Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

February 14, 2011

L'Association Strike Concludes: JC Menu Sends Out Massive Letter Explaining The Affair From His POV

The L'Association strike is over, with the salaried employees that were to be let go from the groundbreaking French alt-comics publisher now apparently restored or at the very least perhaps have a chance of being restored at a general meeting scheduled for March 5. That call went out February 10. The dispute between the company and its employees -- complicated by a mostly stony silence from some of the principal actors, how these kinds of confrontations play out in France as opposed to the US, a contentious relationship between the company and some folks that write about comics, and that this went public at Angouleme -- had received intermittent attention over the last several weeks both for the dispute itself and what it suggested about the state of the publisher.

Yesterday Jean-Christophe Menu sent out a very long letter (characterized in many places including here) explaining his point of view on the entire matter as it unfolded and as it stands right this moment. Among the revelations/arguments, for which I'l apologize in advance maybe not quite getting due to my lousy college French:
* the company first came up noticeably short in 2009, leading to them hiring a consultant that worked with their accountant to see what was the matter. Their conclusion was that the company had structural difficulties that had been ameliorated/cloaked by the enormous success of their books with Marjane Satrapi. As Satrapi moved more into film, these problems came back to the surface with a vengeance, as the amount of money had also facilitate further spending by the publisher.

* L'asso reduced their output in 2010 and 2011 to 25 books a year. (This move and the cuts that have come with it may be at the heart of the dispute, the employees suggesting this is the kind of major move that can only come with a full membership meeting; Menu holding that this is precisely the kind of move that the company should be able to make in crisis without complicating matters.)

* reductions in staff were on the table since early 2010, and Menu claims shouldn't have come as surprise. He also says that he was let go from his official salaried position at the company in March 2010, that he was at that time the largest salaried employee, and that he continues to provide the same services to the company without charging them.

* what sounds like a very dramatic meeting in December 2010 put a lot more cost-saving measures on the table, including but not limited to moving from two full-time art directors to one with additional work being farmed out to freelancers.

* an initial period of negotiating between company and striking employees -- a move that sounds like it was a surprise -- that may have been complicated by a number of factors including the new company structure, a new distribution agreement and the pre-Angouleme crush of things to do.

* for as much press attention to the strike as the company's not-stocked booth at Angouleme brought, the company lost money by not having a fully-functioning booth.

* one of the meetings after Angouleme put into more stark terms the losses suffered by the company over the last three years.

* although he met with employees after Angouleme, and says he held his tongue during these meetings for the most part, among his objections were the idea that there be a board that would decide on what's to be published, the notion that the solutions advanced or either irrelevant to or don't engage the very real economic problems that are caused by the current worldwide recession and L'Asso's changing economic profile, and his general treatment in the media because of the way he feels he was portrayed by the striking folks. Menu also seems to express surprise and dismay about the January 10 notice that the strike has been lifted.
Anyway, that's an amazing letter, and you should read it if you have the time and you're interested in this kind of thing. I'm sure I did not do it justice, and please don't take anything I said as firm enough to facilitate any characterization of the original; the ideas in play are fascinating. The next dozen years are going to see a lot of companies dealing with the changing infrastructure of the way art is made and sold.

My hunch is that the economic problems facing the company are very real and not the kind of thing you can strike over to make go away: Satrapi was a tremendous, world-wide publishing success of the kind that hides a lot of problems, and if you project a similar loss of that kind of key, money-making project onto each of the big alt-comics companies in US and dream for a second what that would mean in each case, I think you can see the pressure that might all of the sudden roar to life as it apparently did here. In another sense, it could be that both sides have a point: that there are unsustainable economic problems with the way the company is set up right now, and there are ways that the company is organized and functions that are unsatisfactory to those working there. I'm not sure how these problems are resolved just by people deciding it's resolved, but comics can be strange that way. March 5 should be a heck of an interesting day.
posted 7:00 pm PST | Permalink

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