What Angouleme Taught Me About the American Comic Industry

Since the year started I've been writing a lot about the problems the industry faces, the opportunities we have, and the ways in which we can make the industry better.

Looking to familiarize myself with the world of comics beyond the United States I made a point of attending Angouleme, otherwise known as the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée (FIBD).

I had done a few European festivals previously, but Angouleme is another beast entirely. Not only is it one of the world's largest comics festivals, it's also the most prestigious, and - in many ways - is the global center of the medium and industry, providing opportunities to learn about and connect with professionals from various comic markets including: France, Italy, America, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Brazil - to name those I encountered.

And while I did learn a lot about those other markets, I didn't expect to be able to so easily relate what was happening in those markets to the American comics industry.

In fact learning more about the global market for comics - and the French market in particular - taught me a lot about where the American industry can go.

And it's had a profound impact on how I think we should be looking at and tackling the problems and opportunities facing the industry - both collectively and as individuals building our own careers.

So, I wanted to share some of the lessons I've taken away from Angouleme and explain how they're shaping both the way I'm going to approach my own career and the industry itself - so that the things I learned from Angouleme might do the same for you.

Comics as Culture

The first lesson I learned is the importance of championing the culture of comics.

From stats shared at an event at the New York Embassy last year meant to introduce the Franco-Belgian industry stateside, I learned that 6% of Americans read comics, as opposed to in France where the average person reads half a graphic novel a year.

That disparity is due to a lot of factors, but it is a clear demonstration of the different degrees to which comics have penetrated general culture, in France and America, respectively.

Stateside, it's been a common saying that pop culture is nerd culture now, and there's definitely merit to that. But we're still seeing a lot of attention dedicated to derivative products of comic properties rather than the comics themselves.

In France, bande dessinée are regarded as a full-fledged art form. The Festival of Angouleme itself is ran by an organization called "the 9th art" - which refers to comics place among the arts - putting it on the same level as sculpture, music, literature, and cinema - to mention a few.

Seeing this here is particularly inspiring. It shows, as I was saying before, where the American comics culture can go. I don't think achieving the same kind of thing is out of the question, but it will require taking into consideration the other things I learned from the festival and putting in the work.

The Stories We Tell

In the battle to push the culture of comics forward, stories are the vanguard.

If we only ever tell the same stories - or even the same kinds of stories - we can't expect to reach any further than we've reached before.

Fortunately, we have our share of stories that have demonstrated the necessary boundary-pushing. Maus and Persepolis are the often-cited literary examples.

But even beyond that, stories like Reina Telgemeier's, The Walking Dead, and Saga are all doing their part to bring in new readers. Even titles that gather smaller audiences can still do a lot to expand the comics readership. Such titles like Lumberjanes and Rat Queens are as important as the heavy hitters above.

Creating these kinds of stories requires a willingness to do things differently. It requires that creators be bold enough to tell the stories they want to tell, rather than those they feel will work within the market.

But the creators aren't the only variable. I'm not here to make a statement on whether there might be more or less creativity in the American Comics Industry than there is elsewhere. The differentiating factor in the stories we're able to tell stateside versus those told here in France is the publishing infrastructure that helps creators bring their stories to life.

The Publishing Infrastructure

Though France has its own heavy hitters like Asterix - the last volume sold over 1.6 million copies - the publishing system in place does a better job of creating space for the kinds of stories mentioned above to be told.

For example, when you look at some of France's major companies - like Glenat and Dargaud - and compare them to America's - Marvel and DC - the discrepancy in original stories becomes painfully obvious.

America's comic market is still dominated by The Big Two - at least within the Direct Market. We need more publishers continuing to invest in original stories.

Fortunately, that trend is continuing. The "indie" market is growing and the people fighting for it aren't going to stop until they hit the top.

This investment doesn't have to be creator-owned, but such models - and Image's especially - are some unique advantages of the American market that I'll discuss more later.

