Internet.

If you’re a comics fan, this is tres magnifique, for a variety of reasons. One is that the Franco-Belgian tradition in comics is one of the most famous in the world for its quality, giving us such classics as The Adventures of Tintin, Asterix the Gaul and Lucky Luke. Another is that European comics cover a much broader spectrum of content than American comics, which largely restrict themselves to action/adventure.

But one of the main reasons to be enchanté at this development is the driving force behind Delcourt Group: Guy Delcourt. A respected veteran of the business — 29 years and counting — Delcourt came by his love of comics naturally:

“I grew up in the north of France, near Belgium,” Delcourt said in a trans-Atlantic interview. “Belgium is the, how do you say, the treasure place for comics. So I grew up becoming more and more passionate about them. I was quite an avid collector of comics when I was a teenager. That was in the ’70s, at a time when comics were getting much more diversified and adult, in all senses of the word — political, sexual, whatever. So it was very exhilarating. From then on, I kept that in mind. I never believed I would make it my profession, but that’s what happened.”

It is Delcourt’s taste and style that sets the parameters for the publishing group named for him (and consisting of Editions Delcourt, Editions Soleil and Tonkam). That’s a lot of comics, enough to make Delcourt Group the largest independent graphic novel publisher in France, and the second largest in France by market share.

When asked what all those comics had in common, Delcourt said simply, “They reflect my personal taste — and the widest possible range.”

Not that Delcourt is a one-man operation. “I have a staff of editors. I couldn’t make each book my personal choice. But I approve every choice — one way or the other. And I like what is unique. I also like to have the input of our editors, to add that to my own thinking.”

Which is how Delcourt expanded into manga 12 years ago. “This was not a culture I knew,” Delcourt said. “I had to be initiated to manga, and I was happy to have an editor who could do that. ... Suddenly we discovered the wealth of manga culture.”

That openness — and insistence on quality — is evident in Delcourt’s first offerings on comiXology, representing some of the best-selling titles in France:

— “Curse of the Wendigo” features the cannibal creature found in Native American cultures along the East Coast and Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada. (It can also be found in Marvel Comics, usually battling the X-Men or Alpha Flight.) But in this story it’s located in Flanders in 1917, in the middle of World War I! Faced with a creature more horrible than themselves, men from both the French and German lines team up to find and destroy the Wendigo … before it does the same to them. “Wendigo” is written by Mathieu Missofe, and drawn by Charlie Adlard — artist of “The Walking Dead,” so no stranger to horrible goings-on. “Curse of the Wendigo” is being published in two monthly installments.

— “Iron Squad” is a monthly set in a World War II where the Germans have made breakthroughs in gigantic robots — mekapanzers — and the Red Army drafts its best pilots for smaller, personal armor that is their last, best hope for survival. This genre-blender combines aspects of Iron Man, the historical “Night Witches” of the Russian front and the manga genre of “mecha.”

— “Prométhée” is high-concept science fiction featuring an unexplainable phenomenon that occurs every day at exactly 1:13 p.m. (and arrives monthly at comiXology).

— “Spin Angels,” also monthly, is another genre mash-up featuring a Catholic Cardinal who runs a black-ops groups of spies, and the Mafia godfather who enlists his top hitman in service to the Vatican.

— “Josephine” is a monthly by cartoonist and blogger Pénélope Bagieu, featuring a light-hearted, insightful look at foundering professional relationships, worse personal ones and many a faux pas. Yes, it’s that rare breed, a comic book from the female point of view.

“We’ll have quite a few female-oriented books,” Delcourt said. “We’re fortunate in France to reach more female readership. We hope to achieve the same in the United States. When I started, (readership) was 90 percent male. Now it is more 50-50.”

Plus, each month will bring a new graphic novel, Delcourt said, “which will … have a more personal and subtle style” than most mainstream comics.

The first is “Come Prima,” which won the Prix du Meilleur Album at the 2014 Angoulême International Comics Festival. (Trust me, that’s prestigious.) It’s a poignant story of two brothers who hit the road after their father’s death. It’s a story, Delcourt said, that should be “accessible to anybody.”

What else? Well, there’s “The Call of the Stryx,” a thriller about strange creatures infiltrating high political office. Or “Elves,” about a conflict between humans and, well, elves. And “Hauteville House,” which promises high adventure.

“French comics have many influences” Delcourt said. And it appears the bandes dessinées publisher means to bring them all to the U.S.

* * *

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