It’s no surprise that with the increase in sales of mid-level graphic novels in the United States, publishers have looked across the Atlantic for material to translate. They find brightly colored children’s comics in France and Belgium.
© Hergé / Moulinsart – 2021
There was a time in America, from the 1980s to the late 2000s, when graphic novels were still a novelty and children’s comics were almost non-existent. Meanwhile, in France and Belgium, brightly colored children’s comics, or comics, were available everywhere: in supermarkets, at newsstands, and even on French high-speed trains. It’s no surprise, then, that with the increase in sales of mid-level graphic novels in the United States, publishers have looked across the Atlantic for material to translate.
Unlike manga, Franco-Belgian comics are generally not labeled as such, but they do have certain standard formats, which may or may not be kept when imported. The most common format for Franco-Belgian comics is called the “album”: 48 pages, with a cut size of approximately 8 x 11 inches (larger than an American comic), with a cover hard or solid paper. American publishers sometimes put together two or more albums to increase the number of pages. They can also reduce the page size to fit the comic in a standard graphic novel format, which can be a problem – if the lettering is too small, the comic may be difficult to read. Comics are almost always in color. And like American children, French-speaking readers appreciate the familiar, so most of these graphic novels are serialized, although the individual volumes may stand on their own.
Visually, modern Franco-Belgian children’s comics feature a wide variety of styles. Comic books are often drawn in a cartoonish and exaggerated style, even more so than American comics, while fantasy stories and serious dramas generally look more realistic, with lots of detail and watercolor-like coloring. . One visual trope that new readers may find confusing is the use of borderless panels with amorphous shapes. Sometimes the word bubbles or text boxes are borderless as well.
“Bigby Bear” by Philippe Coudray
The most popular genre for children in English translation is slice-of-life comedies and gag comics, usually paced so that each page is a short story, although the episodes can be an overall plot. Young reader series such as “Bigby Bear” and “Billy & Buddy” and intermediate series such as “The Sisters” and “Chloe” follow this formula, so the pace makes them good choices for fans of ” Big Nate “,” Phoebe and her unicorn “or” Wallace the brave “.
Other popular genres are mid-level drama, fantasy, and biography. These are comparable to American graphic novels in terms of style and format. Due to the album format, the stories may be shorter, but the volumes themselves may be longer since publishers bundle two or more of the original albums into one volume; this was done with Cici’s Journal and “Milo’s world”.
The “special sauce” brought by these comics is that while they are accessible to the American public, there is also a whiff of the unknown. Mark Waid, editor of the Franco-American Humanoïdes, points to his series “Where are you, Léopold? for example. “While their stories may be set in rural America, the fact that they are set in France gives them a slightly different flavor, from how everyday life is described to how children (and people in general) look and dress, ”he says. “It doesn’t change the stories, but if I were a kid reading these books I’d be a little more curious about the world and different cultures. “
Of course, cultural differences can also be a challenge for publishers. “We need to look for elements with enough common cues that any cultural differences within the stories are intriguing rather than a hindrance,” says Waid. “Humor is sometimes a stumbling block; as you can imagine, with books relying on verbal humor, not all jokes translate, so there is sometimes a rewrite that sometimes needs to be done, and get the gist of a joke in American English is not always easy.
The most serious problem with Franco-Belgian children’s comics is the portrayal of non-whites and non-European cultures. Critics have denounced stereotypes and inaccurate portrayal in “Tintin” and “Asterix”, and in the case of “Asterix”, US publisher Papercutz added an afterword by black comic book writer Alex Simmons that provides context background for comic book and frame. . Stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals are more of a problem with older comic books, and it’s best to peruse them if possible; otherwise, the blankets are often an indication of what’s inside. (Many comics are available on digital library services such as Hoopla and Comics Plus, as well as ComiXology Unlimited.)
Waid says that has not been an issue so far with Humanoids titles, whether current or planned. “If and when it becomes relevant to us,” he says, “I imagine we would approach this material very, very conscientiously, knowing that it should be of exemplary quality, with messages for children important enough and unique to outweigh any historic baggage that may need to be unloaded. I’m definitely not a fan of modifying existing work without consulting the original author, so depending on the age of the material, this might be banned for us simply depending on whether the author is still active or not.
On the other hand, many stories, especially the more recent ones, feature main characters of color or various supporting actors, reflecting the multicultural nature of modern Europe. These included Cici’s Journal and the series “Akissi” by Marguerite Abouet, based on the author’s childhood in Côte d’Ivoire. Women are still in the minority among the creators of French comics (estimated at 27% in 2016), and people of color an even lower proportion, even if their number is increasing.
American publishers who have included Franco-Belgian comics in their programming include Dark Horse, First Second, HarperCollins, IDW, Lerner, Magnetic Press, Papercutz, and TOON Books. Humanoids has a children’s imprint called BiG that includes French and American comics, and Waid says they’re working with French publisher La Boîte à Bulles to start publishing books on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously. Cinebook produces a range of traditional genre stories, including sci-fi, adventure and humor comics for children and adults. His books are still in French format, with a sturdy soft cover, and titles include the long-running cowboy series “Lucky Luke” and the cheerful gag-a-day comic book “Billy & Buddy”. Expanding the reach a bit, the digital comic book service Europe Comics makes a wide range of European comics available through library services, Kindle and other platforms. Sometimes an American publisher will pick up these comics for printing, as recently happened with Chef Yasmina and the potato panic (First second, 2021).
There is no doubt that Franco-Belgian comics are here to stay. With their wide selection of humorous, whimsical, and slice-of-life stories, along with a long tradition of sequential art and an incredible array of creators, they have a lot to offer whether readers recognize their origins or not. .
Brigid Alverson is a writer and editor of SLJThe Good Comics for Kids blog (slj.com/goodcomics).