Before understanding why the creator-owned advantage is relevant to the conversation it's important to understand that where creators often find themselves limited by publishers, publishers often limit themselves through the distribution options they consider or pursue.

The Distribution Bottleneck

It's great to produce awesome comics. But there are a couple situations in which there can be unintended consequences to producing these stories.

The Problem of Overlap

The first situation occurs when too many of the stories being told cover the same ground. This kind of thematic or topical saturation can fatigue readers.

Past a certain point, the comic readership can only sustain so many comics covering the same field. It's equally rare for multiple comics with similar premises or dealing with similar topics to find comparable levels of success.

For example, it's unlikely that another zombie comic would find as much success as The Walking Dead at the same time - or even near as much success.

The Problem of Fit

The second situation is when any number of stories - breadth of content aside - are all trying to fit in the same area. That's how you get a true bottleneck.

Take, for example, the case of the comic book store. They only have so much shelf space to promote comics. Past a certain amount of titles released every week, they physically won't have the capacity to give them all a fair shot.

Within the industry this is typically referred to as oversaturation.

Learning about the French industry helped me better understand some ways to solve this problem.

Now, that's not to say the French industry doesn't deal with oversaturation. In fact, their comics market has contracted over the last couple years and they've been forced to deal with this exact issue as they've upped their production. Taking a long view makes this obvious - in 1983 there were 250 bd released per year in France and now they're approaching 5,000.

The advantage the French market has over the comics market is that their distribution is much wider. You can find comics shelved just about everywhere. Beyond their own comic stores and book shops, their big box retailers, like FNAC for example, have healthy comic sections, and even places like the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris sell comics in their gift shops.

With a wider network and larger audience to work with, it takes longer for the oversaturation to be felt - but it's really the same issue.

And while it's nice to think that we can solve the issue by producing less and putting more of our resources as an industry behind fewer stories, I think it's unrealistic. Because who is going to produce less? Which creator - which publisher - are you going to ask to release fewer comics so the other can benefit? And how would you build such protections against oversaturation across an industry when the realities publishers face are so varied.

The most realistic solution - at least in the short term - is expanding the areas where we make comics available.

The more shelves we have to stock, so to speak, the better we can reach an audience. Especially if those shelves are strategically placed to reach readers we wouldn't usually reach to.

To back away from my metaphor before it gets unwieldy - what I mean is that we should be confronting readers elsewhere.

We've already seen the viability of comics in the bookstore market here as they continue to embrace graphic novels. Big box retailers are also important - and America is showing signs of progress there. Here in France they help comics get the level of cultural penetration they need to go from niche industry to popular art.

But this kind of distribution is only the first step. Obviously, I'm a massive advocate for digital. The internet is one big part of the equation that the traditional print comics industry - not just in America, but in Europe, too - has left unexplored. Instead, they've let the web be the domain of webcomics, or limited their ventures to proprietary apps like Marvel's Marvel Unlimited or closed platforms such as Comixology. There's still a lot to be done there.

But beyond these platforms there are opportunities for greater innovation. If your comic is likely to appeal to a fantasy audience bring it to a Renaissance Faire. If you're targeting kids, consider getting to libraries, mommy bloggers, or PTAs. Don't only target pre-existing readers of comics.

Only working from the same pool we've had for years is a great way to perpetuate the bottleneck and not solve anything.

Instead, we need to work outside the system and innovate. And we need to develop formats that will allow us to more easily engage with audiences outside the Direct Market - whether they lie in reach of the usual suspects like bookstores and big box retailers, or in alternative audiences that have yet to be explored.

The Format for Success

The American comic format has been, for quite a while, very limited.

That's changed a bit recently as webcomics have embraced new formats digitally and brought their work to print.

But for the most part American comics are tied to a pretty stagnant format, both in the production of the books themselves and the overall release. We often produce at the same size and we maintain our monthly release format.

This is unsustainable, especially if we want to widen the net we cast with the comics we create.

