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Home > Bart Beaty's Conversational Euro-Comics

Plates-bandes, Jean-Christophe Menu
posted March 30, 2005
 

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For the past three years, I've been working on a book about the transformation of the European comics scene that took place in the 1990s. Unlike my writing for the Comics Journal, or for this site, which primarily consists of reviews, the work is a series of essays about the intersection of economics and aesthetics, and an analysis of the way that the field of comics has shifted from being primarily literary to fundamentally visual. It's an academic book (hopefully not too dull and stodgy, but full of footnotes nonetheless), and it will be published in due academic time (which means in a few years, most likely). One of the concerns that I've had about the book would be that something significant would change in the field between the time I stopped writing and the time that the book came out. Lewis Trondheim retired, for instance, just in time for me to note that in the manuscript. Now, Jean-Christophe Menu has come along to make my life more difficult as well.

Menu's new book, Plates-bandes, is the second in L'Association's essay series. Unlike Trondheim's Desouevre, Plates-bandes is a classic essay -- typed and everything. This is a 76-page book with seven short commentaries on the state of contemporary comics in France, and L'Association's place within the field. Like most of Menu's essays (he regularly contributed the opening essay to Lapin), this is sharp, funny, and highly opinionated writing. Like a French Gary Groth -- only with sharper elbows, if that's possible -- Menu lays out an agenda for independence. It's a fascinating read that many will find informative, and a few will find self-serving. While his critics will be right on that point, but that doesn't mean that the issues he raises aren't worth considering.

In the first chapter, Menu goes on the attack against the Igort-edited anthology Black, which is published in both Italian (by Coconino) and French (by Coconino and Vertige Graphic). Specifically, Menu is upset by their usage of the term "avant-garde soft" to describe the work, which he sees as a banalization of the real avant-garde tendencies (represented by L'Asso) by larger publishers (Igort works for Casterman). The issue, for Menu, is the sanctity of what he sees as a legitimate comics avant-garde, and his desire to police the boundaries of that avant-garde. This will be the recurrent motif throughout the book -- a growing alarm at the tendency of the biggest comics publishers to co-opt the strategies of the smallest.

In the third chapter, Menu argues that L'Association stands steadfastly against the standard album (what he calls 48CC -- for the page count, the use of color, and the hardbound (cartonne) format), and in favor of author-driven formatting. But the problem here, apparently, is that L'Asso has traditionally defined themselves by what they do not do, rather than what they do. Dargaud, Delcourt, Glenat -- these publishers are all dedicated to the 48CC album that Menu derides (despite the fact that each has published a large number of non-48CC books as well). But to what does L'Asso hold fast? Black and white? No, they've recently begun publishing in color. Softcover? What about Comix 2000? Certainly, whatever L'Asso does, it's not about format -- which has always been up for grabs. It is not even a style, for what style could equally encompass Stanislas and Mattt Konture? It is about an attitude -- a disposition -- more than anything. It is about affirming "I am an artist", but also about saying "I am not the kind of artist that does 48CC albums."

The problem with defining your own work in the negative, however, is that it can cast you adrift when your opponents change tack. And this is precisely what has happened, and precisely what has angered Menu. His most frequent targets in book are the comics press, Casterman's Collection Ecritures, Soleil's adoption of the Futuropolis brand, Seuil, and Denoel Graphic. Let's take each in turn.

The French comics press, well, yes, absolutely. Worse than Wizard, the French comics press is all puffery, mass marketing and crap. Modeled after celebrity magazines -- See Lewis Trondheim with his shirt off! -- this is pure crap, and L'Asso is absolutely correct to go war with them. Menu's examples, particularly about the treatment of Marjane Satrapi, are deeply disturbing and entirely convincing.

The war with other publishers, however, is less cut and dried. Casterman's line, which includes the French editions of Chester Brown's Louis Riel and Craig Thompson's Blankets, is an interesting case. Menu accuses Casterman of trying to duplicate what L'Asso has long done -- large-scale, long-form graphic novels in black and white. He focuses on the overall lack of quality to the line (not always the books selected, but in their presentation by Casterman). Here I have to agree. Seth's Clyde Fans has been butchered in the lettering in the Casterman edition. But he also specifically castigates one book, Blankets, at tremendous length, going so far as to point out that the book was originally intended for L'Asso, that they rejected it, and their reasons for rejecting it (basically, too much Blutch influence). Menu here casts the better-established Casterman as a company desperate for L'Asso's cast-offs, but if so, what then? Casterman has published L'Asso-ish books that L'Asso didn't want? Where's the foul?

Similarly, Seuil and Denoel Graphic are accused of trying to cash in on the L'Asso aura, producing L'Asso-like books. Soleil, who have recently funded the rejuvenation of the Futuropolis brand (without any of the original players from that company) are particularly criticized for trying to attach a prestigious false face to their company. Surprisingly, however, publishers like Delcourt and Dargaud, who have done more to actually raid the L'Asso roster than anyone else, are given a free pass -- even feted. Why? Well, because they allow the L'Asso crowd to do 48CC books (Lapinot, Donjon, Isaac le Pirate, etc etc) that Menu suggests do not directly compete with L'Asso's books, since the smaller company would never have taken on these 48CC projects. Indeed, Menu himself drew a Donjon novel for Delcourt.

This is where Menu is on the shakiest ground. Dargaud and Delcourt tread on L'Asso's turf by engaging their artists -- and that's ok. Denoel, Seuil, and Casterman tread on their turf by producing L'Asso-like books (that L'Asso doesn't want) and that's a problem. The issue seems to be that Seuil, Casterman, and Denoel have confused the market because they're big players playing in the small press pond. Reduced to the simplest terms, however, this argument begins to look a lot like: Dargaud and Delcourt put money in the pockets of my friends, and Seuil, Casterman and Denoel take it out. This is why Menu is on much firmer ground in the opening chapters, talking in positive terms of what L'Association has accomplished. Indeed, I would argue that no publisher of this generation has done so much to change comics, and, further, that those changes were bound to bring imitators. Menu can rail against these imitators all he wants -- and if he is going to be so entertaining, I would encourage him to keep doing so -- but in the end, it will be his ability to continue producing the best comics through L'Asso that will be his legacy, not his ability to confound those who would follow in his footsteps.

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Later today I'm leaving for five weeks in Europe -- London, Geneva, Aix-en-Provence, Luzern and elsewhere. I'll be taking in a few comics festivals, a number of museum shows, a book launch or two, and a gallery show or two. I'll try to keep things updating from the road, and with any luck I'll post some thoughts on Alex Baladi's Frankenstein, Now and Forever, later this week from London.