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Should we hate the new Futuropolis?
posted July 19, 2005

On the main page of this site Tom refers to the new Futuropolis as "controversial" but can't recall why that is. The reasons are multiple and complex, and your stance on the new Futuropolis likely says more about you than it does about them. Here's some background to help you make up your own mind.

First, what the hell is Futuropolis? Originally one of France's first comic book shops, Futuropolis began publishing comics thirty years ago in the first heyday of "adult" comics in Europe. To my mind, and the mind of many others, there has never been a better comic book publisher than Futuropolis. Directed by Etienne Robial and his partner, the cartoonist Florence Cestac, Futuropolis was the first comics publisher to take an aggressive "artist-driven" stance, eschewing series and popular characters in order to publish only the best material from around the world. Robial's publishing plans stressed independent work, developing new talents like Edmond Baudoin, Jean-Claude Denis, Golo, and Charlie Schlingo; translated the work of international stars such as Robert Crumb and Joost Swarte; and launched the most comprehensive line of American strip reprints ever seen up to that point (or, come to think of it, up to this point). They were the serious comic reader's imprint before such a thing even existed, but they stopped publishing in the early 1990s, and Robial moved onto other projects.

So, why do people still care? For the generation of French arts cartoonists that came of age in the 1990s, Futuropolis is a revered ancestor, in the same way that EC is a revered name in American comics. If someone came along and decided to call their horror comics company EC, American fans would get upset. This is part of what is happening here. One of the last Futuropolis comics published was the anthology LABO, edited by Jean-Christophe Menu. When Futuropolis stopped publishing, six of the contributors to that anthology decided to form their own publishing house to carry on the project. They called it L'Association. So, the end of Futuropolis led directly to the creation of L'Association, the publisher that helped revolutionize French comics over the past decade and a half. Many in the L'Association generation cling to the legacy of Futuropolis, and, indeed, L'Association has recently began re-publishing old Futuropolis books. Further, Jean-Christophe Menu is one of the most outspoken critics of the Futuropolis relaunch, particularly in his recent essay Plate-bandes. Bolstering the criticism is Robial himself, who is not involved in the re-launch and who has condemned it.

So who's relaunching this line? The short answer is: Sebastien Gnaedig is relaunching it on behalf of Soleil and Gallimard. Gallimard is the very prestigious French book publisher whom Robial worked with in the early 1990s, producing illustrated editions of French literary classics (Celine illustrated by Tardi, for example), and who continued to control the Futuropolis rights after it ceased publishing its own material. No one really has much of a problem with them, since Robial himself took Futuropolis to Gallimard. Gnaedig is a former editor at Humanoides Associes, who moved to Dupuis recently, and has now departed to the Futuropolis job. Some people see him as the betrayer of the Futuropolis legacy, others see him as its savior. He's a controversial figure in the middle of all of this. But the real problem, for most critics, comes from Soleil.

Who are Soleil? Soleil are a recently created French publisher of, generally speaking, crap. They specialize in heroic fantasy, thrillers, sword and sorcery, women with large breasts, translated American superhero comics, and manga and manwha. These are the people who do the French edition of the complete Conan, and that's one of their highbrow titles. At Angouleme, they have a huge booth with blaring rock music and big video screens, which would fit in well at San Diego, but, well, this is France. They've come on strong over the past decade, and are now a real force in French comics -- but they get no critical respect at all. At all. And that seems to be their problem.

Given that Soleil is seen as the crass end of French comics, and something of an overall embarrassment to the art form, the feeling is that there was a desire to correct their overall image. Just as family-friendly Disney bought Miramax in order to look edgy, art-hostile Soleil bought Futuropolis to look artsy. No name in European comics means higher quality, so Soleil bought the name -- against the wishes of the founder. Imagine Fantagraphics folding and Mark Alessi buying the name and relaunching it, and you begin to get some sense of how this is playing.

Still, what's the big deal? For some, it's the shamelessness of Soleil, buying credibility based on accomplishments that they had nothing to do with. For others, particularly Menu in Plate-bandes, the lowbrow Soleil is seen to be diluting the value of arts comics publishing generally by damaging the market. I have heard stories about the advances being offered by the new Futuropolis to several big name Euro-comics stars, and they are, frankly, outrageous. Indeed, there is no logical way to imagine that the advances could possibly be earned out. This has led to speculation that Soleil intends to sign a number of big stars to loss leader contracts, which will create a base for them that will attract new artists (who will want to be in the same collections as the stars). This could, conceivably, lead to the end of publishers like L'Association. In a worst case scenario, L'Association would crumble from the defection of its artists (David B. and Blutch have already been announced as part of the new Futuropolis) and then the new Futuropolis (what has already been termed Fauxturopolis, "faux" being the French word for fake), burdened with these huge advances could go under as well. And then where would be?

For many, that doom's day scenario seems far-fetched. Nonetheless, by recruiting Blutch and David B. (and others to come) it is clear that the new Futuropolis, back with Soleil's piles of cash, plans to wage war on L'Association and the other small French presses. Indeed, the new Futuropolis logo (Robial successfully stopped them from using the logo that he designed) bears some similarity to that of L'Association. So, things will only get nastier in the days to come.

So, should we hate the new Futuropolis? I'm not sure. I've listened to passionate advocates on both sides of the equation. The fact of the matter is, I'm buying the new David B. and Blutch books because I love the work of David B. and Blutch. Did people hate DC for giving work to Gilbert Hernandez and Pete Bagge? Some did, and some thought that work just wasn't very good. There is no doubt that this new line is a huge threat to the smallest, and best, French publishers -- and it would be a crime to put them on shakier ground than they already are.

I'm sympathetic to the charge that Futuropolis is simply a beard for Soleil (if it weren't, why wouldn't Soleil simply use a different name for their arts comics line?), and that they stand a good chance of disrupting the burgeoning arts comics industry in France. At the same time, however, I have friends who want to publish there (did I mention the advances?), and I know a lot of people who think the world of Gnaedig. No matter how much I agree with Menu's analysis of the situation (and I do agree with a great deal of it), it's still a wait and see for me.

What a cheap cop-out.