Our serialization may work for the Direct Market comic stores but I think it's hoping for too much that other stores will adapt in the same way - or that even if they do, the model will work.

Instead, I think it's up to us to do as much as possible to make our stories easier to distribute to these other markets. This means focusing on collected editions - Trades and Original Graphic Novels - rather than monthly singles. Beyond the unfamiliarity of the format, it's also just a poor product with a different margin to manage.

For independents, especially, I think the tendency towards "floppy" one-shots, is a way we're costing ourselves success by the format we choose. With one-shots we're investing money into a product we can do little with after - if our intention is to earn anything back.

They need to be supported by longer plans and actual business strategy - perhaps collecting multiple one-shots unified by a single theme into a trade paperback. Or ignoring the physical and focusing on the digital.

Or, going a step further, learning from the Franco-Belgian industry, and investing in 48-60 page original graphic novels. I'd love to see this format explored more in the states and I've come around to thinking it's extremely important for independent creators.

Not only is it simpler than producing a limited series - the shortest of which are 3 issues, so longer than these graphic novels - but it's also a more complete product than the standard American one-shot.

When collected, they provide a story from start to finish, and can be bound and collected either into a softcover or hardcover.

We've seen projects like this that can work, like Ales Kot's Wild Children, a 64 page graphic novel. Regardless of why the book may have been successful the format did not prevent it from being so. And I don't think it was an exceptional case.

If more independent creators develop stories for this OGN format I think they will be pleased and surprised by the results.

Especially if they pair that with the bravery to challenge the standard production of comics. Not all comics need to be the same size. European Albums vary a lot in size and preferences around size here tend to come from publishers, rather than retailers.

The variable is in the cost of production and shipping, but we won't make progress unless we try new things - without fearing failure. This includes, learning from the French format, and trying a model that has had a lot of success there, and is the typical way in which comics are delivered.

If we had to rely on publishers to drive this change, we'd be in a pretty poor position. Fortunately, America has a proactive independent market and American audiences are used to responding to independents.

Training Readers to Support Independence

Sometimes a drawback is an advantage in disguise. Because of the fact that comics are a niche market and, for a while, were relegated to comic stores - the industry was able to develop in a surprising way. Namely, online.

As more and more creators continued to tell their stories online while the industry recovered and grew healthy once again, we built various audiences of readers. Entirely separate clusters not divided by the content of what they read, but the ways in which they read and the places they do their reading.

In contrast, here, where the market has been healthier for longer, and comics themselves far more pervasive, comics haven't really needed to work outside the traditional model. When the infrastructure supports the kind of work you want to create, there's little incentive to bypass it. It's when there's a conflict, that creators strike out on their own.

To look at another industry, Hollywood saw this change during the "Raging Bulls" era. When studios refused to put out the kinds of stories filmmakers wanted to tell, they did so independently. And, eventually, the machine adopted their methods and brought the filmmakers in, until the independent artist redefines the machine itself.

In the American industry where Marvel and DC dominate, original stories - stories not featuring characters with such legacy - had to become independent stories, too. Comparatively, in France, originality is not tied to independence. The major publishers often release fantastic work that we would consider to have more independent sensibilities.

Because of the nature of the American market, audiences here were trained to respond to the indie author. Readers are far more used to looking toward an independent creator in America than they are in France, and that's a key advantage we shouldn't take for granted.

While we might envy the system France has, it does also set some limitations on what they can accomplish. There are of course alternative comics beyond even what the major French publishers would consider - so it's not entirely black and white.

But because of how firmly unbalanced the scales of originality in comic storytelling have been in the Direct Market, what we have is an audience that better understands the need of an independent segment. That means that even as we correct the ratio of what is mainstream and bring what are currently independent sensibilities more to the forefront, the independent artists will remain. And the creators that find themselves not "mainstream enough" will be attempting to reach a fanbase that remembers and is familiar with the idea of supporting independents. Unlike in France, where - from what I've seen - there is little in the way of a commercial, public, support structure for independence because they have had less need of it.

