Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Comics Should Look

Recently, I took it on myself to write to the editors at Fantagraphics, who among other things translate French and Belgian comic books, and ask them why, oh why they haven't translated more of one of my favorite bandes dessinées series, the Spiffy Adventures of McConey, by Lewis Trondheim? The Hoodoodad* and Harum Scarum are great, and I'd like to read the other eight.

The answer, it turns out, is that Americans (and other English speakers, apparently) don't seem to like those big "album" style books. Fantagraphics' Kim Thomson very kindly wrote me back:

"Alas, the two books, especially the second, didn't do at all well for us, and then NBM went ahead and translated two more of the McConey albums in their ODDBALLZ comic book series. (But you'll notice they discontinued the series and never released the McConey work in album format themselves either.)

I think part of the problem with our series was using the French album format which American retailers and most
fans seem to resist. I'm toying with the idea of someday repackaging the McCONEY material in the smaller and
thicker (2 or 3 French albums to one album) format, but alas again, I'm so backed up with my foreign-comics commitments that it doesn't look likely to be soon... Keep your fingers crossed..."

Curiously, when I asked my children whether they preferred the big (French-style) album format for Asterix and Tintin or the smaller format that both series seem to be released in nowadays, their response was a resounding "The big one!" And I remember discovering Tintin long ago, in the Berkeley Co-op (which would tell you how long, if you're in the know) and being fascinated and impressed with the large, beautiful, brightly-colored format. Particularly, I loved the hardcover books, and how with the large format it felt I was opening a magic book to another universe. I was so taken with them that within a year I had all of them, out of my own pocket-money, despite the fact that they were so intensely expensive compared to the cheap American comics at the local store. And unlike the cheap comics on newsprint, the Tintins held up to years of re-reading, looking neither smudged nor murky at the end of it all (though a little soft around the edges).

So why don't grownups like the Big Ones? Do they take up too much shelf space? Too much space on the table next to your bed, or the space next to your bowl of cereal? What, exactly, is there to dislike? Perhaps, and I hope this is not true, people like things that are familiar, and these aren't a familiar size.

For a number of years now, I have gone to France as often as I and my family can afford, and each time we make a pilgrimage to a particular store in St. Michel that sells literally thousands of these kinds of comic books, along with videos, manga, and other things. Imagine going into a shop that rises up on several levels, with at least two of them literally solid with the spines of comic book albums. Every book on the shelves is large format, beautifully printed, and relatively reasonably priced (considering you can get ten or twenty years out of them; the terrible bindings I've been finding on modern American softcover graphic novels only last a few months in the hands of enthusiastic readers before they start giving up their pages like moulting birds). We always choose two or three books to buy. They have to be readable in our lame high-school French, and at least one of them has to be readable to my daughters, because we can only fit a couple in our luggage. But they're worth it.


I've discovered any number of gems this way, over the years, beginning in the 1980's (pre-children, of course) with The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (above), and by extension, Jacques Tardi (the author), who has created any number of interesting and memorable characters over the years. Several have been translated into English, though not, alas, for any great length of time (Adele Blanc-Sec in English costs, used, up to $45 now and is not all that easy to find).

On the lighter side, I discovered Lewis Trondheim this way, too. Or, rather, I saw his stuff there, and then was able to find some of them at home. I gobbled down any of his stuff I could find in English: the high-school French simply doesn't cut it, though, as his dialogue is witty and full of colloquialisms. Except, of course, for the hilarious Mr. O, and The Fly (La Mouche), neither of whom need any dialogue at all to be funny.

And Melusine, who we all adore, is not likely to be found this side of the Atlantic anytime soon, more's the pity.

So what I want to know is, what's wrong with the album format? I'm not a huge comic person, despite enjoying the above folk, as well as Pogo (who I had a crush on as a child), Los Bros Hernandez, old Donald Duck, Maus, Sandman, and various other newer bits and bobs. I'm not one of the True Believers, who can cite names and dates and so on by heart. But I will always remember that shining moment of discovering the Tintins under the stairs at the Co-op. And I wish, with all my heart, that somewhere, sometime, perhaps when I'm old and creaky, there will be a comic book store -in English! - that rivals Boulinier on Boulevard St Michel.

Links (etc.):

More, and even more, about Lewis Trondheim.


*Don't be discouraged by Amazon; they have a terrible description of the Hoodoodad, making it sound annoying in the extreme.


Unknown said...

Have you tried looking the UK? They are more used to the bandes dessines there. It is due to my father's five years of living in England as a child that I got to read Asterix and Tintin (and was horribly confused about how to spell colo(u)r)

Heather McDougal said...

Yes, though I've found that most of the things available in the UK seem to be available (albeit obscure sometimes) in the US. However, it's possible that the bandes dessines are more prominently displayed in stores there. Which of course means they're more available. And it's not always easy to find English translations, or even to know what HAS been translated, from the comfort of my homeland.

Apropo of nothing, have you noticed that the UK names in Asterix are much better than the American versions? It seems that all reference to drugs and other "inappropriate" or "unamerican" material have been dropped. Thus, "Getafix" becomes something else. Sigh, again.

Honky-Tonk Dragon said...

It's not a large format comic, but have you read Ordinary Victories by Manu Larcenet?
The English version was published by NBM.
It's an extraordinary example of the graphic novella. Probably the last time a comic made me cry AND laugh out loud.

Heather McDougal said...

No! But I'm excited to hear of it, it looks interesting when I look it up. Yet another future treat to squirrel away for when I get home...

Anonymous said...

Whouaaa 45$ !
In France a BD is about 10 to 15€. If you want to read a steampunk bande dessinée you look for "Balck et Mortimer". It's a WW2 word but with secret planes, a scientist, an english officer and of course an evil traitor. But i don't know if it's had been translate in english tough it quit famous.
Sorry fo my bad english i'm french

spacedlaw said...

Do you know Lewis Trondheim picture blog Les Petits Riens? I am quite enjoying it. But it's in French...

I always find the French format of comics better (even if it means heavy luggage every time I come back froom France - those things weigh tons) but it does seems to be luxury binding. In Holland, the comics are of the same size but with a paper back cover as opposed to our glossy hard back aproach.
I find that the choice of binding is very much in line with the taste we (the French) seem to have about comics. They are a respected kind of art (it is a huge market - even more traditional editors are now trying to add comics collections to their catalog to jump of the band wagon) and the presentation does convey and support this idea. In cultures where reading comics seems to bear a "geek" - or some other deprecatory notion - stigma, I don't think the public is ready to fork out the price for such presentation (which is about the same price, or more, than a normal book and our books are expensive). As for the size itself, it is probably a matter of habit only.

Heather McDougal said...

Bravo! You put your finger on something I had only obliquely conceptualized, even to myself. Respected art form, indeed!

Anonymous said...

Mind you, conversely, books (you know, the ones without pictures) are tough to find in hardcover format over here (France): you get oversize paperbacks for the price of a hardcover, and they get creased and bent and loosened in nothing flat, looking terrible on a bookshelf after being read.

I love the feel and heft of hardcover books, not to mention the sometimes interesting designs and the durability.

Everything you say about albums applies to them. Does that mean we value books less than comics? ^________^