This close relationship between how original stories are and whether they're independently told, extends to another unique element of the American market - Creator-Owned works.

The Creator-Owned Advantage

Just like American readers have been taught to look to the independents for original stories, they've also learned to value the idea of Creator-Owned.

While the concept itself is not uniquely American, the emphasis placed on it - and the ability to motivate a fanbase around it - is something that France, or most other industries, cannot boast.

That's because it's due to the same Big Two dominance that I mentioned above. The Big Two is known for its legacy characters. For the stories that have been told and retold, imagined and reimagined, for over 70 years.

That history is impressive, but it's also tied to strong feelings around the exploitation of creatives, in general, and artists, in particular, who in those early days gave or sold away their ownership of their stories and characters and were largely unable to benefit from the later success of those same properties.

Now, I'm not commenting on the moral issue here. But, that experience has left a lasting impact on the comic culture, and readers today understand what it means for a book to be creator-owned.

And as a result we have places like Image, who champion the creator-owned ideals and structure arrangements with their creators where, past a certain point, the upside is firmly in the creator's favor.

In France, authors received far more protections than in other markets. The equivalent copyright law over there, separated authors rights between the Moral rights to their projects - which protect the author's relationship to their work - and the Proprietary rights - which allow authors to benefit from their creations, financially. Additionally, though legacy characters exist in their industry, they do not dominate the market by their sheer volume.

Because of these two factors, there was never a need for an Image - a drastic correction responding to past issues the industry faced. So, neither creators nor audiences mobilize or get fired up around creators owning their ideas.

And as a result, the average author tends to retain about 8.6% of their proprietary rights. The best rarely get more than 14%. These are all stats taken from a survey of French comic creators, ran by Les États Généraux de la Bande Dessinée (and the presentation of that survey at Angouleme).

Of course, that usually companies an advance, but it's the model itself and less the overall financial viability, that I want to illustrate here.

And regardless of the structuring, the financial situation for comic creators in France doesn't seem to be that much better off.

The Financial Upside

I want to explore the financial realities of comics internationally more in the future. But, I couldn't not share the surprising statistics I learned on how much French creators earn.

For example, in 2014 the average professional comic creator earned about 25,489 Euros. And while that's already low, the reality only gets worse when you learn that 53% of professional creators were under the minimum wage line. In France, that line is set at 17,345 Euros.

Even more alarming, 36% of professional creators earned under the poverty line - under 12,024 Euros.

It's pretty crazy consider that despite the relative health, prominence, and prestige of the French industry creators have such a hard time there. It seems likely that the difference is in the amount of professional creators the market is able to support (in France there are presumably somewhere between 3,000 - 3,500 creators).

It makes me think that we, here in America, have way more potential upside. Our potential readership is much larger and I can't imagine our current state being any worse than that - though we don't have the stats (despite my wishing to the contrary).

But here, more important than taking either market on its own - or comparing the two to each other - it becomes painfully obvious that we all need change.

We all need to innovate and try new things. To better embrace digital and implement new business models and practices we've yet to test.

Without that we're just comparing two industries, one of which is only slightly less worse off than the other.

But the good news is we have a lot of places to learn from. We can look to France to educate ourselves on where the American market could go - and the pitfalls it should avoid. We can look to other markets too, like Hong Kong and Brazil, and find lessons.

We have the opportunity for global conversation. It's our responsibility as individuals and as an industry to educate ourselves on these other markets and make an effort to establish stronger ties between professional comic communities around the world.

More than anything, it's the possibility of this connection and the progress I made, personally, towards it that made me enjoy Angouleme and had me come out here in the first place.

Though I'm not stopping, it's your turn to do the same. Travel to an international show, or create an opportunity for conversation with a foreign creator you know. Or read a book brought here from another market.

Comics are not just an American art. They're global. And the more we act in accordance with that truth, the better off we'll all be.